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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.
Phoenicia once 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 primordial.
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.