May in the Catskills

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…

May’s first hike was to be an ascent of Indian Head and Twin Mountain with my friend Dave.  To keep things easy on the ankle, I took off shoes and strode off barefoot along the trail, which would guarantee an easy pace.  At first we walked together, but Dave’s a tall guy with long legs, and soon he left me behind, until after a little bit he stopped to stretch, and then I caught back up.  And so it went for the next couple of miles, our twosome expanding and contracting like an accordion, and there was plenty of time (when we were together) to talk of family and politics, solve some of the world’s pressing problems, and admire the forest’s tall trees — the kind that had inspired Walt Whitman to ask, “why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me/(I think they hang there winter and summer on those trees and always drop fruit as I pass).”

The trail turned upwards and became steep and rocky.  With the higher elevation, the trees shriveled in stature, and became gnarled and twisted.  The sun beat down on us, and the accordion inched upwards slowly.

Upon arrival at Twin Mountain’s eastern summit, we discovered sweeping views under a glorious spring sky.  As this was Dave’s first time exploring the Catskills, I pointed out the neighboring peaks and other landmarks, including the Shawangunk Mountains, which you can just make out if you stand tip-toe on a rock and look between some fir branches.

Southern Catskills from Twin Mountain.  From the left:  Van Wycke, Peekamoose, Table, Balsam Cap, Friday, Cornell, Wittenberg, Slide

On the way down, Dave drifted ahead lost in contemplation, while I picked my way through the rocks.  I made a wrong turn, was apprised of the error by a friendly hiker, and then we walked back the last mile together.  The hike completed, we said goodbye, and Dave headed south for home, while I pointed my car toward the Catskills’ northern reaches.  Thanks to the slow pace, the sore ankle had complained only once or twice and seemed OK for a little more.

A snowmobile trail leads up to a saddle between Vly and Bearpen, and it’s full of gravel, which isn’t much fun in bare feet, especially after two mountains earlier in the day.  Where possible I slunk along through the leaf litter on the side of the trail, dodging beech branches and berry canes.  It was twilight when I reached the saddle, and fully dark once at the summit of Vly.  Back down in the saddle, I found a level spot off to the side of the trail, pitched a tent, and spent the night listening to rain patter on the fabric.

The next morning dawned gray and wet.  The gravelly snowmobile trail was too much for feet that were still tired from the day before — so shoes went back on.  After sauntering a couple miles through the misty forest, I reached a vantage point near the summit of Bearpen.  Fog hung in distant hollows of the Schoharie Creek, which curves off to the north.  The sky was was a turbulent cloudscape, dark and heavy with moisture but also flickering with the glow of the hidden sun, and a narrow sunbeam slipped through and lit up a grassy slope.


Looking north from vantage near Bearpen Summit

I had contemplated climbing Halcott next, but four peaks in two days was enough for the sore ankle.  It was time for a break.

But not a long break:  late the next morning I was standing at the base of North Dome, and a moment later stepping into the woods and on the way to the summit.  There’s no path on North Dome, but the forest floor was covered in leaves, moss, club moss, and smooth sandstone slabs, all of which is perfectly comfortable to walk on without shoes.

It seemed that each step brought me into a new environment.  Down in the valley, there was a mix of southern hardwoods, including oak, pine, and cottonwood.  Next came a plantation of Norway spruce and red pine, which probably dates back to the 1930s, when state and federal agencies were working to reforest areas that had been stripped nearly bare by timber harvesting.  Then moving higher, it was into the Catskills’ native northern hardwoods, with lots of maple, beech, yellow birch, cherry, and ash.  A moment later I was floating through a grove of hemlocks, and then it was back into the hardwoods which gradually shrank in stature as the elevation increased.  Somewhere past 3,000 feet, clusters of blooming hobblebush appeared waving their small white flower-clusters, and now I was weaving through groves of lichen-crusted fir and spruce.

The climb had felt effortless, as I were a balloon lofted by a breeze, but the descent from North Dome was tortuous.  The eastern slopes of Catskill mountains are often the steepest, and now I was threading my way between sandstone cliffs, tottering through piles of unstable rocks hidden beneath moss, leaves, and branches, and then stepping tentatively through fields of nettle.  But eventually I reached a small pond, and the trail was not far ahead.

Once back on the trail, it was back uphill again, this time to St. Anne’s Peak and then a couple miles beyond to West Kill — and what a relief to be back on a trail after that bushwhack descent, and what a beautiful path with lots of soft dirt and smooth sandstone slabs to step on.  The path rolled along, the miles clicked off on my GPS watch, and trees and mossy boulders and lilies passed by on either side.  It was right about here, I recalled, where fatigue and hunger brought me to halt during an attempt to thru-hike the Catskills’ 35 high peaks last August.  I’d made it two days, covered ninety miles, and climbed 23 of the 35 peaks on very little food, water, or sleep, before running out of steam.  But today everything was easy.

I lost track of the time.  There was a lean-to a few miles distant where I might spend the night, provided it wasn’t occupied, but it didn’t really matter because my tent could be pitched practically anywhere.  Sometime later that afternoon, I reached the Buck Ridge lookout just past West Kill’s summit.  The mountains rolled off toward the horizon in shades of green and blue and eventually became indistinct and merged into the air.

View from Buck Ridge Lookout

Down in the next valley I filtered some water from the Westkill Stream as the light began to grow dim, and then turned uphill for the climb to the lean-to.  Now it was almost dark, although some light returned as I climbed higher, but then it grew dark once and for all.   Still without shoes, I scanned the trail for the flat rocks and patches of dirt that would be safe to step on and there was just enough ambient light to do so — in fact, I was surprised how little light was needed to walk barefoot, it must be an ancient capability deep within us.  I didn’t turn on my headlamp until I lost sight of the blazes.

The lean-to was unoccupied except for a porcupine, who tried at first to hide in a corner, but then departed.  I built a fire, which quickly died, and went to bed.

The next morning found me feeling cold and listless and moving slowly along the unmarked trail to Southwest Hunter.  I perked up a little on the walk to Hunter, enjoying a few patches of black mud.  As I was inspecting the cones and flowers of a Balsam Fir in the clearing that marks Hunter’s summit, a small bird with yellow markings ran across the grass; it might have been a yellow-rumped warbler.

From Hunter, a horse trails drops down the mountain’s northern shoulder.  Too much gravel, so the shoes went back on.  A mile or two bushwhack took me past East Rusk and on to Rusk, and then it was time for another difficult descent.  As I dropped down the merciless, plunging slope, I found my shoes were a little loose; they slipped around on my feet, rubbing sores on the tops of my toes.  Meanwhile, the steep grade was endless. I drifted off course, my toes hurt, my ankle complained, and I began to groan in frustration.  But eventually I reached the bottom, where I reconnected with the horse trail and began the long walk back to the car.  Pausing on a rock to retie my laces, I watched a butterfly dart from flower to flower, so busy gathering its breakfast it ignored me sitting only a few feet away.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Four miles or so along a road would bring me back to the car, and now my ankle was hurting in earnest, but the morning had turned into the most beautiful spring day one could picture, with a few white clouds hanging in a crisp blue sky and a breeze tussling the trees and bushes along the road.  The Norway Spruce seemed especially tall and stately here, and I walked by waiting for ideas to drop like fruit (was the tiny hamlet “Spruceton” up the road named for these trees?).  And there were endless lilac bushes in full bloom.  I broke off a sprig and held it to my nose and tried to sniff out the secret meaning of its fragrance, but nothing came to mind besides potpourri and soap and the Queen of England.

The ankle demanded a full day off, but no more than that, because I’d scheduled a visit to the Blackhead range with my friends Jim and Lisa.  From the shoulder of Black Dome and Blackhead we were treated to more spring panoramas, with cloud shadows darting across the mottled green hills, and small blue lakes and big blue mountains dancing all around us.

View of Colgate Lake, Kaaterskhill High Peak, and the Devil’s Path from shoulder of Black Dome

We’d moved at a leisurely place, sharing experiences and opinions, talking of families, running, and life, and the admiring trout lilies, cherry trees, and the odd umbrella-shaped leaves of the mayapple plant.

Returning to the trailhead, there was still time for Halcott, but once again I decided against it.

And now there was one last day in May, and three mountains left out of the 35.  The forecast was for heavy rain all day, but why not give it a try?

I hiked up Windham without shoes, catching a glimpse of the Blackhead Range through curling mists, but if I was going to get all three done, I’d need to move faster, so the shoes went back on and I rolled on down back to the car a little more quickly.

Water was flowing down the trail to Kaaterskill High Peak, in some places ankle deep.  Reaching a saddle below the summit, I turned into the woods, figuring from the map a bushwhack to the top would be quicker than the round-about trail.  And the bushwhack was relatively straightforward until I reached a line of cliffs guarding the summit, which brought back memories of the desperate climb to this summit in the winter, when the steep rocks were sheathed in ice and snow.  Now I was scrambling up on all fours on wet leaves and moss-covered rocks to the base of the cliffs, then circling around for a gap in the slabs.  I found a route, reached up for a tree, and pulled myself into a crevasse, where I stopped to catch my breath next to a tiny red flower shaped like a bleeding heart.

I took the trail back from the peak, moving steadily in the rain, moisture leaking in through jacket, pants, and shoes, time passing quickly as I considered important issues which I’ve since forgotten, or looked around in the misty, wet forest and listened for bird calls.

It was time, finally, for Halcott, and the long 1,800-foot bushwhack to the peak, and I floated slowly up to the top, much like the experience at North Dome, but this time in shoes and everything wet.  And now it was time for final steep descent on slippery unstable terrain, surely a recipe for utter misery — but with May done, there was no rush, and it was one careful step after another, dropping first a foot, then a hundred feet, and then another hundred, and time passed smoothly.  Back at the base of the mountain, I found a rushing stream that cascaded over the rocks on its way to the Esopus, the Ashokan Reservoir, the Hudson River, and eventually the ocean.


All the world reposes in beauty to him who preserves equipoise in his life, and moves serenely on his path without secret violence; as he who sails down a stream, he has only to steer, keeping his bark in the middle, and carry it round the falls.

— Henry David Thoreau, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers”

Check out Running the Long Path on Amazon


May in the Catskills

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