This last summer, a small group of my friends (all girls, by the way) decided to climb up Mount Wittenburg in the New York Catskills. Preparing for our adventure the night before, the only Wittenburg veteran quickly assured us that it was a “fun walk”, “not very hard”, and rounded off the conversation by concluding that “if I can do it…so can you guys!”
Morning dawns, and we’re all in various states of excitement. I, myself, am fairly excited; the prospect of nature is generally appealing to me. Most of all, I know I will have cell phone service at the very top and any modern-day cell phone addict knows that dead zones (such as the one I had been staying in for at least three days) will drive one to do absolutely crazy things. Like climb a mountain.
Driving to the trail, spirits are high. Myself and a good friend (we’ll call her MBA…she’s structured, analytical, and generally in much better shape than the rest of us combined) are about a 9 (on an excitement scale of 10). A third member of the tribe, Charlotte (as in Charlotte from the Sex and the City) is nervously pulling on her Vera Bradley bag and wondering aloud if wearing designer jeans is the best idea. A fourth friend, the Veteran (and local), is going mostly because the third person on our expert mountain climbing team would do just about anything to avoid nature in general.
We navigate the car into the parking lot and worry about the parking costs (no one is there – should we pay? Should we leave? What on Earth will happen if we don’t pay this $5 fee?!??!?), and take some obligatory facebook pictures. We gasp; the trail begins with a beautiful log bridge spanning an equally dazzling and clear mountain stream. More facebook pictures are taken. We climb a few steps and start to look out for the trail notebook; the notebook each group signs to ensure that no one gets lost on the trail overnight. We don’t immediately see it, but that’s OK. Life is good. Sunlight dances through the trees. We walk a few more steps. More facebook pictures.
And then the first sign of trouble: “Can we take a break?” says Charlotte…Veteran agrees. Pep-talks ensue. MBA looks a little ruffled but it’s all good. We keep walking. Another break.
Soon we make a pact that I will climb ahead and wait for Veteran and Charlotte to catch up (MBA chasing them up from the rear), and that we can rest at each one of these points. This works…for some time. We reach the sign-in book. Hurrah! We’ve finally made it to the “official” trailhead. Adrenaline rushes, and we are motivated to continue. We decide: No more turning back.
Another hour passes. I run ahead. They catch up. Facebook pictures are periodically taken. Having packed a million granola bars, I thoughtfully chew them on our various breaks…part of me wonders why no one else is eating either. Never mind, they must have food – who would leave on a day-long hike without it?
Pretty soon we start to look for the half-way marker. Apparently there is a sign which should point us in the right direction and according to Veteran, it can’t be far off. I squint my eyes trying to see ahead. After a couple of false alarms, even MBA is telling me that I’m mistaking weird-looking trees for the sign.
The first one to go is Charlotte. First it’s a few words here and there (mostly pertaining to what exactly the mountain could do with itself, if it were given a choice), but soon it’s a downright mutiny! “Enough!” says MBA: “We’re too far up to stop now…we’re getting our girl’s trip photo-op or else!”
Good. We’re in for the long haul. I start to walk ahead – the stop and go pace is tedious. I soon walk out of hearing range, but I imagine the beautiful mountain top that awaits me and it propels me forward. I climb, and climb, and climb. But it just keeps going. Where the hell is the top of this mountain? I run last-night’s conversations through my head, trying to remember specifically what Veteran mentioned about the trail, but a lot of what she said seems wrong. The trail gets pretty rough. The last hour involves at least five areas where I literally have to scramble up the rockface to get to the next segment of the trail. A few times, I only know where the trail is because of the markers. Clearly this isn’t hiked often.
Finally, after four and a half hours I notice the vegetation getting thinner and shorter. I round a corner, and I yell with joy about the beautiful view stretching out beneath my eyes. A bright blue sky is dotted with clouds, whose shadows play over the lush, green landscape in all directions. The top of the mountain is a worn, grassy area – almost like three large, flat steps that lead down to the edge, where rocks plunge into the forest below. Two large birds of prey fly over my head. There is no sound except for the wind. The sun shines on my face, and I am happy. That is, until I am attacked by dozens, if not hundreds, of little flies.
Flies? On a mountain top? How and why are they here? It’s a mystery to me. All I know is that hiking through the forest, they were no problem. They are only on this sunlit platform, exactly where I had planned to nap the time away until the rest of the group got there. Unable to take the flies, I walk back into the forest. I sit on stone for a while. It gets to be too uncomfortable, so I move. I walk a little further down. Then back up to see the view. Then back down to get away from the flies. Forty minutes goes by. An hour goes by. Could I have really been that far ahead of them? Where are they?
I call their names. No answer. I walk further down. I walk so far down that I’m about twenty minutes from the top. Of course they have no cell phone signal. And my phone is dying; I can’t even waste the time by chit chatting.
Finally, I call out and I get a reply. It’s the girls – they yell out and ask whether I’m at the top. I answer “no, but I’m close”. Silence. They slowly come into view. It’s not a pretty picture. Charlotte is cursing like a sailor. I never would have guessed it, but coming in at 100 pounds, she is one feisty girl! The Veteran is wishing evil on pretty much the entire New York mountain range and looking a little guilty about last night’s amnesia-like predictions of how our walk would go. MBA is looking professionally irritated; great for business, extremely funny in this situation. Trying not to laugh at the picture we paint, I don’t mention the flies. I furtively hope that they are perhaps an imagination; maybe altitude sickness manifested in a strangely real way.
Alas, altitude sickness is not to blame: the flies are everywhere. EVERYWHERE. This is not good.
Everyone retreats to their corner of the mountain top and recovers. Out come the cell phones. But no food. Everyone’s hungry, except for me. I’m just sick of my granola bars. We take more facebook pictures. We climbed all this way, we at least want decent pictures to show for it. I figure out the self-timer on my camera and prop it up using my fleece sweater. The picture looks great; we all check it for double-chins, bad smiles, closed eyes, bad hair. Everyone is happy with it.
Having spent less than fifteen minutes at the top, we gather our items together, happy to be leaving the cursed mountain. Charlotte gets happier and happier the more we walk. She literally has a bounce in her step. We call dibs on who gets the first hot shower. The happier Charlotte gets, the more upset Veteran is. She hurt her hip climbing up, and walking down is tough. We slow down. Light seems to be fighting to peak through the thick canopy, and it starts to get dark. Whispers about staying in the forest overnight echo in our minds.
Gradually, we start to see familiar objects. If only we make it to the sign-in post, we will be just a ten minute walk from the car. Finally, we see it. There are no words in the English vocabulary that can fully describe the joy we all feel. Hobbling down the last few steps, cursing the brown stream with the ugly wooden bridge, and collapsing in the car, we all agree: No More Hiking. Ever.
Driving home we console ourselves with the thought that we at least got lots of good memories captured on film. That was, until I realize that my fleece sweater-turned-camera stand in fact blockes out half of our only group picture.
In total, we hiked eight and a half hours. Although we absolutely hated, hated, hated the entirety of the day, it was the most memorable day of the trip.
In the words of Charlotte; “Remind me to never marry a mountain man”.