Rambling season

(Dion Ogust)

Hikers sometimes call it “shoulder season,” that awkward stretch of winter-adjacent weather that can’t seem to make up its mind. In the Catskills we tend to call it like it is: mud season.

It’s not our best look. As the snow recedes, it leaves behind a grimy, grotty, grit-encrusted landscape in which you can have any color you like so long as it’s gray. Without cover of leaves or snow, the forests that were clear-cut a century ago show their awkward youth, a welter of spindly adolescent trunks crosshatching the mountains.

Early spring in the Catskills is a mess. Hiking trails are perilous. Springs well up from the boggy ground. It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s tempting to write off the outdoors entirely.

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Not so fast. Now is the best time to ramble.

One of the underappreciated joys of this region is walking, just walking, along the shoulder of some little back road that might lead anywhere. No trailhead, no sign-in sheet. No need for poles or maps or compasses. Turn off the main road, or out of your driveway if you like. Wander along a little road, something with “Clove” or “Hollow” in the name, or maybe one named after people who are probably living somewhere down the end of it. Walk ‘til you get to a fork, then take it. Repeat.

It’s one of the perversions of country living that even though we’re surrounded by fresh air and open space we spend far less time wandering the landscape than urbanites do. Everywhere worth going around here is 20 minutes by car, or an eternity on foot. But when you decide you don’t need to go anywhere at all, suddenly you’re free to walk. And when you walk, suddenly you can see.

You could drive the same stretch of country road a hundred times, and you’d never see the views that open up to an aimless wanderer. Fifty miles an hour is too fast to notice the beautiful slate capstones on your neighbor’s stone wall, or to see the toad-mottled spathes of new skunk cabbage flowers pushing up out of the leaf litter.

Look closely, and there is color in the landscape after all. The pale sunset color along the inside of a torn birchbark scrap. A ragged lichen, so green it seems almost phosphorescent. A faint blush spreading across those grey mountains, a mist composed of millions upon millions of dark red leaf buds, not quite ready to break open. It’s not enough, after six months of unrelenting drear, but we’ll have to take what we can get.

In early spring, you can see the texture of every hill and hollow. Later on, when the trees unfurl, they will close off the mountains, filling in the view leaf by leaf until only a wall of dense living green remains. For now, you can stand in the road and stare for miles across the rumpled hills, and follow the lines of the old stone walls through fields and forests.

Meanwhile, on the forest floor, there is a furious race underway. The flowering spring ephemerals – trillium, bloodroot, trout lily, Dutchman’s breeches – are beginning to emerge from their long stupor, rushing to bloom during the brief few weeks of sunlight allotted to them. By late May, the trees overhead will drown them in shade once again.

A hiker ascending the peaks of the Catskills navigates not just a mountain but also a particular sort of wilderness fantasy. While hiking a trail, it is easy to forget that the landscape you travel in is essentially a human one, curated and interpreted and maintained by many hours of volunteer labor.

Walking offers no such illusions. A road takes you through a fuller range of what the terrain holds: a stretch of forest, a farm, a neglected pile of scrap metal, a merganser fishing in a brook, an excavator biting into a hillside. The human footprint is everywhere, but there is no need to strike out in search of “the environment.” It is already here. The Catskill Park and its creatures are all around us.

Walking in no particular hurry, with no obvious destination, you may attract a few strange looks. It is increasingly rare these days to find people ambling around without a purpose. If you choose to accessorize – with a dog, for instance, or with obvious jogging gear – you may escape such notice.

But however inquisitive the neighbors might be, it is your right to walk the public roads, as boldly as any Roman. Like the city flâneur, the walker of country roads does not need to hurry, or to be going anywhere. To walk is to insist on one’s autonomy.

Spring around here is hardly a blooming rose garden, but that can’t be helped. Make the most of this awkward, graceless season. Put a few hundred miles on your boots while you can, before the Jersey drivers get here.