Every June I try, and fail, to photograph the mountain laurel on Little High Point at its hallelujah moment, when their pink and white blossoms are opened wide, and when they are still bright, waxy, and free of rot. That’s the way Tom and I found them years ago, upon first discovering this breathtaking meadow on the shoulder of the more famous Ashokan High Point, to the south. But I didn’t have my camera with me then. I’ve been sure to take it every year since, and to plan my trips to find the blooms at their peak. It hasn’t been easy.
For one thing, the trip is a slog. First we have to climb 3,080-foot Ashokan High Point, then descend to a col* below 2,000 feet, then up again to Little High Point. When we arrive, in the dying light of late afternoon, we’ll find that we’ve come too early, or too late. I’ll focus my lens on the one or two perfect blooms remaining in a wilted cluster, stragglers at a glamorous party whose wreckage lay all around us. Through the lens, I admire the delicate ribs that spread the petals open like a parasol.
“You missed it,” they seem to say, as they smile for the camera. “It was pretty terrific here yesterday.”
More often we arrive too early, when most of the buds are still shut tight. Maybe they’ll be ready on Monday, when I’m back at my desk, or on Thursday, when I’m bringing the dog to the vet. They don’t care what I do. I can come back next year, or not, they say. It’s all the same to them. But I always do come back.
I don’t have to work so hard to photograph mountain laurel. Lots of it grows around my house in Barryville. And along Route 6 in Pike County, which I take every day to work, the mountain laurel in June turns the woods white. But the laurel on Little High Point isn’t like anything I’ve seen anywhere else. Little of it is the usual white or pinkish-white. These blooms are the color of roses — a gorgeous hue in its own right, but also one that intensifies the green of the laurel’s shiny leaves, of the blueberry bushes that make the meadow, and of the oak and pine forest beyond.
The first section of trail to Ashokan High Point rises gently for about three miles along the Kanape Brook. In winter, as we get close to the first turn, I can spot the peak through the trees to my left, like a friend watching my approach through a curtain. Then the climb begins in earnest.
The meadow just beyond the summit is well worth a stop for its view of the Catskills’ highest peaks and the aquamarine reservoir that gives the mountain its name. But we’re eager to see how the laurel is doing on Little High Point, so we dip beneath the ledge that holds the summit marker and feel our way north along the spine connecting the two peaks. The herd path is easy to lose, but if we veer too far to the left or right we know it, because the mountain drops off steeply on either side of the spine. The path gets easier to follow after the giant cairn that marks the bottom of the col. Soon we’re climbing steeply through a tangle of laurel branches. The best moment comes when our heads lift above the cover of leaves to reveal the blaze of sun, sky, and heath of Little High Point.
We follow a narrow track through the blueberries and laurel. I scramble up boulders placed here and there by a celestial gardener who knew I’d need a place to set up my tripod.
Last year, we got so close. We were early to the party, but so were a lot of other guests. I saw just enough open blooms to recall the rose that ravished me the first time. Into my viewfinder I gather up a scrap of pink, some light and dark greens, and smudge of dark charcoal from overhanging clouds. Not bad. I steady the camera, stop my breath, and snap.