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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.