Notes from Recent Catskill Hikes

Half-way through July, and I’ve completed just over half of the Catskill high peaks, many at night due to limited windows of opportunity during the day, but the rest of the month is tighter, and time is running out.  The Grid has become a burden, and I feel a little like Sisyphus, doomed to push a rock up the mountain only to see it rolling back down again.  But without burdens, life would be unbearably light, which is why Camus wrote that one must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Without enough time to write full articles on each climb, here are some notes from recent hikes, mostly for my own purposes in keeping track of the Grid Experience:

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Notes from Recent Catskill Hikes

Racing the Sun

The goal for Friday evening was to get a climb done before dark, and Plateau Mountain seemed like a good candidate — and if I got moving quickly enough, it might be possible to reach Orchard Point, a sandstone ledge that juts out high above the valley floor, in time to witness the sun’s last rays.  But my stomach objected to the prospect of skipping dinner, and thus the early start was delayed while I grabbed a quick dinner, and by the time I’d finished eating, stopped for gas, and made the hour-long drive to the trailhead, the valley was already filled with shadows.  There was still an hour until sunset, and thus a chance of making it to Orchard Point before the day was gone, but this is one of the Catskills’ more daunting climbs:  the 1.3 mile trail rises 1,500 feet for an average grade of 22%, and the middle part is even steeper, averaging 44%, with the path in some sections leaping up crude staircases fashioned from blocks of stone.  This would be a race with the setting sun.

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Racing the Sun

Five Late Spring Summits

With a sore ankle slowing me down and limited windows of time, it wasn’t going to be possible to complete the Grid for June, but if I could get a few more peaks done now, then there’d be less work next year.  Meanwhile, with the weather finally warming, it would be a wonderful time to explore the mountains and experience the changing conditions of late spring.

Indeed, the variability of the natural environment is one aspect of its beauty.  The east coast nature-writer John Burroughs commented that you cannot have good without evil, health without sickness, or pleasure without pain.  Applying this philosophy to spring in the Catskills implies you cannot truly appreciate a cool breeze on a warm afternoon without suffering the humidity, haze, and insects that also come with spring.  In any case, whatever the mountains might have in store for me would beat the climate-controlled office environment where I spend most of my time.

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Five Late Spring Summits

Bushwhacking the Neversink

I’d spent all week at my work desk, focused and diligent, but deep in my heart the Catskills were calling, and every so often I’d pull out the map.  The weather for Saturday looked good, and my weekend plans steadily became more ambitious:  first to bushwhack up the Neversink River to its headwaters below Cornell Mountain, next to visit Wittenberg and taken in the splendid views from its summit ledge, then to return along a pathless ridge covered in some of the Catskills’ most ferocious fir thickets, and somewhere at some point to pitch a tent.  And on Sunday there’d be time to do more.

But upon arrival late Saturday morning at the remote Denning trailhead, and despite a big breakfast and double espresso, my enthusiasm had cooled.  A visit to the doctor’s had yielded a surprise: the sore ankle that had plagued me on and off for the last year was not a strained tendon after all, but rather a minor stress factor.  This was good news, because the prognosis was better, and hiking (although not running) was still allowed….but, at the same time, the stress fracture was only one of a number of recent injuries.  Perhaps there was a message here, that 54-year old runners should be a little more mindful of bodily wear.

In any case, it was time to get going, and so I marched out purposefully, feeling a bit like a knight in armor that maybe once was shining but now was somewhat dented and rusty, and instead of carrying a shield, I was wearing three shirts to ward off the morning chill and shoes with inserts to support the ankle….

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Bushwhacking the Neversink

May in the Catskills

The mission was to complete the remaining twelve peaks needed to scratch the month of May off the Grid, and accordingly I arranged to take a week off of work.  But the Rock The Ridge 50-miler left me with a sore ankle, which required a reduction in speed and mileage.  In Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Walking,” he used the word “saunter” to describe the act of sallying forth into the woods, which was for him the adventure and escape of his day, and he likened this daily saunter to the motion of a stream flowing downhill to the ocean:

The saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.

— Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”

To complete the Grid for May, I’d need to saunter instead of run — and rather than pushing myself, I’d need to “flow” through the mountains, just like a stream, except I’d be going uphill as well as down…

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May in the Catskills

Lichens of Slide Mountain

“I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass,” wrote Walt Whitman (1818-1892) in his poem, The Song of Myself, an eerie echo of a theme in 13th century Japanese Zen literature:

There is a world of sentient beings in clouds. There is a world of sentient beings in the air. There is a world of sentient beings in fire…. There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass.

— Mountains and Wates Sutra, Eihei Dogen (1200-1253)

Could there be a world of sentient beings in a piece of lichen?

Last weekend my friend Steve Aaron and I had the privilege of accompanying nature photographer John Franklin on an expedition to Slide Mountain.  John is working on a book about New York lichens, and he kindly shared many observations with us as well as some spectacular photographs which are showcased below together with some apropos quotations from Henry David Thoreau.

Lichen 12 (1 of 1)
Nature Photographer John Franklin in action.  Credit:  Steve Aaron Photography

Thank you, John!

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Lichens of Slide Mountain

Green Mountains Walking

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.

— Dogen

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.

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Green Mountains Walking