“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of autumn.”
– John Muir
I think I just like the way it sounded: the Badlands. Although I wasn’t sure, I believed it had to do with some stretch of wilderness that lies between Lake Awosting and Sam’s Point, both iconic landmarks in the 22,000-acre Minnewaska State Park Preserve. I conjured up images of cowboys and prairie dogs, bighorn sheep and hoodoos rising from the sun-scorched earth. Although upstate New York is a far cry from the rugged wilderness of South Dakota, the name Badlands still got caught in the gums like an adventure born of grit and sandstone.
That morning I was ready. I had showered and shoved some extra clothing, snacks and a bottle of water into my son’s varsity swimming string bag when I received a text from Rich (Gottlieb, the owner of Rock and Snow and a more-than-capable guide to all areas residing within the vast preserves in our collective backyard) telling me to bring a hat, helmet and gloves.
I panicked. “What? We’re biking?” I wrote back. But it was too late. We were supposed to meet at the store in downtown New Paltz in five minutes.
Although we live in a cycling enclave, I had not been on a mountain-bike ride since before having my kids. “I didn’t know we were biking!” I said in exasperation as I walked into the climbing store. Rich popped his head out from the upper windows of his office, built like some perch over a beautiful cliff that he had just ascended, and nodded at me. He didn’t look flustered.
Before I knew what was happening, I had been graciously lent a bike helmet and riding gloves by one of his employees, Mindy, an accomplished mountaineer and cyclist who looked as if she had just climbed out of one of the pages of a Black Diamond or Patagonia catalogue. After finishing some spinach-and-tofu scramble from the Bistro, we were in the car and heading passed the cornfields towards the Shawangunk Ridge.
Rich let me borrow his wife Teri’s bike — or one of her many bikes, because they are the kind of people who have more than one bike. I’m not sure what he scoffed at more: the fact that I put the helmet on backwards or that I thought my string bag was sufficient for the excursion. My helmet was refastened, the contents of my string bag put into a proper backpack with countless zippers and well-worn straps, and we were off, pedaling from Lake Minnewaska to Lake Awosting on a chilly-yet-vibrant October morning.
“I’ve never done this before,” he said as we turned right onto the carriage road that linked the two lakes. “What do you mean you’ve never done this before?” I asked as I tried to figure out the gear system. “I’ve never done all of the pieces at one time,” he mused, and then settled in gracefully beside me. I didn’t know what to say to that, so I gripped the handlebars and kept riding.
Unlike the steady gaze one gets with walking or running, cycling has a way of blurring the landscape like an Impressionist painting, with harsh edges of trees and trails and cliffs suddenly softening and leaning into one another like tipsy lovers in a slow dance. This was a point he had been trying to make: that the bike-to-hike combination has an enormous future, as it allows outdoor revelers to enjoy more of the park by moving through the less glamorous parts of a trail in a speedier fashion, thus granting them more energy and time to disembark from their bikes and experience the more dramatic park features and views.
There’s nothing quite like getting that first glimpse of Awosting: the sunlight spilling over the waves as they move their way towards the rocky shore; the bent reflections of pine trees and an uncorked infusion of lake-soaked sky. It invokes a certain unspoken reverence. We stood there at the western tip of the lake, both silent, holding onto our bikes, breathing in deeply, as if there is some particle in the air that is necessary for the next leg of the journey.
We lock up the bikes by the old ranger station and begin to walk along a single-track trail on the south side of the lake, drenched in autumnal sun splatter, negotiating roots, stones and mud ruts leftover from the heavy rains. It’s hard to not to look up and catch each view of the lake, so majestic it is framed by treelines and sky, sitting atop the ridge like some ethereal birdbath awaiting only the noblest of winged creatures to quench themselves.
We were talking about Atlanta, Georgia, where Rich went to undergraduate school, and his foray into the world of rock climbing. Somehow this led to a story of him running into the famous climber Roger Briggs, who had made some daunting first ascents in Colorado, to whom Rich referred as one of the “luminaries” of climbing in the 1960s and 1970s. As we round a corner of the lake to the left, he starts to move into the brush, thick with mountain laurel, and says, “I think the path is up here.” I follow. “Are you sure?” I ask. “Never,” he says and presses on.
Quickly we find ourselves on another footpath towards Mud Pond, a place I’d heard mentioned numerous times but had never seen myself. “What’s the difference between a pond and a lake?” I asked as we hike on, thinking that there are too many questions to have answered sufficiently in one lifetime. “I don’t know,” he says, “but Mud Pond is not its real name. It’s Haseco Lake. Cartographers always do that: give something their own name.”
I have a follow-up question to that, but soon I see the water spreading out like a shadow on our left, just beyond a thicket of trees. I wonder how it is that I’ve been to Awosting countless times but had never gone further, where this other lake or pond lies, like a neglected half-sibling or second cousin twice removed. It is quiet and unassuming, almost shy, without unfolding a beach for visitors to admire it or a cliff to mount and gaze upon its unknown contours.
Rich presses on, and so I too press on, knowing that the Shawangunks always covet those gemstones in the rough. Soon we are rock scrambling and gaining in elevation. The thicket thins, and the white of the conglomerate rocks is almost blinding after being blanketed in such lush earthtones, as the leaves begin their turn toward yellow and gold before their final regal flush. The valley spreads out before us, and to the left we can see Gertrude’s Nose, and to the right the charred lands of Sam’s Point, where forest fires raged years ago, and every bit of wilderness in between. He talks about geological anomalies and touches some of the boulders dropped there by glaciers like random afterthoughts.
Soon we come across a wooden signpost denoting all kinds of trails and directions and approximate distances. “This is the moment of truth,” he says and sits down on a rock. “You’re going to drop your bag and follow that trail down to VerKeerderkill Falls and I’m going to wait for you.”
I felt oddly free rambling down the path with no bag, no water bottle, just me. In fact, we hadn’t run into a soul since we began our trek. The path stretched out among the crimson-red of the huckleberry bushes spreading out along the landscape like a ragged carpet. It was hard to absorb the vibrancy of the color; whether its proximity was to the color of blood or fire was hard to tell, but it was primal and everywhere.
The path began to plunge more steeply, and as it did the sound of water could be heard. At first, it was a gentle spraying, but soon it turned into an avalanche of sound that burst open as the trail veered towards a 300-foot waterfall careening off a cliff formed like a canyon and cascading into a shallow pool below. It was exhilarating. The mist coated my forehead, and the cliffs glistened with the wet surface of sunlight fracturing over rocks and falling water.
I climbed back up the steep pitch and found Rich on the rock. “That was my gift to you,” he said as he handed me my pack and we continued along the trail. “This is where we become enveloped in the Badlands.” He wound his way up and over opal rock ledges, along the steep ledges and then back into the redness of the berry forests. “There’s going to be miles of pitch pine and exposed views and rocks littered by glaciers.”
This is where we hit the sweet spot — or at least I did: that meditative place that is only marked by continuous footfalls over rock and dirt and that echo that the wind makes against the edges of the sky, like breathing into cupped hands. We moved like this, in and out of conversation, in and out of sun and shade until we came to High Point, where the silhouettes of the Catskills etched varying shades of blue lines into the horizon like figures posing against a windowpane.
We turned inwards from the cliff edge to the forest, and a few miles later we were tapping various tin bowls and buckets used by the berry-pickers at the turn of the 20th century to harvest their mountain crop. They hung on branches like living testaments to the generations of immigrant blueberry pickers who had dwelt among the pines each summer.
We passed a large boulder with a black bear painted on it and the year 1957 etched into the stone, and hopped on another trail that led us back to the old ranger cabin where the bikes awaited us. In that span of time and miles we had encountered almost no one, yet we had seen so much. As we rode back towards Minnewaska, I began thinking just how vast the world is and how even our tiny pocket in the universe holds endless stitches of beauty, threading like streams in and around us if we just allow ourselves to jump in — or just open the back door and start where we are.
Author’s Note: Again, special thanks to Rich Gottlieb for his generous time and guidance and illumination of these magnificent hikes, and to his wife, Teri Condon, an accomplished climber herself, as well as an expert landscape designer (Gardensmith Design). For more information on these or any other hikes at Minnewaska State Park, go to www.parks.ny.gov/parks.