It was so easy for Mary Poppins. She sees a charming little chalk picture on the sidewalk, and quicker than you can say “a spoonful of sugar,” she’s jumped into the drawing and is strolling arm-in-arm with Bert through the countryside.
My own recent attempt to get to the heart of several works of art proved far more arduous. I’d come to Catskill, N.Y., a town about two hours north of Manhattan, to retrace the steps of the Hudson River School, the 19th-century movement of landscape artists who walked the mountains of this verdant slice of the Northeast in search of inspiration.
The people at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, a.k.a. Cedar Grove, the movement founder’s historic residence, have made the reasonable assumption that visitors would enjoy exploring the same places the artists did. So they’ve put together a guide to eight sites (more to come later this year), creating the Hudson River School Art Trail. Armed with that, and not a whole lot else, I found myself on a bright May day wandering the wilderness and channeling my inner artiste.
The first two stops on the trail, Cole’s Cedar Grove and Olana, the elaborate Persian-style mansion of painter and Cole student Frederic Church, was the most leisurely part of my day. I strolled their grounds, taking in the views perfumed with the heavy scent of lilacs. But with six more stops to go, I couldn’t dally too long.
Cole (1801-1848) would have used his own two feet to get to the next vantage point — or the next half-dozen, for that matter. Cedar Grove Executive Director Elizabeth Jacks said that he recorded his many rambles, sprinkling in declarations along the lines of “Merrily we walked the first eight miles.” While feeling sufficiently merry, I couldn’t see myself hoofing it that far — nor does the trail brochure encourage it. Off by car I went.
Arriving at the stop for Catskill Creek, I envied Cole. When he took in the view, he probably wasn’t standing at the side of a busy road, worried about ditching his car in the parking lot of an Italian restaurant. Only when you take a narrow view of the scene and focus on the tranquil water framed by trees does it begin to resemble his 1833 painting.
The intrusion of modern times is fitting, though. Cole took up both his paintbrush and his pen to decry the degradation of the Catskills’ natural beauty by the axe and the railroad. Today, his estate occupies a mere fraction of the original 100 acres. What’s left is now surrounded by heavily trafficked roads and other trappings of suburban development.
Beyond the creek stop, the centuries melt away as the trail climbs into the mountains. At the next point, I surveyed the view from the parking lot. The brochure said to look for Kaaterskill Clove, a gorge that was a popular subject for the Hudson River School. In the end, though, I wasn’t sure whether I was looking through the correct clearing in the trees at the correct intersection of hills.
Easier to pick out would be Kaaterskill Falls, a two-tiered 260-foot cascade that’s taller than Niagara Falls. To get to the trail head, I had to walk along a twisting highway with little to no shoulder. Given the challenge ahead of me (my guide at Cedar Grove had warned me about the slippery path to the falls), it would have been easy to stop before I began. Right off the road is a smaller feature called Bastion Falls, which would have been a fine place to fill my waterfall quota. But I pushed on.
The hike started up a steep and rocky incline before leveling off somewhat deeper into the woods. Hearing the constant rushing of water to my left, I expected the falls at every turn. Maybe that made them seem all the more majestic when I finally came upon them, although it’s hard to imagine how anyone could fail to be impressed.
Cole typically traveled with a sketchbook and would later paint the scene the way he thought it should look — improving, deleting, adding drama to the sky. In his 1826 depiction of Kaaterskill Falls, he chose to insert spectacular fall foliage, remove tourist infrastructure and add an anachronistic Native American. Other than editing out a few fellow hikers lolling about at the top of the falls, I wouldn’t have changed much.
The final three sites on the trail are clustered in the state-run North-South Lake campground. Suddenly, I was in a race against both the setting sun and the expiration of my day pass.
Already beginning to wilt, I was pleased that the next site involved just a short 250-foot walk from my car to a lakeside vantage point. There I found an interpretive sign with photos of several paintings to compare with the current scene. The pictures I took were greener and cheerier, though they lacked the two frolicking deer in Cole’s composition.
Farther into the campground, I set off on the longest hike yet, an approximately two-mile trek up a mountain to Sunset Rock, another favorite of the Hudson River painters. This is when I began to question the wisdom of going solo, and not only because of how often I slipped and nearly fell. My messenger bag felt as though it weighed a hundred pounds. Once again, I marveled at Cole, who toted a wooden folding chair on his rambles, in addition to a flute, roaming the woods like some painterly Pan.
But mostly, I worried about disappearing into the forest, my legacy a made-for-Lifetime movie. Imagine my relief when, approaching Sunset Rock, I saw a string of white flags floating above my head, carried along on the same wind as two female voices.
Those belonged to local residents Carla Shapiro and Dianne Landau. The flags turned out to be handwritten obituaries of the 9/11 victims that Shapiro had made 10 years before. Now she was taking 100 of them around to various places to film and photograph for an upcoming exhibition. “I schlep things everywhere, believe me,” Shapiro said. At once, my exertion seemed less taxing.
After feasting on the panoramic lake and valley views — and a granola bar — I retraced my steps down the mountain, then headed back up a different hill to the final site on the trail.
The state burned down the neglected, nearly 160-year-old Catskill Mountain House in the 1960s, but the view that drew presidents, painters and many others to the hotel remains. Paul Chilingerian and Anthony Amico of nearby Tannersville, N.Y., told me that the former hotel site is a favorite spot of theirs. They come here sometimes to play backgammon. Today they were just talking.
“It’s so peaceful,” declared Chilingerian, looking out over the valley. And it was. As peaceful as a painting.