Clermont State Park, New York: When The Scenery Changes

The traffic of New York City is behind me now. The trees to each side are becoming increasingly taller; the sky is growing darker. We’re heading up to a friend’s house in a small town upstate called Germantown. He moved out of Queens and up there a few years ago with his girlfriend in an effort to find some peace and quiet away from the city but still within arm’s reach. As a working writer, my friend still comes to the city regularly for meetings and whatnot, but his main workspace is now situated on a farm surrounded by fields. The hazy blue outline of the Catskill Mountains sits at his yard’s horizon. I’m driving up to spend the weekend in his house with some mutual friends, my husband and my two dogs. My husband is going to go skiing for the first time this winter at a place called Catamount, which is just across the New York/Massachusetts border. I am probably not going to go skiing. My husband is much better at it than I am and I don’t want to hold him down, nor do I want to ski alone. Also, the idea of skiing without health insurance makes me a little bit nervous. I’ve only skied once and I don’t trust that my legs have enough muscle memory to take the falls that are aimed for my neck.

%Gallery-187733%When we finally make enough left turns off of the highway that we are winding our way down the country road that leads to my friend’s house, it’s already dark. I’m grateful when we arrive intact without having hit any deer on the way. Actually, I’ve never hit a deer before, but the threat always seems sharply present, perhaps because I grew up in the country. We let our dogs meet my friend’s well-trained and affectionate German Shepherd. They romp around in the dark of the night, rolling in the snow and chasing each other around the pond. Their shadowy silhouettes appear every now and then, assuring me that they’re still close. We dine, we drink, we converse and I finally crash on the living room floor. Suddenly, it’s morning and I’m still finishing my coffee when those who are skiing head off toward the slopes and we who remain reach a consensus: we should take the dogs to Clermont State Park.

The park is only a few miles away and, apparently, it is a good spot to let the dogs run off-leash – a luxury they don’t always get within the concrete bowels of New York City. The word “Clermont” comes from the French phrase, “clair montagne,” which can be translated as “clear mountain.” The park’s name was purportedly derived from this phrase and inspired by that same hazy blue view of the mountains in the distance. The Catskills stand erect just beyond the hills that are just beyond the Hudson River, all of which is viewable from the Clermont State Park entrance. The park was originally an estate belonging to Robert Livingston and it was established in during the first half of the 1700s. Robert Livingston was the son of the first Lord of Livingston Manor, Robert Livingston the Elder. Almost 50 years after the estate was established, Major General John Vaughan and his men raided the land and burned the Livingston home in 1777 because of the Livingston ties to and prominent role in the American Revolution. Over the next few years, the family home was rebuilt. New walls were built and new ideas were conceived. Robert’s eldest son, Robert Livingston Junior, was the most notable member of the family. Also known as “The Chancellor,” he is one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Now acting as a New York State Historic Site and a United States National Historic Landmark, Clermont State Park is a good place for hiking, walking, photographing, dog-entertaining and learning. Charred remains of a second house that was on the original property during the British raid still stand on the grounds as a reminder of the past while the main home on the estate is now kept in pristine condition; it’s a massive white house situated on the river’s edge and symbolic of the success of the Livingston family.

When we find ourselves fully immersed in the forest and don’t see any other people around, we unleash the dogs. One of my dogs is part Whippet and she bolts off after the release of her leash as if she had been training to race and the shotgun signaling the start just fired. She weaves her way in and out of the trees and up and down the hills, leaping over the creek and fallen, mossy trunks. It’s cold. We are all wearing the snow gear we would’ve worn had we decided to go skiing. The ground is covered with snow, slush and ice, but the hike is helping to keep us warm. Cold fresh air feels especially nice in my lungs, so I deeply inhale and follow that with a long exhale. The air is just air indeed, but somehow every primitive part of my body deems it to be cleaner and better than what I’m used to. This feels necessary.

The guys return from skiing shortly after we return from our hike. They are excited and have stories to share. One of my friends animatedly informs me that my husband took a fall that landed him in the trees. The physical evidence is right before me in his busted toe. On the other hand, our trek through the park has no gripping climax. Rather, it was smooth, meditative and yet transitional. Although we entered the park peacefully and exited the same way, something now seems different. Maybe it was just the endorphins mixed with the feeling of filling my lungs with that chilly Mountain-River air or maybe it was the reminder of the brave men and women who helped found this country. Whatever it was, I feel more prepared to face the week ahead of me than I have felt in months. We didn’t do anything extravagant, but I feel recharged. Winter’s desiccation now seems like a distant memory left behind with the arrival of my early spring. Nothing monumental took place, but I sense a new perspective blanketing my brain and informing my synapses as they fire. And really, that’s the core reason why so many of us travel in the first place: because when the scenery changes, so does our view.

[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]