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 last time I’d been up this way was late May, when the Mountain Laurel was exploding in bursts of white and pink. Now it was early December: the sun was low in the sky, the air was cold, the leaves were mostly gone, and the forest floor was scattered with snow. The kind of day where conditions are not dangerous so long as you are mindful, but nor are they hospitable. A reminder that Nature may smile upon humanity in the valleys, but rebuff our presence in the mountains:
Why came ye here before your time. This ground is not prepared for you. Is it not enough that I smile in the valleys? I have never made this soil for thy feet, this air for thy breathing, these rocks for thy neighbors. I cannot pity nor fondle thee here, but forever relentlessly drive thee hence to where I am kind. Why seek me where I have not called thee, and then complain because you find me but a stepmother? Shouldst thou freeze or starve, or shudder thy life away, here is no shrine, nor altar, nor any access to my ear.
— Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods
My route took me up 1200 feet, onto the top of the ridge, and around the back of Lake Awosting, and then I followed the newly-renovated Smiley carriage-road to a construction site on the Fly Brook, where a bridge is being built over the stream. The water churned over a series of dark rocks, but where it passed over a slab of lighter conglomerate and pooled in the morning sun, it took on a glowing amber tint. In one translucent spot, it was like peering into liquid gold. The color was so warm, I stared and stared as if I could drink it in through my eyes.
Turning back from Fly Brook, I retraced my steps to Lake Awosting and paused to admire the view across the water. A sheet of ice had formed along the shore, but the water was so still that the frozen edge was almost imperceptible. The world seemed to have crystalized into bands of light, interrupted only by the far shoreline and its shadowy crest of hemlock and pine. A few feet in front of me, blocks of conglomerate glistened from within the frozen water, and the surface was dusted with granules of snow.
Now the path turned upwards, and the snow got thicker. I crunched along at a slow pace until I reached Castle Point, a rock ledge near the top of the ridge. In the distance, a squall was blowing in from the Catskills and drifting slowly in this direction, and I could see long tendrils of mist brushing the hills and farms. In the other direction, the white rock cliffs of Sam’s Point seemed to mirror the snow-crusted ledge I was standing upon, and the plains of the Hudson Valley spread out until they merged into the luminescent haze along the horizon.
Descending from Castle Point, I turned on to Hamilton Point carriage-road and ran almost as far as Gertrude’s Nose, but it was getting late and would soon be dark, and there was that squall drawing ever closer. On the way back, snowflakes sparkled and danced in the air as they caught late afternoon sun-rays slanting underneath the clouds. Moving through a dense hemlock grove I glanced to the right and found myself staring into the face of a forest creature with rock jaws and rows of icicle fangs. How different from the summer, when water meanders through the rocks, seeps through fissures, pools in clefts, beads up on cool rock faces, and moistens the moss, lichen, and fern — now the fluid was frozen in the act of flowing, and its relentless vertical nature was revealed.
I passed Lake Awosting one last time, and in the late afternoon light the growing ice sheet gleamed a dusty green.
To learn something new, take the path you took yesterday
— John Burroughs