Leaf-Peeping: An Autumn Weekend in the Catskills

“Life is an adventure. An adventure you can control. 
An adventure the Catskills can inspire”
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This assurance by the Catskills Tourism website sets the bar high for a visit within these 6,000 square miles of mountainous land in Southwestern New York State. With a prodigious history of “inspiring and comforting” our forefathers, the Catskills gave rise to the Hudson River School of painting, and provided the setting for Washington Irving’s classics, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Rip Van Winkle’. Today, the area serves primarily as refuge for urban New Yorkers who head north to ski, hike, and climb throughout the year, in search of both adventure and an escape into rural tranquility.

Columbus Day weekend, my father and I venture into the Catskill Mountains for common reasons: an easy drive from central New Jersey, within three hours we will be hiking amongst the falling October leaves, away from the work-week anxieties of urbanity.

Roadside Attractions

As we near our destination on the New York State Troopers T. Michael Kelly and Kenneth A. Poorman Memorial Highway, the radio is increasingly overtaken by static. Roadside advertisements entice us to buy an RV, stop by Brad’s Barns, and then splurge at Moose Crossing Cabin Furnishing. Motel 19 anticipates the appeal of this season, declaring weekly rates for “leaf peeps.” The trees are indeed becoming more colourful the farther we drive, and as my father leads his grey Saab around a corner on the winding highway, walls of red-brown shale flank the road on either side and soft mountain peaks come into view.

Between Phoenicia and Mt Temper on Route 28, in the parking lot of a large hotel resort, Captain Hot Dog is in business. Through the car window, I spot the unpretentious older man in a baseball cap selling his fare out of a cart attached to his pick-up truck. Known as Captain Tom, he’s been running this relaxed business for 15 years and is well-known to anyone who frequently drives this way. Well, we were promised a weekend “meander(ing) through the villages rubbing elbows with the famous.”
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Entering Pine Creek

Following a winding side-street, we enter Pine Creek surreptitiously. And then, suddenly, we have gone too far and are heading out of town along Mill St. This name hints at the towns origins and leads us to believe that the twisting streets we’ve been following were built alongside streams. Or perhaps the residents of Pine Creek simply have no respect for parallel lines.

Doubling back, we find the single, quiet street which makes up the center of town. We park in the grassy driveway of the Colonial Inn, hoping to stop for lunch before beginning our hike. While the large, white house shows no apparent sign of life, it’s certainly inhabited – the wide, street-facing porch is covered in a random array of worn objects, all haphazardly assorted under the large buck’s head displayed on a wall near the door. The sign out front claims they’ve been in operation since the 1790s. Upon closer inspection, many of the items appear quite “colonial” themselves, including a sewing machine, a birdcage, and a wood-burning stove. Like many things in the Catskills, there is little proof of change in the past 200 years. We knock, and get no response.

The house directly across the small street is guarded by a large, middle-aged woman sitting in an armchair on her lawn, surrounded by piles of arbitrary and rusted “stuff”. This seems to be a pattern; travelling through the Catskills meant passing countless advertisements for moving sales, yard sales, and church rummage sales on every forgotten street. Locals seem determined to sell all their possessions to the influx of bargain-seeking New Yorkers before the holiday weekend comes to an end.

My father leads a step ahead, I follow closely, tracing his path. We enter the property from the side and then hesitate, unsure if we’re intruding.

“Come on over!” She reassures us loudly, rotating her head in our direction.

“Feel free to wander ‘round, I got plenny more o’ everything.”

As I glance around at the seemingly endless supply of broken sinks and rusty bicycle handles, the scope impresses me, but I remain skeptical regarding demand. I smile a return greeting while my father explains our actual purpose and asks about the Colonial Inn.

“Oh, yeah,” she smiles up at us as she speaks, without any hint of disappointment that we weren’t drawn over by her fare. “They used to have lunch but now they’re only open for brunch on Saturdays. There’s a new place jus’ opened up – they got good food I hear, haven’t been myself. It’s actually the only place in town, really. And it’s American food,” she declares in a conspiratorial tone as if to say, “don’t worry – nothing strange.”

With a nod, my father signals that this one – and only – option will do just fine. “Can we walk there?” he asks.

Our helper slowly pushes herself out of her chair and into a standing position,

“’K, you see that dark grey roof there? Not that one” (she points to a small building on her property) “but the one right after that. That’s the place. It’s called The Zephyr”.”

My father exits by the front this time, walking between two, tall hedges and onto the street – again I follow a step behind. Turning back, we smile once more at our helper. With a friendly nod, the town sentinel slips back into her seat.

The Zephyr

We stand outside the predictably empty restaurant, peering in, until a smiling young woman, mid-dusting, notices us through the large front window. With a wave, she dispels our doubts, and we enter the Zephyr.

“Take a seat wherever. The place is all yours!” Her friendly, informal manner puts us at ease as we enter and we correspondingly choose the most friendly and informal seating available – the round stools in front of the dark-wood bar.

A second woman delivers menus and silverware, her long blonde braid standing out against her dark green velvet blazer. We sip water from mason jars while we wait for the kitchen to make our chili fresh. Norah Jones plays in the background as my father consults his 15 year-old Tyvek map of the area, alongside a similarly outdated guide to Catskills Hiking Trails.

Another couple enters and sits at a table in the window. A middle-aged man and woman, the younger waitress greets them in a familiar manner. My father engrossed in his books and phone, I occupy myself by looking around the large space. At first I attempt a smile at the woman in the window, but she merely looks uncomfortable in return, so I shift my gaze. It lands on the tall and leafy plant placed invitingly in a silver pail by the door, a giant yellow bow tied around the base.

Unable to resist looking back at the only other customers in the place, I steal another glance at their table. The couple speak in low voices, their expressions equally indiscernible as they both maintain dulled and stoic looks of passive interest. The younger waitress returns to this table with two chocolate milks and lingers with the pair, gossiping quietly.

As our food arrives, I turn my attention back to my father and the weekend adventures ahead of us. A straightforward 2.5 mile hike to the nearest lean-to is our goal. The desired view is the modest one from the Balsum mountain summit.
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Heading back outside, the weather is perfect for hiking. The air in this town is scented with smoke from wood fires and with the healthy decay of rotting leaves, making us feel part of a rugged adventure already. Children, let out of school early in celebration of the holiday weekend, lightheartedly skip past us on their way home. Adjusting to the friendly and unhurried pace of upstate New York, I begin to feel a hint of the appeal that the Catskills holds beyond bargains and fresh air – the appeal that has made my father return time after time.
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