A long-distance trail virtually at our front door

Long Path Sections 1 + 2: 175th Street Subway Station to NY-NJ State Line to Nyack

There are dozens and dozens of long-distance hiking trails in the U.S., but it never ceases to fill me with awe and wonder that one starts in New York City, at the 175th Street A subway station. The Long Path, which stretches 358 miles from New York City to Albany County, has always appealed to me for that reason, and because I’ve often encountered the trail while hiking in Harriman and elsewhere in New York state. It’s hard not to get ideas when that happens.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to camp along the entirety of the trail, meaning backpackers hoping to hike the trail end-to-end have to spend more than a few nights at motels. This has always made the prospect of thru-hiking the Long Path unappealing to me: carrying a tent, sleeping bag, stove, and other gear that you only need a fraction of the time is unnecessarily hard on the knees, and spending night after night in hotels can get expensive, fast.

With section hiking, on the other hand, we can hike shorter segments and take only the gear necessary for that portion of trail. It will take us much longer to finish hiking the trail (if we ever even finish!) but I love the idea of chipping away at a big goal when our time and resources allow for it.

This way we can also bite off more ambitious mileage goals; I could never hike 24+ miles in a day with a full pack without months and months of training or time on trail, and maybe not even then. But that’s exactly what E and I set out to do last Friday, with only a light daypack filled with water, snacks, and a change of clothes.

What is it about setting out on an ambitious hike that makes it impossible to get a good night of rest? Anticipating up to 12 hours of hiking, we resolve to leave the house at 6am, but I don’t fall asleep until almost 2am. A promising start! But it’s nice knowing that even if we leave a little late, there’s always going to be another train uptown.

The air still has some of the crispness of night while walking to the subway, but by the time we disembark in Washington Heights it’s just another summer day in the city.

From the subway station, the Long Path goes over the George Washington Bridge. The skyline this morning looks bleached and pale. It’s possible there’s still a bit of haze from wildfires, although a cold front swept through earlier in the week, clearing the air.

I feel exposed on the bridge, to the wind and the sun and the smog wafting over us from the adjacent car-choked lanes. Some sort of construction project has forced a reroute of the trail in Fort Lee, but it’s fairly well-signed. Soon we’re walking in a green tunnel, parallel to the Palisades Interstate Parkway, which is rarely out of sight and always audible.

A few miles in we duck off the trail to use a gas station restroom and buy coffees, before disappearing into the greenery again. This section of trail often goes by the ruins of old buildings, with their exposed foundations sunk into the earth, or past old stone walls. Where the trail twists close to the steep cliffs, fences discourage careless walkers and teenagers from falling to their deaths. There are many unmarked side trails, maybe game trails, that branch off from the main path, presumably to more unofficial overlooks, but the views are all almost identical and I don’t have a death wish.

I’m drinking lots of water and have to stop to pee several times; if I escape today without a poison ivy rash on my shins or on my bum, I’ll consider myself lucky. I pluck berries (maybe raspberries, maybe wineberries) from bushes on either side of the trail and also eat one that looks like a blackberry but tastes bitter. I hope it’s not poisonous.

At a scenic overlook we spy a groundhog lying sprawled on a rock—dead? It seems not, but very relaxed. We startle another in the brush just a few minutes later.

The cliffs beneath our feet are made of basalt; I joke that the exposed columns are New Jersey hoodoos.

Our goal is to lunch at the State Line Lookout snack bar, at mile 12.6. We arrive a little after 12:30 and purchase onion rings and Gatorade to supplement the cheese, crackers, and trail mix I brought with us. The snack bar is a relic from another time, and the onion rings hot, crispy, perfect. Turkey vultures swoop over our heads while we eat, circling round and round. We refill our water bottles (I’ve already slurped down almost 2.5 liters) at a water fountain, and begin walking again.

We thought there was a marker at the state line, but we miss it and suddenly we’re at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, or “ground zero for global warming indoctrination” per one anonymous Long Path hiker.

And with that, we’re done with Section 1—just one more section to go (today)!

Although the first section of trail was not as wide and flat as I had been led to believe, this section is full of ups and downs, with rock-strewn trails that challenge ankles and knees. The trail drops down into a low, wet valley with muddy-green marshy-ponds on either side of the mercifully high and dry path. Something big plops from a log into the water. A frog or toad croaks melodically. Out of the mire comes a swarm of mosquitos, and I jog ahead of E to escape, trail mix and ibuprofen rattling in my bag.

We come to a break in the trees on a hill, a bucolic slice of Americana nestled below: a pool dotted with swimmers, a flag fluttering above, and in the background, Sparkill Marsh and the thin line of the Hudson. Never has a public pool looked more enticing, but our path curves up, back to the ridge, before cresting and descending down to the village of Piermont.

This would be an ideal stopping place, but the only lodging in the village itself is a bed and breakfast with only two rooms and a two-night minimum (you can request to stay for just one night for an extra fee, but that’s not likely to happen on a Friday or Saturday night). Instead, we buy iced coffees to help us power through the last 7 miles at a shop on the quaint old main street, and look longingly into a funky-looking thrift store, but resist the temptation to go in. The route through Piermont has moved and we miss a turnoff that hasn’t been properly blazed from this direction, and have to turn back. It’s a bit of a headache, and this slows us down as much as our flagging energy. Then we have to cross a very busy highway, which is almost bumper to bumper traffic (it’s 4pm on a Friday). A red light down the road gives us an opening on our left, and a kind and attentive driver on the right waves us through, and I gratefully wave and even bow (!) my appreciation. It was a very scary crossing. Then, once we gain the far side of the road, we have to duck below the overgrowth until we get to a turnoff. Another driver helpfully points out the direction of the trail, and tells us to enjoy ourselves. I give her a thumbs up.

We get turned around again in a graveyard, missing a sharp, nearly 360-degree turn by a bit. We walk past the grave of the first director of the Lamont-Doherty observatory. We can tell that if the trees were bare there might be a very nice view of the Ramapo mountains from here, but we can only make out a sliver.

Now that the day is winding to a close, the woods are full of deer. We see a dozen, at least, including a couple young fawns, one close enough to see her spots. They’re nearly fearless, and let us draw surprisingly close. We startle two from slumber, and watch as they start and then stretch, leisurely, deciding we’re not really a threat.

We have finally reached the point at which my knees begin to really and truly ache, even wearing only a daypack. We’ve been walking all day! My legs are TIRED. On downhills the pain in the left knee is rather sharp. I jog a little, to stay loose, to vary my movement a little, and that hurts, too.

Finally we’re leaving the woods and descending into Nyack. We only have to get as far as the Super 8 hotel, which is right on the trail. We buy beer at the gas station and take out cash so we can get pizza delivery to the room. We order a large garlic pie and take turns washing off the dirt and aches (as best as we can) in the shower. The food arrives just as we realize that the opening ceremony of the Olympics is on, and we flip blissfully between NBC and Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives while filling ourselves with pizza and beer.

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Reading list

A very soothing essay / ode to gardening (Austin Ray for Defector, h/t Jesse Hirsch). A bear poem (Ben Purkert in The Nation). It’s been a rough month for trail runners, after a 61-year-old ultrarunner and mountaineer—who had run marathons on every continent and summited the highest peaks on five contients—was found dead in Yosemite and a 37-year-old runner disappeared after heading out for an hour-long run in Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park in California, and has yet to be found [Mercury News; Katie Dowd and Andrew Chamings for SFGate]. Be safe out there, y’all.

Also, New York Post, hire me:

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