A Catskill Catalog: Nov. 18, 2009

Sometimes I didn’t believe myself.
The other day, I got a chance to affirm a distant memory, one that even I could begin to doubt. A couple friends and I took a ride to Max Shaul State Park up Route 30 in Fultonham. The park and campground are deserted by mid-November, but an interesting path begins just beyond the park’s softball outfield: the old Route 30 roadbed. One of my companions had been birding there months back.
The abandoned roadbed is just that – abandoned. We had to straddle downed trees that blocked the way. The moss-covered blacktop sprouts weeds. But the old road is clearly recognizable and walkable.
Now, I’ve written, I think a couple times, about one of my memorably dramatic first rides into the Catskills. A college pal was a local Catskill Mountain boy, and he and I rode down to the mountains one Thursday or Friday afternoon from the Capital District where we went to school.
The car, I recall, was an MGB, one of those great British two-seaters that puts both driver and passenger close to the road. And the road! I remember my friend explaining that Route 30 followed an “old Indian trail” along the Schoharie Creek.
We walked that native trail the other day. Everything I remembered about that first ride into the mountains was brought back. Route 30, in the late ’60s, hugged the sheer cliffside that rises 50 or 60 feet up from the west bank of the Schoharie Creek, a wide and strong river at that point. Route 30 today travels smoothly through the fertile flatland that stretches out from the east bank of the creek. The old road was on the backside of the Schoharie.
All those years ago, I entered the Catskills for the first time in daylight, riding south along that old cliff-side route that spring afternoon in 1967 or so. The road climbed steadily up that cliff-side, just after we had passed the farm stands, Barber’s and Shaul Farms, with their broad, lush fields of vegetables stretching out on our left. But the road climbed to the ri­­ght into the hills.
In a moment, we were in the mountains, 50 or 60 feet up, a sheer drop to our left. On the right, a rock wall, Catskill bluestone, rises 20 feet up. We were literally between a rock and a drop. The road itself was narrow; maybe 16 feet from the sheer rock wall rising on the right to the long fall on our left down to the creek bed. Double braided wire, strung through a series of two-and-a-half-foot concrete posts, was all that separated us from that sheer drop.
From today’s field-level Route 30, the mountains, in Schoharie County, are distant hills, rising walls around the broad expanse of fertile fields. From that cliffside Route 30, the mountains are eye-level, one mount leading the eye to the next, a warren of hilltops. Add the afternoon sun in front of you, hanging low in the western sky, and you are literally in a land-in-the-sky.
All contributed to my sense that I was entering someplace a bit magical: the mountains, the sun, the elevated road, the narrow path barely wide enough for two-way traffic, the squeeze of the road between the rock wall on my right and the vertigo-inducing drop 50-feet down on my left. Clearly, this was an entrance, a gateway it seemed, into a place different from the place where we had been.
Perhaps the draw of these mountains has always been that sense of the difference of the Catskills, of the contrast between the Catskills and the places we come from to get into the Catskills. We see the mountains from the Thruway, rising to the west. A quick catch in the throat. On Route 17 heading east, we see the folds of hills, rising one behind the other. Our eyes widen. We climb Route 23 up the escarpment, five states visible on the vast flats below. We look down, then turn, intent on the mountains.
Four hundred years ago, Henry Hudson led the voyage up the river that today bears his name. His Master Mate, Robert Juet, kept a journal. Samuel Purchas included excerpts from Juet’s journal in his 1625 book Purchas His Pilgrimes, published in London.
Here was the first written mention of sighting the Catskills. (Readers facing Friday spelling tests will be cheered by Juet’s spelling.) “The fifteenth, in the morning was misty vntill the Sunne arose : then it cleered. So wee weighed with the wind at South, and ran vp into the Riuer twentie leagues, passing by high Mountaines.”
“Passing by high Mountaines:” the first English language depiction of the Catskills, 400 years old. Can’t top that.
Remember your first sight of the mountains? Native or newcomer, second-homeowner or local, that first gateway into the Catskills abides, shapes our thinking about where we live.