Prison Walls, Mountain Vista’s, and Life Goals!

I’ve been back from The Great Divide for six weeks now and aside from a few fun and exciting mountain bike excursions I haven’t had a lot of free time to go out and enjoy the beauty of fall in Vermont.  So last week I noticed my Friday and Saturday were blank on my calendar (or blank enough) and decided a mini-adventure was in order.  I packed my hiking backpack which I haven’t really used in quite a while, and headed out at the crack of dawn on Friday.  My first stop:  New York States largest Maximum Security Prison.

Clinton Maximum Security Prison, Dannemora, NY

Clinton Maximum Security Prison, Dannemora, NY

From my years volunteering with the Books to Prisons Project in Washington DC I befriended a variety of prisoners from around the country.  Over the years I developed a close friendship with one in particular and am still in regular contact with her.  Her abbreviated story is that she grew up a closeted transgender woman in a poor family and didn’t have much of a chance from the get go.  From sexual assault to family drama to school bullying –  there is only one place our society works to put people like Leslie-Ann – in prison.  She was in and out through her Teens and twenties and ended up with a long stint in NY where she’s been the last couple decades.  Her health is deteriorating thanks to the AIDS she picked up via a prison rape. To top it off she got her sentence extended for fighting the guy off.  Some people just get dealt a shitty hand.  She’s sweet, charming, funny and just generally enjoyable to be with.  I’m not as good about visiting her as I should be (other than a lawyer once in a blue moon I’m her only visitor now that her mom is too sick to travel), but I go when I can.  She was transferred to Dannemora in the middle of last winter, so this was only my second trip to this particular prison.  It’s the third facility I’ve visited her in, and each trip has it’s own excitement.  I’ve been denied entrance, searched, tested for drug residue, left waiting in cells, and generally mistreated by guards at each.  This time was about normal.

In Dannemora the visitor parking lot is located about 3 blocks up a steep hill from the prison – let’s hope nobody has loved ones visiting who aren’t in tip top physical shape, because they’d be out of luck.  I emptied my pockets before leaving my car of everything except 25 one dollar bills for the vending machines, my car key (all other key’s removed from chain), my ID, and my check book so I could put money in her Inmate account – she mentioned she’s almost out of soap and shampoo and that stuff costs money.  She makes less than $4 per week when she’s healthy enough to put in her full 40 hours.  And they taught me in school we ended Slavery – what a joke.  I try to send her a little extra here and there.

I wrote out a $35 check to her inmate account and was told I had to go put my checkbook back in my car before I could enter.  I asked if there was a locker I could store it in and she said no – even though there was a cabinet behind her head labeled “Locker Keys” – guess I’m not lucky enough to use one today.  Upon my return from my car the woman at the desk was on the phone.  I waited patiently while she chatted about upcoming benefits changes and increased health insurance premiums.  I learned that her son won his soccer game last night and what her plans were for dinner.  I stood there for 15 full minutes while she chit-chatted with a friend about personal business.  Finally she got off the phone, stamped my hand and pushed the button to slide the heavy, clanking, metal gate open.  In the next room a guard re-checked my ID and made me empty my pockets, remove my belt, walk through a metal detector and open the button of my pants.  Once approved the next heavy door was buzzed open and I was pushed through it with an armload of my meager belongings before I even had time to button my jeans or put my belt on.  I got redressed as quickly as I could as I walked across a courtyard – inside the tall prison walls with coils of barbed wire on the top.  Looking at the picture above I realize how much scarier the walls look from the inside than from out.

One more guard station in the next building, two more forms to fill out, several more guards to check my ID, three of four more loud clanging metal gates, and I entered a room full of visitors.  Leslie wasn’t there yet so I went to the vending room and stocked up on some of her favorite goodies.  When she arrived we hugged (you are separated by a counter and allowed one quick hug at the beginning and end of each visit).  The room was full – full of families, children, wives, mothers, and grandchildren.    The United States locks up an absolutely insane percentage of their population, disproportionately people of color and other minority groups.  Trans-woman are no exception.  Being a trans-woman in a men’s prison is scary, dangerous and deadly.  It brings tears to my eyes hearing Leslie talk of the sexual harassment and physical violence she faces every single day.  She points out which guards in the room touch her, which call her dirty names, and she points out the ONE that seems to be decent most of the time.  Any complaint she files just leads to disciplinary actions against her and a ramping up of the abuse.  Any complaints I file or her lawyer files, has the same outcome.

All that aside I had a lovely visit with Leslie, joking, laughing, sharing stories and eating expensive junk food out of the vending machines. We played Rummy and found it quite easy to whittle away the day.  When i told her I was going to write this blog post she half jokingly said “say something like here’s her address and who you make the checks payable too” – so if you are so inclined let me know and I’ll send you the details on how to help buy her a couple of stamps and cream for her coffee.  Visiting hours end at 230, so we had our parting hug and I promised to return soon.  Even though visiting involves gross strip searches and often illegal probing before and after each visit, she is starved enough for loving human contact she’d go through it every day if I could come that often.

Avalanche Pass from Marcy Dam

Avalanche Pass from Marcy Dam

Leaving the Prison is at least as challenging as entering it.  I had to file back through many locked doors, show my stamped hand and ID to many guards, fill out another form, and wait until the guard at the front was good and ready before she opened the final cage to let me out.  The couple leaving ahead of me had the stuff they weren’t allowed to bring in stored in a locker.  Like everything else in the prison anything helpful can be taken away and all decisions of who is allowed what, when are arbitrary and up to the whims of the power-hungry guards.

I always leave the prison feeling a bit sad and hopeless, even though Leslie’s attitude toward life is remarkable given her lot.  The 90 minute drive into the Adirondacks cheered me right up and as the mountains grew larger so did my smile.  I hadn’t been to Marcy Dam and the Adirondack Loj in more than a decade but they were my stomping grounds in college and it felt so good to be home.  I arrived at the Adirondack Loj just as the sun dipped behind Avalanche Mountain, bought a trail map in the store and put on my pack.  The 2.3 miles out to Marcy Dam is an easy hike and I was happy to do it at dusk, listening to the first hoots of the owls and watching squirrels chase each other in the twilight.  By the time it was actually dark I was eating a sandwich in a lean-to I had to my self and watching the moon rise over Mount Marcy.

Braving the wind on the 5,344 foot summit of Mt Marcy, highest peak in the Adirondacks

Braving the wind on the 5,344 foot summit of Mt Marcy, highest peak in the Adirondacks

I was up by six and broke camp quickly.  I left my big pack in the shelter and donned my day pack with lunch, water, and warm layers and headed up the familiar Mount Marcy Trail.  Bridges had been rebuilt and moved and certain trail features have deteriorated or been replaced, but it’s the same trail I remember from ten years ago. Marcy Dam to Mt Marcy Summit is just over 5 miles and starts out gradually but grows steep about half way through.

Cairn trail marker along the Marcy ridge

Cairn trail markers along the Marcy ridge

By mid-morning I was at the summit with gorgeous views in every direction.  Chatted with some other hikers and ate half of my lunch before heading back down out of the cold wind.  About a third of the way down I came to a trail junction labeled Table Top Mountain. Back in the day there wasn’t a trail up Table Top and I’ve never been up it before so I decided what the heck.  According to my map it was less than a mile and a half to the summit from this trail junction.  It was a VERY steep mile and a half!

Mt. Marcy from the tree covered summit of Table Top Mountain (elev. 4,413ft)

Mt. Marcy from the tree covered summit of Table Top Mountain (elev. 4,413ft). For a reference point, Mt. Mansfield is Vermont’s highest peak, topping out at 4,393 feet.


At the summit of Table Top I enjoyed another snack while sitting in the sun looking out over Mt. Marcy.  It looked so far away it was hard to believe I’d been there just a few hours earlier.  I still had quite a bit of energy coming down off of Table Top and was having an amazing day.  I knew that a few miles down the trail there would be another junction with the trail up Phelps Peak, which was just over a mile from the trail head to the summit.  However, I was running low on water and knew I wouldn’t make it up another summit with what I had.  I decided if I crossed a good water source before the Phelps trail head I’d replenish my supply and go for the triple peak day, but if I didn’t I’d just settle for two and head home.  I crossed a river about a mile later and thanks to my trusty SteriPen replenished my water supplies.

Mt Marcy on the right, Table Top Mountain on the left, taken from the summit of Phelps Mountain (elev. 4,160 ft)

Mt Marcy on the right, Table Top Mountain on the left, taken from the summit of Phelps Mountain – elevation 4,160 feet.  (Camels Hump, my favorite mountain in Vermont, is just a hair shorter at 4,081 feet).


Looking East from the summit of Phelps Peak. There are 46 high peaks, I hope to hike them all in the coming decade.

Taking a rest on the summit of Phelps I came to two part realization.  The first was that I really love these mountains.  Really I love all mountains and every hike I ever go on I say to myself, why don’t I do this every day, or at least every week.  The second part was that when I have a goal or a plan I do more hiking than when I don’t – so I clearly needed a plan.  I decided up there on the peak that I want to hike all of the 46 high peaks.  I hiked a bunch in college but I honestly don’t even remember which ones so it seems appropriate to start over.  I’m 30 now, so if I average five a year I’ll be done by the time I’m 40.  Totally doable.  So my new life goal is to hike all 46 Adirondack High Peaks by the time I’m 40.  Three down, 43 to go.  I turn 31 in less than a month, so to stay on track I’ll be going back to do two more before then.  If anyone wants to join me, hit me up!

Finally breaking in my new hiking shoes!

Finally breaking in my new hiking shoes!

I got back to Marcy Dam just as the sun ducked down behind Avalanche Mountain, heaved my heavy pack on my back and hiked out to the Adirondack Loj.  I got to my car just as dark settled in and drove home to Vermont.  My legs are sore and tired, but it was a fabulous adventure!  I’ll be back soon!


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