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Exile's_Home ©1997 George Steffanos

gsat@skwc.com

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Then The Hail Came

Last updated 1/26/97


CHAPTER 17

DECADENCE

(Kent, Connecticut to Sages Ravine, Massachusetts)

FRIDAY, 8/12/83, MILE 1429.0 --- Intense thundershowers intermixed with steady, pounding rains throughout the night -- definitely a good night to be in a motel room. A cold drizzle was still falling in the morning, with occasional bursts of heavy rain. I fortified myself with two excellent breakfasts at the diner across the street from my motel and spent an hour loading my pack for the next couple of days on the trail. I did not need to carry a lot of food. I have some more family and friends meeting me near the Massachusetts border Sunday night.

We waited until noon, when we thought the bulk of the rain was past, to drive back to Kent. We drove in an intermittent drizzle, making a stop at a grocery so that Pete could pick up some groceries for the trail. A couple of short downpours along the way were a strong indication that the day would be a washout. The air remained very cool, but the rain had tapered to a fine mist when Pete and I reached the Appalachian Trail. The first couple of miles were on rural paved roads. We covered that roadwalk quickly, and entered the woods for the passage through Macedonia Brook State Park.

The trail through Macedonia was the first of three short stretches of the Appalachian Trail I had hiked prior to this trip, so I was finally on familiar ground. We took our first break of the day at Chase Mountain Shelter, about a mile into the park. I remembered the place to be an absolute armpit, and was interested to discover if my opinion would be different after months of living in these lean-to's, many of which were quite old and weathered. It wasn't. The dirt-floored structure was less than a half-mile from the park road on a heavily-traveled section of trail. It was thoroughly vandalized and trashed-out.

Conversely, the open, grassy crest of Cobble Mountain, one-and-a-half miles later, looked just as lovely today as the image which had lingered in my memory. Encircling the summit was a sprawling, rocky meadow with extensive views to the north and west. The mountain overlooked a lush, green valley filled with forests and pastures in the foothills of eastern New York State. On a clear day, one looks out over a broad panorama extending from the Catskills in the west to the Taconic Mountains and the Berkshires in the north. Those distant reaches were concealed by veils of fog and mist today, but nebulous glimpses of the vast rural valley below through the shifting veils made the climb still worthwhile.

Macedonia Brook abounded in tough climbs. The rocky trail off of Cobble Mountain descended very steeply over boulders sheathed with slick, dripping moss. There were more nice views a mile later, from the top of Pine Hill. The entire state park was beautiful, one of the nicest stretches on the Appalachian Trail since Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

The sad thing about this is that the Appalachian Trail will soon be relocated, bypassing the state park completely in order to eliminate the roadwalks on either side. A large number of thru-hikers would never notice the difference, anyway. From what I have been reading in the registers, it seems that many are walking Macedonia Brook Road through the park. It is shorter than the AT and eliminates the tough climbs, but it also misses a few excellent mountain views. Personally, one of the reasons I came on the Appalachian Trail was to see the Appalachian Mountains.

After Pine Hill, the Appalachian Trail descended to Macedonia Brook Road, the park's dirt access road, and followed it past Four Corners Campground, still in the state park. There was a pump for drinking water in the campground. Pete and I had dinner there. Darkness was due to fall long before we could reach the next available water on the trail for camp tonight. With dinner out of the way and full water bottles in our packs, we were free to camp wherever we could pitch our tents.

A couple of miles of roadwalking followed the campground before the trail climbed up to a summit called Calebs Peak covered by a pleasant, open forest with partial views over the Housatonic River Valley below. We pitched our tents on a little patch of grass beneath the trees and made our camp for tonight, having come nine miles on this short day. The weather had remained agreeably cool all day, and the rain had abated just enough so that we could enjoy some nice views. We passed the two-thirds point of the entire Appalachian Trail. It was a satisfactory day in many respects. It is good to be back in New England, and I will be shooting for a day in the twenty-mile range tomorrow.

SATURDAY, 8/13/83, MILE 1449.5 --- It was still cloudy this morning when I woke up, and the air had turned even chillier. I had not seen a morning that cold since Tennessee. After the persistent heat wave that dogged me through Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, shivering was a pleasure. Still, in order to warm up, I really had to start moving quickly when I hit the trail. Thankfully, I had some decent trail and some enchanting scenery to get my engine going.

The first nice view of the day was a mile up the trail, from St. Johns Ledges -- a hundred-yard stretch of open ledges perched atop high, steep granite cliffs overlooking the Housatonic River Valley. I reached it just as the early clouds were drifting off over the eastern horizon and the day was turning fine. The river below meandered gracefully through a charming landscape of quiet beauty. Forests and fields along the banks and wooded ridges flanking the valley appeared idyllic and almost surreal in the slanting, rose-tinted early morning sunlight.

The Appalachian Trail clawed down the face of the cliffs on a new trail which is supposed to be a vast improvement over the old trail. All I can say is that the old one must have absolutely sucked, because the new one is nothing to write home about. It was quickly over, though, and I was soon walking the River Road.

I had entered the section of the Appalachian Trail maintained by John Perry, the gentleman I met at Ralph's Peak Hikers' Cabin Tuesday. I could see why he was so proud of it. The hordes of motorists who have only seen the river while battling traffic on the Connecticut Turnpike bridge between Milford and Stratford, near its mouth, would not be able to recognize their river up here. Above that hideous, massive power plant and the smoke-belching factories, the upper river valley can be a magical place. This portion was a wide, shallow stretch of lazy blue curves flecked with small, lively rapids of foaming white and surrounded by quiet, green woods.

River Road was a gravel road running along the western bank of the Housatonic. After a mile, the road was gated and closed to vehicle traffic. That was the point where the original Appalachian Trail had crossed the river, passing over a bridge which was subsequently washed out in 1936, necessitating a relocation of the trail to a crossing further north.

Since 1938, the Appalachian Trail has continued to follow the road north along the river. This was one of the more enchanting stretches of the Appalachian Trail, and it was very easy walking. The weather also cooperated; the few remaining clouds were tiny puffs of white in a bottomless, deep blue ocean of sky, and temperatures remained in the lower sixties this morning. I have always loved the Housatonic valley, but, after all of the weed-choked, heat-blasted, parched landscapes I have encountered lately, it looked exceptionally lovely sparkling in the sunshine.

At one point early this morning, I passed around a bend in the road and came upon two white-tailed deer standing ankle-deep in the water at the river's edge, drinking. They were near the fringe of a handsome grove of dusky green pine, cobalt blue water swirling around their legs sparkling with myriad white flecks of foam and golden sunlight. Partially-submerged rocks on the shallow river bed glittered like diamonds. I admired the tableau for perhaps thirty seconds before they noticed me and ran off into the woods, but the moment seemed suspended in time.

The road continued through several plantations of towering white pines. The one tricky stretch of hiking was along the mile or so after the Appalachian Trail left the road and passed through dense concentrations of tall weeds in a riverside marsh. It could have been terrible, but John had done such a nice job of clearing the path that it was not too bad. The sights and sounds of the river in the cool, bracing air seemed unreal -- a beautiful mirage conjured up by a psyche battered by days of merciless heat.

At the end of River Road was a cold and excellent spring. Then, the trail passed through several magnificent groves of hemlock and pine as it wandered over some low hills and through a small, dark ravine on its way to US 7 at Cornwall Bridge. I crossed the river and arrived in that little New England village at 10:30 this morning, with eight miles already under my belt. A great mileage-day looked to be shaping up, but it was not meant to be.

The Philosopher's Guide said to stop in the package store in Cornwall Bridge and tell them you are an Appalachian trail hiker, so I did. The girl behind the counter handed me a register book to sign and a twenty-five-ounce can of Foster's beer, an Australian import, on the house, just for being a thru-hiker, loved and admired by all. I thanked her and headed next door to the deli, where I picked up a sub and a half-pound of potato salad. I walked across the street to the village green, where I enjoyed my feast in the brilliant sunshine. Pete caught up to me there and we had lunch together.

By the way, thanks to all of those stores, restaurants and friendly picnickers in the central states of the Appalachian Trail, my weight-has finally stabilized. You will remember that I started the Appalachian Trail on May 3, thirty pounds overweight at 225. On June 18, in Pearisburg, Virginia, I weighed in at 180, fifteen pounds under my normal 195. I was beginning to wonder if I would disappear before reaching Katahdin. No worry about that, anymore. My weight stabilized around 175 a couple of weeks later, and I am now back up to 185. The way I have been eating, I might weigh 300 pounds were I not backpacking all of these miles. I am feeling stronger and healthier these past few days than at any other time on the trail.

When my meal was finished, I pulled out the supply of cocktail peanuts which I have been carrying,lately for their high fat and salt content. They went great with the rest of that beer, and added a classy touch. Just because one is backpacking the Appalachian Trail, one should not have to forego the little amenities. I did not get away until 1:00. There went the big day, but what the hell. The beer made me a little sluggish for the rest of the day after my nice little buzz wore off, but I was happy. The day remained cool, breezy, and sunny, with low humidity. It was a mid-August preview of a perfect New England autumn day to welcome back a wandering native son.

After a mile of roadwalking, the Appalachian Trail went into Dark Entry Ravine, ascending through the perpetual twilight silence of an old hemlock forest. Long years of decomposing fallen needles had buried the boulder-strewn ground and transformed it into a soft, lumpy carpet. It was lovely, even though the stream was barely running. I passed by some old stone walls that were all that remained of an eighteenth century settlement named Dudleytown. The guidebook said that this community was made famous by the fact that it was suddenly abandoned for no apparent reason, a mystery to this day. Interesting.

Above the ravine were some excellent views into Cornwall Valley, and the trail passed through an awesome forest of towering, ancient hemlock known as Cathedral Pines a couple of miles later. In between was an attractive roadwalk through a high farming valley filled with fields of ripening corn and encircled by mountains.

The Appalachian Trail ascended the slopes of Mohawk Mountain. It was a mixed experience. There were some superb viewpoints from the ski area, but we could not find the water pumps that were supposed to be at the picnic areas on the flanks of the mountain, and the spring at Red Mountain Shelter was bone dry. We finally found a nice, running stream alongside US 4 about a mile later, where we sat down and made our dinners. Once again, we were going to have to make camp before we reached the next water, so we took care of dinner when water was at hand.

There was a quick two-mile roadwalk before the Appalachian Trail climbed gradually up a ridge on an old dirt road which followed the route of an even older Indian trail. We pitched our tents at the edge of a farmer's field at 8:00. Just as I was crawling into my sleeping bag, the farmer's dog showed up. A small, mixed collie with a big mouth, he stood about two hundred yards away on the opposite end of the field and barked nonstop. We finally had to pack up all of our gear and leave just as darkness fell, before the farmer showed up with a shotgun to shoot the trespassers. Luckily, we found a small flat clearing in the woods about a half-mile further on.

Even with the beer and all, I managed to hike twenty miles, so, although my great mileage day went out the window, I had fun and still put in a good one. This is my second night on the trail in Connecticut, and I have been compelled to camp illegally both nights. It seems that just when it gets to be time to call it a day, the next legal campsite is always six or seven miles away. Oh, well. That's just the wild, carefree, live-on-the-razor's-edge life of a thru-hiker.

Oh, by the way, Crazy Charlie had signed in on the register at that package store in Cornwall Bridge Thursday night, after leaving Pete and me in Kent at 3:00 that afternoon. Package stores close at 8:00 P.M. in Connecticut, so he must have either hiked more than seventeen miles in less than five hours over a lot of steep, wet, tricky trail or found alternative means of travel. I think that closes the book on any possible doubts about Charlie. Have thumb, will travel.

SUNDAY, 8/14/83, MILE 146845 --- This morning the trail passed through portions of the Housatonic State Forest, an attractive wooded highland plateau with no long-range views. A little more than four miles from last night's campsite, I came to a grove of beautiful old pine trees. In the middle of the grove, next to a small rushing stream, was a solitary picnic bench, where I took my first break. The day was another cool, breezy, and sunny one.

Three miles later, the Appalachian Trail crossed a paved road and entered Dean Ravine. It was the nicest of the series of ravines I had recently encountered: a pretty chain of small waterfalls and cascades in a deep, narrow valley filled with pine and hemlock. This was followed by a fairly sick climb over some open ledges, which were wooded and provided no real views, to a rocky stretch of trail reminiscent of Pennsylvania.

The trail turned into a virtual rock climb straight up the face of a cliff to the top of Barrack Mountain. It was a rather sadistic climb for a backpacking trail, but some open ledges near the summit offered great views to the north and to the south -- some of the nicest since Shenandoah National Park. Another excellent vista looking westward from a point just beyond the summit immediately proceeded an almost-vertical plunge down cliffs to US 7. All in all, Barrack Mountain was a grueling, but rewarding section of trail. It was probably better suited to a day hiking trail than a backpacking footpath, but it was, at least, an interesting experience.

There is soon going to be a major relocation of the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut. All of the present trail east of the Housatonic River is about to be eliminated. This will also eliminate a great deal of roadwalking, but the AT will be poorer without Dark Entry Ravine, Cathedral Pines, that high farming valley, Mohawk Mountain, and Dean Ravine. I think I will even miss the presence of Barrack Mountain on the trail. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to hike the AT before all of those jewels were relocated off of the trail. In a way, this will not have any effect upon a surprisingly large minority of thru-hikers. It amazes me to hear about how many walk US 7 from Kent or Cornwall Bridge to Falls Village. Their loss.

There is an interesting contrast at work here. I probably hit more bad trail during my recent trek through New Jersey than in any other state on the AT. So many stretches of footpath were brand new relocations off of roads, and the trail work was sloppy and rushed along much of it. There could be a tendency therefor to say New Jersey sucks. However, all of those recent trails were a result of recent land purchases by the state to provide a wooded route and eliminate long roadwalks. No doubt, the local trail clubs were in a hurry to make use of the new route and the trail construction was a rush job. I expect it will be much improved a few years from now, and the new route will be far superior to the old. In contrast, Connecticut has done nothing for the trail, and the answer to everything always seems to be to eliminate another nice stretch of trail rather than try to acquire land to protect the current route. Enough beauty still exists in the few protected areas to assure that the short stretch of Appalachian Trail in Connecticut will remain pleasant in the coming years, but so much will be lost. I'm glad I made my thru-hike in time to see it.

After that tough traverse of Barrack Mountain, the Village Diner was a welcome sight. It was directly on the Appalachian Trail, at the crossing of US 7. As usual, I ordered from the Weight Watcher's menu: a club sandwich, fries, several cokes, and a chocolate sundae. While I ate, I tried to call home for a half-hour. The line was busy.

I finally got through just before 2:00 and made arrangements with my brother Mike for him and some other friends and relatives to meet me at 7:00 at the junction of Connecticut 41 and Lower Cobble Road along a roadwalk up ahead in the village of Salisbury, Connecticut. The spot was almost nine miles up the trail, and I wanted to allow myself plenty of time to get there before they arrived. Mike asked me if we could schedule the meeting earlier, so I said 6:00. He wanted to make it even earlier, so I told him I would do my best to be there by 5:00. He said they would be there waiting for me.

I am not and never will be a super-fast hiker. Even while struggling to reach a shelter at the end of a long day, I am constantly distracted by views, possible photographs, and attractive tableaux. I probably must work harder to average two-and-a-half miles per hour over a given stretch of trail than most thru-hikers need to work in order to average three miles per hour. Yet here I was, promising to meet people nine miles up the trail in less than three hours. I paid for my meal and started making tracks.

Past the diner, there was a very brief footpath followed by three-and-a-half miles of roadwalk. I soon left Pete, who had declined my invitation to join the festivities tonight and was therefore was in no hurry, far behind. The Appalachian Trail crossed the Housatonic River. The final mile-and-a-half of the roadwalk was a steady climb back out of the valley. The trail entered the forest and followed a stream up the lower slopes of Prospect Mountain. Despite a short, steep pitch on the climb up alongside Prospect Falls on rock steps and iron ladders, I continued without stopping. I kept walking, telling myself I would take a break in a little while and pretending to believe me.

After another half-mile, I dropped my backpack and carried my camera five hundred feet down a side trail to Rands View, a spot at the top of a high, sloping pasture where a remarkable view northward revealed the Taconic Range from Lions Head to Mount Everett. I will be hiking that scenic section of the Appalachian Trail tomorrow. It was such a nice spot I had to sit down for a couple of minutes to take in the views and shoot a few photographs before continuing my dash to the rendezvous.

The trail went past a large rock outcrop called "The Giant's Thumb," which looked (coincidentally) almost exactly like a giant thumb. I hope that Crazy Charlie hiked this section of trail. That giant thumb would have been a wonderful inspiration to him, celebrating, as it does, his favorite means of AT travel.

The trail had been relatively flat since the top of Prospect Falls, and I was still flying. A nice vista southward of rolling hill country and scenic wooded hollows from a place called Billy's View stopped me for about a minute.

Near the beginning of the descent to Connecticut 44, a skunk stood in my path, showing no immediate inclination to move aside. I did not feel like pressing the issue, so I sat down and took my second break. He moved on a couple of minutes later, and so did I. The descent was steep, but not sadistically so. I soon reached Connecticut 44 and began the final half-mile, all roadwalk, to the rendezvous. I actually managed to arrive before 5:00. I sat down to wait for my guests.

A combination of factors postponed their arrival until 7:00, which had been my original suggestion for the meeting time. The gang included my brother Mike, several of my cousins, and several friends. I told them to drive up the road a quarter-mile to the spot where the Appalachian Trail reentered the woods and I would meet them there in a few minutes. An official camping zone was another quarter-mile along the trail up the mountain, and that was where we spent the night. My cousins had borrowed an incredible monstrosity of a tent, which required quite a struggle to set up (the directions were in Polish). When it was pitched, it slept all eight of us (and could have handled about a dozen party crashers as well, had any shown up).

What followed was a grotesque nightmare. They had brought with them cases of beer, and they forced me join in their drunken debaucheries all night. I kept begging them to let me sleep so I could awake early tomorrow and grind out mega-mileage, but they held me down, twisted my arm, poured beer into my mouth, and forced me to swallow the vile brew. It was awful.

MONDAY, 8/15/83, MILE 1481.l --- I fell asleep sometime around 2:00 in the morning. I awoke at 7:00 and lay there for about an hour, wondering who I was and feeling guilty about not jumping up and preparing to make some mileage. I finally crawled out of my sleeping bag at 8:00 and set about getting my backpack in order. My most pressing chores were to clean my pans (in which we had cooked dinner last night) and to find the cap from my water bottle, which had wandered off somewhere during last night's revelries. In reality, I spent most of the time zoning out and scratching my butt. I wake up very slowly in the morning as a rule, but today, of course, was worse than usual. Somehow, I managed to get all of my gear assembled, cleaned, and stashed back into my pack.

I had a healthy breakfast of beer and Pop-Tarts. I tried dunking, but the combination did not really work. It took us about an hour to collect all of our garbage and return the area to its pristine condition. As a matter of fact, we left the place cleaner than we had found it. We may be decadent, but we do have consciences. At 11:00, everybody said good-bye and headed down the trail to my cousin's van. Pete showed up at about that time. He had made a stop in Salisbury to pick up groceries. Together, we headed up the mountain.

The ensuing stretch of trail, from Route 41 to Jug End, was the second of the three small segments of the Appalachian Trail on which I had already hiked prior to this trip. There was a new relocation up to Lions Head, however, that I was seeing for the first time. It had no views and it seemed to be a lot steeper than the old trail. Soon, I was sweating beer from every pore. It was another bright sunny day, and quite a bit warmer and more humid than the past few days. I did not need that after last night's bacchanalia.

Somehow, I made it up the two-mile climb to Lions Head. The southern portion of the Taconic Mountain chain is basically two parallel ranges separated by a high central valley. The Appalachian Trail follows the eastern range. In Connecticut, this range consists of a high, wooded plateau called Mount Riga, with the rocky crag of Lions Head rising from its southernmost tip. This location provides the peak with spectacular views to the south and east, across the Housatonic Valley, of a rugged, hilly country of forests, lakes, and small farms. These were easily the best views since Shenandoah, and I know from previous hikes that the views only improve as you head north.

I took a long break on Lions Head. Just past the summit was another great outlook, to the north this time, of the high plateau, with Bear Mountain rising above its northern end. I took another lengthy break two miles later at Bond Shelter, the newest and the only genuinely nice shelter in Connecticut. I read the register and gulped down about a half-gallon of water from the nearby Brassie Brook in order to combat a severe case of cotton mouth.

After the shelter, the Appalachian Trail ascended Bear Mountain, the first 2000-foot summit over which the trail actually passed since Shenandoah National Park. The climb was very rugged, but the trail ascended through low, scrubby pines past naked rock ledges with constant views to the south, east, and west. Nice views always make a difficult climb seem easier.

The summit was crowned by the ruins of a stone monument built in 1885. The monument now consists of a large, disorderly pile of rocks, and the cement platform which used to sit on top now rests near the bottom. The panorama from atop the rock pile is still spectacular, with legitimate 360-degree views. To the north loom the massive hulks of Race Mountain and Mount Everett in Massachusetts. To the east lies the broad flat Housatonic Valley, with the Berkshires of Massachusetts stretching out to the northeastern horizon. To the south, one's gaze extends across the plateau to Lions Head and the mountains and valleys beyond. To the west, across a high, wooded valley are the peaks of the western fork of the Taconics. I only paused for a moment at this summit before continuing down the other side. A screaming horde of kids from a nearby summer camp was swarming all over the rocks. I had already climbed Bear Mountain several times on earlier hikes.

The Appalachian Trail descended steeply down the cliffs which constitute the northern face of Bear Mountain into a deep, narrow, densely-wooded ravine. As I entered Sages Ravine, I crossed the Massachusetts border. Ten states down and four to go. A wide, roaring brook teeming with cascades, small waterfalls, and deep, quiet pools, knifed a deep cleft through the ridge. In many sections, steep cliffs towered over the banks of the brook. Smaller streams cascaded down their rocky faces to join the brook on its dash down the mountain. Mature forest dominated by conifers covered the slopes.

I sat down by the south bank of the brook to take my third long break in less than seven miles of desultory hiking, once again guzzling large quantities of cold water to relieve my arid mouth. I was paying the price for my night of debauchery. I did not care -- it had been worth it.

Connecticut replenished my waning excitement for the trail. The beautiful views and the lovely forests were a tantalizing indication of what is to come. In this state, for once, I was extremely lucky with the weather. The cool, sunny days with very low humidity were a welcome surprise in the middle of August. Even that one cool, rainy day hiking north out of Kent was a nice change of pace from the steam bath atmosphere through which I had been hiking since southern Virginia.

The best part of all of this is that I know it only gets better. While I have previously hiked but one stretch of the Appalachian Trail in northern New England, I have spent enough time in those states to know that each one is a little more spectacular scenically than the last. At the end of the trail lies Maine, where all good backpackers go when they die.

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©1997 George Steffanos

gsat@skwc.com

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