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Hiking to Giant Ledge and Panther Mountain was a summer highlight. I can’t wait to do it again in a few weeks when we can make clever observations like Aren’t the leaves so pretty? 

The night before, we slept through rain and lightning at the Woodland Valley campground. Our site was hard to leave. By far the best campsite I’ve ever stayed at. We ate breakfast and drank percolated coffee while watching fog roll off the creek as hummingbirds drank nectar from a patch of yellow wildflowers. It’s true. You gotta believe me.

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You can hike to Giant Ledge from Woodland Valley campground. That was the original intention, but then we considered other options. Rather than hiking 8 miles out and back to Giant Ledge right from Woodland, we drove 20-ish minutes to the other trailhead on County Road 47. From here the trail to Giant Ledge is only about 3.2 miles out and back, which gave us time and energy to hike to Panther Mountain too. The total mileage for both from the other trailhead was about 6.9 miles. Why not add another peak to our bag?

Directions are simple: Take the yellow trail .75 miles to the blue trail. It’s blue all the way to Panther. Then come back. Every time the hike starts to feel monotonous the trail changes. Rocky to gentle flattish paths to large stepping stones then a few easy scrambles up.

Last time we camped, after racing to the car in the middle of the night with a stack of books because it was raining and I’d left the flap open and everything inside our tent was starting to get wet, I finally learned to limit myself to one book on these short hiking/camping trips. For Woodland Valley I chose Ursula Le Guin’s Words Are my Matter. The night before this hike I read “The Beast in the Book” a talk she gave in 2014 about relationships between animals and human characters. It made me think of bears and snakes and all the possibly threatening animals we might see on the hike ahead. How dangerous a worst-case-scenario can be, but also how necessary it feels to go into the wilderness anyway, to respect, savor and envy their home.

“People and animals are supposed to be together. We spent quite a long time evolving together, and we used to be partners,” writes Temple Grandin in Animals in Translation.

We human beings have made a world reduced to ourselves and our artifacts, but we weren’t made for it, and we have to teach our children to live in it. Physically and mentally equipped to be at home in a richly various and unpredictable environment, competing and coexisting with creatures of all kinds, our children must learn poverty and exile: to live on concrete among endless human beings, seeing a beast now and then through bars.

On the yellow trail, I saw a mouse crouched under a large stone in the middle of the footpath. I made eye contact with the little guy expecting it to scurry away but he just stayed there looking at me so I just kept looking into his brown beady eyes, feeling like his equal, thanks to Le Guin.

You know you’re close when the trail flattens. You’re surrounded by trees, stone and dirt and then there’s a side trail and you take it, looking down at each rocky step. Then the world opens up and it’s breathtaking. The view from Giant Ledge is special. It’s what wow looks like.

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We sat at the first ledge eating our first pj of the day before pushing on to the other ledges and Panther Mountain. The section between Giant Ledge and Panther Mountain was my favorite to hike. There’s a steep descent of about 200 feet, then its more than 700 feet uphill over about a mile. We took our time, glad for the peace and quiet we didn’t find on the crowded ledges.

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We saw all sorts of strange colorful mushrooms on our Slide Mountain hike earlier this summer. It’s neighbor Panther surprised us with patches of wildflowers and bright berries. The highest in the Catskills, Slide Mountain rises to 4,190′. While Panther’s elevation is 3,720′, this summit felt much higher, perhaps there aren’t as many false peaks. Like on Slide, the forest changes from the beech-birch-maple hardwoods of the lower slopes to conifer forest. That pure pine smell lifts you to the top. Legs and feet take all the credit, but the air works some magic.

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The view from Panther is similar the one you get on Giant Ledge, perhaps a touch sweeter. You’re on top of a mountain. Not only that, geologists believe Panther is on the site of an ancient meteorite impact crater. 

This is not a place to complain. Not in the moment. Now, after the fact, I’m still wishing there was a post or star or something to mark the summit. We didn’t want to hike to almost-the-peak so we kept going and going, looking for a sign or something. Then the trail began to descend down the other side. We turned back and ran into a couple who had a gadget that marked a small ledge with the above overlook as the highest point. It was a bit anticlimactic, but nothing to do about it. It’s not like the people responsible for maintaining the trail could possibly find a little piece of wood and paint a few strokes noting the top.

The gadget couple made themselves at home on the small ledge at the peak, so we went to another large rock near the top for a food break. Pjs taste best at higher elevations after being squished in a backpack for a few hours. That’s a fact. For dessert I nearly choked on a chocolate covered espresso bean. Between popping it in my mouth and crunching, the rock we were sitting on began to move between my feet. I was focused on the vista. It took my eyes a second to zoom in on the snake right in front of me, it’s open jaw about an inch from my ankle. Luckily I was tired. The edge of a mountaintop rock isn’t a place to get jumpy. It wasn’t a rattler anyway. I’m not sure what kind it was, but once we were standing we saw three other snakes slithering around the rock. Maybe they enjoy peanut butter and raspberry preserves at high elevation, too.

That was our signal to head back, enjoying the views from Giant Ledge one more time.

My dad asked why Raj and I rarely take pictures of ourselves. Neither of us are picture people. I broke it to him as gently as I could. I said, Dad, Raj doesn’t know how to smile when a camera is pointed at him and I look like a doozer. 

See the resemblance? That’s me building again.

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