In a New Yorker article last fall, Kathryn Schultz attacked the legacy of Henry David Thoreau, calling Walden’s author “pond scum” and dismissing as unrealistic any political vision built upon his “rugged individualism.” Based on her reaction to Thoreau, she’d likely recoil in horror from Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 BCE), founder of the Cynic school of philosophy in ancient Greece. Known as “The Dog,” Diogenes lived in a tub, begged for food, and went barefoot, haranguing rich and poor alike for their pointless conformity, irrational behavior, and moral bankruptcy. Compared to Diogenes, Thoreau was pampered and tame.
You might be familiar with the image of a white-haired man carrying a lamp in daylight, searching for an honest man. That was Diogenes.
Brilliant philosopher, shameless exhibitionist, ragamuffin — take your pick, but before we concede to people like Schultz and dismiss the man, we have to ask the question, why is Diogenes still remembered some twenty-four hundred years after his death?
I recently came across a book by Professor Luis Navia of New York Institute of Technology, Diogenes the Critic: The War Against the World, which sheds some interesting light on this question.
Last Saturday, I climbed Sherrill Mountain, the final peak in my quest to complete all 35 of the Catskills’ highest mountains barefoot. It was also one of the most difficult, with briars, nettles, and steep slopes cloaked in dense thickets. But discovering new spring flowers made up for some of the strain.
After parking on Spruceton Road, the first challenge was crossing an open field with lumpy grass hummocks interspersed with briars. Then it was into the forest, where the briars gave way to the spring’s first growth of stinging nettles. I was wearing sensible long pants, but as for the feet, there was nothing to do but step thoughtfully.
I steered to the right of a little stream and began to climb straight uphill until eventually the nettles were left behind and I emerged into a grove of hemlocks. The last time I’d climbed Sherrill, I’d learned an important lesson, that it’s much better to turn and head up along top of a ridge, even if it means a little longer distance than following a straight line to the summit. On the prior visit, I’d stuck to the azimuth until I found myself cutting laterally across the face of a steep slope, where the slanted footing was slow and treacherous. I vowed not to make that mistake again.
Now I glanced at the map on my phone and realized that in my haste to head uphill, I had turned too early and was climbing the wrong ridge. To get back on course, I’d have to cut laterally across the face of a steep slope until I rejoined and then crossed that little stream. In my effort to avoid the mistake I made last time, I’d ended up making the same mistake.
After patiently picking my way along the slope, I hopped across the stream and headed up slope, now back on track. This was a difficult climb, as the slope was not only steep, but also carpeted with an extremely dense thicket of young beech and birch saplings, with plenty of hobble-bush thrown in for extra vexation. The only explanation for such thick young growth was that the hillside had burned in recent years, and it did seem that here and there a charred stump or log was visible poking up through leaves.
After a long time, I made it onto the ridge and turned left to head towards the summit. I reached a clearing and saw the summit up ahead after a short rise. But after climbing the rise, I saw higher ground further on. Along the way, I noticed familiar wild flowers, including Purple and Painted Trilliums, as well as unfamiliar species. Looking down, I saw a strange-looking plant with tiny white flowers shaped like pantaloons — but I didn’t have time to stop and examine it. Instead, I kept moving until I reached another clearing on a shoulder of the mountain, but upon checking the map, there was still one last rise in front of me.
I did eventually reach the summit and signed in at the canister. The trip had taken 2.5 miles, which was about double what I’d estimated from a quick glance at the map before heading out. That plus almost 2,000 feet in elevation gain made Sherrill one of the more difficult bushwhacks I’ve completed, with or without shoes.
The return trip took almost as long, even with sandals, but with the mission complete, I took the time to photograph some of the spring flowers. Crossing the open field, with the car finally in sight, I snagged a toe on a briar, necessitating a band-aid. No major harm done, although sensible people will likely continue to prefer shoes when bushwhacking in the Catskills. Upon returning home, I submitted a inquiry to the Catskill 3500 club, asking if they would award a certificate for completing all 35 of the highest peaks barefoot, but have yet to hear a response.
In Whitman: A Study, the Catskills nature-writer, essayist, and philosopher John Burroughs (1837-1921) defended Walt Whitman (1819-1892) against the hostile reactions of contemporary scholars, for whom Whitman’s poetry was too coarse, racy, and controversial. In the book, Burroughs presented Walt Whitman as the “poet of democracy” and described him as a primal man, visionary of the open air, barbarian in the parlor, force of nature, and prophet. But Whitman: A Study isn’t just about Whitman, it’s also an exposition of Burroughs’ philosophy. Inspired by both science and nature, Burroughs saw natural processes at work within society, and he explained how both physical strength and the vitality of culture can fade if we lose our connection with the natural world. This message seems just as relevant for our information age as it was 120 years ago when Whitman: A Study was first published.
Following an unsuccessful attempt on the Catskills 9, I returned two weeks later to bag the three peaks I had missed, namely Slide, Cornell, and Wittenberg. It was six miles barefoot over steep and rocky trails, and then six miles return in Luna sandals, but a relatively uneventful journey without physical or mental drama. It was also a chance to appreciate the mountains, make new discoveries, and enjoy the signs of spring.
Saturday, April 23, 2016, I was running with friends in the Sam’s Point section of Minnewaska State Park, descending from High Point toward the Verkeerderkill Falls, when we spotted a distant plume of smoke. We paused and watched as the smoke billowed up from a small patch of ground and then caught the wind, blowing away to the south, then shifting back towards us. Was the trail blocked? We couldn’t tell, but thought it best to turn back.
Two days later, what had started as a pin-prick was now threatening 2,000 acres, and Rock The Ridge race director Todd Jennings and I were forced to consider an emergency re-route of the course — with only five days until the start. The problem wasn’t that the flames would threaten the runners, but rather that Minnewaska State Park was closed while the staff worked around the clock with 300 firefighters, rangers, and volunteers to contain the blaze. Hosting a race at the same time didn’t seem possible. But with two days to go, we got word that Minnewaska had approved us to proceed with the original course, even if the park was still closed. And then it rained, and the fire went out. Todd and I salute the staff for protecting thousands of acres of beautiful land and managing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. It’s an incredibly important job, and there’s nothing easy about it.
Saturday evening after dinner I drove out to the Catskills to make another attempt on the “Nine,” a 19-mile circuit that crosses nine mountain peaks, with the special distinction that five of the peaks are accessed off trail, that is by bushwhacking through the forest. I’d run the Nine twice before during the day and once at night and also bagged eight of the nine during the winter. But this time I’d be going without shoes, part of a quixotic quest to climb all 35 of the Catskills’ highest peaks barefoot.
Madness perhaps, but not without method. Ancient Greek philosophers advocated the practice of “askeisis,” which means “rigorous training.” Especially favored were practices that entailed endurance, resistance to the elements, or going without food and water. Askeisis is the root of the modern word “asceticism,” and while the Greek concept was not associated with a lifestyle of self-denial, it was thought that rigorous training would lead to both athletic and spiritual development. The ultimate goal was to achieve the states of “ataraxia” (tranquility, serenity, freedom from worry) and “apatheia” (equanimity, composure, freedom from unruly passions).
As a runner, I’m often looking for a chance to add some askeisis into my adventures, recognizing that my spiritual development needs all the help it can get. On this trip I’d carry no food or water, and with the weather forecast calling for a low of 36 F, sleeping outside in the cold sounded like another fun option (John Muir used to go for days in the Sierras during chilly fall weather, without bringing blanket or coat). After further thought, I grabbed a light sleeping bag and tossed it in the pack.
Friday April 15, 2016, I was on the train to Boston to attend a conference on Native American Running presented by Harvard’s Peabody Museum in collaboration with the Boston Athletic Association and other sponsors. This topic has interested me since reading a book by Peter Nabokov which described how Indians ran to communicate, fight, and hunt, as well as interact with spiritual forces. I thought the Indians’ experiences might contain clues to human potential which have been forgotten in today’s technology-obsessed world.
I’m glad I went: the speakers talked about the spiritual and community aspects of running — a welcome contrast to the heavy commercialism of the Boston Marathon Expo. It was a special treat to meet Arnulfo Quimare, the Ruramari runner of Born to Run fame who beat American ultrarunner Scott Jurek in a 50-mile race — and surprising to learn that he doesn’t “train” like American runners, but rather developed his running prowess from dancing and walking. He’s happy when running, he stated through a translator, and even happier when he wins.
Out of all the speakers, one comment caught my attention in particular. Chief Oren Lyons is a member of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame, a distinguished professor of Native American studies at the State University of New York, and a tribal leader in the Onondaga Nation. When asked what advice he gives young Indian athletes, he mentioned a word in the Onondaga dialect, which sounded to me like “jaga.” It meant, he explained,
Try hard — try harder!
— Chief Oren Lyons
After the conference, I returned to my hotel and prepared to participate in my fourth Boston Marathon.