Land in the Sky: Signs Along the Way

The collie puppy and I decided to do some winter bushwhacking. I grabbed the map nearest to hand—a facsimile 1893 USGS topo for Durham, New York—and headed out the door. We set off through the woods. Here in the Catskill Mountains, the woods do not come to an end. They just keep going. A few inches of hardened snow covered the ground. Easy walking for me and the collie puppy. The cold wind was at our backs. And in our ears. We walked and we walked and we walked. We crossed the track of many a deer. No hints of any living people, just the traces of those long gone—in the form of old stone walls, lithified lines of gnomic verse across the landscape. We started following one. We were drawn deeper into the woods. Our direction was toward the base of a mountain.

DEC-SignWithout warning, we came upon an official sign put up by the state. We looked at it. It was shiny and new and denoted the boundary of a wilderness area. We stuck to this line and came upon another sign denoting the same thing. Then another. The shiny signs continued to appear along the old stone wall. In the 19th century, these rock fences established the bounds of a pasture. The pasture has since vanished. Forest succession took care of that. Eventually the shiny signs petered out, but the old wall kept going. And so did we. The wall finally came to an end in a grove of dying hemlocks at the lip of a deep ravine. Below was a big creek buried under snow.

On the other side of the ravine rose the steep, wooded spur of a mountain named after a famous 19th century landscape painter. That painter never set foot on this peak. He must have known better. That didn’t stop us. We plunged into the daunting ravine, crossed the snowy creek, and started up the precipitous slope. The higher we climbed, the deeper the snow became. The wind grew louder. We were well above any shiny signs or old stone walls. The few game trails we saw all led downhill.

We continued our ascent, but the collie puppy was starting to have his doubts. The snow was now up to my knees and his neck. Drifts were deeper still. Neither of us had snowshoes. I pressed on, breaking the trail. The collie puppy followed close behind. On and on this went, higher and higher. Formidable ledges loomed above us. The sky turned a ferocious blue. The wind became a bitter dragon-roar.

The collie puppy at last lost patience. Surely, more fun was to be had down below in the sheltered hollow where the deer were running. Why climb this snowbound peak forsaken even by its namesake? He started scolding me, nipping at my calves, treating me like an errant sheep. I told him to stop. He barked. I told him to stop. There was no appeasing him. I had forgotten his cheese. He barked and he barked and he barked. At last I relented, “Okay, we’ll go down!” He yipped with delight. He frolicked in the drifts. He led the way downslope. We dropped our elevation in a quarter of the time it took to gain it. The wind subsided. The snow wasn’t so deep. The terrain leveled out. The deer tracks reappeared.

We came upon what seemed to be an old road, bordered by another stone wall. The road—barely a track, to be honest—had long since fallen off the newer maps, but there it was on my old map. We followed this road down a gentle hill. It was like strolling along in 1893, only through woods instead of pastures. We passed a spring and a cellar hole filled with snow. A former home site—it too was on the map. We kept walking until we came to a feature not on the old map: another of those shiny signs marking the boundary of the wilderness area. This one was nailed to a tree near what was once a gate in the stone wall. We passed through the gate without any trouble. After that it was the same all the way home.