Anyone who’s spent time wandering in the Shawangunks during springtime has witnessed the mountain-laurel in bloom. But now that it was late June, the laurel flowers would have already come and gone, or so I thought as I headed out to cross the ridge…
It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and that meant I was going to spend as much time outdoors as possible. After completing a 20-mile road run, my next training objective was a 13-mile hike up and over the ridge. This would bring me to the small town of Ellenville, where my wife and I had 4:00 PM reservations for Father’s Day dinner at Aroma Thyme Bistro featuring all-you-can-eat barbecue prepared by Chef Marcus Guiliano. My stomach was growling in anticipation, and also because I hadn’t yet eaten anything. The faster I got up and over the hill, the sooner I’d get food. If I was late, however, I’d miss out.
And so I was stomping vigorously up the hill and thinking mostly of beer and barbecue, when I began to notice the mountain-laurel (Kalmia latifolia) blooming along the side of the trail in thick sprays, looking like the foam from waves that have dashed against a rocky shore. In the morning sunlight the blooms were dazzling. Each flower formed a perfect five-sided cup, with purple dots on the petals and long stamens, and behind the flowers were clusters of fresh buds about to open.
After rising a thousand feet, the path leveled off. I stepped across a creek and found myself entering a grove of hemlocks nestled beneath conglomerate rock ledges. Mountain-laurel bushes were bursting into flower on both sides of the trail, but instead of white, now all the flowers were pink.
The trail emerged alongside Lake Awosting and then curled around the northern shore, passing more pink laurel bushes and offering views of the Shawangunk mountains spreading south in a broad plateau. Looking across the lake, I could see a profusion of pink blooms on the far banks. From a vantage point above the lake, Slide Mountain, the tallest mountain in the Catskills, peaked through a break in the trees, while a splash of bright pink lit up the foreground.
I passed around the lake and headed south along the ridge through a mixed forest of pitch pine, red oak, maple, cherry, birch, aspen, and sassafras. It was sunny and hot, and the streams were very low or completely dry. I paused at Fly Brook and filtered a couple of mouthfuls from the trickling water and looking up discovered sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), whose flowers have the same shape as mountain-laurel but are smaller and deeper pink or cerise.
The trail I was following is unmaintained and poorly drained, indeed often wet and sometimes flooded, especially in early spring when the snowmelt flows off the mountain. Today I stepped into a single mud puddle — which forced me to stop, grab some sassafras leaves, and wipe the mud off my sandals to keep my feet from slipping and sliding around. Otherwise, the path was dry. The abundant moss carpets had turned yellow and brown. In one spot a clump of peat moss stood out light green, but it was brittle to the touch.
As I began to head down the backside of the mountain toward Ellenville, the vegetation crowded in from both sides, and now I was pushing through the laurel bushes, soft flowers brushing against chest and face. The trail was washed out and very rocky, and my pace slowed. I was thirsty again. Eventually I reached a spot where spring water cascades out of a long grey pipe and splashes onto the ground. I sat down among moist green moss-covered rocks and drank my fill.
Looking around, I realized that the laurel was back to white again, and it was exploding everywhere along the trail and flowing down the slopes and carpeting the forest floor. About 100 yards below the trail, a laurel bush was shaking back and forth. I watched for a minute or two and then caught a glimpse of a black snout and then two black legs and finally a black haunch, before the rustling move further into the laurel bushes and disappeared.
I neared my destination, conscious that it was almost 4:00 PM, while all around me the woods were filled with white clusters as far as the eye could see.
I exited the trail, marched purposefully through the streets of Ellenville, and arrived at Aroma Thyme at 4:04 PM. Speaking with the authority of someone who had just run 20 miles and hiked 13 on nothing but water, I can state that Chef Marcus did a fantastic job with the barbecue and that his restaurant also stocks an excellent assortment of beers.
To learn something new, take the path you took yesterday.
— John Burroughs