Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Catskill Ramblings

If, as existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre believed, life after death happens only when someone remembers the deceased, then my parents-in-law, Bob and Mary Ellen Traver, have been alive these past couple of weeks. Pictured here is the single flower from Mom Traver's peony, a plant that my sister-in-law, Mary Jo, and I dug up and split five years ago when the family home in Prattsville was sold. Mary Jo's plant also offers only one single bloom each Spring.

In mid-May, Mary Jo and I managed to get together for a trip to Thomas Cole's house, Cedar Grove, by luck on the first clear blue-sky day after weeks of torrential rain. In the car, heading south, we chatted about our kids, books, music, work, and events since we had seen each other last. In familiar territory, we had no trouble finding Cedar Grove.

Thomas Cole painted wild Catskill mountain vistas in the early 1800s, and is considered the founder of the Hudson River School of painting, a genre which gave credibility to American Art in the early decades of the United States. Once a farm of hundreds of acres reaching from the hills to the Hudson River, Cedar Grove now consists of only a few acres. Despite being tucked between a synagogue, a busy street, residential homes, and the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, the home and views from the wide porch drew us instantly into Cole's time and art.

A large window inside the house echoed this porch view. How often had Thomas Cole gazed upon the mountains at all times of day and season, studying the light for his next painting? Mary Jo and I were sure we could find inspiration of some kind if our livingrooms and porches faced such a scene.

Eventually Cole moved his work to a studio (below) on the property where he could focus on his work away from the hubbub of an active household. And when he wasn't in the house or studio, he would hike through the forests, playing his flute and carrying a sketch pad and pencils.

In the visitor's center, we were fascinated by an "Art Trail" pamphlet that showed many of the sites painted by Hudson River School painters. The locations were familiar to us. Mary Jo had even taken her parents on a short walk to one of the sites long ago. Over the years, Bill and I had been to almost all of them.

A bend in the Catskill Creek was listed as the Artist point closest to Cedar Grove. We had driven over the bridge past this viewpoint a hundred times, often to visit Mom T. at the nursing home in Catskill.

Mary Jo and I remembered the area as unimpressive, but, Thomas Cole's painting fresh in our minds, we decided to check out the spot anyway. We parked the car at a nondescript abandoned pub and crossed the bridge to see the view better. We were both shocked. Had it always been this beautiful? Why had we not paid more attention to this scene over the years? We both knew without saying it, that visits to an ailing parent had consumed our focus.

We decided to drive the short distance across the Hudson to Olana, also on the Art Trail and home to another Hudson River School painter and student of Thomas Cole, Frederic Church. From Olana's hill-top setting, the Hudson River curved below backed by clear blue mountains. No question, art imitated life for these artists.

On the way home, Mary Jo and I stopped at Stewart's for an ice cream cone. I went for a chocolate variety. Mary Jo ordered butter pecan, Dad Traver's favorite and a favorite of hers as well.

By now, I was pretty hooked on the Art Trail

and decided that Bill and I needed to go back to

some of the locations in the pamphlet that we had hiked before we were married.

The Sunday after Mary Jo and I had made the trip to Cedar Grove, Bill and I headed west into the Catskill Mountains on route 23A. Every stretch of this road brought back memories. Dad T. had driven a privately contracted U.S. Mail route stopping at post offices from Grand Gorge to Saugerties. Narrowly hugging the side of the mountain, the road was often treacherous. Still, its beauty was, and is still, unsurpassed.

I met Bill during our freshman year of college. The following fall, we went to Prattsville for a weekend and chose to accompany Dad T. on his Friday evening drive through Hunter and Tannersville. I was in awe of the fall foliage, the rock-bound narrow road, and rolling farmland. On the way back to Prattsville, we stopped to pick up a pizza for dinner in Tannersville, the closest pizza shop in the Northern Catskills.

By the following spring, again visiting from college, Bill and I fit in our first Catskill hike, a walk to the site of the Catskill Mountain House. I remembered a comfortable path through the woods, and a view looking down on North and South Lakes, with the Hudson far beyond. Not long after, Bill took me to Kaaterskill Falls.

Now, thirty-five years later, I wanted to see these places again, for old-times-sake, but also from the perspective of the Hudson River School painters. Our first short hike this day would be to Kaaterskill Falls. A kiosk at the trailhead showed both the pencil sketch and the final painting that Thomas Cole created from this location.

Today's weather was gray and damp. As we approached the falls, we heard the roar of water running fast from recent heavy rains. Bill and I talked about our trip here long ago when the water came down in a thinner stream and the trail went much higher alongside the falls. Our old hiking book encouraged walking on the narrow ledge that went underneath the falls for a more dramatic experience. At the time this was part of the thrill, but not today--the trail ends at the base with danger signs in bold yellow.

Back at the car, we continued on to the trailheads in the North-South Lake area, pulling into the DEC parking lot just before the state park entrance. Over the years, Bill and I had hiked in the Catskills regularly, but we had never been back to some of our early outings. It seemed amazing that we could return to these same landmarks after so many years and life-experience together. I re-emphasized to him that the Catskill Mountain House site had been our first hike.

Bill studied all the trail signs next to the parking area that listed the lakes and the sites of various hotels, now long gone, and said, "I don't think we hiked to the Catskill Mountain House that first time. I think we hiked to the Kaaterskill House."

Say-what??? "But it was always the Catskill Mountain House. I would have remembered if it was a different but similar word," I blurted out, stunned. I even had photographs with the name written on them.

"Oh well, I might have said Catskill, but, back then, I was into it being Kaaterskill with a 'K.'" Clearly, my teenage charm and beauty had overwhelmed Bill's ability to differentiate details!

He added, "Anyway, you're into the Hudson River School places today, so it doesn't really matter."

The fact was, I could tell right away that we had not hiked the trail to the Catskill Mountain House before, because most of the walk was on paved state park road. We looked at the trail for the Kaaterskill House and that seemed to fit our memories better. Apparently, I was not going to revisit our youth and a destination on the Art Trail at the same time.

"It may even have been the Laurel House," Bill said, now studying our maps. In my innocence, I had trusted this guy?

A heavy layer of fog descended on the mountain as we set off walking the two miles of park road to get to the half-mile trail to the Catskill Mountain House site. One of many huge Victorian hotels offering a view across the mountains, the Mountain House, and others like it, had enticed city dwellers to come by train for fresh air, relaxation, and renewed health. Most of these vacation spots for the wealthy had burned down in the first half of the twentieth century.

Today there would be no views. I could hardly even see Bill on the trail ahead of me. Now and then we stumbled upon a sign indicating that we were still going in the right direction.

When we reached the summit, a few people sat on the rocks having a picnic in the fog. Even though it was not actually raining, water dripped from our hair and eyebrows. We could only imagine the view across the valley.

In fact, we could imagine it well because it was basically the same view we had seen from many other places in the North-South Lake trail system. And who's to say those Hudson River School painters weren't also at those locations recapturing the beauty of the lakes and valley below on canvas?

Eventually, we drove back to Route 23A, again remembering Dad T. and the mail truck. For years he had driven the mid-day route to Saugerties with his Saint Bernard dog, Holly, in the passenger seat. Postmasters at each town along the way greeted them both; and just about lunch time, they hit the McDonald's in Saugerties, each getting a Big Mac.

Today, we went by the old house, now hardly recognizable since the new owners took down the pines, adding on and redesigning its shape. Over the Schoharie Creek and up the hill we climbed to the town cemetery where we found the family stone. Bill and I pulled away a few high grasses; I would be sure to tell Mary Jo that "2010" had been properly etched into the granite.

We took the back road home, over the ridge above the valley and the town of Windham. I had never tired of this ride in all the years we had driven it regularly. Today huge lilac bushes stood in full bloom at every farm house, and blossomed profusely in fields where farm houses must have once stood.

At home, I decided that we should have some butter pecan ice cream. I make it from the Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Cookbook. Before even mixing the cream, the pecans are browned in a stick of real butter. Wouldn't Dad Traver have loved this? I made the mix, chilled it overnight, and then put it all in my ice cream machine the next day. Rich and creamy with sweet butter and nuts.

And yesterday, Mom Traver's peony bloomed.