June was another big month with nineteen peaks to climb, and it was off to a good start — until the outer edge of my left foot starting hurting during a speed workout at the track. Taking a week off was demoralizing, and not just because I love to run fast, but also because a serious enough injury (for example, a stress fracture) would threaten the June Grid, the July Grid, and travel plans for August — or in other words, wreak havoc on my summer.
The X-ray came back negative (no stress fracture), instead this was just another unhappy tendon, specifically the peroneal brevis where it attaches to the base of the fifth metatarsal. My sports doc, who’s also in his 50s, gave me a rueful look, commenting that tendinopathies are common with older athletes. Rest, ice, maybe some ibuprofen — focus on strengthening the kinetic chain and maintaining proper alignment — but no magic answers.
The week off was frustrating, and it raised the stakes on finishing the remaining peaks in the June Grid by the end of the month. But by backing off for a few days and then returning to the mountains cautiously, I was able to finish the nineteen peaks and come back with some new discoveries and experiences, which after all is the purpose of this project . . .
June is such a beautiful month!
Early May saw leaves opening in the valleys, but the slopes were still barren and brown. Day by day the band of green crept upwards until by the time June arrived, the mountains were bursting everywhere with fresh green foliage, from bottom to top. And while green became the overwhelmingly dominant color in the landscape, the green was flecked with white, like ocean rollers capped with foam: fragrant white blossoms on the locust trees along the highway were followed by white flowers on the katawba trees that as June went by spilled from the branches and scattered across the pavement. Driving down a country lane you’d see large multi-flora rose bushes speckled with white flowers or frothy clouds of queen anne’s lace along the shoulder. Deep in the forest, a succession of small white flowers flickered within the green shadows: spring beauties, painted trilliums, hobble bush, foam flower, Canada mayflower, virginia water-leaf, aniseroot, a variety of small violets, and then five-petaled white stars shimmering on arching berry canes.
The June Grid got off to a fast start with an overnighter on the Peeakmoose Range that bagged six peaks and ended up in a chilly soaking rain (the Catskills get more rain then the surrounding areas, for example, around 5.5″ in June, compared to 3.5″ for New York City). Then my friend Kal joined me for a vigorous barefoot hike with short running intervals on Bearpen and Vly (and what fun to pick up the pace without shoes!). The next day I intercepted two runners on the Long Path as they crossed over the shoulder of Kaaterskill High Peak. Soon thereafter, it was Balsam and Eagle’s turn. This was my 12th time up these two, which means they’re now complete as far as the Grid.
In between these Catskill hikes, I was starting to get in some fast intervals at the track, which left me feeling on top of the world, as if I might stage a comeback and recover some of the speed and endurance I used to have. . . . . but instead, injury. After a few days off, I attempted a slow, short bushwhack up Halcott and surviving that, two days later the family and I hiked up Westkill for Father’s Day.
Disaster was averted, but nonetheless the end of the month was rapidly approaching, with eight eight peaks still left to do.
Friday afternoon June 22 I helped set up the Mink Hollow aid station for Manitou’s Revenge, which took me deep into the Catskills, and with a few hours to spare, it was off to climb Panther Mountain in the dark….
- Tomorrow would be a busy day at the aid station, so I kept shoes on and hurried along, not feeling especially strong, with the sore peroneal brevis tendon complaining from time to time — and not to be outdone, the posterior tibialis tendon (which has been a problem for over two years) twinged once or twice — and then the quadriceps tendon on the right knee began to grumble. Nothing seriously wrong, but lots of noise — it felt driving a car full of unruly children.
- Motionless on the path: a large, light brown-colored frog (wood frog).
- Somewhere in the trees, a Swainson’s Thrush is singing away: a similar metallic trill to the Veery, but rising in pitch rather than falling.
- I pull up on Panther’s summit. Woodland Valley is dark but for a single light and ringed by the black silhouettes of Cornell and Wittenberg and beyond them the peaks of the eastern Hunter Range.
- Sitting at the summit, I reflect on how a voice inside my head is always talking about something. So here’s a conundrum: if I’m the one talking, then who’s listening? — or if I’m the one listening, then who just posed this question? The I-who-am-really-me must be bigger: it must encompass the talking voice inside my head (maybe it prompts that voice on what to talk about), and it must also encompass the images of darkened mountains that surround me. In a sense, the mountains must be part of me, and I must be part of them, and if so, it feels like we make a good team.
- A few drops patter among the trees. I head off back down the trail in search of a campsite.
The next day is spent at the aid station. A cool, drizzly day — a little chilly to stand around in, even wearing several layers — but perfect for the runners who generate a lot of body heat moving through these rugged mountains. They come by in shorts and t-shirts, gulp some food and drink, and take off into the gloom. Remarkable.
The next day is beastly hot. I meet a new volunteer maintainer and introduce him to a section of the Long Path in the southern Shawangunk Mountains. That evening it’s off to Spruceton Rd to climb Southwest Hunter and Hunter.
- With thunderstorms in the forecast, I packed carefully, only to discover upon arrival at the trail head that I’ve forgotten my rain jacket. A pile sweater will have to do instead (woven of synthetic fibers, it can’t absorb much water). I march out into light rain, the smooth wet dirt road feeling delightful underfoot, and then the gravelly trail that leads to Diamond Notch requiring a little more focus.
- Uphill to Southwest Hunter: a mix of dirt, rocks, and one patch of soupy mud, and about a mile in an infestation of cow parsnip crowding the trail, sinister plants, some six feet tall, with huge deeply serrated leaves and white flower umbels (clusters), whose sap can impart a nasty rash or burn. I squeeze through carefully.
- At first, feeling energetic on the 2.5-mile climb, and then gradually somewhat fatigued, maybe the result of working hard at the aid station all the day before and then the morning’s work in the Shawangunks.
- I step over a skink squirming among the rocks. A rabbit hops across the trail a few steps in front of me.
- The Devil’s Acre lean-to is guarded by another patch of cow parsnip leaning in across the trail, and again I squeeze through carefully. A few minutes later I’m going to sleep listening to steady rainfall in the forest. Later that night I wake up. The rain is over, but the wind is thundering across the mountain and whipping the trees around. I sleep fitfully, feeling chilled inside the sleeping bag.
- The next morning the wind is still howling. I’m feeling unsure about being in the forest in these conditions. . . worried about crossing through the cow parsnip again if the tall plants are shaking around. . . can’t marshal enough energy to make a cup of tea. . . finally rouse myself around 8:30 . Packing up, I notice porcupine quills on the floor of the lean-to, wonder if I had a nighttime visitor.
- The hike out to Southwest Hunter goes fine, the wind is subsiding, although the path is damp and chilly underfoot. Through the trees a peek at Hunter Mountain, fog rolling across the slopes. On the way back, a couple flashes of cheering sun.
- A pleasant walk over to Hunter Mountain, the sun now out. It’s a clear breezy morning, and quite cool: where sunbeams penetrate the canopy, I catch sight of my breath steaming.
- At Hunter’s summit, I clamber half-way up the firetower, admire the typical sights, while a cold wind blows under clear sky and strong sun, and puffy clouds race across just overhead, some dissolving along the way.
- A gravel-covered horse trail leads down from the summit of Hunter. I was out here a year ago and quickly gave up trying to walk barefoot, it was just too painful, but this time, I saunter all the way down, slowly where steep or gravelly, striding out a little more briskly where grass or dirt covers the path. Tougher feet or better form (bending at the knees) or the right mindset or perhaps it’s such a beautiful cool clear day that anything is possible.
- Turning a bend in the trail, a ragged-looking coyote, he spots me and is gone. A moment later, a ruffled grouse scurries across the trail.
- Interesting grasses line the trail. One is called fringed sedge, the other I have yet to identify.
- Black butterflies with blue spots and some with white bands on the wings are fluttering about at the trailhead– white admirals (Limenitis arthemis arthemis and Limentis arthemis astyanax) .
- Sometimes barefoot hiking is a series of aggravations that challenge my equilibrium — and sometimes it’s a wonderful feeling to move through the mountains unencumbered, feeling as well as seeing the terrain.
- On the drive out, the forests along Spruceton Road radiating joyous emerald light.
Finally, it’s June 29th, with three peaks left (North Dome, Sherrill, and Rusk), it’s time to finish up the month in one long day that entails 10 miles of bushwhacking in steep and tangled terrain.
- Let’s go light: No shoes, no shirt, no bugspray, no navigational aids.
- What a mix of terrain! Rusk is a drier mountain: open forest, the floor covered in leaf litter and dotted with rock fragments, while North Dome and Sherrill are wet, thick, lush.
- Wild variety of vegetation: North Dome starts with a patch of the sinister cow parsnip mixed with nettles (nasty combination that can sting and burn you), then it’s into a big glade of sensitive fern, fronds soft and friendly. Next a grove of white pine, whose long needles carpet the forest floor, but abundant fallen branches clutter the forest floor, slowing me up. I head uphill, zigging and zagging on old forest roads and paths when they present themselves, moving through typical deciduous forest. Christmas tree ferns, blue cohosh now with green drupes, wood sorrell with white/purple blossoms, tall meadow rue beginning to flower, small pink herb robert flowers (a geranium), hellebore yellowing away, trilliums leaves persisting with flowers gone. Big sandstone boulders painted white with crustose lichens on one side, covered with crumply rock tripe lichen brown and black on the other. Dense stands of hobble bush mean the boreal zone is getting close, but it’s taking a long time: my watch beeps to indicate two miles have passed. Finally some slate green, and a faint sour-clean scent: some fir trees mean we’re almost at the top.
- I never peaked at compass or GPS/map, so North Dome counts as a “natural navigation” ascent, mostly relying on the “rule of up” but also keeping an eye on my shadow. Sherrill is next, and it’s also a “natural navigation” ascent, although a well-defined social trail connects the two peaks, so not much of a challenge. On the descent into the saddle connecting the two peaks I lose the trail momentarily, but through the thick canopy a couple glimpses of Sherrill’s broad shoulders keep me oriented. (When you lose a social trail, just stop for a moment and look around — it can’t be far)
- Some nettle fields on the descent. I lost my cool on Halcott the other day, but upon reflection, it was fear and anxiety that drove me to distraction, not the pain. The stings are irritating, yes, but not excruciating and the sensation fades quickly. So now I pay attention to where I step, searching for friendly plants among the nettles who will shelter my ankles and knees from their stinging bites (ferns, solomon’s plume, blue cohosh, mountain maple, etc.).
- Coming down to the base of Sherrill, a series of blazes separating state forest from private land which I follow down past a grassy field. Then it’s across the top of a little waterfall, where the water separates into two streams, pours ten or twelve feet, and pools in a basin that reflects the red-brown tint of shale rocks and abundant pine needles.
- From here it’s over a bridge, down a road through a field of timothy grass (a non-native grass brought over with European colonists in the 18th century) dotted with daisies, red clover, yarrow, and small fuscia flowers with five petals. Less than a mile back to the car, and the pavement’s quite hot under foot, but what a pleasure to stride out and move! Easter Tiger Swallowtails fluttering about in the roadside bushes, staghorn sumac flourishing by the side of the road with new fuzzy flowers yellow and green for now, they’ll turn maroon in the fall.
- A short drive over to the next parking area. Beautiful breeze rushing through the trees…and then a few steps later, the air’s still and heavy, and gnats come out. The gravel horse trail leads me to the base of Rusk, and suddenly walking is slow and awkward again, but it’s not long before I turn off the gravel and step into the forest. Another social trail — unmarked and unofficial but well-defined — heads up to the summit. I think back to how the first time I climbed Rusk, I wandered straight through the forest, struggling as the mountain got steeper and steeper, getting stuck around a series of ledges near the top, blundering through nettles, hobble-bush, berry canes, beech thickets…. That was before I learned to recognize and follow this trail, which does a perfect job weaving around those obstacles and taking you straight to the canister.
- Red eyed vireos, warbling vireos, and several new bird calls distinctive but unknown. “Zee zee zee zoo zee” — this turns out to be the black-throated green warbler. A new friend!
- Rusk is steep, but up and down is uneventful. Back on the gravel trail, a sweet scent wafts through the forest — the essence of summer — from a source unidentifiable — and no, it can’t be bottled.
It’s after dark when I finally pull into the driveway back home. The moon is hanging over the horizon, shimmering behind a sheet of haze like a big tangerine-colored egg yolk, while a warm breeze blows through the trees. June is over, and now it’s summer, and upon reflection, I can’t possibly have enough of this.
On to July. . . .