It was time for something new. I could hardly count the times I’ve done the 8-mile loop from Balsam Lake Mountain (BLM) to Graham and back, starting and ending at the Dry Brook Ridge parking area. OK, I’ll try: three times this year, once last year, and a long time ago I took my son Philip, then five years old, on approximately this route for an overnight camping trip. I’ve also come at Graham/BLM from Doubletop, which entails a difficult bushwhack across a steep divide; most recently in August 2016 as part of an aborted attempt to thru-hike the 35, and once the year before.
Studying the map, I’ve discovered a different route connecting these three peaks, one that circles around into a valley to the west through which the Hardenburgh Trail runs — an area I’ve never seen before….
Mists are rolling off the Shawangunk Mountains as we turn onto the Thruway. A layer of clouds has spread all the way across the sky except for a corner in the north where some pale light pokes through, but mostly it’s gray. The fall foliage is muted this year, which people attribute to warm temperatures. Besides some desultory red spots the leaves are still green or already brown, and the overall impression as we speed by is flat and dull.
We arrive eventually at the Dry Brook Ridge parking area and begin the hike. It’s overcast, the trees are dripping, the path is covered in wet leaves. I stride forward, quickly at first, stepping on thick leaf litter or on dirt and grass in the center or along the edges of an old forest road. But the road is pretty rocky, and in many places the leaves do little but conceal the pointy chunky surfaces beneath. As a barefoot hiker I’ve learned that speed depends on conditions, and as the trail becomes rockier, my pace slows. A group passes us on the way to BLM.
Soon we’re turning left toward Graham on an unofficial but well-used trail. The forest is green and brown, mostly beech or so it seems. The suns starts to peak through, and now the foliage is flecked with gold. The path is softer here, I move slightly faster. A blue jay calls, but otherwise it’s quiet. After a mile or so, the trail jumps from the side of the ridge onto the crest, and I know we’re almost there.
We arrive at Graham. Last time here I recall a mass of nighttime clouds wheeling overhead; the time before that, small cloud-puffs were racing across the summit whipped along by a northern wind. This morning the air is still. A single cloud hangs above BLM, its white mass tinged purple on the underside, spreading out ever so slightly, as if it were in a languorous mood, with no agenda, direction, or purpose. Time seems to be on pause, or at most creeping along.
As I pull out cellphone map to plot our next steps, a hickory tussock caterpillar squirms by. It’s inching along in a two-step motion, first scrunching together, then reaching forward. Just like the rhythm of barefoot hiking: slower, then quicker, slower, then quicker — and overall a very modest pace.
It’s warming up in the sun, so I take off my shirt and tie it around my waist. We head toward the backside of Graham, moving through stunted trees and berry canes, me pushing branches aside, Odie squeezing underneath, both of us scouting for trails left by previous visitors. The compass heading takes us southeast and toward the sun.
Now we’re dropping into the the gulf that separates Graham from Doubletop. The descent is steep. We edge to the right around a cliff. I lift Odie off a ledge he doesn’t care to jump. Loose rocks covered in leaves and moss, each step treacherous, one hand against the ground for balance, beech forest sparkling green-gold and brown-gold. Suddenly Doubletop looms before us, a hulking shape with a cleft.
Past the cliffs the slope moderates and we’re striding toward the saddle, a groove carved between the two peaks. I think there might be water here, but not today. Odie gets a drink from my 1/2 liter bottle, while I lick my lips.
I scramble up and out of the saddle on all fours. Then the slope levels off, and the next half-mile is an easy walk through waves of beech. I know the final climb to the summit will be very steep, and as we reach the flat open area right below, there’s a disturbance in the dry leaves that cascade down the slope — this looks like the best route up and possibly where others have gone before. Odie zig-zags up the slope, while I’m back on all fours, face just inches from leaves and dirt. Then we’re into a grove of fir trees and a little while later at the summit.
It’s warm and perfectly still, not the slightest breeze. It’s tempting to hang out in the sun-speckled shadows, smell the fir, feel the moss, study the lichen sprouting from rotten wood. And here’s another hickory tussock caterpillar. Yet a glance at my watch shows that time has been creeping along, too, and we have a long ways to go, and into unknown territory, so we don’t dawdle at the top but measure a direct heading to the Hardenburgh Trail lying a thousand feet below and farther away than I’d imagined.
Back down the mountain we go. I try to skirt what looks on the map like a steep draw, but soon we’re caught in thick brush, cherry saplings tangled with wild grape vines, demon vegetation clawing at arms, legs, chest — there’s nothing to do but fight forward, groping along what must be animal trails — when suddenly the ground rolls away from us and pours off into space. Too steep — we retreat back into the fir — work around to the north — more cliffs. We’re being forced backwards and further north, in fact the GPS shows we’ve done a loop and are back in our tracks coming up from the saddle. Compass in hand I force us back to the southwest and finally we’re on a slope we can descend. And then the grade eases further, and we’re walking steadily along, once again toward the sun which has slowly rotated into the southwest.
We’re in a wet area stepping on emerald mossy stones, and I reach out toward a tall brown stalk only to realize it’s the skeleton of a tall cow parsnip plant, which can give you a rash if you touch it, but hopefully not when dead and dried out.
We cross a dry streambed, angle over the far bank, a little later reach a small pool ringed with tawny grass, surprising a blue heron which lumbers off. Odie’s got plenty to drink now, and I allow myself a swig from the bottle.
A little while later we emerge from a hemlock grove and finally set foot onto the Hardenburgh Trail. What a wonderful discovery: the path is soft dirt covered in fallen leaves, for the barefoot hiker the most luxurious surface. I march forward full of the joy that comes only after hours of struggle. The sun hangs above a low ridge and sends late afternoon light-rays slanting into the forest. A narrow brook flows besides the trail.
A few miles later we look up at BLM rising above us, a soft rounded mass glowing dark brown and amber in the twilight. We can see right where the trail will take us.
The trail curls up the mountain’s shoulder, becoming steep and increasingly rocky. Odie darts ahead, while I labor upwards, stepping carefully from rock to rock, out of breath. We pass the sign to a lean-to and look out westward at a band of orange light along the horizon. It’s dark when we reach the top.
The route has turned out to be longer than expected. By the time we’re done, we’ll have covered around 17 miles. We need to move a little faster, so I put on sandals for the last three miles, and we march back along that rocky forest road, past the turn-off to Graham, reach the car an hour or two later.
It was a day poised on the boundary between summer and fall, not really in either season, and if hadn’t been for the sun sliding slowly west, or the hickory tussock caterpillars inching along, time might have ceased completely. When you move only as fast as conditions allow, as it were flowing with the current instead of fighting it — perhaps that’s how it’s supposed to feel.