With a sore ankle slowing me down and limited windows of time, it wasn’t going to be possible to complete the Grid for June, but if I could get a few more peaks done now, then there’d be less work next year. Meanwhile, with the weather finally warming, it would be a wonderful time to explore the mountains and experience the changing conditions of late spring.
Indeed, the variability of the natural environment is one aspect of its beauty. The east coast nature-writer John Burroughs commented that you cannot have good without evil, health without sickness, or pleasure without pain. Applying this philosophy to spring in the Catskills implies you cannot truly appreciate a cool breeze on a warm afternoon without suffering the humidity, haze, and insects that also come with spring. In any case, whatever the mountains might have in store for me would beat the climate-controlled office environment where I spend most of my time.
My first late spring climb would be Windham High Peak, one of my favorites to hike barefoot because the trail is soft dirt in most places, with relatively less of the washed-out rocky surfaces so common in the Catskills.
On the drive up to the mountains, I admired the continuing display of late spring flowers. In early June the Black Locust trees had burst into bloom, and what an ebullient show they’d put on with sweet-smelling white flower clusters hanging from every branch. Those petals had faded, dropped, and scattered in the wind, and now it was the Northern Catawba’s turn to put on a show with white cup-shaped flowers tinged purple on the inside growing upright from among big floppy heart-shaped leaves.
During the winter, the sun hugs the mountain ridges, tinging the horizon a dusty yellow for much of the day, but now with the solstice approaching, the sun had climbed straight up into the center of the sky, and from here poured its energy down into the damp forest, churning the moisture into a light haze which made the air feel a little sticky as I started out on the trail. Soon a cloud of gnats was bouncing around my head, and then a few mosquitoes joined in where the trail edged around a swampy area. I padded along, appreciating the smooth dirt and soft leaves, and batting away the insects when they got too pesky.
But soon enough conditions changed: a mile later I was passing a lean-to and entering a grove of Norway spruce where the forest floor was spattered with sunlight. A breeze whispered through the tree tops and stirred the air, the humidity dissipated, and the insects dispersed. And then conditions changed once again — a cloud drifted overhead, dragging shadows and damp air in its wake, and stilling the wind.
Once up on the ridge, Blackhead and Black Dome came into view simmering in the spring sunshine as a few mottled clouds bubbled up in the distance. It was a hazy view, and the glare of light shining through humid aid obscured the details.
At the summit I sat down on a sandstone slab and looked around. More white flowers! The Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana) was blooming with dense mounds of tiny white flowers, and the Mountain Maples (Acer spicatum) had sprouted pale flower spikes. I peered into the north, scanning for signs of the Adirondack Mountains which lie some 50 or 60 miles away, but little was visible besides rolling hills and scattered farms. Bees darted among the flowers, and ants and spiders crept among the flakes of stone. The sun beat down on my face and shoulders.
What a beautiful, warm, humid, hazy day — and the soft dirt path up Windham had been such a delight, I felt like I’d floated all the way up to the top. I wanted to do more, but it was time to give the ankle a rest.
A week later, it was Friday night, and after leaving work and getting upstate, now I was driving to the western Catskills to hike up Balsam Lake Mountain and camp in a lean-to near the summit. It had rained during they day, and the forest was wet, the air warm and sultry against my skin, and the trail covered in fog. A breeze shifted, and cold drops cascaded from the leaves. When I reached the firetower that marks the summit, I turned off my light and took a few steps up the stairs, but the sky was black, and there was nothing to see, not even the surrounding trees were visible.
I’d never been down the backside of the mountain, and here I found the trail surprisingly steep, rugged, and narrow, with wet vegetation crowding in from the sides, some of which I recognized, like the ever-present hobblebush and a growing profusion of nettles and jewel weed, and some of which was unfamiliar, including plants with strangely-patterned leaves and a cloying alien scent redolent of overgrown roadside ditches and other places where plant life rules. A few twists and turns later, the trail brought me to the lean-to. I spread out my sleeping bag and drifted off as the wind rushed through the canopy and water drops spattered against the ground. It rained during the night and again the next morning just as I was getting ready to head out for Graham Mountain.
But then the sun came out. I’d worn shoes the night before to cushion the sore ankle, but now they didn’t seem to be helping much, and off they came. At first the trail seemed a little rockier than I’d remembered, and there was a lot of cold mud. But with each step, the trail seemed to get a little softer and the air a little warmer, and soon I was ambling along in a cheerful mood.
Graham’s summit is surrounded by thickets of stunted, twisted trees, mostly cherry and birch, and barely bigger than bushes. I peered over their tops at the summit of Balsam Lake Mountain and spotted the firetower just barely poking over the tops of Balsam Lake’s fir forest, its cabin window glinting in the sun. It was turning into a beautiful sunny day, although the wind was still chilly. I looked up into the sky and stared as small cloud-puffs raced by, twisting and curling as they passed overhead and sometimes dissolving into tendrils and then dissipating completely. Off to the north a line of clouds was gathering along the horizon, and it was from this direction that the small clouds were blowing in, as if they’d been sent forth as scouts in advance of a larger force.
Returning from Graham, I took a lunch break in nearby Margaretville, and then stopped in Roxbury to visit Woodchuck Lodge, a summer residence of John Burroughs. It was just before 4 PM when I arrived at the Barnum Road parking area and trailhead for Thomas Cole and Black Dome Mountains. The afternoon had continued sunny and clear, and I headed out in high spirits enjoying the light and warmth. Soon I was scrambling up a steep trail through a tumble of boulders. Eventually I reached Camel’s Hump and stood upon a sandstone slab that had warmed in the sun and admired the late afternoon sunshine spreading throughout the interior of the Catksill mountain plateau.
The trail turned smooth and grassy, a pleasure after the rocky scramble, and I strolled along listening to the birds and admiring the small white flowers sprouting from berry canes. Butterflies were fluttering through the air, some of them alighting on the flowers. I crept up while they were busy collecting nectar and was able to get close enough to identify them as Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, White Admirals, and Eastern Commas. Along the sides of the trail were exotic-looking lichens, including diminutive pixie cups smaller than needles and tufts of beard lichen draped from trees, as well as a florescent orange fungus.
Reaching Blackhead, I took in the southern view of the Devil’s Path, and now the shadows were lengthening across the mountain gaps, and the forests were beginning to glow in the late afternoon sun.
It was time to turn back for the trailhead. On the return trip, the path dipped into the shadows and then rose again into the light, and then there was another descent into dimness. Through the trees a glow of orange light appeared, and I hurried along trying to reach the vantage point on Camel’s Hump before the sun disappeared behind the horizon. When I got there, the sandstone slab was cast in shade but still warm from the sun, and from behind the Catskills’ western-most ridges orange and gold light flared with such an intensity that it seemed there must be a supernatural flame burning behind the mountains, a foundry perhaps where copper, brass, and gold were being smelted to create works of unimaginable beauty. The fires were so bright that the rolling farmlands to the north were cast in an orange-pink light and rendered into an unfamiliar landscape. And a layer of black clouds was rapidly stretching across the western sky, as if sent to screen the supernatural fires from observation.
Turning to the north, I saw a bank of clouds riding above the orange-pink landscape and bearing straight towards me. A few drops began to patter among the mountain ash and maple. I’d left tent and rain jacket in the car, so the best I could do was put on hat and sweater and move out with a sense of urgency, as the trailhead was less than two miles away.
It didn’t take long for the rain to catch me. At first gentle, the precipitation soon intensified, and the path began to turn slippery just as I reached the steep descent through the tumble of rocks that I’d climbed earlier in the afternoon, and suddenly it was dark. I stopped to turn on my headlamp, and considered pulling shoes out of the pack, but determined I would complete the hike barefoot, just as I’d started. On the steep, slick, dark path, my pace slowed to a crawl. My ankle began to ache, and I fretted about how long it would take to heal, and whether I’d be able to run again like I once did. I breathed steadily and stayed focused on the task at hand, but the work was slow and exacting and seemingly endless. After the steep descent was passed, the trail was so wet it was like walking through a stream, with sharp rocks lurking beneath the mud, and even the big flat rocks were slick and treacherous, too. Part of my mind was firmly in control, but another part was whimpering in distress because the trail would not end. I finally reached the car sometime after 10 PM, tail firmly between legs, and didn’t recover full equanimity until after a late dinner and drink.
It was just like John Burroughs said, you can’t have good without evil, health without sickness, or the beauty of a supernatural sunset without the pain of an endless steep wet rocky muddy slog in the rain and the dark.
Check out Running the Long Path on Amazon