Rides We Like: The Catskills Longest Day
(2015) Just once I would like to step back from my bike and hear sounds similar to a car after a long commute. It would be satisfying to hear the whisper-like hiss of parts cooling down. It would give me relief to hear metal parts clicking as they return to regular temperature. I would feel like I had put the bike through proper paces to hear some sort of exhaustion of a long trip. Instead I’m the one creaking afterwards. I’m the one hissing a bit but isn’t the person the engine on the bike?
This ride’s planning began at the beginning of summer. New roads were needed. New experiences were in high demand too. A long, long day with remote roads and a dosage of small town America were prioritized. Last summer I had taken the long way home through the Catskills and couldn’t stop asking myself why I had never put the bike on its roads. I put out a call and Mike – who rode the Nockamixon Century with me – responded with enthusiasm.
Our plan was straightforward: We would load up the car around four in the morning. We would depart soon after and be ready to roll at eight from out starting point in Grahamsville, NY. Our goal was to do it under eight hours. The idea was to stop every two hours for real food. This was an exciting adventure.
Sure enough we were close to our plan. We watched the sun rise while heading up the NY Thruway. We deviated west and rolled into the town of Grahamsville, specifically the historic part where the rolling hillside and white-steeple church made one feel as if Thornton Wilder used this place as Grover’s Corners. What lay ahead immediately was a thirteen- mile steady climb that would take us past campsites, waterfalls, and natural pools. Wildlife swirled around us.
A learned approach to this ride was my diligence at swiveling my head. After a tight neck disrupted my ability to look left or right at the end of the Nockamixon Century, I made sure to look around while riding. This allowed the trip to be even better. I viewed such beautiful rock formations, such dark and relaxing pine forests, and such steep rock slides. One could step off the road and disappear from the grid for as long as deemed necessary.
I understood how Washington Irving imagined these vast hollows as the setting for Rip van Winkle. It was understandable to feel as though I could climb off the bike, enter the woods, encounter a game of ninepin played by bearded ghosts, drink potion, and sleep through the Revolutionary War. Or perhaps I would return to my rusty bike years later and find that I had become a grand Dutch climber while sleeping for years but the world had moved on.
It felt like the world would move on. Most of the ride was out of cell phone range. If we ran into some sort of trouble, we would have to step back in time by knocking on a door and asking to borrow a phone. It would be tough to find a house that didn’t have sternly-worded signs adorning its postal box or exterior directing us to keep our distance. We rode through a middle-of-nowhere hamlet to zip past a Roman Catholic Church and its parishioners scurrying into the clapboard building for mass. Considering it was on the long downhill portion, we only caught a glimpse into these peoples’ lives. These are beautiful settings indeed.
I had consulted a local prior to the ride to oversee the route and let me know if anything was dangerous. He said it wasn’t, and he was right. We saw next to no cars for the entire day. The main thoroughfares provided a reprieve from our plunge into the woods. We would pop out of the wooded back roads for a few miles, only to return to them moments later. It was our sense of having one foot in modern America while also riding in nostalgia.
We experienced beautiful tiny towns that seem to be the hallmark of the Catskills. Towns like Phoenicia with musicians running to their churches, families hanging out on the hillock drinking coffee by Mama’s Boy Market and Café. This is where we saw the majority of cyclists on our route. Further towns with hometown feel included Margertville and Roscoe, the latter proclaimed trout fishing capital.
The route passed numerous waterways. We paralleled Esopus Creek and Roundout Creek, which dump into Roundout Reservoir and Ashokan Reservoir, respectively. We rode along the Pepacton Reservoir, one of the sources of the Delaware River. We exploded out of the woods again in the final miles and crossed a wide-open space of the Neversink Reservoir. We also crossed a closed steel-grated bridge in the hamlet of Harvard that had many people out playing in the east branch of the Delaware. We followed Dry Brook, Bush Kill, and Beaver Kill. Euphoric is not a strong enough word to express our feelings on this ride.
There were few steep pitches to wear down the legs. Instead the Catskills possess long ramps one can tackle with rhythm. The oft-experienced short and exhausting climbs were traded for those long efforts multiple miles in length. Even the hills were somehow enjoyable to a degree.
We rolled through quiet farmland and orchards with big and small barns. We felt as if we were riding along the floor of the Catskills. The hills jutted up in all directions making it easy to keep stretching the neck. These flat portions with no traffic gave us extra time to soak in the fact that miles were ticking away at a satisfactory rate. We passed through the 100-mile mark much faster than we did two weeks’ prior.
Fewer than fifteen miles to go the route hit its highest spot. Once we hit the contemporary version of the town of Neversink, the route plunged back to the car. The legs were firing with new vigor. We raced like a locomotive toward Grahamsville even though the road was a bit broken. Numerous dirt track cars occupied front lawns. There was a modified for sale if anyone is interested.
Despite riding through what felt like three town signs saying “Welcome to Grahamsville” we finished our ride by meeting our goal of finishing under eight hours. The view of the old church across the street was hard to beat. The cemetery behind the church with the mountain behind the cemetery created such a serene moment. Only a couple of cars passed through. We loaded up the car fully prepared to find out the world had carried on much longer without us. Perhaps we had been gone for several years like Rip van Winkle was.
We got our final dose of the Catskills a few miles out of town when a black bear cub ran in front of the car and scurried into the bushes. It was my first bear sighting of my life. It felt like we were gone for a lifetime when we ran into the back of traffic returning from upstate New York. It feels like the Catskills has that effect on people. If the roads near home are looking predictable, one should consider heading to the Catskills. They will give more than several new experiences in one outing.