I’m on a train, the Metro North/New Jersey Transit. The Hoboken Line. Destination, Penn Station. Speck sits beside me. Her second section hike of the summer has come to an end. Across the aisle sit Medicine Man and Kudo. All three of my hiking buddies are headed to LaGuardia. Medicine Man and Kudo will fly to St. Louis; Speck heads to Atlanta. I’m going into the city for a special visit. I’ll ride this same train back to Port Jervis later today…alone. For my friends, home and families await. For me, it will be back to the trail community. I will find a way back to High Point State Park and walk solitarily toward Vernon, NJ. But for now, life on the AT is temporarily suspended. Time stands still.
I look through the window at distant ridge lines. Their heights decrease the closer we get to Manhattan. The conductor announces the next stop. Commuters board every time it does. Each takes out a cell phone, or iPad, Kindle, or paperback. All look downwards, just like I’ve daily focused on my feet, and the ground, as I hiked. The train whistle blows. I reflect on the past, think about future days on the trail, but try to live in the present. I have only hours, minutes, to offer well wishes, say good-byes, embrace a moment in time that will never be repeated. The train slowly moves into another station. Again the whistle blows. In many ways I envy my friends who are headed home. In others, I long to be back on the trail. We arrive at our destination, Penn Station.
I say goodbye to Speck, Medicine Man, and Kudo at the intersection of 31st St. and 8th Ave. The Joe Louis Plaza. I shake the men’s hands. I hug Speck. I’ve stood here before. I love New York. There are no white blazes, but for some odd reason, I feel more comfortable navigating the NYC subway system than the rocks of the AT. There’s less chance I will fall on the streets of New York. Perhaps I am an enigma. I have over an hour to kill before the meeting. While my friends head north toward Central Park and eventually a cab to the airport to make mid-afternoon flights, I walk south toward the West Village. It’s a beautiful day in Manhattan.
I walk south on 7th Ave. Sidewalk vendors sell their wares. There’s a fruit stand every block. Food is plentiful. Ah, for an available piece of fruit around every bend on the Appalachian Trail. That would be good. It’s hot. I get to 23rd St. and decide to take a cab the rest of the way. I don’t want to be late. The driver is courteous and jolly. I’m grateful. I arrive 15 minutes early and text Rachel. She comes outside to meet me. I haven’t seen her since the first weekend in March. We hug hello. It’s a bittersweet moment, knowing how brief the visit will be.
I’m quickly propelled into the working world of my daughter. I momentarily become the center of attention for a group of strikingly vivacious young ladies. They all have beautiful smiles. All are interested in my hike. I meet Lauren, Meg and Amy. Then I’m introduced to Madison and Teresa. In the next room I’m greeted by another Amy, Rachel’s boss, who interrupts her meeting to emerge from a glass conference room to talk. I meet Mary and Dustin and others whose names I unfortunately can’t remember. These aren’t trail names. These are real people in the regular world. They could be Rocket or Finder or Paisley or Fatty or a number of other young ladies, if they were hiking the Appalachian Trail.
I see my daughter’s office and am a bit overwhelmed by the magnitude of the company for which she works. We leave to walk to lunch. I’m reading a distinctly New York menu at Westville. I think of another time, when a nine year old sat across from me at a restaurant in Park City. We order and chat. Rachel tells me about her incredibly busy world at SoulCycle. I talk about the hike. We speak of the uncle she loved so much. We smile a lot and enjoy the moment. Lunch goes much too quickly. We walk back to her office. I chat with a few others. We take a picture. Rachel walks with me to the corner of Leroy and Hudson. We hug tightly and exchange I love you’s. She walks back up Leroy toward Greenwich. I turn to watch for a few seconds more before heading up Hudson. I’m simultaneously happy and sad. The two hours with my daughter have become a memory.
I begin walking north on Hudson. There are no blazes. I need none. I’ll turn east to 8th Ave. at W14th St. and keep walking to 31th St. and Penn Station. I pass the Bus Stop Cafe at Bethune and remember the brunch there with Rachel and Sam. I notice the Apple store at the corner of W14th, where Rachel and I stopped on the cold January afternoon I left her in her new city before I drove back to Georgia. I think of all that has happened in the past two and one-half years. I see two women walking dogs. They smile when I ask to take a picture. Lindsey, a beautiful young lady, shows interest in my hike and says she will read my journal. I move on. The sun beams down. I think of a day last week when I saw only two other people over a ten hour period. Today there are tens of thousands marching through time on cement sidewalks. They have no blazes to follow; still, they find their way.
I’m back on another NJ Transit train, traveling in reverse the same route Speck, Medicine Man, Kudo, and I travelled this morning. Their flights are near completion. Their families wait. The coach is crowded. The train rolls between one small hamlet and another. Passengers depart at each stop. Outside, clouds and haze have replaced the sun. An older gentleman across the aisle watches a video on his iPhone. The voice sounds like a five year old granddaughter. He has no expression. I wonder why. I nap. The gentleman to my left wakes me at Harriman. Commuters depart at each stop. A once full train is now nearly empty. I sit alone, gazing at the ridge lines in the distance. They are increasing. I am nearing the trail.
The conductor announces, “Port Jervis, last stop.” I walk from the train. It is raining. I pass by the Burger King where only eleven hours earlier I had shared a meal with three fellow hikers, now friends. I call a cab. I stand near a puddle waiting. I ride back to the motel to remember. It has been a good day, a special day, but a day that now has become a memory. I will rest well tonight because tomorrow a hike needs to be resumed as the northward journey continues up the Appalachian Trail.