I WAS HALFWAY down the steep, rocky trail when I first heard their quiet voices floating up the path.
It was 7:30 in the morning and I had been utterly alone on this peak for the last two hours, having risen early to catch the setting of the harvest moon over Mount Equinox.
It had been silent and peaceful on my lookout at Prospect Rock, an aptly named feature that offers an amazing panoramic view of the Manchester Valley. On my descent, the only sounds to this point had been the scratch and scuffle of my hiking shoes, alarm calls of irritated birds, and the trickle of a mountain stream.
But now I heard voices, and I started to get that feeling one often gets after spending hours alone in a forest without seeing another human being: “What are they doing in my forest?”
As they drew closer, I could make out that it was a couple – a young man and a young woman – and that he was walking about 20 yards ahead of her. He was tall, about 22, with long hair, a large hiking backpack (this being a spur on the Long Trail and Adirondack Trail), serious boots, and copious tats up and down his right arm. His companion was a shorter, dark-haired young woman, also with serious boots, a hiking backpack, and in one hand a leash, at the other end of which was…
I stopped in my tracks, not really understanding what I was seeing. The young man was about five feet from me now. I caught his eye and asked the only question one could in such circumstances: “Wait, is that a cat?”
His monosyllabic reply – “Yes” – was freighted with more disgust and irritation than a single word ought be forced to carry. It seemed to portend either a nasty break-up or a curious incident with a feline in the night-time.
As I got nearer, I could see it was actually more kitten than cat. Black and white, with wide, inquisitive eyes, it sat down in the road as I passed slowly by.
“She’s a bit nervous around strange people on the trail and all,” the young woman explained.
“It’s a tough hike for such a small thing,” was the only thing I could think to say in reply.
Then, 50 feet down the trail I kicked myself for not getting a picture of her and her cat.
* * *
THE TREK UP the mountain a few hours earlier had been rather more stressful. And not just because it was a mile-and-a-half hike up an extremely steep, rocky trail in the dark.
The tense part was due to my forgetting to start up the pedometer app on my phone in order to track my progress. So, after about 40 minutes, when I came to a wide, unmarked trail on my right, I mistakenly judged that I had gone the necessary distance, and that this must be the path toward Prospect Rock.
Only of course it wasn’t, and by the time I realized that, I had left what was a clear, wide path through the darkened woods for something the width of a raccoon trail. When I finally decided to turn back, the main path was nowhere to be found.
This is where the blundering about in the woods began.
It is surprisingly easy to get lost and disoriented in the woods at night. And a little bit embarrassing.
But I was not worried I was going to end up on the local six-o’clock news. The light of the moon made it pretty clear where the mountain’s precipice edge was, and I knew that, worst case, I could wait for morning light and then easily find the main trail, which was not more than 100-200 feet away.
What I was, was frustrated. I had woken up at 4:30 to have enough time to get up to this rock to capture the harvest moon. And now, because I had forgotten to start up my pedometer, I was going to miss the shot.
I hate missing a shot.
In the end, as you can tell from the image at the top of this post, I finally lucked onto the wider path back to the main trail and trekked the remaining third of a mile up to Prospect Rock, barely managing to catch the moon before the sun came up.
But of course the highlight of the experience was the young woman and her cat. Because now, when someone asks me, as they inevitably will, “Have you ever seen a woman walking the Appalachian Trail with a cat on a leash?” I can honestly answer, “Yes.”