Crescent Moon Over Bearpen Mountain

To climb one of the Catskills’ highest peaks, barefoot, in 30 F weather, and at night – was this really a good idea?

I studied the map.  Between commitments on Saturday and Sunday, there was a narrow window of opportunity.  It would mean a lot of driving and little sleep, but with winter approaching, this might be one of the last chances this year to scratch another peak or two off the list.

And what could be more important than that?  Over the years, I’d fallen in love with the Catskills’ rugged mountains and quiet forests.  Barefoot hiking was a strategy to slow down, sharpen form, and improve balance and strength.  To climb all 35 of the Catskills’ highest peaks barefoot – this had started as an idea, become a goal, and was now a priority.

During the long dark drive north, the moon lay low on the horizon, as if weighed down by the glowing crescent on its lower side.  A small town, dark and derelict, passed by in the mirror, and then I was pulling over at the trailhead, the car’s clock reading 10:00 PM and the thermometer, 30 F.  Behind me, the moon hovered atop a distant ridgeline, as if it had descended from space and come to rest.

Photo credit: Tom Bushey (photo taken on the same night)

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Crescent Moon Over Bearpen Mountain

Before Badwater:  William Lewis Manly’s 1849 Crossing of Death Valley

In 1978, Al Arnold became the first person to run the 146 miles from the Badwater Basin in Death Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney in the High Sierra.  Since then thousands of runners have completed a “crossing” in one form or another.

Contemporary runners face epic challenges in Death Valley:  brutal temperatures, fierce winds, and endless mountains  – valid reasons for the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon to tout itself as the “toughest footrace in the world.”

Runners take on these challenges to show the world that we still have the physical endurance and strength of spirit of our ancestors.  That we haven’t lost their determination and grit.  That in a world of wondrous technology, we haven’t gone soft.

In reflecting on his experience in Death Valley, Al Arnold once said, “If reincarnation is true, then I must have lived before as some kind of scout with an army or with pioneer settlers.  I really feel that you could drop me almost anywhere in the world and, barring human adversity, I’d survive.”

Interestingly, it was a scout who undertook the first documented crossing of Death Valley and the High Sierra.  The year was 1849, and the scout was named William Lewis Manly.  He was leading a group of pioneer settlers, or “emigrants” as they were then called, on an ill-fated shortcut from Salt Lake City to the California goldmines.

Arnold might well be Manly’s reincarnation, as they share the qualities of endurance and commitment.  Yet their experiences were quite different.  Arnold’s crossing was an achievement of training, discipline, and audacity.  Manly’s crossing was a venture gone wrong, a lesson in hunger, thirst, and fear, and a quest for survival.


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Before Badwater:  William Lewis Manly’s 1849 Crossing of Death Valley

The Long One

(This is a story from the Yurok Indians of Northern California.  It caught my attention because of its eerie, sad tone.  Please leave a comment if it impacts you, too)

It was at Espeu that he lived who owned the Long One.

He hunted constantly on the cliffs north of Espeu.  There he found it when it was little.  When he saw it, he thought, “It’s pretty.  I shall try to keep it.”  He wanted to see how large it would be when grown.   He brought it to the house and made a box for it and kept it.  At first he did not know what it was.

He was always hunting.  When he killed deer or elk, he fed a small piece of the meat to his pet.  When he came again, he always saw that it had grown.

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The Long One

Walden, in a Weekend

Friday evening, my nephew Nathaniel stopped by to visit during college break.  Over dinner he mentioned a course he was taking on Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century transcendentalist who had spent two years living in a cabin by the side of Walden Pond.  I had read Walden recently and appreciated Thoreau’s experiment in self-sufficiency and simple living, as well as his clever style.  I asked Nathaniel, did he think Thoreau was a nature lover or a social recluse?  Then I wondered aloud why Thoreau had left Walden after only two years.

Once dinner was over, and Nathaniel had left, I summoned Odie the Labradoodle, and we piled into the car for a weekend adventure that might, it occurred to me, share some of Thoreau’s values.  For us, self-sufficiency and simplicity would mean hiking barefoot, skipping meals, and sleeping in a lean-to.  However, instead of two years, our trip would last two days.  It would be like Walden, just in miniature.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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Walden, in a Weekend

Cold Feet

(Please vote in the poll at the end of the post!)

With inclement weather in the forecast, another barefoot hike in the mountains might’ve seemed a questionable proposition.  But I had become determined to conquer all 35 of the Catskills’ highest peaks — and with six down so far, I had set my sights this weekend on completing four more — and then growing ambitious and impatient, imagined climbing six or even eight.  But upon reaching the trailhead on a very grey afternoon, the car’s thermometer read 45 F, and it was raining.  For a system still acclimatized to summer, this would be a shock.

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Cold Feet