The word “hike” is one that fills me with immediate and profound dismay. Like when other people hear words like dental surgery or experimental jazz. I immediately conjure up visions of craters and cliffs, ropes and crampons, dehydration and mountain rescue. Normally if I was invited on a hiking trip, I’d fumble desperately for an excuse, becoming more and more panicked until I could administer a Xanax shot. But there I was, sitting at the finest dive bar in Brooklyn, in a weakened state; my attorney judged I was appropriately liquified and suggested we take a few days in the great outdoors.
Where I come from, we call it bushwalking, which although better, still suggests snakes and limb-snapping tumbles into yawning chasms. My sodden brain, grasping for a lifeline, grabbed onto the charming British term, “rambling,” and my fate was sealed. Who could turn down a few days rambling?
The transition from the grim, gruelling, urban outrage of New Jersey with its spewing factories and endless offramps and traffic circles to the softly rolling hills of the Catskills is mercifully gradual– a sudden change might knock the wind out of a guy. The insistent voice of Google maps interrupts every conversation with emotionless directives, like an annoying passenger you regret inviting, until you realise you’re in the country. You start climbing, streams and paddocks appear; now’s the time to roll down the window because suddenly the air is breathable; and ahead, the softly rising Catskill mountains. At this point your crushed spirit may summon the courage to peek out from its hiding spot, somewhere behind your pancreas, where it’s been busily drafting its resignation.
We turned onto a winding side road and wended past open fields, a derelict barn or two, the occasional grand alpine lodge; a few motionless horses eyed us without interest. At 3pm, with the sun high over Hunter Mountain, we pulled up the driveway by an unassuming two storey pile and met our landlord, Bob.
Bob was apprehensive at first. His house could comfortably sleep eight, and here we were, two large men with accents. Bob’s eyes narrowed as he inspected us. He dutifully showed us through the house, explaining heating systems, gas tanks, exhaust mechanisms– we smiled and nodded dumbly. His suspicion grew until he broke and asked us where we were from. At my mention of Sydney, he relaxed (that often happens– Americans still see Australians as harmless), and told of his many trips to Australia in his capacity as high level security for multi national corporations. While explaining the electronic front door lock he revealed he now lectures in National Security. I won’t tell you the code, because you’ve already guessed it, but I now have grave concerns for this country’s defences.
We waited for him to busy himself in another room before sneaking our absurd inventory of food and booze up the stairs and into the kitchen: a rack of pork ribs, tomahawk steaks, burgers, kababs, a whole chicken, two dozen eggs, two pounds of bacon, dried beans, stocks, duck fat, bags of assorted chillies; and a stockpile of booze, the sight of which made my liver haul itself out to go and wait in the car.
Seemingly satisfied that we weren’t going to board up his doors and windows and claim sovereignty, Bob took off and left us to investigate our new digs. The main space, a cathedral-ceilinged living room was a jumble of sinking furniture and weak table lamps giving off a timid quavering light. In the bedrooms plastic-sheeted mattresses surrendered to the slightest pressure, bedclothes a dingy smear of olive and mustard. An improbably long dining table did its best to prevent access to the small, slightly greasy kitchen; cabinets and drawers crammed with mismatched pots and dull knives, and a motley selection of opened food of indeterminate age– either Bob’s or a former guest’s. We unloaded our provisions and convened on the back deck to absorb the majesty in silence for a few moments. The rising Hunter Mountain spread out before us, draped in soft, misty, sage coloured trees; in the folds, clumps of darker pines in triangle formation descended like an attacking tribe. Surrounding and protecting the house from invasion, an army of bare, bony trees like naked grasping old crones. The awe was complete but short-lived: we become accustomed to a new environment disappointingly quickly. It would be nice to marvel endlessly at new surroundings, but after that first stunned silence, we’ve adjusted to a new world and go about our business. That feeling of awe might return, maybe at night when the stars are bearing down on us, or in a misty early morning, but it’s impossible to hold on to. Besides, all that staring makes it hard to concentrate on the cooking. We immediately agreed that hiking could wait till tomorrow, fixed some drinks and made a meal plan.
I woke up next day to scowling skies and an insistent frigid drizzle; I peeled my eyes open and made coffee, the smell of last night’s steaks still hanging in the air. The Attorney is a master of the breakfast arts and laid on a spread of hummus, salad, boiled eggs, and hand made pita, with which we fortified ourselves and headed off into the wilderness. Snow that had fallen days ago, still packed solid on the trail, made the going slow and slippery, and the rain persisted, but miraculously we’d come somewhat prepared: my attorney in a full waterproof suit, me in a dollar-ninety-nine disposable plastic poncho in vivid lime green. We stomped and slithered up the gentle incline, too focussed on our next step to take in much of the scenery (I’m known to have many attributes in common with the mountain goat, but sadly nimbleness and sure-footedness are not among them.) But the stinging cold air cleared out our lungs, the smell of rotting vegetation and woodsmoke filled our heads, the only sounds the nearby stream and the crunching of snow under boots.
How to quiet the chatter in my agitated brain? As the days passed, the rabble became subdued, as the spring in my head gradually uncoiled, but not completely. If only I could contemplate nature with zen-like emptiness… Instead I recited half-remembered poems to the trees, Coleridge’s insane ramblings preferable to my mundane obsessions.
In the following days we rambled through pine forests, along slow moving creeks with layers of intricately patterned ice forming in the turns; to slushy waterfalls, the thickening water pummelling through deep packed ice; we returned to Hunter Mountain in the sun, the winds calmed and snow melting, turning Hollow Tree Brook into a gushing torrent. On a flat rock I hacked slices of fatty saucisson with a pocket knife and slugged red wine as I wondered at river scenes of moss-coated fallen trees and smooth stone displays under sleek cascades too cinematically picturesque to be completely believable.
Back at the lodge pork ribs were smoked, burgers and kebabs grilled, a butterflied chicken layered with butter and thick strips of bacon barbecued in a relentless freezing rain; the doldrums of a pandemicized New York City retreating further towards the horizon with every brim-filled tumbler of Portuguese wine. The stars stared back at me through the grill smoke and tried to name me by my outline.
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