Friday, January 9, 2009

A Great Project

(hiking on Howell Mountain in northern Harriman State Park, N.Y. photo by Charlie Duane)

For 2008, I set a goal of hiking all the marked trails in Harriman State Park. It was a goal that I set casually but it turned into a project that was one of the highlights of my year. In every way I miscalculated. The project turned out to be much, much harder than I expected. I also enjoyed it much more than I ever expected. I discovered the park -- a place I'd been hiking in for 28 years -- in a new and much more fulfilling way. I got in the best physical shape I'd been in for 23 years (I can date it precisely to the birth of my oldest child). And I hiked more and enjoyed it more than I had in a quarter century. Perhaps most unexpected, a group of friends hiked many of the trails with me and that made it an even more wonderful experience.

I began hiking in Harriman on Jan. 12 on the Pine Meadow Trail and finished on Dec. 14 on the Nurian Trail near Southfields. Other than January, I did at least three hikes every month and it took me a total of 57 hikes to finish all of the trails. Nearly every hike was harder and took longer than I expected when I studied the maps and looked over the guidebooks. Many times I grew exhausted and cut short a hike. Frequently I lost the trail and had to retrace my steps or had to search for the route. Finding the trailheads was often even harder.

My simple goal turned into a powerful motivator. On days when the weather was iffy or I was tired or it was getting late, I dragged myself into the woods to cover a blank spot on the map. After each hike,  I colored in that stretch of trail on the map and I always looked forward to that simple ceremony.

Few of the miles turned out to be disappointing. To the contrary, I gained a new appreciation for how wild and remote much of the park is and how varied is the terrain. In the past, like most visitors, I'd frequented a few sections of the park that were convenient to parking lots or had dramatic natural features. I was astonished at how many wonderful parts of the park I'd missed over the years. It never failed to surprise me how quickly I got away from the crowds and noise and into some really beautiful areas.

Often I hiked late in the day and then I had the woods to myself. Traveling alone I came across a lot of wildlife. I generally stopped counting the deer after I'd seen a dozen. I saw more wild turkeys this year than I'd seen in 30 years of hiking combined.

One thing I learned early and often. The terrain in Harriman is rugged. My wife, Frieda, often requested flat or easy hikes. Rarely could I comply. There are some easy miles in the park but many of these are on unmarked woods roads and these I used only to connect to sections of marked trails. More often I faced steep and rugged climbs on rocks. Some climbs, like the one up Pyngyp Mountain, are quite steep for hiking trails. Many other sections have frequent short and rugged climbs on rocks.

On the steep climb up the Cornell Mine Trail on a hot day in June we worried that one member of our group might have a heart attack. But he made it through in fine shape. We did take the precaution of bringing a cardiologist along. Later in the hike we spent 15 minutes watching a snake climb up a tree in the abandoned hamlet of Doodletown. That day we celebrated two birthdays, including mine, with a surprise treat of watermelon and brownies at the end of the hike. The week before we'd ended a hike at St. John's in the Wilderness, where they were having a strawberry festival and making strawberry shortcakes.

In between those two wonderful hikes, my son Eli and I got caught in a fierce downpour on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail south of the William Brien Shelter. After not seeing anyone for awhile, I told Eli that we won't see anyone on an evening like this unless it's some thru-hikers. Sure enough, in a few minutes three thru-hikers without rain-gear and laughing rounded the bend heading for the shelter.

Another highlight for me was doing a few hikes with my oldest son Seth. He'd just graduated from college and was heading for two years in Africa with the Peace Corps and this was treasured time. I was also pleased that after six months of frequent tough hikes I could keep up with my sons at least for a few hours.

Early in the year I thought that I could complete all the trails in twenty hikes and that I would be finished by mid-summer. Gradually that kept getting pushed out. I kept trying to fit in two hour hikes during the long days of summer and doing longer hikes most weekends when I was free. By August, I began to think that this would stretch well into mid-fall. By September I began thinking I'd really need to push to finish in November.

I set a goal of finishing on the Saturday after Thanksgiving when much of my family and many of our friends would be around. I decided to do a last hike of climbing up Bear Mountain from the south on the A.T. It's a sentimental favorite of mine: we got married on top and I've hiked it frequently over the years. We did do the hike that day and it was a beautiful and sunny day with a brisk wind. We climbed the Perkins Tower on top and had great views. Afterwards, we had a party but I wasn't done just yet.

I still had many more places on my map to fill in. There were lots of little stretches of trails scattered about. For some I had to hike several miles in before I got to the missing stretch. I got to one trailhead and found it plastered with no parking signs and had to go in from the other side of the mountain.

I began using every minute of daylight on the weekends as the days grew short. Because of other commitments I realized that Sunday Dec. 14 would be the last day I could count on. The final weekend I ended up doing five stretches each day and driving in between and covered 16 miles a day.

With daylight fading I had trouble finding the trailhead for the Nurian Trail in Southfields, my final segment of trail. I finally stopped at the police station to ask for directions. With only 45 minutes of daylight remaining, I set out for the last stretch, crossing the railroad tracks, the swollen Ramapo River and the New York Thruway on a high pedestrian bridge. I only had a stretch of several hundred yards of the Nurian to complete and I grew excited at the prospect of finishing. It had been a tiring day of many climbs on icy and snowy trails but as dusk settled in I was pleased at what I'd accomplished and glad that I'd stumbled into a great project.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Powerful Experience

Appalachian Trail Talk

This Saturday I will be giving an A.T. talk and slideshow in Manhattan at the Appalachian Mountain Club annual dinner at Connolly's Pub on East 47th Street.

In thinking about what to talk about, I've realized how my presentations over the years have gravitated to one theme-- how an A.T. thru-hike for many people is a life-changing experience. I enjoy dayhiking and get to the woods as frequently as I can. Last year that was every weekend that I was at home. And I enjoyed nearly every minute of it. But a series of day hikes simply isn't as powerful and intense an experience as being isolated in the Appalachian Mountains for months on end.