Monday, June 2 2008
Today was a fresh sunny day, perfect for hiking, biking, beach combing, or rock climbing. Penny and David picked us and our two dogs up at our place, and we drove up towards Palenville, having set a course for Kaaterskill Falls. We stopped on the way at a rambling roadside market called Vinnie's Farm Market. Outside, it was a fairly conventional outdoor nursery, but inside the walls were lined with shelves crowded with jars of hand-canned vegetables and fruits of all descriptions and combinations. The metal lids were rusty and covered with dust, but the contents were so weird and intriguing that it invited a museum-style self-guided tour. Nothing was priced, which made Gretchen suspicious, since Vinnie could decide to charge us whatever we looked like we might be capable of paying. We had the disadvantage of being hungry, so among the things we bought was a quart of deep fried peanuts in their shells (you're supposed to eat the shell and everything). Gretchen was appalled when Vinnie charged us $9 for this, especially considering how cheap the constituent parts were (fryer oil and unshelled peanuts). These being web-enabled times, though, Vinnie couldn't count on our ignorance lasting forever. He supplements his roadside business with a web site, a place where everything is, of necessity, priced. [Gretchen later told me she found the quart of fried peanuts on Vinnie's site and they were priced at only $6.]
West of Palenville, we drove up Kaaterskill Clove on Route 23A, whose well-engineered roadway winds back and forth across the river over a series of impressive bridges. The trailhead to the Kaaterskill Falls is across the road and a quarter mile down the road from the nearest place on 23A where parking is possible. This posed a problem because we had two dogs and no leashes, so we improvised leashes. I lead Eleanor by attaching the elastic strap that had been cinching my shorts to her collar, and Gretchen led Sally using a teeshirt (neither dog could be counted on to stay out of traffic on her own; we've given them the unhelpful impression that all human activity revolves around them).
The trail up to the falls was less than a half mile and often rather steep, although many staircases had been fashioned out of boulders along the way and Penny was the only one having difficulty (she acts as though she has a problem with balance, fear of heights, or both; this has cropped up before on the Mountain Goat Trail).
Within view of the falls, the trail abruptly ends, although we tried to get closer to the base of the falls across rugged boulder-strewn terrain in the creekbed. But when this proved impossible for even Sally the dog to negotiate, we pulled back to the mostly-flat surface of a boulder the size of a house. There we cracked open a bottle of wine and ate a variety of vegan foods mostly prepared by Gretchen. The pasta salad was particularly delicious, and at the end Sally spent a long time licking the empty container. Unfortunately, through a series of accidental spills and the breaking of the bottle, a third of the wine was lost to the surface of the house-sized rock.
While we ate, a painter (the latest in a long line, believe me) sat at a small easel painting the beautiful two-stage falls, the highest in all of New York State. Though it was a work day, hikers were coming up the trail at a rate of about one every five minutes.
After I'd eaten, I began scaling the mountain beyond the end of the trail (an end that exists only for liability reasons). I encouraged Eleanor to join me, but she seemed reluctant, particularly since everyone else in our contingent was eating dessert on the house-sized rock. But she humored me and came along, although she kept back at least fifty feet. I managed to find my way to a spot high above the top of the lower falls, but still lower than the highest falls. As I was negotiating my way from here, I saw Eleanor appear on a terrace just below me, and when I called to her to come up, she gave me a look that suggested she thought I was insane, and then began picking her way down the slope, eventually returning to the house-sized rock. By this point Gretchen was interested in exploring, so she began climbing the hill towards me. Sally soon joined us, and somehow the three of us found our way to a comfortably flat trail that followed a contour around the "amphitheatre" above the lower falls. This amphitheatre is a horseshoe-shaped void carved into the rock beneath the upper falls. It's much larger than it looks, even up close. Within this treeless, rocky space, there aren't many visual clues indicating scale, so I depended on how tiny Sally appeared to be in front of me down the trail. For a couple hundred feet this trail had rock suspended directly overhead. The sandstone ceiling came so low at one point along the trail that I dropped down to another, less-frequented trail on another, lower contour. I always feel a little nervous when natural rock hangs directly over my head, particularly in a situation like this where it is only being supported from one side.
The focus of the amphitheatre, the place where the Romans would have placed their stage, was a large pool in the creek, carved deep into the hard underlying sandstone by the water falling during floods from the upper falls. Today the water flow was rather anemic, and the upper falls landed well short of the pool. Gretchen went and stood beneath where the water landed, and seemed to be both miserable and ecstatic in the icy spray. She wasn't actually standing in the center of the landing water; I suspect the water falling there would have too much force to be endured. What's more (and this is the reason I didn't join her) it might also contain the occasional rock dislodged by hikers who had made it all the way to the top.
Near the sheer precipice at the top of the lower falls, my stomach felt squirrely and I had to back away. It certainly didn't help to see Sally wandering right up to the precipice like it was no big deal. And then I noticed that Sally was hopping around holding her right forelimb in the air. One of her toes was pointing off at unnatural angle. Oh shit, she'd broken it in this rough terrain, and now I was going to have to somehow carry her back down. But then Gretchen managed to pop the toe back into alignment and Sally appeared to be fine. Disaster averted... for about ten seconds. Just as easily as Gretchen had relocated the dislocated toe, Sally had gone and stepped on a cobblestone and dislocated it again. She seemed to be fine when the toe was where it should be, but she couldn't put any weight on it when it was dislocated. And, evidently due to a snapped ligament, the difference between these two settings required very little force to affect.
By now we'd been joined by a random stranger (a gentleman with some European accent) who enlisted to help us with our problem. We managed to coax Sally down the slope along a trail, but from there the trail became steep and ill-defined, and there were too many opportunities for Sally to redislocate her toe. And there was no way for her to negotiate this slope on three legs. So I decided to carry her. It was a good thing I was barefoot; this allowed me to search for the precise foothold as I found my way down the slope. Most people on this slope use their feet and their hands, but I was doing it with a 45 pound dog in my arms. The random stranger helped by walking in front of me and bracing to catch me and Sally should I slip and fall, but luckily I never did. Somehow I made it all the way down to the house-sized rock, where Penny, David, and Eleanor still sat.
I tried to rig a makeshift bandage out of a sock to tie Sally's errant toe in place and allow her to walk back down the trail to the road, but it didn't stay. Neither did a hair scrunchy I found later in the trail. In the end I had to carry Sally over about half the trail. [In retrospect, this seems like a grueling physical undertaking, and it no doubt accounts for my soreness — particularly in my legs — the next day, but at the time it felt effortless, perhaps because I knew there was no alternative.]
After we returned to the car, we set a course for the top of the escarpment and Tannersville beyond. This part of the Catskills is an excellent place to see stream capture at work. After climbing and climbing up 23A, we crested at the top of a hill to a broad flatland amongst the mountains, a place of leisurely rivers and farmland sloping gently northwestward. But every now and then the steep escarpment to the east erodes back far enough into this flatland for one of these leisurely rivers to be grabbed at some arbitrary point. Downstream on the plateau to the west, the river's bed goes dry while a new waterfall forms, dropping the river's water to the near-sea-level lowlands of the Hudson Valley.
Gretchen wanted to show Penny and David Colgate Lake, a reservoir she used to visit with the dogs a couple years ago. But when we arrived we found the lake had been drained so its dam could be rebuilt. In its place was a lush meadow of saturated yellow-green (#66ff66). So we ended up driving around looking at all the fancy old houses of Onteora Park, some equipped with medieval-looking pointy-roofed observation towers. The lovely thing about the architecture of this area (and it's a large area) is that there don't appear to have been any houses built since World War II. Ranches, split levels, and McMansions are essentially nonexistent.
We headed southward to route 214 to Phoenica, and we stopped for late-afternoon drinks at a restaurant called the Sportsman Bar & Grill. It featured a large outdoor area in front, and no one seemed to care that we just turned the dogs loose (though I did have to reprimand Sally a couple times when she tried to get things from the table bussing station).
As we sat there drinking our drinks, we tried to come up with a plan for a place to eat dinner, but we couldn't reach consensus so we scrapped the idea and headed for home.
The thing Gretchen had particularly liked about this afternoon had been how impulse-driven it had been. There had been a thin framework for the day, but beyond that it had all been improvisation. It rather reminded me of the way Star Trek episodes unfold, with the Captain casually setting courses for distant star systems seemingly more out of curiosity than obligation. (Compare that to the strict choreography of an Apollo launch!)
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