Land in the Sky: Accidents in North American Mountaineering

East of the Catskills I park close to the summit of Mount Walmart. This prominent snow peak reminds me of Mount Jefferson in the Oregon Cascades. It can be tricky. Today the route looks sketchy. The weather could go either way. And my microspikes are dull. So I abandon any ambitions of ascent I might have had and head into the store.

Nobody knows me in this place, even though I buy stuff here all the time for reasons unknown and I probably don’t need to. I could go elsewhere, maybe another Walmart, but I’m fond of this one, so leave me alone.

Today I need new underwear. Alas, that doesn’t happen. Instead I make an impulse buy: a Dremel tool. This way I can sharpen my microspikes. I will also need to buy a little grinding stone attachment for my new Dremel. See how one impulse leads to another and the same old underwear because now the money has run out?

Anyway, once I get paid for this piece of writing, I will come back here in good weather. My wallet will be flush. I will have freshly-sharpened microspikes and new underwear. Properly outfitted then, I will attempt the tricky summit of Mount Walmart. I know it’s a dream. You come too.

Land in the Sky: On Labels

Today at a supermarket in the Catskill Mountains I saw a bottle of vegetable juice adorned with remarkable labeling: “100% Juice with Added Ingredients.” What manner of adjective is this percent? I wasn’t totally sure. I stood there longer than I should have, pondering which language game I was being invited to play. What were the rules? What exactly was at stake here? Whatever could this mean? The middle of the supermarket juice aisle is no place to philosophize. Others needed access to the goods. Nobody else was reading labels, much less subjecting them to hermeneutic scrutiny. “Just who do you think you are?”

A decent respect to the needs of my fellow shoppers required I suspend further thought till the drive home, wherein I passed a pizza parlor housed on the first floor of what appeared to be a haunted house next door to a junkyard, then an erstwhile fairground long since overrun by scruffy trees, among them a single staghorn sumac, then a shuttered bar and grill where I used to have dinner and drinks with my dad on our way home from visiting my mom in the nursing home, past that was the occasional burned-down summer resort of yesteryear, but mostly it’s like motoring through a Hudson River School painting with gas stations and utility poles and oh so very scenic. I do my best thinking while driving because that’s usually when I have no thoughts at all, just like taking a shower or posting on Facebook, but today I got stuck behind a smoky old pickup, license plate hanging by a single rusty screw, great big Stars and Bars draped across the back window, just as we were passing the untended historic graveyard with its big Civil War monument smack in the middle of a manufactured memory.

And that’s when it hit me: 100% American with added ingredients.

Land in the Sky: Another Mountain Excursion

The collies sit for hot dogs as well as cheese, what good boots these are, this Election Day summit of Wittenberg Mountain, heart of the southern Catskills, broad picnic scenery, drowned towns of the Ashokan, no porcupines persecuted in or on our account, onward then to Cornell and Slide (highest in the range, hides itself from near view), “not real mountains” some say outside knowledge, blowdowns and memories of vistas since obscured, dark waves of forest succession extend into stroll down unfrequented side of peak along abandoned trail of steps buried in leaves, eye of limited service here, foot feels through sole the forgotten path, around and down and down, down past “Posted” signs into thick ferns and composting drifts of bygone summer shade, descending sun, fast-fading registry of deeds, a party pushing through, fourteen-plus cliffy miles come to an end, into the car and go, stop at Brio’s for hamburgers ordered off the “Doggy Menu” lovingly hand fed by tuckered-out vegetarian ward as he downs a beer and another.

Land in the Sky: After That Visit to Walden Pond

When we emerged from the cocktail lounge, it became clear–largely because daylight had returned or maybe had become something other than it ordinarily is–that we should have stuck to beer and ignored what was happening on the television. In any case, now we had to find a ride home and figure out all over again–or maybe for the first time–who we were and how we got there. You went first. The rest are still waiting for your call.

Land in the Sky: Hudson Valley Landscape

Sometimes get into the car and just drive roads unfamiliar or simply unremembered perhaps from childhood past fading farms with ruinous silos collapsing into goldenrod profusions empty of monarchs what only last year or the year before were pastures for cow painters or fields of knee-high by the Fourth of July signs everywhere along the road this one says “1968 National Highway Beauty Award” hard to see that obscured by encroaching trees as is an old cemetery tucked in among thickening shade of ash and maple close by leafy-laned driveways to second homes of successful artists from the city before all opens out unexpectedly into expansive playing fields rising up from which a new regional high school at first mistaken for correctional institution after that hand-painted banner in front of a ramshackle farmhouse with yard cars the message “Make America Grate Again” till abrupt arrival at a sagging redbrick river town “Awaiting Restoration” according to notices in the vacant storefront windows nowhere around here to get a cup of coffee nowhere to go no more history so stroll along a weedy path to river’s edge where green signs mark “NYS Permitted Discharge Point” and in the park right next to that the annual “Blessing of the Animals” going on today pit bulls and kittens goldfish in a bowl one roly-poly child with teddy bear seeking priest blessings bestowed and thoughts of heading home but which way to go how about another unfamiliar this or that road past mothballed generating station until utterly turned around maybe get on the Thruway and pull into a rest stop we all know the way home from there.

Land in the Sky: No Going Back

Thirty years ago, my friend Charlie and I got lost while backpacking in the northeast corner of Yosemite National Park. It was all my fault but that’s a long story, almost as long as the “shortcut” I suggested we take that got us lost in the first place. We were committed and there was no going back. Anyhoo, at one point I turn to Charlie and say: “You know, this is someplace we’re never gonna be in again.” And he says: “Or anybody else either.” northern-yosemite

Land in the Sky: Sometimes We Sit

Sometimes we sit in this place, just stare out the window at mountains and forests and parking lots. This is Alaska and that’s what happens here. Elsewhere it’s another story. And another. And yet another. A less pleasant story, one that’s on its way. It draws closer and closer. It will be here soon. What ever shall we do?

Look! There. See! Our reflection in the window.

Land in the Sky: Between the Lines

The new parking lot in Alaska is already becoming sketchy. The yellow lines laid down just last year are fading. You can barely read them anymore. Soon they’ll be gone altogether, erased by sun. Drivers then will be forced to fill in the blanks. They will park as best as they can, as best as they can remember where the lines once were, where the lines ought to be, as they are or ought to be in all the other lots within the horizon of their experience: supermarkets and mega-churches, stadiums and mortuaries. That would be the best case scenario.

It could go otherwise. It probably will. Without the lines to guide them, people will park wherever there’s an opening or an opening can be made. In short order, chaos will ensue. The pavement will fill up with vehicles parked any which way, just as a blank page is heaped with somebody’s ill-begotten words. Things will spill out onto the margins, even beyond. The whole scene will come to look like a junkyard.

Land in the Sky: Our Hero

My informant for this story is my wife. I was gone for the day hiking.

Catherine took the collies for their morning walk. The big collie—still licking the wounds inflicted to his self-esteem by yesterday’s mishap at the haunted well—decided he needed some alone time. So off he darted once again through the woods to the Stinky Pond. Nothing like a good mud spa to salve a collie’s injured pride. He was gone a good half hour or more. Meanwhile Catherine and the little collie continued on their peaceful stroll through the woods. Eventually they started heading home and still no sign of the big collie.

Just for a change of scenery, they decided to take a lesser-used path that runs along the side of the hill, among the broken ledges and immense dying hemlocks. Some of the biggest trees on Paradise Hill are found here. Also some of the biggest bears, who leave some of the biggest scats you’ll ever find in the woods. And if you can’t find one yourself, don’t worry, the little collie will. And wouldn’t you know it, this morning she did. A nice big, fresh, steaming pile of hell candy! Upon which the little collie promptly plopped down and started to roll. What fun! The only thing better than this would be to tangle with the bear itself.

Oh wait! This was the little collie’s lucky day! That poor bear was right over there, not more than a couple hundred feet away, fresh from its innocent crap. And the little collie was off! She charged right at the bear—barking barking barking! For its part, the bear started with a menacing look, then gave a growl, then started charging right back. The little collie—no dummy— immediately turned tail and started blazing back toward Catherine, who surely could fix this little problem.

This story might not be ending well were it not for the big collie. Out of nowhere—or more likely, the Stinky Pond—he burst from the hemlock shadows—charging, growling, barking—and heading straight for the oncoming bear! Now it was the bear’s turn to turn tail and flee. The big collie was right after it—barking barking barking. The chase concluded when the bear wisely scooted up a tree. The big collie stopped, looked up, and reckoned his job was done.

He turned around and trotted back—smiling triumphant—to Catherine and the little collie, who were awaiting the return of their stinky hero.

Land in the Sky: Behave

For the last six weeks I’ve been “weeding the woods.” That’s what my neighbor George calls my crusade against garlic mustard. Also known as Alliaria petiolata, garlic mustard is labeled by environmental authorities as an “invasive species.” Not that there’s anything wrong with invasive species—I’m one myself, maybe you are too—but garlic mustard is an exceptionally ill-behaved newcomer. It respects no bounds.

The Cooperative Extension website reports that “garlic mustard has spread throughout much of the United States over the past 150 years, becoming one of the worst invaders of forests in the American Northeast and Midwest.” It’s spread primarily by the traffic of human beings and their livestock. Left unchecked, garlic mustard will infest a forest faster than cheap housing tracts do prime ag land.

So every spring I’m out there in the woods—pulling, yanking, raking over garlic mustard wherever I spot it on our thirty acres. A fruitless task, I know, but if nothing else it allows me to say, without exaggeration, that I know every square inch of this land of ours. It’s relaxing to be outside in the fresh air on Paradise Hill, wandering up and down the steep wooded slopes, with a rake over my shoulder and a couple of collies bounding along by my side.

“You’re not going to eradicate it,” a weed expert recently admonished me. “The best you can hope for is to teach it to behave.” That’s funny. Sister Mary Dorothy used to say the same thing about me.