Sunday, December 23, 2012

Harper's Ferry

Mike pointing into West Virginia
Harper's Ferry is a small, historic town at the confluence of the Shanendoah and Potomac rivers. The town itself is in West Virginia, but directly across the river to the north is Maryland and to the South is Virginia. It also happens to be the approximate halfway point of the Appalachian Trail.

For this past (2012) Thanksgiving, my family and I went to Maryland to spend the holiday with my Yia-Yia (my Greek grandmother), my uncle John and his family. Thanksgiving itself was pretty great, considering that Mike and I were seated at the kid's table and we got to spend the whole evening acting like children and being completely unapologetic about it. The evening culminated in an epic Nerf gun battle in the basement, while the grownups did the dishes upstairs. If that's not what Thanksgiving is all about then I am frankly not sure what is.

For the Friday after Thanksgiving, we decided that we would all go to Harper's Ferry to go on a hike. Neither Mike nor I had even been to Harper's Ferry before, and it was exciting to walk along part of the  AT while we were hygienic, clean and unencumbered by large packs. The town itself is an "Historic Village" and is quite cute. However, the most site-seeing I did in the downtown happened while my cousin Kate and I were sprinting through the streets in a desperate search for a restroom. This had the adverse effect of causing my brain to interpret all of the finely crafted vintage storefronts as simply "NOT BATHROOMS" which made it a bit harder to appreciate the scenery.

The trail itself is accessed by crossing an old railroad bridge into Maryland, and then hiking up along a ridge that wraps around to a cliff overlook of the downtown. We went with my immediate family, as well as Uncle John and two of his kids (Russell and Kate). Kate is whip-smart and has an amazing deadpan sense of humor, which made it hard for me during the hike, as I would often have to stop walking because I was laughing so hard.

Me and Kate
Once we reached the cliff overlook, there a second craggy section that could be accessed by a narrow path right on the cliff's edge.

"Can we go over there?" Kate asked me, pointing over to the second crag, where there were some other people climbing around.

"Absolutely!" I said, clambering over to the narrow path with her.

"Cool. I figured it would be okay, as long as I went with a sort-of grownup."

"A sort-of grownup?"

"Yeah, well, I mean you look grown up. But you and I both know you're just a kid."

Everyone else eventually followed us over, and we ate some snacks while looking out at the world from a bird's-eye view. At some point Russell disappeared, which caused Kate to get into a panic;

"Oh no, did Russell fall over the edge?! HE HAD THE CHEESE PUFFS. WE HAVE TO FIND HIM."

It may have just been the time of year, or a coincidence, but there was an incredible number of dogs on the trail (being walked by people, not just wild dogs; although that would have been very exciting). It is interesting the range of dogs that people will take on a hike up a mountain, as we saw everything from chihuahuas to great danes and everything in between.

Harper's Ferry will likely be a stopping point for Mike and I, as my Uncle John wants to pick us up there and take us to his house so we can shower and briefly remember what it's like to be civilized human beings. It was interesting to stand on the top of a cliff and look down at scenery that will look the same to me months from now, but I know it won't feel the same.

More photos after the jump! (Click the "Read More" link)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Catskill Bears

"I just saw a bear over on that hill."

We all stopped moving and looked up at Bradley, whose back was to us, and who was standing stock-still. Derby the Dog, let out a soft bark, and Bradley held onto his collar, staring intently across the small valley at opposite the hill about 500 feet away. To our credit, none of us started screaming. For the most part, we all remained motionless. Except for my food. Slowly, tragically, the marshmallow I had been roasting to a golden-brown perfection melted off of my stick and plopped down into the fire pit. 

It was probably better off that I didn't eat that marshmallow, as I'd already consumed roughly 3,500 calories in less than 10 hours. There were six of us total (Mike, Jessica, Nick, Bradley, Laura, Jessica and myself), camping in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. This was in the middle of November a few weeks ago and Mike and I had decided that we needed to go camping with all of our new gear at least once before we left for the Trail. We didn't want to get two days into the trip only to find out that all of our equipment was likely to kill us*. So we gathered some other humans last minute, crammed ourselves and the dog (Derby is a lab mix, so he is a sizable dog) into a van, and drove three hours north into the wilderness for 24 hours of societal regression.

We have gone camping at this particular campsite about twice a year over the past 5 years, making it a pretty special spot for us. It's a relatively leisurely hike up the hill, and then we have a very secluded campsite next to a river. As the hike is not very long, we usually have to occupy the rest of our day somehow, and we do this by eating a staggering amount of food that has been cooked over the campfire. I like to think that these camping trips are miniature forays into my future career as a professional eater. One day I will be able to eat 80 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Take that, 6th grade teacher of mine who said I had no aspirations! 

Bradley continued to stare across the hill, while the rest of us became bored with the idea of imminent mauling, and set about resuming the ceremonial stuffing of our faces. Some time later, a figure dressed in all orange stalked by on the far slope; the annual mobile murder pumpkin. We had decided that it was a great idea to go camping on the first day of hunting season. It wasn't so much a choice as it was just a decision made out of pure ignorance. None of us was wearing any orange, with the exception of Mike, who is typically the most well-prepared human I know (compliment for Mike or insult to everyone else I know? The choice is yours!)

There is something to be said about camping with the knowledge that there are both man and beast slinking through the trees around you, intent on besting the other. None of us were keen to get caught in the crossfire, so we dealt with the stressful and dangerous situation the most mature way we knew how: by eating.

As the story goes, sometime in the middle of the night that night, Bradley woke up. He had forgotten to bring enough sleeping pads for both himself and his fiance Laura, so there was nothing separating him from the ground except the thin floor of their tent and his sleeping bag. Considering it was 21 degrees, he likened the experience to sleeping on a solid block of ice. He woke up and got quietly out of the tent, bringing Derby the Dog with him. He went over to the fire pit to make a small fire and try to warm himself up.

"All I could hear was this snuffling around the base of my tent," recalled Nick the next morning, telling us about how his eyes shot open in the middle of the night, his breath steaming away from this face in the coldness of his single tent. "All I could think about was that bear that Bradley had seen earlier in the day. I didn't know how it had found us." We had put all of our food into a bear bag a safe distance away from our camp, so there wasn't much possibility that a bear would be interested in our campsite.

"Maybe the bear could smell all of the food that you had eaten INSIDE OF YOU," I offered, helpfully.

The rest of us huddled around the early morning campfire embers, our eyes wide in terrified anticipation of the rest of the story, keenly aware that Bradley had not yet been seen since the sun had risen. 

"I just lay there, silent, waiting, hardly daring to breathe..." Nick continued in a matter-of-fact kind of way, that nonetheless made Jessica and I cling to one another and rue the moment that we had decided to go camping in the middle of November. 

"But then I realized it was just Derby."

"Oh," Jessica and I said, feeling disappointed and then immediately guilty that we would be disappointed about lack of disembowelment. 

"When I got out of my tent, I tried to be loud about it, so I wouldn't frighten Bradley. I guess I wasn't loud enough though, because as I started walking over to the small campfire, Bradley saw my shadow and started yelling ' WHO IS THAT?! GET OUT OF HERE! I HAVE A DOG! DON'T TAKE ANOTHER STEP AND I WON'T BE FORCED TO ACT!"

"Did he think you were a hunter?"

"No, I think he thought I was a bear. I guess he just thought I was a rather reasonable bear."

Luckily, Bradley did not body slam Nick to the ground in the dead of night, though it would have made for a very compelling end to this story. We packed up and headed out sometime after Bradley woke up (a few hours later), and hiked back out to the van.

*All of our equipment worked very well, though it didn't rain, so it's hard to know for sure. We'll just have to wait and see how soaking wet and freezing cold we get the first few weeks of the trail. Thus far, the weight of my pack and equipment (before food) is 16 pounds.

LOTS MORE PHOTOS AFTER THE JUMP! (Click the "Read More" Link)