Coming home: Woodstock’s ‘hippie doctor,’ finds his way back

Steve Young. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Here’s a holiday tale. It’s a love story, an allegory, a uniquely Woodstock story that stretches over a generation or two, with a 35-year gap before the circle comes around again. It’s about houses and medical practices and coming home again.

We’re seated in a light-swept Bearsville living room with Stephen Young, Woodstock’s former “hippie doctor,” who was the focus of a story in these papers — as well as a network television documentary — some 35 years ago. He’s talking about what it’s like to have come home to a place he spent some years in a lifetime ago, but has carried with him — as visceral memories — for half a lifetime.

Seated in a window seat is Beverly Traum, with whom Young is making this new home. As well as the couple’s gentle giant of an Irish Wolfhound, Moira, who falls asleep as her master’s voice explains his life.

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“I came back on August 8, 2011, after a 35 year absence. I lived in Woodstock through the 1970s, most of it in Silver Hollow,” the bearded doctor says in a fast, practiced monologue. “I had an office on Mink Hollow Road. We were called Community Medicine and I was a general practitioner, but because a lot of the hippie-type women in couples were becoming pregnant and wanting nothing to do with hospital or midwife births, I got known for delivering babies.”

Young describes a blue Chevy Suburban van he and some friends refurbished with a bed and cabinets, renamed “The Whale,” which he would drive around town in, delivering a new generation of Woodstockers. He would be accompanied and aided by “whatever woman I was living with at the time.”

Which connections also ended up bringing him back to town, and to his new partner… and this house on Wittenberg Road, which Traum explains she’s spent decades looking at while living across the road. But we’ll get to that story in a moment…

First, Young answers as to what brought him to Woodstock in the first place, just two years after he’d been a doctor-on-call at the famous festival. He describes having grown up in Brooklyn, “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” and pegged to be the first doctor in his family, whose lawyer-father had himself wanted to study medicine when younger. After getting through the city’s best schools, he was awarded a surgical internship at Mt. Sinai Hospital in the late 1960s, but found the various odd jobs he was asked to perform for older doctors grueling.

“I started taking courses at the alternative university in the East Village. My wife was a speech therapist at Metropolitan Hospital and we started taking regular trips out to nature in the Palisades, reading Carlos Castaneda,” Young remembers of a time when he and others his age started exploring everything new being offered their generation. “As you can imagine, my outlook changed. And we decided to look for something different, to become doctors on some Indian Reservation or commune somewhere. It was very traumatic when I told my parents; they had a vision of me as a Park Avenue doctor.”

But the young couple persevered and left New York, and their budding medical careers, in June, 1970. It was a roiling time, a few months after the Weather Underground had literally exploded onto the scene, the Beatles disbanded, the shooting of students at Kent State and Jackson State had occurred, the Who played Tommy at the Met, and the first Earth Day was declared a success.

Steve and ShiShi Young headed west in a 1970 red VW camper with a pop-up and their Russian Borzoi wolfhound, “shunpiking” along back roads to the great National Parks and reservations…until their dog was run over in the night while everyone was camped by a road in Utah.

“We felt defeated and returned to the City,” Young recalls, talking about a difficult period that saw them headed back East in autumn. “To feel better, we decided to drive up that winter to the Jewish Cultural Camp in Rhinebeck (now the Omega Institute) where we’d met as kids.”

 

A decision was made to “take a peek at this place called Woodstock,” where the couple immediately learned there was only one physician in town. And an old house for sale on Glasco Turnpike, where it intersects with Boggs Hill Road.

Young went to see the only doctor, Norman Berg, and immediately struck up such a friendship that he was quickly offered a partnership in his practice. But, it being January, 1971, he turned it down when Dr. Berg asked him to cut his hair first.

“I opened a practice in our home, with the living room our waiting room and the dining room for exams,” Young says as Moira rolls over loudly and Traum spots him a smile from across this winter light-drenched room. “At first it was slow but then more and more people started to come.”

He was approached by Gael Varsi, founder of Family of Woodstock, to open an office in their space at the corner of Rock City and Mill Hill roads. But Young, and his patients, didn’t like the fact that their exam room was full-windowed and looking down on the center of town from a second story perch.

At which point the house on Mink Hollow Road came up and a move to the west of town was made, opening up a patient base for Young that stretched off into Phoenicia and even Hunter.

“Steve Heller made some tables for our waiting room. We had tie dyes on the ceiling,” he remembered. “I’d see six patients in a day, spending an hour with each. A lot of our pay came through Medicaid.”

Off the record, Young talks about how rich the town was as a community then. He treated members of The Band and their kids, was friends with Paul Butterfield and whoever was in his band. He’d go down into town regularly to catch music at nights. Got divorced, lived with several other women…and then accepted the offer to move about as far north in Maine as is possible, where he spent the next five years, from 1977 into the early 1980s, practicing low risk obstetrics.

After which he was offered a residency at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Out of that, he gained experience working with some of the nation’s top vaginal surgeons, becoming expert in the burgeoning field of uro-gynecology.

Young moved on to the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, where he became chief of his division for 20 years. Which, he explains, was “very intense, very busy,” and left him wanting a change when he eventually retired in recent years.

 

Which made his being contacted by old friend Susan Robinson about sharing memories for a book project that much more intriguing, over the past year. He began looking back into his days as Woodstock’s hippie doctor during its alternative golden age.

“After four months exchanging stories, Susan then introduced me to Bev, who I’d known briefly back in 1971,” he recalls of the late Artie Traum’s widow. “We’d both been through a lot and our relationship went from e-mails to a phone dialogue to in-person relations very quickly.”

I ask, did Steve Young always keep Woodstock, at least in his mind, as a refuge, a secret home for some part of him that never left?

“All those years, I always had it in the back of my mind, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to go home to Woodstock,’” he replies. “Being here in the seventies was clearly the happiest time of my life.”

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Does Young now see the town as different, or do his eyes overlay the past upon what is here, now?

“I see the occasional person who looks just like that person looked 40 years ago. I project…” he answers. “Bev would tell me that those glory days of the town are not here now and I believed her, but not 100 percent. I thought maybe she’s not seeing a small substrata of the past that still exists here.”

Young notes how the landscape he fell in love with as a younger man is still here. And how, even if different he’d still want to be here. Sure, it’s not quite as loose and free as it, and all of us, were once. But he’s started running into people who remember him, as well as kids he’s delivered, now with kids of their own.

“When I left Woodstock, I went back to a very straight world, and all my responsibilities increased,” he says. “That whole time away was not a lot of fun. Which made me remember Woodstock as a place of fun, sharing, and a time when I was able to practice a different type of medicine…”

 

Stephen Young, M.D., recalls a 1970s PBS special on giving birth in America that looked at four vignettes that included a big hospital, midwifery and a home birth, as well as the hippie doctor’s Woodstock-specific blue van “Whale.”

We all laugh as Bev Traum moves over to her new partner, explaining how the house she lived in for a lifetime used to be on the site of the house we’re now in, until it was built the early 20th century and the older home got moved. This house we’re in now, it turns out, was where Lee Marvin’s family lived for years. It was long a part of her dreams.

“Things come full circle,” she says.

Young takes up the thread and talks about how he’s taken to walking Moira on the Comeau property, and how much damage was sustained there after this summer’s storms. After the floods, he says, he started working to clear brush with another dog walker around his age. Young brought in a chain saw and tractor. Together the two cleared paths and restored the land they loved, for their dogs and sense of community, drawing others to their effort.

“That was John Sebastian,” Bev Traum says of her old family friend of years.

“I guess I’m back here because I want to find a piece of the thread that pulled me and so many others up here to Woodstock back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then bound us here together,” Young concludes. “Being here, now, I know I’ll find that thread.” ++

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