Photograph by Manuel Palacios, Zone 3 Photography
Moxham Mountain through the eyes of a toddler
Colden is cliffy. Algonquin is steep. Marcy is the biggest of big girls. Gothics is the gnarliest of gnarly boys. And then, south of the High Peaks, in the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest, between the towns of Minerva and North Creek, overlooking Route 28N, there’s Moxham, which is—well, to be totally frank about it, a forested lump shy of 2,500 feet tall that I probably wouldn’t bother visiting if it weren’t for my niece, Daisy.
Look, the issue isn’t specifically Moxham, which boasts a pleasant ridgeline, exposed slabs plunging from the summit, and a sweeping vista of the Hudson River, the garnet mine on Ruby Mountain, the fire tower on Snowy Mountain, and a whole bunch of sky. As the saying goes: It’s not you, it’s me. Typically, I’ve set my sights on the most grueling Adirondack objectives, such as multi-mountain link-ups in the middle of winter. Challenge, hardship, suffering—that’s my jam. I like to serve myself raw to the raw wilderness, like to feel the teeth and digestive juices of the terrain working me over, breaking me down.
But Daisy—she of the puffy diaper and pink Velcro sneakers. Under my tutelage, I have no doubt that the tyke will grow to be a supremely capable backcountry partner, a gung-ho endurance-freak only too happy to lug the extra weight when her uncle is achy and tired. At present, however, she’s 13 months young and brand-spanking-new to the advanced art of bipedal ambulation.
It’s obvious that you’ve got to start them early, so I pitched Moxham to Molly, my sister, describing it as mellow, relaxed, perfect for families. Molly is the exact opposite of a worried, overbearing mother, and, accordingly, she responded as though the outing’s strenuousness or lack thereof was utterly beside the point. “You think there might be a bear?” she asked, excited. “Because I’d be psyched for Daisy to have her first Adirondack bear encounter. She’s less a human at this age than some sort of growly feral cublet. It’d be like meeting her true momma.”
I offered that climbing her first mountain seemed like goal enough, but conceded that we could slather her in honey to attract Ursus americanus, if need be.
“She would love that,” Molly replied, without skipping a beat.
The former me, the guy obsessed with engaging the rugged, rowdy side of the Adirondacks, would have scoffed at Moxham’s “dinky” numbers. Four and a half miles from the trailhead, on Fourteenth Road in Minerva, to the summit and back. One thousand feet of elevation gain, nothing particularly steep or sustained. Five hours round-trip, max, and that allows for copious lollygagging. The story behind the toponym would have drawn my attention—a surveyor, Robert Moxham, supposedly fell to his death from the mountain in the late 1700s—but still. Dinky.
The new me, though, the avuncular me, has a radically different viewpoint. Let us not ask of a place, What are you? Let us ask instead, What can you be? It’s a hoary cliché that through the innocent eyes of youth our taken-for-granted world is rendered fresh and weird and sparkly, and that we dreary, uninspired adults would do well to avail ourselves of such a perspective whenever possible. A cliché, indeed, but only because it’s so accurate. Who better than a child to lead the inquiry into the nature of nature, the possibilities of Moxham?
Cut to a dirt parking area in the woods on a Tuesday morning at the end of summer, five vacationers from Detroit watching as our intrepid (and naked) leader wobbled on pale, pudgy legs, attempting to heft a scavenged stick—a staff!—sized for a pro basketball player. Daisy lurched, stumbled. Daisy toppled, wailed. Commented one of the Michiganders: “If you breeze past us on the trail, man, we’re gonna feel really slow.”
That trail, constructed in 2012 by Student Conservation Association laborers, is the classic green tunnel, familiar to every Adirondack rambler. Where 175 years ago softwoods were logged and hemlock bark was harvested (to be used at tanneries in nearby towns like Olmstedville and Pottersville), today the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest is just that—a wild forest, trees upon trees upon trees.
Into the green tunnel we plunged, Daisy riding Molly’s shoulders in an elaborate Baby Carrier Thing with approximately 37 straps and buckles. By the time we’d crested a hill and descended to a twisty brook and beaver meadow on the other side, my niece was wriggling madly, desperate to be released. Molly set her down amid a confusion of roots—hardly the easiest footing for a newbie, but apparently a fine jungle gym. Ten minutes passed and we made zero inches of forward progress.
Hiking with Daisy, it turns out, is akin to hiking with an entire troupe of diverse and distinct characters. There’s Crazy Daisy, who yips and yaps and throws back her head, laughing. There’s Hungry Daisy, who yips and yaps and throws back her head, crying. There’s Doody Daisy, who—er, use your imagination. And my personal favorite, there’s Fascinated Daisy, who pauses for ants, scrutinizes black mud, and presses an ear to emerald moss in order to hear its whispered secrets.
It would be easy—too easy—to rush Moxham, either on purpose or by accident. From that twisty brook and beaver meadow, you gain a saddle, cruise the ridge for about a mile (the forest is sparser there, providing occasional glimpses of the summit and a wetland to the west) and then, presto—there’s nowhere left to go. Thankfully, Daisy served as a kind of brake, slowing us to a (sometimes literal) crawl, thereby inviting us dreary, uninspired adults to journey into the micro-wilds of duff-texture and spider web–shape.
“You can touch anything you want in these woods,” Molly said at one point. “Ferns. Rotten logs. You can touch—anything!” Her daughter interpreted the mandate broadly, using hands, certainly, but also mouth to investigate a beech leaf.
Though I haven’t the slightest scientific evidence to substantiate the claim, I’m positive that I witnessed Daisy’s brain expanding in response to so much sensory stimulation. Lichen-splotched boulders and drumming woodpeckers. Slanting sunshine and pooled shadows. Moxham was everywhere at once, teaching from all angles. It was beautiful to behold.
What I cherish about mountains more than anything else is uncertainty—how with iffy weather or a sketchy route there’s no telling what will unfold. While I was genuinely excited to introduce Daisy to the Adirondacks, I had assumed that Moxham would lack this edgy quality. Au contraire. Our casual stroll became a full-blown expedition, loaded with the traditional questions: Will somebody get hurt? Will we need to retreat? Do we have plenty of baby wipes?
Reaching the open summit around two in the afternoon, I felt both relief and accomplishment, not to mention a tiredness in mind and body alike. The tiredness—a byproduct of sustained focus, of keeping your guard raised—recalled slippery scrambles in the High Peaks that had tested my footwork and diligence. I took a seat beside the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey marker (1942), glad to trade the rigors of toddler-spotting for the easier task of feeding Daisy smooshed avocado with my fingertip.
We snacked. We gazed. We giggled at a cricket. An hour later, as Molly prepared the Baby Carrier Thing to receive its avocado-smeared cargo, I peeled off for a couple minutes, wanting to gauge the drop that did in the mountain’s namesake surveyor. Dimpled and cracked, overlapped and airy, the slabs were impressive—the antithesis of dinky.
But when I returned to our picnic spot, I saw something better. It was the angle, the particular angle: Daisy on a rocky bulge above me, backdropped by 50 miles of rumpled country, humps and hollows to last a dozen lifetimes. I’d brought no map, so it was impossible to tell—in terms of landscape features, in terms of the horizon—what was what.
No problem. I joined my niece there on the bulge, and together we enjoyed the sprawling anonymity.
The earth just is, and it’s wild, and it goes and goes and goes.
Let us ask instead, What can you be? Moxham Mountain can be the center of all creation, I realized. At least for a little girl. At least, momentarily, for her uncle.
If You Go
Fourteenth Road, off Route 28N in Minerva, is easy to find. Drive it about 2 miles and look for a large Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) sign just after the road turns to dirt. Park there.
The Adirondack Land Trust announced in February its purchase of 250 acres on the south face of Moxham Mountain that it hopes to eventually transfer to the Forest Preserve. In the future this could lead to an alternative route with trailhead parking, plus opportunities for new rock-climbing routes on the mountain’s lofty cliffs.
The current trail dives into the woods directly from the parking area, but it’s hidden back in the trees. The Michiganders mentioned in this story managed to miss it and walk up the road for a third of a mile before realizing their mistake.
There seems to be some uncertainty as to the length of this hike. The DEC sign in the parking area puts it at 4 miles round-trip, but on the internet you can find it described as 4.5 and even 5.5 miles round-trip.
At Moxham’s summit, the slabs ease off at a gentle angle, but the grade quickly steepens. A fall would be no bueno. If you choose to poke around, do so with extreme caution.
And don’t forget to bring … a toddler!
Leath Tonino is a freelance writer from Vermont. His work has appeared in Men’s Journal, Orion, Outside and Yankee magazines. He is the author of an essay collection, The Animal One Thousand Miles Long: Seven Lengths of Vermont, released in 2018.