Monday, August 20, 2007

HitchHiking and the Mohonk Mountain House

Getting from New Paltz to the cliffs with no car is very easy. I have heard others - men, big and apparently able to fend for themselves men - say they just take a taxi from the bus station. I tried that. Once. It's a long story. Let's just say that I won't be doing that again.

Instead, I hitchhike. Getting off the bus, I hightail it down Main Street to the stretch of curb in front of The Gilded Otter. This is a good spot for thumbing it, because it allows oncoming drivers a distance of space in order to process the information they are receiving, which would be: Hitch-Hiker, female, backpack, climber. Minimal brain activity required to surmise that I am probably not dangerous; just looking to get out to the Gunks and go climbing.

If they have quick reflexes, and decide to stop where I stand, it is a section of the road that allows them to do so without being rear-ended by an unobservant driver in a following car. If they are smart, and decide to pass me and turn the corner a few feet ahead, they can stop and not concern themselves with unsafe driving practices at all. I'll simply run down to the corner, throw my gear in the back and hop in. Then we'll turn around and be on our way.

The reason I rush to this spot is because sometimes there is another person on the bus heading to the cliffs who has gotten their partner to pick them up at the bus station. They might have room for me, and I want to be in place when they drive by.

You might think "Why not look around at the bus station and ask for that ride?" I will tell you why not. Because more often than not, they won't have room for another rider and their gear. or they will be wanting to stop at Rock and Snow, and then at the grocery store for power bars and water. And then at the Mountain Deli for breakfast. Like the time with the taxi; I did that once. Another long story, which gained me the revelation that it is often a big waste of time and energy to tackle the project with that plan.

Anyway..... This past Sunday was like any other hitch-hike day and I got a ride directly to the cliffs within a few cars passing. New Paltz is one of the few cities in New York state, I am assuming, where it is still relatively safe for a woman to put herself in the hands of a stranger on the road. The place is special that way.

On Sundays, I volunteer on the trail crew. We have a small group that works steadily, during season, to reinforce eroding sections of the cliff side trails, improve areas that are difficult to manage when evacuating an injured person laid out in a litter, and maintain the thing in general. It's my pleasure to do so, and I look forward to the day each week. There are long stretches of the trail that I helped fix up, and the work will endure for years. That's a very satisfying thing, to me, and one of the few ways I have to give back to the climbing community that has given me so much.

But this Sunday, we didn't have much help. Just myself and the crew leader. Our current project involves rock collecting and though the old saying goes "Three's a crowd," that's certainly not true in this case. The rocks we are looking for are more aptly called boulders, at least by the layman. A
boulderer would call them "bad landings" if they happened to be under what THEY consider a boulder.... The rocks we want weigh between 100 and 1000 pounds and range in size comparison to basketballs, microwave ovens and dorm-room style refrigerators. They aren't moved by one person hoisting them, but with rock bars and grip hoists

So - with just the two of us, no work could be done. Disappointed, I headed to the Uberfall, which is to the Shawangunks climbing community what the barbershop was to Mayberry, R.F.D., in the hopes of picking up an impromptu climbing partner.

Now, I have never been successful in doing this, and unlike the taxi game, I still haven't learned it's a waste of my time. Maybe it's because so many other people have success in finding partners that way; I know that it works. At least for some people....

It's just a paradox that I can stick my thumb out on a state highway and ask a ride of someone I can't even really see, but am unable to do the same on a more personal level. I get uncomfortable, sulky and introverted. I pull out a book and burry my nose in it, hoping "the perfect partner" will stop, and ask me to climb with him. (Yes, it's a him. Tall, smart, long, curly hai....Ummm... Well at least someone with plenty of experience.).

The truth is that I am not good at saying no, and when it comes to life/death situations, which climbing entails, one had better be prepared to do so. I have heard way too many stories of people roping up and finding themselves in serious trouble because they didn't vet heir partner beforehand, and found themselves climbing with someone who had misrepresented their abilities, whether intentionally or through naivety.

Combine that with some of the assinine scenes I have witnessed being enacted by FWDKTDKS (Folks Who Don't Know They Don't Know S***)...and I get a little...scared.... just roping up on the spot with just anyone. While I have climbed blind with well over a hundred people over the last few years, and had great days of it, I DO vet heavily beforehand. Someday I'll write a post about that experience.

I pride myself in an ability to stay safe. That's another story in itself; this one's supposed to about the Mohonk Mountain House and hitching a ride. So - let's get on to the Mountain House....

After a weak attempt at searching for a partner, I decided I'd hike over to the Mountain House. Because I usually have my dog, Teddy, with me, and dogs aren't allowed on MH property this was a good day to do it. By the way, if you are not familiar with the Shawangunk ridge and the Mohonk Mountain House, it's an interesting story.

I knew the Undercliff Road eventually led there, and was fairly certain it would be easy to figure out. The carriage roads, paved with shale and well-maintained, are hiked every weekend by families. I have only once seen someone in duress while doing so, and that was a man who called a gentle incline of less than 5 degrees "a hill." And, I've never heard an horror stories of anyone being lost overnight out in the wilderness of the Mohonk Preserve. The walk would be cake for me, and though I was a little concerned I'd be bored(it IS a flat road-like trail, after all....), I cheered myself up with thought of being able to take photos along the way.

That lasted about two seconds, before I realized I'd passed up the opportunity to restock in double A batteries for my camera. It's an energy hog, and I knew I would be lucky if I had enough power for a day's shoot. Berating myself for neglecting the item(for it had occurred to me to restock at home and then again when I got off the bus that morning), I had to stop myself from stepping into the quicksand of self-pity.

Soon enough I came along a bit of greenery that was photo-worthy and unpacked my camera with intrepidation. I knew what I would find, and was not surprised when the thing would barely power up. The half-press to fix the focus shut the thing down. "No photos for you" I heard, in the chiding voice of Soup Nazi from the Seinfeld series.

Again, I knew it would be a bad thing to allow myself to wallow. Oh - I had ammunition all right. I had no man, nor a climbing partner, nor even my dog for company. I wasn't going to be getting the heavy duty workout that a day on the trail crew brings; an exhaustion that is surprisingly satisfying, in a sort of masochistic way. I didn't even have use of my (sniff, sniff, dab away the tears) crappy little, barely beyond a point and shoot, FujiFilm camera..... I would have to be - oh no! - comfortable in my own skin, staying in the present. Laugh if you will -but when was the last time YOU really did that? I don't even OWN an Ipod, and use my cel phone only for the most basic communication; can you say the same? Hmmmm?

Well - it was what it was, and what it was, was a walk along the carriage road at the Trapps, listening to people yell climbing signals, as I trudged my day's destiny....

Of course, one can't really have a bad day out at there, or at least I can't. Before long I was happy in my thoughts, looking at pretty plants and noticing other small details of nature. Just before I hit the trail I usually take for Sleepy Hollow, I noticed a big boulder(climbing-sized) that looked pret-ty sweet. With an impromptu access trail barely discernable. Definitely not an *approved* trail, but one that was a hella lot easier to walk on than the one that had been put in officially. With just a tinge of guilt, I took it.

In my defense, I made absolute certain of my footwork, stepping on rocks wherever possible. I went out of my way to tread open ground when no rock was available, and avoided delicate mosses at all cost. well - except to gaze at their beauty. Sleepy Hollow is quite wonderful, in it's heavy mantle of furry moss. If you are reading this, and are wont to go "off-road," please try to at least do the same. The difference between traveled areas and the places one doesn't go, when it comes to nature, are actually pretty astounding. It takes surprisingly little traffic to maim fragile growth, and the half-life for destruction is a long one. Recovery, when possible, takes a timeline measured in generations.

The boulder, by the way, was a good one. Local boulderers know which one I'm speaking of, of course. Already chalked up extensively, I still noted several virgin paths of least existence. Lines I would never follow, simply because I didn't have the skill, but also because I was traveling alone and couldn't risk making one of those "bad landings."

That was good for a bit of time and soon I was back on the road, headed for the Mountain House. I figured I would do a rock scramble I had heard of along the way, called the Giant's Workshop. The walk was pleasant and, with just a few people passing by on bicycles, I was pretty much in solitude the whole while. At one point, I came to an intersection of paths (at Rhododendron Bridge) and decided to follow the Laurel Ledge Road.

Rounding a corner, I came to a very small cliffband right along the way, which reminded me of a mini Uberfall area, and shortly thereafter, a deer in the woods caught my eye.

Upset with myself about the situation with my low-energy camera, I slowly and quietly unpacked, hoping to try for a picture or two. She was happily grazing, but became aware of my presence immediately. I was able to get a few shots off, but wished for a better vantage point. She was further away that I'd liked and there were downed branches and trees hindering the sight line, being the woods and all.... However, I knew stepping so much as one foot off the road and into the wooded area would scare the deer off. She looked so content, laying down and munching greenery that I knew it would be incredibly rude to invade the territory in even the smallest way.

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Not much further along, I came to a side road, The Old Minnewaska Road. To the west, this comes out to a bridge running over the Coxing Kill, and Split Rock swimming hole, a nice little summer laze-about spot that can be quite the local scene on a hot summer weekend day. It was interesting to put another disjointed piece of my Mohonk Preserve topographical puzzle in place.

This part of Laurel Ledge Road was fairly picturesque, carriage road-wise, and is a trip that would be incredibly beautiful in autumn with the foliage color change.

To the right, soon came a marker for the Giant's Path, which I assumed led through the Giant's Workshop. I took it, and soon enough found myself in that scramble.

For some reason, I had assumed this area was going to be a much larger maze to meander, but was not disappointed. The 'trail' through the thing is, in my opinion, not as clearly marked as it might be. I am a chicken, frankly, but considering that people who may not be aware of just how deadly a fall onto rock can be, the level of 'think for yourself' that folks are left to surprised me.

At one point, I misread the marking and headed in a way I thought would be a natural route. "Holy crap!" I thought, removing my pack to get through a tight spot. "This is a pretty big move for a novice to make, and a fall would definitely have potential for a broken ankle." Not the brightest start in the galaxy at times, I continued....

An easy step or two and the route I was on led through a slim vertical shaft toward daylight. I moved ahead...and looked down. "Holy crap!" I thought. "Sure, you can sort of shimmy/chimney through here, but the foothold is friggin' thin! Miss it and you are going down for a while, until you wedge into a constriction!" Knowing that families bring young children out to scamper in this thing, I was....beginning to think I may be off-route.

Still....I proceeded. The route WAS there, after all. I saw it clearly. I moved through that fissure and out towards the corner. The point of no return was one step ahead, and at least I had the sense not to blindly go forward. Stretching as far as I could, I saw that - yes - one could work their way to the outside. It was 4th class climbing though, and that was just the next few moves. Once past the corner, I'd be on a rock wall, and at least twenty feet above the ground, into 5th class range.

"This ....must not be right." I told myself, and headed back. Reversing the "big" move mentioned earlier wasn't difficult (again, for someone who has climbing skills) but still....

Looking at the trail blazes again, I realized that the person who had marked it used a symbol that hikers know as "turn this way" more as if it were an arrow, with the center pointing the way. I guess that was the crux.... At any rate, the "correct" way was.....just a little easier than how I had almost gone.

Coming out the top, one gets a very nice panorama of the valley below and the Trapps, Near Trapps and Millbrook ridges off to the southwest. And, a choice of several routes going forward. Being that I wanted to get to the Mountain House, I chose the one that said...."To Mountain House"....and had a nice little walk though, again, the trail was not well marked. It's just obviously been a while since someone's been through to touch up the blazes and though I suppose it's difficult to get lost out there, I wondered why the maintenance hadn't been done. (Probably for the same reason I was out there that day, instead of doing the trail work I'd intended; a lack of volunteer help!).

At any rate, in not to long a period, I came to more choices in my path, by way of carriage road. I couldn't help but be impressed, knowing as I do, that all these carriage roads were created in the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth centuries, and the work was done with manual labor using hand tools.

Headed in a northwest direction along the outer edge of a highpoint in the topography, I came across a pretty wooden pagoda, one of many that I knew had been put in place by the Smiley family, owners of the Mountain House, for the pleasure their hotel guests out enjoying their nature walk. Thinking back to what it must have been like, to be a young woman in corset and long dress along on this road, I can imagine it must have felt like quite the workout. Thinking back even further, hundreds of years before the slate roads and wooden scenic lookouts, to what it might have been like to be one of the area's original human inhabitants.... I couldn't help wondering how romantic it all must have been.

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Eventually, I came to a clearing and saw that I was coming to the Mountain House grounds proper. A baseball/soccer field led way to tennis courts and soon enough I a different world, and feeling a bit like a dirtbag, with my casual clothes, disheveled hair and huge, seen-a-bit-of-backcountry backpack, and my climbing shoes and camera bag dangling from daisy loops. Casual attire by way of being a Mohonk Mountain House guest is just a wee bit different than the casual attire I had on.

But! I knew there was a gift shop. And that meant I could replace my camera batteries and try for some photos of the place. Boy....did I feel weird, walking past the valet parking, moving off the road for fancy cars. I knew that, as a preserve member, I was allowed access to the grounds, but it sure didn't feel right. I kept expecting a butler in tuxedo to appear at my side, nose tilted to the sky as if I had BO, affecting that tone and asking "May we help you?"

No butler that I could see, though there were plenty of young, attractive guys in green polo shirts, the uniform of the hotel. Plenty! Almost an equal ratio to the guests, it seemed....

I can steel myself as well as anyone, and though I definitely felt out of place, I emboldened myself and stopped one of these guys to ask about getting batteries for my camera. I didn't think I would be "allowed" in the hotel, but thought maybe there'd be "some way" I could get those batteries. I'm not sure if I was supposed to be given carte blanche, and maybe I caught him guard but he directed me to the main entrance and gave directions as to where I'd find the gift shop.

The entryway was a zoo. Busy with arriving and departing guests, I felt like the obvious interloper at the wedding, or a salmon swimming upstream, instinctively needing to do so in order to carry on. Walking through the maelstrom as if I belonged there - as if I were, in fact, a paying guest and gawd help me but I was just that cool, not deigning to wear fashionable designer dungarees....

The hotel is...beautiful, and after I got my batteries, I headed out the back, where I understood Lake Mohonk resided. Just before exiting, I found a wonderful old Stickley settee. I touched it. How could I not!? I really love Stickley and though the pieces I have in my apartment are recently produced reproductions, there ARE Stickley, and have been made to the same standards as this antique; of radiant quarter-sawn oak. And I felt the energy, from the hands that crafted the piece in the first place to the years and years that piece has been standing, like an old tree in the forest, having seen it all and stood by, quietly.

Mohonk Lake is indeed very pretty, but I have to say - I did not really like the feeling I got, standing on the back porch of that hotel. I hadn't gone unnoticed, and though I generally don't really look at people, I DO glean sensation. It's a trait I've had all my life. It's not very helpful when running into people throughout my travels, since I rarely recognize faces or remember names. Such a problem it is, since I am apparently known by an awful lot of people, that I have no option but to be honest and let people know this is something that's "wrong with me;" I simply do not recognize people I have met before, nine times out of ten.

But I get their drift all right. And the drift I got at that time was one of riff-raff, myself being the cause of the rift. There were all these....lazy...I'm sorry but that's how it felt....wealthy men sitting in rocking chairs, impatiently waiting for...something. Looking at me as I walked by, and wondering to themselves - in a Thurston Howell the Third voice - on earth I was doing there. I got away from there as soon as I could!

I had decided to go walk along the lake, figuring that, though I definitely was no supposed to be in the hotel itself, there would probably be plenty of other preserve members and day use visitors on the grounds. Well....I can't say whether that was the case or not, but it wasn't so bad. sort of was, actually. I came to a path that led to the famed "rock scramble." Deciding to take it I started down the path only to be quickly overtaken by families and young couples, moving like cars on the expressway upset that the little old lady(me) was driving too slow and in their lane. I had to "pull over" and let them pass, or feel their irritation as they impatiently tail-gated.

Almost immediately, a mom, dad and two young boys zoomed past. The youngest boy became frightened when he had to step over a crevasse. Not knowing how bad it was, I could see he was definitely scared and felt sorry for him. He cried and balked all the while she pulled and finally launched him over the thing and finished him off with a belittling remark. wow....

Now, I got lucky, because while I had pulled back to let this family get past and gain some space, I had taken time to look around. And you know what I saw? I mean besides several plastic drink cups, soda bottles, and food wrappers stuffed in the crannies between the rocks....

I saw - a porcupine!

Yes, I did. He was, believe it or not, coming out of what was probably his den, right there at the start of that rock scramble.

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The little buy ahead was still crying, now with shame as much as the residual affects of being scared silly and I thought. "Hey! I them about the porcupine, and that will break the negative feeling! Nobody expects to see a porcupine, certainly and the kid will be amazed!"

Well....not quite.

No response/reaction whatsoever from the two boys, but the mother crisply said "Unfortunately we can't make our way back there to see it." Only what she meant was "And why is it, may I ask, that you are speaking to us?"


Well, I decided to let them have a LOT of space. And so I stood waiting for the porc to come out and let me see him, and sit for a portrait. He did rollover onto his haunches and give his belly a good scratching - long claws, I'll say! - but he realized that I was probably going to be stupid and tell everyone I saw that he was down there and point him out, and then he'd probably get poked at with sticks and have his day messed with. So...he stuck it out, and waited until I admitted defeat and moved on....

Within short order, another set of people came up from behind and overtook me. Now - this rock is polished. I'd much rather have been scrambling over talus at the base of the cliffs than this stuff; it's got a strange smoothness in places and though it's easy stuff, the mix of smoothness, trash litter and impatient scramblers was a little disheartening. I didn't like it at all. At one point two people went ahead of me and stood in an opening. I could hear they were talking to others in their group, who had taken a different path, and were waiting for them to catch up. Since I could see them coming, I waited, and decided to let them go as a group rather than try to get ahead or go in between.

This, apparently, upset someone who came up behind me, who nearly pushed me out of the way while asking "Are you going?" wow.....

The rest of the scramble was pretty much the same, unfortunately, though it's probably much less icky on a weekday or in a less busy time of year.

Once out of the scramble, its a shale-graded path rising up a hill to the top, where the Alfred Smiley Memorial stands. People seemed much nicer up there.

There are some very nice views from Skytop, like the rockface of Lake Mohonk.

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And the memorial is a nice piece of craftsmanship too. Here is the iron gate at the front entrance.

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On the way down(Nooo...I didn't take the scenic way down. I walked the road, thank you.) there are pretty vistas, with stopping spots and those nice wood pagodas. Some give way to views of the majestic old hotel.
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As pretty as it is, I can't believe they have this ugly dock running through the lake. But I guess they have to be able to accommodate the leisure traffic, and a rustic smaller dock wouldn't be able to handle the load.
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Getting back to ground level, I realized that my day had been burning along fairly well, and it was probably past the time I should have started to make my way back to New Paltz. I had....wrongly...figured I'd simply get a ride back to town in much the way I do from the cliffs. That is - to go to the parking area, and ask people heading to their cars if they had room for me and my gear. I had dawned on me - sometime between walking in the back door of this resort and that moment - that my plan was flawed.... Little did I know just how badly.

I had wanted to walk the cliffbase of Skytop, and get a look at the fantastic climbing routes. But I was tired; I have no idea how far I'd walked, but had been pretty much going nonstop since 10am, and by my guess it was at least 3:00 at the time. As well, the sky was darkening as rain clouds began brewing.

Uh oh....

I decided to save Skytop(the real Skytop - the rock climbing!) for another day, when I was fresher, and make my way toward the parking area. I was worried about the ride situation; I could simply not imagine the reactions I was going to be getting from these people when I asked if I could hop in....

And so, I headed in the direction I knew was the exit. Along the way, I passed a section of formal garden, filled with pretty flowers. I took but one photo, probably because, as I said earlier, I was becoming tired.

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On the road to the exit, there is a truly magnificent old tree. It's not a Weeping Willow, but it has a similar sweeping mass of tendril branches. Up close, he tree is fantastic - an ancient, windy limbed beauty. Just spectacular. The hotel has placed a rather large and obvious sign asking to respect the tree's age and beauty, and to please not climb on it or carve it. Nonetheless, the limbs are scarred with cutwork initials.

So...I headed out, and off what I thought was the hotel grounds. I believed I was heading down a drive that would shortly lead to the road leading back to New Paltz.


Oh, and when I am wrong, I am wrong.....

I had not known that the hotel had a two-miles plus long driveway. I had been to the gatehouse entrance a few times in the past, only to find out the parking lot was full, or they wouldn't allow me in because I had a dog. I had simply assumed at the time that the hotel was just down the road, well camouflaged behind a heavy bank of trees. Suddenly I understood why I had seen several short-busses with "Mohonk Mountain House" emblazoned on the side......

Uh oh.

I knew, I just knew, that it would be bad to put my thumb out on the resort driveway. Disrespectful, and.... just bad. And so, I committed to the walk, thinking perhaps someone might see my pack and recognize me as a hiker, take pity and offer me a lift.

Then I came to a sign that said walkers MUST use a side path to get to the gatehouse, 2.3 miles down the road. The good news, the sign promised, was that the path was a half mile shorter than the road.....

Even if I had wanted to disobey the rule, the road really was too thin to walk along. There was absolutely no shoulder, and it was not a lazy country road. It was one way and winding, with cars winging around the curves every few seconds.

Oh, crap.

I had no choice.

Eventually I came to what I thought was the road..... I put my thumb out and each car stopped, only to say that no - they weren't headed to New Paltz, and unfortunately could not give me a ride. I had been wondering why the road seemed....thinner...than I had remembered it, since I'd driven it a few times last year when I had a car. But, as I said earlier ...sometimes I'm not so bright.

This road didn't have much of a shoulder either, and it was sort of scary. I had to go quite off into the woods edge in order to be safe and not frighten the drivers; I didn't want to upset them - it really was a thin pathway.... and I didn't thumb it if the road wasn't clear enough that I felt the car could stop without being in danger of traffic coming up behind.

Finally, another car stopped and strangely, they didn't roll down the window for me to query about a lift. Well - I was about out of steam. It was obviously going to rain at some point, I was worried about getting back to own, and had realized - some of these people...were not nice. At all. This was NOT the same as hitching a ride to the cliffs. These were not climbers and hikers and locals of the area, used to quirky climbing bums. At all.

So, I shouted through the window. And at the same time, I noticed the lady passenger was speed-dialing something on her cell phone. "Oh christ" I thought..."Do I REALLY look like an axe murderer?"

The man let the window down a crack, and I repeated my request. As if I were a moron (well...if the show fits, now that I think about it), he said "This road goes to the hotel."

Oh. Crap.

When I came off the walking path, I had mistakenly thought I'd hit the road, when it was actually the entry drive into the hotel. Now wonder it seemed like a one-laner..... It WAS!

The driver cheerfully told me that the road wasn't far back, really.....

I DID remember to thank them, by the way.

And so....I walked. It wasn't that far. Not really. Probably 10 or 15 more minutes. But then the fun really started.

If you know that road, you are aware that it is a very winding one, with lots of blinds sections and curves around steep embankments with guardrails set very close to the roadway.

Not a good place to be walking, much less hitching a ride. Especially from wealthy patrons to an exclusive resort hotel.

I walked for half an hour, listening very carefully for oncoming traffic. It wasn't their fault I had been stupid, and I intended to be considerate. If the road was not a clear enough stretch fro them to safely slow and stop, I would step well off to the side and not signal for a lift. In the instances where I could thumb, not a one of those expensive cars so much as slowed down even the slightest.

Thinking I was screwed, and wondering how many hours walk it would be back to New Paltz, I tried to make the best of it, while hoping I was forecasting wrongly in thinking rain was less than an hour away.

FINALLY a car stopped. Oh my god, was I relieved. It was a man who worked at the Mountain House, on his way to New Paltz for another shift at a second job.

And thus ends my little Sunday trip report.....

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