The Catskill mountains in upstate New York "have always been a region of fable," wrote the 19th century American author Washington Irving. Nowadays, it's hard to see anything fantastical about them they're where New York City yuppies go on weekend jaunts to upmarket organic farms or dusty furniture shops. But for Irving, they and the Hudson Valley held a "great antiquity" one whose magic isn't far from view for travelers wise enough to look for it.
Despite being a prolific author, a creature of politics and a flamboyant ambassador in Europe, Irving is still most famous for his two folk tales of the Hudson Valley: Rip Van Winkle (1819) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), both from the anthology The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. The tales came out of Irving's wanderings in the marches north of his New York home. Here was a land explored and first claimed not by English Puritans, but by the Dutch, and Irving seemed to revel in its history. He saw the Kaatsberg, or Kaatskill, range named in the 17th century by Dutch navigators after a poet back home as "fairy mountains" stalked by indigenous spirits.
Among the settlers who lived in their shadow was the hapless layabout Rip Van Winkle. As the story goes, Van Winkle went into the mountains to escape his henpecking wife, ran into the merry ghosts of New York's first Dutch explorers and, after being plied with fine Dutch ale, woke up alone in the mountains 20 years later.
That epic nap may be make-believe, but there are signs of its legacy everywhere. Van Winkle's hamlet is most consistently rumored to have existed near modern-day Palenville, off Route 23A. Its lore and location by the foot of the Catskills spawned some of the country's first artist colonies. A hike into the Catskills from there winds past stone formations and pretty waterfalls before leading to Rip's Rock the spot where he supposedly slumbered.
In Irving's tale, Van Winkle returned to a changed world. The Revolutionary War had been waged and won and talk of elections and congresses sounded to him like "Babylonish jargon." Traipsing through these parts now can still be temporally disorientating but here, the past, not the near future, seems strange. To think of a time when the locals were all Van Bummels or Verploncks and the songs of Flanders echoed across White Plains is to look at a history that, even for New Yorkers, is jarringly unfamiliar. (For more travel tips and stories visit time.com/travel.)
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow also evokes feelings of incongruity. The town of Sleepy Hollow today is less than an hour's commute from Manhattan, but Irving saw this vale as a "region of shadows" where he could imagine the gangly schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, quivering in fear of the Headless Horseman. The bridge where the ghoulish rider supposedly chased Ichabod can be found not far off Route 9, along the same road that passes the 17th century Old Dutch Church. Irving came here and drew his cast of characters from the names etched on tombstones in the churchyard.
When I visited as a child looking, as Ichabod did, like a "scarecrow eloped from a cornfield" amid a gaggle of other wide-eyed city kids the area's dark forests were indeed daunting. An eerie light filtered through the leaves; the evening cold had the edge of a knife. Here, lurking in some pumpkin patch or lonely cemetery, a folk legend was all too real.
by Ishaan Tharoor