Travel worn and exhausted, we pulled into the capital of Iran at 11 a.m. on March 4, 1970. All across North Africa, southern Europe and overland from Istanbul to Teheran, I was not homesick. As our bus pulled into the city, I looked up to see a mountain the same size and distance Mohonk is from Thruway exit 18. Remembering the mountain-inspired nostalgia for home caused us to make a life-altering decision; without jobs or a place to return to, my husband Sam and I decided to settle in New Paltz where we both had attended school.
Throughout the years, I often took Mohonk Mountain House for granted, except whenever I spotted the tower ten miles south of town returning from a noisy abrasive day in New York City — a welcome sight. Several times over the years while on an unfamiliar road west of the mountain, the tower suddenly appeared from a brand new angle, giving me a fresh view of its grandeur and quiet beauty. My first thought whenever someone from anywhere else visited me in New Paltz was to show off Mohonk Mountain House and its surrounding property.
In the 48 years I’ve lived here, we attended several weddings, climbed to the tower countless times, skied and hiked on the 85 miles of trails and managed to come up with the funds to occasionally sleep at the hotel. Chocolate Week was unforgettable; the aroma was everywhere. Outside, the skiing was perfect. We skied, ate chocolate and skied again and again — each time taking a break to enter the warm historic castle and melt more of the candy into our ice-cold bodies.
The norovirus that recently permeated Mohonk Mountain House is as far from a particle of chocolate as anything can be. Contamination must have been demoralizing for the Smiley family and the loyal staff of Mohonk Mountain House, where all items are kept pristine and historic objects are maintained and honored. Exquisite attention is paid to every detail, including the exact placement of plants and wall hangings.
Without any way of knowing how the virus entered Mohonk Mountain House, the entire house and all its contents were sanitized and swept clean at great expense. Particular care was given to the iconic central staircase that many hands touched during the outbreak.
The decision to close Mohonk Mountain House altogether was made by the Smiley family and the administrative staff, not the Health Department as has been conjectured by some. In keeping with the Quaker principal of moral thought and action — “The practice of inner listening and obedience to God, which includes honesty, simplicity, sincerity, integrity and the power to do good” — the choice was made to close for the greater good of the staff, guests and community.
The Smiley family, who has owned the property since 1869, is resilient and has faced many changes and conquered numerous challenges over the past century and a half. In the beginning, the resort functioned without telephones or cars. The great house survived the Great Depression, the recent economic downturn and modernization to meet the changing needs of guests.
The question faced with each new decision is, “How do we keep the essence inherent in the original values and change the details?” Since the decision we made so many years ago to spend our lives and raise our children here (in part because of Mohonk Mountain House), I have seen changes. When alcohol was introduced, it seemed like a huge difference. But over time it has proved only to be a “detail” after all. For the past three years, it has been a family tradition to spend a night at Mohonk Mountain House with our grandson. The daily activities still include nature walks in the spring time, watching the leaves turn in the fall, hiking trails on cross-country skis throughout the winter and outdoor barbecues, swimming and boating in the summer. Mostly it’s the beauty of the building, the lake, the views and the gazebos that hasn’t changed.
It occurred to me while writing this column that it is at this time of year we always plan our summer vacation. This year, we will vacation at Mohonk Mountain House. And although it is only a few miles from home, we would need to travel thousands of miles around the globe to find a place that rivals its magnificence.
By all accounts the norovirus is the worst event to ever visit the paradise, but like all adversity, the place will only be better for having survived it. Like much in life it is easy to take for granted what has always been there. The monolithic tower looking down on the valley reminds me of a lighthouse amidst an ocean of people. I know I am home when I see it.