Tuesday August 3

“Your travel life has the essence of a dream. It is something outside the normal, yet you are in it. It is peopled with characters you have never seen before and in all probability will never see again. It brings occasional homesickness, and loneliness, and pangs of longings to see some dearly loved person… But you are like the Vikings or the master mariners of the Elizabethan age, who have gone into the world of adventure, and home is not home until you return.”

Agatha Christie

The days of hiking are already blending together in my memory and don’t stand apart from the others. This is not true for today. It’s one of those moments where you want to re-hike it again because it’s so unique from most other days. 

Maybe the reason I liked todays hike was because we were able to feel fast as we hiked. It was flat and smooth and peaceful. The views were gorgeous of the tall grasses and the views of the marsh. There is a 1.5-mile elevated wooden trail that meanders through the open spaces. Birds, butterflies, and turtles were all around to cheer us on. 

When we arrived in Vernon we were only planning on taking our lunch at the St. Thomas Episcopal church, a hiker friendly church that lets hikers use their basement as a hostel. Then Llama told me, “I can’t see in front of me. There is a large black area, I think I’m about to get a migraine.

“What do I do? What do you need?”I stammered out, unprepared for how to handle this. 

She calmly responded with a quiet voice, “I need a dark room and several hours of quiet.”

I’ve never known anyone who gets migraines. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do to help. I don’t know that there is anything I can do to help. I don’t like this feeling of being helpless. She’s lost most of her vision, she and had to go  into the church basement where she immediately curled up into a ball on an old couch. I didn’t know how long this might last so I pulled out a book and found a table to sit at while I waited to see what would happen. The place was very still and quiet, all hikers that had spent the night had left and all hikers who would be coming were many hours away from arrival, so Llama had plenty of time to get the silence and peace she needed. The pastor of the church was around and checked in on us, he and I stepped outside and had a great time getting to know each other and talking about life and God. He’s very cool. We connected easily and without defenses up like so many other people in ministry do to each other. I would hang out with him if I lived near here. Then he had to go and take care of other things so I went and sat under a tree wondering what I was going to do next.

It didn’t take me long to get bored so I took a shower, washed our clothes, and then decided to go look around the area to see what’s near. There was a small little coffee shop next to a grocery store, perfect. It was a gentle day alone. I get hours a day alone but this felt different. I can power forward down a trail and enjoy the scenery, think my thoughts and know I’m accomplishing something. But now I’m just sitting and not knowing what is going to happen with my day. I guess Llama is doing all the healing right now, this is what I get to do to support her and I’m glad to do it. 

I went next door to the grocery store and wandered the isles when I came upon one of the best discoveries, there was a shelf in the store with light pouring down from heaven illuminating a simple brown jar. It was Berry Blend Jif Smooth Sensations. It happened just like that, I swear. It is one of God’s newest creations that has again given me a renewed desire to eat peanut butter without fear of nausea. Peanut butter and Quaker instant oatmeal packets were daily food staples for the first few months of hiking and I consumed so much that I grew to move beyond dislike of those meals and into loathing and even despising them. But then when I saw this new product, and some small healing took place in my heart. I believe it’s a gift from God in a dry and weary land of flavor.  

I am fully aware that this is not even jam made from real berries but an artificially flavored, sugary oil spread. And I know that the Berry Blend is simply a blended version of the ribboned peanut butter and jelly products that other companies have been modestly selling for years. I know all that. And yet there it was lit up on the shelf for me. I had been gone for about four hours so I bought two jars and took them back to Llama to see how she was doing. She was just waking up and her mind was in a fog. 

She is doing better but I’m certain we are done hiking today. So we set up camp in the church and made a meal of our newest treasure on fresh bagels. We sat quietly talking and also just having long moments of being silent. She told me again how thankful she was to have me help out so much today, she told me again that she loved me. It didn’t scare me to hear it. It doesn’t scare me and it doesn’t seem to fill any holes of longing in my life. Is that bad? Is that good? I really like this girl but how can she already know she loves me? She is a great hiking partner and a wonderful companion. We laugh a lot and enjoy all of our conversations which is all we have time for as we walk all day every day. We each are reading the Bible and talking about what we are seeing and questions that come up. We make up stories as we walk. We have fun. My emotions grow more every day for this woman but I can’t say I’m in love with her. She is a good woman and from what I know of her at this point, I think she would be a great wife. And I need to be looking at that because this woman tells me she loves me. I could see her as a partner who would journey through life taking on adventure challenges, seeking God together, laughing a lot, and making up stories as we go, that sounds pretty cool to me.

Wednesday, August 4, 1999

Around dinnertime the trail exited us out onto highway 17A in New York and we were both out of water. We had been wondering about what to do to solve our thirst when we noticed about 20 one-gallon water jugs set aside for hikers. “Yes!”We ran over to them and discovered that they were all empty, “No!”We stood there for a few minutes talking about what our options were and what we wanted to do. People who drive the road must know hikers need water because a car pulled over and the head of young man stuck out introducing us as Markus and he offering to take us wherever we wanted to get food and water. Wonderful!

Markus was just a kid in his early 20’s who was full of energy and enthusiasm who worked full time at Campmor, a camping company that sells through its catalogs. As he drove us down the road at illegal speeds he started to tell me that the gear I was using for my hike was all wrong. I had been making grievous choices that are putting me in danger. I asked what I should be using and he began to walk me through the catalogue of supplies his company sold that would meet all my needs and leave me floating down the trail on a cloud of cotton candy. His equipment is far superior. I responded, “That’s possible, I’m not familiar with Campmor’s products. If you send me equipment I’m happy to try it out and share my opinions of the product.”

After Markus had put me in my place he stopped at a mini-mart for Llama and I resupplied on bagels, fruit juice bars, bananas, and a lot of water. We loaded back up and he started to drive us back towards the trail and asked, “Please keep me in our prayers.” 

I replied, “I would love to.”

Immediately he turned on me, “you’ll never do that.”

This isn’t what I expected to hear. “Listen, I’m a Christian and I would be honored to pray to God for you.”

Markus shot back, “I didn’t care who I prayed to so long as it’s not Satan. Prayer after all is just the giving off of good energy. And you know what, if God created all things, that means God created sin… so God must have evil in him.”  

Wow, where do this come from and where is he going with this?

He continued, “I raised as a Catholic but I can’t stand all the rules and regulations they put on me. They’re just not for me.  I think all ways lead to truth, everything leads to heaven or whatever you want to believe in. If you’re a Christian, one of those born-again type people who believes in Jesus, your just brain washed and closed-minded.”  

He then rattled and prattled as hard as he could to try and open my mind to a world of no absolute truths.

Every time I opened my mouth he would shut me down. “I have a friend who is a born-again type and he doesn’t try to change me, were just good friends.”  And what I kept hearing between his words were, “Shut up.”

So I did. 

Both Llama and I sat listening to him as he drove fast weaving back and forth through traffic, cutting people off while also trying to weave through his thoughts and conversation with us. “I don’t believe in the Bible or Jesus.”

I knew enough to not antagonize him, so I just listened, smiled, and watched the trees go by. I didn’t know what else to do but silently pray that one day he could listen to God. 

When we arrived back to the trail Markus immediately jumped out of his car and climbed onto the trunk with a very smug smile crossing his face. He sat with an air of confidence and arrogance as he looked down on the two of us. We kept our focus and unloaded our equipment and supplies out of the back seat of his car. The I slowly walked up to him and said calmly, “you argued with me and shut me down before I could give you any answers or to respond to any of your critical attacks on me and my faith. If you ever want to change someone’s heart, the first thing you have to do is be willing to listen. You ripped me apart and just wanted to punch me. You had no desire to grow or learn. You just wanted to hurt me. This could have been a much better experience for all of us. I told you I would pray for you and I will.”

Then I turned to Llama, “ready to go?”

She nodded silently.

We then turned and walked into the woods leaving our host sitting on his car staring after us, anger flashing in his eyes. I wasn’t trying to get him mad but we could see that he was about to blow his top. We began to power forward into the evening heat, constantly casting glances over our shoulder to make sure nobody was coming up the trail after us. 

When we got Wildcat Shelter Llama said that she was at a loss for words for what happened with Markus.  She couldn’t understand what was happening or why. She said with confusion for what had happened, “He just felt evil.”  

I told her, “Everything is spiritual. We just don’t always see such clear battle lines against God and God’s kingdom as we did today. This is more normal than you know, this is the true reality of the world.”

We were a bit on edge as we went to bed, still nervous about any possible Markus madness. So when a bear walked into our campsite and began rummaging, knocking our pans around, sniffing things and scratching himself against trees, we went opossum, we froze as we listened to make sure it was only a bear and not a crazy person. It was the grunts, the rumbling in his belly, and pawing at the ground that strangely calmed us. “Thank God it’s only a bear trashing our campsite.”

Thursday August 5

“Too often I would hear men boast only of the miles covered that day, rarely of what they had seen.”  Louis L’Amour

Today as we hiked I saw my first antlered buck standing majestic on a rocky overlook, amazing beauty. Then just minutes later I saw my first monarch butterfly dancing in the breeze just feet away. I was equally impressed and at awe at how beautiful both were. I love monarchs but they do have a dark side to them that most people never notice. Their beautiful colors are not for admiration but are a warning to everyone, “Don’t eat me, I taste bad, really bad.”

As a caterpillar the monarch eats the leaves of the milkweed, a bitter plant with toxins that it thinks is delicious. They slowly store up the toxin with each and every bite, patiently preparing the ingested poison and using it as their weapon to keep other animals from wanting to eat them. Maybe you’ve head the phrase, “I’m so hungry I could eat a caterpillar.”Maybe you haven’t but they have. If you get in their way they will just eat through you, they will even eat their brothers and sisters. That’s called cannibalism and that’s bad. In its first two weeks it will eat so much it will increase its size 2,700 times. It would be like a six-pound baby growing to over eight tons, more than a blue whale. They don’t make strollers big enough to push a kid that big. It eats so much and grows so quickly their skin cannot keep up, so about every three days the caterpillar will become trapped in its own skin and will have to free itself or die. For it to get out the skin it will split their skin along their back and he will crawl out of themselves. This will happen five times during the life of each caterpillar. Because its bigger on the inside it has to break free. 

When they finally hole up in their cocoon there is a metamorphous. Their internal organs liquefy and are recycled into new tissue. A caterpillar smoothie. The jaws liquify and disappear and a special long tongue appears. Their old stubby legs are absorbed and new wings develop. Then one day they become solid again and break free from their cocoon where they will only fly during the daylight hours. Sensory hairs are located on the legs and feet of a butterfly, which give it its only sense of taste. So they taste what they walk on. When water and nectar are found and located by the feet, then the tongue is uncoiled and directed to that spot to drink up. But what if they step in mud or worse? I’ve stepped in dog poop, that has got to a bad day for them when they do that.  

When they fly, they average 10-25 miles per hour during their migratory flights and have been seen flying 650 miles without landing for a breather. These guys win the award for endurance. The monarch butterfly (Danavs Plexippus) is one of the few insects (they have 6 legs) that migrate.

Don’t get me wrong, I really do like butterflies, in fact I think I can appreciate and relate to them more knowing that they have a dark side. It makes them more interesting and weird than just the innocent fluttering fantasy I grew up believing.

Friday, August 6, 1999

“I have wandered all my life, and I have also traveled; the difference between the two being this, that we wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.”  Hilaire Belloc (French born English writer)

Beautiful day to climb some mountains in NY. I harnessed the powers of a mountain goat and jumped from rock to rock all the way up the sharp boulder mountain. When I hit the summit I danced a little jig of triumph and released a large “Yeeha!”I drank deeply from my water supply and caught my breath from the sweaty morning exertion. Then I started to continue to on the boulder path when I almost stepped on a coiled up snake basking in the morning sun. Adrenaline surged, my focus became sharp and I jumped off the trail with cat-like skills, all the while keeping my eyes locked onto the snake to see if he was going to strike at me. But he didn’t, he just watched me with his long red tongue sticking out at me, tasting my smell. It was a very bright red tongue I thought. I thought Llama would want to see him so I backed up the trail to wait for her. I took a picture of him before I left just in case it slithered off. When Llama walked together up the trail I was relieved to see that the pale green snake was still sunning himself on the rocks. It was so strange, his tongue never went back into his mouth, it just stayed sticking out at us. We were both kind of scared of the snake but something wasn’t quite right, it hadn’t moved and that tongue, that bright red unmoving tongue. I took my hiking pole and reached out gently and touched its tail… nothing happened. I nudged its body again…still no movement from the snake. So I got bold, I took the pole and slid the tip under it, then I flipped it over… it was a rubber snake.  Someone with a sick sense of humor left a rubber snake on the trail to scare me. They totally got me. Llama laughed and laughed at me, just about rolling on the ground laughing at me. She laughed so hard she started to cry. It took only a few minutes before I was able to laugh at myself but I got there. And then we left snaky there for the next hiker to find and we continued on.

Because of the drought and high heat, fires have been starting in the forests all over the state. Many trails in these mountains are closed with huge signs giving notice and alerts nailed to trees posted at every tail entrance. Because of the fires that are running out of control, hikers are not allowed on the trails including the Appalachian Trail with the exception for thru-hikers. I guess thru-hikers are the only ones they either can’t stop, don’t care about, or they just know we won’t stop regardless. From the top of Bear Mountain, beside the Hudson River, I could see smoke filtering through the trees over several mountains. One mountain, just south, was belching up brown smoke into the air filling the sky. At times we could see the flames lick out of the forest just a few miles from us. The signs at the ranger stations read, “extreme danger of fire.”  

We met two volunteer firemen at the top of Bear Mountain who were about 18 years old and in panic frantic mode running around amidst all the calm tourists looking at the Hudson and the New York skyline 30 plus miles away. Nobody seemed concerned, that concerns me also. As they ran by us we asked them about the fires. That is what they were hoping someone would do. There were over 180 fires in the area with many of them going underground which is dangerous because you can’t even guess where the shouldering fire will pop up and blaze with new life. They were very excited to in the middle of this problem and couldn’t wait to get so see some real action even though they said they have had no training yet. They were very enthusiastic to beat those fires down. After several minutes of nervous excitement sharing they told the two of us, “You need to get out of her, you are in grave danger.”

I replied, “grave danger?” 

“Yes! Yes! We have to get you off this mountain before it starts to go! The whole thing could go at any moment.”  

Their solution was to take us off the mountain and we decided to let these kind enthusiastic boys “save” us. So they loaded us up into their car and as we drove to the bottom of the mountain we all listened to their radio chatter about where the fires were dangerous, none actually were yet. But we were safe should one get out of control. 

“Whew!  That was a close one.” (Mild eye roll and the drama those boys were living in.)

Monday, August 9, 1999

“If an ass goes traveling, he’ll not come home a horse.”  

Thomas Fuller (1608-1661)

When Llama and I got to Nuclear Lake we were already drenched with sweat and ready for a cool down. We were not going to pass this moment up just to make sure we got our miles in. We stripped off our sweaty salt encrusted clothing and bathed both ourselves and our clothes in the refreshing mountain lake. If we could have found a fresh stream of water nearby we would have pitched the tent there and called it home. 

The only reason the lake was named Nuclear Lake is because it marks the site of a nuclear-research facility that shut down in 1972. A chemical explosion blew out two windows in the lab that used to sit on the shore of the lake. It did blow out a little bomb-grade plutonium across the lake but that shouldn’t be a problem should it? So maybe that doesn’t sound so good. But there have been many tests over the years to the lake and the trails surrounding and its been declared safe for many years. I trust my Geiger counter, its never lied to me yet. I think the fish were a little hungry because as I sat in the shallows reading a book, I had over 50 fish of all sizes circling me (None with three eyes) wondering if I was their next snack. As long as I moved my feet around they didn’t nibble at me, but if I stopped any movement they would come and start trying to take bites at me. It was a beautiful lake and haven’t sat enjoying such a perfect spot in a long time.

Ultimately we were forced to continue after having spent several hours enjoying the sun, cool water, fresh books, and wonderful conversations. We continued our hike to find the next water source and for where we wanted to camp for the night. We found our water source at a house just down the road from the largest most majestic white oak tree in New York. Just outside Pawling sits the rock star of trees. It measures 114 feet tall and it is 18 feet 3 inches in girth. Its estimated age is around 300 years old and is quite the celebrity as its photographed and written up in travel guides. We stared at the tree for a few minutes and then pressed on crossing the state line, leaving New York for the beautiful state of Connecticut.