By Kim Emerson S&TA - firstname.lastname@example.org
Every time a Ranch skydiver stands in the door of an aircraft and sets up for exit, the rest of us can hear the familiar count of "ready, set, go" preceded by the yell of "Shawanga!" But what the hell does it mean? Why do we yell that of all things? Whatever happened to "Geronimo"?
What follows is a TRUE STORY.
The mountains we are most fortunate to have in our privileged vistas are the Shawangunk Mountains. Pronunciation varies from old timer to newcomer, but it is roughly something like "Shong-gum", but don't press the issue too much. They are affectionately and familiarly known as "The Gunks", and are truly world renowned for their rock climbing status among that lunatic fringe.
The name is variously thought to mean "river by the white mountain", "people of the river by the white mountain", or simply "white mountain", but there are other suggestions as well.
There was indeed a tribe of indigenous peoples living along the banks of the river. Archeological digs along the Wallkill river's banks in and around New Paltz, and along the Shawangunkill have unearthed remains of small native villages. The Shawangunkill river is the one that joins the Wallkill almost directly across the way from the Ranch, forming one border of the Jellystone campground.
The story goes that back when the native people of this area were the predominant ones and not the dominated or eradicated or driven ones the whites caused them to be, there was a daughter of the chief, we might call her a princess but we can be sure they didn't. Her name, Shawanga, is thought to reflect her bloodline to the chief, and she enjoyed special privileges, allowances and honors as a result of that lineage. Shawanga was a healthy young thing and it showed in her girth and bosom. She was a large one, well fed and soft. During her crazed and reckless youth, Shawanga took up with a white man, a boy really, and though the two lovers endeavored to keep their love a secret, it was all to no avail. The tribe's people made the discovery and vowed to never let the union become consummated or to continue further, swearing to kill the white man before any irreparable damage could be done.
Shawanga, aware of her brothers' ferocity and cleverness, as well as their determination to see the edict through, wished to give some solace to her poor targeted man. She told him, "If you ever find yourself in trouble, call my name and I will be there to save you. Have faith in this and it will come true." Nothing like this ever happens in the white world, but love being what it is, the white boy believed his bronzed behemoth beauty and took her at her word.
The two had numerous trysts, secret rendezvous among the mountain laurel and pines of the mountains they called home. Shawanga's family sought to find them out but often failed.
The mountain was born in the ice age, glaciers finding their way farther South, depositing their stones along the way. The area in what is now the central Hudson Valley has many vertical cliffs, steep ledges of over a thousand feet in places. Natural trails abound through the flora, many ending at an edge, a precipice from which there is no escape without retracing one's steps, or, worse, over the edge.
One day Shawanga's brothers and other tribe's people were giving chase to the devil white man through the rough trails of the mountain. He had a good lead on them but was tiring, fading. Though he knew the mountain well, he was however not a full time resident of it, being white and living on the other side of the river in the small village nearby. Even a skilled and thoroughly knowledgeable soul could get disoriented up there and find himself at the end of both his wits and the earth. It was in such a predicament that the white man found himself this day: Chased through the forest to a point where he could not return lest he run straight into the arrows and spears and treachery of his angry, bloodthirsty pursuers. Faced with imminent death and standing at the edge of a cliff of over a thousand feet in height, he remembered the promise of his love. "If you ever find yourself in trouble, call my name and I will be there to save you. Have faith in this and it will come true." So he did the only thing he could do under these dire circumstances. With a mighty and love-driven lunge, he flew his tired and trembling body from the cliff, calling, "Shawanga!" as he fell, head over tail, tumbling frantically and insanely faster toward the Earth below. Just when he should have hit and died, he fell instead into the waiting loving arms of his darling Shawanga, her soft, billowy, corpulent body cushioning his fall. Once in her arms, they embraced a lover's embrace, kissed (she was a quick study) and rose to run, knowing that Shawanga herself was now in peril too.
Upon learning of the leap and of the subsequent rescue, the men of the tribe decided that the white man had indeed done a very brave and daring feat, which humbled them all. Any man who would take such a dive must be among the bravest of brave men. It was with this in mind that all was forgiven. Shawanga's man was a worthy brother to the tribe and he was forever after welcomed as one of the family.
So it is that as we prepare to throw ourselves toward a sure death, we too must evoke the passions of Shawanga. There's no telling how we'll end up once her name is called, but not doing so might just prove fatal.