From the Kingston Farmer’s Market to the Summit of Hunter Mountain

Ok, ok, so I promised a blog about all things Catskillian and I’ve been writing about hiking, hiking, and more hiking lately. Where’s all the food?

Sometimes the stars line up and writing about hiking and local food comes together. As I sit here on a steamy Friday night in July, sipping Whitecliff Winery’s un-oaked chardonnay (lovely but not as dry and complex as Millbrook’s), I am reflecting back upon the events of the week and eagerly anticipating what’s to come. This week I became a volunteer interpreter for the Hunter Mountain Fire Tower. What, you ask is a volunteer interpreter? Best analogy I can offer: the Catskills are the museum. The fire towers are the exhibit. I am the docent with the plastic nametag, extra copies of the brochures, and an insider’s beat on the info you might really need to know (e.g. where’s the bathroom and what’s the best restaurant around here for dinner).

I took a day off from my clinic job and hiked up Hunter Mountain in the rain with Gordon, the Chairman of the Hunter Mountain Fire Tower Volunteer Committee. That’s the kind of thing volunteers do. The hiking was hard – I don’t recommend hiking up ski trails, and especially not in the rain. It was supremely steep and slick like a greased pig. We searched for the old Shanty Hollow Trail – the trail that predates the ski area built perhaps by the CCC. Some of the oldest trail markers, Gordon told me, were made of leather. I wanted to find one but no such luck.

Working hard keeps you warm, even in the rain. Gordon and I talked about search and rescue efforts, movies, our children, hiking, and of course our charge for the day: the fire tower. I did not promote my books or talk about my fascination with the idea that fire towers could hold fire much like water towers hold water. It was Gordon’s day and he shared with me his memories of the mountain and of his father, an 83 year old hiker with personal history entwined with this tower. When we made it to the cabin, Gordon showed me a photograph of his dad and friends, back in the 1940s, up at the tower. He also showed me a photo of himself, nine years old, up here with his brothers and his dad. I got it; this mountain is Gordon’s mountain, the cabin is Gordon’s cabin and the tower is his tower. It may also be many other people’s, deeply, romantically etched in memories and photos, but in some way that I grasp because Hook Mountain is mine, Hunter is his. It is his childhood mountain, his family’s mountain. I suddenly feel the intimacy of the cabin in a whole new way, and with it a wave of respect for men I will never meet – his dad, but also all the other dads and husbands – the generations of observers who lived here and watched for fires protecting the forest and the families living within it.

It is a chilly rain up top, and I am soaked to the skin. The breeze is welcome in the stuffy cabin but almost painful. I shed my nasty polypro shirt and don a wool t-shirt and fleece pullover. I’m hungry. Lunch is a sandwich: Bread Alone harvest grain bread, spread with Acorn Hill goat milk ricotta, Veritas Farm snipped parsley, and roasted red peppers from a jar. The Kingston Farmer’s Market has followed me up this mountain and fed me while I adjust to my new role.

It is July, but Gordon builds a fire in the pot-bellied stove and I find myself shivering and standing close. I take in as much as I can (“Same key for both padlocks,” “Don’t sleep on the top bunk; that’s where the roof leaks,” “Don’t let Korean hiking groups make soup inside the cabin”) but my mind is full of writer’s retreat visions and my heart is full of childhood dreams come true. I need to start moving again soon; or I need to stay here and take off all my wet clothes and get really warm and dry. My boots are sodden. We get moving.

We walk the loop, which involves losing and regaining 240 feet of elevation. The trail is gorgeous, rocky and dramatic, and we are in a cloud. Spider webs everywhere are bejeweled with tiny droplets and I am ducking and dodging their itchy tickle. We do not see the resident snowshoe hare, nor do we hear ravens – perhaps the rain has sent them packing. We check out the view ledge where I should take people who cannot climb the tower; we can’t see 20 feet in front of us. We are in a cloud.

I will be doing my interpretations the first weekend of August, September and October this year. If all goes well, I will continue to hike up Hunter to hole up in the cabin with my husband and my dogs and experience life at 4040′ elevation for a day or two every so often. I can’t believe the stars have lined up to place this opportunity in my lap. Check back to hear about how it all pans out!

And yeah, I guess I still owe you all a food post…

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