The day was overcast when Odie and I set out for High Point, not the best conditions for appreciating the 100+ mile views, but you never know when the winds might shift, or what you might see if you opened your eyes.
I’d spent all week at my work desk, focused and diligent, but deep in my heart the Catskills were calling, and every so often I’d pull out the map. The weather for Saturday looked good, and my weekend plans steadily became more ambitious: first to bushwhack up the Neversink River to its headwaters below Cornell Mountain, next to visit Wittenberg and taken in the splendid views from its summit ledge, then to return along a pathless ridge covered in some of the Catskills’ most ferocious fir thickets, and somewhere at some point to pitch a tent. And on Sunday there’d be time to do more.
But upon arrival late Saturday morning at the remote Denning trailhead, and despite a big breakfast and double espresso, my enthusiasm had cooled. A visit to the doctor’s had yielded a surprise: the sore ankle that had plagued me on and off for the last year was not a strained tendon after all, but rather a minor stress factor. This was good news, because the prognosis was better, and hiking (although not running) was still allowed….but, at the same time, the stress fracture was only one of a number of recent injuries. Perhaps there was a message here, that 54-year old runners should be a little more mindful of bodily wear.
In any case, it was time to get going, and so I marched out purposefully, feeling a bit like a knight in armor that maybe once was shining but now was somewhat dented and rusty, and instead of carrying a shield, I was wearing three shirts to ward off the morning chill and shoes with inserts to support the ankle….
In The Practice of The Wild, Beat poet, Zen student, and environmentalist Gary Snyder writes of stepping off the beaten path. This metaphor brings to mind the 19th century Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who advocated for “absolute freedom and wildness,” and who strongly preferred sauntering through the woods to walking the public road. These authors have attracted a large following among nature-lovers, environmentalists, and even anarchists, many of whom crave independence from the constraints of modern society, and some of whom advocate for “rewilding” or a return to ancestral lifestyles. But a close reading of Snyder and Thoreau finds little support for “human wildness,” i.e., a state of being free of social constraint. Rather, they portray wildness as a fleeting experience and use the word more as a metaphor for creativity and originality. Once we understand this point, we find that the key to absolute freedom is not to be found in nature, but rather in the spirit of self-reliance and self-discipline – or put differently, the wild must indeed be “practiced.”
The mission was to complete the remaining twelve peaks needed to scratch the month of May off the Grid, and accordingly I arranged to take a week off of work. But the Rock The Ridge 50-miler left me with a sore ankle, which required a reduction in speed and mileage. In Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Walking,” he used the word “saunter” to describe the act of sallying forth into the woods, which was for him the adventure and escape of his day, and he likened this daily saunter to the motion of a stream flowing downhill to the ocean:
The saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.
— Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”
To complete the Grid for May, I’d need to saunter instead of run — and rather than pushing myself, I’d need to “flow” through the mountains, just like a stream, except I’d be going uphill as well as down…
Thoreau wrote about the brilliant colors of New England’s fall foliage, but I wondered, what about winter? And I found such a wild mix of impressions during my winter runs: sun dazzling against fresh rime ice, clouds rolling in and smothering the world in dim light — one hike was a slog through sand-like snow that spilled out from underfoot and dribbled down the rocks, another a desperate scramble over sheets of ice, and then a storm rolled in with pelting sleet and lightning. Even at night there was a huge variety of sights: solitary farm lights sprinkled across the darkened plains, snowflakes sparkling in the headlamp’s beam, moonlight shining on snow-packed trails so bright you could run without lights, or the crescent moon rising above a distant mountain ridge and glowing in such a strange mix of orange and purple it seemed like a hue that’d never been seen before.
But now it was spring — and everything was changing so quickly, it seemed if you blinked you might miss it all.
So I kept my eyes open as best I could, and here’s a collection of spring impressions, things I noticed while hiking the Long Path along the Hudson River and in the Catskills.