St. John’s Eve: Time To Take A Devilish Hike

St. John’s Eve: Time To Take A Devilish Hike

By George Baird and Erica Obey

St. John’s Eve, the summer solstice, means only one thing for us: a hike on the Devil’s Path.  (Devil’s Path is a hiking trail in the Catskill Mountains of New York).  It was a tradition we began when we actually attempted to hike all 25 miles over six 3500-foot peaks in one day – and figured we’d need the longest day of the year to come close to completing the task.  (We didn’t make it; we wound up leaving off the last mountain, West Mountain, and slinking out down the road instead.)  Still we always do a portion of the Devil’s Path at the solstice, because St. John’s Eve is the night the Devil walks the earth – and as a friend once commented, the Devil’s Path seems the least likely place he’d come looking for you. (St. John’s Eve is also supposed to be the day you can’t perish by drowning, but somehow that doesn’t seem as relevant.)

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So-called pots and pans in the Devil’s Kitchen

Considered one of the most demanding hikes in the American northeast, the Devil’s Path was so named because the original Dutch settlers believed that only the Devil, with his cloven hooves, would be able to navigate the path’s treacherous footing.  Over the years, the trail has picked up many other devilish landmarks, including the Devil’s Pulpit, the Devil’s Portal, and the Devil’s Tombstone.  This year, we went up Indian Head Mountain, approaching it via the Devil’s Kitchen, a stream embankment whose strewn boulders, according to Alf Evers, were said to be the devil’s pots and pans.  It’s honestly hard to see why, unless perhaps the violent spring run-offs from the several tributaries that converge here sent stones rattling, creating a clamor that resembled the clatter of dishes in a kitchen.

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Recumbent profile of an Indian’s forehead, nose, and chin.

The recumbent profile of an Indian’s forehead, nose, and chin, which gives the mountain its name, is almost as hard to discern as the Devil’s pots and pans.  Dexter Hawkins claimed the Indian was the spirit of the mountain, imprisoned when he lost a duel for supremacy with the spirit of Overlook.  Michael Perkins, on the other hand, has suggested that the path is haunted by the spirit of Chief Joseph Brant, the great (and greatly feared) Iroquois leader who sided with the British in the Revolution.  However, most legends place Brant’s local hideouts on Overlook (in Jager’s Cave on the northeast side of the mountain) or on Roundtop Mountain and Kaaterskill High Peak.  More of the mountain’s Indian lore is associated with the preponderance of false hellebore, a highly toxic plant that was sometimes used in traditional medicine to treat high blood pressure and rapid heartbeat.  However, its best-known traditional use was to select a new leader: Each candidate would chew the plant’s root, and the one who was last to vomit became the new chief.

View from Sherman's Outlook.

View from Sherman’s Outlook.

The best lookout on the mountain, a point that corresponds to the Indian’s Nose, is reached after a genuine Class 3 scramble up a root ladder.   Ironically, it is also known as Sherman’s Outlook, named for General William Tecumseh Sherman.  According to the romantic (and according to most authorities, completely spurious) legend, Sherman was named “Tecumseh,” by his father, an Ohio lawyer and judge who greatly admired the Shawnee chief, and was only given William as a Christian name by the devout Catholics who adopted him after his parents died.  Unhappily, Sherman was as ruthless in his approach to the Indian Wars as he was to the Civil War, writing to Grant after the Fetterman Massacre “we must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children.”  In fairness to Sherman, his belief in total warfare took its toll, causing him to suffer at least one nervous breakdown during the Civil War.  And the complete context of his most famous quote, delivered during a commencement address at a military academy is: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” Still, the name remains oddly jarring.

Jimmy Dolan's Notch from the Wrong Side of the Tavern.

Jimmy Dolan’s Notch from the Wrong Side of the Tavern.

Unless you’re peak-bagging, in our humble opinion, there’s no point going on to the summit from here.  Few genuine lookouts remain, and even with a GPS, we have never located the actual summit.   However, if you do persevere over the top, you reach Jimmy Dolan’s Notch – named for a tavern that was popular among local loggers on payday.   Today the only payoff is the satisfaction of completing a strenuous and beautiful hike, but as with all the peaks on the Devil’s Path, that is plenty of payoff indeed.

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