As a lifelong New Jersey resident, I cannot and do not claim to have a definitive answer to the argument about where the infamous “upstate” divide in our neighboring state, New York, lies. However, coming from the Jersey perspective, and for the sake of putting something down in writing, I will say that I drove to what felt like the upstate this past weekend to do some camping in the Catskills and shopping in Phoenicia, NY. Famous as a mid-twentieth century retreat from the metropolis of New York City, and for the nearby site of the Woodstock hippie festival, the Catskills are a rural mountainous (dissected plateau, actually) region whose locals seem to welcome out-of-towners like us.
Driving from South Jersey (and yes, we can have that argument in the comments section, too!) took three and a half hours to arrive. As I’ve written before, I’m a big fan of the four hour radius when making a weekend getaway. Our original intention was to get there on Friday morning and to stay two nights, but thunderstorms got in the way of our best laid plans, and we showed up dry on Saturday, instead. The postponement basically resulted in a lost day of hiking a nearby trailhead. Next time, I guess.
Sarah and I got to the Woodland Valley campsite in Phoenicia and met up with our group of friends who had just finished checking in. It was early afternoon and there was plenty of time to start setting up camp: building tents and collecting firewood.
We specifically selected Woodland Valley for its bathroom facilities and liberal alcohol policy (respect the quiet hours and clean up after yourself), but we didn’t realize how crowded with families it would be. I was expecting more of a private site because of a review we’d read, but it turns out we were right next to a young couple we didn’t know, and we could see and hear all of the other camps. To top things off, we were next to the road leading to the camp, but in the end it didn’t matter. We ultimately realized we were in the middle of nowhere, with some unexpected company.
We could all hear the babble of water, and Will suggested we go find it. This turned out to be a magical moment. Cutting across campsites, we finally found a secluded neck of the Woodland Creek flowing over a riverbed of white stones. The river was low and dry, but fast moving, and I could see how wide and high it might get when the mountain snow melts in the spring. Tossing sneakers aside, a few brave souls plunged into the icy water. I’m not one for getting wet, so I enjoyed the experience from the sidelines. After romping and stomping followed by peaceful reflection and plenty of photo taking, we made our way back to camp and started to light the bonfire.
There are plenty of rules at Woodland Valley, and one of them is that campers must keep fires in the provided fireplaces. I was really looking forward to a big campfire, so we worked around this one a little bit. We set up a ring of stones in front of the concrete fireplace, which increased the area of the pit, and then removed the metal grill from the top. We were still in compliance, right? I built a stack of kindling around a candle wrapped in a cardboard tube (great fire starter!) and then built a two-tiered stack of branches that we’d spent some of the afternoon collecting. When it finally caught, the blaze went up slowly, and finally reached the height that I like to see on a camping outing.
It was getting dark now. We decided to eat again, dinner this time. Paul had been marinating some flank steak and veggie shish kebabs and it was time to throw them on the grill – the fire was too hot for cooking. Mmm, did they hit the spot. We invited the neighboring couple over for a little drink and some food, and they turned out to be good folks, also from New Jersey and enjoying their own Catskills camping experience. After we ate, we broke out the marshmallows and Hershey’s bars for s’mores and watched the firelight get replaced by starlight well past midnight.
It was a rough evening for everyone, apparently, because the next morning we all looked like we’d slept in the woods. After breakfast and breaking down camp, we decided to get some lunch and a drink in the nearby Phoenicia downtown to ease ourselves back into society. Phoenicia is a great little mountain town. Rustic buildings, friendly people and a close-knit community were my first impressions. Thriving on both the summer camping and winter skiing tourism of the Catskills, there are coffee shops, restaurants, and plenty of antiques and vintage stores, all packed with people on a Sunday morning. There’s also a bed & breakfast if camping isn’t your thing.
Piling into Brio’s Restaurant from some pizza and sandwiches and drinks, we were dismayed to learn that alcohol couldn’t be served until noon, presumable because it was Sunday. With just twenty minutes to go, we ordered our food and initiated a silent countdown in our heads. Right on time, 3-2-1, the waitress came back and took our requests: Bloody Marys and IPAs all around, please! While the hairs of the dogs that bit us were good, the pizza was even more memorable. I’ve never tasted a sesame crust, let alone sesame crust under a grandma pie, but I have now. And it was awesome.
I joked that Phoenicia looks so old that the people who live here are just trying to capitalize on cleaning out their attics. It turns out I might not have been that far off after checking out The Mystery Spot. This converted house had twisting halls and rooms filled from top to bottom with old games, knick-knacks, trinkets, dolls, collectables, clothes and vinyl records. Every place we looked was filled with something old for sale. After walking through and admiring the assortment of odds and ends, we headed back outside.
Our friends were ready to go home, but Sarah and I needed a little pick me up and wanted to snap a few more pictures. After saying our goodbyes to our friends, she and I rounded out our trip with coffee from the Mama’s Boy which claims to have the best cup in town. I have nothing to compare it with, but it was good. I ended up having two. Sarah and I sat down at one of the wooden tables inside the cozy café where we sipped and asked each other outdated Trivial Pursuit questions, conveniently left there for us to play: the Soviet Union and British Hong Kong were two memorable answers. For a moment, the buzz of the town seemed to end, and it was just the two of us and the coffee shop, enjoying each others company.
A small weekend road trip is one of the best vacations you can have. If you’re in the area, make plans to meet some friends or bring the family to New York and enjoy the natural setting, warm weather and mountain air of the Catskills. You might not be upstate, but then again, you might be, depending on where you’re from… Either way, camping here is a great summertime tradition that will make memories worth having.
What do you think?
Where is the Upstate New York divide?
Where is the North/South Jersey divide?
What are some of your camping memories?