On October 26, 2019, Steve Aaron and I stood on a vantage point near the summit of Balsam Mountain and celebrated his completion of the Thirty Five. We stared across the valley at pumpkin-colored ridges and frothy marshmallow-mist swirling beneath cerulean sky, while overhead the clouds spread out into a celestial ribcage (the scientific term is cirrus vertebratus) and I thought, how strange that the sky would celebrate Steve’s accomplishment and then, wouldn’t it be even stranger if this was all coincidence….
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….
“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.
Thank you, John!
Men talk glibly enough about moonshine, as if they knew its qualities very well, and despised them; as owls might talk of sunshine.
— Henry David Thoreau, “Night and Moonlight,” 1883
- Met Alan and Amy for dinner in Phoenicia, and then the three of us proceeded to the Woodland Valley Campground. It was 8:15 and pitch black, with rain in the forecast, which at elevation might well manifest itself as heavy sleet driven by gale-force winds, and accordingly I’d warned Alan and Amy to prepare for the worst — but they are experienced hikers and were totally unfazed. After gearing up, we headed out on the trail in high spirits.
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 …
Following an unsuccessful attempt on the Catskills 9, I returned two weeks later to bag the three peaks I had missed, namely Slide, Cornell, and Wittenberg. It was six miles barefoot over steep and rocky trails, and then six miles return in Luna sandals, but a relatively uneventful journey without physical or mental drama. It was also a chance to appreciate the mountains, make new discoveries, and enjoy the signs of spring.
In his prime, John Burroughs (1837-1921) was one of the most popular writers in America, with a huge following of readers and relationships with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and railroad tycoon E. F. Harriman. His passion was the birds, forests, rivers, and mountains of his native Catskills, and his writings reveal a scientist’s powers of observation and a nature-lover’s emotional connection to the land. In 1919, at age 82 he appeared in a short film, shown leading a trio of young children around his Catskill farm. He points out butterfly, chipmunk, grasshopper, and then the following words appear on the screen:
I am an old man now and have come to the summit of my years. But in my heart is the joy of youth for I have learned that the essentials of life are near at hand and happiness is his who but opens his eyes to the beauty which lies before him.
Today, these words are remembered by a dedicated group of Burroughs enthusiasts. But despite his enormous popularity, his hasn’t become a household name like other American naturalists such as Henry David Thoreau or John Muir. I wondered, why?
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.