The Kaaterskill Clove, a million-year-old gorge that reaches depths of 2,500 feet, is a majestic gem of the Catskill Park, the vast wilderness area of the Catskill Mountain range in New York. The Catskills still elicit mixtures of laughter and nostalgia among the diminishing ranks of East Coast Baby Boomers, Jews especially, who grew up vacationing or working in the area during the heyday of its Borscht Belt hotels and resorts that long ago disappeared. Cultural icons such as these evolve and dissolve, but the clove’s peaks, creeks and its stunning Kaaterskill Falls, simultaneously stand immovably and ceaselessly move, graceful but implacable royals made of stone, trees, light and water.
From the very first time I saw Kaaterskill Falls from a viewing platform, my feet have begged me to let them take me to the bottom 260 feet below. The water cascading from the Kaaterskill Creek down the two tiers of rock evokes for me the power of life raging and racing through the world.
Having missed a chance to hike down to the Falls with my wife this past Spring, I spontaneously paid them a visit on a quiet, sunny Wednesday afternoon, in late August. The Jewish high holidays were approaching, COVID continued to batter us, and soon late summer would become fall and winter, rendering the descent on the steep hiking paths icily impassable. I needed solace and solitude, the kind that only a place such as those Falls could provide. Speeding off the New York State Thruway, my car and I negotiated the tight, winding path of State Highway 23a, one of the two scenic byways through the Catskills whose vistas are so stunning they threaten to render wonder-struck drivers incapable of driving safely.
I approached the parking entrance where one trailhead to the Falls begins, noting the deepening woods that wove a latticework of towering trees out of which would shoot intermittent flashes of midday sunlight. With a bit too much melodrama, I imagined that I was a pilgrim to a silent shrine offering me the quiet of God’s peace on a weekday afternoon while everyone was at work.
Everyone was not at work.
As I pulled into the almost-full lot, I was stunned by the mass of humanity parked and picnicking there, that had run away from COVID for the day. Knowing that Greene County in upstate New York, where the Falls are located, is hardly a bastion of ethnic diversity, I surmised quickly that the people there in their multifarious saris, sarongs, speech patterns and skin tones were from out of town, likely New York City, an easy three-hour drive. Though I was inspired by the sight of so much vibrant and variegated humanity in one place, I already felt thwarted by and resentful of the crowding and the noise. So what if all these fellow New York State residents paid taxes like I did? The Falls were supposed to be my sanctuary that day, with the only noise being the wind’s voice in the trees and the rush of water, a choir singing for me alone. The hike down to the bottom of the Falls would be exhilarating. But I was annoyed at having to share it with a crowd of big city fair-weather hikers, many wearing dumb and dangerous flip flops on their feet, carrying wasteful plastic water bottles in their belt loops, and lugging cumbersome beverage coolers in their hands.
I fell into line with the other hikers as we began our descent along the steep, rocky trail. The Falls are famous not only for their grandeur, but also for the 200 stone steps installed toward the bottom by New York State; as we gingerly walked over their slippery surfaces, much of our boisterous noise gently, gradually wove itself into the approaching roar of the water that crashed into a vast eddy, then swirled with joyous fury before flowing on into the creek. Spreading out on the slopes and rock tables, some of us watched the falls in awed silence; some of us excitedly took selfies; some of us spoke loudly on cell phones, trying unsuccessfully to convey the beauty and the power they witnessed to friends and family; some of us murmured appreciation for the water’s endless, energetic dance.
I had begun my hike demanding an exclusive audience with this most beautiful of cascades. But at the bottom of the falls, I watched and listened carefully to the call and response between the crashing water and all those people. This was the choir I was meant to hear, right there in that full sanctuary – God’s massive water slide plummeting downward and beckoning to all of us, not just to me. Among people, not apart from them, is where I was meant to find my solace and solitude that afternoon.
The celebrated Israeli poet, Tuvia Ruebner, once wrote:
Say: we are born to die – what wickedness! But until then – what a wondrous world.
Dancing with the falls and my fellow human beings that late August afternoon, I learned, as if for the first time once again, this very important truth: wondrousness is found not only in the perfect forms of the natural world, but in every human being as well, however noisily imperfect our human nature might be.
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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