The day we drove into the Catskills, the freshness of the foliage was a balm to the senses. It is the kind of lushness that you see as summer sets in, a vibrant shade of green that makes you hum with barely contained joy, when the sun might beat down upon you with all its strength, but humidity is still at bay, so you slap on some sunscreen and shades, and gaze upon the world with benevolence. A world that is ripe with possibilities because you are off to explore parts of it that you have not seen before. And you know the kind of thrill I am talking about, for you’ve been there. It’s just this feeling called travel.
My mind was a blank slate, and I let it be. By which I mean that I did not go ballistic googling up places to see. I am guilty of doing that often. At times, I let go. Last month I was not feeling too well, maybe this lethargy was a result of it. Yet as we got closer and closer to the bucolic surroundings, all discomfort fell away like a load of unwanted baggage.
The clouds were curdling away gently above our happy heads to make way for buttermilk patterns that stretched and stretched before disappearing behind rows of trees framing the roads. We passed by rolling hills and pastures, silos and barns with peeling paint, country houses and porches, till via Route 28 we arrived in Phoenicia. I had fixated upon this strange name after reading about it in an NYT travel piece because well, who wouldn’t be curious about its Greek origins, redolent of faded civilisations and mythic birds. I wonder why the founders named it Phoenicia, this town that was thrown up on the traveller’s route thanks to the Ulster and Delaware Railroad. In the early 20th century, it was the only rail route to the Catskills, the name of which is said to be derived from the Dutch ‘Kaaterskill’, meaning Wildcat Creek, and probably a reference to the resident bobcats.
These mountains of southeastern New York represented a gentile way of life for city folk who sought a quick getaway for fresh air and good food. The Catskills were the summer place to be, especially for Jewish immigrants who were turned away from popular holiday resorts.
Phoenicia turned out to be a hamlet on the Esopus Creek, down the mossy green waters of which girls and boys floated lazily on tubes while fly anglers fished for trout. The Town Tinker Tube Rental, operating out of a rust red barn, was the first post of business that registered in my mind as we walked into town beneath its leafy bowers. And the first scene, that of clusters of teenagers in swimsuits, holding onto ginormous black tubes. The tube rental’s repurposed old school buses were eye-catching. Painted white, they roamed the streets of Phoenicia, providing rides to tube enthusiasts.
There is one main street in this small town that is said to have remained quite unchanged since the 1850s when it was laid out. On this thoroughfare, you find everyone. They would either be lounging around in the cantina on a sultry noon, tinkering around its country store, or walking their single-eyed, slobbery Great Danes about town. And all around are the lush hills. The Catskills.
Towards the other end of town — to get to which we walked past a parish church in grey stone with red pipings and an old rectory — stood a few ramshackle trailers and houses worse for the wear. The creek gurgled alongside. Here there were no kids, just an old man fly fishing. It was a place drowsy with slumber. Wisps of cottonwood floating around us in the quiet of the noon beneath tall trees, acquiring an ethereal air in dappled sunshine. Wisps that clung together in batches of white fluff as they reached the ground. It was a moment of intense beauty that made time stand still. And I thought to myself, you can really ‘hold Infinity in the palm of your hand’.
My craziness scaled new heights when I found myself outside a rambling house. It was awfully dilapidated. Broken window panes, shards of glass, busts and figurines matted with dust and cobwebs in a dark shed, a trench in the grounds covered by grass as if to create a kind of a trap for the snoop who fancies a peep into its interiors. Just as I had finished playing the self-appointed prole of Ms. Meddle, and crossed the lane to get back to Adi and our friend who were by the creek, a window on the upper floor, translucent with grime, was thrown open.
Out of it emerged a head. A bespectacled man with a remarkably white head of hair and a bushy, long white beard. In an overtly bright yellow sweatshirt. We squinted at each other.
In a few minutes, the three of us were retracing our steps to the modest hubbub of the hamlet, leaving the house behind. I turned around a few times (curiosity always gets the better of me) for I could not fathom anyone living in that battered house. And every time I looked back, I caught the man pop back furtively. This happened more than a few times till an exasperated Adi asked me to put a lid on this strange obsession. That’s how we left Phoenicia behind, me wondering aloud if we had indeed sighted the last of the Great American Hobos in the heart of the Catskills.