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Chapter XII

Out Windham Way

From "The Catskills" (1918)
By T. Morris Longstreth

The window of our room looked out upon a glistening morning. A range of mountains thrust a high sky-line against the early sun. We were arrogantly fresh in spirit from our day of rest, and it did not take much eyeing of the map to arrange an all-day tramp that would give us now country and keep us from the roads. Rationing at a corner store, we set out along the Batavia Kill.

This stream, levying tribute from the spectacular amphitheater of mountains that enclose Big Hollow, is another one of those superlatively enchanting brooks that people love more than they can praise. Fifteen littler brooks unite to lend it volume before it has run three miles. Every few minutes one crosses water -- a poor valley for the devil, but good for Tam o' Shanter.

The great girdle of mountains about the Hollow builds a magnificent wall of green. On the south the long range culminates in twin peaks, Thomas Cole and Black Dome, turns north with Black Head as a pivot, buttresses the east with an even-topped range, swings to the west at Acra Point to Burnt Knob, rises to Windham High Peak, follows southwest along Elm Ridge, and almost yokes-up with the Thomas Cole Range at the village of Big Hollow. Within the valley lies seclusion. From no point can the wind blow with uninterrupted force. Every way is banked with hard-wood greens, darkening near the tops of the mountains into the soberer hues of hemlock.

Thomas Cole was one of the artists who had a sincere love for this region. He was born in England and brought up on the Continent, and it speaks well for his sensibility to fineness that he could settle in Catskill, devote his attentions to the lesser magnificences of these mountains, and still write to the United States Consul at Rome:

"Neither the Alps nor the Apennines nor Etna itself have dimmed in my eyes the beauty of the Catskills. It seems to me that I look on American scenery, if it were possible, with increased pleasure. It has its own peculiar charm -- a something not found elsewhere."

Very appropriately, something of that "peculiar charm" is found in the vicinity of the mountain named for Cole. The "something not found elsewhere" is nowhere more easily caught than in the loveliness of this Windham region. Cole's sentence re-illustrates the truth, so easily overlooked, that the value of mountains resides very little in their measurements. Their virtue lies in their sweep of slopes, their beauty of contours, and the appeal of their covering, whether it be forest, rock, or snow. Largeness may engross the eye, but if at the expense of nobler properties, one emerges sooner or later from the spell and turns to other things. Painters have long known this, and their canvases refuse the elephantine for its own sake.

Black Dome is, of all these mountains, the stiffest climb, but the most worth while: so I have heard, and repeat the rumor-never having climbed it. Its summit is 3,990 feet above the sea and 1,700 above the end of the road, which is about a mile and a half from the top. As we wanted not so much the view of the nest of mountains to the south as the general outlook to the north and west, we determined to attempt Windham High Peak by compass. It was Brute's introduction to the use of what he called the "clever little box."

The art of walking in the woods is susceptible to the perfecting influences of experience and thought. There are all the stages noticeable in other arts, from urban beginnerhood to Indian mastery. There are a dozen ways of putting down your foot. Nearly everyone, for instance, complains about coming downhill, because nearly everyone touches the ground first with the toe or ball of the foot instead of with the heel. If, on a down grade, you put your heel down first, and, allowing your foot to rock forward, end your step with the toes, there is no jar, no strain on the knees. Your progress is more nearly even, and will approach Indian speed.

Walking in the woods without tearing off your clothes, breaking your legs, and sounding like a steam tractor is an art. To walk through them to a fixed destination is a science instinctive in the old-timer, if we are to believe the tales, but certainly not instinctive in the average summerer. Yet, if he has not reached that awful age when immediate comfort is the sole demand, the average summerer is liable to want to wander in the woods. He is liable, I say, at least to the impulse. There are many considerations ready to balk him in the heat of his desire, -- clothes, companionship, convenience,-- but it is not impossible that he should find himself in the woods. Once there, it is equally not impossible that he should not find his way out.

Or, at least, for an uncomfortable while. I have not heard of anybody being fatally lost in the Catskills for several years, although this still happens annually in the greater f orests of the Adirondacks and Maine. In the Catskills every stream runs by a farmhouse sooner or later, while in those other regions a stream is often quite content to end up in an uninhabited pond. Getting lost there is no fun even for professionals, and careless wandering is no proper amusement for amateurs. In the Catskills the only danger would be disablement; for, granting legs, any fool can follow water.

The compass supplies the necessary element of safety to all who walk the woods. Mostly it is just your friend. But in the stress of doubt it must be your dictator. It draws you your straight line and commands you to follow it. Working by it is a test of faith in one Is self. You throw yourself into the wilds with that magnetic phantom up near Hudson's Bay for your sole ally. Your life hangs, not like Damocles' upon a thread, but upon a needle. The test comes some day, when, in the twist of a swamp or the sudden disposition of the sun to wander, you disbelieve. The needle points wrong. The silly box is ailing, seems no longer inspired. Perhaps, you think, the iron in your knife or in some rock has addled it. But woe if your faith wobble.

Or, again, perhaps you've confused the tips of the needle. You think the silver tip points north instead of the iron. That is a fatal self-suggestion. One doubt is equivalent to one demise. A doctor can as easily perform an autopsy upon himself as you straighten out your fancy if you have allowed that thought to come There are two ways of escape, either of which must be prepared beforehand. Buy a compass with N marked on the proper end of the needle, or on the back of the box scratch some designation by which you shall know in the hour of trial. Scratch this before you leave home. Otherwise there is sure to come a moment when the world turns upside down and water runs uphill, and, like the children of Nineveh, you cannot tell your right hand from your left.

We reached the top of Windham when shadows were shortest. Opal lands fled f rom our mountain's foot and into the mellow haze of noon, dark woodlot and white farm alternating until they were lost in their vague companionship.

We had our lunch on the top of the mountain, in a dining-room walled with small firs, carpeted with snow, ceilinged with remote white clouds, and pictured with glimpses of the bottomlands. It was furnished with a rock for table, a log for chairs. A slow-moving breeze came through the balsam windows, and the chirp of snow-birds with the call of the chickadee were our entertainment. Peace, comfort, that inner harmony, which alone is supreme happiness, were ours.

"Down there they're running about and worrying just like us a f ew days ago," said Brute, "and here we are as free and easy as a school of fish. Why can't we keep this feeling down there?"

"Full-size people do."

"Well, to-day'll fit us for a size larger, anyway."

The top of the plateau was cross-harried with the tracks of snowshoe rabbits. I should like to have had along one of these literary naturalists who read so easily their storiettes in the snow. Here was a volume of Dumas cut into serial lengths and published without the pages being numbered. The boy and I attempted to unravel a detective story in forty parts written by a large jack-hare. But he brought in so many characters and acted so unaccording to Doyle that we lost the thread in the general scramble. The newspaper of the wild is dramatic, captivating, and different from others, because it prints only the news. But it is easy to overlook, difficult to decipher, and editions succeed each other so fast, at least in rabbit-land, that it is impossible to keep up with the times.

The only way to read animal news-sheets or to enjoy nature in any of her embodiments is to obey the dictates not of conscience but of the heart. There is a certain type of earnest soul who frets herself into discontent because she is not making the most of her opportunity. If she is in the woods, the fact that she does not know the names of all the mosses worries her. Because she has the chance she ought to improve it, she saysadmirable ambition, but miserable practice. I believe that the true nature-lover is a more desultory kind. He does not castigate himself because he feels, as July comes on, that his interest in birds is waning. Even the birds' interest in each other wanes then. He does not prod himself into a fury of investigation over the different fungi, careering through the woods with four volumes under his arms. He goes about his fishing, and notes the fungi by the way.

Nature will not suffer herself to be gone at, hammer and tongs. Neither is she an example of steadiness. The man who allows his moods to follow hers lets less escape him than the man who must enjoy nature at any cost. A goal can be a fatal barrier to progress.

"Wouldn't it be bully to spend enough time up here to get full of it!" exclaimed Brute.

A summer night on a mountain-top makes time standards seem incoherent. You begin to size up eternity after you've spent about an hour on your back looking up-at Night.

"It 's pretty huge," I said, "but I'd like to do it again."

"I'll do it with you," said Brute, putting out his hand.

I took it, but limited the moon in which we should take our dip into eternity with a specification of warmth. As my memory groped back to that other time on Tahawus' top with Lynn, it also brought back that great line about Mount Blanc:

"And visited all night by troops of stars."

We sauntered along the ridge of Windham High Peak, speculating on the airs of hares, and examining the tracks of deer to discover the sex, size, and state of mind. The afternoon was in mid-bloom, and very still. All the beasts heard us before we saw them. In one place deer tracks showed that a certain south-facing depression was a favorite haunt, and we found where they had slept. The whole mountain seemed a preferred range of theirs. Although the gradual increase of population is islanding the wooded heights and limiting their grounds, the game-wardens know their job, and if the State will make central sanctuaries wherein there shall be absolutely no killing there should be deer enough to grace the whole Catskill country. Unfortunately, deer do not distinguish sufficiently between their own provender and hand-grown cabbages. They draw no distinctions between wild oats and domestic. It is possible to consider the gentle doe that regularly devours your corn as-anything but an object of love. There are better ways than extinction, however, of excluding even the unruly doe.

East Windham is a pleasant village for sound sleep, and in the morning the inhabitants have merely to roll over in bed to exchange their views of dark wooded heights for variable plains. The expanse of lowland to the northeast wears lovely draperies of white mist of an early morning, and at all times is a barometer to depend on. In clear weather the farms and woodlots and hedgerows, villages and fattened hills, shine out with clear outlines, like a Mozart melody. But, when a change is making the color harmonies grow richer, the counterpoint becomes confused, and one hears Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun" blending into twilight adagios of Beethoven. Then, if there should be a moon, down the valley sound the flutes and violins of Mendelssohn, elfinwise. It was well when the first settler slept on the eaves of such a view. . . .

"Are you asleep?" I followed up my inquiry with a pillow.

Brute opened an eye and grinned, the very picture of a loafer, sunburned with snow-glare, sprawling beneath much blanket, limp and lazy as an invalid. Suddenly his nature changed. He grabbed a pillow and let it hail upon me, gently as a pile-driver, shouting:

"Sure; I'm sound asleep. This is only a nightmare."

The nightmare, unhitched and quite untractable, raged until the furniture began to show signs of wear. Yet exercise that would have left us faint two weeks before seemed but a trifling appetizer now, and at the breakfast-table we determined on a genuine cross-country from mountaintop to mountain-top, which we named the Stunt of the Seven Summits. Nor need it mar the alliterative effect to say that ere nightfall we did nine.

Have you ever felt so fit that it hurts to be still? That is where a walking trip will put you if you don't exceed your strength at first. Good sleep, good food, and a refusal to fatigue is the result of regular stint-say ten miles at first, which will become twenty at last. The habit of ten miles in the morning, six in the afternoon and four after supper is soon acquired, and becomes, I may say without trying for effect, almost incidental to the day's work. Once acquired, how one scorns the mood that tempted one to sit on club porches or, worse, within sealed libraries! Yet, once more at home, the dust of the road falls from one, the trolley, the automobile, or the train must be taken for a two-mile trip, the window-seat is tenable only if the window be closed. It hurts to move. Thus does flesh round out the intellect!

The Stunt of the Seven Summits looked well on paper. The range of mountains that begins so auspiciously at Acra Point, and takes even more credit to itself for Windham High Peak, does obeisance at East Windham before it continues its course northwestward. It was to puff-the first pull that brought us to the summit of Mount Zoar. Although there had been a crisp frost, the air seemed to intimate that there was a softness just around the corner. While we kept to the sun-sheltered side of the ridge the snow was comfortably hard and progress fast. We soon reached Ginseng, summit number two, and were careful not to take the spur, which lures one to the south. Keeping along the ridge for an hour or more, we were only a little bothered by contours and not much by brush. Occasionally the ax, a slightly larger brother of the small "scout" ax, was a help, and the map, eked out by observation and a few timely hints from the compass, got us safely to number three, Mt. Hayden.

Next came Nebo. He who named these peaks had evidently primed himself well with the Old Testament before setting out on his christening expedition. He didn't make use of all his opportunities, for there was an eerie place that the Witch of Endor might have utilized, and to the north obviously ran the Valley of Jehoshaphat. We hastened over to Pisgah, a scorner of Nebo with an altitude of 2,885. By this time we were so elated with our progress on the large-scale map that we spurned the easy road that we had to cross. A large-scale map is valuable, among other things, for just this propelling power. It is discouraging to crawl through thickets and clamber up ravines from dawn till dusk, only to find that you have advanced an inch on the map. But, where every inch means a mile, a good day will take you from sheet to sheet, and lure you by that appeal to voracity so deeply planted in every true American. You will eat up the miles by the finger-length.

On Pisgah we had lunch, and from it a view that would have done credit to Zion. Westward extends a ridge from which the ground falls away with all the emphasis of parachuting. Then there is a broadening out of the summit, which takes to itself the name of Richtmyer Peak. Thence our course shifted to southwest for another hour, and upon Richmond Mountain, 3,213 feet, grew a, spruce from which spread a view over new lands. There was considerable haze, but we could make out the basin-like valley of the Manorkill on the northwest. On the west rose Huntersfield, while to the south Ashland sat at the bottom of long slopes.

We were now getting fairly tired. The snow was soft everywhere, and suddenly our efforts became noticeable. Our wanderings wouldn't have been more than ten miles for a crow, but we weren't crows and some of them had been vertical. We had passed Ashland Pinnacle when the question had to be answered: should we do Huntersfield! It loomed dark against the sun. There was something satanically inviting in the idea of topping this culmination of the range. Besides, it would be our tenth peak. Who invented the decimal system, anyway! It was that decided us, I believe.

A traveler possessed of either ambition or a sense of duty must never blame others for his misfortunes. If this human monstrosity aims at a mountain-peak that is over his height, and then in the face of obstacles persists in directing himself toward it, he can expect to be lonely and unhappy. Brute and I were to experience the reward of such virtues in a measure unprecedented in our ethical past. Quite exhausted by our moral victory in deciding to continue, we sat down to rest on number nine, called Lost Mountain. Had we only accepted the omen of this name, had we been the slightest bit open to pagan superstition, we might have been spared the crown of martyrdom that we were about to wear. But, alas, there was no such tendency in our make-up. We must surmount Huntersfield or perish, we said. We surmounted it-and perished.

I can truthfully lay our undoing to the cat. it was getting distressfully late, and we were very tired. But we came to something that could have been nothing else but what it was -- a wildcat's track. Although I had never seen one, there was no mistaking the pussy-paws, as large as a man's palm, in the soft snow; the single track that followed one fallen log after another, occasionally making jumps of a couple of yards; the occasional detour around a bush, perhaps for birds. We had listened to enough stories about wild-cats to be a little suspicious of their presence, for the common is rarely made a marvel of by woodsmen; but, on the other hand, wildcat skins were brought in, two or three a winter. Here we were on the trail of one. It is not to be wondered at that we let the sun go his way while we went ours and the cat's.

A stimulus like that completely banishes the tired feeling. We followed our beast for a mile or more, then lost it in a dense thicket-lost it, not because of the denseness, but because the sun, which had been withdrawing little by little like a woman at a court presentation, suddenly turned and bolted. It left us not only in the dark, but in the woods somewhere, the place not specified. Brute looked at me, and I looked at him. As we couldn't see each other very plainly, it didn't matter.

My only criticism of the Catskills as mountains is their reluctance to come to the point. If Huntersfield had been a Rocky Mountain, all we should have had to do would have been to keep going up, with assurance that we should finally be able to balance on the apex. Huntersfield, so aptly named, we could tell from the map as well as from experience with other Catskills, was a nest of associate tops, the highest of which would be disguised by forest, deceptive slopes, and a level summit. Our one object was clearly to reach a house, and not to bother with a peak that would play a sort of mountain tag with us. Yet we preferred to come out on the south side, and thought that, if possible, we might take in the crest of the ridge on the way.

It is not generally realized that there are very few nocturnal animals, that is, animals that prefer the hours of night between ten and four. Almost all animals prefer the two twilights, after sunset and before dawn, for their roaming. This is a preference that Brute and I can now very readily understand. Twilight for us, though ominous, was distinctly agreeable compared to the inner darkness that soon bundled us up and stowed us away in its light-tight compartment. If all the poets who sing about the stars could recognize how very feeble they are, they might take up incandescent bulbs or something worth while. That night I would have traded in all the glories of Orion for one electric torch.

Our assets were a few matches, a great deal of time, and Brute's temperament. Not that the things he said were such pearls of either wit or wisdom, but his running comment and the warm contagion of his laugh were balm to fatigue. He extemporized a song on mountainclimbing, with the refrain, "Every little bit more is a little bit less," and we plodded up with hunger and weariness held temporarily at bay.

Nothing is very difficult if you tackle it in small enough bits. Quite careless of consequences now, we bent all our energies upon not breaking our legs. We also aimed uphill. Occasionally a light spot would deceive, and often a mass of evergreen detain us; otherwise it wasn't so bad. Yet we dare not go fast. Even at our snail pace, a dead limb caught Brute's trousers, and I heard the rip. "Ain't we just tearin' along!" was his comment.

For an hour we went up grade. We must have gone a mile. Then, as unexpectedly as rewards should come, came ours. The trees fell away on all sides of us; the ineffectual stars once more assumed their sovereignty. We were on the peak of either Huntersfield or some other mountain just as good, and the idea that dwells on all mountaintops occurred to Brute and me at the same moment.

"We shook on it this morning; are you game?" I asked.

"I'd rather stay here a week than grub my way down in that blackness."

Thus it came about that we set ourselves the job of being comfortable in the snow, with nothing between us and the North Star.

The night was quiet and the temperature only a few degrees below freezing. It was but little labor to scrape away the snow from a rock-ledge, to upholster it with branches from the small balsams, to start a fire. With the fire going, it was easy to get more substantial wood, and in the light and warmth a midnight snack of raisins, crackers, and chocolate found its way to a place predestined to enjoy it.

Then we talked. While the things we talked about were not very relevant to this book I can say that they helped to light that gulf of darkness between man and man that can never be entirely penetrated, but that broadens from the spark of acquaintance through the faint glow of intimacy into the steady shine of friendship. Later we both nodded off.

I woke to find the east red in the face from the cold, our fire out, and gray clumps of frosted bushes huddling in the dim light. Brute stirred. In two hours we were discussing the day's plans over griddle-cakes and coffee in a hospitable farmhouse kitchen near Red Falls.

 

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