Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Landscapes of Fear

I had waited for the skies to clear and while I waited I started supper. By the time I was ready to turn off the stove, it was 4:15 and the thunderheads had begun to assemble to the west, boiling up over the Catskills. I took the Kriplebush-Krumville Road, because it rises long and hard so even a short ride is good training. The Serotta has a compact crankset, so you can climb with your heartrate just below its max, and coming down, by the end of the season, when your courage is up, you can break fifty on the downhills.

Once you get over the top, where the peace sign is painted on the granite face and the POW-MIA flag is lashed above it, there’s a quick descent that takes you past the maple syrup place and the abandoned ‘20s gas station, and then you’re in and out of what the weekenders call scenery. For them, a double-wide isn’t quaint. Strings of ranches and raised ranches, many of them now in foreclosure, their lawns unkempt by the bank that is holding the paper: these aren’t quaint either. So they tend not to take this road, which makes it good for riding.

Down past the small lake where two people were unloading plastic kayaks from a Jeep Cherokee, past the red barn that was once converted into weekender studio and has had its Mary Collins Realty sign tacked to the siding for a year or so, the road turns abruptly and climbs hard, again. By this time I could see that the thunderheads were coming straight on. Past Willem Dafoe’s rubber house, long on the market, you get a good view across Martin’s place and that was when I decided I’d better turn back.

Down the long sweeps, I was hitting 34 and 35 miles an hour, but the rain still caught me, small hard pellets, close to hail, that pinged off the helmet. Down at the base, where the Kripplebush Fire Department sign announced the Memorial Day weekend flea market and the Sunday pancake breakfast, I turned, for the storm had moved easterly and I was over on the west side of the cold front.

Once you pass Paul De Grazia’s Christmas tree farm and the odd wealthy weekender’s farm for pensioned-off race horses, you come to the Osterhoudt place, where Jasper and his wife sell their grass-fed Angus beef out of the freezer in their basement. Jasper is a big man, nearly as big as his steers; the last time we were in to get meat, he was sitting in the kitchen with a three-pound can of cashews, digging in with gusto while reading a farm implement catalog. Yesterday, he wasn’t out where I could see him, though the laundry was on the line and there was a Kia in the driveway that had passed me earlier—locals stopping in midweek to pick up the steaks and hamburger for a Memorial Day cookout.

213 takes you along the aqueduct that runs from Ashokan Reservoir down to New York City. Periodically, the berm rises up above the road, a strangely regular, geometric form, always well mowed. There are signs in the woods warning you off the land—Property of New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

Ashokan Reservoir has a troubled history, but it is one of the most beautiful sites in America. It resembles Lago Lecco or Como in the Italian Alps. From the causeway, the Catskills march backward behind the Reservoir, and their dense green presence stills the water, which reflects the intense blue of the late afternoon sky and the white, grey and black of the thunderheads.

213 deadends into 28A, and the causeway is about a half-mile up the hill. Yesterday, though, the last 50 yards of 213 and a stretch of 28a was stripped to gravel. The NYC DEP has been cutting into the forest and periodically blowing up granite ledges in some obscure project that began shortly after September 11, 2001. It’s been a steady irritant to the locals and the tourists alike; the hardwood stands cut down, the earth stripped to ugly clay that sheds stormwater and erodes the downhill meadows until they’ve come to look like reclaimed strip mine sites after the Massey Company abandons the area.

This was a new stage, though, and as I maneuvered the thin tires of the road bike around mud hills and gravel washes, I was passed by a man on a mountain bike, wearing baggy shorts and a polo shirt. I asked him how far it was unpaved and he gestured back toward the curve below the intersection. When I commented on the mystery surrounding this long and undirected project, he let loose in an accent that was part Brooklyn, part Puerto Rican, part Olive Branch local. This was DEP at its best, he reported. Wait till I saw what they were doing to the causeway.

We turned, past the unoccupied guard house with the halogen lights, past the pole barriers, past a DEP cop car that cruised up to us and then stopped, its two uniformed occupants, stony-faced, staring straight ahead, as if waiting for the barriers to melt away. When I looked back, I saw that they had; the center sank down into the earth, the cops drove past, and the barrier rose up again.

That wasn’t what so angered my companion. There, on either side,new poles, perhaps thirty feet high, marched at regular intervals down either side of the causeway. They were going to raise the new huge spotlights, stadium lights, he told me, that would illuminate the causeway and the Reservoir. They’d be on 24/7, he said; no more sunsets, sunrises, no more Northern Lights in the winter. This was it, he said disgustedly; all my life I lived here but this takes the cake. If you want to invite the terrorists, if you want to show them the best place to bomb, the best way to disrupt the City, you couln’t’a picked a more perfect plan. All my life I lived here-- he repeated, and then he rode off ahead of me.

America has always been a country pocked by fear. Indians. Germans. Irish. Negroes. Anarchists. Communists. And America has found a knack for responding in a way that will damage or destroy some part of the best it has to offer itself and the world: liberty, democracy, tolerance, enthusiasm, confidence, welcoming hands and friendly voices, lands so beautiful you believe in God.

There isn’t anything to do to stop the destruction of Ashokan and the desecration of one of America’s most beautiful natural sites. If you search for the Ashokan Reservoir security plans, or the DEP’s proposals, you won’t find them; they’re kept hidden because even the stony-faced fear professionals are less than eager for a fight. They’re cowards, afraid not of swarthy terrorists in burqas but of disgusted citizens starting a campaign against their projects. As my fellow rider pointed out, loudly, and within hearing of those cops in their car, these are the guys who need the terrorists-- or they prove themselves, and their ideologies of fear and their regimented response to fear, irrelevant.

On the way back up 213, another storm hit, and though I knew it was sentimental, the rain on my face felt a little like tears.

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