The inner pilgrim

(Photo by Josh Holz)

(Photo by Josh Holz)

Paul Smart writes a heartfelt piece about the evolution of his summers in the region


My first summer in the Catskills was also my first summer with a car. I was 30, and writing for several small-town local papers deep in the mountains. I was in love with long drives as a means of figuring out to where I’d moved. Friends came by each weekend. Sometimes there’d be great miscalculations of distance and time — like the time I tried to get from Phoenicia to the Rhinecliff train station via Delhi. Most of the time involved a blissful accumulation of adventures. I learned about the deep cloves and “kills” in the deep mountains, mysterious roads along the banks of the Hudson, the sweet allure of forgotten hamlets throughout the area, and the ubiquitous presence of surprise cultural elements everywhere. I learned always to carry a swim suit and towel in summer, along with a decent map (my favorite still being one produced by the Catskill Center many moons ago), and my dog-eared copy of the 1940 WPA Guide to the state and its roads. Service stations being much further apart back then, it was important always to have a full tank of gas.

I settled in, bought a house. The vistas I had searched out grew familiar, the stuff of inner memories. I wrote endless stories in an endless stream for local publications. Several events and spots became my regular favorites and haunts: country auctions, the last remaining ethnic resorts dotted around the area, chamber music at The Maverick and the Ukrainian Church in Hunter, waterfalls up in Peekamoose, time spent at the Saugerties Lighthouse dipping my butt in the Hudson, and farmstands in Columbia County. Or just hanging out on my front porch at home after mowing the lawns, inviting friends over for long dinners into the firefly-dotted nights.


I entered several years of courtship, first somewhat willy-nilly and then in a concerted fashion that led to my many-mooned marriage. Which changed my view of the greater region, bringing me out of the hills and into the Hudson Valley proper for picnics at the great homes with lawns stretching out before distant mountain vistas. I was introduced to the formal gardens of Dutchess County, various sculpture parks, and the heady fun of slide lectures at the Center for Photography at Woodstock. There were also various romantic restaurants in towns and every once in awhile out in the country.

Family visits replaced friends come in from the city and elsewhere. More kids started crowding the scene. We searched out swimming places with beaches and shallow areas. I started to keep a running tab of excellent playgrounds in four, then five, then six counties. Plus New York City, where we’d head at least once a summer for a dozen-in-24-hours playground extravaganza. We saw every circus that came to the area, petting zoos, county fairs, firetruck museums, olde airplane battles, and reenactment weekends. We learned how to make the region fun for our visitors, eschew the restaurant scene for fun dinners in our home or out in our garden.

Summers are now mixtures of nerf-sword camps, minor-league ballgames at Dutchess or Joe Bruno stadiums, and a working knowledge of putt-putt courses from Durham and Willcox Park to Kingston, lower Ulster County and any suggestions coming our way. There are weekly hikes to strange-looking woods where we can pretend we are dwarves or hobbits, Arthurian knights, or Rogers Rangers. There are secret pools we can sneak into, as well as all those swimmable spots I’d come to know earlier along the Hudson or up in the hills.

I want to get us all up to the century-old summer colony I once lived in at the end of a hemlock-shaded valley, where they do an old-style “beefsteak dinner” over a wood fire whose origins can be linked back to the early days of downtown Manhattan captured in “Gangs of New York.” I want to rent kayaks on one of our reservoirs, get my kid a season pass to Zoom Flume, catch the student Shakespeare productions by the old barns at Vassar (for free!), revel in the revived old drive-ins that hipsters are starting to open up again, and go car camping on weekday nights.

We’re looking forward to a new basketball hoop in the back yard, the hum of neighborhood air conditioners and mowers on weekday afternoons, and setting up for croquet and badminton. And we’ll just sit back and watching the sunset over those glorious mountains, and then we’ll exchange our bit of Eden, come August, for a pair of places in France, by the beach and in Paris.

Since we had such a good time at their Zombie Fest last year, we’ll be sure to get to Rosendale’s big rollicking Street Fair this year, happening July 18 and 19, where we’ve heard one of our fave bands — Pitchfork Militia — will be headlining a roster that includes a whole mess of local talent. The following weekends we’re expecting a similar blast of sonic fun at the Hudson Music Fest all over that small city up the river from us, which we’ll be able to get to by ferry from Athens. With stops at several playgrounds on both sides, of course, and maybe even a fountain to play in.

How’s that for a cool Hudson Valley summer, 2015-style?