The temperatures had been up and down, cold one day warm the next. But it’s still winter and the thermometer read 25 degrees as I left the house, still considered cold in most places. Not real cold, but cold enough to keep the mountain lonely. That’s good, I like it better without troops of hiking club members turning the trail into a social event.
The mud from yesterday hadn’t frozen solid overnight and a good part of the trail was crunchy underfoot as I stepped through the surface frost to the muck underneath. That’s ok, my boots were mud proof.
Schunemunk Mountain isn’t terribly tall, the summit tops at 1,664 feet, but from the parking lot it’s a steep, consistent climb and the toughest workout/trail I have experienced in the Hudson Valley. It’s a day before my 61st birthday, I wanted to do something hard. Something physically difficult. I wanted to climb a mountain that I had climbed when I was 31 years old.
I never gave much thought to birthdays, just another day, another year. Stop whining, look forward, don’t ever stop, move on. But when I reached 60 it was hard not to realize that most of my birthdays were backward, not forward. Reality also rears its ugly head when some of the guys you used to hang out with, for one reason or another, aren’t here anymore. We all used to be bullet proof, what the hell happened?
Time happened. So, the day before my 61st birthday I decided to climb the tallest mountain around and howl at the moon.
Despite having done the trail up Schunemunck many times, I always forget what a workout it is. It’s consistently an uphill trudge that tests the legs, the lungs and the desire to turn around and go to Dunkin Donuts. I had a day pack on my back with the requisite hot chocolate and Cliff Bar for the top. This wasn’t an Army Ruck March but the pack was moderately heavy since it also held my “survival gear.” You know, in case I get stuck in the wilderness by an unexpected blizzard and have to live in a cave eating moss. At least I’ll be able to make a fire and find north.
Keep moving, don’t stop.
The woods were still very much in winter mode, no leaves, just browns and grays. But there was movement; squirrels, birds. The higher I got up the mountain the less you could hear the sound of the trucks on the Thruway. Now I could hear the sound of the stream down the hill. Not the roaring of springtime but a healthy runoff from last week’s snowfall that was now virtually melted. The woods were alive.
There’s a spot about two-thirds up Sweet Clover Trail where the stream flows over rocks making a small, stepping waterfall. I drank from the stream, the water cold, fresh, it didn’t taste like a filter. I know you’re not supposed to do that, but what the hell, I’m 61 remember? If it hasn’t killed me yet it probably won’t and if it does, well my last drop came without a filter. I’m OK with that.
I met a man sitting on a rock in the sun. He looked at me and said “I thought I was the only one out here today.” He seemed disappointed to see me but was smiling anyway.
I answered, “We might the only ones, I haven’t seen anyone else.” He seemed pleased at that. We parted friends, alone on our hike but together in enjoying the opportunity to be there.
From the top of Schunemunk you can see the Hudson River flow into the mountains at Storm King in the east, the Catskills to the north and west as far as your eyes can see. From here the eagles and hawks swoop beneath you. It’s the top of the world; at least the top around here.
Hot Chocolate tastes better on a cold rock with a breeze freezing the sweat on your shirt. In fact, life is better when reward requires some sweat and pain. The view would be less if the trek was easy.
Standing at the top you can look down the trail to see where you have been, if you look closely, you can see where your life has been. There have been rocks and muddy spots but there have also been crystal clear streams with no filter. Looking forward you might think this is it, you’ve reached the top, its all down hill from here.
But then you hear the hawk shriek and sweep into the sky, higher, higher. And you think to yourself, shit, this is just the tallest peak around here. There’s plenty of mountains higher, plenty of crystal streams left to drink from. The trail downhill isn’t really downhill, it’s a link to another trail that takes you even higher.
I couldn’t find the moon; wrong time of the month. Doesn’t matter. Face to the sky.
Did you hear the howl?