Nestled between the Hudson River and the picturesque Catskill Mountains, the Hudson Valley has always been a treasured haven for those who call Upstate, New York home. Roughly two hours north of New York City, the capital of the relentless and the frenetic, the Valley offers a chance to reconnect with nature, with freedom, and with a slower version of yourself. With countless natural attractions and the promise of a respite from the turbulence of 2020, the importance of the Hudson River Valley has been reflected in the surge of tourism and real estate growth felt throughout our small towns. As a native Upstate gal who has called New York City her home for years, I am here to plead with you; if you come to visit the Hudson Valley, leave it better than when you found it.
A vast landscape of lakes, mountains, hidden hiking trails, waterfalls, campgrounds, and uniquely dynamic small towns, Upstate New York was the setting for my childhood. Growing up in Saugerties, New York, my weekends were spent wading through naturally occurring swimming holes, checking for ticks as I hiked through State Parks, and stargazing in fields. We grew apples and grapes in our backyards, frolicked through the rolling hills with friends, and ended our summer nights with sunsets of purple and pink. It was a simple and pure childhood, filled with knowledge on how to camp properly, when the local corn would be the sweetest, and where to find hidden breathtaking vistas to admire the entire Valley. Once summer greeted the mountains, we spent our days in the sun, tanned and freckled from May until the early weeks of September. Now, at the age of twenty-three, I have returned to my home, driven out of New York City like many, fleeing from the tight quarters and public transportation amidst a global pandemic. While I grew up amongst the flora and fauna, I struggle to identify myself as a local rather than a tourist amongst the droves of hikers crowding our not-so-hidden trails at times. The muscle memory that once felt like second nature has faded, becoming soft as I slip on the pathways of the Catskills I once ran through. While my hyperactive mentality belongs to New York City, my heart will always belong to the Valley. Thus, I am here, acting as a liaison, offering a peace agreement between the locals and the tourists: treat our haven with respect and we will treat you with that same respect.
As a young woman with a November birthday, I spent my sixteenth birthday hiking Kaaterskill Falls, one of the region’s most popular tourist destinations. Overlooking the entire valley, the view is breathtaking and memorable, and served as the perfect outdoor hike for my young winter birthday and my dearest Saugerties friends. Throughout my childhood, the trails were busy, however, they remained mostly a local destination. Little did we know, shortly following our departures to college and the rise of social media, our little waterfall would become a symbol for the area. From editorial guides on “Traveling Upstate New York” to the social media feeds of travel and fashion influencers, the majestic waters and picturesque vistas are familiar to many, residing on the “to-do” lists of fellow outdoor enthusiasts.
Six years later, I find myself yearning to hike that very trail, yet, the falls are closed. Over the last few months, the residents of Greene country and the Hudson River Valley have watched as our beloved natural wonders were blatantly disrespected. While it is hard to draw an exact conclusion as to whom is to blame for the unforgivable levels of trash and debris now clogging our natural and delicate ecosystems, the parallels between the rise in tourism and increase in litter is hard to ignore. As the global pandemic ravaged the nation and world, those of us recovering from the turbulence and despair have found salvation amongst the beauty of Upstate. While litter was always a concern throughout the area, the summer of restricted travel and social distance has wreaked havoc on our oasis. From full barbeque grills to bags of trash left behind to soak in our waterways, the Hudson Valley towns have become outraged, raising concerns about the disrespect and lack of accountability being expressed throughout. Along with the levels of debris, the winding roads up our mountains have become dangerously crowded with illegally parked cars, narrowing the already constricted roadways, causing massive traffic jams and dangerous conditions. While law enforcement has regularly patrolled the areas in questions, ticketing those who have parked unlawfully, concerns have remained regarding the state of our natural oases. In July, residents of Greene County held a socially distanced town hall to discuss measures to implement in order to protect our resources. While a final decision has not been reached, the town is considering permanently closing down the destination. The Department of Conservation and local volunteers have set out to combat this impending disastrous decision, picking up all litter and debris choking the fragile ecosystems. As the summer of 2020 comes to close, my neighbors and I hold our breath, anxiously awaiting the decisions of the county.
Images via Shane Valchich
Kaaterskill Falls is just one of many locations that have seen an increase in pollution throughout this past summer. From the swimming holes of Woodstock to the winding rivers paving their way through our hills, the waters have been flooded with litter. We urge you, protect our ecosystem. We want to share our natural havens, our breathtaking vistas, luminous sunsets, and invorgiating hikes. Carry out what you carry in, I beg of you. I firmly believe that if each one of us could inhale the fresh crisp air of the Hudson Valley, we would all be just that much more appreciative of our surroundings. While we may just be a weekend getaway from you in a time when inside is our new normal, to many of us, this is our home. This is where our heart skips a beat and we reconnect with our deepest self. Regardless of where you call “home”, you are here, enjoying our small towns, our local produce, our natural beauty, and thus, we ask of you to maintain the level of respect you would hold in regard to your own home. As Saugerties, Phoencia, Kingston, Catskill, Hudson, Rhinebeck, and New Paltz continue to grow, gentrify, and surge in population, popularity, and prices, we beg for your respect and your dignity.
I am a young woman who calls Upstate her home, yet identifies as a New Yorker. I am a young woman who is begging you to hold yourself and others accountable. We encourage you to come enjoy our natural wonders, and while this may not serve as a typical travel guide, I hope this illustrates the sense of urgency the residents of the Hudson River Valley are experiencing. If we do not save our oasis, typical travel guides will be rendered useless.
As always, stay safe.