A Parable from the Catskills
In the snowy March of 2003, I climbed Slide Mountain, the tallest of the Catskill range at 4,180 feet, and met a wild-looking man named Sean McFall, who was staying 35 days on Slide’s shoulders, in the three-foot snow drifts, with the ice blowing from the treetops and his demonic-looking white bulldog keeping him warm when the temperature dropped to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. “Got enough food and two sleeping bags,” McFall said, “so I don’t have to step one foot outta these woods.”
On the way up, hikers in L.L. Bean and Patagonia gortex matching outfits with colored logos had warned of the “mean dog about an hour ahead of you – watch out for your pooch.” They meant my little Jack Russell. Other yuppie day-hikers, returning from the peak in the early afternoon (as I was heading up, for a night-hike down) told me of “a crew-cut guy with a big knife strapped to his leg. And that dog of his. Guy says he’s been living up there for five days.” Heads shook.
At last I found the dread bum at dusk digging himself a snow-pit 50 feet off the trail, with the dog standing picket, barking ferociously. McFall had the twinkling eyes of those who enjoy living alone in the woods, and the blast of the wind had made his nose red and his cheeks shiny.
“Hey man! Are you the dude with the Mean Dog and the Big Knife?”
“That’s what they’re saying, eh?”
“That’s what they’re saying at the bottom of the mountain.”
“Can’t even carry a knife in this country anymore.”
“Ain’t it so. So you’re living up here?”
“Man, I am up here to stay! 35 days. And I just got rid o’ day five.” McFall said that last—day five!—with such a joyous big grin and joy in his voice that I too wanted to pitch my tent with him, knowing at the same time, of course, that this would defeat his purpose. The dogs collided a minute like clowns, sniffed each other’s balls, and all was right in the world.
“I run my own business,” he said. “Carpet cleaning. In Corning. Up by the Finger Lakes. So I get to play when I want. This is play.” He motioned to the woods, his tent. “Climbed up to just, you know, climb up.”
Well, that’s some gall. Climbed up to climb up. I hear elsewhere that the Catskills need to be developed. That the place is ripe for economic growth. That Slide Mountain and its sister heights aren’t seeing enough people. That more people visiting the Catskills will make them somehow a better place. It’s deranged logic—it’s completely insane—but no one notices because it’s also the accepted norm. Grow or Die, after all, is the American way, the driving force of an economy kept from bankruptcy only by the faith that we can grow forever.
In the Catskills, the developers’ pitch goes something like this: Two hours from Manhattan, avoid the crush of traffic into the Hamptons. Skiing and snowboarding in the winter; golfing and freshwater swimming in the summer. Mountains and quiet; noise and trinkets when you need it. In Woodstock and Margaretville and Andes, a growing number of high-end clothing shops, over-priced eateries, the usual silly shit that no one needs. Celebrity sightings when required. Brad Pitt has a house here, so does Kelsey Grammer, Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman. New York Magazine, mesmerized comme d’habitude by imbecile pop culture mantras (e.g., Catskills are the new Hamptons, the new Hamptons) recently ran a shortlist of the mountains’ nouveau riche, with the proper greedhead booster advice: Buy land now, build big house, see land appreciate, gloat that you got here first. The growth mavens, meanwhile, talk of casinos on Indian land and vast new ski resorts carved out of mountaintops and of lining the corridor of State Route 28, “gateway to the Catskills,” with as many billboards advertising as many restaurants and hotels and ski lodges and spas and fake-snow slopes as can fit.
I have a cabin—a shack really—near Tremper Mountain, a half-hour from the trailhead to Slide Mountain, that my mother bought 35 years ago when the land was cheap (got here first). I learned to love the woods in this cabin, also to recognize rattlesnakes and poison ivy and leeches and the birch from the beech. The cabin has no running water, no electricity, and runs about 90 degrees hot when the snow falls, courtesy of a big brooding wood stove from Belgium. It boasts a deck that overlooks the mountains, a propane stove, a hundred candlesticks, a cot, several species of axe, sleeping bags, canned soup, a Bible, a Norton anthology of poems, and a book of philosophical reflections on the waste and stupidity of the human race called “Surviving to 3,000” (this will be difficult, the book concludes).
For years the cabin on its three little acres stood relatively alone in the woods, until the last half-decade, when several new houses went up nearby, far enough off that they remained unseen, but the sawing and banging and pouring of concrete and farting of trucks echoed. And as the new houses—huge houses, with huge poured concrete frames like bunkers—went up, mice for the first time found their way into the cabin, likely chased from old habitats by the development. This at first did not seem strange to me, for there had been bats in the roof, and carpenter ants in the floor, and raccoons under the deck, and moths in the sweaters, so why not mice in the food? But the mice, who for a while had a good thing there nesting in my cabin, went crazy with ambition, unlike the other visitors. To put it simply, they overpopulated. And in this headlong ascent, they ransacked every resource—the hammock, the bed, the Bible, which they shredded for nests—with what they believed was impunity.
The mouse has a habit of shitting mostly everywhere. He pisses and shits as he walks. He shits as he eats. For all I know, he shits to talk, like Swift’s Yahoos. And he makes efforts to shit in perverse places: on a hand mirror hanging from a nail on a wall, on an axe-handle, on my tool chest, in a box of rivets, inside a pillowcase, on a window screen (as with the hand-mirror, the acrobats must have tight-roped high and hung by spindly arms, defecating). So strewn in my cabin, wherever this humming rodent civilization had touched down, was a fecal-ureal syrup that stung the eyes and smarted the nose, staining the wood of the floor like blood or leeched in a havoc of cotton stuffing, wood shavings, hammock hemp, where new nests of dozens of wet-eyed children scrolled in pans, in pots, inside gloves. When I smashed the bastards, they were true to form and crapped themselves.
I’m reminded of the tanning industry that disappeared from the Catskills after two fast and loose decades of despoliation at the end of the 19th century. Tanneries needed the bark of the soaring boreal hemlock—climax forest, rare and old—and so the tanners skinned the trees and dumped the trunk corpses. Then the hemlocks ran out, and the tanneries fought each other for the last of the supply. Whole towns and fortunes finally disappeared, or moved elsewhere, looking for more hemlocks. I’m reminded further that resource exhaustion, followed by chaos and cannibalism (whether of flesh, industries, political powers), then exile and extinction, appears to be a locked pattern of human history. Read Jared Diamond’s Collapse: it happened on Easter Island, among the Maya, among the Anasazi, in Angkor Wat in Cambodia, in Mesopotamia and in Mycenean Greece and Minoan Crete, and, if current conditions hold, it will happen to us.
If the blood-sucking tick and its pathogenic piggybacker, Lyme’s Disease, are the natural and fitting mascots of the Hamptons, then the black bear, independent and unassuming, is their equivalent in the Catskills. One has only to behold the black bear as he galumphs through the woods scratching himself, eating berries, and pawing fish from streams to learn a lesson in healthful behavior. The black bear only wants to be left alone. I remember standing on Plateau Mountain reading a book of poetry when a monstrously large black bear on the trail of something good charged out of the brush, saw me, stopped in shock, stared for less than a second, snorted, about-faced and slingshot himself back exactly the way he came.
I heard a story once of the relationship a woman near Woodland Valley had with a wounded bear. She discovered the huge male on a back road, bloody and groaning, hit by traffic. She and three friends heaved the giant onto the bed of her pick-up, and for six months she nursed him. When autumn came and he was well again, he stuck around, he’d pick up the garden hose with his great jaw and nod his great head, signaling he wanted to be sprayed down. When he got out of hand and stood on his hind legs and growled, she slapped him on the snout and he’d turtle his neck and retreat into his fur. And then, fully recovered, he left and never returned. I heard this story seeing my fourth, fifth and sixth bears ever in the Catskills, in Woodland Valley, in the company of an old man who in the trunk of his car had four different cameras and a case of beer chilled on ice. He was a bear photographer in his spare time, when he wasn’t unemployed, and so we walked in the woods in the long dusk of June, following a mother who had riffled garbage on the road and who now led to two cubs dashing up and down lone saplings in a glade of blowdowns. The mother coughed unhappily and told us to go away.
The seventh time I saw a bear, it was at night on Tremper Mountain in the fog in October. The eyes glowed and were gone.
The eighth time I saw a bear, it was laying on its back on State Route 28, matted in black tarry blood, with black eyes twitching. Moving mountain to mountain through the Esopus Valley, which Route 28 follows, the bear was inexperienced with roads, a child, a yearling, small, and was wounded in his middle from the blow in the night, but not mortally, or so it looked at first. Many people, chewing lips, gabbing, parking cars, causing terrible congestion, a mile of it backed up, gathered curious to watch the rich black fading life, and the girl who did the hitting in her SUV waited for the authorities to confirm to her insurers that the bear was liable.
My girlfriend and I peered close, morbidly, but a cop had come and, seeing that traffic was backing up, waved everyone off, holding out a pistol toward the creature, crackling the finality of his pushed arm aiming white light, dragging the thing out of the road, then waving traffic on.
June at the Blue Hole swimming hole in Plattekill Clove, where the Devil once lived: girls in strict long dungaree dresses that cover the knees sit on a cliff as boys in underwear fling off the rock splatting and spitting and trembling and cursing as they swim to shore. The girls, unimpressed, said nothing, separated from the rest of us by centuries, being the daughters of the Bruderhof, a religious sect, founded in Germany after World War I and fancied as the modern torchbearer of early Christianity. The Bruderhof of the Catskills live in simplicity, communally, with mothers, fathers, children sharing a few mountain acres near the top of Plattekill Clove. They fashion and sell wooden toys to survive, and bake cakes, and go on missions across the planet.
Now the Bruderhof girls were making the brute climb home to the top of the clove, and finally having paused long enough they shouldered their packs and passed up the canyon, moving fast, and I followed behind at a respectful bumbling distance, for there was no trail, and I was hoping they’d show the way. The cliff-jumpers had warned me of the wildness of the place, and as to what lay in the canyon beyond Blue Hole, they knew not.
The clove, carved a million years ago by the Illinoisian glacier, was named for the first Dutch settlers, who invested it, naturally, with terror. Slotted and soaked and by some accounts one of the most rugged stretches of backwoods in the Northeast, the clove is defined by the mad dash of the Platte Kill, which descends in a series of whirlpools and falls and white sluicing torrents down chutes slippery as ice. The guidebooks claim Plattekill Clove offers at least 14 waterfalls taller than 20 feet, without doubt the kind of marvel that if real estate mobsters get their hands on it, there will be a café and guided tour – insuring, as realtors must, that the enjoyment of water and air costs money. But the rocks jumble, the cliffs sheer high, the footing falls away; building anything here to last would be hard and likely profitless. The clove will rise in less than two miles from the soft sea-level of the Hudson Valley to over 2,000 feet of elevation, at which point you will have debouched on the lower reaches of the 300-million-year-old Catskill plateau.
The Dutch peasants who settled the Catskills in the 1700s had a more dramatic sense of the place than people today. Panthers and wolves stalked the woods, and rattlesnakes, and bug swarms, but to these innocent forces the Dutch ascribed a kind of malevolence that might live in dreams too, bring the death of children in cribs, or make auguries from the smoking hoods of mountains. So it happened that the Devil was brought to the Catskills, where previously only Manitou had lived, the Great Spirit worshipped of the Delaware Indians, whose body was the rolling land and whose eyes were North and South Lakes that wept into streams and in winter showed the gummy white crust of an old man’s eyes. The age of Manitou passed away; the Indians were driven out; the Devil was not so easily fooled, for he could not be found. He was a wisp, lived in the howls of the wolves, in the fogs, in the permanent terror and awesomeness of the cowled mountains, and his presence was for many years a good thing, as he kept the white man from venturing too deeply in the Catskills.
He favored Plattekill Clove, and set up a kitchen, and cooked amid the boiling waters, according to the myth. The wide flat rocks were his pans, the round deep basins his bowls, and his fire was the sun flashing in the water. The Devil’s Kitchen is today marked on no map, no official route reaches it high in the clove. The body of a backpacker who slipped and died in the Kitchen once required three days to retrieve. The Devil found this place so to his liking, so hostile and embittering to the human foot, so remote and wild that I fancy he spent bored summers sharpening the shale shards that everywhere line the streambed tearing the unwary hand.
This happened: I lay the deep cut in the stream, the blood mixed with the water, and it proved a nasty enough distraction that when I looked up, the Bruderhof, who moved fast, the Bruderhof who never got wet, seeming to float rock to rock above the water and always just disappearing, had disappeared. And that day I could find my way no more up the cleft into the Catskills.Christopher Ketcham can be reached at email@example.com
CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM, a freelance writer for Harper's, GQ, Mother Jones and many other magazines, divides his time between Brooklyn and the redrock country of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.