As we continue our journey upon Undercliff Carriageway, our eastward trajectory rounds to a generally northeast path in the direction of Sky Top ridge at Mohonk, following the contour of the long Trapps cliff base. Throughout the turn to the north, the huge walls begin to retreat behind a talus field of debris that has recently ended its massive landslide just in time for the carriageway to sweep along, open and inviting. Opportunistic saplings at one time found refuge amongst the cracks in the ceremoniously dropped boulders, and have since grown to gnarly-wooded maturity amongst a like-minded forest of hardy species. There, they often appear as guardians giving up their back sides to the massive crunch pressing in from behind so that we may walk freely upon the flat open surface of the carriageway. It is quite striking how it feels as though many of these small trees have miraculously halted the rapidly spinning edges of cubical boulders thrashing down the radical slope with great abandonment and thunderous protest. They were, after all, abandoned. But now, the quiet presence of the settled boulders does little to assist our understanding of the sublime power exhibited by mile-high glaciers dismembering large sections of previously fractured rock from the main body of the ridge. Much of the tree growth is successional, not only to the barren landscape of the immediate post-glacial period— a mere 10,000 years ago— but also to the colonial ethic of industry that was imposed on the region to subsequently strip it bare. Nature thrives in the gap nonetheless. Even without this later influence from the axe, natural processes repeatedly stripped clean this bold landscape, only to weave vegetative growth amongst the crisp forms that are occasionally and selectively exposed.
As we move on, the sheared conglomerate body of the ridge rises even higher and more vertical, forming a white walled backstop that can be glimpsed through the piles of talus debris, with their intervening garments made of hardy trees and shrubs. In a couple of select places, large steps that were constructed out of fallen blocks raise stairs directly off the carriageway, like a secret entrance to a monolith. By virtue of their blended nature, we forget that these steps have been painstakingly arranged and maintained for the sport’s ever renewed population of enthusiasts. The number of individual climbing routes throughout the Gunks is said to number well over 1,000— a great portion of which lie upon the body of The Trapps. From the carriageway, gaps through the boulders and vegetation reveal vertically striated walls of glistening rock. Vertical joints displace stacked pillars with intervening crevices between the polished, striated walls. Gunks climbing had eventually refined the transition from mountain climbing as part of a more general skillset for mountaineering into the technical sport of rock climbing and bouldering— each of which honed in on the intense style of negotiating a magnificent diversity of climbing maneuvers. As the carriageway migrates to create a little distance from the cliffs, the ridge rises and steps back in the form a single mountainous presence upon which the climbers appear smaller— thus taking us back to the early days when expedition was still the measure of the activity.
Occasionally amongst the stacked and sculptured trail side formations— the conglomerate appears metallic gray, with a Lascaux style red-brown bleeding of patterns upon the base hue. Although the sheared cliff begins to take on the Gunks’ classic bone white color from a distance, the formations of broken boulders create a series of Paleolithic looking dwellings right off the main carriageway. It is a curious thing, in fact, how Paleolithic peoples built their dwellings right off our main roads and trails. Oh, but wait! That must be, like the guardian trees, another illusion of time. Our uncritical bodies take such notions seriously, nonetheless, until we take note that the carriageway itself lays out its broad level surface with comfortable stability precisely at the steepest rise of the talus debris off the ridge. To our left, we peer through a steep incline of piled boulders and a scrubby forest to the cliffs beyond. To our right we look down amidst the treetops of a well-established forest. The carriageway— with its shadow play and light display of filtered sunlight— was conceived and built through great labor and tenacity right at the point of steep transition. And though that may be obvious to the discursive mind, it is the successful balance that has been achieved between the labor of men and the processes of nature that is reflected in the fact that it requires a secondary thought— a true afterthought— to consider the carriageway not as originally part of the topography itself, but as an artificial addition. No modern road, and not many an old mining road is received at the level of the pre-reflective senses to be an authentic feature of the native landscape. Instead, they are understood to be feats of engineering and signs of commerce. But here it is different. As one walks amongst this extensive network of carriageways, the feeling is that of a long-standing, almost geological dialogue with the land. As it situates comfortably to run parallel to The Trapps ridge line for over two miles, the Undercliff Carriageway continues to take advantage of its preferential hands-off status amongst the cliff talus. In between the treetops to the right, intermittent views of the Wallkill Valley disclose the village of New Paltz and the rolling Marlboro hills in the distance across the plane. The consistent wall of The Trapps face remains on the left, with many access points emerging off the carriageway. Here, the cliffs show their characteristic layering and multi-roofed structure. Viewed from below, a number of layers slide their stacked roofing underneath one another in an arched struggle to overhang the conglomerate bedding, much like leaves fanning out to receive better light amidst the competitive eagerness of their brethren. It is here that we will linger in the last half of the Philosopher’s Stone essay to consider the great creation story of this layered mass.
First, however, we must journey through a different kind of layering— that of dawning consciousness itself. We will return to this outcrop after entering the Undercliff-Overcliff loop from Overcliff Carriageway at first light in the Philosopher's Stone essay.