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On Getting Lost: a Premonition of Hope in the Catskills

So I climb the mountains in snow, the ice is hurling on the wind, forming from the breath on my beard, and in the balsam fir like diamonds and pearls.   And in the genius of the sun in the west after a day full of cloud, all the world is in rapture. Do I care about the madmen below in the cities?  Not at all.   Here we find habitat for creatures other than men, and that’s a delight.  The coyote tracks are in their places.  In the frozen marshes of the cols especially, but also at the peaks they have been wandering and I wish I’d heard them sing.  There is no future for mankind without these others.

I am lost for a few hours in the cold and the ice in the Catskills.  That’s good enough.   Feet are fleet, arms are ready.  I’ve brought no food except chocolate, which is gone. Water is gone, so I eat the snow.  It is a sweet light luscious water on the tongue when it melts.  The sun is falling, blanketing the earth with a sense of doom and purpose and glory.  There will be a night hike out.

I’m looking for the canister placed on the peak by the Catskill 3500 Club, whose membership I’m trying to attain.  It’s a ridiculous membership of course.  “We all want to be part of the cult,” says a hiker on my way up.  He’s with two others, a male and a female.  I’ve been hiking in the mountains for the past week and have seen no one, talked to no one, have been very alone, and have been glorying in this idea of the Catskills where few people want to climb the peaks.

These aren’t even mountains.  The Catskills are an eroded plateau.   I read in a history of the region that if not for the softening effect of the last glaciation, the Wisconsin of 11,000 years ago, the Catskills would have worn away much as the canyonlands of the West did, becoming sharp and precipitous.

And thereby the Catskills, as in the canyonlands, would have degenerated into a tourist draw. So thanks, big thanks, you glaciers – you killed off tourism ten millennia ago.  Instead, what has been given us?   Mere habitat for the wild things, and watersheds weeping for joy from the melt of the snow.  It’s a place without any of the marketeers’ required qualities.  No high peaks, epic vistas, big slopes.  In the Catskills, one finds in the woods the small, the secret things, the tracks of the Other.

I find his sign more common in the Catskills than, say, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  In the Whites there are a lot of trails and roads and huts and maps and ideas for how great these places are, and there are the investors and second-home owners and ski-enthusiasts and high-peak maniacs, and there are towns with restaurants and bars and there are big views from the peaks, and Backpacker and Outside Magazine assure us these are the peaks to climb – and my ecologist friends say you will be climbing in a dead place.  Ice and rock.  What lives here but a little man with his viewshed from the mountaintop?

So I am confined to the pitiful broken plateau of the Catskills where no one wants to go.  One day I got lost, I said to hell with the map and the compass.  I came upon a forest of the ancient sweet-smelling balsam fir high on a mountaintop.  The world was rimed in frost, silver and gold.  Everything was still, the coyotes didn’t sing.  Then boiling up from the valley there was a squall of snow, and the eye of the sun was swallowed in tumult.  I lay in the snow, rolled in it, buried my face, I heard the wash of the wind in the fir, and I was wet with sweat, and delight, and desire, and all that mattered was in the forest when the snow and wind shot through it.

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Christopher Ketcham is the author of the forthcoming “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West,” out next year from Viking-Penguin.  He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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