The Grid entails climbing the Catskills’ thirty-five high peaks in each calendar month, and on the drive home from the Adirondacks I planned to swing by and knock out Kaaterskill High Peak, one of two climbs left for August. But as I pulled into a parking spot on Clum Hill Road, the project seemed suddenly pointless. When runners cover ground with no particular training goals in mind, they call these “junk miles,” and now that term seemed like the right description for this hike, whose only purpose was to scratch a name off a list.
It didn’t help that Kaaterskill is one of my least favorites. There’s a long hike in on a wet, rocky path, then you have to cut through the woods to reach a snowmobile trail that’s in truly atrocious condition, and the summit is guarded by steep rock scrambles. Clum Hill Road offered a slightly shorter route, but I’d never been here before.
I got out of the car, glanced at the overcast sky, and didn’t bother changing into hiking clothes or grabbing my pack, didn’t bring any water, and forgot my compass, but headed out instead wearing a polo shirt received as a birthday present and a clean pair of shorts.
The dirt road headed uphill and curved around to the side. Nailed to a tree was a “private property” sign. I proceeded cautiously until a house came into view and then retreated discretely. A second look at the curve in the road revealed a dark tunnel in the woods and inside it a washed-out roadbed heading uphill. A few steps later, the tunnel opened onto a field of gray goldenrod and bull thistle. There was a broken spotlight mounted high in a tree and up ahead towers and wooden shacks with tall grass growing up all around them and sets of rusty chairs dangling from cables. Behind these structures, a gate opened into another forest tunnel.
This was the snowmobile trail that would take me to just below the summit, and Clum Hill Road had saved me a mile or two, but even so my spirits were low. After a week in the Adirondacks’ soaring high peaks, this Catskill trail seemed undistinguished, even a little dumpy and sad. It didn’t help that the trail quickly deteriorated into a soup of mud and standing water. Or that a folding chair had been left at a junction in the trail, as if it were someone’s job to sit there on winter days and count the snowmobiles whizzing by.
The trail marched on through endless forest. Everything was green and gray. Footprints left by previous hikers weaved around muddy puddles and over fallen trees. I resisted the urge to check the mileage readout on my GPS watch.
My ankle brushed against a stinging nettle, and I grabbed a handful of jewel-weed leaves and rubbed them on the spot to sooth the irritation. The jewel-weed sap on my fingers smelled like an expensive lotion. For some amusement, I plucked a twig from a balsam fir, rubbed the soft needles together, and took a deep whiff of their resinous fragrance. Beech, birch, and hobble-bush leaves had virtually no scent, I discovered, but the red spruce had the same resinous fragrance as the fir plus a sweet, citrus tang, whereas hemlock needles smelled sour.
The sky was cloudy, the air still, and I splashed along in silence, through a scene of greens and grays. A grouse flapped off low through the trees, and then a moment later, a second bird took off, and then a third. Eventually the trail neared the base of the scramble to the summit, and here an oddly shaped birch tree guarded the approach, its trunk dipping down then turning up and resembling the trap on a kitchen sink drain.
Now it was time for the scramble to the top, which includes a couple of steep chutes that I recalled from a previous hike had been coated in ice as late as mid-April. The trail passed across the summit, a small clearing with debris from a plane crash, and then continued across the north side of the mountain toward Hurricane Ledge, a vantage point with southern views. I glanced at my watch, impatient to be back, but kept on to the ledge. Here I found the Hudson River laid out to the east under gray skies, while to the south Peekamoose, Table, Slide, and their neighbors peeked through a gap between Indian Head and Twin Mountains.
Having identified these reference points, I sat down on a rock, took a deep breath, and looked around. There was a greater variety of vegetation on this small ledge than in the surrounding forest: a huge tangle of hay-scented fern, blackberry canes, wildflowers such as meadowsweet and whorled wood aster, a solitary red oak, a young black birch whose twigs contain wintergreen oil and have a marvelous scent, and a shrub with small fruits that I didn’t recognize. A couple of robust-looking balsam firs were growing here, and from the thick, lush, curling dark blue-green needles that covered their branches, they looked like they’d taken full advantage of the southern exposure.
It was time to head back. As I lowered myself down the steep chutes, I heard water dripping from the rocks, but the sound had a strange metallic echo — a moment later I made out the clucking sounds of what must have been a brood of young birds calling for their mother. Now my attention was diverted by the mushrooms that dotted the moist soil in red, orange, yellow, and brown.
Mid-August is still summer, and fall foliage is weeks away, but here were maple leaves that had already turned red and orange. It’s a little sad to think about the summer ending after it seemed just to have begun, but nature doesn’t stand still.
On the way back I gave up trying to sidestep the water and just plowed through, and the miles passed a little more quickly, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of pointlessness, with respect to this hike and indeed the entire Grid project. Suppose I never finished? I thought of the Odyssey, the epic poem chronicling Odysseus’ ten-year journey home after fighting in the Trojan War. Suppose on the return voyage his ship had foundered, and his last vision was not of his wife, son, and kingdom, but the green waters of the Aegean splashing across the deck.
With these thoughts in mind, I plodded through the dark tunnel in the green forest under gray skies, and eventually regained the car and drove off.