I’ve always been fascinated by maps. I can’t go more than a day or two without picking one up and losing myself in the intricate details of a three-dimensional world flattened and scaled to fit on a page. As I was thinning out my stash one day—grudgingly admitting that 50 topographic renderings of Mount Washington might be overkill—I stumbled on a forgotten set of AAA road maps. Naturally, I opened the Northeast edition and laid it on the floor in front of me. My eye was immediately drawn to the one hiking trail typically included on a road map, the Appalachian Trail (AT).
The dotted line delineating the 2,100-plus-mile trail from Georgia to Maine was intersected by a variety of multicolored rays: highways, byways, and other routes connecting cities along the East Coast. I was especially struck by the railroad tracks crisscrossing the AT. In a way, they looked like a network of hiking trails, with the main rail from Washington, D.C., to Boston serving as the primary footpath, and the secondary lines as spur trails. There were even a few roadside campsites that weren’t too far from the tracks. I mused how someone living in New York could pack a backpack, hop on a train in downtown Manhattan, and get dropped off directly on the AT, 70 miles north of the city, to recharge in nature.
At that moment, a light bulb lit up in my head. What if I took a train trip from the D.C. area to Boston and camped at locations accessible by public transportation—or my two feet—along the way?
A year and a half of brooding over train and bus schedules, campsite locations, and other pertinent details later, I find myself standing on the platform at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., a stone’s throw from where the AT winds through town, waiting for the first of many trains that eventually will get me back home to Massachusetts. I’ll break up my journey—which would take no more than seven hours on a high-speed Acela Express—into a six-night, seven-day odyssey, tent camping every night except the last.
The deafening horn of the approaching Amtrak breaks my concentration. Adrenaline surges through my body as the silver bullet squeals to a stop. I show the e-ticket on my phone to the conductor, smiling uncontrollably. All aboard the Appalachian rail, I think.
Day 1: August 28, 2016
Harpers Ferry, W. Va., to Rockville, Md.
My train from Harpers Ferry rolls out on time, horn blaring through the soupy afternoon air. In less than an hour, I’ll arrive in Rockville Center, a 4-mile road walk from my campsite. Compared to the rest of my itinerary, today is going to be a piece of cake, I think.
Boy, was I wrong. My feet, accustomed to the rocky trails of New England, are not happy on this scorching asphalt road on a 94-degree summer day. With a hot spot festering on my right heel and my T-shirt, the only one I packed, soaked in sweat, I see the campsite sign shimmering in the heat and hobble toward it.
Located 15 miles northwest of D.C., the campground is adjacent to bustling Route 270. Between the constant drone of engines roaring by on the highway and the mind-numbing buzz of cicadas mating overhead in the oaks, my earplugs are going to come in handy. As the intense heat loosens its grip, I kill time on the campground trails alongside dog walkers out for their evening strolls. Once I’ve cooked, eaten, cleaned up, and taken notes in my journal, my eyes are growing heavy, and my silk liner—a lightweight, cocoon-shaped bedsheet—is calling my name. My feet are screaming for attention, too, but they’ll have to wait until morning.
Day 2: August 29, 2016
Rockville, Md., to College Park, Md.
My eyes open around 5 a.m. as sunlight pries its way through the fern-strewn forest. I prep my daily dose of oatmeal and dehydrated coffee, nurse my blisters, and break camp by 6 a.m. On the 3.4-mile walk to the Metro stop, my feet finally acclimate to the unyielding pavement.
At the station, I put some money on a Metro card and wait with a pack of morning commuters for the next train to our nation’s capital. A few people ogle my hefty pack. No one would bat an eye on the trail, but in the concrete jungle, my hiking getup is bound to intrigue.
By 3 p.m. I’m gassed from lugging my 30-pound pack around D.C.’s National Mall and surprisingly beautiful Rock Creek Park. With its lush, verdant trails and tranquil waterways, the 1,754-acre park recharges me, but the clock is ticking, and I have a train and a bus to catch before setting up camp at Cherry Hill Park Campground, in College Park, Md.
When I find my way through the labyrinth of RVs and trailers to my campsite—located within ear- and eyeshot of another highway—the sun is setting in a hazy sky. My cicada friends join me again for tonight’s slumber party. Wonderful! I stuff down reconstituted rice and veggie curry, weary from the day. Time for some shuteye.
Day 3: August 30, 2016
College Park, Md., to Clarksboro, N.J.
I wake up shivering in the middle of the night. Still half-asleep, I scramble for all of the clothes I brought and put them on, worried I didn’t pack enough insulation. I’m already regretting leaving my sleeping bag at home. I drift back to sleep, dreaming of 20-degree down.
At daybreak, after breakfast and a much-needed shower, I head to the bus stop at the campground entrance. Flocks of fanny-packed RVers are already waiting when I arrive at 7 a.m. The morning commute is a blur. By the time you could eat a cheesesteak sandwich, I’ve made it back to D.C.’s Union Station and on to Philly. Now I’m standing in the 30th Street Station concourse, gazing at the art deco windows and ceiling. I have two hours to tour the city until I catch a bus to west-central New Jersey, where I’ll spend the night at another RV campground.
I hop a Metro train to Dilworth Park in search of a good place to rest and find a cold granite bench in the shadow of City Plaza. Big, puffy clouds drift by in the bright blue sky. I’m amazed at how far I’ve traveled in less than three days. When you think about it, this trip isn’t so different from a long-distance hike: I’m carrying my home during the day and relishing rest and recovery at night. Before long, I catch myself smiling. It’s OK if I look crazy to passing urbanites, I think. You have to do crazy things, like this trip, to understand.
Day 4: August 31, 2016
Clarksboro, N.J., to Harriman, N.Y.
I awake rested at Timberlane Campground in Clarksboro, N.J. Yesterday’s journey here was a study in contrasts. The bus from Philly took me through Camden, N.J., and I knew I was in a rough part of town when I saw police officers patrolling every block. But in less than an hour, the scenery changed from broken windows and barbed wire to cornfields and white-picket fences. At my bus stop, the only thing at play in the motionless neighborhood was the traffic light. I detoured to a roadside farmstand to buy fresh vegetables on my way to the campground.
Today, I’ll rewind back to Philly and then blast off via Amtrak to New York City then on to Harriman State Park. Time to uproot my home again—but first, breakfast.
It’s later—and ugh. If walking in a swarm of commuters in New York’s chaotic Penn Station seems tough, try doing it without ramming into anyone while schlepping a backpack. I pinball off people while scanning signs for my connecting train to Secaucus Junction. Two more train rides, and I’ll reach my last stop of the day: Tuxedo, N.Y.
For the first time on this trip, rain begins to fall as the train snakes its way along the Ramapo River toward Harriman State Park. The timing couldn’t be better. My night’s stay at The Stephen & Betsy Corman AMC Harriman Outdoor Center includes dinner and breakfast, so if it pours, I’ll be out of the elements for my meals, at least. Even better: Sara Morris-Morano, Harriman’s facility manager, is waiting at the station to shuttle me the 10 miles to camp, saving me a soggy walk. For all of the work it took to get here, I couldn’t be happier leaving civilization for this sylvan setting, where towering white pines dominate the skyline instead of skyscrapers.
Day 5: September 1, 2016
Harriman, N.Y., to Madison, Conn.
I pack as much as I can into my 12 hours at Harriman: cannonballing off the dock into Breakneck Pond; hiking part of the new pond loop trail; gorging on feasts prepared by Harriman’s cooks. I inhale a second helping of breakfast before catching a ride back to the train. I return to Penn Station then hoof it over to Grand Central, snapping touristy photos and eating NYC-style pizza along the way. I’m pressing on to Connecticut today, inching ever closer toward home.
The Metro-North train click-clacks through the Bronx as gray clouds unleash a maelstrom of rain. Fortunately, this deluge should pass by the time I get off at Madison Center, 4 miles distant from my campsite at coastal Connecticut’s Hammonasset Beach State Park. I’m looking forward to seeing the water, but not this kind.
Puddles pockmark Madison’s brick sidewalks as I stroll through town, trying to ignore the arresting smells of coffee shops and boutique restaurants. I want to see the vast Atlantic Ocean and to feel the sand between my toes. After a heart-racing stretch along the shoulder of Route 1, I happen upon the nascent Shoreline Greenway Trail and my first glimpse of the ocean. I pass through a peaceful grove of hardwoods, chickadees and nuthatches serenading me, as intoxicating aromas from charcoal grills waft in the briny air. It dawns on me that today is the start of Labor Day weekend. Time to hit the beach.
After setting up camp in a field of noisy RVs, I find my way to a short dune trail and, from there, to the water. I’ve made it to the symbolic summit of my trip. To celebrate, I make pasta with marinara sauce on my camp stove and sip a flask of whiskey I saved for this moment. In the calm before the holiday storm, there are only a few other people on the white-sand shore. With a gnarled driftwood log for my table, I dine as a gorgeous sunset caps the end of an incredible day.
Day 6: September 2, 2016
Madison, Conn., to Randolph, Mass.
I am sure looking forward to sleeping in a cabin tonight. Without suitable insulation, I had to wear all of my layers again last night, even using my empty backpack as a makeshift bivy. A warm morning sun beckons me out of my tent to come and play before making haste to the train.
Next up: Massachusetts! From Madison, I take two trains and an Uber to AMC’s Ponkapoag Camp in the Blue Hills of Randolph. I can already see myself using one of the camp’s kayaks to noodle around the pond. Nicole and Richard Crosby, the camp’s summer managers, invite me to join a family campfire after watching the sunset from the dock. This trip could not end better, I think. I’ve only been here an hour and I’ve already made friends.
Day 7: September 3, 2016
Randolph, Mass., to Boston
I’m on the last train of my trip, a short ride from Westwood to Boston’s South Station, where I’ll meet my wife for the ride home. My wanderlust has been quenched, albeit temporarily. This trip confirmed that even the wildest ideas are possible. I had doubts before I started, but things could not have gone smoother. Not one of my trains or buses was canceled or even delayed.
I know it won’t be long before I open another map and let my imagination weave a new patchwork of adventures from the colorful lines crisscrossing the country. I sit back in my seat and smile. It’s OK if I look crazy. I’m happy.
Ryan Smith is AMC Outdoors’ managing editor and a member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Stewardship Council. His next project is redlining the trails of the White Mountains.
5 Tips for First-Time Train Travel
1. It’s in the bag. Most rail lines limit the size and weight of carry-on backpacks. Check regulations beforehand to avoid surprises when you’re boarding.
2. A is for app. Amtrak and other transit companies offer apps that let you check schedules, get updates on delays, and purchase tickets. If you go digital, remember to pack a hard copy of your tickets and itinerary as backup.
3. Charge or be charged. Use your commute wisely. Seek seats near outlets to charge your devices on the train.
4. The early backpacker gets the train. It never hurts to arrive early, giving you time to find the bathroom, buy a coffee, check your ETA, and get ahead of the boarding line.
5. Left or right? If you’re not prone to motion sickness, prioritize scenery over facing forward. Choose a window seat on the side of the train that will offer notable views of the ocean, city skylines, or killer sunsets.