Author: Sue S

Hiking the AT-Day 2

 Four weeks have passed since our initial hike. Work, responsibilities, and the 200 miles that separate us make scheduling difficult. But shortly after 10AM we are back at the park-and-ride where we last met. We station one car at our end point on 17A and travel together to Lakes Road. A hot dog stand beckons from one side of the parking lot and we stop for some pre-hike fortitude! The man there mentions that a group is hiking ahead of us. He also cautions us it is a rough hike and an older man (around 60 is his guess–is he thinking we are younger or giving us an age appropriate warning??) fell last year and needed to be medevacked out. Hmmmm…..

Today’s hike heads south to our destination. The terrain is moderately hilly to start, then levels off a bit. Pumpkin sized rocks litter the trail and require a sharp eye to avoid stubbing a toe-or worse. It is sunny, clear T-shirt weather and we work up a light sweat. A sign for Wildcat Shelter directs us off the main trail. I am eager to see my first shelter. The three-sided lean-to nestled in the springtime lush is approximately 12’ by 10’ and three feet off the ground. Two cords, adorned with empty tuna cans to repel mice, provide space to hang backpacks. I’ve read stories of the multitude of unwelcome visitors and the sketchy success of the tuna can plan. I wondered if the tales were true and now here is the visible proof. Cool.

A group of ten Asian hikers are lunching at the shelter. Their curiosity and excitement are easily observed despite language differences. The shelter has a ‘privy’ nearby (a welcome sight in the woods) and a water source-which consists of a tiny, muddy brook. Is this what we would sterilize and drink if we needed to refill?? And it is now May, with the spring melt still running before the summer heat slows the flow. The Asian group packs up to leave, but one man offers to let us try an interesting tiny folding seat he was using. It is remarkably comfortable.

Soon, two Irish men arrive at the shelter and we listen to their tales about snakes and bears. Apparently there is a rattlesnake den further south on the trail in New Jersey, and bears are present but scarce after a hunting season. Information gathered at this one stop makes me realize our learning curve is almost as steep as the hills ahead of us!

We move on to Cat Rocks-the next ‘bump’ in the road. An alternate path goes around the challenging climb, but Lynn bounds up the steep smooth face of the biggest boulder I’ve ever seen. I walk a few steps down the path, then watch the pleasure blossom on her face and dare myself to follow. Soon I wonder if I made the right choice as I watch Lynn climb hand over hand and squeeze through a crack. This is new for me. I don’t know if I can do it, but her look of belief and words of encouragement tell me she thinks I can, and she patiently waits until I do! Eventually, the trail opens to long narrow boulders and an expansive view. Is this where the man fell? Despite using the butt-slide technique to get down steep areas, I am proud of myself for taking on the challenge. More boulders, more shimmying through crevices between boulders, and lots more butt-sliding follows. A hiker on the alternate route below shouts, “There is a path around.” as he watches me struggle, but it’s a bit too late for that. Gazing over the sides reveals a drop that would certainly require a medevac for rescue! We finally finish the Cat and I am relieved to return to the rocky trail. Lynn quips: “It’s like climbing along an elephant’s back.” Her delight is palpable.

We continue to the 17A junction and walk briefly along the road to get to our car. Next stop: The Creamery. Two people on the hike recommended its great ice cream! We order ice cream floats to celebrate today’s efforts. We hiked four hours, including a 30 minute break at the shelter, and a slow climb up and down boulders. Tonight we are going to stay at a motel in Central Valley so we can hike again tomorrow. Lights out by 9:30! Total miles today: 3.6. Total miles so far 7.6. Only 92.4 more to goal! We may not be the fastest hikers, but the satisfaction gained from our efforts is enough to pull us back for more.

A New Adventure Begins…

            Reaching deep into the well of possibilities to grab a handful of hopes and desires excites the adventurer in me. I thrive on setting a new goal and envisioning the steps to achieve it. But action separates my ‘want tos’ from my ‘did thats’, and often requires movement into unfamiliar territory. It helps to have a buddy by my side. I often recall the words of Barbara Sher, one of my mid-life mentors: “Isolation is a dream killer.”

             Lynn and I have been friends for over 30 years, through work, relationships, children, hardships and good times. Her readiness to explore and discover is the icing on the cake! Whenever I unlock a door to a new idea, she kicks it wide open. We live over 200 miles apart and regularly meet somewhere in between. We both love the outdoors and try to schedule a walk/hike/paddle as part of our time together.

            The Appalachian Trail (AT) has been on our radar for years. Bill Bryson’s book- A Walk in the Woods further spiked our interests. Though the idea of thru-hiking the whole 2190 miles from Georgia to Maine has teased our imaginations, family obligations have curtailed the possibility. But entering our sixth decade propels us to move toward doing the things we have talked about. I am the planner. Lynn is the believer. We set a new, manageable goal–100 miles on the AT in the coming year.

            It is early May. Online research points us to Sterling Forest State Park in Orange county NY, a good midway meeting point with AT access. First, we make our way to the large modern visitors’ center and speak with an enthusiastic, informative guide. I buy a trail map and guidebook for this section of the AT. It is now official–we are hiking the AT! A large 3D topographical map of the area takes up a good chunk of floor space. We push buttons that light up numerous trails and find the one we are heading to.

            We park on East Mombasha Road and hike north, past Little Dam Lake. A small stream cuts through the trail with rocks providing a path across. Lynn strides across as if it is a city sidewalk. I come to a dead stop and watch water rush around each rock. Lynn hops back and takes one end of my hiking pole to give me added confidence. Some rocks are big enough to allow balancing on them with both feet. But some can only accommodate one foot at a time, requiring me to straddle the rushing water, then balance on one foot as I step across more water to the next one. This is not a hard task physically, but visions of losing my balance, falling, breaking bones, and being washed away make each step a battle between fear and willpower. My breath releases as I reach solid land.

            I am less than five feet tall, which I am certain impacts my leaps and steps on the rocky trail, but that is not my major limitation. I have always needed to tightly grip the handrail going down stairs. I would rather hike up the steepest mountain than go down a minor hill. The pull of gravity is my friend as I place my foot on solid earth and push against it to move upward. But my heart gallops when I project one foot into thin air, with only my one bending knee to prevent that same gravitational force from smashing my body onto a sea of rocks below. My hiking pole acts as my portable hand railing but does not dull the fear.

            I always let Lynn go ahead on the downhills. I marvel as her feet dance around rocks and roots or down the steep slope of boulders the size of a two-story house. I watch her for inspiration to trust my own steps, move incrementally toward more daring, thrill at my moments of accomplishment, but never approach her ease.

            Near the Orange Turnpike crossover, we meet a man around our age, hiking his hefty body up the precipitous trail, carrying water bottles, bananas, and sweet treats. He tells us he has hiked parts of the AT many times, has recently survived bypass surgery, and is a now a ‘trail angel’ providing support for thru-hikers. He places the food in a metal cooler secured with a steel cable. I wonder if it is strong enough to deter the bears that also love a treat! I like the idea of providing a bit of care, encouragement and nourishment for those attempting to complete the entire hike, and store it in my ‘wonder what I could do to help’ mental file.

            We take four hours to go 4.2 miles-with a couple of lengthy breaks. It feels like a long time for the relatively short distance, but then my feet and knees remind me of the ups and downs. I may be a beginner in need of physical improvement, but I am happy and satisfied with today’s first steps toward our goal. A diner is our next stop. We sit for a long while, eating a well-earned meal, reviewing our day, and planning our next trip. The unfamiliar demand I’ve placed on my muscles comes into sharp focus as I stand and hobble to the restroom. But my heart is happy and a sense of satisfaction accompanies me on the drive home. Total miles: 4.2.

Endless Possibilities

I will return in three weeks with tales of more adventures in the outside world that deepen understanding of the thoughts and feelings in my inside world!

(In the meantime I will be visiting my new grandson on the other side of the country!!)

After the Ride

I rode over 350 miles on a bike from Buffalo to Albany surrounded by friendly, but unfamiliar faces. The absence of the support of a close friend forced me to befriend belief in my ability to face this challenge on my own. Months have passed since that spark of desire ignited a flame that burned past the fears of leaving the security of the familiar. Gears are still shifting.

I wake, shower, eat breakfast and move into the day. On the outside, it appears as if nothing has changed. And this is true of many things. Stability of routine has always provided comfort. Conversations with friends about the bike trip seem to lead to the same question: “Was it fun?” This is not a simple question to answer. I usually start my reply with: “I’m glad I did it…” and then stumble on from there with details about some part of the trip, like rain and mud and hills and the tent city and food and people. But I never include that it was “fun”. 

The deeper feelings about the trip are harder to express. It has taken many weeks to decipher the subtle changes in behaviors and feelings. I’ve noticed that despite my love of routines, I feel freer to explore when unexpected opportunities arise or new interests beckon. My fear of not living up to rigid standards of appearance or conduct has softened. I appreciate what ‘is’ more easily instead of obsessing about what ‘should be’. Growing faith in my reliable inner voice turns down the volume on censoring doubts. I have greater acceptance of my body that persevered and performed beyond expectations. I feel more balanced in making choices between playing it safe or venturing into the unknown-as essential as that required to remain poised upon two thin tires. And most of all, old currents of unrest feel more settled. I am done running from fear, anger, and frustrations at home. I rode through many challenges-physical, mental and emotional-to make it back home, the place I want to be, even when the going gets rough. My sense of personal power, like the muscles in my body, grew stronger with use. Perhaps the finish line actually represents new beginnings…

New adventures await in a landscape of possibilities!

                                                                                                     

Riding Day #8

I am up early and join riders leaving the camp area. We cross over the Western Gateway Bridge to the Stockade district, the oldest neighborhood in Schenectady. We ride past an amazing assortment of architectural styles that have evolved over its 300 year history. I lived in one of the historic brick Colonial style homes in a small apartment over 30 years ago, before I married. Included was access to the lower part of a long narrow lawn that ended at the edge of the Mohawk river- part of the Erie Canal. Little did I know that river would flow into my future. 

The trail is on the street for a brief period until we reach the section of the Mohawk-Hudson bike trail I have pedaled many miles on. I feel at home here, almost cocky, as I travel my ‘home trail’. Along the way, we pass a house we owned for a few years situated directly between the trail and the river. 

Parts of the trail are also unfamiliar. I have never ridden a bike into the towns of Cohoes or Waterford. Waterford is where the Mohawk River/ Erie Canal meets the Hudson River. The Hudson begins high in the Adirondack Mountains and flows south for 315 miles to the Atlantic Ocean in New York Harbor. Near this confluence of the Mohawk and the Hudson we stop at Peebles Island State Park and the Erie Canalway Visitor Center. I discover this was an important location, where we prepared to defend against the British during the Revolutionary War. Who knew? Though I have not taken part in all the history gathering this trip offered, I feel drawn to learn more about this area of the state I have lived in for my entire life. This is our last rest stop of the trip. The air pulses with energy. People are laughing and chattering loudly all around me. Everyone seems to have a story about the trip. The group of 500 strangers in Buffalo has evolved into a tribe of fellow adventurers nearing the end of a shared journey. And I am one of them.

            From Peebles Island, we head into Troy. Once again, we are on city streets. The terror I felt earlier in the trip returns as traffic forces me to stay to the side where huge drainage grates threaten to grab my thin tires between their narrow iron bars. I hold my breath each time I swerve around the grates and move closer to the passing cars that could end more than just this trip. Potholes are as prevalent as the drainage grates-but with less predictability. Less than 10 miles to go and I wonder if I will make it.

 Finally, we reach the wide paved bike trail that leads to the finish line. No more city streets! I can breathe again. This section of the trail feels like an old friend-traveled many times when I lived in Albany. It is relatively flat and follows the Hudson River. But the thermometer has soared to the mid-90s, and there is not a cloud in the sky. It is the hottest day of the entire trip. The air is heavy and my ‘breathable’ sleeveless shirt drips with sweat. I am forced to stop several times to cool down in the shade. What I envisioned as the easiest day of the trip has turned into one of the most challenging.

 Just when I think the trail will never end, I see a familiar skyline. A rainbow of balloons float above the finish line at the Visitors Center in downtown Albany, New York State’s 300-year-old capital. A small crowd cheers for each rider as we pass under it. Laughter and the buzz of excitement accompany achieving this major goal. We pat backs and offer congratulations to each other. A woman standing next to me jests: “I don’t think my fingers will ever straighten out again after holding on so tight for so many days!” I laugh and agree full heartedly. Apparently, I was not the only one that held on for dear life across the miles!

            I find my ride share guy with my tent mate. Everyone is bustling about gathering gear, loading cars, heading for the bus to return to the Buffalo starting point, hugging, and chattering. It is dizzying. I say goodbye to my tent mate and we promise to keep in touch, but don’t. My husband picks me and Mr. ride share up–his car is still at my house–and we head for home. It’s over. I did it. I feel satisfied yet unsettled, energized yet tired, altered yet the same… It will take time to sift through the range of emotions that have traveled with me to this finish line.

To be continued….

Riding Day #7

I wake early, surprised at my eagerness to get back on the trail. I meet the group at the first rest stop at Schoharie Crossing Historic Site. A trading post was located here during colonial times, along with the remains of a large aqueduct along the original canal. Within minutes, I see my tent mate. She appears as pleased to see me as I am to see her. She is ready to get riding and leaves while I check out the aqueduct. I ride with no one by my side, but do not feel alone. Our common goal is nearing and there is a palpable connection to my fellow riders.

The trail into Amsterdam runs along the opposite side of the river than the route taken on my previous trip here. We continue on to the next town–Rotterdam Junction-and the Fireman’s Auxiliary is having a fund raiser barbecue.  Burgers, hot dogs and all the fixings are available for a dollar or two. The day is sunny with moderate temperature and a cool breeze. An inexpensive lunch on picnic tables fits the bill perfectly. Jovial conversation flows like the nearby waters that we have followed for seven days. Reservations about fitting in have receded from my thoughts, and I easily join in the chatter.

The historic Mabee’s Farm, also the site for the Schenectady Historical Society Museum, is a few miles further down the road. The farm’s Dutch-style Stone House was first built in 1670 and believed to be a fur trading post. It was owned by the Mabee family until 1999. It is one of the oldest homes in New York State and the oldest in the Mohawk Valley. I explore the grounds briefly, but am eager to move on to the Lions Park in Scotia, where tonight’s tent city will be waiting. On the way, I stop at a friend’s house nearby. A familiar smiling face is a welcome greeting as I pull in on my bike. We share some lemonade, a few words and a hug before I return to the pack. She snaps a picture of me in my full biking gear. A much longer story awaits our next visit.

I stop briefly at the park before continuing a few more miles to my home. I drive back later and meet another friend for the “gala” dinner and a “No Talent” talent show. Then there will be the traditional awards ceremony for accomplishments like: the most bones broken, the most crashes, the most flat tires, the youngest cyclist, and the oldest cyclist. I fill my friend’s ear with tales of the trip as we sit, eat, talk and enjoy the show. It is comforting to be with someone I know well.

The show ends, but the party is obviously going to continue. I am content to return home and savor the place I have perhaps not fully appreciated in the past.

Riding Day #6 -Part 2

Homemade muffins, fruit, and farm fresh eggs await us the next morning—a splendid start to our second day of riding. This will be the first time either of us has taken a bike trip lasting longer than one day. We leave our gear for pick up later by car. The sun is bright already, suggesting the coming heat of the day ahead. As soon as we leave town, we are back in the woods, on a recently constructed section of the trail. Our plan is to lunch in Amsterdam at a restaurant we scouted out before the trip. It also serves ice cream. Entering the small dreary city of Amsterdam, well past its heyday in carpet manufacturing, we are in a rundown area with boarded up businesses along the railroad tracks. It is late morning on a Sunday. The streets are empty. This is the first time I have felt uncomfortable with the surroundings. We finally reach our planned lunch stop, only to find it is closed! There are no other eating establishments nearby and we are not willing to go explore this part of the city, so we ride on until the trail abruptly ends just beyond the city limits.

The scorching sun overhead is beating down like a storm. We have one snack bar to share and water is getting low. The trail now runs on a four-lane thoroughfare with moderate traffic. Thankfully, there is a wide paved shoulder—but not an ounce of shade in sight. We approach a large quarry with huge noisy machinery crushing stone and loading giant trucks that are pulling in and out at amazing speed—can they see two bikers about to cross their path? Are they even looking? The dust from the quarry and the truck tires is choking. I wait for what appears to be a lull in the truck traffic and race by as fast as I can, hoping my friend does the same! When we catch up with each other we are relieved to see the long downhill ahead. The heat is really getting to me. She pulls out of sight as she goes with the pull of gravity while I apply my brakes to resist it. Further down the road, I find her sitting under a small tree along the side of the road. A long upward hill looms ahead. She declares that this is it; she is done. I call my husband and request a rescue. We are both hungry and the water is gone. We have no idea how much further it is to the gas station I know is along here somewhere. 

My husband arrives. First, we head to the B+B for our gear. The drive back home reveals the gas station was just over that last hill. Too bad, with some refreshment we could have finished the trip as planned. We stop at Jumping Jacks drive in for lunch, a popular fast food and ice cream stop. Then home to rest and shower. Her flight doesn’t leave until late the next day, so we plan to complete the section of the trail we missed today—Niskayuna to Mabee’s farm—in the morning; and do. All together we traveled about 70 miles—not bad for beginners. 

I wonder how my fellow riders on this current trip are handling that stretch from my memory. I describe a few details from the past six days to my husband. But I am not ready to go in depth yet, do not even know where to start. Before retiring for the second night in my own bed, I prepare my bike, gear, and outlook for the next day. I am surprised to notice how eager I am to rejoin the group!

Riding Day #6 -Part 1

The next day I sleep late, enjoying my comfy bed and my bulldog at my side. The now familiar morning routine of packing up and getting on the trail is absent. I think about the other riders, and imagine myself traveling with them. The thought of being on the trail strangely feels more familiar than relaxing and taking care of myself. I seldom allow myself to take a day ‘off’. There are always more tasks to check off on my never ending list. But today I am consciously setting tasks aside as part of my plan. Maybe I should consider taking an occasional day without my list in the rest of my life….

I have already covered about 35 miles of today’s 63 mile section of the trail on a previous trip with a friend, so I will miss about 30 miles of the trail between Rome and Little Falls. The day my friend and I rode this part of the trial, it was a very cold and overcast–unusually brisk for the season. My husband drove us there and dropped us off. As he drove away, we looked at each other with the same ‘What are we doing!??’ look on our faces. Moss Island is just up the trail. We did not go there that day, but I have been there before and seen the prehistoric potholes, extensive growth of mosses and lichens and some of the oldest rocks in North America. A marker states this is the only horizontal break in the Appalachian mountain chain, which is what made the building of the Erie Canal possible and provided a water route west for trade and settlement of the interior United States.

We planned to take two days for the trip–the first of any length for each of us. Within our first mile, we came to the Herkimer Mansion Historic site. The house was not open yet, so we walked around the grounds briefly, then got back on our bikes-needing movement to get our blood pumping through our chilled bodies. We did not see another rider for miles—not surprising on this less than perfect biking day. My friend had traveled from Maryland to make this trip, so we were committed no matter what the weather. We were not our usual chatty selves as we pedaled, surrounded by dense woods with occasional fields and glimpses of the canal. As the sun started pushing through the clouds, the sky-and our spirits-brightened.

We rode into the town of St. Johnsville–one of several locations where I had provided speech therapy to elementary students in my second professional job over 30 years ago. We stopped for a snack at a local shop and then moved on to Fort Plain–another stop on my job itinerary. The trail here led us to Lock 15. We chatted with a couple on a boat going through the lock. They relayed the story of their travels from Florida, up the Intercoastal Waterway, and to the canal. They were destined for the Great Lakes, then down the Mississippi and back to Florida. I had no idea such a trip was even possible! They had already been on the boat for a few months and still had a long journey ahead. I was fascinated–not just at the breadth of the journey, but at the ability to be together in such close quarters for so long! 

We continued on to Canajoharie and our B+B destination for the evening. My husband had dropped our gear there on his trip home. Before heading to the B+B we had a late lunch at a local diner. We agreed it was some of the best ‘home cooked’ diner food we had ever tasted. We completed a large lunch with dessert–feeling we had earned the indulgence! Next we headed to the Arkell Art Museum-a local museum of some renown-established by the millionaire founder and first president of the Beech-Nut Packing Company. Unfortunately, it was closed. The Beechnut Factory-with the huge rusting sign I had seen dozens of times as I traveled the NYS thruway between my home and my parents’–was a brief ride away. It was most well known for gum and candy, (using the peppermint oil from the Hotchkiss Oil company in Lyons that I would visit on my later trip). The factory provided employment for most of the residents for years, but was now closed. 

We found our way up a steep hill to the B+B, met our host, showered and rested in the backyard. I eventually went inside to nap, which my friend accomplished in the hammock outside. We walked to the only restaurant that seemed open for dinner, a greater distance away than we expected. The meal was good enough, but the best part was spotting our B+B hosts at a nearby table- especially since they had a car and offered a ride back up the hill our tired legs were dreading. We took advantage of a hot tub on the back porch to ease tight muscles before heading to bed early. 

Riding Day #5 – Part 2

The trail continues east to Chittenango Landing Boat Museum. A reproduction of a canal boat pushes the story spun by yesterday’s captain closer to the reality of life on a canal boat. The space is even more limited than I imagined, especially considering the mules were housed and transported here as well. Boats came here for repair in three adjacent dry docks that still survive in much of their original form. The reconstructed village includes a canal goods store, sawmill and a blacksmith shop.

Much of today’s trail winds through the Old Erie Canal New York State Park. This is where it all began. The land was most level here. It was important to start where the most progress could be made in the least amount of time to entice further funding for its continuation. This was not the first attempt to connect the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Ontario and the interior of the growing country. But the expanse of the Allegheny Mountains blocked success, with elevations too great to overcome. The only route through them is this break where the Mohawk River flows.                                                                                                                                                       
 

We ride into the small city of Rome and stop at the Erie Canal Village, a reconstructed 19th century settlement on the site where construction for the original Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817. Much of it is closed, and it seems poorly cared for with little use. We walk around and explore a bit, then move on to the next stop – Fort Stanwix. The vital access to a route between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Ontario consisted of a trail that was used for centuries. As Europeans settled in this area, the homeland of the Oneida Indians and of the Six Nations Confederacy, conflicts arose. The Fort is part of that history. It would become most well known for its role in preventing the British from taking power over the colonies.

I have passed the fort many times over the years on my own vital route to visit my family in the town I grew up in. First the canal, then railroads, then the interstate highway system followed this path through the Alleghenies. A new appreciation for a familiar route grows. Sometimes we have little or no idea of the history that lies behind what we take for granted. I couldn’t help but wonder if my ancestors had arrived in this area because of the canal, as laborers. Had a relative of mine ever lived on a canal boat? Growing up, there was little talk of where our family had come from. My father told me we were mongrels, some Dutch, some German, a little Irish and maybe some French blood running through our veins. But our identity is 100% American, not a country left behind long ago. I never asked questions about my heritage. We were not the kind of family that talked about our ancestors, or anything else for that matter. My quiet nature may have come in part from an inborn disposition, but it definitely included learned expectations and behaviors that reinforced it.                                                                                      

As I ride up to the fort, I spot my husband’s car. The plan, made way before this journey began in Buffalo, included a day off along this stretch. A friend and I biked a good part of tomorrow’s route a few years ago. There is no reason to cover it again. I feel like a cheat. But I doubt I would be here if I had not given myself permission to take a day off. A decision to honor my own needs and not get caught up in what others thought I should do. This is my trip and no one else’s. This sounds like a simple choice, but not for me. My need to follow the ‘rules’ is deeply ingrained. The ‘good girl’ inside needs to know she is doing what is considered ‘right’, even at the expense of her own time, energy, health and emotions. When I was in the planning phase, before I committed money to the entrance fee, struggling with fear that I could not really do it, my husband casually stated: “Take a day off if you need to, nobody says you have to do it all.” That simple common sense statement never entered my mind. My internal ‘rule buddy’ and I started arguing: “But you’re supposed to do the whole thing! Says who? And why? It’s my trip and I can do whatever I want.” It was a slow revelation that cut through the shadows in the woods that still occupied a corner of my brain. My childhood fear of my father’s disapproval lingered on, still effecting decisions in my adult life. As soon as I realized the source of my resistance, I knew I would do this trip. 

We load my bike into the back of the car and drive a little over an hour back home. Mild guilt soon disappears as I sit in my house eating a home cooked meal and retire to my own soft dry bed.