Hell Hike: Ranger Rick – Mountain Man

As a kid I wanted be a forest ranger. You know, climb a mountain, go to the top of a fire tower, view the landscape as far as the horizon, and here we were, living on the edge of the Taconic Range.

It was almost a dream come true except I was commuting to 14th Street on the west side of Manhattan every day to my job and back. Not much time left for an adventure after work plus a two-hour drive home. Then I realized on Labor Day that the next Wednesday might be my chance.

The first day of school was always special. We had taken each of our kids to school, making sure they knew where to go, were introduced to their teacher and were settled. This was Billy’s turn; he was the youngest of five, and more than anxious. We returned home and I told my wife, Rose, that I was taking her along on my great adventure.

There would be lunch—she would be making it. There would be drinks—I’d bring them. That’s when I told her where we were going. A hike to the top of Stissing Mountain, a climb up the tower and lunch on the tower where we would have a gorgeous view of the entire Hudson Valley, from the Catskills to the Berkshires.

She had two problems with this: First, I didn’t know the first thing about climbing a mountain (Stissing or any other one). Second, I didn’t have the stamina to climb a mountain (Stissing or any other one).

My logical answer to this was “Are you kidding? Didn’t I read about being a forest ranger when I was twelve?” I followed that up with a grownup response: “Everybody is doing it—and they told me it’s easy.” She gave in to my pleading and said she would go, but we had to be back before 3:00. My answer: “No problem.”

Let’s be honest here. I didn’t so much as talk her into it as make a deal. She would go along as long as I would help with her chores when we got back.

Now…. What exactly did that Ranger Rick magazine say? I read it 25 years ago, before I graduated from elementary school, high school, went to college, got married, had five kids and worked in about six different jobs. The article wasn’t very clear in my memory.

I remembered something about cord and a nail (to build a lean-to), a piece of chalk (to mark the trail) and finally water (to avoid getting dehydrated), which wouldn’t be a problem—I had wine and beer, didn’t I? Water wouldn’t be a necessity.

All ready to go. Rose with lunch and me with the necessities: a 2-inch nail with cord, a knife, chalk and of course the beer and wine.

At this point I was having visions of grandeur. A 38-year-old man, with five kids, planning not only an ascent to the top of Stissing Mountain, but maybe future trips on the Appalachian Trail, in the Rocky Mountains … and who knows, someday up Mount Everest.

I hoped this first climb would be so successful that my name would go down in climbing history. I’ll say this: After 40 years, all the people that heard of this little adventure still remember it.


The first part went great. I didn’t trip leaving the front steps of the house. We had a little discussion whether we should walk on the sidewalk or take a shortcut the kids told me about: walk through the deputy sheriff’s yard and next to the Taconic telephone company building to the next street and cross over to the fire house. It was my adventure so we took the short cut.

It’s about a half-mile walk to a water runoff created by the spring thaw. I was told this was the climber’s way to go up and not the road that went to the old ranger’s house. It was just too easy that way.

The runoff wasn’t hard to find. It was all rocks and boulders. This looked kind of dangerous. Rose wouldn’t have any problem; she had both balance and stamina. I was a different story.

I started the climb standing upright. About 100 yards later, at a split in the runoff path, I had to make my first decision. It would take a minute or two. A chance to catch my breath.

The sun was rising to my back; that would be east. I took the path that was closest to the opposite of the sunrise. Things were going pretty well except for two things: I forgot to mark the path and I was alternating my travels between walking on two legs and crawling on four.

After the next couple of hundred yards, I was a mess, sweating, out of breath, no idea which way to go except up. The trees were so thick, I couldn’t see the sun. Forget about marking the way, I was amazed I was still standing, more or less.

At this point I remembered the refreshments, two beers and a small bottle of wine in an insulated bag with ice tied to the back of my belt. Should I stop for some liquid refreshment? We were maybe about one-fourth the way up.

It was an opportune moment. Rose was way ahead. I knew she would stop at the next split in the path and wait for me, the pathfinder, to tell her which way to go. So I opened one can of beer. I still had another to have with lunch. It went down smooth and cool.

The rest of the ascent was a little blurry. I don’t know when or how, but the second can of beer disappeared. Not the whole can. Just what was inside it.

From there to the top, I had some trouble. Picking directions, walking over the rocks and marking the path? (Well you can just forget about that). Meanwhile, Rose had mentioned something about going ahead.

When I finally made it to the top, there she was, cool as a cucumber, setting up a place next to a little pond to have a nice lunch. She had checked out the tower, found a good spot to see the view and was wondering what happened to me. I flopped down, out of breath, out of pride, and out of beer. She still had her little bottle of wine and I drank the melted ice cube water in a baggie.

The tower stairs were rusted and unpassable, but the view from where we were eating was great. You could see the Catskill Mountains in one direction and in the opposite, the foothills of the Berkshires. From where we stood our house was visible as well as the whole town of Pine Plains. Just looking around you can understand why the fire tower was put in this location. Looking at my watch, I was amazed, it was after 12:30. It had taken me over two hours to make a 30-minute trip up the mountain and even worse, after an all too quick lunch, we had to start down right away.


It took me two hours to get to the top. Down had to be faster. We would make it back to the house before 3:00. Forget about Ranger Rick, my visions of grandeur or future trips up the Rockies, at least we’d be back on time.

Quickly I reviewed the situation: the sun was to my back going up so the sun should be in my face going down…right? I’ll explain this a little clearer later.

After two hours we were still walking, nothing looked familiar, no trail marks, no runoff stream beds, plus the land was starting to flatten out. We should have been on the lake road before it flattened out. Something was seriously wrong.

We decided we’d keep walking straight. If we went the right way down, we’d hit something soon. Wrong.

Now’s the time to clear up the walking towards the sun bit. If it hadn’t moved, I would have been right walking towards it. But it was descending towards the west … and … we were supposed to be going east, the opposite direction.

Finally we hit a dirt road. Left or right? I wanted to go right, but I had been wrong the whole day so we went left. About 20 minutes later the road ended at a hay field. We turned around and started back the other way. I was suddenly remembering my old prayers. They were answered in the form of Mrs. Hedges.

She was driving her pickup to get a bale of hay from the field. We explained our dilemma. It was almost 2:30, and we were worried about our kids getting home to an empty house.

With a quick U-turn she started back on the dirt road which ended up on the route to town. We were about 5 miles out. The whole ride back, Rose had a pleasant conversation with Mrs. Hedges but didn’t say a word to me.

If looks could kill, I wouldn’t be writing this now. Mrs. Hedges drove right to our front door and we were home by 2:45. I was going to say we made it in plenty of time but I didn’t dare.

Rose got snacks ready for the kids and started doing the chores. I was bruised, bitten, scratched and exhausted. I headed right for the couch.

A couple of hours later, I sheepishly walked into the kitchen. Rose asked me, “How’s Ranger Rick now?” She gave me the business for a while—I deserved it. She handed me a beer—I needed it. “What a woman.”


The Hedges farm was torn down two years ago. The silos, the pond and one of the barns still stand, and over 40 years later, I still say a little thank you to Mrs. Hedges whenever I pass there.

Photo: David Anderson