2012-11-28 / A Catskill Catalog by Bill Birns

A Catskill Catalog: November 28, 2012

A friend accuses me of being Catskill-centric, able to trace the origins of just about anything to the Catskills. American painting? All began in Thomas Cole’s studio-on-the-Hudson in Catskill. American literature? Rip Van Winkle. The American vacation resort? The 1820 Catskill Mountain House and the Mountaintop at North-South Lake. (Not to mention the Concord and Grossinger’s) First forest? The Gilboa fossils are what are left of the oldest vegetation yet discovered. You get the idea.
The Catskills are, indeed, a special place. We are all a little bit guilty, I think, of believing we live in the most beautiful place, those of us lucky enough to live in the Catskills, even while we worry a bit whether or not folks will continue to be able to make a living here. More than one of my friends has called our region paradise.

The day after Election Day, I got on a train at Rhinecliff Station, and eight trains and 13 days later, got off again in the same spot. The Catskills rose against the late-afternoon sky, deep and hard-edged, across the wide river, both times. They were majestic and mysterious and beautiful when I left, and appeared so, again, upon my return. I saw a lot of country in those 13 days. America is immense. And the Catskills stand up, not the most beautiful place, but one of the many remarkable landscapes in a remarkable country.

Pardon me, if a gush a bit. I guess I haven’t got out much. In many ways, I’ve lived a sheltered life. Forty years in the mountains can do that. Not that it has to. Good friends took up world travel years ago, making Margaretville home and Italy, England, Turkey, Iceland and destinations I can’t number their frequent haunts. Another is as at-home in Prague as he is in New Kingston. The Catskills have always been home to the well traveled, I just don’t happen to be among them.

Don’t ask me why. I am not sure I can answer, other than to offer the observation that the Catskills tend to hold us in, keep us nurtured and, maybe, a bit insular. Me, anyway.

So, while this was my second trip on the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, the Empire Builder carried me across the West for the first time since I was 14 years old and my mother took her three sons cross-country in a used ’55 Cadillac.

What a country! On the wide, flat North Dakota plain the eye can travel nearly to infinity. Then, as the land begins to hill and roll, oil! There’s an oil boom in North Dakota, with 155 good government jobs going begging at the Minot Air Force Base, because everybody’s working in the oil patch. People seeking work are flooding to Minot and Williston, North Dakota. One guy I talked to came up from San Diego, California, after too many months and years of unemployment.

The train follows the pass pioneers trailed into the Northwest, running along the Columbia River and its magnificent gorge. Maybe the Hudson is not the most beautiful river in America, I thought, the expense of the Columbia and its variegated high gorge breath-taking. How relieved I felt, days later, riding the rails up the Hudson, entering the highlands around Bear Mountain, and wording, almost audibly, just as nice.

California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains are what western mountains are supposed to look like: rugged, high-ravined, rock-revealed, narrow-passed. Our Catskills are clearly different: older, rounder, shorter, wider, softer. Perhaps, I like to think, our old, settled hills are wiser with that age.
And Utah! Nothing prepared me for the high desert, the long sweep of scrub-brush, stone, and sand angling softly away to the sudden flat-topped rise of sandstone mesas and buttes, variegated orange, red, brown, and all the intermittent hues among them. Maybe the Catskills aren’t the most beautiful place.

But we certainly hold up. The Rockies, Iowa cornfields, the great Mississippi – it’s a great country, the USA, vast in size, magnificent to the eye, and the Catskills hold up, as one of the many beautiful, special places encompassed in our immense national landscape. Comforting, to be such a grand part of such a grand whole.

And while train travel did not begin here in the Catskills, the first locomotive-powered railroad was the 1826 Mohawk and Hudson, running between Schenectady and Albany, really, just a stone’s throw outside the mountains, so one could, maybe, make a case that, when it comes to railroading, the Catskills…ah, what’s the use. I gotta get over this Catskill-centric thing.

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