Author: Sue S

New Directions

Hi dear friends/readers. It has been over 30 months and 90 posts since ‘Bears In The Woods’ debuted! It has been both a challenge and a joy to share my stories with you. And the stories are not over yet! Each new day brings life’s adventures to my door-as it does to yours.

I will be taking a break from regular posts over the next couple of months as I decide how I want to move forward with this blog. I am feeling a need for a change in format, but have no idea what that will look like! You may hear from me sporadically and I may even be asking for your input about what you would like to read about in the future.

Most of all, thank-you for your thoughts and comments and just being a part of my adventure in blogging. Enjoy all that the summer promises and I will be back in a bit. Sue

Return to Hiking on the AT

More than two months have passed since our last planned hike was cancelled due to Lynn’s son’s tragic accident. I hope the trail, moving in nature, and thinking, or not thinking, will take the edge off the pain, even if only briefly. I let her take the lead in conversation. I am not sure if she needs to talk or needs a break from talking. We chatter about small things between quiet stretches that feel right.

Today’s hike starts at the southern part of section 7, one mile from section 8. I park my car on the side of the road in the ‘parking area’ that looks like the rest of the side of the road. We will hike south through the rest of section 7 and to the end of section 8 at the intersection of Routes 9 and 403, near the Appalachian Grill and gas station. The day has turned sunny and warm and the humidity is setting in. I wish I had worn my sleeveless shirt, but I was misled by the cool temperatures when I left home around eight this morning.

The trail leads up a hill immediately. Stone walls are everywhere-from the ‘Revolutionary Era’ according to our guide book. We cross South Highland Road. The roads in this area are narrow and often unpaved. This morning I took a shortcut after the Bear Mountain Bridge from 9D to 9. It was one lane, unpaved and rumble strip rough. Parts of it were washed out on the hills, but still passable. Multiple giant estates with huge houses, extensive lawns and fields-many with horses grazing-sit back from the road. Some are rustic and others are highly manicured. Seems like big money for a small road and makes me wonder if these properties were purchased at a time when the area was less developed and land was cheap.

We climb Canopus hill and lose sight of the white trail blazes for a while, backtracking several times until we find them again. It seems one of the blazes indicates a left turn when the trail goes to the right. We double and triple check, but the blaze is apparently wrong!  The trail becomes rocky with some steep areas, but not the steepest we’ve encountered in this adventure. Our bodies are reminding us that it has been a while since we last hiked. The next section is along a flatter woods roads, a welcome change, and we make good time.

A large rock marks the intersection of Chapman Road and Old Albany Post Road and we use it to rest on and eat lunch. We have only met one other hiker so far today, a young man who started in Virginia and is heading to Vermont. Thru-hikers heading from Georgia to Maine have a small window of time before weather closes the trail and are well past this point by now. After lunch we meet ‘Chin Up’, a young woman that started in Maine in July and is hiking south to Georgia-a much less common direction. She plans to finish around Thanksgiving. Lynn gives her the M+M’s left over from lunch and she is extremely appreciative! She is from Utah, says Maine was very difficult with lots of wet boulders and falls. Today she is on her way to meet friends that took a break for a few days to visit family.

Further along the trail the woods become very quiet. There is no sound of distant traffic, no sound at all. My ears can feel the silence, as if the air pressure has changed. It stays that way for about 15 minutes before noise creeps back in. We pass the side trail to Graymoor Spiritual Center-where thru hikers are allowed to camp, but decide not to explore it.

We reach the end of section 8, realizing a ways back that Lynn left her keys to the truck in her purse in my car back at our starting point. We will call AAA, or maybe the police, or maybe find a ride to get back to my car. It feels inevitable that this finally happened. We have come close to forgetting on previous hikes.  We sit at an outside table at the Appalachian Grill while Lynn is trying to contact AAA. A truck with New Jersey plates pulls up and Lynn decides to ask for a ride, which makes me a bit nervous. The driver is bringing his brother and friend back to the AT after a break and we realize these are the friends ‘Chin Up’ is meeting! Then we see her approaching! The driver says he will give us a ride in a few minutes. A police car pulls up in the mean time and I head in that direction to see if they can help us so we don’t have to interfere with the reunion of the hikers. I meet the driver on my way and he assures me he doesn’t mind driving us. As we get into his SUV he apologizes for the smell from his brother’s gear, mentioning they “reeked” when they arrived from the trail. I try to guide the way to my car with my AT map, with few road names, and get confused. He finally puts the info into his phone’s GPS and we find we missed the turnoff. He appears less than enthusiastic about his brother’s hike, is not very responsive to questions, but truly seems OK with giving us a ride, even with the poor directions. Lynn tries to give him money for the ride and he refuses. He may not realize it, but he just became a ‘trail angel’ in our eyes.

We drive back to Lynn’s truck and continue on to a nearby sports bar. I devour delicious mushroom ravioli with sautéed garlic, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and chicken. Lynn has a burger that looks good. Another day, another hike. Today: 6+miles.

What we don’t know is that this will be our last hike of the year and for a long time after due to multiple reasons. We did not make our planned 100 miles, but we made the effort to travel, meet, explore, and discover new places, people and challenges. The door remains open and more adventures lie ahead.

Bears in the Woods – continued

The sun had already started its long midsummer descent, and we still needed a place to camp.  We arrived with the dusk at a campsite, relieved to see two other people there.  Maybe they would rush to my aid if I screamed in the night! 

We set up the tent, found the tiny burbling puddle indicated on our map as the only nearby water source, filled our bottles and added the purifying, metallic tasting, iodine pills.  Damp wood thwarted Erik’s efforts to build a fire in the stone lined pit.  Our backpacks carried a small stove, but my anxious surveillance of the encroaching darkness prompted his continued attempts.  Finally, flames soared and we sat in a small pool of light.  At least now I could see what was coming to get me!  We dined on cheese and fruit, and chili warmed in and eaten from the cans. Then all food was stowed in a bag and hung on the tall metal post provided to keep it safe from bears.   As we walked to our two person tent, I wondered if I would be as safe as the food. 

Erik and I settled into our sleeping bags, in closer proximity than we had been since he was a small boy.  We talked a little, and then I fell asleep despite knowing that only a thin nylon wall stood between me and whatever crept beyond.  Each time I turned over in the night Erik startled awake with a tense “Mom, you OK?!”  He would later reveal that he kept dreaming I was outside the tent walking around.  My cub was obviously already a protector himself.

            Next morning, still in one piece, we retrieved our food, also still in one piece, from the bear pole, and hiked on.  The day steamed despite the shield of dense leaves overhead.  We fell into a comfortable mix of silence and occasional exchanges as we walked. This hike was longer than I was accustomed to, and at mid day fatigue suddenly poured over me like concrete.  I sank onto a nearby tree trunk and Erik gently encouraged me to keep drinking, even after my thirst had been quenched.  Fifteen minutes and two bottles of water later, energy eased back into my limbs.   It appeared that the beast of dehydration had come stalking this time.

            I had imagined this adventure, the first with my adult son, would be filled with conversations – about him, about me, about life.  Instead his quiet patience, support and concern expressed more – about him, about me, and about life – than I ever expected.   I not only made it through the night in the darkness of the woods, but did so knowing bears could be lurking outside our tent!  And, knowing Erik was by my side, slept in relative peace.  I had hiked thirteen miles in the company of my son and not only faced lifelong fears, but discovered unexpected courage within my own heart – along with the depth of generosity and love in his.

Bear in the Woods

My son Erik and I walked along the Appalachian Trail in relative silence.  We had never been a talkative pair.  I had explored over a hundred miles of this expansive trail in day hikes, and though I loved talking with thru hikers as they strode by, I had no desire to do the entire trail.  I just wanted to spend one overnight on it, to face my fear of darkness in the woods that had plagued me since childhood.   Shoulder and neck issues along with intermittent bouts with sciatica, reduced the amount of weight I could carry.  I accepted my limitations and made a plan.  For my sixtieth birthday I asked Erik to accompany and assist me on an overnight hike on the trail.  He readily agreed, and now, six months later, here we were – in the Shenandoah Mountains in late June. 

We spent the morning zip lining through the woods – an extra added surprise – and then devoured burgers at a local diner.  Next, we stationed the cars at the hike’s beginning and end points.  Our boots did not hit the trail until mid afternoon – in heat and humidity beyond anything I had experienced in my northern New York climate.   The approach was through an open field, under a sun that steadily ate away at my endurance.  We moved slowly and Erik waited calmly each time I ducked under a small bush to grab a few inches of shade.  I struggled to inhale air so laden with moisture it felt like I was under water.  I had real doubts that I could make the first mile, even without the backpack that Erik had already relieved me of.  My heart pounded against my chest as I gulped down water and inched up the incline.  When we finally reached the ridge the temperature fell with the shade and the trail leveled out a bit – small measures of relief that pushed my feet forward.   A couple miles later we perched on two large boulders to drink more water and rest briefly.  Suddenly Erik sprang to his feet “What?” I asked – and he pointed down the trail –“Bear!” 

Thirty seven acres of woods had surrounded my childhood home, but the unknown threats lurking in the shadows had halted my steps into them – even with my two brothers by my side. My father entered the woods every day, culling the trees that provided our livelihood from its depths.   When dad spoke, his words were often as rough as the bark that clad the logs his chainsaw felled.   Silence became my tool to cut through the air of anger that resided within our home.  One day bears arrived in those woods, transplanted from their overpopulation in the Adirondack Mountains a few hours away.  Stories of bears entering back yards where small children played, of sightings by the mailman just down the road, along with the one told by my mother after she, my two brothers and I were herded together by our quivering dog in the blueberry lot, made my small heart race.  Even before their actual arrival, bears had chased me into my nights, with teeth bared and claws extended, my screams unable to escape as I woke in terror.  The fear of bears kept me away from the woods well into adulthood, until I hesitantly joined a group of friends on a hiking trip.  That day I felt the power in pushing my body upward, to the top of a mountain that revealed a view like none I had ever experienced.  I discovered quiet and peace amongst the trees.  It was the first of many hikes to follow, and my fear of the woods started to abate – in the daytime.

Now, not 30 feet away was a huge black bear.  Adrenaline rushed through my limbs, ready to do whatever needed to be done.  Without a thought I found myself standing between the bear and my son – my mother bear kicking in despite the fact he was over a foot taller and 70 pounds of muscle stronger.  “What do we do?” I sputtered.  “Mom, we’re just going to walk back the way we came for a little bit.” he responded calmly.  As we started moving away the bear lumbered into the heavy brush surrounding the trail.   We stopped, waited and listened.   The sound of the bear breaking through the woods dulled with distance.  Cautious feet led us slowly forward, past the spot where the bear had stood, and then sped up to put space between us and it.  Our eyes jumped from tree to tree as we scurried on.

   To be continued……

A Mountain With No Summit

Lynn and I have planned to meet today for a short hike. I am in my car after dropping off my husband to pick up his car following a friend’s retirement party at a golf course last night. I drop and run because I want to get on the road. The phone rings and I recognize Lynn’s number and answer it through the car’s audio system. But it is not Lynn. It is the guy she has been dating that I have met two or three times, but do not know well. He hesitates briefly, then says Lynn’s son has been in an accident. An urgent “Is he all right?” pops out of my mouth without even thinking. He responds in a matter-of-fact tone that makes me feel like an idiot for asking: “No, he’s dead.”

I screech to a stop, fortunate that no one is behind me, and veer onto the shoulder of the road. “What? What do you mean!? But….” And then the reality starts to bubble from my gut: “No, no no no no…” and hits my brain like a baseball bat. As I sob, unable to speak, he says, “just wanted to let you know she won’t be coming today.” I murmur something and he hangs up. I feel like I want to get out of my car and run, fast, somewhere, anywhere, and leave reality behind. My thoughts refuse to focus on anything- Lynn, her son, driving, sitting, what part of my body should move next, where to go from here, who to call, what to do with the intense emotions that are threatening to make my head explode. I sit still for a while, then burst into a flurry of “no’s” again, then sob and sit some more. Finally, I call my husband and am thankful he answers. He is still at the golf course, not far away. I blurt out the news and he hurries to where I am. I am unsure of my ability to drive, but there are two cars and little choice. He follows close behind as I move ahead slowly, telling me to pull off if I have trouble driving.

I don’t have details and the lack of concrete facts makes the news even harder to solidify in my mind. How can this be real? There seems to be a brick wall between reality and impossibility, and I am still on the impossibility side. I am afraid to call Lynn, afraid of what I will say or won’t say, afraid talking to her will make it real. I wait a few hours, make the decision that I will travel to New Jersey and book a room at a motel to be close by if she needs me. It is summer and the motels near the Jersey shore are all booked. I finally find a smaller chain whose name is familiar and book a room. Then I make one of the toughest calls of my life. I don’t remember if she answers or calls me back later, but we connect. I am sure this is already familiar on her end, repeating the tale every mother fears most. Does each repetition move another step along the road to ‘after’, when ‘before’ is gone forever? Her voice is hesitant, but calmer than expected. But that’s Lynn, always more concerned about someone else’s comfort than her own. Or maybe knowing if she cries, I will, or if I do, she will. We both keep our emotions level. Sometimes there is no other choice, no matter what is ripping you apart inside. 

I tell her I am coming down and have booked a room, that I must be nearby if she needs me, but that I do not need her to make me a part of this story. I quickly pack my things, with a frantic need to find the pictures of her son I know are in my photo stash. Our families have come together many times across the reach of our friendship, especially when we lived only a few miles apart. I remember visits to parks, an aeronautic museum, a haunted hayride, their vacation timeshare in Vermont in both summer and winter and the Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream factory. We have seen each other’s children grow into adults, assuming we would share their tales for years ahead, that the end would not be until we ended.

I also need to pack for an overnight hiking trip on the AT in Virginia, scheduled for two days from now. My son is meeting me for my requested 60th birthday gift. I consider canceling, but know he has fit this into his busy schedule. I also urgently need to see him, be with him, and appreciate him as I never have before. It feels selfish, but I am desperate to make the connection that has just been so suddenly ripped from Lynn. The thought that it could have been my son goes through my mind over and over. Death has a way of removing the veil of complacency from the mundane actions of each day and thrusting them into the illumination of gratitude.

When I arrive at the motel, I notice there are few cars in the parking lot for this busy time of year, many older and battered. All the grass is brown, and the wind has blown bits of trash into corners. I scan the area as I locate the main desk to check in, but before I do, I ask the attendant if it is safe here. I expect him to say “Of course!” to keep my business. But he hesitates, asks if I am alone, and suggests I might want to look elsewhere. I am thankful for his confirmation of what I already sense. But I also know there is nowhere else available. Just as I am leaving, Lynn calls to see where I am. I don’t want to burden her with my problem, but also don’t know where else to look. I tell her the situation and she insists I come to her house to stay. This too is typical Lynn, the woman with an open door to the world, no matter what her own needs may be. I can’t come up with another choice, so become the responsibility I didn’t want to be. 

There are many people at her house when I arrive, both friends and family. Unexpectedly, there is also laughter. It doesn’t take long to understand that the laughter is a fragile guise for the pain everyone is feeling but unable to express without falling apart. I help at any opportunity that arises, cooking, running for food/supplies, anything to keep busy. After many have left, Lynn takes me to the spot where her son’s motorcycle collided with a SUV full of teenagers that made a last minute left turn in front of him. The story is unclear, will always remain unclear. Were drugs or alcohol involved in poor judgment? Who was at fault? Are details being omitted because of relatives in high places? The reality is, none of those answers will breathe life back into a son lost. 

My time with Lynn is dotted with talk and silence; tears and laughter; disbelief, resistance, and heartache. Much is also a blur. There are specific memories, like her distraught daughter entering the house and motioning me away as I go to hug her. I instantly understood. Like Lynn rushing into the arms of one of her son’s friends as I watch the pain erupt for a brief moment before going back into hiding. Like feeling out of place, yet honored, when she motions for me to join them at the funeral parlor to make plans. Like missing the funeral as I drive to meet my own son and knowing Lynn wants me to be with him. And most of all, watching the sea of faces filled with grief as deep as the joy of having known such a unique, exciting, caring young man that connected so easily with those around him. I realize that this may be the afterlife we all wonder about-the vivid imprint of a person’s life on the fond memories of so many others.

Hiking on the AT-Day 6 continued

Correction: Last time-only 3.5 miles to the end of the first part of the day

Further along the trail we see a marker for the Old Greenwood Mine, which we thought was a garnet mine, but find out from the guidebook was a magnetite ore mine. The ore was used during the Civil War for local furnaces to turn into pig iron to send to the West Point foundry to make the famous Parrott gun shells. 

Two poles click rapidly down a short rocky decent behind us and we turn to see a hiker moving faster than anyone we’ve seen so far. We do not want to interrupt his focus and rhythm, but he obliges us with his name and state. His bright red hair and beard, not to mention vibrant energy, are obvious clues to the origin of his trail name: Neon, from Vermont.

Within minutes, a lone female hiker, also moving at a pace faster than most, slows as she passes and tells us her trail name is Rabbit. She is headed for Lake Tiorati for a swim, her second swim of the day-the first at Island Pond-to cool down in this intense heat.

Reaching a fenced in water tower signals that today’s hike is close to an end. A woman and her young son are hiking in the other direction. We learn he is eight years old and that they are hiking to the shelter we passed earlier. I overhear her remind him that last time they hiked one half mile to the shelter and today they will hike one and a half miles and next time two and a half miles. The kid size backpack he carries is full with a  sleeping mat attached, but does not impede his eager energy. She is as full of life as he is! Watching them makes me wish I had done such things with my own kids, now fully grown. Then I remember the overnight hike on the AT scheduled next month with my adult son as my requested 60th birthday gift. The two of us have not spent two full days together since he was very young, but never too late to bring a new adventure into a relationship.

The trail meets the road, and it takes a minute to decide which way to go. We join several people walking along a path  following the road, and we can see the lake peeking through the trees. Shortly, we see the parking lot and find our way to the car. First priority-get our sweaty feet out of these boots! Next priority- restroom! Then we move on to the lake and wade into the cool water. Ahhhh…. Only a few people are scattered across the beach since closing time is near. But enough time remains to recline and relax on the bed of soft sand. So sublime to be supine! The water calls our feet for one more dip and then we head back to the car. Next stop: our third visit to the Tuxedo Junction restaurant for a burger and sweet potato fries before the trip home. The 2 ½ hour trip home feels overwhelming and I wonder if I am too tired to make it. I will stop along the way if I get too sleepy to drive safely. But I put an audio book in the CD player and time passes quickly. We hiked 5.2 miles today with 5 hours of driving time to get there and back.

It feels good to arrive home by 10:30 PM. I am exhausted but have a hard time falling to sleep. My head aches, most likely from dehydration due to the heat and humidity today. I also have mild indigestion-again, possibly from dehydration, or maybe the fries. Next morning I hurt everywhere-calves, hips, shoulders-but am glad we did the hike. And my most worrisome body part-that sensitive foot-feels fine! But I am relieved that we did not do the planned overnight and nine-mile trip today! Some things happen for a reason.

Hiking on the AT-Day 6

The original plan included hiking five miles today, staying overnight and then hiking nine miles tomorrow. Lynn called this morning to say she could only do today–no overnight. She is overwhelmed at home after driving for two days from Louisiana, working two days and then babysitting for her grandchildren. I have to admit; I am a bit relieved. I am worried about my left foot-currently taped by the podiatrist, and still tender on the bottom toward the front. The Dr. said it was OK to ‘try’ a hike, but what do I do if midway between stationed cars I can’t continue-especially for the 9 mile hike?

Lynn and I meet at Tiorati State Park at Arden Valley road to park one car, then drive to Elk Pen Parking to start the hike at 11:40. The heat is intense, and the air feels like syrup. We cross an open field through tall grass to start the hike. I move quickly to reach the shade of the woods. We meet a young couple who have recently moved to NYC. They ask us to recommend a hike at the sign pointing in several directions. We are headed to the ‘Lemon Squeeze’ and suggest they do the same. We cross paths again on their way back–truly a sweet couple. That word ‘sweet’ seems so cliché, but it simply fits!

The beginning of the trail is a significant ascent (for me at least) up Green Pond Mt. at 1180 feet change in elevation. We had planned on hiking it on the last hike. I am glad we waited. The trees block the sun, but the heat and humidity seep through with little change. Down the other side of the mountain, we reach Island Pond. A breeze greets us as the view opens onto a serene body of water framed by large rocks and trees. Lynn puts her feet in the water and finds it warmer than expected. Several people are kayaking and other young folks are swimming to the island in the middle. We enjoy fresh apricots I bought at the farmer’s market at the Thruway rest stop. The scenery and brief relief from the heat keep us seated for a few minutes, but we need to move on to make our 5+ miles today.

We meet ‘Just Nate’, a section hiker who started in Delaware water gap, is heading to Vermont, then skipping some of the trail to meet his brother for the last 100 miles in Maine. I give him the first of three large chocolate chip cookies’ I also bought at the farmers’ market to give to hikers–a mini trail angel offering for those on longer trips. Lynn also gives him some cherries. He is from outside Philly and is a student at SUNY Binghamton studying psychology and philosophy. This is day seven of the 45 days he has to complete his hike. He has seen two bears and tells us a tale of a friend capturing a picture of a copperhead as it struck his boot! We all marvel and wonder why he would stop to take a picture! ‘Just Nate’ hikes on with us a few steps, then disappears from sight.

I keep drinking to stay hydrated in my battle with the heat. Sweat drips from my forehead and soaks the front and back of my ‘wicking’ sleeveless shirt. This is very unusual for me, since I rarely sweat no matter how active I am or how hot it is. Pain in my foot is noticeable but not enough to stop. What appeared to be relatively flat land on the map ends up being a series of ups and downs.

We meet Mark, and ask if he is thru hiking. He responds ‘not yet!’ and we get our first dose of thru hiker humor! He explains he wanted his trail name to be his real name, so when people say “Hi Mark” he feels like they are old friends. I offer an ‘angel’ cookie and apricot and he cheerfully accepts! Mark appears to be in his mid-40s and thru hiked the AT in his youth, but wanted to do it again. He concedes it is harder this time. We move on while he stays and finishes his treats. Soon after we are out of sight we wish we had asked more questions: How old was he the first time? Did he do it alone? Any bear or snake stories now or then? He soon speeds past with a quick ‘hi again’, but we do not interrupt his obvious determined focus to get the answers.

The ‘Lemon Squeezer’-a narrow path between giant boulders-is next. We remove our packs to slip through-although it was probably unnecessary. A steep climb up the face of another boulder greets us on the other side. I have no idea how it can be done without rock climbing equipment! There is also an ‘easy route’ that goes around. Doable but not what I would call easy-a relative term. More ups and downs to the summit of Island Pond Mountain (1303 feet), then down again and up again to the summit of Surebridge mountain (1200 feet), then down again and across a stream. I am reminded of two special towels in my pack that are supposed to be cooling when wet. We wet them in the stream and drape them around our necks. Their brief coolness soon succumbs to the surrounding swelter.  

After the stream, we climb yet another steep rocky incline with exposed tree roots that create natural steps. We need to stop midway up to catch our breaths and meet thru-hiker ‘Gear Dog’ from Billingham, Washington. He is with another thru-hiker from Virginia, but we don’t get his name. They share the last cookie and some cherries. While we are standing there, another hiker-tall, thin, pale, and very blond-races by the four of us with no exchange of eye contact or words, obviously solidly focused on the trail. We all hike on, but Gear Dog and friend quickly leave us in the dust. A few minutes later, we spot them at a high point far ahead. Are we really that slow?? Then I remember the words of a hiker we met earlier–“It’s not the miles, it’s the smiles!” I come up with my own quip: ‘It’s not the speed, it’s the deed!’ We are on our quest, and that matters most. (But I must admit, I do feel slow!). Miles today: 5.2

Hiking the AT Day 5

Cheese and Chocolate are sitting on the shady downslope of the hill across the road as we set out for another day on the AT. The weather has blessed us with sun, blue skies, and comfortable temperatures on our 5th day slowly ticking off the miles towards our 100 mile goal-for the year. We are not through hikers–but envious wannabes-at least on days like this one. Our story is short, like our hikes, but filled with the brief nuggets of information shared with us by those we meet.

The young smiling Swiss pair from the hillside soon approach as we progress at our much slower pace–she is ‘Cheese’ and he is ‘Chocolate’. They willingly engage in brief banter that consists mostly of our questions and their responses–started in Georgia in March, have seen many bears, including one large one this morning sitting at the heavy metal ‘bear box’, unsuccessful in his attempts, viewing the human wildlife with lazy curiosity and then leaving. The description of one particularly large rattlesnake as long as their hiking poles stretched across the trail, rattling its tail as they approached, is spine chilling. They waited until it slithered out of sight before continuing. Both tall and slim, they look fresh and eager to continue. I had stopped at a rest stop on my two-hour drive to meet my hiking partner–Rock Dancer–and purchased three large homemade chocolate chip cookies for the first thru-hikers we meet. All three go to these two, maybe not in immediate need of energy renewal since they just stopped at a local Trail Angel’s supply box containing fruit, sweet carbs and drinks, but still grateful for this future energy supplement! Lynn and I met the Angel a few weeks ago as he restocked and now witness the pleasure his efforts bestow on hikers. We all move on and Cheese and Chocolate soon disappear.

The initial ascent over large rocks and larger boulders eases into a less strenuous path, at least briefly, until more climbs require stops to catch our breath, and wary eyes to safely navigate rocks and roots and reptiles relaxing in the sun. Rock Dancer and I met over 35 years ago, have watched our lives and families grow and change, and shared a profession that brought us together early in our careers. The conversation is both light and deep as we touch on a wide array of topics. We speak of our appreciation of moments shared, of bodies still capable of traveling this route, and of brains still capable of dreaming and planning future adventures. We may look and move differently than years ago, but our spirits and desires are still strong, though tempered. Small blueberry bushes, no more than 12 inches high, line the trail. Though prized by many hikers, a few ripe berries still hide under leaves and we savor their intense flavor.

Today we are heading for ‘Agony Grind’, described as a very steep 500 foot decent over rocks and boulders in a ¼ mile span. We were planning to do the Grind last trip, but my intense fear of downhill movement on a day that had been more challenging than expected altered the plan. We moved it to this week’s agenda-but earlier in the hike while our energy and focus are still strong.

We meet a lone hiker–‘Union Jack’ from London- about ½ mile from the grind. He is tall and lean with the 3 month growth on his chin that announced his thru-hiker status. He left Georgia in April–later than the March timeline we typically hear, and averages 20 miles a day. Bears have been absent from his trip so far, but there have been lots of snakes of various descriptions. He is wearing trail shoe instead of hiking boots and explains this was his 3rd pair after opting for the less restrictive footwear after wearing boots initially. Another variation on the hiking theme!

We decide to take a break and eat some lunch. A second lone hiker, ‘Looper’, finds us perched on the rocks eating our PBJ’s. He appears beyond the average age we have previously encountered by at least a couple of decades, and sports a much shorter beard (shaved mid hike). I also note he is put together in a way that only more mature muscle and bone can achieve–and maybe only more mature eyes can fully appreciate! He seems more eager to move on than others, but obliges our questions: has just seen a bear cub this morning (and where was mama???), and describes an encounter with a rattler longer than his hiking pole and as thick as his trim but developed bicep. My imagination reels with fear and hope that we will not encounter such a monster.

‘Looper’ moves on and ‘Cowboy’ (Texas) and ‘Cornwall’ (England) quickly take his place: some snakes, some bears, hated Pennsylvania, enjoying NY. Then two hikers I had glimpsed behind us several times earlier arrive on the scene–the ‘Appalachian Snails’! ‘Cowboy’ exclaims that they are infamous, and he is thrilled to finally meet them! They are section hikers from Frederick Maryland on their third day out, hoping to make it to Vermont and New Hampshire if things go well. A supply box is waiting for them not far away in Fort Montgomery. He is concerned that he has not gotten his ‘trail legs’ yet and is struggling more than expected. She describes their preference for tenting rather than using the shelters and gives us advice from experience hiking the AT-having what appears to be as many years behind her as we do. They inspire me to consider the idea of a longer hike. They move ahead and we met them again on the Grind.

When we move on, it is obvious we spent too much time sitting, as our stiff muscles require extra time to move smoothly again. We are not far along when ‘Mac’ and ‘Ace’ overtake us–young NJ natives near home again with relatives in Warwick close by. They left Georgia in March. She feels Georgia was the most challenging part of the hike so far. He is enjoying it all.

The challenge for the day is just ahead: The Grind. ‘Rock Dancer’ does her moves, sometimes beyond my belief, over the jumbled rocks and down the mountainside, free of hiking pole or fear. I pick each point of contact for each step, depending on my pole as a portable handrail and grasping any convenient tree or larger rock to further steady my descent. Trust in the grip of my vibram soles or the strength of my muscles to keep me upright is slim. But I also do not want to let the gravity devil take control away from me, so I slowly decipher my personal path. We pass the ‘Appalachian Snails’ mid grind. He appears to be the definition of agony-red faced, sweating, and barely hobbling down the path. She is by his side with encouraging words and patience, trying to disguise the worry that everyone that passes can’t help but share.

  We finish the ‘Grind’ and feel the reward of completing a climb famous for its difficulty. It was difficult, but not the most difficult we have faced in our days hiking.


Hiking the AT- Day 4

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.