Chapter 12 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life As a Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, New York: “If You Don’t Build It, They Won’t Come.”

It’s a sunny day in June of 2002. My father and I are standing in the backyard on Duffy’s Creek in Valley Stream, on the property he and my mother had sold to me and Trisha just a few months before. We’re standing next to wisteria vines that have been there longer than either one of us. We both agree that this yard, along the banks of this creek, sure is a wonderful little spot, and it still sure is. We were sure glad to have it then, and we still sure are. But on that sunny day nineteen years ago, I tell my father that Trisha and I still had a dream of someday owning a place with a couple of acres upstate. 

My parents both grew up in two-bedroom tenement apartments near Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens. To them, a 60’ x 100’ plot on Long Island, especially one with a creek in back of it, was more than anyone could ever reasonably ask for. My father looks at me quizzically, and then he asks a question, seemingly with no sarcasm or irony. Something that he really wanted to know: 

“What would you do with a couple of acres?”

I actually like it when people ask me questions that I’m not ready for, questions that catch me off guard. This is why I’m one of the millions of people who watch Jeopardy five days a week, despite recent attempts to ruin it.  It activates the brain’s turbo button. When I was a teacher, kids that asked left field questions were always my favorites. Gordon Lightfoot had a great line in an old chestnut called, “The House You Live In”: “Be known as a man who will always be candid on questions that do not relate.” 

To me, my father’s question on that sunny afternoon didn’t relate. It made no sense.  Why wouldn’t we want a couple of acres upstate? Why wouldn’t anybody? I was caught off guard, and it was clear from my “candid” answer that the idea itself was really nothing but an abstraction that carried in my head. I hadn’t really done a whole lot of critical thinking about it.  

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Walk around on it?”

He smiled his Francis smile and we moved on. 

Fast forward through lots of working-like-a-dog years, where one of my occasional rituals was spacing out at ten o’clock at night scrolling through pictures of houses for sale in or near Copake Falls on Zillow. I noticed after a while that some realtors were more adept than others at staging the houses and surrounding properties, making them seem better than they were. Often a lot better. We’d always do some drive-by reconnaissance while we were up for our week in Taconic State Park in the summer. Invariably, the houses we viewed in real-life looked like strange fever dream versions of the same houses for sale on Zillow. 

One time in the Early Aughts, I was drawn in by a listing for a cape cod in Wassaic, with the Webutuck Creek running through the property. One had to cross a short wooden bridge to get from the driveway to the house, which at the time I found  kind of quaint. The older version of me finds it kind of stupid. And why Wassaic? Well, Wassaic is thirty minutes down Route 22 from Copake Falls, and it’s also the last stop on the Metro North line. As a matter of fact, the second to last stop, Ten Mile River, was just a stone’s throw over the little creek from the cape cod. In fairness to us, we were never that serious about the idea that Trisha could commute five hours a day minimum to Manhattan or that I could just fall ass-backwards into a teaching job in the Webutuck Central Schools, but the idea of escaping from Long Island taxes can make you think crazy thoughts.

We took a hairpin downhill turn off Route 22 on our way up to our week in Copake Falls to check out the house. We noticed signs pointing to a place called the World Peace Society, which I learned about later, but I kept my eye out for monks out walking along the side of the road. I don’t want to disparage the house and the surrounding area too much, as it’s the center of somebody’s universe and the setting of somebody’s Christmas morning memories, but from our Long Island perspective, we were scared out of our wits, especially when we saw what looked like someone peeking out from behind a curtain in the shed in the backyard. It was our first lesson in “nothing is what it appears to be on Zillow,” and we had to relearn that one over and over every summer.

The house and property which would become Trisha’s Mountain first showed up on my radar when it was posted for sale in September of 2017, two years before we stepped foot on it. The seller’s agent happens to be a very successful local businesswoman, but when it came to online Zillow presentations, she didn’t appear to put much effort into it. Case in point, she neglected to include a picture of the huge, park-like backyard in the listing. Or the finished basement or the back porch with the sliding glass door for that matter. 

I had passed the house a hundred times in real life and never knew it had a fat acre of open space climbing a hill into ten-thousand acres of wilderness behind it. The pictures of the house made it look like an old stick of margarine on a hill with nice hardwood floors. I said to myself, “Trisha wouldn’t like this,” and I didn’t bother showing it to her. 

Two years later, August of 2019, a listing right in the heart of downtown Copake Falls, with a kitchen that made us both drool like Mookie waiting on a Milk Bone, propelled us into the market. We had an upstate lawyer lined up and were working with an agent who could make a doghouse look like the Taj Mahal. 

There were many things to like about this particular house, and we’d passed it enough times not to be surprised by anything around it. But red flags were popping up everywhere. A guy who is notorious for renting slum properties all over Columbia County owned at least one of the houses across the street, which for some now-unfathomable reason we didn’t necessarily view as a deal breaker. The long-time owner ran a home junkyard business, and the guy who was trying to flip it had not gotten around to removing a half-century’s worth of crap in the falling-down garage and the falling-down shed. Still, the real estate agent knew she had us swimming around the hook. We’ve since incorporated one of her best lines into an inside joke: “It’s a nail biter!”

An engineer’s report full of more and bigger red flags, including the discovery that the charming red tin roof had been slapped on top of a decaying slate roof, and the further discovery that the house had been built on the foundation of an original pre-Civil War Copake Falls house that burned down in the 1950’s, somehow was still not enough to make us walk away from the “nail biter.”  

On the night before we planned to take one more walk through the house and make a significantly reduced offer, we had dinner at the Taconic Wayside Inn, just up the road. The “TI”, as it’s known to the locals, is a beautiful old restaurant and tavern, established in 1857 and famous for being a place where Babe Ruth and his friends could hang out for a couple of days and get comfortably shitfaced in the 1930’s. Legend has it that he would organize friendly games with the locals in the ballfield next door, now home to Copake Falls’ largest, and only, garden apartment complex, and that one time he was joined by Lou Gehrig. So the Babe knew that Copake Falls was a great place to hide long before we did. 

Another little red flag was that the TI was for sale, and still is as far as I know. It could be yours for a cool $750,000. You wouldn’t think that somebody investing that kind of money in Copake Falls would not let the TI turn into a dive, but then again. More than likely it will be scooped up in the course of time by Berkshire Hipsters and turned into something trendy and expensive. There’s was a restaurant at the base of the Catamount Ski Mountain for forty years called The Swiss Hutte. They had a billboard on Route 23 with a smiling European couple inviting you to dine there. We never did get the chance to take them up on it, but the existence of the billboard and the Tudor-style sign at the top of the Catamount road was always a quirky comfort. 

Last year, The smiling European couple retired, and the Hipsters that bought it recently changed the name to “The Cat Lodge”. 

No strudel for you! 

Meanwhile, we had a dinner at the TI that couldn’t be beat, happily enjoying the surroundings that haven’t become something else yet. We told the waitress, who knew lots of people we knew, that we were probably buying the house for sale down the road, and she thought that was wonderful. Meanwhile outside, a ferocious summer thunderstorm was raging. Rain and hail were pummeling Route 344. We waited it out then made our way back to the cabin, not realizing it would be the second-to-last night of our last week-long stay at good old Taconic State Park. 

As all people who grow up Irish-Catholic are, we’re convinced that we’re assisted by the constant intercession of the souls of the departed, on whom, along with an army of saints and guardian angels and the Big Guy himself, we rely for help. So we’re pretty sure somebody up there pulled some strings to send down one or two inches of rain that night. The next morning we met our real estate agent over at the house, where the cozy little enclosed back porch smelled like a bathing suit used to swim in a farm pond then wrapped up in a wet towel and left unattended in a washing machine for several months. The floor squished sadly when we stepped inside. The pre-Civil-War cellar had a large puddle of water surrounding the oil tank. We decided that we had no choice but to stop biting our nails and move on. We were kind of bummed that it didn’t work out. 

But we’d gotten close, to the point where now we had an upstate real estate agent and an upstate lawyer. When the souls of the departed and all the angels in heaven interceded on our behalf yet again, and what would become Trisha’s Mountain went back on the market not three days later, they both said to themselves, independently of each other, “I oughta tell the Duffy’s about this.” The lawyer sent an email to me and the real estate agent called Trisha, possibly at the exact same time.

Freshly back on the creek, I checked the listing, and the pictures were pretty much the same pictures from 2017. But by this point Zillow had added aerial views of the property lines, and Google Earth was now a tap away on the rectangle. So now I knew that the house had its own park out back, bordered to the east by Taconic State Park, which in turn is bordered by Mt. Washington State Forest in Massachusetts. Five miles of mostly unbroken wilderness from the backyard all the way east to Sheffield, where I got my first cup of Berkshire cahffee almost thirty years before. 

To the south the property looked over nine and a half acres of cornfield and distant mountain views under a great big sky. This time I showed the Zillow listing to Trisha, and she showed it back to me. 

We took a Saturday in September to make the drive back up to Copake Falls that I’ve made about thirty times since, both to meet our agent at the house, and to have an audience with the seller’s agent that I might fashion into a one-act play someday. Trust me on that one. Over the next month, we went through our due diligence, a much more optimistic engineer’s report, valuing the “comps” and all that stuff, but we had pretty much made up our minds to buy it the second we got out of the car. 

The house was owned by the family that owns the local tree farm, which holds huge tracts of land all over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. One of their holdings is the former Orphan Farm, which starts across the road at our mailbox, and where the Colorado Blue Spruce tree in your backyard might come from. The story was that they had bought the stick of margarine with the nice hardwood floors as housing for a family of their workers, then decided for whatever reason (perhaps that it was 50 years old and in the early stages of falling down) that they didn’t want it after all. But they weren’t budging on the price, and we knew we’d have to pour a lot of money into it, so we weren’t budging either. We got the sense that negotiations between the real estate agents were getting personal, and our initial offer was declined with no explanation. 

It was our upstate lawyer, who also serves as town judge and often as town bullshit detector on Facebook, who cleaned up the mess. During a prep period at work one day in November, three minutes before a class, hiding in the back of the auditorium, I listened to her voice mail informing me that we had a deal to buy the property “as is.“ 

I let out a big, private “whoop!” and went back to work, my last trip around the sun as a middle school English teacher, trying to keep as much of my brain as possible in Ozone Park as my spirit floated up on that hill behind the house. I kept thinking about Kramer, when George asked him if he were really going to California: “Up here? (pointing to his head) I’m already gone!” I entertained myself by making up little songs about it while Mookie and I took our South Valley Stream evening walks. 

He was born in the summer of his 57th year.

Comin’ home to a place he’d often been before.

He left Valley Stream behind him,

Might say he was born again,

Found the lockbox by the new glass siding door.

When he first came to the mountains

He was walking with his dog 

Past a house suffering with mold.

But the deal’s already broken

And his lawyer wrote a note

There’s a house for sale on North Mountain Road.

And the Copake Falls, North Mountain high

There ain’t no sounds of jet planes in the sky

The weed store’s in Great Barrington 

And the Rail Trail runs nearbyyyyyy

North Mountain High, Columbia County

North Mountain High, Columbia County…

There are three more verses, but you get the idea. We were pretty psyched about the whole thing. The closing was scheduled for five days before Christmas. We were very happy to have heat in the sub-zero wind chills surrounding our rental cabin at Taconic State Park, then very disappointed to find out that the boiler wasn’t working on North Mountain Road. Our lawyer had to explain to me that the legal term “as is” doesn’t include the lack of basic human necessities, like heat and water. That’s a good rule to have. At the closing that wasn’t, we talked about all sorts of escrow arrangements, then finally left it with get somebody in to fix the damn thing and we’ll see you when they do.

By the time we got back to Long Island, where the live Christmas tree we’d left standing had not spontaneously combusted and set fire to the house, someone had gone down to the basement on North Mountain Road and flipped the reset switch and the boiler hummed to life and the pipes didn’t freeze. So back we went the following Thursday, when it wasn’t quite so bone-chilling cold, to sign all the papers and finish the deal.

Thus began a six-month stretch wherein I drove the 236-mile round trip back and forth between Duffy’s Creek and Trisha’s Mountain at least 13 times, meeting a lot of guys in work vans and lugging up everything from ready-to-assemble furniture to a combination pool table / ping-pong table, which in itself was the fulfillment of a life-long dream. 

On March 8, 2020 we went to Sunday Mass at St. John’s in the Wilderness Episcopal Church, where as always, they welcomed us, just like they said they would on the sign. We all decided to refrain from shaking hands, as there was a virus going around. By the end of that week, the World Health Organization had declared that COVID-19 was a Pandemic. By the end of the following week, I walked out of the school where I’d spent 16 years for the last time. 

Now that we were all working or going to school virtually, it occurred to me that we could pretty much live up on The Mountain, where the wi-fi flows like wine, except for three little sticking points: One would be relocating three pissed off cats. Another would be a lack of furniture. But the most important sticking point was that we were coming from an area where the virus was running rampant to a place where it was still mostly contained, which would make me Columbus and make the nice folks who work at the Hillsdale IGA and the Great Barrington Big Y the indigenous peoples. 

Apparently, many other people with second homes in Columbia and Berkshire Counties decided they didn’t really give a rat’s ass about the locals and came up anyway, and when they got there, they shopped brazenly and clogged up every outdoor amenity. This is why I have to be extra nice to the locals. I don’t want to be associated with the uncouth droves who are colonizing a place that we’ve been spiritually connected to for 22 years. When somebody mentions us in Columbia County, I want somebody else to say, “they’re all right.”

So stupid lucky as we are, we bought the house eleven weeks before the Pandemic hit New York. By the summer of 2020, hordes of yahoos who would otherwise be annoying each other in a shopping mall or a public pool somewhere in the greater New York Metropolitan Area were invading Taconic State Park and Bash Bish Falls just to get out of the house for a day, and suddenly everybody and his bitchy wife wanted to buy a house in Columbia County. 

The city of Hudson, a place where 23% of the population lives below the poverty line and many of the other 77% like to go antiquing and sip lattes at sidewalk cafes on Warren Street and pretend that those 23% don’t exist just around the corner, experienced the largest increase in population by percentage in the entire United States in 2020. According to the Albany Times-Union, “197 people moved to the Hudson area during the pandemic for every 100 who moved out — the largest increase in the country for a metro area in the nationwide analysis.” Furthermore, “while 412 people changed their address from New York City to Columbia County in 2019, the data shows a 204 percent increase in 2020, with 1,254 people moving there.”

Somebody even bought the house across the road from the slums of Copake Falls and started pouring money into it. Another nearby wreck where kids would do wheelies in ATV’s on the lawn all day, which we had nicknamed “The Mud People House”, got snapped up as well. 

Jesus H. Tap-Dancin’ Christ, as a friend of mine recently said. 

Meanwhile, we waited until the beginning of May before we started going up again. By that time, COVID had infiltrated Columbia and Berkshire Counties to a point where nothing would be my fault, which is always the most important thing of all to me. We navigated our way through all the obstacles that the pandemic threw at us. By the end of the summer, we had made amazing progress towards making The Mountain feel like home. There was furniture and pictures on the walls and air conditioning and color TV and 21st Century electricity and a roof and vinyl siding and everything.

So there I was on a September weekday morning, just me and my good friend Mookie, while Trisha and Jack went to work and school from different rooms 118 miles away on The Creek. I was very much both enjoying and feeling a little guilty about the fact that I wasn’t teaching in Ozone Park on a September weekday morning, but I’m getting over the guilt. When I told Trisha that 58-year-old people are generally not retired, she replied, “the smart ones are.” So there’s that. 

I was sitting on our brand-new La-Z-Boy reclining loveseat in the office, part of a matching set with the reclining sofa and the reclining chair in the living room, all of which, along with a comfy club chair, had taken eight weeks to deliver. Even though I was trying to write something that September morning, I wasn’t sitting at the desk in the office that I had hauled up and assembled the previous month, because while I manage to get things done, I’m ultimately lazy and weak, so reclining on a loveseat seemed easier than sitting upright at a desk. 

And because I was sitting on the loveseat, I was looking out the window at the cornfield rising up the hill. The cornfield is home to all sorts of birds and critters, so you never know who might fly by or emerge.  There’s a crest at the top of the hill that’s even to our backyard, but while the hill rolls gently down the yard it drops sharply in the cornfield, so that the bottom is actually about fifty feet lower in elevation than the front porch of the margarine stick. When you look out the window from the office, the cornfield seems like it’s almost at a forty-five-degree angle, and when you look at it from the porch, you’re floating above it.  

At the time when we bought the house, we had no idea who owned the cornfield, and it occurred to us that instead of looking out from the back porch at Washburn Mountain against a waving field of corn under a big sky, someday we could be looking at another McMansion like the one that stares down at us from behind the trees on the opposite side.  Or three. But the idea of somebody buying the cornfield and destroying it was something that we had convinced ourselves was not worth worrying about. It would have been like worrying about a deadly virus suddenly spreading rampant through the country, or like worrying that the population of Columbia County would suddenly increase by 204%. Crazy talk, yo. 

If we had given it a little thought, it would have been obvious who was growing the corn, and what kind of corn it was. My friend the electrician, my first guest on The Mountain in January of 2020, a lifelong resident of Ancramdale, NY and a prince of a man, who not only upgraded us to circuit breakers from little glasses fuses, but also pulled a yellowjacket hive out from under the front porch on his way out to the truck, explained to me that it was feed corn. When I asked him how he knew it was feed corn, he smiled and said, “I don’t know.”

Well, if it was feed corn, I had a pretty good idea who was it was feeding. Our cow neighbors live about three-quarters of a mile north, up, down, back up and around North Mountain Road, at Berkshire Valley Holsteins and the Elite Dairy of Copake Falls, perched on the prettiest hillside you ever did see, looking out over beautiful downtown Hillsdale, but close enough to drive farm equipment directly up to the cornfield, which explains the guy on the tractor that we saw out there in when we came back up in May. 

I had met these cows many times as they grazed behind fences along the road. I wave to them and yell “mornin’, ladies!!!!” as I drive by because I’m an idiot. The sight of black and white Holsteins grazing in a field is iconic in Columbia County. But the sight of the Brown Swiss cows of Elite Dairy is a rarity if you’re not in the Alps. They are beautiful creatures with big expressive eyes and ears that stick out almost perpendicular from their heads, making them look sort of like cartoon cows, hence Elsie the Bordon Cow (who, incidentally, came from Wassaic). Elite Dairy happens to be one of the leading breeders of Swiss Brown cattle in the country, home of cutting-edge genetics, according to their sign, and they have all sorts of awards to show for it. 

So I was very happy that a successful farm was using the field to grow corn, and there was no reason to think that they wouldn’t keep growing it for years and years. And as we settled into our alternate life up on The Mountain, we began to realize how integral the cornfield was to the whole gestalt of the place. Looking towards the south to southwest from our yard, Washburn Mountain stands looking back at us across a wide-open sweep of corn during the growing season, and a wide-open sweep of nothing the rest of the year. In the background are the tops of mountains stretching all the way to the Catskills, which are thirty or forty country miles and a big river away. 

And that’s the view I was enjoying from the office window on the quiet September morning when I got the helpful “FYI” message on my rectangle  from Bob at the Depot Deli with a link to a Zillow posting of 6.4 acres of undeveloped land for sale on North Mountain Road.

A little aside. Trisha and I have defined roles in the business of sustaining our little family. For example, I do most of the hunting and gathering at the King Kullen (or the Hillsdale IGA or the Berkshire Co-op or sometimes the Great Barrington Big Y, which is the most beautiful supermarket I’ve ever seen). I also do a fair amount of cooking and cleaning and yard work. I do these things happily and willingly to avoid having anything to do with finance, insurance or taxes. I knew we had something of a nest egg left over after having made The Mountain into a second home. At the moment I opened that message, I had no idea exactly how much it was, but I knew my not knowing was probably for the best. 

So when I saw the Zillow listing, I said “shit.” And I looked out the window and I saw three big, stupid Modern Colonials set on three big, stupid swatches of heavily fertilized grass. (Turns out there could only be two, as the Zoning Board of Copake Town – where The Land of Rural Charm will be maintained as such or it’ll be somebody’s ass – was smart enough to change minimum residential use requirements on North Mountain Road from two to three acres sometime after the stick of margarine on the hill was built in 1970. But still). 

I saw the painful deaths of hundreds of displaced living things and I heard two years of construction noise followed by unrepentant assholes from Long Island driving up long, stupid driveways in white SUV’s, setting up DJ equipment and setting off fireworks. And I said, “shit” again. 

And then I said to myself what I always say to myself. It probably won’t be as bad as you think. And then I said, “shit” again and I sent a message to Trisha with a link to the Zillow ad. 

There are lots and lots of things that I love about my wife. One of those things is that she is very in touch with her own emotions and she’s not hesitant to say what she’s feeling. In contrast, I’ve spent the better part of my life denying my emotions, as I’m convinced they’re just trying to mess with my head. When we first got together, she had to train me to be less of a wiseass and keep my cheap shots to myself. She would simply say, “that was hurtful,” and I would have no choice but to agree, apologize and shut up for a while. In that regard, she’s made me a better person. I even have to work harder at being funny, although she’s still funnier.

She found nothing amusing about the cornfield being for sale. She was not interested in hearing my, “well, we knew this might happen” nonsense at that moment. 

She simply texted, “that makes me very sad.”

It made me very sad, too. But I was too cool to say it out loud, which is why I’m something of a lost cause. 

My reaction from there was to stare out the window some more and think ridiculous thoughts like there had to be a way to save it, just like in the movies, or something like that. While I sat around drafting impassioned letters in my head to the Copake Town Supervisor or the State Parks Department, Trisha checked the nest egg and she made a phone call. 

The man who answered the phone was somewhere in the suburbs of Boston. He and Trisha would go on to have many lovely phone conversations, especially after she offered to give him his asking price on the cornfield in cash. 

Turns out that the land had been in the man’s family for over a hundred years. His father had held onto it in case any of his kids wanted to stay in Copake Falls but none of them did. A gentleman’s agreement with the local dairy farmer to maintain and use the land in the meantime was passed down through the generations. Now his father was gone on and they were selling off a flaming hot commodity and dividing the profits divided among siblings. 

It further turns out that he didn’t actually own the whole cornfield, just a little over two-thirds of it, and the other three acres may or may not belong to the people whose house on Burdick Road is the only structure visible from our view across the cornfield. There are survey marks that designate the property border, but you can only see them in the winter, because corn.

As the deal progressed, we learned a few interesting tidbits about buying a big piece of undeveloped property adjacent to property one already owns. One thing we learned was that it would be a smart idea to get a perc test, which determines whether a site has the permeability to hold a septic system, and therefore determines whether the land can be built on. We might do that someday, but we didn’t do it before we bought the place, one because perc tests cost a lot of money and we’d just spent a lot of money, and two because the whole idea of buying it was to keep it from being developed. Personally, I figured that  if they built Kennedy Airport over a swamp, there would ultimately be a way to build a house or two on a 6.4-acre rolling hill in Columbia County. I’ve seen it done. 

We also learned that we could move our existing property line to encompass the entire 8.3 acres that we would now own, or we could just snip off a couple of acres as a buffer zone and sell the rest.

We actually got an offer on the property while we were still in contract. A nice man who was directed to us by the sellers wrote us a nice letter about how he and his wife were nice people who were looking for a nice piece of property on which to build a nice little house somewhere in the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley and he promised he would be a nice neighbor and we felt sorry for him because he really seemed like a nice guy and we had to say no fucking way. 

Meanwhile, Trisha was not in fact in the cornfield when she heard the voice, but she heard it loud and clear: “If you buy it, they can’t build it. And if they can’t build it, they won’t come, because you don’t want them.” The last thing she did before we officially pulled the trigger was to talk to the farmer, because the person who handles the money gets to talk to the farmer, the owner of the Elite Dairy Farm, one of Copake Falls’ most important citizens. As you might imagine, I was a little bit jealous of that. 

After a few lovely chats between Trisha and the farmer, we were assured that the cornfield would continue waving in the summer breeze and sustaining local wildlife for the foreseeable future. 

And the only problem remaining would be the nagging bug up my ass.

Because here’s the thing: I always had a secret wish to be a farmer. While it looks like hard work, not to mention the heartbreaking caprices of climate change, I always had a feeling that I would have been a happy farmer more than I was a happy teacher, and I wasn’t an unhappy teacher. Hell, I was already up way before dawn. At least I would’ve been outside, away from fluorescent lighting and amplified announcements. 

I know that I don’t have the temperament needed to raise animals and slaughter them. That would be way out of my league, though I seem to have no problem creating the mental separation when I’m cooking and eating the poor things. There are lots of other kinds of farmers. I could grow vegetables, or berries, or even sunflowers. When we first noticed tree farms all over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley, I was overtaken with just the notion that one could be a tree farmer in the first place. I told Trisha, “It’s perfect! They don’t stare into your eyes while you plan when to kill them, and you don’t have to check on them every day.” 

Now that I’ve seen the operation of a tree farm up close, I wouldn’t want to be a tree farmer. It looks backbreaking and complicated, not so much fun and lots and lots of tied up capital. And the Tree Farm didn’t want the cornfield, so they probably know something about it that we don’t know. 

So much for the apple orchard idea. 

I do know that planting corn on the same land every year has almost certainly degraded the soil on our land, and I’d reckon that not everything going down on our cornfield is necessarily organic, so we have to trust that our local famer with the stellar reputation is not going to harvest anything off that field that would poison his cows and just leave it at that for now. 

Still, if one wanted to grow anything else on our 6.4 acres, say a giant field of blueberries or strawberries, the land would need lots and lots of remediation, which would mean hiring guys with big machines and trucking in lots of organic matter, probably building a greenhouse, establishing a crop and preventing the local wildlife from eating all of it, never mind protecting that crop from insects and diseases, then figuring out a way to harvest it economically and finding a market for it. 

All while spending much of the time 118 miles away. 

Alas, Duff’s Berry Farm. A thrilling and completely impractical dream that would eat up every remaining cent we have. 

So much for being a farmer. When I cross the Whitestone for good, I could always work on somebody else’s farm. Then if I find I don’t like it, I could just say I ain’t gonna work there no more. 

Sometimes I ask myself, if this had all developed ten or fifteen years ago, would I have wanted to get off Long Island, give up my tenured teaching position and my cushy public pension and devote my life to berry farming? Would that have made me happier and more fulfilled? Sure. But I wouldn’t have, for the same reasons I won’t be doing it now. 

1) I’m too chicken shit. 

2) it’s not really my decision to make

Still. Nice dream, eh?

I have another one. There are upfront costs to this dream as well, but the benefits would last into eternity. Ultimately, my dream for the two-thirds of a cornfield, of which I only own half, a dream which I have shared with the person who owns the other half, is a wildflower meadow.

Of course! A wildflower meadow! You somethin’ of a bird guy, after all, ain’t ya? 

Yes, yes I am. 

The first thing we’d have to do is clear all bramble between our yard and the cornfield. Every weed that grows in Upstate New York is represented in the bramble, many of them invasive, sumac to wild grapevines to bittersweet to multiflora, to name but a few. I know a guy with a giant land clearing machine who would jump at the chance to take it all out. 

Of course, all the bunnies and groundhogs and catbirds and wild turkeys and every other living organism that calls this bramble home would be evicted, and I’m afraid there might even be casualties, but they have a whole damn protected wilderness to go to right up the hill, and while they’d probably come to the planning meetings holding signs and chanting slogans, they wouldn’t be able to stand in the way of progress. 

The cornfield does not have any irrigation. I did see a giant water truck there once. So the wildflower meadow that would start on the side of the house and stretch across 6.4 acres of  hillside would have to rely on the rain. 

Once the soil was remediated, I’d have to let it go fallow for a couple of years, while I grew even older, both to build up natural nutrients and to see what grows there naturally. Last year, I noticed large plants with yellow flowers coming up in April, which I determined was Bok Choy. I could have harvested some, but I’m a Boston lettuce guy. Some wildflowers would establish themselves, but one could create a rainbow of color by broadcasting a truckload of wildflower seed.

A feast for the birds, the butterflies, even the deer and the bunnies. Lots of wildflowers for everybody, with the mountains and the sun going down behind them. 

And to top it off, we bequeath it to adjacent Taconic State Park, who can then invite people to hike up to  “Trisha’s Mountain Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary” directly from the campground. After we’re dead, of course. While we’re here, stay the hell out of it.

Another nice dream, huh? But to fulfill it, we would have to spend a lot of money that we don’t have because we spent it keeping people out of the cornfield in the first place. Plus we would inconvenience the most famous cows in Copake Falls, and a lot of bunnies. And we love bunnies. 

It cost a nice chunk of change to keep the droves out of our cornfield. And we still don’t own the three acres furthest from our house, which could still be McMansionized. But anyone who wants to do anything besides grow feed corn for Brown Swiss Cows on our 6.4 acres has to come to us, and just like Shoeless Joe and the 1919 White Sox responded to Ty Cobb when he asked if he could play, we’ll tell ‘em to stick it.  

There is one guy who could conceivably negotiate a couple of acres out of us to build his Copake Falls dream house someday, but if he has any sense, he won’t want to live next door to his parents. Still, it’s his if he wants it. He can pay for the perc test.

We took a walk on snowshoes up there last February, me and him, on his 17th birthday. There was a good foot and a half of crunchy snow. Perfect snowshoe conditions. Like walking on frozen air. It was bone-chilling upstate cold but absolutely still and magically clear. Through my binoculars at the top of the hill, I could see John Burrough’s ancient peaks across the river in the Catskills. The setting sun turned all last year’s corn stalks into thousands of gold bars sticking up out of the snow. I felt blessed beyond belief. 

That’s another thing I love about my wife. If it’s broke, she makes sure it gets fixed. And if it isn’t broke, she doesn’t try to fix it. 

The bramble needs to be trimmed back a bit, but the cornfield is going nowhere, and that’s that. The farmer has a son, too. Farmland is disappearing in Columbia County all the time, and while the loss of 6.4 acres wouldn’t break the Elite Dairy, there’s no reason why they can’t keep farming it. Just because one owns land doesn’t mean one has start messing with it, nice thought the wildflower meadow would be. I’m slowly coming around to that realization.

So now that we have a couple of acres of land upstate, I have a definitive answer for my father’s question. 

Between May and September, whenever I get the chance, I watch corn grow on it. 

Between October and April, whenever I get the chance, I walk around on it.

Contentedly.

Copyright 2021 by John Duffy

Chapter 11 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life as a Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, New York: “Proof of Ownership or ‘My, I’m Glad I Saw That!'”

It never ends on Duffy’s Creek. I will but it doesn’t. There’s always something going on around this little crossroads of Man and Nature. The tidal flow is always moving even when it seems still. Things are always changing. Nothing is static. So whether by way of a permanent relocation to Trisha’s Mountain or by way of my untimely death, I’m forced to accept the fact that The Creek will go on without me someday.  

I’ve seen lots of places and people go on without me before, so I know it’ll be fine. And if I make it out of Valley Stream alive and spend the rest of my days on Trisha’s Mountain, so will I. 

Still. It’s a bitter pill. 

None of us is terribly important to the place around us, but we’re all terribly important to the place around us. 

So even if it isn’t true, part of me truly believes this place will go to hell without me. 

Case in point, if I hadn’t gotten back from my last stretch of time up on Trisha’s Mountain when I did, and if I hadn’t been sitting on the couch near the window, and if I hadn’t jumped into action when I heard the commotion, a duck may well have been viciously murdered in cold blood in South Valley Stream. 

And it wouldn’t have been the first. 

Early in our almost twenty year run here, back before we replaced the rotting deck with the wobbly patio, I woke one morning to the grisly discovery of  a decapitated green mallard head under the steps of the deck.

It was clear that the neighborhood stray cats had formed their own La Cosa Nostra, and they were warning me to stay out of their business.

Our current resident freak ducks. Three Mile Island is the crazy looking bastard in the middle.

 But those ducks are my ducks, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some furry thugs attack them. Or other ducks, for that matter. Currently there is a feral domestic duck, a compatriot of the idiot whose feathery ass would have been cat food without my intervention, a freak of nature whom we refer to as “Three Mile Island”, who has run every good, law-abiding mallard off the creek, and I’ve put him on notice for his churlish insolence.

This aggression will not stand, Duck.

Because I’m personally responsible for every one of God’s creatures that lives in and over my creek; the ducks, the swans, the geese, the pipers, the plovers, the yellowlegs, the gulls, the terns, the kingfishers, the cormorants, the swallows, the herons, the egrets (I have a few), the hawks, the ospreys, even the turtles and the peeping frogs and the muskrats and the bats and the little killies we used to catch in milk bottles tied to strings and the weird fish that come here to commit suicide every May. 

Oh yeah, and the Bald Eagle. 

All of them. My creek, my responsibility.  

But wait, you say: Didn’t you and Mrs. Duffy buy a house and a couple of acres up in the country? Weren’t you the guy who was going on and on in the introduction to this book (it’s a book?) about the 2% ratio of unrepentant assholes to the general population of the region surrounding your creek? Getting all snarky about the crumbling quality of life on Long Island?  Rhapsodizing about how life got so much more pleasant north of the Red Rooster as you drove up Route 22? All giddy about the bluebirds on the rail trail and the rainbow crosswalks in Great Barrington? Aren’t you planning on making that drive north in Lou the Subaru one way someday, possibly with a confused old dog and three pissed off old cats? Isn’t the plan to leave Duffy’s Creek behind forever?  

Yeah, that was me. And, yeah, that’s still the plan. 

But not today. 

As much as we’re drawn to the pull of the Mountain, and upstate in general, the thought of giving up The Creek kills us. Trisha has said, more than once, “I wish we could just take this creek and the gardens with us and leave the rest of Valley Stream.” 

I like that she says things like that out loud. 

Mind you, it’s the noise and the trash and the traffic and the taxes that would ultimately push us out. But, in the ultimate irony, even though it’s people who create the problems, 98% of the folks that I encounter down in the Valley are delightfully entertaining, most of the time unintentionally. Trisha and I enjoy critiquing their various walking styles as we watch them on the public path along the Left Bank. 

There’s just too many. And as much room as we have on The Mountain, there’s just no place to put a creek. Besides, you’d have to take Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, otherwise you’d have no water. 

The other problem is the creek doesn’t belong to us. We have a deed on a cornfield in Copake Falls, but we don’t own the creek. 

But then again, I sort of do.

And I know my wife and my son and my brothers and my sisters and my dead parents and my neighbors and even my dog wouldn’t mind me saying this: 

If it belongs to anyone, It belongs to me. 

To prove this assertion, it’s necessary for this narrative to become, as the most famous writer I ever bumped into on the street famously said, “unstuck in time.” 

I’m five years old, and I’ve discovered that you can walk behind twelve 60-foot-wide backyards and get to our backyard directly from behind the Sportsman’s Rendezvous Bar up on Mill Road. Blazing a little trail, pretending like I’m an Indian, innocently oblivious to the fact that the phrase “pretending like I’m an Indian” is highly offensive, I’m starting to notice the tides and the plants and the birds. Even my little pre-school mind’s eye can see that I live in a uniquely cool place compared to other neighborhoods around us. And my life here was born of dumb luck. My mother told my father that the only way she was moving from Astoria to Long Island was if they could buy a house on the water. I could have easily ended up on a canal in Freeport,  but a family by the name of Taylor that bought a brand-new house on a creek in South Valley Stream in 1950 suddenly decided it was too small in 1954, just as my parents were diving into the market.  

On my trail, I discover a sign, a road sign, except it’s on my creek, so it’s really a creek sign, a sign that years later I would regret not stealing. The sign is posted behind Mr. O’Neill’s backyard, warning boaters that exceeding 5 mph is a violation of a Nassau County Ordinance. A duplicate sign was attached to the footbridge over the creek, four backyards down from ours. 

Aerial photograph courtesy of Granard Associates / Frank Duffy

Way back then, you could still get under the bridge at Rosedale Road and get all the way out to the Jamaica Bay from our backyard, a fact that my father used as the launching point of a terrifying made-up bedtime story designed to keep us from taking the aluminum rowboat out for a spin when he wasn’t around.  Every once in a while people would cruise up the creek and pass by the backyard in motorboats, grinning and waving at us. To my little six-year-old boy perspective, they looked like they were having the time of their lives. 

I know my drunken high school friends were having the time of their lives when I said, “Sure! Go ahead! Take the boat out!” as I was hosting a giant party in the backyard during the summer between 11th and 12thgrade, as my poor parents relaxed obliviously up in the Adirondacks. My charming young peers decided to throw beer bottles into the backyard of a girl who lived down the creek on Brook Road, a sweetheart who never did anything to deserve either that or dying in the World Trade Center 31 Septembers later. My boating friends happily directed the responding policemen to the backyard party, where we all got off with a warning because we were all white kids, and it was the end of their shift. 

My father was a little put out when we gave the boat away.

When Jack and I take the kayaks out on the creek, people on the path and in the backyards have been known to whip out their phones and start filming us like we’re famous or like something important is happening. That’s how rare a boat on the creek is now. Being a teenager, this pisses him off no end. Being the old man who owns the creek, I’m delighted and amused. 

Unstuck again. I’m ten years old and the creek is frozen solid in wintertime, a condition that rarely happens anymore. When the tide goes in and out, it leaves sheets of ice along the banks, which are fun to jump up and down on and break like panes of glass. Ace the Fat Beagle and I go walking out on the ice, sliding our way down towards that pedestrian bridge, the spot that launched the dependency years of every stoner and alcoholic to emerge from Valley Stream South High School (the place that Trisha and I now refer to as  “Big Brick”). 

Years later, the bridge would be removed in the Mid-Aughts after a young would-be entrepreneur tried to charge kids a toll to get over it, which turned out to be not such a great business plan, as one of those kids stabbed him. After that, Big Brick and the Town of Hempstead closed the path at the end of the street and knocked the bridge down. 

But on that day in the Ice Age that was the 1970’s, it’s just an innocent boy and his fat dog with a whole frozen creek to themselves, happily walking on the ice. His parents, who probably should have discouraged this, have broken out the camera to preserve the moment forever, capturing a piece of their youngest child’s soul before he evolves from a cheerful little fellow into a snarly asshole teenager. 

I’m in 8th grade, 1977, a snarly asshole teenager amid a circle of straggly white kids surrounded in a cloud of smoke along the path to the bridge on a warm summer evening. A kid on the outside of the circle sees my parents coming, enjoying an evening walk around the creek with Ace the Fat Beagle, heading for the bridge.

He announces: “Duffy! I swear to God your parents are coming! And they’ve got the dog!” 

It’s bad enough they have to walk by a bunch of kids smoking weed, some of whom they surely recognize. I don’t have to be there. Not when I can vault over the fence behind the house of a neighbor who used to babysit me and take my Indian Trail behind four backyards back to temporary safety.

The danger having passed, I walk up the hill to the summer recreation program around the gym at Big Brick to find my scraggly peers. I thank the kid who tipped me off profusely, then I ask him with my best shit-eating grin what exactly he thought the dog was going to do to me. 

Meanwhile, you’d have thought I would have learned to stay out of that spot after that same neighbor had already ratted me for out smoking behind her backyard. It was never anything personal, of course. She was just doing her job as a neighbor. It’s what you’re supposed to do if you see your neighbor’s kid smoking behind your house. And bless her soul, she was my neighbor long enough to meet the baby I pushed in the stroller past the same spot 30 years later. When they removed the bridge and closed the path, she and the other neighbors who put up with the local punks all those years no doubt saw an exponential improvement in their quality of life. 

When Trisha and I bought the house, the guy who lived directly across the creek from us, who we’d often hear calling his dog Sam to “get over here!” and who thereby became known as “Sam’s Man”, was apparently either oblivious to or unconcerned by the fact that the humongous oak tree on the path next to his house was a popular meeting spot among the local kids, who made the mistake of getting too loud and picking a fight with a surviving veteran of Valley Stream delinquency. After my letter to the Hempstead Town Supervisor explaining the political risks of putting one’s name on a sign advertising one’s involvement in the “Mill Brook Park” that was choked with weeds and garbage and after-dark loiterers, the warning signs went up and the police patrols started. 

After Sam’s Man sold his house, the man who became known to us as “I’m Not Happy” (after I heard him utter those very words -plus one modifier for “happy”– while screaming at a cell phone) moved in with his big dogs and his deafening power tools and his big flood lights. And it only took the worst natural disaster in its history for the Town of Hempstead to turn the “Mill Brook Park” into a lovely and wildly popular little walking path, the virtues of which were extolled by a local hack in a guest Newsday column, a place where Trisha and I figure we have about a 10-15% chance of witnessing an intentional or unintentional crime someday from the comfort of our backyard while we’re critiquing the walkers.  

Unstuck again: I’m a 10th grade prisoner of Big Brick and its 9’o’clock on a school night. I’m staring into the bathroom mirror at one of the thousands of zits that has emerged on my face, maybe this time right square on the nose, maybe hanging off my bottom lip like sad clown makeup. The world will end before 4th period tomorrow because I have to walk around Big Brick looking like this. 

Out the open bathroom window in the cool spring darkness, this is what I hear:

“HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!”

Yes, it’s a mallard somewhere out in the night laughing at me. I was mocked mercilessly by ducks all throughout my childhood. After a while, I had no choice but to laugh at myself, and we’ve been laughing together, the mallards and me, for a good, long time. 

Now I’m in my twenties, stumbling my way through college and every other damn thing, living mostly off the grace of my parents, who had long gotten rid of all their other children. They had a big dining room table next to the picture window looking out at the creek, where they’d sit in the bathrobes on Sunday mornings and spread the Sunday New York Times on every available surface. It’s winter, and my parents want to know once and for all who those little diving ducks with the spiky black and white heads are, and so do I, Chan the Houseboy, who was probably out at some Saturday Night Hellhole until 4 a.m. and is just rolling foggily out of bed at 10 or 11.   

Hooded Mergansers and Northern Shovelers, our winter vacationers.

We dig up a field guide and we learn all about hooded mergansers, who have come to our creek for the winter. Who knows? Maybe they flew here from Lake Kushaqua in the Adirondacks. It’s possible. Doesn’t matter. On that quiet Sunday morning, Francis and Joan and I have a common purpose: Finding out what duck that is. It’s a nice, quiet little moment between the three of us in the midst of way too many noisy moments, and I feel like we’re starting to become friends, and the hierarchy is disappearing. 

And if you’re wondering why my parents never noticed the hooded mergansers on their creek every winter until they were retired, you never raised five kids on civil service salaries. 

Unstuck again.  I’m in my thirties, and I’ve just recently met the woman I’m going to marry. A pretty bit of luck, that. It’s a Saturday afternoon in November, and we’re hanging out in my little bird’s nest apartment overlooking a six-lane highway in Lynbrook. I suggest heading over to Ancona Pizza on Rockaway Avenue in the Valley. Then, since I ended up meeting her parents on our second date (if one doesn’t count stalking her at the Island Park Train Station between the first two dates) I say, “let’s go over and meet my parents.” 

And we do. We have a delightful little visit, and everyone likes everyone else. Trisha and I go out into the backyard. It’s dark and you can’t see the creek, but you can sense its presence.  We both know three things at that moment: 1) These nice old people we just ate pizza with are selling this house and moving out east 2) We have fallen silly in love and will be together forever. 3) Even in the dark, this house and this yard look like they’ve seen better days. 

While things are working themselves out, we do a little house shopping around Valley Stream and Lynbrook. We tour a horrible old house where we had to debate whether to call social services after we left, and several nice houses with teeny-tiny little postage stamp backyards and the house in back on the next street staring down on them in a constant surveillance operation, just like all my friends had in their backyards while I had a creek. 

Two years and a month later, December 1, 2001, my parents have left the creek. Mom was not in fact dragged kicking and screaming as she declared she would be. She was making the best of it, not yet sick enough that she couldn’t hold court with new friends at the Jefferson’s Ferry Lifecare Community, where all the old stories could be rebooted. 

Trisha and I are raking. She starts putting the leaves and yard debris into garbage bags. I say, “you don’t have to do that! Just throw it all down by the creek!” She looks at me like I’m crazy, one of thousands of times. It occurs to me that we have purchased waterfront property and there’s so much crap piled up and growing wild behind it that one can’t really see the water. 

Our Waterfront Property when you couldn’t really see the water.

The following summer, I rent a dumpster with money we don’t have and pull 50 years of scrub and thug vines out of earth that we don’t actually own, on the strip of land between the backyard and the creek that actually belongs to Nassau County, like they give a shit. Howard the Rock and Roll Tree Guy comes around with mighty trucks and implements of destruction and cuts down all the dangerously dying trees that my dear parents ignored. Keeping one corner for what we rationalized would be a compost pile, but which has since just become a mountain of crap, I use the logs from the cut trees, wire fencing from the Home Depot and many, many cubic yards of dirt delivered from 1-800-TOP SOIL, carted via wheelbarrow from a giant pile in the driveway, to create a bulkhead, which I then separate at the property line with a retro post and rail fence so I can lean on it like a cowboy. I stock the bulkhead, which I dub “The Wetlands”, with native shrubs and the Famous Leaning Cedar Tree (which didn’t wash away in a hundred-year hurricane ten years later because my brother remembered all the boy scout knots I could never be bothered learning and he saved it by lashing it to the post and rail fence after it was half-uprooted). 

And thus began the Duffy’s Creek Bird Sanctuary, registered with the National Wildlife Federation in 2002 with the little metal signs and a certificate to prove it. And thus began twenty years and counting of being the warden, keeping it clean on my patch. 

Unstuck in time again. I’ve reached my forties, set free to celebrate my inner nerd like nobody’s watching by the love and understanding of a beautiful wife. I have way too many bird feeders with way too much bird seed set up around the yard, and my work as a bird influencer has attracted over a hundred mallard followers, and likely a few rats. Among the mallards are always a group of larger, feral domestic ducks, most often white but sometimes looking like mallards that had been swimming around Three Mile Island when it melted down, hence the name of our current Problem Duck. 

I had heard the white ones called farm geese or pekin ducks. In the awful, racist communities of South Shore Long Island, of which Valley Stream was most certainly one in the 60’s and 70’s but maybe a little less so now while others got worse, it was supposed by some, by way of a bad joke, that these farm geese or pekin ducks were on the menu at local Chinese Restaurants. Plus, the ducks were tamer than mallards, so along my creek, people let them wander around their backyards and fed them and gave them cute names.

People say and do all sorts of dumb shit, even relatively smart ones.

Two of my neighbors, one from Berkeley, California and the other from Hong Kong, were concerned because two of the farm geese or pekin ducks that they had grown attached to had moved across Mill Road to the Pond, and the spillway would prevent the ducks from getting back. So they decided to go rescue them. When relating the story to me, my neighbor from Hong Kong told me that he was well aware of the optics of a Chinese man running across Mill Road carrying a duck with a pillowcase over its head. 

By the way, I’m pretty sure those two Farm Geese or Pekin Ducks flew right back to the pond. Thinking like a duck in that situation, I imagine I know why. Because fuck you, that’s why. 

One day in that same era, a wood duck showed up for lunch with the mallards. Wood ducks are one of the most beautiful creatures in the whole wide world. @ me. This encounter leads me to purchase a wood duck house and a ten-foot wooden poll and install it at low tide because I’d seen little wood ducks diving out of nests in trees on PBS Nature and I thought I could get in on that. I never saw another wood duck, and it was probably a year later when I removed what had in essence become a squirrel house and piled it with the garbage on the side of the shed. 

Sadly, these are not my wood ducks.

I like to think all of us learn and grow from these experiences. The beginning of my forties also coincided with my becoming a father, which thankfully left less time to plan dumbass ideas like installing a wood duck house. 

It’s July, when they set teachers free. After a morning walk, I’ve parked my perfect  sleeping baby boy in his stroller in a shady corner of the yard and pulled up a camp chair to sit next to him. In front of us are the red-twig dogwood and rosa rugosa shrubs I planted just a few years before, now the best little café in town for a pair of catbirds, my favorite songbirds. In a cloudless blue sky are terns taking turns gliding up and down the creek, hovering above us before diving spectacularly straight down to pick off some fishy lunch. 

My son Jack has picked up some things from me besides cursing and surliness. He knows those birds now, too. All the cool ones. The kingfisher that rattles as he dives from branches over the creek. The little sandpipers and plovers that pick at the mud at low tide. The egrets and herons that seem to know just how cool they are. The day somebody dumped a domestic Toulouse Goose in our driveway, I suppose thinking that the poor thing would just make its way back to the creek and live happily ever after, Jack was instrumental in helping me to corral it into a pen until the two most cheerful people I’ve ever met in my life came to rescue it and send it to a farm in Pennsylvania. 

Through the efforts of folks like these, I’ve learned that these domestic ducks really should be removed and relocated if possible. After exchanging a few messages with cheerful wildlife rescue experts about our Problem Duck, I’m told that they are waiting for someplace to put he and his co-conspirators, and not to worry, “your ducks are on my list.” 

You’ve got a Hall and Oates song playing in your head right now, don’t you. It’s all good. 

Actually, several factors besides the psychotic radioactive outlaw duck have combined to drive the mallards to breed elsewhere. Chief among them is that the reconstructed “Mill Brook Park” actually took out a whole lot of nesting sites among the phragmites, which we know by the name my father gave them: Woozy-woozies. Woozy-woozies are invasive, and the new plants along the path are all native. But try telling that to the mallards. They seem to have all said screw this place and flown down to North Woodmere park to find a decent place to lay some eggs. If we get two mating pairs of mallards in a summer now, it’s a lot.

There used to be hundreds of mallards on the creek in the winter, now at most there are dozens. In the early spring, you could observe the mallard mating ritual almost every day. This is when the male circles the female repeatedly while bopping his head up and down ridiculously until he gets the OK to climb on top of her. I used to see this a lot at the clubs back in the 80’s, too. Usually Depeche Mode would be playing. 

Bird Influencer meets followers, circa 2002.

By early summer, there’d be lots of mallard babies. Of course, ducks have lots of ducklings because many ducklings become lunch for hawks and snapping turtles and don’t get to grow up to have ducklings of their own. Circle of Life and all that. But I always got too emotionally involved with the whole thing. Counting four of them on a Tuesday after counting six on Monday was always kind of a buzzkill. Still, there’s nothing goddamn cuter than a duckling. 

We still get the hooded mergansers every winter, and they always make me happy. If we ever needed a Duffy’s Creek logo, it would be a hooded merganser. Just ‘cause they’re so damn cool. But we used to get a lot more winter ducks before we screwed up the climate; common mergansers, northern pintails, redheads, common goldeneye, green-winged teal. In the first weeks 2004, while we were waiting for a baby to be born, the whole Northeast was locked in a bone-chilling, sub-zero cold. Trisha and I were at the picture window picking off new ducks every weekend. This past winter, we had a pair of buffleheads in for a few weeks. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw them, but it was sure great having them here. 

Then there’s the mysterious ruddy duck. I thought he had finally found himself a girlfriend last winter when I saw a pair for the first time. But then a second male showed up, making three ruddy ducks. I figure one would have to become the third wheel in mating season. I remember that shit. But my ruddy duck always seemed to be living his best life regardless, often spending the whole summer here by himself, living among the mallards like he was in some sort of duck witness protection program. 

I can tell you that the oldest ruddy duck on record was 13 years and seven months old and my ruddy duck has been hanging around here for at least ten years. He’s not here this summer either because he finally went under the Rainbow Bridge or because Three Mile Island ran him off. But that’s part of the wonder of the creek. I might look out the back window tomorrow morning and see my ruddy duck swimming and diving around like he never left. 

Besides the Hoodies, one other bunch of regulars still come around, the northern shovelers that look like mallards with big beaks. They don’t laugh like mallards. They have tiny little quacks, if they speak at all while they’re here. They hang out with the mallards and the freak feral ducks, but they don’t get involved in their drama. They always look like they’re consciously trying to mind their own business. They float and they dive around on my creek for the winter, then they fly back to Ontario and Quebec, and they don’t need to explain anything to anyone. 

Nor do Henry and Henrietta, who also have to take some of the blame for the missing mallards, but they clearly don’t give a fuck about ducks. Technically, they are the great-great-great grandchildren of Henry and Henrietta. Those are the names that my mom gave to the mute swan pair that showed up on her creek one spring. Watching swans gliding down a creek while you sit in an Adirondack chair in your backyard is one of those experiences that led my father to say that living on Duffy’s Creek “was like being on vacation every day.”

If Mom knew that mute swans were bullies that push other species out of habitat, it wouldn’t have mattered because Henry and Henrietta were beautiful. And so are their ancestors who still grace our creek. I give them credit for running off the Canada Geese that took over for a couple of years. They were terrible neighbors, almost as bad as the people from Suffolk County who used to live next door. The swans don’t chase every mallard off the creek like Three Mile Island has been doing, but they kept a lot of real estate for themselves when they were breeding.  

This year, the swans are just hanging out. No nest, no cygnets wearing trumpets and blackboards around the neck or otherwise. The State DEC has been at war with mute swans for years, so maybe they were sterilized somehow or had their eggs addled, although you can’t miss a swan’s nest and there isn’t one this year. So even though its clearly psychological projection, I think it’s more likely that they are past their breeding years and just enjoying the creek. 

Traveling unstuck through years of waking up at quarter to five and slogging west on the Belt Parkway,  Ol’ Man Creek, he just kept rolling along. Whenever I could, I’d sit there and watch him flow, no matter what got in the way and which way the wind did blow. He scared the hell out of us in Hurricane Sandy and he grosses us out when algae blooms and droughts make him look and sometimes smell like an open sewer, but mostly he’s been a benevolent neighbor and friend, rising and falling with the tide, reflecting I’m Not Happy’s klieg lights at night, forever wild as the rest Valley Stream groaned under the weight of civilization. 

Although I currently have a first world problem regarding kayaks and the current condition of the water. The algae and the various unidentified crap floating about has been particularly bad this spring, despite the hack who told you in Newsday last fall that the water was getting cleaner since the path was renovated. Not quite yet and maybe not in my time, although it just smells like the creek and nothing worse. But I generally don’t feel great about paddling a boat in any water I’m not theoretically prepared to fall into, longshot though that is. 

My father contracted polio in the late 1950’s. He was probably saved by Jonas Salk’s vaccine. He theorized that he might have contracted the disease from swimming in the creek when he first bought the house in 1955. A local fellow used to swim in the creek all the time when I was a kid in the 70’s. As far as I know he lived and thrived and took showers. One way or another, it’s not a particularly dazzling experience to paddle a sit-in kayak through dirty water, although as the creek winds its way through backyards southwest of Big Brick, it is sort of like paddling through the bayou, except with people pointing cell phones at you.

As good as the creek gets for paddling. This doesn’t happen very often.

Meanwhile up north, there’s at least five beautiful lakes and ponds within a half hour of Trisha’s Mountain, two of which are New York State Parks that have boat rentals, but our boats are much nicer than theirs. With the exception of Hempstead Lake, where one can enjoy a stunning view of road rage incidents on the Southern State Parkway, the best paddling spots on Long Island are all an hour or more away in Suffolk County. Yes, Nassau County is surrounded by water, and yes we have paddled the South Shore Bays without incident, but the currents and the wind can get a little wacky on the open water. And when we’re out there, I spend a lot of crucial brain cells wondering where the hell people got the money for these houses and dreading a Long Island encounter with an unrepentant asshole on a jet ski. 

I like mountain lakes.  Ponds, too. Preferably with no motors allowed.

So, you say, why don’t you just take the kayaks with you when you go upstate? Well, The last time the kayaks went north on the top of Lou the Subaru was when the transmission exploded on the Adirondack Northway. (You can scare Trisha just by saying “Queensbury!”).  And while I don’t believe that this will happen again, the day when I haul the boats up through the wind tunnel of Interstate 684 and up Route 22 to The Mountain will be the end of having kayaks on Duffy’s Creek, ‘cause once I get them up there, they ain’t coming back. Currently I’m on pace to spend about 82% of this calendar year on Long Island, which statistically means more days when all the stars line up with the wind and the tide and we can bring the boats somewhere. Meanwhile, people at the State Parks are very nice even if their boats are not so much.

The inferior boats waiting to be rented at Lake Taghkanic State Park in Ancram.
Photo stolen from Trip Advisor without permission.

Again, this is all a first world problem so embarrassingly pretentious that I have no choice but to laugh at myself, just like the mallards taught me. But still. It would be nice if I didn’t have to think twice about paddling on my own creek, and nicer still if Nassau County hadn’t blocked me from another couple of miles of paddling through Hook Creek towards the bay. 

Then again, I also have to drive my Labrador Retriever 118 miles to get in a decent swim, and in between trips, he sits and stares at water that may as well be molten lava for all the good it does him. 

Yes, Duffy’s Creek is truly a wonderland of flora and fauna. But for our purposes, it’s become mostly decorative. 

I’ve returned to the present tense. I’m pushing sixty. I’m in week four of a longer than usual six-week Creek stretch before my next ten days up on The Mountain. Despite my advancing age, I’ve spent lots of my bottomless pot of free time out in the hot sun whipping the gardens into shape, cleaning and polishing two expensive kayaks that haven’t touched a body of water yet this year, painting a bench blue because I felt like it, training the Mandevilla to crawl up the giant decorative metal sun that I bought on Amazon to replace the smaller one that got old and broken, proudly admiring my purchase of a wonderful bit of kitsch that can be seen from the path on the Left Bank, and possibly from space. 

I’m sitting on the patio with Trisha and It’s a nice night to be here. “It just could not be better,” as Bob Murphy would say of a good night for a ballgame at Shea. The ferocious, ozone-laden heat of the day is abating. We wouldn’t be able to escape it even if we were on The Mountain. My rectangle tells me that it’s just as hot if not hotter up there. And as my father pointed out to me, the Atlantic breezes reach South Valley Stream about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. They never reach Copake Falls. 

The sun is setting, and while The Show is limited by our sea-level elevation and all the houses in the way, the sky is turning all sorts of deep funky purples and oranges and reds. The crazy perennials in the patio garden haven’t reached six feet high yet, so we’re still watching our fellow Streamers on the path over in “Mill Brook Park”, keeping a running commentary on their gaits and their wardrobe choices.  

Just like that, a bald eagle glides low along the creek right in front of us. More than likely the same bald eagle that Jack caught a picture of when he visited us the day before the last Presidential Inauguration. He (or she) is an absolutely majestic creature, and even though we worry that a bald eagle might steal territory from our old and dear friends the ospreys, there’s no denying the jaw-dropping beauty of those huge prehistoric wings silhouetted black against the setting sun.

A Bald Eagle on Duffy’s Creek, 1/19/21. Photo by John Francis Duffy.

Yup. My father would have told you that living on The Creek is like being on vacation every day. That’s a good line, and tough to beat. But in that moment, as a bald eagle cruises by like he owns the place and we both realize what we’ve just seen, I say something to Trisha that we’ve said to each other hundreds of times since we first read it to our son in a book by the weird and wonderful Margaret Wise Brown (of Goodnight Moon fame) called Sneakers the Seaside Cat. The story is about a cat that gets to spend a day exploring at the beach. Every time Sneakers sees something cool, she thinks a thought that I’ve thought tens of thousands of times while looking out on the creek, MY creek, where things are always changing with or without me. 

And I say this thought out loud to Trisha right before she would have likely said it to me. It’s the same thought that will sustain us both on the day when we’re dragged away, not kicking and screaming, ‘cause we have somewhere really nice to go to.

And it’s even the same thought I had right smack today in the here and now, when Trisha called me out from the air conditioning this afternoon to see a flock of thirty terns circling overhead, no doubt the distant relatives of those terns I watched while our perfect baby boy slept in his stroller, as all thoughts and all moments exist simultaneously.

Sneakers the Seaside Cat thought to herself, “my, I’m glad I saw that!” 

Copyright 2021 by John Duffy

All Rights Reserved

Chapter 10 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life as a Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, New York: “How I Spent My Winter Vacation, Part 2: ‘Real Feel’”

I was a student in the Valley Stream Public Schools for 13 years. The single best thing they ever did for me was when they took me off Long Island for a week and showed me an Upstate New York winter. 

It was the traditional trip to the Ashokan Center, the one my son didn’t get to take because the tradition ended sometime between my time in the Valley Stream schools and his time 41 years later. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say the lawyers and insurance consultants got involved. But in February of 1975, way back before they ruined everything, two schools worth of sixth graders were loaded on tour buses and transported to a big camp near the Ashokan Reservoir in Olivebridge, NY, smack in the middle of the Catskill Mountains and smack in the middle of winter. 

I was thinking about this trip when I was acclimating to the weather earlier this month up on Trisha’s Mountain. Embracing the cold, as my Buddhist friend likes to say. And Buddha, it was cold. The temperature only got above 30 degrees twice in 11 days, and then only briefly. It snowed on five of the days, and there was already two feet of snow on the ground when we got there. This of course didn’t stop Mookie from dragging me to the top of the backyard hill to sniff up every animal track immediately upon our arrival, which I expected. But he did keep looking back at me as if to ask why I, as God, had made this snow so deep and difficult for his little English Labrador Retriever legs to walk through. 

Meanwhile, there were two things I remember from that 6th grade Ashokan trip. 

One was the sheer exhilaration of flying through the air on a toboggan down a preposterously steep hill and whipping out across the frozen Esopus Creek, which is, coincidentally, the very same creek I was looking down on from a steep hill when I met Mookie in his breeder’s kitchen in nearby Saugerties 36 years later. 

That toboggan ride is one of the single favorite memories of my life, and I always thought it was interesting that Lois Lowery chose sledding down a hill as Jonas’ first transmitted memory of the real life he was missing out on in the novel The Giver, a book I read with a lot of kids that never got to ride a toboggan down a hill and across a frozen creek and likely never would. I fully endorsed the experience, though, if they ever did happen to get the chance. 

It was wild. When you hit the bottom of the hill, it was like being in a Hot Wheels car going through the speed booster, except you were propelled straight out across the ice instead of around the loop-de-loop. And don’t think that I don’t think of this image every Christmas Eve when George Bailey has to save his kid brother Harry. I’m gonna go out on a limb again here and say that the lawyers and the insurance consultants used that particular activity as Exhibit A when they finally put the kibosh on the sixth-grade trip. 

The other thing I remember was winter. 

I wanted to see if I could fill in some blanks about Ashokan, so I cast a net on Facebook and asked people who shared this experience what they remembered, and about 10 of them responded, God bless them. 

Apparently I made a broom and a candle holder when I was there, and possibly a fire poker. I would have made a little man out of pewter, but somebody’s husband had broken the machine years earlier. I thought I had put on snowshoes for the first time in my life up on Trisha’s Mountain, but I’m told that my first snowshoe hike was 46 years earlier than that. Who knew. 

One friend of mine, who went on to be a star pitcher on the Valley Stream South Falcons varsity baseball team, bravely recalled for us the memory of being such a homesick little wuss for the first two days of the trip that he required a full-scale intervention. As for myself, except for not wanting to poop in a public bathroom for the first two days, I don’t remember being homesick, but I probably missed TV, and Ace the beagle. 

Another friend checked in, a guy I’ve known since kindergarten. In the interest of sharing the little details of life’s rich pageant that never cease to amuse and astound, I must tell you that this particular friend of mine happens to be a world-famous strongman who’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for rolling 14 frying pans into burritos with his bare hands in under a minute. 

I pulled a couple of muscles in my ribcage opening the garage door last week. At the time, I thought my lung may have collapsed. 

Not only did my old friend, a sweet, good-natured family man who is known in strongman competition circles as “The Crusher”, remember that the guys who set the toboggans up were named Kevin and Doug, and that another counselor named Andy challenged all comers to ice skating races, he was also able to pull up all the amazing pictures you see in this post in less time than I could have found last year’s tax returns. 

The first pictures he posted were of us and our classmates, which were fun to see. Then he told me he had some other pictures, but they were of scenery rather than people. I asked him to send those pictures, too, and he did. You’d think I would have remembered that there were farm animals at the Ashokan Center, or that one of the counselors looked suspiciously like Richard Manuel of The Band, who had a place near the Ashokan Reservoir at the time. 

What I did remember clearly as soon as I saw the pictures was the landscape, and the rickety old buildings dotting the snow and the bare trees stretched out across that landscape. Poking around the Ashokan Center website today, it looks like most of those buildings have been torn down and replaced. My broom and my fire poker are long gone, physically and in my memory, but the images of the countryside in winter that my friend probably took to finish up a roll of Kodak Instamatic film before we got on the bus back home are a direct match of the images in my mind’s eye. 

I was eleven years old, and I was instantly charmed by winter in Upstate New York. 

Now you can plainly see from the picture at the top of the post that my parents did not cheat when it came to keeping us dressed for the weather. That coat was as warm as a womb. There was an entire sheep sewed into that lining. And only fools go upstate in February without a good wooly hat and gloves. The picture doesn’t show them, but I’m sure I was wearing the sturdiest pair of boys’ brown leather waterproof hiking boots that JC Penney had on display that November. And I’m sure I had on a pair of long johns, which I still wear in the winter, as I’m still what my students in Rockaway amicably described as “one bony-assed motherf@#$er.” 

It snows on Long Island, of course. Sometimes a lot. And the wind howls and the temperatures drop. And when it’s just a little too warm for snow, cold rain will come along and prick you with a million little needles. But in winter, it’s always just a smidge or so warmer in Valley Stream than it is in Copake Falls. The cold rain on Long Island is often snow in the Taconic-Berkshires. But the difference in what winter actually feels like in one place as compared to the other seems like more than a smidge, which we can define here as bigger than a tinge but smaller than a whit.

It feels like a different climate entirely. 

To see if there were any scientific data to back this up, I learned all about the Koppen Climate Classification System, something I’m positive that I was not taught in school, but I don’t remember making the broom, either. 

According to several sources, none of them Wikipedia, Duffy’s Creek is in a Cfa, a warm oceanic climate, also called a humid subtropical climate. Trisha’s Mountain is in a Dfb, a warm summer humid continental climate. Some maps put all of Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley in a Dfa, which is a hot summer continental climate. I can tell you that summers have been getting progressively hotter for twenty years in Copake Falls, which not only sucks, but would also suggest it’s probably well on its way to being classified as a Dfa climate. But the climate around New York City, which has always mostly sucked, is forever at the mercy of the Atlantic Ocean, so Cfa would be the more accurate classification. 

The difference between these climate classifications comes down to the number of days of sustained cold temperatures. It’s slightly colder upstate. There I proved it. Thank you Herr Koppen. 

But there’s way more to it than that. 

I have no scientific proof of this, and I’m too lazy to find any, but there are more days of stillness in upstate winter, more days when the wind isn’t blowing at all. While we get less snow and less deep cold on Long Island, it seems like the wind rarely takes a day off, and it accompanies every snow and rain event just to add to the misery. 

Up in the country, you can catch a stretch of days where even if it’s only 10 to 15 degrees in the afternoon, there’s no wind at all. When you put that together with a light falling snow or some blue sky, some clean, fresh mountain air and a foot or two of snowpack to muffle all the noise except for that satisfying crunch under your boots, you got yourself some magic weather.

On the first morning of our February vacation on the mountain, my rectangle informed me that Mookie and I would be greeted outside by six degrees Fahrenheit with a 10-15 mph wind, making the “real feel” (what your daddy called the wind chill) a robustly negative seven degrees. The sun thermometer on the back porch, which is more form than function, announced a Good Morning Copake Falls temperature of zero degrees. But while it stayed cold, the wind calmed down after the first couple of days, which was a beautiful thing, as Trisha’s Mountain has its own little microclimate, and in the warm months we suddenly get attacked by swirling 20 mph winds for no apparent reason. When it stops, its absence creates a loud silence. 

And since Mookie was working so hard to trudge up the hill through the snowpack in the yard and back down the hill through the adjacent cornfield, we did a lot of our walking along on the blessedly level Harlem Valley Rail Trail, where the snow had been already been snowshoed, cross-country skied and otherwise tamped down a bit. 

But even with all this evidence of human activity, a lot of time we had the whole thing to ourselves, which was both incredibly peaceful and a little bit frightening. First off, there was a lot of poop along the trail, and I know the good citizens of the Roe Jan Valley overwhelmingly clean up after their dogs, so it could have been anybody’s poop. It occurred to me that a couple of hungry bad ass coyotes or mountain lions could be somewhere up there in the woods, with one saying, “I’ll take the one with the fur, you take the tall duck.” 

And if we were a good ways up the trail and one of us suddenly pulled a hamstring or were otherwise unable to walk, the other would be pretty screwed. One scenario would involve a panicking, breathless 130 lb. man carrying a wriggling, confused 102 lb. dog and the other would be an equally confused dog searching frantically for someone with thumbs who can drive an Outback.

Plus of course, severe cold weather can kill you. There’s an extra risk in traveling in winter, as your troubles would be significantly more complex if you found yourself suddenly not traveling. And once you get where you’re going, there are also power outages to consider, which is why in a future chapter we’ll learn all about Generac. 

Add in the risk being further away from places you might need to get to in a hurry, hospitals in particular, through potentially pitch-dark, black-iced roads, and you could see why, just out of curiosity, I visited the website of an assisted living community across the border in Lenox, Mass. 

This was actually when I was in the kitchen on the mountain, warming up from the second time that day I had swept the snow off the entire driveway. In comparison to some of our fabulously wealthy neighbors with mile-long driveways further up the mountains on Breezy Hill Road, our driveway is nothing fancy. But it’s still over a hundred feet, mostly uphill. One of our neighbors owns a landscaping and plowing business and we’re all very happy that we met each other. But he only plows and sands the driveway if there’s more than three inches of accumulation. Not being a full-fledged country guy yet, I don’t have a snow blower, which meant that the “nuisance snow” (a term I learned from Albany TV News), which fell for four days in a row, had to be either shoveled or swept, then sanded by hand before it turned the driveway into an Olympic ski jump.

To paraphrase Steven Wright, it’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to sweep it.

When you sign up for upstate, winter owns you for four or five months out of every twelve. My darling wife, raised in a culture where people roasted in the sun on Point Lookout Beach four or five months a year, jokes that she has no idea what she was thinking. 

But we both know. For every challenge that upstate winter presents in a place with fewer people and more hills, it more than rewards the survivors by enveloping them in its charms, its peace, its oxygen and its stunning natural beauty. Crunching through the snow along the Rail Trail, my mind was clear and easy enough to float me all the way back to that week in Ashokan, when I first experienced a wide open, heaven-sized country landscape under a quiet falling snow, and a clear and silent 15-degree blue sky morning amid rolling hills lit up with twinkling crystals. 

Yes it can be bleak. Lots of cloudy days to get through. One of the first things I noticed at the house on Trisha’s Mountain this month was that, since we haven’t gotten up to putting color on the walls yet, both the inside and outside color palette was an endless loop of brown and white, broken up only by rows of red-twig dogwood on the tree farm and a few big evergreen trees visible from the windows. But winter never lasts forever, and that bleakness is what makes the greens and the yellows truly beautiful when they show up in April. 

All the houses in Copake Falls, and all through the Dfb climate, look very serious about their jobs in the winter. And you can see houses that you can’t ordinarily see though the leaf cover. I can’t describe light through leafless trees in winter any better than Warren Zevon did when he said it looked like “crucified thieves”, so I won’t even attempt it. 

The houses are working very hard to keep their owners warm. No lace curtains billowing in the windows and no whirligigs spinning on the front lawn. This is crunch time. Sometimes when I see or smell the fires from the chimneys of these hundred-and-fifty-year-old houses, I think of the people who settled places like this, who couldn’t crank the thermostat up, and for whom a fireplace could be the difference between life and death. 

But despite the lurking dangers of winter, Mookie and I got to live our best life out there in the sharp and cold, here and now air, crunching through the snow along the Rail Trail. If it’s peace and quiet and a Zen feeling of no time and no self that you’re after, a trail through upstate winter woods is the place to be, particularly if you don’t have to get to a job. 

On one of those clear mornings, we literally walked into a flock of bluebirds. At least twenty of them, dancing and singing through the trees on either side of us. This moment now lives alongside others in my life where I witnessed something so beautiful that I said to God, out loud, smiling, “you gotta be kidding me, man!” 

Though God has a sense of humor, when it comes to nature’s wonders, he’s dead ass. He arranged for a flock of bluebirds to come along and flitter through the trees that morning because he really thought that Mookie and I should see them, just like he arranged for a sunset to bathe the stalks of last years’ corn and the sweep of snow down the hill in an ethereal orange glow as my son and I snowshoed across the field late that afternoon. All we had to do was dress for it, and there it was. 

When people tell you not to waste your life away, they’ll sometimes tell you that we only get so many summers. Make hay while the sun shines and all that. Conversely, we only get so many winters. And because we needed all the oil and the plastic, winters are not what they were in 1975. I’d likely meet the bottom of the Esopus Creek if I took that toboggan ride today, and I’d need the Crusher to pull me out.  

So while it is a great time to enjoy the couch, catch up on books or naps or watch a little basketball, you’ve got to get out there and embrace the winter while it’s here, lean into its big shoulders, draw in its icy breath and let it embrace you back.

The day before we rolled down the sandy driveway on Trisha’s Mountain and back down to Duffy’s Creek, we got two inches of fresh snow upstate. But it was one of those occasional storms where Long Island gets a few more inches than Copake Falls. That snow stuck around for a few days, then started melting into patches. When the last patch started melting in the backyard on the creek, Mookie made sure to roll on his side and make a dog angel, and I made sure to crunch through it with my brown waterproof boots. 

It’s a long, hot summer, and we just needed a little more of that real feel before winter got away. 

Copyright 2021 by John Duffy

All Rights Reserved

Chapter 8 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life as a Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, New York: “A Good Little Hike”

The South Taconic Trail chops through miles and miles of deep woods, climbing the peaks of three mountains while rambling north and south through three towns in New York and one town in Massachusetts. Near the point at which those two states and Connecticut all stand on one foot, there’s a side trail along the Mighty South Taconic that scrambles up and down Mt. Frissell and leads to the far Mightier Appalachian Trail, which runs parallel at that point just a few miles to the east. Behind our backyard on Trisha’s Mountain is five and a half miles of unbroken wilderness to the east, stretching to the next cup of caahfee in Sheffield, Mass. This wild and pristine swath of the Earth is one of the Nature Conservancy’s designated Last Great Places, which lends to its no street cred. 

And it all smells fantastic.

Along a ridge on Trisha’s Mountain, which is really the southern descent of Sunset Rock Mountain, is a trail that’s only about a mile long, called either the Wood Thrush Trail or the Blue Trail, depending upon whom you ask. The Wood Thrush Trail sounds more like morning in the English countryside and The Blue Trail sounds more like a Cannonball Adderly record, so for these purposes I’m going with Wood Thrush. This humble and fabulous little trail starts at Sunset Rock Road, just off the high point of North Mountain Road, then provides a fine aerobic workout up and down a few hollows before easing down at the end into the camping area of Taconic State Park.

On the official New York State Parks South Taconic Trail Map, available for $6.95 at the park office, the Wood Thrush Trail appears to be within close proximity of the point at which our lawn meets the wilderness. I was very excited at this discovery. So much so that I bought a Fiskars 29-inch machete axe on Amazon for $40 with which I planned to bushwhack my own trail through the woods and up the mountain, thus connecting to the Wood Thrush Trail, which would connect me to Sunset Rock Road, which would connect me to the Sunset Rock Trail, where I could in turn access the South Taconic Trail, along which I could travel south past Bash Bish Falls, up and over Mt. Frissell and on to the Appalachian Trail, from where I would have my choice heading north to Mt. Kahtadin in Maine or south to Springer Mountain in Georgia.

It’s a cool looking axe, as you can see. I showed it to Trisha when Amazon delivered it and she said, in her best Karl Childers from the movie “Slingblade”: “I’d like to be baptized.”  That’s why I’m in love, boys. 

But ain’t nobody gonna be walking to Georgia from our backyard. 

Not that I didn’t try. It was in February of 2020. Six weeks after we bought our house in the country and three weeks before the criminal mismanagement of a coronavirus outbreak became a worldwide pandemic that broke everything and screwed everybody. A Buddhist friend from Long Island was doing us a huge favor (kindness and generosity being two of the five pillars of Buddhism) by following Jack, Mookie, Lou the Subaru and me up Route 22 in his van carrying stuff for the house, including two new toilets, obviously the most valuable of cargo, which would later be installed by a local plumber who plays Santa Claus at the Copake Town Christmas Parade every year and plays the organ at a local church every Sunday morning. 

Details like that are what makes life worth living. 

Being familiar with the area, my Buddhist friend stopped at Brewster Pastry, located in a grand city-state shopping plaza on a shining hill just south of the official upstate line at the Red Rooster, to procure for us the most delicious danish ring I have ever experienced. Due to family obligations, which evolved in the time that took him to drive the 36 miles of Interstate 684, it turned out that instead of crashing on an air mattress on the mountain, which was the original plan, he only had a few hours before he had to turn around and go back to Long Island. 

Patience and compassion are two more pillars of Buddhism. Plus he gets credit for the fifth one, wisdom, for knowing about Brewster Pastry. 

After we unloaded the toilets and other somewhat lesser valuables, and after a cup of coffee and a memorable danish, we decided to do a little reconnaissance on the Wood Thrush Trail. It was dry and cold under a powder blue winter sky, a perfect afternoon for a good little hike through the woods. 

To save time, we drove the three quarters of a mile uphill to the corner of North Mountain and Sunset Rock Road, which is a narrow dirt road that twists all the way through the wilderness from Copake Falls to Mt. Washington, Mass. The parking lot for the Sunset Rock Trail, which merges with the Mighty South Taconic, is about a mile straight uphill, but there is also a sign warning that the road is not maintained from November until March and I don’t think they’re just saying that.  

Having been either cruelly deluded by the South Taconic Trail Map or too stupid to comprehend its scale, I figured that we’d eventually be able to see at least the tops of the houses along North Mountain Road, of which we’d be looking for the seventh one. It seemed promising that the trail actually started within a stone’s throw of the road. 

As trails are hiked by humans, of course, they get a little wider and a little less wild over time, until they eventually become the Cross Island Parkway. It was clear that the Wood Thrush Trail, despite its frequent blue trail markers, was not as heavily traversed as the other local trails. It also became clear that, after one big dip, we were steadily gaining elevation, to the point where we could see the sky angling through the top of the mountain to our left. This meant that the houses that were down there somewhere to our right were hidden from view because of the extreme slope, except for the chimney and the very top of the great center hall colonial colossus next door to us. It was hard to judge the distance between us and the house, and it was of course, straight downhill. I had already figured out from the $6.95 trail map that there was a 400-foot elevation gain between the yard and the trail, which didn’t seem like a lot until one looked down. 

Meanwhile, not only did my Buddhist friend have a tight schedule that winter afternoon, but I also had an appointment to have a propane tank delivered and connected to the stove sometime after 2 p.m. by the good folks at Herrington’s. It was and is my first ever propane tank, so it was obviously a special moment for me. Before we headed back to the house, we took a look at our surroundings on the Wood Thrush Trail. The plan was to take a mental snapshot of sorts of the spot on the trail that seemed to be directly in back of the yard, then walk up from the yard, back into the woods and back up to the trail, which despite the brush would be a mostly possible in February but completely impossible in April without a machete axe and a pair of loppers at the very least, and would also more than likely end in a prolonged bout of Lyme disease. 

A quick stop for more danish and coffee and we were climbing the hill behind the house and stepping into the domain of the bears and the owls. I had already ventured into the woods one other time, the day we closed on the house. According to Zillow property line maps, which are almost uniformly useless, Trisha and I own some of these woods. The rest belongs to the People of the State of New York, so technically we own that, too. I had also seen on my trail map that a small stream ran through the woods not far from the edge of the yard. Some careful stepping and a few whacks with the machete got me to this stream, which, on that day at least, was not much more than a trickle of muddy water cutting through the rocky ground, easily bridged if one were blazing a trail to Maine. 

My Buddhist friend understands that life is suffering, but the fact was he only had one pair of shoes with him and he was looking at another three-hour drive. So while I pulled myself up the hill with a big walking stick, he took his time to avoid any serious mud. 

A few pertinent facts regarding the almost 58-year-old body to which my soul is tethered:

  1. It has spent the majority of its life on the South Shore of Long Island, where there are far more escalators than hills, and no matter how much time it’s spent upstate, it has never truly gotten used to climbing. 
  2. It picked up a 24-piece case of Redpack 28 oz. Whole Tomatoes in Aisle 3 of the North Woodmere Foodtown in October of 1981 without bending its knees first, walked a mile back home looking a human jackknife, and has had a pain in its lumbar region ever since.
  3. It was sideswiped and thrown to the ground by a large golden retriever in March of 1989, in a case of tragic miscommunication, resulting in several broken ribs on its right side.
  4. It fell from a chair that flipped from under it sometime in late summer of 2013 while it was stapling bulletin board paper over a white board in Room 111 of Middle School 202, banging its left leg off a desk on the way down, resulting in a cramping pain every time it tries to accelerate or walk uphill. 
  5. It smokes. 

But in my magical thinking world, I’m just as capable of blazing a trail up a mountain through the woods as anybody. All I have to do is switch into Little Engine That Could Mode and play through the pain. 

Remind me of that when this body has 68 years on it. Maybe I’ll still have a sense of humor about it, but you may find me a grave man. (Joke credit: William Shakespeare). 

I took the four-hundred-foot incline one step and one breath at a time, stopping every so often to avoid dropping dead of a heart attack. I kept calling down to my Buddhist friend that I was pretty sure I could see the path from where I was, but this was magical thinking as well. At the point where it became impossible to move forward without grabbing hold of the nearest small tree, I got the call on my rectangle from my soon to be new friend Paul from Herrington’s, who is just about everything you’d hope for in the guy that services your furnace and makes sure you don’t blow yourself up with propane. It was time to put this adventure to rest, and I still have no idea how close I got to the Wood Thrush Trail.

I took the Wood Thrush Trail again for a spectacularly good little hike in early May. I got past the point reached three months before with my Buddhist friend and I found a spot where a dry culvert ran straight down the mountain. Across that culvert, a mighty oak had fallen. So like the insects and fungi and other parasites that also took advantage of this tragedy, I found a great new place to sit down in the woods for a while and get some thinking done.

This accomplished, I turned around and headed back to Sunset Rock Road. While the sign marking the trailhead there clearly states “Campground 1 Mile”, and I have no idea how close I got to the campground, which I really didn’t want to get to anyway because it would mean a whole lot of uphill on the way back, it sure felt like I had walked over a mile.

One evening in August, Trisha and I were sitting in camp chairs on the front lawn, doing our Zen sunset thing, and a couple of guys came walking down the road from the direction of Sunset Rock. Figuring out that we were sitting out there just to watch the sunset, one of them asked if we do this every night. We told them every night we can. Then he told us that they were walking back to the campground after walking up the Blue Trail, believing it would be an easy mile, and that they could then walk from there up to the trail that goes to the rock, which, in the ultimate of ironies, closes at sunset. 

They didn’t make it to Sunset Rock, and they were now racing daylight to get down North Mountain and back to their campsite. But they stopped to chat from ten feet away. One of the guys said that the trail seemed a lot longer than a mile. I said that’s what I thought. 

So I checked it on Google Earth. 

It’s a mile. 

Maybe he also picked up a case of tomatoes when he was younger, or he got run over by a dog or decided to stand on a chair to staple bulletin board paper. Or maybe a mile through the woods is so full of sensory stimuli that it seems longer than it is. 

Or maybe it’s just that trail. 

The Sunset Rock Trail, which is a little over a mile round trip, does not seem as long when you’re hiking it. It could be because it changes so drastically in such a short time, or it could be because after not much effort at all you get to sit on a rock and look down over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley and out into the Catskills, infinity and beyond while you eat your peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 

I would have expected that a trail that leads to a rock with a million-dollar view would be a tough uphill climb, but most of the uphill is in the car on the seasonal dirt road to the parking lot. I sure enough feel the burn where my leg hit the desk on the one steep ascent, but my walking stick does most of the work. 

Once you level off on the Sunset Rock Trail, you’ve reached a new climate with a little dash of alpine.  Here you enter a clearing where there are smaller trees and bushes. There are big clumps of mountain laurel blooming in June and July. The air seems to improve suddenly. You’re at the turnoff where the Mighty South Taconic moves on north to its terminus at Catamount Ski Resort, and if you go that way by mistake, you’ll be back in the deep woods and you’ll miss the rock and your peanut butter and jelly sandwich. So don’t do that. Walk to the right.

If you go the right way, you pass through a wild place that looks like it was personally landscaped by God. It’s a tunnel created by high hardwoods on either side leading you through a path of ferns. One does have to be aware of mother#$%ing snakes up here, as they like to move towards the light when it starts to warm, and they like big sunny rocks as much as people do. And those particular Taconic-Berkshire mother#$%ing snakes just happen to be deadly rattlesnakes. 

I’ve never run into one, thank Jesus, but I keep them in the back of my mind, like my own impending death. But so far, I’ve evaded both. I’m told that rattlesnake encounters are relatively rare. Besides which, this one little stretch of trail seems so removed from civilization that you might just as likely run into gnomes and fairies, which, while they can enchant you, will not attack you with venomous poison. 

Still, I never let my guard down. 

The view from Sunset Rock just goes on and on and on, and under ideal conditions, it will make all your worries disappear and you will be born again. But there’s always the chance that a few of the droves have broken loose from the Bash Bish Trail and have wandered up to the rock, waiting to annoy you upon your arrival. A friend of mine who hiked the Mighty South Taconic all the way up from the campground to the rock one day ended up having to share the view with a group of people who just wouldn’t shut up, a situation he described perfectly as, “kind of a buzzkill, John Daniel.” 

Not to take anything away from the Bash Bish Trail. It is the Kingdom of the Droves and it always has been, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful place that, ultimately, people can’t ruin, although they have tried very, very hard. 

First Insider Tip on the Bash Bish Trail: Take a Monday or a Tuesday off from work. Or be prepared to share it with lots and lots of people on a Saturday or Sunday. Second Insider Tip: All Massachusetts State Parks are alcohol-free, by decree of Governor Michael Dukakis forty years ago. So if you happen to be working on a forty in a brown paper bag as you swagger along the trail, because that’s how you roll, you’re going to have to either finish it or pour it out on the state line. 

Third Insider Tip:  When you get to the falls, don’t even think about climbing up to the top and diving 200 feet down into the inviting pool of water below, because if you make it you’ll likely get arrested by the Mass Park Police, and if you’re anything like twenty-five reckless or inattentive people in the last century or the mythical Native American woman named Bash Bish with a lot of emotional baggage who didn’t make it, it will be the last thing you do.

Trisha would call this an “unchristian” thought, but it is kind of cool to live near one of the most dangerous tourist attractions in the world. More no street cred. And the thing I love about the falls most of all is, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, It’s always up there Bashin’ and Bishin’, twenty-four-seven, waiting for me to come back and stare at it. It’s Bashin’ and Bishin’ right now. People like me who have been hiking up to the falls for years feel a sense of ownership, like they’re on their way to the home of an old friend who’s always up for a visit. People who have visited once never forget it, and they usually plan to get back there someday. 

The trail from the parking lot to the falls is the epitome of a good little hike. Which is to say, that, among good little hikes, there is no better good little hike. Especially if you’re Mookie. Three-quarters of a mile through a state and a commonwealth, deep woods full of interesting scents rising to your left, the trail wide enough to ensure social distancing for people and dogs passing the other way, although Mookie doesn’t really know what those words mean. All he knows is there are people and dogs of all sizes everywhere and the freshest swimming water in two counties. It’s a festival of external stimuli. 

The instant that my nine-and-a-half-year-old labby gets out of the car at the Bash Bish parking lot, he’s a puppy again. The first stop is to check the trail kiosks for the latest pee mail. Then he knows the path slopes down gradually until the place where he goes swimming, so he takes me for a walk, and I let him lead. 

On one good little hike, when we he was around two years old, Mookie and I were playing in the Bash Bish Brook when we met some nice Massachusetts hippie girls – paisley bandana kerchiefs, nose rings and everything – who had a baby girl with them. The baby was six weeks old, but the hippie girls thought it would be cool for the baby to meet Mookie, and Mookie thinks it would be cool to meet everybody on Earth. And there I was, standing in cold water under warm summer skies, watching an animal for whom I was legally responsible and whose teeth were designed to rip through flesh and bone leaning in to sniff the face of a six-week-old baby. It was one of those moments early on when I realized I was walking around with God’s Most Perfect Dog. 

And by the way. That water? Go ahead and drink it. Fill up a bottle with it. Yeah, I know, dogs and barefoot droves. Still. It’s holy water. It cures everything. @ me. 

Everybody loves this stretch of the Bash Bish trail. On hot days, people stake out a spot on the brook and just sit there in for hours. There’s lots of big boulders in the middle of the brook to play on or take your narcissistic selfies on. Please be advised though, that if you decide to build a little balancing stone statue on one of the boulders, which seems to have been a thing for a while now, the manager of Taconic State Park, normally the most affable of gentleman, will come along at some point and angrily kick them over. God put the stones where he needed them. As much fun as stone balancing is, God know what he’s doing. Leave the damn stones alone. 

Things got out of control in the summer of 2020 during the Pandemic. Droves invaded from every direction. They parked all over Copake Falls and dragged barbecue equipment and other bad ideas into the park and down the trail to the falls. On the weekends of these Drove Invasion Days, Mookie and I went up to the Roe Jan Park that the droves don’t know about – yet- to get in our swim and our good little hikes. 

By the third week of July, there were police roadblocks at the two entrances to Copake Falls off Route 22. To go get take-out from Dad’s Diner or the Church Street Deli, I’d have to get waved on to make the left out of the hamlet, then fifteen minutes later, smile, roll down the window and say, goofily, “Hi! Just goin’ back to my house with lunch!” to armed law enforcement officers. Fact is, all my ID says I’m from Long Island, so I had to rely on their kind nature to gain entry to Route 344. 

This insanity reached its zenith when people began lining up in their cars in a staging area for hours on Saturdays and Sundays just to get the chance to get in a good little hike to Bash Bish Falls. Mookie and I stuck to the Rail Trail, the Roe Jan Park and our secret little spot under the bridge. 

You can’t blame the droves. Not all of them were unrepentant assholes from Long Island. Some of them were good, nature-respecting folks who were just trying to get out of the house. Of course, I didn’t have to clean up after the unrepentant assholes, so my sympathy comes easy. But these have been miserable times, and I’ve been using a good little hike through the woods to Bash Bish Falls for years to inject my spirit with some instant happy. Why would I, a nauseatingly lucky son of a bitch, deny that to anybody else, especially now? 

Mookie and I went back to the Bash Bish Trail on the last day of September. It was a Wednesday. To the untrained, non-park-employee eye, the area showed no signs of the human invasion it had experienced over the summer, but the friendly Mass Park Policeman on duty that day to make sure nobody jumps off the falls told me stories that would bend your bones. The air was crisp, the trees were in color, and the brook was not too cold yet. So Mookie got in his swimming, then we walked along and said hi to people in masks as we climbed the big hill past the Mass border and up into the trees, where you’re at eye level with the birds. Our old friend was waiting for us up at the end of the trail, Bashin’ and Bishin’ away, and we sat on a rock, and we stared for a while.

We were there again for the First Day Hike on New Year’s Day of 2021, when everyone was guilty of a little magical thinking, but that’s how it should be. The First Day Hike was led by the affable park manager and his beautiful Newfoundland dog Mahi Bear, whom Mookie resents because Mahi gets more attention. There were only about ten or twelve people with us on the hike, but there were lots and lots of other visitors on the trail. The weather had suddenly improved and a few hundred people had the same idea at the same time: 2020 was such catastrophe of sadness that they were damned if they weren’t going to start 2021 by heading up to Bash Bish Falls for an injection of happiness. We greeted every single one of them, and they greeted us back. A few of them told Mookie how beautiful he was, and he wagged to say he knew that, but thank you for saying it. 

Mookie and I love the Bash Bish Trail, and the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, which is great for broken down old guys from Long Island. Neither one of us needs to walk to Maine, or even the three mountains of the Mighty South Taconic Trail. But it is nice to know they’re up there. In his good dog life, he has gotten little licks of peanut butter while looking down from Sunset Rock over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. And if I want to go get lost in the woods for a while, my giant oak tree bench on the Wood Thrush Trail is there waiting for me. If it’s time for a little excitement and some holy water, we’re off on another good little hike to check on our old friend, always up there Bashin’ and Bishin’, and always up for a visit.  

And if it ever seems like I’m taking any of this for granted, please don’t hesitate to pick up a couple of stones from the brook and aim them at my head. 

Copyright 2021 by John Duffy

All Rights Reserved

Chapter 7 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life As a Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, NY: “Christmas Zen and The Art of Mulching”

We knew we’d be going back to see The Dee’s again before Thanksgiving. We just weren’t sure if we’d be going back to see Joey or Tommy. 

We hadn’t been inside the gigantic, glass-walled store at Dee’s Nursery after the first frost since the last time we visited Santa Claus as part of our annual Christmas tree hunting and gathering tradition. The inside store is Joey’s domain, although his dad, Tom Sr., the Dee’s patriarch, still hangs out by the registers while we watch the damage we’ve done to ourselves in slow motion. Usually we won’t visit until April, when it’s time to load up Lou the Subaru with bags of tall fescue grass seed, with the topsoil and the peat moss to throw on top of it. Whether it’s Grass Seed Day, or a month later when we start loading up on annuals, veggies and compost, Trisha and I always get a hearty greeting from Joey. Long ago we maxed out on planting trees and shrubs and hybrid tea roses and perennials on our little 60 X 100 plot, so we usually don’t get out to the yard much anymore to see Joey’s older brother Tommy until the Christmas trees show up. But Tommy is always good for a hearty greeting, too. If you were Joey or Tommy, you’d be glad to see us, too. 

The Dee’s Nursery is a second-generation family business in Oceanside, Long Island, started in 1958. It was one of my mom’s favorite places to visit in the springtime. Our Christmas Tree hunting and gathering tradition when I was a kid was to go to Garden World in Franklin Square, where they had reindeer you could feed, which is horrible in retrospect, but I suppose my parents and everyone else involved meant well at the time. But Mom loved going to see The Dee’s in the springtime, and taught me to love it, too. For a local, independent business, they have a huge operation, and their selection, quality and service in all things gardening just can’t be beat. Tommy told us one year that he drives a crew up to the family’s own Christmas Tree farm in Franklin, Maine every November. He was very happy and very proud of that, as well as being proud of their annual donation of thousands of Christmas trees shipped to troops serving overseas. And we are always happy and proud to buying one of those trees from this family year after year, comin’ to us straight from Maine. 

Every business transaction should be as pleasant. 

Unfortunately, we’re in America, so while the The Dee’s are all about service, selection and quality, their prices can be beat quite easily in any season, specifically by the likes of the Home Depot, the presence of which in Rego Park, Queens convinced my late father-in-law to close down his own second-generation nursery business, McCloskey’s Florist, shortly after I joined his family. That was tough to watch. 

So we’re willing to pay The Dee’s a couple of extra bucks to support a local business and stay out of the Dante’s Inferno which is the Valley Stream Home Depot parking lot. And in addition to helping support The Dee Boys and their families, we have two other local guys:  Ray, whose dad started Alma’s Garden Center on Sunrise Highway in Lynbrook around the time I was born, and Dave, who owns Di Setta Nursery down in Woodmere. A conservative estimate of $50,000 big ones over the course of eighteen years have been split among these three businesses by two slightly touched people who consider growing flowers in the yard to be an unnegotiable necessity. 

In years when money was tight, we bought our flowers and our dirt on credit cards, which is quite stupid when considered objectively and I wouldn’t recommend it. But we had to have them. In our defense, we’ve never spent money on lavish vacations and fancy restaurants. So it goes that I may die without seeing Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but damn you should have seen our gardens in June.  

I was away from the gardens a lot this year. More so than in any year since we began building them up from nothing in 2002. I spent about eight weeks of elapsed time in 2020 up in the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley, among the Taconic-Berkshire Mountains that nature built from nothing a couple of million years ago. There are lots of wildflowers and flowering shrubs around Trisha’s Mountain, but nothing we’ve planted, which I suppose could change in time, but as I pointed out in Chapter 5, it would take some intense negotiations with the deer and the bunnies and the groundhogs to get it off the ground. 

We never took it for granted for a second this year. It was our incredibly good fortune to have a property up in the country with lots of oxygen, especially in the midst of all the Pandemic misery this year – when just down the road there were people sitting on line in their cars for hours outside Taconic State Park waiting for a chance to just take a walk to Bash Bish Falls, and less fortunate people than those people were dying on hospital beds. We’re only a year into our second home owning adventure as I write this, so the novelty has not even come close to wearing off yet. We’re still just walking around feeling stupid lucky. Knock freaking wood.

So I wasn’t giving the gardens a lot of thought during those eight weeks when I wasn’t in them. They were being watered or rained on and the weeds would wait ‘till I got back. I suppose in my mind I was beginning to move on from them. But that’s how it happens, isn’t it. You think about something until something else comes along that requires bandwidth in your brain, and the thing you were thinking about starts getting crowded out. Sometimes when you look back, you realize that’s kind of a scary process. The more time I spent up n the country this year, getting to know our upstate home, the less I was thinking about the downstate one. Not only can you not be in two places at once, it’s hard to even think of two places at once. 

But after all these years, most of the landscaped space on Duffy’s Creek is on autopilot anyway. Most of the trial and error has been done. The losers don’t grow here anymore, and the winners come back stronger every year. 

The Big Plan is, of course, to phase out Duffy’s Creek and live full-time on Trisha’s Mountain. When that actually happens remains a question. Back in the Aughts, I noticed on a sign that Copake Town was founded in 1824, so I was thinking I could be up here full time by the time the Copake Bicentennial comes around, maybe even walk down Main Street on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam. I have big dreams. 

But that would mean only three more growing season’s on Duffy’s Creek. And that would also mean eventually selling the house, perhaps to someone who rips out all the gardens and replaces them with heavily fertilized grass, or worse, just lets them go to hell, which wouldn’t take long at all. 

Once I landed back on Long Island in mid-November of 2020, following my nineteenth trip up and down Route 22 for the year, this time to take delivery of a new industrial-grade humidifier for the basement, I decided to get off the road for a while. I’d been back and forth eight times in thirteen weeks, and the plan (in progress as I write this) was to stay on the creek for six weeks, through Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mookie in particular was exhausted from all the traveling. We needed a break. 

But unlike Mookie, I’m not good at doing nothing, no matter how hard or how often I try. I enjoy doing nothing, but after a while I have to do something. I admire people who can keep doing nothing going. I decided that not only was I going to clean up the gardens down to the last fallen leaf, but that this year, since I had the time, I was going to give them all a damn good mulching. And not only that, I was going to power wash the patio so it would already be clean in the spring. I have big dreams. 

And I love mulch. I love topsoil and compost, too: The look, the smell, the feel, everything. I suppose I could live without the weight. But still. There’s no more agreeable afternoon activity to me than getting down and dirty in the gardens. 

We have seven of them. They all have names. In the front are two semicircle raised beds built with river stone. One is my creation, which starts out as a well-mannered and proper bed of tulips and daffodils in the spring and devolves into an insane tangle of sunflowers and zinnias by July. I call that the Crazy Summer Garden. The opposite semicircle is Trisha’s statelier “Cottage Garden”, highlighted by a giant purple beautyberry bush, chiefly the domain of our resident mockingbird no matter how hard Lyle the Cat stares through the window at him. There’s mock orange and flowering quince around the front, coneflower and bee balm in the middle and creeping purple phlox cascading over the stones. Unlike my garden, somebody had a plan. 

On the side of the garage was the tomato and vegetable garden. This year I phased that out and threw in a couple of dahlias which I mostly neglected despite their beauty. I couldn’t keep the damn squirrels away from the tomatoes, and I didn’t want to grow lettuce and broccoli that I wasn’t home to eat or give away. But I still grew cucumbers in another little patch next to the shed this year, way more than I could use, which was good news for a neighbor on the creek who loves cucumber sandwiches. Meanwhile, my 2020 bread and butter pickles were another raging success. 

Between our backyard fence and the creek is my Wetland Garden. In one section, I’ve been naturalizing purple and pink native asters for ten years now, and let me tell you, come September, my aster is the most spectacular aster you’ve ever seen. In another section are shrubs that don’t mind drinking crappy brackish water; red twig dogwood, rosa rugosa and winterberry holly, plus a red cedar tree that my brother and I saved from being uprooted after Hurricane Sandy, which is now known as the Leaning Cedar. Most of these plants were, of course, bought from Tommy Dee, many on credit cards. The whole thing is held back from the creek with a bulkhead of logs, wire fencing and dirt that I carted in after ripping out forty years of thug brush eighteen years ago. I had the time of my life. 

Look at my aster! Look at it! It’s fabulous!

Along a wooden fence are Trisha’s hybrid tea roses. The roses also stretch into a spot between two houses that we call the Secret Garden. All the roses have cultivar names and stories which she’s told me lots of times because I asked, and she planted many of them in memory of people. Apparently, their preferred pronoun is “she”, as in, “she needs to be cut back.”  I can’t keep much of this straight, but I do try really hard. And Trisha works very hard at keeping the hybrid tea roses sprayed with the stuff that keeps them from getting eaten up by little parasites every year. You can get high off the aroma of Trisha’s rose garden in June, and often we do. But one season of neglect and they’d be nothing but angry, thorny green sticks. 

Out the back door is my Patio Garden. My parents had a deck when we bought the house. They had it built in the 1970’s, when you were required to build a deck in your suburban backyard under penalty of law. The deck had seen better days by the time we bought it, so we were already planning to rip it out and replace it with a patio when we visited the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass. It was there that I encountered the Herb Associates, a group of volunteers that maintained an herb garden with a patio right outside a kitchen in one of the buildings on the grounds.

I have to admit, my biggest takeaway from this experience was the sheer joy of knowing that there was a group of old ladies from Stockbridge who called themselves the Herb Associates, but I also liked the idea. Eventually, the garden out the back door on Duffy’s Creek became a combination of herbs, perennials and annuals surrounding a loose-laid brick patio that looks like the mason who built it was actually an English teacher on summer vacation. 

Around the patio, I have planters where I put the same annuals every year because I know they’ll behave themselves and look great doing it: Geraniums and lantana, both in red, white mandevilla, some years white jasmine if I want to splurge, plus some basil and oregano that I didn’t get around to harvesting this year. Plus I have three highbush blueberries in planters on the patio and four more on the side of the garage, which I’ve used to make some sublime pies over the years, and which us make us very popular with robins.

Since we’ve done all the heavy planting (and transplanting), and the gardens are what they are, most of the work now is adding compost in spring and keeping everything weeded and watered. Invariably, since you only have to get dirty once, I’ll do all the weeding in one shot once every two or three weeks. I can tell which days were weeding days just by looking at my Fitbit history. Any days when I walked 25,000 steps and saw some serious cardio orange and red on my heartbeat chart, those were the days I was out playing in the dirt. 

After all these years of pulling weeds, I know every one of them personally, many by name. I can tell you, for instance, that every year I have to pull out deadly nightshade. And every year, deadly nightshade says, “Yeah, OK. Whatever, dude. I’ll be back.” Late in the season, I have to pull out white snakeroot, which can poison milk if cows eat it, and reportedly killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother. Weeding is serious business. 

The fall cleanup is actually the biggest job in the gardens now. First is deadheading all the perennials and pulling out the dried-up ghosts of hundreds of zinnias and marigolds and other annuals. Then comes raking out all the leaves and cultivating the soil, then chopping out the last of this year’s weeds. It takes hours and hours and hours. Which is great if, like me, you enjoy this sort of thing, and you happen to have hours and hours and hours. 

Any teacher who rides the rhythms of the school year knows that the fall semester is insanely busy. So for all the years I was on that ride, I’d check the Weather Channel app constantly to see what Saturdays and what Sundays would be suitably benign enough to get out and clean up the yard. And knowing how long each section took, I could plan out what I could get done in the time I had. My ultimate goal was to get a bed of cedar mulch down on every garden surface once all the leaves were raked up and the annuals were pulled out and the perennials were cut back and the deadly nightshade and the white snakeroot and all their outlaw buddies were on the brush pile. 

I very rarely got anywhere close to that goal. Some years were better than others. Some years I’d still be cleaning out last years’ dead stuff in April. But a couple of years, I got all the mulch down, and it somehow made going to work easier knowing that I did it. This year, with a stretch of freakishly warm weather and a freakish amount of time on my hands, I realized that the attaining the ultimate goal of a damn good full mulching, topped off by a power washing, would somehow make standing around inside the house and looking out the windows all winter a lot easier. I cleaned the gardens until they screamed for mercy and gave them a long overdue mulching. 

I usually go for the dyed red cedar mulch, but this year, Dave Di Setta, who keeps his mulch right at the front gate for easy access, only had fifteen bags of red left, and seeing as it takes thirty bags total (and three round trips for Lou the Subaru) I went half red and half plain brown this year. 

it’s a beautiful sight and a warm, fuzzy feeling for this OCD sufferer. Not only is it a nice warm blankie for all the plants and enrichment for the soil, it’s also much easier to track what plants are breaking the soil next spring, meaning it’s also harder for the weeds to hide. So in the words of Cosmo Kramer, you’ve got to mulch. You’ve got to. 

In the midst of this herculean effort, completed in three-or-four-hour blocks of time over the course of eight nice-weather days, I also put up the Christmas lights, which look delightful and which I absolutely hate doing, and which nobody will actually come to the house to see for themselves. I think I do it for my parents, most of all, and for the memories it conjures up. I have no control over whether any future owners of the property will celebrate Christmas. 

Which brings us to the tree. Last December, which was two-thousand years ago, was very exciting for us. We were closing on a house in Copake Falls, a dream we had dreamed for twenty years. The closing was set for the 20th of December, the day the boiler stopped working in the house on what was not yet Trisha’s Mountain, and the closing had to be postponed. Someone flipped the reset switch on the boiler the next day and it’s been working since (knock wood again), and the closing was finally a done deal a week later, on the 27th. We reserved one of our old cabins at Taconic State Park to stay over both times, to avoid nighttime winter driving, which can kill you. 

Fortunately, we had the World’s Most Responsible Teenager on the block to take care of the cats on both nights, but this time, she had the added pressure of watering the live Christmas tree next to the radiator in the living room. Leaving a live Christmas tree unattended, even overnight, gave us the willies. I guess I’ve seen one too many videos of blazing Christmas trees infernos. In practical terms, there was very little chance of the Christmas tree burning down the house. They don’t spontaneously combust like the drummers in Spinal Tap. As Bruce Springsteen sang in the worst song he ever wrote, you can’t start a fire without a spark. But if the tree had burned the house down, Lyle the Cat would surely have had something to do with it. 

So this year, knowing that we could get up to the Mountain between Christmas and New Year’s, we took a ride to Dee’s to see Joey’s artificial Christmas trees for ourselves inside the store. Our tradition is to put up our tree in the first weekend in December, then take it down the first weekend after New Year’s, by which time some of them over the years have grown a trifle crispy. But neither Trisha nor I, and by extension our offspring and animals, has ever experienced a Christmas without a real Christmas tree. As a kid, I felt pity for people with artificial trees, people who were happy to spend the season looking at a sad, scrawny green plastic scarecrow, usually with boring all-white lights, that looked as much like a tree as a White Castle looks like Versailles, or as a Taco Bell looks like a hacienda. I don’t care what you got for Christmas, or how much fun you had. That’s not really living. 

As with many things in my lifetime, though, artificial Christmas tree research and development has grown by leaps and bounds. The ones they make now look very much like trees. They’re pre-lit. You can find one in perfect symmetry to your available space and the initial investment pays for itself in three years of not buying a tree from Tommy’s yard. And you can leave them up as long as you like. John Prine left his up all year long, but he had a bigger house. And there would be no chance of fire by stupidity if we left the tree up on the Creek and drove up to the Mountain, despite Lyle the Cat. 

Joey Dee took us through a couple of handsome artificial trees that looked promising and told us he had plenty in stock and more coming in. Nobody was coming to our house over Christmas, so we’d be the only ones who would see it. We’d likely end up getting a fake tree when we move upstate permanently because you really couldn’t put a living tree anywhere near the fireplace, so why not just get used to having a fake tree now? There was only one overriding downside, only one good reason why we didn’t pull the trigger. 

We didn’t want to. 

I started reading about Zen Buddhism when I was in college. Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki. Those guys.  I liked everything about it. In Zen philosophy, the past and the future are illusions. Any wisdom you’ve gained along your path is meant to applied to right now, not to some future day. What’s more, our house and gardens and creek and your house and all your stuff are events, not things, because everything is in a constant, slow-motion state of flux, and nothing is permanent. And since they’re events, not things, they should be celebrated like events, with as much enthusiasm as you work up, because they’re going to end, and we’re going to end, and since that will be the end of that, this right here and this right now are all we’ve got. 

But as hard as I’ve tried, I’ve just never been able master the art of living in the Here and Now. I don’t know what’s in anyone else’s brain beyond what they’ve told me, so maybe I’m better at it than I think I am. All I know is that even after years and years of piling up great memories, there are still stupid little moments that I wish I had handled differently rattling around in my head like loose change in a coffee can. And Lord knows I’ve scattered baskets of brain cells across my years worrying about things that theoretically might have happened but never did.  

And even when I’ve been as close as I could get to living fully and completely in the Here and Now, and there have been lots and lots of those times, I never went too long without checking my watch. It’s how I’m wired, and that’s just sad, but it’s no excuse. Very often, I enjoyed the hell out of the job I did for 25 years, but I could always tell you exactly how long I had to keep doing it until I didn’t have to. 

But if anything could get me to finally shake off all this mental illness, finding myself floating along through the days, collecting my monthly Cash For Life payments from the New York State Teacher’s Retirement System while waiting for a Pandemic to end (and a psychopath to go away) may have been the ticket. I’ve cut off a big chunk of my past and I have no more than a vague plan for the future. Whenever I check my watch, I’m right smack in the middle of the Here and Now. 

Self-awareness is one of the benefits of getting old, unless you’re hopeless. It becomes easier to catch yourself when you’re up to your same old lame tricks. Too often this year I’ve found myself sitting on my poorly constructed patio on the creek, thinking about what it would be like to leave Valley Stream and move up to Copake Falls permanently, how I’d feel about letting it all go. Then I’d be up on the Mountain thinking about what it would be like to be there with no back to go to. None of this is anything that I really had to think about at that moment, and any second I that I was, I knew I was only cheating myself out of good time.

And I’ve come to realize that the only reason I’m giving any unthinkworthy thoughts any space in my head at all, instead of enjoying the passage of time, which is of course the secret of life, is because I’m not thinking about my lesson plans for Monday morning, or what to do about that one kid. So all this extra room opens up in my brain, and something has to fill the vacuum. At times in 2020, to my credit, I happily feasted on whatever was in front of my eyes in the Here and Now. 

But sometimes I pigged out on boxes of worry cookies and bags of regret chips. 

We’re all works in progress. If you’re doing it right. 

A moment of personal enlightenment came as it often does, after cleaning. In this case, on the first Sunday of December, when the temperature on Long Island was a sickeningly sweet 70 degrees. I had finished all the mulching and power washed the patio bricks, which takes just as long as cleaning them on your hands and knees with a pencil eraser, then topped off the weekend by cleaning out the garage. The property on Duffy’s Creek looked as good as it ever had on the first Sunday in December. 

Mookie doesn’t need to read an y books about Zen Buddhism

I was sitting in the yard with my nine-year-old dog, enjoying the fruits of my labor and watching the walkers on the creek path. Looking at how beautiful and how happy he looked, my mind had to find a way to try and ruin it by wandering up an unpleasant stream, as it does too often, to the day when I’d have to let Mookie go. 

Then I remembered an excellent cartoon I came across called “Why Dogs Are Better Than People”. The artist drew a man and his dog walking. The man’s think bubble is crowded with dollar signs and buildings and cars and angry looking people and piles of paper. The dog’s think bubble is he and the man walking.  I told myself to just stop it already. We’re Here. It’s Now. Nothing matters until it does. 

And that was how the Christmas Tree Decision ultimately led us to the Fraiser Firs comin’ to ya straight from Maine via Tommy’s yard. Because we’re Here and it’s Now, and there’s no reason to get a fake tree this year just because we might get one in some distant future Christmas. We made one change in the tradition, and it I think it’ll work out just swell. Instead of waiting until the first weekend in December, we went to Dee’s on the day before Thanksgiving. There was only one other customer in the yard, and most of the trees hadn’t even been unwrapped, but we found this year’s winner within five minutes.

So we’re going to keep Christmas as well as we possible can, and we’re going to try to create a little joy in this miserable time. Then we’re going to take down that perfect Christmas tree the week after Christmas, and we’re going to head up to Copake Falls. Just for good measure when we get there, we’ll put up the little prelit tabletop Christmas tree that was in my father’s room at the nursing home when he woke up to his last Christmas. We’ll have a fire in the fireplace on New Year’s Eve and we won’t burn down either house. 

And as another New Year rolls in, I won’t have to see the pictures of people in Taconic State Park enjoying a bonfire after their First Day Hike to Bash Bish Falls and say boy that looks like fun I’d like to get in on that some year because I’ll be there, soaking it in, unconcerned about any other day, past or present.

And by that same logic, I’ll still be pulling deadly nightshade and white snakeroot out of the gardens at Duffy’s Creek until the day we hand somebody else the keys. And if that day happens to be in December, I may just treat them to a damn good mulching before I move on, and before the next event starts. 

Copyright 2020 by John Duffy

Chapter 6 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life As A Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, New York: “How To Avoid Rodent Baking and Death By Spirit Animal”

I was not there for the corn snake. When I heard about it, the first person I thought of was Samuel L. Jackson. Motherf#%&ing snakes crawling around in this motherf#%&ing country house. Great.  

The corn snake was, as reported by reputable sources related to me by blood, well in excess of 3 feet long. He was not crawling up the wall from behind the oil tank in the basement machine room in order freak anyone out. This was purely incidental on the snake’s part, as I assume it is with any snake. Snakes don’t intend to freak people out, and I would think they’re annoyed and distracted when it happens. I guess they have to look at it as the cost of doing snake business sometimes. Goddamned people.

Corn snakes are not venomous, but rattlesnakes are, and there are many, many rattlesnakes in Columbia County. Trisha and Jack did not know the corn snake was not a rattlesnake. A rattlesnake in the machine room of the basement would have been enough for any of us to say, “OK. Tried living Upstate. Didn’t like it. Let’s make a profit on this deal and get the hell out of here.”

But it wasn’t a rattlesnake. It was a corn snake, which are similarly fat, spotted and creepy. And the corn snake was there in the basement machine room to eat the mice. 

And the mice were there because up until this year, they lived there.

The House on Trisha’s Mountain was more or less vacant for two years before we bought it, although it was being minimally maintained. So there was plenty of quiet time with no people around for the mice to workshop ways of getting in, but since there was no food or water once they did, they were most likely taking up residence to escape from the coyotes and other predators who couldn’t follow behind them, or else just to get warm, since the boiler was running for no one to keep the pipes from freezing, as it is right now. 

Somewhere in the midst of this year of Pandemic, social unrest and civil war, in a small rural town in Upstate New York, a man and a woman removed more mouse shit from habitable space than they had ever before or will ever again. Cleaning the garage alone should have killed us via hantavirus, but here we are, still standing. 

The very first time I stood outside of the garage on the Mountain, on a hot and murky September afternoon in 2019, when it was a vacant house full of mice and snakes, there was also a shed full of wasps to my right, and one of those wasps rightly saw me as a potential enemy and stung me on my right arm, which screamed silently in pain for the rest of the afternoon as we assessed the potential investment in a house full of mice and snakes surrounded by angry wasps. But neither the wasp that stung me nor the squirrel I accidently ran over on the way up the hill that afternoon was enough to make me think there was any sort of bad mojo embedded in this whole buying a second house plan. Though I still feel bad about the squirrel and I always will. 

One key difference between my wife Trisha and I is that I’ll always try the stupid idea first and work my way up to the practical one. After I tried to drive the wasps away with noxious gas in a can from the Herrington’s Hardware store, Trisha called Meerkat. After vacuuming out two years of mouse shit from the kitchen drawers, I bought some of those plug-in things that are supposed to emit a deafening noise torturous to mice and drive them away, or something like that, and stuck them in various electrical outlets around the house. 

Trisha called Meerkat. This was shortly after a hot day in July when Jack and I came back from a peaceful, positive morning bike ride on the Rail Trail from Millerton to Coleman Station and I cooked four slices of leftover pizza and a mouse in the oven.

The first thing I can tell you is that a mouse cooked in an oven at 400 degrees on a hot July afternoon, even for a just few minutes, is just about the most horrific thing I’ve ever smelled. And I consider myself lucky in that regard. 

The second thing I can tell you is that Meerkat is a company well on their way to building a rodent and insect control empire in Upstate New York, in part you can be sure through contracts with people who have come from Long Island and other more barren places to find a countryside teeming with critters they have never had to deal with in any sort of large numbers before. Lyle Cat had effectively (and proudly) taken care of the comparatively few mice that have made their way into the House on Duffy’s Creek, but it was way too problematic to temporarily export a cat, and the problem was bigger than Lyle, as big as he thinks he is. 

Of course, The Country Way would be to get rid of those critters oneself: Trap all the mice, and the motherf#$&ing snake if necessary. Blast those wasps out of the yard and seize their nest while they slept. Painstakingly seal up all the crevices between out there and in here which would be big enough to accommodate a stone-cold outlaw mouse with nothing to lose. 

Around the same time I cooked the mouse, I discovered an angry nest of yellow jackets living under the front porch, directly beneath the front door. I discovered them because they all swarmed up and attacked me the moment I arrived on the Mountain. Another trip to the Herrington’s Hardware store procured some more noxious gas in a can designed to take them out, and that was my stupid plan. But the electrician who was working at the house advised me on one of his trips out to the truck that the Country Way, as it were, would be to just get in there and take the nest out. He grabbed a plastic bag, wrapped it around his hand, and proceeded to crawl under the porch and grab the yellow jacket nest with one hand, wrapping it into the bag in one motion. After that we hit it with the noxious gas. Problem solved. 

He told me, “they sense fear.”

The Suburban-Pretending-To-Be-Country-Way is to write checks. The Meercat Guys who had rid us of angry wasps in the springtime were more than happy to return to Trisha’s Mountain to rid us of mice and the snakes who love them. This was not their first circus. In regard to the very large corn snake (who was probably the descendant of a long-ago escaped pet, as they are not native to the area), as well as some smaller garter snakes that Trisha and Jack had also met in the basement, one Meerkat Guy suggested that the snakes would find their way out once there were no more mice, which would be after they did their Meerkat thing, baiting and trapping the mice inside the house and sealing up the entry points for adventurous and/or desperate mice outside the house. He also suggested that we might find a few dead mice here and about upon our arrival after this process was completed, and that was certainly the case. 

When asked how the snake would find its way out if they were sealing up the house, he suggested the disengaged dryer vent where no dryer was at the time. I’m hoping the corn snake overheard him.

The other Meerkat Guy pointed out to Trisha that the unfinished attic space under the roof was full of snake shit, which he noticed was part of the general potpourri of the house when it was closed up for a while. Having no idea what snake shit actually smells like, I could only accept this information at face value, and I have no reason to go into the attic. The Meerkat Guys cleaned the attic, and the house smells just fine to me. I burn a lot of Yankee Candles when I’m there.

Apropos of nothing, every deer is Bambi to Trisha Duffy. And if there are more than one, it’s not “Look! Bambi and her family!”, it’s simply the plural: “Bambies!” Which really makes no sense. This has been going on for twenty-one years, but I’m not tired of it. 

The House on the Mountain is bordered on one side by a cornfield (more about that in a future chapter) and in the back by Taconic State Park woodland. There’s a large crabapple tree at the top of the hill in the backyard, which is convenient if you’re a deer on your way from the cornfield to the woods and you decide to stop for lunch. It’s a swell place to be a deer, Trisha’s Mountain is, although it’s tough being everybody’s favorite large prey. 

We’d like to have a garden on the Mountain someday. The deer of course, would like everything about that idea, as would the bunnies and the chipmunks and the groundhogs. So without a significant investment in infrastructure; fencing, raised beds, fake owls, air horns and the like, there’s a lot of stuff we just couldn’t grow. Food, for instance. And it would certainly be the end of the road for the bread and butter pickles I’ve been making from creek-grown cucumbers and passing around to people for the last few years. Anyone who’s tried one could tell you that would be a tragedy. 

The bunnies and the groundhogs live in the brush bordering both sides of the property, along with the chipmunks and the little brown squirrels who seem smarter than the grey ones who run in front of moving vehicles. They have all given Mookie Dog new purpose. Long ago on Long Island, he decided that squirrels were not worth his time or attention, but he knows the scent of every outdoor cat within 3 square miles of Duffy’s Creek and they should all consider themselves under surveillance. We haven’t run across one outdoor cat on Trisha’s Mountain to date, but we’ve got bunnies in every bush, and Mookie knows it. He knows them as small but highly entertaining pretend prey, slightly bigger than Lyle the Cat but with similar markings. He’s chased a couple of bunnies back into the bushes and he knows damn well when a groundhog or a chipmunk is watching him from under the back porch. He enjoys picking up their tracks, which had done wonders for his self-esteem. I’m glad I was able to give him that experience. 

But there are some tough fellows in the neighborhood, and you never know when you might run across one. If you happen to be large or small prey, it might prove a fatal encounter. If you’re an old man and an old dog from Long Island, you just have to keep your guard up and try not to make eye contact and you should be all right.

Fortunately, I have not come across a bobcat, a coyote or a black bear while hanging out with Mookie. The only bobcat I’ve come across at all ran across Route 22 directly in front of my car at night in the middle of a nasty summer thunderstorm. I considered it a close call, but I’m sure the bobcat knew he had it all along. If Mookie were to come face to face with a coyote or a black bear, he’d likely growl and be a jerk about it, because he grew up on Long Island and he thinks he’s hot shit, and this would likely make a tense situation worse. He would even make a fool out of himself trying to stand up to any passing deer, and the local wild turkeys probably smell vaguely like dog food. So if we’re chilling up at the top of the hill in the backyard, with several hundred square miles of New York and Massachusetts wilderness directly behind us, I have his leash where I can grab it and I listen for rustling, ready at any moment to save my stubborn friend from himself.

Because Trisha and I have, in fact, seen both a coyote and a black bear on the Mountain, and both relatively up close. Oddly, they were both traveling the same path, though I would think they’d stay out of each other’s way generally speaking. The path starts at our mailbox on the opposite side of the road from the driveway and travels straight downhill between our neighbor’s heavily wooded property and the southern edge of tree farm, ending at the Orphan Farm Road parking lot for the Harlem Valley Rail Trail. 

I took an unauthorized walk down there one day, without Mookie, then Trisha told me about the coyote she saw coming out from the path and heading up the road and I took no more walks down there. A month or two later, I happened to look out the front door just at the right moment to see a black bear circling the mailbox. I managed to get a loch ness type picture and video of him. I thought about running outside to follow him once he started back down the path, picture-taking rectangle in hand, but then I remembered that he could kill me. 

I have to listen for wild animals while this knucklehead rolls upside down.

As a matter of fact, when were in the process of buying a house where the wild things are, I conjured up a scenario wherein if I were ever diagnosed with a terminal illness, and was told that I would suffer and die in a short time, I would simply eat four or five “infused” chocolate bars from Theory Wellness in Great Barrington, cover myself in peanut butter and go to sleep in my hammock up where the yard meets the woods. Trisha noted that this would definitely make the local news, and that I could go out as “Copake Falls Man.” When I decided for whatever reason to share this little joke at the conference table where we all met for the house closing, our lawyer suggested honey would work better than peanut butter, which is the difference between a teaching degree and a law degree, never mind a Long Islander and a Copakean. 

My Loch Ness Bear Photo.

For now I am alive and well and staying away from doctors. And when the moon rises over Trisha’s mountain, the coyotes howl and my friends the barred owls hoot, I feel like the luckiest bipedal son of bitch in the world to be in their presence. 

As I finish up this chapter, the House on Trisha’s Mountain is quiet, but the boiler is running for nobody to keep the pipes from freezing. I can only hope that the mice and the snakes who love them are no longer able to gain access. I can’t help but imagine coyotes and black bears sitting around on the La-Z–Boy furniture watching Spectrum News, burning Yankee Candles, maybe inviting the bobcats in for Scrabble around the kitchen table. But this is only because I watched a lot of cartoons as a child. 

Black Bears and Coyotes are excellent spirit animals. Owls, too. The bear totem is quiet strength, a grounding force of peaceful confidence and courage in the face of adversity. I also learned that the bear “medicine” is healing through quiet solitude and rest, which was pretty cool since the day after I met my bear I headed out on a trip to the Adirondacks with Mookie after 25 years of being yelled at under fluorescent lighting. I don’t know about him, but I needed that bear medicine real bad, never mind the chocolate bars from Theory Wellness.

Our totem pole, a housewarming gift from a friend. It sort of relates and I thought you might want to see it.

The Coyote Spirit (according to spiritanimal.info) is one who imparts his wisdom indirectly through “jokes or trickery. The spirit of the coyote may remind you to not take things too seriously and bring more balance between wisdom and playfulness.” Part of its magic is to reveal the truth behind illusion and chaos.” Lord knows there was plenty of that to sort through this year. 

The Owl Spirit announces change. The death of one thing and the start of another, and the wisdom to accept it and live with it. I’ll look to him for comfort when the time comes that I have to drag myself kicking and screaming from my little creek in Valley Stream.

For now, I’m blessed to live even part of the time in a place where all this animal magic abounds. Even snakes, of course, whose likeness is rarely printed on country décor lampshades and curtains, have their own magic and their own wisdom. “The snake as a spirit animal can be to provide guidance about life changes and transitions, whether they are happening at the physical, emotional or spiritual level. “

I don’t know how exactly they transmit their magic, the spirit animals, but the folks up at the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota, New York convinced me as a small child that this stuff was as real as anything the Catholics taught at Sunday Mass, and I’ve never had reason to doubt any of it. 

Still, whenever I get up to the Mountain, the first thing I do when I go down to the basement is grab the broom at the bottom of the stairs. Spirits notwithstanding, I am so tired of these motherf#$&ing snakes in this motherf#%&ing country house. 

Copyright 2020 by John Duffy

All Rights Reserved

Chapter 4 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life As a Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, New York: “The Road to Nowhere”

Mookie Dog knows he’s got it good up in the country. In his Labrador heart, though, I think he’d always rather be in Valley Stream. For one thing, he has deep and soulful connections with all three of his cats, and it’s difficult for all of them to be separated. But that’s a story for Chapter 5. I feel bad for him because his puppy brain struggles to make sense of things these days. You can explain the what, the where, the who and sort of the when to dogs, but they’ll never fully understand the why. We do too many things that just make no canine sense. 

For the first eight and a half years of Mookie’s life, we took one or two long trips in the car in July and/or August. He stayed at his friend Gina’s K9 Bed and Breakfast a mile away because he wasn’t supposed to be in the cabin, and I’d come by to take him out to play for the day, then bring him back, and then after a couple of days we’d take another long car ride and everything went back to normal. For the rest of the year, including all the cold months, we were in the home he first arrived in as a nine-week old puppy. So you can certainly imagine his confusion as he finds himself, at the equivalent of 63 years old, suddenly going on two and a half-hour car trips every couple of weeks. 

But if I told him right now that we were going for a ride in the car, he would immediately begin wagging and hopping up and down and panting, because it would mean that we would possibly be going somewhere where things smell differently and there might be water for swimming or at the very least people who rub his face and say hi. We’d get there, wherever there might be, have our fun, and as soon as that fun was over and he came back to wherever we started, he’d have a short nap, then return to staring at me and moping, like he’s doing right now. He’s a fun junkie, my dog is. 

And even though he willingly and joyfully gets in the car every time I suggest the idea, he plainly dislikes the sensation of the wheels moving under him. Though a purebred labby, he’s just not a head sticking out the window dog, which is something I’ve accepted about him. I don’t shoot ducks out of the sky and he loves me just the same. As any long car ride evolves, If he’s not lying down across the back seat in defensive sleep, he sits up and stairs down at the seat with an expression I can only describe as existential dread, and I say, “everything’s OK! Everything’s fine! Lie down, Puppy!” until he lies down again and tries to sleep. He especially dislikes exit ramps. They mess with his large center of gravity. 

But while long car drives are stressful, staying home while I disappear for a couple of days is far more so. There were a few trips when I needed the whole car for transporting stuff and I left him home, safely with the others in the pack who have access to the dog food, but still this was not acceptable. So when he sees the duffle bag and the cooler come out, he never lets me out of his sight. And the cycle continues. 

This place where we go these days, which I realize will never truly be home to him until his cats are there, only recently got comfy couches, a dog crate and a big comfy queen bed. For the first eight months, he had a dog bed on the floor and an air mattress that made him nervous. But while he enjoys these amenities we’ve provided, and he loves his big upstate backyard that smells like bunnies, he misses his neighborhood around Duffy’s Creek. He’s spent most of his life marking every tree and pole within two square miles of his house, and that’s not an accomplishment that’s easy to just walk away from.

In Valley Stream, we’ve gotten to the point where he takes me for walks, and ideally, to him, those walks are circular in nature, or at least Q-shaped. He has pre-determined routes where he has to check and respond to his pee-mail at specific poles and trees. My job is to follow along with plastic bags and keep him out of trouble.  

And while he certainly enjoys the variety of scents that one can encounter in and around Copake Falls, it’s taken him some adjustment to accept that the majority of our walks in the country are linear. We go somewhere and then we go back the way we came. It’s the Road to Nowhere. Picture a man and his dog on two ends of a taut leash, debating about which of two opposite directions is the way they have to go now. It looks as ridiculous as it seems. 

But he ultimately recognizes and accepts my position as the Alpha Dog. Actually, it’s bigger than that. He thinks I’m God. And of course, God doesn’t always give you what you want. Sometimes you can’t go lick the baby in the stroller and sometimes you can’t try to jump in the hammock that your favorite neighbor set up in his garage and that’s the way it is. God is all-knowing, and Mookie accepts this because he has faith. Every walk with God is essentially a good walk, circular or linear. Just like my own relationship to my own God, he’s a stubborn mule and his God loves him anyway. Besides, only a loving and benevolent God would know about a place like the Harlem Valley Rail Trial. 

My relationship with the Rail Trail predates my relationship with my dog, never mind my human child. It goes back to the year 2000, the first year that Trisha and I took a full week of vacation in Columbia County. It was three days of camping with the hippies on Long Hill at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale (what a scene, man) then four days in cabin GH1 at Taconic State Park. Back then, everything was new to us and everything was the greatest thing ever. (“Hey! The Methodist Church is having a chicken barbecue!” “There’s a school near here where kids learn about organic farming!” “Did you know Copake had a lake? It’s huge!” “Look at the price on this house! Two acres!”). And since (blessedly in retrospect) we didn’t have any magic rectangles with Internet connections while we were there, the first two days back home on Long Island would be filled with wasted hours looking up every single thing I’d come across in Columbia County the week before. (“Hey honey! Those cows we saw last week on North Mountain Road? Brown Swiss!”). 

I walked up to the Depot Deli the morning after we checked into cabin GH1, and there it was, something to do, forever: A paved path that hadn’t been there before with a sign explaining that I was entering the Harlem Valley Rail, which “derives its name from The New York and Harlem Railroad, chartered in 1831 and opened in lower Manhattan in 1832 with horse-drawn cars. In 1842, the line crossed the Harlem River, and in 1973 joined the New York Central Railroad, becoming known as the Harlem Division. By 1852, it extended north to the village of Chatham. In all, the line stretched 131 miles of track. What you see today while hiking and biking on this recreationway is a glimpse of Columbia and Dutchess Counties as thousands of paying customers saw the countryside until a little more than two decades ago, when passenger service was discontinued between Dover Plains and Chatham in 1972.”

Post-vacation research uncovered that this had all been developing under my radar for years. The first segment of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail opened in 1996, eventually connecting Wassaic, the last stop on Metro-North, and hence the southern end of the Rail Trail, to Amenia, which is a nice, little place. A connection from Amenia to Millerton, an equally nice, somewhat bigger little place than Armenia, came later, but I wasn’t hip to any of it at the time, as these were just the towns I passed through on the drive north and I wasn’t going to be in them again until my drive south. I also learned that there are a whole lot of people who have volunteered a whole lot of time and energy to building and maintaining this trail, and the guilt I feel at not being one of them is manifested annually to this day in the form of a charitable contribution to the Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association the week after Christmas.  

The Copake Falls to Valley View Road to Undermountain Road in Ancram section of the trail opened in 2000, just in time for me to stumble on to it that morning. The first thing I thought to myself as I began ambling along is I gotta bring my bike up here next year, though it was plain as the years passed and the Rail Trail Culture evolved that I’d be no match for serious fellows in black speedos and wicking shirts with bright yellow and orange patterns and calf muscles like beer kegs who’d often pass me by. No matter, I like my calf muscles as God made them, and for me the bike would be just a way to get to the places where the cool birds are. 

Birdwatching has always been one of my things, growing up on a creek and all. I had to know that those little ducks with the black and white heads who showed up in the winter were hooded mergansers, and not just  those little ducks with the black and white heads, and I had to know that they bred in wooded lakes, ponds in rivers in Canada and migrated to tidal creeks and estuaries all over the U.S., including mine. When I meet birds, I want to know their names and I want to know their stories.

That morning, I walked the first section of the trail, a little over a mile to Valley View Road and back again (while my fiancée, who was told only that I was walking to the Depot Deli for newspapers, waited back at the cabin, in days before I would’ve thought to take my cell phone just to walk to the Depot Deli). I walked over the bridge the spans the Bash Bish Brook, little knowing at the time that the swimming hole directly under that bridge would be my dog’s favorite spot someday, or that I’d be pushing a stroller across that bridge not four years later, or that I’d be following behind a red Radio Flyer tricycle on that bridge a couple of years after that, or that twenty years later I’d be riding across that bridge on one of the two bicycles that I bought on Craiglist from a guy who I’d exchange $350 with in the parking lot of the Pittsfield, Mass. Wal Mart so I wouldn’t have to keep lugging two bikes back and forth from Long Island, which I’m embarrassingly aware was a First World Problem. 

A little ways past the bridge, the west side of the trail opens up into a view of farmland sweeping up a gently rolling hill. Later, when I hit the trail at sunset, I found out why they had decided to put a bench there, as the sun sets directly behind that hill all summer. And I’ve got a thing for sunsets. On the east side is more farmland, but on a steeper climb, leading to the houses on the top of Valley View Road that are built into the side of Washburn Mountain, a point at which, if you can get a bike up the ridiculously steep hill that starts where the Rail Trail meets the road, whether by walking it up or with your overly-developed calf muscles, you can do a 30 mph coast about three quarters of a mile straight downhill and around a big turn right back to the Taconic State Park cabins. Just watch out you don’t get killed.  

In case you’re interested in trying the Valley View Downhill Challenge, this is where you’d disengage the brakes.

The morning I discovered the Rail Trail was a sweet, summer stunner and it was a Tuesday, so I pretty much had this whole thing to myself, and I knew Trisha wouldn’t be mad at me for wandering off once I told her what I’d found. While the spectacular views emerge in front of you, the trail is still lined with trees and bushes, and the birds were bursting at the seams. A line of thick brush along a farm or an open field or a meadow is what the good people at the Cornell Ornithological Society would tell you is “edge habitat.” 

I met some of my usual friends walking along the edge habitat that morning; cardinals, robins, sparrows, chickadees. My favorite bird, the grey catbird, was following me all down the trail, greeting me by name as he always does. “Johhhhnnnn!” I started to get the feeling that I’d be spending a lot of time here. 

At the point where the Rail Trail meets Valley View Road, the paved trail ends, and one has to follow a mostly uphill dirt road for about a half mile before reaching the next paved section that takes you south to Undermountain Road in Ancram. There are several properties along this dirt road. I may not have this story straight, but as I understand it, there’s a property owner who not only owns the road in front of his or her house but also the small meadow that looks out over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley (hence “Valley View”) on the other side of the road. Apparently, this property owner refused to allow the road to be paved. There are also benches set up to take in the Valley View, adorned with angry “POSTED!” signs on poles surrounding them in case you even thought about sitting on one of them. 

When the Harlem Valley Rail Trail is complete, it will run 46 miles from Wassaic to Chatham, and that half mile might be the only part that isn’t paved. The HVRTA has purchased 14 of the privately held miles from Copake Falls to Chatham, and NYS State Parks, who run the Rail Trail, are “in negotiation” for the other 22 miles. Knowing the way people are, they’re bound to run into a few more selfish types before they can connect the whole thing. Some of our neighbors on the bottom of North Mountain Road have the trail right in their backyards, and down in Millerton, there are houses you could jump into from it, and I don’t think anyone is being terrorized by gangs of thuggish nature enthusiasts. 

I can tell you two things: One, I have passed the property in question on Valley View Road probably fifty times over twenty years. It’s built into a hill and has lots of windows.   Every shade in every window has been pulled down every time I’ve gone past. Two, while riding past that in that meadow, I saw the biggest male deer I’ve ever met in person, and he didn’t give a rat’s ass that he was on private property. 

I didn’t continue on to the Undermountain Road section on my first visit to the trail that morning, again because I’d wondered off without telling Trisha, which I can attribute to less than a year of having to tell someone where I was going after going wherever I wanted whenever I felt like it for most of my adult life to that point. On the way back along the dirt road, in a heavily wooded area at the point where the rail trail to Downtown Copake Falls goes to the left and Valley View Road goes straight up in the air, I saw a wood thrush low in the bushes after following his call;  a deep, rich “bood-dood-a-weeeeee!” with bass in the “bood-dood” and treble in the “weeeeee!”. It’s a Morning in Copake Falls Sound, and like the nighttime sounds of bats chatting in the trees and coyotes howling at the full moon, I get homesick for it when I’m on Long Island. 

On the way back to Copake Falls, at the point where the sun goes down behind the hill, I saw a meadowlark singing his heart out from the top of an evergreen tree. I said screw the bike, I gotta come back here with a pair of binoculars. And Trisha.

I don’t know if it was that year, or two years later in ’02, when we walked the trail from Copake Falls to Undermountain Road to get in some intensive birding, early in the morning, heavily caffeinated and armed with binoculars and the Peterson Guide. I know it wasn’t ’01 because we were a little preoccupied with getting married that summer, and though we managed to squeeze in a couple of nights of camping out on the hill with the hippies at Falcon Ridge, we didn’t make it down to the park. We haven’t missed a year since then, and now we never miss a month, but I digress. 

The best birding turned out to be in a stretch with big trees adjacent to farmland most of the way, but with enough high trees along the trail itself for some kick-ass edge habitat. The catbird followed us along and called me by name. The wood thrush played their stereophonic flutes in the deep brush. All the cool songbirds were there: Little warblers and vireos that are only pass through Long Island in spring and fall all darting around here like they owned the place, swallows and flycatchers swooping over the fields while vultures and hawks hovered in circles above like guys cruising their hot rods around town. We found a whole family of cedar waxwings, Trisha’s favorite bird, with their new wave haircuts and their squeaky metallic “zeeet” call that sounds like feedback from tiny guitar amps. 

We took a lot of walks specifically to watch the birds back then. We followed people with very expensive spotting scopes around the pond at Jamaica Bay picking up pointers. I dragged the poor woman around the dunes on the West End of Jones Beach when she was six months pregnant, but we did see a saw-whet owl sleeping in a fir tree.  We spent my fortieth birthday circumnavigating Camusett Park and Target Rock Wildlife Refuge on the north shore of Long Island. We saw lots and lots of birds that day, but the highlight was spotting a bluebird flying across a field. 

When I think back on that first walk to Undermountain Road with my gal, that will always be the day of the indigo bunting.

Indigo Buntings are bluer than bluebirds. They’re as blue as blue gets before it starts turning black. They’re the blue of the denim jacket you got for your 13th birthday. And they chirp a little song like an overly friendly storekeeper who’s had too much coffee. “Helloo! It’s a beautiful day! Nice to see you! Thanks for coming! Isn’t this great! Please! Look around!”. He sat on top of a bush in plain sight, no binoculars needed, and sang to us and showed off his magnificent blueness for as long as we wanted to look at him, and we looked at him for a long, long time. 

Indigo Bunting: Photo credit Wendy Paulson – Birds of Barrington.

Once we got into the baby business, we had to curtail the birding adventures a bit, but by that time we’d built a wildlife refuge on the creek in the backyard, and there were still lots of high trees around that have since been cut down, so we put out lots of seed and let the birds come to us. One snowy January night in the Early Aughts we had twenty-one cardinals visit the feeders at dusk, something that will never happen again, as their homes were all cut up with chain saws over the ensuing ten years. But up in Copake Falls, where time stands more still and the trees are still tall, there was no better place to push a stroller than up and down the Rail Trail. And when it was time for the guy in the stroller to start powering his own wheels, that was the place to do it. 

And since you can’t rightly stare at trees with binoculars at the same time you’re making sure your five-year old doesn’t ride his bike into a ditch, we started to really appreciate the stunning variety of wildflowers just as much as the birds on the trail. Summer is a hippie festival of color and fragrance up and down the trail, and you can eat the wild blackberries and raspberries you come across and I promise that you won’t get sick and die. 

My son loves the Rail Trail. It’s never not been part of his life. He went from three wheels to four wheels to two wheels in the blink of five summers. Then of course Dad had to teach him about the Valley View Road Downhill Challenge, just to scare the crap out of Mom. I loved sitting on our front porch at GH7 waiting for him to come whipping around that corner as he coasted in. We regularly biked the Copake Falls to Undermountain Road and back again route together as part of our week in the park. 

They’re there.

Speaking of Undermountain Road, it’s under mountains, the biggest ones in the part of the Taconic Range that overlooks the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. When you get to this section of the Rail Trail, you’re literally under Alander Mountain. The trailhead is just down the road. There’s another big boy called Brace Mountain that is easily accessed from Copake Falls. These mountains are not much taller than Baker Mountain in Saranac Lake, which I climbed twice in the last three years. When I was a whole lot younger, I climbed Mt. Marcy, the highest point in New York State and a mile up in the air, at least five times. I have a brother who is four and a half years older than me who still climbs mountains whenever he gets the chance and is working on being an Adirondack 46’er. I’ve also got a pack of Marlboro 27’s on the patio table. 

My excuse for not climbing any Taconic Mountains to this point is that I didn’t have a day when I happened to be up that way and the weather conditions would make it worth the effort. Now that I’m a part-time resident, that excuse is trickling away. I know I could always ask one of the people I know in Copake Falls who are in their 80’s, and don’t have a pack of Marlboro 27’s on their patio table, to serve as a guide. They climb the local mountains all the time. There’s something in the water up there and I sure as hell hope it works for me. 

Less intimidating is the challenge of a bike ride from Copake Falls to Millerton on the Rail Trail, which should be possible by 2021, when the newest eight-mile section is completed. That would be 12 miles of mostly level or slightly downhill rolling, with a sandwich and a ride back from Trisha waiting at the Millerton parking lot. Hell, we could even make it to Wassaic, 22 miles away, as long as I get that sandwich and that ride. Dream big, that’s what I say. 

I could point out to anyone who might actually be using this document as a guide to the Harlem Valley Rail Trail that you could stop wasting your time with me right now and got to hvrt.org, but I could also tell you that the two and a half miles of trail south of Millerton to Coleman Station (I haven’t made it to Armenia or Wassaic) is just about the nicest walk or ride you’d ever want to take. Right after you pass through the pretty little town, and right before the trail opens up to some beautiful scenery, you go through a section that was originally created by blasting through solid rock, and the solid rock they didn’t blast remains on both sides of you, so it’s always about fifteen degrees cooler on this part of the trail than it is everywhere else, which was a blessing on the hot day that Jack and I finally got around to riding this trail last summer, which was the same day I inadvertently cooked a mouse in the oven, which is a story for Chapter 6. 

In 2010, ten years after the Copake Falls to Undermountain Road section opened up, the trail was extended north to Orphan Farm Road, which now borders the Shagbark Tree Farm. This is the stretch where you’ll find Mookie and I most often these days. It’s a nice mile and a half jaunt with what is probably the most spectacular scenery that the paying customers on Harlem Valley Line saw from the trains, although I can’t state that for a fact. There is also a small section across Route 22 from Black Grocery Road (the etymology of which I want nothing to do with) to the Herrington’s Hardware store parking lot in Hillsdale. Eventually, the plan is to build a pedestrian bridge over 22, connecting Orphan Farm Road to Black Grocery Road, thereby connecting everything from Wassaic to Hillsdale, which would give the trail 26.6 of its eventual 46.1 miles to Chatham. The motto of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association is “Chatham or Bust!”, and I take them at their word. 

The Orphan Farm Trail.

Meanwhile, the end of the Orphan Farm trail is where Mookie questions the need for walks to be linear rather than circular in Nature. His nose tells him that his second home in the country is right up there at the top of a very steep and narrow path that runs between the hill full of Happy Little Trees and a heavily wooded patch of the Rail Trail right-of-way leading into my neighbor’s backyards. This shortcut back to Trisha’s Mountain is easily accessible from the Orphan Farm parking lot. He’s sniffed it and seen and it for himself while sitting on his front porch up on the hill. As a matter of fact, we could make this a completely circular walk by traveling down North Mountain Road to the rail trail, then climbing back up this path right back to our mailbox. What he doesn’t know is that 1) It’s private property, which he wouldn’t care about anyway, and 2) Trisha has already seen a coyote and I’ve already seen a black bear emerge from that path in broad daylight, not at the same time of course (that’d probably be newsworthy, even in Columbia County), and if my stubborn dog thinks he can talk shit to animals that live in mountains like he does to dogs and cats and squirrels that live in Valley Stream he would be tragically mistaken. God watches after fools, little children and their dogs. 

And since Mookie can’t think figuratively, which is really one of the best things about him, I wouldn’t be able to explain to him that these one-way walks are sort of metaphoric. While I hope we’re walking together for a couple of more years, mortality will eventually come between us. He’s a 9-and-a-half-year-old dog and I’m a 57-and-a-half-year-old human doing his best to stay alive in the midst of a pandemic. The road we’re on is not a circle, and one of these days, we’ll have gone as far as we can go. 

But the good news is that neither one of us I really have anything left to prove to anybody. We’ve both been good boys, and now we’re just trying to live in the moment, both happy to be walking relatively pain-free. Our journey is our destination. We’re on the road to nowhere, but baby, it’s all right. Despite all of our shared internal conflict about leaving behind everything we’ve loved and marked back in Valley Stream, when we’re out on the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, and the sun is shining and the birds are chirping and the breeze is blowing and the wildflowers are blooming, there’s just nowhere else we’d rather be. 

Copyright 2020 John Duffy

All Rights Reserved

Chapter 2 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life As a Wishbone: Tales of Copake Falls and Valley Stream, New York – “One Runs The Risk of Weeping a Little”

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(With acknowledgement to Antoine de St. Exupery for the help). 

My father was a Covid-19 statistic. He died at the age of 90 on April 26th, 2020, at the height of the Pandemic in New York. He suffered from advanced dementia, and the fight left in his body was no match for the virus. As he was living in a skilled nursing facility, none of his children or grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) could be with him to say goodbye. The last time I saw him was on February 16th and I could see even before he was stricken that he had taken a general turn for the worse. Of course, if you tell me that his contacting coronavirus was a blessing in disguise I’m gonna come over there and kick your ass.

Neither he nor my mother, who died in 2012, ever saw Copake Falls. If they had been just a couple of years younger and healthier back in the Early Aughts, maybe they could have come up and stayed at a local B & B and hung out with us at Taconic State Park for a day or two. I sure would’ve liked that. As a matter of fact, it’s a recurring dream that I have every once in a while, and I even like the distorted dream version of them visiting.

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My parents at a house they rented on Rainbow Lake in the late 1970’s.

 

They were the ones who first took me upstate after all, and they would have loved the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. They actually kicked the tires on a house way up in Rainbow Lake in the Adirondacks when they retired, but they decided that it was way too much of a hassle to have two houses hundreds of miles apart. They were practical people.

I had a conversation with my father once about moving upstate. We were standing in the backyard on the creek in Valley Stream, the one that used to be theirs and became ours. He had grown up in an apartment in Astoria, Queens, so the 60 x 100 plot was all the room he’d ever hoped to have. He was a city guy.

Of course, since he started me out on the 60 X 100 plot, naturally I wanted something bigger someday. So we were talking in the backyard on the creek that day about how Trisha and I were very happy with buying the house in Valley Stream, but that we always followed the upstate real estate market around the place where we went on vacation every year.

This is how that conversation went:

Me: “… So we keep an eye on the properties for sale. I mean, this is great, but for what you pay on Long Island, you could have a couple of acres of land upstate, and that might be nice someday.”

Dad: (Genuinely perplexed) “What would you do with a couple of acres of land?”

Me: (Slight pause, unprepared for the question) “Stare at it! Walk around on it!”

At which point he responded with his hearty laugh and his million-dollar smile and we moved on.

Around this same time, I started teaching in a school in Ozone Park, Queens where I’d work for the next 16 years. I parked my car outside one morning in September right near where my new assistant principal (who would later become principal) had just gotten out of his parked car. I noticed that he had Vermont license plates. I thought to myself, “well, heck, there’s some pleasant small talk for the walk inside. This guy has a house in Vermont and I’ve been to Vermont. In fact, Copake Falls, where I go every summer, is only about 60 miles from the Vermont border. I’ll ask him about Vermont. Maybe he drives up Route 22 to get there.”

This is how that conversation went:

Me: “Vermont, huh? Beautiful up there. We go to a place near the Berkshires every summer. Copake Falls, New York. Ever hear of it?”

Him (distractedly): “Maybe. I think so… What do you DO there? Do you ski?”

(Narrator: “The Catamount Ski Mountain is one of the big tourist attractions nearby”).

Me: (Again unprepared for the question, and at a complete loss for what to say next) “Not much… Uhhh…We hang out. We watch the birds.”

Him: (long pause). “Hmmm.”

And then we went to work. But (sorry, boss) after I reported this disastrous attempt at friendly conversation to Trisha, it became an inside joke between us. We’d be sitting staring at a campfire or watching the trees swaying in the wind from the front porch of the cabin, and one of us would say to the other, loudly, “What do you DO there?”

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What we did there. On the front lawn of Cabin GH 7 in Taconic Star Park.

 

Well, now we have a place of our own in Copake Falls. With 1.9 acres of land. And to be honest, when we’re there, we don’t do a damn thing, really. In the words of the great Robert Earl Keen, “I kinda like just doin’ nothin’. It’s somethin’ that I do.”

You might see me taking Mookie Dog for a swim in the brook and a walk on the rail trail in the morning. You might see me and Jack on that same rail trail later on riding the bikes I bought from a guy on Craigslist who I met in the parking lot of the Pittsfield Walmart. You might even see us doing a little tree trimming and minor brush clearing around the yard. You might see me and Trisha watching birds from the front porch. We have campfires. We make dinner. We play ping-pong, pool and darts in the basement. We read and watch stuff. We drive on country roads to re-stock or to look around, then we drive back to the Mountain. Then we stare at it and we walk around on it.

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Mookie on the Harlem Valley Rail Trail.

 

And when weather conditions are favorable, and the Earth’s orbit is aligned correctly, we watch The Show.

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The Show, also known as the Trisha’s Mountain Driveway Sunset Festival, is made possible by four elements: The Earth’s rotation around the sun, the topography of the Roe Jan Valley and the surrounding mountains and hills, a road that rises to 800 feet up the side of a 1200-foot rise, and the Shagbark Tree Farm.

It was in 2002 when Trisha and I first stayed in Copake Falls for a full week together. One of my hobbies that week was to learn every road in the area, and how those roads connected to each other. It was so long ago that I did my research with a paper Hagstrom Map of Columbia County that I bought at the AmeriStore gas station. (Today, of course, you could look up our Valley Stream address on Google Earth and see Trisha getting out of her car in the driveway).

Early in this grand pursuit, I found North Mountain Road. The south end of North Mountain starts in the hamlet of Copake Falls off Route 344 and raises you up steadily. The north end takes you for a big twisty up and down ride past some very expensive houses set back on lawns with the square footage of the Pittsfield Walmart. Right in front of these fabulous properties is a small cemetery where the first St. Bridget’s Catholic Church was located. (Upstate New York: Home of the Incongruent Cemetery). The road then twists you sharply downhill and quickly back uphill several times for a roller coaster ride around a dairy farm where they raise Brown Swiss cows (imagine that) before it finally plunges you straight downhill and it spits you out on Route 22 close to the Hillsdale Town Line.

In the middle, when you’re up about as high as you’ll get, there’s a leveling off, and to your west about three or four miles away are hills that are just about equal in elevation to the one you’re on. Between you and those hills is the Roe Jan Valley, which we always refer to as the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley, because in 2002 we saw a guy who called himself the Singing Dentist perform a really campy song by that name in the auditorium of Taconic Hills High School and we laughed and we laughed. “I will spend my days / singin’ songs of praise / in the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley”. It’s catchy, isn’t it?

The Peaceful Roe Jan Valley is dissected by the meandering Roe Jan Kill, which is short for Roeliff Jansen Kill, which was named for a guy who led a party from New Amsterdam that got stuck in the ice on the Hudson River one chilly day in the 1630’s and stumbled across a tributary that runs 56.2 miles through Dutchess and Columbia Counties. And when the sun hits the valley just right, you can see the reflection of the Roe Jan Kill from North Mountain. It looks like silver mercury in a giant crooked thermometer. I already have a favorite creek, but the Roe Jan is my favorite kill.

Meanwhile, back in the Summers of the Early Aughts, Trisha got used to me taking the better part of an hour to come back from a ride to the IGA in Hillsdale five miles from Taconic State Park because I’d always have to check out another road that I found on the map. North Mountain was a no-brainer, as it led directly off 22 and planted me right in Copake Falls, so it was one of my first detours, if not the first.

I was flat-out flabbergasted by my first glimpse of the million-dollar view I’m going to try to describe here in words, and I should point out that among the mental pictures I took on my first journey was that of a yellow house that looked like an oversized mobile home, but had a little piece of that million-dollar view. How much less than a million dollars for that?

At the point where the hills level off along the top ridge of North Mountain, if you’re traveling south from Hillsdale, you pass a couple of gorgeous properties with ponds on the west side of the road. Past there, and continuing for about three-quarters of a mile, the entire long slope in front of you is part of the 800-acre Shagbark Tree Farm, on land that used to be a dairy farm called Orphan Farm. Here you’ll see seemingly infinite rows of happy little Aspens and Birches and Colorado Blue Spruces patiently awaiting their adulthood in backyards and bank parking lots.  And if you look into the distance beyond that slope, where the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley below levels off, you’ll see another piece of the tree farm that runs along Farm Road west of Route 22. As the hills on the other side rise up, the biggest piece of the tree farm looks straight back at you from Overlook Road. Behind that is more hill and behind that in the afternoon is the sun.

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And to make it even more fabulous, if you turn around and look north or south, the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley ends right below Copake and right above Hillsdale, so it’s nothing but mountain peaks stretching out to the horizon. Squint your eyes and you can see the faint outlines of Catskill Mountains on the other side of the Hudson.

All of this adds up to some motherf#%&ing beautiful sunsets.

I was a big fan of Bill Geist on CBS Sunday Morning. His thing was reporting little offbeat stories, mostly from small-town America. One of his best was about Sundown Days in Hanlontown, Iowa (now called the Sundown Hoedown), where they tried to promote the town with a festival built around the fact that right around the time of the Summer Solstice, the sun sets directly in the middle of the abandoned Union Pacific railroad tracks that run through town. I was totally charmed by the idea, as I am by every goofy idea (as is Bill Geist, God bless him), and luckily, there was a beautiful sunset that in fact lit up the railroad tracks for the CBS cameras.

The people in Hanlontown admitted they came up with this idea because there wasn’t much else to do. But if you’re watching the sunset, you’re doing something, even if it looks like doing nothing.

Our asphalt driveway on North Mountain Road is not quite straight like a railroad track. It is, however, directly in front of the southern boundary of Orphan Farm. Going south down the road from there towards downtown Copake Falls it’s all private property, with lots of big trees that block a full view of the sunset from the road. But from early spring to early fall we have a front row seat to the sun setting behind the hills to the west, above thousands and thousands of happy little baby trees. And for week or two after the sun lights up the rails in Hanlontown, Iowa, it lights up our driveway in Copake Falls.

Being apparently desperate for attention, I’ve shared a lot of pictures of those sunsets on Facebook. I’ve even apologized for it and flat out admitted that I was just showing off. People keep telling me they like the sunset pictures and they don’t mind seeing them at all. But as I turn The Show into more and more a ritual, because I have obsessive-compulsive disorder and it’s what I do, I’m trying to turn it into more of a meditative thing, like a Japanese Tea Ceremony. And if you want to meditate successfully, it’s always a good idea to unplug yourself from that stupid phone and walk away from it.

From the website kcbinternational.com:

In ancient times, Buddhist monks designed the tea ceremony to directly work to affect all five senses, to wake up the person both physically and spiritually. The double nature of the ritual works in such a way that it brings a deep inner peace and tranquility by bringing the mind and body together.

Of course, sometimes I’ll bring the camp chair down to the driveway and the sunset will be so gorgeous I will not be able to fight off the impulse to run back up to the house and get the stupid phone and take a bunch of pictures. I’ve done videos, time-lapse, panorama, crazy photo edits, and portrait mode. I’m weak of will.

In my mind, Buddhist monks shake their heads and softly say to me, “you’re freaking hopeless, dude.”

But I’m trying.

And though I know you’re not supposed to think about anything but the Here and the Now when you’re trying to achieve enlightenment, down on the driveway watching the sunset, I’ve gained a little self-knowledge (and not-self-knowledge) from thinking about the little prince.

The 2019-2020 school year was already going to be my last as a middle school English teacher. Knowing that I was eligible for a full pension at the end of 25 years, I pretty much decided in September of 2019, while staring forlornly at the long line of red break lights stretching in front of me and Lou the Subaru on the Belt Parkway at 6:08 am, that I was done.

Oh, and by the way: When people tell you about teachers spending all those hours of their own time doing prep work, communicating with parents and grading papers, when they tell you how much of their own money teachers spend on supplies, when they tell you how many obstacles are thrown in the way of doing the job effectively, they’re telling you the truth.

And all that stuff about it being a rewarding career? That’s all true, too. I met more great people and saw more of the good in humanity close-up in 25 years than many people ever will. You’ll have to trust me on that one. That was my reward for a workday that was like being hit in the head repeatedly with a two-by-four. But I got to live deeply as heck for 25 years. It was exhausting, but I don’t regret it, and I’m glad I took over the family business from my Mom. I might start tutoring at some point, but as for juggling 90 eighth graders for 185 days a year, twenty-five trips around the sun was plenty.

My last day in a school with kids in it was supposed to be June 26th, 2020. Instead it was March 13th. For many of those 106 days, it was my job to keep the kids going with “virtual lessons” on Google Classroom. However, acknowledging that many teachers had to keep their own kids going through remote learning, the periods were shortened from 42 to 25 minutes. There’s really not a whole lot you can accomplish as a teacher in 25 minutes. That’s where pdf’s come in.

We finished the novel we had been reading in class before Trump broke the country, The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt, which I loved teaching because through of a funny and charming coming-of-age story set on Long Island, the kids got to learn what a mess everything was in 1968, and why it’s still a mess. That took about three weeks. Then what? Well, for my next trick, I was planning on breaking out Steinbeck’s The Pearl to teach the young ones to avoid greediness and how to spot unrepentant assholes, and lo and behold, there it was in public domain on pdf’s all over the place. Mission accomplished. However, my ingenious plan, breaking the book down into 15-minute bites with questions meant to promote critical thinking, ‘cause that’s how I rolled, gave me three more weeks to fill up after Memorial Day.

What to do, what to do. It was totally on me. And even if it weren’t, who was going to stop me from doing whatever I wanted? It had to be something relatively short and simple, that was old enough to be ripe for stealing from a pdf. file. Ideally, something good. The kids had suffered for the incompetence of their leaders. Some of them never saw the light of day for the three and a half months that I was in contact with them online.

One of them lost his father just like I did, except his father was younger than me, probably a lot younger, and he also lost 45 years with his father that I got with mine, so it wasn’t like I did at all. I was communicating electronically every workday with 13-year-olds in the epicenter of a Pandemic. Just writing that sentence feels surreal. There was misery and anger and confusion and sadness all over the place, and I know Duffy’s Google Classroom was a bright spot for many of them. There was something there to think about, and somebody thanked them for thinking. I had to go out with a bang, even if I was sitting on my couch with a laptop computer. I needed a book that could help them think about sadness and loss, about love and friendship, about hypocrisy and human folly, about seeing with your heart.

There’s only one book in the world like that. And I’m happy to report that it was a smash hit on Google Classroom.

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Here’s The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery in short with  too much left out:

A pilot has crashed his plane and is stranded in the desert. He meets a tiny little prince from the Asteroid B-612, who has come to Earth after a long journey through the universe, a journey he took because the love he felt for a single flower was too much for him to bear. The little prince recounts his journey through different planets to the pilot, telling of his conversations with, among others, a king, a man who has nothing but believes he is rich, a drunken fool, a lamplighter, a cartographer, and a train switchman. They each allow him insight into some paradox of human behavior. On Earth, he meets a fox, who teaches him true wisdom, which he then imparts to the pilot. When the little prince leaves the pilot (I’m not telling you how) he promises that pilot will be able to see him in the night sky.

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And if you’ve read The Little Prince, you’ve already figured out what this all has to do with sunsets. This is from chapter 6:

Oh, little prince! Bit by bit I came to understand the secrets of your sad little life… For a long time you had found your only entertainment in the quiet pleasure of looking at the sunset. I learned that new detail on the morning of the fourth day, when you said to me:

“I am very fond of sunsets. Come, let us go look at a sunset now.” “But we must wait,” I said.
“Wait? For what?”
“For the sunset. We must wait until it is time.”

At first you seemed to be very much surprised. And then you laughed to yourself. You said to me:

“I am always thinking that I am at home!”

Just so. Everybody knows that when it is noon in the United States the sun is setting over France.

If you could fly to France in one minute, you could go straight into the sunset, right from noon. Unfortunately, France is too far away for that. But on your tiny planet, my little prince, all you need do is move your chair a few steps. You can see the day end and the twilight falling whenever you like…

“One day,” you said to me, “I saw the sunset forty−four times!”
And a little later you added:
“You know−− one loves the sunset, when one is so sad…”
“Were you so sad, then?” I asked, “on the day of the forty−four sunsets?” But the little prince made no reply.

In Chapter 10, on the first stop of his journey, the little prince meets a king who lives alone on a planet with no subjects. The king tells the prince that he has absolute authority over everything. The little prince is intrigued by this notion, and so asks the king if he can command a sunset, since he is feeling homesick and hasn’t seen one since he left Asteroid B-612.

Such power was a thing for the little prince to marvel at. If he had been master of such complete authority, he would have been able to watch the sunset, not forty−four times in one day, but seventy−two, or even a hundred, or even two hundred times, without ever having to move his chair. And because he felt a bit sad as he remembered his little planet which he had forsaken, he plucked up his courage to ask the king a favor:

“I should like to see a sunset… do me that kindness… Order the sun to set…”

“If I ordered a general to fly from one flower to another like a butterfly, or to write a tragic drama, or to change himself into a sea bird, and if the general did not carry out the order that he had received, which one of us would be in the wrong?” the king demanded. “The general, or myself?”

“You,” said the little prince firmly.

“Exactly. One much require from each one the duty which each one can perform,” the king went on. “Accepted authority rests first of all on reason. If you ordered your people to go and throw themselves into the sea, they would rise up in revolution. I have the right to require obedience because my orders are reasonable.”

“Then my sunset?” the little prince reminded him: for he never forgot a question once he had asked it.

“You shall have your sunset. I shall command it. But, according to my science of government, I shall wait until conditions are favorable.”

“When will that be?” inquired the little prince.

“Hum! Hum!” replied the king; and before saying anything else he consulted a bulky almanac. “Hum! Hum! That will be about−− about−− that will be this evening about twenty minutes to eight. And you will see how well I am obeyed.”

Just as the king commands, twenty minutes to eight is about what time The Show starts in Copake Falls, during the weeks when the Trisha’s Mountain Driveway Sunset Festival is in full swing. It’s completely reasonable. We carry the camp chairs down to the end of the driveway and we sit there, like we’re at the Village Green Bandshell in Valley Stream and The Nassau Pops are coming out to perform. Sometimes we shoot the breeze while we watch the show, and sometimes we start getting silly and laughing ‘cause we do that. Sometimes we point phones at it. But other times we sit there and stare, and we think our own thoughts.

And as all sunset fans know, it’s different every time. Sometimes fluffy cumulous clouds glow like they’re being heated on a stove when the sun sets beneath them. Sometimes there’s a little break in a blanket of cloud cover so that the sun suddenly appears right before it sets behind the mountains and throws a ribbon of orange and red straight across the ridge. Sometimes cirrus clouds splash streaks of peach and mustard and cherry red against the darkening blue like brushstrokes from an abstract painter, and sometimes giant stratocumulus dragons and bunnies change colors as they float by. You never know what you’ll see, so it’s always worth watching.

So shortly after the day of my final sign-off on Google Classroom, I was up on The Mountain, sitting in a camp chair next to Trisha in an illuminated asphalt driveway as the clouds and the sun and the tree farm and the hills performed another new, never-seen-before version of The Show and I was thinking about the little prince.

“You know, one loves the sunset – when one is so sad…”

There’s something intrinsically sad about a sunset. It’s the end of another day of one’s life. It’s the last gasp of light before total darkness sets in. So even if one is sitting happy as a clam watching a spectacular sunset, one is bound to feel a little bit of melancholy. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that we’ll all be dead someday.

But besides feeling sad for the state of the world right now, and sad about all the grief in the collective consciousness, and all the unnecessary suffering that has been inflicted by greed and stupidity, and of course sad about the death of my father in the middle of all this, I realized I was also feeling a little sad watching the sunset that evening because there are flowers back on the creek that have tamed us, and Trisha and I are responsible for them.

Our backyard in Valley Stream faces west, and the sunsets there are no slouches. If they were the sunsets we watched for the rest of our lives, we’d die lucky. But nothing compares to the big sky over Copake Falls. It almost feels like we’re cheating on our house. But we’ve allowed ourselves to be tamed by this 1.9-acre plot of land on a hill overlooking a tree farm, and since the day we first stepped foot on it, nothing has been the same. And sometimes it feels like the future is coming at me too quickly.

The little prince loved a rose that grew on Asteroid B-612. Being the only rose there, he thought she was unique in all the world. But his rose was very vain and very demanding, and she was breaking his heart, which is why he decided to tidy up his volcanoes, pull up the weeds to stop the baobab trees from taking over and go out into the universe to find wisdom. Later, while exploring Earth, he comes across a garden of roses, and realizes that his rose is not unique, which makes him cry.

He next meets the fox, who wants the little prince to tame him, but the Little Prince doesn’t understand the concept, so the fox explains:

“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox,” It means to establish ties.”

“‘To establish ties’?”

“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

The fox goes on to explain the process of taming:

It will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain−fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the colour of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back to the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

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So at the fox’s insistence, the little prince tames him. Part of the process is to establish rites. The little prince has to show up at the same hour as he did the day before so the fox can look forward to that hour. Soon, the fox has been tamed. But the little prince, who never wanted to tame the fox in the first place, feels like he has to move on.

“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“Then it has done you no good at all!”

“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.”

“Go and look again at the roses. You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world. Then come back to say goodbye to me, and I will make you a present of a secret.”

The little prince comes to realize that the rose he left behind on Asteroid B-612 is unique from the other roses because it has tamed him. And he tells the other roses just that:

“But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.

And he went back to meet the fox.

“Goodbye,” he said.

“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

“It is the time I have wasted for my rose−−” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.

“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose…”

“I am responsible for my rose,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

The House on the Creek tamed me as a little boy, then it tamed me all over again when our son was a little boy. I know every single flower and weed that grows on that 60 x 100 plot of land. I have spent thousands and thousands of hours taking care of it.

There’s a wisteria bush that grows in the corner of the yard next to a large and beautifully crooked maple tree that leans out towards the creek. Both of these plants were there before my parents were. If not for our regular intervention, the wisteria vines would have swallowed up the maple tree long ago. Someday we’re not going to be there and there will be nothing we can do about it, but on some level, we’ll still feel responsible for it.

Over almost twenty years on the Creek, Trisha and I have planted over a hundred perennials, roses shrubs and trees. We’ve grown thousands of flowers and fallen in love with every single one of them. We made a place surrounded by too much ugly into something uniquely beautiful. We tamed it and it tamed us. Though the siren call of Copake Falls was always calling, we made a little paradise in Valley Stream.

But the first time we drove up that asphalt driveway on North Mountain Road, we both knew we were going to be tamed all over again. The sweep of grass that slopes upwards to a trail through the woods in the backyard, the solitary mountain standing watch over the cornfield next door, the way the house itself nestles into the hill like a giant stick of butter on a plate, the big old trees that needed a little help from the vines trying to eat them, the leaves of the tall cottonwoods dancing in the breeze along the driveway, and those sunsets over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley.

The little prince points out that on Earth “Men set out on their way in express trains, but they do not know what they are looking for. Then they rush about, and get excited, and turn round and round...” And not only that, they “raise five thousand roses in the same garden−− and they do not find in it what they are looking for.”

That’s us all right. All the years we spent building a little Eden in Valley Stream surrounded by crowds and noise and litter, we kept looking for our place in Copake Falls, and just like when the little prince and the pilot go in search of a well in the desert, we just kept going until it found us. And when we did, it was as if it had been waiting to be found, waiting to be tamed, and waiting to tame us.

The first time we walked up the hill in the backyard, I said to Trisha that this was a canvas that we could paint something brand new on, something that started with us. She was always more than cool about making a home and a family in a place where I had already been part of one, instead of us building from the ground up together. Now this was her turn. Trisha’s Mountain. But after twenty years and a thousand roses, she’s just as tamed by the creek as I am. To let go of it completely is, to quote one of her favorite expressions, something I can’t get my head around right now.

Monsieur St. Exupery said it best: “One runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets himself be tamed…”

When it comes time to say goodbye to Valley Stream, to say goodbye to the place where I was a little boy and where we raised a little boy, time to say goodbye to that physical connection to my parents, it just ain’t gonna be easy.

But the fox reminds the little prince that, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

So when I’m doing nothing on Trisha’s Mountain, sitting and staring or walking around, I may not be able to meditate like a Buddhist Monk, but I’m trying like hell to stay in the here and the now, to see with my heart, everything essential that happens to be right in front of me, and everything essential that I love that can’t be right in front of me. It’s all there if I see rightly.

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When it’s time for little prince to leave the pilot, on the one-year anniversary of his descent to Earth, he comforts the pilot by telling him to look up at the stars.

“And at night you will look up at the stars. Where I live everything is so small that I cannot show you where my star is to be found. It is better, like that. My star will just be one of the stars, for you. And so you will love to watch all the stars in the heavens… they will all be your friends. And, besides, I am going to make you a present…”

He laughed again.
“Ah, little prince, dear little prince! I love to hear that laughter!”
“That is my present. Just that. It will be as it was when we drank the water…”

“What are you trying to say?”

“All men have the stars,” he answered, “but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they were wealth. But all these stars are silent. You−− you alone−− will have the stars as no one else has them−−”

“What are you trying to say?”

“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… you−− only you−− will have stars that can laugh!”

And he laughed again.

“And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure… and your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, ‘Yes, the stars always make me laugh!’ And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you…”

And he laughed again.

“It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh…”

There isn’t much room for the stars in our neighborhood on light-polluted Long Island. There’s no limit to the stars on our hill in Copake Falls. After The Show fades to dark red and then to black, you can move the camp chair to the wide-open hill in the backyard and take them all in. And of course, the longer you look, the more stars you see.

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The little prince is up there. You know that. But then there’s all the people whose time in my life has passed like another day’s sunset. Some of those little stars up there are all the thousands of kids and thousands of grown-ups I met in 25 years as Mr. Duffy the Schoolteacher. Some of them are people I met before those 25 years even started, people from my neighborhood, people from school, people I met while working at the supermarket, driving a cab, working at a magazine and a newspaper, going to college, going out to bars and clubs, going on an Outward Bound expedition when I was 16, going to Camp Lavigerie in the Adirondacks every summer and every other thing I ever did.

Some of those stars are friends and family who I haven’t seen in too long because of this Pandemic, and I hope every one of them of them can come here and sit down on this hill someday. But in the meantime, they’re out there. So I’ll think of them and hope they’re doing well and I’ll pick each one out a star for the time being.

But the brightest stars up there, some of whom are planets following the path of the sun?

Those are my parents, and Trisha’s parents, finally getting to visit, and to share in all this beauty that has tamed us. Those are the stars that guide our way into the future.

Because someday, when we cross the Whitestone Bridge with nothing left to go back to on the other side, the sun will go on rising and setting, and we’ll have a front row seat to a beautiful sunset every night there is one. Over time our sorrows about leaving Long Island will start to be soothed. And some of those stars on that hill at night will be all the flowers we grew on a little 60 X 100 plot of land along a creek in Valley Stream.

And we can say it’s what we did there. And we can say it was something.

 

Copyright 2020 by John Duffy

Fair use (hopefully) of excerpts and illustrations from The Little Prince, which was written in 1943 but renewed in 1971, copyrighted by the widow of Antoine de St. Exupery. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life As A Wishbone: Tales of Copake Falls and Valley Stream, New York: “There Goes Lou and His Pal Gumby, Driving Past The Red Rooster”

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If you decided, for some strange and indefensible reason, to drive from the bottom to the top of New York State in a straight south to north direction, starting at Kennedy Airport and ending at the Canadian Border, at two points in the first half of your pointless journey, you would be just a couple of miles from my house. I can’t say for sure whether I’d be home. Or home. But if I am, please stop by.  We don’t get many visitors these days.

Call first.

And if you chose to take the scenic route on this silly excursion (and you may as well), you would also get to know New York State Route 22, which runs 337.26 miles from the Bronx almost to Quebec, and parallels the borders of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont. One stretch of this mostly two-lane road runs about 60 miles, from Brewster to Copake Falls.

That stretch is mine.

Between myself and Trisha, plus one run from a friend with a van (who stopped at Brewster Pastry to buy us a Danish that couldn’t be beat) we did twenty round trips from Valley Stream to Copake Falls in the first six months of owning a second house, logging around 4,000 miles, back and forth, back and forth, hauling, among other things, three air mattress, a four-seat dining room set, a complete set of curtains with bear and deer silhouettes, a 12-Cup Mr. Coffee, eight lamps, six framed pictures, four patio chairs and a matching table, a set of silverware, plates and bowls, a portable firepit, two window fans, a space heater, a TV and the stand to put it on, a microwave oven, two air conditioners, a dresser, two nightstands, five end tables, a set of fireplace tools, two rugs, a shower curtain, a shower head, two strings of party lights, a desk and chair set, seven folding chairs, two toilets, a combination pool table/ ping pong table, a convertible couch, a copper rooster wind vane, a dog crate with two dog beds and a new kitchen sink, so don’t even bother saying it, ‘cause we did.

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Lou the Blue Subaru getting ready to go to work

I knew those miles of Route 22 pretty well before. Now, either way I’m traveling, north or south, it’s the street that goes to my house. So while the other chapters in this book will either be somewhere around my house or somewhere around my other house, in this chapter, I’m going to take you on a ride, and hopefully show you what makes this stretch of road so interesting and so unique. But you have to promise to want to learn things that you really don’t have to know. And I have to hit you over the head with two-thousand words of backstory first.

Now, as anyone who has traveled north to south from Upstate into New York City and Long Island knows, the experience is kind of like sitting home watching this nice show about farms and trees on TV and BANG! Suddenly a bunch of stormtroopers break in and grab you, throw you behind the wheel of your car and force you to drive while they torture you for an hour and a half. (“Faster!” “Trooper!” Slow Down!” “Watch Out!” “Move Right!” “Move Left!” “Stop!” “Now Crawl, Mother#%&er!”). They slap you around with psychopaths in monster trucks, people in very old Japanese sedans merging from ten-foot-long entrance ramps for the very first time in their lives and lightening-flash traffic jams on the Hutch, and right before they release you, they threaten to throw you off the Whitestone Bridge.

On the south to north route, you can sort of keep your dignity as you’re being tortured, knowing that no matter what they throw at you, you’re going to make it to that country road that takes you home.

Just watch out you don’t get killed first.

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Had I known how much necessary driving I’d be doing now, I might have done less unnecessary driving when I was younger, but that unnecessary driving is how I wound up with a house upstate in the first place.

When I was young and restless, in my mid-twenties and living on the creek with my parents, I used to like to just get in the car and go. I had nobody to go with, the upside being that I could go wherever I wanted. But once off Long Island, I would always go north, or north then east. My family went to the Adirondack Mountains every summer when I was a kid, so that had a lot to do with it. Plus, I’ve always just plain old loved Upstate New York and New England, and the chance to explore the next new route and the next new town. If asked where I was planning to go on these trips, I’d say I was driving to Massachusetts for a cup of coffee.

That’s because the first time I did this, I decided to take Route 7 through Connecticut and Massachusetts up to Bennington, Vermont, then turn around and go home. It was October 1987, and I wanted to look at the leaves in color, because I lacked any real ambition. Plus, I wasn’t smart enough at the time to check the weather forecast, because I picked a cold, rainy, grey day, though I did learn that the fall leaves do have their own special charms and their own special smell on days like that.

I left at six in the morning and decided to stop (in the pouring rain) at the Sunrise Diner in Sheffield, Mass for breakfast around 8:30. The diner occupied a cape-cod house smaller than my house in Valley Stream, and it was packed solid for breakfast. A little digging revealed that the Sunrise Diner operated until around six years ago, and it closed still looking exactly as it did in 1987. It was one of those places you’d find in The Land That Time Forgot.

IMG_2854And I guess they didn’t get a lot of out-of-towners, as the entire place went stone silent when I walked in, like they had been talking about the poor, pathetic single guy driving aimlessly up Route 7 in a Honda Civic and someone said, “Shhh!!! He’s walking in!”

I didn’t want to take up a whole booth for myself, so I sat at the end of the counter and I smiled in polite acknowledgement at the people who weren’t smiling back at me. The man behind the counter, tall as a tree, bushy moustache, glasses, plaid shirt, well-worn jeans with suspenders, he smiled at me for all of them, and he said the magic word:

“Caahffee?”

I love coffee more than just about anything. People on Long Island say, “cawwffee.” Something about the way this gentleman said “caahffee” made it sound somehow like it would be better coffee than cawwffee.

So I said yes, please.  And it was excellent caahffee. As good as any cawwffee I’d ever been served on Long Island. I ordered scrambled eggs and sausage with what I thought was a side of hash brown potatoes, but which turned out to be a gigantic side of corned beef hash. With everyone still staring at me, I felt compelled to eat all of it. It was the best corned beef you could possibly ever imagine.

And that was my introduction to Berkshire County, Massachusetts, as well as to hospitality New England style. We’ll serve you up the best breakfast you ever had, but don’t expect a hug. I could totally get with that. And it was the beginning of a day of happy little discoveries along the road that I could file away for future reference.

I drove on through Great Barrington and my first impression was that I could live very happily in a place like this. And this was 32 years before the first legal weed store opened next to the Price Chopper twelve miles from my upstate front door. Stockbridge looked just like the Rockwell picture, even though it wasn’t Christmas. I would’ve stopped at Alice’s Restaurant, but I was still high from the corned beef hash. Even Pittsfield, as apocalyptic as some if it looked in 1987, had Waconah Park, the oldest professional ballpark in the country, where the Rookie League Mets played back then. And above Pittsfield (which looks a whole lot better now) was Mount Greylock, which I came back to climb, but which you can also drive to the top of and get a hot dog (and a cup of caahffe) when you got there. You can’t beat that.

I did make it to Bennington on that first trip, also a beautiful little town, with a cool 306-foot tall obelisk, The Bennington Battle Monument, that I also came back to climb when it wasn’t raining.

I told as friend of mine about the trip later. He said, “Dude. You really need a girlfriend to do this stuff with.” But more solo trips were in my future before I ever found one. One I could keep, anyway.

Sitting in my parents’ attic that winter, staring at my old Rand McNally Atlas, I planned a route to circumnavigate New York State. It was fun to plan, but the reality set in that this was a journey of close to 1,200 miles, so I scaled back, and decided just to travel up Route 22, which parallels “Big 7” on the New York side, just to look around. It was the Spring of 1988, and I still didn’t have a girlfriend, so off I went.

My first stop on Route 22 was about 60 miles up from Interstate 684. I pulled off on Route 344 to look around Taconic State Park in Copake Falls. I liked waterfalls, and I wanted to see one. I stopped in what appeared to be one of the only two commercial business in town (the other being Bash Bish Bicycles). It was a denim blue building with deep red trim around the windows that looked as if it had been built many, many upstate winters ago. The sign outside indicated that I was about to cross the threshold of the Depot Deli, unknowingly for the first of thousands of times.

I bought something, don’t know what, and I asked the girl about my age behind the counter how to get to “Cop-A-Key Falls.” She was very patient about correcting me, though I was embarrassed just the same. (It’s “Co-payke”). She also explained to me that there was no such thing, and what I was looking for was Bash Bish Falls, which was down that way about two miles.

So I walked out of the Depot Deli having made a complete ass of myself, but it all worked out, as the girl about my age is now my neighbor three mailboxes down North Mountain Road.

Bash Bish Falls is a glorious place, though in the summer you have to beware of the droves. One of the first things I bought for the upstate house was a framed print of a painting of Bash Bish called “Rocky Pool”, painted in 1856 by John Frederick Kensett, who was a Hudson River School guy. We also have a small painting of the falls by an artist friend of ours whom we met while she was painting a mural on the walls of the Depot Deli. So like a lot of people, my love for Bash Bish runs deep. It was early spring the first time we met, and I had it almost to myself. I don’t know how long I sat on a rock and stared that day, but I know it was longer than I can usually sit in one place. I’m sure I was getting all dramatic and philosophical sitting there by myself, maybe musing about where the path my life was on would ultimately end up, not realizing I was soaking in it.

I filed Copake Falls away that morning and pressed on with my absurd journey up 22. I went as far as Hoosick Falls, where I passed a sign telling me that Grandma Moses was buried nearby moments before I passed a bar in a two-story-porch house with a giant Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” logo hanging on the railing of the upper porch. I thought I might start looking for work up this way. I hung a left and headed over the mountains and across the river at the Collar City Bridge in Troy, on the way to annoy some friends in Albany before going back down to the torture chamber.

When Trisha and I met, eleven excruciating years later, I soon found out that even though she was more of a beach and ocean gal, she loved the Upstate vibe as much as I did. I don’t know who brought up Copake Falls first, but it was like one of said, “you know Jesus? I know Jesus!” And she had an ace up her sleeve that I didn’t know about. She had booked a cabin in Taconic State Park months before and was planning on going up into the woods to celebrate her birthday by herself three weeks from then. My kinda gal. Then she had to figure out what to do with the new guy, so she said screw it, and she asked me to come along. I thought about it for a millionth of a second.

She drove. Even though riding shotgun brings out every OCD tendency in my sad little brain, she wanted to drive, and I didn’t want to blow this thing. It was after work on a Friday and we had to be at the park by 9 pm in order to check into the cabin. So of course, I had to mansplain that driving straight up Route 22 was more direct than taking Interstate 84 eight miles west to the Taconic Parkway, then heading 8 miles back east again. Plus 22 had lots of places to stop and eat, and I was hungry.

So since she didn’t want to blow the whole thing either, we drove up 22, stopped for dinner at Karen’s Diner in Patterson and arrived 15 minutes late at Taconic State Park, before cell phones, where we found Melissa Miller, who stuck around and waited for us because she thought we might have just gotten caught in traffic. Today Melissa is second-in-command at the park, and I will always be indebted to her for the fact that we didn’t have to sleep in a Dodge Daytona that night because I needed a cheeseburger.

The Dodge Daytona had as name. Her name was Chelsea. (And yes, apparently she had a gender as well). All our cars have had names because Trisha insists on naming cars, which I think is just adorable. Over the twenty years of renting cabins in the park, we drove up Route 22 (which she ultimately did admit was the faster route, if you didn’t stop at any diners) behind the wheels of Chelsea, Nameless (the Civic that I was driving when we met, which she named Nameless because it had no name, nor gender), a Honda Accord Sedan passed down from my parents that I named “Whitey” because I had to name it before she did, and Buster, the Honda Fit that ultimately replaced Chelsea, and is currently our son Jack’s learning to drive car.

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Trisha with Chelsea, her brand new car in 1993, six years before we met, when she was 22. Wherever I was in 1993, it was the wrong place.

Now we have two Subarus, ‘cause we’re  annoying: Trisha’s Crosstrek is a female named Jessie, and my Blue Outback is a guy named Lou. Lou the Blue Subaru. I’m sorry.

Lou replaced Dan the Van. Dan was a 2001 Ford Minivan that we bought when Jack was a baby because we convinced ourselves that we were going to have a second baby which we never did, and that we needed a vehicle big enough to carry two babies and all their belongings to Copake Falls. Dan was very comfortable, with captain’s chairs, sliding doors on each side and lots of other little bells and whistles, but he was nothing but trouble. Trisha would say that Dan was trying as hard as he could, and it wasn’t his fault he was a Ford.

Among the many things that inexplicably broke on Dan the Van was the windshield wiper motor. Not having a good go-to local mechanic at the time, I took him to a local Ford dealer, who replaced the windshield wiper motor, thanked me for my patronage and sent me on my way.

Fast-forward to our summer week in the cabin at Taconic State Park. Driving up 22, Dan develops a little cough, and is struggling on the hills. I’m a little concerned, but we make it OK. And this time around we’re bringing so much baby stuff for just one baby that Trisha is driving up solo in Chelsea.

Dan the Van parked next to a more reliable vehicle.

And as would happen in some years when we only had a week in the cabin, it rained and it rained. And as it rained, Dan coughed more. I had been planning to take a Sunday Morning drive up a very steep mountain to eat blueberry pancakes with complete strangers at the annual Austerlitz Historical Society Blueberry Festival, because it’s there. But the forecast was running about 40% for drenching Columbia County thunderstorms, and I was afraid that Dan wouldn’t be able to handle it.

On that Saturday afternoon, I was shooting the breeze with the woman who was working the counter at the Depot Deli, one of Copake Falls’ oldest and most esteemed citizens. I told her about my dilemma, and she answered with one of my all-time favorite lines. Interpreting the crux of the problem as one of my not wanting to drive in a storm, this is what she said: “Well, John, that’s not the Country Way!”

I had to admit, it was not.

Of course, the Country Way starts with being able to diagnose and fix problems in your own damn car. That went without saying. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to get stuck in Austerlitz just for a plate of blueberry pancakes (though I had to weigh both sides). At the end of the very rainy week, I gave Trisha custody of the baby, said a prayer and headed down 22 driving a very sick minivan with comfy captain’s chairs, the Suburban Way.

That trip was the first time I looked at every stretch of road between Copake Falls and Brewster in terms of what it would be like to be stuck there for days and days. Believing that your vehicle will die at any moment really gives you a new perspective of place and distance. I have permanent psychic damage from this trip, but it was also the day when I sort of “took ownership” of that sixty-mile stretch of Route 22.

As for Dan, we miraculously made it back to Valley Stream, and the hidden blessing that followed the tragedy of missing the pancakes at the Austerlitz Blueberry Festival was meeting our man Pete, the new mechanic who had just opened a shop around the corner. Pete is the kind of guy who seems like he stays up at night worrying about your car. He has bailed Trisha and I out time and time again, the most spectacular example being last July when Lou the Blue Subaru blew his transmission (as Pete warned me he might) while carrying two kayaks, three people and all their stuff and one very confused Labrador on the Adirondack Northway enroute to Saranac Lake, leaving us stranded in Queensbury, New York, 217 miles from Valley Stream.

The good news was that the transmission was under warranty, and there was a Subaru dealer right nearby, the only one for hundreds of miles. The bad news is they were the only Subaru dealer for hundreds of miles, and they suggested that I might be eligible for Social Security before they’d get around to looking at my car. We rented a van (ironically) to get to Saranac Lake and then back to Long Island.

Enter Pete, the man who had years before determined that the mechanic at the Ford Dealer had not installed Dan the Van’s new windshield wiper motor correctly, and that the poor thing was coughing and sputtering from the water gushing into the engine every time in rained. This time, Pete called his brother who owns a fleet of tow trucks, who in turn sent a young fellow with a flatbed on a 435-mile round trip to rescue Lou the Blue Subaru and transport him to the Gregoris Subaru Service Department in Valley Stream, who fixed him in time for the next trip to Copake Falls in August.

And the people at Subaru Corporate were besides themselves with heartfelt regret about the whole business. Knowing full well that they sold me a CVT transmission that would break if I did everything with the car that they said I could (kayaks on the roof rack and all that) they not only paid for the new transmission, they reimbursed me for the rental car, and, inexplicably, sent me one of the those fancy Dyson cordless high-power vacuum cleaners, along with a little note of apology asking if we could still be friends.

So me and Lou, we’re all right now. Pete keeps us on the road, and we’re never more than a week or two away from “doing the drive” between Valley Stream to Copake Falls. The first half of the 117-mile trip is on parkways, the Cross Island over the Whitestone Bridge to the Hutchinson River Parkway to Interstate 684, where I always thank Dwight D. Eisenhower for knocking at least 45 minutes off the trip.

The second half of the trip starts on Route 22 in the Town of Brewster. There has been an ongoing and very entertaining debate over the years about where exactly Upstate New York starts. The official New York State version is that Upstate starts where commuter rail service to New York City ends, which on the Route 22 Corridor would be at the Metro North Station in Wassaic, about 30 miles south of Copake.

Trisha believes that Upstate starts at Exit 8 on 684, which is Hardscrabble Road in Croton Falls, just south of Interstate 84 and on the Westchester- Putnam County Line. Why? Because where else but in Upstate New York would you find a place called Hardscrabble Road in a place called Croton Falls? It’s a likely answer to: Quick! Make up a place that sounds like it’s in Upstate New York!

And the family from whom we bought our Copake Falls house owns and operates a tree farm that stretches along the valley in our front yard, and when the trees grow up, some of them go to the wholesale distribution center, the Hardscrabble Nursery on Hardscrabble Road in North Salem.

So it’s hard to argue with my beautiful wife on this point, as it is on most points because she’s always right. But I’m allowed to think what I want, and I think that Upstate New York starts just a little north on 22, at The Red Rooster Drive-In in the town of Brewster.

Back on Long Island, there’s a place in Massapequa Park called The All-American Burger. If I’m anywhere near it and I have the time, I have no choice but to stop for a Double Double (double burger, double cheese), fries and a milkshake. It is the best fast food on Long Island, quite possibly the world. Like All-American, and myself, the Red Rooster was first established in 1963, and all three of us have a classic, retro look. The Rooster was originally a single A-frame, with red and white stripes leading from a giant ice cream cone on the roof. A year or two ago they added an indoor dining room with a giant cheeseburger on the extension roof. A big happy white rooster with a mescaline smile, wearing a red and white checkered chef hat and matching apron, greets you warmly at the front doors (despite knowing you might get a chicken sandwich), and there is lots of outdoor seating alongside the kiddie playground and the miniature golf course, which features a smaller version of the same Rooster, along with Pinocchio, the requisite miniature golf windmill and an ersatz Porky Pig.

Rooster Burgers are pretty good. Damn tasty, actually. But they’re approximately 70% of the size of an All-American (single), and just not of the same caliber. Plus, you seem to be paying for the Red Rooster Experience as much as for the food, which depending on how hungry you are, is almost worth it. I’ve never seen anyone really unhappy there. You’ll go away fed and the chocolate shake will get you to Copake Falls.

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Brewster is sort of the last suburb of New York City going up 22. But in a little section of the green space behind the Rooster, there’s an area set off with rocks with about 15 headstones called the Sherwood-Minor Burial Ground.

If the local burger joint has a 19th Century cemetery behind it, you may be in Upstate New York.

The six-year-old in my soul longs to putt golf balls through the windmill, but Lou and I press on. We’re a little beyond halfway to Copake Falls, Lou is purring along, my blood oxygen level is rising, and we’re about to check on the state of things along old 22.

There’s one more humongous shopping plaza in Brewster, set way off the road up on the top of a hill like a Greek city-state. Then things really start “Upstating.” The area around 22 for the next thirty miles is part of The Great Swamp, which is exactly what it says it is, filtering the water that flows down to the massive reservoirs that supply New York City’s drinking water. So traveling along through Putnam County and into Dutchess County, first we’re in the swamp, then we’re surrounded by more shopping plaza city-states near the village of Patterson, then we’re in the swamp again, then we’re in Pawling, then back to the swamp for a while, and then we’re in Dover.

And here’s something else: The stretch of New York State that straddles the Connecticut border is called The Oblong. When the border was first proposed between New York and Connecticut as twenty miles east of the Hudson River, the people in the towns of Greenwich and Stamford insisted that they had to remain part of Connecticut, whiny little bitches that they are. So Connecticut got a “panhandle” consisting of 761,440 acres. In return, the entire border of New York was moved 1.8 miles west, creating what was officially known as “The Equivalent Lands”, but which came to be known as The Oblong because of its shape.

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Lots of people drive my stretch of Route 22 without knowing that they’re passing through The Great Swamp, or that they’re traveling along the western edge of the Oblong. It doesn’t matter to them. They still get from here to there without knowing or caring about the nature or the history around them. Theoretically, we could all spend our short time on this Earth only learning what we think we need to know. None of the information I will share with you about the towns and landmarks that we’ll pass from here on is the least bit necessary to know to get from Putnam to Columbia County, and what I can tell you only scratches the surface of what there is to know. But to me, that’s exactly why it’s worth knowing.

Case in point. Unnecessary Fact #1: In fifty-eight miles, we will pass four Kingdom Halls, in Brewster, Pawling, Dover Plains and Millerton, plus a massive 670-acre headquarters of The Watchtower in Patterson.

This may not be enough to get your attention. But of course, the wonderful thing about living in the age of information is that you dig up completely useless information like this:  The Watchtower in Patterson pours oodles of money in the surrounding community to make up for the fact that they have gobbled up a huge swatch of tax-exempt property. They have established the reputation of being very good neighbors. According to an article I came across in the Warwick Observer, the Patterson Town Supervisor sometimes asks the Watchtower folks to put the cows out in the pasture on Friday afternoons “for the tourists”.

So now you know two more things: The Patterson Town Supervisor is a marketing genius, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have cows.

You didn’t need to know this, of course, but see how much more fun it makes the trip?

It gets better: On a hill across from one of the Brewster City-States, you will find a brown building called the Ski Haus (spelled out in Old English-Style letters). They’ve been in business for 57 years, not only selling and renting skiing equipment but also selling kayaks, bicycles and Adirondack outdoor furniture. Apparently, they will even rent you a vacation house in Vermont.

Approximately 12 miles up the road, you will find The Shed Haus, which is actually a log-cabin style house surrounded by an acre of model backyard sheds on display. Hundreds of them, so it seems. Up until three years ago, the Shed Haus was the Shed Kingdom. This sets off layers of curiosity: Was the name “Shed Kingdom” a deliberate attempt to tap into the Jehovah’s Witness market? Were the people who took over and renamed the business “Shed Haus” deliberately trying to cash in on the success of the Ski Haus? Or was it a complete coincidence?  Did it occur to the Shed Haus people that once you bought your skiing equipment, bicycles, kayaks and outdoor Adirondack furniture at the Ski Haus, you would need a Shed Haus to store it all in over the winter? And If the Ski Haus and the Shed Haus were both meant to conjure up the pre-colonial Dutch history in the region, why did they use the German word for house and not the Dutch word “huis”? I could understand that a business that wanted to get you excited about skiing would choose a name that sounded like something in the Alps, rather than in Brewster, but what is the connection between Germans and backyard sheds?

Sometimes the questions are more interesting than the answers. But I have to leave it at that, because we’re heading into Pawling.

Full disclosure: I have soft spot for Quakers. For one thing, I have a 96-year-old uncle in California, son of Irish-Catholics Immigrants, who has been a Quaker for 75 years. But while I’m drawn to Quaker ideas about pacifism and human rights, I could never work up that level of commitment, although I had started going to St. John’s in the Wilderness Episcopalian Church in Copake Falls before the Pandemic ruined everything. I hope to come back vaccinated someday. The Episcopalians are sort of the halfway point on the Religion-O-Meter between Catholics and Quakers, and that’s good enough for me.

Among the things I didn’t really need to know about Pawling, New York is that it was first settled by a Quaker who wanted to get the hell off Long Island. Nathan Birdsall was a surveyor from Oyster Bay who had once cut through the woods from Danbury, Connecticut to Pawling, assumedly to have a good story to tell. He later found out that the land in the Oblong was being sold by the State of New York and he sprang into action, gathering up Quakers from Long Island, Connecticut and Rhode Island to purchase several 500-acre plots of Oblong which became Quaker Hill.

The Quakers of Pawling outlawed slavery in their community in 1776, fifty years before the rest of New York State. Plus, they refused to do business with slaveholders, to the point where they used maple syrup instead of buying imported cane sugar. As conscientious objectors, they accepted George Washington and his Continental Army commandeering their meeting house during the Revolutionary War, but they stayed out of his business. (Acknowledgement to David Levine at HV Mag for this information).

The first time I tapped into this history was when I realized that I passed South Quaker Hill Road, Quaker Hill Road and North Quaker Hill Road in the space of four miles, so I looked on Google Maps to find that it goes way, way, way up, makes a big horseshoe, then comes way, way down. Then I looked at the Zillow real estate ads to find that there’s probably not a whole lot of living simply to please God in the $2 million-dollar houses for sale way up there. And there’s also an Old Quaker Hill Road, where you’ll find the original Meeting House and the Akin Free Library, a bizarre stone Georgian-style building with an ornate copper dome which houses a museum of Quaker artifacts, as well as a natural history museum in the basement, which according to the beautiful Atlas Obscura, features “oddities like meticulously scribed 19th-century shop ledgers, a first edition of The Hobbit, utopian Quaker pamphlets, a shrunken head, snake skins, hundreds of taxidermy local birds from 200 years ago, Native honed seashells, a giant moa egg, fetuses in jars, and spoon handles swallowed by a local mental patient.”

So it goes without saying that a visit to Quakerland in Pawling is on my bucket list, along with a visit to Daryl’s House.

Daryl’s House is just up the road past the Appalachian Trail. It used to be called The Town Crier. It’s now a bar/ restaurant/live-music venue owned by Daryl Hall of Hall and Oats. While I wasn’t a huge Hall and Oats fan, Trisha and I became big fans of his “Live from Daryl’s House” TV series, wherein he invites musicians to his actual house somewhere in Amenia or Millerton (or both) and he performs with them along with his kick ass “house band” (a phrase that takes on a whole new meaning in this case). Daryl Hall is truly a gifted singer, something you wouldn’t necessarily know from listening to bubble-gum pop songs like “Private Eyes” and “Maneater” (sorry, Daryl, but really) and he was able to let loose there in his big old restored colonial house, thus proving to skeptics like myself that he is a major talent, has great taste in music and was selling out to make money all those years, successfully so.

At least he got mega rich without hurting anybody, if you don’t count earworm damage. Most of the time as we were watching “Live From Daryl’s House”, we’d be asking each other over and over how the hell this guy can look and sound so good as he closes in on 75 years old. I guess that’s where the money comes in. Still.

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During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Daryl’s House helped out the surrounding community by stocking and selling groceries and toilet paper. Anybody who loves the Oblong that much is all right with me. So I’d like to visit Daryl’s House to take in some live music one fine day. In the meantime, I always take a quick look in the parking lot as I pass by, just to see if he’s out there unloading his car.

One Kingdom Hall up the road from Daryl’s House, we pass the preposterously impressive campus of the Trinity Pawling School, massive buildings on a perfect hill one side of the road and a pristine athletic field on the other. Trinity-Pawling is an Episcopalian prep school for boys founded in 1907. Having spent 25 years as a public-school teacher and 13 years as a public-school student, I have no idea what’s it’s like to be up on that hill, never mind down on that field, so my mind immediately drifts to the only reference it has, which is the Robin Williams’ movie “Dead Poets Society”. Though I doubt if there’s a guy standing on a desk up there on that hill yelling “Carpe Diem!”, who knows? There might be. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that every one of the 6,000 alumni of Trinity-Pawling School was and is more comfortable wearing a suit and tie than I’ll ever be. Bless their hearts.

Our next stop on the journey north on Route 22 is Wingdale. There are people living happy, fulfilling lives in Wingdale. I have no proof of this, but I have anecdotal evidence. Not only is there a Pleasant Ridge Road (and how bad could that be?), there’s currently a house for sale with its own 10-acre lake created from a quarry from which came the marble used to build the U.S. Capitol. That house will run you $5 million. But if that’s out of your range, there’s a nice little 600 square-foot modular literally right around the corner you can snap up for $85,000. So it goes in the Hudson Valley.

For all the civic pride I’m sure residents have in their hearts for Wingdale, it just doesn’t have a whole lot of curb appeal as you travel along 22. And yet, it’s home to two internationally known businesses. This fact led to a fun little “when worlds collide” moment on my Facebook page last summer. It started when I posted a picture of the interior of the cabin I was staying in at Taconic State Park.

A woman I know through her extensive research about her native Valley Stream, who now lives just east of the Oblong in Kent, Ct, saw this picture and was convinced, “that table came from Hunt County Furniture in Wingdale!” Another friend, who I know from our time working in a supermarket 40 years ago, saw that comment and answered excitedly “Wingdale! Big W’s!”.

To which the woman responded, “What?”

I felt compelled to explain two things to Friend #1: First, The least expensive table at Hunt County Furniture will run you about $1500, and I don’t think that was in the state park budget, though it’s a very nice table, nonetheless. Maybe they made a deal for floor models.

Second, Big W’s is a barbecue restaurant in Wingdale that people travel from near and far to visit. Big W himself was an accomplished chef in New York City who moved upstate, bought himself a food truck, painted a smiling, slightly stoned pig face on it, rented a space on Route 22, installed a smoker and a woodpile under a car shelter and built himself a successful business. He later bought the deli next door to the truck and a made it into a small restaurant, with several smokers now housed in a prefab metal shed outside. He’s gotten rave reviews in The New York Times and Bon Appetit and no one ever has anything bad to say about him on Yelp or Trip Advisor. He was even featured on an episode of “Live From Daryl’s House,” wherein Daryl Hall takes the band down to Wingdale for the Big W’s experience.

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Meanwhile, Hunt Country Furniture, handsome though it is, remains completely out of my league.

As you pass the Harlem Valley Metro North Station, things get very ugly very quickly. You are passing the site of what was the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center, originally Harlem Valley State Hospital. You are face to face with the meanest looking buildings you ever saw, a whole bunch of them, deep-brick three-story Georgian thugs with barred windows, standing along the road with their arms crossed against their chests, sneering menacingly as they look down on you through the eyes of all the ghosts who live there.

It was an insane asylum. From 1924 until 1994. At its peak, it had over 5,000 patients and employed over 5,000 people on 600-plus acres of grounds. It was also a village unto itself with everything from farm production to sewage treatment. If it’s in your town – a bakery, a bowling alley, a swimming pool – it was in Harlem Valley. You can still see the small grandstand and the baseball field from the road, not quite as creepy as the hospital towers, but still it looks like a perfect setting for the weirdest fucking dream you’ll ever have.

Also back there somewhere is a golf course that was considered so good that a developer bought the land to build an entire community called Dover Knolls around it, but he never got it off the ground. He instead sold the lands to Olivet University, a religious school owned by a Korean evangelist named David Yang, who then got in big-time trouble for exposing workers to asbestos as they began to illegally start rehabbing the buildings and had to pay his way out of it with a couple of million dollars he had in the till. But the good news is that Olivet University will let you come in and play golf there if you pay them.

I’m sure some good things happened over the 60 years of Harlem Valley State Hospital. I’m sure some people who really needed compassion were able to find some. It’s especially nice that there was baseball. But all I can think of as I pass through Wingdale on Route 22 are all the people who were forced to go to places like this in the first half of the 20th Century. What a God-awful existence it must have been to be kept at Harlem Valley against your will, with the train going by all the time like at Folsom Prison. (Thank you Virginia Repka-Franco for that awesome bit of imagery and other information I picked up from an article at https://classicnewyorkhistory.com/harlem-valley-psychiatric-center-testament-changing-times/). All the cupcakes and fresh milk in the world wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference.

The hospital was also at the “cutting-edge” of electro-shock therapy and lobotomy, so if you were one of those people who were sent there based on the 1920 definition of insanity, and you talked back, you likely ended up like Randle McMurphy. My mind does a mash up as I drive by, and I picture a young homosexual in New York City being declared insane by a judge, maybe a judge who graduated from Trinity-Pawling School and was ashamed at his secret feelings for his roommates. The judge commits the young man to Harlem Valley, where the electro-shock therapy accidently kills him. But no bother, they just bury him in the cemetery right there on the grounds, “The Gate of Heaven”, under a stone with a number instead of a name, to protect his family, who could just check the records to find the right gravestone, except that all the records were lost.

Or, they could have just left him the fuck alone, you know?

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And of course, it’s not like the people who we trust to be in charge of things aren’t still making spectacularly stupid decisions. Case in point, about two miles up from Wingdale in the Town of Dover, we’ll drive past the 1,100-Megawatt Cricket Valley Energy Center, which recently went online despite New York State environmental laws that would shut it down in twenty years. While Hydraulic Fracking is banned in New York State, this monster was built to generate power from natural gas that is fracked in Pennsylvania and travels through the Iroquois Pipeline (what a disgusting thing to call it) across New York and into Connecticut.

The people who make money from Cricket Valley will tell you it’s clean energy, but it isn’t. It’s clean as compared to gnarly old coal-fired plants, but it still pollutes the air. The people of Dover who protested against it were also told that it would be a boon to their shitty economy.

This is from the Highlands Current:

In 2017, in exchange for not having to pay property taxes of $11.7 million annually, Cricket Valley Energy made a PILOT payment to Dover for $109,521. Under the same agreement, Cricket Valley Energy avoided $59 million in school taxes — its payment to Dover’s district was $552,559. Other taxes given up by the state and Dutchess County will total about $23 million.

Nice deal, eh? New York Governor Cuomo’s position was that it was already approved and in the works before all the new laws designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so, oh well, deal with it. He does that sometimes. Besides, the energy produced by Crickey Valley will power a million homes, so they say. And all those mega-rich non-Quakers back in Pawling need to keep their central air cranking, and look, Dover, we even paved the road for you!

I don’t need clickbait to tell me that I’m one of the people who are moving up to the Hudson Valley “in droves”, and we droves need to charge our cell phones. I’m part of the problem in this respect, but if it’s any consolation, we generate most of our power back in Valley Stream from solar panels on the roof. Of course, up in the Town of Copake, the fight over a 500-acre (!) solar farm that is also being forced down local residents’ throats is being waged as we speak, and as usual, the locals are losing. This whole goddamn civilization thing is pretty much unsustainable at this point, so we might as well keep on burning gasoline and head north while we still can.

Our next stop is Dover Plains. I have met exactly one person from Dover Plains to my knowledge. She is the branch manager of a bank, and in our one encounter, she was professional, helpful, knowledgeable and exquisitely groomed. To comment on the people I see walking up and down Route 22 in Dover Plains as a means of making some sort of statement about a place of which I really know nothing would be catty. If you judged Valley Stream based on the people walking on Merrick Road, we wouldn’t come out looking so great. I try really, really hard not to look down on anyone, because it’s too easy. You can always find someone who you are “better” than, but it proves absolutely nothing. I wish I had been born with this wisdom instead of having to have learned it by catching myself being an asshole too many times when I was younger.

This brings us to Oniontown. Literally on the other side of the tracks in Dover Plains is a road is now identified as Seven Wells Brook Road. It used to be called Oniontown Road. If you look this up on Google Earth, there’s no street view, but from the satellite view, you will see a long road lined with trailers, many with garbage strewn around them. (You’ll also see footpaths that go off into the woods, which is probably the creepiest part of all of this to me). Historically, it was and is an area of extreme Appalachian-style poverty and everything that goes with extreme Appalachian-style poverty. Articles were written in the 1940’s about the noble savages who lived in Oniontown with no electricity and had to defend their honor constantly against the people in Dover Plains who looked down on them. The story was that they were not only insular but had been inbreeding for generations.

When the first generation of suburban droves started creeping further up the Hudson Valley and reached Interstate 84, they gave birth to intolerable children. Some of those intolerable children decided it would be fun to drive down Oniontown Road at night and pretend they were re-enacting the Blair Witch Project by shining flashlights on the trailers and property of the residents, then posting videos on You Tube. Then these young, affluent cretins started getting their windshields and heads bashed in with bricks, which to me and many others was a totally reasonable response on the part of the people on Oniontown Road. Things spiraled out of control, of course, and it was great fun for all the You Tubers when the Dover Police Chief warned them to “stay out of Oniontown.” It was shortly thereafter that they changed the name of the road.

A writer named Aaron Lake Smith wrote a great piece of investigative journalism for Vice Magazine where he was able to get some of the Oniontown Road residents to open up about their experiences, not only with the misguided thrill-seekers driving up from the 84 corridor but with local Dover Plains people, especially their experiences in having to fight their way through school. It seems that while they were once ostracized for being inbred, now they’re targeted for being mixed-bred.

Ugh.

This area of Dutchess County has always been relatively poor, outside of the dude with the marble quarry lake and the post-modern Quakers. And maybe finding somebody to look down on becomes a more attractive strategy the less you have. But the suburban droves and the citiots can’t be bothered learning anything about the places they’re invading, or the people who live honest lives there, because it isn’t something they have to know to get where they’re going. And let me tell you, there’s a little war brewing up across the entire Hudson Valley between the locals and the citiots, and more bricks, at least figurative ones, will probably be thrown before it’s over.

But we need to shake all this ugliness off, don’t we? It’s been nothing but bad news since we left Big W’s Roadhouse. How about I show you some horses?

Just south of Dover Plains, we’ll pass by Lucky Orphans Horse Rescue, established in 2008 to provide shelter and rehabilitation to abused and neglected horses. According to their mission statement, They are also “committed to working side by side with the horses we rescue to help change the lives of people with a diverse range of struggles such as those suffering with addictions, depression, grief and loss, trauma, at-risk youth and improving relationships in families and groups.”

 And since I told you about the Lucky Horses, I have to give props to another local organization. In Amenia, you won’t see the horses from the road (not even if you’re a tourist) but you’ll see a sign at the top of a hill for an organization called Godspeed, a multi species Animal Welfare Service Rescue that provides food, medical, placement, and solutions to animal welfare problems, free of charge, to large domestic animals, farm animals, companion animals and wildlife.” They also facilitate cat spaying and neutering and support local pet food panties.

What wonderful things these people are doing. And this is one of the things about Upstate New York that I find particularly fascinating: A couple of acres of nasty scary ugly in one place is almost always juxtaposed by a couple of acres of unique charming beautiful in another place right nearby.

A long time ago, Trisha and I drove down Sinpatch Road in Wassaic to look at a house we saw on Zillow. I really have no idea what the hell we were thinking at the time, but it had something to do with a Metro North train to the city being right nearby. Of course, the train takes about two and a half hours to get to Grand Central Station, and I guess we hadn’t fully thought that one through. The neighborhood was “hardscrabble” to say the least. We’re pretty sure there was a guy living in a metal shed in the backyard of the house in question. A few people in the area had junk collections in their front yards which they may or may not have been proud to display.

And yet, right down the road is a place called The World Peace Sanctuary, which started with a man in Japan named Masahisa Goi who received the message “May Peace Prevail on Earth” after meditating on the devastation wrought on his country after WWII. He became known as a sensei, gained followers and began a movement to put up four-sided “Peace Poles” all over the world, with that message written in different languages on each side of the pole. This led to “Peace Pals International”, which encourages schools and youth groups to create peace poles. Plus, at the Sanctuary itself, they have a peace pole representing every nation in the world (so they say), where people gather to mediate once a month. And apparently, if you want to, you can ask for a mallet to ring the “Peace Gong” at the front entrance and send your energy out into the world.

Why, you ask, is a place that began as a reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the middle of nowhere around the corner from Wassiac’s Tobacco Road?

I have two answers for that: 1) I don’t know, and 2) Why not?

Welcome to the mysteries of the Hudson Valley.

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We’ve reached the village of Amenia. It’s a nice little place, isn’t it?. The Four Brothers Pizza Restaurant, a chain that actually outnumbers the Kingdom Halls on the Route 22 corridor, opened a little drive-in movie theater a couple of years ago. It’s the kind of thing that lets a little town say to the rest of the world, “we have fun here.” Some beautiful old Hudson Valley architecture surrounds us as we roll through town. Of course, like all of this side of Duchess County, there are also buildings that are in such poor shape that it defies the laws of gravity that they’re still standing. It was while passing by one of those buildings in Amenia that I learned how to say “Please Curb Your Dog” in Spanish (“Por favor frener a tu perro”) from a handwritten bilingual sign taped to a utility pole. It occurred to me that this sign shared the same concept as the Peace Poles. May curbing your dog prevail on Earth.

Nothing much happens between Amenia and Millerton, but at this point, 22 emerges from a series of dark hollows through the Great Swamp and steps out into lush rolling hills and farmland. This is where we’ll find McEnroe’s Organic Farm Market. I’ll be devoting one of the later chapters in this book to all the wonderful places where you can get a fresh turkey sandwich within twenty minutes of Copake Falls, and you’ll learn a little more about McEnroe’s if you can stick around that long. For now, I have to tell you about a little bone I had to pick with them. A figurative one, not a turkey one.

For years and years, McEnroes’s enticed passers-by with a series of small signs on the side of the road with their logo (“McEnroe’s Farm Market” surrounding three happy little tomatoes) with a small rectangular sign titled at a 20-degree angle attached to each of the bigger signs announcing, in big block letters, “LUNCH!”. The last sign, traveling in either direction, had another sign under it that said, “OOPS! YOU MISSED THE FARM!”

On almost every day of my 25-year teaching career, my lunch was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I ate in ten minutes. I had completely forgotten that lunch could be a celebration. Why just have lunch if you can have LUNCH!? I was intrigued.

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At McEnroe’s in happier times.

Seeing as it was only twenty minutes from Copake Falls, I finally made it down to McEnroe’s, and LUNCH! did not disappoint. But the very next summer whoever is in charge of those signs disappointed me terribly. In horror, I saw that they had replaced all the signs that said “LUNCH!” with signs that say “EATERY!”

Eatery?

Ok, they sell a lot of stuff there. Anything edible that can be grown organically as a matter of fact. So yeah, it is more than lunch.

But EATERY?

You know what this is all about, right? It’s the citiots again. It’s the people who sneer at The Red Rooster and Big W’s Roadhouse Bar-B-Q, or think they’re all hip and in the know because, “Oh, look! I read about that place the Times! How quaint!” The ones who drive their Zip Cars from Manhattan to their ridiculous mansions up in Hillsdale to host fancy dinner parties at long picnic tables where the guys all wear pink polos and khakis and the women wear white dresses and floppy hats. The ones who drive into Hudson for art gallery openings on Saturday afternoon, maybe a tour of the local wineries on Sunday before they head back to the Upper West Side. The kind of people who would drive right by a sign that says “LUNCH!”, but slow down and say, “Honey? Let’s stop at this eatery!”

As one of the droves, I have to suffer for their sins. For one thing, I have to be extra nice and polite to everybody because I have a Long Island accent you could cut with a chain saw. In every encounter I have with a Columbia County native, I have to somehow establish implicitly (mostly through the simple rules of politeness) that I’m not one of them. I like LUNCH! Just like you. And I don’t need to go to no damn eatery to get it.

It’s not enough to keep me away from McEnroe’s. They have everything there. I have no choice but to forgive them for this assault on my sensibilities. I just wish they had left the signs alone.

Then again, up the next hill, at the exact 100-mile mark from my driveway in Valley Stream, there’s a green little restaurant called the Round III (I’m sure there’s a story there) that has been trying to entice me off the road for twenty years with messages like “Breakfast All Day! Apple Cinnamon Pancakes!” This summer, they’re pushing turkey cranberry melt sandwiches on that sign, so maybe I’ll have to step up and choose sides in this culture war over LUNCH!

Moving on, the farms get farmier and the rolling hills get rollier as we approach the Village of Millerton, where the area approaching the village along 22 is known as Irondale. This is one of the many places where iron ore was mined and cooked in giant furnaces in the 19thCentury. The hamlet of Copake Falls started out as Copake Iron Works. That whole story will get its own chapter later on, but in the meantime, I would just like to point out that “Irondale” would be a really cool thing to be able to say when someone asks you where you’re from. They’d sure think twice about messing with somebody who comes from a place called Irondale.

But I digress.

We are at the three-way intersection of 22 and 44 in in the village of Millerton. We’re at the top of the Oblong, right over the border from Lakeview and Salisbury Connecticut, where a lot of the “eatery” crowd can be found. A look to your right and you’ll see stores both hipster and practical lining the street going up to the top of a small hill. Downtown Millerton on 44 seems to have struck a nice balance between eateries and places to eat lunch, between the historic Hudson Valley and The Valley of The Droves.

If you happen to be waiting at a red light at this three-way intersection in warmer months and you look to your left, where the road isn’t, you will see a house on a hill surrounded by stunning perennial flowers. On the day after Tropical Storm Isaias, I “did the drive” from Valley Stream to Copake Falls to see if there was any damage to the house. (I could have bugged a neighbor who did some caretaking for us over the winter, but I figured if there were damage, she’d have her own to clean up, and besides, that’s not the Country Way). At the Millerton light, I noticed a woman outside the house, pulling branches out of the garden. There was no one else at the light and she looked at me and I looked at her, and I called up the hill to her, “I’ve been admiring your garden for twenty years!” And she smiled and thanked me.

On the way back that afternoon, I looked up again to see if she was there, since we’re friends now, but I didn’t see her. But that’s when I noticed the Peace Pole in the corner of her yard.

Kismet, man.

We’re in the homestretch now. A small hollow leads out of Millerton and the road begins to elevate. Out the window on your side of your car, you can see the Taconic Berkshire range start to rise across the farm fields. Up and over a steep hill and we pass the Willowbrook Farm (watching out for crossing geese). As we pass a sign welcoming us to Columbia County, we go up up up and the mountains have stepped onto the stage like the main act that the Great Swamp was warming up for. Alander, Frissell, Brace, Haystack, Bash Bish, Washburn and their somewhat shorter friends (including Sunset Rock Mountain in our backyard) forming a ridge starting from the corner where New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts converge and running straight up the New York / Massachusetts border to Vermont. When you’re up this way, the mountains are always with you, everywhere you go, friendly old giants sitting on their front porches, keeping an eye on the neighborhood, taking in the valley views while the clouds rolling by paint them a hundred shades of green. We are 110 miles away from Valley Stream, Long Island, and we’re on a different planet. It’s a view that never fails to take my breath away.

And you’ll notice that I’ve slowed way down so you can really enjoy this majestic mountain view, but it’s really because the stretch of 22 in Town of Ancram is one big speed trap.

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We’re passing the AmeriStore Gas Station at the corner of 22 and County Route 3, and up ahead is the former Hill-Over-Holstiens Farm where I used to buy fresh milk in bottles in their little store. Sometimes nobody was in the store, and you could just help yourself to the milk and leave your money in the cash box. A lot of places still operate like that, but every year there’s one more story about some citiot who drove away from a farm with the money box. This particular farm, 391 acres, is for sale right now for $6.2 million. As with all the farmland for sale in the area, you can only hope that it is not carved up into more space for the droves.

Fortunately, the Town of Copake has a list of zoning regulations as long as the Appalachian Trail regarding what can and cannot be done in the “Scenic Corridor Overlay Zone.” on Route 22. And it’s remained a beautiful place, pretty much as I first found it in 1988, despite the local unrepentant asshole who has been polluting it for twenty years.

You know you’re coming into Copake when you see two things: Tom Hill, a little 892-foot high mini-me mountain that seems to pop right out of the road directly in front of you, and the billboard for Dad’s “50’s-Style” Copake Diner, which gets its own chapter later on. If you want to go to Dad’s, you jump off at Route 7A, where the little hamlet of Copake lies waiting. I’ll show you around a bit before this book is done. I may always be an outsider, but at least I’ve done my homework, and I defy any of the 3,500 residents of Copake Town to call this Lawn Guylander a citiot, even if I can’t fix my own car.

Right across from Dad’s billboard, back on 22, you’ll see a long red building set back from the road behind a very expensive looking stone wall. You’ll see that the sign on the building says, “Farm Market”. If you look closer, behind huge stacks of firewood, you’ll see that the Farm Market building is empty. This is because it’s a complete sham. If you look closer still, you’ll see bulldozers and payloaders, and a sickly-looking cornfield in the distance.

The guy who owns the 300 acres behind the Phony Farm Market has been dumping construction waste on his property for at least twenty years. His apparent strategy was to throw expensive lawyers at the poor little Town of Copake every time they tried to nail him for fragrantly breaking the law, and to a certain extent, it worked. He even built the Phony Farm Market without obtaining permits, along with building a steel bridge across the environmentally sensitive Noster Kill, which runs through the property.

Every time Copake hauled him into court, he’d pay his way out it, and with a big old jolly fuck you, he’d continue to dump polluted soil on his “farm”. Many good people in Copake spent many hours of their lives fighting this truly unrepentant asshole. All that effort spent on the disorder created by one guy in two square miles, but that’s just how they roll, isn’t it?

To their credit, New York State DOC finally stepped in and hauled the gentleman’s wiseguy ass into jail, where he has spent much of the last few years, but apparently the polluted soil remains, and it’s a safe bet that the dumping is still going on.

But the thing that amazes me most of all about this story is that the guy went to the trouble of building the Illegal Phony Farm Market building, seemingly to make the property look nicer from the road. It’s the only thing that makes sense, as everybody knows what he was really up to. On some level I think he was, like me, afraid of being considered a citiot by the locals.

Go figure.

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Right before we take the Route 344 right turn into the hamlet of Copake Falls, we pass Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church. When Trisha and I first began our alternative existence up here, it was called St. Bridget’s. In 2009, St. Bridget’s merged with St. John Vianney in Churchtown to create Our Lady of Hope parish. In turn, St. John Vianney had previously merged with Holy Cross in Taghkanic and Sacred Heart in Philmont in 2005. So as you can see, the Catholics are going to have got to step up their game in the Hudson Valley, as they’re plainly getting their asses kicked by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

They’ve just about lost me to the Episcopalians at this point, and if you stick around, there’s a chapter coming up about a great little church in Copake Falls that Welcomes You.

In the meantime, with a winding climb up North Mountain Road, our 117-mile journey is complete. At Trisha’s Mountain, we’re going to bring the stuff in from the car, make a phone call and drive back down to Church Street Deli and Pizza across from Dad’s. We’re going to bring back some genuine Long Island-Style Pizza (not quite on the level Ancona’s in Valley Stream, but close) and later we’re going to drag some camp chairs down the driveway to watch The Show. You’ll see.

Speaking of The Show, it’s time for the next chapter, but I’ll wrap this one up with something I picked up from a Catholic priest at St. Bridget’s many, many years ago. (When they’re good, they’re very, very good). It’s one of my personal mantras, practical advice for any occasion, whether you’re discovering a new town or you’re driving through towns you’ve driven though fifty times, whether you’re stopping for a good old-fashioned LUNCH!, tending your garden, planting your Peace Pole or just sitting and watching the light dance with the mountains.

When they would get to the readings in the mass, the part where they tell the little stories, this is what the priest said:

“Let us be attentive.”

I’d have to go back and ask my old friend from the Depot Deli to find out for certain, but I’m pretty sure that, along with not letting the rain stop you and fixing things yourself, being aware of the nature and the history that surrounds you is part of the Country Way.

Copyright 2020 by John Duffy

All Rights Reserved

Introduction to Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life as a Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, New York: “From The Gateway To Suburbia to The Land of Rural Charm”

Here’s where it starts: At the very end of 2019, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the week when nobody does much of anything, my wife Trisha and I did something complicated, extravagant and totally unnecessary. We bought a house.

Everyone with whom we shared this news was ecstatically happy for us. Nobody called us stupid. Not to our faces.

I suppose if somebody had a problem with us buying this particular house, the problem would be that we already own a house, and the majority of people on Earth don’t own a house, and many don’t have a home, and now we have two. From that perspective, of course it’s clear that we didn’t have any damn business buying another house.

But we bought it anyway. We had our reasons. We think some of them are almost valid, but I’ll leave that to you. If you’re a capitalist, maybe you’ll say we’re smart people and we know what we’re doing and it’s not a problem at all so go ahead and enjoy it. If you’re a Marxist, you’ll likely call us out for the selfish pigs that we are. Fortunately for us, there are way more capitalists than there are Marxists, at least in our circle.

Trisha and I bought my parents’ house eighteen years ago in Valley Stream, Long Island, New York. It’s a little 1,300 square-foot cape cod-style house on a 60 x 100 plot of land. It’s cute. You’d like it. We grow a lot of flowers. The backyard overlooks a pretty little winding creek, the official name of which is actually “Valley Stream”, but people who don’t know me usually either call it Hook Creek or Mill Brook.

People who do know me call it Duffy’s Creek. Some, anyway. Because I asked them to. My parents bought the house in 1955, and I grew up there, the “baby” in a family of five kids. I never went very far, never changed my mailing address. I got married, came back, entered into a real estate transaction, had a son of my own, and began growing old right on that creek. The tide comes in and out from Jamaica Bay, and by the grace of God, I go right on living. It’s a nice story so far, isn’t it?

But here’s the thing: Three weeks after Trisha and I met on the boardwalk by the ocean in Long Beach, Long Island in 1999, we spent a perfect early-November weekend staying in a cabin in Taconic State Park at Copake Falls, in Columbia County, New York, a place we had both discovered independently, she from going to the annual Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in nearby Hillsdale, me from years when I would periodically get in my car and drive long distances because I didn’t have anybody to go to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival with. We lit a campfire on a crackling cold and clear Friday night full of stars, and on Saturday morning we hiked to Bash Bish Falls under Indian summer skies full of crazy blue jays hopping through orange and yellow trees yelling, “Stay! Stay! Live Here!” We fell in love with each other and we fell in love with the place. And for the ensuing twenty years, we returned there every summer and a couple of falls, probably logging about six months of elapsed time. Our son Jack has never known a year that didn’t include at least one week in Copake Falls.

“It’s like our second home,” we’d say.

But that wasn’t true. It just sounded nice.

So our home away from home stayed up there on the map and up there in our minds year after year as we continued to grind it out on Long Island. The sound of the blue jays and the turns in the country roads stood behind us, tapping on our shoulders to remind us what we were missing; the ancient mountains, the cleaner air, the bigger trees, the wide open roads, the farm stores and the church barbecues, the people who wave when they drive by, the absence of malls and chain stores (except for the Stewart Shop up in Hillsdale, which is perfect and cannot be criticized). I wasted hours and hours of my precious time here on Earth scrolling though Zillow listings.

Copake Falls was an alternative reality. And as Valley Stream continued to get louder and louder year after year, summer after summer Copake Falls stayed mellow.

Valley Stream is a lot of things. Many of them are good. But “mellow” is not one of those things. A quick check for “antonyms of mellow” on Merriam Webster reveals “discordant, dissonant, grating, harsh, inharmonious, jarring, strident, unmelodious and unmusical.” I guess it would be harsh, maybe even unmelodious, to describe my hometown in these terms. But still, it sure as hell is not mellow, except in our backyard, and then only when our surrounding neighbors aren’t shooting fireworks or holding dance competitions. And if you want to see jarring and strident, live near a mall on Long Island during those seasons when people get in their cars every half hour to go buy more stuff. If grating and harsh is more what you’re after, listen to a Long Islander who has been inconvenienced.

Robert Frost came up with the line, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” It was such a good line that he requested it as the epitaph on his gravestone. As you might guess, Jean-Paul Sartre doesn’t have an epitaph on his gravestone (cool issues and all), but he sure could have gone with one of his best lines: “Hell is other people.”

People are what make a place more than anything. Or break it. There are rural parts of America and suburban parts of Long Island where I’m not too arrogant to say I wouldn’t be caught dead. People who are proud of where they live, wherever they might be, like to come up with slogans to promote their hometowns as places that other people might like to see, possibly even live in, because people spend money, and that’s what keeps places alive. Valley Stream once sold itself as “The Gateway to Suburbia”. Kind of a Dante’s Inferno thing really, but I suppose it was meant as a compliment at the time. The Town of Copake sells itself to this day as “The Land of Rural Charm.” That’s a good one, huh? I hope whoever thought of that at a meeting got the praise and recognition that they earned. But I could show you lots of uncharming rural places around town if I had to. And tell you about some less than charming rural people.

So In fairness to my fellow Long Islanders (and – whether they like it or not – my now-fellow Copakeans), let’s start with the premise that the vast majority of people everywhere, in every place with a name, are really all right. I truly do believe this. But sadly, as you know, while most people are wonderful, some people just suck. So it follows that if there are more people, more people will just suck. That being established, here are what I believe are the four basic groups of problem humans:

1. The Slightly to Extremely Dangerous: Those who have had hard lives or some sort of trauma and have decided than instead of nobility or faith, they will instead make it a point to project their hurt and anger on convenient targets they find around them. While this group of people have to be treated like walking landmines, as a child of God, one can’t judge them if one is not one of them and hopes not to be. I just try to stay out of their way and not to make things any worse for them.

2. The Insufferably Annoying: Those who have been sadly brainwashed by too much TV into thinking they are the star of their own little reality show, and thereby have developed a need to create drama and tension where none should exist in order to compensate for an otherwise tedious existence. Long Island is saturated with people like this, possibly because of its wealth. If your main problems are not the procurement of food, clothing and shelter, you really have no problems, so if you want some, you have to invent them. Ideally, it would help every one of them to be slapped silly, but violence is never an option.

3. The Head-Scratchingly Frustrating: Those who, for a variety of reasons, from deeply neurological to not getting hugged enough as babies, just can’t grasp the simple rules of getting along. They’re not particularly dangerous or overly dramatic. They just flat out boggle the mind. Ask anyone who’s ever worked in retail. But, as my father would have said, you can’t make their problem your problem. You can suffer fools gladly or ungladly. You’re still going to suffer fools.

Now, If you give people in these three categories the benefit of the doubt, and assume that in their essence they really just can’t help themselves, and they probably have many good qualities as well, that leaves us to grapple with the problems perpetuated and the damage done by Group #4, The Unrepentant Assholes: Those who live to purposefully and gleefully gain negative attention from the rest of us by being as unpleasant, uncooperative and self-centered as they can possibly be.

My personal sampling of the several hundred-thousand people I’ve interacted with in 57 years suggests that groups 1, 2 and 3 represent between 7% and 10% of the overall population. Maybe as much as 15% in higher-end neighborhoods. The Unrepentant Assholes in Group 4 are actually a very, very small percentage of the human population. I asked Trisha, and she said 2%. I was thinking three, but I’ll go with her answer.

There are 284.7 square miles of land in Nassau County, New York, and approximately 1,359,700 people call it home, making for a population density of 4,787 people per square mile, with all the people noise and chaos they generate. Bear in mind that there are large swatches of Nassau County where billionaires have reserved lots of land for themselves and their horses and their golf courses, leaving the rest of us to fight over what’s left. The population density of South Valley Stream is 7,583 people per square mile.

Traveling from Nassau County to Columbia County, you’ll pass Co-Op City in the Bronx, which has a population density of 47,000 per square mile. So really, I should just shut up. I’m very much aware of this. But we’re born where we’re born, for reasons that are seemingly random and certainly not fair, and we know what we know. I would like to build a little house with a garden for every family in Co-Op City on all the land currently being used for golf courses. I have no beef with horse farms.

Meanwhile, In Columbia County, there are 635 square miles of land, which is home to 59,461 people, which is 93 people per square mile. This includes Hudson, the county seat, which is two square miles and has 6,144 people, 1238 of whom sell antiques. Extrapolate that funky little metropolis, and now we’re down to 84 people per square mile, and 2% of 84 is 1.68.

This all means that in every square mile of land in Nassau County, you will find 94 Unrepentant Assholes (150 in South Valley Stream, most of them driving). Whereas in Columbia County you might find two. Plus you can factor in the variable that being known as having manners and not being a big fat pain in the ass is much more important in Columbia County, because you don’t want everyone else to agree that you’re that one person in their square mile, whereas in Nassau County, every asshole is competing for attention against 93 other assholes within one square mile, and it’s hard to keep track of them all.

There is no cure for any of this. Not in this life, man. More people create more stress. As the Pandemic of 2020 set in, I started seeing clickbait on my rectangle about how people would start moving from the city up into the Hudson Valley “in droves”. Since it’s an issue that affects my life, I was interested to know how many a drove is and how many droves you could multiply that by, but I try not to fall for clickbait. And the proliferation of people in Groups 1, 2 and 3 will only get worse as cell phones get better. And more Group 4’s means more chances of something unpleasant happening to you or around you every time you leave the house.

So the choice for us seems to have become one of either standing in the Gateway to Suburbia as the Barbarians continue to storm through, or goin’ to the country and buildin’ us a home in The Land of Rural Charm, hoping that agricultural zoning regulations will keep the droves at bay for a while.

And that’s why at the end of the twenty-first year of complaining about the miseries that follow the overpopulation of Long Island, and of idealizing the alternative existence of Columbia County, Trisha and I bought a second home two and a half hours away from our first one, a mellow-yellow ranch house on 1.9 acres of land bordering the very state park where we had once walked around all gooey in love under the autumn sun with the blue jays and everything so many years before. Since I had named the creek in back of our house in Valley Stream after myself, because who could stop me, and since the funds that made this real estate transaction possible were bequeathed through my wife’s family, I insisted that we call our new second home, perched on a ridge 840 feet above sea level, “Trisha’s Mountain”.

We had a dream. We had the money. We jumped off the cliff. And then the whole country broke. And then I quit my job.

Not really, but sort of. I actually retired from 25 years as a middle school English teacher. It’s an important job, and somebody has to do it, but it is no longer me. However, the pension I earned is a lot less than if I had stuck around and made more money for a couple of more years, thereby assuring that eventually, if I wanted to live in the style to which I’ve become accustomed, house in the country and all that, I’d have to suck it up and find a part-time job. So, I gave myself four months to decompress, while the Covid-19 Pandemic and the complete collapse of American Society that will likely precede or follow the Presidential Election of 2020 play themselves out.

In the meantime, in between traveling up and down State Route 22, I thought I’d write a book. But I didn’t know what to write about. I had some ideas, but I don’t like it when people are angry at me, so I had to keep thinking of other ones.

The whole “we left the crowd in the city and moved to the country but we didn’t know the cows next door would smell so bad and why are there bees and snakes” thing has been done to death. That’s not what I’m after here. There isn’t a whole lot of Upstate / Downstate culture shock for me to write about because I pretended that I had a house in the country for twenty years before I actually had one. And nobody up there has to explain to us how not to be “citiots.” We get along just fine with everyone. Not much material there. Of course, In order to be considered a local in Copake, your family has to have lived there for two-hundred years, so we know we’ll always be outsiders. We try to counter that by being polite.

So ultimately I decided to write a book of stories and word pictures, twenty of which are set in Columbia County, the other twenty in Nassau County.

My only claim to originality is that I write from the perspective of one whose heart truly lives in two places at the same time, and who knows his time in the one place, the place that created him, is likely winding down.

A Little Side Note: Right now, if you’re reading this book in its competed form, and not in installments on duffyscreek.com, you’ve established that 20 plus 20 equals 40 and not 41. Very astute. Chapter 1, the longest one in the book, is mostly about New York Route 22, the road in between (and how I found it). As we’re making this several years long transition, the road from here to there and back has become sort of my third home.

Valley Stream and Copake Falls, while they are almost united by a common language, and while you can drive from one to the other in two and a half hours, and while by virtue of boundaries drawn up 400 years ago are both in New York State, could not be less alike. But this book is not about comparing and contrasting them. It’s about things that define these places for me. They are both home now. When I’m in one place, I feel the other one trying to pull me back. Neither of them seems to understand that I can’t be in two places at once.

I have become a human wishbone.

I grew up in Valley Stream (and by extension, Long Island) in days when it wasn’t quite as strident and jarring. As another one of my heroes, Mose Allison, said of Tippo, Mississippi, “I am of that place, and the stamp is upon me.” But the little hamlet of Copake Falls has been yanking at the sleeve of my soul for most of my adult life, and now our plan is to go there for good someday.

But not today.

I guess you could say we have a plan. But we don’t, really. Our right-now-16-year-old son has two more years of high school and likes it upstate just as much as we do. So he would be more or less on board if we actually had a plan. Trisha is very successful at her mommy-takes-the-train-to-the-city job, so she’s not in a hurry to leave (as we’d be broke, and she’s in charge of the money) but I know Long Island’s obnoxiousness gets to her even more than it gets to me. And as I write this in the summer of 2020, you can’t even go sit on the beach unless you want to risk getting horribly sick (or getting somebody else horribly sick), and Long Island is pretty much pointless without the beach and the ocean. It seems predetermined which way the wishbone will eventually snap, and I guess if there is a plan, that’s the plan.

Abraham Lincoln said that the best thing about the future is that it happens one day at a time. I’ve outlived him by a year, so I’m happy to be here at all.

And as people suffer all over the world, my main purpose in life in August of 2020 is waiting for people to call me to schedule delivery of some comfy furniture.

I never thought it would come to this.

Of course, If we decided to put our house in Valley Stream on the market tomorrow morning, it would take the better part of two years to shovel out of it anyway. So for the foreseeable future, part of me is watching the tide come and go on the creek and part of me is watching the light dance across the mountains. I am a stupidly lucky son of a gun and I have not a thing in this world to complain about, but if you’re nice enough to read on anyway, I’ll try not to be boring.

When a friend at work would complain to me, he’d often say, indignantly, “this is not what I signed up for!” Well, this is exactly what I signed up for that mellow December day last year in the lawyer’s office in Millerton.

I am a human wishbone. I am Gumby, damn it. With one arm and one leg stretched north, the other arm and leg stretched south.

Which would put my center somewhere around the Red Rooster.

Copyright 2020 by John Duffy

All Rights Reserved

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