The fall foliage this year has disappointed, possibly due to warm temperatures persisting into late October, but on the drive up to the Catskills, the maples growing high atop the Shawangunk ridge were glowing in such exotic shades of yellow, orange, and red — and creating such a kaleidoscopic effect that it took a conscious effort to focus on the winding road.
The parking area at the base of the Biscuit Brook trail is crowded, and when I step out of the car, there’s Cal Johnston, long-time Catskill runner and hiker, whom I’ve often encountered doing volunteer work on the trails. Today he’s leading a group hike to Fir Mountain, which is my destination, too.
I sign in at the register and head out along the trail while the group’s getting organized, knowing they’ll catch me pretty quick, as hiking barefoot is almost always slower than everyone else regardless of fitness level. Sure enough about a mile in, the sounds of voices and laughter and the clink of trekking poles close in from behind — I try to move faster but the rocky path defeats my efforts — and here they are, marching in single file, stepping quickly, in high spirits, with Cal at the head.
A little while later, however, I catch sight of them up ahead. They’ve turned off the trail and stepped into the forest and are now toiling uphill on the bushwhack to Fir’s summit, and I’m only a short distance behind. The forest floor is soft dirt covered in a deep layer of fallen leaves, and for me this is more comfortable than the rocky path, and it doesn’t take long to catch up to the rear of the column, but they don’t hear my footsteps. Wouldn’t Cal be surprised to see me again? I take a few bounding steps through the leaves, duck under tangles, pass the hikers one or two at a time, and in short order I’m standing right behind him. Cal turns and sees me, and one eyebrow is slightly raised.
I walk behind him listening to stories of hiking in the Catskills and the Adirondacks and admiring the collection of patches sewn onto his backpack. He mentions he once encountered a group of barefoot hikers from Albany (afterwards I search on the web but can’t find them). After a little while I move off ahead, as I’ve got a long route today with Big Indian also on the itinerary, and the voices gradually fall away.
One of today’s goals is to “navigate naturally,” that is, without map, compass, or GPS (although these are all carried as back-up). Heading uphill is a simple matter: if you keep going up, you will naturally arrive at the summit — it’s practically a law of topography. After walking through the forest for a few minutes, I begin to see signs of past visitors heading towards the summit: tracks in the leaves, scuff marks in the soil, rotting logs crushed by the tread of heavy boots. These marks coalesce into a definite trail, albeit an unofficial and unmarked one, and soon I’m standing at the summit.
What strikes me here is the profusion of American Beech (Fagus grandifolia). Smooth pale gray bark is shining in the sun, and yellow-brown leaves abound. To be sure, there’s a token fir presence, too, with three or four robust specimens and a scattering of saplings, but the beech dominates. The mountain is misnamed!
Now on to Big Indian, and this will be the tricky part, because the next leg is downhill with a left-hand turn onto a narrow spur, and this spur leads to a hidden saddle between the two peaks. The trick is, even in late October, the forests are so thick that the spur is invisible until you’re on it. If you miss the turn, there are steep valleys on either side, which can suck you way off course, and from which escape is difficult. I know this because I missed the turn during my attempt at thru-hiking the Catskills 35, and as a result it took me all night to get from Fir to Big Indian.
It’s just before noon, which means the sun should be hanging in the south. There it is, shining through the branches behind me, while my shadow is stretching forward, presumably to the north. I march off in this direction, counting steps, pause at 280, which is my estimate for 1/4 mile, then face to the left. My shadow is now on the right, and I should be pointing west, more or less.
It’s slow moving here. The young beech have thrown out long branches horizontal-reaching and whip-like. Hobble-bush stems rear above my head. To the front is another patch of fir, which seems familiar, I remember making this turn during the winter and having to push through a wall of conifers….but I’m becoming anxious because I can’t see anything. All I know is I’m heading downhill. Although my shadow’s still on the right, I wish I’d studied the map more carefully (was this leg due west? west-northwest?). I’d really like to pull out the GPS.
The slope is dropping to the left, and rising to the right. This tells me I’m on the southern edge of the spur and need to veer a little north to get onto the crest. Now the ground is falling away sharply on the left. I’m standing atop a line of cliffs, right above that steep valley, the one I got trapped in during the ill-fated thru-hike.
I move across the top of a rock ledge, until the slope on either side is equalized, which hopefully indicates the crest of the spur, but without map and GPS nothing is ever certain. Now I’m dropping down through a wall of rocks, and hopefully this is toward the saddle and not into the valley.
Off in the distance there’s a distinctive mountain profile, presumably Big Indian, although the cleft in the top is reminiscent of Doubletop. (But that lies another mile or two further west, how could it be visible from here? Unless that smaller peak to the right is Big Indian, but it look so small — isn’t it Eagle?)
The spur is narrowing, taking me steadily down. It seems like I’m on a path. I look up, and there’s the saddle. Hard to believe.
I sit down on a rock and look around. Saddles are distinctive topological features, the low point along a ridge that connects two peaks, characterized by slopes that rise to the front and back and drop off to the sides. This saddle is quite narrow, only about twenty yards across. It’s like a suspension bridge hanging between Fir and Big Indian — such a contrast to the saddle between Doubletop and Graham which I traversed the week before, that one a long narrow groove between two broad slopes.
A beech tree stands on the low point of this saddle, yellow leaves purring in the breeze. Above it the blue expanse, and a thin layer of milky white moving in from the west. I could sit here for a long time.
It’s time for the long walk up to Big Indian, a familiar trek and a much simpler execution: just follow the slope uphill. But nearing the summit, I can’t find the canister, and now the slope’s rolling over and falling down the backside, or so it seems. There’s no point in wandering around: I steal a peak at the GPS — then blink in confusion, as it appears I’m only half-way to the summit. And then I get confused again a few steps later, where the ridge broadens slightly and the crest disappears in a tangle of fir and rocks. Lesson learned: when navigating naturally, even the easiest route can surprise you. I should have studied the map more carefully.
But eventually Big Indian’s summit appears, and I’m back on the trail. No more branches in the face, but now it’s back to dodging rocks and roots, and going downhill barefoot is typically more difficult and frustrating, at least for beginners like me. There’s four miles of this to the car. I think of other things and time goes by.
It’s late afternoon. Clouds have spread across the sky, the sun is nearing the horizon, the light is dimmer, the breeze has turned cool. The day is passing, and so is the season. The cherry, maple, and birch leaves are gone, leaving behind brown-yellow clouds of beech.
I pick up a fallen leaf and observe the warm color. It reminds me of the expensive leather dress shoes I used to wear, and then I recall a briefcase I saw once in a specialty store, how I’d admired the craftsman’s work, the buttery gleam, the supple feel…. I wander on through the golden forest, as the beech leaf slips from my fingers, thinking back to that briefcase, which I never bought.
On the drive back, the Shawangunk maples flare one final time in the dusk. And then it’s dark and they’re gone.
I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden