Tea and cookies at the Mohonk Mountain House is a civilized snack served at 4:00 PM, and savored while sitting in velvet Victorian chairs before a cozy fire. Today, however, the management graciously invited the citizenry of New Palz (all of them) to a day of skating, hiking the trails, and afternoon tea. A generous offering, but when Dave and I entered the lounge, the dash of hordes desperate for a cup and the surge of celebrants eager for a sugar cookie convinced us that a walk suited us just as well.
A stay at this resort is a luxury for the most part beyond us, but for several years we have taken advantage of a mid-week, pre-holiday deal that puts an overnight almost within the realm of reasonable. With its dormers and turrets, balconies and stone arches, porches and picturesque overlooks, the Mountain House is a castle nestled in the Shawungunk Mountains, like Brigadoon, an oasis from a different time, a time where we want to be.
Despite the dimming light, Dave and I skirted the lake, leaving the castle behind us, taking an easy stroll along a wide graveled trail arched over with evergreens. To our left, massive blocks of stones scoured from the earth and carried by the glacier jutted from the steep slope that rose to the ridge. Ahead and above us, obscured by great profiles of rock with soaring foreheads and protruding chins, we heard youthful voices laughing and chattering, three teenagers, we later learned.
“What do you think?” said Dave. “Shall we add ‘rock-climbing’ to our activities when we tell friends about Mohonk?”
Having not done much rock-climbing, or any, we both wore sneakers. I regretted this, telling Dave I wished he’d worn hiking boots so we could legitimately call this outing a hike, but rock-climbing? Even better. Besides, we planned only to clamber up a little ways. Just enough to claim the activity.
But we got into it. Kept climbing. And when Dave called, “Here’s one of the red arrows that marks the trail. Wanna keep going?” I did, so we continued onward, pleased to have the guidance of those who’d planned the best approach.
Cheerfully, we reached for finger- and toe-holds, and where there were none, paused to study our options and plan how to progress. At times Dave gave me a boost; other times, I stretched out a hand to steady him. In places, we had to scooch through gaps, or heft our butts up onto a grainy surface, and swing our legs around and up.
All else receded as we scanned the rocks before us, the chinks and inclines, the heights and spans, to decide the best and safest way forward and up. It was difficult, but I was grinning, pleased I could still do this, grateful and awed that I was scaling these bones of the earth, rocks shunted and lifted and tumbled into place millions and millions of years ago. Oh, how I need to recall that perspective as I ruminate and worry about every detail of life.
The light was fading and I yelled ahead to the teenagers, asking if they knew how much further we had to go.
“Not sure. Close, I think. I hope,” a young man’s voice called back.
“Plenty of time before dark,” Dave said. He knows where my head goes.
For this is not the first time we’ve headed out for a walk that turned into something else, an adventure if one is charitable, sheer stupidity if one is honest. Years ago, when I was still on our town’s conservation commission and our malamute Kodiak was alive and fit, we set out with the dog on a November afternoon, around 4:00… a time we should beware of, it seems. Though the trail was local, it was new to us, well marked with blue splotches painted eye-level on intermittent tree-trunks. We marched along with Kody straining to run, her ears pricked and swiveling.
I always felt guilty with this big girl on a leash. She was majestic, maned, and wolfish, black and white with a masked face. Bred to pull sleds, but born, it seemed to me, to howl and run wild. I felt honored to be her human, and wished more for her than life in a house and at the end of a leash, but suburbia, hunters, and cars limited her freedom.
For some reason, I’d thought the trail was only a mile or so. I was mistaken, but when the sun set in front of us we’d been hoofing for a while and it didn’t make sense to turn back. Periodically I’d ask Dave, “Are you nervous?” and he said no every time, which calmed me. But my mind was picturing headlines, “Conservation Commissioner Lost in the Woods,” the “What a Jerk” part unprinted but implied. Plus I knew this preserve backed up on the 750 acres of Trout Brook Valley, which was adjacent to the even larger Devil’s Den state park. One could wander lost in those woods for days. Mentally, I whipped up a full-scale search with dogs and helicopters as I plodded on, craning for a glimpse of a trail marker, but no longer able to see them in the dark.
It was a glorious night, the sky velvet and star-sparkled, the constellation Orion overhead, club in hand. We knew the hunter’s orientation in relation to our house, right above the mailbox, at this time of year. We’d also taken note of where the sun went down. In the absence of a compass or Boy Scout to guide us, we took stock with those elements, and turned to head in the direction Orion indicated. Having grown up watching “Lassie,” we also enlisted the dog, saying, “Where’s home, Kody?” When we loosened up on her leash, she pulled as if she knew the answer, and eventually we spotted the reassuring flash of headlights along Black Rock Turnpike.
Back on the rock face above Mohonk, we’d long ago lost sight of the lights of the hotel, but the red arrows were still visible to mark the way.
Up ahead, we heard a female voice, shrill with alarm, say, “You’ve got to be kidding. I can’t do it.”
We heard the exaggerated teasing sighs of her friends, but I’d registered her remark with concern. “What is it?” I called.
“The arrow on this rock points straight up.”
Still, I felt some satisfaction that we were closing in on the kids. I realized it might be because challenging spots slowed them down, but Dave and I had them by four decades at least, and I couldn’t help a whisper of pride.
Beyond the exertion, this was a physical puzzle. At times the red arrows were friendly partners, providing good guidance, easing our way. At others, they mocked us, a joke surely, pointing up the flat face of a boulder without any visible cracks to cling to, and I pictured the painter smirking as he slapped that red sneer on the rock. Yet, always we figured out a way up.
Dave was faster, taller, and stronger, but he remained the rear-guard to protect and sometimes shoulder-boost his flower of a wife.
We could heard Kyle, Greer, and Todd just ahead, and had ascertained their names through their taunts and encouragements. Every now and then we’d glimpsed Greer’s curly head of hair, Kyle’s bearded face and broad torso in plaid flannel, and Todd, enveloped in his navy blue hoodie. “How much further, do you think?” I said again, but still, they had no idea.
“Sundown in twenty minutes,” Kyle called, and I inspected the overhangs around me, finding no comfort in the specter of a night spent, back to rock, in their shelter, as opposed to our cozy room with its wicker headboard, snuggly quilt, and convenient bathroom. I refused even to think about the meals now roasting in ovens and simmering in pans in Mohonk’s kitchens.
“Shit. I am not climbing that thing.” Greer again.
“Yes, you are,” said Todd.
“What is it?” I said. The kids were close now, just around the lip of a ledge.
“A ladder. A series of ladders. Straight up. Kyle, I don’t think you’ll even fit in there. Too narrow,” said Greer.
By now, we were in this together. I was grateful the kids were with us on the mountain, grateful for their company, both in the adventure and in case. And as we rounded the ledge, we saw two feet disappearing into a crevice above us.
Later we learned this was the “Lemon Squeezer,” a long, tight crevice with sturdy wooden ladders bolted to one side. As we stood at their base, I reflected that I would kill my kids if they ever tried anything like this, much less attempting it in the dark.
“It’s going to be a good story soon,” I said.
Dave, my brave one, my stalwart man, stood beside me as we eyed that groove in the rock with dismay. Still, the ladders guaranteed footholds and handholds at regular intervals, a good thing as it was pitch dark once we climbed inside the crevice.
Muffled grunts, complaints, and nervous laughter accompanied the kids’ struggle up the rungs. Glimmers of light broke the blackness, filtering past the bodies crammed into the opening above us, as one of them turned on a phone flashlight.
It was work, climbing those ladders. Well-smoothed by many hands, the wood of the rungs was solid and reliable. Reach, grab a rung, heave, step up: it was crazy, to be doing this, but I felt strong, capable, and daring. I didn’t want to be stranded on the mountain that night, but climbing those ladders felt good.
“Thank God! I see the opening at the top!” It was Greer. “Agh. The ladder stops short. How do we get out?”
“You’ll be fine. Press your feet against one side and inch up,” said Kyle, his voice kind.
More grunts and the sounds of fabric rubbing rock, of shifting, and shoving… and then hoots of triumphant relief. The kids had shimmied their way out… and Dave and I were alone, clinging to ladder rungs inside a crevice, on the side of a mountain, in the dark. But we knew we were close.
Reach. Grab a rung. Heave. Step up. “Can you believe we’re doing this?” I could hear the grin of satisfaction, along with the effort, in Dave’s question.
Then, a bright light, and a head and shoulders silhouetted against the opening I could now see. “Here, I’ll hand you my phone.”
And I could picture this young man, a stranger, Kyle it was, lying flat on the rock slab above us in order to stretch an arm far enough into the crevice so I could reach the phone pinched in his fingertips.
“Oh my god, thank you. I’m so grateful you’re here, that you came back with the light for us! Are we near the top?”
“Yep. Almost there.”
With my right hand, I clung to the ladder, while twisting to the left to angle the phone down to illuminate the rungs below me for Dave. Once he caught up, I threaded my arm between my body and the rock face in order to hand the light back up to Kyle. He didn’t leave to rejoin his friends, but waited at the opening, shining the light into the fissure while Dave and I inched, backs and feet pressed to opposing rock faces, out onto the rock ledge, into open air, above the wide spread of the Hudson Valley.
P.S. We returned the next day to take pictures in the daylight!