Flying Over the Catskills

(This essay appears in the Spring 2012 issue of The Country and Abroad.)

Isn’t a vacation an adult version of running away? Mine always leave me wishing I didn’t have to return home to some drudgery or other. My dread has been as big as a job that I decided from afar I hated. Or as grim as the determination to get in better shape on a StairMaster. All that freewheeling energy set loose by traveling makes the humdrum routine seem like a prison sentence you shouldn’t agree to. And this vacation had been a doozy: two weeks of road tripping and backpacking in the California deserts. I’d seen rattlesnakes, meteors, petroglyphs, Joshua trees, Martian red landscapes with palm tree oases. In Death Valley I’d camped beside the world’s lowest elevation golf course, which had miniature rainbows in the dawn sprinklers and coyotes that stood back from the spray tame as dogs. (Park roadsigns warned motorists not to stop for coyotes that trotted beside cars, begging for handouts.)

Overnighting at Red Rock Canyon State Park on my return drive to Los Angeles, I’d discovered that I was in the landscape used for filming Planet of the Apes II, holy ground for me. Growing up churchless, I’d found surrogate Bible stories in the Planet of the Apes series, especially Charlton Heston’s unforgettable discovery that humans had annihilated themselves, leaving the Statue of Liberty half sunken in beach sand. That apocalypse had given me an illicit thrill as a boy, the dark satisfaction that lies behind fire and brimstone religion. In the morning while exploring the red rocks, exotic pillars of sandstone carved like organ pipes from the mesa hillside, I’d imagined myself starring in my own Planet of the Apes sequel. How often at home does your life verge on becoming a movie?

On my final day I drove Mulholland Drive high above Los Angeles where Jack Nicholson and his fellow Hollywood ne’er-do-wells enjoyed their hideouts far from the grid-lined sprawl of ordinary lives below. By sunset I sat in a bar on Venice Beach, savoring a Weiss beer and more than half believing a young Los Angeleno eager to sell me on the revitalizing benefits of human growth hormone shots. Why not? Wasn’t I in the capital of self invention? Why fly home to a log cabin with a chimney leak and mice that ate shoelaces? But I did. Because the ticket told me to.

Not until the plane was descending into Stewart Airport did I perk up with an idea. Staring dumb faced out my window at the anonymous scenery, I suddenly recognized the stone tower at Mohonk, the solitary sentinel on the Shawangunk ridge that put the other landscape features into their familiar places, though miniaturized in an enchanting way.

On the final leg of my desert trip, I’d stopped at a local airport and hired a small plane to fly me back over Death Valley, an exhilarating ride at 10,000 feet across a vast sandbox with mountains. The lonely ribbons of road I’d driven for hours now passed below within minutes. The timeless solitude I’d experienced through my windshield was replaced by the brusque commands of air traffic controllers in our headphones. We had to be alert, for we were flying in civilian corridors through military hot zones. As we chugged forward, pulled by the nearly invisible propeller past an 8,000 foot mountain shoulder pebbled with boulders, two fighter jets darted into view straight ahead of us quick as dragon flies, then chased themselves off. Top Gun for real. At such moments I was never too old to be a boy.

Children love miniature worlds. Maybe that’s the magic of flying in a small plane. Why not try this same trick with the Catskills? I thought, as we touched down at Stewart. Why not see my home terrain transformed into a model playland from the cockpit of a Cessna?

Not that my cabin hadn’t been an adventure. In 1996 I’d left midtown Manhattan for four log walls and a green roof perched like a tree fort on a hillside bench amid hemlocks and solitude. A yellow birch grew through the porch like a flagpole. Behind the cabin, I could hike up deer paths zig-zagging through hemlock duff and in twenty minutes reach the wilderness boundary beyond which no one had logged or perhaps walked in decades. Truly, I was living at the foot of the wilds. No TV. No curtains. No morning Times on my doormat. Hell, I didn’t even get radio reception unless I crossed the footbridge out to my car parked on the road, where for some reason radio signals reached that couldn’t find my cabin under the trees. And only once did I do that, feeling obligated to listen to the Clinton Dole debate, which after a few minutes I quit, satisfied that Clinton was in no danger of losing. Among my goals at the cabin was detoxing from the news that had grabbed at my attention all day long in Manhattan. I wanted to decouple my nervous system from the world’s troubles.

Not that I was a hermit. I kept busy with writing assignments for magazines. But after faxing in my work, I’d celebrate by wandering up the hillside in search of, say, a fresh crop of mushrooms to harvest and study in my field guilds. After my final dispiriting years in Manhattan, life at the cabin was like a working vacation. The only thing I missed was cappuccino. In 1996 the Starbucks revolution from Seattle still hadn’t reached my little hamlet of Phoenicia.

But any routine grows familiar, and the familiar grows stale. By now I’d lived in the cabin for four years. The chimney leak, no matter how many times it got fixed, would never really get fixed. The drip bucket on my stone mantelpiece had overflowed by the time I got back from the deserts. The newspapers laid out as sponges were moldy. And the mice, oh, the mice never stopped coming. One morning I found one doing the dead man’s float in the toilet bowl. Another, a pair of them up on tiptoes to hold up their faces so as not to drown in the bottom two inches of the yogurt smoothie I’d forgotten to finish in the blender. My story of mice would have been War and Peace had I bothered to write it. Most disheartening of all, my cabin no longer provided a working vacation, not like those early days after leaving East 47th Street. My cabin had become my office. And an office can be an oppressive place to live. Maybe flying would help.

On a sunny afternoon I arrived at the Kingston airport north of the Kingston Rhinecliff Bridge tolls, a runway I’d seen many times but had never considered visiting until now. At $90/hour my flight wouldn’t be cheap entertainment, but, realistically, it also wouldn’t much more than therapy and would be a lot more fun. I buckled up and donned my headphones. The pilot reviewed his laminated checklist and tested his dashboard switches.

Those with a fear of flying might consider committing themselves to a small cockpit to be an advanced form of psychological torture, but I’d really enjoyed my half dozen Cessna adventures. Small planes were like bicycles. You felt the effort, the balancing, the connection to the wind or the road. You weren’t encapsulated in the ease machine of a jet or an SUV. You were riding on the earth’s elements, not checking your watch and worrying about arrival times.

Then we were off, speeding down the runway behind the loud, almost flatulent propeller until we were airborne, quickly rising above the trees that shrank into a model landscape. Ahead, stood the Great Wall of Manitou, the Catskills Eastern Escarpment, the choppy mountain profile that dominates this portion of the Hudson Valley like our answer to the Rockies.

Once upon a time, while traveling the river, Washington Irving peered up into those mysterious blue mountains cut by two major notches and went home to write “Rip Van Winkle,” set according to legend and even some maps high in the northern notch, Kaaterskill Clove, toward which we now flew. Irving’s amusing tale has a more serious side as the parable of a brash young society after the American Revolution that could afford to mock its elders. Nor am I sure we’ll ever grow up. We’re still punch drunk on progress, the flashing excitements of the new and the now.

Yet the cabin had offered me some protection. It taught me to appreciate seasonal changes, the recurring events that we look for year after year, the experience of time as a merry-go-round rather than a straight highway to the horizon. Each August, a bush down by the stream unfurled its pink petals, an annual announcement of itself that caught my eye because I would have thought that flowering was done for the year. But that bush was sending a message. The year goes round from August to autumn to winter to spring to summer to August to go round again. Not until the Jews of the Bible did people conceive of time as forward progression, an opportunity for societies to improve, or so Thomas Cahill extols in The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. Before that, people believed in the Round, the notion that events recur and can be foretold like the seasons.

At the cabin I’d seen the Round up close and personal in its natural form, the ferns, birds, and weather repeating annual cycles right outside my door with no evident discontent over the way things were. The promoters of progress would have us believe that the drive to invent and improve is bred into our genes, but I grew skeptical after being steeped in the seasons. Even the media, I noticed, follows Rounds of its own, be they political campaigns, holidays, anniversaries, or those annual bonanzas of the media’s own creation, the Superbowl and Oscar Night. It’s no mistake that “news” often sounds like we’ve heard it before. We are still people of the Round more than we may care to admit to those constantly pushing us to upgrade and adapt. We remain deeply tied to our planet’s annual journey around the sun. We should honor ourselves as animals meant for this world, not a virtual one. The phone jack plugging me into the Internet wasn’t the secret to happiness.

And sleep? That poor victim of City noises and anxieties? After my first night in the cabin, I’d woken up to gray light in my window facing the mossy hillside rocks and thought, “Oh God, I’m still waking up at 6 am.” But, no, the clock said 8 am. I hadn’t heard a single car horn or jackhammer or ceiling pipe flush. I felt rested for once. The cabin, I’d discovered, was a sleep factory. Maybe Rip Van Winkle hadn’t been a snoring buffoon but the ultimate master of a neglected art form. Maybe some future writer will tell us what Rip learned from his dreams.

As we climbed loud and steady, the Great Wall faded in prominence, revealing itself as the front edge of the Catskills plateau, a forested province of broad valleys and mountain ridges humping their way westwards. The pilot didn’t know any of the mountains’ names, nor, I suppose, did he need to. But I was a proud hiker.

In the autumn and winter after moving into the cabin I’d climbed all thirty five of the peaks over 3500 feet to join the Catskill 3500 Club, an achievement that made the mountains feel like home. Almost half had required bushwhacking off trail, immersing me in the forest far beyond the well trodden paths. Route finding forced me to pay attention more than I had on trails, where my mind drifted into daydreams while the forest faded into scenery. Navigating made me aware of every fallen tree trunk I clambered over and each band of cliff rocks I figured my way up. I started noticing tree fungi as if I’d never seen them before, ranging from blank shields grafted onto grandfather trunks to miniature coral kingdoms under rotting branch armpits. I grew grateful for soft summit fern glades after suffering through stinging nettle patches on the wet spring-fed hillsides. Even the smells seemed stronger: the spruce, the dirt, the sunlight warming rocks. Bushwhacking made the Catskills much larger and wilder than the forests I’d know only by trail, but also more intimate and private, a wide open refuge for my adventures in solitude.

From the plane, of course, those charms were hidden under the forest blanket. But I could still be impressed by the scale of what I’d climbed: the three camel humps of the Black Head range; the World War Two bomber plane profile of Kaaterskill High Peak with its neighboring tail fin, Round Top; the Hunter massif with its grass tattoo of ski slopes on its northern buttress. Maybe the pilot didn’t know their names, but I’d claimed them as my home terrain.

Yet at 6,000 feet one of my cherished illusions was lost. From trail lookouts you could imagine that these mountains rolled outwards for days, as if America was still largely a wilderness. You might see a few ribbons of valley roads amid the forest, a cluster of rooftops for a hamlet, a farm clearing. But the rugged mountains still ruled to the horizon. Not so from the plane. The Catskills did stand apart as an elevated province guarded by peaks around the rim.

But the surrounding valleys looked much larger, spread outwards toward Albany, the Berkshires, and the Hudson Highlands, that southern barrier against Manhattan and Westchester. The Catskills weren’t the big impregnable kingdom they’d seemed from my cabin. Had we flown straight from north to south, we could have crossed them in twenty minutes. Jets at 25,000 feet crisscrossed them with contrails in minutes. My wilderness hideout was rung by dominant flatlands. Down there, people had two car garages, swimming pools, lawn doctors, the homogenized lives trained into them by watching TV for four hours a day. I reminded myself to feel lucky at having escaped.

Below us, I spotted Kaaterskill Falls, comically small, a stone well carved into the forested hillside with a slip of water spilling over its rim. Or perhaps rather than a well it was a keyhole into our national history. The first painting in Robert Hughes’s American Visions: The Epic History of Art of America is Thomas Cole’s 1826 rendition of these two-tiered falls—the tallest in New York State—as a dark, brooding wall essentially guarding the unspoiled continent that lies beyond. Cole framed the scene with rust autumn scarlets and dead weathered tree trunks to cast a Shakespearean somberness, for he feared that loggers and miners, serving our burgeon industrial appetites, would spoil the mountains he painted as pristine. In the center, dwarfed by the scale of the waterfalls, he added a tiny Indian warrior standing on the tier shelf like the gatekeeper between his vanishing world and our own.

Today, we look back upon Cole as the founder of the Hudson River School, which enchants us with almost mythical scenes of wilderness so much more monumental that these mountains seem to us today. We look back, in other words, with nostalgia.

But Paul Shepard contends in his essay “Place in American Culture” that Cole painted at the beginning of our current crisis of not knowing where we belong in the world. “Up to the American Revolution, the American knew himself in three contexts: as Christian, English colonial, and village community member. As this scaffolding was cut away by independence, secularization, and industrial-urbanization he suffered an acute attack of inchoateness from which he still has not recovered.” From 1520 to 1820 the colonial landscape had largely looked the same, a well ordered mixture of farms and woodlots with the church at the village center. But the revolutions in that society sent Cole into the wilderness in search of a truer way of being. “To be lost in the wilderness he said, was the supreme experience. It was a way of seeking one’s roots, a primitive regression,” Shepard explains. Cole, Thoreau, and now, among many following their lineage, me. Except at the moment I was looking down from an airplane.

From art to politics: I pointed us south towards Belleayre Mountain. The Catskills were hot with controversy over plans to build a luxury golf course resort on its eastern ridgeline, adding to the ski center already cleared down its northern front. The developer, an imperial fellow with a silver ponytail and a spiritual background, wanted to drape the shoulders of this broad mountain with hotels and timeshares, restaurants and spas, a Bavarian-style tourist village guaranteed to light up the mountaintop like an alien spaceship at night in a wilderness park otherwise slumbered with darkness. From the moment I’d heard about it, I’d opposed it. I’d hiked up to the ridge to explore the woods slated to be clearcut for a golf course and luxury eco-hotel. Granted, they weren’t the stately forests with tall canopies and deep shade found on New York State’s “Forever Wild” Forest Preserve lands, which had been protected in places for a century or more. Heavily logged, these woods had thin runty trees and clearings with sun-loving brambles. But I did find something well worth preserving. Not one, not two, but three beech trees graffitied by bear claws. In autumn these omnivorous creatures shimmied up the smooth trunks for the tasty nuts. As it happens, the spread of bear claws is the same as our fingers, so I touched my fingertips to their scratch marks as my way of shaking hands. Didn’t America have enough golf courses, including one at the bottom of Death Valley? These woods deserved to be protected, not scalped and replaced by green turf like a skin graft from the suburbs. The Catskills had wilderness, a much rarer commodity than what the developer was hawking. From the plane we gazed down upon the green flanks as yet untouched by his schemes. With luck my bearing witness might cast a protective spell. The time had come to look for my cabin.

We crossed the long spine of Panther Mountain into the cirque valley that was my home ground. At the head of the valley were the brown buildings and lawns of a spiritual retreat compound I hadn’t explored. But I had bushwhacked up the northern ridgeline that rose several miles from Woodland Valley. Near the end, before the final steep hump up to the summit, I’d entered a sunny clearing of golden grass and pillowy moss on flat bedrock large as a ball field, a natural bald rarely found in the Catskills. I’d fancied it as my own secret park, a clearing high up the mountain for only me to know about. Maybe I’d return to write poetry, bask in the sun, commune with the sky, have an epiphany. Now I spotted it from the plane, a solitary golden patch in the green forest. I felt the excitement a homing pigeon must feel upon closing in on home.

What I couldn’t find was my cabin. I saw the road that tracked close to the stream through the gentle bends in my valley, so I knew where the cabin must be, but I couldn’t see it through the nappy cover of trees. Everything was hidden: the cabin, the footbridge, even the downstream neighbor’s small patch of immaculate lawn, his frontier outpost of suburbia that charmed me because it seemed so overwhelmed beneath the mountainside forest. In my desert travels, I’d been chasing the allure of the Western in which the hero doesn’t look back as he ventures through an inhospitable landscape. But my life was an Eastern, I now realized, a reinhabiting of the nurturing forest, a looking within. The pilot banked his plane steeply to circle over my spot, but I couldn’t see any sign of my cabin. And felt damned proud of it. I’d found what I wanted in the Catskills, a writer’s retreat freed from the anxieties of Manhattan. I was so well protected by trees I couldn’t even spy on myself. I let the pilot pull out of his circling to head back to the Kingston airport. I’d satisfied my yearning to escape. I was ready to go home.

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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges.

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