The events in my life are steeped in reality peppered with bouts of imagination. Reality is where I’m forced to live; my imagination is where I often choose to live. It makes life more colorful and interesting in dealing with the mundanity of life. However, I hiked part of the Appalachian Trail with my daughter the other day and the reality of our experience was just as exciting as what our imaginations brought us to during that journey.
My daughter got her first real taste of roughing it last Summer while at a sleepaway camp in New Jersey. Part of her stay required her to spend an entire week hiking part of the Appalachian Trail with other teen campers. They spent a total of five days on the trail hiking a total of 30 miles. She told me that they slept underneath tarps and ate food from cans and she enjoyed the whole experience. I was stoked knowing that my own daughter loved something that I had begun 20 years ago when I slept alone on top of a mountain, married, but without any children at the time. At 17-years-old, my daughter was now old enough, tough enough and strong enough to do what I had been yearning to do since then.
A few weeks ago, through the efforts of Dorothy Reilly of the Greenbelt Conservancy, we had the opportunity to meet Jennifer Pharr Davis, a female hiker who had broken the speed record for hiking the Appalachian Trail in only 46 days (most who hike the whole Trail typically need several months to do that). After meeting her, hiking part of the Appalachian Trail became one of the items on our Summer to-do list.
With only a few days to go before Summer’s-end, my daughter and I set off to begin hiking part of the Trail at the base of Bear Mountain in New York. We already had all the necessary items with us to survive for a few days with the addition of a Lifestraw portable water purification device and a large solar charger that would become an emergency energy backup to power our cell phones in the mountains.
Our ascent up Bear Mountain was grueling. It consisted of a series of hundreds of steep rock stairs that seemed to never end. With our loaded-up frame packs on our backs (mine was 22 lbs, my daughter’s was 19lbs), this made the ascent the more challenging. By the time we reached the one-mile mark along our journey, I had chest pains which stopped me in my tracks. This scared me and for a good minute or so, I contemplated ending our hike then and there to make sure I’d be around in the future to to see both my kids go to college and get married. After resting enough where the chest pains dissipated, we continued on our hike to the further reaches of the mountain. Eventually we reached the top of Bear Mountain and saw a tower on the top while enjoying an amazing panoramic view of the valley below. Far away from us still was West Mountain, the mountain that housed a stone shelter at the summit and our final goal for our journey.
Our trek through the Appalachian Trail brought us in contact with various forms of wildlife: deer, a praying mantis, and a large millipede. These were reminders to us that while the trail was made for people, everything else was made for nature.
While half of our route was walkable, the other half was harrowing and dangerous and required us both to use very careful footwork navigating down rock scrambles desperately looking for safe footholds throughout. This was our introduction into the reality of our adventure. A sense of imagination started brewing in my head as we continued our dangerous, yet exciting journey towards the Shelter.
Our route crossed the path of the 1779 Trail, a trail with historical significance during the Revolutionary War. I imagined the Continental Army marching along it as the British were close on their backs.
As our hike brought us down Bear Mountain and up West Mountain, there was a sense of desperation and urgency as the Sun slowly settled towards the horizon and the woods we were hiking through darkened more and more. The gps watch that I wore to get a sense of our distance covered showed me at four miles. My daughter and I were getting tired, our shoulders were killing us from carrying the heavy frame packs, and my feet were hurting. The impending darkness made us committed to continuing until we found the Shelter.
Finally, our fifth mile brought us to one of the first unobstructed panoramic views of our journey since reaching the Bear Mountain summit hours before. We were now near the top of West Mountain! Looking across towards Bear Mountain, we saw the tower that we had passed right under earlier that day. I was so giddy with excitement at that moment, I told my daughter that it is as if we were seeing the Tower of Mordor, a reference to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I imagined us two as characters from the story who had just engaged in an epic journey full of challenging terrain and danger, which is what we really engaged in thus far.
Upon studying my trail map very carefully, I noticed that the West Mountain Shelter was not along the Appalachian Trail, but about a quarter-mile off along the Blue Trail. I used this moment as a life lesson to my daughter. I told her that most people make quick decisions in their lives without really putting enough time and thought into their decisions. These decisions eventually become bad and screw up their lives unnecessarily. I explained to her that I had just spent my time carefully studying our hiking route and noticed that our route for reaching the shelter was incorrect. It was not along the Appalachian Trail, but about 1/2-mile along the nearby Blue Trail. If I didn’t take the time to study this, we would never find it and would be hiking in the dark all night long looking for it. I hope that this lesson stays with her for the rest of her life.
At this point, we were somewhere between Miles 5 and 6 and were hiking along the edges of West Mountain in search of the Blue Trail. After passing a series of awe-inspiring panoramic views of other mountains, valleys, lakes, the Hudson River, and the setting Sun, we were both bent on finding the seemingly-evasive West Mountain Shelter. The map that I held in my hands told me that it was so close that I could smell it. We then saw through the trees a series of tents with hikers sprawled throughout campsites
at the top of the mountain. As we continued along our route a little bit more, we saw the West Mountain Shelter. Seeing this shelter made it feel like we had reached our epic journey in search of Mount Doom, the final resting place where Frodo was able to finally rid himself of the dangerous Ring.
As the last rays of sunlight disappeared into the darkness of the night, we set up our tents, enjoyed a meal together, and began a much-needed rest after a day packed with adventure. In all, we had hiked 6.35-miles and scaled two mountains, each more than 1,000 feet in elevation. Our total hike lasted for only 4 hours 15 minutes, but the memories of our adventure together will last a lifetime.