Following a compass point up a mountain without a trail is not at all like hiking. It is very much like pushing your way through a crowd, except that everyone in the crowd is covered with spikes, and has complicated, oversized feet you can’t see because of the spikes, so that you trip with every other step, of which there will be about 20,000, which means 10,000 clumsy forward lurches in a single day. I tripped into bogs. I tripped into rock fissures. I tripped into a yellow jackets’ nest. But most of all, I tripped into those spikes, the dead, jagged tree branches that take up most of the space in a forest between the understory and the canopy. It helped when I lifted my feet up high and then purposefully back down again, like a drum majorette. But this was more exhausting than the tripping, which at least pitched me a few more inches closer to my goal.
My goal. When you’re bushwhacking, it’s all about your goal. When a branch sticks into your ribs like a shiv, so that you drop your compass and watch it roll downhill into an immensity of dead leaves, you’ll ask yourself why you couldn’t be happy with the 2,000 miles of trail lovingly maintained by the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, where you can swing one leg in front of the other just as pretty as you please, and be guided by delightful trail markers in red, blue, and yellow. That’s when you think about your goal, your beautiful, wonderful goal of standing astride Doubletop Mountain, the Grand Teton of the Catskills, and taking in the unbroken loveliness of the valley below, first from one peak, then the other. That’s what sent us stumbling up and down Doubletop for 10 hours that late summer day.
Tom and I started out from Frost Valley, following High Falls Brook until it fell away from us, then pointing our compasses northeast toward an unmaintained trail that appears on old maps as starting halfway up the mountain and continuing to the top. After a few miserable hours, we found it. But our blissful cruise didn’t last long. An hour later, the trail ended just as inexplicably as it began.
We resumed bushwhacking but it was getting late now. Our headlamps wouldn’t do much good without a trail to follow, so we had to obey our turnaround time. I knew, from the scent of balsam and the cool air, that we were above 3,500 feet, or about 300 feet from the top. Through the trees, we could just about see it. But we had to stop.
We fell on our lunch like the zombies in The Walking Dead fall on theirs, hunched over in the dirt and shoveling it in by the fistful. People are really into food these days, as if the skillful daily preparation of organic, free range, locally grown ingredients will make your life better. But it’s really life that makes food better. Like this leftover lasagna. After five hours of bushwhacking, it looked like zombie food, but it was the best thing I’d eaten in years. I remember how amazing a can of expired SpaghettiOs that I was too ashamed to give to the food bank tasted on top of Phelps Mountain — how evenly the sauce clung to the O’s, and how not a single O was broken, and what a miracle those tiny meatballs really are. I was moved nearly to tears.
We licked our containers clean then looked over to see what the other one had left. Our eyes met. We traded hard stares. Just try to take this nut bar away from me, Mister.
As we made our slow way back down, I was deeply saddened by the realization that I will never stand on Doubletop. Then I looked down and saw, for the first time, the yellow jacket stings that streaked my arm in deepening shades of purple and yellow. I realized my left knee was swollen, and I didn’t know why. A trickle of blood ran down my neck.
From now on, I’m sticking to the trail.