Tower to Tower in the Heart of the Devil

Sugarloaf Summit

Sugarloaf Mountain 3,800’

“You can be twenty on Sugar Mountainbut time moves too soon, time moves too soon.”

Every step has been building up to this. There’s nothing like seeing the base of a mountain from afar and tracing its slopes and sudden downturns, brief ridges and open cliff faces in your mind as you threw yourself atop every rock. Counting unknowingly, has it been 300, 400, 500 feet? Wait, I haven’t reached the 3,500 mark, maybe a few more minutes, ah there it is! The anticipation of…pine once you reach about 3,700 feet. The oaks slowly giving way to white birches, rosy like the pretties rose petal you ever saw. The fern growing taller and taller, now up to your chest. Then you see the pines. First the older, taller, greener Kings of the forest welcome you into their court to walk upon their carpet of golden needles. The sweet scent lays thick. Then all gather at the top of the mountain, the Princess pine, destined to remain in the understory, the youngsters of the brood, their needles nearly see through green with a bluish hint and those coming of age – so straight and sharp and fresh. In between the floor is covered with the broken, decaying and dead, torn down by wind and water and lightning. And all are pine along the Devil’s Plateau.

In the heart of the Devil is Sugarloaf Mountain, a milestone in this four day solo venture in the northern Catskills. It started on top of Overlook Mountain, just past the ruins of a monastery and a state fire tower.

Abandoned Monastery

StairsAcross the street from the trailhead is a living monastery – a place where Americans pretend to be Buddhists and smoke cigarettes beside Tibetan flags strung among the portable toilets, much too loud landscaping tools and what generally looks like a run down establishment void of any spirituality. The only real thing about it is the gift shop. But something goes on up there, that’s for sure.

After a long day of spotting wildflowers and taking in the views, I settled in for my first night at the shelter. Settled in is probably the least appropriate term given my paranoia about…well, everything. Finally asleep in my sleeping bag (not sure how that even happened), I awoke to see bright lights in the distance. I was only a few miles from the road and wondered if it could just be passing lights. But no, the lights were too high and they came and went through the dense trees in front of me. The lights grew brighter and closer and suddenly I realized it was a group of people moving towards me – after midnight! Terrified I speculated while lacing my boots and watched them round the bend when suddenly I could see the light no more. I lay back down and suddenly the lights reappeared, brighter than ever curving to the left – it was the moon rising! Fear.

“Don’t instill fear in him,” said the husband to his wife who was concerned about the elder of their two young boys climbing the wiry stairs of the Balsam Lake fire tower. “You can stop right there,” she suggested to the boy. “Son, two more flights and you’re there, at the top,” steadily interjected the father. “Don’t instill fear in him,” he turned to his wife.

Actually, wait, I think it’s “you can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain but you’re leaving here too soon, you’re leaving here too soon.”

Have you ever heard an eagle cry as he glides across the sky, miles in seconds under his wings searching for prey with his eyes thousands of feet from above? Well, it was a first for me.

Sky and Fog

Or how about seeing the vessels in your eye pop and fill the white part of your eye with blood while you’re about three hours away from the nearest road? Another first for me. But Mother Nature was on my side as I realized I lost my map and dropped my pack to go looking for it and came across a man with a map who turned out to be an eye doctor. His positive diagnosis emphasized the stroke of fear I experienced at the image of vessels flooded with blood on camera.

Fear. What does it mean to be fearless? How does that first step feel when there is no trail, when there are only mountain to guide you? The bear hanging out next to my shelter on the second night, the snakes, mice, porcupine and thunderstorms hanging out by my shelter the third night…Will I ever be fearless?

On top of Hunter Mt.

Now you say you’re leavin’ home
Cause you want to be alone.
Ain’t it funny how you feel
When youre findin’ out its real?

Oh, to live on sugar mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons,
You can’t be twenty on sugar mountain
Though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon,
You’re leaving there too soon.

View from Hunter, early morning

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