Mud, pain and deer on the Appalachian Trail

Some people devote their lives to hiking the Appalachian Trail. They hike a little bit at a time, taking years to finish. The trail runs from Maine to Georgia. That’s a whole lot of the U.S. to cover (about 2,178 miles to be exact). I used to think it had some historical significance, like it was a trail used by Native Americans or early pioneers. But no, it was just an idea that some guy had in 1921 to create a really long trail as part of the national parks system connecting several national parks, as well as state and county parks. Pretty cool idea. And now we get to hike it. So that’s exactly what Ciprian and I did on June 14th. Well, a little snippet of it, anyway.

We were in the Berkshires with my folks. They’d set up at a place in Hancock, MA for two weeks, right in the heart of the Berkshires. Our first few days were relaxing. We visited Mass MOCA, admired the innovative contemporary art on display, ate lunch at a local diner, drove through the hills and valleys between Hancock and Williamstown, and even drove to Bennington, VT for a change of scenery and to visit the famed Bennington Potters shop.

By Monday, Ciprian and I were ready to take our exploration to the next level. It had been raining off and on for several days, but Monday was dry, if slightly cloudy, and we wanted to be outside. We drove to the top of Mount Greylock with my parents. Once there, we set off on our own. We thought we’d take a short hike, just a couple of hours. After consulting with the very knowledgeable ranger named Ellis, we had our route. The first half, about 2 miles, would be on the Appalachian Trail. The remaining 2-2.5 miles would be on local trails. We were making a loop. It was considered a “moderate” level hike. It was unclear to us what that meant. Moderate for whom? For a fit, 25-year-old? For a middle-aged woman with arthritis? We didn’t know, but we figured it couldn’t be that bad.

Our supplies for this hike were limited and we were not really dressed properly. I was wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt which I guess isn’t that bad, but lightweight, quick-dry camping pants would have been better. We both had hiking shoes, which was a good thing, but I had not brought a knife or a compass. Luckily it was a well-marked trail, so the compass was not needed. The knife however would have come in handy when we were breaking dead branches to use as walking sticks. Some people scoff at the idea of walking sticks, but when you are hiking a muddy trail, the things can be life savers, especially when going down a steep, slippery slope. And there were plenty of muddy slopes primed for slipping.

We began our hike casually, walking at a medium pace, admiring the woods around us, stopping occasionally to take it all in. It was a leisurely hike. We were not the only people on the trail of course. There were two older ladies hiking in the other direction, two younger ladies hiking a larger section of the Appalachian Trail, and a few men here and there, most of whom kept to themselves. It was not busy, but we enjoyed having short chats with a few of the people we passed. Most of them had serious hiking sticks. They looked like they were meant for cross-country skiing. I don’t know ski lingo otherwise I would be more specific. Regardless, it was clear that everyone but us had put a lot of thought into their hikes. Granted, most of these folk were on longer hikes than we were, but I felt a twinge of naïveté creeping up on me.

After the first 45 minutes or so we stopped to have a snack. So we rested a bit, then went back on our way. At some point, perhaps an hour and a half into the hike, I started to wish that we’d chosen a shorter route or that we had not been so leisurely in the beginning. I started to worry that we would not make it back before dark. There was probably no real risk of this, but hey, what did I know? Maps are not always accurate, especially trail maps, and I figured anything could happen. I also thought it was a sort of murphy’s law. We did not have enough water or food and no knife. How could I forget the knife? Surely something would go wrong.

Once we left the Appalachian Trail for the local trails, my spirits and energy rose a bit. We started noticing tracks in the mud – deer tracks. I grew up in the midwest and seeing deer in our backyard was not terribly uncommon, but seeing deer in the woods during a hike is magical. I kept paying attention to the tracks, quietly hiking along, hoping to see the deer. I thought it striking that the deer was actually walking on the trail, not veering from the path. Then I remembered that animals like paths too. In fact, they often make their own if we don’t do it for them. Eventually we made it to the tip of our loop, the point at which we would start going back toward the car. The deer trail ended and we never did manage to spot the animal. My disappointment faded when we found a picnic table overlooking hills and valleys. We filled up on cashews, almonds and water. I was beginning to feel a bit more confident about the hike. Yes, the trail was muddy and that was slowing us down, but maybe we would get home before dinner after all. Still, there was another two miles of unknown terrain to hike.

The last leg of our adventure was in many ways the most difficult. Because we had originally hiked up and then downhill, the end of our hike was largely uphill. My knees were aching. I should stop here to mention that I have mild osteoarthritis. Being mild, I generally don’t pay much attention to it. But at this point in our hike, my left knee felt like it was going to explode. In my slow, labored movement up the trail, I wondered, how will I ever hike again? I want to be a more active person, not less active. Can my arthritic knees and back survive this? What seemed like hours later, but was probably only about 30 minutes, we made it to the road. Our hike had taken us 3 1/2 hours. This was certainly longer than it “should” have taken, whatever that means, but it was not as long or as arduous as I’d feared. Yes, I was in pain, but that would pass. Now that the hike was over I could appreciate the pain and the beauty around us that made it worth every ache. We drove back to the place in Hancock and threw our muddy jeans into the wash.

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Jersey City’s gastronomic best…an evolving review

I have lived in JC for over a year and a half and I have not eaten out at nearly enough of its restaurants. With that in mind, I’m sure my opinions will change over time. However, I have tasted enough of what JC has to offer to write a semi-educated overview.

First, and most importantly from my perspective, JC has a large Indian population and therefore a delectable selection of Indian restaurants from fancy to pared-down take-out. Most of them are congregated on Newark Ave in the area called India Square, a couple of blocks northwest of Journal Square. I have yet to try a restaurant on that strip that does not have something tasty to offer. That said, I have my favorites. The Village is a nice sit-down restaurant with fantastic everything. I am a bit of a samosa junkie and theirs are exquisite. The prices are reasonable. You can get dinner for two plus leftovers for about $40. You might even be able to split a Taj beer. Other notable joints on the strip are Paratha Junction, which specializes in different kinds of breads some of which they stuff with savories (“paratha” means flat or layered bread), and Sapthagiri Restaurant, offering vegetarian cuisine from North and South India. Technically I have not tried Sapthagiri but I have heard rave reviews from several people and plan to try it very soon. Both Paratha and Sapthagiri are very affordable to the tune of meals under $20 for an individual.

Marco e Pepe might be JC’s crown jewel, though I don’t want to jump the gun. Still, the fact is, this place can easily hold its own in terms of quality against some of the better high-end offerings in Manhattan. The food is probably best described as French and Italian-influenced, but there is definitely a lot of creativity happening here. I once had a butternut squash soup with apple and pesto that still makes my mouth water every time I think about it. The menu changes slightly now and then but they have regular fare including a shaved fennel and arugula salad for $9 that I absolutely cannot resist. During my last meal there I had the herb-roasted market vegetables with creme fraiche. It is their only veggie entree (apart from mac ‘n’ cheese) but it’s a winner. Marco e Pepe also has an excellent beer and wine menu.

Wild Fusion is a Thai-Japanese restaurant with a few other East Asian influences on Grove Street, just down the street from Marco e Pepe. I was pleased to discover recently that they deliver all the way to our Lincoln Park neighborhood. Wild Fusion is not always fabulous but it is reliably good and being reasonably priced, I really have no complaints. Their sushi is fresh and they have some excellent Thai dishes. The other Asian fusion place on the street, More, is also pretty good but so far I prefer Wild Fusion.

Pho Binh is my favorite Vietnamese place in JC. Granted, it’s the only one I ever eat at, but Pho Binh is pretty authentic stuff, especially the pho (soup!). If you are a vegetarian, you should be aware that all of the soups (probably) have a beef or chicken broth, but there are many other veggie options such as my favorite, the tofu with lemongrass. It has peppers, strips of thick tofu, a sweet lemongrass sauce, onions and garlic. I try to stretch it out so I can have it for two meals.

Ddeul Restaurant on West Side Avenue, near Lincoln Park, offers traditional Korean bbq. This is a favorite haunt of my sweetheart who is the more carnivorous of the two of us, but they also have some great seafood dishes such as a squid stir-fry with veggies. It seems to be a family-owned place and is usually not busy at all. Ddeul is the real deal – unassuming, excellent food, without all the glitz of NYC’s K-Town.

Liberty House Restaurant is a moderately-priced seafood restaurant situated at the end of the marina in Liberty State Park. The view of the Hudson and the Manhattan skyline is worth the cost of the sometimes overpriced food. That is to say, they do not have the best seafood in the tri-state area, but it is quite good. They have a decent selection of seafood appetizers including an excellent ceviche taster as well as oysters and sushi. Their prix fixe dinner is only $32 Tuesday through Thursday and includes three courses. For someone in my rather low income bracket it is not a place I can frequent, but now and then when the weather is nice, it is a lovely way to spend an evening.

There are several places I have yet to try but hear are excellent: Skinner’s Loft, Madame Claude Café and Taqueria Downtown for starters. I’m sure there must be others. If you have suggestions for me, send them my way and I’ll try to check them out.

P.S. Thank you to everyone who made suggestions for my new domain name. I will let you know what I decide to do!