A Delaware River guide I know fished right through Christmas one year, when all of his clients were at home with their families, and he was expected home with his. He was actually only a few feet away from the buzzy warmth of his kitchen, but he might as well have been on the moon. If we adjusted our eyes to the blackness we could see him out there, a man-boat silhouette bobbing in the water. Frozen rain pelted his hooded poncho. Fierce winds pushed his drift boat further into the eddy. We knew he loved fishing, we said, but come on, it’s Christmas, nothing’s biting, the weather’s atrocious. His wife approached the window again and again. What’s he thinking? He told her later he was thinking about her. Whenever he was alone in his boat, which was a lot, he thought about her and their family, and how much he loved them all. Why, then, she asked in exasperation, couldn’t he on this one day of the year tie up his boat and visit awhile? There was so much food, ham and turkey and lasagna, and so many people who drove miles of icy highway to see him.
After the last of our parents died, taking away the last reason for our annual Thanksgiving trek to Jersey City, we turned away several invitations to join other family parties so that we could climb Sugarloaf Mountain. It was a plan we’d made many years before, and reinforced every Thanksgiving morning as we headed toward a day of confinement in city apartments. The Appalachian Trail crossing on Route 206 would get us started. When everyone’s gone, we agreed, we’ll stay in the mountains and think about the ones we love amid the quietude of alpine ledges. “These here is God’s finest sculpturings!” we’d say, quoting Del Gue’s speech to Jeremiah Johnson while speeding down I-80. “And there ain’t no laws for the brave ones! And there ain’t no asylums for the crazy ones! And there ain’t no churches, except for this right here!”
I made a traditional dinner so that we’d have the right kind of sandwich for our Thanksgiving picnic: turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and sweet potatoes stuffed into dinner rolls. Sugarloaf really works up an appetite, especially when it’s cold. One-third of the loop trail travels above 3,500 feet, which on this day was tipped with frost. I’ve learned that winter approaches not only with icy fingers but with a gathering silence. The musical color of bird song is replaced by the static of rustling leaves, in turn muted by blanketing snow. In a few weeks there will be nothing left to listen to but the blood pounding in my ears.
Sugarloaf is a dark, wild hulk of a mountain that looms above the Hudson Valley as part of the grandly beautiful range that includes Indian Head and Twin. The best vantage point is not from the top of the mountain, where balsam fir now encroaches on the view, but at Dibble’s Quarry halfway down Pecoy Notch. There you’ll find a regal hangout of thrones and towers built by mysterious means out of bluestone slag. As the lights came on one by one under the darkening sky, I felt connected to the valley in celebration down below.
We’d been on the trail for nearly six hours at this point, having already come up and over the summit. I settled into one of the thrones and blew on cold-stiffened fingers to better manage my mess of a sandwich. The combined tastes of sweet, tart, and bland immediately brought to mind Thanksgivings past – my mother’s steamy kitchen, the rickety kids’ table I shared with my cousins, the screams of Fay Wray, made crazy by fear.
My cell phone buzzed. It was a friend whose dinner invitation we’d turned down.
“How are you guys doing?” she asked doubtfully.
“Just finishing up, about to wash the dishes,” I said.
She told me about all the food she’d made, and all the people asking after us.
“You’ll come next year?” she asked.
“Promise,” I said. I lifted the last bite of my sandwich to the receding sun.
“To next year,” I said.