Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Barberville Falls
The Barberville Falls in Rensselaer County rush with noisy, furious joy down an imposing, ninety- foot wall of wafer-like stacks of sandstone, limestone and slate. The Falls divide the upper and lower sections of the Poestenkill, a beautiful creek that flows from Dyken Pond in Grafton and Berlin, down into the Hudson River near Troy. One can walk a short ribbon of the Poestenkill to stand around just above the Falls, a risky proposition at best. The more conventional path of choice down to the Falls is a quarter mile stretch of carved trail from the Falls Preserve parking lot, which dead ends at the roaring cataract.
When I am hiking through hilly or mountainous terrain, I find that measurements of distance are often tricksters. They mutely conspire to fool even the most experienced hiker or climber into believing that the trek ahead is harder or easier than it truly is. Consider that mere quarter mile descent to the bottom of those falls. As absolute distance, a quarter mile is thirteen hundred twenty feet, twelve city blocks that a healthy person of average gait could easily walk in about ten minutes. Yet my wife and I recently spent more than half an hour on the falls trail, slowly walking down its steep, narrow path, carefully negotiating its exposed roots, stones, and the leftover patches of mud from earlier rains. The trail winds down through a massive gorge, whose bowl-like shape and impossibly angled trees jutting almost magically from its rough surface, induce a hypnotic effect that forced me repeatedly to stop walking and consider the wonder of my whereabouts. Reshaped in real time and space by the cliffs above it and the slightly harrowing tread of its hairpin turns, its rocks and roots just below it, the path might as well have been the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. I could have spent an entire afternoon trekking up and down it, descending to crane my neck toward the top of the falls, ascending, then descending again and again.
I obsess, more than a bit, over the divergence between absolute distance and distance traveled in real time and space. This is the case whether I find myself in open places like Barberville Falls or on the Long Island Expressway, a tortuously slow snake of tar and traffic jams whose name and reality tug at each other with cruel discordance. My wife laughingly reminds me that each time we drive even the shortest piece of that auto choked mess, at nearly any time of any day, I invariably turn to her, whining, “In Albany, we’d do ten miles on the road in ten minutes. Here, ten miles is a day trip.” What happened to make me such a cantankerous rube? I grew up in New York City where I learned to mentally add thirty minutes to every short-distance bus or train trip and figured out how to tolerate a car ride with no expectation of getting anywhere quickly or happily. Upon leaving the big city after ordination, I spent five years in Raleigh, North Carolina, which at the time was a somewhat small state capital. It was there that I began to perceive distance traveled and time traveled as increasingly convergent dimensions, a perception that I carried with me to the capital district when I had the good fortune to move here twenty-seven years ago. The vast majority of the time, my drive from Albany to, for example, the Helderbergs measures and feels like minutes, not like years taken off my life due to stress. I get to places faster and more reasonably up here than in the big city. At the same time, I also find that I live with a precious slowness which is lightyears away from the forced, artificially accelerated existence of people in heavily trafficked urban areas.
Whether my feet are pressed down on a mountain trail or on my brake pedal in downstate traffic, there is no practical difference between my hour-long trek a short distance to a waterfall and my hour-long car ride in bumper- to-bumper hell over the same short distance. And yet, considering my desperate need to slow down and savor my limited mortal time more meaningfully, the two are not regions, but worlds, apart. I gingerly descend the trail to Barberville Falls, or any other place like it in our area, not only because I want to but because I need to. My hikes and walks force me to re-align my usual anxious impatience to get somewhere fast with the eons-old slowness of God and God’s creation, who are in no rush and could care not one iota about my ambition driven schedule. When I reach the bottom, I watch carefully how that furiously joyous torrent of water rushes off the cliff wall, but how it does so with endless, languid repetition. That swiftly moving waterfall has all the time in the world. At least for that moment, halted and mesmerized by its movement, I know that I do too.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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