By Peggy Strait
Did my husband Roger and I ever think that we would own a mountain? Well, not exactly a whole mountain, but so much of one that we now call it OUR MOUNTAIN.
It all began one summer afternoon in 1968. Roger, our nine-year-old son Paul, and I were leisurely spending the day at our recently purchased fisherman’s shack of a Hudson River country house when I read something startling in the New York Times.
“Look at this,” I said to Roger. “Land for sale in the Catskill Mountains for only $59 per acre!”
Roger was definitely interested. He was born to American missionary parents in the beautiful, forested mountains of Burma. If there was anyone who loved mountains and trees even more than I, it was Roger.
Next morning, before I was out of bed, Roger had contacted the owner and gotten directions. I quickly packed some food for the trip. Then, the four of us – Roger, Paul, Paul’s pet Doggie, and I – got into our VW Beetle and drove west along Route 28 into the heart of the beautiful Catskill Mountains, to the home of Mr. Redmond, the owner of the land for sale, located on Route 28 in the town of Arkville.
From his front porch, Mr. Redmond pointed to the lush, green, forested land on Meade Hill, which geologically, was a hump on the western tip of Fleishman Mountain, near the point where Route 28 intersected Dry Brook Road. “Only 200 acres left,” he said. Then he unfolded a map showing that the available land was divided into two contiguous parcels of 100 acres each. We told him that we might be interested in buying one of those parcels but that we wanted to explore the land first.
Thus began an adventure that took over our lives for the remaining weeks of that summer.
We drove back to New York City and bought surveying equipment. How else would we know what we were buying unless we surveyed the land?
We would start very early in the morning. I would prepare food for the day. Then we would drive from our river house to the mountain, located approximately one hour away.
We would look at the map of the land and search for a starting point. I would check the compass for the exact angle and point the direction. Then, Roger, Paul and Doggie would cut uphill through the forest to the next point. Sometimes, the path required climbing over cliff-like boulders, wading through muddy marshland, or heading straight into thorny bramble, which Roger would beat down with a stick. But it was always exhilarating. We would stop for lunch. Sometimes we would sit on logs in a pine forest, on a boulder at the edge of a stream, in the middle of an untended apple orchard, or in the shade of a tree near a meadow at the top of the mountain. Just before sunset we would hold onto each other’s hands and, with Doggie leading the way, would head straight down the mountain to where our car was parked. We would let a few days pass before we would be back. Our love for the mountain would grow with each return trip.
The summer days went quickly. When the cool September winds arrived, we knew it was time for us to head back to New York City for Paul’s school and Roger’s and my teaching obligations at our respective universities. A month later, in October, I learned that I was pregnant with our second child. That put an end to even weekend trips to the mountain and shifted our focus to more immediate demands.
A few days after our son David was born, on July 2, 1969, we were back at our river house for the summer. Roger called Mr. Redmond. “Only 100 acres left,” he said, “but the price now is $100 per acre.” What were we to do? We agreed to pay $10,000.00 for 100 acres when less than a year earlier, we could have bought 200 acres for just $1,800.00 more.
From then on, our summers were divided between New York City, our river house, and camping trips to our plot of land on the mountain.
A few years later, a neighbor was relocating to Brazil. His plot included a pond, a majestic pine forest, and access to the eastern branch of the Delaware River, which ran parallel to Route 28 at the foot of the mountain. We could not resist. We bought his 100 acres.
Then some 20 years after we had bought our first plot of mountain land, sometime in the fall of 1989, which was a horrendously busy year for us because of the lawsuit that we were engaged in against our co-op, and for which I was doing all the legal research, we received a call from a surveyor who lived down the road from us in the mountain. “Are you guys lumbering your land?” he asked. “No,” said Roger. “Then you had better come up and take a look.”
Roger, Paul and David immediately drove up to the mountain. From behind bushes, they saw a gang of men actively cutting down our cherry, pine, maple and oak trees – hundreds of trees – on our land at the top of the mountain. David filmed the devastating scene.
When Roger, Paul and David returned home and told me what they had seen, I was horrified. At the same time, I became suddenly aware that my legal research in preparation for our lawsuit against our co-op had become unexpectedly useful. In my hours and hours of reading New York State laws I had come across a code that granted triple damages to plaintiffs suing for the illegal cutting of their trees. Paul, who was a lawyer, took the guilty party to court. With the evidence in the film, it was an easy case. A settlement was reached. The defendant would deed to us all 300 acres of his forested land that shared a common boundary with us at the top of the mountain. In addition, he agreed that with a payment of $50,000 from us, he would also deed to us his 3-bedroom cabin at the foot of the mountain at the edge of Dry Brook, the stream that ran parallel to Dry Brook Road.
Thus, we became the owners of a vast area in the mountain; beginning at the banks of the eastern branch of the Delaware River along Route 28; then uphill on the north side of the mountain through an old apple orchard, a pond, and a majestic pine forest; then along old winding logging and shepherd’s’ roads, past cliffs, springs, pastures, groves of cherry, maple, pine and oak trees to the top of the mountain; then downhill on the south side of the mountain through a terrain that we have yet to fully explore; to a cabin in the woods at the edge of a stream called Dry Brook at the foot of the south side of the mountain on Dry Brook Road. Can you blame us for calling all this OUR MOUNTAIN?
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Is there a moral to this story? Yes! Don’t cut your neighbor’s trees!
Note: To get an idea of the size of our property on the mountain, think of Central Park from Fifth Avenue to Central Park West, and from 79th Street to 110th Street, which would include the Belvedere Castle, the Turtle Pond, Delacorte Theatre, Shakespeare Garden, the Great Lawn, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Summit Rock, the entire Reservoir, the East Meadow, the Tennis Courts, the North Meadow and Recreation Center, the West Side Pool, the Loch, the Ravine, the Conservatory Garden, the Great Hill, Fort Clinton, the North Woods, Lasker Rink and Pool, and Harlem Meer.
Peggy Strait – 2015