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‘Cause In The End It’s All OK

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Adirondacks, Outdoors

DAY 0: Rochester to Somewhere on I-91

“And everything you thought was so important doesn’t matter,
All you need to understand is, everything you know is wrong!

(Weird Al Yankovic, “Everything You Know Is Wrong”)

I’d never felt this way in the days before an Adirondack climb. This used to be my favorite time of year, I’d count down the days starting in February, even January, look to the maps for inspiration, read everything I could about the trails (and forget it all), obsess over gear with the inevitable conclusion I didn’t need whatever it was anyway even if I already bought it. There’s a spreadsheet on my computer I hadn’t opened in years, with mileages and directions and routes and snowfall/melt graphs from when I thought I knew what I was doing, when it was just me and Christian against the mountains, going back for our yearly smackdown every May, starting the summer with a few new summits and a healthy dose of humility instead of the record for the fastest 46, or even a single-season 46 as we’d dreamed of.

Weekend before last, I went up by myself for a night hike and revisited Dial and Nippletop to get #41 back after I’d missed one of the nipples the first time around and left her unfulfilled. But that really just felt like an ordinary day in the peaks – sure it had been three years since I’d stood on a summit, but there was no feeling of impending doom. I didn’t have to wonder if the mountain would win; maybe it even would, and so what? If that’s the case, maybe I just wasn’t meant to finish. But that one went almost too well, and there I was, two weeks from being a 46er, then one week, then three days.

At least I had a solid plan. I’d start from the Loj on Thursday night, and just hike and climb straight through until I was a 46er, probably finishing sometime Saturday morning after a 36 hour sufferfest, with the last peaks being Allen, Marshall, Iroquois, Algonquin and Wright — not the easiest mix in any circumstances, let alone trying to string them into one epic.

When it finally came time to leave, everything that could go wrong did, and then some. I thought I found the solution with a cheap last-minute Cessna flight from Albany to Saranac Lake that would have had me on trail by 8pm, but that plan went bust in the Rochester train station, watching my train fail to arrive, so I was back to plan A. My next route to the high peaks, through New York and Montreal, was so awful I continued to look for any way I could to fix it and get there in something less than 13 hours. And back to the airport, where (of course) my hiking pack got a special twice-over from the TSA, which didn’t matter one bit as the flight was already delayed over an hour, setting up an “Amazing Race” maneuver from LaGuardia to Penn Station. We boarded the plane just in time, started taxiing to the runway, and turned right around… there was a flat tire in the landing gear, and we had to deplane while they fixed it – an hour delay.

That’s probably where I should have given up, but I just kept making more plans, buying more tickets, and digging myself deeper. I got to LaGuardia not only too late to miss the train, that was a given, but also missed my backup, a bus to Montreal via Plattsburgh. The only way to fix this one was to go to Port Authority, the armpit of Western Civilization, and try to get a refund and/or exchange. After an ironic detour to Times Square, I got put on a bus to Burlington, which was at least in the right direction, and knowing that I was more or less headed north, listened to Phish until I fell asleep…

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DAY 1: Burlington to Allen Register

“This I will recall, every time I fall:
I’m free! Setting forth in the universe,
I’m here!”

(Eddie Vedder, “Into The Wild” score)

From Burlington it was only supposed to get easier: three local buses and a ferry, from Burlington to Plattsburgh to Lake Placid. After I missed the first bus, things actually did go somewhat smoothly. It still took almost three hours to get to Placid, but at least I got there — and picked up a hitchhiker along the way, inasmuch as someone without a car could do so.

Joshua was on an adventure of his own, trying to get back to Minnesota in as outdoorsy a way as possible, checking out the northern states and Canada over a few weeks. I figured since I’m not the fastest hiker, and the high peaks were right there, maybe I should at least show him Avalanche Pass and Lake Colden. He stuck with me as far as Lake Placid village, but it wouldn’t be one of my adventures without another setback to screw everything up all over again. What was supposed to be the easiest step, calling for a $20, 15-minute taxi ride from Olympic Center to the Loj, turned out to be one of the biggest obstacles of all. Apparently, on an off-season weekday, Placid has exactly one taxi driver, and he had just left to bring someone all the way up to Montreal, and wouldn’t be back for at least four hours! Looking at the near inevitability of being stuck in Placid, we went to Olympic Center to try to ask for help at the tourist info booth (hopefully they might know another way? They didn’t) and wait for other options. Understandably, Joshua left and went to climb Whiteface instead. So would I have if I didn’t have a 46 to finish…

I spent the morning sitting outside Olympic Center, posting on facebook trying to get myself unstuck. Amazingly, it worked, the “Aspiring for Bill Finan” group came through, and less than an hour later Amanda and Jaryn showed up, and asked me if I needed a ride to the Loj!

After that miraculous bailout, and filling up my water at the info center, I was under way! I finally had feet on the trail, only fifteen hours late, but still with a (close) finish possible in time for the celebration dinner Danielle and James had planned for me.

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I only had to get about three minutes past the trail register though to run right into Rangers. They stopped me on the trail, made me unpack my pack performatively and show them what I had and didn’t have, then show them my route on the map. (of course they ignored the kid going in right behind me looking like he was training for Šerpa Rallye, hauling ass at 5-6mph with an inordinately heavy-looking pack almost twice his own height!) I didn’t think they would understand that I was planning on doing the whole thing in one 30ish-hour death march, so I did at least have the foresight to carry a Ranger-friendly map showing legal campsites outside the bear canister area. I still think they had some serious doubts about me though, since it seemed like they were following 20 yards or so behind me the whole way to Marcy Dam, at my exact pace! I made sure to register accurately and precisely at every register box, with the exact story I told them, and yet there they were, at Marcy Dam, at Avalanche Pass, at Avalanche Lake, at Lake Colden, at the Flowed Lands… I was fully convinced that one guy from the Aspiring group made good on his threat to pre-call the rangers on me and ensure that I would be rescued, ticketed or both!

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Other than them though it was a beautiful hike, no flies or mosquitoes to be found, and only slightly uncooperative weather, occasional splashes of rain to keep the rocks slick in Avalanche pass and on the descent to Hanging Spear were about all. On the way up Avalanche pass I met a few trail workers hacking out a new ski trail near the pass, and on the other side, one backpacker who was very confused about my choice of approach for Allen, but mostly I had the woods to myself on a summer weekend, which was more than a little disconcerting, I expected to see hikers everywhere passing through the busiest camping areas of the high peaks.

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I finally got the rangers off my trail when I made the turn for Hanging Spear falls, and stopped for a late lunch there, taking in the beauty of what has to be a very rarely seen waterfall, judging by the overgrown trail, more hidden than many herd paths I’ve seen.

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But after a little more descent than I had expected or really wanted to see, I got to a dirt road, and correctly decided to ignore the trail arrow in hopes of finding a shortcut to Allen. After crossing a deeply flooded road at Twin Brook, I was rewarded with the trail register, and decided to take a nap for an hour or two on the soft sand while it was still warm, to get ready for what would inevitably be a night on the Allen Slide regardless at this point.

NIGHT 1: #42 Allen

En infierno me duermo, porque el Infierno es el única verdad
en mi vida, en el oscuro me mantiene

(The Mars Volta, “Ásilos Magdalena”)

It was all too appropriate to put Allen in the 42 spot… both for its intergalactic difficulty (built up not in my head space, but in justifiable reputation), and for its overbearing importance as the answer to, if not life or the universe, everything at least: there was no 46 without Allen, and with Allen behind me, the rest would only be molehills, even if they were in fact higher, and perhaps even steeper, they weren’t covered in red slime or dragging around reputations of being the hardest peak in the northeast.

I didn’t need long to find the discouraging words I’d hoped not to hear. In the inner register was fresh news of a rescue, just four days old. If there was any positive, at least they were rescued from the top, but they were rescued nonetheless. [This turned out to be a member of ADKHighPeaks, and you can read his own Allen adventure here] I signed into the register, hoping I wouldn’t be subject to a rescue of my own, just after 8pm. The daylight ran out shortly before Skylight brook, and I was just where I thought I wanted to be: on the steep part of Allen at night, where maybe I couldn’t see the magnitude of it, and could just climb up to the top with created ignorance, the frustration of a few failed attempts, and a whole lot of covfefe.

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I am not going to pretend that it was in any way easy or enjoyable. I don’t think it’s a secret anymore that I fucking hate this mountain, and would gladly have given up just about anything to not have seen it this time, let alone having to go back. While I didn’t have too much of a problem with the red slime itself, the on-and-off rain kept everything wetter than it needed to be, and ensured a steady flow running down the slide rocks. The sides of the trail weren’t all that much better, especially above the slide crossing; relentlessly steep mud, with slippery rocks and roots to grab onto, the only positive being less exposure.

Adding insult to the ever-mounting risk of injury, plunging temperatures turned the rain into a wind-driven snow around 4100 feet, and the lashing of the cold wind started to freeze the slide. I wasn’t about to turn around this close again though, but as soon as I got to the summit ridge and found the high point, I turned around and tried to get down the mountain as fast as I possibly could. Which turned out to take almost as long as getting up it did, with the fresh ice and still increasing flow of slide water. I only took two real falls on the upper part of the mountain — just enough to make either leg look like it had a brush with a cheese grater — and after just about two hours of hair-raising descent, I was back to the Allen Brook waterfall.

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And this is where Murphy decided to take over. Apparently unwilling to let me escape Allen mostly unscathed, I slipped and fell on the first steepish part of the easy terrain, and landed HARD, flat on my backpack, badly enough to knock the wind out of myself. I knew something was wrong when I tried to yell “Fuck!” and only managed to slurp out something like “Gmrl!”… within a few eternal seconds I was able to breathe again, and as far as I could tell my head stayed entirely uninvolved so I escaped a concussion, but I wasn’t about to move for a minute regardless.

Once I got started again, I didn’t have to go too far until I thought I wandered off trail. It only took a minute to get back on track, when I heard a tremendous “Crack!” directly in front of me. It was an enormous birch tree that gave up and decided to lay down right across the trail, landing about twenty feet in front of me. A few seconds later, destabilized from the roots by the falling birch, two almost-as-large spruces decided to follow, and I only just managed to dive out of range of the branches before a fourth tree fell onto the exact same path.

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Once it seemed like the most extremely imminent threat of widowmakers had passed, I climbed through the too-fresh blowdown and found my way back to trail. And stepped into something very, very stinky that made a most disgusting “splat!”. I looked down and it was shit. Fresh shit. I took a few more steps, shuffling along to try to get the stench off my boot, when I saw exactly HOW fresh.

The bear was still there!

Maybe fifteen feet to my left, I caught a small female bear (or cub? I don’t know how to tell) in the beam of my headlamp. She didn’t seem all that interested in me or my food though… just gave a very disapproving snort at me, growled resignedly, and walked away back up the mountain.

With all of that behind me, I made it to Skylight Brook just after 3am, and decided to at least lay down and rest for a couple of hours there even if I ended up being too stressed to sleep. Considering the circumstances, with an empty trail register to start the night, and known bear nearby, I decided it would probably be safe (and maybe help me relax) to have some music playing, and turned on the one radio station that would come in… next thing I knew, Bach’s E Major partita put me to sleep, and it was 6:15am and light already…

DAY 2: Skylight Brook to #43 Marshall to Lake Colden

“Stars when you shine, you know how I feel
Scent of the pine, you know how I feel
Yeah, freedom is mine, and I know how I feel..
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feelin’ good.”

(Nina Simone, “Feelin’ Good”)

On the way out of there, I should have realized something was wrong sooner when I didn’t gain any elevation, and just kept following one of the branches of Skylight Brook to the southwest. By the time I thought to GPS it, I was half a mile off course down either an old herd path or an actual game trail, through terrain I didn’t particularly want to revisit, and it was time to make a backup plan. I found an old road on the map that seemed like a good enough way out, and cut through some undergrown, soft-floored birch-spruce forest, only falling into a few thigh- to waist-deep spruce holes, and did in fact hit the road.

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The detour probably cost me an extra mile and a half, maybe more, on what should have been a straightforward hour of hiking, and I didn’t make it back to the inner register (pointed toward Allen again) until 8:45, continuing to find ways to hemorrhage time at every opportunity off my hope of a Saturday night finish.

If there was any positive, at least the sun was shining, and it wasn’t particularly cold anymore, on the hike back up the Hanging Spear Falls trail, and back along the Flowed Lands, to the Herbert Brook trail. It would have been nice if I wasn’t absolutely exhausted from having three hours sleep each of the past two nights, and climbing Allen in the middle of it all… but 42ers can’t be choosers, not with a finish on the line. So after lunch at the Herbert Brook lean-to, there was no way to go but up.

At first I thought I was literally supposed to follow the actual brook the entire way up Marshall, and I started seeing shades of Allen all over again, and not in a good way. I had defeated my nemesis once – I didn’t expect to then have to go to battle with his little brother right afterward – but I figured I could do it if I absolutely had to.

I stuck with the brook for a few more minutes until I saw hikers coming up fast behind me… and on a trail. I let them pass, thanked them for the tip, and started trudging up the herd path. After a while, the path opened up onto slide-like rock which was much faster and easier to climb, then the steep part began in earnest, following along and frequently crossing the brook. Somewhere around the 4000 line, I lost track of one of the brook crossings, and followed one of Marshall’s legendary paths to nowhere. I got far enough up though that there was no question but to stick with it until it finally faded to nothing, then bushwhack from there. Which actually wasn’t too bad. The “Rule of Up” has been my friend before, and it worked again here, eventually regaining a useless little path, which pointed to a bigger path, which pointed to the actual summit.

By this point, I could just feel that there was no way I was going on all the way to the finish without a good rest; if there had been any chance before, the bushwhack completely ran me out of gas, and the fruitless back-and-forth from the summit to the various false summits, looking for a path that didn’t end, and did in fact continue to the Shepherds Tooth, didn’t help. I did at least find some beautiful views on a notoriously treed-in summit, and a spot with enough cell signal to call James and let him know I was wildly off schedule and nearing my capacity physically if not mentally yet.

We eventually developed a plan to start early in the morning on the Macintyres instead, and I would spend the night in the abandoned plane wreck in Cold Brook Pass — assuming I could get to the pass. Path after path that I tried didn’t get there, the closest I could get was the northern false summit (awesome view of Iroquois, at least) with no obvious way down from there, so I went to the summit Yet Again to go give Herbert Brook another try.

From there, I got back down to the slide, and just laid out on the slide rocks for a quick rest which turned into another nap, and with it thoroughly dark (probably for the better, considering I didn’t have a bear canister; this trip was now well past its intended length, and I had no intention of spending a second night in the woods before passing through the Loj!), continued down to the lean-to, and got an unwelcome surprise from my alarm at 4am.

DAY 3: Herbert Brook to #44 Iroquois to #45 Algonquin to #46 Wright

“The purpose of this life is to live this life with purpose,
so don’t get trapped inside your safety net”

(Wookiefoot, “All Together”)

I threw everything into my pack as quickly as I could, forced my unruly boots back onto my newly size-15 feet (ouch!), and started down the trail to the Colden Interior Outpost to meet James for the grand finale. By the growing light of the approaching sunrise, I passed Colden Dam uneventfully enough, then when I was warmed up enough to stop for a few minutes, ate at an overlook on the lake, and watched the sun illuminate the highest peaks behind me. I would have loved to stay for the actual sun, but there wasn’t time… I was due at the Outpost at 5.30.

I only missed by a few minutes, and passed right out on the bridge at Macintyre Brook. Not too long afterward, James woke me back up, and we started up the trail.

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I knew what to expect: the thing was relentlessly steep, just as advertised, but at least it wasn’t particularly wet or slippery, even if it did gain a vertical half-mile in barely over a horizontal mile. All I could think the entire way though was that my exhausted, broken body couldn’t take any more. If I was by myself, this was well after the point I would have called it and just headed back to the Loj, to be continued another weekend. But with someone who had come all this way to be my motivator, not to mention celebrator and ride home, there was truly no way to go but up, running on fumes and the faith that I’d find my way down that mountain somehow, that the finish line being in sight would get me moving again.

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Mentally, it was far from my brightest time. Pretty much all I did was apologize for being so slow on the climb… not only much slower than James, but even far slower than my own pace from Friday, I could tell just what I’d done to myself on an ambitious route made only more ambitious by the fact that I’d gotten myself pretty well lost twice, and started the whole thing after being up all night. So I was constantly sorry, and made no hesitation to express my feelings of inadequacy for this final journey. I’d hoped in the back of my mind that he would agree with me. Not that I was unfit to be a 46er – getting Allen and Marshall the way I did erased any doubt I had of that fact – but just that I was in no shape to finish here and now, with a raging chafe, noncompliant knees, stiff ankles, and a bevy of blisters extremely pregnant with entire litters of blisterlings about to make my last few miles even less bearable.

I tried to eat and drink as much as I could, which seemed to help up to about 4000 feet, but by the last push up to the col, even that wasn’t working. It was nothing but willpower to get there; willpower half crushed every time the treeline I thought I saw above me turned out to be an illusion. But at last, one of them was real, and we were in the col. Actually, quite a bit on the Algonquin side of the col, easily a hundred feet higher than where I expected to be at the junction! From here, I could see 44 and 45 in the near distance.

I dropped my pack, took a quick break, stuffed my face with the last of my jerky and still more trail mix, and we headed for Iroquois. It only took until the first hump of Boundary for me to regret not bringing water. But there was no way to go but out and back for 44, and that’s just what I did, finding only a couple of difficult, technical things to worry about on the path.

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The hike back to the col was nothing but thirsty, which I think was even getting to my mind, because somewhere around here, I started repeatedly referring to my last peak as “Phelps” [sic], a mountain I hadn’t even given any thought to since the night in 2008 I climbed it with Christian and we watched a May-blizzard roll in toward Colden, carrying thunder, lightning, snow and heavy winds, that we completely ignored and climbed through anyway… I guess everyone deserves one frostbite in their lifetime. Although I did learn a useful tactic from James: Life Savers can practically be literal life savers in this situation, doing wonders for dry mouth even in the absence of a water source. Regardless, I think being away from water probably slowed me down more than not having a pack made me any faster. While I was some kind of idiot dragging an overnight pack up Allen, and through the technical rock and blowdown and all that, there weren’t really any obstacles on Iroquois that I couldn’t have done without the pack, and with that pack, at least I would have had water.

Algonquin was a rare moment of quick and easy: grippy rock, relatively short ascent, and 45 was in the books.

What was unsettling about Algonquin, though, since nothing can go perfectly here, was incoming rain and clouds. On the summit we were in and out of the clouds, obscuring what would have been a commanding view, and with Wright and the real finish still ahead of me, and time running out, I wanted to be on my way as soon as possible, I’m not sure I even stopped on the summit!

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The descent down to Wright in the rain was much more slow, steep and slippery than I remembered the ascent back in 2014 having been; of course that was on a clear September night, and the first night of the trip no less… but we did eventually make it to the Wright junction, at a far later than desirable 4:30, and started climbing from there up yet more slick wet rock.

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At the top, The Notorious W.I.N.D. was there in style, whipping up alternate bands of clouds, rain and hurricane gusts as we approached the summit, but eventually we got to the peak, and James surprised me with a 46R patch and a sign celebrating the accomplishment, which I tried to hold up for a photo in the roaring wind and now unseasonable SNOW the mountain had decided to throw my way. (Of course it’s only traditional to have out-of-season snow on my ascents; it was far from the first time) But, despite the awful weather that made me want to finish celebrating and get the fuck below treeline as fast as I could, I was a 46er! The day I thought would never come was here!

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Now only one thing remained: getting down the damn mountain.

NIGHT 3: #46 Wright to Route 28

“In the darkest night a sliver still shines,
so pick up your head and walk, if you’re going through hell don’t stop!
Cause in the end it’s all OK, and if it’s not OK it’s not the end,
If you’re going through hell don’t stop!”

(Wookiefoot, “Long Road To Shangri-la”)

Coming down Wright to the junction I still had a decent bit of adrenaline left in me from the 46, and we made it to the packs in a reasonable amount of time, I even got through the technical part with a total absence of grace, but enough momentum on my side to only really crash-land once. At the packs, I brought the celebratory beers, which we pretty much chugged, and turned down the mountain toward the Loj.

And this is where things really started falling apart for me. With nothing but the slog to the real finish line ahead of me, I got nothing but slower and slower, letting the pain take over, and slipping and falling onto my already thoroughly kicked-to-shit ass at nearly every opportunity. After about an hour on the miserable descent, James had rightfully had enough and gone ahead to the car to get some sleep before the drive back south, something which I agreed was probably a good idea, since nothing in my body had any energy to move fast, and it was mostly just my brain forcing it to move forward at all.

Just after I used every remaining minute of daylight, I took one more break to eat as much as I could stomach and try to get some energy for the final push, downing a couple of cliff bars and the last beer. I knew I was in trouble as soon as I got my headlamp out: the dreaded yellow “Low Battery” light was on! And I was still somewhere much higher up and further into the woods than I wanted to be.

I ran out of water just after Macintyre Brook, and decided, probably idiotically, that I just didn’t have the energy or motivation to refill it, not so close to the finish. But “close” turned out to just be an exaggeration. Or at least a misconception reserved for the more able-bodied. When every step feels like hot coals from the practically whole-foot-sized blisters I’d somehow accrued that day (my feet were *almost* fine at the Herbert lean-to, they were the least of my pain worries), and the energy supply ran out a while ago, nothing is fast.

Hour after hour seemed to drag on, and eventually I saw the junction for the Whales Tail Trail, and then after an idiot wrong turn (I refused to believe that the trail back to the Loj could be going uphill, and somehow did a 180 on my own course), and going BACK to that junction, and turning around AGAIN, I made it to the Van Hoevenburg Trail junction.

With the finish really, really near this time, I managed to get moving just a bit faster, and then, darkness.

My headlamp had gone out.

Not only was I less than a mile from the finish, but I was less than a mile from the finish, in the fucking dark, outrageously late, and everything hurt. It took me way longer than it should have to remember that my phone had a flashlight app. At least what DIDN’T take me very long was to figure out that I could stick the phone inside the headband of my light, and still effectively have a headlamp. (Thanks engineering school I guess?)

I made it through the trail like that, saw the trail register, signed out as a new 46er, and now the total finish line was just about in sight… one more bend, and I could see it, the only car left in the parking lot!

Finally, at 11:45pm, I was at James’s car, and managed to wake him up. I was leaning against the car trying to force my boots off when Amanda showed up too, wondering what had become of us I was so late. And that was that; we were on our way home.

I spent most of the car ride on the delirium spectrum, not quite asleep but certainly nowhere near awake, watching landmarks go by with no real sense of time; Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Old Forge all looking almost the same at this time of night. I tried a few times to sort my mind out enough to look up when the bus or train home was, but that task had thoroughly stumped me, so I gave up and agreed to let sleep win for a while, I figured I’d wake up somewhere better than where I was, at least.

DAY 4: Route 28 to Rochester

“Pleasure spiked with pain
That motherfucker’s always spiked with pain”

(Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Aeroplane”)

I finally came to, still in his car, at a Stewarts not all that far from Utica. Of course there was still no cell signal, and I still didn’t know when I was getting home, but James had to get to work, and the best possible plan for either of us was to leave me at the station. At least that way I didn’t have to go anywhere to get home, I just had to wait until whenever that was, and my job allows work from “home” so I could theoretically not even have to call in, wouldn’t have to tell anyone I was stranded.

By the time we got to Utica, EVERYTHING hurt. More. I had to almost totally unlace my boots to convince them to go on my feet, and even then, walking without something to hold onto was next to impossible. I had about a five hour wait at the station for my train home, but I didn’t even care.

I tried to do some work, and I think I was at least marginally productive maybe… in between falling asleep in the middle of writing emails, but whatever. It was over, and I was on my way back, and there was nothing left to do now but the 46R paperwork, and recovering from the worst case of hiking pain I think I’ve ever had…

You Are In A Maze Of Twisty Little Passages, All Alike

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Catskills, Underground

Just as we left Albany, the pouring rain actually began falling, as the rest of the group promised as they decided to leave and not even try camping another night. It wasn’t at all how I’d hoped this would go; I barely managed to keep the last meetup together, and this time we only explored one place before falling apart, albeit on mostly good terms. I didn’t really care anymore though, we were still trying to explore, and it doesn’t rain underground. I’d gotten decent directions from one of the cavers I met last month on how to see the Rosendale mines, so even without the 9 people we lost back to New York City, we gave it a try. My first interpretation led us into Widow Jane’s Mine, the touristy one on the property of a museum, made even more touristy by a half-set-up installation art exhibit. I didn’t want to stay too long just in case any of the artists were still around and wondering who would be creeping around the mine, so we tried the other one. I had to ask for directions again when my reading of them led into a deer trail and a swamp, but on the second try we were in.

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While the cement supply ran out around 1900, these mines found (and some still have) other uses, being vast underground spaces with miles of passages, and acres of chambers, ranging from dry to flooded to completely underwater. This mine was once the nation’s largest producer of culinary mushrooms. Another one nearby was rumored to be an underground emergency shelter for the state legislature if Albany had to be evacuated — that one is now a data storage center for Iron Mountain, providing something a bit more down-to-earth than a cloud backup.

None of the mushrooms themselves, nor obvious signs of growing them, remain in the mine. However, there is still a slight infrastructure, in the form of downed power lines following some of the walls, and a few pieces of machinery left behind near the entrance.

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Beyond that, the mine opens up into a dark, seemingly endless maze.

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Not wanting a repeat of my last mine adventure, I approached this one with a working headlamp and fresh batteries, instead of a tiki torch. And this time there were no psychedelically-induced Lovecraftian horrors crunching underfoot with every step. But I still didn’t dare challenge the maze with anything more than the obvious, simple route following along one side of it. Not on a first venture into this particular abyss, and not with someone concerned enough about getting lost to be trying to make arrows in the ground with a tire iron to mark where we have already been.

The boundary, for this time anyway, was usually a shoreline, with flooded passages beyond begging for an inflatable raft, or a hotter day to make swimming in the flood zone more attractive than on this 48-degree rainy night.

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The farther in we went, the less flooding there seemed to be, as the air thickened with steam and a miscellaneous sense of going deeper and deeper underground.

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Each room was numbered, in more or less increasing order, counting how many chambers were between us and the surface, on a path not entirely different from the one we took to get that far. These markings, however, were far from reliable. This particular set of “OUT” arrows point directly into the mine. I have to wonder if the arrow pointers got lost, or if they were simply sadistic explorers who wanted to keep the less experienced from ever wanting to come back!

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About 80 rooms, or nearly a mile, into the mine, there was a “shed” full of machinery. The need for a building in the mine somewhat confused me, with the entire thing already being sheltered from the elements, but it seems to have been a storage area for (mushroom-era?) farm implements of some type.

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More troubling, though, was the passage behind this, with rising and falling ramps. Not only is this an enormous maze of twisty passages, but apparently it’s a multi-level vertical maze too! We stayed on the “center” level, and avoided any ramps, trying to keep this adventure relatively short considering we didn’t start until after midnight.

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On the way what we thought might be back, we found a spot that appeared to be “raining”. I imagine it was actually cave drips, but it seemed like just the tiniest portal to the outside world, letting in the weather drop by drop.

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As we continued, we eventually made our way to the exit — the same exit we came in through, no less — to find it was still pouring rain! I definitely need to go back here though. This was just one level, and counting only the ramps we could see, there are three more below, at least one more above, and plenty of buried river to take a boat out into…

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#troating

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Denmark, Germany, Team Fail

Stuck in Szczecin with far fewer options than we’d expected, it became time to do something extreme. What it was, we weren’t quite sure, as we frantically Googled and asked around for any possible ways out of there. It seemed from what the information booth would tell us, that the only ways out of the airport itself were on a plane further east, on a train further into Poland, or in a cab, so we called one, and bought yet another bottle of cheap whisky at the duty free despite it being only 11am, chugged a few shots each, and hoped for the best.

About an hour later a cab showed up, and the driver knew there would be a train heading in our general direction – one problem, it’s leaving in 25 minutes, and the station is a 40 minute drive away! So the driver takes a swill of vodka, slams on the accelerator, and we’re off! We even offered him an extra zl. 100 if he could make sure we made our train, making him drive even faster, and straight through a speed camera – KURWA MAĆ! – at almost 200 km/h.

We make the train with plenty of time to spare, almost every second of which is spent on trying to get a ticket from a domestic station that clearly doesn’t see many tourists, and babble-fishing our way through the transaction with Google Translate, and more than a few incredulous questions of “train go to where?!” as the ticket office rightly thought the train was an absolutely ridiculous way to get to Stockholm.

We picked up a few źapiekanky for lunch, got on the train, and the journey began, rather too uneventfully, into Germany, a land apparently festooned with Dr. Seuss trees.

Where are all these solar panels in America?

Of course, it doesn’t take long for the trouble to return. We end up on the regional Re-Bahn, a network that could courteously be described as provincial, and worse yet, it’s a Sunday, so half the trains aren’t even running, and those that are, take leisurely routes to every stop in every tiny village.

And that wasn’t all – not having enough wrong already, DB also had major track works going on, and trains only ran one piece of the route at a time, with connecting buses in between where the single track was torn up. So we circled through the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern one piece at a time, from Szczecin to Angermünde to Päsewalk to Neubrandenburg to Greifswald to Güstrow to Bützow, and finally to Rostock, where we missed the train to Copenhagen by a full three hours.

The only positive about all this was the view – we truly saw the Germans’ Germany, which actually looked curiously like upstate New York, just with more abandonments.

We asked for directions at the station, and the only thing leaving Rostock that night was a Fußballzüg, a special party train bringing hundreds of fans out to an away match, in this particular case FC Hansa 3. supporters on their way to Schwerin. But Schwerin was a slightly bigger city, and quite a bit closer to where we were going (or so we thought – it never occurred to us that there’s a quick and easy ferry crossing from Rostock to Malmö!) so we got on the train, and did our best to get Eurotrashed on the hour long ride, polishing off the bottle of Scotch and picking up a few 1€ beers from the train bar.

From Schwerin, we actually caught the more or less right train to Hamburg, with a chance to make it to Copenhagen… of course, arriving in Hamburg, that one was sold out, and it would cost us 220€ each (first class, since that was the only seat left!) to get to Copenhagen in the morning. So we booked a hostel in Hamburg, and didn’t go much farther than the nearest bar, having no logical options but to drown this night in Erdinger, not even caring enough to check out the Reeperbahn.

In the morning, we got on the packed and expensive train to Copenhagen to do it all over again, on an international express this time. Shortly after Lübeck, they made an announcement in German that I was sure said we had to get off the train and onto the boat. Ben didn’t believe me, but when everyone else did the same, we followed, and realized that we were, in fact, on a train on a boat, about to set sail across the Kattegat.

It’s a train! It’s a boat! It’s a … troat? That’s it! We’re #troating! He’s on a troat, motherfuckers, don’t you ever forget, we’re going fast and (we’re on a troat)!

Soon enough, the troat parts ways, and the train goes on to Copenhagen while the boat sits in Odense without us. At least we had a long enough layover in Copenhagen to get some smørrebrød before the train to Stockholm… I’ll never have enough smørrebrød, and unfortunately the ingredients are even too weird to make them at home, let alone start a food truck selling them!

By this point, we’re both pretty much sick of the road and ready to get home, especially with our Team Fail luck, which Stockholm only delivered more of! We checked in at the hostel no problem, but trying to get dinner was nothing short of maddening, with no one accepting our credit cards, and the ATMs (Bankomats) spitting out our cards with some error message in Swedish. We finally convinced someone on the street to take out 500 krone for us for 80€, a terrible exchange for us but we were pretty much screwed otherwise, and hungry enough that we went to the first kebab shop we could find and bought an irresponsible amount of food.

Yesterday morning, we saw as much of Stockholm as we could with a plane to catch and still absolutely jaded… the highlight of it was lunch at a little cafe with Swedish-style smörgåsbord, a (nominal) salad with about eight different kinds of seafood on top, which was delicious!

Even the flight home was surprisingly challenging. Swedish customs gave me trouble about being born in 1955, a clear confusion arising from sharing a name with my dad, and refused to issue my boarding pass until they could contact him and clarify that he wasn’t in Europe and his son was. I have no idea why they needed to do that, because I clearly had a passport, MY passport no less, but they did, and it was a bit of a close call making the flight.

The flight, as most trans-Atlantic flights are, was long and boring, and I spent most of it writing for this blog.

Once we landed in New York and cleared customs, Ben went his own way to meet a friend in Brooklyn, and I went on to the JetBlue terminal for my flight home, and one last EPIC fail…

I got on the plane without incident, seated in seat 22D of a regional jet – window seat, last row before the lavatories – for the flight back to Rochester, just short of an hour of air time.

After takeoff, I noticed that something REEKS; a realization shared by nearby passengers, who complain, at least two of them, to the flight attendants, pointing in my general direction. They assume it’s me; the smell wasn’t exactly that of dirty backpacker, but it could be said there was some resemblance. Rotten cheese mixed with concentrated fart juice, left to marinate in a soaking wet hiking boot, might have been a better description. And I knew my feet did smell from two weeks of walking around rainy Europe, but they couldn’t be that bad…

As we’re crossing Long Island Sound, one of the flight attendants approaches me with a respirator mask and rubber gloves, and tells me that due to my odor, the flight might have to divert to Binghamton (remember, the entire flight should only take 54 minutes anyway) to deplane me, and if that were the case, I would need to find an alternate way home.

I try to explain to them that I barely have a sense of smell (caught a bad cold in Berlin) and still know how bad this is, and I maintain that it is NOT me, and they never would have let me fly Stockholm-JFK in coach smelling like this. She leads me a few rows up, and presumably noticing that the other passengers aren’t wincing in disgust as I walk by, takes off her mask, and agrees that the stench is not mine.

To placate the rest of the passengers, though, the flight attendant orders me locked in the bathroom for the remainder of the flight and tells me not to leave until the plane is on the ground and the jetway doors are open. At this point, I have to wonder if I’ll get a ride home from the airport in a police cruiser – and whether we will in fact be diverted to Binghamton to add insult to insult – but I more or less accept my fate, and ride out the rest of the flight in an airline bathroom. Luckily, it was a cold, clear night with no turbulence to be found… probably the one positive out of this experience.

The flight lasts as long as it should, a reassuring sign that we weren’t diverted.

Eventually, the seatbelt sign goes on, and I try to perch above the toilet just in case the literal shit hits the fan. When the plane lands, the flight attendant lets me out of the bathroom, and starts apologizing profusely.

It was in fact, partially, my backpack that unleashed the epic stink. But only because someone’s forgotten bag of Asian food stuff from weeks ago, including a burst bottle of something resembling fish sauce, and possibly “stinky tofu,” had been stuffed up and behind the last overhead compartment, and its contents had formed a semi-liquefied congealed mess all over the compartment, and apparently no one with a large carryon had sat in 22D for a while.

The flight attendants brought me to the gate, and after some arguing, agreed to give me a $100 voucher for the inconvenience. Not, mind you, for being stuffed into the lavatory for a flight back from NYC. Only for partial compensation for the damage to my backpack and its contents. But anything was welcome at that point…

By this time, I was just about the last passenger left at the airport. As I approached the taxi stand, the dispatcher shut the window in front of me, and said, “sorry, closed for tonight!”. I tried asking the cabs directly, since there were still about 6 lined up at baggage claim, and they responded that they couldn’t pick up airport passengers without a fare card from the dispatcher. The last one in line finally told me the obvious, that I’d stink up the cab.

While I argued, the last bus out of the airport left too, without me on it.

I got to enjoy a rather long, refreshing walk back from the airport last night.

Even if it was a constant cavalcade of fail, it really has been the adventure of a lifetime, and I would do it all again without a doubt! And maybe without all the fail this time, with a better idea how it works. Only this time, there better not be a general strike or fish sauce on the plane!

Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin!

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Germany, Team Fail

After we finished exploring, we spent the rest of our brief visit to Berlin on the tourist trail seeing some of the actual landmarks, starting from the Alexanderplatz to Berliner Dom, a cathedral nearly destroyed during the war and rebuilt back to its original Prussian glory:

Opposite there was a museum of some sort that we didn’t have time for, but should probably have gone to… but our destination, if we could even find it, was the Berlin Wall.

Crossing back into the former West Berlin, we passed through Checkpoint Charlie. First, a picture from 1964, when my mom was a military brat stationed in West Germany:
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And now, what it looks like surrounded by modern Berlin with no wall anymore… I must say this is one landmark I’m glad is gone!

After a while longer, we found the one preserved piece of the wall, surrounded in Easternesque tourist traps like this one, ‘celebrating’ the infamous Össi car, the Trabant, the only new car available for the duration of the DDR regime.

Another look at East Berlin – these Communist concrete block buildings would have been the face of the East looking out over the Wall.

And the last of the wall itself, optimized for tourist viewing

Not far from there is the Holocaust memorial, with stone columns symbolizing every day of the atrocities

Finally, we passed through Brandenburger Tor, returning to West Berlin.

Crossing the River Spree brought us to the Hauptbahnhof and our train to Stettin/Szczecin, just over the Polish border, the one place we could find a cheap flight on to Oslo from!

After a two hour train ride, we arrived in Poland, and it became abundantly clear that we were in a completely different country. It seemed that no one spoke English, and we had no idea how to get to our hotel. Even trying to use the ATM in the train station to take out zloty, we were apprehended by Polish soldiers, who looked at our passports with some confusion, and went about their business.

Eventually, we flagged down a cab, with a driver who spoke some English, and seemed to know where the Marina Hotel was. He told us, quite insistently, about the local nightclubs, asking us after each one, “Taxi go to club???” as we circled around Szczecin. After taking half an hour to go what should have been only a mile or so, looking back at the map, he dropped us off at the hotel, and gave us a business card.

In the morning, we got a different taxi, who would not go to club, to go to airport. On the way there, we learned a few Polish swears, as he seemed to miss exits (and squeal the brakes and pull somewhat violent U-turns) as a matter of course, accompanied each time by at least “Kurwa mač!” and sometimes more.

We finally get to the airport 40 minutes before takeoff, and things are oddly quiet. For one thing, it’s a tiny airport, with only two gates. But, as we quickly learned, the real problem was the pilots’ strike had made it to Poland too, and nothing was flying north or west, just the Eastern airlines were still running!

Don’t Fence Me In

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Germany, Institutional, Team Fail

Once I got back from my Beelitz adventure, Ben was ready to see the city, so we got on the U-bahn and went to Charlottenburg for dinner. After a little bit of going around in circles, we decided on (delicious) Vietnamese food, then circled around some more looking for a massage parlor that made themselves nearly impossible to reach, “Good China Massage”. We both tried multiple times to call and make an appointment, but neither their English nor my German came anywhere near understandable, and all she would do on the phone was repeat “Güüte China Maßßadge” at us (we KNOW!) and hang up. Eventually Ben found the place, and I got to experience that German wonder, the Erdinger beer truck, while I waited for his back to get straightened out. Yes, beer trucks are just what they sound like – kind of like ice cream trucks here, but instead of crappy popsicles and tinkly bells, there’s cold Hefeweizen and (recorded) oom-pah music.

We spent the rest of the night looking all over for any possible jazz clubs, hopping around from one closed venue, or shitty rock band, to another, looking for islands of wifi in between to find a map of where to go next. We never did find any jazz, but we got the accidental tour of East Berlin and did see the Alexanderplatz, the Fernsehturm and the Holocaust Memorial along the way, so it wasn’t all in vain…

The next day, we decided to give exploring a try together, with another place the internet told us would be easy, Krankenhaus an den Weißensee, an East German children’s hospital closed in 1991. Getting there was a bit of journey, using all three Berlin transit systems, the U-, S- and M-bahne, then when we got there, we found the FENCE. Scheiß!

But I didn’t come all the way to Germany to get stopped by a little fence. We found a tree stump in the back, got over the fence (awkwardly for me), and into the hospital, which had its share of smashing and tagging done to it, but still has quite a bit of character.

This layout in the wards makes me imagine a warden standing at this end, looking down the line making sure no one tries to sneak out of bed. Probably just my preconception of what life in a Communist state was like, but the architecture lends itself well to my imagination of authoritarianism.

The hallways on one floor were painted in sheet music. I would never expect as much from an American tagger. Unfortunately I have no idea what the song might have been.

And despite being so omnipresent, the graffiti compares well to most buildings in America that I’ve seen.

That was even before we started finding Cory Arcangel-like rooms of repeated spray-paint leitmotifs

For a burned-out, trashed, well known place, this was getting to be pretty awesome!

Unexpectedly satisfied, spending most of the day at our first exploring destination, we decided to skip the rest and see the touristy stuff before we had to leave Berlin!

Betreten Verboten!

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Germany, Institutional, Team Fail

Just as one should expect by now for Team Fail, things were off track even by the time I woke up. Ben was sick and not really planning on going anywhere, and it was supposed to be our exploring day. I normally can’t stand exploring alone, not in the least because it’s never gone well for me before, but he insisted I give it a try, so I did, going to the easiest place I knew of, Beelitz-Heilstätten.

Beelitz is about an hour away, for one thing, in more or less middle of nowhere Brandenburg, but with this being Germany, it still had its own train station, so getting there wouldn’t be too much of a problem. And, from everything I could find about it online, walking around the grounds was legal, and going in more or less tolerated (which is the case for most abandoned East German sites, since they fell out of any ownership after reunification).

There was quite a bit of graffiti to watch from the train. Most of it went by too fast to get a good picture of, but I got this at least. I have no idea who these people are, but it seemed important.

Once I got there, it seemed obvious what to do. Go toward building, go in building, explore? Easy, right? This looks a little too good though, doesn’t it?

This can’t possibly be abandoned? But I’m standing right on the GPS coordinate from the UER database…

As it turned out, I was right. I found an open door, and walked right in on about 20 construction workers having lunch, and a foreman having a few choice words for me. And getting yelled at in German is just as effective as you might imagine… even only understanding half of it!

So I wandered around a bit more, and got to a shabbier, longer abandoned section. This time, there were more open doors, and the only people around were obviously explorers, although they seemed to only speak Russian. But they also looked like they knew their way around, so I followed them into a building.

This wasn’t the Beelitz everyone else got to see, but it was much better than nothing.

I’m pretty sure this is a Trabant. It’s also one of the most photographed abandoned cars on earth.

After that little bit of success, I was ready for a bigger building.

I get up to the roof, take one picture

…and then there’s a drone buzzing outside the window… It flies through the open window, oblivious of me, bonks me in the back of my head, and falls to the floor. I look outside, and the Russians are standing there confused. I bring their poor broken drone back down to them, and I can’t tell if they’re grateful, pissed off or both. They took the remains of the drone and worked on fixing it, and I moved on to another less awkward part of the complex. After all, this is the iconic building anyway…

And it was also fully, and freshly, boarded up. Again, of course it would be. I would be the one who would go all the way to Germany to find buildings that were boarded up probably only a few days ago, considering the construction crew was still on site boarding up the rest of the place!

Even walking around the outside was almost interesting enough though. It was my first time seeing a Communist statue – not quite a statue of Lenin but close enough.

But with only two days in Germany I decided I’d be better off going to something I could get in, so I went back to the train station. Which is just as abandoned as the rest of the complex, but still has two trains every hour!

I’m not 100% sure about this, but I think this is an advertisement left over from East Germany, promoting the various Eastern Bloc cities that it would have been possible for an Össi to travel to, with Berlin’s Brandenburger Tor and Fernsehtürm in the center?

Once I got back to Berlin, I stopped for some Currywurst and beer at a street cart, looked up another place to go (supposedly a children’s hospital), and tried to go explore that.

Something got lost in translation. The coordinates led me here, one block off the Kurfürstendamm, to a very not abandoned block in a very expensive part of town.

And that was well more than enough frustration for one day exploring alone!