NY Conversation December 2011

It was asking for trouble, really.

Having spent one week in Goa and several weeks in Byron Bay, your correspondent has already had enough of hippies to last several lifetimes. But the prospect of a weekend away in the Catskill Mountains — the verdant Appalachian offshoot range that runs northwest from Pennsylvania up into New York state — sounds like a fine idea, and all the places to stay seem to be in Woodstock. And so it is that after hiring a car and negotiating an occasionally hair-raising two-hour drive out of the city, NY Conversation finds itself chowing down on lentil soup and and contemplating the purchase of a home-made kazoo.

Woodstock would be a perfectly pleasant little town were it not for the shadow of the festival that happened four decades ago at a farm down the road, which looms large over the place like some sort of countercultural thunderhead. I mean, shit, you know you’re in a hippie town when even the local dentist is called “Transcend Dental”. As with the rest of the hippie dream, Woodstock’s history has been conveniently commodified and is now sold back to Upper West Side wives at premium prices in the form of pampering hot stone massages and pseudo-ethnic knickknacks.

Happily, the Catskills themselves are beautiful. (It turns out that Kate Pierson of The B-52’s runs a trailer park out here, too — if only we’d known!) Once you’re out of hippie central, there’s a real Twin Peaks vibe about the area. The further you drive, the closer the pines crowd in on either side of the road, although it has to be said there’s nothing especially menacing about the forest up here — actually, American forests are really nice in comparison to the Australian bush, perhaps due to the lack of choking bracken/potentially lethal snakes and spiders/weird fungi/Ivan Milat/etc etc.

We get our exercise quotient for the year by taking an impromptu hike to see the local natural wonder, which is the Kaaterskill Falls. Unfortunately, our map-reading skills, or lack thereof, mean that we somehow end up at the top of the waterfall, which means we can’t see it — although if you’ve never stood at the top of an 80-metre waterfall and looked out across a valley, heart hammering all the while because you’re shit-scared of heights, well, you’ve never lived. Maybe.

One thing we notice from on high is that the hurricane that everyone complained about in New York for being a damp squib was clearly the real deal up here. Driving back, we pass a stand of pines that’s been flattened, as if some huge hand had just knocked them over, and a house that’s been lifted off its foundations by floodwaters and deposited in its entirety a few metres down the road. The unfortunate who owned the place clearly didn’t have any home insurance, because all his/her possessions are still inside, covered in mud. It’s more than a little creepy.

Apart from weird abandoned houses, perhaps the most interesting sight out here is Opus 40, a large open-air stone sculpture near the town of Saugerties, which is about ten minutes’ drive from Woodstock. Mercury Rev fans will recognize the name immediately, and the band’s 1998 single does indeed take its name from this place — they apparently have a studio out here, although its location is not included on our tourist map. Opus 40 itself is fascinating — it’s a huge, sprawling quarry that’s an entire work of art in itself, all centred around a 30-foot bluestone monolith. It was created by one Robert Fite, a local artist who worked on it for 37 years and eventually died in the process (he was killed in a fall from its central monolith). Sadly, it’s closed when we arrive, although the long-haired chap in charge of the place offers to collect a full admission fee for the favour of allowing us to view the thing from afar. We decline his kind offer and head back to Woodstock, where a cosy cottage and a fake fireplace await.

But at about 1am, our rural idyll is broken by what appears to be an aging Todd Rundgren groupie convention – they’ve set up camp by the stream outside and are talking loudly about the ker-razy times they had back in the ’70s. Awesome. We endure their baby boomin’ reminiscences for half an hour and eventually go outside to tell them to shut up. The next morning, one of them approaches us to apologize for the noise: “We were just having too much fun! We’re used to partying until 5am!” For some people, it seems, the ’60s never ended. Woo fucking hoo.


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