Sunday, November 29, 2009

Into the Wild

Until a few weeks ago, I had never been camping. So when a friend, an experienced outdoors man, offered to take me on a camping trip, it was hard to say no. Not even a forecast predicting an overnight temperature of two degrees (Celsius) for the weekend of our trip, dimmed my enthusiasm; on the contrary, the extra challenge strengthened my resolve.

The plan was to hike 23Km of the Finger Lakes Trail in upstate New York over two days. The trail runs hundreds of miles East to West, perpendicular to the Southern tips of a dozen or so elongated lakes carved into the landscape by ancient glaciers. The trail runs through forested hills, farmland and along streams and glens. An added bonus at this time of the year, is the foliage ablaze in fall colors. But October, in this part of the world, can also be very wet and very cold.

Predictably, it was dark, cold and raining the morning we drove South. After parking one car at the destination of our hike, we drove to our planned starting point. As we drove deeper into the countryside and paved roads turned into unto desolate dirt roads, images from the 70s movie classic Deliverance crossed my mind. What, I wondered, would a bunch of rednecks do if they found an Ayrab lost in the woods. Other than the isolation, however, there was nothing threatening about the quiet, bucolic countryside that surrounded us. Several miles from our destination we came across a sign planted in the front yard of a house announcing: "Arab Mare for Sale". The sign was sitting under the street sign: Templar road. We had to chuckle at this odd juxtaposition. Not even deep in the backwoods of the New World can you get away from ghosts of the Old World.

We parked the car, dressed in layers to keep warm and dry, donned our backpacks and set out onto the trail. It was mid morning but felt more like dawn. A grey mist hung heavy across the valleys and a constant drizzle saturated the air. The cold, damp air scented with the distinctive smell of fall, was invigorating. The trail was carpeted with fiery red, rust-colored and golden leaves glistening from the rain. Other than the sounds of our steps, the woods were silent without even the distant din of traffic, a reassuring sound for the urban dweller, a sign that civilization is still within reach.

We walked mostly in silence, enveloped by the vegetation around us and exhilarated by the solitude. This was no leisurely stroll in the woods, however, we walked at a determined, purposeful pace. We had to make it to our campsite before dark. Every couple of hours, we would drop our backpacks and collapse unto the wet ground for a quick break. We shed or added layers of cloths according to the ambient temperature and we refueled with water, nuts and dried fruits. Over the next seven hours we walked through woods, along creeks, across streams, past small waterfalls, emerging occasionally from the woods to walk around farms, unto hilltops with distant views of the surrounding hills and lakes. Our most striking encounter in the woods, however, had nothing to do with nature. It was the abandoned cemetery of an old, long gone settlement, an eerie vision in the middle of the woods. Most of the tombstones were toppled or cracked by the encroaching trees and the chiseled names worn down by age and the unrelenting dampness of the undergrowth.

In the late afternoon, as we approached our destination for the night, we saw the only other hiker we came across on the trail. He was an older, white bearded man, making his way into the woods with a full backpack and walking sticks. We exchanged greetings but he was rather taciturn. He seemed determined to get away from it all and longed for the solitude of the wild; our small talk just got in the way. We reached our campsite at around five in the evening, time enough to make a fire, eat and prepare for the night. A lean to, a small wooden platform, closed on three sides, was going to be our shelter for the night. The night was jet black except for the dying embers of our fire. To keep the wildlife at bay, we hung all of our food in a bag high on a tree branch some fifty meters from our shelter. The night was uneventful with no unexpected visits from any of the wildlife - foxes, coyotes and occasional black bears- that live in the area. Early next morning, energized by the crisp cold air and a cup of instant coffee, we set our onto the trail for the final eight kilometers ending at the Watkins Glen state park. We must have been a strange sight to the tourists strolling in the opposite direction into the park, two scruffy, muddy, unshaven middle aged men with backpacks walking with a brisk confident pace. It was the confidence borne from a sense of achievement at having hiked 23Km in a day and a half and except for a couple of blisters, we were none worse for wear.

My first venture into the wild was exhilarating. OK, we did not cross the Amazon or survive a week in the arctic, but there were neverless real dangers had we been foolish or unprepared. Get wet when the ambient temperature is two degrees and you rapidly become hypothermic. There is a certain primordial pleasure in regaining some of the lost skills of our ancient ancestors and sense of achievement when you reach your goal. To get there, you have to shed all concerns of your daily life and fixate on a very primal need, survival: staying warm, dry, and safe. I can't wait to get back out there again though I will likely wait out the frigid subzero winter months; I am no Survivoman ... at least not yet.