New Year’s Eve, 2015. I check into a small hotel in wealthy Litchfield, Connecticut. I had booked a “deluxe” room, and I rolled around on the California King-sized bed for a little while, recovering from the almost 7 mile hike we had done in the early afternoon. Then I got ready for a gourmet, vegetarian, locavore meal from one of our favorite restaurants, Community Table. After a delicious meal (The best cabbage I have ever had!) and some amazing cocktails, we rode the 5 miles back to the hotel, and watched television with a bottle of Riesling, slept on the giant bed, slept in (for me, anyway, not for him) and did a nice easy hike in the snow after a big breakfast. And that was my last overnight of 2015.
My first overnight of 2016 was a little different. Some friends invited me to go camping. They had asked before, and the idea was appealing, but not that appealing. We had a 70 degree Christmas (maybe the warmest on record, ever) when we usually have an average of 22 degrees for the low and 38 degrees for the high, and the most recent offer, December 26th, didn’t pull me in. Then cold weather kicked in, the christmas rush was over, and my fun new years eve overnight was booked- and the idea of an outdoor overnight in the mountains came up again, this time with even more friends. I said yes.
Harriman State Park is about 40 minutes from NYC, and 40 minutes from me.I loaded up my car with a small thermos of black eyed peas and kale (for good luck in the new year!), Veggie sausages, moonshine cherries, various bottles of hot and cold water, and a couple of bottles of “beer water.” I bungee corded my camera bag to my backpack, my tripod to my yoga mat (I was using it as bedding) and tied my new 20 degree mummy bag to everything else. All of my liquids went in a whole foods tote that I figured I would cart all of our trash out in. At the last minute, I bought a small bundle of firewood just in case. I drove past the “Road Closed” signs (the park is year round but the road is not maintained in the winter.) and parked in the overnight lot. The hike was to only be 1/2 a mile, but very rocky and very, very steep. I strapped all of my gear on and began walking up. Not even 5 minutes in, I abandoned my wood.
A half mile hike is nothing to me, but this was proving pretty tricky. My Whole Foods bag, and its contents, was unwieldy and noisy (clink clink goes the beer water, crinkle crinkle went the bag itself) and the sleeping bag, in the way I had it clipped to the rest of my bags, provided a real-life demonstration to me of what it must be like to not only have testicles, but elephantitus of those very testicles. The bag swung between my legs and banged me in the sides of my knees. My yoga mat/tripod arm was constantly working to keep the bag on my shoulder. I stopped a lot. A lot of places were beautiful, and looked like they should be the top of the mountain. They were not.
There were patches of ice where you could see water dripping freely under the ice. The trees were skeletal, the sky bright, but greying. I got a text that there were other people at the shelter. You cannot reserve the shelter, you have to share it. I was a little dismayed by this, I like meeting new people, but we had a biggish (6, 5 who were overnighting) group and I wasn’t sure how it would all play out. I continued my cycle of walk, drop my stuff, switch arms, and walk again, for awhile. Then I saw the shelter off to the side. Set against the sky, you couldn’t miss it. I remembered thinking, even in the dark, you probably couldn’t miss it. Pay attention, this is important later.
The shelter sits back from a long, flat rock, with 180 degree views. This shelter was put here because of the scenic outlook- usually they are situated near water sources. It has 2 fireplaces at the ends of the shelter, slate seating and a sleeping platform, and a fire pit in front. There are a few small windows at the top, also important.
Three of my five companions were there, working away. the other 2 were about 30 minutes out, and sunset was in an hour. The earlier inhabitants of the shelter were all gone, we chalked that as a win. My friend remarked that they were having trouble finding good campfire wood, but that they had some in their car. I volunteered to go back down, get my abandoned wood, hopefully meet up with our other companions, and get back, so that’s what I did. Getting down without all of my gear proved really easy, and I got there in perfect timing to meet up with the other guys. Walking back up, holding my wood bundle like a baby because the straps broke, not so much. We made it up though, after sunset, but before dark. It was beginning to get cold. The low for the night was going to be 29 degrees.
As it grew dark, I drank coffee and ate vegan sausages and beans. We shared nut cheese and my friends ate dehydrated meals in bags. Some of us moved onto beer water, and we talked about exploring abandoned places and fires and bears (one friend was not a fan of bears but was trying to be brave.) I decided to be brave by going outside and changing into warmer clothes. For me, this meant taking off my current clothes, putting on thermals, and putting my clothes back on. It was at the most vulnerable stage here that I realized: IT WAS FUCKING COLD. I dove into my 20 degree sleeping bag for the first time, with a bottle of hot water at the toes, and cursed out the zipper for awhile. It was hard to zipper up while inside.
The males in our group went to go hang the bear bag. Too late, I realized that I had an unopened beer water in the shelter. To be careful, I got out of my warm bag and put it far from camp. The stars, previously covered in clouds, were beautiful. I realized I had my camera and tripod, and could take some great long-exposure photography tonight. My cohort encouraged it. Then I realized something else, again: IT WAS EFFING COLD. I ran back to my bag and tucked back in. I played with the drawstring that would pull the bag around my face and leave just enough space for me to breathe. I couldn’t get it to stay tight.
I watched the steam come in and out of my breathing hole. It was getting late. At least it felt that way. It was 830pm. We chattered here and there, and I realized my bag was kind of cozy, although it would be cozier if it had the tinfoil-esque blanket that some of the group had. It was a noisy blanket (that i suspect my cat would love…) but I believe it was warm:
Nine PM. Lights finally out. We were still chattering, here and there, but not as frequently. A Coyote or something similar occasionally made noise, far, far away. Someone at work texted me, but I told them I’d get back to them when my arms weren’t so confined. The sky directly ahead of us was still slightly orange due to light pollution. The best star view was from near the “bathroom.” (spoiler alert: the bathroom was a rock on the other side of the shelter.) Weather.com told me that it was 29 degrees and felt like a few degrees less. It was officially the coldest it would be for the night. I let everyone know that it was all downhill from here.
Little did I know, that soon we’d all be going downhill, indeed.
Ten o’clock came, and I decided that I needed some ASMR sounds to fall asleep. i sleep like a rock, but having my hands glued to my sides made it hard to get there. I tried to find my headphones using just my sense of feel. That didn’t work.
“What are those lights out there?” My bear-wary friend asked.
“Just airplanes,” someone said. “A cell phone tower,” someone else volunteered.
“No, I mean in the other direction. Through the triangular window at the top. Its moving!”
“Oh, its just a Terminator Bear,” I teased. “Come with me if you want to Grrrrr!” I did my best Arnold through the slightly moist wall of my sleeping bag.
“Maybe its a UFO.” someone said. At that, a few people un-shielded their faces to look. And simultaneously, people jumped out of their sleeping bags as one of the guys said the words:
“Guys, there are people walking towards our tent.”
The rest of us wriggled out of our bags. The guys stood up and walked out of the shelter. The rest of us sat and listened, out of eye-shot.
“Hello?”our team inquired. “Hello?”
“HELLO! Excuse me?”
I bristled. It felt like something was about to happen. We had been here since well before sunset. What possibly could people be doing, deep in the woods, on a mountain, in the winter, 6 hours after darkness?
The invaders finally acknowledged us. Their speech was slow. Their headlamps blinded our guys, there may have been 2 or 3 of them. They explained that they always wanted to see the shelter up close, so decided on the spur of the moment to climb up. They didn’t want any trouble, and would leave. There seemed to be a delay before they actually did do that, however. Our guys watched as they retreated to a rock a couple hundred feet away and turned off their headlamps. They were still there.
Did they come to kill us? Rob us? Scare us? Did they just want to go somewhere pretty to trip balls? Were they friends of friends, playing an elaborate prank? Why were they sneaking around? Where did they come from? Where did they go? Were they still watching? Why wouldn’t they answer when we first called out to them? Were they the former inhabitants of the shelter? if so, why didn’t they say so?
We discussed. Their excuse- they just wanted to see what the shelter looked like- was a lie, which was troubling. But what was the truth? And, why wouldn’t they announce themselves? Surely they heard us talking. Even if they didn’t, the shelter is highly visible with the orange sky behind it, certainly you’d see it, the glow of the fires, the smoke from the chimneys, and know there were people there. Why so sneaky?
It was eleven when we decided unanimously that although there was a good chance that these creeps meant no harm, we would pack up and leave. Nobody was going to sleep, and nobody thought it was an appealing idea to stay awake in the cold for another 8 hours.
We packed up and put out our fires. Periodically, one of us would do a quick walk around with a knife or a stick. The hike down was kind of fun, but dark, and treacherous because there was a lot of slippery ice and frost. On a rock, we found a receipt from a grocery store near where a few of us lived. It wasn’t there on the way up, and none of us had actually been to that store before, and it was no where near where we were now. We all knew where our knives were. The trail was well marked. Soon we made it to the bottom of the hill, and climbed into our vehicles to go home.
It was 12:02. This creepy experience still counted, technically, as an overnight. But we’ll never know who those creepers were- or why they were there. And that was my first overnight of 2016.