So, today you’re going to learn a little more about what it’s like to be me and the insanity that encompasses nearly every single facet of my crazy existence.
It’s New Year’s Eve, 2015. I always like to go for a nice hike on New Year’s Day, but it was fairly warm out and I was on “vacation” all week. I also had my daughter for the better part of two weeks, so I figured we’d take advantage of the nice weather and hit the trails a day early. Let me introduce the players- here’s where some ‘splainin’ will be necessary. Bear with me.
I contacted my doggie momma- the amazing woman who has custody of an eight year old rescue puppy that she took during the earlier portion of our time as a couple. I met Laura about six months after my split with my…ummm…my lovely ex-wife, and we were together for over three years. She helped me through some of the most difficult periods of my life and I will always be indebted to her and we will forever be friends…and that’s quite possibly all you will ever hear about that story. My kids were pretty young when we met, and my middle child had a little bit of a speech issue with his r’s at the time, so Laura became “Lola,” a name that has stuck for nearly nine years. I love our dog, Pike. He was just a few months old when we got him and I am granted ample visitation opportunities, which usually also includes Lola’s 11 month old Bernese Mountain Dog, Hudson. Hudson is a 90 pound puppy with about 60 more pounds to go. If you look up the phrase ‘bull in a china shop,’ his picture should be there. Pike and Hudson are pretty much polar opposites. Pike is very reserved and usually uninterested in most people. Hudson on the other hand is, well…Hudson. It’s not always easy, but it’s a great way to get my daughter, who loves animals, to go on the many hikes and walks I try to take her on to keep her healthy…
My daughter…the love of my life. It’s always a little hard to share this, but for those who don’t know, my daughter Maria, has a chromosomal disorder called Turner Syndrome. The disease has several serious issues attached to it, but is not nearly as bad as what many kids are burdened with, so I try to treat her like any “normal” child. She does have some mental, social and physical problems and she’s technically on the autism spectrum, but to me, she’s just the most loving little girl in the world- with one major problem. She has my stubbornness. I try to help her stay healthy, so we are always on the go. Lots of hiking. Often with the dogs. Many times, we go to the Wappingers Creek Greenway. A local trail alongside the creek, a little over a mile each way. A trail that Maria has grown bored of and tries to avoid as much as possible. She might complain a little, but she does try as best as she knows how, to be a good kid and she loves being with me. No matter how wacky the rest of my world may happen to be, she always has a smile and she always greets me with a loud, cheerful, “Daaaaaddddyyyy!!!”
That’s my girl.
So, I send Lola a text, and we’re re off to get the puppies. I set up my Outback, which is not nearly as big as it should be, for doggie transport which involves shuffling random articles of clothing, sneakers, hats, empty cups, bottles, crayons, food wrappers, and about 127 hair ties into the foot space of the empty rear passenger seat so we can fold it down and lay down a blanket for the pups. They are super excited to see us because it’s been about an entire day since our last visit. Honestly, it could be a half hour and their reaction would be exactly the same. Well, for Hudson, it could be two minutes… I take them up the hill in the backyard for a quick walk because I was thinking about taking a bit of a drive to go someplace Maria had never been. It’s about 11:45. We load up and hit the road. Maria struggles to eat her bagel, with Hudson trying to nose in on the action. Little did I know it was going to be her last bit of food for the day. While she’s eating, I get the usual 47 verses of ‘Where are we going, daddy?’ To which I reply forty seven times, “It’s a surprise honey.” I was taking her to the Cornish Estate in Cold Spring, NY, a 200 year old mansion that burned down in the 1950’s. I love exploring old ruins and I knew she would get a kick out of it. The 40 minute drive took about an hour because somebody forgot where the entrance to the trail was…not a good premonition for the day. We finally get to the tiny dirt parking lot and drive through a small pond of a puddle that took up about half of the lot, and we park. As I get the leashes in order and get ready to exit the car, I notice an attractive, young woman staring in my direction and smiling, in the car next to us. As I glance over and give a wave, it’s obvious that she’s only interested in the dogs who are smothering my daughter behind me, trying to escape the confines of my vehicle. I get out of the car and am surprised at the how warm it is. I toss my Carhartt jacket back to it’s storage spot on the front seat and I grab the pups. Maria had a pretty heavy Cabela’s hoody on, so I chose not to participate in the usual twenty minute game I like to call “put your jacket on” and we are on our way.
‘A chorus of ‘watch the puddle, Maria!’ was followed up with the grabbing of the hood, to swing her away from a mud bath. The first thing we get to is the trail kiosk. I open up the map holder and it’s empty- except for two maps stuffed down inside it, out of reach, below the slotted plastic cover. Oh well. It’s a pretty straight forward up and back trip. We’ll be fine….or so I thought.
Timeline- 1:00pm. The trail up is more of a very old winding road, with a pretty constant view of the Hudson River- one of my favorite sights in our area. I am forced to keep the dogs on their leashes because of the fairly large number of people heading back down the trail…I mean, because that’s the law. It takes us about an hour to get up to our destination, as we greet several other dog owners along the way. We reach the old mansion at about 2:15. If you’ve never been there, I highly recommend a visit. It’s an amazing, large stone structure, with two huge fireplace stacks that are still standing. One is five stories tall! We explore and take pictures and have a chat with a couple of guys visiting from NYC. Then we continued on to check out the other buildings on the grounds. We stepped into the old greenhouse, with it’s checkered, glassless frame still in tact, and vines growing through the naked squares. We walked to the nearby overlook. Maria wanted to go to the smaller buildings down below, requiring a stream crossing which resulted in the full submersion of my left foot, while assisting her across the surprisingly fast flowing, chilly water. Oh well. “At least it’s not freezing out,” I saidto myself. When we we started to head back, I figured it would be more fun to take the longer, looping trail instead of doing an out and back trip. We had plenty of time…or so I thought.
As we headed up the trail- and I do mean up, I talked to a couple of other people headed in the opposite direction. The first one said it was about an hour to the parking lot. The second said an hour and a half. OK, I thought, we can do this before dark, as I encourage Maria to keep moving. Now, I almost always try to follow my instinct, which is almost always right. I had a weird feeling all day. Hell, at one point, I even texted Lola and jokingly asked if she was worried I wasn’t going to bring the dogs back. Which got me thinking. I always scan my environment to see what options I have if there was some bizarre sort of emergency situation. I am pretty adventurous, but aware- and like most parents, I always have one eye on my children, but my Spidey sense was tingling and something felt a little bit “off.”
As we pushed onward with our adventure, I became more and more concerned with the time. An hour and a half until sunset quickly became an hour, then just a half. At this point, I am regularly checking my phone GPS map, and the trail starts to turn around, away from the mighty Hudson River, where our car is waiting. Ugh. “Come on Maria, you’re doing great!” I shout, and I tell her for the fifth or sixth time, “I think this is the last hill!” Thank goodness for the Berner, who happily pulls Maria along when she gets tired- and for Pike, who is leading the way, sniffing out the trail for us, as we finally reach the high point and the trail turns into more of a crazy unmarked rock scramble. I take what would be the last picture of the night- Pike overlooking the river.
It’s still a long way down, I think to myself. We’re going to get home in the dark. This is definitely the turning point of our trip. As we push on through the rockiness, the trail becomes less obvious and suddenly, it becomes invisible. We’re scrambling over and between rocks, going downhill. I’m looking for the next trail marker, but finding nothing. It’s OK. I glance at my phone and conclude that as long as we head south and down, we will eventually intersect the trail, hit the parking lot, or at least come out on Route 9d, the road we started from. My thoughts were correct, but the terrain was getting pretty difficult and the time was getting closer to sunset. I knew official sunset was at 4:34. We didn’t have any time to waste. I was leading the dogs and helping Maria along, and occasion running up ahead, trying to find the trail. As the descent got steeper, I had no choice but to allow Maria to slide on her butt, over the wet leaves and damp ground. Not at all what I wanted, but it was the only way to keep her moving. I was concerned, but not panicked when I realized we may have a problem. A serious problem. I look around and find a safe, flat portion of ground and tie the pups to a tree. I tell Maria to ‘sit tight‘ for a minute- a phrase I will soon grow to despise and will hear several times throughout the night. I scoot down the steep, very rocky mountainside a short distance to discover a bit of a cliff below us. I look up and see a very tall cliff above us. I look to the north and to the south and i have no idea how we got here- or how to get out. I run back up to Maria- a trip I will make at least 25 more times during the night. I explain to her that we are going to need some help getting out. She gets a little scared, but handles the news pretty well, as I dial….9…1…1.
Time line- 4:25. Seriously??? Me? Lost in the woods? We’re not even lost! We’re stuck. On Mount Taurus- just south of Breakneck Mountain. I chose a ‘camp’ for us on the only patch of level ground I could find- in plain view of Route 9d. I could see the small, trendy town of Cold Spring, where I knew city folk and locals were flooding the bars and restaurants preparing to say goodbye to another terrible or amazing or ordinary year and getting ready to welcome in a brand new one of hope or despair. As I dial, I am full of embarrassment, but I’m confident that this happens fairly often, and we’ll be home in time to grab some dinner and prepare for our usual New Year’s Eve hors d’oeuvres celebration at home. “911, what’s your emergency?” “Well, it’s not really an emergency,” I explain and give the short version of what has transpired. “OK, well, you’ve reached Dutchess County 911. I’m going to have to transfer you to Putnam County 911.” This is the precise moment I come to the realization that this is happening to me. Not that I’m really worried- just the fact that this is my life. Nothing- and I truly mean nothing- is easy. Ever. I call 911 for the first time ever in my fifty years, and it’s the wrong number! Now here it comes…”Sit tight sir, while I transfer you.” I hear a dial tone, some beeping noises and then, several minutes later, the two 911 operators are talking. “Do we have his coordinates?” one operator says to the other. “Yes.” was the reply. I feel a little relieved, knowing that through the magic of modern technology, they have pinpointed our exact location on this huge mountainside via my fairly old, yet technologically amazing cellphone. Now I’m on the line with the Putnam County 911 operator. “Ok sir, I’m going to have the Park Ranger call you back…sit tight.” Ummm…ok. Sitting tight. Keeping Maria calm. Making sure the pups are happy. Try to text Laura and let her know we are in a bit of a jam. Twenty minutes later, my phone rings. Yes! It’s the park police. “Yessir, this kind of thing happens all the time. We have a crew on the way and you’ll be down in no time!” were the words I expected to hear. Instead I heard, “yes, well uhhh…unfortunately, I’m in Washington, D.C. I can’t help you.” Ummm…exqueeze me? I’m thinking… Seriously? Then he asks me to download an app on my phone. Dude, I tell him. My phone is five years old. I’m at 40% power. “If you download this app, he says, it will give you’re exact location.” Didn’t they already have that? Ok. I’ll try. “I’m going to call the fire department” he says. “They’ll call you back shortly- and then, yes, you guessed it- “sit tight.” The fire department, I thought?? Am I a cat stuck up in a tree?? Don’t get me wrong- I have 110% respect for firemen and know several, but isn’t there supposed to be a crew of Swiss mountain climbers with climbing axes and coils of rope on their arms with their trusty Saint Bernards by their sides with whiskey barrels on their necks, on call, eager to jump at such an opportunity?? So, we sit. And we sit. I scramble up and down the steep, rocky mountainside. Up and down..up and down. I start to set up our little camp, sheltered from the wind. I’ve got this. I was a boy scout. I camp. I’ve seen all the crazy survival shows. Twenty more minutes go by. I call 911 again. Ugh. Dutchess County… Really? I get transferred again. They review my coordinates again. At least they know exactly where we are. Again. Yes sir. The fire department is on the way. Keep your phone clear and…yeah, yeah, I know. “Sit tight.”
Finally we see a fire truck go by with lights blazing. The phone rings. “Yes, yes, I saw you drive by. I can see the road. If you turn around, I can tell you when you are directly below me.” He does. I do. He stops the truck. I tell him you are directly below us. I flash the bright, tiny light on my trusty old iPhone 4. I see you, he says. I see where you are. Ok. “They’re on their way up. It won’t be long now,” I tell Maria. One hour, maybe two hours later, I see their flashlights getting closer, waving randomly, to and fro. I’ve been calling out to them for a while. Shouting. Yelling. “Helloooo!!! Heyyyyy!!!” A light finally shines up, in our direction. “We are right above you!” I shout. Shine your light to the north! To the north! To your left! Shine it to your left!! I call on my phone. ‘We are directly under the tree your light is on right now. Ok sir. We have your location. Unfortunately, we can’t get to you from the bottom. We have to go up and come down. OK. No problem. It won’t be long now. We’ll sit tight!
What felt like hours had passed. I heard no more shouting. I saw no more flashlights. The emergency vehicles below had dimmed their lights- and best of all- my nearly ancient iPhone 4 has decided to take a well deserved, but poorly timed siesta. The battery power indicator said 24%, but it decided to retire for the night. After several failed attempts to restart it, I quietly slid it back into my pocket. Maria asked if it was dead. I told her I was just conserving the battery. I then gathered up as many dry leaves as I could find to rebuild our slightly damp resting spot. I re-positioned Maria up against Pike and focused on keeping her warm, while I explained our new plan. We are going to camp out and make our way down in the morning light. “OK daddy,” she said, “But we’re gonna miss the ball drop.” “I know. Try to get some sleep honey,” I told her. It’s going to be a long night, I thought to myself. As I laid there, feeling helpless and stupid, knowing I could work my way down the rocky cliff alone, but not wanting to leave my family, I talked to Maria, making sure she was alright, when all of a sudden, I heard a faint, but distinct sound in the distance. Shhhhh…quiet honey. Then the only three words that came to mind- and I hope I didn’t say then out loud, was ‘no f’ing way.’
“What’s that daddy?”
“Ummm… It’s…a…ummm…it’s a helicopter, honey.”
A helicopter. They sent a rescue chopper? They know where we are. Why would they send a helicopter? We watched as the lone light in the sky proceeded to float up the west bank of the river, shining it’s bright spotlight down into the mountains. The mountains on the west side of the river. Unfortunately, we were on the east side. It circled around, shining it’s light on the mountains across from us and then in the river itself. Maria said, “What’s wrong daddy? Is somebody lost?” I laughed and said, “I think they may be looking for us.” ‘Well, they’re not very smart,’ she replied. The helicopter made a few more passes, nowhere near us, and vanished off into the distance. What the hell was that all about?, I wondered, as I got Maria and the dogs settled again, preparing to stay the night. Shortly after that, I heard another sound in the distance. It was moving faster. Suddenly a bigger, louder rescue chopper busted over the tree line, lighting up the ground in front of it. This was crazy. Half of me felt horrible that all of these people were out here because of me. All of this money was being spent. Half of me was nearly hysterical laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation, and whatever was leftover was thinking…we’re getting airlifted and riding in a rescue chopper for New Years! This chopper searched the correct side of the river! It even had the right mountain- but it was nowhere near our location. I could not shout over the roar of the engine. I could only shake my head in disbelief. We’re right above the fire truck. You guys know where we are. At some point the fire truck turned its emergency lights back on. Finally! Maybe they told the pilot to search straight up from the truck…but no such luck. After four or five passes, he headed back down the river to wherever he came from. Now my throat was sore from yelling, my arms tired from waving my dead phone at the copter. I get everybody settled down again. Shortly after calming my daughter and the dogs, the helicopter returned. After four more unsuccessful passes, it flew overhead. I’m talking close enough that in my near delirious state, I could picture the rescue lines pulling us up into the big side doors. Then it happened- the nearly blinding spotlight shone down directly on us. I’m talking directly. I continue to wave my phone at them, trying to reflect the light off of the glass. “Daddy, he sees us!” My daughter shouts. “I think he does,” I replied. And then, after studying our position and after my arms are nearly ready to fall off, he positions the nose of the chopper to the south, ever so slowly…and…and he disappears. Gone. Buh-bye.
Timeline- I have no idea. “Alright, honey. Let’s get some sleep.” All I could do was wonder why they weren’t searching the area straight up the mountain from the fire truck. They had our coordinates. What happened? Oh well. I gather up some more leaves and we once again hunker down for the night. The helicopter returns again, this time no spotlight. He sits at the base of the mountain and apparently waits for me to build a giant reflector to magnify the weak dead battery display on my spent cell phone. He is mocking me. All I can do is continue to wave my phone, occasionally with the dull white iPhone plug light that appears when your battery needs charging. I’m not sure what he was doing, but he was done and he was leaving. Looks like we’re camping out. Maria has been amazingly calm and quite happy throughout most of the day and night. She complained about being cold a few times, as I constantly rubbed her legs and back. At one point, she started to shiver a bit and Hudson seemingly instinctively, shimmied up from behind me and laid across her legs. I joked that she now had a puppy blanket and I rubbed his belly in appreciation. Soon after her Bernise comforter was in place, she fell asleep.
As I lay there, looking at the lit up town, slightly envious of the lucky folks getting ready to ring in the new year, I also had the opposite feeling. Sympathy. Sympathy for all of the people who will never be stranded on a mountain on New Year’s Eve with their daughter. Silly thought? Maybe, but as long as we were safe, I was loving almost every minute of it. While looking down to the town I was also checking to see if the emergency vehicles were still there. Suddenly, Pike’s head jolts up. He scans the cliffs alcove us. Several seconds later, Hudson bolts up on all four. They’re both staring in the same direction. Now, I had thought about the possibility of wild animals, but other than gather up a few large sticks to keep nearby, there wasn’t much I could do about it. OK. Here we go. I grab a stick and stand up next to the dogs, watching quietly in the direction of their stare. Their leashes clutched in my hand, as they had been for most of the night. After several intense minutes, that felt like an hour, I see a flash of light below us. And then above us. A light. A flashlight. I wake up Maria, to warn her that I’m about to yell for the millionth time. “Hey! Hello! Down here!” Again. And again. Now there were two lights. Waving back and forth from above. “Down lower!” I yell. “Mike?” They shout back. “Daddy, they said your name!” “Yes honey, they did.” Suddenly a light locks in on our position. As soon as it does, Hudson, a normally quiet dog, lets out a huge, bellowing bark that would have woken the neighborhood if there was one. One after another. Woof, woof, woof, woof! Nonstop, until the two Newburgh Fire Fighter rescue team members were standing by our side.
They asked if we were ok and one of them went straight to Maria and said, “Hi. I’m Tommy.” He quickly gave Maria his sweatshirt, gloves, socks and even his thermal long johns. She was thrilled- not to be warm, but to be wearing real live fireman gear. As they unpacked some equipment, he said to Maria, “What are you doing up so late do you know what time it is?” I thought to myself, what time is it? Will we get to see the ball drop, like Maria had been asking all night? He said, “it’s two o’clock in the morning!” Ummm…it’s what?
As we waited for the rest of the search party to get to us- the rest of the Newburgh crew and the other group, from the West Point rescue squad, the first two guys explored the area below us and a few guys and a woman climbed up as close as they could below us. It was about a half hour until they decided on a route down. They put harnesses on Maria and me. Tom hooked up to one end of the rope, Maria and I were on the other. Two men took the dogs and I turned to them and said, “If anything happens to these dogs, you may as well leave me on this mountain.” They looked at me and laughed. “No. I’m completely serious,” I responded. They assured me they would be ok. After much coaxing and joking and even one fire fighter offering to sing Maria a song, she was finally ready to go. We slowly rappelled down the rocks and drop offs, stopping three times to reset the rope to a new anchor. Eventually, we reached a point where the crew at the bottom said we could walk the rest of the way. I was relieved- until I saw what we were climbing through. More huge rocks and lots of prickers. At that point, the dogs were returned to me and I once again clutched their leads tightly as we worked our way down to the bottom of the mountain. I would hand Maria off to Tom, and then he would walk her to me. We were moving at a pretty good pace when I heard Tom say, “OK Maria, come to me, I’ve got you.” To which my extremely stubborn and brave eleven year old replied, “No..it’s OK. I got this.” And she hopped down a series of boulders like a billy goat. I laughed out loud, half amazed that she was even awake at this point. “My daddy taught me how to hike.” She told him. Due to her disabilities, she has never been able to participate in any organized sports, but that single moment was better than if she had scored the winning goal in a championship game. That’s my girl, I thought to myself. That’s my girl.
We finally got to the actual trail where we started. When we stepped out of the woods, I could not believe the number of emergency vehicles and personnel on the scene. Fire trucks, police cars, ambulances, flashing lights everywhere. Holy crap. Lola’s parents greeted us with hugs and her dad reached for the dog’s leashes which I was later told, I would not let go of. I thanked them and I thanked the puppies. We were led into an ambulance where Maria was offered warm blankets and she said, “No. I’m good. Can we go home?” They filled out forms, the police officer filled out a report. Finally, the state trooper who initially greeted us at the trail, offered a ride down the street to our car. Maria was thrilled to ride in a police car. As we get out, he says watch the puddle! As I instinctively grab Maria’s sweatshirt swinging her body away, with her boot skimming the huge puddle in front of her. We walk to the car and the trooper says, I just need to see your license. “Sure thing” I reply, grabbing it from my car. A few minutes later he returns, handing it back, along with a piece of paper. “I had to issue you a ticket.” He says. I burst out laughing. “A ticket? Really?” “Yes. Sorry. I have to do it. It’s for leaving the marked trail.” “Okay, thanks for your help,” I say and we hit the road.
I think that’s when the exhaustion and hunger finally hit me. As we start the forty minute drive home Maria says, “Daddy can we walk the dogs tomorrow- but not on that trail- let’s go to the Greenway Trail.” “Sure honey. Whatever you want,” I reply.
A few minutes later, I hear in a tired voice, “Daddy…can we do that hike again next year for New Year’s Eve?”
Yes, indeed. That’s my girl.