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….
The plan was to follow a dashed line on the map that tracked the Neversink River to a fork below its source, the dashes indicating that the trail was unofficial and thus unmarked and unmaintained. This was uncharted territory for me, but after walking for a few minutes, the turn-off for the mystery trail wasn’t hard to find. I stared out at an unmarked but clearly recognizable footpath that stretched through a grove of hemlocks and led out along the river bank. The surface was soft dirt with a sprinkling of hemlock needles, and since the doctor had approved barefoot hiking — provided the ankle didn’t hurt too much — I took off my shoes and headed off into the unknown.
At first it was easy walking, which was a pleasant surprise because you never know what to expect from an unmaintained trail: it could be a beautiful path, or so washed out and choked with brush as to be virtually impassable. This trail was very nice, although it faded out in some places, leaving me in the dense leaf litter of the forest floor, only to reappear a moment later off to one side. Also, there were countless streams trickling down the mountain and flowing into the Neversink, and each one crossed the trail and presented some kind of obstacle: flowing water, slippery moss-covered rocks, a patch of slimy mud, scattered gravel — the kinds of things that require a little extra attention without shoes.
Up ahead water had pooled in a small clearing. Young trees had been chewed through about two feet off the ground, presumably the work of beavers, but there was no sign of the animals or their den. The unmarked trail petered out in a muddy welter of Indian hellebores, knee-high plants with whorls of broad green leaves. I slogged through and found the trail again, but now there was another creek to cross. This was slower going than I’d expected.
The Neversink rushed by, the current splashing and singing merrily, in one spot the waters pouring through a narrow channel in a broad sandstone slab. A little later I spotted a pair of stone cairns piled up suggestively in the middle of the river, and perhaps that was a signal to cross to the far side, where soft dirt banks covered in hemlock needles beckoned, and a ring of rocks showed signs of a recent campfire. It looked inviting, but the map insisted the trail was on this side, so I trudged on even as the path narrowed to a muddy catwalk and teetered along the side of a steep earthen bank — and then vanished, forcing me to clamber straight up the bank on all fours until I emerged onto a forested slope. This wasn’t heading in the right direction, so I groped my way back down and crossed the river.
Once on the far side, another unmarked footpath took off along the bank, but a few steps later it, too, disappeared. Enough of this, I decided and measuring a direct azimuth to Cornell, turned away from the river and headed uphill through a beech forest. The ground was covered in loose rocks and fallen trees, with ferns and lilies sprouting in between. The surface was unstable, and the walking, difficult, and then it got worse as the azimuth took me sideways across the slope. It’s usually better to head straight up, because if you fall, you land to the front on your hands; moving sideways requires greater care because a stumble could topple you to the side.
I soldiered on. The sky was clear, but down in the forest the air was damp, and gnats swarmed around my head as I picked my way through the loose rocks, and soon my arms were dotted with itching bites and then stinging red welts from where I’d brushed against broken branches.
Things were getting a little desperate. Even without looking at the watch, this pace was too slow — and my patience and energy were draining away. After a long time I found myself standing above a small gully, perhaps where the Neversink first emerges from the rocks, when suddenly a break in the canopy revealed a sharp line of cliffs covered with fir trees. The sound of wind gusts drifted down. Those cliffs had to be the flank of Cornell Mountain.
To glimpse the mountain was exciting, but the route up those cliffs was too steep. An official trail, blazed and maintained, crossed the ridge not too far above me, and now I turned in that direction. A few minutes later, what a relief it was to escape from the forest and set foot back on a path! I rushed off for Cornell, banging a toe along the way (it would hurt for the next three days) and then without stopping continued on to Wittenberg.
It was now late afternoon. The plains of the Hudson Valley spread out below, but I gave them no more than a desultory glance. I’d been moving for seven hours, and now I couldn’t face the pathless ridge and its ferocious fir thickets — even though I’d crossed them many times before, even at night. But not today. Plan B was a long walk back along the trails, which would take me past Cornell once again, up and over Slide Mountain, and back down to the trailhead. I hoped my ankle would be OK, put back on my shoes with the supportive inserts, and headed out.
Thirty minutes later, while descending the far side of Cornell, I paused on a rock ledge and looked out at Slide Mountain, which I’d hiked countless times and seen from every possible angle. But this time it looked different. In the late afternoon sun, the mountain was glowing green, gold, and blue with such an intensity that I imagined it wasn’t a mountain, but a giant emerald, shining with the luster of the beech, fern, and Indian hellebore that I’d stumbled through all day, while the jade-colored shadows were hemlock and fir. The amber light cast across the slopes wasn’t the late afternoon sun, but in my mind became clouds of yellow birch pollen wafting through the air and millions of diminutive lilies flowering in the forest. And the vibrant blue was rivers and streams and ponds that’d been carved from the same sapphire as the sky.
I took a picture with my phone, but once back at home, I realized this wasn’t what I’d seen. We talk about “seeing things” as if the image in our minds were an objective representation of the natural world, but what we really see is an interaction between outer and inner nature. The colors I saw that day were inspired by a photograph taken by my friend Steve Aaron last summer. For all the times I’d passed this way, I’d never experienced Slide Mountain in this light until Steve’s image came to mind.
Returning along the trails was the right decision. The 900-foot climb up Slide went quickly, and from the summit’s northern vantage point I stared out at a maze of mountain walls and watched for the evening shadows to climb up the slopes.
The trail down from Slide followed a pleasant dirt path along a high ridge, and the sun set behind the horizon as wood thrushes sang their evening songs. Then it was down through a gap beside a block of sandstone that had broken away from the side of the mountain. The ankle began to twinge.
The next couple of miles were on an washed-out logging road that was covered in loose rocks, the kind of trail you’d think you could run down, but the footing is so treacherous, I’d have been struggling even without a stress fracture. By the time I reached the valley floor, the ankle was throbbing. I finally made it back to the car and drove home.
I’d accomplished only a fraction of what I’d hoped to, and at the cost of irritation, frustration, and pain, and this seemed at first a great disappointment. Then I realized, to have explored the headwaters of the Neversink and witnessed Slide glowing in its full spring glory was worth the cost. You won’t be surprised, however, to hear that I took the next day off, and if you don’t see me on in the mountains for a few weeks, you’ll understand why.