Looking westward from the fancy white deck of a sailboat out on the Hudson River. Or just taking in the sunset standing on the black asphalt of the Lowe’s parking lot above Ulster Avenue. It makes no difference.
Locals and official maps concur. Those soft, snowless blue-colored hills that the sun sinks behind are in fact bonafide mountains.
The tallest peak of the Catskill mountains, Slide Mountain, only rises up 4180 feet. You’d need to stack five Slide Mountains one on top of the next to almost reach the topographic prominence of the tallest mountain in America, the singular Denali in the Alaskan hinterlands.
Heartfelt apologies to anyone from Idaho, and to those accustomed to the distant cordilleras in the Rocky Mountain State. To be considered a mountain, all that is required is that it should exist in the imagination of those who live beneath it.
On fir-treed crowns of moss and rock, the Catskills gather snow in the winter. It melts down into freshets in the springtime, when black bears forage and roam up and down the jumbled stone and soil slopes.
Whatever they may lack in the striking Grand Tetonesque sense, the Catskills recover in quantity.
According to the Catskill 3500 club, enthusiastic mountaineers who take their name from the altitude above which its own membership is active, there are 33 Catskills mountain peaks lofty enough to qualify for their attention.
Hiking, scrambling, hill walkers all. Even some rock climbers.
All but two of the peaks rise up within the boundaries of the 710,000-acre forest preserve known as the Catskill Park. Almost 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
A lot of visitation
The Catskill Center, a 501(3)c non-profit which in its name busies itself with the pursuits of conservation and development, pegs the number of annual visitors to the park surrounding the mountains at 1.7 million.
In season, visitors soak in the swimming holes and under waterfalls, hunt wily prey through the foothills, fish in the valley rivers, carouse in the orange light of campfires, and sleep between the ground and stars in the pure nighttime blackness which falls early between the mountains.
There are those who can look upon mosquitoes, ticks, poison ivy, hunting, skinning and cooking game, and sleeping anywhere near where “there be bears” as monotonous or stupid or horrifying. Farther from the mountains, this attitude is more common. According to the U.S. Census Bureau over 80 percent of the U.S. population now lives in urban areas. The centuries have come and gone. and the multihued human race, speaking every language concocted, has fled in great numbers from the concealing darkness into the permanent light of the city.
For them, the mountains, remote and treacherous, appear even taller.
The lookout towers
Well, for the recreational pleasure of rural or urban, never mind which, fire lookout towers on the top of five of the mountain peaks in the Catskills still await.
The oldest fire tower was first framed out of wood on Balsam Lake Mountain in 1887. Its job was to keep an eye on cinder fires before they went wild. The tower frame was rebuilt out of metal in 1930.
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 moderate, six-mile, round-trip hike.
Three more towers stand on the peaks of Tremper Mountain, Hunter Mountain, and Red Hill Mountain. Above Woodstock, there’s a fire tower on the Overlook Mountain, the southernmost peak of the Catskills escarpment. Behind that sudden shelf of tall rock, cloudbursts and thunderstorms flow suddenly over to ambush all Ulster County between it and the Hudson River.
At 4040 feet, the peak of Hunter Mountain is just the second highest in the Catskills, and the fire tower built there stretches it another 60 feet high.
Tremper Mountain is the most modestly sized. At just 2740 feet, it doesn’t meet the test for the Catskill 3500 Club. For that matter, neither do Redhill or Overlook.
Most of the mountains with the fire towers on top are amenable to “easy mountaineering,” requiring nothing more strenuous than a scrambling hike, with ski poles optional. Some summits, however, are friendlier than others.
Woodstock’s Overlook’s parking lot just across from a Tibetan Buddhist monastery places the aspirant at the beginning of a dirt and rock trail as wide as a driveway. Almost certainly, supply trucks used to run up to the hotel built near the top before all the wooden framing burned down. The brick walls stand there still, old and scorched. And a well-known rattlesnake population basks in the summer sun or warns from the brush.
On the way up Tremper Mountain, a natural spring pours out of a crack in the rocks. A spring has to be one of the most holy things nature can provide. Moss thrives on the moist rocks, and the cold water flows never-ending from the presumed icy heart of the mountain.
Over in Hardenburgh, Balsam Lake Mountain has an active bear population, with their headquarters in the hills around Alder Lake, the easier to reconnoiter the camp sites there after night falls.
But this is nature on its own terms.
Mountains aren’t convenient
So often city lives are lives subsumed in populous stimulation. Each person surrounded by the others, jolted with unexpected interactions. City life is friction and striking sparks.
Getting up any of the mountains, all that is left far behind. The socially or chemically addicted who walk among us may be appalled. There’s nothing at the top of the mountain but air. There are no swank restaurants. There are no discotheques. Not even convenience stores.
But mountains are not convenient. Getting up them is an unceasing fight against gravity into thinner and thinner air. Last summer featured rotting deer corpses dead from wasting sickness. This summer it’s rattlesnakes and milkweed pollen.
Tick checks never fall out of fashion.
Some say there was a paradise once, before the meteors fell and chased us into the caves where we scribbled the facts and forgot their meaning, while outside the centuries passed before we came back out.
Some vestigial itch compels us still from under the cover of our apartments and houses to search still, into the woods. Naked, as it were, for a reunion with a forgotten childhood or the old rituals. To re-examine the darkness or just to mimic a billboard advertisement or a bank commercial. All of the above.
Here is what one does.
The wise remember water, because not every mountain boasts a rock spring. Overlook doesn’t. Balsam Lake Mountain doesn’t.
Of course, there may be more than one trail. As for the top, sandwiches. Dessert. Some little celebration 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 stopped.
Once into the woods the wind blew through the whole place, every branch and limb and leaf rustled and sighed. The wind tousled the branches and leaves so that the sun flashed through the interstices. The effect was a forest full of spinning thaumatropes. Mushrooms could be just the ticket.
Wall of moving green. Vivid green. Electric green. Brighter than memory.
Ever upwards, the trail follows a choppy river of once-flowing stones now buried into the dirt. Wind not letting up. Widowmakers threatening.
The trail is fast, only a mile and a half, one foot in front of the other. Keep watching for rattlesnakes. The whole affair could be redundant, but it doesn’t have to be. Step after step, tree after tree, this is the mistake of rushing. Don’t rush. Eat a peach. Contemplate the ferns.
Hiking up a mountain, like kayaking through rapids or jumping off a high rock into deep water, then makes perfect sense if it has to. Actively fending off stagnation releases one from the cycle of perdition. Also known as repetition.
Betwixt fear and release
In this way do we pursue remarkable memories.
The spring is there closer to the top. Other people with dogs re there as well. Just have to share the forest. Hiking up, time takes time.
The fire tower is there on the top. Reminiscent of an electrical power transmission line tower. The x-shaped scaffolding, the latticed structures. Nine crisscrossing flights of wooden stairs climb up inside the frame to a metal room built at the top, like the guardroom on a prison tower.
There’s some kind of tabletop navigation device up there. Sign says six people at a time. Maybe 13 people here total. An American flag billows from the highest railing, fluttering in a place where patriotism has no relevance. But the colors sure are pretty.
When the wind blows like this, some climbing the stairs to the observation room grow faint of heart and turn back just two flights from the top. Chicken wire tied along the railings closes in the safe path from the open air. It’s hard to topple over the side without real effort. The wind is strong but the wall-less tower doesn’t offer resistance, and the base of the structure is wide. Engineering is sound.
The wind is strong enough to take off baseball caps or sunglasses at the top of the fire tower, above the treetops. Windows with four-square panes of glass can be opened. Then there’s the 360-degree view and a sort of muted dopamine blast somewhere betwixt 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 inside voice looks to commune with front-of-brain consciousness. Compared to a fistfight or a rock concert, if you don’t know the feeling you’re looking for, it gets lost in the wash of blood and elevated heartbeat that comes after all those flights of stairs.
Why do it at all? If only to regale others with the exploit? Certainly.
But taking out the cellphone to snap pictures reduces it all to a five-inch window frame. Flat now, lifeless, one step removed from existence. The life one sees is again subsumed, even if it’s shared across social media.
If there must be one, then let this be the purpose for hiking up to the top of a mountain: Quiet dopamine. A mild high provided after moderate exertion, free from brain.
Always remember to keep an eye on what the sun is doing. Getting caught in the half-light forest darkness while coming back down the mountain, well, that can be fun, too. Owls calling in the darkness. Climb the mountain, Sisyphus.
The Department of Environmental Conservation will honor the accomplishment of visiting all five fire towers with a commemorative patch and will extend the joy of being entered into a contest to win great outdoor prizes as a further fillip. Hurry. Contest ends January 31, 2023.