Though not really an expert hiker, I’m well aware of the first rule of hiking. Which is…don’t hike alone! That’s great in theory. But for a guy who likes to go on the spur of the moment. And on weekdays only. I find myself breaking that rule constantly. Nor am I alone. Other oddballs hit the trails solo as well.
Out in the woods the social norms are different from those in the city. Just for example, people generally nod or acknowledge each other’s existence on a hike. And often when we reach a scenic overlook, strangers will converse. For me, I strike a happy medium. While I do tend to talk with people, I cherish the solitude of being alone in the woods. And as such, I rarely team up with another hiker and spend more than a few minutes with him or her.
But Tuesday of this week was different. The day was cool, crisp and as blue as it could be. And so I took the train to Cold Spring and then uncharacteristically (though I have done it before), took the 3 mile walk along Route 9D to hike Breakneck, the most difficult climb in the Hudson Valley. I felt pretty good and figured I could handle the physical side of the trek.
Along about the second of four overlooks on the trail, a chatty Kathy type engaged me in conversation. She seemed to be a bit of a 51 card deck, but harmless and nice enough. We had our little verbal intercourse and then she moved on so I could enjoy the spot alone. By and by after having my fill, I moved along as well. And when I got to the third overlook to rest and marvel at mother nature…there she was once again.
As we once again conversed, it became apparent that the woman wasn’t all that familiar with the trail and didn’t really know how to get back to her car. She was vacationing from back in her hometown of Portage, Wisconsin and thus, was not familiar with the area. Sensing her spaciness, I offered to escort Tara (her name) to the red trail where she would turn left to get back to her vehicle. I figured “What the hell. We’re only maybe 20 minutes from her turn off. I can hang with this girl for that long.”
She took me up on my offer and as we strolled along and my new buddy continued to talk constantly, a little of her life came into evidence. As it turns out, Tara is currently employed as a Wisconsin state prison guard at a medium security men’s facility. She’s worked at max penitentiaries before and observed that the guys in medium security are “pussy cats” compared to the bad asses in max.
Her compensation on the job is $24/hour plus time and a half for overtime – a lot of which she’s offered. The benefits are of course excellent. And she gets 9 weeks paid vacation every year. Tara grew up on a 40 acre farm and effervesced that she couldn’t wait to tell her 65 year-old father about this 67 year-old guy (me) she met on this difficult trail, adding that her old man could never navigate Breakneck in his wildest dreams. Considering he has a hip replacement and congestive heart failure, I don’t think he was ready to do any mountain climbing anytime soon.
Well anyway…you get the idea. The girl had no problem describing her entire life to a stranger. As we approached the yellow trail, the short cut back to Cold Spring, we encountered yet another lone hiker looking somewhat confused. We stopped for what I realized was a British chap (I knew that from the first word out of his mouth) whereupon I gave him the lay of the land: He could take the yellow trail and not see much else in the way of scenic overlooks. Or he could follow us on the longer route which climbs to what I consider the most beautiful vista in the entire Hudson Valley. He opted for the latter and now we were three people alone in the woods.
Lawrence’s banter was decidedly more intellectual than Tara’s. He was (and is) clearly an educated and thoughtful man. We strolled along discussing American and British history, and how the world perceives Donald Trump. Tara as you might imagine, voted for the Donald. Lawrence can’t believe we elected him. And I added that the reason Trump did so poorly in New York is because he’s one of our own – and we know a bull shit artist when we see one. Lawrence wanted to know if Tara had changed her mind after experiencing one year of the Trump presidency. She wasn’t sure – and added that she’d voted for Obama – I assumed to show us she isn’t a complete redneck.
When we arrived at the red trail, I directed Tara to the left where our paths would diverge but added that she could stay with us for a while longer and I’d show her how to get back to her car at a point where the trail split – one way for Cold Spring – and the other for the Breakneck tunnel. In fact, she’d be going quite a distance out of her way. But Tara was ecstatic and more than happy to continue in the company of two fine gentlemen.
As the conversation continued on to more and more meaningful subjects, I felt the need to know exactly what Lawrence did for a living that afforded him multiple visits to the States. It was becoming clear that he wasn’t just blessed intellectually – but financially as well. My instincts were correct. Lawrence is a lawyer currently employed by the British government in the anti-trust department. Essentially, he’s a monopoly buster for 10 Downing Street. And he used to be a litigator, but tired of that scene.
And then it was my turn. I could have said a lot of things: Retired having once run a successful ad agency – and left it at that. Or I could have featured my music or cab driving days and said no more. But what the hell. Everybody else was forthcoming. So I was, too. If either of my two friends were upset by the news, they didn’t show it. Of course, you might not want to fuck with the guy who’s guiding you through unfamiliar woods. But really, Lawrence was fascinated with the process and the inner machinations of the federal system of jurisprudence.
Once back on the subject of felons and such, Tara went off (in a remarkably offhanded fashion) about inmates who fling shit on their prison guards – an experience with which she is all too familiar. Now I’m aware of this ugly phenomenon from doing a fair amount of reading. But I really wasn’t ready for a 15 minute monologue on the many ways prisoners manage to spray down their zookeepers. When one of her stories featured a fellow guard getting a wad in his mouth was when I gently asked if we could change the subject. Lawrence said nothing through all this. But I could tell he was in agreement.
Finally, we reached the turn off for Tara to take her leave. On balance, she was an agreeable compatriot (even if a little wacky) and I decided I’d give her the Catholic Worker hug goodbye. Ya know, not grinding or anything ugly like that. Just the old “We’re all in this thing we call life together” type deal. This became like a Donald Trump handshake. And I’m thinking “Is this chick ever gonna let go?”
Anyway, we exchanged names and vowed to stay in contact via Facebook (something I’m not likely to do) and she forked left and out of Lawrence and my life forever. Lawrence and I continued through the leaf-covered trail to Cold Spring intellectualizing all the way. By the time we’d hit town, I had a nagging feeling that I’d really spent too much time in the company of other humans and hadn’t properly meditated along the journey. But that was fine. There’s always another day to be out in the woods alone.
I was hoping to gently take my leave once we got to town. And my wish was fulfilled. Lawrence wanted to stick around Cold Spring for a couple of more hours. And for my part, I was beat – and there was a train leaving in 20 minutes. So a couple of handshakes and a few heartfelts later, and I was back on my own – alone out of the woods.
All in all, an interesting and very beautiful day. Kind of reminded me of when I toured Europe with a backpack after graduating from college. I’d hook up with people for a period of time. Form a real bond. And then move on forever. And in truth, Tuesday was all good. But next week, when the leaves are more colorful, I’ll return to “the valley” and a) take an easier hike and b) stay to myself more. Alas, for better or worse, alone is a state I’m often comfortable with.