On a cool, overcast March morning recently I climbed Overlook Mountain, with the intent of renewing citizenship in the Republic of Ashokan. Climbing Overlook is nothing new; I had done it dozens of times as casually as I once walked from Times Square to Washington Square. What was different was that age had crept up on me. I had become, perforce, a saunterer in Woodstock. A flaneur. Could I still hike?
I have this notion, based a little on bioregionalism, and a lot on 40 years residence in Ashokan — meaning the Woodstock Valley from Overlook to the Reservoir — that we are first and foremost citizens of the landscape we inhabit. If you live or work in the capital of Ashokan, every decade or so I think that you should renew your citizenship not only by voting, but by the following: sitting through a Town Board meeting; volunteering; attending an art opening; sitting on the Green and watching the world go by; writing an indignant letter to Woodstock Times; marching in the Memorial Day Parade; climbing Overlook. (There are other, more esoteric rites)
It is altogether fitting that that you should have to drive past Tibet — the huge white KTD monastery with its prayer flags hanging like the undergarments of sexy angels — on your pilgrimage to Woodstock’s sacred mountain.
We pulled into the parking got for the trailhead a few minutes after sunrise. Six cars were parked there already. My companion, Colin McKewan, is a Scot who’s explored the world, its heights (he was an Outward Bound leader in the Adirondacks) and its depths (he has a Masters in Marine Archeology.)
Rain was forecast, but the clouds were parting. We started to climb. The path up Overlook is broad, graveled, and unrelenting. Colin and I talked about previous times we’d gone up this mountain, while he politely tried to ignore the fact that I was quietly huffing and puffing like one long in city pent. (I was wondering, darkly, if I’d have to scrub this mission.)
We encountered Jay of Jarita’s Florist and his party descending the mountain as we trudged up. Some of the people with him were older than me, and they looked like they’d been out for a stroll. Even their old dog was in better shape than I was.
I remembered the time I’d last climbed the mountain was with another hiring buddy, the goddess Hera (aka Betty from Bearsville). Hera is famous among local hikers for leaving anyone who can’t cruise a Road Runner speed in the dust. Hike with Hera, and mostly what you’ll see of her is a blur far ahead. The woman can perambulate.
To take my mind off the climb, I told Colin the story of the ill-fated Overtook Mountain House, and then the tower behind it, which since the l980’s has blighted the night time
Woodstock Valley with its blinking light.
Once upon a time, in recent memory, there were few houses on Overlook, at least none with the “show-off” lights that say “look at the size of the house I can afford.” At night the mountain was dark. Then the tower was erected so that a Kingston TV station could broadcast ‘’I Love Lucy” reruns. It was built by a shameless local entrepreneur who simply ignored the law against doing so — and the town fathers were asleep at the switch. Since it stood in the Albany to New York flight corridor, the FAA said it had to have a blinking light atop it.
Many citizens protested. A group was formed called “No Lights” headed, if memory serves, by attorney Alan Sussman and poet Ed Sanders. At least one rally/poetry reading was held on the summit, which drew a crowd. Earth First! type actions were spoken of. The tower was fortified.
When we arrived at the ruins of the hotel I looked at my watch and was surprised to see that we’d made it up in the usual time.
I am always puzzled by the ruins that now rose before us. I can imagine the guests stepping down from the carriages that brought them up, and ascending the short flights of steps into in hotel, but what I don’t understand is how small it must have been. Of course, is was never a grand hotel like its sister, the Catskill Mountain House, but the windows are so close together it doesn’t look much bigger than a typical Catskill boarding house.
We pressed on along the path that leads to the wide outcropping of rock that offers the best view of the Woodstock valley. A lone tent with no one stirring, and a cold campfire greeted us. We sat on the edge of the cliff munching breakfast and contemplating the Republic of Ashokan. There was the Hudson, a silvery ribbon to the left; there, to the south was Ohayo Mountain.
There are many lines of thought being on a mountain may inspire. You can take stock of your life below from a “God’s eye’” perspective. You can reminisce about previous hikes. You can try to imagine what the landscape was like hundreds of years ago. (My favorite: the great Mohawk leader, Joseph Brant, sitting on this ledge during the Revolutionary War, and deciding not to attack Woodstock.)
My focus on this overcast morning was on the notion of home, on staying in one place, as I had for four decades — or for ten generations as many old Woodstock families have. What keeps inhabitants of a place loyal to it? Why do we stay?
Perhaps it’s as simple as the “Cheers” song: it’s “a place where everyone knows your name.” Maybe it’s a longing for community, a place where you can contribute, where you can be a citizen whose voice is heard, and you are no just an anonymous consumer.
We started down, chatting while I ruminated. Colin and I had both been scouts, as had most of the men I knew who loved the outdoors. I said that I thought Scouting’s founder had done more for boys than anyone I could think of. Colin — usually a bright, cherry fellow — surprised me by his reply: “Yes, but today he’d probably be accused of pedophilia.” We talked a little about the role of fear in our lives today, imposed upon us by politicians and the media.
Going down a mountain involves a different set of leg muscles. The front of your thighs begins to burn. Your toes bump painfully into the toebox of your shoes.
But half way down I no longer felt the pain. I grinned beneficently at what almost seemed like a stream of people coming up. I had done it! I was still a hiker. I had renewed my citizenship in the Republic of Ashokan.
I have seen the great world many times over, I thought. Let it go its own way. I’ll stay home in my own little postage stamp of landscape, as William Faulkner called his piece of Mississippi. It is a world, and a beautiful one, spring, and the road home was yellow with forsythia. ++