Long ago trains
stopped passing through. On one of its last runs an engine, a line of boxcars
and a caboose simply came to a halt along the banks of the Esopus Creek and
remained there for weeks, listing, forgotten. I came down from my cabin 100
yards up, sat for a while in the gamy caboose and then went up to fiddle with
the controls of the still-humming engine. No one stopped me. A few weeks later
the train disappeared as mysteriously as it had arrived.
So many things
tend to be forgotten, discarded and put aside in Phoenicia. N.Y., in the
outback of the Catskills. The natives speak a patois that is nearly
unintelligible to outsiders. ("They're speaking a foreign language," my
wife whispered to me once, as the levelers of some tall pines on our place took
another one of their extended breaks.) Though Phoenicia is only 2� hours from
New York City, most natives have either never visited it or have made the trip
but once. Natives live off the land and water. A rifle shot is heard from deep
in the woods, and that evening a stew reaches someone's table—squirrel,
pheasant, rabbit, God knows what. Some natives are reputed to be able to catch
trout by hand.
had a lot of things. It once had a ski resort (Simpson's—the first with a rope
tow in New York State). It had an opera house, now used for weekend auctions.
It had a thriving rock quarry (much of the stone with which New York City's
streets were once paved came from Phoenicia). And there are some things it
mercifully has never had. It doesn't have chichi antique shops, a happy hour or
famous writers, artists and actors. You'll never find a line of shrinks going
downtown for the Sunday Times in August in Bermuda shorts. Zoning laws, citizen
committees, historic preservation, first families and money keep a very low
profile. You live on what you shoot, trap or snare. You fix a roof or fell a
pine for pocket change, and you accept whatever government aid is available;
or, like me, you travel up from the city as often as you can to enjoy the clear
stream, the heavenly air, the feeling that the area teeters on the
But there's been
a change. Tubing, once just a local pastime, has been attracting thousands of
tourists for the past six years. I first learned of the sport from a native one
evening while having a drink in the Phoenicia Inn Tavern. "You just take
yourself one of them great big ol' enner tubes—you know, a bus's or truck's—get
Ray at the filling station to blow 'er up, and you can go down the Esopus for
miles. Scary as hell, but fun. Been doin' it since I was a kid."
I convinced my
wife—a born-and-bred New Yorker—that we should go native and try it. I
appropriated two huge truck inner tubes and snipped off a length of clothesline
rope to attach tube to body, as we'd been advised to do.
Outfitted in our
most raggedy clothes and sneakers, we picked our way down some boulders and
launched ourselves into the white-tipped rapids of the Esopus.
No one has ever
suggested that the Esopus is anything other than a near-perfect stream. I've
drunk from it. My wife splashes her face in it as a therapeutic balm. It snakes
through a valley between lush hills, 25 yards wide in most spots and 3� to four
feet deep. I particularly like the mist that rises from it in early morning.
There is something, too, about the sound of its rushing rapids that takes
worries right out of your head. That is, they're soothing if you're listening
to them from the bank.
My wife and I
were spread-eagled in our tubes, gaining momentum as we headed downstream. We
had started a mile up from the Woodland Valley Bridge in one of our favorite
coves. First one of us, then the other, got caught by rapids. We were spun
around, jiggled back and forth and then let free in gentle water. The stretches
of rapids were like a series of carnival rides, each more exciting than the
last. On calm water we could paddle and gaze at birds in trees, then drift
while getting set for the next watery chute. We learned to keep our wits about
us—to kick off from boulders, hand-paddle away from the bank and, by wiggling
the tube, to turn away from impalement on low branches. It was exhilarating,
and it cost us nothing. But I felt a little stab of concern whenever we
splashed near a fisherman, who, I felt, had first rights to the stream. The
fishermen averted their eyes. Certainly they didn't cheer us on.
That day we saw
no other tubers. I came ashore by grabbing a prickly branch (cutting my leg),
while my wife maneuvered to a shallow area, where she exited gracefully. We
left the stream refreshed, and I thought: Here's one sport that's better with
company. You needed someone to share the pleasure with.
I could never
have imagined the amount of company the future would bring. Shortly after our
expedition, The New York Times ran a feature on tubing down the Esopus
datelined Phoenicia, N.Y. The article said the stretch above the Woodland
Valley Bridge was one of the greatest "challenges" to be found in the
world of tubing—a blend of physical thrills and views of nature's tranquillity.
It emphasized the modest cost of the adventure. It said that the Phoenicia
stretch was for experts, for real daredevils and risk-takers.