Random notes on seven more peaks climbed in the Catskills so far in September, bringing the total to twelve, with eight more to go…
I’ve been reading a very good biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that’s been encouraging me to think about and try to articulate why I seek to spend so much time on the trails:
- As modern society is becoming more and more digital, I want to stay physically active, as it seems to me mind and body completely are intertwined, so one can’t be healthy and happy without the other
- As the world is becoming more and more artificial, I want to spend time in nature, which seems like the real source of joy and exhilaration, of which media and other content are but faint imitations
- As people are becoming more and more interconnected, I want to cultivate an attitude of self-reliance, not meaning that I shun relationships, but rather how can you interact meaningfully with others if you can’t stand on your own two feet
Which brings me back to the Grid, which is the goal of climbing all 35 of the Catskills’ high peaks in every calendar month. Heading into August, I was in pretty good shape, with 27 done and only 8 left to go, thanks in large part to my August 2016 attempt to thru-hike the entire 35.
Here are some notes from a recent hike where I completed 6 of the remaining 8 together with my friend Alan D.
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.
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.
The way the winds dash about among the Catskill Mountains’ highest peaks, it sometimes seems like each gust has a separate purpose: one tussles with a particular tree, another darts down the slopes, while others roar overhead en route to distant locations.
A couple of weeks ago the weather forecast caught my attention: a major front was moving across the region, and heavy rains were predicted. I thought of how John Muir once hiked out into the Sierra Mountains to observe a gale: “When the storm began to sound, I lost no time in pushing out into the woods to enjoy it. For on such occasions Nature has always something rare to show us….”
Accordingly, I pulled out the map and began planning a quick hike in the Blackhead Range, timed to be in and out before the brunt of the storm burst upon the scene.
After slipping and sliding on microspikes that didn’t have spikes, I got a pair of the real thing from Catskill Mountain Storehouse and took them out for a 10-mile spin in the Blackhead Range. The reward for the effort was amazing views in all directions, with recognizable landmarks 20, 30 and perhaps even 90 miles away.
The goal was five more of the Catskills’ high peaks on one of the last weekends before winter, part of a quixotic mission to summit all 35 hiking barefoot. Odie and I piled into the car right after breakfast, and the drive to Windham went smoothly — except for route 23, where we had to stop at three traffic lights in a row, which sorely tested my patience, and then navigate a construction zone with a needlessly restrictive speed limit.
Yet once out of the car and on the trail, these frustrations vanished quickly. The path to Windham High Peak was a delight: smooth dirt at a moderate grade — a rarity in the rocky rugged Catskills — and I moved almost as quickly barefoot as I would have in shoes. From the summit, we looked south at the distinctive silhouette of the Blackhead range, which Odie and I had climbed just a few weeks earlier. Back then, we had marveled in the details: traversing three peaks and three notches, experiencing scrambles, slabs, and sometimes smooth trail, and discovering different plants and trees with each step along the way. Now for the first time, we got the big picture.
Friday evening, my nephew Nathaniel stopped by to visit during college break. Over dinner he mentioned a course he was taking on Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century transcendentalist who had spent two years living in a cabin by the side of Walden Pond. I had read Walden recently and appreciated Thoreau’s experiment in self-sufficiency and simple living, as well as his clever style. I asked Nathaniel, did he think Thoreau was a nature lover or a social recluse? Then I wondered aloud why Thoreau had left Walden after only two years.
Once dinner was over, and Nathaniel had left, I summoned Odie the Labradoodle, and we piled into the car for a weekend adventure that might, it occurred to me, share some of Thoreau’s values. For us, self-sufficiency and simplicity would mean hiking barefoot, skipping meals, and sleeping in a lean-to. However, instead of two years, our trip would last two days. It would be like Walden, just in miniature.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden