A trip to the Catskills is a trip back in time, both historically and naturally. The natural beauty of the area has drawn people to visit up the Hudson River from New York City since the early 1800’s. The wide and sow moving river is fed by many streams which cut through steep gorges of hard rock, creating many dramatic cliffs and outcroppings. The wetness of the area contributes to a lush deciduous forest and undergrowth which is turning shades of yellow, orange and red for my visit.
The centerpiece for all this splendor is Kaaterskill stream with it’s multiple falls and fed by a scenic lake. A surprising geographic feature is that the Hudson is walled on the west by sheer cliffs which give the falls their dramatic vertical drop. A nice double lake feeds the falls and is fed in turn by the hills beyond. These falls and views of the forested mountains and river were the draw for artists of the 1800’s, some of whom set up studios nearby. They painted many landscapes of the area and became known as the Hudson River School. Their landscapes were intended as a testimony of God’s majesty in nature and a protest against the growing exploitation of the region by pioneers and industrial commerce. These paintings were all the rage in New York until the Impressionists pushed them into obscurity.
Today the Hudson River has been cleaned up and various parcels preserved. Roads in the area follow their ancient meanderings and speak names from early days of the nation like — sleepy hollow, game farm, red brick school, mountain house, mossy hill, stoney brook, rip van winkle. Sadly, few ancient names remain such as — Cohotate, Oneonta, Onteora. Wooden houses are mostly sprinkled throughout the forested region and mostly hidden from view except those along the major paved roads.
I spent some time sitting by the Hudson at the riverpark in Athens NY and admired the broad slow-rolling river and thought of “Old Man River” just keeps rollin along. I imagine natives traveling in their canoes, frontiersmen in boats or rafts, later paddlewheel steamers carrying goods and resources up and down to the newly developed towns and cities. In an age of trucks and airplanes, we forget that rivers were once the freeways of the land. Traveling overland through forests and over canyons could be arduous and winding, whereas rivers are smooth. And rivers and streams are made of that miraculous compound, water. The three critical ingredients of life are water, air and sun. If there’s anything sacred it should be these.
I’ve also been thinking about small towns like Catskill or Athens, which seem to be dying because commerce has centralized to a few locations connected by planes and trucks. It would be a much better quality of life if we lived in smaller communities rather than disconnected suburbs. Nature’s grand design is set up that way with each biosphere supporting itself and interacting with the next. What is it with “bigger and more is better?”
I spent a day hiking along the cliffs which face the Kaaterskill falls and the Hudson. Getting back to nature is always worthwhile and makes me wonder at the wisdom of human progress. When hiking in such lush surroundings, each step, each glance is a revelation, a devotion, a prayer, an inspiration. I watched an insect dancing around on a brook and wondered what he was doing there. It’s impossible to describe in words or pictures the view of the wonderful rocks, trees, moss, brooks, lakes, streams, vistas, etc. An artist (forget who) once said, “You can’t paint reality, only suggest it”