Dept. of Ambulation: Mind the Gap

On a recent morning, a familiar voice reminded passengers disembarking the 110 on Metro North’s Harlem line to “please watch the gap between the train and the platform.” For once, the automated warning bore repeating: the gap here was substantial. Unaccustomed to riders getting off at the Appalachian Trail Station (no more than a few hundred do so each year on the weekends it’s serviced), the conductor had overshot her mark—a worn, wooden platform no larger than the average office cubicle—by a few hundred feet.

“There’s a little food stand over there sometimes,” the conductor said, motioning vaguely towards West Dover Road, which leads to Pawling, New York, three miles east. Then the doors shut, the train departed and an immense sylvan silence confirmed that this was indeed nature—the real, vivid, green thing—just sixty-six miles north of Grand Central.

The open-air station, which offers a peeling wooden bench and a glass-enclosed bulletin board, was built in 1990 for $10,000. It sits next to a rural garden center called Native Landscapes, whose doors are often left open when the proprietor goes to town. Meant to encourage New Yorkers to visit the oak-filled forest along the Connecticut border, the station also serves a considerably less urbane group moving in a different direction: “thru-hikers” traversing the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail, which crosses the tracks beside the platform. What do these walkers need with a train? Many simply see a sign pointing east to “New York City” and can’t resist. Others gaze at the bulletin board, have a snack, and continue north to Maine’s Mt. Katahdin (742 miles), or south to Georgia’s Springer Mountain (1,432 miles). Still others call Sasquatch.

On a recent visit, the station’s bulletin board displayed a piece of notebook paper with a phone number beside a message in blocky ink: “If you need help w/ a resupply into town, call Sasquatch.” Pawling-based real estate agent Chris Everett, 40, has completed over 300 miles of the trail in New England since August of last year, and expects to finish the rest by 2014 “when my kids finally graduate high school.” Everett also maintains a two-mile stretch of the footpath beside the Metro North stop, near his home. He’s been “totally obsessed with trail culture” since 2006, when he discovered trailjournals.com, and, following tradition, accepted his “somewhat misleading” alias.

Host to hundreds of high-tech scribes trekking around North America, trailjournals.com provides an entrée into the plodding world of long distance hikers, who post dispatches and photographs on the public site. Everett, for his part, tries to help them—with food, rides, or shelter in his pool house—as they waft through his neighborhood from June through September each year. He then follows them online, marking their progress on a five-foot long map of the trail on the back of his gear closet door. Each hiker is represented with a different color pushpin. “I read their journals and I make little name tags for them,” he said, “and I move the pushpins up or down the map.”

On May 14th of this year, a 25-year-old northbound thru-hiker named Jordan Brown, alias “Liquid”—a blue pushpin—wrote a note in his online trail journal. “Sasquatch picked us up, took us to the grocery, gave us ribs, and let us sleep out in his pool house. Nowhere else can you barely know someone and have them be so hospitable.” And then: “I’m sitting here thinking about tomorrow and going into the city. It is going to be a much-needed break from the daily routine (although I’m sure I’ll be walking when I’m there).”

Like a Midwestern de Tocqueville (who wrote to his mother, upon first glimpsing New York City at age 25 in May of 1831, 177 years before Brown, that “to a Frenchman the aspect of the city is bizarre and not very agreeable . . . we had all the trouble in the world getting lodgings”) the medical student from Ohio took close note of his surroundings. “Riding into Manhattan, I had to go by about 60 miles of woods and lakes,” he wrote. “Everyone looks out the window. I was more interested in the luggage rack, the seatback ticket holder, and the faces of the people who were seated around me.”

In the city for a day, Brown managed to see the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the World Trade Center site, Wall Street, Trump Tower, the Empire State Building, Times Square, Chinatown, Little Italy, and countless taxis (none of which he took). “I did a ton,” he wrote. “And then found a hostel with an open bed, and was in bed by 9pm.” With a hint of Tocquevillian bite he continued, “Too bad it’s 85 degrees in here.” Also, “I did the 2 Quarter Pounder Challenge in Times Square,” he noted. Returning to the role of anthropologist he concluded, “Everyone has headphones in, all the time.”

Two weeks later, with just 488 miles to go, Brown slipped and broke his tibia near Manchester, Vermont. The blue pushpin has been stuck there on Everett’s map since that day in May. “I always knew my trip would end in the hospital,” Brown wrote from his hospital room in Rutland, Vermont. “I just figured it would be after summiting Katahdin, as a student at OSU.” Still, it was some walk. “At least I saw New York.”

3 Comments

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