Harriman State Park Backpacking Trip

This weekend I went hiking again. It was my fifth hike of the year. The others were the Chief in British Columbia, Breakneck Ridge (which I wrote about a few weeks ago), Bear Mountain, a return trip to Breakneck my friend Jeramy that took different route up Bull Hill and into Cold Spring. All of those were day hikes, but these things tend to escalate and so for the last few weeks I’ve been planning a multi-day hike that would basically follow the Appalachian Trail from the western side of Harriman State Park to the eastern side of Bear Mountain State Park, which is about twenty-five miles. In preparation, I have been putting together a basic set of camping supplies that can be carried in a backpack. My list of necessary items was based on what has come in handy other times I went camping but I was aware that all of those other times I drove to the campsite in a car—size and weight was not a consideration. So I knew that this trip was going to be a dry run in more than one way: it was my first attempt at multi-day hiking, and it was a dry run for future backpack camping, a chance to discover what was useful, what wasn’t useful, what was nice to have but too heavy to carry.

Aware that the weekend was something of an experiment, I made a list of what I was taking so I could analyze the benefits and costs after I’d finished. My pack contained: about half a gallon of water, food (apples, carrots, broccoli, whole wheat bagels, peanuts, veggie burgers, etc.), a tent, a sleeping bag, a foam mat, a small ax, a collapsible shovel, a pair of metal tongs (for moving burning logs in the campfire), a mess kit, a camp towel, a cooler, an plastic box for things that might get lost of crushed (hamburger buns, matches), an extra tee shirt, an extra pair of socks, a change of underwear, a bathing suit, waterproof trail maps, a compass, a back-up compass (in case the first one breaks), a monocular, a hunting knife, a flashlight, a headlamp, a small first aid kit, an Ace bandage, two emergency ponchos, three plastic garbage bags for trash, a book and a survival guide (just in case).

It also must be said that backpacking alone is probably the most difficult way to do it, when it comes to packing. When you go backpacking, there are some items that you need to carry one for each member of the group (sleeping bags, canteens, etc.) but there are some items that you only need to carry one for the entire group whatever its size (a tent, for instance). When you’re backpacking in a group the items in this second category are divided up amongst the members of the group but when you’re on your own you’re stuck carrying the whole lot.

On Saturday morning I took the train from Penn Station to Tuxedo, which is about fifty miles north of the city on the southwestern edge of Harriman State Park. After a quick stop off at a newstand for the one item I forgot, a free newspaper for kindling, I found the trailhead and started hiking. On the initial uphill I was still coming to terms with the weight of the big pack. The entry trail was a beautiful climb which skirted some breathtaking rock formations and yet had the decency not to force me to climb directly over them. I dropped my pack for a moment to climb around inside the fissure in one of these formations, which provided an excellent view of the forest I had just hiked through. I also had two wildlife encounters on this trail. The first was with two deer, a white-tailed doe and a buck with the fuzz still on his antlers. The second was with a snake. I have seen snakes before in this forest but they have always been little ones, around a foot long. This snake was about three feet long and wide enough that if you wrapped your thumb and index finger around it the tips of your fingers might not touch! It was an enormous snake for New York State, from what I know, and it was lying directly in the trail. In fact, it was so large and it was lying so still that my first though was that it was a rubber snake and that someone had left it in the trail as a practical joke. But on closer examination its head was moving, so I walked about ten feet off the trail and gave it a wide birth so as not to disturb it.

I had selected the trail to pass by a couple of the shelters in this part of the park, for future reference, so I swung by one of these next. The shelters in Harriman are stone buildings with three walls, a roof and an open side and they are designed to be refuges for hikers on multi-day adventures. Of the five I looked at up close during the whole three days, only one even had bunks (but no mattresses). They’re filthy, badly maintained and thoroughly uninviting but for the fact that you are legally allowed to camp in a tent within three hundred feet of the shelter and there are spots to make campfires—essentially, it’s a campground where you can legally go camping for free. Not bad.

The entry trail went approximately southeast, so after about an hour and a half I turned north, in the Appalachian Trail, which I hoped to reach by the end of the day. The trail I chose took me alongside a lovely lake that was being enjoyed by a few kayakers. I saw on my map that there was a beach at the other end of the lake so I headed that way, picturing a deserted beach in the middle of the woods. As I got closer, however, I could see it was very well populated, and featured lifeguards and a roped-in swimming area where the water was wading depth for a ten-year-old. Needless to say this soured me on the idea of swimming there and I was feeling rather bitter about it when a goose led her four or five babies across the trail about twenty feet ahead of me and right into the water. I decided she had the right idea, so I hid my pack behind some rocks, changed into my bathing suit and got in the water. It was warm and extremely pleasant except for some tendril-like seaweed (yuck) so I swam all the way to the other side of the lake. I tried to climb up onto the bank but slipped and fell on some rocks. I was about to try again when I asked myself what reason I had the get out of the lake anyway, so I sat on the rock for a minute to catch my breath and started to swim back. As I approached the other side I swam up alongside of two men in kayaks who asked if I was all right (I had just switched from crawl to breast stroke to approach the bank and they thought I was in distress). I swam side stroke alongside them, they complimented me on my swimming, we joked about water snakes or Nessie type monsters that might have a taste for swimmers, and then I wished them a pleasant day and swam ashore. Once I was dressed again, I passed by the beach and refilled my water and worked on my tan for a half hour.

I started north again on a trail with more lovely rock formations where I spotted another deer that bolted as soon as she saw me. The trail wound back and forth a bit and finally ended up in a very picturesque valley between two stony ridges. I picked another trail with I thought would take me to the AT a bit quicker but it turned out to be very rugged, requiring me to scramble up rocks using my hands as well as my feet. The thing about carrying a forty pound backpack is that you don’t really notice it on level ground, and on descents only because it affects your balance, but on climbs it makes everything twice as hard! I was rewarded several times with a very pleasant view but when I got towards the peak of my second mountain I began to realize that if I tried to go all the way to the first shelter on the Appalachian Trail, I would be awfully exhausted the next day when I attempted the eastward hike across the park. Fortunately, there was a beautiful, grassy open space at the top of the second mountain surrounding the Bare Rocks shelter, so, taking advantage of the three-hundred-feet rule, I set up my tent.

I hadn’t been camping on my own for years and I was pleased to find my camping skills weren’t completely atrophied. I managed to start a campfire with forraged wood and only one match and cook myself quite a good veggie burger in the frying pan in my new mess kit. I got my tent set up for the first time with relative ease, although I made a rather dumb mistake that I only discovered the next morning—for some reason I thought there were no stakes included, so I used sticks to stake down the corners badly, only to discover the stakes lying in the box the next day. I watched a beautiful sunset and then went to bed.

I woke up the next morning to a very loud crash of thunder. And pouring rain. This did not compute, what with the weather report I had read calling for a small chance of thundershowers in the evening of the second day. Thunderclaps that would rattle your fillings continued for about half an hour and, since I was camped out in a clearing on the top of a mountain, I was alternating between being happy I had set up my tent ten or fifteen feet from a tree that would attract any lightning bolts that came my way and afraid that if lightning did strike the tree it might fall over and land on me (my friend Jeramy told me about a man who had been killed that way earlier in the week). The lightning passed finally, leaving the tree standing intact. The same could not be said for my tent however. The rain was pummeling it good and most of my makeshift stakes had come unfixed so the tent was starting the sag badly under the weight of the water. I quickly did up my pack, put on a poncho and took down the tent in the pouring rain. All of the rainwater I packed up in that soggy tent probably added a few pounds to my load.

Once I had finished this unpleasant chore, hiking through the woods in the rain was actually rather pleasant. I hadn’t hiked in the rain since high school and I had forgotten that it’s quite beautiful. I started down a new path that joined up with the Long Path (an aptly named New York State hiking path that begins in the Jersey Palisades at the foot of the George Washington Bridge and stretches three hundred and fifty miles upstate, most of the way to the Canadian border). The path through sparse, grassy forest, winding in long curves between outcroppings of rock was all the more gorgeous covered in a layer of mist from the falling rain. It brought to mind images of Avalon. I expected to be presented with Excalibur by the Lady in the Lake at any moment. There was one disadvantage to the walk through the rain, and that was that the streams had swollen with rainwater and were very difficult to cross. I must have looked rather ludicrous in my giant pack balancing on a slick fallen log to get across one particular creek.

By and by, the Long Path joined up with the Appalachian Trail. (The AT, in case you aren’t aware, is a 2,175-mile hiking trail from Georgia to Maine. Most people hike it for a day or two but every year a number of intrepid souls referred to a “thru-hikers” attempt the entire route, usually working from south to north with the weather. The whole hike takes them from May till October, and they have to average at least fifteen miles a day to complete it, a ridiculously speedy pace when you consider that they’re climbing up and down the Appalachian Range the whole way.) A signpost informed me that it was 10.1 miles to the West Mountain Shelter, which lies just over the border between Harriman and Bear Mountain State Parks, and where I intended to spend the night. Initially the trail contained a lot of rocky climbs and descents. At the top of one of these, I stood admiring the valley, then turned to discover I was being observed by a doe that had approached within fifteen feet to check me up. I was startled as I turned and saw her, and she took off.

The trail crossed a rocky plateau next, and then plunged back into the forest. The rain stopped about this time. Soon I reached two water towers and I saw on my map that I was only a short walk from a picnic area, so I hid my pack in some rocks and walked down a side trail to refill my water and, as it happened, raid the vending machines for some well-earned candy and soda. Surprisingly a number of people, mostly Spanish speaking, were braving the weather for cookouts. Many had strung up tarps to nearby trees to shield their picnic tables should the rain start again. Mission accomplished, I returned to the trail, got my pack and continued walking.

At this point the Appalachian Trail became deep rolling forest, with a few hard climbs and remained that way for about two and a half monotonous, rainy hours. The only entertaining event of this entire period was an encounter with another doe and a fawn, which was still small but old enough that it had lost its white spots already. I spotted them up ahead right in the trail. The doe saw me, so I immediately started walking backwards slowly to show I wasn’t a threat. This apparently satisfied it because it continued to meander through the forest and allowed me to observe it and its young one for several full minutes. About a half hour later I had a scarier animal encounter. A dog coming in the opposite direction that bared its teeth and growled at me. I backed off and its owner tried to calm it, but when I tried to pass it made a lunge at me, forcing its owner to quickly grab it by the collar and pull it up short. The owner apologized for its behavior, insisting, “She never acts like this!” If I had a nickel for every time a dog owner has used that line to excuse their animal’s bad behavior to me, I would be a rich man.

Finally, I came to a shelter where I sat down for a rest and a snack and met two thru-hikers—a woman who had come up all the way from Georgia and a man who had started in Pennsylvania but was determined to go all the way to Maine by the end of the season. They had decided to sit out the rest of the day at the shelter and avoid the rain. We talked a little about the trail. When I ate an apple they expressed a bit of surprise that I would carry such heavy food, though they phrased it as a compliment about my food being “fresh.” I hadn’t put to much thought into the weight of my food, and had just brought the sort of thing I take when I go day-hiking, except more of it. It didn’t occur to me until this moment that I could have saved a lot of water weight with more strategic choices. I briefly considered staying at the shelter, but I knew that I had to catch the 5:10 train from Manitou the next day. That station is about an hour past the Bear Mountain trailhead and I was uncomfortably far way to call it a day early so after about forty-five minutes of rest I started out again.

However, it was still several more miles to the West Mountain shelter and I was getting pretty tired. The trail from the shelter to the edge of Harriman Park was one steep climb after another, followed by a long, rocky descent to the freeway that separates the two parks. My right ankle started to hurt me at the beginning of this descent, forcing me to go doubly slow. By the time I reached the bottom I was exhausted and in a lot of pain. I was keeping myself going with a silly mental game of picking out a log or a rock in the distance where I promised myself I would stop and rest, and then, when a reached it, rejecting it for some reason or another (too big, too small, too wet) and choosing a farther resting place. I hobbled across the freeway (cars buzzing by at seventy miles an hour and not even a crosswalk!) and entered Bear Mountain State Park, where I promptly sat down to rest for real. I knew from my topographical map that there was another climb ahead and I said to myself, “I think I have one more in me.” Happily, the pain in my ankle diminished greatly after a rest. Unhappily, I got took a wrong turn and got off the trail but found my way back to it without having to backtrack.

It turned out I had spoken too soon when I said I had one more climb left in me because the one climb that remained was by far the biggest of the day, about six hundred feet. Halfway up I was so tired I was stopping to rest every twenty steps. I was panting hard despite the snail’s pace. By the time I finally reached the top, I was talking to myself deliriously to motivate myself and wishing feverishly that I had stayed at the shelter where I met the thru-hikers and worried about the train schedule the following day. I began the home stretch, a half-mile, mostly level trail over a rock ridge to the West Mountain shelter. About half way down the trail I felt I was ready to drop so I decided to play my game of picking and rejecting resting places again… except that when I reached the first resting place I picked out I couldn’t come up with a reason to reject it quickly enough! I started to sit, lost my balance and ended up sprawled out backwards on the trail, resting on my pack. I was so tired I couldn’t even hold my head up so I just rested my head back on my pack and stared at the sky. It looked like it might start to rain again any second. I didn’t care. I just lay there for awhile until my senses started to return. The first proper thought to cross my mind was self-consciousness—if anyone were to come along, I would look pretty silly sprawled here on the trail, panting, exhausted, and only a quarter mile from the shelter. So I forced myself to my feet, hiked the rest of the way there, set up my dripping tent, dried the inside of it with my camp towel, and went immediately to sleep.

The next morning, I woke up early and looked for a dry pair of clothes only to discover that my pack’s water resistance had been no match for the previous day’s rain and all of the contents were, if not soaked, at least rather damp. I put on some clean clothes and hiked down the trail a bit towards to a scenic view of the valley I hadn’t had a chance to enjoy the day before. The sun was coming up, and it looked like a beautiful day. As I ate breakfast and waited for the clothes to dry from a combination of the sun and my body heat, and watched fog roll through the valley. The various peaks looked like islands in a turbulent ocean, and the whole thing remind me of the films you see of the fog-bound mountains of rural China.

Thanks to my extra effort the day before, I was only a few miles from the Bear Mountain trailhead and I knew I had an easy day ahead of me—I could be there by noon, and in my sore state the idea of lazing around in the recreation areas at the trailhead seemed pretty appealing. I had hiked on West Mountain a few weeks earlier and I knew that the most direct trail down was the most annoying of all possible types of trails, a descent on loose rock. I chose a more indirect route in hopes that it would be less challenging (I had had trouble on the other one with a tiny day-hiking pack, let alone what I was carrying this time) but it turned out that the second trail down was even more difficult. In fact, it was so rocky that I spent the entire time looking at my footing and missed a turn in the marked trail. This put me on an unmarked side trail. I was initially worried when I discovered this but soon deduced from my map that this unintentional deviation was actually a godsend—it was more direct and it allowed me to bypass a steep climb that I wasn’t in the mood for. In fact, the trail soon opened up into a wide, flat dirt road and the rest of the walk to the trailhead was mostly an easy one.

There, I found hundreds of picnickers celebrating the Fourth of July but I found an empty, grassy hillside to spread out my tent and other wet gear to dry in the sun. I used the opportunity to give some thought to what I had decided to carry. The small ax was an obvious mistake. If you’re camping in a campground and need to split wood that you’ve bought it’s quite useful, but on a backpacking trip the wood you forage already in small pieces and an ax is very heavy. The collapsible shovel has some obvious uses (digging holes for campfires and latrines) but I didn’t need it at all on the trip and it’s also rather heavy. Other than than, and the idea of lighter foods, the only changes i would make were things I wanted to add: dish soap, rags, more plastic bags, some means for waterproofing my pack, a set of clothes sealed in plastic that couldn’t get wet. As my stuff dried, I spent the late morning and early afternoon laying in the grass reading my soaking-wet book and getting a sun tan. The book was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and in it I found the following passage, which seemed particularly à propos, considering what I’d been doing for the last two and a half days:

Mountains like these and travelers in the mountains and events that happen to them here are found not only in Zen literature but in the tales of every major religion. The allegory of a physical mountain for the spiritual one that stands between each soul and its goal is an easy and natural one to make. Like those in the valley behind us, most people stand in sight of the spiritual mountains all their lives and never enter them, being content to listen to others who have been there and thus avoid the hardships. Some travel into the mountains accompanied by experienced guides who know the best and least dangerous routes by which they arrive at their destination. Still others, inexperienced and untrusting, attempt to make their own routes. Few of these are successful, but occasionally some, by sheer will and luck and grace, do make it. Once there they become more aware than any of the others that there’s no single or fixed number of routes. There are as many routes as there are individual souls.

But enough deep literature and spirituality. The hamburgers and the Bear Mountain concession stand beckoned and after wolfing one down, I headed across the Bear Mountain Bridge, where the Appalachian Trail crossed the Hudson. In the very middle, I had a hardy laugh when I noticed, on one of the suspension cables, a rectangular, white AT trail marker.

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