Climbing down from a short walk on the Appalachian Trail on Bear Mountain, I sent a selfie to a friend and said, “I’m in my ancestral home!”
I was a toddler when my parents and grandmother brought me here. Born in the sprawl of suburbia just across the river from New York City and raised by city folk, my first taste of wild – my first knowledge of nature beyond feeding ducks on a manicured lawn around a pond and looking at animals in a petting zoo – happened here in Bear Mountain, NY, where the leafy woods rise to a pinnacle above the Hudson River.
As John and I followed a very old, paved, steep, and not at all accessible path down the bluffs to the river, flashes of memory returned. The leaf-framed view from a pile of rocks. The outcrop with a massive stag, a 1930s bronze, jutting from the cliff. The unpaved footpath that diverged to climb up the bluff. And the river itself, named for explorer Henry Hudson, whose DNA I carry: one reason for the wanderlust I share with the generations before me.
Place shapes people. Since my parents are no longer with us, I have no way to ask, but I do not doubt that our foray up the Palisades Parkway to Bear Mountain and Harriman State Park and Sterling Forest soon drew my parents up and over the Ramapo Mountains to build a house in a new world. Our home sat amid tall trees, burbling streams, and glacial erratics, a place unlike the cities they grew up in.
I was fortunate to settle there young enough that living in the woods made a permanent imprint on my soul. As a child, I climbed trees, gathered moss, splashed after tadpoles and crawfish, chased down newts, and used large rocks to shatter open smaller ones to delight in the minerals found inside. I walked through the woods to elementary school, changing the route up on a regular basis, carrying a Dixie cup with me so I could drink from the cold, clear water of the stream along the way. I’d hop from rock to rock, looking for snakes.
When my parents first took me into the woods, they were looking for woodland finery to add to our deeply shaded yard – native ferns and tiger lilies. Then it was to hike. I have strong memories of a steep trail on exposed rock and a discussion of red dot and blue dot trails that would ultimately lead to the Appalachian Trail.
John and I didn’t find that exact approach to Waywayanda Mountain, but we did find that intersection of trails. Towering maples and oaks rained autumn leaves across a boulder-strewn forest floor as we followed the white blazes past a deep blue lake rimmed in rock. I climbed up past the blue dot intersection to Waywayanda Shelter. It was not the lean-to I was expecting, but a modern construct of beams so thick no porcupine could gnaw through them. Adjoining it was a bear box – a locker in which you place your food (or whole pack, if space permits) – to protect it from the woodland creatures. Especially the bears.
I grew up here among place names like Snake Den and Bearfort. But when I was young, soaking in the essence of these woods, the only bears were in the Trailside Zoo at Bear Mountain. When John and I stayed there this past week, I had to walk the Appalachian Trail through it for memory’s sake. Here stands Walt Whitman and a wise piece of poetry, carved in stone. The bear pit, which I first looked into when I was just a couple of years old, is still there too. It’s one of the oldest pieces of the Appalachian Trail, and one of the lowest elevations. But it’s where I first set foot on the AT.
Wawayanda Mountain was the next spot where I walked on the Appalachian Trail as a child. Bears roam here now, reintroduced after my family moved to Florida when I was a teen. They are more plentiful and troublesome than anyone ever expected. My hometown now has the dubious distinction of being the first place in NJ where a bear killed a hiker. No one my age ever had to fear a bear when we played in the woods. They were so few left.
Driving past my childhood home – because one must – it was funny to see how everything shrank as I grew. I remember the front yard as massive because I was small. Mom’s prize rosebushes are gone, as is the split-rail fence Dad installed. But the spruce he planted now towers over the house, and Mom’s forsythia still drape over into the neighbor’s yard. My old neighborhood seems frozen in time, 50 years after we moved in.
It’s heartening to return to your roots and find how deeply they are planted. Unlike John, a Florida native, whose forests of his childhood have been almost entirely obilterated by subdivisions, strip malls, and industrial parks here on the Space Coast, my childhood home is still a little oasis in the mountains, protected in large part by a ring of public lands and mountains that city folk don’t care to cross, a corner of New Jersey that is still rural, living in harmony with nature.
Walking under a flutter of yellow leaves between stone fences, I felt like I was home. And I was.