Walking Woodstock: A citizen of Ashokan

Walking Man sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.

Walking Man sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.

On a warm late Sunday afternoon in mid-October the flaneur lay sprawled on a boulder atop Mount Guardian, studying, from the Hudson River on the east to the mountains of the west, that patch of the northeastern Catskills known to most as the Woodstock Valley, or, even, Catskill Park. It was to be his new country. He would name it Ashokan, which supposedly means “place of many fishes.” He didn’t care about the word’s authenticity —he liked the sound of it, and the great reservoir it named. He removed his boots, and a cool breeze tickled his bare feet. A fly landed nearby and rubbed its legs together. It was the sole audience to the words he spoke:

“I pledge allegiance to the mountains and waters of Ashokan…and to the Great Lake that is its center. I offer my friendly respect to all beings that share this bioregion, from humans to moles in the earth, and my enmity to those who would despoil it.”

He had to smile at this last, imagining himself holding off a gang of frackers with fine words. “Well, why not?” he asked aloud. “After all, the American colonists didn’t have much more when they started.” The fly flew, after buzzing him in solidarity.


He watched a turkey buzzard drift in the breeze that was tickling his toes and forced himself to think about politics. His musings drifted loopily, like the turkey buzzard.

In graduate school in the 60s his leftist friends made jokes that often began with the phrase “comes the revolution…”

The  revolution they expected never came. The center held.

The flaneur was willing to bet that Americans would never protest the status quo without a strong leader — et voila! Conan the Barbarian grabbed the mic. The people who follow him are mad as hell, and they are not going to take it anymore — “it” being the cozy way the top one percent rake in 85 per cent of the profits of prosperity while the rest of us must make do with what farmers bluntly call hind tit. These days it was hard to escape politics.

With Conan promising to rid the country of Mexican rapists and conduct diplomacy like a ten ton gorilla with tactical nukes as sidearms, he was likely to tromp a woman few liked or trusted. That the greatest country in the world could produce only these two to lead it was a jaw dropper. Fear and frustration now ruled. A voice from the past whispered in his ear, “That’s the problem with democracy: when anyone can be president, you’re taking a big risk.”

Woodstockers were talking about high-tailing it to Canada. Politics was making life miserable. The flaneur felt the need to do something, but what? Then it came to him: he would start a country, and ask his friends to join him: Instead of heading for the border, come to Ashokan! The flaneur liked to think big, but this was Cinemascope big. And the beauty of it was that nothing had to be done — no money exchanged, no armies marched. The imagination would do the heavy lifting.

Was he crazy? He asked himself this question every morning, and so far had given himself a “pass.” This idea was preposterous, but he couldn’t stop himself. As he saw it, the Republic of Ashokan would exist solely in the minds of those who chose to claim citizenship. Since physically Ashokan would occupy the same space as the Woodstock Valley, Ashokanites would continue to live and work in the “real” world of Ulster County, but in their imaginations — their personal virtual reality — they would be operating on a higher plane. Just as the fictional Yoknapatawpha County exists more vividly in the minds of generations of admirers of William Faulkner’s fiction than does the factual Lafayette County around Oxford, Mississippi, so would Ashokan become the dominant reality in the minds of its citizens. Changes in how things looked, how things were done, would be arrived at by agreement. One month you might notice ground being cleared for a new (and unnecessary) mall, and the next time you pass, see sheep grazing in that spot. No politicians had been lobbied, no officials schmoozed; the owners of the property had decided that a mall did not fit with their vision of Ashokan, and so it would go, citizens choosing the Platonic ideal over the material “reality.” Those entrepreneurs looking to make a quick buck would complain of conspiracies, but he thought that citizens — not consumers, not homeowners, not tax payers — would make the right decisions about Ashokan because it was their home.

The flaneur thought his idea was easily grasped, but he knew there would  be resistance on Tinker Street, and derisive squeals from the Comeau. (This was Woodstock, after all.) If voters became citizens who got together and did the right thing without coercion, what role would government play? The flaneur imagined that town fathers would be kept busy if they concentrated in Woodstock and didn’t spin wheels debating passionate resolutions about national affairs outside their purview.

When he told his friend Walking Will Nixon that he was going to start his own country, Will gave him the sharp appraising once over you give friends you suspect of going around the bend, and commented wryly, “Start-ups are expensive.”

Surprisingly, some of the most vociferous reactions came from those who said they would head for the border if Conan won. They told the flaneur that he was in denial, and that he had to face the fact that the county was turning fascist.

His thoughts turned to the psychology of denial, and he dozed off. Wasn’t everyone “in denial” — about death, for instance?

Would it not be better to ignore Conan for four years and tend our own? Better to grow roses than kick against the pricks?

His cold feet awakened him. As he pulled on socks and boots he found himself looking for the fly, but his interlocutor had apparently buzzed off. The flaneur remembered that flies have thousands of eyes. Could they see into the future? He looked out over the country he had created, and hoped that it would last.