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The road to hell is unpaved

| 27 Jun 2012 | 03:31

My mother liked to tell the story of how her resentful country cousins would pelt her nice city clothes with dung when she arrived at her father’s ancestral village at the start of every summer. And how her cousin would kick her awake at 4 a.m. every morning for a long climb, in bare feet, to the top of the mountain to feed the goats, or milk them, or whatever.

Sounds gruesome, I’d say, reaching for the snooze button. So good of the family to emigrate.

Now I kick myself awake at 4 a.m. to climb mountains for no good reason whatever. What my mother called hell is the “alpine start” to hikers. It’s all in the way you look at a thing.

I thought of my mother’s summertime woe while making the steep and unrelenting ascent up Hunter Mountain. If my mother slowed down, her cousin would poke her with a stick. I could have used a little encouragement myself. Last year’s hurricane left the trail, one of my favorites, in rough shape. At 4,040 feet, Hunter is the second-tallest mountain in the Catskills, and its well-trodden trails tend to be stable. But the storm loosened the rock, which must be picked over with care, especially along sections with sheer drops at the trail’s edge. Early Dutch and German settlers said only the devil with his cloven feet could traverse this terrain. It seems the devil wants the mountain to himself once again.

Hunter is enormous and has many ways to the top. The most direct is the Becker Hollow Trail, two miles straight up. This mountain pass is so narrow, early European settlers had to travel single file to get through it. The writer and painter Charles Lanman found it super-depressing: “It is a type of valley of the shadow of death; in single file did we have to pass through it and in single file must we pass to the grave.”

I was glad, though, to get up the mountain at all, and to see the top the same as ever: the ranger’s station, the fire tower, the outhouse with its classic crescent moon. If the valley of the shadow of death has an outhouse, it’s probably not outfitted, like this one, with antibacterial hand sanitizer with aloe, mango-scented air freshener, and a dog-eared copy of Oprah.

The sweeping view will get you pondering the eternal questions: What does life mean? What comes after death? Where should we eat lunch?

A short spur trail leads to a broad, comfortable ledge overlooking the Catskills’ highest peaks. And this is where I leave my readers, to slip with my sandwich through the brush to another ledge no one knows about, and that I will keep to myself for now. The devil is in the details.