Thoreau wrote about the brilliant colors of New England’s fall foliage, but I wondered, what about winter? And I found such a wild mix of impressions during my winter runs: sun dazzling against fresh rime ice, clouds rolling in and smothering the world in dim light — one hike was a slog through sand-like snow that spilled out from underfoot and dribbled down the rocks, another a desperate scramble over sheets of ice, and then a storm rolled in with pelting sleet and lightning. Even at night there was a huge variety of sights: solitary farm lights sprinkled across the darkened plains, snowflakes sparkling in the headlamp’s beam, moonlight shining on snow-packed trails so bright you could run without lights, or the crescent moon rising above a distant mountain ridge and glowing in such a strange mix of orange and purple it seemed like a hue that’d never been seen before.
But now it was spring — and everything was changing so quickly, it seemed if you blinked you might miss it all.
So I kept my eyes open as best I could, and here’s a collection of spring impressions, things I noticed while hiking the Long Path along the Hudson River and in the Catskills.
This post is based on talk I gave at the John Burroughs Association May 20, 2017 Slabsides Open House, assisted by my friends Lisa Zucker Glick, who read the John Burroughs’ quotations, and Jim Porter, who read the words of Walt Whitman. For additional citations and references, please see “Running the Long Path.”
On May 6, 2017 I participated for the third time in the Rock the Ridge 50 miler. This event is a fundraiser for the Mohonk Preserve. It has a generous cutoff of 24 hours. The event is designed for the average runner/ hiker to be able to complete the entire distance. There is a registration fee as well as a fundraising minimum. I chose not to fundraise and pay the amount myself. These are my trails in my backyard. I know the importance of protecting and caring for this great gift of the Mohonk Preserve.
As co-director of Rock The Ridge it’s a great thrill for me to see the participants moving through the mountains and especially the expressions on their faces when they reach the finish. Even more remarkable is their good work raising funds for the Mohonk Preserve (New York’s largest not-for-profit nature preserve and host for the event), the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the NY-NJ Trail Conference, and other causes. With close to $250,000 raised in 2017 alone, the event is now approaching a cumulative five-year total of one million dollars, an outcome which brings a mix of joy and astonishment to the organizers.
As co-director it is also my job to run in the event, so that organizers have a clear understanding of the participant experience. In past years, this has been great fun, for example, in 2015 when I won the master’s division and set a personal record. But as one gets a little older, fifty miles gets a little tougher, and in 2016 my time was quite a bit slower.
As I stepped up to the starting line this year, the only goal was to finish. This would be my first ultramarathon since Rock The Ridge the year before, thanks to a long series of injuries. Two weeks before the race, I was feeling good, but then with one week to go the posterior tibialis tendon (which runs underneath the ankle on the inner side of the foot) flared up once again.
But even if my strategy was to take it easy, there might still be ways to make this an interesting and challenging event. I could run the fifty miles without taking any calories, and I’d see how far I could get without drinking.
“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.
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.
Inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Autumnal Tints”, last fall I’d headed out in early September, while the mountains were still green, in search of the first red maples turning scarlet. That experience got me thinking: while we all love the fall foliage, what about winter colors? And spring?