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Editor's Note: The Great Thing is the Earth Itself 

click to enlarge ed-note_khp_shazam-at-summit.jpg
"The works of man dwindle, and the original features of the huge globe come out. Every single object or point is dwarfed; the valley of the Hudson is only a wrinkle in the earth's surface. You discover with a feeling of surprise that the great thing is the earth itself, which stretches away on every hand so far beyond your ken."

—John Burroughs describing the view from the summit of Slide Mountain

For a few years in the late aughts and early teens of this century, I hiked up Wittenberg Mountain (3780') in early November to celebrate my birthday. A few friends and I would undertake the multi-hour climb, chatting amiably and complaining of the bocce ball-sized rocks strewn everywhere along the path, making looking up a dangerous pursuit lest you stub your toe or twist your ankle.

We'd pop a bottle of (by then warm) sparkling wine at the summit while enjoying the finest views the southern Catskills have to offer, a 180-degree panorama of the Taconic and Berkshire hills to the east and the lesser peaks of the area dotting the landscape undulating down to the Hudson River, which can be seen twisting and turning from this elevation, old river that it is. I'd chosen Wittenberg for this annual excursion because of the payoff of the view at the summit, despite wondering in the back of my mind whether we should have been hiking up Slide Mountain (4180') instead—if only because it's the tallest peak in the Catskills, despite the fact that there is no view from the top, short of scrambling up a Balsam fir.

Around this time, I became aware of, and intrigued by, the Catskill 3500 Club. Membership in this club is open to anyone who has climbed the 35 Catskill peaks above 3500' in elevation (and four of the peaks—Slide, Blackhead, Balsam, and Panther—again in winter, which is defined in the Club's by-laws as the period from December 21 to March 21). Now, not to talk smack about the devoted friends who accompanied me up Wittenberg, but it seemed like every year the pace got a little slower and I was continually finding myself far ahead of the pack with Shazam the Wonder Dog, wondering what was taking everyone so long. So I decided to quicken the pace.

In the fall of 2011, I set myself the goal of joining the 3500 Club. And I was going to do all 35 in a calendar year. I planned on hiking almost every weekend, and some weekdays as well. I was going to crush this 3500 Club thing.

January was warm in 2012, so Shazam and I commenced our assault on the 35 peaks with Sugarloaf (3800') on January 7. We made it up and back to the car in under three hours. There was some snow later that month and into February, so we didn't set out again until March, when we bagged Kaaterskill High Peak (3655'; 2:37), Big Indian (3700'; 3:02), Indian Head (3573'; 3:15), and Windham High Peak (3524'; 2:20). As you can see, I recorded the times. We were basically running up and down these hills. I'd stop at the summit to take a picture and give myself and the dog some water and beef jerky, but mostly we were on the move and right-quick about it too.

What's the view like from the top of Kaaterskill High Peak? I couldn't tell you. I have a photo of Shazam standing next to part of an airplane wing near the summit (see photo above), but that's about it.

We continued our bold, oblivious stab at the 3500 Club through April. ("In assaulting a mountain, as in assaulting a fort, boldness is the watchword."—John Burroughs) We bagged Hunter (4040'; 3:56), Twin (3640'; 2:40), and Balsam Cap (3623'; 4:30), which I guess we never really "bagged" as we could not find the sign-in canister at the summit despite an hour of increasing frustration looking for it after an arduous bushwhack to what I thought was the summit, which had no view anyway. (To be clear, Shazam showed no signs of frustration, only concern over my deteriorating mental state.) Some people climb mountains because they're there; I climb to look down on the earth from on high. Burroughs again: "When one is on a mountain-top, he spends most of the time in looking at the show he has been at such pains to see."

It was Balsam Cap that broke me—no summit, no canister, no view—no good. My big, audacious goal was too much with itself. I hung up my hiking boots for the rest of the summer. In the fall I again summited Wittenberg with my slowpoke pals, cracked open the bubbly, and drank in the awe-inspiring view.

I was reminded of my fool's errand recently as I was rereading the John Burroughs essay, "The Heart of the Southern Catskills," a chronicle of an ascent of he made of Slide in the 1880s, which all the quotes in this essay are from. If you don't know who John Burroughs is, you're not alone, and I doubt that any renaissance of this 19th-century writer/naturalist will be as complete as, say, that of Nick Drake after the "Pink Moon" Volkswagen ad aired. The problem that Burroughs suffers is also his greatest asset as a writer, and his biographer, Ed Renehan, describes him this way: "a literary naturalist with a duty to record his own unique perceptions of the natural world." To those of us used to reading popular science writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Jared Diamond, Burroughs can sound antique. But oh, how his prose can sing of the natural marvels that surround us like no one else. Happily, the North American Review, which published a couple dozen essays by Burroughs, is collecting them in a new volume titled Manifold Nature, which will be released on October 1 with an event at Slabsides, the rustic cabin Burroughs built in Esopus. A preview by our man Sparrow, who sports a beard that rivals Burroughs, appears on page 99.

And, in case you didn't know it, the neighboring peaks of Slide, Cornell, and Wittenberg are known as the Burroughs Range, named after the man himself.

Coda

Thanks to all who came out for the fourth annual Chronogram Block Party on August 20th. We closed down Wall Street in front of our office here in Kingston, and good thing, too, because we needed every inch to accommodate the thousands of people who showed up to celebrate with us. The soft summer night, amazing bands, beguiling street performers, food vendors, adult party beverages, our sponsors, and the Chronogram community created a magical atmosphere and an unforgettable evening. Big props to Samantha Liotta, our events director, for herding logistical cats and organizing an incredible event that came off (yet again) without a hitch—this woman could oversee a heck of a moon landing or large-scale humanitarian effort methinks. Saundi Wilson photographed the event for us—hundreds of images from the block party are posted at Facebook.com/Chronogram.

Speaking of...

  • Editor Brian Mahoney's thoughts on hiking the Catskills in relation to time,self, and beauty.

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