Friday, June 24, 2011

Let's Bike The Catskills

When summer kicks into gear here in Tampa, my bicycle thoughts drift elsewhere -- the Rockies or the Catskills in my native New York state. I wrote this story about a decade ago when I lived in upstate New York, about 75 miles north of NYC. It was published in the Tampa Tribune and I thought I'd post it here. It's about a 95-mile bike ride from my home in New Paltz, NY to the Caatskill Mountains and back.

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To me, it’s my own little space shuttle ride, a trek to the cosmos and back. All in one day. And all it takes is a few gallons of water and a whole lot of granola bars.

I’m not exactly breaking the sound barrier at a steady 15 mph clip on my Cannondale R300 road bicycle, but it’s still my rocket to the Catskills, the mountain range made famous by such Americana superstars as Milton Berle and Rip Van Winkle.

It’s a 95-mile course I’ve plotted to and through the Catskills from my home in New Paltz, a college town about 75 miles north of New York City. We have our own local mountain range outside New Paltz called the Shawangunks – a ridge famous for its white rock, dwarf pine trees, mountain lakes and some of the best rock climbing on the East Coast.

But today – an unusually hot day at 85 degrees for Tax Day here in the Hudson Valley – I’m off for a visit to a much younger mountain range, the Catskills.

Pull up your bike shorts, strap on the helmet and grab a bike seat. We’re going to the mountains and you’re coming along for the ride.

The morning heat burned away a dreary fog as I follow the flattest stretch of the journey along the slow-moving, north-flowing Wallkill River to a small town called Rosendale. The Wallkill is not exactly a raging bull of a river. In fact, the Wallkill makes the Withlacoochee River look like a white-foaming Colorado rapid.

Rosendale hit the big time decades ago when its limestone deposits were mined for cement, which was sent to New York City to help erect the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty. These days, it’s a funky and quirky place of some 6,000 souls with a fun Main Street that plays host to a rare single-screen movie house. Rosendale’s biggest day of the year? How about the International Pickle Fest every November.

“We’ll never be a . . . Woodstock. But we’re no longer the town that has 18 bars on Main Street,” the town’s ex-supervisor, Jeannie Laik, once told me.

It’s in Rosendale where I pick up Route 213, a wonderful two-lane road that will lead into the heart of the Catskills. The white-rock Shawangunks peeter out a few miles south of Rosendale and Route 213 skirts the northern edge of that small range.

Now it’s time to take the Route 213 flyer up to the Catskills. I love this road. The Rondout Creek runs parallel to 213, a two-laner offering gentle twists and hills amid the old rocks that yielded cement decades ago.

A few miles up the road it’s a small hamlet called High Falls, then a few miles after that it’s Stone Ridge. These are very hip-sounding communities where quality of life is taken very seriously. In other words, there are some good restaurants in town.

The Gunks, as the Shawangunks are called, have a high peak of about 2,280 feet. The Catskills’ peaks are in the 3,500-foot range. The Catskills are about 10 miles away once I head out of Stone Ridge.

But here’s the thing: while pedaling on 213 you don’t even realize you’re entering the Catskills and heading right into the heart of the range. That’s the beauty of it all: the gradual ascent amid fields, rugged houses and leafless tree lulls you right into the range. There’s no dramatic climb, just a tranquil journey into the mountains.

It’s in the town of Olive where you feel as though you’re in the Catskills. Viewsheds – don’t you just love that term? – offer a peak at the jutting upward slopes of the Catskills. The mountains are here. You have arrived.

I happen to like Olive for two reasons.

First, the town holds an annual Olive Day, which includes my favorite competition – the frog-jumping contest. I recall a youngster, eager to spur his entry to victory, stomped his foot to get the frog going. Well, one particular stomp of the foot missed its mark and sent this boy’s frog to the disabled list – well, let’s just say the big disabled list in the sky.

Second, Olive has a very cool town logo. Just about every Hudson Valley town has an emblem that includes a river, a mountain and a tree or some combination of those. Olive’s emblem shows a bird with – what else? – an olive branch in its beak. Maybe the Middle East talks should come to Olive.

The oohing and ahing over the Catskills’ rugged scenery begins at the Ashokan Reservoir, part of New York’s vast upstate reservoir network.

Mountains form a ring in the backdrop of the reservoir, which is mighty low these days because of a draught that’s drying up the Northeast water supply. It’s downright bizarre to feel this hot – this is mid-summer heat – and see no leaves on the trees yet. The buds are out, but only the evergreens offer color in the forests.

The views are spectacular. You’re far away from the mountain summits that the Catskills look like giant brown humps cutting a tranquil outline against a clear sky. You just want to sit and stare.

This being the post 9-11 era, there are cops guarding a causeway that leads over the Ashokan reservoir, which supplies New York City’s drinking water. They’re listening to the Yankees play the Red Sox on Patriots Day, when Boston plays host to the Bronx Bombers for an 11 a.m. ballgame.

“Who’s winning,” I ask the cop.

“The bad guys.”

Route 213 has ended and I’m on Route 28A along the reservoir’s southern edge heading for Route 28, a main valley drag that bisects the northern chunk of the Catskills. I reach Boiceville at Route 28, home to the local high school in the area, and head for Phoenicia, where I’ll take a lunch break at the 37-mile mark of the trek.

There are Catskills peaks on both sides of Route 28. This road’s water mate is the Esopus Creek, a swift-moving waterway running alongside 28. It’s the beauty of cycling – seeing how creeks are connected to valleys and how they both rest in the underbelly of the mountains on both sides.

Phoenicia is a classic Catskills village that’s become a tourist destination. Old-time outdoor stores selling heavy plaid shirts stand near yuppie cafes where well-coifed waitresses serve city slickers. Emblematic of the mountain town gentrification is a bar I used to frequent called the Sportsman Bar and Grill. It’s become a chi-chi Mexican restaurant. But at least they kept the old sportsman statue out in front.

There’s still the place that rents tubes for people to go tubing on the Esopus Creek, that foamy creek that runs along Route 28. It’s quiet today in Phoenicia and this April day still feels like July, when the place would be crawling with tourists.

Phoenicia is surrounded by mountains. Look down Main Street and It’s time to refuel because I’m about to climb 10 miles on Route 214 to the Catskills forest preserve near the ski towns of Hunter and Tannersville. I gobble up bagels and granola bars and quaff a liter of water.

The best part of the trip is that there’s no malls. There’s no suburbia. I don’t get why people drive miles so that they could walk from their car on an asphalt ocean the same distance if they parked in a city and walked to their shops.

I study drivers’ faces when I ride. Motorists are just not a happy lot, I’m afraid to say. They either look sad or mad, but never happy. Sometimes in my more whimsical states of mind -- which is often when I’m pedaling – I think the quickest way to end war and disputes is to abolish religion and national borders and give everyone a bicycle. Riding a bike is one of those precious few acts that both young and old enjoy for the sheer love of pedaling, seeing and getting around. The expressions on their faces are the same – joy.

But I digress. It’s probably because it’s time to climb some serious mountains. It’s 10 miles straight up to the lofty foot peaks of the state forest preserve. I pass through small incorporated hamlets such as Chichester, Lanesville and Edgewood. There’s a post office here, a church there, small rundown homes next to smartly-manicured vacation houses.

I’m not going very fast. Maybe 6 or 7 mph. But it’s a steady zen-like spin as I ascend the mountain. There’s a certain purity to climbing. You pedal, you move and there’s no way around it. No BS-ing, no negotiating, no fast-talking the mountain to let you up without digging deep and settling into a steady cadence. It’s why I love riding up hills. It’s not who you know, or how much money you have, or who’s your papa – it’s just you and the uphill.

Route 214’s water partner is Stony Clove Creek, an Esopus Creek tributary. The road cuts a jagged course through the mountains. Again, the double-takes: all those trees look mighty naked without leaves.

Near the top of the climb is the state forest preserve, a healthy chunk of raw woods with trailheads and scenic lakes off the road. This is the Catskills – hearty, inspirational and rugged.

After a three-mile descent – man, it’s sweet cruising 40 mph down the long hill – I finally hit Route 23A near Hunter and Tannersville. It’s disorienting. If it feels like summer, then how come I’m seeing snow-covered ski runs falling down Hunter Mountain? It’s about 50 miles into the ride as I approach Tannersville and Haines Falls on Route 23A.

Tannersville is a hybrid of a ski town and local hangout. It’s isolated enough to have a car dealership close to downtown. There’s a mish-mash of bed and breakfasts, convenient stores, old homes crying out for a paint job and local businesses like family-run pharmacies.

Ah, the big descent to Palenville. It’s four miles of sheer 40 mph downhill past evergreens, trees with buds ready to burst and rocky waterfalls. I hit Route 32 and follow this main artery to the 70-mile mark at Saugerties in north Ulster County.

I’m out of the Catskills. The hills now roll instead of rollercoasting you up and down and around. In fact, Saugerties sits on the Hudson River and the Catskills are the stuff of books and maps and pictures in the bookstores of Saugerties, a village of 5,000 that’s kind of a New Paltz Lite without the state college. Joining the bookstores are cafes and antique shops lining a pleasant Main Street.

For a major pit-stop, I stop into a McDonald’s, the first one I’ve seen on the trip and I ask for a water bottle refill. And another. And then another. The skinny teen-ager with his McDonald’s uniform shirt falling outside of his pants can’t believe it. The kid’s never seen anyone ask for water in the joint. I read the New York Daily News. The Yankees-Red Sox series dominate the sports section. I skip over the Middle East strife coverage. There’s time to catch up after the bike ride.

Now, it’s time for the flatlands. I follow a road south that runs parallel to the New York State Thruway to Kingston, the county seat. It’s late afternoon and I’m in the homestretch of the ride. Kingston is a city about 25,000 with varying old neighborhoods. It stretches from its uptown stockade area to its waterfront on the Rondout Creek, which meets the Hudson River. You remember the Rondout – that’s the creek that flows through Rosendale.

I hook into Route 32 in Kingston for the final 15 miles back to New Paltz. It’s a climb to get out of Kingston, but once I’m past the Ulster County public safety center on the edge of the city, Route 32 flattens out and I head for Rosendale, that old cement town, which is about halfway between Kingston and Rosendale.

The Gunks come back into view, and the Catskills are a dream-like blur on the northern horizon.

By now, the zen-like pedaling rhythm is kicking in. I pass Bloomington, Rosendale, Tillson and New Paltz is the next stop. It’s early evening now and the miles are slowly passing – 91, 92, 93 – as I reach the New Paltz village line.

The sun is setting behind the Shawangunks and a pink corral shade is backlighting the mountain ridge. I soak up the view.

I’m still in bike shorts and jersey when I stride into my kitchen and put a pot of water on the over burner to boil. Pasta is on the menu.

The post-ride feast has begun.

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