I’m not alone in the occasional need to escape our busy, hectic lives and seek a way to take a break to recharge my mind and spirit. That desire is one of the appeals of fishing and hunting to me as both bring you into a new physical and mental place that requires one to slow down and allows rejuvenation as a result. For me, a needed break is taking a long solitary hike with the reward being an opportunity for some interesting photography, usually planned around a railroad related scene.
A hike gets me into nature and awakens my senses differently than when I’m in my normal work/life routine. I become more attuned to my own senses and thoughts when I’m away from all these distractions and also benefit from the physical exertion that is required of a lengthy hike. Since most of my hikes are planned to take in a vista of an active or abandoned railroad grade, there is usually a strenuous physical component involved which allows my body to develop a flow that just keeps me going at a stead rhythm while clearing my mind of clutter. The longer I hike, the more focused on my own thoughts and presence I become.
During a hike, the anticipation grows to reach my destination, knowing that my reward will waiting…a view to myself, where I can peacefully hang out, have a snack, relax, think, and make some photographs.
A recent hike is typical…
Having a day off, without any immediate family responsibilities, I planned a hike to the top of Mount Tammany in the Delaware Water Gap. The Appalachian Trail follows the ridge line that runs through here but is interrupted by the Delaware River, which cut the namesake gap in the mountains many millions of years ago. On both sides of the river, the trails quickly ascend about 1000 vertical feet to the ridge top level and provide beautiful views which happen to look down on the former Delaware, Lackawanna & Western right-of-way now operated by the short-line Delaware Lackawanna. That will be today’s reward…a DL train in the gap.
The Delaware Lackawanna sends a train three times a week through the gap to interchange cars with the Norfolk Southern at Slatford Junction just a few miles east of the gap. The train usually departs Scranton between 9:30 and 11am based upon my observations and gets to the gap between 1:30 and 4pm, but railroads have a way of proving me wrong when I start to count on them. Wanting to make sure that I don’t miss the train, I arrive at the parking lot at 1pm and allow myself an hour to get to the top and into position. I know that I may wait as little as 30 minutes or several hours…. either way I’m fine with it and have brought plenty of water, nuts, dried fruit, chocolate bars, and fresh fruit to attend to my needs. In my backpack is a camera body and two lenses along with an extra battery, lens blower and shutter release cable as I always carry my tripod on such a trip. Winding out my kit is a pruner and small tree saw to clear any obstacles out of the way. With this kit, I can hike with the confidence of mind that I can take my time and be on the mountain most of the day with all my immediate personal and photographic needs covered.
When I get to a mountain top, I’m looking for a good unobstructed view, but also for a place that beckons to me in my romantic ideal as a place to relax and contemplate. The first requirement is to move off the trail away from any potential visitors as I like to be alone and undisturbed by human talking or sounds. Shade is a necessity and so is a good place to sit or lie while I wait. On Mount Tammany, I previously found a spot that fulfills my needs and even though its been two years since my last visit, memory kicks in as I hike and recognize trails, trees and rock formations. This particular location has a tall juniper tree as a marker which is easy to find as there are very few on the mountain and only one that has grown 25 feet tall. I’m not sure how it got here as it does not seem like a native species to this area but nevertheless, it’s my marker and I’m glad to spot my old friend. Finding it means that my shade tree and spot are nearly.
My first order of business is to get the camera ready and the tripod serves me well as it allows me to lock in my composition and camera settings. I can then sit back and relax knowing that I don’t have to be on a constant vigil to risk missing or messing up my shot. Once set up, I can sit down and and take it all in.
All alone without people around me, and from this high vantage, I feel like a god watching the world unfold below me. Beneath me on the Jersey side of the gap is the freeway and a riverside park that is a popular spot for launching and landing rafts, canoes and boats. Across the river is Pennsylvania with a relatively quite 2-lane road and of course, the railroad. I like to watch the world and there is plenty to see from above including a dozen hawks that are mostly below me scouring the steep hillside for small animals to turn into a meal. But the real action is well below me on the valley floor, where people and cars in motion appear like a colony of very small ants.
It’s a very clear day and I can see things that I didn’t notice on previous trips, including the large grain mill on top of Pocono Summit, a familiar sight for anyone chasing a Delaware Lackawanna train. The mill is about 20 miles from here, as the crow (or hawk) flies, and it’s really quite amazing that I can make it out from this vantage. I’m hoping that the eastbound train has finished switching there and is well on its way to the Gap below me.
Before I know it an hour has passed and then another. I check my camera settings about every 20 minutes to see how the light has changed and if I need to compensate with any exposure or composition adjustments. Other than that, I have plenty of time to observe, think and occasionally talk aloud to myself. As the afternoon passes, the occasional thought creeps in that maybe the DL train ran early or possibly isn’t running today. I shake those thoughts off since I’m happy to be out and the photo would just be icing on the cake for the day. Around 5pm, I have doubts that I’ll catch a train this day and decide to wait till 5:30 before leaving as I need two hours to get home to my kids who will be expecting me. The sun has shifted quite a bit for the better and I’m hoping to still catch a train before I have to leave the nice light.
Four and half hours after arriving, I make peace with not seeing a train and decide to pack up and head back down the mountain. It’s a nice hike down the trail through the broken sunlight and I take a few images along the way. My ears are open for a train heading through the gap, but hear nothing during the 50-minute hike to the car. After loading my gear into the car, I decide to drive across the river on my way home and see if I missed anything. From where I parked, I have to cross the Delaware River into Pennsylvania and drive from the town appropriately named Delaware Water Gap south towards Slatford Junction.
When I get there, I’m a bit shocked and amused at the same time for the train apparently arrived at Slatford Junction just minutes before me. The crew had obviously just tied down the train for the evening and were walking towards a waiting pickup truck to take them back home to Scranton. The train must have come though the gap as I was finishing my hike and nearing the car!
Oh well….it was time well spent recharging on the mountain and enjoying the day. But, I do wish that I caught that train coming through the Gap…