Picture this: a bird’s eye view of the Catskill Park, dotted with hikers scattered around in twos and threes, here and there, scrabbling up and down peaks and swimming through thick prickers and pines all weekend long. And then, Sunday night, all over the northern New Jersey – upstate New York region, a bunch of these hikers write down what they’ve done, with wit and wisdom, embellishment and charm. Come Monday morning, hiker-workers of the world unite to read each others’ adventures and comment-tease-commend-critique each others’ trip reports. A wonderfully 21st century combination of “real life” and “online,” we share in a community and revel in each aspect of it – some of us, admittedly, more than others.
My “friend” online and an acquaintance whose friendship I hope to cultivate, Melissa Bean wrote the following trip report. I asked her if I could post it as a guest post here because I felt that this piece deserved a greater readership. She nails it – why we do this and what it means to us – in such gorgeous prose it is just a delight to read, even if you don’t hike. But if you do, and if you love the woods, or even if you love the idea of loving the woods… you will love Melissa’s piece. My hat’s off to you, Melissa:
From the Spruceton PA we took the trail up to the bridge where we headed west over the stream and north up the ridge, early on following a rock wall that Simba walked on acrobatically. Rusk is pretty steep. It was a cold, wet, blustery day, but I know Tom secretly loves that kind of thing. He needs, like, a raging summit snowstorm to really feel challenged. He’s already started to bait and curse the winter weather gods to call down their snowy wrath upon us.
The steep ascent was even more slippery thanks to the morning rain. I jeered at some ratty looking nettles with thin and holey leaves like doilies: “Ha ha, October nettles!” Take that! I eat you, vegetables! (Actually, I heard they make great tea.) A few prickers but nothing like Sherrill. The ledges were tall, but thin tree trunks were like ladder rungs.
Thought I’d overdressed until we reached the summit, where I put my fleece back on, as well as a hat (bushwhacking hats really need a chinstrap, by the way). Took off my mittens to take a few pictures at the can, and by then my fingers were so cold that I could barely sign in. Icy rain and snow flakes, and maybe some sleet, showed up as little white dots on Simba’s black coat.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said as I sprinted into the trees and got thwacked in the eye by a whip-like branch. Tom slowed me down by warning me that rushing would certainly lead to injury and he observed out loud that he thinks the cold scares me. He’s right–I worry I wont be able to get warm again. But, like usual, as soon as we were off the summit the wind died down and the temperature rose, and it was back to being beautiful but cloudy.
Tom has said before that he thinks bushwhacking is overrated, but I really love it. Anytime I see woods now, I cant help but scan for the path of least resistance. When Tom drives, I find myself looking out the car window and into the forest for herd paths, for a way through it. I see woods and the thought comes automatically: How would I bushwhack that? …Is this normal, lol? I’m also trying to curb my grass-is-greener tendency, where I pick a path and set out on it but then every other way suddenly seems more open.
But bushwhacking is different than choosing the fastest-moving supermarket line, and that I really enjoy bushwhacking is probably one of my favorite things I’ve discovered about myself while hiking in the Catskills. While it’s not as much but still fun forcing myself out from the forest’s coniferous jaws on Friday and Rocky, I love the directed wandering, over North Dome and Sherrill, and now Rusk, the broad leaves in bright fall colors against the gray trunks. The cooler weather really charms the forest this time of year: the trees and brush finally concede to let their guard down and uncamouflage their hidden passageways.
Bushwhacking reminds me that the woods are not only wild, but that such wilderness is Edenic. The world is again an idyllic playground, a wooden jungle gym for the strength and rationality of adults. My body, when I bushwhack, isn’t just a brain-on-two-legs like it can be on the trail. Instead, the question of “How am I going to get up this?” becomes something I have to decode muscularly. A ledge is problem but one that, in my upper and lower body’s surmounting of it, integrates far more than just the physical parts of myself.
I feel like a more unified person at the top of a mountain, and every time I hike I bring a little more of that apical gift of wholeness back down with me to the parking area. The mountaintops take all of my stresses and worries and whisk them away, but I don’t know to where; I don’t know what the mountains do with them. But they’re buffeted by every branch in the face, a small funny favor, forest humor.