In his book “The Practice of the Wild,” Gary Snyder quotes from the writings of 13th century Japanese Zen Master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253). One quotation in particular from Dogen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra caught my attention:
Mountains’ walking is just like human walking. Accordingly, do not doubt mountains’ walking even though it does not look the same as human walking.
What could Dogen have meant, I wondered, by mountains’ “walking”?
There seemed no better way to answer this question than to head out to the Catskill Mountains and with some luck catch them in the act of walking. And so, with a shout for Odie, off we went.
We arrived on the south side of Windham High Peak around 8:30 PM on a Friday evening. Newly-awakened frogs peeped and an owl hooted in the darkness as we set out along the trail. I was excited to have finally escaped to the mountains after a long week at work, but after a few steps on the path my enthusiam suddenly subsided. Despite warm clothes, the spring evening felt chilly. When I stepped through a wet spot in the trail, the water felt frigid. I was tired.
The plan was to climb Windham before bedding down for the night, but now it seemed that getting to a nearby lean-to and turning in early would be a better option. But the lean-to was occupied. Now the question was whether to pitch a tent right here or move a little farther up the trail in search of a nicer spot. The answer was to take it one step at a time and see what would happen.
The trail took us through a grove of Norway spruce and then up onto the ridge that leads toward the summit. I’d been here last on a January night and thought this was the smoothest trail in the Catskills, but now it seemed steep and rocky. What hadn’t changed was the three humps of the Blackhead Range looming in the distance, their black silhouettes just barely discernable in the ambient starlight. Behind us sparkled the lights of the village of Windham.
I kept asking myself the question whether to keep walking or not, and each time the answer was to take another step and then reassess. Eventually we were standing on Windham’s grassy summit. To the north a handful of lights gleamed across sparsely settled farmland, while some thirty miles to the northeast, a more concentrated glow marked the city of Albany.
Now we were walking back downhill. Hanging above the horizon behind us was a gibbous moon, glowing with an intense orange color and a tint of rose, a mix of hues that perhaps had never been seen before. I pitched our tent just above the spruce grove and passed a cold, fitful night, awakening around 6:00 to the songs of robins and a hermit thrush.
Because green mountains walk, they are permanent. Although they walk more swiftly than the wind, someone in the mountains does not notice or understand it.
There was no sign of frost, but despite multiple layers I continued to feel cold. Odie was in great spirits, as he always is when out in the woods, but I stumbled wearily down the trail. Once back at the car I offered Odie a bag of dry food, but he wasn’t interested. We drove to another parking area and then sat there with the heater running full blast, for almost twenty minutes, as I debated whether to abort our plans entirely and head home, or maybe drive off and get some breakfast for myself. But we ventured out.
The two-mile, thousand-foot climb to the saddle between Blackhead and Black Dome went very slowly. I decided to take off my sandals and quickly discovered a long section of washed-out trail that was a tumble of rocks, which somehow I hadn’t noticed on past trips. I wasn’t happy about the rocks, but there seemed nothing to do but keep climbing and hope the path would get easier.
Upon reaching the saddle, we encountered patches of snow and ice, but with the day beginning to warm up, these weren’t a problem, even in bare feet, except in one or two places where the gradient was a little steep. At one point, I had to lift Odie up to the next rock ledge, but soon we were sitting on a vantage point on the shoulder of Black Dome, from which we could study Blackhead’s massive brow-shaped summit.
I sat on the vantage, observing the slopes and peering off into the distance, straining for a glimpse of the Adirondacks, but they were not visible. Dogen’s admonishment to study and fully understand the mountains’ “walking” came to mind, but with it no inspiration or sense of enlightenment. Blackhead stared back at me. Its large rounded bulk created the impression of deliberation and purpose. But I soon grew impatient. The day had warmed up, and I was feeling a little more energetic than before, and therefore it seemed appropriate to take a few more steps. The original plan was to bag all three peaks in the Blackhead range, and while I didn’t feel confident in that objective, we would in any case finish the climb to Black Dome and claim at least one.
If you doubt mountains’ walking, you do not know your own walking; it is not that you do not walk but that you do not know or understand your own walking. Since you do not know your own walking, you should fully know the green mountains’ walking.
The climb to Black Dome’s summit involved more snow and ice, but it wasn’t unbearable. There’s a vantage point near the summit that affords a southern view of Kaaterskill High Peak, Indian Head, Twin, and other mountains which flow like a stationary wave along the horizon.
Because mountains are high and broad, the way of riding the clouds is always reached in the mountains; the inconceivable power of soaring in the wind comes freely from the mountains.
There was plenty of hard-packed snow and ice on the back side of Black Dome, but taking one step at a time, Odie and I made it on to Thomas Cole, another mile away, and then turned back for the saddle. Now we could see the backside of Black Dome through a forest of leafless cherry and birch.
We paused once again at the vantage point on Black Dome and surveyed Blackhead and the ridge that spread east and west from its shoulders. Large green patches stood out on the slopes of the ridges: these were stands of hemlock. In the distance were blue fields where the night before we’d seen scattered lights.
Back in the saddle, we found a couple of people waiting for friends. It had turned into a beautiful day, and with the trees still leafless, sunshine flooded into the saddle from above and all sides, as if this were a focal point where the spring’s light was concentrated. There was no shade or shadows, just dried leaves, barren branches, and sky.
It wasn’t far to the summit of Blackhead, although the trail is steep in places. Taking it one step at a time, up we went, and now we began to encounter lots of other hikers. Towards the summit, the trail leveled off and tunneled through a fir forest, and it was back to walking on ice, but there wasn’t far to go.
On the return trip, we stopped about half-way down to stare across the saddle at the slopes of Black Dome, where just an hour or so ago we’d stopped to look this way. Patches of snow clung to the northern crest of the ridge, but otherwise the mountain basked in the sun. The forest floor shone brown and yellow through the leafless birch, cherry, maple, and beech, except on the summit which was capped in a slate-green thicket of fir and spruce.
Do not view mountains from the scale of human thought. If you do not judge mountains’ flowing by the human understanding of flowing, you will not doubt mountains’ flowing and not-flowing.
Odie and I returned to the car an hour or two later, and it was time to head for home. Whether or not we’d gained much insight into the mountains’ walking, at least we’d covered a few more miles, one slow step at a time. Dogen wrote in his sutra that mountains love the sages and wise men who venture into their midst, but what about the rest of us? Perhaps the mountains look at us and wonder why is it that humans walk. And dogs, too.
There are mountains hidden in treasures . There are mountains hidden in swamps. There are mountains hidden in the sky . There are mountains hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in hiddenness.