Out Windham Way
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
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
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
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.