(Note: a revised version of this post has been published in the blog Stocism Today)
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.
It was already dark when I reached the parking area at the base of Slide Mountain. The first objective was a lean-to about six miles in which would provide shelter for the evening and position me for an early start the next morning. I stepped out tentatively onto the chilly trail, which was initially soft dirt but soon turned rocky and was flooded in places. With the temperature falling, stepping through cold mud and water was unpleasant, but I persisted. An owl hooted nearby, and then the flashlight flickered out. I replaced the batteries. After a very long time, I glanced down at my watch to find that I hadn’t even covered three-quarters of a mile. My sense of ataraxia (tranquility) began to waiver, but I took a deep breath and kept on.
Now the trail rose steeply, and a full moon was visible hanging just above the far mountain wall, while the wind rushed overhead and then all around me. After four or five hours, I arrived at the lean-to, only to find it occupied. But I had a contingency plan, which was to move another mile along the trail and shelter next to a large sandstone boulder which I knew from prior trips, and when I arrived out came the sleeping bag, as well as hat, gloves, extra shirt, and wool socks. I went to sleep listening to the wind and feeling pleased with my progress, both physical and spiritual.
Some time later I woke up. Cold was seeping in from the ground. I shivered, went back to sleep, woke up again, and shifted position. I found that if I concentrated on warming myself, this seemed to keep the shivers at bay, and so I marshaled all my mental focus, tried not to shiver, dozed off, and then woke up shivering again. This pattern repeated itself for the duration of the night. Needless to say, this is why sensible hikers carry insulated sleeping pads, but in doing so they may miss out on the chance for extra spiritual development.
Eventually I opened my eyes to a blood-red sun hovering above the horizon. It was time to get moving, and it was at first very slow going, with my feet tender from the seven-mile hike the night before and the path quite cold, judging from frozen puddles and icicles dripping from nearby rocks.
After a mile on the trail it was time to turn into the woods for the bushwhacking portion of the circuit. The forest floor was covered in dry fir needles and broken branches, and I placed each step thoughtfully. Then the slope turned steeply downhill, and here the ground was covered in moss and dead leaves, which were frozen and thus quite slippery for bare feet. I groped my way slowly, hanging onto tree branches and saplings, trying desperately to maintain a sense of apatheia (equanimity) and avoid falling on my butt.
Once the slope leveled out I was able to make better progress, and my mood improved as I recognized the strange-looking leaf and flower buds of the Hobblebush, a common Catskills bush with pretty white flowers, big floppy leaves that turn fluorescent colors in the fall, and long stems that tangle up unwary hikers. Diogenes of Sinope, one of the earliest Greek Cynics, went around barefoot and advocated living in accordance with nature. While it’s not entirely clear what he meant, getting to know the local flora and fauna is surely part of the deal.
I reached the first three bushwhack summits without issue, although my pace was very slow. Having crossed two peaks the night before, the count was now five of the Catskills nine, or 55% complete, and so far, so good. As a bonus, it was a cloudless, crisp day, with cool air and bright sunshine. Occasional breaks in the forest revealed distant peaks along the ridge. On the next downhill slope, this time the earth was basking in the sun, and stepping on the soft warm soil was a great pleasure. And then it was back into the forest, which was shaded and silent.
And now things started to fall apart. On the way to Friday, the fourth bushwhack peak, I got stuck in a dense thicket of fir and spruce, with young trees growing so close together I couldn’t squeeze through without breaking off sharp branches or catching them in my clothes. Usually these thickets open up after a few yards, you just have to be patient, but sometimes the thicket goes on and on and then you find yourself trapped by dead trees that have toppled in crisscross patterns, blocking movement to the front and sides.
Any pretense to having achieved ataraxia, apatheia, or any other states of spiritual advancement were soon dashed, as I began swearing out loud in frustration each time I got stuck on a branch, had to climb over a fallen tree, or stepped on a hidden rock. Part of the problem was I had promised my wife I’d be home by 6 PM, and now I realized I’d have to cut short the 9, and even then I’d still be late.
Disappointing a spouse is never a good thing, and now anxiety spread across my mind like a cloud of smoke rising from a burning forest. My attitude darkened, as I raged against perceived injustices — that I wasn’t as fast as other runners who fly through this stuff at speeds I can’t sustain on an open trail. And how come I couldn’t avoid the thickets, with all my land navigation experience, having made this trip several times, each time taking careful notes on my GPS — was I just stupid? And why was there never enough time to do what I wanted to do?
Part of me wallowed in a bad attitude, and part of me realized I was being childish, and so I kept moving on through the endless thicket, swearing out loud at each new obstacle.
Eventually I escaped the thicket and encountered a wall of cliffs. I moved slowly along the base, stepping over prickly berry canes, consulted GPS, found I’d strayed off course, discovered a cleft in the cliffs, scrambled up over steep moss-covered rocks, and then had trouble finding the summit canister.
Enough askeisis! I put my sandals on. I had done 6 of the 9 barefoot, the rest would have to wait for another try.
Then I looked down at my feet. I was standing on a mound of bright red moss, something I had never before encountered. I stared in amazement. (My friend, Catskill forestry expert Mike Kudish tells me it is Sphagnum nemoreum and it tends to grow green in the shade and turn red in direct sunlight.)
The way back included one last bushwhack, and it took forever to reach the trail. I tried to make up time, but the path was rocky, my feet hurt even with sandals, and the pack kept jostling me in the back and throwing off my balance. Pausing near the summit of Slide Mountain I drank a handful of water from a spring, and then limped down the last two miles back to the car.
The next day at work, a big project dropped onto my lap without warning, and a last minute conference call messed up my evening plans. Then I learned that a forest fire was threatening a race I help organize, necessitating last-minute contingency planning. A not-for-profit board meeting left me feeling frustrated with fellow directors who didn’t agree with my points of view. Then it was off to the airport for a one-day business trip to South Dakota with my bosses deciding to attend at the last minute.
All of this was aggravating, especially for someone who has a long way to go to achieve even the faintest hint of spiritual maturity — but the truth is, none of it is as bad as getting stuck in a Catskills spruce-fir thicket!