A Postcard From Upstate New York

A Postcard From Upstate New York

Somewhere off a bendy country road in Greene County, NY is a waterfall taller than Niagra. Shaded by a spindly city of near-naked fir trees, Kaaterskill Falls, according to a sign faded pale by long years in the sun, was once one of the most famous tourist destinations in America, given its renown by 19th century artists like Thomas Cole and his soft autumnal paintings of the falls and surrounding countryside of the Eastern Catskills.

We look up and, yes, it really is a nice waterfall. A watercolour in real life. The potent thrash of the twin cataracts illuminated by early spring sun, glistening as they meet and churn furiously into the basin below, framed by walls of stark rock and fresh new green. In summer it will be packed here. In fact, Kaaterskill has become renowned for different, slightly morbid reasons in recent, more digital, years, with the New York Times referring to it as “The Deadly Waterfall in the Instagram Age,” as visitors, drawn by its photogenic might, have stepped too close to the edge and… you can imagine the rest. There’s no risk of that today, though. We flit around the stones buffered smooth by the wild water; wave at a single hardy runner tackling the stony trail with an even hardier Jack Russell, and head for the van.  

We’re in Upstate New York, which is a long way from New York City and even further from London. Why? Why not! We set off from the Drake’s store on Canal Street late one Sunday evening, a van packed with camping equipment and the skeleton of a plan. A cabin is waiting for us somewhere near Mechanicville, NY. We crawl through Manhattan and into New Jersey, Neil Young on the stereo. When your lonely heart breaks, when your lonely heart breaks. The Bright Lights Big City gives way to the occasional petrol station and a big, dark upstate and out of the way sky.

Comptons Restaurant sits on the main strip of Saratoga. It looks like the kind of diner that you might find on a 60s film set: red, yellow and green plastic booths, laminate tables, kitsch watercolours of the nearby area. Men in trucker caps and flannel shirts hunched over plates of eggs and a poster for ‘The Horses of Saratoga Summer 2002’ on the wall. Home of the Saratoga Race Course, one of the oldest sporting venues in America, come August it will be teeming with trainers, betters, tourists and the travelling circus of a Big Summer Event. We drink black coffee poured by a woman in a white apron with curly brown hair. “So… what are you all doing here?”

At Hometown Lanes, a bowling alley on a stretch of the Hudson River Road between Albany and Saratoga and not much at all. The carpark is a sea of lifted trucks the size of bungalows. The Englishmen gawp as the Americans chuckle at our automotive dysmorphia. “Just imagine if we were in Texas!” says Brandon. Inside pins clatter as the regular teams meet for  league night. Serious business. Everyone is in their Monday best. Silky shirts and intense focus. Eyes on the lanes. We roll a distinctly amateur round and leave for a dive bar down the road, dark wood, beer ephemera and a pool table in the corner. A band play two songs with gusto, before abruptly stopping. They thank the crowd of 10 and disappear backstage.  A local man in faded jeans and tan work boots queues up the jukebox.

The mornings in Mechanicville are clear and lovely, from our cabin you can see the still grey water glinting through the naked pines. The houses are clapboard and wilting a bit, a single old fashioned school bus drifts through an empty road like a peeling yellow whale. We pack up the van for the the journey back to the city, stopping off a highway to eat two for $5 gas station cheeseburgers, the sun dipping behind the easy and unobtrusive hills way off in the distance. We pile back in. Fire up the stereo – Mariah Carey and Willie Nelson - and off we go, Mechanicville, sparse and scenic and beautiful and open in the rear-view.