Camping in New York: Not so rough
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010; 11:22 AM
Sitting around the crackling fire in a Hudson Valley campsite, I proudly surveyed my forested domain from the throne of a canvas chair. My tent was perfectly assembled and moodily lit by a hanging lantern. On the two-burner gas stove, the cheese was melting on a veggie burger, while a hash of peas and corn heated up in a pot. A sweet potato slowly roasted in the fire pit. I pulled up the iron grill and threw more logs on the flame with an expertise that was, well, false.
I had an enviable campsite, but I could not take credit for any of it. Malouf's Mountain Sunset Campground, not I, deserved the merit badge.Nestled on Fishkill Ridge near the Hudson River, the hike-in/hike-out destination caters to co-dependent campers who are more comfortable following the leader and to urbanites who want effortless nature.
"I target people who don't have cars or camping gear but want to be in the outdoors," said Dick Malouf, who opened the campground five years ago on his 60-acre mountain plot. "Everything's all set when you come in." Malouf's operation is rare in the camping world because it fuses the ease of a hotel (shuttle service, luggage transfer, preassembled nest) with the adventure of an alfresco vacation. You don't have to lift much of a finger except to flick away the spider crawling up your tent pole.
Hikers start from the same point - the Beacon train depot, on the Metro-North Hudson line in New York - before heading off on several trails that end at the same place: the campground. (Those with wheels can park at the station for free on weekends or in a municipal lot.) The 80-minute ride from Grand Central Station parallels the sailboat-flecked river and a verdant landscape as healthy as a salad. It gets you in the mood to be free of walls.
Malouf picks up guests outside the station, in a green van that looks as if it had bummed around Woodstock. I admired his beard, a coonskin cap for the chin, as he tossed my bags in the back. After depositing me at a trail head, he would transport my belongings by ATV to my assigned campsite. That's better service than a Holiday Inn.
In the van, we discussed the hiking options. In ascending demands of time and stamina, the three are Access Point 1, a half-hour trek on the Red Overlook trail; Access Point 2, a 21/2-hour journey alongside a stream; and Access Point 3, a three- to five-hour hike about which Malouf's Web site warns, "Do not attempt this hike without a trail map."
In hindsight, I should have heeded this advice. And future hikers, if possible, add to that map (which Malouf sells for $11) a search-and-rescue dog. The Boy Scouts chose "Be Prepared" as their motto for a reason. Unfortunately, I was never a boy or a scout, and did not fully honor their maxim.
The trail follows the old Mount Beacon Incline Railway, which in its day (1902) was the steepest railway in the world, rising 900 feet in less than a half-mile. At the peak, an aerie more than 1,600 feet high, the path turns south, then travels laterally, past an abandoned car (don't begrudge an obvious landmark, despite its blemish on the setting), radio towers and a reservoir. If all goes well, you should land at the campground without incident and in time to build a fire that welcomes dusk.
But for me, all did not go as plotted. I saw the rusted remains of the railway and the brick shell of the former mountaintop hotel, the Casino, a place for fancy folk that burned in 1927. I stood at the precipice with other hikers, regarding the panorama from Poughkeepsie to Storm King Mountain. Red-tailed hawks coasted by on mild wind currents, ignoring the outsiders in their air space.
On the descent, I noticed that the red disk markers affixed to the trees had morphed into painted red splotches. I blamed budget cuts for the cheaper signage. I tromped for more than two hours, stopping briefly to watch a frog play possum in a puddle and admire a deer bounding through the woods with the grace of Baryshnikov. I finally popped out into a clearing, brightening at the sight of small wooden structures that I assumed were the lean-tos of Malouf's. As I walked deeper in, I saw an august stone house and considered the possibility that it was the bathhouse. Not very likely. I was in someone's very pleasant and very private yard.
"You're on the other side of the mountain," exclaimed Malouf, when I called his cellphone for guidance. "What did you do, bushwhack?" Malouf arranged for a cab to pick me up, which I later learned was not too uncommon an occurrence. Most campers push through their disorientation: Friends who had visited a few weeks earlier told me they had wandered around in the rain for six hours before finding the campground. But some need to pay a fare to undo their mistakes. A couple recently lost their way for 13 hours and ended up on Interstate 84. Even though I was now ensconced in a black Cadillac driven by a charmer named Jessie James Williams, the trek was not over. Remember: The only way in is via hiking trail, no exceptions, so pull up those boots, trouper. Williams dropped me off in a cul-de-sac with a gate leading to the path. He handed me a shiny red apple and his business card for luck.
On a traditional excursion, I would have to tap into a backup reserve of energy to sustain me through the next phase of camping: setting up the tent, lighting the fire and preparing dinner. But at Malouf's, I could achieve all this with the indolence of a teen living at home.
Of the 18 sites, 15 feature wooden platforms covered in a green tarp that shelters a two-person tent, a picnic table, a pair of camping chairs and kitchen amenities. (The other three are primitive.) Malouf's staff raises the tent before guests arrive, so with a toss of the sleeping bag, I was moved in. For cooking, again Malouf anticipates every need: A cabinet holds a chow box stocked with essential kitchen utensils and pans, spices (beyond salt and pepper), aluminum foil, potholders, matches, playing cards and fire starter, beloved friend to those inept as kindling collectors. The gas range on top of the kitchen station left enough space to chop, stir and plate.
When Malouf, a plumber and builder by trade, opened the campground, it was one man and a lot of wilderness. "When this thing started, there was nothing here. Just the trees," he said. When I asked how he had come up with the idea of the campground, he answered, "I drank a lot of beer thinking about this." And his motivation: He wanted to create something he could hand down to his 9-year-old daughter, Andrea, a spritelike fixture on the property.
The first year in operation, he said, six people showed up. Then 40, 140, 250 and, by the end of this season on Oct. 31, he expects to have had 400. "We get 'em all," he said, referring to the variety of guests. As evidenced in the bathhouse, an inadvertent meeting place, he was right. I traded greetings with a woman camping with her husband and two young children, a girlfriend-boyfriend couple and a boyfriend-boyfriend pair. Along the trail, I gabbed with four Manhattanites in their mid-20s, one of whom called herself a "girlie-girl" and was hiking in a frilly frock and sandals. "It's not super roughing it," said Lauren Matthews, one of the quartet, who trekked in black Converse high-tops. "It's nature without all the bad parts."
As a solo camper, I felt the solitude and calm of being in the woods but never the stark loneliness of isolation. First, I was assigned the site closest to the bathroom, a flame that always drew people. Also, every so often, I would hear the soft drone of Malouf's cart as he tended the grounds, headlights off but his presence still noted. And later in the evening, the place rocked with booms, the fireworks display from a nearby baseball stadium. The trees obscured the show, but you could still feel the thrill.
When I'd made my reservation online, I had the option of ordering food items to prepare at my site. (Guests are also free to bring their own grub, or order pizza from a joint in town that Malouf will pick up for you.) I checked off a veggie burger with cheese and a bun ($4), a sweet potato ($1), pancake mix with syrup ($3), and cans of peas and corn ($1.25 each). If my fire-starting skills failed me, at the very least I could sustain myself on cold veggies and a slab of cheese.
In rah-rah camper mode, I grabbed some chopped wood from a pile assigned to my site and started building a pyramid in the pit. I flicked my lighter beneath a fudgy chunk of fire starter, but it wouldn't catch. I threw in a wad of paper towels, a rookie technique, but it was comforting to see a flash of flame, even if it vaporized equally fast. I gave up and moved on to the gas stove top, but struggled to get it going. For strike three, I attempted to illuminate the lantern, but I don't need to embarrass myself further, do I?
I went looking for Malouf on his little tractor. With patience and a wry smile, he provided a quick lesson on all three. By the time he left, I had a mini-inferno blazing around me. I sizzled my burger, heated my veggies and threw my potato into the fire. I laid out my feast, proud of even the smallest of accomplishments.
After dinner, I tucked myself into my sleeping bag. As I was drifting off, I heard the scuffle of an animal outside the tent flap. It was invigorating to be in the wild, even if it was somewhat tamed.