Sunday, January 15, 2012

Bonticou Crag

I looked down into the garden from inside the kitchen.  My Scottish heather was New Year's!  Its delicate splash of pink amidst the dead leaves was pretty but would it bloom in the Spring or was this it?  Had our warm winter fooled the garden? As an environmentalist, I have some anxiety about weird weather patterns.  And as a snow lover, I have been missing the traditional beauty of winter, and the fun of snowshoeing and skiing.

On Sunday, Thomas called, "Marlie and I thought we would go skiing this week since we're taking some time off, but without any snow, we were wondering about a hike."  He asked me if I was free on Tuesday and we brainstormed some ideas. I could tell that he had Bonticou Crag in New Paltz in mind. He ended the conversation, saying, "Well, just thought I'd put a bug in your ear."  Putting a bug in my ear is a risky thing.  My mental wheels were turning.  Here was the option of a positive spin on this warm snowless season.

Next he sent me an email, "Do you want to meet us at 11 a.m. in New Paltz?"

I already had my hiking boots out. New Paltz is exactly equidistant between my house in Albany and theirs in Jersey City, an hour and twenty minutes for each of us.  The town has funky shops, a variety of restaurants, considerable early American history, and just over the hill are great hikes in the Shawangunks.  

In fact, Meredith had been the one to introduce all of us to New Paltz when she went to college there in the mid-2000s. We discovered stunning quartz cliffs, soft woodland trails and carriage paths, waterfalls, rolling rural views, and fascinating history. Recently, New Paltz had become a place that attracted Thomas.  Like many people in the metro-New York area, he and Marlie found the 'Gunks and the Hudson Valley an easy drive to charming rural getaways.  

As arranged, we met just off the thruway and headed in my car to the Mohonk Preserve.  Mohonk charges a pretty steep $12 per person to hike on its trails.  While I support land preservation and have paid the fees before, we were glad that on this early January day, no one was in the booth at the Spring Farm parking area. For three of us, the two-hour 3-mile round-trip walk to Bonticou Crag would have cost $36.  
We put on our hiking boots, hats, and gloves, just as the sun disappeared behind a thickening cloud cover. Following a map I had brought from home, we began on a winding carriage path. Damp leaves smelled of Fall and we thought we heard the hoot of an owl.  A noon whistle blew in a nearby town.

The carriage path changed to a smooth hiking trail, ending at the base of the Crag, a conglomerate quartz cliff typical of the Shawangunks.  More adventurous climbers scramble up the rubble of rocks and rock-climb the wall.  Fortunately for us, there is an alternate route up the side of the ridge.

We continued following the base of the cliff but became disconcerted by the path's descent.  "We must have missed the turn-off to the ridge trail," I said. Since Thomas and I had been here before, Marlie was at our mercy as we all hiked back up, still didn't find the trail, decided we hadn't gone far enough, and hiked back down again.  "It should have a sign," Thomas said. 

I agreed but remembered that the previous time we were here, a large boulder had been covered by small cairns marking the intersection.  We kept going and there it was. The boulder seemed obvious to us now, covered with a disheveled collection of stones.  We turned onto the narrow twisty trail between fallen rock that led to the ridge and summit.

Thomas and Marlie hiked sure and fast, and I enjoyed the workout.  I shed my hat, gloves, and jacket.  Rocky outcroppings offered views along the way, but an ever-stronger breeze as we rose higher made me question whether I should have stripped down.

At the top of the Crag, the wind picked up and I put all of my gear back on.  We peered over the edge of the jagged white rock.  Far below we could see the hiking trails we had been on winding through the leafless forest. Two turkey vultures soared nearby. This day, that had seemed warm moments before, took on a sudden chill and we started down. 
 (Marlie and Thomas with the faint outine of the Catskills behind them)
I had brought brownies for a summit snack and now they were burning a hole in my pack, demanding to be eaten. We found a rock to sit on just below the ridge and fortified ourselves with chocolate. 
From there, Thomas and Marlie chose a different route for our return from the one we had taken on the way up.  The easy terrain gave us plenty of opportunity to visit.  We had seen each other just two weeks before at Christmas, but we had no trouble keeping up a running conversation. 
And then there were the quiet moments as we admired odd tree shapes, the pine needle carpet on the trail, or just soaked in a few moments alone in the woods.  We had only seen one other person in the preserve.

Our trail ended at a farm field with a beautiful view of the Catskills. We walked the dirt road back to the Spring Farm parking lot, suddenly aware of hunger pangs. All those great eateries in New Paltz were just minutes away.We chose to go to Bacchus, a restaurant with New American cuisine and a choice of over 400 beers.

By 3 p.m. we each went our separate way: Thomas and Marlie headed south to Jersey City, and I went north to Albany.

Sure, Thomas and Marlie would have liked to get in a ski day on their vacation, and more seasonable weather would be my preference, but being able to hike on this day had not been about turning lemons into lemonade.  It was much more than that.  I had been invited to share in the kids' vacation.  What could be better than spending a day in a beautiful place with two of my favorite people?
Addendum: A reader informed me that the fee at Mohonk Preserve applies every day regardless of whether someone is in the booth.  I was not aware of this and suspect that you would need to go to the Visitor's Center and pay the fee.