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

Saturday started early, with the morning spent volunteering at a local half marathon; then I ran a quick workout at the local track.  We departed for the weekend’s first objective, Panther Mountain, just after noon.  From the highway, the autumn foliage was unimpressive, but as we rose higher into the mountains and the sun beamed down from a clear sky, the colors suddenly became overwhelming, as if we had fallen into a kaleidoscope with crystal shards spinning into different patterns of red, orange, and yellow light.

Mid-October is peak foliage in upstate New York, and on this holiday weekend we were not alone in answering the call of the mountains.  The parking lot at the base of Panther was overflowing, and cars had spilled out along both sides of the narrow road.

By Catskills standards, the trail to Panther Mountain is tame, rising 1,500 feet over 3.3 miles, for a modest 9% grade, and there are plenty of flat stones laid out as steps across muddy sections and crafted into stairs on the steeper slopes.  I stepped confidently from stone to stone, explaining to the many hikers we encountered that barefoot hiking strengthens the feet, engages the core muscles, and restores some balance after long hours spent sitting in chairs, while Odie scampered ahead, exuberant.

I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

From clifftop ledges along the trail, there were views across a wooded valley speckled with orange and red, and farther in the distance, jagged mountain walls stood out in blue against the horizon.

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View from Giant’s Ledge on the way to Panther’s summit

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Today’s trip was a part of a quest of mine to climb all thirty-five of the Catskills’ highest peaks without shoes.  Having reached the summit of Panther Mountain (number nine on my list), I put on sandals so I could run back down.  Now it was late afternoon, and the mountain’s shadow began to reach across the valley floor, while the sunlight streaming in at a low angle from behind us lit up the far slopes in brilliant yellow.

First objective complete, it was time for dinner, which would be the first food and water for me since the meal with Nathaniel the night before.  Odie had skipped breakfast, too:  once he figured out that we were heading off on an adventure, he was too excited to eat.  Now he got a bowl of dry food and a piece of my hamburger.

If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal—that is your success.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The original plan had been to spend the night at a pet-friendly motel, but on this popular weekend there were no vacancies.  In the spirit of simple-living and self-sufficiency, a better idea came to mind:  we’d shelter in one of the lean-to’s situated along the trails.  My wife had approved of this plan, so long as I carried a sleeping bag for Odie, too.  She reminded me that he had never before spent the night outdoors.

We arrived at the trailhead well after dark.  The car thermometer read 37 F.  The lean-to lay 1.5 miles and 500 feet up along a rocky trail covered in dry leaves.  I moved out slowly, feet not only tired from the hike up Panther, but also now I was carrying a backpack with two sleeping bags.  The pack didn’t weigh much, but it threw off my balance, and each step required intense concentration.  The trail turned muddy, and it began to weave back and forth across a stream.  I eyed the ankle-deep water with trepidation, then stepped across, lips pursed, breath shooting out in jets of steam in the my headlamp’s glare, while Odie ranged ahead, flitting in and out of the cone of light.

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Moving slowly, the change in elevation was imperceptible, it was just a question of putting one step after another.  In due course we arrived at the lean-to, only to find it occupied, hardly surprising given the weekend traffic.  We scouted around in the woods, found a flat spot without too many rocks, and gathered some wood, being careful not to lose our bearings in the dark.  Our small fire flared brightly and then burned out.  I lay down, shivered, and zipped my sleeping bag tight.  Odie settled in on his sleeping bag, and I pulled a flap on top of him. I woke up later that evening as Odie rummaged in the campfire for a stick to chew.

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Towards dawn, the winds began to gust high in the trees.  The sky lightened, revealing a thick hemlock towering above us, branches swaying.  We were gone before the lean-to occupants even stirred.  Our next objective, the summit of Blackhead Mountain, lay about 1.5 miles ahead and up another 1,200 feet in elevation.

The very simplicity and nakedness of man’s life in the primitive ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature. When he was refreshed with food and sleep, he contemplated his journey again. He dwelt, as it were, in a tent in this world, and was either threading the valleys, or crossing the plains, or climbing the mountain-tops.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

At first, the trail rose steadily at a moderate grade.  We glimpsed fog covering the Hudson River and the sun rising above.  Then we passed a triangular slab of sandstone jutting from the ground, and the path began to get steep.  There was a scramble on the way to the summit, and I was a little worried about how Odie would navigate this obstacle.  At one point, I had to pick him up and lift him to the next ledge.  Otherwise, he was fine, while I was soon huffing from the strain and suddenly feeling extremely hungry (we hadn’t brought any food).  I took a few deep breaths, and by the time we got to the top, the hunger pangs had passed.

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Sun rising over the Hudson River Valley
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Where the scramble gets steep, on the way to Blackhead’s summit

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Blackhead’s summit is covered in boreal fir thicket; there’s a large boulder and a three-way intersection.  We took the trail leading west toward our next objective, Black Dome Mountain, and for the next quarter of a mile, the path was flat dirt covered in fir needles, and life was suddenly easy.  I looked around.  The rocks and logs were covered in sheets of moss, which from afar looked all the same, but upon closer inspection, there were many varieties of moss with strikingly different forms.

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Common haircap moss (Polytrichum commune)
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Windswept broom moss

Then it was down the backside of Blackhead, and here the trail plummeted across a series of exposed rock slabs, in some places strewn with stone fragments, in other places dripping with moisture.  Slipping and stumbling in bare feet is not a good idea, and mindful of the backpack’s extra weight tilting around on my back, I stepped slowly and tentatively, my pace slowing nearly to a halt.  At this rate, it would take forever, I thought to myself, becoming anxious.  Odie looked back, an expression of concern on his face.  Eventually, the trail neared the saddle between Blackhead and Black Dome, the grade leveled out, and the walking became easy again.  It was a good lesson that even the worst sections of trails don’t last forever; just keep going, be patient, and sooner or later things will improve.

From exertion come wisdom and purity

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I dropped the backpack and hid it behind some beech saplings, as we would cross this way again on the downhill trip to the parking lot.  Feeling less encumbered, I started up the trail to Black Dome mountain, lending Odie a hand up one steep ledge, but otherwise finding this a quicker and easier path.  From a vantage point on the shoulder of the mountain, we could see Blackhead to the northesteast, a small lake to the southeast, and in the distance once again those jagged mountain walls silhouetted against the horizon.  The sun beamed down on us, and it began to feel warm.  Once on the summit, however, the trail tunneled back into the thicket, and suddenly the north wind whipped around the side of the mountain and chilled us.

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View from Black Dome
View of Sugarloaf Mountain from Black Dome
From Black Dome, looking south, view of the Devil’s Path:  Left to right, Indian Head, Twin, Sugarloaf, and Plateau mountains
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Eastern shoulder of Blackhead, from vantage point on Black Dome

And then it was time for the final barefoot descent into the saddle between Black Dome and Thomas Cole Mountain, and then the final ascent, a short easy climb to a summit without views.  For a change, the path was packed dirt with plenty of soft needles and not too many rocks — what a pleasure after struggling over rocks, through mud, and up and down scrambles.  We reached the summit of Thomas Cole, and I realized it was a particularly appropriate time of year to do so.  The 19th century artist and founder of the Hudson River School of Art, whose name the mountain bears, had first fallen in love with the Catskills when he discovered the brilliant fall foliage, something he had not experienced in his native England.

And now it was time to head back.  I noticed red stems littering the path.  Looking up, I discovered a slender tree with compound leaves that had turned yellow.  Later I identified this as American mountain ash.

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Stem of American mountain ash (Sorbus americana)

Further down the mountain, the path was covered with maple leaves in shades of brown, orange, and red.  Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I spotted a flash of florescent green and purple:  it was the goofy hobblebush, trying to attract my attention with big, paddle-shaped, weirdly-colored leaves.

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Maple leaf
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Hobblebush leaves

We were back at the car; the adventure was over.  I briefly contemplated a fourth mountain, but even with sandals, my step had lost some of its spring on the long rocky descent, and my feet were sore.  For now, this was enough simple living and self-sufficiency.  Now it was time to refocus on the real world and all its complexities.

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Pulling out of the trailhead, which was now overflowing with vehicles, I was stunned once again by the fire-colored foliage lining the valley.  The kaleidoscope rotated one more time and then we were ejected out of the landscape of glowing colors and back onto the black pavement of the Thruway, where we sped south, jockeying for position with many other motorists, all of us racing back to the daily crush.

Perhaps enough short trips like this will accumulate into something that approximates Thoreau’s experience at Walden. Then, maybe, it will be time to move on.  But for now count on me and Odie returning to the Catskills for another adventure, as soon as we can.  And maybe one day we’ll talk Nathaniel into joining us…

We can never have enough of nature.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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Walden, in a Weekend

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