The Beacon Mountain Poem

Long before I grew enamored with Beacon as NoBro (North Brooklyn) with its gentrifying main street of art galleries and funky coffee houses clustered in restored brick buildings at both ends, I encountered it as a prison town. (“Be-A-Con,” a local wit recently told me.) In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I traveled by train up to Cold Spring many times to climb Mount Taurus or Breakneck Ridge. On several occasions we walked the full length of Breakneck Ridge to ascend the next massif for Beacon Mountain, an ugly outpost compared to the rest of the Hudson Highlands. There was an abandoned fire tower plus charred grass and trees left by recent fires. Transmission towers clustered nearby, both new and neglected, creating an industrial sacrifice zone amid otherwise wild mountains. Even today, spotting this tall hump from the Thruway across the Hudson Valley, I see it as the cowboy hat that caught all the arrows. The rest of the Highlands survived the attack to remain rugged parklands less than sixty miles north of Manhattan. On Beacon Mountain, though, among the derelict towers and the new ones no doubt beaming rays into our brains we felt almost like outlaws. Once in our approach we scared off vultures perched on the fire tower. I wondered if they were attracted by the charred smell of the place.

Yet the views were magnificent. To one side we had the huge expanse of the Mid-Hudson Valley from Beacon below us to Newburgh across the bridge to Stewart airport clearing a surprisingly large swath of forest across the valley. It was so much larger in scale than any other human structure that I half-expected an alien space ship the size of a city to arrive for a landing. Northwards across the Hudson lay the Marlborough Hills gently rising up from the river. Beyond them: the distinctive wall of the Shawangunk ridge. And dominating the far skyline, half-erased by the faint haziness of distance, the mountain profile of the Catskills’ massive peaks and deep gaps that made the nearer hills look small and rumpled. In those years the Catskills were the unexplored wilderness that lay beyond the reach of my day trips.

Yet near at hand to our left we had our own mountains, the Hudson Highlands of Storm King, West Point, and Harriman State Park, the waves of long ridges divided by valley haze on those hot summer days. Though only 1,200 to 1,400 feet tall they looked grand towering over the Hudson River fjord. They seemed to roll on forever to the southwest, as if New Jersey didn’t exist. On the southern horizon lay my favorite illusion: the boxy tower silhouette of Manhattan docked against the continent as if no suburbs lay between the city and these wilds. The miles of extra hiking to reach this view were worth the effort. But we needed a long summer day because we might not get back to the train until seven or eight. Beacon Mountain was a marathon trek.

One day alone on the train I decided to ride an extra stop. My concern was that I’d have to walk several miles across town to reach the trailhead shown on my map at the dead end of a street. The hike up the mountain itself was only two miles. I needn’t have worried. Dozens of black women and children got off in Beacon with me, a demographic noticeably different from the white hikers and village tourists who’d deboarded in Cold Spring. They dispersed out to taxi vans waiting in the parking lot. Appreciating my good luck, I hopped in the front passenger seat of a van, and, curious about all this activity, learned from the driver, a middle-aged black man, that everyone was visiting for Father’s Day at the prisons. There were four in the area. I suppose I remember this moment because I felt stung by my naivity. I fancied myself a savvy Manhattanite, but in my world of writers and editors Upstate meant country houses and weekend getaways. It hadn’t occurred to me on that crowded train that Upstate also meant prisons. Yet the naivity went both ways. The driver knew the dead-end street where he’d drop me off, but not the red trail on my map. He’d never hiked up Beacon Mountain. He’d mowed over four black snakes in his yard, he told me. That had been enough nature for him. How could you live here, I thought to myself, and not want to stand on your own mountain?

My wife wasn’t much of a hiker, either. The name alone—Breakneck Ridge—was enough for her to send me off with my adventure buddies, while she stayed in Manhattan to do coffee and museums with her friends. Yet I was convinced that she could make that two-mile walk up to the fire tower. So later that summer I returned with her in a taxi van. And she did make it to the top, but not without some consternation minutes after starting up the trail when we encountered a sullen teenager firing his rifle straight up at tree leaves. Beacon Mountain wasn’t a park, I realized, where you trusted people to be nice and pick up their litter. These were the back woods where kids did what they’ve always done away from parents and rules. They learned how to smoke and drink and shoot squirrels and who knew what else. Would we be safe? we asked. For a guy holding a rifle, he looked as nonchalant as could be. Yeah, he replied, you should be okay. “Should be” wasn’t the level of reassurance we wanted, but we continued on our planned hike and, fortunately, didn’t hear any more rifle shots. The only others we met were two kids farther up the trail on dirt motorbikes. Their helmets looked huge atop their skinny shoulders. They were mud spattered from head to foot. They hardly nodded as they rode by, slowly weaving among gully rocks. After that, my wife and I stuck to established hiking preserves, such as Minnewaska Start Park, where our encounters with others were always pleasant and exhaust-free.

Years later I conflated my memories of Beacon Mountain into a poem. I wanted to capture the woods noire feeling of that outpost beyond my typical hiking range.

Strange Mountain

The summer after the mountainside smoked
for two months like a cigarette billboard,

I entered through swaying field grasses
that coated my sweaty hands with seeds

and feathered my stiff legs until I reached
the charcoaled elephant tusks

of trees. In the prison town below,
the cabby had never heard of anyone climbing

Strange Mountain: “I’ve mowed four black snakes
on my own lawn. That’s enough outdoors for me”

But I was married then and yearning
for something like the yellow warbler singing under the power line

in a staghorn sumac with antique red velvet horns.
The bird had cinnamon chest stripes as runny as mascara

in a soap opera, but I had no reason
to think him unhappy. I filled myself on fern air

and proceeded to the summit where two turkey vultures
on the fire tower with blistered red heads

leaned into the warm breeze and glided down into the yellow
valley haze. The dragon flies didn’t care about fire:

Cerulean, scarlet, they hovered over flower heads
like needles carrying fresh injections

of spring. I lay down on parched moss that might still be alive
after a good rain. A towhee sang “drink-your-tea.”

Love seemed so simple away from home. That winter
I returned to find the summit puddles frozen clear as windshields.

An older man in a Tyrolean hat clipped his nails
in the frigid cold. He asked, “Did you leave some blood

on the snow down the trail?” “Blood? No,”
I said. She had left without a word.

This poem’s subject is, of course, not the mountain but the the dissolution of my marriage. That happened in 1996 upon my leaving Manhattan for a Catskills log cabin. For a long time afterward, this breakup felt like the greatest failure of my life. My wife and I hadn’t cheated or hated each other or been anything less than best friends. But I’d been gripped by the desire to leave the city and start fresh in the mountains. And, other than me, she had no reason to follow, not with a good career, a nice apartment, and her family and friends in the city. A lifelong Manhattanite, she hadn’t even learned how to drive. She didn’t share my fantasies for a dark and moldy cabin with a wood stove for winter perched among hemlocks above a stream with a footbridge out to the road. So I’d been forced to choose the cabin over her, a decision both terrible and right.

Sixteen years later I no longer felt any failure, only the triumph of making such a bold change to pursue my Thoreauvian dream. My former wife and I became dear old friends who recognized how differently we were wired. The desire to live in the mountains had probably been planted in me on boyhood family camping trips to Maine that led to Boy Scouts and teenage backpacks on the Appalachian Trail followed by college adventures in the High Sierras. Once I’d thoroughly explored the Hudson Highlands, the Catskills seemed like an obvious next step. Marriages, I’d come to believe, were relationships that got renegotiated as people underwent major life changes. Mine hadn’t failed. It had been replaced by a country/city friendship. Then, tragically, my former wife had taken her own life after suffering a devastating depression. Over time my grieving gave way to fond memories of our young adulthoods together in Hoboken and Manhattan. The divorce at the end seemed almost incidental, a rite of passage that many go through.

Much as my life has changed since 1996, so has Beacon. The people now getting off the weekend train are art hipsters on their way to DIA Beacon. The main street has galleries, a tea shop, and a glass factory that sells handcrafted vases and bowls. As the town has changed, so has Beacon Mountain. No longer does the trail start from a dead-end street to climb around the back side. In recent years Scenic Hudson has put out a welcome mat at the base of the mountain that looms over town. There’s a parking lot and an information kiosk with maps and historical photos. The popular trail leads a short distance through the woods to the bottom of the meadow-like cut left by the Mount Beacon Incline Railway that once ran straight up the steep mountain front. Scenic Hudson has built a steel staircase that starts up the first three hundred feet of the climb after which the trail turns off into the woods to zig-zag upwards along old paths that ramp this way and that up the hillside. Half-an-hour of steady climbing brings you to the top vista where the brick ruins of the railway cable house still stand and the valley views are breathtaking. Though the higher rear ridgeline of Beacon Mountain blocks the eastern skyline, the whole of the Mid-Hudson Valley off to the Catskills fills the viewshed. The town of Beacon lies directly below in orderly rows of white houses that glint from the sun that arcs over the Highlands.

Under a blissfully mild blue sky the day after Thanksgiving, I must have passed a dozen or two hikers on my way up and found another dozen or two spread around the top flat, which seemed like piazza ruins the way a cement platform emerged in places from the hard dirt that held mud puddles and campfire rings. Years ago a hotel and casino had greeted visitors here at the top of the railway incline. A border of iron fence posts still stood around the promontory rim. Many of the hikers were families with children or teens. Many were couples in their twenties or thirties. Noticing short beards on various young men, I wondered if this might be the NoBro style, a suggestion of country hermit without a complete loss of grooming. Woodstock feels so much like a retirement community to me that I fear I’m graying along with it. To be in Beacon where the world was still young, as I’d been young when I first explored these mountains, felt both nostalgic and rejuvenating. Beacon Mountain had become a festive park. It was no longer Strange Mountain seen through the eyes of divorce.

The fire tower stood farther back on the higher ridgeline another half hour’s walk away. I passed only a few hikers, but reflected on how much like Breckneck Ridge and Harriman Park these well marked trails seemed. Given the existing network of old dirt roads that offered trail routes, this place was a natural haven for hikers. The antenna towers clustered on the nearby summit didn’t intrude. (What I call Beacon Mountain is on maps two mountains, North Beacon with the antenna and South Beacon with the fire tower.) Overlook Mountain above Woodstock may be the model for what Beacon Mountain is becoming. Old timers have told me that they can remember when nobody went up Overlook except for the fire warden in his jeep, stopping along the way to bag rattlesnakes he brought home for dinner, and kids like themselves eager to sneak into the hotel ruins that still stood in the Sixties. Now those ruins are a concrete shell of their former selves. But Overlook has become the most popular hike in the Catskills, drawing hundreds on summer weekends to enjoy perhaps the finest views in the Hudson Valley. That panorama swings around from the Catskills to Albany to the Berkshires to the Hudson Highlands to High Point, New Jersey, a speck of a monument tower on the horizon. The rattlesnakes, now a protected species, go home as iPhone photos. Everyone is friendly and considerate of the natural surroundings. Weekend volunteers in khaki shirts set up an information table by the fire tower and answer questions. Picnickers sit at the tables, mountain bikers dismount for water breaks, area residents climb the tower to see if they can spot their homes amid the forest blanketing the valley. Overlook Mountain is Woodstock’s Central Park.

But Beacon Mountain hasn’t gotten there yet. Gentrification happens in fits and starts. The trail brought me up around the summit slabs to my first close view of the fire tower, a rusted wreck shorn of its roof so that the four corners of the lookout cab stabbed upwards at the blue sky. Not even at its worst had the Overlook tower looked that bad. This was the equivalent of a junked jalopy left out in the woods for decades after the mice had eaten the seats and the windshield had ground to dust. Yet several boys stood at the top. A trio of young mothers in sweatshirts watched after more boys on the summit bedrock. A young uncle waved down from the roofless window. When everyone returned to the bottom they gathered for group photos. The tower may have been derelict, but the atmosphere was festive. On the dirt to the side of the summit slabs lay a rack of silver-painted metal bars, replacement parts for the tower. No longer was this an outpost for outlaws.

It had been almost twenty years since I’d stood in this spot. I felt that whirl of what I remembered and what I didn’t. Manhattan was still docked against the horizon. In the other direction the bedrock slabs ramped downwards towards the small blue reservoir pocketed between the summits. In the past the route had led me past the reservoir and up the slabs to the tower. There were dark water puddles in the small tubs of bedrock that had been “frozen clear as windshields” in my poem. Yet this bedrock was noticeably different from what I’d grown accustomed to in the Catskills. It was more like the outcroppings in Central Park, a glinty rough rock unlike the Catskills bluestone that could be smooth as sidewalks. The Catskills were an ancient river delta uplifted into a plateau that has been carved by streams and Ice Age glaciers, while the much older Hudson Highlands were the worn down nubs of mountains once like the Rockies. Even the dirt seemed different, harder and yellower on Beacon Mountain. I’d been away long enough to notice such things.

Another pair of boys had ascended the tower. One his way down the metal stairs one called out to his father standing on the slabs below in windbreaker and ball hat. Not being a father myself, I melted with sentiment upon hearing their exchange.

“Dad, Dad, that was the scariest thing I’ve ever done.”

“Scarier than the Cyclone?”

“Much scarier.”

What further argument needs to be made about the value of preserving wild places? They are the settings for us to experience our fullness as human beings.

I took my turn up in the tower cab. The rusted sides aerated with what might have been bullet holes didn’t provide reassurance, but the metal grates of the steps and cab floor were very secure and probably newer. The views were magnificent. The Hudson Highlands extended in waves of black ridgetops divided by valleys of thin haze under the low afternoon sun, a mysterious scene worthy of a Chinese painting. To the north the Catskills owned the skyline with their profile I now knew so well. What I hadn’t remembered was how dramatically Beacon Mountain stood as the final cornerstone at this end of the Highlands, the tallest peak of them all, as the landscape to the east dropped down into rolling valleys of brown autumn forest. Loyal as I am to Overlook, I had to admit that this view was one of the best of the Hudson Valley, stretching from Manhattan to the Catskills, both ends of my adult life. Beacon Mountain had gotten its name during the American Revolution as the spot where wooden pyres would be lit as signal fires to warn of the British sailing upriver. A century earlier, in 1683, Francis Rombout had stood on this summit to purchase from the local Wappingers tribe, “all that he could see,” establishing the Rombout Patent that underlies land ownership to this day. Standing on the tower amid such scenery, I found it easy to feel the elevated sweep of history.

Then I happened to look straight down from the roofless window to the summit bedrock. Spray painted on the gray rock in taxi cab yellow was a big penis. It had been drawn with a few deft lines and curves but didn’t lack for details. Two twenty-pound balls. A straight shaft. Even the small slit at the tip out of which flew a billowing yellow flag of sperm. I was shocked. Especially by the sperm, which suggested that internet porn has pushed us past another boundary in taste. No longer were graffiti penises crude enough. Now they had to be firing their cannons as well. Yet, privately, I also had to smile. The ne’er-do-well spirit of Beacon Mountain still had a foothold. Strange Mountain hadn’t been fully civilized into a park. The graffitiest who’d drawn this dong with a few confident strokes from his spray can had signed his work: “USA.” Why not? Let us all be proud to be Americans.

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