Sam’s Point, Ice Cave and Verkeerderkill Falls Trail

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We have snow in our yellow mums. They were starting to part and brown anyway. Clumps of snow are filling in the gaps and sitting on the tops of what remained of the blooms. Yellow petals poke out, holding on. It’s wet sloppy snow I wouldn’t want to drive in and don’t have to. One nice thing about living in the city.

First we make the hot cocoa. This epicurious recipe is the only way I like my cocoa, not too sweet. It works with almond or coconut milk, too.

Then I bust out the crochet because it’s time to finish the dozen hats I started last month. There was a yarn sale you see and nobody to hold me back. Now I’m in possession of a basket full of soft colorful yarn. Crocheting hats for my family is part of my self care regimen. Like yoga and running, it helps. So does hiking.

New York is a beautiful state to explore even when the trails are muddy. We managed to get in a few fall hikes regardless of some rainy weekends.

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People weren’t kidding when they advised us to get up early for Sam’s Point on a weekend. It was a rainy Saturday and yet the parking lot of about 100 spaces was filled by 9:30. The place opened at 9, and we were there by 7:30. I take warnings of get there early very seriously, especially when it’s more than 2.5 hours driving to get there. Also, it’s hard to sleep past 3 am when I’m excited for a hike. This is not something my boyfriend loves about me, I suspect.

So here are a few pictures from our 5ish-mile hike in the Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park. It’s $10 to park and the ice cave is closed until spring.

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The ice caves are probably the reason Sam’s Point fills up so fast. If you’re not keen on a longer hiker and just want some time outdoors, the hike to the cave is about 1 mile out and back, plus Sam’s lookout is along the way.

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Plenty of daylight seeps through, and the one stretch that would feel like a cave has motion sensor lights and a boardwalk. On one hand, it was nice to not bump my head on a protruding rock. On the other, it never felt like we were in a cave. I’m glad we saw it, but was happy to continue on.

The misty morning and early fall colors gave the woods a dreamy feel. The ranger said the fog would burn off but it never did.

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The Verkeerderkill Falls trail is stunning and it’s mostly flat. The trail takes you through dwarf pine barrens along the ridge. This ecosystem is dependent on fire and you can see burnt trees from the most recent one (2016, I think)

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as well as regeneration. Many of these bushes still bore berries in October. You know what that means. A ranger told us hikers see bears up here all the time in summer. He said the bears are too busy munching on berries to mind the humans. Good to know they’re not bothered by us, but I was missing my bear spray about now.

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The trail alone was well worth a little anxiety though. Parts of it looked beachy and since we couldn’t see through the mist I kept forgetting we were on a ridge.

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While not a fan of boardwalks in caves, I could get used to them on muddy trails. And you can’t hike wrong with a waterfall beckoning.

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Not a bad spot to eat a PJ. After lunch, we hiked back to Sam’s Point lookout. Rumor has it the view is lovely.

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I wouldn’t know.

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The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty – not a cozy beach read, fyi

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The internet offers numerous no-fun interpretations of demon dreams, all implying the dreamer sucks: Demon dreamers have many enemies, bad habits and possibly a twisted mind. Opening a store would be my downfall? I had no intention of ever opening a store, but now maybe. Also dodgy people may live in our walls, which would explain how a loaf of bread went missing. Our plaster walls feature some cracks and bulges that have always made me wonder if there isn’t someone slowly inching around in them.

Guess what? The internet doesn’t know everything. I’m pretty positive The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty is to thank.

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It’s important to read the classics. This 1971 novel and its 1973 movie adaptation defined demonic possession as a sub genre. The terrifying movie inspired kid-me to use a tough girl nightlight. It was refreshing to watch it as an adult and see it still holds up, still terrifies. Only no need for a nightlight now. I simply open my curtains and the luxury building across the street sets my bedroom aglow with lobby glare. The city is my nightlight, but the book left me just as unsettled during the day.

William Peter Blatty doesn’t let you off easy with a few cheap, fleeting boos. Both Blatty and the movie’s director, William Friedkin, believed they were telling a story on the “mystery of faith”, not a horror. The movie sticks tight to the book. Watching it many times first didn’t ruin the read for me. The movie is incredible, but the book mine’s the characters’ thoughts and emotions. The writing is so effective it feels like he’s mining us readers’, too.

He opened the door as if it were a tender wound.

There are four main characters: possessed girl (Regan), her mom (actress Chris McNeil), Father Damien Karras ( a doubting priest with a psychology background) and Father Merrin (the exorcist of unshakable faith). We all know the basic gist of the plot – a priest in the midst of a spiritual crisis is called upon to assist in an exorcism of a young girl. A bit extreme, but we’ve witnessed her health deteriorate as her behavior morphs from sweet to odd then creepy and so brutal it’s hard to read. You do because despite the deeply disturbing moments the writing is beautiful and increasingly removed. As the action intensifies, Blatty’s writing performs the equivalent of a camera pulling away.

Anticipation builds as Chris desperately seeks a medical explanation for her daughter’s strange, escalating illness. What happens when an atheist must face the supernatural to save her daughter? Of course, the mother will do anything. Chris uses her fame to have her daughter tested by the best medical doctors and psychiatrists. Her frustration and fear ground us in a mother’s horror where lesser possession stories cash in for shock value. Blatty may have inadvertently figured the formula of back-bends and levitation, but he doesn’t follow it.

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The movie’s poster features the iconic image of Father Merrin arriving at the McNeil house.  Chris McNeil is our entry, and the story leaves you with the unforgettable sight of little Regan’s evil face with grey cut up skin and glowing green eyes. They’re all special, but Father Damien Karras makes going along for this ride worthwhile. His spiritual torment thrusts us onto a rotting demon coaster in a broken car without a lap bar. Hands up.

I love this one scene of Karras watching the sun set in the same spot he watches it set each evening.

Once Karass met God in this sight. Long ago. Like a lover forsaken, he still kept the rendezvous.

The Exorcist is everything I want in my October reading. Much as I enjoy the genre, well written horror novels and movies sometimes seems like an oxymoron. For every novel I finish, there’s at least ten I return to the library with my tongue out. If entertainment is all you want, this novel delivers. It’s fast-paced, visual and provocative. Want a book with meat? The author has something to say here about faith in our modern world.

You may not realize how much of this novel sinks in until weeks later when you’re house/pet sitting alone in the country with a puppy, a blind, hard-of-hearing pooch and two bratty cats who love staring out windows like something’s coming. Normally I savor solitude but this is horror that stays with you, much like white animal hair.

Next time I pet sit, the furry ones and I need to clarify who’s protecting whom. Slackers.

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Things to not forget

Happy my sister’s birthday to me. I used to be jealous of her October birthday as though it took a little bit of fall away from me. Then I grew into a wise adult and discovered how to take back that teeny slice of fall with her name on it: celebrate her birthday as much if not more than she does. Because we are close in age and everything is a competition.

She makes a cake but doesn’t have a sweet tooth. I make a cake and eat it. Her hubby surprised her with a nice breakfast by the lake this morning. I surprised myself with a morning on the beach finishing The Exorcist. I didn’t think to bring breakfast, point to her, but did find a sweet shop in Brighton with a fresh pot of coffee and a woman selling cabbage piroshki.

Today is a Monday and I should be working but my mom died a few weeks ago and I still spend some days stuck in her absence. I find myself making lists of everything I know about her so it’s never forgotten. She liked The Doors, Aerosmith and Rod Stewart. She made my sisters and I elaborate Halloween costumes every year. We were mummies, witches, Carmen Mirandas, flying purple people eaters, doctors and their dismembered patients.

Neil Young’s ‘Unknown Legend’ plays and I think of her, though I don’t think she liked Neil Young. She came of age in the 1960s and cringed at all reminders of flower power, the fashions not the ideology. Her style came from the realm of Victorian poets in vampire novels. She’s the reason one small Central Jersey library has a massive horror selection. She read constantly. I never saw her kill a bug. Long ago at a wedding reception, she liked the French onion soup so much she went into the kitchen and got the chef to teach her how to make it. She never gave out a complete recipe, there was always something missing you had to figure out.

Another thing I’ll never forget:

My mom needed medical care and was dropped from Medicaid in May. She died at the age of 61 because she didn’t have health insurance. That’s a fact I wish was fake. She wanted to live. She wanted to eat the tomatoes she spent all summer growing then decorate her beautiful garden with cobwebs and handmade monsters. My dad grew a few stalks of corn for her so she could make a scarecrow.

Now she’s gone, my dad’s a widow and voting on November 6th couldn’t be more personal.

I’m angry and confused about the circumstances, and frustrated with my anger because anger is easy and numbing. Grief is hard.

 

Summer shorties

Feels good outside. I wasn’t awash in sweat before beginning my run this morning, a nice reprieve from summer beatings.

My nephew is nearing the home stretch after months of cancer treatment. This is a second cancer, different from a recurrence. He’s recovering from surgery with four more rounds of chemo to go. Everything falls to the periphery when a loved one is very sick, but things are looking up.

I made the mistake of assuming books might be a good distraction. Chemo does a number not just on the body but the ability to concentrate. Ditto for his sleepless loved ones. Short stuff is better.

Along with shorter runs and shorter hikes due to a mostly toasty summer, I’m appreciating shorter yoga classes (Yoga with Adriene) and shorter books, movies and shows. Even a short tree is getting love and water and just the right amount of sunshine.

My dad gave me a bonsai tree in May and it’s still alive. At some point when I was in high school, someone got it into the family’s head that I LOVE bonsai trees. And so all my life I’ve been given bonsai trees, kits with planters and tiny scissors to shape my own bonsai masterpiece and many books. My trees all died until this one. It comes with me when we leave town, along with our pots of bell peppers, mint and basil. It’s a full car with little room for the must-haves: hiking boots, running shoes and camping equipment. And bear spray, of course.

Not at all related, but I have a long list of summery recipes bookmarked in cookbooks and on my laptop. Aspirational cooking. They all have too many steps or cram 10 steps into one. Aside from one divine batch of kale pesto, this summer’s cooking is almost nonexistent. My niece noticed – All you eat is tomatoes? Not quite, but good tomatoes are the star of every meal. A highlight of my summer was picking warm cherry tomatoes with my little buddies. Only a few made it into the salad.

We also finally got to watch the Perseid meteor shower together. Raj and I usually go camping when the shower is at its peak, forgetting shaded campsites, while lovely by day, obscure the night sky. We end up just seeing what we can through scraps of sky, half distracted by every snapping twig in the woods. Not this year. This year we all laid on lounge chairs in my sister’s fenced backyard in the Poconos with a wide open sky on display and a thermos of hot cocoa to keep us awake. The girls were sleepy and impatient but they got a kick seeing Mars and went all giddy when they caught their first meteor.

My nephew is home. We’re not visiting because his immune system is too vulnerable, but he’s on my mind all the time. He’s the wish I make on shooting stars, when we drive over railroad tracks and when a lady bug landed on my finger. Hoping for no more cancer beats the rhyme we used to sing: Ladybug, Ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children are alone. Superstitious habits won’t destroy cancer, but like my Grandma said when she gave us all Jesus pillows, it can’t hurt.

Lost on the Appalachian Trail

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Saturday was to be cloudy with temperatures around the 60’s, according to my bad intel. Perfect weather for a 5-mile hike to Popolopen Torne, a memorial to fallen soldiers. Out early and back at the car by noon was the plan. Maybe grab an iced coffee in Cold Spring and read by the river. Doesn’t that sound like a nice Saturday? I thought so.

We were warned this trail is difficult to follow. Good thing we laugh in the faces of considerate, far more experienced hikers. Clearly they didn’t realize we are natural navigators, readers of the stars and stuff. Navigators in-training. Wannabes who plan to crack our Natural Navigator book open any day now. Until then we’ll just go ahead and forget the map. That’ll show ’em. Ha ha, suckers.

Most directions we read suggested starting at the trailhead in the Fort Montgomery lot, up some nice stone steps to what I can only imagine is a most lovely trail. Why would we start out the peaceful way when we can walk along a busy road and make a mad dash across 9W? Soon our three red dots appeared on a stone, beckoning us from the road into the woods along an overgrown trail.

If you’ve ever longed to journey through the land of spider webs and ticks this is the trail for you. On paper, this trail sounds idyllic, guiding you along burbling Popolopen Creek past Hell Hole. Yeah, Hell Hole is quite nice.

What, wait?

Hush or you won’t hear the revving motorcycles and endless whisper of traffic racing down Route 6. Physically, we were uncomfortable on this stretch. It was hot, buggy and hard to follow surprise, surprise. Mentally, I was working through some things. We love hiking in woodsy mountainous bear country so I figured we were bound to see bears sometimes. It wasn’t until Virginia when Raj said That’s a bear and we stood there momentarily frozen as it huffed from a few yards away that I realized I never actually believed we’d encounter one.

If you’re not working through the bear fear, this is a peaceful stretch of trail despite major roads nearby. You pass some rock formations, and the creek and birds supply a comforting soundtrack. Here’s where we crossed the creek over a narrow concrete bridge. This photo is less blurry if you shake your head while looking at it.

On foot, this trail lived up to its reputation. Harder to follow than Gravity’s Rainbow. And after a bit it didn’t quite match up with the directions. But it matched enough. They said the trail turned off at a gravel road. After a while we did come across a gravel road. The directions didn’t mention the shooting range so that was a fun surprise. Then they said we’d have to pass under a guardrail. We followed the road, went over an overpass and finally saw that the trail continued beyond a guardrail.

Phew. For a crazy second I suspected we might have been a little lost. Good thing I didn’t voice these suspicions to my hiking buddy. Good thing I have a natural knack for navigation.

Next the directions said to ascend for, oh, 15 minutes. Then we’d be at the top. The memorial. When researching this trail, the consensus indicated this would be a steep but brief scramble to the top. Sounded fun. We didn’t see much elevation ahead of us at first. Then the trail meandered up some rocks. We stepped up wondering why people would scramble such a gentle ascent. People are strange, that’s why. After a while the trail descended and we thought hmm, this is interesting. I wisely supposed we’d walked over the top past the memorial and exposed overlook without noticing. Next, the directions said we’d hit a kiosk in another 15 minutes. Let’s keep our eyes peeled for the kiosk. Wouldn’t want to miss it and get lost or anything.

We continued, sipped down our water supply. By now we know what it feels like to hike 5 miles and it was feeling like we’d hiked 5 miles, but sometimes the heat slows us down and makes a mile feel like much more. We continued, thinking it might be time to eat some lunch. Let’s eat lunch at the lake. That sounds nice. Oh yeah, there was supposed to be a lake.

The trail we were on converged with the Appalachian Trail. Hiking any length of the AT feels like you’re a part of something essential. So no complaining, but we were surprised the directions didn’t mention the AT. We said hello to many thru hikers. Apparently there are 5000 thru hikers on the AT now, according to one couple. We chatted with a few about everything but what we should’ve been asking.

Where are we?

Finally we asked a day hiker, figuring he was local. We couldn’t have asked a better person. This man informed us we were hiking south on the Appalachian Trail about 6 miles from the Torne memorial. It was noon and we were definately not reading by the Hudson river, sipping on an iced coffee. We’d been on the trail for 4 hours. Looking at the map, we realized we missed the very first turnoff where we were supposed to leave the red trail behind. We’d been walking the wrong way for about 3 hours and 45 minutes.

Come with me and I’ll drive you to your car, he said after knowing us for 30 seconds.

Kinder words have never been spoken. This generous man saved our day. Rather than backtracking for miles and miles and miles on that same neglected buggy trail, we hiked a shady stretch of the AT past blooming mountain laurel and vibrant ferns. We ate lunch together on his special rock overlooking Bear Mountain.

We joined him on the remaining few miles of his hike, talking about books, national parks and our shared home state, New Jersey. He told us about his work with SUWA, South Utah’s Wilderness Alliance, and their efforts to save Big Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante from President Bozo. We had a good time on a beautiful bite of the AT and made a friend. I thought trail magic was for thru hikers, but on this day the Appalachian Trail led us to exactly who we needed even though we had no clue we were in need. Okay, we had a lot of clues but we still didn’t know.

Next time I’ll bring the map. Hey, that’s a good idea.

Zion National Park – Observation Point and The Narrows

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Today’s high in Zion National Park will be around 100 degrees. That’s about 25 degrees hotter than when we were there in April and our only concern was avoiding sunburn. I’m amazed that hundreds of thousands of people manage to hike and climb these canyons in the summer heat. Also very jealous.

Southern Utah’s rugged landscape is unlike any place I’ve ever been. There’s so much beauty everywhere it’s ridiculous. I forgive them their black bears, rattlesnakes and mountain lions (only because we didn’t encounter any).

Wouldn’t you love to wake up here?

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We had 2 days in Zion and arrived excited to hike every single trail or at least as far as our feet could take us. The Narrows, a river hike through the narrowest stretch of the canyon, was closed on day 1 due to heavy rain the previous day.

zg.jpgWe hiked the 8-mile out and back to Observation Point instead, figuring there were no wrong answers. I was very glad for my up-before-dawn vacation habit. Thanks, me. Once the sun caught up, there was very little shade on this trail.

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My favorite section was the stretch through Echo Canyon. Passing through feels like you’ve wandered into another world and you don’t want to leave. Too soon, the trail puts your legs to work over countless switchbacks with endless views. Linger in the canyon for a bit.

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This was our reward after 4 strenuous miles and 2300 feet of elevation gain. Not a bad lunch spot so long as you’re able to fend off squirrels with no respect for personal space.

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There’s Angel’s Landing down below.

zeGoing up wasn’t too bad, but coming down without a walking stick was rough. Because my blistered feet were big babies we didn’t take the side trip to Hidden Canyon on our way down. Next time. Soon.

I recommend this hike if you get an early start and aren’t in any kind of rush. Bring way more water than you think you’ll need. Wear lots of sun screen and a hat.

The Narrows was open on day 2. A ranger told us they have to close it for 24 hours once the water reaches a certain level as flash floods are a threat. Apparently flash floods are always possible, though much more so during and after rain.

That said, the Narrows is a cool hike. We started around 9 am and thought it was maybe noon when we made it back to the shuttle stop. Nope. Try 4 pm. This was our day and we loved it. There was no place else in the world I wanted to be.

v1.jpgThe Virgin River is Zion Canyon’s primary source of erosion. It has millions of years of epic carving experience, with the help of a rock avalanche, and it continues to carve. You get to hike in this river, feel it, hear it. See what it’s done and where it takes you.

v3.jpgIn April, water levels mostly ranged from mid-calf to waist high. The current was strong and like most people we waded from rocky beach to rocky pockets.

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A few hours in we reached a side canyon. The river goes on and on but you have to turn around at some point. The current was with us going back. I assumed this would make it easier, but the slippery rocks and rushing water knocked me on my bum a few times.

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Having never worn neoprene socks before, I didn’t know my feet would magically feel wet the whole time. Swishing around in cool water wet. I decided the price of waterlogged feet was worth the hike, until the hike was over and then I regretted that decision and dreaded taking off the socks. I fully expected to find squishy wrinkled scary unrecognizable pruney  flesh where my feet should be. Happy to report I still have feet. The rented gear kept us totally dry.

It was a dream to hike in Zion. Aside from all of the obvious reasons I didn’t think about bears one time. As with our Acadia trip, I told myself there were no bears in Zion. As with Acadia, there are black bears in Zion. I lied and happily believed the lie.

I was hoping to see bighorn sheep and we did. One morning there they were making their way down to cross the road. Out for a morning hike.

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Gettysburg

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The thing about going to Gettysburg is when you come back people ask Did you have a good time in Gettysburg? And it feels so wrong to say yes because it’s Gettysburg, site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. So instead of answering I dribble coffee on my dress. Say, Oh, man. And walk away to accentuate the brown spots with larger wet spots. g1.jpgWe checked into a motel on Emmitsburg Road on a spring day. While not technically in Gettysburg many of the affordable places on this road are less than 5 miles from the battlefields. The places in town looked nice, but cost much more. Our motel was fine. We’ve learned to embrace the serial killer hunting ground vibe.

Not knowing what to expect, Raj brought along a few books to guide us: Weird Civil War and Gettysburg: A Guided Tour Through History. The second book elaborated on each of the 16 stops along the 24-mile chronological, self-guided auto tour. First we stopped in the visitor center to grab a map and stamp our National Parks passport, as all the coolest peeps do.

 

 

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Pickett’s Charge

The forecast called for an afternoon sprinkle. Clouds moved in just as we parked at the first stop. Lightning illuminated the dark skies as we pulled into the second stop. It rained off and on for the rest of the day. Gettysburg is not a place to complain about rain when you think about the wet, humid conditions so many men fought and died in. Our first day’s stops focused on the Confederate side, including the site of Pickett’s Charge. The rain slowed as we walked a path where General Lee met what remained of his troops after the devastating loss.

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Walking along Lee’s path, we looked back and saw a double rainbow.

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We usually prefer to wander new places on our own, but there were so many ghost tours in town at night and everyone on them looked mesmerized and happy. We drank the punch. Expectations were low, but they weren’t low enough. Highlights of our tour included petting a greyhound belonging to a fellow sucker and waiting in the rain for 20 minutes.

Maybe some tours don’t suck.

On our way to the car we stopped at a fence bordering Gettysburg National Cemetery. I busied myself complaining about the tour while Raj looked out and saw someone walking inside. He took a picture but the person he saw was gone. The only possible explanation is paranormal. He totally saw a ghost and not a late night sneaker-inner.g6.jpgWe started our next day with a short hike up Big Round Top.

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Turkey vultures?

Then over to the Breastworks

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on Little Round Top.

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Down to the Devil’s Den.

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A sharpshooter spot facing Little Round Top

It’s strange. The Devil’s Den boulders seem to bring out the climber in every visitor. You want to play by day and wonder about the ghosts at night. Considering the death toll here, the name is fitting, though it preceded the Civil War. We climbed up and ate a sandwich, taking it in while thinking if there are ghosts in Gettysburg they must be here.

gdLater, we arrived near the Pennsylvania State Memorial just in time to watch reenactors fire a cannon. Raj is a much bigger history buff than I. Having recently read Confederates in the Attic, he had all sorts of questions for these fellows. They seemed pretty dedicated and knowledgeable,  but do they drink peanut coffee? Nope. g3.jpg

From April-November the park stays open till 10 pm. This gives you enough time to grab a cider and eat then return to what many experts? claim is one of the most active paranormal places. A handful of people were setting up tripods and speaking into recorders when we arrived back at Devil’s Den. I am home to both a skeptic and a believer (the believer is more fun). Believer asked permission to take some more pictures while skeptic looked out for snakes and other fun critters. Then I got sad for the soldiers and their families. So much of what you take in during a day here doesn’t sink in until it gets dark.g5.jpgA full moon lit up the night like a bright bulb powered by electricity, which would soon be a distant memory. Back at the murder motel, we were confused when none of the lights in the room turned on. No water either. A power outage adds all sorts of excitement to a trip. You get to fumble in the dark for your toiletries. You get to drive to a roadside rest room so you can brush your teeth and wash a bit before reluctantly driving back to the tune of who’s-idea-was-it-to-stay-here. Mine. Did I mention we were the motel’s only guests?

Power came back on at 3:37 am. I know because every light in the room flashed on, the minifridge rumbled back to life and the sink, which we must’ve left on in the confusing darkness, turned on full blast. Not a disturbing way to be ripped from sleep at all.g6.jpg

Two days was the perfect amount of time for us in Gettysburg. This was my first visit to a battlefield. I’m not sure how to sum up the experience of immersing myself in Civil War history other than to say I won’t forget it.

 

“That’s a bear”

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Tomorrow’s free comic book day.  Tomorrow could be free punch me in the face day and I’d be alright with that. We’ve made it back from Shenandoah National Park having faced my biggest fear. No matter what happens for the rest of the week, at least I’m not currently being followed by a black bear.

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Now we have a story to tell. This was what my hiking buddy said afterwards. As though there was a shortage on stories and I needed to fear for my life to round things out. Yippee. Would you like to hear about the time I valiantly melted into a puddle of please-don’t-eat-me?

Bears are my biggest fear. I read about them all the time, thinking filling my head with knowledge will chip away at the big bad monsters and all that will remain will be respect for these intelligent wild animals. Maybe one day. I’m not there yet, not even close.

Shenandoah is about a 2-hour drive south of Gettysburg, PA. We thought it’d be fun to go there for some hiking after a weekend of immersing ourselves in Civil War history. A detour to Antietam first. We arrived in Shenandoah National Park around 2 pm eager to find a trail. A park ranger recommended the Fox Hollow/ Dickey Ridge trail located right across from the visitor center. The 5ish-mile loop sounded like a pleasant introduction to the park.  We grabbed our walking sticks and packs and headed out. This was our first time carrying bear spray. I figured it’d be nice to have the peace of mind. Just in case. Never gonna actually need it.

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Our route started us on the Fox Hollow trail. We passed a few people coming from the opposite direction. Asked them if they saw any bears. They laughed and said no but it’s a lovely trail. Lalala. About a mile in, we reach the old cemetery. More hikers pass from the opposite direction. We ask and they say they saw no bears. The trail, while more brown that I expected, was gentle and peaceful. Some elevation and brush to step over but nothing strenuous. It felt good to stretch our legs after driving. I was starting to calm down about potential bear sightings, but we continued talking loudly just in case.

About 1 3/4 miles into our hike Raj freezes and says the words I never ever want to hear on a hike.

That’s a bear.”

I vaguely recall the ranger saying something about 50 yards being a safe distance to observe bears from. I look way out into the distance but the bear is not in the distance. Our bear was maybe 5 yards away. In the moment, I do what I’ve always feared I would do. I forget every bear safety precaution. Raj reminds me not to run.

The bear spray is in my hand, safety off. I don’t remember grabbing it but there it is. We wave our arms and start shouting for the bear to go away. It darts a few feet parallel to the trail then darts back to where we first saw it. Raj wants to stand our ground but I’m too scared to continue on for another 3 1/2 miles. We back away slowly, careful not to turn our backs to the bear. Never run. Never make eye contact. Never turn our backs.

Hiking backwards is hard. We start to realize there are gaping holes in our bear knowledge. Aren’t they supposed to be shy and run away? How long do we stay backwards. Where’d it go? Gone? Nope. There it is. We continue to see and hear the bear a few yards off the trail. It seems to be following us. It’s slightly bigger than mid-size. We didn’t see any cubs. The elevation change and roots we’d so easily hiked only moments ago are not fun to trek over backwards with a bear in sight. Torture for me – most of the hikers we’ve met aren’t terrified of bears. Most hikers probably would’ve stood their ground then continued on their way.

This was our first bear encounter on a trail. I don’t know what we did wrong. Maybe we startled him even though we were talking loudly. We were listening for bears but bears don’t listen for us. This wild animal didn’t shyly scurry away. It didn’t hear our shouts, understand we were untasty humans and back off. It didn’t notice our retreat and return to its foraging. It followed us back to the cemetery, past the cemetery, around a bend. All along we either saw or heard it so we kept talk shouting. Kept walking backwards. Kept the bear spray at the ready. It would’ve been a fantastic time to run into other hikers, but it was just us and the bear almost the whole way back.

About a half mile from the trailhead I look down a slope and see another smaller bear about 50 yards away. This one observed us and went back to its log. Finally it felt safe enough to turn around and a few minutes later we were out of the woods.

 

Our first hike in Shenandoah was one to remember. In a total of about 3 miles we encountered 2 bears. The encounter was difficult because it lasted for so long. We knew we didn’t have far to backtrack, but we were walking backwards. Every time I saw or heard this bear my nerves went deeper into overdrive.

We were going to Hike Mary’s Rock or Old Rag the next morning but I was still too shaken. I saw a bear in every shadow. Instead we hiked a few miles along the Appalachian Trail and checked out the overlooks along Skyline Drive. We ran into some lone thru hikers on the AT. One stopped to chat with us for a bit. The day before, he hiked 38 miles. He’d started in March. Guess how many bears he saw… Zero. Not a single other hiker we talked to, most thru or section hikers, had seen a single bear. We saw four in two days. According to everyone we talked to, seeing so many was lucky.

I didn’t get any bear pictures. Too scared to even consider it that first day. We saw the other two bears from the relative safety of the car. The third was a cub heading towards the section of AT we’d just hiked. The fourth was massive and still. He looked so much like a black bear he had to be fake but then he ran away faster than I ever imagined something so large could possibly run.

While I was hoping our first bear encounter would lessen my fear – because I’d wave my arms and shout and the bear would run away – at least now I know the What Not To Dos are correct. We made it out unscathed. Raj kept his cool. I managed to function while facing my biggest fear. A few days have passed and my heart still races when I think about it.

We’re bound to cross trails with bears again. Now I know I can sort of deal with it. Maybe someday I’ll get over this block of bear fear and be one of those hikers hoping to see a bear from a distance. Probably not. Maybe one day I’ll go back to being one of those hikers who never see them at all.

Still it’s spring and I’m counting down the days till our next Catskills hike. Bear spray: check.

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The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

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Jason Arnopp’s The Last Days of Jack Sparks is a book you can judge by its minty delicious cover. The title is what you get – an account of the last days of Jack Sparks. The telling comes to you straight from the source: Jack Sparks.

I read this in 2 sittings because sometimes it’s nice to spend a fat chunk of time reading a great book by a swell writer. Also the pacing and spinning plot distracted me from a fever that wouldn’t go away, along with a dad who kept calling to ask if I’d “cooked it out yet” and sisters who kept calling to remind me not to take dad’s medical advice*. Fast is a good way to read this one. Then I handed it to my boyfriend for his commute and he took his sweet time. We both loved it, but he missed connecting some of the dots that make this book so clever and fun. I recommend full surrender. Keep reading. Dirty dishes can wait.

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Fresh out of rehab and riding the success of his first three pop books “Jack Sparks on a Pogo Stick” “Jack Sparks on Gangs” and “Jack Sparks on Drugs”, social media addict Jack Sparks begins what will surely be his next big hit. In “Jack Sparks on the Supernatural”, Jack Sparks will completely debunk all things supernatural beginning with a demon, naturally. And in case you haven’t guessed, Jack Sparks likes being Jack Sparks.

It’s hard to say where the story begins. Work on the supernatural book starts in a remote church in Italy during the exorcism of a young girl. For some reason the priest allowed Jack Sparks to observe quietly from a pew in the back. Jack Sparks being Jack Sparks, he doesn’t stay quiet. He laughs, mocking the demon’s big scary moment. Things get messy.

As with Paul Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts, I almost missed out on this book after hearing it was sort of about a possession, assuming it was another Holy back bends, What’s coming out of her mouth? kind of storyIt’s not like that. Jack is firm in his stated premise that when it comes to the supernatural people are either deceiving or being deceived. Sure there’s a third possibility, but no way. No way is there more to our existence than lying or being lied to, and racking up as many followers as possible while doing it.

The third possibility is an uncomfortable door to open. For Jack, it’s not an option. Can you question faith if you never had it or pretended not to have it? And how can you think about these things when there’s Twitter to update and Instagram and how many new followers did he just get? Ooh shiny things with buttons and the certainty that the whole world is hanging on his every word because he has so many followers.

This is the first novel I’ve read that incorporates social media in a way that’s not annoying. It’s a huge part of Jack’s existence, his success and his end. Jack’s obsession with his online presence underscores his already apparent narcissism but it also moves the plot forward. Arnopp never tries to convince us that Jack is best friend material. He’s an arrogant self absorbed ass feeding on the empty glow of likes and follows. He’s completely aware that he’s a product of his time. That self awareness eventually makes his self destruction compelling, adding heft to a book that doesn’t need it, but maybe some of its readers do.

Jack is doomed and doesn’t know it. We know the end yet still we’re racing to catch up, to puzzle out the mysteries because it’s human nature. As it’s human nature to bury our most terrifying experience so deep that it becomes a powerful part of we are.

I haven’t read many horror novels that are actually scary. I like the ones that take the mind to dark places and leave you there to work your own way out. I love when the creeps are unexpected and fleeting. Jack Sparks is entertaining throughout with several chilling moments and a bang end that is the very opposite of a twist. No closure unless you think about it and the more you think about it the more disturbing it gets. Fun, fascinatingly disturbing, not dark and heavy I-feel-icky-about-about-the-world-and-just-need-to-lie-down-for-a-week disturbing. (Looking at you, Song of Kali.)

This is a fun, thrilling read. People who love horror will eat it up. People who enjoy thrillers, mysteries and milkshakes will love it, too.

*Don’t try to cook out a fever. Cooking out a fever can cause brain damage.

 

Order a fiend, save a friend

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