Monday, February 1, 2010
Climb Every Mountain: An Urban Escape
I only just started hiking last summer, when I hiked a different trail every day for a month in the California high desert. Despite my lack of proper equipment and any companionship, I got pretty good at navigating the desert terrain, climbing 400 feet of elevation and finding my way out of poorly-marked or altogether-unmarked trails - skills that I applied to my exploration of New York City's trail offerings upon my return. Turns out I'm a bit of a survivalist, relishing most in flooded bridges and barefoot trail-treading, getting high on those moments after I think all is lost, when I finally discover a way in, up, or out.
I'm still pretty delicate, though.
Yesterday Edith and I joined an intermediate hiking expedition offered by Urban Escapes to the West Mountain Ridgeline of Bear Mountain State Park in freezing cold weather. I'd never hiked more than, say, 90 minutes in the winter before, and I'd definitely never climbed as many as 1000 vertical feet in mountainous terrain. I was a little worried about keeping up, but the lure of visiting an abandoned mining town at the end of the hike was too strong to turn down. If the only way I could get to Doodletown, as it is called, was to hike there, then I would hike there.
I'm paying the price today, awakened by aching arms and sobered by legs buckling under me, unable to climb up into my elevated bed or walk or stand or sit. It. Was. Worth. It.
Our trip up to Rockland County could not have been better. Bear Mountain State Park, and its neighboring Harriman State Park, is huge, with countless hiking trails and lakes and rivers and waterfalls - so much water, in fact, that our biggest obstacles during the trip were the frozen-over paths, or worse yet, the not-quite-frozen-solid areas with a thin layer of ice on top and water running beneath. The iciness made our trip a bit more circuitous, tip-toeing over rocks so as not to plunge into the freezing cold water, but it also gave us more to look at on our way to scenic overlooks, our own little secret wooded vistas of waterfalls frozen in midair, white swirls and clear shards underfoot like cracked glass.
In my new hiking boots, my feet, ankles, and legs were not prepared for the steep climbing, the mild scrambling, or the crunch underfoot. At first, my feet were dragging, my legs stiff. I could barely lift a leg to climb up onto even a flat rock. My body is heavy. It's a lot of weight to hoist. And as I lagged behind the group, calling myself "remedial" and hyperventilating, I kept thinking, "I can't do this."
But instead of dwelling on my own physical failures, I was mostly laughing. I don't remember the last time I laughed so much. Even as Drew was telling me to take my time despite being way behind the others, or Roget literally hoisting me up a rock from behind with both hands on my posterior, or Pete letting me grip his mittened hand while I took baby steps down a steep incline, the minute I got over an obstacle and caught my breath, I was laughing again. I was smiling too much to notice that the winter sun was burning my cheeks. I was too happy to think about how sore I was going to be the next day.
I don't know what made me so hard on myself before, thinking I had to push the limits of my physical ability by myself. It's so much more fun with other people. And sometimes you need a little help.
I fell a couple of times - a couple of times more than anybody else did - but I actually got better as the hike progressed, stronger, more confident. I didn't take the outstretched hand every time it was offered to me, only when I really needed it. And I pushed the fear of falling aside, let myself fall when I was going to fall, and sat to scoot down a rock if I doubted my footing. I wasn't always the last one trailing our group on the trail.
It was a gorgeous day, and despite the low temperatures, we were warm from the sun and the strenuous climbing. We sat down for lunch at the West Mt. Shelter, where city skyscrapers loomed in the distance as we ate sandwiches and breathed in the fumes of a recently extinguished fire, which we didn't need to keep ourselves warm.
For me, the piece de resistence of the hike was the walk through Doodletown, an old iron mining town that's been abandoned since the 1960s, unable to thrive in its secluded location, with the state park eventually consuming it altogether. All the houses, schools and churches have been demolished by now - even the welcome sign has been removed by vandals - so that now all that remains are a few retaining walls, building foundations, and stairs that lead to nowhere, with historical signs marking the most significant (former) locations.
We walked down the relatively flat, snow-covered asphalt of the town's main street, searching for ghosts among the long shadows we were casting, giant old oak trees looming above us.
Although there wasn't much left to see in Doodletown, and only two or three other passers-by, it felt like a real town when we visited one of the three cemeteries, where former residents of the town are still buried. Headstones both large and tiny were eroded, tipping over, and moss-covered, but illuminated by the late afternoon light, reminding us that real people once lived here in a thriving community.
They are, indeed, gone but not forgotten.
After spending over five hours in the woods, we made a full loop back to the white trail where we'd first started in the morning, and were ready to get back in the van. After my afternoon adrenaline rush, the exhilaration was fading and my feet were weighed down again in their heavy boots, legs unloosened, lower back aching.
But my face was still squinted into a toothy grin, even though the sun's rays were no longer shining into my eyes.
We sang along to the radio on the hour-long ride back into the city, as the Magic Hour cast a pink glow on our faces (though my cheeks were already pink from the sun and wind) and the sun dipped behind the skyline of New Jersey. It was a long day, but I was sad to see it end, sad to say goodbye to our guides who'd made us so happy all day with their jokes, patience, knowledge and spirit.
Edith and I waved goodbye to them with a wink and returned to our regular New York City lives of buses and taxis and coat checks and wristbands and glasses of wine.
When I went to sleep, cuddling against my cashmere-sweatered hot water bottle, I was still thinking about the trail....
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