Catskill Mountain House

Chapter 13


From "The Catskill Mountains And The Region Around" (1867) By Rev. Charles Rockwell
Willis Gaylord Clark.-His Sketch of the Mountains, the Road to them and Views from them.-Similar Sketches by Tyrone Power, N. P. Willis, Park Benjamin, Harriet Martineau, Mrs. Ellett, Dr. Murdoch, Bayard Taylor, and Rev. Dr. Cuyler.


You would scarcely think, arrived at Kaatskill Landing, on the Hudson, that, just before you nter the coach which conveys you to the mountain, any extraordinary prospect was about to open upon your vision. True, as when on the water, the great cloud Presence looms afar, yet there is a long level country between it and you ; and it is too early in the day to drink in the grandeur of the scene.

As you move along from the landing, by pleasant and quiet waters, and through scenes of pastoral tranquillity, you seern to be threading a road which leads through a peaceful and variegated plain. You lose the memory of the highlands and the river in the thought that you are taking a journey into a country as level as the lowliest land in Jersey. Sometimes the mountains, as you turn a point of the road, appear afar; but "are they clouds, or are they not?" By the mass, you shall hardly tell. Meantime, you are a plain-traveller, a quiet man. All at once you are wheeled upon a vernal theatre, some five or six miles in width, at whose extremity the bases of the Kaatskills 'gin to rise. How impressive the westering sunshine, sifting itself down the mighty ravines and hollows, and tinting the far-off summits with aerial light! How majestic yet soft the gradations from the ponderous grandeur of the formation; up, up to the giddy and delicate shadowings, which dimly veil and sanctify their tops, as "sacristies of nature," where the cedar rocks to the wind, and the screaming eagle snaps his mandibles, as he sweeps a circuit of miles with one full impulse of his glorious wing! Contrasting the roughness of the basis with the printed beauty of the iris-hued and skiey ultimatum, I could not but deem that the bard of "Thanatopsis " had well applied to the Kaatskills those happy lines wherein he apostrophizes the famous heights of Europe:

    Your peaks are beautiful, ye Apennines,
      In the soft light of your serenest skies
    From the broad highland region, dark with pines,
      Fair as the hills of paradise, ye rise I"

Be not too eager, as you take the first stage of the mountain, to look about you ; especially, be not anxious to look afar. Now and then, it is true, as the coach turns, you cannot choose but see a landscape to the south and east, farther off than you ever saw one before, broken up into a thousand vistas ; but look you at them with a sleepy, sidelong eye, to the end that you may finally receive from the Platform the full glory of the final view. In the meantime, there is enough directly about you to employ all your eyes, if you had the ocular endowments of an Argus. Huge rocks, that might have been sent from warring Titans, decked with moss, overhung with rugged shrubbery, and cooling the springs that trickle from beneath them, gloom beside the way; vast chasms, which your coach shall sometimes seem to overhang, yawn on the left ; the pine and cedar-scented air comes freely and sweetly from the brown bosom of the woods; until, one high ascent attained, a level for a while succeeds, and your smoking horses rest, while, with expanding nostril, you drink in the rarer and yet rarer air a stillness like the peace of Eden (broken only by the whisper of leaves, the faint chant of embowered birds, or the distant notes that come "mellowed and mingling from the vale below"), hangs at the portal of your ear. It is a time to be still, to be contemplative; to hear no voice but your own ejaculations, or those of one who will share and heighten your enjoyment, by partaking it in peace, and as one with you, yet alone.


Passing the ravine, where the immortal Rip Van Winkle played his game of nine-pins with the wizards of that neighborhood, and quaffed huge draughts of those bewildering flagons which made him sleep for years, I flung myself impatiently from the "quarter-deck " of the postillion whose place I had shared, and pushed gaily on, determined to pause not until my weary feet stood on the Platform. The road was smooth and good; the air refreshing and pure, beyond description. The lungs play there without an effort; it is a luxury to breathe. How holy was the stillness! Not a sound invaded the solemn air ; it was like inhaling the sanctity of the empyrean. The forest tops soon began to stir as with a mighty wind. I looked, and on both sides of the road there were trees whose branches had been broken, as if by the wings of some rushing tempest. It was the havoc of winter snows.


There is a wonderful deception in the approach to the Mountain House, which, when discovered, will strike the traveller with amazement. At one point of the road, where the mansion which is to terminate your pilgrimage heaves its white form in view (you have seen it from the river for nearly half a day), it seems not farther than a hundred rods, and hangs apparently on the verge of a stupendous crag over your head, the road turns again, it is out of sight, and the summits, near its locus in quo, are nearly three miles off. The effect is wonderful. The mountain is growing upon you.

I continued to ascend, slowly, but with patient steps, and with a flow of spirit which I cannot describe. Looking occasionally to the east, I saw a line of such particolored clouds (as then I deemed them), yellow, green and purple, silver-laced and violet-bordered, that it me-seemed I never viewed the like kaleidoscopic presentments. All this time, I wondered that I had seen no land for many a weary mile.

Hill after hill, mere ridges of the mountain, was attained; summit after summit surmounted ; and yet it seemed to me that the house was as far off as ever. Finally it appeared, and a-nigh; to me the "earth's one sanctuary." I reached it; and stood on the Platform.


Good Reader! expect me not to describe the indescribable. I feel now, while memory is busy in my brain, calling up that vision to my mind, much as I did when I leaned upon my staff before that omnipotent picture, and looked abroad upon its GOD-written magnitude. It was a vast and changeful, a majestic, an interminable landscape; a fairy, grand, and delicately-colored scene, with rivers for its lines of reflections; with highlands and the vales of States for its shadowings, and far-off mountains for its frame. Those parti-colored and varying clouds I fancied I had seen as I ascended, were but portions of the scene. All colors of the rainbow; all softness of harvest-field, and forest, and distant cities, and the towns that simply dotted the Hudson ; and far beyond where that noble river, diminished to a brooklet, rolled its waters, there opened mountain after mountain, vale after vale, State after State, heaved against the horizon, to the north-east and south, in impressive and sublime confusion; while still beyond, in undulating ridges, filled with all hues of light and shade, coquetting with the cloud, rolled the rock-ribbed and ancient frame of this dim diorama! As the sun went down, the houses and cities diminished to dots; the evening guns of the national anniversary came booming up from the valley of the Hudson; the bonfires blazed along the peaks of distant mountains, and from the suburbs of countless villages along the river; while in the dim twilight,

    "From coast to coast, and from town to town,
    You could see all the white sails gleaming down."

The steamboats, hastening to and fro, vomited their fires upon the air, and the circuit of unnumbered miles sent up its sights and sounds, from the region below, over which the vast shadows of the mountains were stealing.

Just before the sun dropped behind the west, his slant beams poured over the South Mountain and fell upon a wide sea of feathery clouds, which were sweeping midway along its form, obscuring the vale below. I sought an eminence in the neighborhood, and with the sun at my back, saw a giant form depicted in a misty halo on the clouds below. He was identified, insubstantial but extensive Shape! I stretched forth my hand, and the giant spectre waved his shadowy arm over the whole county of Dutchess, through the misty atmosphere; while just at his supernatural coat-tail, a shower of light played upon the highlands, verging toward West Point, on the river, which are to the eye, from the Mountain House, level slips of shore, that seem scarce so gross as knolls of the smallest size.

In discoursing of the territorial wonderments in question, which have been moulded by the hand of the ALMIGHTY, I cannot suppose that you who read my reveries will look with a compact, imaginative eye upon that which has forced its huge radius upon my own extended vision. I ask you, howbeit, to take my arm, and step forth with me from the piazza of the Mountain House. It is night. A few stars are peering from a dim azure field of western sky; the high-soaring breeze, the breath of heaven, makes a stilly music in the neighboring pines; the meek crest of Dian rolls along the blue depths of ether, tinting with silver lines the half dun, half fleecy clouds.

There is a bench near the verge of the Platform where, when you sit at evening, the hollow-sounding air comes up from the vast vale below, like the restless murmurs of the ocean.

Listen to those voiceful currents of air, traversing the vast profound! What a mighty circumference do they sweep! Over how many towns, and dwellings, and streams, and incommunicable woods! Murmurs of the dark sources and awakeners of sublime imagination swell from afar. You have thoughts of eternity and power here which shall haunt you evermore.

You can lie on your pillow at the Kaatskill House, and see the god of day look upon you from behind the pinnacles of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, hundreds of miles away. Noble prospect! As the great orb heaves up in ineffable grandeur, he seems rising from beneath you, and you fancy that you have attained an elevation where may be seen the motion of the world. No intervening land to limit the view, you seem suspended in mid-air, without one obstacle to check the eye. The scene is indescribable. The chequered and interminable vale, sprinkled with groves, and lakes, and towns, and streams; the mountains afar off, swelling tumultuously heavenward, like waves of the ocean, some incarnadined with radiance, others purpled in shade; all these, to use the language of an auctioneers advertisement, "are too tedious to mention, but may be seen on the premises." I know of but one picture which will give the reader an idea of this ethereal spot. It was the view which the angel Michael was polite enough, one summer morning, to point out to Adam, from the highest hill of Paradise.

    "His eye might there command wherever stood
    City of old or modern fame, the seat
    Of mightiest empire, from the destined walls
    Of Cambalu, seat of Cathaian Can,
    And Samarchand by Oxus, Temir's throne,
    To Paquin of Sinaean kings; and thence
    To Agra and Labor of Great Mogul
    Down to the golden Chersonese ; or where
    The Persian in Ecbatan sat, or since
    In Hispahan ; or where the Russian Ksar
    In Mosco : or the Sultan in Bizance,
    Turchestan-born ; nor could his eye not ken
    The empire of Negus to his utmost port,
    Ercoco; and the less maritime kings,
    Mombaza, and Quiloa, and Melind,
    And Sofala thought Ophir, to the realm
    Of Congo, and Angola farthest south;
    Or thence from Niger flood to Atlas mount,
    The kingdoms of Almansor, Fe. and Sus,
    Morocco, and Algiers, and Tremisen;
    On Europe thence, and where Rome was to sway
    The world; in spirit perhaps he also saw
    Rich Mexico, the seat of Montezume,
    (And Texas too, great HOUSTON'S seat-who knows?)
    And Cusco in Peru, the richer seat
    Of Atabalipa; and yet unspoiled
    Guiana, whose great city Geryon's sons
    Call El Dorado."

It looks to be a perilous enterprise to descend the Kaatskills. The wheels of the coach are shod with the preparation of iron slippers, which are essential to a bold up; and as you bowl and grate along, with wilderness chasms and a brawling stream mayhap on one hand, and horrid masses of stone seemingly ready to tumble upon you on the other; the far plain stretching like the sea beneath you, in the mists of the morning; your emotions are fidgetty. You are not afraid-not you, indeed! Catch you at such folly! No; but you wish most devoutly that you were some nine miles down, notwithstanding, and are looking eagerly for that consummation.

We paused just long enough at the base of the mountain to water the cattle and hear a bit of choice grammar from the landlord, a burly, big individual, " careless of the objective case," and studious of ease, in bags of towcloth (trowsers by courtesy), and a roundabout of the same material ; the knees of the unmentionables apparently greened by kneeling humbly at the lactiferous udder of his only cow, day by day. He addressed "the gentleman that driv' us down":

"Well, josh, I seen them rackets!"

"Wa'nt they almighty bright?" was the inquisitive reply.

This short colloquy had reference to a train of fireworks which were set off the evening before at the Mountain House; long, snaky trails of light, flashing in their zigzag course through the darkness. It was beautiful to see those fiery sentences, written fitfully on the sky, fading one by one, like some Hebrew character, some Nebuchadnezzar scroll, in the dark profound, and showing, as the rocket fell and faded, that beneath the lowest deep to which it descended, there was one yet lower still, to which it swept, "plumb-down, a shower of fire."

We presently rolled away, and were soon drawn up in front of the Hudson, at the landing.


Chapter 13 SKETCHES

Willis Gaylord Clark.-His Sketch of the Mountains, the Road to them and Views from them.-Similar Sketches by Tyrone Power, N. P. Willis, Park Benjamin, Harriet Martineau, Mrs. Ellett, Dr. Murdoch, Bayard Taylor, and Rev. Dr. Cuyler.


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