In his book “The Practice of the Wild,” Gary Snyder quotes from the writings of 13th century Japanese Zen Master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253). One quotation in particular from Dogen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra caught my attention:
Mountains’ walking is just like human walking. Accordingly, do not doubt mountains’ walking even though it does not look the same as human walking.
What could Dogen have meant, I wondered, by mountains’ “walking”?
There seemed no better way to answer this question than to head out to the Catskill Mountains and with some luck catch them in the act of walking. And so, with a shout for Odie, off we went.
I was supposed to join a hike in Harriman but discovered at the last minute that Odie the Labradoodle wouldn’t be welcome. It wasn’t personal: some groups have developed policies, out of respect to certain members, that limit who can accompany a group hike. So Odie and I headed north instead, for our first spring hike in the Catskills.
Sunday was beautiful: sunny, calm, warm (in the 50s!) — a respite from the snow, ice, gusting winds, and heavy cloud cover more typical of February in New York. A great day to be alive and outdoors.
Driving back to the city with Odie the Labradoodle, I pulled over at a trailhead on the Long Path, figuring we’d sneak in a two- or three-mile hike. The snow had largely melted, leaving only scattered patches, so I took off sandals and stepped gingerly onto the path and found it to be a manageable mix of dirt and mud that had warmed up nicely in the morning sun. Odie scampered ahead, while I sauntered along, and soon we were clambering up the lichen-crusted granite rock face that marks the summit of Long Mountain, a 1,155-foot peak in Harriman State Park. Carved into the rock is a memorial to Raymond Torrey:
In the late spring of 2000, Lucy and Susan Letcher summitted Maine’s Mt. Ktaadin and then began a southward trek along the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Adopting the trail names “Isis” and “jackrabbit,” they hiked through the summer, fall, and winter, reaching Georgia’s Mt. Springer the next spring, and then turned around and hiked back to Ktaadin, completing what’s called a “yo-yo” (a double-traverse of the AT). Their story is chronicled in a two-volume book set entitled “Southbound” and “Walking Home,” which I recently read and enjoyed immensely.
What was somewhat different about their experience, and the reason of course they’re called “the barefoot sisters,” is that they completed most of the hike without shoes, and this gives their story an extra dimension from other AT narratives. Barefoot hiking is a relatively unusual activity, although it’s not completely unheard of: noticing their lack of footwear a Baxter State Park ranger commented, “There are a few that do that. I don’t know how. Well, if it works for you, more power to you.”
The other day while unwrapping a band-aid, the idea occurred to me to total up the numbers in my training log. The calculation showed that I’d recently completed my 1,000th mile barefoot. I reflected on the odyssey that had led to this unexpected milestone as I placed the band-aid on a blister. An account seemed in order.
Slide Mountain is the Catskills’ highest peak, and one I’ve climbed many times, including both summer and winter, day and night — but always following the trail from Big Indian Valley. One day I was rereading “In the Heart of the Southern Catskills,” John Burroughs’ account of his first ascent of Slide Mountain in 1885. Burroughs had long been intrigued by Slide, but he wasn’t going to take a trail. Rather, he chose the more remote Woodland Valley as his starting point and then made his way to the summit through unmarked forest. Moving off trail like this is today called “bushwhacking,” and depending on the terrain, it can be exhilarating — or extremely challenging.
I put down the essay and thought for a moment. As a member of the Catskill 3500 Club, I had climbed the 35 highest peaks in the Catskills, of which a dozen or so require bushwhacking because there is no trail. But it had never occurred to me to seek a bushwhack route when an established trail was available. Why would you do that?
Then a light bulb went off: because it would be a totally new experience.
Pulling out the map, I measured a straight shot from the Woodland Valley Campground to Slide’s summit, about 2.5 miles in distance and 2,000 feet in elevation gain. Towards the top, the grade got steep, I noticed, exceeding 40% in places.
Two weeks later, a little before 9:00 AM, I was pulling into the parking area at Woodland Valley Campground to meet my friend Alan. Our goal: to reenact Burroughs’ bushwhack ascent of 1885 …
As race director for the SRT Run/Hike, I’m interested in encouraging participation in the event and seeing more people experience the Shawangunk Ridge Trail (SRT), which is one of my favorite trails in New York. To be fair, the full 70-mile division isn’t for everyone: not only does it require significant endurance to cover such a long distance, but also you’ve got to be mindful about navigation, nutrition, and hydration, since we don’t provide aid stations or course markings. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
But the half-marathon division should be accessible to a lot of people, and with a start-time of 10:30 AM and the final cut-off at midnight, you have 13.5 hours to complete the course, which requires moving at barely a 1 MPH average pace. To demonstrate just how generous this time limit is, I chose a beautiful fall day recently to see if I could complete the 1/2 marathon course within the time limit, without food, water,* or even shoes.
As a novice barefooter, I knew the going would be slow, but I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the day than experiencing the sights, sounds, and textures of New York’s most magical trail.