Home  

Chapter VIII

That Elusive Van Winkle

From "The Catskills" (1918)
By T. Morris Longstreth

The Kaaterskill Falls has not existed a great while. The region from which the stream flows was recently the favorite resting-place of Manitou. And, since he did not like to be disturbed while resting, he advised the Indians when hunting not to intrude upon his holier ground.

Once, however, a reckless brave followed his quarry into Manitou's preserve. Having penetrated, he looked around. He came upon some gourds hung up in a tree, and stole one. Then he fled. In his flight he stumbled, letting fall the gourd. Immediately a torrent sprang from the spot, and bore off the brave with it. When it took the great leap at the present Falls, the Indian was slain and his body was carried down into the Hudson. Since then the stream has kept on flowing.

The moral to be drawn from this occurrence is that the geology book must not be trusted too implicitly. There are a goodly number of such events that have transpired in the Catskills. The wall itself from which these mountains get their fame was erected by Manitou to protect the valley country from the evil spirits living toward the west. The weather witch and the extreme activity of the other spirits who dwelt in this vicinity have left their stamp (and considerable gossip) on this country. It is to these essential beginnings that we should turn when we want to learn something. The soil of folk-lore in America is very thin.

In his faithful narrative about one good man Washington Irving has helped to make the Catskills equal to their opportunity. With every apology to Manitou, I must confess that the Catskills are famous rather on account of Irving. It is to Irving and not to the Great Spirit that the Catskill innkeepers should give thanks for their bank-accounts. Yet the late Rip van Winkle, the vanished Union Hotel, the lost race of Doolittles, even the fabled existence of one Washington Irving -- what tribute do these progenitors of Catskill fortunes receive? This was the query in the back of my mind that morning as I came down to breakfast. I resolved to search, to see if the chief legend of this part of America had any reputation in its own habitat.

The hot-cake summons had wakened us to find a snow-storm at our windows. Our crystal yesterday had been a brilliant interlude between the cycles of sterner stuff of which so much Catskill weather is made.

"It isn't so monstrous springlike, " remarked Brute, looking at the thermometer, which registered twelve.

"I've seen it a heap worse," Mrs. France admitted. "In father's day there 's been four feet of snow on the level in April. And the wind comes down these north cloves like out a bellows."

Down The Kaaterskill Clove

Down The Kaaterskill Clove

 
"Yes, yes," chimed in the old man, for we were now safely embarked upon his dearest topic. "And once, on the 13th of December, we had three feet of snow plumb on the level. But it 'most went by Christmas. I calcalate this is goin' to last. "

For the entire period of breakfast -- a considerable interval-we enjoyed meteorological reminiscence. Even the ordinary native's memory is stout when it comes to such important matter as the drought of ten years gone this May, or the early frost of nineteen years this coming August. And our entertainer had no ordinary memory. There wasn't a thunder-shower, a drop in temperature, a heavy dew in the past, but now moved the old man to awe and anecdote. I had made the strategic mistake at the outset of being interested. When I was sufficiently up in hot waves and had had my fill of freshets, I was too well committed as listener. When we had reviewed the floods we came to the whirlwinds.

 
There was the thrilling story of Nicholas Rau's barn carried over a cliff or a county -- I can't remember which -- by a tornado. It had come from Sullivan County -- the tornado, not the barn and passed on by way of the Mountain House, its black trunk striking the ground, the sky a robin's egg blue and the air full of bits of leaves as if they had been put through a coffeegrinder -- "and a woman praying that she be saved was struck by that there swaying trunk and killed." Well, the tornado passed off to make room for a blizzard, and when we had finished up that and the Indian summers, ground-hog days, and remaining excesses of the local climate, I was able to engineer the conversation to the topic of my desired investigation. "Vreeland," I suggested, "will you stroll down with me to Rip van Winkle's village? You ought to do a mile for every twelve cakes. "

"Rip van Winkle," he repeated in a fog-bound sort of way. "Rip van Winkle's village? Funny name. Do you know him?" Can you imagine a Fiji-Islander trying to orientate himself when you mention New York? Brute's head was bothered in the same way.

"My dear galoot!" I exclaimed, amazed. "Have you never read it?"

"Oh! If it's a story, maybe I have. There's a lot of things a fellow does he don't care to remember. What's hurtin' you so?"

"Every summer half a million people visit these hills partly on account of that story. It gives them a distinction other hills don't have. And I don't doubt that twenty million school children talk of Irving each winter."

"That's nothing," broke in Brute, quite on base again. "Forty million children talk about Ty Cobb summer and winter, yet I don't believe that you know whether he's a pitcher or a catcher. But you might tell me the Rip tale."

"Some day," I said severely, "the American public may welcome its great pitchers and greater writers with an equal interest. As for the tale, I'll have to read it to you. It 's all in the way that Irving tells it. Mrs. France'll lend us her copy."

But Mrs. France didn't have a copy, although she had heard of the legend. It wasn't the day for the library to be open, which suited me exactly, for it gave me an excuse for discovering Van Winkle's status in his native village of Palenville. Accordingly we set out-much to the surprise of the weather historian, who had thought up a couple of good hail-storms to tell us-and in half an hour were descending the deep and narrow glen of the Kaaterskill Clove into which we had looked the day before ore from Sunset Rock. To-day there was no looking up. Evenly, steadily the small flakes fell. Evidently this was to be no affair of flurry, sun, and flurry. The last words we had heard from the weather gentleman were: "I calcalate you boys had better be careful. It looks to me just like it looked before that big storm January twenty year-" But Palenville was only four miles from Twilight Park, and we had all the day for plodding through the worst that might happen.

 
The north slopes of the High Peak ranges that make the south wall of the Clove are devoted to cottage colonies grouped about their nuclear hotels -- Sunset Park Inn, Twilight Park Inn, and Squirrel Inn. From these parks there are to be enjoyed views of the remote plain, sometimes cameo-clear through the nearer frame of mountain-shoulder, sometimes swimming in a half-tropical blueness beyond the forest-green. Between the ranges runs the road, and from it, looking back, you get a very comical picture in clear weather of the inns with their satellite cottages clutching to the hillside. Their steep roofs and projecting porches convey the idea of huddled panic. One almost expects to hear them shriek in their obvious fear of sliding to the bottom.

That snowy day, however, the picture was softened. Empty and nearly veiled, they resembled a flock of birds asleep. The bottom of the Clove looked too far away to be afraid of.

On our side of the ravine gravity had been active. A part of the road had slipped away to a less dizzy level. I found that nearly every winter some part said farewell, and that every spring it was rather the custom than otherwise to remake some portion of the highway to take the place of the departed. The gulf it slips into is about six hundred feet deep. It will require a good many roads to fill it up. Occasionally a boulder from higher up the mountain cavorts to the bottom. And at any time in the spring one may have a rock as big as an elephant-cage bound lightly across the road on the way down. For mountains put together so loosely, it is 'a wonder that they last so long. And still more wonderful that the State can maintain roads of such excellence in a country perpetually besieged by flood and frost. But the lessons of the Appian Way have been well learned by the contractors; the ancient Romans might well point with pride to the triumphs of their pupils. It restores faith in contractors to see a Watling Street promenading across a wilderness. Even through the Adirondack wilds, where the contractor might have escaped with an inferior product, he has laid a foundation for lasting praise. State work means perfect work-in the Department of Highways of New York.

About half way down we came to the ravine leading in from the left which invited us to view the Kaaterskill Falls in ermine. But we kept on the wide and winding way, crossed the bridge, and yielded to the temptations on neither hand. It cannot be so easily done in spring when the call of falling waters commands you to at least one look. Even on a melting day in winter the atmosphere of this descent is thick with waterfalls. One is at a loss to imagine how all the water gets to the top, for or it rains only four or five days in the week-in spring.

The explanation probably is in the blotting-pad forest. The leaf-mold, the mosses, the ferns, the trees, themselves living reservoirs, the blanket of snow-all these influences stay the flood in spring and moisten the lips of August drought. The Catskills woods have had a narrow squeak. If the State had not acquired its territory when it did, the misfortune of a denuded forest would have become a stark reality instead of a peril that is passing. On account of the eternal possibility of fire that peril is never wholly past, and the man who visits this region either in spring wetness or in summer dryness realizes that this charming mountainland would be only a mudhole or a desert if left to the mercy of the alternate seasons. Even to-day whole private mountain sides are being unscientifically slashed. It is unfortunate that in this case the crimes of the fathers are visited upon the visitors. Let us hope that brimstone makes a hotter fire than brush.

However callous one may grow to waterfalls in this region, there is a charming glen just after you pass Wild Cat Ravine, called Hillyer's, which houses a fall called the Fawn's Leap. The story is harrowing. A hunted deer came with her fawn to the opposite bank of the deep pool. There was no escape. The doe made the leap successfully, but was compelled to witness in anguish her offspring spring off, only to land, alas! in the pool, where it swam around, or so the story goes, for a couple of days. The name, without the story, is really fitting for an exquisite waterfall, and a great improvement on Dog's Hole, by which it formerly was known. An appropriate name is half the pleasure in a bit of scenery, and the motive legend, in an Irving's hand, may at any moment frame it in immortal prose. It is not the height of mountains that matters: Olympus is but little higher than these hills.

On that snowy morning we were full of the electric atmosphere. We cared nothing for or sideglens. We were our own fawns, having run a good portion of the way down. The snow was not yet an impediment, only an invitation; the flannel cakes warmed our blood; the grade was steep. One strip of the splendid gorge, however, impressed us to a walk. On either side the cliffs rose sheer into the snow haze. Even in summer this half mile just above Palenville is not made entirely gentle by the sun. You see Coliseum terraces, stark ledges, tree-clad gulfs, and then the first cottages of Palenville-just the touch of humanity needed to offset the aloofness of the Clove.

Palenville, with its attractive white houses, its rushing stream, so near the mountains, so convenient to the plain, is a place to be thoughtfully recommended for its geography, its incitement to art, but not for its devotion to classic literature, at least the American classics. We were now hot upon the trail of Irving, and at the first door, I proposed to give tongue. The first door happened to be a hotel's. It seemed closed, but led us into a bar-room with tables piled with chairs. A busy-looking man poked his head in at our knock, and I said:

"Do you happen to have a Rip van Winkle handy?"

"The bar 's closed," he said quickly, and withdrew. So did we, but slowly, being a bit crumpled with laughter. The hunt was on.

Opposite the hotel was a new house in the Dutch style, tiles, in the chimney and all; but the rest of the place spoke of no great antiquity. The latticed windows and gable fronts, the weathercocks and the antique Inn of the great Tale had vanished with the colonists who owned them. I next made my inquiry of a woman.

"Sure!" she exclaimed. "I know what you mean. But it burnt down last year. The ruins is up the next hollow about a mile. "

I explained that all I needed was a copy of the book for a few minutes.

"Book-book? I don't know as there's any book about it. But the Rip van Winkle burnt down last year. The ruins -- "

"Yes," admitted the fifth lady we bespoke.

The summer people talk an awful lot about the man, considering he never existed, and if I remember correct that book you mention's lying about the house somewhere. But I don't know where it 's got to now."

The literary investigation progressed. Nearly everybody had heard of Rip. Joe Jefferson had given the play once in the village. Some had heard of Irving, but nobody could put their hands on the "Sketch Book." One lady got so interested that she sent Helena up to the back closet to look, while I answered her questions:

Profile Near Palenville

Profile Near Palenville

 

"Yes, I 'm just borrowing it to read to my friend here. He has never heard the story, which is about your own village. I dare say nobody else here has, either. You can't show me the tree under which Nicholas Vedder, your landlord, used to sit. You can't tell me, likely, where Dame van Winkle, who died of scolding a peddler, is buried. Not one of your boarding-houses has named itself the 'Union Hotel.' If Irving should inquire for himself here, he wouldn't get a word of welcome. He could n't get his check honored, although it is his own hero who brings the tourists through. In the long run it isn't cats nor kills that keep the crowd: it 's poetry. Poets praise and proprietors appropriate. Look at Wordsworth's little lakes; think of the crop of tourists that Longfellow raises on Evangeline's bare meadow. And yet, this degenerate village-"

Well, of course I didn't say all that to the defenseless lady, not even when Helena came back from the closet without the book. But I thought a good deal of it as I turned away in the snow. How often I have inquired abroad for a great man in the vicinity of his greatness, and have had to go farther afield to find him. The exact quantity of honor done a prophet in his own country can be reduced to a formula: the lack of interest increases in intensity the nearer one gets to the center of inspiration. Never inquire for an appreciation of a lighthouse at its base.

 

Palenville is not unique. Indeed, I am not sure that Irving ever visited the place, and almost certainly there was no real Rip, though van Winkle is a common name. Brute and I found our volume, and our search had so whetted his appetite for the story that his enjoyment of it was very genuine. Indeed, it was he who insisted on roving up into the little clove that (in order to be as confusing as possible) the neighborhood calls Sleepy Hollow. There is the hollowed stone where Rip's bed was, the amphitheater where the game of nine-pins went on, and the little ravine that goes dry in summer, just as Irving described them.

Our visit to Palenville was vastly more productive, however, than any but Chance had in mind. We had just brought our pursuit of Rip to a satisfying close, and were seeking about for a meal to reinforce our climb back to the plateau, when we slid into the agreeable clutches of an old gentleman who might have been Rip himself except for the completeness of his attire. He was quite abrupt and vigorous for age, and after our first question beckoned to us. We followed at a good pace, coming to a long, white-painted house.

"Now," he said, turning jerkily, "I understand what you boys want. You want a little solid food and some mental nourishment; but no liquids, eh?"

"If you have some schnapps, sir,'' suggested Brute, who had absorbed his Irving.

"My grandfather sold schnapps on this very site, young man. This house used to be the only inn in Palenville. Even as late as 1860 there were only two taverns here and eighteen dwellings. I used to work up at the wool factory. And my father worked at the old mill in the Clove. And it was his father who came here soon after Jonathan Palen, for the tannery business. Up the Clove there 's the site yet of the tannery, right near the Profile Rock. Oh, it was a fine country in my day! That was when the artists came, the first ones, in the year before the war. No summer people here then except artists. But this is cold hospitality. Come in, come in."

"Ain't he a rare old bird!" whispered Brute, as the old man bustled around, giving directions as to how to cut the bread and coax the fire. In a few minutes we were seated at his table and our education recommenced.

"You know, the Dutch got on well with the Indians -- you knew that, of course -- for two reasons: they bought furs from them, and the Indians were a clever lot, not like the Indians you read about, but an organized gang. They lived in houses instead of tents, and had congresses, and their women voted; you knew that -- of course. But the Dutch would trade in whisky, and Esopus, down below here, got burnt a couple of times on account of drunken Indians. Sometimes the settlers would have to all go to the big towns while their homes were being burnt. But back they'd go, when the spell was over. Then came the wars, Dutch-English and French-English and American-English. You know that, of course."

This time, I hastened to say that I did.

"Catskill became quite a place. They say Hudson himself stopped there at the mouth of the creek, and when dad drove me down there seventy years ago it was still a place of its own. It had its paper, the 'Catskill Packet,' and its steamboat communication, and through it went all the famous visitors for the Mountain House -- you know that, of course. Yes, sir; those were days. Everybody said Charley Beach was crazy to perch that hotel on a edge of a precipice. But it 's still there, ain't it?"

That was a queer but fascinating meal. The Catskill country is full of old men -- a testimonial for or the climate. Even Robert Juet, who sailed under Hudson, remarked that, and also that they were a " very loving people." We found the old men very sprightly in memory, very keen over their hobbies. Brute and I had listened to a weather enthusiast all breakfast-time, and our lunch was partaken with genealogy. I learned not only about the Indians, the Dutch, the later comers in general, but in detail about John Sax, Fred Layman, Louis Wetzel, famous hunters all. Our host seemed delighted to find a couple of fresh listeners "with good acoustic properties," as Brute summed up the situation. We had no chance whatever in the conversation, but we wanted none. Indeed, the flow of history, imperfect perhaps but marvelously well remembered, was astonishing, and left me with a very different impression of Palenville and the region round.

If one will only let his imagination build the past for him while his feet are treading the present, a walking trip in the Catskills becomes a heart-warming affair. You realize the Indian era with its sudden forays from the forest; the era of the first straggling hunters. Then you find coming in quicker succession the tanners, the lumbermen, the brave homesteaders, who people the ravines and lift the paintless and perishing backwoods settlements from the plane of romance to that of business. One has Irving and Cooper and Parkman and a myriad lesser magazinists to turn to. One has also the patriarch still clinging to the remoter post-offices. An inquiry, a word of sympathy, will uncork the past, and you can drink with age in memories of any vintage.

We came out from our nesting with "the rare old bird" to find the April storm trying to outsnow December. There was three ways back: the easy Clove road, the difficult trail straight up the southern bluffs and along the top, and the winding road up Sleepy Hollow. This last we chose.

The original spelling of travel is travail, meaning a devilish hard job. We climbed and panted, slipped and travailed. Snow is generally regarded as a light substance which an artistic Providence spreads over a winter landscape to make it romantic. But let me assure you that snow is a mineral, and minerals weigh. After an hour I felt like a striking coal-heaver. But Brute, whose idea of the proper way to conduct an exhausting operation is to get it through with, seemed tireless. At length a workman passed us.

"It 's only about two miles," he replied to our question.

A mile is about as poor a measure of distance as any yet invented. The European method of estimating the time you'll consume is less confusing. There is no such thing as a wilderness mile. It may lie up a mountain or across a swamp. And there was n't any such thing for us, apparently. After an interminable period we met a second workman, and in a thoughtless moment put the same question.

"Oh! About two miles," he said.

"Fine," said Brute; "we haven't lost a yard."

The whole road seemed trained to deception. There is a turn part way up where one comes opposite the Mountain House. On a clear day it looks close enough to smite with David's pebble. Even through the snow it did n't seem so far. Then the road shied off from the ravine, and leaped up vast slopes like a wounded gazelle, quite as if it had forgot the Mountain House. Just as I was ready to announce that where we were was as good a place to die in as any, Brute turned around, leaned back against the road we were mounting, -- or at least he could have, -- and lit his pipe.

"Did you ever hear-?" he began. And, as I hadn't, he told me. It was probably the funniest story those virgin woods had ever listened to. Certainly it was a story that might have been imprudent in a nunnery. But Brute's telling brought no blush to the white snow. The humor of it lit up the gray weariness that was falling upon me, as he doubtless intended. When a man is plodding on his brain goes in circles, and during that afternoon whenever that tale came round I laughed, and, laughing, was refreshed. From then on we felt less the pull of the deepening snow, and confidences made for the quickening of comradeship, yet instinctively aware of the fact that there is a certain bloom of delicacy that may never be rubbed off if the finest friendship is to endure.

At twilight we stumbled into the France kitchen, snow-logged but content. The day stood high in my favor, one leg resting on the solid satisfactions of research in Palenville, the other on the new view permitted into the spacious heart of my road-partner.

 

Previous Chapter | Back to the Index | Next Chapter

 


Home
Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery