On the Trail: ‘Shelter’ outside

West Mountain Shelter, Eric Koppel

West Mountain Shelter, Eric Koppel

“Shelter” is not a word commonly invoked to describe the vagaries of our modern 21st century day to day lives. We don’t say “I am going into my shelter now”. Rather, we say “I am going inside”, meaning, of course, we are returning into the safety and security of our homes. In fact, “shelter” evokes images not of home and hearth but of a bomb or air raid shelter, remnants of the 1950s cold war. If you live in Israel, a “shelter” is part of your normal vocabulary as all new construction must include a shelter or “safe room” to protect from missile attacks, or worse. And, a little over a year ago the word “shelter” was repeated frequently as Boston police warned residents to “shelter inside” while they searched for the Boston marathon bomber.

In all recent examples, “shelter” has a negative connotation: a place to retreat from mortal danger.

And so, the notion of a 3-sided low ceilinged stone structure built on the side of mountain, miles from a road,  town or city being called a “shelter” is anachronistic. Afterall, this primitive structure could only protect from rain and snow, and that only if they are not blowing in sideways. These shelters are no protection from wild animals, big or small, and offer only partial protection from cold or heat. Yet, these structures found along most long distance hiking trails are in fact referred to as “shelters” for they do offer a hiker  a modicum of protection from the weather. A “primitive shelter” is a more apt name.

As I set my backpack down last Sunday on the stout wooden floor boards of the West Mountain shelter in Harriman State Park, about a half mile from the Appalachian Trail, I felt indebted to the men who, in about 1928-29, went to great effort to build this structure in the woods. In their prescience, they sited the West Mountain shelter on pre-Cambrian granite bedrock,  to face an unobstructed view of the Hudson River and off in the distance, the Manhattan skyline, a skyline that was only just getting started at the end of the roaring twenties.

This shelter, like so many shelters on hiking trails in the northeast, is a substantial structure consisting of three walls built from bowling ball sized boulders of different colors and shapes, held together with no mortar noticeable, yet impermeable to wind and rain blowing through the walls. The ceiling consists of shingles on top of wooden beams and slats. The West Mountain shelter even includes two built in fireplaces on either side of the broad open front entrance. It does not have a water source nearby but I can not fault the nameless men who built this edifice 85 years ago. They were clearly taken with the beautiful view, water or not.

Volunteers continue to maintain and build hiking trails all over and even refurbish shelters when needed. But I do not hear of many cases of shelters being built at new locations, although it probably happens. As I ‘sheltered inside’ the West Mountain lean-to, protected from nothing in particular on that sunny, balmy, picture perfect day, I wished I could have offered a personal thanks to the people who chose this location, gathered the boulders and wood needed to build this old fashioned trail shelter so many years ago, rock by rock, beam by beam.

Howard E. Friedman

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