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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.

Hiking the AT-Day 3

No long drive this morning so a little extra sleep feels good. This is the first hike on a second consecutive day. I was worried about feeling sore from yesterday’s miles so I did a lot of stretching last night that seems to have paid off with only mild reminders of muscles still adapting to the increased activity level.  We made two different plans for today depending on how we felt this morning. We choose the longer hike from Lake Road to West Mombasha Road. We consume our ‘free’ breakfast at the motel then pack up and check out.

Cars stationed, we start from West Mombasha and hike south. The initial ascent is steady but not too steep as we head to Mombasha high point. The morning tea and coffee prompt a pit stop in the bushes nearby. Skies are sunny and clear and it is a little warmer than yesterday. Very pleasant. We meet a hiker we recognize from the parking lot at the end of the day yesterday. He looks to be in his 30’s and his gaiters and black knee support bands make him memorable. He quickly fills us in on his own adventure: today is the last day of his 5 day hike, he spent the night at Wildcat shelter and is now headed to Fingerboard shelter, he does shorter multi-day hikes because he can’t get off from work to do longer stretches, and he covers about 15 miles a day. We are impressed!

The terrain is very rocky, again, but it is a peaceful hike through the woods with mild changes in elevation. There are lots of large trees down along the trail that require small detours and climbing to get over and past. Was there a recent storm that we were unaware of? A large babbling brook runs along the trail to our left until we come to a steep 25 foot decent beside Fitzgerald Falls. Several groups are at the bottom of the falls, apparently a popular and easily accessible location only .2 miles from the road. The water is frigid, but three kids are splashing in the pool at the bottom. Two other kids are sitting on rocks with an older woman. Another boy is running up, across, and down steep, slick sides of the falls. He seems very confident and sure footed, bouncing from rock to rock like a mountain goat. I am both fearful and amazed as I watch. My intense fear of falling would prevent me from allowing my own kids to do this! I wonder how much my fear interfered with their exploration of the world while growing up. I know they often complained of my cautious nature, but I seemed to inherit the overprotective parenting style I hated so much from my own parents. I wonder what kind of parents my children will be…

Lynn and I remove our boots and socks and soak our feet in the water–which numbs our toes in minutes! We stay for about half an hour enjoying the sounds of the falls, brook and kids. We can’t seem to find the white blazes to get us back to the trail. A consult with the guide book leads us back across the brook on an easy hike back to the car. Another need for a pit stop on this well traveled section forces me up a steep hill-only to find another trail at the top! I find a large tree, take a quick glance in both directions and hope to maintain privacy- and do so successfully! Back down and a bit further along and we are at the car. Then back to the other car (which I pass by too fast to stop with another car close behind me and need to backtrack to get to).

We head to Monroe in search of food- Lasagne for me, chicken and spinach penne for Lynne – both great at the Family Restaurant and Pizza. We plan our hike for next week which consists of two short hikes to complete section 12 of the AT! Then off we go in our different directions. We hiked for 4 hours again, covered 3.5 miles. Total miles: 11.1 (Yep, this morning’s hiker guy tops our 3 day total in one day!) Others may not be impressed, but we are pretty pleased with ourselves, and motivation is high to continue our quest at our own pace!

Wishing everyone happy holidays filled with adventures large and small that bring you joy!

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.