Walking the parallels

After many days of relative quiet, my computer this morning is suddenly sounding hoarse. I wonder if the drop in temperature overnight might have had something to do with it? The floor is uninsulated; it could be pretty chilly down there. Perhaps it caught a virus. I resolve to type as softly as possible, and try to avoid the usually incessant finger-drumming and foot-tapping that helps me think.

Is there a peak in the Adirondacks called Mt. Somewherelse? That’s where my hiking buddy says we should go this spring: mid-May, when the wildflowers are in bloom and the mosquitoes travel about in dense, black clouds that can skeletonize a cow in thirty seconds. I said it sounded like an adventure.

Yesterday I walked down to the bottom to the hollow and ascended the knife-edge to the point of Sapsucker Ridge above Tyrone. If you can picture our end of Brush Mountain as a headless sphinx facing northeast, I was climbing the left paw, which splays inward to give Plummer’s Hollow a charmingly narrow entrance. The recent ice storm devastated the young woods all along the southeast-facing slope of this ridge, clear to the crest. In some places – depending on the scale you choose, of course – up to two-thirds of all trees are down.

But as I predicted based on a preliminary survey the day of the storm, the damage is highly selective. Virtually all the downed trees and most of the downed limbs and branches are maples, black cherry trees, ailanthus (an alien invasive – no loss there), black locust and black birch. I figured I’d be able to walk through the open oak woods on the far side of the ridge all the way back to our farm, which is located just short of the sphinx’s missing head, and I was right. I did see one toppled oak on the steep slope above the railroad, and a few other ridgetop oaks that had lost big limbs, but that was it.

The whole time I was climbing the knife-edge, though, I was thinking back to the way things used to look when we were kids, in the 1970s. We used to come home from school along the ridge crest sometimes, when we got bored of walking up the road, even though it added an extra half-hour to the walk. The first time I ever did it, with my big brother Steve leading the way, I must have been in second or third grade. I remember taking innumerable breaks to rest my heart and lungs, looking up the slope and thinking I would never make it, but he kept saying, “It’s just a little bit farther,” as a good hike leader should.

There were a lot more trees then, of all species. Both sides of the ridge had oaks, before the gypsy moth caterpillars and a succession of loggers conspired against them. We were, I suppose, what you might call poor, though we never thought of ourselves that way – the kind of kids who showed up in school every day wearing the same flood pants and shitkickers we’d worn the day before. My parents scraped together every penny they had to buy out the rapacious absentee owners of the hollow before they could log it down to the stream, otherwise using every legal trick in the book to stave them off. The whole agonizing process took over a decade, from 1979 to 1991, when they were finally able to buy the last hundred-acre section of the hollow – the old McHugh property – but only after 90 percent of it had already been logged.

It’s unsettling to walk through land that’s been so devastated and still dimly recognize features of a landscape that only twenty years before had been like another world. For years I believed a tall tale Steve told me once about finding another hollow parallel to our own, just down off the ridge crest. It always seemed possible, and sometimes I went looking for it. That’s how thick and mysterious the woods seemed to me then. There was plenty of underbrush to thread one’s way through, logs to scramble over, and a few, small jungles of wild grape.

Years later, it occurred to me that I might simply have misunderstood, and that Steve might have been trying to describe the largest of the transverse ravines, which does indeed curve around until it nearly parallels the ridges. But even after coming to this conclusion, I continued to have dreams in which I’d be off wandering the mountain – four times its real size, of course – and suddenly stumble across another hollow, and even another old farm just like ours.

In one such dream, I actually walked in the house and met the lady who lived there. In this parallel universe, the Plummers had never sold the property out of the family, nor had they brought bulldozers in to plow under all the old orchards in the 1950s. Twenty-five acres of ancient, gnarled apple trees: I was beside myself with delight. Ms. Plummer was a woman of my mother’s age, unmarried as Margaret McHugh had been, but not half so paranoid and suspicious. She served me, I think, cookies and a milkshake, just as Mom would have done. The kitchen was a cheery shade of yellow.

Lost in reminiscences, I reached the point and paused to catch my breath. Three pileated woodpeckers flapped off in three different directions, laughing their insane clown laughter. A nuthatch yank-yanked, descending the trunk of a tree head-first, as usual, while a hundred feet away on another tree a brown creeper chirped its way up. A downy woodpecker called. I felt as if I’d just interrupted a party. From a woodpecker’s perspective, I guess there’s plenty to be excited about – things just took a dramatic turn for the better with this latest storm. To the bark gleaners, I guess, it’s all good.

I don’t come this way as often as I might if exercise were my primary aim. I started thinking about why this might be, and decided it’s because I like the hike so well. I don’t want to become so familiar with this stretch of ridge that I’d lose my excitement at seeing, at least on the northwest side, so many fine trees. Of course, I don’t look at them with a forester’s eye. I love the crooked ones and the ones with interesting hollows at least as much as those that are stout and tall, and some of my favorites are from species with no current timber value: sassafras and black gum. Though both trees are common on Laurel Ridge, too, it’s only here on the crest of Sapsucker Ridge that you can find really large specimens. I took mental snapshots of their deeply furrowed bark, looking at them as if they were landscapes viewed from overhead: the tupelo’s block-faulted ranges, higher on the north side of the trunk than on the south, and the sassafras’s long, braided ridges tinged a sunset red.

My computer is slowly quieting down as the house warms up, so maybe there’s something to my theory. For the last ten minutes, a ladybird beetle has been stumbling around the letters A and W, trying to extricate herself from the keypad. But I won’t pause in my typing, so she keeps falling back into the steep declivities between the keys. Yes, Virginia, there always is another hollow.

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