I’m officially living in the New York metro area (and, er, starting to look for an apartment in Brooklyn or so, wish me luck! Share secrets!) and it’s been very good so far and feels like an exciting and productive move on my end. In some ways, I didn’t choose to live in upstate New York (thanks, love) and I never liked the Albany area much, despite the two wonderful friends I had there, genuine love and appreciation for the works of William Kennedy and William Kennedy himself, and the New York State Writers Institute, which is a goddamm treasure. (Here is a challenge: try making friends when you work at home and are too old for college stuff but too young for baby stuff and hate jam bands, very sensitive folk music by Woodstock natives, 90s bands - Spin Doctors, 311, Third Eye Blind, they live! - and 90s cover bands and live upstate. It is hard. The friends I had I mostly had met before moving.) I mostly liked its proximity to other places in New York and Massachusetts: Saratoga, Williamstown, Great Barrington, Hudson, Northampton if I felt ambitious.
Honestly, the smartest thing I did while living upstate was choosing to move 40 minutes south to Catskill, New York, which was in the upper corner of the Hudson Valley, with the Catskill Mountains (yes, kind of confusing) fifteen minutes away on one side and across the river, the fairly touristified Hudson, New York, which is its own strange ecosystem thanks to the presence of Manhattanites with country homes and proximity to Bard and Great Barrington/Berkshires stuff.
In Catskill, we lived down the street from where Thomas Cole lived. He was one of the leaders of the Hudson River School movement in painting. He painted the Catskills, Kaaterskill Falls, and the view from my house:
The sunsets in Catskill are amazing. There’s a valley between the mountains and the river. The moisture in the sky creates a lot of clouds most nights, and each sunset is a slow-mo reflection of light bending into impossible shades of orange and purple before hiding behind the hills. There’s a quality of light there that’s very difficult to capture well with just one photo: to get the real colors of the sunset, the land needs to be blacked out and in shadow, or vice versa. That’s why it was nice to look at Hudson River School paintings to say, wow, that’s where I lived! I don’t know much about painting but I think the act of underpainting made a difference in replicating the sunsets, prepping the canvas with a color like a strong blue or golden-tinged white so that bit of color could come through in the end product. (All I know about underpainting I learned from an insane BBC documentary on cinematographer Christopher Doyle, where he went to Hong Kong and watched women apply makeup and compared that all to an underpainting.)
We were in this beautiful, picture-perfect postcard of an area - on one hand, on the other hand the main street in Catskill is basically abandoned - but it was hard to replicate it through photographs or art, and I think it was an accident of the light. I’ve driven through Big Sur, an area so gorgeous that it makes the most committed amateur photographer appear to be Ansel Adams 2, and Catskill - and the Hudson Valley as a whole - is just as beautiful, but impossible to photograph well. A funny state of being. I miss being around that sort of reckless beauty, but I know what I’m getting in return is rich as well.
This was a fairly long intro to what I wanted to talk about, which was running in Catskill. I had thought that I hated running. It is a terrifically boring sport, and it does nothing for my psyche on a daily basis. But it is cheap and keeps me fit so I have to do it.
Running in Catskill was magical.
We had two routes: one across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, a 1.5 KM bridge that spanned the Hudson River, with views of Olana on one side and the Catskills on the other. When we would run by it early in the morning, the fog would still be on the river, spinning light through the farms and trees. We saw deer and foxes on our run. Birds chirped.
The other route was down a road that ran alongside the Hudson River. There would be abandoned haunted houses on the way, gorgeous mansions from the 1800s now chopped up into sad upstate apartments and in elegant disarray, houses topped off with Widow’s Walks, giant mansions with views of the river and mysterious tour buses parked in the driveway (our theory was that it was Natalie Merchant), and a house behind a large brick fence that had elaborate gates with the family crest painted on it and lions topping each corner - for the last, of course, when we ran by there the first time we made tasteless jokes about how this house could’ve been an inspiration for Stieg Larsson. Each time we ran it was like running in a V, with a steep downslope and a satisfying upslope, the sort of path that leaves your calves aching and your thighs burning and it’s a wonderful feeling.
I don’t have those kind of paths to run right now. I have the Original Suburbs of America, the sort of landscape that renders running into something joyless and monotonous, passing the same charmless houses, the same erratic sidewalks, the same springy outdoor tracks at high schools, always an impossible quarter of a mile. The sort of route that argues for music (if you have any better-than-The Fall running music recommendations, I am all ears!) or a running buddy. In Catskill, I could wander.
But then again, I was also running across a bridge named after a fictional character who, running away from his nag of a wife, fell asleep for twenty years thanks to drink and missed the war; a good, sturdy metaphor for what it’s like to live in the country, sometimes.