Looking west from the fancy white deck of a sailboat on the Hudson River. Or simply watch the sunset over the black asphalt of the Lowe’s car park above Ulster Avenue. It makes no difference.
Locals and official maps agree. These soft blue hills without snow behind which the sun sets are in fact real mountains.
The highest peak in the Catskill Mountains, Slide Mountain, is only 4180 feet. You’d need to stack five Slide Mountains on top of each other to nearly reach the topographical prominence of America’s tallest mountain, the singular Denali in the Alaskan backcountry.
Apologies to anyone in Idaho and anyone familiar with the remote mountain ranges of the Rocky Mountain State. To be considered a mountain, it is enough that it exists in the imagination of those who live below.
On fir crowns of moss and rock, the Catskills collect snow in winter. It turns into floods in the spring, when black bears feed and roam the slopes of stones and tangled soil.
Whatever they lack in the striking Grand Tetonesque sense, the Catskills are recovering in abundance.
According to the Catskill 3500 Club, enthusiastic climbers who take their name from the elevation above which their own members are active, there are 33 peaks in the Catskills Mountains high enough to merit their attention.
Hiking, scrambling, hikers all. Even some climbers.
All but two of the peaks rise within the boundaries of the 710,000-acre forest reserve known as Catskill Park. Nearly half of it is protected as “forever wild” by the New York State Constitution, and the rest is subject to some degree of state regulation.
Lots of visits
The Catskill Center, a 501(3)c nonprofit organization that, on its behalf, deals with conservation and development, pegs the number of annual visitors to the park surrounding the mountains at 1.7 million.
In season, visitors bathe in swimming holes and under waterfalls, hunt cunning prey through the foothills, fish in valley rivers, party in the orange light of campfires, and sleep between the ground and the stars in the pure nocturnal darkness that falls early between the mountains.
There are those who may consider mosquitoes, ticks, poison ivy, hunting, butchering and cooking game, and sleeping anywhere near “where there are bears” as dull or stupid or horrifying. Further from the mountains, this attitude is more frequent. According to the US Census Bureau, over 80% of the US population now lives in urban areas. The centuries have passed. and the many-colored human race, speaking all invented languages, fled in great numbers from the hidden darkness into the permanent light of the city.
For them, the mountains, distant and treacherous, seem even higher.
Well, for the recreational enjoyment of rural or urban, no matter which, fire lookout towers atop five of the Catskills mountain peaks still await.
The oldest fire tower was built of wood on Mount Balsam Lake in 1887. Its job was to watch cinder fires before they raged. The frame of the tower was rebuilt in metal in 1930.
When hiking to the summit of Balsam, one takes a trail that starts from Mill Brook Road outside the hamlet of Arkville. It is described as a six mile moderate round trip hike.
Three other towers stand on the peaks of Tremper Mountain, Hunter Mountain, and Red Hill Mountain. Above Woodstock there is a fire tower on Overlook Mountain, the southernmost peak of the Catskills Escarpment. Behind this sudden platform of high rocks, showers and thunderstorms suddenly pour in to ambush the whole county of Ulster between it and the Hudson River.
At 4,040 feet, the peak of Hunter Mountain is only the second highest in the Catskills, and the fire tower built there stretches it 60 feet high.
Tremper Mountain is the most modest. At just 2740 feet, it fails the Catskill 3500 Club test. Besides, neither Redhill nor Overlook.
Most of the mountains with the fire towers at the top lend themselves to ‘easy mountaineering’, requiring nothing more strenuous than a strenuous hike, with ski poles optional. Some vertices, however, are more user-friendly than others.
Woodstock’s Overlook parking lot, directly across from a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, places the aspirant at the start of a dirt and rock path as wide as an alley. It is almost certain that supply trucks were racing up to the hotel built near the top before all the timber framing burned down. The brick walls are motionless, old and burnt. And a well-known population of rattlesnakes bask in the summer sun or warn of the brush.
On the way to Tremper Mountain, a natural spring gushes out of a crack in the rocks. A spring must be one of the most sacred things nature can provide. Moss grows on wet rocks, and cold water flows endlessly from the presumed icy heart of the mountain.
Over in Hardenburgh, Balsam Lake Mountain has an active population of bears, with their headquarters in the hills around Alder Lake, the easiest to recognize campsites there after dark.
But that’s nature on its own terms.
The mountains are impractical
Very often, urban lives are lives subsumed in populous stimulation. Each surrounded by others, shaken by unexpected interactions. City life is friction and bright sparks.
Climb one of the mountains, all that is left far behind. Social or chemical addicts who walk among us may be appalled. There is nothing on top of the mountain but air. There are no fancy restaurants. There are no discos. Not even convenience stores.
But the mountains are impractical. Raising them is an incessant fight against gravity in thinner and thinner air. Last summer, rotting deer corpses were killed by the wasting disease. This summer, it’s rattlesnakes and milkweed pollen.
Tick checks never go out of fashion.
Some say there was once a paradise, before the meteors fell and chased us into the caves where we scribbled facts and forgot their meaning, while outside centuries passed before we came out.
Some residual itch still forces us under cover of our apartments and our houses to search again, in the woods. Naked, so to speak, for a reunion with a forgotten childhood or old rituals. To review the darkness or simply mimic a billboard or bank advertisement. All the foregoing.
Here’s what we do.
Bring raspberries. Or cherries. Spit out the pits as you go up. Or take clementines. Discard the peels.
The wise remember water, because not every mountain has a rock spring. Overlook does not work. Not Balsam Lake Mountain.
Of course, there can be more than one path. As for the top, sandwiches. Dessert. A small party to mark the summit. Sparkling water. Pomegranate juice. Or something stronger.
On June 19, for example, from the trailhead to the top of Redhill Mountain, just off Sugarloaf Road, the wind that had picked up the day before never let up.
Once in the woods, the wind blew through the whole place, every branch, limb and leaf rustling and sighing. The wind ruffled the branches and leaves so that the sun shone through the gaps. The effect was a forest full of spinning thaumatropes. Mushrooms might be just the ticket.
Wall of moving greenery. Bright green. Electric green. Brighter than memory.
Ever higher, the trail follows a turbulent river of once flowing stones now buried in the earth. The wind does not weaken. Menacing widows.
The trail is fast, only a mile and a half, one foot in front of the other. Keep watching for rattlesnakes. The whole thing might be redundant, but it doesn’t have to be. Step by step, tree by tree, it is the mistake of rushing. Do not rush. Eat a peach. Gaze at the ferns.
Climbing a mountain, like kayaking through rapids or jumping off a high rock into deep water, then makes perfect sense if needed. Actively pushing back stagnation frees us from the cycle of perdition. Also known as repetition.
Between fear and liberation
In this way, we pursue remarkable memories.
The spring is there closer to the top. Other people with dogs are also there. Just share the forest. Going up, time takes time.
The fire tower is there at the top. Reminiscent of a power line pylon. X-shaped scaffolding, mesh structures. Nine flights of intersecting wooden stairs ascend inside the frame to a metal room built at the top, like the guard room of a prison tower.
There’s some sort of tabletop navigation device up there. The sign says six people at a time. Maybe 13 people here in total. An American flag flies from the highest railing, fluttering in a place where patriotism has no relevance. But the colors are pretty.
When the wind blows like this, some who climb the stairs to the observation room faint and turn around just two stories from the top. Chicken wire tied along railings closes in the safe path of open air. It’s hard to tip sideways without real effort. The wind is strong but the wallless tower offers no resistance and the base of the structure is wide. The engineering is sound.
The wind is strong enough to blow off baseball caps or sunglasses at the top of the fire tower above the treetops. Windows with four square panes can be opened. Then there’s the 360-degree view and a kind of muted dopamine blast somewhere between the adrenaline of fear and the euphoria of release, which can only be recognized in a state of absolute stillness. .
A mild high
A very quiet inner voice seems to commune with the frontal consciousness of the brain. Compared to a fight or a rock concert, if you don’t know the feeling you’re looking for, it gets lost in the bloodbath and high heartbeat that comes after all those stairs.
Why do it at all? If only to regale others with the feat? Certainly.
But taking the cell phone out to take photos reduces the whole thing to a five-inch window frame. Flat now, lifeless, one step away from existence. The life that we see is again subsumed, even if it is shared on social networks.
If there is going to be one, then let that be the goal of the trek to the top of a mountain: silent dopamine. A mild high provided after moderate exertion, with no brains.
Always remember to keep an eye on what the sun is doing. Getting caught in the twilight of the forest on your way back down from the mountain, well, that can be fun too. Owls screaming in the dark. Climb the mountain, Sisyphus.
The Department of Environmental Conservation will honor the accomplishment of visiting the five fire towers with a commemorative crest and extend the joy of being entered into a contest to win great outdoor prizes like a boost additional. To hurry up. The contest ends on January 31, 2023.