Life Musings in the Catskills

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I know it’s cliché, and in fact it’s the very type of cliché I’m usually very disdainful of, but hiking really is conducive for all sorts of deep thinking.  There’s something about being alone in nature, with no Ipod, or smartphone (or rather, no service, as I always keep my phone in my pocket), or other distractions to really let you ponder life’s big questions. I always seem to circle back to some sort of iteration of: I’m glad I was born in 1986.  I love nature. I love hiking. I love spending a day sweating on a mountain. But I have no romantic misgivings about the past. I don’t yearn for a simpler time. Instead, I think things like, “wouldn’t that suck to be one of the guys exploring this area for the first time, when it was undeveloped, and lush, and wild, and at the end of a grueling hike where your thighs were not lucky enough to be cradled in non-chafing Underarmour compression shorts, and you were drenched in sweat because ‘sleeveless’ and ‘shorts’ were foreign concepts, to not have a shower or air conditioning to return to.”  I also ended up thinking quite a bit about how I might be a selfish bastard, as the only reason I was alone with my thoughts was that I’m a much faster hiker than my friends, and didn’t feel like stopping every so often to wait for them, because every time I stopped, I got attacked by mosquitoes.

My brother, friend Jacki, and I set out on a two-fer hiking day a couple of weeks ago, our first big, warm-weather hike of the year.  After a great weekend ringing in our 31st birthday in Tannersville, New York, we were keen to return to the area, and hike nearby Hunter Mountain. As usual, when I’m attempting Catskills climbs, I use as my #1 resource. They presented two routes to the top of Hunter (there’s actually several more to chose from), a longer, but gentler climb, or a short, steeper ascent. Because we are masochists, we went for short and steep. The hike was a round trip of 5 miles, which we thought we’d be able to handle super easily, so we also tacked on the shorter Kaaterskill Falls hike, which is on the other side of Tannersville, and just one mile in and out.  We figured we’d stop in town and grab some food at the Last Chance Cheese Cafe, because we’d been such fans from our last visit.

Hunter views.

Hunter Mountain is about an hour and half from where we’re based outside Scranton, and is a very scenic drive. We left around 7:45, and were ready to start our hike just before 10 (we’d stopped several times on the way for water and restroom breaks).  The hike lulls you into a false sense of security at the onset. It’s flat, and meandering, with a babbling brook to your right, and several small streams to ford. About a half hour in, and the trail starts going vertical at a rapid pace, and essentially does not stop until you’re .35 miles from the peak.  It’s sort of nice in a way, that there isn’t any real respite from  the upward climb, as it doesn’t give you much of a chance to stop and tire out, and there’s no false sense of “we’re near the top now.” You’re acutely aware most of the time exactly where the treeline ends, and working the whole time.  The bottom half is nice to look at, but heavily forested, however it pays off in the last 500 vertical feet, where you have great views of the valley below.

What makes Hunter particularly unique, and a large reason we picked it for our first hike of the year, is that there’s a firetower on the top. The peak which the trail takes you to, doesn’t really have any great views. The pine forest surrounding it makes those impossible.  It does have an awesome clearing housing said firetower, a ranger cabin, and picnic table, as well as what appears to be a manicured lawn, even though I very well know that to not be the case.  You know how some grass just looks nice though? Like it looks soft, and clean, and even though you know better you imagine that it has no bugs and is great to walk barefoot in? That’s how the grass in this clearing looks.  We brought some small snacks, so we took this time to chill at the picnic table and eat them. I wish we’d brought a legit picnic lunch though, as the area just sort of screams out for it. Next time for sure.  When we arrived at the top, there was just the three of us, and another pair of hikers.  As we sat eating, groups upon groups started to arrive, so that by the time I finished my Turkey Hill bought pre-wrapped chacuterie, there were somewhere around 30 people chilling at the top.

Top of the mountain.
None of us were able to make it to the top.

So it’s time to talk about three additional very, very deep thoughts I often have on hikes. A) Why am I normally the only one sweating? B) How do people chose their hiking outfits? C) How much “gear” is for show?

I know I’ve talked about this before, but I’m not an attractive exerciser. I get red, I get disheveled, and when I hike I sweat profusely.  Yet it seems like I’m always passing people who are on the exact same hike I’m on, but appear to be walking down the street for an ice cream or something.  You may think that it’s because I’m moving so fast, I’m constantly passing people out, but the reality is that I just used that as a figure of speech. Often times these put-together individuals are passing me out.  I don’t know that I’ll ever really get to the bottom of this, but I was happy to get to the top of Hunter and find several other hikers completely soaked in sweat. I bet you’re fascinated to know this.

What actually is fascinating, is the outfits people chose to wear hiking.  I should throw out that I don’t really do big overnight hikes, so there may be some background knowledge I’m ignorant to here. I mainly do day hikes, and typically like to keep them under 8 hours, and therefore dress like I’m doing something athletic. In the summer I’ll do shorts and some sort of sweat wicking top, and I throw on sweat pants or a long sleeve shirt if the weather warrants it. I know plenty of people like to completely cover up to fend off ticks and bugs, and if that’s your jam, I’m not judging you.  I don’t because I’m usually not bushwacking through tall grass, and have at this point spent a significant amount of time in the forest with neither poison ivy nor tick infestations.  I probably have a tick in me right now since I typed this, but if that’s the case, I guess I’ll just have to deal accordingly.  What blows my mind is the sheer amount of people who get dressed for a 4 hour, 5 mile, hike in the same manner they get dressed for an afternoon spent at brunch followed by the beer garden.  I get that not every hike needs to involve buying special underwear to prevent chaffage, but I think even the most casual of hike doesn’t call for khakis, skinny jeans, or heels.  This doesn’t happen every time I hike, but it happens enough that my brother and I almost always end up getting into at least an hour conversation about it on the ride home.

We also will inadvertently get into some sort of discussion about the amount of gear people bring on hikes: what’s appropriate, what we’re lacking, and what is just overkill.  Again, I definitely am ignorant of what kinds of things multi-day back-packers should have on their person.   I have zero experience there.  I also don’t necessarily carry a whole ton of “gear” with me when I hike, usually just a backpack with water, some snacks, extra socks, extra shirt, requisite layers, bug spray, sunscreen, band aids, a headlamp, and multi-purpose-Swiss-army-gadget (although I have to get a new one of these, as I don’t clean my backpack out well enough between trips and mine apprehended by security at the Tampa airport his  past January). I don’t own a compass. I don’t use walking sticks. I don’t bring specialty camping food, or own any sleeping bags, tents, or dinnerware that could feasibly be carried. Now, I’m not disparaging those who do, when they have a need for it, I just have a sneaking suspicion that there’s a solid subset of hikers who brings ginormous backpacks filled with multiple base layers, windbreakers, rope, full first aid kids, crampons, compasses, thermal water finders, specialty filters, hatchets, multi-purpose-Swiss army-tools, and tents on every hiking trip they go on for the same reason that your friend who just bought his first road bike in 15 years also bought $400.00 worth of matching lyrca outfits, those fancy shoes that clip right into the pedals, a Tour De France sanctioned water bottle, and 3 different sized camel backs.  This whole observation was brought to you by the woman at the top of Hunter Mountain with the biggest backpack I’ve ever seen, and wearing what might be a real-life bee-keeper’s helmet.

As planned, we stopped for a little post-hike snack at the Last Chance Cheese Cafe in Tannersville. We got an excellent cheese board that I do not have a picture of because we were starving. I can tell you that if you ever go there, get the house made goat-cheese with fig and rosemary. It’s amazing. We also got an order of their wings, which they finish on the grill, for a nice bit of char I appreciated.

After filling up on cheese and wings, we headed to the opposite side of town to visit Kaaterskill Falls. Kaaterskill falls in the highest two tired waterfall in New York and VERY popular. The trail-head also sits on a very windy road, high up in a valley, with only a small parking lot about .25 miles away, which lends to cars being lined up and down the road for some time. We were lucky enough to score a spot in the parking lot, but if you’re here on a weekend, I’d expect to do some more walking then the prescribed mile up and back.  I also would not recommend coming here if you want a peaceful waterfall experience. This was ripe with NYC tourists, including two older women navigating the makeshift stone staircases in bonafide high heels, and a cluster of art students sitting at the bottom pool sketching. Cliches are cliches for a reason.

Hunter ended up  kicking our ass, and the walk up to Kaaterskill, which we should’ve slept walk through, was a bit of a struggle. We also should’ve spent time exploring the lower falls, and take pictures of the Kaaterskill brook, which the trail follows, but we got to the point where exhaustion gives you a mission, and you concentrate on nothing more then reaching the end of the trail.  The waterfall on the top indeed is dual tiered, with the trail ending a little bit below the base of the bottom tier, and a long man-made staircase up to the based of the top tier. My brother and I looked up at said staircase (we’d left Jacki to potentially be sketched at the bottom), and mutually agreed that on this outing, there was no need for us to climb it.  We’re pretty sure we’ll be back in the area for a second chance, and at that point, our legs simply weren’t our allies.  Also, we were way too exhausted to deal with the people on this trail.

Do you know what phenomena makes me cringe with second-hand embarrassment the most these days?  Watching people take public selfies.  I mean, kudos to those people for possessing some sort of I-don’t-give-a-shit gene that I wasn’t given, but it’s like, just have some dignity. One nice advantage to living in the trend bubble that is NEPA, is that technology by and large reaches here 2-3 years after it hits the rest of the country, and even when it does, there’s a good change you won’t have service, so maybe I don’t realize how prevalent it is.  Also take into account that I’m of a very transitional generation. Most of my friends, myself included, didn’t have a cell phone till we graduated high school. We didn’t have smart phones till after college.  Snapchat was not a thing we grew up with, and while some of us have indeed adapted and mastered it, it’s not part of our very core the way it is for the youngsters these days. What I’m trying to say is while it’s becoming more and more normal, it’s disconcerting for me to be out somewhere like this, and see so many people spending the entire time videotaping and photographing themselves. Now, photographing yourself next to a waterfall, or scenic view, or cliff. is not something new. It’s pretty much the reason people go to these things, but in the past (very near past) it seems people would line up for a picture, have someone snap a few, and then move aside to check things out more, or let others get their picture taken. These new-wave (I almost said new-age, but many of them were older then I) selfie snappers were INTENT on getting just the right shot, twisting and cavorting, and smiling for the camera, and not caring whose view, path, or space they obstructed.  I saw two separate couples leaning over sheer drops offs in ways that were not in any capacity safe, and one particularly annoying girl blocked my brother and my path for a good 5 minutes trying to take a selfie of her, the waterfall, and her smiling boyfriend in the distance. Listen, I’m not ever going to be one of those people that hates technology. Remember, every time I hike I’m thankful I live in the present. What I am going to do, is turn into a get-off-my-lawn old man though, well before my time, if I have to keep observing this stupidity.

We made our way back down to the bottom of the falls without incident, and as we left, I observed one enterprising young lady, shimmy her way DOWN a steep embankment, jump to a rock in the middle of the stream, recline back, and lipsync something obliviously into her phone, careful that the falling water was unobstructed in the back.  If this was for Instagram that’s embarrassing. If it was for Snap Chat, and all that effort will disappear in 24 hours? It was a giant waste of time.  I don’t deserve Donald Trump as our president, but I think this chick might.

The ride from NEPA to Tannsersville is an enjoyable one, with about 12 miles following the Catskills Mountain Scenic Byway.  You know what New York state does really well? A good scenic byway, and the Catskills iteration is not exception.  We got on the road just before dinner time, and it’s not exactly peak tourist season just yet (soon though, I’m sure), but this would be an ideal spot for a leisurely Saturday or Sunday drive. It passes through the towns of Andes, Margaretteville, Arkville, and Phoenicia, the latter of which is something of a newly popular hipster haven in the Catskills constantly appearing on all kinds of travel listicles.  It’s also straight through a lot of the Catskill’s best hiking. There’s plenty of places for those with an afternoon to kill to stop, from a scenic railway, a local distillery, and a hot dog cart we were banking on being open.

We ended up  at the Peekamoose Restaurant, on a lark, mainly because we liked the look of its back deck (which didn’t end up being open) and because Peekamoose is fun to say.  This was a nice unexpected find, because we were expecting a standard burgers and wings country bar, but this ended up being a slightly bougier affair. There was a nice dining area, and a more casual tavern, which was perfect for three people who looked borderline homeless.  The atmosphere was great, with strings of Christmas lights illuminating kitschy taxidermy hanging all over the walls and from the ceiling.  We split a chacuterie and grilled octopus, but the standout was their home made ciabatta served with whipped chive butter, as well as their outdoor firepit. I love the smell of burning wood when I eat. I’m not saying that sarcastically. The smell of a campfire while you dine is great, and as an added bonus was that they have a bag of marshemellows and bucket of sticks for anyone who wants to roast.

In my ever so humble opinion, any Saturday that ends with an impromptu campfire marshmallow roasting session, is a good Saturday indeed, which is exactly the caption I used to capture this moment on Instagram.





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