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On flaming horseback

Few Indians realise that in late Oct and early Nov, USA's Appalachians light up with colour, writes Robbie Whelan.

india Updated: Oct 24, 2008 19:17 IST

It’s no secret to American travellers that India has, in its mountains, a one-of-a-kind treasure that offers intensive trekking, the prospect of adventure and unforgettable views. But what about the other way around?

Few Indians realise that come late October and early November, the various mountain ranges of America’s Appalachians — the ancient mountain system that stretches its old, weary legs up and down the east coast — light up with colour and intrigue, attracting gaggles of day-hikers and serious trekkers who are there to see just one thing: the brilliant colours of the eastern seaboard’s autumn foliage.

Every deciduous tree in the region, from Maine to Tennessee, goes from brunette to red-head to bleached blonde during these few chilly months, and there’s no better place to play peeping Tom on nature’s immodest colouring than from a hiking trail in the mountains.

Last year, the state of Vermont, a quiet, relatively unpopulated chunk of New England, alone attracted 3.5 million visitors with its autumn peacock-feather display.

Glorified hills
Amid fears that global warming is delaying the changing of the leaves, some tourists have begun to head north later in the year, catching the climax of the season in mid-November. Others opt for warmer weather camp-outs, and take their chances on early October being the height of the transformation.

In New York’s Catskill Mountains, mid-to-late October isn’t quite the peak of the changes, but the fireworks have certainly begun. The Catskills, to anyone with a passing familiarity with the Himalayas, can hardly even be considered mountains — more like glorified hills.

They are known more as the site of the “Borsht Belt” — the string of vaudevillian vacation resorts used during the summer by Jewish weekenders from New York, like the one that was the setting for the Patrick Swayze-classic Dirty Dancing.
The highest mountain in the range, and the best to hike, is Slide Mountain, which at 4,180 feet affords views, on a clear day, of 113 km east into Massachusetts. If you hike it, there are several more pensive, cozy vistas that light up like Diwali this time of year.

Naturalist and poet John Burroughs was greatly inspired by this part of the country. In his 1910 book In The Catskills, he compared Slide’s gentle, sloping shape to the back and shoulders of a gigantic horse:
“The horse has got his head down grazing; the shoulders are high, and the descent from them down his neck very steep; if he were to lift up his head, it would be carried far above all other peaks, and the noble beast might gaze straight to his peers in the Adirondacks or the White Mountains.

“But the lowered head never comes up; some spell or enchantment keeps it down there amid the mighty herd; and the steed’s high round shoulders and smooth strong back alone are visible.”
It was about Slide that Burroughs penned his most famous Catskills observation: “Here the works of man dwindle,” an expression that is etched into a bronze plaque near Slide’s summit, and embedded in the side of a huge sandstone outcrop under which the great nature lover allegedly loved to sleep.

Easy does it
That sentiment is immediately understandable to anyone who makes the trek, especially a century later: there you are, less than two hours by car from New York, that never sleeping city that sings so many paeons to the works of man — his banks, his couture, his art and music — and suddenly everything goes quiet. Everything, that is, but the loud colours of the leaves.

I made the trip with my sister and cousin, taking the easier of two trails that approach Slide’s summit. The head of the Slide-Cornell-Wittenberg Trail starts by Highway 28 near the cozy Catskills hamlet of Shandaken. On the way up, the ground was coated with an early dusting of the mossy wet leaves that will eventually overwhelm the entire forest floor.
Even in my boots — fairly nice Asolo trekking footwear — I slipped a few times going up. It’s about three miles to the top, where there is disappointingly no clear view of the valley below, but if you venture a bit further down the trail, you’ll find the rock shelf with the plaque devoted to Burroughs, where there’s a much better vista.

Peach-and-apple trail
There, the patches of vivid colour seem like so many far-away ripened peaches and apples stuffed together in a huge fruit bouquet. There’s really nothing like it.

We camped in a clearing just off the trail the first night, and finished on the second day by passing Witternberg and Cornell mountains, all in all about 16 km of trekking — more of a leisurely walk in the woods. The ridge-like trail between Slide and Wittenberg offered yet more views, and as we stopped to take water and gobble GORP (good ol’ raisins and peanuts, of course!) the hues of the trees made our heavy packs utterly forgettable.

By the end, old man Burroughs’ words — notions of the works of man, dwindling in the face of nature’s prettiest cosmetic job — were ringing in our ears. We ambled down the path to the parking lot and slumped wearily into our car, sated and still charmed by the heart of the Catskills.

Robbie is a business reporter and freelance travel writer based in Baltimore, USA