We fine tune our planning and meet at the actual parking area where we will leave one car (East Mombasha) instead of at the familiar park and ride that requires us to drive there. We head to West Mombasha parking area where we ended previously in order to finish a short section we haven’t completed. It is a beautiful sunny day with predicted temperatures in the mid-80s.
Two male thru-hikers in their early 20s are at the entrance to the trail. We recognize their full beards as the male symbol of a thru-hiker. Their trail names are Fresh and Stretch. They started from Georgia in early March-three months ago. I quiz them about bears and snakes. Fresh said the bears in NJ were bad. They came right at them, wanting their packs, and didn’t move away when they yelled and waved their arms. I asked what they did. He replied: “RUN!” (exactly what we are told to never do!) But here they are with packs intact!
The hike is pleasant, mildly rocky, and a gentle climb until giant boulders block the way. My estimate of their height is over two stories high. Time to go up and over. Lynn darts ahead and is up and lounging at the top well before I arrive. I find myself totally puzzled as to how to move forward on what appears to be smooth, slick rock faces. Stopping multiple times to ponder possible paths with no visible foot holds takes a long time. I honestly don’t know how I finally make it to the top!
As I sit down next to Lynn, a yellow dog leaps into sight. Its pointed gray snout gives it a wolf-like appearance. I am startled as it lopes toward us with no human attached. The owner is not far behind. It doesn’t take long to see it is a well-behaved dog that follows commands, but there was no way to know that when it first approached. We chat briefly. The pair are hiking for a few days, not thru-hikers (as evidenced by the owner’s beardless chin). He is currently from Staten Island, does not enjoy the city life, and gets on the trail as often as he can with his faithful companion. They continue ahead as we gather our gear. We pass by them at the top of a ridge, both relaxing on a large boulder with a splendid view, as we continue.
The next challenge is a steep, rocky climb up Buchanan Mountain. We need to progress using hand over hand to pull ourselves up and around. The dog and owner are right behind us. The dog struggles, but listens to the owner as he points and directs her: “over there’‘, “go that way”. Then they speed by. We reach the summit, sweaty and breathing hard. It feels great. We catch our breath, drink some water, and head back down the other side. It took us 2 hours to go 1.7 miles–our slowest yet, but also the most challenging climb we have encountered!
Lynn did not sleep well last night. I am having hip/back issues today. The plan was to hike our last piece of section 12 from Orange Turnpike to Elk parking area, including Agony Grind- a steep rocky 500’ climb in less than ¼ mile. We head to a diner in Tuxedo to eat lunch and discuss the plan. The decision is to take ‘the Grind’ off today’s list. But we will hike into it to determine if we’ll do it on another day. We hike to the bottom of the ‘Grind’ and part way up. It looks demanding, but goes on the ‘can do’ list for next time. We meet Moogly (young bearded male thru-hiker) from South Carolina on his way down the grind. He says he thinks Buchanan Mt. was harder–and we already did that! West and Gentle (also young bearded male thru-hikers) join Moogly, who confesses that today’s hike is kicking his butt! Yes! Even these young guys think this section is tough! Maybe we’re not as wimpy as we feel! They tell us the trails in the southern AT are sometimes steep but do not have all these rocks! Moogly tells the tale of a rattle snake sighting-hearing the rattle a few feet away and detouring around it. I notice his earphones and can’t help but wonder how he heard the rattle. He has seen no bears but admits he may not have seen them while focused on his music. Hmmm…. I could make some judgments about missing what’s around him, but he is hiking his own hike- as am I! The ‘hike your own hike’ motto is beginning to ripen into a deeper, sweeter awareness.
Quieting judgments, that seem such a natural part of everyday life, is one of my greatest mental shifts so far on these hikes. The vast variety of personalities, hiking styles and abilities encountered have surprised me. Even more surprising is the sense of acceptance from everyone for everyone. We are all traveling the same terrain, comrades facing the challenges nature has set before us, no matter how fast or slow or young or old. Actually, not so different from life in general. My harshest judgments are of my own abilities, or lack thereof. But this is not news to me. Self-acceptance has always been a challenge. Could facing my limitations here on this trail ease the negative chatter in my head in other areas of my life?
Heading back to the car, Lynn and I throw around some possibilities for our ‘trail’ names. As we descend the small section of ‘the Grind’ we just covered, I watch Lynn-obviously tired-still glide from rock to rock. A name starts to form in my mind. First: Goat, or Mountain Goat. Then: Rock Climber, Rocky, Rock lover… The trail name would solidify later on the long drive home: Rock Dancer!
I do not have a tally of actual time spent on the trail today, but the map indicates we covered only 2.6 miles. Considering traveling between parking spots for non-connected sections, level of challenges, lunch at the diner, and our physical states, it is what it is. Total miles: 13.7. I feel disappointed at the slow progress. But then I remember the people, the stories, the small and not so small successes, and most of all-the friend by my side along the way.