In The Woods - Again
It’s cold and rainy this morning in western Jersey, but I am eager to get outdoors, though a bit anxious, as my transition to ridgerunner is surprisingly difficult this year.
This is my fourth straight summer in the woods, but I haven’t been hiking since September. My previous moves from the “real world” had been easy. I had been living a mostly monastic existence down a long country road or with my friends, the brothers at Mepkin, so the quiet and solitude were familiar and comfortable.
Today I go hiking fresh from a highly stressed but successful stretch as a car seller at Hendrick Honda of Charleston. During 40 hectic days, I sold 25 cars and made sales to about six of every ten people I met and helped. Two days later I was packed up and headed north, alone with my thoughts in my little Ford truck.
So instead of going bell to bell on what should be a hot and very busy holiday weekend at the Honda store, I am being shuttled to High Point State Park and will be hiking my way home over the next four days, back to the Ridgerunner Cabin deep in the Jersey woods.
It’s Memorial Day weekend and I am hiking and camping, a professional backpacker and roving trail ambassador. Living the dream, I am again being paid to hike and help folk enjoy a busy section of the Appalachian Trail. New Jersey is just as I left it after Labor Day, but this hiker is different in many ways.
God is great. Indeed.
My son and I shared breakfast as I was leaving Charleston. He sensed my anxiety, knowing that I loved my life in the woods but I was struggling with my decision to walk away from the hot streak at the car lot and go hiking. My sales job will be waiting in September, I know, but it sure has been fun. I had met and helped a lot of great people but I was exhausted.
And, I thought, I had told the trail folks I was coming and I was not going to go back on my word.
“You bought the ticket,” Noah said, as though reading my mind. “You’ve got to ride the ride.”
I laughed, and agreed.
That Monday I drove to Columbia and visited with friends before a leisurely 13 hour drive on Tuesday to Pennsylvania where I reunited with ridgerunner buddies. We shared memories and wilderness first aid training, hiked together and talked trail etiquette.
I was again sleeping on the ground in my faithful Hubba tent, my dependable shelter and home over four summers and more than 2000 miles. The two inches of rain my first night out never touched me and I slept better than I had in weeks. Grasshopper, the former AT thruhiker also known as AT-3, was back on the trail following white blazes.
The Appalachian Trail crosses from Pennsylvania to New Jersey at the Delaware River and crosses through four state forests and federal lands before reaching New York nearly 75 miles north.
Three ridgerunners patrol that section. One of us is stationed each weekend at the Backpacker Campsite, a controlled camping area near Sunfish Pond, while the two others cover 35-mile sections of trail and camp near shelters along the way. We work five-day weeks spending four nights out and dealing with whoever and whatever we find. Most hikers are great, but some weekenders and day hikers and woefully unprepared when they come out.
That’s where we come in. Trained in wilderness first aid and well versed in trail manners and lore, we meet and greet, solve problems, give directions, collect trash and generally keep tabs on the hiking community. We talk about bears and snakes and deer.
Crises are few, though I did get called out at 10 one night last summer to go find three lost day-hikers and lead them to safety. They were late leaving Sunfish Pond, had no flashlight except the one on their phone, which they used to call 9-11. Police dispatch called me because the rangers were two hours away, so and I went hiking, finding the lost ones at midnight and leading them to the rangers who checked them over and shuttled them out.
That was cool.
But this is this year and a different gig. Our housing is better and the folks who run the state parks are wonderful to work with, but I am … well, I am a year older.
I hesitated briefly when I got the call asking if I wanted to be a ridgerunner again this year. It was never really a question.
I had moved from Columbia to Charleston in the off-season to be closer to my son; I also got back into the car business at the same dealership where I had worked five years ago. Commission sales jobs are tough and demand long hours. It was strange being back on the car lot after a few years hiking, Business was great last fall, but traffic slacked off through the winter, but then came spring.
Jersey called and I said yes, but then car business started booming, helped in part by a large and welcome management change. (Thank you, Lord.)
The heat won’t be an issue today. The forecast calls for chilly and rainy, though it’s supposed to be sunny and 80 through the weekend. Today’s high probably will not break 70, which is much cooler than on the Honda lot in Charleston, where the sun and traffic will heat the pavement and the temperature will rise with the stress of business.
But today, I am off on another adventure, not knowing who or what might be down the trail or over the next ridge. There are bears and snakes out here, but, then, there are many scary creatures in the “real world” too and the worlds are not that different.
This is a job that will sometimes feel like work. And, like any job (or the Appalachian Trail,) it has its ups and downs.
But at the end of the day, I will be on my sleeping pad in my tent, nodding off as I listen to the night sounds of creatures in their world and wonder what the next day will bring.
About the Author
I am retired from careers in journalism and public affairs, and am now working to help people enjoy and protect the Appalachian Trail. I have been backpacking for more than 30 years and thru-hiked in 2011. Nearly all of my gear and expertise comes from The Backpacker and the good people who work there.