New York City’s heat is tenacious. On days when it takes hold before noon, you know it will be there to stay long past midnight. Air-conditioning provides much welcomed relief, but those who are lucky enough to have time for an escape from this urban heat-island are wise to head for the woods. With temperatures forecast in the 90s on Tuesday, my brother and I sought refuge at Harriman State Park.
Jeff had been talking about camping all summer. When Kyle first came home from the hospital, we schemed about a family trip before I went back to Tampa. Caution and comfort prevailed for Choi, who suggested that Jeff and I just take 4-year old Teo. (Good idea.) However, Teo also decided to stay home, leaving us brothers a chance to hike and camp together without the responsibilities of being Daddy and Uncle Andy.
We jumped at the opportunity and left quickly. Besides the clothes on my back, I packed only the bare essentials: hat, sweater, raincoat, camera and notebook. Jeff packed even less, which is to say nothing but a pocket knife. He even left his false tooth behind, making for a happy hobo look.
Our gear consisted of an axe, matches, a small flashlight (the headlamp I just purchased from Eastern Mountain Sports was defective—Grrr!), a large tent and one old, square sleeping bag that would serve as a bedroll for the two of us. Nothing but the axe would be mistaken for serious hiking gear.
We packed the car and headed out of the city before 2pm, grabbed late lunch and provisions, and shouldered our bags at the trailhead by 3pm. I jury-rigged one backpack’s main compartment with a bungee cord and old shoelaces to secure the axe, tent and sleeping bag. We stuffed its remaining holes with food and water. The other bag held what I packed, plus a map and more provisions, including cheap cigars and 4 tall cans of Guinness that fit nicely into an exterior pouch along with gourmet sausages that we planned to feast on by the fireside.
The weather was warm, but not unpleasantly so. Most of the trail was shaded by a canopy of tall trees and lined with rocky outcroppings. It looked just shy of 2 uphill miles according to the map, and it was an easy, non-technical hike. We reached our campsite in 45 minutes, including several breaks to stay hydrated and make sure Jeff’s almost-hernia didn’t become an issue.
The last section was a fun scramble up steep boulders to reach a cave shelter at the hill’s summit. It looked like a small cabin built into the granite with 3 stone-and-mortar walls, 2 hearths, wooden beams and floor planks, and a metal roof. It was a neat structure that smelled strongly of woodsmoke, but there was some trash in and around it, so we decided to pitch our tent farther down the trail. We were rewarded with a nice view of a doe and her fawn en route.
Before picking a spot, we stashed the bags to scout the area. We chose one with a nice view and great breeze, as well as close proximity to a moss-cushioned, crater-shaped campfire pit. While pitching the tent, we discovered a splintered section of one fiberglass pole. As I fumbled with how to work around it, Jeff suggested we make a splint for it. Lacking any tape, I used the old shoelaces (which previously strapped down our sleeping bag) to lash a piece of green wood to the wounded pole. Methinks MacGyver would be proud!
Next, we gathered firewood before setting out on an evening hike toward a lake and old cemetery. Following an unmarked but mapped path led us to a private camp that was not on Jeff’s map (from 2005). A big woman with an Aussie accent shooed us away before we could reach the lake. At least she pointed us towards the old cemetery. En route, we enjoyed a sweet pre-dinner snack of blackberries growing in a trailside thicket.
The cemetery contained a few old graves from the mid-1800s, and it was very green and serene in the fading light. I managed to catch a firefly on film while shooting the sunset. I intended the latter to be reminiscent of the wooded graveyard’s spirits and the little lantern bug showed me how to do it better. (Not that I could have planned it—I only noticed the surprise guest in this image the next day.)
Dusk was coming on fast as we circled back toward camp. I dashed uphill as quickly as I dared and was rewarded with great sunset views. Jeff caught up and we set to work on our evening plans. Dry grass made great kindling and we soon had a raging campfire, followed by delicious dinner of sausage and beer.
We relaxed with an after-dinner smoke to watch a fat crescent of yellow moon turn blood-red as it set behind the ridge to our west. The wind picked up as we turned in for the night. I was glad I brought a comfy hooded sweater of soft merino wool. Jeff borrowed my raincoat. The chill continued to roll in on the night’s northerly breeze. My thin nylon pants couldn’t keep up. Laying atop the old sleeping bag spread out like a mat, I wished for my own bag—or even just a sheet. Eventually, I sacrificed back cushioning for warmth and lay directly on the tent floor with the old bag above me.
Just as I got comfy, Jeff broke the silence in a hushed voice: “I think someone’s out there.” Indeed, we saw a beam of light and soon heard voices. Long after midnight, a couple of hikers came up the trail towards our tent. A red beam reflected off our tent as they walked right by. Squatting like a coiled spring and peering out a slit in the window, I watched and listened with quiet intensity.
They sat on the bluff right next to us and began chattering about previous travels, oblivious to their current surroundings (including us). My adrenalin-fueled state of alert faded to annoyance. I figured they’d soon move on, but after a couple of minutes I lost my patience. I considered stepping outside to give them what-for, but preferred to stay warm. Instead, I just bellowed sternly in my best mountain-man voice: “The view is better at the top of the hill. And quieter, too.”
The pair apologized profusely, seeming surprised that their behavior would be considered rude. How bizarre! They had the whole hill-top, or anywhere else along the trail, for that matter. Yet they chose to plop down right next to our tent for their gab-fest. Who does that?
When I awoke the next morning, the sky was bright blue and the air cool and crisp. I stepped out of the tent barefoot for the morning ritual and made my way to the edge of the granite outcropping. No fancy bathroom could ever compare with this setting. A smirk wrinkled my face as I wondered if the intruders from last night were camped below? (I looked first; they weren’t.)
While packing up the tent, Jeff called for me to check out a snake he spotted on the rock about 20 feet from our tent and closer by half to where I had let my morning leak. “Man, this thing is fat!” he said. And though it appeared to have a different pattern and (yellowish) color than the diamond-backs in Florida, there was no mistaking the rattle at the end of its tale. The timber rattlesnake just lay quietly on the rock, sunning himself, showing no interest in confrontation. But I have no doubt he would have responded less casually if disturbed. I was glad I had chosen a different path earlier.
The trip back out to the car was downhill and took less than half the time as our hike in the day before. All in, we were less than two hours from Jeff and Choi’s apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. Seems to me that this kind of trip could easily be made while working half-days on either side of the excursion. And what a way to finish one day and start the next!
PS – Being a photo-bug, I can’t resist including a few more of my favorite images from our trip…