There are at least two ways to avoid crowds on the trails at Minnewaska State Park: go during the week or wait till November. Since the first option may not be available to those with Monday through Friday work schedules, the second is the most universally accessible. When deciduous trees are bare, and chill north winds are blowing, one’s chances for a nearly solitary hike here are greatly increased. As much as I love the splendor of autumn foliage, I am ready to embrace the austerity of late fall, with its more austere palette of gray and brown, the contrasting greens of pine and hemlock and its cold, though not yet freezing, temperatures. As I begin my walk on this blustery but bright Saturday before Thanksgiving, rounding the north end of Lake Minnewaska on a carriage road I have almost to myself, I say, TGIN: “Thank God it’s November!”
The relative solitude I experience today extends to wildlife as well as people. Not even a lone duck or goose appears on the wind-swept surface of the lake and there are no hawks in the sky, or songbirds singing from the mountain laurel thickets. A few juncos scatter before my approach, flashing their white outer tail feathers and a single turkey vulture sails below the cliff when I reach Beacon Hill. And that is all I see of bird life. As for animals, I catch the sharp musk of a fox on the breeze and come upon a midden of what look at first like wild cherry stones chewed by deer mice on a rock ledge as I walk the Beacon Hill Path from the point where it meets the Beacon Hill Carriageway. Upon closer inspection, though, I see that these seeds are elliptical, not round, and the trees above the ledge are tupelo, or black gum, not black cherry trees. The blue-black berries are gone from the trees and this pile of nibbled pits remains as evidence that mice have been feasting on them, using this stone shelf as a convenient dinner table. I don’t expect to see tupelo trees here, in this rocky upland, so high above the swamps where I usually find them littering the ground with their scarlet leaves in October. But Donald Culross Peattie, in his Natural History of Trees, mentions an upland variety of tupelo, which he calls “yellow gum.” Like its wetland cousin, this upland tupelo shows the distinctive horizontal, or tiered, branching pattern that is unlike that of any other hardwood tree I know.
Aside from the scant whiff and sign of animal life I’ve encountered, I am alone in this landscape with the primal presences of stone, water and sky. From Beacon Hill, the main Shawangunk ridge crests like a wave that breaks at Skytop and the unseen highway passes through a notch below the Trapps, through which the Village of New Paltz can be seen in the distance. The Catskills form a blue skyline of peaks to the west and in the middle distance are the valleys of the Rondout, Coxing Kill and Peters Kill. Returning from this overlook on the Beacon Hill Path, the Wallkill Valley is below me and beyond that the Hudson.
Though I can’t see the Hudson River, I get clear views to the south of the bend called “World’s End” where it snakes through the Highlands. On the narrow path I’m walking, however, alongside sheer walls of conglomerate, my attention is drawn to the tenacious plant life: on the stone itself, blistery rock tripe lichen and evergreen polypody fern, and on either side of the trail, wind-stunted pitch pines bristling with cones, white pines with their graceful sprays of long needles, hemlocks and gray birches whose twigs bear clusters of brown seed catkins. Low to the ground there is wintergreen with ruby-red berries, sheep laurel and patches of gray-green reindeer “moss,” actually a lichen. Another kind of lichen completely sheathes the branches of a shrub with its lacy growth. In the forest understory, witch hazel clings to a few yellow blossoms alongside pods that have burst open to expel their seeds, looking like gaping birds’ beaks. This is an austere kind of wild rock garden, but it’s clear that life is holding fast here, even flourishing among the stones.
As I walk, I think of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, delivered by native speakers during my Two Row Wampum journey down the Hudson River three months ago. The speakers gave thanks for the earth, waters, winds, sun, moon and stars, each in its turn, and then went on to celebrate the continuing presence of plant life, trees, birds and animals among us. I have heard that The Thanksgiving Address among the Haudenosaunee may go on for an hour or longer, enumerating the smallest details of the natural world one by one. I wonder how long it would take to give thanks for all I find here today, singling each thing out for praise. As I return to Lake Minnewaska, shimmering below its white cliffs, I am thankful for the stark beauty of November and for this place that seems so far above my ordinary world, yet is so close. Close enough that I can come here whenever I need contact with original nature and its primal elements, and take a walk that begins and ends at a sky lake. What an astonishing fact of our lives it is, what a cause for thanksgiving, that we have sky lakes in our midst!
Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.