Bushwhacking in the Catskills with Marcus Aurelius

Nothing is evil which is according to nature

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I leaped out of bed before dawn and by first light was on the highway racing toward the Catskills.  The goal was to summit seventeen peaks within 24 hours.  This would be a test to determine whether I was ready to challenge an ultra-distance mountain-bagging record in this rugged region of the Hudson Valley.  If things went well, I’d be back in a few weeks for a multi-day adventure, this time to officially break the record and set a new one.

What’s interesting about the Catskills is that many of the peaks have no trails.  To reach a pathless summit, the runner “bushwhacks” through the woods.  This entails following the lay of the land, staying oriented with map, compass, and GPS, and surmounting the obstacles tossed up by the constant flux of nature.

I was eager not only to challenge records, but also to experience the wilderness.  I had been reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the well-regarded 2nd century Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher.  Live in harmony with universal nature, he had argued almost two thousand years ago, and you can achieve serenity and tranquility, no matter what obstacles you encounter.  And what better strategy for achieving harmony with nature, than to run through mountains and plunge into trackless forest?

Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD)
Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD)

By 7:15 AM I was hiking a steep trail along the narrow ridge that leads to the summit of Peekamoose Mountain.  An hour and half later, I stepped off the trail and into a forest of red spruce and Balsam fir, the ground covered in needles and dead branches.

The first summit was relatively quick.  I flicked the button on my watch to mark the time and checked the topo map on my phone.  Then it was down through a series of rock ledges and past a spring that trickled into the saddle between two peaks.  Now the spruce and fir crowded more closely together, branches interweaved.  I squeezed between a pair of trees, and my hat was knocked to the ground; I stooped to retrieve it.  A large log blocked my way; I stepped onto it but the wood was rotten, and my foot sank through.  As I flailed about, a dead branch scratched my arm, leaving a welt.  I paused to catch my breath.

It is in the power of the soul to maintain serenity and tranquility.  Pain is not an evil.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The second pathless summit was soon reached.  And then it was downhill again through more spruce-fir thicket.  A branch scratched my cheek.  Another speared my shirt and scraped my shoulder.  Emerging from the trees, I encountered a series of cliffs which blocked my way, forcing me to move laterally along the base in search of a cleft in the rocks.  A steep scramble led me upwards.  Legs hurting, huffing and puffing, I looked down and saw with annoyance that my shoelaces had come untied.  I sat down to retie them and catch my breath again.

Take away the complaint, “I am harmed,” and the harm is taken away.

—  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The next summit came more slowly, and now I was clambering over a tangle of fallen trees covered in broken limbs which threatened dagger-like to impale, then scooting over a mossy rock, grasping at roots, next squeezing between another pair of trees and ducking under dead branches.  Dry needles cascaded down my back and filled my shoes.  Another scratch on the arm, and my hat got knocked off again.  My enthusiasm flagged.  I still had a very long ways to go, yet my pace was already slowing.

Glancing around at the dry and jagged branches, the tumbles of rock, the endless litter of needles and cones, I became frustrated with nature.  I didn’t want to be here anymore.

If you feel pain from an external object, it is not this object that disturbs you, but your own judgement about it. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The problem wasn’t the scratched arms, the bruised shin, or the needles that had worked their way into my socks.  Even without looking at the watch, it was clear I was moving too slowly to challenge the record.  Nor would I be ready to do so in just a few weeks.  It was going to take months of training.  Maybe years.  It might well be beyond my capability.

I decided to cut this run short.  Instead of staying out all night, I’d go home, and spend the rest of the weekend with my family.  Once that decision was made, I felt better.  I noticed a Red Trillium growing on the forest floor.

Red Trillium.  Credit: Auntie Dogma's Garden Spot
Red Trillium

In due course I emerged from the woods, turned back onto the trails, and arrived eventually at the summit of Mt. Wittenberg.  The Ashokan Reservoir and the Hudson River glimmered in the distance.  I ate dinner on Panther Mountain, as the late afternoon sunlight illuminated the mottled browns and greens of a secluded forest valley just awakening from winter.  The woods echoed with the calls of owls and frogs.

The setting sun was visible momentarily between the mountain walls and a bank of clouds; there was a flash of yellow light, and I recalled the story from the Illiad of how the god Hephaestus had forged a magic shield for the warrior Achilles from silver, bronze, and gold; for a moment I thought I might be looking straight into his furnace high on Mt. Olympus.

I followed the roads back to the car; the light from my headlamp reflected in the eyes of deer browsing in the dark.

It occurred to me that I had the power to wipe out a judgment, but to do so required that I reassess the situation and recast my goals.

After 18 hours, 39 miles, and ten summits, I made it back to the car and departed for home.

In brief, everything which belongs to the body is like a stream, and what belongs to the soul is no more than vapor and dreams.  Life is warfare and pilgrimage, and after fame comes oblivion.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

View from summit of Wittenberg
View from summit of Wittenberg
View from Panther Mountain, looking across Woodland Valley

The quotes come from translations by George Long and Gregory Hays.  I have rewritten them to sound more modern.

The Trillium image is from Auntie Dogma’s Garden Spot

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Bushwhacking in the Catskills with Marcus Aurelius

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