“Small town, big ideas,” proclaims the Visit Hurleyville website in large letters. The same could be said for Fortress Bikes founder Hal Simon. Originally from Long Island, the restaurateur frequented this picturesque valley in the Catskills for years before deciding to take the leap to bike rental shop owner in the summer of 2021.
Although such an endeavor takes a ton of passion, long hours and elbow grease, Simon said that the experience has been a positive one perhaps for one simple reason: “Bikes make people happy.”
Nestled in the mountains of Upstate New York, Hurleyville was one of several rural hamlets along what was nicknamed the “Milk Train” that, beginning in the late 19th century, ferried dairy products (as well as coal and passengers) on a route stretching from the New York metropolitan area to Oswego on the Lake Ontario shoreline. Today, this former corridor of the New York, Ontario & Western Railway—the centerpiece of life here for decades until its demise in the 1950s—has been transformed into the O&W Rail Trail, a project spearheaded by Sullivan County and heartily supported by local municipalities and organizations.
“I love that rail-trails have been converted from old unused train tracks to provide opportunities for people to get out in nature,” said Simon. “It’s a great thing for the communities they run through, bringing in tourism and commerce. I especially love what our little section of the O&W Rail Trail does. It reconnects towns and people the way the railroad did originally.”
Simon’s bike rental shop, a first for the town, is situated on Hurleyville’s Main Street, just steps from the rail-trail. “It’s 7 miles of beautiful, flat pavement,” he said. “You’ll see bodies of water, farmland and forest. And the colors are gorgeous in the fall—you have foliage, history and wildlife.”
It’s the kind of place that might make you want to pack up and leave everything behind, and that’s exactly what Simon and his wife Lori decided to do. The midst of the COVID pandemic may have seemed an unusual time to open a new business, but the nature of the services that Simon was offering were perfectly matched to the needs of the moment. Trail usage has continued to rise by double digits around the country. People are flocking to trails and outdoor spaces for stress relief, exercise and as a safe space place to gather with family and friends. In fact, an early challenge for Simon was acquiring a supply of bikes for his shop, as demand for them had skyrocketed. But the ambitious venture proved to be an immediate success.
“The business just took off—we had a tremendous first season,” said Simon.
A refuge in a world of uncertainty, the shop’s name seems especially fitting. “When we first purchased our vacation home here in the Catskills—now our permanent residence—I decided it was my ‘Fortress of Solitude,’ just like Superman had at the North Pole,” explained Simon. “So naturally when it came time to name the new business, there was only one real choice.”
Like Simon’s shop, the O&W Rail Trail is continuing to grow and get even better. Fortress Bikes opened its doors, ready to take advantage of its prime location on the western end of the envisioned 50-mile route of the O&W Rail Trail developing across eastern Sullivan County, into Ulster County and on to the Hudson River Valley. Other segments of the pathway—totaling more than 25 miles—are open to the east and north of Hurleyville, and in August, the project received a major boost: $1.1 million in federal funding to connect the Sullivan County sections to create a seamless 13-mile pathway from Mountaindale to Liberty.
In addition to biking, Simon is an avid snowshoer and is looking forward to offering snowshoe rentals in the winter months. It may seem impossible that such a pretty trail could get even prettier, but the magic of sparkling snow and icicles gleaming from the rock cuts make it just so.
“I usually hit the trail at least once a week,” enthused Simon. “Either walking, biking, Rollerblading or snowshoeing—I just love getting out there!”
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