Low hills flank the Thru-way, and through the car window you see mostly trees. On the drive up this morning, the sky is clear, and the sun’s rays are pouring down with such intensity that every detail of the passing trees stands out: stout trunks spattered with lichen and tangled with vines, leafless branches reaching, twisting, interweaving. The clarity is astonishing: it’s like a geometric pattern, brightly-lit but bewildering.
However, there’s a spot just north of New Paltz where the road dips and the hills pull back, and for a moment a vista of the Catskill Mountains is revealed. This morning they appear huge and rounded, a soft mottled mix of brown and tan, flanks dappled with blue cloud shadows. The detail has seemingly melted away with distance, and the mountain plateau looks like some kind of lost world – but the vision is divulged for only an instant before the road rises back into the hills again.
Of course, closer to the mountains more details emerge; the ridge tops resolve into jagged lines of spruce and fir tinged white. I arrive at the Devil’s Tombstone Campground full of enthusiasm, imagining all the peaks I could climb today, but on opening the car door, feeling the cool air, and staring down at the ice sheet that covers the parking lot, some reality seeps back in. Also, with a few aches and pains to be mindful of, maybe it’d be smarter to take it easy.
In the late spring of 2000, Lucy and Susan Letcher summitted Maine’s Mt. Ktaadin and then began a southward trek along the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Adopting the trail names “Isis” and “jackrabbit,” they hiked through the summer, fall, and winter, reaching Georgia’s Mt. Springer the next spring, and then turned around and hiked back to Ktaadin, completing what’s called a “yo-yo” (a double-traverse of the AT). Their story is chronicled in a two-volume book set entitled “Southbound” and “Walking Home,” which I recently read and enjoyed immensely.
What was somewhat different about their experience, and the reason of course they’re called “the barefoot sisters,” is that they completed most of the hike without shoes, and this gives their story an extra dimension from other AT narratives. Barefoot hiking is a relatively unusual activity, although it’s not completely unheard of: noticing their lack of footwear a Baxter State Park ranger commented, “There are a few that do that. I don’t know how. Well, if it works for you, more power to you.”
John Burroughs once wrote that to be an observer is to “find what you are not looking for.” With this thought in mind, I set off for a trail run in Minnewaska State Park Preserve a couple of weekends ago, with no particular goal but to cover some ground and open my eyes. Perhaps I’d observe something that I wouldn’t have even thought of looking for.
The other day the idea occurred to me to total up the numbers in my training log. The calculation showed that I’d recently completed my 1,000th mile barefoot. I reflected on the odyssey that had led to this unexpected milestone, and an account seemed in order.