About this time last year my wife and I went for a hike along a piece of the Appalachian Trail in the Hudson Valley. The objective of this particular hike was to put a sign-in book in a wooden box at a spot called Highpoint (not the most original name) between Greenwood Lake and Harriman. The trail here is not terribly overcrowded, as some local sections seem to be, but does get a fair number of hikers. Today I wanted to see how many of those hikers had signed the little notebook we put in the box last year.
To give a little perspective, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates that 2-3 million people hike on some portion of the trail each year. Considering the trail is 2,189 miles long (about 5,000,000 steps) and if we used the mid-point of 2.5 million people that would one person every 4.6 feet if they all stood on the trail at one time. OK, not very realistic but kind of an interesting picture. Hikers who do the whole trail, end to end, are called 2,000 Milers. Only about 25% of those who start actually finish the grueling hike taking an average of 5 – 6 months to do so. In 2014 the Trail Conservancy reported 990 people had completed the whole march.
So on this cold (16° F) day I decided to see if anyone had signed our little spiral notebook. The day was gray and the leaves cracked as I walked in from the road. First over a relatively flat portion and then up, up to the top of the ridge that would eventually lead me to the little wooden box with our notebook. There was no one around. Even the squirrels had decided to stay indoors on this cold and damp January morning. The pools of water that were normally a haven for small animals and insects were frozen over. The bushes that in summer made the hike like walking through a tunnel in places were bare of leaves opening up the woods so you could see down into the valleys and across the ridge into places not visible during the warmer months. There is so much more to see in the winter if you really look.
I made it to the box an hour or so after starting, I not only found our notebook but found that someone had put it in a plastic bag so it wouldn’t get wet and soggy. Cool, I thought. I took the notebook out of the bag and opened the first page. Yep, there was our first sign in from last year. Then I started turning pages. To my surprise the almost one inch thick book was virtually full of signatures. Very cool, I thought.
I started to read through the entries as the snow started falling. Summer hikes talked of dry conditions, one warned of a snake sunning itself on the trail. The pages were filled with families, lone hikers and the mysterious. Our empty book had been filled by strangers who all shared a common experience and each entry seemed to end with a smile.
Strangers connecting, strangers sharing. What a concept.
As I read some of the pages the snow started to get heavier and I put the notebook back to keep the pages dry. I vowed to come back soon and place a new book for the new year.
As I walked down trail the rocks were getting slippery and the leaves covered with snow. Visibility had decreased measurably and the world had gotten smaller as the snow blotted out the world beyond my view. I stopped on a small hilltop and listened to the sound of the snow whispering through the trees. Silence? No not really. Over there I heard the distant sound of summer voices echoing on the trail. Of spring hikers and fall sightseers. All the signatures in the book had left their mark and if you listened real hard you could just hear the joy of their hike as the snow sifted through the grey and seemingly empty woodland.