Big Injin And Heap Big Slide
By T. Morris Longstreth
Dame Nature -- like other dames-prefers not to wear the same costume
twice. Brute and I saw enough valleys to convince us that the world
was one vast gutter. Up glens, down ravines, along valleys did we
traipse, pack-a-back, by day and by night, until we wondered how the
region got to be called the Catskill Mountains. Mountains rose here
and there, but the valleys were one continuous performance. The
mountains rose merely to oblige the valleys, to bring them into
relief, and in return the valleys led one insinuatingly into the
mountains. How insinuatingly one could never guess until he came to
the mouth of one and looked up. It was impossible to refuse the invitation-and
always worded differently. For all their hundreds, we never saw two
valleys alike. Dame Nature is the high priestess of versatility.
Shandaken is the village at the mouth of the Westkill Clove, and half
way between the entrances to the Woodland and Big Injin valleys, the
two ways of approach to Slide Mountain. We chose Big Injin -- named
for a strapping redskin who got into trouble because he would murder
people. The name, of course, has been banalized into Big Indian, just
as in the Adirondacks we prefer to call the good and significant
Tahawus Mt. Marcy. We shall continue to Germanize our imaginations
until they starve to death, probably, or until somebody has the power
to show us that there is a good deal in a name. Why hotel men, to
mention just one class, should continue to propagate Hill Crests and
Belle Vues by the hundreds, when they can make money out of names of
distinction, is a conundrum that does not appeal to one proud of
Big Injin Valley begins with a curve that shuts it from the workaday
world of road and rail. Having once wrapped itself satisfactorily in
its air of seclusion, it starts off upon its mission of leading back
into the heart of the wild country. The afternoon was as balmy as
deceptive spring knows how to be. A wind, as tender as the bleat of a
new-born lamb, played down the little side glens and whispered in the
trees, until one was ready to believe its tale about summer being on
the way. The stream curved from one side of the valley-bottom to the
other, always clear, always rushing. Big Injin is the birth-dale of
the Esopus, which conjures to my mind pictures equal in charm to
those brought back by the mention of the Rondout, the Neversink, and
We rounded curve after curve on the mounting road, always to find
some charming slope ahead or some group of little hemlocks meeting
together. Always there was some glimpse of the creek hurrying around
the corner. Instead of the Mountains of the Sky, the Indians might
have called the country the Land of Little Rivers, for down each glen
sprang some brook to join the bright Esopus. Brute and I could not
help exclaiming about their beauty, so intangible, so unpicturable.
It is for its streams that the Catskills has a right to be ranked
with the great f amily of American parks. Their volume is not great
compared to the waters of the Adirondacks or Canada, where the scale
of things is beyond imagination. Neither is there unbroken forest
large enough to earn the name of wilderness. The heart cannot leap as
it does at the thought of the balsam-guarded glories of the Ausable
and the Raquette, or the Abitibi and the Richelieu. But on a sunny
afternoon in April, if you will go with me as I went with Brute, from
glen to glen, each glittering with cascades, you will rejoice that
New York City has such a wealth of beauty close at hand.
Half way up Big Injin is the little town of Oliverea, which the
natives pronounce to rhyme with sea, and I don't see why they
shouldn't. It boasts an engaging little schoolhouse, very white, with
a yard, then already very green, on which three little boys were
valiantly endeavoring to use a baseball bat -- the three being the
entire boy population of the town, I suppose. Brute knocked out a few
to them while I was making inquiries as to the accommodations farther
along. We were ingenuously assured, with no reference to the truth,
that we could easily find lodging farther up the road, or at least
the man at the Club would take us in. The Club, it seemed, was half
way up Slide. This, promising an early start on the morrow, cheered
our legs, which were beginning to groan with the addition of every rod.
Big Injin Valley widens out at the top into an upland bowl. The
Esopus falls away and is heard no more. In summer the view over the
rolling hillsides presents great distances of melting contours. When
we saw it we were chiefly concerned with the declining sun. The
swelling tide of spring had not yet inundated the encompassing
circlet of fields that heads the cultivable vale. We had again
reached the snow-level. From time to time we had seen the gray sides
of Panther heaving forests against the sky, but we had seen no Slide.
We knew he must be ahead of us, for the map said so and the natives
confirmed the map. But, though we had actually been ascending him for
two hours, we had had no glimpse. Slide sidles behind other peaks.
For years he had lived unsuspected by his tenants. With a final
good-by to open fields, the Esopus, Big Injin Valley, and daylight,
we entered the woods, tired, wet, hungry, and apprehensive.
The Winnisook Club is an exclusive affair headquartered on a little
lake part way up Slide, surrounded by forests, miles from food and
bed. Its cottages are cared for by an affable man and his wife, who,
by rule, are not supposed to take in tramps, no matter how hungry.
Luckily, we did not know this. Why the inhabitant of Oliverea did not
tell us the truth of the matter I cannot fathom, and I shall not
repeat Brute's reason.
The entrance to the Club forest is impressive. The trees are tall,
the road winding. On that night, in addition to the awe of darkening
wood, we felt a vague misgiving as of coming misadventure. If the
caretaker should not be in, if he should not have enough food, if he
should decline to house us -- these questionings came to our lips as
the snow deepened and the steepness of the hill increased. "We
can go on," said my legs to me, "but not an inch back."
How alternatives make cowards of us all! As long as there was a
question of turning back and finding assured provender in distant
Oliverea, or of plugging on and trusting to fortune, what a sickening
seesaw our wills experienced! But when we had gone so far that there
was no more question of retreat, how gay we became! There is sorcery
in such a situation. Brute is the sort of chap to come completely
under the spell. Fortune has but to waver, and he is after her like a
terrier after a rat. Let a scrape get really absurd, and he is elated
with a species of raging joy. His pulse beats to the impossible. And
we all love him for it. That was why it was such fun to travel with
him. In the last analysis, it is a safe tendency, too; for those who
can be divinely foolish can also be supremely sensible.
Despite Brute's occasional jests, I pulled myself up that slope with
a hang-dog sinking of the nerve. It was so steep for tired muscles,
so dark when there might be no light to greet us. The Club must keep
stout horses. Presently we came upon a man's tracks. He had been
chopping. I can remember the appearance of his handiwork yet -- ash
in fire-wood pieces, white as peppermint sticks. It made me savagely hungry.
At the last gasp of twilight and of my lamenting bellows, we reached
the dammed pond on which the Club cottages look out. We tried several
before we found the one inhabited by the caretaker. A very thin wisp
of smoke came from the chimney. This was cheering. We knocked. No
answer. Knocked again. No answer. This was not cheering. In that
moment of waiting I realized how very tired I was. After the third
knock we opened the door and walked in.
The kitchens of mountaineers are usually one extreme or another. They
are filthy or very clean, welter of incapacity or a brightness to the
soul, sty or a religion. This one was a religion. The black iron
altar from which the incense arose had not been left overlong, for
the wood coals were still hot. In one corner stood a table on which
the gospel of good eating was thrice-daily preached. It was still set
with the lesser tenets: a jug of maple syrup, a bottle of pickles,
sugar. The pantry door was open, and no hart panted after the
water-brooks more fervently than did our palates for the sustenance
within. Yet in this inimitable paradise of plenty there was no
inhabitant visible. The situation paralleled that of the original
Garden in the week preceding Adam.
It was a delicate situation. Out West it is still entirely
permissible to apply the golden rule. In the East the silver one has
been adopted instead.
Then, with the ends of the box, we made two placards and placed them
beside the little piles of coin:
That done and our minds composed to sleep, there remained only the
details of the exact location. We delicately reconnoitered the
situation as far as it threw light on beds. Upstairs there were three
rooms with a double bed each, and downstairs a crib, a couch, a
window-seat, and an enormous arm-chair. It was a nice diplomacy that
was required. How far could we trespass on the sanctity of the home
and yet get a night's rest? The crib was out of the question, and I
declined the arm-chair. We thought it wise to eliminate the upstairs
beds. This left us the couch, the window-seat, and the floor.
We had just recovered from the last throes of debate and were
partially prepared for windowseat and couch, when the kitchen door
swung open, and in stepped a flannel-shirted gentleman, closely
followed by a lady and two younger gentilities.
I say gentleman and lady descriptively, instead of man and woman,
which they undoubtedly were, because of the not inconsiderable poise
with which they met the situation. My visualization of a gentleman is
very nearly that of a man walking into his own house at the dead of
night to find it commandeered by two strangers, and yet whose
equanimity is still equal to the shock.
There was a moment of polite expectancy, the moment in a Western
story when the hero's eye flashes fire just before his gun does. The
two boys stared from behind their mother. Then Mr. Short said:
"Making yourselves to home, boys?"
So, after all, there was no ranting to heaven, nothing theatrical
except the entrance. We soon were explained. They laughed at our
signs, and Mrs. Short brought out some gingerbread which we had
overlooked, and which made a delectable addendum to our meal (as paid
for). The boys, who were at the hero stage, were all eyes on Brute,
who sat winking like a sleepy young giant, with his shirt open at the
throat, his sleeves still rolled up-he had washed the dishes-showing
wondrous muscle, or so they thought. And as he said droll things they stared.
There is nothing so beautiful as a boy's admiration for strength. I
doubt whether Brute realized his enshrinement. He talked against
sleep because he felt that he owed them more than money. But it makes
a scene I shall be long forgetting: the hospitable kitchen, the
wide-eyed youngsters, and the guide listening as Brute told them
about our night on Huntersfield. His feet were high on the wood-box;
the good nature of him shone through his weariness. His dark, tously
hair and dark eyes made the necessary shadow to the light of his smile.
At length-at great length, it seemed to mewe were shown to real
sheets, and we slept-for a moment. The sun-which, like the reputed
American zeal, cannot be kept down-rising, we did too, confused at
the shortness of the night, but obedient to Mr. Short's summons.
There is much virtue in cold water. A little cold water put the sun
in its place. We descended as fresh as if there had been no
yesterdays. Mrs. Short's breakfast was ambitious, trying to be
dinner. We did justice to its aspirations. As the boys saw us off,
"Reckon you fellows'll be the first up Slide this season. Good luck."
People like that bring home the kindred of the world. In contrast to
the apprehension with which we had approached the lonely little Club,
we were going refreshed in body and reinforced in spirit. The earth,
too, had been recreated by the night. Frost sparkled on everything.
The air bit playfully. The universe shone as if it had just been
turned out from a fresh lot of nebulae. The snow was hard, and easy
to walk on.
The route from the Club led along the road for short way, then turned
to the right and took to trail. As the boys had warned us, there were
no footprints, but the blazes were readable. The map was sufficient
commentary. To our left the woods sloped uniformly up; on the right
they fell into a ravine. Here and there the forest cover parted f or
a moment to let the eye rove over distances that were ever bluer and
farther. It took about two hours to reach the top.
Unfortunately for the view in summer, Slide has no tower. There used
to be one, but it has rotted. We felt our way to the highest point by
following the old telephone wire that used to run to the tower. Even
without that, it would not be very difficult to follow the spine of
the horseback crest to the actual summit. For us it was very easy, as
a digression to either side meant plunging into snow armpit deep.
Rabbit tracks, deer tracks, even mouse and bird tracks, were common
on the level top between the stunted conifers where the snow could
not drift. Spring, which had been busy in Philadelphia for a full
mouth, which had begun to run her green fingers through the woods of
the valley below us, had never cast a look in Slide's direction.
Except for the crust on the snow, which betokened some thaw, it might
have been December on the ground. But not so in the air. The dazzle
of a spring sun, a certain softness that would win yet from the hard
heart of winter what was wanted, were all about. We reached the pile
of stones supposed to be the apex of the ungainly mountain, and drew
a deep breath. It had been without much effort, and, in the world of
morals, should be without much reward. But there is some comfort for
sinners in knowing that Nature gets along without morality. I have
undergone every torture under heaven in trying to reach some peak,
and had little for my pains. Again, I have strolled out upon some
ledge and had the world at my f eet. There is no morality in Nature.
But there is so much intelligence required to keep up with her that
it is easier to follow the trails that we call morals than to blaze
new ways to the selfsame peaks. Quite without questioning as to
whether we had earned the view, we sat down on a near-by projection
and began to absorb it.
It was still early morning. There was no stir of air. The influences
of Nature were exactly counter-poised. Even the immense billows of
mountains seemed just forever halted. Snow glitter answered back to
sun, east to west, range in response to valley. It was impossible to
realize that this whole accurately balanced contrivance was evolving
at frenzied speed-hard to realize even that there were breezes in the
valley and tides in the sea. Peace and calm beyond the senses to feel
closed about us.
Views from the tops of mountains are among the most unsatisfying
things that human beings toil to attain, and the higher the more
unsatisfying. Lesser mountains immediately become despicable. The
reach of sky, ordinarily big enough, one would think, expands to
inconceivable and useless proportions. Instead of looking at the
colored mosses at one's feet, which could be understood, one gazes
into a vague wash of sentiment that leaves no effect on the memory.
The wind usually precludes comfort. The home-going must soon be
considered. As a waste of foot pounds of energy, mountaineering is
nearly one hundred per cent. thorough. But as a bath to the spirit it
is an efficient promoter of soul-health.
The easiest view from Slide is obtained from that projection on the
east. We sat for a long while, watching the long ribbon of the
Ashokan and the faint mists of morning lying in the troughs of the
mountain-rollers. To the northeast rose terrace after terrace of the
northern Catskills, tinged with a f aint, coppery blue. Then we
changed over to the west, and looked down into wooded valleys where
the morning was still young.
On the north side we looked over into the extraordinary gulf from
which the mountain drew its name, part of the brow having yielded to
the call of gravity and slipped to the base.
Early in the morning the three hundred miles of horizon visible from
Slide paint a color picture to which one's sensibilities, keyed by
the height, respond with pleasure. There are greens and blues, browns
and oranges, violets and purples, yellow whites and innumerable
gradations of unnamable tints. Sunset is a wide shimmer of color
deepening from the east to west. Moonlight makes the valleys luminous
with grays and velvet blacks. At noon the vales are in a stupor of
light; at midnight they are lost in a dream of darkness over-watched
by such a multitude of stars that there come new impressions of the
Divine Authority. Slide is hard to reach, hard to see from, is remote
and lonely; but in spring or summer, in snow-time or at the tide of
flaming leaf, the view it gives over the ocean of visible atmosphere
will never fail to repay. Enchantment ebbs and flows, if you but take
the time to be enchanted.
If Brute and I had learned no other lesson from all our peaks, it was
to surrender ourselves to the mountain in hand, to forget plans and
times, and to let ourselves get thoroughly bewitched. If you carry up
clothes enough to keep warm, the mountain will do the rest. As the
morning lengthened I fell to watching the birds, of which there
seemed an unusual number. A downy woodpecker was rejoicing in virgin
territory, and some chickadees were apparently doing him the honors
of the summit. So small, so hospitable, so cheerful! Brute answered
their matter-of-fact burr, and attracted a kinglet from the void. A
snow-bird seemed positively glad to see us, whisking about the
stone-piles, but never getting far away.
But Brute did not talk. Talking, with him, was by no means a way of
passing time, but rather a method of communicating something that he
wanted to say. The advantages of this probably overbalance the
disadvantages, but sometimes I would have liked just a little
babbling for the sake of a voice. After he had his fill of the
surrounding emptiness, he began to hunt up the names of the ranges on
the map, and to put them in my note-book. I am giving them as I find
them, reading from north to northeast and on around. If you can't get
up Slide this may help to a slight visualization of the panorama:
Due north, a deep ravine, the rising shoulder of Panther, with Vly
Panther Peak, a magnificent expanse of hardwood forest with a few conifers.
Shandaken Notch, steep walls and a hint of the farther valley.
Huntersfield (of nocturnal memory).
North Dome, actually domelike, falling into Broadstreet Hollow, with
Mt. Richmond showing beyond.
Mt. Sheridan close, with Big Westkill's bulk high behind it.
Windham High Peak thirty miles away, with Hunter Mountain nearer, and
Black Dome and Blackhead visible through Woodland Valley on the northeast.
Stony Clove, quickly rising to Plateau Mountain. Mt. Tremper nearer,
and the Mink.
Kaaterskill High Peak in back of Mt. Pleasant.
Indian Head back of Mt. Tobias, a funny little melted ice-cream cone.
The sky-line here is easily the figure of a man lying down. It is
known as the Old Man of the Mountains -- a magnificent welter of
Then comes the Overlook Mountain in the distance, the Wittenberg dark
in the foreground, with a cleft where Woodstock lies.
Far to the east they say that you can see Mt. Everett in Massachusetts.
Mt. Ticetonyk next, and Kingston lying low, with Hussey's Hill and
the great Reservoir appearing over Balsam Top.
Southeast lies High Point and Lake Mohonk, Break Neck, and far away
Storm King of the Highlands.
Due south the long Shawangunk Range, with Cross Mountain and the
slopes nearby where rise the waters of the Neversink.
Lone Mountain and the broad Table, with Peekamose beyond.
The rest of the horizon was hard to see because of trees. Double-Top
was easily distinguishable to the west, with Graham next, and Hemlock
in the foreground.
Big Injin and Eagle Mountain sitting, appropriately, on a nest of
peaks of which the next to the last is Big Balsam.
Belle Ayre, with its tower, Big Injin Valley, and Lost Clove leading
to Belle Ayre.
In the distance we could see Mt. Utsayantha watching over Stamford,
then Bloomberg and Halcott, which spins the circle back to Panther
and the great ravine.
It is a great sensation to live long at such an altitude, to eat
one's lunch where eagles are out for theirs, between bites to devour
the Berkshires with one's eyes, and to drink of the Hudson between
cups of coffee. Finally Brute broke his reverie, motioning to the
disappearing Storm King:
"It's not much use to boast of your silly little distances like
that, when anybody can see mountains a hundred times as far."
"Are you wandering?" I asked.
He pointed up to where a lemon-colored moon hung like a cake-plate.
"There's mountains on that, you told me once," he gurgled,
"and snow on Mars, and spots on the sun, and here you are
cackling about seeing into seven States at once. When do you expect
to grow up?"
My next move was not a reassuring answer to the query.
There are several ways of leaving Slide. In summer a blazed trail
over the Wittenberg gives a better view of the Ashokan and takes you
down into Woodland Valley. Then you can venture into the Peekamose
region, or you can follow our up-trail back to the road and go on
down the Neversink through Branch, surely one of the loveliest roads
in the world. But we looked over the northern edge, and a twin-idea
came to us simultaneously. Although bluebirds had long since come to
the lowlands, the snow down that declivity was deep and smooth and
fairly hard. It occurred to us that, instead of laboring up
Wittenberg, it would be far more fun to slide down Slide. The slope
of the horse's neck was just right for such a performance, and we
could connect with the little brook that flows into Woodland Creek
and so keep our bearings. Accordingly, leaving the crumbs for the
chickadees and taking a last lungful of the view, we went over the top.
To enjoy the next twenty minutes with us, please imagine a mountain
slope of about forty-five degrees and of astonishing smoothness. The
snow blanket was not stone-hard, but packed just enough to sustain
weight. On the slope grew small trees, the underbrush being
snow-covered to a great extent. Kindly picture Brute and me starting
down this wooded, crusted slope very gingerly at first, crouching on
toes, soon allowing ourselves to attain greater speed, which was
easily regulated by braking with our heels or by swinging around a
smooth birch and beginning over again. The technique of this sport
was speedily acquired. A slight bend forward would increase the speed
at once. If there was a bush in the road, you could tack, or shut
your eyes and go through. There was but one danger-to catch one 's
leg beneath a limb fast in the snow at both ends. At our rate of
falling, a leg could easily have been snapped without our noticing
it, as it were.
But, as in running down a mountain, one does not count on being
injured. The pace gets into the blood. We were able to keep parallel
for some while; but Brute, the heavier, soon fell faster, in the path
of the snowballs, which ricocheted ahead of us, heralding our coming.
It was a grand game, this slide-and-stop method of falling down a
mountain. We soon ],-new how fast we could go, and it was no
inconspicuous speed. The hollow into which we were avalanching soon
became obviously a stream-bed. Soon we heard the stream itself
directly beneath us. Yet, since the crust held, we saw no reason why
we should stop. My haunches grew wearier and wearier, but the spirit
said, "On." We must have slid a mile. Certainly my gloves
will never slide again.
In very good time we stopped. Five yards more and we should have made
a waterfall of ourselves; for the brook, coming out of concealment,
fell into a chasm, leaving us to pay for our fun by winding down its
icy bed. How long we were doomed to curve as it curved, to make
figure eights for fear of losing it, I cannot say. But this I will
assert: if there is anything that doesn't know its mind, it is a
stream of water.
I should never counsel anybody to ascend Slide from that side. Yet if
anybody does he will see beautiful woods and crystal streams. We soon
found the mountain-side supporting larger trees. The brook grew by
running, and finally, where it f ound a mate in another brook, we
slackened our pace to account for stock. Our packs were on our backs.
Our bones were in their joints. God was in His heaven, and so were
we. What more could be desired?
The laughing beauty of the halting-place went straight to our hearts.
The two streams, released from their songless dream beneath ice,
joined hands and dropped down the ravine together in an exhilaration
of white light. Ice glittered from the ledges, snow shone back into
the wood, the wood was itself white with the cream and ivory of
birch, and the sun shone levelly through the trees. We sat on the
roots of a great hemlock and basked in the perfection of life.
For a moment the warmth of the slide was in our blood; the chill of
the frosted grottos had not yet begun to penetrate. For a silver
moment we rested, dazzled, almost breathless from the very splendor
of our repose. Then we moved on.
My memory has often gone back to that vision of untenanted fairyland,
with its dim actual mountain bulking through the trees. I would like
to lead people up that stream to that very spot, if there would be
any chance of their seeing what Brute and I beheld. But it would
never be the same. Nature is not only lavish beyond computation in
her variety of gifts: she must even vary the variety until one's head
spins in the bewilderment of riches. Mostly we do not heed, cannot
heed, being so busy with stancher things than beauty. But when we
need refreshment it will always be there, this eternal fountain of
beauty flowing in countless places, most of them half hidden.
There was one more surprise reserved for us that day. We had bounded
down that brook until we were weary, and the sun as well. We had
crossed the trail and met Dougherty's Brook, as the good map said we
would; but habitations seemed a world away. Suddenly a silent bird
flew a few yards ahead of me, and stopped to stare. It was a sleek
and ruddy robin, whom we blessed, for we knew that worms must be in
sight. And worms meant food and lodging -- indirectly, of course.
Occasionally one comes upon a robin in the deep wood -- usually a
second son off seeking his fortune, or perhaps camping out. Mostly,
however, a robin is the precursor of the cow-bell, a forerunner of
friends at hand. Nor was our robin to betray our trust. Within three
minutes we were talking to the children of the pioneer who lived
farthest up Woodland Valley. Once more we were in spring. The snow
was but a thin line along rock ledges, and once more we dared think
how hungry we were.