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Carry on camping in the Catskills- an Irish take on the wild outdoors

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Gibson, Harris and I about to trek for our supper.

Last Saturday I found myself in unfamiliar territory.  There was me, a slippery log and a river that I had to cross somewhere deep in the in the Catskills Mountains in upstate New York. How had Jennifer Grey made this look so easy?

My three friends had each skipped across the wooden log with the agility of a tight rope walker. But now I stared at the tree trunk, which to me looked like it had been coated in crude oil, my feet cemented firmly in place.

Like a parent trying to talk their child through unlocking themselves from the bathroom, one of my friends offered words of support: “Go on Molly, it’s just one foot in front of the other, it’s not that slippery, come on baby steps does it.” In a not so encouraging manner my other friend decided to capture the entire thing on video.

Much like a tree’s branches blowing the wind I stood there, my feet glued to the spot while the rest of me shook uncontrollable. What to do?

It had all started a few weeks prior, over dinner in Brooklyn someone mentioned camping and a few of us squealed in excitement at the prospect. The wheels of motion were set in place, what better way to escape the chaos and blinding lights of NYC?

The promise of rain didn’t dampen our spirits as we hit the road early Saturday morning. Speeding over the GW Bridge leaving Manhattan behind, we were satisfied we had made all the necessary provisions.

Just over two hours later we were weaving through the winding roads of Columbia County. A dirt road led us into the campsite in Livingston Manor, our home for the next 24 hours.

City folk strike one- we realized the place didn’t accept credit cards, as the four of us pooled our limited cash together hopeful we had enough.

Heidi, the owner of the campsite greeted us with a concerned face and friendly manner. Inside the reception area, which doubled as a shop, there was a familiar damp smell of animals and chopped firewood. I immediately thought  of collecting cipíns (firewood) from the cow shed as a child.

“Did it rain a lot where you all came from last night,” Heidi asked with a concerned look on her face.

“It rained a hell of a lot here, the site I was going to put you in is flooded now, so maybe have a walk over to this other spot and check that out,” she told us.

We set out with a map and careful instructions on how to get to our site. Regardless we went the completely wrong way, walked up a hill as water tickled down and only stopped when one of us pointed out the absence of any tents or people.

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Retracing our steps, we found our spot. Under trees, nestled right beside the flowing river—I was half expecting to see Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon roll down the gauntlet on their raft at any moment.


After a bit more exploring we headed back over to Heidi and her twelve cats (she used to run an animal sanctuary) luckily we had enough cash for the bill. She talked us through the steps of building a camp fire and sensed our inexperience.

“Listen if I went down to New York I wouldn’t know how to survive, all those subways, that traffic. But I have been building fires all my life…so it’s easy for me.”

I felt the need to interject and explain that I too had grown up on a farm and was schooled in the ways of the wild. My friend shot me a deserved look of disgust. I sounded like an idiot.

After pitching our tent on the softest piece of ground we could find (it was pretty damn hard) we set off on our hike to sample the surroundings.

City folk strike 2—never leave the trail. The four of us agreed we were up for the challenge and decided to venture beyond the trail. A decision which would later lead to my blundering performance on the log.

It started raining around midway through the hike (which was if anything more of a leisurely stroll). We were soggy and uncertain of our direction, but the river offered the only guidance we needed.

Back at camp, despite feeling like we had completed a full days activities, the little hand on my watch pointed to two pm. Time really does faster in the city I reflected.

With the day stretching before us like an unfamiliar road, we all decided a trip into the nearby town was a splendid idea.

Livingston Manor is small town, with few amenities and a unique charm. After taking care of our cash-flow problem at the local bank we hit up the grocery store. At the check out the cashier saw right through my manicured nails and Irish brogue.

“You guy’s camping?” she asked. Someone mumbled in response and she paused for a brief second before a smile spread across her face; “Nice weather you’re getting!” she offered in an sarcastic tone.

Back out in the open air I suggested an afternoon beverage. After a little investigation we discovered that if we wanted an alcoholic drink, we would have to travel to the next town over.

Hitting the highway again we drove to the town of Roscoe in search of a cool beer. The five guys at the bar turned to look at us when we walked into the local. Three young boys struggled to see over the pool table as they attempted a game and I am almost sure the jukebox screeched to a halt to announce our arrival. After proving we were above the drinking age the female bartender handed over a few watery beers and we made our way outside into the sunshine.

Mid way through our beers the rain reappeared and we agreed it was time to head back to base camp. The heaven’s opened on the road before us as Bambi and a few of his friends decided to appear and test out the car’s brakes.

Back at base the two lads took the fire challenge very seriously and immediately set to work. My friend and I contributed by taking turns flailing an empty paper bag for ventilation and after not too much effort we had lift off.

Before long we were eating a delicious meal in front of the roaring fire. The rain had long stopped and the dancing flames were providing much needed warmth from the dropping temperatures.

Over the next few hours we played out every stereotypical camping activity imaginable.

We ate for several hours; we roasted marshmallows; we made Smores (only Americans would think of putting marshmallows and chocolate in a sandwich!); a guitar was produced and we sang around the camp fire; we made popcorn (which actually just caught on fire); we drank beers; we talked; we laughed. At the end of it we barely made it the few steps to the tent to pass out.

The next morning we rose at the crack of dawn and made our way back into the town for breakfast.

Who needs Starbuck’s when the local diner sells the “World’s Best Coffee”? In the faded pastel decorated eatery, a white haired lady old enough to be our grandmother took our order from the handwritten menu. After inhaling the food the bill arrived and learning from previous mistakes-- no one asked if they could pay with their credit card. Four breakfasts, coffees and OJ, the bill came to a thrifty $25, we were definitely not in the city!

Tired, disheveled and filthy dirty, before we knew it we were back on the road to the city. This had been one fast and furious camping trip.

Growing up in Ireland my aunts and uncles spoke fondly about summer time in the Catskill Mountains, a mecca for the Irish. I had always imagined it to be some exotic place; to be honest up until a few years ago I was pretty sure it was a ski resort.

Satisfied I had finally made the journey myself it dawned on me why the Irish loved the place so much. It was just like home. Raw, beautiful and unspoilt.

So in the end I made it across the log in one piece. Still trembling I lifted my foot and in a matter of seconds I was standing on the other side of the river alongside my friends with a bruised ego. My aspirations of ever appearing on Survivor were over. The video footage was replayed at several intervals throughout the weekend. I had conquered the log but it had stolen my pride in the process.  A fair trade off for the experience of camping in the Catskills.

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