May 312012
 

I am high atop a mountain beside Lake Skenonto, an hour from New York City, with eight human beings so gorgeous they take my breath away.

The young, as the ageing will tell you, have no idea how beautiful they are.

There are ‘the Frenchies’, Sandrine and Claude; there are ‘the Arabs’, Ahmed (Iraq) and Fatima (Syria); there is ‘the Russki Czech’, Vlad; ‘the German’, Julia; and ‘the Indian’, William and his partner Lily, ‘the American’.

All with the exception of myself either are, or soon-to-be, American citizens.

Welcome to New York City.

And to Harriman State Park, where our small posse of united nations has headed for the hills on Memorial Day Weekend.

I have never previously met any of my companions.

I wonder if people would think me mad, following strangers into the wilderness. I wonder this because people do think me mad staying in the homes of strangers, as I

A company of strangers

do via the hospitality network couchsurfing.com

Which is how I met the truly wonderful Ahmed and how I came to be invited along for the weekend adventure.

As I’m sitting on the doorstep of my current hosts Susan and Glenn, walking boots on, my backpack beside me, waiting for Ahmed (who lives around the corner) to sweep past in his car and ferry me away, I remember another camping trip, about 15 years ago in Spain.

I was traveling alone. My friend, who was to travel with me, had flown out just before I arrived, leaving me to find my own adventure.

One night I found myself in a small village near the Picos de Europa, perhaps the world’s oldest national park, longing for the mountains but with no means to get there. Wandering along the village streets in the late afternoon rain, I noticed a light in one of the tourist adventure shops – unlike all the rest, which were closed for the season; the tiny store was full of people.

I stuck my head in the door, blinking into the radiance of a dozen young men high on the anticipation of adventure.

One greeted me in English. I asked what they were doing. He said they were going rock climbing in the mountains. He said I should come. I said I didn’t rock climb. He said come anyway. I said okay. They gave me 10 minutes to go get my pack and threw me and it into the back seat of one seriously pissed off alpha male who was furious a woman was along for the ride.

He spat Spanish chips all the way to the foot of the mountain, convinced I would hold them up, spoil their boys own adventure.

We climbed the mountain in the fading afternoon light, higher and higher, past small patches of sweet snow, steeper and steeper until there was no light left to climb by and hard snow replaced the rocks beneath our feet. We climbed in the darkness. I had no idea where we were going. We climbed and we climbed.

And then a light.

A bright shining light welcoming us into a glorious stone refuge built from the mountain itself. We were warm. Of the party of 12 I was third into the blazing room. The alpha male looked up. From that moment on I was a goddess to be worshipped. Not only was I not last in, I had not needed to be rescued.

The next morning we rose early and climbed further up the mountain, higher and higher. By mid morning, we were ‘there’, a great stone cradle at the top of the world. They unpacked their ropes. They walked to a sheer wall of rock at the cradle head. They left me with a jacket. They said they would be back by lunch time.

And there I was, alone at the top of the world. I walked to keep warm. Up and down the edges of the cradle, climbing walls with small sharp edges for sure footing, sliding my body flat against the rock and looking over the top . . . and down down down down down through shifting mists into the sheer valley far below.

It was one of the most glorious experiences of my life. Alone at the top of the world with gossamer cloud threads rolling through. And do you know it was dark before those men returned. And not once was I frightened. Not once did I consider that I would be harmed, by bears or men. Alone, at the top of the world. All day, alone. For no other reason than I followed a group of strangers into the mountains.

And here I was again, hiking into the unknown, trusting the glory of life and the laughter of strangers.

Rolling thunder followed us into the forest and, to our good fortune, failed to make good on its promise of rain. We climbed higher and higher. We stopped here and there to fuel up on water and snack bars. A company of strangers.

We make the lake. They fish. They swim. They laugh. They plug the iPod into gorgeous little travel speakers. They drink beer. They laugh. They smoke. They chat. They laugh. They drink cheap wine. They swim. They smoke. They laugh.

Fatima, who arrived from Syria three months ago, from Homs no less, and has never swum in her life, throws herself into the water and splashes around in a big

Courage

circle. Then she floats. She is beautiful. She is courageous. She is a woman in tune with her destiny. Fatima’s story is her own for the telling, her no-second-thoughts belly flop into that water symbolic of so much more.

Someone tells a story about a man in the Amazon who caught fish with one hand. Ahmed gives it a go and a thousand mad splashes later comes up with a fish.

I offer William the corn chips and pass him the salsa – he drops the salsa and as it bounces the tomato sauce flies into the air and lands all over me. I laugh with delirious glee. Vlad takes the corn chips and scrapes the salsa off my arms.

We are a company of strangers in love with a lake and a forest and rules made to be broken (no camping, no swimming, no fires).

On dark we pitch the tents. We light the fire. We roast an assortment of foods. We pass them around: Sandrine’s salt cake, Fatima and Ahmed’s hummus, Julia’s roast fetta, Vlad’s burned sausages, my marshmallows.

The vodka swoons and sambuca makes an entrance. There is more talk of swimming. I am at risk of becoming an unwelcome parent, concerned about a cocktail of misadventure – deep water, bravado and alcohol. I slip into the shadows, leaving them high on the boundary-less forest.

The following morning I am up with the dawn light. As is my way. For hours I stand alone with the rising light by the still lake, watching morning come to the forested mountain. A large shape catches my eye in the water. It is swimming at the apex of a V, trailing water. It has a long mouse nose, but is too large for a mouse. I decide with delight that it is an otter. Forgive me, the animals in my own country bounce. The otter dives into the water. Then heads for the bank. I hear a banging noise, a loud tap tap tap. OMG! I realise – thanks to a book I read many years ago about a man and a woman who shared their home with beavers – it must be a beaver!

Of course! Look at that lovely tail as she curls into the water. Tap tap tap. Listen to her teeth on the wooden bank. Gnash gnash gnaw.

It is hours and hours before the betented young make their entrance to a grey day. The sun is pleased to see them, for the clouds burn off and sunshine lights the day.

The manly breakfast

They swim. They smoke. Vlad cooks a ‘manly breakfast’. They look at maps. They discuss taking a different, slightly longer trail back to Tuxedo where we left the cars.

Grace

William, Vlad, Ahmed and me play frisbee. It is a test for my foot, not so long ago broken and unwilling to bend. Ahmed clowns around throwing the frisbee under his legs and twirls as he catches it. He has a story that is also his own for the telling and I reckon he had a lot of time on his hands to practice fancy frisbee moves. I make a play so sharp it shoots through a hole in a branch. A butterfly sits on Lily’s arm. Julia crouches by the water feeding crumbs to little fish. William stretches out on the green grass.

By lunchtime we load up and head on down the mountain. Two hours later we’re lost. Three hours later we’ve

climbed the highest mountain in the entire park. Staring out over rolling blue hills, I am reminded of all my pilgrim days, which is to say all of them, when the unexpected swoops in to claim the day and humans must bend to what is, rather than what they want life to be.

We are exhausted. We are happy. We are in good company. We roll on. Finally we meet the familiar track. My toes bang into the tops of my boots with every step and I’m reminded of the importance of trimming pilgrim toenails. We roll on. Even I am fantasizing about beer at the foot of the mountain.

We hit the bitumen and shoot off the road onto a shortcut across the train tracks, straight into a bar celebrating Memorial Day with sparkly red, white and blue. We roll our packs onto the floor. We collapse into chairs.  We order beer. We discover it’s happy hour so we order more beer. And strange shots, though not for me. And burgers. And half serves of nachos – check it

Nachos, half sized, American style

out, regular readers will recall the Great Wall of Chocolate dessert in Augusta, Georgia.

And we toast our adventure. And the company of strangers.

POSTSCRIPT: the following afternoon Ahmed emails everyone in reply to messages of goodwill he received from the others. Here is his message:

Hey everyone,
Yes indeed thank you so much to me. If it wasn’t for me this trip would be a disaster. I had to go out of my way to save the group after they got lost in the wilderness. Vlad, you need to work on sense of direction bro. I know everyone starved to death and had to depend on my amazing fishing skills to survive but that’s the least I could do for an awesome group. Also thanks to my beautiful wife for giving Vlad and Julia swimming lessons. Fatima you’re a natural honey. Claude, happy 49th birthday bro and thanks to Sandrine for bringing twinkies. I haven’t had them since middle school. William, why the heck your stove sounds like jet engine? I highly recommend sticking to what nature is got to offer…. fossil fuel bro. Stephanie, It was great having u with us and thank u for sharing your stories but if u really wanna impress me, try fishing with one hand.
No but all seriousness please don’t try to put a camping trip together without consulting with me in first hand. Jesus, Muhammad and Moses.
Once again thanks to everything I’ve done for everyone and I hope u all learned a big valuable lesson. Sugar is a gate way drug.
 May 31, 2012  Add comments

  One Response to “Pilgrim Heart Whistlestop Book Tour: HIKING WITH STRANGERS”

  1. Magnificent!

    I’m borrowing this..”The young, as the ageing will tell you, have no idea how beautiful they are.” because it is perfectly true.

    Steph, it is a delight to read of your adventures! And your writing! Wow… so free and happy!

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