Sunday, May 1, 2011


Shortly after turning in for the evening at Monastery it started to rain - drizzles at first, but then developing into a heavy rain. My usual bullet proof Sierra Designs backpacking tent was letting a drop here and there - not a lot, but just enough to be annoying with a drop hitting the inner mesh tent, running down the mesh and dripping off right onto me. I think it was probably caused by the unusual way I had staked down the fly due to the very heavy winds that night and also possibly a need to re-seal the seams on the fly. Either way I threw my poncho over my sleeping bag and drip or not I was way too exhausted not to quickly fall asleep.

I'm not sure when the rain stopped, but I awoke to a beautiful, slightly chilly, morning, well- rested. The first thing I noticed looking out of the tent - the Scouts "Supertent" was gone. Now there was no way they woke before 6am, pitched their tents and were ready to hit the trail. I soon discovered the Scouts, some asleep on picnic tables under the pavilion and the rest in the remains of "Supertent" dismantled, also under the pavilion. Guess they weren't as good tent designers as they thought.

With everyone still asleep and no rush to get anyone up as we only had to cover about 4-5 miles that day, I got dressed and sat at a picnic table over by the edge of the woods, taking in the beautiful morning and reading. Despite their added weight, I will usually bring one or two books along backpacking - not reading for a few days just isn't something I can do - it's bad enough not having my morning New York Times for three days, although, I guess I could have picked up a copy at the convenience store later. I was reading a book my brother gave me a few years ago about the classified Special Operations Vietnam War Studies and Observations Groups - small recon teams that operated in mostly Laos and Cambodia - most of the time with no identification, sans American uniforms and using non-American weapons. The author, John Plaster, was a member of these teams, serving three years in Vietnam. His group - a small undermanned company called CCC (Command Control Center) - there was a north and south too) was the most highly decorated unit in the Vietnam War, with five Congressional Medal of Honor (for five separate actions). One of their team members, Bob Howard, had more decorations than any American soldier - ever - in any war. He had an amazing 8 Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, Distinguished Service Cross, and the Medal of Honor. Interestingly, the recent video game mega-hit, Call of Duty, Black Ops, has many mission based on the feats of these MACV-SOG groups and in-fact, the author of this book was a consultant for the game.

I had about an hour of peaceful reading before the troops began to stir. In addition to our unit, a lone AT backpacker had joined us for the night. He was a young charter school teacher from Philadelphia. He spends his vacations hiking portions of the AT and has completed most of the southern part of the trail and is now working on NY and Connecticut. We had an interesting chat about the trail and the state of schools in Philadelphia as the scouts pitched their tents and had breakfast.

The first portion of the hike was to basically backtrack on the AT, back down hill to Appalachian Mart and then back into the woods, headed west, or south on the AT. We let the Scouts leave as soon as they were ready, with instructions to wait for us at the convenience store. We left shortly after - its a mostly downhill hike to the store, but the first quarter mile was a extreme uphill climb out of the monastery. We really felt this first incline. We caught up to the Scouts at the Mart, already, consuming their fill of Mountain Dews and Monster energy drinks, plus plenty of other junk. The more sugar the better as after a half of a mile into the woods the trail would take an extreme change in elevation - about 500 feet over a half mile or so.

Heading west, once we passed the yellow connector trail from the day before we were on new turf. The AT headed up, almost straight up it felt like. We spent the next hour or so huffing and puffing our way uphill to get back on top of that ridge line that we had seen the day before from Sugarloaf. We would essentially follow this ridge all day with some up and down diversions, heading toward it's end at Anthony's Nose, overlooking the Bear Mountain Bridge. Running this ridge we could occasionally catch a great view of the Hudson River Valley through the trees. Eventually, about 4 miles into the days hike we started a very steep decent for about a half of a mile, down to South Mountain Pass Road. We continued down the road for a few hundred yards and the AT branched off to the left, following an old carriage road uphill for about a quarter of a mile. It was a nice flat gravel road, but the steady grade was one last kick in the butt before reaching our campsite for the night - the Hemlock Springs Campsite. This site is actually located a few hundred feet off the trail, however, there was a clearing almost directly on the trail that offered slightly better ground for camping.

We had arrived about 1pm and after setting up our tents we all had lunch. After lunch the scouts headed out into the woods - a
first trying to play baseball on the side of a steep hill, but eventually just building some forts and ending up throwing rocks and sticks at each other - again, not much has changed since I was a scout. Us adults settled in, building a nice little fire and some taking naps, reading, talking,....generally relaxing. The site has no facilities although water was plentiful via a nearby stream and our water purifying pumps. If you are traveling here in the summer months I might be a little worried about water, although there might just be enough in one of the few stream

Occasionally it looked like it might rain, but except for a few drops here and there we had nice weather and it wasn't too cold. Dinner and then some more time enjoying the fire, I turned in later than the night before, even reading a bit before going to sleep. I slept well, except for pitching my tent on a bit too much of a grade - my new North Face sleeping bag was pretty slippery and I occasionally had to reposition myself back uphill.

We hit the trail early the next day, our last. We had about five miles or so of hiking and wanted to try to get into and through New York City before rush-hour. We began once again climbing some steep terrain. The AT climbs up toward Anthony's Nose but cuts off west and goes downhill to cross the Hudson at the Bear Mountain Bridge. Before the trail started downhill, we broke off onto the "Camp Smith Trail". Camp Smith is a NY State National Guard Base and this trail skirts the edge of it's property. The trail is in fact part of the base and is used by soldiers for training exercises. It is a roughly four mile trail that would take us up to Anthony's Nose, and then downhill toward Peekskill, where we would catch a train. Unlike the AT, for which I had an excellent guide book and maps, I only had a small basic map of the Camp Smith Trail that I printed off the internet - this would prove tough to estimate distances and terrain on - something that would earn me the ire of the rest of the group before the day was out.

From the AT it was roughly about three quarters of a mile uphill to the "nose". Anthony's Nose offered probably the best vistas of the Hudson River Valley of the whole trip. Looking almost directly down on the Bear Mountain Bridge we sat and rested and enjoyed the view for fifteen minutes or so. While there I saw three separate freight trains working their way north up the West Shore Line . I also heard the passenger trains on the Hudson Division, although they were running through a small tunnel below the bridge. The remainder of the hike l
ooked, on paper at least, like a mostly downhill hike, roughly paralleling the river and the Bear Mountain Parkway toward Peekskill. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case - what it turned out to be was about four miles of grueling up and down trails, with some extremely vertical accents and descents. It also had started to rain lightly, making the rock faces slippery. Because of the vertical changes it was hard for me to estimate the ground covered on the basic map and I frequently overestimated our progress. By the fifth time I had said "just one more hill" I was getting some pretty evil looks. Eventually we made it down, although there was just "one more hill" before the end of the trail at the "Toll House". The toll house was a former toll booth from way back when the Bear Mountain Bridge and Parkway were built in the 1920's. We
were still about a mile and a half from the train station in Peekskill. There is no trail for this final bit and the hike is mostly on high-speed roads with little or no shoulders. Given the condition of the group, including myself, the rainy weather, and the concern about safely hiking on the road, we opted for taxis.
A quick scan on the scoutmaster's Iphone brought up the number of a Peekskill cab company. It was a bit hard to get them to understand where we were - when you say toll house they think the other end of the Bear Mountain Bridge, which is a toll bridge. Eventually they understood and quickly despatched two cabs - small SUV's. Our short ride to the station confirmed that we probably had made the right choice as the road was pretty hairy in some points. We had about a fif
teen minute wait and then we loaded onto a New York City bound train. Despite the great views, I slept most of the way in. Upon arriving at Grand Central, we realized that we had about 25 minutes to get to Penn Station to get the next train back to Hamilton, NJ. This is iffy with subways, even more so with having to get fares for everyone, but on the streets, doable if we hustled.

I've always been good at moving fast through NY City streets, but with the rain and everyone carrying umbrellas and a big pack on my already big frame made it a bit interesting and I bumped into more than a few people. But blazing a trail through the crowds we made it to the station. I hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast and not being able to stop and buy a street pretzel or hot dog was really killing me, but we made the train. Two hours later we were home.

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