Category Archives: New Jersey

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Hiking the Columbia Trail

My buddies told me they wanted to get some more hiking in to get ready for the Appalachian Trail. They wanted to do a 15-mile trail with packs on to see how the body would respond. I told them I was in. I later found out the trail was the Columbia Trail, which runs through a portion of New Jersey I never really imagined I would ever be back in. Oh what a stroll down memory lane this would be.

The Columbia Trail is a trail that runs through Northwest New Jersey from Chester to High Bridge. It’s an old rail trail that has been converted to a trail for the public to use for biking, running, walking. It’s well paved and since it’s on an old rail line is extremely flat and straight. The difficulty of the trail is very easy. We wanted to walk the whole thing so we dropped a car off at our destination of High Bridge and then drove out to Chester to get the hike started.

Back at it again
Back at it again

The trail offers some of the standard New Jersey forest scenery. Nothing epic, but there are some nice things to look at. The trail goes through many towns. After getting our first few miles in we stopped at the Old Stone Union Church to have a look. The church, from 1774, was the site of pastorate Henry Muhlenberg. He’s credited as being the father of Lutheranism in America, a religion that has 4,000,000 followers in the States. It’s kind of cool that you can drive past or walk past areas of such influence and significance without really knowing it.

There are a lot of gravestones at this location. I love old cemeteries. There’s something beautiful about them. Maybe it’s the closeness to death. The peaceful time that you have there to contemplate what it’s all about. The immediate reminder of where you are headed usually puts me in a good perspective to go forward from there and do great things. We all are headed there someday soon. We may as well be great and have fun with it until then.

I love cemeteries
I love cemeteries

Soon after we grabbed a bench and took a break. We were five miles in. It was time for beef jerky and trail mix and some water. My body was holding up fine. A little shoulder tightening but nothing major. I should probably throw some yoga back into the rotation. The first five miles brought a lot of cheerful people. People out on the trails seem to be some of the nicest people. They’re usually in good spirits and very friendly. I’m not sure what it is, but they seem to see the world in a different way than the general population.

Continuing on in the hike we saw another cemetery. This one of a different nature. Something about the death of an automobile is kind of beautiful. You can still make out the lines or the body. You can make out the beauty. The potential. Think about what if things happened differently. But the car has been covered in rust and wear. Usually there are weeds eating at it. The earth is trying to reclaim what we took from it.

I love all of the cemeteries
I love all of the cemeteries

Heading further down the trail we stopped over a bridge to look at the sights below. It seems the bridges on the trail come every mile or two and provide a good quick moment to stretch the legs and have a closer look at the world that has slowly been moving by.

Blah blah blah
Blah blah blah

One bridge provided very clear water so we could see the fish swimming about.

Clear water
Clear water

Further and further we went. We walked through this shrub and tree farm. I loved the ways these trees, bushes, and grasses looked in real life so I was hoping the picture would come out great, but the lines aren’t as straight as I wanted them to be. The pine trees at the top also looked a lot more purple in real life, but this was probably just the result of dehydration of hiking all these miles with 40 pounds on my back in this heat.

Wish this was better
Wish this was better

The road continued onwards. There was a pretty cool old building on the trail. There was a sign that said what it was and it’s importance but I didn’t read it. I wasn’t really in the mood to read signs that day I guess. I just wanted to hike and explore a bit.

These natural tones
These natural tones

Eventually we crossed 10 miles and with it we needed another place to break. The balls of my feet were starting to hurt for some time. We eventually took a break in Califon. One of my buddies decided we should eat at this place that had wraps, sweets, salads, coffees and cold sodas called BEX. It’s a place I have been before about two years earlier. They have weird hours, usually 8-3 but it varies and they are closed on random days. I passed on the brownies and iced coffees and instead opted for a chicken wrap and a soda. It was a good spot to wash my face off with some cold water.

Not bad for a bite
Not bad for a bite

After a nice lengthy break we got back on the trail. There was a little bit of wild life on the trail.

Mr rabbit
Mr rabbit

And there was some more further down the road.

A million deer
A million deer

This stretch of the trail has a lot of cool gnome homes and weird little decorations along the trail. I enjoyed all of the little things that people built or put out on the trail. Apparently in 2014 the Hunterdon County rangers had received enough complaints about all of the magical gnomes that they went out and collected almost everything up to throw out into the garbage. I understand that some of the stuff may have been unsightly but the magical fun feeling of this part of the trail was one of my favorite parts of the trail. I guess since the 2014 event there has been some sort of understanding amongst the people and the enforcement because there were once again things on the trail and everything I saw was pretty tasteful. If you’re visiting the Columbia Trail for it’s epic nature, you’re probably doing a lot of things wrong with your life. If you have a problem with Mr. T-rex and you want to ruin the lives of little children you probably are a horrible person.

Mr. T
Mr. T

Carrying on we got to yet another bridge. It’s a bit high up, but not outrageously high. I normally would hate the fence over this bridge as it’s so absurdly overprotective. We all know if you go over the edge of a bridge you probably will be hurt. You don’t need a fence to hold you back. In this case the lighting and the fence provided a nice shot. It almost looks like you are going into some unknown dark portal of the trail.

Portal
Portal

I remember seeing some flowers earlier in the trail and I was thinking how I wanted to photograph them as they were gorgeous. I only saw about three of them before I had the chance. I didn’t see them again for about ten miles until towards the end of the trail where we ran into another patch of them. I really should have used the macro lens here to get a nice shot but I was too lazy to switch lenses and didn’t want to keep the guys waiting while I messed around with the photography. So I like this wildflower but the picture really should be a lot better.

Wild flower
Wild flower

So overall we ended up hiking 16 miles. Including the two breaks we hiked for 7 hours. That put us around 26 minutes per mile or 2.3 mph with about 40 pounds packs on our back on a very easy trail without much elevation or difficult terrain. I burned over 4,000 calories and apparently lost 7 liters of water. It was definitely a good little workout.

Endomondo stats for the win
Endomondo stats for the win

The body held up reasonably well. A bit of soreness or pain and the beginning of some blisters but overall nothing to complain about. Sixteen miles has to be the longest I have ever moved in one day on foot. I can’t recall any other day in my life in which I walked for 7 hours.

Overall I’m happy to have gotten through these sixteen miles without too much pain. It was a good hike to get the body ready for the New Jersey portion of the Appalachian Trail later on in September.

Iconic Delaware Water Gap

Backpacking at Delaware Water Gap

Since my last backpacking trip I decided to pick up some gear of my own. One reason is because a couple of the guys from my last trip want to hike the portion of the Appalachian Trail all the way across New Jersey in September over the period of about eleven days. Another reason is because backpacking opens up some options with travel. Being able to have four or five days of food, clothing and shelter in a bag that you can carry anywhere allows you to see a lot for a little. Another reason would be that hiking and backpacking allow you to get into some beautiful parts of the world that simply aren’t accessible via any other way than to physically walk to them.

In order to try to attempt this trip in September I need to put some miles on my new gear and on my body so that I’ll be ready for such an extensive trip. So when my buddy reached out to me for an overnight kayaking trip I decided I would spend the day before it by myself testing out my gear.

The location for the kayaking trip would be the Delaware Water Gap. It’s an area I’ve wanted to check out for some time as it has some of the nicest views in our area.

I was looking to get about eight miles of hiking with my pack and to find an overnight place to camp out. It was taking a little time to figure it out online so I figured I would just ask at the visitors center. My first stop was the Pennsylvania Welcome Center. I asked where I could hike eight miles and where I could stay overnight. The lady I talked to said she had no idea where I would be able to do that. She suggested I go 5 minutes to Kittatinny Point Visitor Center or 35 minutes to Dingmans Falls Visitor Center. I went over to Kittatinny.

The rangers there were much more useful. They showed me where I could hike, where I could camp, and where I could park my car for the overnight trip. The hike would be from the Kittatinny Point Visitor Center to the Red Dot (Tammany) Trail. After climbing the Red Dot I would move on to descend the Blue-blaze Trail. From there I would ascend up a leg of the Appalachian Trail up to Sunfish Pond. Finally I would set up camp about a mile back down the Appalachian Trail on the Douglas Trail at an area that is designated for overnight campers.

The Red Dot is a nice hike. It’s rated “difficult” on the park’s website, but that rating is relative. It’s 1.2 miles and the elevation rise is 1250 feet along some pretty rocky terrain. It’s a bit strenuous but plenty of different people with all sorts of different levels of experience seemed to be hiking it. The terrain can be rather rocky at times. Hiking up this with my full backpack was certainly a good workout.

Red dot gets a bit steep
Red dot gets a bit steep

The trail provides you with some iconic views of the Delaware Water Gap. I missed taking pictures of one of them because I had initially planned on descending back down the Red Dot and figured I would shoot it on my way back down. As always with pictures you should get the shot when you have a chance. The following shot is Mount Minsi of Pennsylvania along with the Delaware River as shot from the top of Mount Tammany of New Jersey. As a quick side note I never realized how big of a river this was. The 388-mile Delaware River forms borders between PA and NY, the entire border between NJ and PA, and most of the border between DE and NJ. Wilmington, Philadelphia, Camden, Trenton and Easton all touch the river at some point.

Iconic Delaware Water Gap
Iconic Delaware Water Gap

After enjoying the sights of the Red Dot Trail, it was time to descend back down the Blue-blaze Trail. The 1.7-mile descent has much more gradual than the Red Dot’s incline. The hike passed without any issues. The hike then switched onto the Appalachian Trail for another 1000 foot incline over 3.4 miles out to Sunfish Pond. The pond was alright. There is a sign out front of it declaring it as one of the seven natural wonders of New Jersey. I never knew NJ had a list of natural wonders but apparently they are the Delaware Water Gap, Great Falls of the Passaic River, High Point State Park, New Jersey Shoreline, Palisades, Pine Barrens, and Sunfish Pond. That’s not the best looking list, but certainly Sunfish Pond doesn’t belong on any top seven list. I dunno. Here’s a picture of it. It’s nice, but it’s a rather mild looking for a wonder.

Sunfish Pond
Sunfish Pond

After checking out the pond I hiked about a mile down the AT to the Douglas Trail where I would be setting up camp for the night. It was my first time setting this tent up. It setup without much of an issue. I cooked up some Thai curry vegetables and rice. It was pretty tasty for one of those dehydrated food packs. I added a couple bars, some pepperoni, and trail mix and tossed the rest of my food in a bear box that was a reasonable distance away.

My first overnight by myself
My first overnight by myself

Parking, trail access, and overnight parking is all free here. So technically I guess you can have this view for $0 per night. Especially since I have gear enough for two people and if I’m driving anyways then it would cost nothing to bring someone along. So if anyone is interested in jamming something like this, even if I don’t know you, feel free to hit me up.

Backyard for the night
Backyard for the night

A ranger came to visit me to explain where the water was and to use the bear boxes. She said there haven’t really been bears in the area much. I told her it was my first time overnighting by myself and I was a bit unsure whether I would be able to survive the night but she told me I would be fine. I ventured off to grab some water from the stream that she recommended. It was nice to crack out my water filter for the first time. The water seemed a bit sketchy but it was running and it is what she recommended so I used it. It ended up being alright but it’s a bit weird grabbing water from a stream in the middle of the woods and filtering it yourself. It’s a far cry from the luxury of the civilized world where unlimited drinkable water can be flicked on at any time or purchased at any store for a few cents.

I spent the rest of the night slowly getting ready for bed, as I was a bit tired from the long hike. The night was pretty uneventful. I woke up a couple times here or there. But for the most part the sound of crickets and nature had me in a deep sleep. I think I may have heard an animal breathing in the middle of the night but I’m not sure I did.

Eventually morning came. I woke up at 530 because I had to break everything down and then hike 3.8 miles back down to my car to meet up with the group that I would be going kayaking and canoeing with. As I was packing up another camper came over and told me that there were bears last night. He said he saw one about 20 yards from my tent. He says he thinks one followed him from the outhouse to his tent in the middle of the night. I’m not certain I believe the story but maybe there was a bear or two. He was a nice kid regardless and we had a good talk.

I hit the trail a couple minutes later than I wanted to but still early enough that I would be able to meet up on time if I hustled. The hike was downhill and the footing became easier and easier with each step. I was definitely the first person on that stretch of the AT that morning as I kept running into singular strands of spider webs that lay across the track. I got about halfway through the hike and the spider silk was becoming a bit annoying. I finally saw a girl walking up the trail. We said good morning. I added “I knocked down all of the spider webs for you.” She seemed a bit puzzled at what I had said until she realized what I meant. She thanked me and then said “oh, and I knocked down all of the spider webs for you too.” I thought that was a cute moment. People who are into all this nature stuff generally have seemed to be ultra chill so far.

Soon after I saw a deer poke its head out of the brush and onto the trail. It was maybe a hundred yards down. It paused. I paused as well. The way the lighting was and the serenity of that deer poking its head out onto the trail was for some reason a beautiful moment. I went to open my camera bag to grab my zoom lens but as soon as the velcro peeled the deer hopped back in the direction that it came from. I guess deer out here have very sensitive hearing.

The trail continued with a few more people here and there as the day grew older and the trail got closer to the parking lot. Eventually I made it to my car. I swung out to meet up with the group I’d be hanging with. There was one kid I used to work with and five other characters who all seemed like a fun time. I could not believe the amount of gear these guys had for a single overnight trip. Several coolers with all sorts of cold drinks and food that needed refrigeration, several ways to cook food including a spare grills, I think three six-man tents, luxury foldable lawn chairs. Basically everything that goes against keeping weight and space to a minimum ha. Eventually we got all of the gear on the shuttle. The shuttle ride over to the launch ramp was full of nonsense as I got to know the guys.

Eventually we loaded the canoes and kayaks with our gear and hopped in to get the trip started. Here’s a cliche kayak shot going down some body of water. I hate kayak shots like this. You see them on people’s instagrams and whatnot all the time. I also kind of hate how most people shoot and display a lot of travel/backpacking stuff in general. It just always seems so cliche and braggy and overly happy and shallow and simplistic. It often has some stupid quote from some famous traveler, author, or anonymous in some disgusting font. And the pictures are always overcontrasted and oversaturated. I dunno. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

Gross
Gross

Travel/backpacking/life is never like this. It’s full of a lot of challenging moments. It’s full of a lot of difficulties and annoyances. It’s a lot of work and there are a lot of trials. Sometimes you wonder why you’re doing it or wondering whether you’ll be able to get through it. I think a lot of the times you will end up alright. But pictures likes this are infuriating. Don’t make stuff like this. Don’t double tap stuff this. I mean you’re not a bad person if you like this picture. Actually you are. You are a terrible person. There’s no need to involve Krakauer, Thoreau (or Theroux), or Muir in this. I’d much rather prefer reading a paragraph you wrote or talking about your trip over a beer. The following is the same picture done much more in a style I agree with that I think most people will tragically like a lot less. It’s still photoshopped. It’s still a lie. It’s still just another cheesy kayak picture.

Do it for the gram
Do it for the gram

Remember that Emerson quote I posted before? It was just a cheesy adventure quote I grabbed from online, and wasn’t supposed to have a meaning to this write-up. But I have to go back to it for just a quick moment. “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” My hatred of quotes like this is the lack of context, the overall worthlessness of practical application, and the immediate head nodding that happens when people hear it. Would you agree or disagree with this quote? I suppose I could divert into a long rambling here but I’ll leave this to only a couple pros and cons and a reference to the trip. I like that the quote says to be innovative. Try things that haven’t been done before. But I also hate that the quote says to not follow any roads or paths. Many of the great treasures of the world are accessible via large roads because they’re amazing. A lot of the world that doesn’t have paths is because it’s just not that spectacular or interesting.

I had two campsites on this trip. One was along the Appalachian Trail, pretty much one of the most famous hiking trails in the world. The other was our kayaking campsite that we had to row to because it had no path. It was on a tiny island that had no areas to explore. We literally had to use machetes to cut our own path and leave our own trail. The camping site on the Appalachian Trail was clearly a lot nicer. Gorgeous views, trails to explore, there was even running water and a primitive bathroom. The camping site along the Delaware River had only a small view of the river, no trails to explore, no water to drink or place to shit. I’m not saying either one was better or worse than the other. They were both great and the contrast was appreciated. But following Emerson’s quote too rigorously would lead you to missing out on many beautiful things that life has to offer. It’s ok to follow paths and it’s also ok to leave your own trail. Do both. But as always with this stuff there’s no proof Emerson ever said the quote in the first place. So good luck even trying to identify things like context, etc. that are critical to try to get anything useful out of it. Sigh.

Kayaking a little over eleven miles was great. We ran into a couple raindrops but ultimately avoided too many mishaps. None of the kayaks or canoes tipped over although we did have one man go overboard at one point. We tried to get this one campsite on the Pennsylvania side that the group had got the first year but it was occupied this year. So we drifted along to a nearby island to setup shop. Setting up camp went without much difficulty.

I guess I needed some filler in this story, and that was the purpose of that rambling, as I have no pictures from kayaking to breakfast the next morning. There was a lack of things to do on the secluded island. There was a lot of drug use and people got pretty chill. It’s not exactly my style but I’m not trying to fuck up rotation either. I at first didn’t mind sitting glued to my seat for several hours as I was a bit beat from the eight miles of hiking the day before, the four miles of hiking earlier this morning, and the eleven miles of kayaking in the day. But eventually it got a bit tiresome being a prisoner on an island and being incapable of moving on to something more exciting.

Eventually morning came, and with it some more delicious food. The day before brought chicken tacos and steaks. This morning it was time for pork roll, egg, and cheeses. Well we forgot the cheese, but the rest of it was there. It kind of blows my mind that these guys are eating this good on this trip. It makes sense with all the gear that they brought but I’m more used to a world of dehydrated eggs or just having some beef jerky and trail mix to start the day off. One luxury I do bring backpacking is coffee. It’s nice to have a cup and provides something to do when you’re done setting up camping or relaxing in the morning before you head out for a long day of hiking. Also I can’t believe this is such a bad picture of pork roll but so it goes sometimes when you’re sloppy behind the lens.

Different kind of camping
Different kind of camping

After we fueled up and broke down camp and loaded up the kayaks and canoes we hopped back in for another five-mile paddle back to the parking lot. The weather today was nicer. The clouds, which provided sun protection the day before, yielded to provide some gorgeous views. Here’s another shot with a kayak in it, since you know I am so fond of them. I really like how clear the water is at some points. Being able to look down at fish, grasses, and textures of the river floor is rather beautiful. We kept an eye to sky to try to see some bald eagles like we did the day before but we had to settle for watching some hawks hunt.

I hate shots like this
I hate shots like this

Kayaks and canoes are pretty cool because you can just paddle here or there and tie off and go exploring. It’s neat being on the Delaware River as you can bounce back and forth from NJ to PA quicker than a car would even be able to.

Getting around
Getting around

The guys wanted to do a jump off of a cliff that they have done in previous years. Apparently the first time they attempted the 35ish-foot jump they kind of looked down at the water and guessed it was deep enough. The casualty of risking serious injury is impressive. Depths in this area seem to vary between deep and shallow significantly and to dive without verifying the depth seems insane. You also need a good clean jump to be able to clear the base of the cliff here. We had three of the seven successfully complete the jump. Props to those guys for getting it done. I was happy to use the excuse that I was better suited to try to take some awesome pictures than performing the jump myself.

These boys are crazy
These boys are crazy

After the jump we hopped back in the canoes and caught a nice drift that swung us underneath the Delaware Water Gap Toll Bridge and back to the Kittatinny Visitor Center where our adventure would end. We unpacked our gear, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways.

Here are the endomondo stats from the two days of kayaking. For whatever reason my phone wasn’t cooperating on all of the hikes so I won’t be posting the partial data from that. Unfortunately that’s the data I’m more interested in as I’d like to know how I’m doing so that I can get ready for this longer trip in September.

Kayaking 16 miles
Kayaking 16 miles

I don’t really know if there are many takeaways from this trip. I was happy with how carrying, setting up, and breaking down my gear went as it was my first time with a lot of that equipment. I used a lot of what I learned when I was out at Round Valley and everything went smoothly. I removed a couple pieces from my pack when I got back that I don’t think I’ll use in the future to save a little space and weight, but overall I was pretty happy with all of my gear and how everything worked out. You don’t really need all that much to survive and there are plenty of luxury items that I’m happy carrying in my pack to make life on the trail a bit more enjoyable.

I was a bit surprised by how chill I was with hiking and setting up camp and sleeping by myself. Pretty much at no point was I physically or mentally uncomfortable with the overnight backpacking trip by myself. It kind of just felt like life as usual.

I liked the group I hung with on the second day. It’s not a group I would seek out to hang out with but they taught me some important things. They’re all doing the best that they can and to hear some of their stories or to see some of their hidden skills was cool. Some of them definitely are living a great life compared to where they came from. You could see there are layers and layers of complexity in these people that just are completely invisible upon first glance. In many ways their progress as an individual has exceeded mine. I had a great time with you guys.

I guess finally coming home to my little place on the border of Asbury Park and Ocean Grove felt like home more than it ever has. I’m not sure why as I was really comfortable sleeping in the woods. But for some reason driving home and slowly being caressed by that ocean breeze and getting back into the beautiful mess that is summer at the shore were comforting.

Moon

Backpacking at Round Valley

Went on my first backpacking trip from Thursday to Friday at Round Valley Recreation Area in Lebanon, NJ. I didn’t have the gear that I needed so I borrowed enough from my buddy Dave to make it through the trip. We went with two of his buddies from his work.

I initially didn’t plan to cook, only having dry food on me. This included such delicacies as prosciutto, Genoa salami, and Parmigiano Reggiano cubes because they seemed to make sense when I was shopping at Wegmans the night before. But on the way up we stopped at a Walmart and I picked up a 24-oz Stainless steel cooking pot, which can be used to boil water in combination with a lightweight alcohol stove. The pot included two 10-oz plastic cups which were great for cups of coffee. I also picked up my first freeze-dried meal of sweet and sour pork and rice. I added a LED headlamp flashlight that allowed provided hands free light for the nighttime.

The rendezvous point was the Spinning Wheel Diner which is a few miles away from Round Valley. It’s a classic New Jersey diner that allowed for a final meal of eggs, bacon, hash browns, toast, orange juice, and coffee before leaving the luxuries of the civilized world behind.

Here’s a shot of us at the start of the Cushetunk Trail, which is the red trail at Round Valley.

Backpacking squad
Backpacking squad

The hike was about 7.5 miles to get to the campground. It has a decent amount of up and down and comfortable terrain. On the hike in I spent a lot of time looking around and soaking up the view.

Hike had some nice scenery
Hike had some nice scenery

Don’t forget to look in every direction.

Views from the bottom
Views from the bottom

And don’t forget to take a couple selfies on the trail.

Trail selfie
Trail selfie

Here are the Endomondo stats of the trek. I started it a couple minutes late. The return trip was almost the same except a slight bit longer.

Endomondo stats
Endomondo stats

The campsite looked like it hadn’t been used in some time. We swept the leaves away from the campsite with homemade brooms. We build seats and benches as needed to provide for seating. At least us guys that didn’t have the fancy lightweight chairs that the experts had.

After a bit of preparation of the campsite we ventured down to the lake to get some water. This was accomplished via the SweetWater Microfilter water filtration system. Basically you stick the filter in pretty much any water and pump it into your container. Then you add a couple drops of the SweetWater purifier solution, which is pretty much 3.5% sodium hypochlorite and wait about ten minutes and you have drinkable water. It’s amazing. It’s especially amazing when you are in a place with no drinkable water and you just ran out of water.

Filtering water
Filtering water

There are a lot of cool things to explore and discover down by the lake. I though these shells were pretty cool.

Little details around the lake
Little details around the lake

And here’s a picture of a piece of broken glass I thought photographed decently.

Piece of glass
Piece of glass

Here’s another shot of the lake. The water level seemed a little low but I am not too familiar with Round Valley. The last time I was here I was out on a boat with my pops fishing on the lake many years ago. While I remember those times I don’t remember what the water level was at that time.

Round Valley
Round Valley

We went back to the campsite and hung out and cooked up a meal. Surprisingly that freeze-dried stuff is pretty decent. The rice has the taste and consistency of a reasonable risotto. I’ve definitely had risotto at several places which wasn’t as good as this stuff.

After some time we strolled down to the lake to catch a pretty glorious sunset.

Caught a nice sunset
Caught a nice sunset

It definitely was a pretty nice sunset.

It was pretty lit

Day turned to night. With it came the Ghost Radar app to try to hunt down some ghosts. I think we had a bit of success.

Moon
Moon

We were all a bit tired from the hike earlier in the day so we proceeded for a somewhat early night of sleep. Some people say the two-man tents are too tight for two people, but they are acceptable. I think it’s definitely good to get a two-man tent even for yourself because a two-man tent provides allows you to keep your gear covered from the rain. It also allows a newbie like me to tag a long and doesn’t add much more weight to your pack.

The night of sleep was mostly uneventful. I woke up at one point and heard a deer. I also heard something else that I am not sure what animal it was. There was a point in the night when I kind of realized I love the conveniences and modern luxuries that we have back home, but by the end of the trip I would be grateful for the challenge and the simplicity of the trip.

In the morning we woke up and brewed up some coffee and had some breakfast. We packed up and made the hike back to the entrance. We said goodbye to one camper who was stayed a second night. Another 7.5 miles. There was some rain on the return leg. It wasn’t so bad though because it was sparse enough and the trees often provided a comfortable amount of cover. The walk back was certainly more of a head-down hike, just trying to push my body back to the car. But there was great scenery to be had as well.

Return hike
Return hike

Overall my first backpacking experience was great. I kind of want to get back out there again. Burning off 3600 calories just on the two hikes and working the legs and shoulders was great. When you get into some space and are hiking alone in the woods and only have the sound of the woods and your footsteps you can drift off into some deep thought. It was also a good experience to learn what you have to do to survive and to reflect on how absurdly fortunate we are to live the lives of luxury that we live.

Shout out to my backpacking buddies for showing me the ropes and keeping me alive. I learned a lot and had a great time.

Macro lens hype

Fall in Ringwood, NJ: Cell Phone vs DSLR

I definitely have to finish up the final write up and video from the last road trip, but I decided to mess around with the camera on Saturday. It was a much needed venture out into the world and allowed me to get back behind the lens. As life happens I find pouring my soul into little things like exploring and photography helps me to find peace. I wasn’t going to write anything on here but ended up with 3,700 words somehow.

I spent time with my buddy Jesse shooting two different locations in north east New Jersey. We both had the day off and both wanted to do some exploring and take some photos. My goal for the trip was to focus on using my macro lens and I think it was a successful venture. There are some decent shots that came out, although I have included some additional shots that are not the best. They’re here so that I can track my progress taking pictures and see how my style and photography evolves over time. I guess you can call them progress pics.

The first location that we stopped at was Ringwood State Park up in Ringwood, New Jersey. We didn’t really have a plan as far as what we were looking for. We just figured we could probably catch some of the changing fall leaves.

The first picture of the day ended up being of a tree right along the parking lot near the entrance. This was shot with my regular stock lens. This image is the result of about a dozen images that were shot at different focus and then focused stacked in Adobe Photoshop. The purpose behind this technique is so that you can maintain a clear focus throughout the entire length of your subject. The area close to you is in focus and so it the area far away from you.

Fall is here
Fall is here

These lantern posts are right along the parking lot as well. Something about the wear, the symmetry, and the placement of them among the row of trees is rather beautiful. I’m just kind of in here rounding out the shot, and also just reminding myself that I need to work out my legs more lol. This is the last picture that I shot with my regular lens.

Ringwood State Park
Ringwood State Park

While I was shooting this with my DSLR, Jesse was off shooting with his cell phone. Shooting on your cell phone provides a lot of advantages over a DSLR, although a DSLR certainly has its advantages as well. The cell phone is always on you. You can easily make powerful edits as soon as you take your picture. You can share it with the world immediately after. The DSLR has the advantage of being able to use a variety of lenses that the cell phone probably won’t be able to utilize for mainstream photography for some time. Macro lenses, zoom lenses, etc. Both devices are capable of taking high quality and impressive pictures. And shooting on either still allows you the opportunity to use powerful software like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. While I see the cell phone photography scene continuing to grow, it will be some time before the device will able to capture certain images that are currently only possible with DSLR lenses.

The following is an image that Jesse took. He was shooting with an LG G4. I have said that stock cell phone lenses are not as good as DSLR lenses, but they’re not all that bad either. Look at the ability to focus in this picture. This is an amazing capability to hold in your pocket. Cell phone lens technology is advancing rapidly and I’m excited to see it to continue.

Cell phone focus is impressive
Cell phone focus is impressive

The next photograph was also shot by Jesse. It’s an example of pulling out a lot of depth from an image by messing around with some photography software. The vignetting, saturation, contrast, etc. are all dialed up pretty high to bring out the fall colors and give it a movie scene type of feel. It works well here although I can see people arguing it may be over the top. The next time I go out shooting I think I’ll be focusing on messing around with my images in post production and trying to see what sort of crazy stuff I can make happen. It’s important to reiterate that all of these effects were done using some pretty basic software on a phone. With a cell phone you can take the picture, edit the picture, and share the picture all within a short period of time and achieve some impressive results.

Secret garden hype
Secret garden hype

Everything going forward for me was shot through my macro lens. It’s a lens I picked up a while ago but haven’t spent much time with. By making it the only lens I would shoot with I was able to get some experience and learn about the lens. Often macro lenses are used for very detailed close up shots. So if you are photographing jewelry for a store, or if you want to get those very zoomed in pictures of bugs, or if you want to capture the texture of some material in detail you would want to use a macro lens. They are also versatile for far away shots as you will see. If you could only shoot with one single lens it’s kind of hard to argue against a macro lens. The biggest problem is that there is no zoom. You only adjust the focus depending on what you are shooting. If something doesn’t fit in your image then you have to physical walk away from it and shoot from further away to fit it into your frame. If something is too far away and you want it to be closer you have to physically move closer to it. The no zoom is a pain but the versatility and creative control you have over focus, depth of field, magnification, and bokeh is sweet.

The following image I took is of a leaf. The whole leaf is heart shaped and it’s kind of beautiful in that it used to be alive and full but it’s dying and disappearing. There are physical holes in the leaf. Its structural ribbed support still holds its general shape. But the changing seasons will turn it to dust before it is reborn again in the spring. I like the red color from the changing leaves you see in the background. The depth of field is pretty small and it’s honestly not properly focused. I’ll make excuses and say that it was too windy, but that’s not a good excuse. I could have held the leaf down and setup my tripod like a good photographer would.

Messing around with the macro lens
Messing around with the macro lens

So across parking lots we went. But not before Jesse grabbed a panorama. I’m not sure how most panoramas come out on the cell phone but I’m sure it varies depending on the phone and software. With the right combination you should be able to make it work pretty well. I do all of my panoramas in Adobe Photoshop. Out in the field I’ll shoot a picture, rotate the camera and shoot another picture, then rotate and shoot a third or a fourth picture. I then combine these in Photoshop which has a ton of settings to make the transition pretty much indiscernible. The phone for some reason had some issues stitching this along the line where the parking lot meets the grass. It’s a little strange because I would have thought the software would easily be able to handle a pattern like that and have issues with some of the other complex or delicate patterns such as the leaves, etc. Still this is a good example of how you can dial in the focus on a cell phone. It’s pretty impressive that cell phone cameras are capable of this sort of a focus. All of this is just going to rapidly get better. It’s quite amazing.

Parking lot pimpin
Parking lot pimpin

This next shot is of my buddy Jesse. As a side note, it’s interesting how something as simple as an American flag patterned beanie can get you so much attention from random people, including multiple rounds of shots from some pro-American guy at the bar.

That American beanie
That American beanie

If you’re wondering what Jesse is up to he’s taking this shot right here. This picture is kind of a classic north Jersey stream scene. If you’ve ever done any hiking in north Jersey then these sorts of scenes are probably familiar to you. This type of scene shows off New Jersey’s diversity. New Jersey is a lot of different things, and occasionally it is beautiful and peaceful. Minus that ghost leg it’s a glorious shot. It’s very cool that something that fits in your pocket and you can use for a million other applications is capable of producing this.

Classic north NJ stream
Classic north NJ stream

And just to make this whole photo-ception thing complete, here’s a picture that Jesse took of me taking a picture of him while he was taking a picture of the stream.

Photo-ception complete
Photo-ception complete

Further into the forest we ventured. This next picture I took shows how the macro lens is able to specifically focus on certain areas while giving you some nice blur in the background. This picture kind of has a Lord of the Rings forest vibe to it, but in actuality it’s just the floor of a forest in New Jersey. I didn’t want to have the mushroom centered in this way but I love the leaf in the lower right corner and had to include it in the picture. The focal point being on the front of the mushroom I think is most appeasing here, although it could be dialed a little further back towards the center. I like the root of the tree on the right and the general forest color theme going on in the picture.

Shroom
Shroom

The next picture is another stream shot I took. This photograph would have been better with a different lens, or at least shifting the focus just a little closer so that it would be on that rock in the center. Definitely shooting with a macro lens you need to take your time, preferably set up a tripod and dial in on the focus. I guess this may be good advice for any lens you are using if you can afford the time and effort to do so.

Leaves starting to change
Leaves starting to change

The following is an image I composed of about 7 different photographs. Each of the photographs was taken starting at one side of the log and moving along to the other side of the log. Adobe Photoshop does a great job at automatically stitching together panorama images so the process is pretty fast and painless. The end result is reasonable, although when you zoom you can see some blurriness where two of the images are blended together. This happened because the delicate focus of the macro lens must have been off for one image. I love the vivid greens from the trees being reflected into the stream here. The log and the legs provide decent subjects.

Suspended
Suspended

The same log from Jesse’s perspective is seen in the following photo. There’s some pretty good reflection in the water. I really am finding it interesting that the software struggles to stitch together some almost obvious lines. It doesn’t seem to have any problems stitching together the more complicated leaf patterns but something as obvious as this whitish log lying across a dark stream is distorted. I would imagine there are some aftermarket apps and what not that can stitch things better on the phone, and these sorts of issues with shooting on a cell phone will disappear soon. It’s also not a limitation to shooting on the phone. You can easily shoot this panorama in the same way I would on the DSLR and load the images into Photoshop and get better results. The cell phone photography software is in addition to the computer photography software, whereas the DSLR camera software generally is much weaker, but also specific enough to capture your shot.

Come on software
Come on software

Venturing further we cut down some road that was closed off to cars. The following image I took is of a support column for some abandoned open air rectangular building like where you might have a picnic or some gathering. There (unfortunately) wasn’t too much graffiti but someone decided to take some crayons to the wall. These crayon hearts were alright. It looks like the blue heart has the word “light” in the middle. Not sure if it’s some sort of play on the term “light hearted” or some sort of puzzle, but probably not. I like the worn face of the column and the blurred out forest behind it. I like those few in focus vines that are starting to eat the building. I always thought that was an amazing thing, how the earth will always reclaim its land. If you build a structure in the middle of the woods and leave it alone, even for a couple years, the earth will start to pull at it, destroy it, and suck it back into itself. The same will happen to all of the great cities that should people not be around to take care of them. Even New York City will eventually be absorbed back into the earth. You can only really borrow from the earth. The earth will be sure to take it back. The earth does not use the seasons or the year as a unit of time.

Crayon hearts
Crayon hearts

Jesse scored this pretty sweet shot of the ceiling of the place. He’s been messing around with similar shots from other buildings and I dig the perspective. It’s a good example of something I wouldn’t think to shoot that he was able to successfully capture. It’s pretty neat that the whole time we are pretty much shooting the exact same area but end up with a very different set of pictures. To kind of bring it together you can see the crayon hearts I took in the bottom left of this picture. Two different photographers, two different perspectives.

Love this perspective
Love this perspective

This Pabst Blue Ribbon can was on the floor of the building. I’m pretty happy with the focus on this picture that I snapped. I love the browned leaves on the floor and especially love the BB gun holes in the can. There weren’t many but there were a few. I also really like the crease in the can. For as many things as I like about the picture, I don’t love the picture as a whole. I don’t hate it, and it probably wouldn’t be included as it isn’t anything too special, but I guess that might be the point. Some people think PBR, BB guns, and time in the woods aren’t special, but for other people there is nothing more important. But without trying to get too deep here I’m really just including this example as a shot I’m happyish with from a focus and blur perspective.

PBR can with BB gun holes
PBR can with BB gun holes

Jesse took two more shots before we had left for the second location. This first one again shows of that impressive image quality and focus that is available on modern cell phone cameras.

Cell phone focus hype
Cell phone focus hype

This next picture that Jesse grabbed turned out a lot better than I thought it was going to be. His battery was low and he probably only had one last shot left on the phone before it died. He chose to take this picture. I joked with him that he wasted his last shot on something that wouldn’t be worthwhile. But this picture is actually pretty great. I would like to see a little more color on the leaves but we’d have to go back next week for that. The slanted trees on the left bother my eye a bit. I really want them to grow straight up out of the ground but that embankment that they are growing out of doesn’t care what I think.

Actually pretty nice
Actually pretty nice

So that wrapped up our shooting at Ringwood State Park. We drove down the road about three minutes and we were at our next stop, which was the New Jersey Botanical Garden, or Skylands as it’s also called. I really thought I would love the gardens more than the park but I actually liked the park better. Maybe the park was a little quieter, a little grittier, a little more truthful. I don’t know. There was nothing wrong with the gardens, and depending on what you are into they could be worth a stop.

There are some pretty cool flowers like these harlequin glorybowers. The focus is a little off on these. I was fighting the wind again (and again a bad excuse). I don’t love the sunlight reflection here either. It looks too much like artificial lighting. Honestly I probably should have dialed this glare back a bunch in Photoshop. Regardless I thought these little starfish flowers (or fruits technically) were cool looking. This is one of those pictures that is more included here as a progress picture.

Harlequin glorybower
Harlequin glorybower

This next picture I am pretty happy with. The wind was causing a ruckus with these guys and I figured this movement would translate well to the photograph. The blur from the macro lens gives a nice green and brown background color. The blurred out plants in the back provide a great background. The plants up front are even blurred out. I hit my focus exactly where I wanted to even with the wind. This is a picture that I thought would come out well before I even took. I felt that way as I was taking it. And I still feel that way after I am done with it. That’s a good feeling to have when you are taking pictures but it doesn’t come up too often.

Pretty happy with this
Pretty happy with this

The next picture I took was of a faun in one of the garden areas. I love these creatures. I always thought they were awesome little things. Nothing too wild going on with this picture but I have a personal preference for the subject and I can post whatever I want on my own website, damnit.

I love fauns and whatnot
I love fauns and whatnot

This next picture that Jesse took cracks me up. There were a lot of people at the gardens so you had to shoot around them. He was playing the waiting game waiting for the lawns to clear of people so that he could get his shot. The people never cleared so he had to settle for just cropping them out of the image. I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going on here but I’ll have to ask him. These trees are getting ready to explode into fall colors. There is some color out but a lot of green still around. This should be a gorgeous view in a couple more days.

No people in this image
No people in this image

Here’s another picture that Jesse took. The sun rays are pretty sweet how they wrap around the front of the statue. There were some pretty cool statues around the grounds.

The statues were nice
The statues were nice

And another shot of the lawn through a tree stump from Jesse. I’m pretty sure there were people everywhere where you see the tree.

No people here either
No people here either

I like these next two images that we took of these statues. They were one of our favorite things about the gardens. The first picture is one that I took. I really wanted to shoot this with a zoomable lens so that I could get more in my picture as I had to walk a decent distance away and had my photograph limited by trees that surrounded the statues. But since I was forcing myself to shoot with the macro lens I opted not to. The picture is alright. It would be a lot better if the leaves were less green. There is some weird oversaturation of blue around the left most statue and that small bunch of pine needles at the top center. This is pretty easily fixed in Photoshop, but it’s weird in that I’m not sure where it’s coming from. The rest of the picture seems decent from a saturation perspective.

Statues and leaves
Statues and leaves

This second image that Jesse took is much better framed. I probably would have tried to get something similar to this but instead of standing between statues 2 and 3 I would have stood between statues 1 and 2. Jesse was annoyed by the people walking the lawn but in all honesty you should be able to pretty easily remove the people in Photoshop or using some sort of cell phone photography software. I know I’ve done it on a cell phone two or three years ago so by now that feature probably works well and should be available in many more cell phone photography apps.

Nailed it
Nailed it

This next picture is a good contrast between fire and sky. This is what fall feels like.

Fireball fall
Fireball fall

And the final picture is of an acorn. I spent three hours looking at acorns and this is the one that I liked the most. I was wondering where to shoot this and couldn’t find a good spot on the way back to the car. No worries though because macro lenses give you a lot of flexibility for shooting because they can obtain a very aggressive blur. This was shot on the roof of my car while I was being rushed by people asking if I was leaving my parking spot. I like this picture. I’m hitting the focus where I want to. I like the half white and half green/slightly purplish background. I like those couple half circles that the macro lens is making happen. It’s a fitting end to what was a fairly successful day of shooting. I learned a bunch and had a great time. Can’t wait to get back out and shoot some more again soon.

Macro lens hype
Macro lens hype

There were a couple takeaways from this shoot for me. One being the compare and contrast between cell phone cameras and DSLRs. Both really have a lot of advantages. With the capability of cell phone cameras there’s really no excuse not to try out photography. I saw actually two different mid-50’s men taking pictures of this one vivid orange tree today with their cell phones outside of my work. One guy was stopped on my way out to grab lunch. The other guy was pulled over on my way back from lunch.

Another takeaway is just that different people see things, explore things, and capture things in different ways. Jesse and I ended up with a different set of pictures, even though we were shooting the same areas at the same time.

I guess a final takeaway is to just get out there and explore. Adventure. Go see and do. Watch. Experience. Capture the moment. Enjoy it. Or don’t, idgaf. But you don’t have to travel the world to have great experiences. There’s a ton of places within driving distance that are life changing that you will never visit. Try to. Find those places. Find yourself. If you are reading this I am humbled and I love you. If you are not then I still love you as well.

Best,
Joe

Red-Tailed Hawk

Camping at Wawayanda State Park

The thirteenth annual camping trip was a success. It’s the camping trip that almost wasn’t. For the first twelve trips we mostly didn’t make any alterations to the format of the trip. During those twelve years the guys that come camping have changed dramatically, but the format of the trip did not change. The spirit of the trip was no longer in accord with our matured souls. I tried to ask people what would be some good changes that we could make to the trip, and using the feedback that I received and making some executive decisions I decided to make some changes to the trip. This led to a delay in booking the trip and introduced uncertainty as to whether the camping trip was still going to occur. A trip that was normally booked eleven months before hand was only officially confirmed about forty days before.

Normally the trip starts on a Friday, with check in at noon, and most people arriving after work on Friday night. You unpack on Friday, have the day on Saturday and leave with checkout at noon on Sunday. The time usually flies by and we’ve always said that we wish we could have an extra day of camping. This year I decided to get the extra day, so check in moved to Thursday at noon.

For the previous dozen years we used cabins, which I think technically doesn’t even count as camping. Electricity to charge cell phones and hook up the Xbox, running water to wash dishes and have shrimp boils, a stove to quickly cook food, refrigerators to store all of your fancy foods, hot showers and comfortable bathrooms, fireplaces for heat, beds with mattresses, a roof to protect you from the elements, locked doors to provide security. Not this year. Cabins were replaced by tents in hopes of getting in touch with nature and building character. Camping isn’t a time to come to complain about life and mope around sleeping for the entire weekend. It’s a time to grow your character, step into the nature that has all but passed us by, and share your soul with your buddies.

For the previous twelve years we went to three places, with the previous ten trips split between Stokes State Forest and Bass River State Forest. We know those forests and campgrounds well enough. This year we would be picking a new location to change things up. Wawayanda State Park was the selected destination, with the Stairway to Heaven hike along the Appalachian Trail being one of the draws. Originally the plan for the trip was to try to find hike-in campgrounds in the woods where you have to carry all of your gear into the woods, but these places were kind of hard to find in New Jersey. The Stairway to Heaven hike has an option for a 7.5 mile loop, but we ended up opting for the direct ascent and descent, about 3.6 miles round trip according to the Fitbit. The parking for this hike can be found at N41 13.169 W74 27.305.

Food was the fourth change from the previous years. The food situation over the years was to find out how many people were coming, and then to purchase all of the food for the trip before we left. This was my dad’s duty in the early years. He basically would buy the food, cook the food, and do the dishes because we were teenagers at the time and didn’t really know how much work those things can be. This role transitioned to me over the years and I guess I had enough of buying the food, cooking the food, and doing the dishes for everyone. There was definitely help but if I didn’t cook, I don’t know if people would have eaten all weekend. This year the rule was everyone brings his own food and cooks it. I was even willing to go out and eat a meal in town, which is something we never did in the previous dozen years. People arrived at different times, and we used a WhatsApp group to communicate as best as we could. The people coming up knew whether to eat or not. And when we knew for sure who would be there, we would just head out to the supermarket and grab burgers or whatever food was needed for the day.

My camping trip this year really was a three-part trip, and I will recount it in such a way.

PART 1: Sleeping in the car

Thursday night I cut out of work a little early to try to head up with some sunlight so that I could set up the tent. Everyone else had some excuse for not being there, so it would be Mikey, the Road Trip Warrior and myself for the night. I had received news that Nik’s Wunderbar in Whitehouse Station would have Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout and Goose Island Bourbon County Stout on tap that day starting at 11 AM. There was a single 8-ounce pour limit of the KBS, with apparently no limit on the Bourbon County. Both of these beers are fairly difficult to find. You don’t ever see them on tap or in bottles, and if you do they will likely be sold out by the end of the day. They are both rated as two of the top 15/20 beers in the world. A quick phone call to the place after I picked up Mikey confirmed that they had them and the supply would last until we got there. Seems like we were set on this 20 minute detour to drink some of the best beers in the world and enjoy some classic German style food.

It was an interesting experience. First up was the KBS, my favorite beer. The bar tenders were clearly under specific instruction to make sure the limit of one 8-ounce glass was strictly followed. You could see there was a specific pour that they had to follow to serve the beer. As we were waiting for our beer we heard talk behind us of a recent road trip to Vermont to score The Alchemist’s Heady Topper (which some people argue is the number 1 beer out). A distributor for North Coast Brewing chats us up about the Bourbon County, how it’s so good, and how we should check out the Bourbon Barrel Aged Old Rasputin that his company produces. It’s busy. The beer hype seems to be in effect.

The KBS arrives and its few sips are treasured. This beer is delicious. I was wondering if it was still my favorite after having beers such as Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout and Barleywine, Weyerbacher’s Sunday Morning Stout, Sierra Nevada’s Barrel Aged Narwhal Imperial Stout, etc. The direct comparison to the Bourbon County will be a good measurement. Our dinner is a mix of classic German brats, sauerkraut, and potato salad and the unbeatable happy hour deal of boneless wings and chicken fingers. The last drops of KBS go down and the Goose Island Bourbon County is the next drink ordered. It too is amazing, but not as good as the KBS for me.

It’s interesting to see people ordering the same boring tasteless beers. Guinness, Bud, Yuengling, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m wondering if the decision to not order beers that are acclaimed as some of the best in the world stems from a lack of knowledge or an honest preference for a Budweiser. It’s probably a combination. We split a flight of North Coast Old Stock Cellar Reserve Whiskey Barrel Aged Barley wine, Allagash Odyssey Belgian Strong Ale, Great Divide Espresso Oak Aged Yeti, and Old Chub Nitro. Mikey scores a bonus KBS because bartenders rotated and the new one didn’t know us. I opt out since we still have a drive ahead of us.

I casually ask if it would be possible to get a growler of Goose Island Bourbon County and a half growler of Great Divide Espresso Oak Aged Yeti to go, not expecting to leave with 64 ounces of the Bourbon County considering it’s rarity and the strict 8 ounce limit on the KBS. The bartender says sure and so I run out to grab my two growlers and head inside. She insists it’s not a rush and that I can take my time but at this point I just want the beer to be poured out. She went off to talk to the manager to see if it was alright, and when she returns to the bar she says she has good news and bad news. We ask for the bad news first, I know it’s that I can’t get a growler of the Goose Island. At $10 for an 8-ounce and a $10 growler fee I’m expecting the price to be $90 for the growler of Bourbon County. She says the bad news is that the beer is expensive and it’s $10 a glass and that the total price would be $60. She proceeds with the same for the Yeti, which is $22 for 32 ounces. I’m still waiting on the bad news, but it doesn’t come. So this incredibly hard to get top beer in the world is a third cheaper than I thought it would be? Sounds good to me. At $60 for 64 ounces of 15% beer, you are essentially getting a drink’s worth of some of the best beer in the world for $3.75 a piece. A glass of mediocre wine will run you many times that price, with a taste of some of the best wine in the world being wildly expensive. You’re not drinking a top 15 wine in the world for $3.75 a glass.

By this point it’s late. It’s 9 PM. It’s dark out. It’s raining out. We spent much more than twenty minutes on our detour chatting up a bunch of people about beers and traveling and all sorts of various topics. We still have an hour drive up to Wawayanda. By the time we get to the park we drive around trying to find the campgrounds. We find them and opt out against building the tent. It’s pitch black. It’s raining. There’s mud. It’s cold. We decide to sleep in the car for old times sake. I’m quite happy. I love sleeping in the car. There’s something about getting a nights sleep in a vehicle that’s taking you on a grand adventure. Maybe it’s the memories of road tripping the States for two weeks. Maybe it’s the memories of exploring for a month and a half around fourteen countries in Europe. I’m not sure. For Mikey and I, this is an easy night of sleep. It’s a little cold, but it’s not Roswell, New Mexico sleeping in the car cold.

The raindrops pinging the roof of the car occasionally were loud enough to stir us, but they mostly provided a soothing soundtrack for our dreams. We woke only once, halfway through the night. We decided to mumble back and forth various sayings of “well, the bad news is… we didn’t get the tent up. The good news is… we have a comfortable place to sleep for the night,” and so on for about half an hour before we drifted back to sleep.

PART 2: Sleeping in my bed

The morning comes pretty quick. It’s 7:30 AM and we have two more campers showing up at 9 AM. We know we have to get our tent set up before they get there. We don’t want it to look like we couldn’t get the tent up. We first decide to have another spin around the park, this time with sunlight so that we can see. Again, there is no one in the park other than us. We head down to the lake and stroll around a bit. The wind blowing off of the lake has picked up the cold temperature of the ice on the lake and it forces us to throw some extra layers on. It’s definitely cold. The sun can’t break the clouds so we’re pretty chilled. We hop back in the car and decided on grabbing some warm breakfast to fuel our tent building adventure.

Wawayanda Lake
Wawayanda Lake

There’s a McDonald’s a couple minutes away, so we head for it. We’re driving around lakes and little towns and listening to Lana Del Ray. We get to McDonald’s and grab some Egg McMuffins and hash browns and coffee. Time is ticking along. It’s 9 so we have to get back to the campsite and build this tent already.

As we’re pulling up to the campgrounds we see a pickup truck. It’s Senor David and Mr. Joey. They ask where the campgrounds are because they don’t see our tent. They think they’re in the wrong place and ask where we were and if we wanted to get food because they are starving but figured they would wait for us. To answer this question, I raise my cup of warm McDonald’s coffee to my mouth and take a sip. Ha, Dave is pissed. He rages a little saying something like “ok, I see how it is. I would wait to eat with my boys but you guys wanna go ahead and eat by yourselves then that’s fine. I’ll remember that. Pick your teams.” I tell him one of the new rules for camping this year was that everyone worries about their own food and Mikey and I share a giggle.

We head to the campgrounds and get to setting up the tents. It goes much faster than anyone expected. We pretty quickly get the tents up following some basic instructions. As we are wrapping up, we see three guys walking towards us. There is no one else in the park, or at least we thought. We drove around it the night before and we just circled it again only a little while previously. It’s Friday morning. Everyone who will use the park is at work. There are three black and Hispanic young guys walking towards us. Hoodies up. All that. Keep in mind that the area according to the 2010 census is 95% white. Ugg. I think we are done for. We call out to them asking if we can help them at all. They kind of don’t answer. They kind of mumble something. They get closer. Again we ask what’s up and if we can help them. They mumble something else, someone asks a weird question like “do you know where the entrance to the park is?” And we’re thinking, well you must have come through it, so that question makes no sense. I’m just waiting for these guys to pull out a gun and rob us, which could go disastrously bad because there is no one else around. They finally get close and start talking. I’m kind of hanging back, but then see the bag with the stakes that I know has a hammer in it. I grab the bag because having a hammer is better than nothing, I guess.

The whole conversation ends up going pretty awkwardly, but it turns out it’s three guys that run a youth organization and were scouting the place out as a potential site for hosting a camping trip for their group. We tell them some information and chat a little and they head off. Three gentlemen doing something great for the community and we (or at least three of us four) thought we were going to be robbed at gunpoint. I hate myself for allowing such untrue stereotypes to have such an imprint upon my mind, and I guess it’s something that I can try to work on controlling. After all, between the four of us I think we probably had three or four hoodies on ourselves, and two of us are Columbian and one is Puerto Rican.

So, we’re still alive and still have our buckaroos, and half of our group is hungry. Time to head out and grab some food. We figure we’ll grab something out and then pick up food at the supermarket to cook on the grill later. We get to a restaurant and ask if they’re open. By now it’s 11:20. The lady says they might be open at 11:30 or they might be open at 12:00. I’m not sure how she doesn’t know, but this is life in a mountain/lake town. Time don’t really mean a damn thing. We’re hungry so we hop in the truck and drive around looking for a spot. We don’t see anything immediately so we pull up a place in the GPS that sounds good. It’s about six or seven minutes away. We’re driving around. Getting closer to the place. We’re about a thousand feet away when we realize that the GPS is probably taking us back to the place that we were just at. Yup. Sure enough, we’re back where we started. Place still doesn’t look open. We see a mom coming out of a liquor store that is attached and we ask her what time the restaurant usually opens. She says probably 11:45ish. Looks like we’ll have to wait. She then says the bar is open and we all at the same time say “oh, great. We’ll just eat at the bar then.” Obviously.

Food is pretty decent. We end up talking to the bar tender and she gives us advice on what to do and what not to do. She tells us were not from around there. We ask how she knows. She says because she’s never seen us before. Makes sense, everyone must know everyone up here. She said something about this place Surprise Lake where we probably should have went to camp instead of Wawayanda. She tells us of a place having music later that night, about some bowling alley place, about this and that. We ask what we should wear out to the place with the music since we are dressed in our camping gear. She says the clothes that we have on are perfect for a Friday night out on the town. We ask her about the different people in the area, who she is, how she’s different or similar to everyone else up there. She says she’s a mountain critter. Apparently that’s what people call themselves up there. It became a term we referred to throughout the trip.

Lunch wraps up and we say maybe we’ll check out the music later. We wish our critter best of luck on all of her adventures. Next up we need to head to Shop Rite and score some burgers. We pick up some stuff that we will need for later and head back to the campgrounds.

As we get about halfway we see that another bar has opened, and we figure we’ll stop in to check out whether it’s a spot that the guys might want to head back to later. We pull up, luckily in a pick up truck. Every single one of the other ten vehicles in the parking lot is a pick up. We head inside; keeping in mind this is about 2 PM or so on Friday. Inside, every single person is a male in their 50’s. Tough looking. Long hair and tats, and dressed this way or that way. I’m not sure if music was being played, but if it was, then it stopped. Everyone gives us a look. Everyone at the bar is drinking a Bud or a whiskey. We go to order from their six beers on tap. We’re taking forever. Finally end up picking a Guinness and an IPA. One of the guys comes back to the bar. We’re in his spot trying to order. Great. We apologize and he seems cool enough about it. The IPA we wanted was kicked. We spend another couple minutes deciding on the Cold Snap. Finally we get our beers and retreat as far away from the local critters (I’m not sure if these guys are considered critters or not) as possible into a corner of the bar.

But it works out perfectly because there’s a dartboard. And we’re all about the darts lately. We play some 300 to warm up. Eventually Dave and I are teammates in a game of darts called baseball. We lose a close first game. We blow out win big in the second game. Finally it’s the deciding game three. It’s close at first but we end up taking a decent lead. It’s getting late in the game. We should have this. We decide to take half of an inning off by lazily tossing darts and not getting any runs, talking some smack. We have a big enough lead. Out of nowhere the other guys rack up a ton of runs and we find ourselves down. I think we’re down seven and it’s the bottom of the ninth. I step up and grab a run and then a three run for a total of four runs, putting us within three. Dave’s been throwing well so he should be able to come up big for us. But it wasn’t meant to be. He can’t get there and we are done for.

Between the breaks in the games we chatted with a bunch of the guys at the bar. They were all really friendly and nice. They showed us pictures of bears in their backyards. They told us stories about the coyotes. They told us about this and that. About life up there. Gave us tips for camping. They talked about guns and told stories. They told us all would be well on our trip. You may think having a pickup truck and wearing camping clothes and respectfully keeping to ourselves by playing darts in the corner was what allowed these tatted up wild old men to be open and cool with us, but really it’s just because all people are generally cool people no matter who they are or what they look like. We may subconsciously judge based on what we see but we certainly reciprocate what is given to us.

Before leaving we ask the bar tender for a bag of ice. We get to talking about life up there once again. We ask about the place with the music. She says it’s pretty cool and she might be headed there later that night. We ask her if she’s a mountain critter. She laughs and asks how we know about that. We tell her because we pay attention. We listen to the quiet beat of the universe and seek out a deeper meaning in even the most ordinary of situations. We close out the tab and finally head back to the campgrounds.

At the campgrounds we get the fire going. Guys are collecting wood and adding it to the little fire. Eventually it’s time to get some bigger pieces. Dave and Joey get to swinging this huge axe to chop wood into smaller pieces for the fire. Personally, I prefer to use the wood saw but I guess it’s National Paul Bunyan Day. About a half hour into the chopping Joey goes down. A piece of wood chipped off of the log and smacks him right in the eye. No safety goggles (there will be next time) means his eye has taken a beating. His eye eventually swells up, tears up, and hurts a whole bunch. He tries to fight through it, hoping the pain will go away.

We put the axe down. We play a little bit of cornhole. Dave and I lose a couple tight games again. Joey decides to try to sleep it off. I decide to take control of the fire to get it ready for some burgers. We have a fire pit and with a grill on top. The fire is going nicely but too hot. I move a couple logs around and get some nice embers. Get the flame to die down. Clean off the grill grate with a long stick that I’m using to control this fire. We throw on some Bubba burgers. They’re not my first choice but they really are a decent burger. Six 1/3-pound burger come in a pack. They go on the grill. I have a nice couple of torched logs that I can use to move close to the burgers to crank the heat if I need to. It’s dark, but with flashlights and instinct I should be able to get these burgers cooked up. It’s getting close to time to take them off. We ask Mr. One Eye if he wants a burger and he says he’s not up to eating. Between the three of us we decide to go with double cheeseburgers. One cheese is pepper jack and one is cheddar. Two of these burgers go on to one bun, the kind that comes from the bakery at a supermarket. We add a whole bunch of ketchup on and get to eating. It’s one of the best burgers I’ve made. The taste from cooking off of forest wood is amazing. The fire was controlled perfectly so the burgers are perfectly cooked and quite juicy. It’s the perfect ratio of bun, burger, cheese and ketchup. If I were every going to try to make the world’s best burger I think the two 1/3 pounders is the right choice. Adding any quality ingredients to this simple burger would just make them sing. They’re so good that we throw the other six on and each crush down another 2/3-pound burger.

By this time the other four guys who are coming up are getting close. The first three finally show up, all in one car. We add an Eagle Scout, an original gangster who has been to every camping trip since the first trip, and a new guy who was a surprise last minute addition. They had some problems finding the entrance since the GPS put them at the wrong entrance to the park. We greet them with hugs and they get to unpacking and joining the fire that we have going. A little while later, the last guy is having the same issues finding the place that the previous group had. O.G. decides to be man and drive out to meet him on the road.

By this time Joey is just in terrible pain. He finally admits to heading to the hospital to have his eye checked out. It’s about 10 PM. I hop in my car and take him there. Immediately I notice an enormous spider type crack in my windshield. Something definitely hit my windshield and cracked it, which is weird because there was nothing outside of my car. I’ll just blame it on one of those huge wood chips that came from the axe. Maybe it’s even the one that hit off of my buddies eye. Either way it’s a huge crack and something I probably have to take care of quick.

The wait at the hospital isn’t too bad. They flush the eye out. They add some numbing drops. They check for any foreign debris but don’t see anything. They add some stain to eye that illuminates a neon color when UV light is applied. These neon colors will show if there is any scratches or debris on the eye. The doctor sees some scratches. He asks if I want to see, and I say sure, I guess. It’s pretty cool. Joey’s eye is purple from the UV ray but the scratches are a neon yellow color. He’s pointing out all these scratches and showing that Joey got whacked pretty badly. The doctor gives him drops and prescriptions and tells him to have a check up in a couple days. The doctor says the bad news is the eye is one of the most sensitive parts of the human but the good news is that it’s one of the fastest healing parts. We get out of there after midnight.

At this point Joey is starving. We grab some Burger King. We agree that I’ll drive him all the way home. It’s a pain, but probably best as I should try to get this windshield taken care of. We get back to the camp. By this time everyone is there. New guy number two shows up with his dog, which is a camping first. We say hi and then quickly say bye. People think we’re joking about heading home since it’s 1 in the morning but unfortunately not. We grab some stuff, leave the tents and head out, unsure of what tomorrow holds for this camping trip.

The ride home is pretty uneventful. It’s a little tiring. It’s a little sad to be leaving. It’s a little weird spending the second night of the camping trip at home. I drop Joey off at his place and head back to hop into bed for the night. This actually happens to be the last night in my old home. I just grabbed a new place down by the work and the beach, but this night is the final night I end up staying at a place I’ve lived at for my whole life. I’m too tired to acknowledge the significance. By this point it’s about three in the morning. The warmth and comfort of my bed makes that ice cold breeze from of the frozen lake seem like forever ago.

PART 3: Sleeping in the tent

I wake up. Heading into the night I was unsure if I was going to make the trip all the way back up, but I’m glad I decided to. It’s a beautiful day. Time for some more Lana Del Ray, windows down and shades on. Even though I had used my GPS to get to the place several times at this point, the GPS decides to put me in the wrong entrance to the park, even though I selected the address from the previous locations. Nothing to worry about. I circle around the park and meet up with the guys. They were nice enough to wait for me for the hike.

We hop into a couple cars and head out to the parking lot for the hike. It’s pretty full, and rightfully so on such a beautiful day. We decide to approach the hike by doing the Stairway to Heaven hike. It’s almost two miles practically straight up a mountain along the Appalachian Trail. If we want, this hike overlaps as part of a 7.5-mile loop, and we leave the option open to take the loop if we so feel like it.

The hike starts off pretty well. We walk through a field leading up to the stairway and see what I believe is a red-tailed hawk. It’s sitting at the top of a tree. I switch my lens from short to long range and grab a picture. Just as I do the bird decides to dart off and I rapid fire several pictures. I was able to score a pretty decent shot. I love the classic New Jersey early fall trees and the blue sky in the background. Normally you see bird pictures that are shot with the bird against a boring sky background, but I think this shot is luckily framed nicer than that.

Red-Tailed Hawk
Red-Tailed Hawk

The hike continues on. It’s a decent workout. The trail is easy to follow and it’s basically a whole bunch of steps up to the top. The dog is keeping up fine. And he better be. Because as we are hiking up we see three beautiful little show dogs hiking down. Just hopping from rock to rock with perfect form. It’s motivation for us guys that we should be able to finish the hike if these dogs are able to. I’m sure our dog saw these three dogs and thought damn, I better act cool and finish this hike out.

Hiking the Stairway to Heaven
Hiking the Stairway to Heaven

Finally after a little while of hiking we get to the top. The wind is whipping around and it is so much colder at the overhang than the forest that we were just hiking in. The view is worth the hike. New Jersey does it’s thing up here with surprising scenes of beauty, although really New York has to take equal credit. Wawayanda is right on the border of both states and we were in and out of both states many times during the trip.

A view from New Jersey
A view from New Jersey

Pretty cool to hike a part of the Appalachian Trail.

Appalachian Trail Hikers
Appalachian Trail Hikers

The hike down goes well, although it is a little rough on our aging knees. It felt like the hike up was a good little workout, and the hike down is good for working your balance. Everyone is pretty hungry so we head back to the campgrounds. The guys went shopping earlier in the day while I was at home so we get back and get the grill going for some burgers and dogs. This time it’s a charcoal grill courteous of Franz, one of the new campers. He also brought a truckful of wood to burn, so much so that we couldn’t even burn it all during the trip. He manned the fire for a majority of the time.

We spent the night hanging around the campfire, talking about this or about that. We tasted some delicious beers. Had the Yeti and finally cracked open that growler of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout after a half hour of me wildly overhyping the beer so that everyone could understand how difficult that stuff is to find.

Midnight Society
Midnight Society

Fire is cool.

Fire
Fire

We played a game called three questions. The way the game works is it is a person’s turn to answer questions. The group is able to ask a total of three questions to the answerer and the answerer has to truthfully answer whatever three questions are asked. You don’t have to agree to play if you are scared, but once you agree you have to answer all questions truthfully. We past a bunch of time playing that. Eventually it was late enough and we retreated to our tents to sleep. I had heard people saying how their feet were so cold the night before, so I had anticipated that. I had on tons of layers and three pairs of socks and got to use my new Coleman zero degree rated mummy style sleeping bag. It worked wonders. I thought for sure I would be freezing in a tent but it was quite warm and comfortable. I slept easily through the night, thinking about how my camping trip unfolded as a three-part adventure. Filled with drama and humor and love and friendship and plot twists and tragedy and triumph.

The morning came quickly. It consisted of slowly repacking everything up, making sure to keep the tent and equipment as dry and clean as possible. We split a container of hummus and crackers for breakfast and said our goodbyes. We hopped back onto the road and headed home, leaving the woods greater men than we were when we entered.

Camping at Stokes

Got together for our annual camping trip (this was the 12th annual) at Stokes State Forest in New Jersey for a weekend of hanging in the woods. In addition to the usual steaks, shrimp, burgers and links, oysters were a new addition to this year’s menu. They made appearances as grilled, raw, and shooters.

Grilled oysters were a nice addition
Grilled oysters were a nice addition

As always we got some good hiking in. It’s fun to venture off into the woods and just chill with the homies.

Into the wild
Into the wild

This year was the first year we went up to Sunrise Mountain at Stokes. It’s not much compared to some of the mountains out there, and some people probably would classify it as more of a hill, but 1,653 feet gets you second highest point in New Jersey. It’s worth the short drive to the top. The lookout from the top is amazing, and not just for New Jersey standards.

Sunset on top of Sunrise Mountain
Sunset on top of Sunrise Mountain

It’s always a fun time when everyone gets together and goes camping. There’s been some discussion of switching things up a little for next year’s trip, as the format of the trip has stayed mostly unchanged for 12 years. But it’s hard to beat the pure simplicity of grabbing your best mates and heading camping in New Jersey.

Pines at Stokes
Pines at Stokes

USA ROAD TRIP, Video and concluding remarks

Video from the trip is done! Check out some of the highlights from the trip in this video.

Huge props to my mate Jesse Nanton for going through all of the GoPro footage and composing an awesome original song to go with the video footage of this trip.

It was one hell of a trip. The grandiose plan was devised on a regular night while Mikey and I were hanging out. We decided to follow through and now have some memories that will last a lifetime. The final itinerary looks like this.

March 10: New Jersey. Cherokee, NC. Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Gatlinburg, TN
March 11: Knoxville, TN. Nashville, TN
March 12: Memphis, TN
March 13: New Orleans, LA
March 14: Houston, TX. Austin, TX
March 15: Austin, TX
March 16: San Antonio, TX. Roswell, NM
March 17: White Sands National Monument. Albuquerque, NM. Santa Fe, NM
March 18: Denver, CO, Lafayette, CO.
March 19: Rocky Mountain National Park
March 20: Boulder, CO. Lawrence, KS. Kansas City, MO
March 21: St Louis, MO
March 22: Louisville, KY. Magnolia, KY
March 23: Home

Rough route that we took
Rough route that we took

14 days
17 states (NJ, PA, MD, VA, TN, NC, MS, LA, TX, NM, CO, KS, MO, IL, IN, KY, WV)
6020.9 miles

6020.9 miles
6020.9 miles

A lot of time people hear of a trip like this and they think it’s impossible for them to do it because of time or money constraints. Sure getting two weeks off can be a little rough, but in half that time Mikey and I were able to make it from New Jersey all the way out to Roswell, New Mexico. And in only three days we were able to make it from Kansas City all the way back to New Jersey. You can definitely make time for an awesome adventure so don’t let that keep you cooped up.

As for the money, it didn’t end up costing a tremendous amount for what we were able to see and do. In the 14 days we slept in the car 4 times, stayed with people we knew three times, and checked out reviews online to get good deals on cheap places. Most were from $40-60 a night with only Austin and New Orleans being outside of that price. Gas is reasonable considering the cost of alternative travel options. If you don’t have a car you can score a cheap car rental price with unlimited miles. Grabbing a cooler and buying a bunch of good healthy food at the supermarket was great in many ways other than the low cost. It was fast and kept us fueled up. The hotels and motels always offered free ice to keep our stuff cool. When we went out to eat we usually went out for an awesome dinner. There’s a ton of great stuff to see in this country and a lot of it’s free or really cheap. The price break down looked something like this.

Gas: $630
Places to stay: $570
Food/Drink: $1100
Supermarket: $150
Admission/Misc: $300

Total: $2750

Per person: $1375
Per person per day: $98

I overestimated on most things because I’m too lazy to go through all of the receipts. You could definitely take this same trip spending a ton more or a ton less money depending on what you do or don’t do. Adding some more travelers would let you chop away some of those costs as well. I’d think the price is fair for a once in a lifetime trip that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

If anyone has any questions, feel free to leave a comment and I will follow up with the answer. Let me know about what adventures you have planned. Best of luck!