Walking Without a Path
To move across Earth’s surface, without a path, is an uncommon experience. Yellow and white lines, yield and stop signs, traffic lights, sidewalk borders, hallway edges are so familiar we barely notice we’re being guided. The only unmarked landscapes most of us ever encounter are lawns, or parking lots. Little kids sometimes venture into unfamiliar yards and fields and woods, creating cut-throughs and secret spots and new trails, discovering stones and creeks and important trees. But adults? Even airline pilots follow paths through the sky.
Last winter I climbed Mount Ashley, a little-noticed ridge in the South Taconic Mountains not far from the Appalachian Trail. To start, I followed a blue-blazed trail a couple of miles to a stream whose source was a saddle between Ashley to the north and Mount Frissel to the south.
Ashley Hill trail is narrow but distinct, identified every twenty yards or so by blue rectangles painted on trees. Leaving it felt like leaping off the edge of a boat. I edged sideways around mountain laurel bushes, keeping that stream within eyesight, figuring it would guide me in the right direction for a while. The temperature was around thirty, the sun sealed away behind layers of clouds.
So many things around us are invisible because we’re not interested. But as soon as I left the trail behind, I got interested: in the serrated edges of lichen coating the stones at my feet, the birches hanging on to the banks of the stream, a branch trembling under the weight of a chickadee. The tilt of the land mattered. Was the rise to my left really Mount Ashley, or just a nameless bump? The air in my mouth had a faintly metallic taste — snow on the way? The stream wandered south, away from my goal. Should I leave it behind?
I felt nervous, lonely, and thoroughly alive. Through a web of bare branches, I thought I could see the outline of a mountain to the south. My map said this ought to be Mount Frissel, but my compass didn’t quite concur. I made up my mind to call it Frissel, which meant I needed to swing north and start climbing. If I was wrong?
There wasn’t any tremendous danger in my trip. If I’d somehow injured myself so badly I couldn’t move, I might have been in serious trouble – no cell service up there. But my wife knew the area I was hiking in. It’s only about a mile between the Ashley Hill trail and a road to the east. As long as I kept in one direction, I had no chance of getting lost – bound to come out on a road or a recognizable trail. Still, as I climbed, my heart sometimes floated into my throat.
Rocks rose above me. When I reached them I discovered coyote turds, left on a lookout spot. I grabbed hold of a ledge of shale, and hauled myself a little further up (I thought) Mount Ashley. When I reached a summit, and a clearing, I spotted distant but recognizable humps I knew: Bear Mountain to the south, and Race to the north. Elation surprised me. Look! Someone, or maybe many someones, had heaped stones to mark the top of Mount Ashley. Who were they? Why had they bothered? How long had the stone-stack waited for a new someone to see it?
Other oases of open rock were hedged off by mountain laurel. I whacked through the laurel and foun better views, and wondered how many people had ever stood on that particular spot on Earth – even though a road was only a mile away, and Times Square a hundred or so.
Sitting by the stone marker, eating my sandwich, I grew chilled. In the gray sky, black seams marked boundaries between colliding clouds. The air felt heavy. So I headed down the east side of Mount Ashley, and made a terrible mistake.
Here’s a rule for anyone who decides to go bush-whacking in eastern woods, one I ought to have known cold: when you hit a stand of mountain laurel, go around it. Don’t ever, ever go through it.
Mountain laurel wants a monopoly over the ground it grows on, and usually gets it. A few lonely birches managed to rise above the mass of winter green I faced, but little else. Laurel branches begin at ground level, reach well over your head, twist and curl and braid together and grab hold of your feet when you’re not looking.
OK, that last statement is not objectively true, but I wasn’t feeling very objective as I struggled through that thicket. I assumed it would soon give way to more open forest, but I was wrong.
After half an hour of fighting through supple branches, getting slapped in the face, tripping over logs shrouded in greenery, crawling when that seemed easier, a certain mania took over and I flailed, cursed, and tried desperately to go faster, which only made me stagger and fall and curse more. I came to a ravine, free of laurel, clambered down one side and up the other, and found – more laurel.
But at last, when I reached a road, a peculiar satisfaction socked me: I’d made it! Without markers, I’d found my way.
Never mind that you know the danger is minimal: hiking off-trail I carry, along with my lunch and water bottle, the primal fear of never finding my way out of the dark forest. I love it for the same reason some people love horror movies: fear, capped, is a kick. To step away from a marked trail, in deep woods — not knowing quite where you are – is spooky but exciting.
Fear is an emotion both necessary, and dangerous. Out of control, it can cripple and paralyze people for moments or months or sometimes entire lives. Stretches of my life have been squeezed by fear.
But fear has its role. I’ve bushwhacked all over the South Taconics, surprised by tumbled-in nineteenth century cellar holes, broken stone dams, a beaver pond near the summit of Alander Mountain, a half-acre of ferns glowing with the pale green of June along Cedar Run, a line of very old telephone poles along a forgotten woods road near Bash-Bish Creek, and once, on the flank of Alander, a pile of wooden moldings and trim. They’re all secrets that, perhaps, only I am privileged to tell. They remind me that the line past fear can lead to discovery, and discovery makes us richer in affinity: sympathy for the life and things around us.
Sometimes I wonder: do the life and things around us need to be seen, to be completed? The birch leaves, the stones, the chickadees: are they completed when we regard them, like a book being opened? Are we made entire, when they see us?