Behind me the sky had colored with the rising sun, while to the front the southern escarpment of the Catskill Mountains was silhouetted in mauve and cerise.
Odie and I were headed north for a minimalist adventure, the objective to climb three mountains, of which one would be a bushwhack. The protocol for me would be climbing barefoot and descending in LUNA sandals; Odie is always barefoot. Emboldened by slow but successful ascents of Peekamoose, Hunter, and Southwest Hunter, I had developed the peculiar ambition to climb all 35 peaks in the Catskills barefoot, and today’s activities would hopefully get me to number 6.
To make this expedition appropriately minimalist, I was carrying a small safety kit, but no food or water.
We pulled into the parking lot, I grabbed my kit, off came the sandals, and then we were heading up the trail to West Kill Mountain. As is often the case in the Catskills, the trail starts by following an old logging road which is heavily eroded, the surface littered with rocks and gravel. Progress was slow, halting, and painful, until we reached an intersection where the trail narrowed into a path and there was less gravel, although the ground was snarled in monstrous roots. Odie bounded ahead, while I stepped upon flat rocks wherever possible. A grouse startled us, it wings thundering, invisible.
The summit of Westkill lay 3.2 miles from the trail head and up 1,780 feet in elevation, and it took us 2 hours and 23 minutes to arrive, for an average pace of 1.34 miles an hour. Across the valley, the sun broke through a heavy layer of clouds and cast a stripe of light across a wooded slope. A corner of the Ashokan Reservoir gleamed dully in the distance.
The next challenge was Rusk Mountain, and again the trail was rocky, and progress was awkward, at least for me, while Odie scampered ahead and then looked back quizzically. At a bend in the trail, I pulled out compass and sighted along a 337 degree magnetic azimuth. We stepped into the woods and crossed a creek, cold water dribbling over moss-covered stones and swirling across patches of mud. The forest was relatively open, and we clambered up an intermittent stream bed, stepping from rock to rock, and then shifted to higher ground where the forest floor was covered in dry leaves, soft and crinkly. In fact, it seemed that we had found some kind of trail, perhaps a thruway for bear and deer.
We made good progress toward the summit of Rusk until the trail petered out at around 3,000 feet in a clearing that was overgrown with raspberry. For all my enthusiasm, I had forgotten to wear long pants, which left me in a delicate situation in regards the arching canes which bristled with thorns. With great care, I extricated myself from the berries only to discover a patch of stinging nettles, but they had lost much of their vigor, and I suffered nothing worse than a few prickles. Now we pushed through thickets of beech saplings, dying hobblebush with bruised-purple leaves, and the dried-out branches of a fir tree, which showered needles down my back. The slope got steeper; looking up there was a wall of rocks, blue and grey, splashed with fluorescent white lichen, the only channel between the slabs choked with brush. Neither Odie nor I was going to get through here.
The worst kind of bushwhack is the one that gets progressively steeper and more tangled as you go, as if it were a trap from which escape becomes increasingly difficult as you get more deeply ensared. Odie was undaunted. I took a deep breath. We turned to the right, moved slowly through a tangle of vegetation, stepping on mats of twigs, sticks, and branches, and eventually found an easier slope. Soon we were within reach of summit and canister.
On the return trip from Rusk, we found the mysterious trail again and tore down the mountain happily, until a twig poked me in the foot, drawing a speck of blood. No real harm done, and the good news is I recorded our tracks, so that we could find this trail again the next time.
Barefoot bushwhacking is not fast. The 3.5 mile round-trip to Rusk had taken almost three hours. Back home I tried to work out the pace uphill and down, but it seems the rugged terrain was too much even for my GPS watch, which recorded the distance as two miles up but only one mile down.
It was now early afternoon. On the drive out, we passed a white church with a small graveyard, seemingly a relic from the early 19th century. The sun was out and now I noticed the maples were beginning to turn orange and red. A kestrel lit upon a nearby branch and then flew off.
We would need to hurry to make the day’s last objective, Plateau Mountain. Three months ago I had climbed this peak during the Manitou’s Revenge ultramarathon, benefitting not only from trail running shoes, but also the companionship of a pacer named Emmanuel. At least Odie was with me now, but I’d need to watch him on the steep rock scrambles, for which Plateau Mountain, which is situated along the Devil’s Path, is notorious.
Once again, the access trail was covered in rocks and gravel, and I placed each foot gingerly, while Odie ranged ahead. After a mile, the trail reached an intersection and then began a one-thousand foot ascent to the peak, which it would reach in less than a mile, for an average grade in excess of 20%. My feet were complaining about the gravel, perhaps a little louder on the third ascent of the day, but soon the challenge shifted, and I was hoisting myself up over rock ledges. Smooth stone surfaces teach you mighty fast that feet don’t have as much traction as vibram. Slipping and sliding around on rocks in bare feet is not a best practice. Each step must be placed with great care, and the muscles of the foot strain to maintain position. The scrambles were becoming difficult for Odie, too. He pulled himself up through one crevice, back legs scrambling. Then, reaching a ledge that exceeded his reach, he permitted me to pick him up (fifty scrawny wiry pounds) and lift him to the next ledge, his legs flailing about until he had purchase.
Finally, the trail leveled out, and for a change, the surface was covered in spruce and fir needles, instead of stones, but there was a welter of roots, sticks, branches, and wooden debris. At this point, I didn’t even notice.
Having reached the summit, I was just putting on my sandals, when we heard a shout. A hiker came into view and introduced himself as Tony Thomas. He was thru-hiking the Long Path. We walked down together, chatting about the the trials and tribulations of the Long Path. Having completed the Appalachian Trail, Tony opined that the Catskills were every bit as bad as Maine. We made our way slowly down, all of us tired, even Odie hesitating at some of the steeper descents.
Mission accomplished. Barefoot hiking is an adventure, I reflected, but the remaining 29 peaks were going to take a little time. Especially the rest of the Devil’s path. And all the other bushwhacks. Not to mention every washed out logging road.
Back at home with the family, I dug into a dinner of grilled fish, not having eaten anything (except for three or four raspberries) or drunk a sip of water all day. Odie hung out by himself outside. He had earned a piece of fish, too, I decided, and he must have agreed, because he was inside even before the fish landed in his bowl.