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By John Tallmadge

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By John Tallmadge

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The mixed hardwoods of Illinois and Missouri had given way to cottonwoods clustered in creek bottoms. On the gravel shoulders, blue chicory and yellow sunflowers now grew with the ragweed and dandelions, but all the plants had a dusty, bleached appearance, as if they were made of paper. Beyond the highway, shorn wheat fields rolled to the horizon, along which we could see white cumuli starting to build. The light was overpoweringly intense, with a mineral edge we had not felt before. Under it the land seemed to stand forth in its essence.

But in the evenings we gabbed for hours, comparing plans, or buried ourselves in the works of the wilderness writers, eager to imitate their adventures and share their visions. We were sick of the human world, which the army seemed to epitomize. We felt like conspirators working underground. So began a long period of preparation, during which we studied the route and considered what food and equipment we would need for a hike of 211 miles. All domestic routines were now called into question. " For physical and Page 22 mental comfort in the Sierra we needed warmth, dryness, food, water, and, always, a sense of location.

I knew I could not get out on foot or bicycle, and a bus would only have taken me into the next town, indistinguishable except in name. On rainy days, when the wind came from the east, I could smell the sea mixed with odors of sulfur and tar from the Bayway refineries. On sunny days I might climb a huge beech tree that grew in our neighbors' yard, trying to see the New York skyline. I would come down smudged with the soot that clung to its bark like a permanent shadow. These cities had grown up on a red sandstone plain between ancient basalt escarpments: the Palisades of the Hudson to the east and Watchung Mountain to the west, a low ridge that culminated at a point called Eagle Rock.

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