"Meet you at the top!" I yelled down to my brother and his friends just after we had gotten off the road and started up Schunemunk Mountain. The three of them, my brother and his friends Frank and Bill, were on a sort of getaway weekend from college, planning to complete the 1300 foot climb this morning and return the following morning. I wasn't planning to accompany them until the previous night, when I had learned that my schedule for that weekend would be free. I packed my day pack quickly that night, gathering a tarp, hammock, poncho, change of clothes, first aid kit, flares for firestarting, a flashlight, and knives, matches, lighters, water purifying tablets, and other small Items. I filled two water bottles and put them in the refrigerator, and then set aside sandwiches, cookies, and an apple for lunch, hot dogs for dinner, and cereal for breakfast. Strapping a sleeping bag to the bottom of my bloated day pack, I was ready for the next day's journey.
We set out at about nine-thirty in the morning, and the base of the mountain was about a half hour hike along the road from my house. I was going to stay with the other three until we reached the base of the railroad trestle that marks where the trail to the summit starts from the road. I wanted to push myself up the mountain, while my brother and his friends wanted a relaxing hike, so we agreed to split here. I would continue up, without stopping for rest or water, until I reached the 1664' summit. Here I would wait for the rest of the hiking group. We would eat lunch at the summit and continue along the top of the mountain for a while before heading back to camp. I had left a map with my brother, with the trail highlighted and written descriptions of the scenery on the back. Even though I was the only one of the four who had ever been up the mountain, I didn't worry much about my brother getting lost. Even if we were separated, we each had shelter and a day's supply of food.
The first length of the trail after I started on ahead ran parallel to the railroad tracks, only about twenty feet higher up. This segment finished back on the tracks, only to lead to the trail that led directly into the mountain. Here I noted that the time was 10:45, and I started my walkman to help pass the time.
The first 20 minutes or so through the forest on the lower section of the mountain were relaxing compared to the hiking to come. I noticed a large stump off to my left that I used to mark where the trail became noticeably steeper. This part was a little more challenging than the earlier walk in the woods, but it was still an easier walk than what was yet to come. As I heard the sound of the rushing water of the nearby waterfall get louder, I realized how close I was getting to the upper part of the mountain. I soon saw the green of the hemlocks, and knew I was close to the turn that would lead me to the bare rocks up top. A little more walking took me to this intersection, with the waterfall on my right and the trail leading upward on my left.
The initial climb up was rather tiring, with the pain from the straps from my frameless pack digging into my shoulders not helping, but worth it when I finally broke out of the overshadowing trees and into the open air on the top of the mountain. From here the view was spectacular. There was only one spot further up with a view better than this. I could see all the way to the Hudson River and beyond, as well as to the small roads leading out of the base of the mountain. I continued on, following the yellow paint marks on the bare rock and scattered small trees that marked the trail to the summit. Here I was reminded of the first time I had been on this mountain, three years earlier on a Boy Scout campout.
That hike was on a clear fall afternoon, and was my first long hike. I was with the slow group when I came to the upper section of the mountain. The other kids in this group couldn't go for more than a few minutes without a break, so I went on ahead of them. It was about dusk by this time, and the light was slowly fading away. With walking stick and a bottle of iced tea in hand, I set out on the end of the hike alone. Even though I had never been to our campsite before, I wasn't worried about finding it. By this time there were probably some people at the site, and I knew that there were a few people not too far ahead of me that knew where the site was. I pressed onward, taking an occasional sip from my iced tea. Somehow, despite the lack of light, I always managed to find the trail markers. Along the way I met up with two other kids from my group, and we finished our hike walking blindly through the woods, with only the faint glimmer of the campfire in our site to lead us.
I was glad to not have to worry about that on this bright spring morning, with perfect knowledge of my destination. I never once doubted that my brother would also arrive without incident. After all, he had a map and written directions, and since it wasn't even noon, he still had plenty of time to complete the journey. I reached Sweet Clover Junction forty-five minutes after I had left the railroad tracks. From here it was 15 minutes to the campsite at Dark Hollow Junction, and another 15 to the summit. I passed the occasional recreational hiker along the way, but paid them little attention. My shoulders hurt, my legs ached, I was hungry, thirsty, and tired, but I continued without pause. There would be time for taking care of all of this at the summit.
An hour off the tracks I arrived at the campsite, with my quickest time ever. I only had a short 15 minute hike left until the summit. Once I arrived, I took off my pack, put on my sunglasses and had my lunch. It was exactly 12 noon. I decided to lie down on the very summit and rest until the others joined me. An hour later I had other ideas.
The plan was simple- we would each take it at our own pace, and meet at the summit. This never happened. At 1:30 in the afternoon I was sick of waiting. I hid my pack in some bushes and backtracked my trail to the campsite. I passed nobody on the trail, and found the campsite empty. I didn't want to go any farther back down the mountain, so I headed back to the summit.
I retrieved my pack from the bushes, and decided to follow the trail for a while the way the four of us were going to go together. It was always possible that my brother had changed plans and switched trails in order to see more of the mountain. After 45 minutes, I was back at the summit. I figured that there was nothing more that I could do to find them, so I decided to return to the campsite and put up my hammock in the shade. Whether they had taken the wrong trail, gotten totally lost, or had an accident along the way, there was no reasonable way for me to find out by myself.
After setting up my hammock, I went up to the trail and tied a red streamer to a tree limb. I was hoping that anyone to see it would walk over to it, where I could see someone from my hammock. I then settled in for a nice long rest.
"Hey doofus" were the words that got my attention at about 5:00 that afternoon. My brother had finally arrived at the campsite, alone. He asked where the stream was, explaining the situation. He and his friends had made a wrong turn early on in the hike, and had ended up on the other side of the stream with the waterfall. They had realized their mistake early, and had attempted to correct themselves, but only ended up back on the same trail. During this alternate hike, Frank wandered off with his camera, and it was at least half an hour until he was found. Frank had also neglected to drink much water, and suffered from a mild case of heat stroke. This further slowed their progress. They finally found a trail that cut across to the yellow trail, which went down and back up several hundred feet. They had followed the yellow trail until they came to the first good camping spot. My brother left Bill and Frank there and went ahead to find me and more water, since they had run out. I followed him back to their campsite, which was about 20 minutes back down the trail, past Sweet Clover Junction. My brother and Bill went for water, and left me with Frank. He was asleep on the tent, which was not set up yet, and he looked like a wreck. This was how he stayed until morning, except for moving off of the tent and moving into it when it was set up.
The next morning Frank was back to normal, and, feet clad only in sandals, he walked down the mountain without incident. I kept a slow pace going back down, having to pause every so often to wait for the others. Finally, at about 10:00 in the morning, we arrived back home safely, only about twenty-four hours after we departed.
Sitting here in front of my computer, typing this essay on this cold winter night, recalling this event from so many months ago, I realize how much I have enjoyed all of my trips up Schunemunk, especially this one with my brother. I haven't returned there since, although I did go hiking with some members of my Boy Scout troop at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico. Even though any of the ten days on the trail there involved longer hikes, higher elevations, and heavier packs, none of them had as much meaning as that one five mile hike on that spring morning, or the equal on the next morning. Those experiences will be with me for the rest of my life in memory. Only the feeling of the wind blowing in my face at 60 miles per hour on the 12441' summit of Mt. Baldy in New Mexico could ever rival the feeling of walking along the top of Schunemunk on a crisp, cold spring morning, with the world spreading out below.