That’s just the way we roll!
Thursday, May 15th
AT Segment Hike 5 – Elk Pen (Harriman State Park) to West Mombasha (Southfields, Sterling Forest, NY)
Today’s hike was a ‘short’ 5.3-ish miler, an adventure from Elk Penn in Harriman State Park to West Mombasha in the middle of God-knows-where (it’s actually in Southfields / Sterling Forest, NY). We were duped into thinking that this would be a quick hike, because of the distance. However the terrain and the miserable weather would prove us to be wrong, very wrong. The day was bleak, foggy, wet. Our spirits were uplifted, bright, and positive.
Our first landmark encounter was the Arden Valley Road bridge over I-87 NYS Thruway. I’ve always seen this bridge, which is labeled ‘Arden Valley Road / Appalachian Trail’ and wondered what it would be like to actually cross that bridge while hiking the trail. We crossed as if we were accomplishing some great feat, even though we just started our hike. We waved at the passing cars as we traversed the bridge, when a truck actually honked his horn. We were victorious in eliciting an response from the speeding drivers below.
We then crossed the busy NY 17, a four-lane ‘highway’ that back-in-the-day I would have imagined to be even more busy than it is now. I assume that at some point, this was the only highway up to the ‘country’. I can remember my Grandmother telling me of road trips from Brooklyn to Craigville and although she never directly mentioned this road, I knew this was the one travelled. I can remember her taking us on the trip down to the Red Apple Rest, which used to (the building still does) reside on this stretch of ‘highway’. I digress. We took our lives into our hands, crossing this stretch of road in a dash, but we made it successfully (obviously or I wouldn’t be writing this entry).
The entry point from the road to the trail was straight ahead. The trail quickly climbed steeply to 1079ft, which gives this section of the trail it’s name, Agony Grind. This section took us a good 45 minutes to climb. We now could understand why the dramatic name. We encountered two women (we assumed maybe mother and daughter) on our way up, who warned us of the ongoing steepness of the trail ahead, but then added a bright side by explaining that the trail leveled out afterwards. They are doing a short few-day hike and had a very wet night in the rain that drenched the area only a few hours earlier. They also told us of some blue-something-something that they spotted ahead. It’s some kind of bird and the name escapes me, but they seemed very excited about it. As we reached the top of Agony Grind, we took the gratuitous top-of-the-mountain pictures, however the fog obscured the view, which I assumed would have been awesome. If you look carefully, you can see the NYS Thruway meandering through the growing greenery.
About twenty minutes later, we encountered a ‘miracle’. It was not so much a miracle for us, but for other trail-weary hikers, I’m sure it would have seemed like a miracle. For us, it was inspiration, a restoration of faith in humanity. A trail ‘angel’ named ‘Headley’ had set up a shelter/first-aid station for any hikers who happened to stumble across it. He created a place to receive respite from the rain (or the trail itself) and some supplies to aid in any discomforts one could be experiencing. A tarp spanned between two trees creating an impromptu lean-to; a perfect place to quickly dodge the elements. A box containing bandages, pain-relief aids, personal hygiene products, and anything else useful was hanging carefully on a tree nearby. There was a notebook inside the box, in which we scribbled s brief thank you note.
Somewhere along the line disaster struck. I’m not sure when and where we were exactly, but I know we were going up a hill and down another. This was the story of our lives these days, figuratively and literally. Up and down. Terri decided that she had to pee, so Russ and I walked on ahead while Terri lingered behind to water some plants. Russ lead the way, while I trailed not too far behind. We encountered a good sized rock that we perched ourselves on and were getting ready to step off (luckily not into the abyss). All of the sudden, I see happening in slow motion, Russ taking a misstep and rolling off the rock. I don’t know if he was concentrating on the sandwich he was about to eat and not the rock, or if it was just plain luck, but he slipped, stumbled and somehow wedged himself between the rock and a small tree that was just ahead of the rock. How convenient. There was just enough room between the rock and the tree for Russ to nestle (not so comfortably) between them. Priority first, in Russ’ mind, was the sandwich. He handed me the sandwich as I stepped down as quick as I could to help him. Almost instantaneously, Terri came running up panicked that Russ had seriously injured himself (I was afraid to look back in fear that she would still have her pants around her ankles). Russ was able to free himself from that damned niche, stood up and said, “I’m OK”. After questioning the statement until we were satisfied with Russ’ unwounded status, Terri and I breathed a sigh of relief. Russ exclaimed that it was me who was the hero for saving his sandwich. We can joke about it all now, but it was terrifying. I am so glad that it happened where it did (and not on one of the other perilous rock scrambles we encountered) and that he was not injured (as of course, so was Terri).
Around the halfway mark, we encountered the jewel of this segment. Little Dam Lake, an odd-shaped lake nestled on the edge of Sterling Forest State Park, was another area for a perfect campsite. We took few moments to gather our bearings and to let the beauty of the area soak in.
I believe it was shortly after this wonderful moment, we encountered our second disaster. I thought it was kind of funny, however Terri and Russ would not agree with me. Terri (aka Scout) was leading the way as we were descending this particularly treacherous hill (it was a 200ft descent so I’m not sure what classifies as a ‘hill’ versus a ‘mountain’). The slick conditions from the perpetual wetness that seemed to make the air feel heavy made the descent all that much more painful. I usually trail behind quite a distance, so Terri was not particularly in my view at the moment. I heard this loud, almost bloodcurdling shriek and immediately thought there was another misstep. I was horrified until Terri finally explained the outburst (she was still screaming). It was a snake! I couldn’t see it, but she said it was ‘HUGE!’. I started laughing out loud, almost hysterically. I am used to encountering critters on the trails, so I thought this was quite comical. Russell immediately told me to, “Shut the f-&* up!” I said that I was surprised that we had only just encountered a snake in our now five segment hikes. Again, Russell told me to, “Shut the f-&* up!” Apparently, he is deathly afraid of snakes. He tried to point it out to me, but me being close to blind even with my contacts in, couldn’t spot it. After a few moments of Russell trying to remain patient, I finally saw it. I must admit, it was a very large snake (Russ suspected it was around 30ft. That’s a joke, of course.) I didn’t know exactly what it was at the time, but I didn’t think it was poisonous. I was going to go and shoo it away, but Russell convinced me to leave it be and we would just go around it. After looking it up post-hike, we determined it was a rat snake, totally harmless to humans. As I made my way past the ‘predator’, I braced myself upon a log with my hand and let out a ‘EWWWW!’. I had put my hand right on a huge, slimy, cold slug. Terri and Russ now had a laugh. I guess that’s what I deserve for teasing them both about the snake.
The remainder of the trail was moderate and enjoyable. Not that we don’t enjoy hiking the tough terrain, but this hike turned out to be more than we bargained for. We were ‘sucking wind’ as Russ put it, so the meandering and slight inclines and declines were gratefully received. We encountered one last critter, this time a cute little orange newt.
We eventually arrived at the place where I left my car, which we were thankful was still there. The parking area was not much of a ‘parking area’. It was a small, level patch of grass amongst weeds and trees where you could leave maybe two cars at best. We hopped in and headed back to Russ’ car at Elk Pen where we started.