I have to confess that with all the drives I had taken to upstate New York when I was a downstater, I never stopped in the ski area. Never really stopped in the quaint little towns, rented a snowboard for the day, or any other of the things that the Catskill and Adirondack areas are known for. I drove through the area, rather, I blew through the area like I was bringing a hurricane with me, appropriately oohing and ahhing at the mountains as they whizzed by to my destination, wherever that was. Funny how I remember the whizzing more than the so-called important arrival of wherever it was I went.
That being said, I knew little to nothing of Kaaterskill Falls. The only thing I knew about them was that they existed, and that I only knew because I saw it in an I Heart-Shape NY tourist guide book that had a beaming Governor George E. Pataki inside its front cover. So mostly I avoided it, thinking it was a tourist trap that got you in for free but charged you for everything else.
Then one day some friends of ours suggested we go hiking at Kaaterskill Falls. They originally made the suggestion in the summer, a time where I shun many destinations, rationalizing that I came upstate to avoid crowds, not go out of my way to look for them. So it was an idea that was tossed around all season, until it was finally decided upon to go in October, late enough that most of the seasonal tourists were gone, but early enough to catch whatever foliage was around at the time.
We started out with breakfast at a tiny place in the town of Gilboa, located in Schoharie County. Our friends had been here before, and recommended it for the entertainment value as much as the food. It was one of those "hole-in-the-wall" places with eight tables and a small grocery store, run by a couple who moved up to the Catskills from the Bronx over twenty years ago. The husband, who did most of the cooking, maintained a trademark crusty attitude full of insults and shock value that probably was more habit than anything else now, but probably was designed at some point to test what he believed to be the sincerity of his customers. Bathroom and dirty remarks were all part of his repartee. At the time, the Yankees were playing the Red Sox, in a postseason run that would lead to a loss of the World Series to the Marlins. When asked whether he wanted the Yanks to win or not by someone who was counting on the Sox, I fully expected this Bronx native to respond with something along the lines of "What, are you &*(&!* nuts, asking that? Where the **^$# do you think I'm from, Harvard or some ^*&^?. I'm from the Bronx you a--!!!". Instead, he announced that he was a fan of no one. He said that since the baseball strike in the nineties, he was fed up with the sport. All that crap had done, to paraphrase him, was screw the little guy, like the ones who sell the hot dogs and the stadium security guys. All the while, the players still made ridiculous money, and whined for more, while the little guys had to make do with unemployment and a job at McDonald's. Screw them all, was his attitude. His wife, sitting at one of the tables reading a newspaper while all this was going on, was deaf, so her husband was free to go on without any editing from her. Conversation went back and forth like this while we ate. The food was pretty good, too.
After that, it was time to go hiking. The day was absolutely perfect, an Indian summer day with the leaves just beginning a brief period of peak foliage. Kaaterskill Falls is located in Greene County, in what is officially labeled as Catskill Park. This tends to be a misleading in a couple of ways. One way is that in the mind of many, the Catskills go as far north as Otsego County and as far south as Orange, while the Catskill Park is mostly in Ulster and Greene counties, so the "Catskill" term is a little bit of an underrepresentation. As far as the "Park" part of the label, many people conjure up images of undeveloped land when they think of the word. Catskill Park, while not a booming metropolis, has some land development. The amount of development allowed in this kind of park is a relative thing, depending on whether the developers are better financed than the environmentalists, and vice versa. In many areas, it was hard to determine who was winning in this tug-of-war.
Kaaterskill Falls is located on NYS Rt. 23A, in the town of Hunter. 23A is a bit of an adventure of itself, twisting and turning through mountainous terrain, occasionally giving the impression that if you follow it, you are going to careen off a cliff. One word of advice: if you are the driver when you go in October, don't get too mesmerized by the foliage; careening off the cliff might be exactly what you do. Parking for the falls entailed competing in a seven car lot for a space, then walking a quarter a mile or so on the twisting road to get to the trail. Loaded trucks zoomed past us at fifty-five miles per hour on the two-laned highway, and it seemed like they barely slowed down when they made the hairpin turns. Not knowing what was coming around the corner as you walked was pretty wild.
The falls were visible from the highway, though if you were driving fifty miles per hour and not really looking for them, you'd probably miss them. Extending several hundred feet in the air, there are two big falls. There is the main one, which has the biggest drop, that goes from the summit and plunges directly down into a pool, which leads to the second big fall, not anywhere as big as the first. Thereafter, there are small glens and streams which lead to the bottom of the falls. You can reach the very top by climbing, or there is a back way which you can drive and hike a short way where you can actually look over the falls. We settled on a middle way; we hiked up to the top of the lower fall, and after climbing down, we drove our way to the top fall. The way we hiked was a one lane path on slippery rocks, and I found myself tripping my way up more than actually hiking it. Sometimes the rocks weren't right next to each other, and it seemed like a literal leap of faith to get to the next step in the path. Young couples, people with kids, and retired people passed our way and walked with us. One couple looked like the stereotypical couple that spent their whole married life hiking, and now that they were retired were spending every second possible hunting down one hiking trail after another, with walking sticks, fanny packs and lean builds. Sometimes they surpassed us, sometimes we them. I don't even remember who "won"; I was too busy trying to keep my balance to really pay attention. When we reached the plateau of the lower falls, the men in our group hopped over a bunch of larger rocks to get closer to the foot of the bigger falls. Seeing a foot or so between rocks that didn't seem so flat and with nothing to grab onto, the other woman and I in our group begged off. Seeing them hop around on slippery rocks while getting there made me feel good about that decision.
We drove to the summit afterwards, after getting directions from one of the locals who was gardening, and Kaaterskill was just part of her life. Once you got the end of a particular dead end, you parked your vehicle, and took any one of a number of dirt paths through some woods to lead you to the top of the falls. Feeling some vertigo, I begged off trekking on the actual rocks over looking the fall directly, and opted for the postcard view of the top. The rest of my party walked on some rocks, which were a ledge or so from actually going over. They didn't report any suicidal people like the man who jumped over Niagara Falls, or anyone with barrels ready to go swimming, but they did report a middle-aged couple making out with each other. I guess the couple was having an intense Zen experience until the world showed up.
Getting food afterwards proved somewhat difficult. We drove into Prattsville, a town with brightly colored restaurants that relied on the seasonal rush. Being that this was the off-season, many restaurants who kept steady hours in the summer and winter kept lopsided schedules now, such as , closed Oct. 9-13, or closed Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, next Friday and three Mondays from now. The cheese shop we were thinking of patronizing fell into that category, so we opted for coffee across the street in place that had outdoor seating. When we went there, we were told by the server that she didn't serve outside, but she wound up serving us outside anyway. Maybe she just changed her mind if she liked the customers.
After the two-hour hike, and fortified with caffeine and sugar, it was time to go back. It seemed as we drove back, that in the time we were gone, more of the leaves had turned from green to their prime colors. Though frost had already visited us this season, it was warm enough to drive with the windows open. The drive was long enough and gentle enough to ease me back into reality, as acres of gold, red and orange trees flooded past me. My legs achy and feeling happily groggy from my empty-calorie lunch, I sat back and enjoyed it, and it felt as though this contented state was a permanent reality.