Nina Shengold, Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days (Syracuse University Press, 2020)
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On the eve of her sixtieth birthday, Nina Shengold embarks on a challenge: to walk the path surrounding the Catskills’ glorious Ashokan Reservoir every day for a year, at all times of day and in all kinds of weather, trying to find something new every time. Armed with lively curiosity, infectious enthusiasm, and renewed stubbornness, she hits the path every day with all five senses wide open, searching for details that glint. As Shengold explores the secrets of this spectacular place, she rediscovers the glories of solitude and an expanded community, both human and animal. Step by step, her reservoir walks rekindle connections with family, strangers, and friends, with a landscape she grows to revere, and with a new sense of self. Like the writings of John Burroughs, Annie Dillard, and Barry Lopez, Shengold’s reflections on her personal journey will resonate with outdoor enthusiasts and armchair hikers alike.
Quietly transformative, Reservoir Year encourages readers to find their own ways to unplug and slow down, reconnecting with nature, reviving old passions and sparking some new ones along the path.
Day 1. September 15, 2015, 7 pm
Sunset walk along the Ashokan Reservoir under whisper-pastel sky. Two deer graze on the steep embankment below the walkway over the Olive bridge Dam. I stand still, holding my breath as they work their way toward me. The doe stays a few yards downhill, but the fawn comes so close I can see white fur lining its ears and hear its teeth munching vetch.
A bicyclist passes. They spook and charge down the hill, white tails flashing. I turn to see western clouds streaked flamingo, with a sliver of new moon hovering over the cleft of Slide Mountain.
Day 135. January 27, 7:20 am
Bliss before breakfast. I wake early, a little hungover, and though the lightening sky is dull gray, I’m compelled to go down to the res.
If you feel a mysterious pull to do something, listen.
I grumble through pulling on clothes and drive down Vly hill, convinced this is going to be anticlimactic. There’s a cool wedge of clouds in the east, but so what? I could have rolled over and gone back to sleep.
Stiff wind, low sun swaddled in clouds. Lone crow, then a seagull, then more crows. A lot of crows, agitated, vociferous, flying back and forth as if something’s up. Take me to your leader, I think. I turn my head, and of course—it really does feel like of course—there’s an eagle flying right toward me, straight down the path.
She flies right over my head. It’s my snaggle-winged Xena, her yellow feet bunched and her wingbeats an easy lope. I watch her fly all the way down to the tree line along Driftwood Cove. Then she cuts a diagonal across open water to fly back over my head. She veers off toward her fishing beach, circles around it, and flies back again, buzzing me twice more before disappearing into the trees on the rise. The last time I see her, she’s high in the thermals. The sky’s an extravagant tie-dye. The sun has turned apricot, bisected by a dark line of clouds so it looks like a blurred figure eight, almost like one sun on top of another.
Past the rise, I hear crows vocalizing again and look up. There’s another big bird. For a moment I think it’s an eagle, but the wings are too arched, the tail too long and straight. It’s an osprey, the fish hawk, sleek brown-and-white grace.
I feel sated. That carbonation of spirit—that something will happen— recedes, and I walk back without craning my head up to scan the sky. I notice things nearer the ground: how a thick fallen limb has been caught in the palm of a spindly branch, how a trio of leaning dead trunks splay out like travois poles.
The ice rafts have disappeared, melted and swallowed. The wind’s dying down, with a weird scent of premature spring in the air. The sun is still swathed in a tent-caterpillar cocoon of low clouds, but a few shafts peep over to land on the tops of Cornell and Panther Mountains, the only snowy places left. The mountains gleam white, then the rising sun shifts to illuminate first lower peaks, then the shoreline near Boiceville, then Brodhead Point, then the path where I’m walking. A glow.
Day 265. June 5, 9:40 am
Today is the Ride the Ridge bike race, the Tour de Krumville. It’s been raining all morning, now down to a drizzle. The thirty-mile loop leaves High Meadow School at 9:30 and winds uphill toward the res, so I figure I’ll walk out into quiet and come back as the first racers arrive.
Two walkers ahead, moving slowly and stopping to stare at the view. They turn out to be young Pakistani men. One asks, “Do you live near here?” I tell him yes, expecting tourist questions, but he says in reverent tones, “I live in Kerhonkson, but on the main road. This is . . . SPECTACULAR!”
The mist is a cool, breathing thing, rolling uphill and over the bridge. The tall grass is rain flattened, cowlicked in whorls. Two deer dash across the path ahead, vanishing into the mist like something out of a fairy tale.
Ominous throb of an approaching helicopter. All black, it parallels the path, circles over the reservoir, and returns. No one my age can see helicopters without thinking of Apocalypse Now. They remind me of vultures, and sure enough, one shows up on cue, tarry pinfeathers spread and bedraggled. Last time I looked, the roadkill deer in the ditch was picked clean, a twist of bleached ribcage and spine on the side of the road. I have an old-country urge to spit over my shoulder, puh, puh.
A man and a woman sit on the third bench, a short distance away from each other. They’re utterly still, and as I get closer I notice their hands are folded; they’re praying. I get it, sort of, but they have their eyes closed. Why come to this place of magnificent beauty and not look at God?
That might be the definition of faith.
My holy is mountains and mist.
First thirty-mile racer is female, a sturdy, determined blonde, way out ahead of the pack. She is kicking ass.
After the first solo racer, the riders start arriving in pairs and clumps. Many chat as they pedal; the vibe is relaxed. I spot a few eighty milers in team jerseys, speeding back through from their much longer loop. They slick past on blade-thin tires, calves bulging with tribal tattoos.
A couple of High Meadow moms on the thirty-mile course dismount, pulling out iPhones to snapshot the view. One of them says, “Now one of you with your bike. You’ll have memories.”
Reprinted with permission of Syracuse University Press and the author.
Nina Shengold’s books include Reservoir Year (Syracuse University Press), Clearcut (Anchor Books), and River of Words: Portraits of Hudson Valley Writers (SUNY Press). She won the Writers Guild Award for her teleplay Labor of Love and the ABC Playwright Award for Homesteaders, and teaches creative writing at Vassar College. More at https://ninashengold.com/