The goal was The Nine, a 20-mile loop in New York’s Catskill Mountains that connects nine of the highest peaks, with the special challenge that four of the mountains have no trail, meaning you must bushwhack through the woods using map, compass, and/or GPS. I had completed The Nine before during the summer, so you might assume I’d feel pretty confident. But now it was winter. And the prospects of navigating over rugged terrain, contending with treacherous footing, braving the cold — this was a little daunting.
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.
As I dragged myself out of bed, the main topic on my mind was breakfast — not another bushwhacking adventure in the Catskills.
The day before, my friend Todd Jennings and I had put on the inaugural Ellenville Mountain Running Festival. Organizing the race and ensuring everything went smoothly had taken a lot of effort. That night I went to bed tired and didn’t bother to set the alarm. But once I was finally awake and suitably nourished, there were no other pressing tasks at hand, and in due course I found myself motoring down the Thruway in search of Bearpen Mountain.
Todd and I had designed the Ellenville Mountain Running Festival as a “minimalist format” event, meaning that the course wasn’t marked and runners had to carry maps. Many of the racers missed turns and ran extra miles, and a small number gave up and returned to the start. It was only fitting, therefore, that on the way to Bearpen I would get lost. And this despite having both Google Maps and NY-NJ Trail Conference maps on my phone. It was high noon before I pulled into the parking area, almost two hours later than expected. As they say, Karma’s a bitch.
If you stray off the beaten path, you might encounter a wall of Hobble-bush (viburnum lantanoides). Where the branches touch the ground, they send down roots and grow new stems. Soon there is a thicket eager to hobble the unwary hiker — hence the plant’s popular name. Continue reading “Hobbling Through the Woods”