Lessons from the Devil’s Path
I woke up to the sound of clumps of snow hitting the roof of the tent. I rolled out of my damp sleeping bag, slipped into my muddy, frozen boots and braced myself for the full force of the cold mountain air. ‘Ok’, I thought, ‘Only 9 more miles to go’.
Flashback to two weeks earlier: I had just arrived home to New York after a difficult and heart-breaking semester of college. I’ve always liked to consider myself a fiercely independent person, strong-willed and brave, but the past few months had worn down my fire to nothing more than flickering ash. I felt alone, weak, and most of all, disappointed in myself. So, when I finally landed at JFK airport, I was eager to get back on the trails.
Hiking had always been a sort of medicine to me. It was a way to take my mind off all the crazy things happening and enjoy a few days of peace, but this time it was more. I had begun doubting myself to the point where I stopped trying anything. I saw in myself only failure and for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to do something because it might impress my parents or my peers. I wanted to do something because I needed to prove to myself that even in the darkest times, I still could. I needed to prove I wasn’t done.
I set out looking for a challenge and it wasn’t long before I found one lying only 2 hours from home, the Devil’s Path. The Devil’s Path is notoriously difficult. At only 25 miles, it boasts over 14,000 ft. of elevation change as it challenges its victims to scramble up and down the fall line of 5 Catskill peaks. Lacking switchbacks, the trail is dangerously steep with limited water and tree roots that could trip even the most cautious of hikers. As I read warning after warning, it became clear to me that I had to complete this trail. I had to do it alone.
I was dropped off early Saturday morning at the trailhead on Prediger Road and set off. The first few miles are relatively flat as the trail drags you deep into the woods. Then, almost out of nowhere, the real climb begins. Heading up Indian Head Mountain, the only thought running through my mind was, ‘This is the trail?! How could this possibly be a trail?’ I’d climb a rock chute, jimmy my way under a boulder, pull myself up by a tree root, and look up only to find myself face to face with another huge set of rocks to climb. Barely a few miles into my trip and I was already worrying about whether I could really do this. Maybe I had just expected too much of myself.
Nevertheless, I carried on. After reaching the peak with only limited views, I figured I hadn’t come all this way to turn around without even a good picture to show for my efforts.
Down I dropped into Jimmy Dolan Notch, knowing that each step down equated another I’d have to take back up in less than a mile. Next came Twin Mountain, where I was rewarded with a stunning lookout and great photo-op, but by that time I was having too much fun to turn back. Down into Pecoy Notch I went and then quickly back up Sugarloaf Mountain. It was along Sugarloaf that I realized I no longer dreaded the precarious rock chutes, but actually found them to be the perfect combination of challenge, risk and thrill. I felt like a kid, running around in the backyard, climbing up trees and rocks that could give any mother a heart attack.
After my descent from Sugarloaf, I filled up my water bottle, letting the cool (filtered) spring water refresh me before starting back up Plateau mountain. The climb up Plateau Mountain is brutal, but boy, that mountain really does reward those willing to scale its walls. At the top, there is a flat section of about 2 miles that lazily whisks hikers through the most beautiful forest I’ve ever seen, ending in a remarkable view across the remaining sections of the trail.
The trail down from Plateau is best described as knee-killing, but also means the completion of the supposedly more difficult Eastern section. From that point, I only had 2.2 miles and 1600 ft. to climb before the designated campsite. Following 14 miles and 4 mountains, those last couple miles had my legs feeling as if I were dragging a car behind me. Arriving at camp, I set up my tent, cooked a quick delicious dinner of freeze-dried food, and passed out cozily.
Initially, upon waking up, I thought I was hearing rain. The forecast had included precipitation and having brought along my rain jacket, I was slightly frustrated but not panicked. Peaking my head out of the tent to catch a glimpse of how hard the storm was hitting, I was taken aback to see the ground covered in snow. I had no winter jacket, no gloves, no hat and no choice but to keep moving forward.
It was 6 A.M., but the snow hitting my face woke me up quicker than coffee ever could. I began trekking, hoping that the snow would disappear at the lower elevations. For the next 5 hours and 7 miles, I climbed up and down through a snow-covered landscape, humming the tunes of Christmas songs despite it being mid-May. My pace was significantly slowed by my fear of slipping and falling and finding myself injured in the middle of the woods with no one around to help. As desperately as I wanted to speed down the trail and escape the cold, I knew safety had to remain my priority.
I began to seriously doubt myself again at the top of West Kill Mountain. What made me think I could have done this alone? How could I have been so foolish? I started to wonder whether I had made a mistake and I was going to have to pay for it on this mountain. I sat down for the first time that day, letting the snow seep through my layers and numb the skin underneath. I took a moment to myself, really to myself. I’d spent plenty of time alone lately, but even then, I always had something I was thinking about, something to distract me from all the things truly bothering me. Not anymore. I let my mind go, let it grab everything I had repressed and felt things I’d desperately tried to hide from.
The funny thing is I always figured if I let myself do that, I would feel sad, but I didn’t. I felt angry. Not at the boys who’d left me heartbroken. Not at the friends who’d turned their backs on me. Not at anyone who had hurt me. I felt angry at me and only me. I realized something that it probably shouldn’t have taken me twenty years to find out.
People will leave you and people will hurt you, but that doesn’t diminish who you are unless you let it. I had been, not just for the past few months, but for years. For years, I thought there was something wrong with me and I killed myself trying to feel like enough for the people I cared about. For years, I looked in the mirror and saw someone who just didn’t have what it takes. All along, it had been me who had let these things break me. But not anymore. I stood up, readjusted my pack, and told myself I was getting the hell off that mountain.
I fell three times on my way down and was soaked when the snow suddenly turned to rain. I was a shivering, bruised mess, but nothing was going to shake me now. When I saw the sign saying the road was only 1.5 miles away, I cried. Through my tears, I said out loud to myself, ‘You did it. See that? You did it.’ I sat at the trailhead waiting for my ride to pick me up and wondering how I could explain such an emotional experience when she asked how the hike had been. Ultimately, I decided to just say it had been fun. I figured that not everything needs to be said all the time.
The Devil’s Path is a famously merciless trail that will have hikers crawling on their hands and feet, and maybe even making deals with the Devil himself. The constant ups and downs can be psychologically torturous, but sometimes it takes something bringing us down to our knees to realize that we always have the choice to stand back up. Most people learn all their life lessons from metaphorical mountains, but I say why not throw in a few physical ones?
About the Writer
Sam McCormick is a New York native and current college student studying biology. She loves hiking, painting and writing. She’s spent a lot of her time working at veterinary hospitals and feels best when she is around animals, outside, or both!