public transportation

Culture Shock: From the AT to NYC

There is a train station in the middle of the southern New York woods that allows Appalachian Trail hikers to travel to New York City.  I’m not kidding.DSCF2950

Talk about some serious culture shock.  You’re just hiking in the Long Green Tunnel, and then you board a train and disembark in a megalopolis.

By the time I was hiking through New York during my thru-hike, I was short on cash and time and had decided against going to the Big Apple.  But, then, I was having a low-morale day and texted Ann-Marie, my friend in NYC, who insisted that I come to visit; a few hours later, I was in the city.

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Hikers in Grand Central Station

Have you had the opportunity to feel as though all your senses are completely overwhelmed?  I have, on several occasions.  The first occurred three months after my family moved to rural Kentucky, when I was 14.  I suddenly realized one day that, because I had been preoccupied with the move and a bunch of farm projects, I hadn’t left the farm for roughly three months; I decided to go to the store with my mother and found the town’s little Walmart thoroughly overstimulating.  It was as though I couldn’t possibly absorb everything going on around me, and I found that I had no ability to focus or make decisions.  (Actually, it felt a lot like Lyme Disease.)

Anyway, New York City felt like an assault to my senses.

It didn’t help that it was nigh-hiker-midnight by the time I found my way to Ann-Marie’s apartment.  I’d survived Grand Central Station and the bustling subway ride and just wanted to crawl into my sleeping bag in some dark corner, but Ann-Marie soon convinced me that what I really needed was some baklava at a hip, local restaurant.  We talked until way past hiker-midnight, and then I fell asleep, sans shower.

Early the next morning, I woke up and did my best to look presentable, which Ann-Marie assured me was not mandatory in the city, and then she helped me be a good tourist.  I enjoyed a bagel with vegan cream cheese from the corner bagel shop, after I figured out how to assertively place my order.  What’s more, I figured out how to navigate the subway and how to eat while standing up on it.

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Me, outside Radio City Music Hall

Ann-Marie took me to Broadway, Central Park, Rockefeller Square, and various other landmarks.  I enjoyed visiting food carts and listening to buskers.  Everywhere we went, there was so much to look at that I felt as though I sometimes forgot to blink.  I felt incredibly out of place and so very small, but I also felt like I was on vacation and experiencing something that was too unique to have missed.

On my second evening in the city, I met up with a trio of thru-hikers who’d found me on the train.  (Perhaps we’d followed our noses to find people who smelled like people rather than dryer sheets.)  Together, we went to a party that a friend of theirs was hosting.  My last night in New York City was spent on a rooftop near the projects, with a beautiful girl who made me promise that I’d drink a toast to her atop Katahdin.  I was so sleep deprived and out of my element that I remember it all as though it were a dream.

At 3:00 in the morning, I took the subway to Grand Central, which (contrary to posted schedules) was closed.  I slept outside it until it opened (reliving my memories of my time in Union Station), after which I gratefully boarded a train back to the woods, thankful both for the experience I’d had and the opportunity to be in the forest again.

A One-Way Ticket on an East-Bound Train

When I was a teenager, I wrote my bucket list.  Since then, many items have been crossed off as I’ve accomplished them, and I’ve added others as I’ve learned more about what I would like to learn, do, and see in my lifetime.  One of my favorite things to do is to string together the crossing-off of several items, so, when I had the opportunity to begin hiking the Appalachian Trail (a bucket list item) by riding a train (another bucket list item), I excitedly bought my one-way ticket east.

At Red River Gorge on a Pre-AT Hike

At Red River Gorge on a Pre-AT Hike

Soon after I learned about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, I began researching and planning for a hike of my own.  Initially, I’d intended to set off solo, but the thought of doing so scared me.  When talking with my college friends in the wee hours of the morning one night, I mentioned my hiking aspirations, and a friend jumped at the opportunity to join me.  One thing led to another, and a few months later we started walking from Harpers Ferry, WV, the traditional halfway point of the trail, to Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the trail’s northern terminus.

Getting to the trail was an adventure in and of itself.

Because we had a narrow window of time between my last day of college and the day my friend needed to be back for his RA duties, we determined that we should depart for the trail as soon as possible.  As a result, on May 24, 2011, I took the last final of my undergraduate career (in Field Botany), packed out my dorm with my family, stopped by the gear store for some last-minute additions to my already-bulging backpack, finished preparations for the summer’s adventure, celebrated my 22nd birthday at midnight, and caught the 3:00am train to Washington, DC.

I’m a morning person, but 3:00am wasn’t exactly my preferred time of departure; that was simply the time the only train eastbound from Kentucky to DC passed by.  The drive from my family’s hobby farm to the train station was roughly an hour.  And, I use the phrase “train station” loosely.  At that time, anyway, the Maysville, Kentucky, Amtrak station was an eerie, run-down building, with doors that wouldn’t close and lights that wouldn’t light.  The lights that did work cast a yellow-green glow over everything and, on top of the late-night hour and lack of sleep, made the start to the trip feel rather ominous.

Just as we were beginning to wonder whether we were actually in the right place, the train pulled up.  Without having our tickets checked, we were ushered aboard.  I hugged my mother and sister goodbye and waved to them as we rushed out of sight.

My friend, sleeping in Union Station

My friend, sleeping in Union Station

The rushing soon stopped, as can only be expected from quality American public transportation.  We ended up getting to DC several hours after the last west-bound commuter rail had left the station, and the next train heading to Harpers Ferry wasn’t due to depart until the following afternoon.  And, thus, a barely 22-year-old girl and her 18-year-old friend, neither of whom had traveled far from rural Kentucky since they’d stopped holding their parents’ hands, spent the night in Union Station.

I kept the first watch that night, and we switched roles every couple hours, allowing each other to get some shut-eye.  I remember almost nothing from the following day, save the ride in the commuter rail, during which another passenger instructed me at to how I could use my trekking poles for self-defense in the woods.

At some point en route, I learned that my mother had reserved a hotel room for us in Harpers Ferry, and I remember falling sound asleep soon after touching the mattress.  It’s amazing to think back on that night knowing what would await me beginning the very next day and realizing how little I knew what to expect and how much I would change.