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Magical micro-friendships

As the clueless crowds thin out, here’s to bumping back into our new trail buddies

| 05 Mar 2021 | 10:05

I can’t wait for the day when everybody is back swarming bars, packing into restaurants and queuing up at carnival rides. I want to see stores overrun like it’s two days before Christmas. I’ll be cheering when Legoland finally opens and sucks up all the bored aimless people into its alternate reality like a huge absorbent sponge.

I’m all for economic recovery, of course. But my dearest wish right now is to get people off the trail, and their booming voices and scads of litter with them. As a winter-loving introvert, I’ve been having a pretty good time lately. The trails have been relatively quiet, the calm before the spring storm of activity. And we had something approaching a “real” winter, like the ones I remember upon first moving to the country 35 years ago.

Back then, snow fell nearly every day. Every little hamlet had its own ice-fishing contest. People took bets on when the frozen Delaware would break up, which was how you really knew winter was turning a corner. Those giant slabs of aquamarine-tinted ice crunching loudly as they moved downriver would take your breath away. Although the snow this season didn’t last nearly as long as the November-to-April winters of misty memory, it was just persistent enough so that, if I tilted my head sideways and squinted, I could imagine we’d returned to an earlier time, when global warming seemed a distant threat. When Verkhoyansk, in the Arctic Circle, had never yet hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as it did last summer for the first time in recorded history. When the polar vortex was sturdy enough to contain frigid Arctic air rather than push it down to Texas.

I had a good time playing in the snow. During the last 10 or so winters, it was rare that a weekday snowfall would last long enough for a weekend jaunt on snowshoes or cross country skis. This year for the first time in a long while, I wasn’t afraid to ski on the lake near our house.

The last time we tried, Tom fell through. The load of his welterweight body was widely distributed on long skis, but the ice must have been wafer thin. We were close to shore, and close to home, but we might as well have been in Verkhoyansk.

We were alone. The sun was sinking. I heard a tick, tick, tick in my head that we were on the clock. There wasn’t a second to waste.

We talked to one another calmly, so calmly. We harmonized our movements like surgeons. I couldn’t tell you how it was done, but after some well-coordinated pushing and pulling, Tom stood once again on the ice. He leaned on me as he unscrambled his skis.

Drowning averted! Hypothermia still a threat. We discussed the next step as we made our way to shore. Forcing myself to stay cool, I sounded like a 45 record played at 33 rpm.

Hooow about yooou wait heeere while I geeet the caaar?

(Scrap that, can’t leave a wet man out in the cold.)

Hooow aboout wee hightaaail it?

Back in front of our woodstove, I helped Tom peel off his wet clothes. We were panting from the race home. We laughed, we shook, we said we wouldn’t be trying that again soon. And we didn’t.

Trail activity is bound to pick up soon. I’m hoping the clueless crowds of last spring will be more interested in returning to their old normal, whatever that was. I must say, though, that Tom and I struck up a number of magical micro-friendships on the trail over the past year who were an absolute balm in our isolation. I hope to see again hikers who love the quiet beauty of the woods as much as we do, who carry out their mess, who leave trees and rocks and flowers as they found them.

We felt a special kinship with one couple we encountered over the winter on a trail in Huckleberry Ridge State Forest. We lingered, masked and a log’s length apart, as we made small talk. We were all reluctant to let one other go. I wanted to offer our phone number, arrange to meet on the trail again, but awkwardness won the day. I have cursed my shyness ever since.

But they did say they hiked the trail often, so maybe one day this spring we’ll meet again. I’d like to show them the smile that, hidden under my bandana, they never got to see.

TRAILHEAD: Hawthorne Lake, at end of Lake Side Drive, Huckleberry Ridge State Forest, Port Jervis
(ALMOST) LOOP TRAIL: Follow the white-blazed trail on the right 1.6 miles, make a right on the blue-blazed Shawangunk Ridge Trail (SRT) and continue 0.6 miles to a rock slab overlooking the Neversink River Valley to the north. Take SRT 1.65 miles back to the trailhead.