In our own backyard: Discovering Rainbow Falls

Snapshots from a hike to Rainbow Falls. (Photos by Rich Gottlieb)

“I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”
– Willa Cather, My Ántonia

I didn’t really expect to see a rainbow. Well, maybe I did. It had rained for so many days straight that the sun’s appearance made everything look hopeful and radiant — even porta-potties and parking meters. Even the trees and shrubs seemed to be blushing, and the higher we climbed, the giddier the forest became, as if feeling the sun’s attention for the first time.

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It was a Thursday morning. The lower lot of the Minnewaska State Park Preserve was almost empty. The park seemed to beckon us, or maybe it was the other way around. My hiking guides Rich Gottlieb and Teri Condon gracefully maneuvered bikes from their car and rack, and within a few minutes we were pedaling up the Lower Awosting Carriage Road towards a hike that Rich had sketched out — not on paper, but in his mind, which always left room for those experiences that take place in the margins, unmappable and not altogether known. 

We passed the Blueberry Trail and Jenny Lane, and before I knew it, we were about to embark up Cardiac Hill: the name intimidating enough, but the pitch downright alarming. Just as I was mentally preparing myself for the Cardiac challenge, Teri pulled over to the left and leaned her bike against a small wooden post and sign that read “Rainbow Falls Trail.” As we looped the lock through the three bikes and grabbed our water bottles, I thought about how many times I’d walked, run, cycled up Cardiac Hill, so focused on what my legs were doing, or how much pain they were in, that I’d never noticed this trail off to the left.

Soon we were making our way across streams and pine barrens and watching our feet as we carefully negotiated the slippery geological “slick and slide” effect that looked like loving stretch marks across the bellies of mostly flat white conglomerate rocks. It could have been the light, or the smell of pine needles, or just the sound of water constantly moving towards something,that made me feel happy — just happy and right-sized. “This is beautiful,” I kept saying (or thinking) as I stopped to peer around us. The redness of the blueberry and huckleberry bushes had deepened so much that they seemed like something singed and healing after a fire.

“How did we miss the top of the falls?” asked Rich. We could hear its faint exhale, but we were descending into a thicker, darker part of the trail. “We were supposed to see the top?”

“I don’t know,” he said — not with confusion, but with the acceptance of someone who had hiked and climbed so many miles in so many places that where you are is where you are and that’s the exact place you’re supposed to be.

Trees became taller, the path rockier and the smells of algae, damp wood and forest spray thickening as the trail circled down and back towards its namesake. Before I knew it, we were right underneath the falls. There were actually two threads of it, one poured over the cliffs like there was a giant thumb pressing over the lip of the stream so that it splayed the water into a giant netted spray. Then there was the main falls, Rainbow Falls, which appeared delighted to be drenching everything within its reach, including the bed of rocks that cascaded into the streambed below like a game of marbles, each one unique and letting the water slide over it like a fine polish.

Even though the leaves had mostly fallen and were creating foul-smelling mosaics on the forest floor, there was still a hint of fall, like that faint smell of a candle that has just been extinguished. It lingered. So did we.

“What lies between Point A and Point B?” I thought. “The entire universe.” Whenever I ran the Upper Awosting Carriage Road, I always paused, often stopped at the lookout that was marked “Rainbow Falls.” It appeared to be an interesting trickle of water, far off in the distance — sometimes distinguishable, other times, not. And here I was inside of it.

Snapshots from a hike to Rainbow Falls.

“I think that’s what you’re getting at,” said Rich as we moved towards the Upper Carriage Road, which we would soon traverse and climb steadily to Litchfield Ledge. “People think they’ve experienced something when they pull their car over at a scenic lookout, but they haven’t experienced the actual thing.” It’s like various layers of intimacy, I thought: making eye contact with someone on the street or in the grocery aisle or sitting next to them as their frayed, battered, excoriated self pours out and you stay fixed and anchored, like the tree jutting out of the cliff so that they have something to hold onto.

“Did you see the rainbow?” asked one fellow hiker whom we ran into along the trail. Rich stopped to eat some peanut M&Ms. “If you get underneath the falls and look directly at the sun through the water, you’ll see the rainbow.”

We thanked him, and I tucked that idea into my pocket. Before long we were rock-scrambling over high ledges and boulders, talking about the Smiley family and what their preservation and stewardship of this land has meant to all of us. It’s part of what defines us — as if our contours would not be the same without our shadows being able to lean up against the outline of the Shawangunk Ridge.

“I’ve never seen Castle Point from here,” I said, as we strode along the edge of Litchfield Ledge, that much closer to something that felt grand. Teri noted that we were now on the “SRT” (Shawangunk Ridge Trail, a 71-mile trail that stretches from High Point State Park in New Jersey to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail in New Paltz). Wherever we were, it didn’t really matter, because as long as we were going up, we were heading to one of the greatest scenic overlooks in all 23,000 acres of the Minnewaska State Park: Castle Point. From the edge of those white cliffs, the panorama includes the farmland in the valleys to the east, the soft blue curves of the Catskill Mountain Range to the west, the strident and bold cliff ledges jutting out, including Hamilton Point, Gertrude’s Nose and Murray Hill. There are the dwarf pine forests and the aquamarine centerpiece, Lake Awosting, glistening like a shard of sea-glass dropped into the middle of the woods. There is the sense of being on top of the world — or on top of this world, our corner of the world — for one powerful-but-fleeting moment.

We carefully descended — more rock-scrambling — and I was feeling secure and almost a bit too professional in my new La Sportiva hiking boots. I’ve always just thrown on a pair of worn Payless boots, or some sad, ripped and often ripe-smelling pair of old running shoes. My feet were so coddled and cushioned and sure of their grasp on the rocks that I was, for once, blissfully unaware of exactly what they were doing.

That is, until we went from skating near the edge of the sky to squeezing between a narrow tunnel underneath a horizontal rock with water flowing through it. This was the underbelly of the landscape, and soon my hands were covered in mud, my backpack scraping against the roof of the rock and my notebook being used a shield against spiderwebs. As we reentered the light, Teri and I both noticed a den off to the left, underneath a pair of boulders pinched together. “I wonder what lives there?” she said as we scurried forward. Foxes? Bobcats? Bears? Oh my.

As we crossed another stream, we talked about the woolly adelgid, the invasive bug from Asia that is deadly to the health of the hemlock forests. Just like the path that kept twisting and taking us across seemingly endless ecosystems, our conversation meandered and mutated, and soon Teri was talking about a good friend of hers who decided to learn something completely new when she turned 50. So she began the art of birdwatching, or ornithology. “She says her eyesight has improved,” said Teri. “I see things with her that I would never have noticed, but when you go birding, it’s a much slower hike.”

I remembered doing a story on a birder, and all of a sudden it was like going from dead silence to an entire orchestra unleashing The Rite of Spring. His ears were so tuned into the various birdcalls and mating sounds and activity that the layers of the forest just kept unfolding.

As we paused for a moment and looked over what appeared to be a lone cliff escarpment, like a rock island standing tall and independent in the midst of the forest, I thought about the way birding can enhance eyesight and hearing. And as I sat there, feet dangling off the Margaret Cliff ledge, I felt like I had crawled inside a landscape portrait, like one of the Hudson River School paintings, and I just wanted to stay there quietly and blend in.

I thought about this as we hit the Spruce Glen Trail and wound around the backside of Lake Awosting towards our bikes: about how much there was to know — geology and ornithology and the Ice Age and indigenous life, and whether or not we’re all invasive species, and the native flora and fauna and endless constellations of stars and our entire human ecosystem…But as my hands froze on the bike ride down, with the sun beginning to set and my legs feeling the miles they had just traveled, my brain began to fade and soon I thought about absolutely nothing, except how excited I was to get my hands warm again and how exhilarating the mountain air felt and that next time, I hoped we would see the rainbow.

A special thanks to my fearless and fun-loving guide and friend, Rich Gottlieb, owner of Rock and Snow in downtown New Paltz, and his equally fabulous partner in outdoor crime, Teri Condon, a landscape designer with Gardenscapes.

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