One of the pleasures of living in New Paltz is the constant sight of the Shawangunk Ridge. The defining visual element of our landscape, it frames and bounds our view to the west. The eminence of Skytop and the Albert K. Smiley Memorial Tower are as familiar to residents and frequent visitors as the face of an old friend. The tower is a reminder of the conservation legacy that began in this area with the Smiley family and today extends far beyond the Mountain House property to the adjoining Mohonk Preserve and nearby Minnewaska State Park and Sam’s Point Dwarf Pine Ridge Preserve.
Despite our close proximity to Mohonk Mountain House, Rebecca and I are relatively infrequent visitors. More often than not it’s a special occasion when we go there. In this case, we needed no greater pretext than the beginning of summer, on a day that smothered the valley in heat and humidity. The prospect of a day spent in that gracious setting, of a stroll cooled by breezes along the cliff edge and above the lake, and by the shade of forests, was more than enough to lure us.
Just as one recognizes the scent of pine as soon as one enters a pine grove, even day visitors like us instantly register the atmosphere of summer vacation when walking the trails around Mohonk Lake. Perhaps it’s the sight and sound of so many children feeding fish in the lake, and climbing on the rocks around it, but something about being near the Mountain House transports me to long-ago childhood summer days in the country.
There is a charmed feeling at this place, enhanced not just by the castle-like grandeur of the hotel, but perhaps even more by the many (over a hundred) “summer houses” perched on rocky outcrops above the lake or along the ridgelines, each offering a unique vantage point. These small gazebo-like structures seem lifted out of an ancient Chinese landscape painting, and add to the sense of timelessness I feel here. Or perhaps it’s really childhood time I re-experience here, when a summer day seems as though it might last forever.
In Japan it’s traditional to observe the appearance of transient natural phenomena, such as cherry blossoms or fireflies, as holidays. Maybe we should emulate that custom in the Shawangunks by celebrating “mountain laurel month” in June. They were still near their peak of blossoming the day we went to Mohonk, and the masses of pink and white flowers in contrast to the mountain laurels’ glossy dark green foliage gave the woods a festive air.
Mountain laurel blossoms repay a closer look, from the cupola structure of the unopened flower buds to the exquisite symmetry of the flowers themselves. These flowers are ingeniously designed to achieve pollination: when a bee probes the center of a blossom for nectar, the anthers pocketed in the corolla pop out, and the springy filaments on which they are borne slap them onto the bee’s back, dusting it with pollen. Sometimes I can demonstrate this by poking the flower with a pencil, playing the role of the honeybee.