If You’re Traveling in the North Country Fair:
Adirondacks and Catskills
By Richard Bangs
Part 1: Mountains and Deep Woods
Even though few therapists would agree, sometimes neglect paths to the best possible outcome.
Such is the case with the Adirondacks, whose fierce geography, unproductive soil, and hard weather diverted early American settlers to more benign plots. As a result, a state of raw wilderness maintained into the 19th century.
Some credit the turning point to William H. H. Murray’s book, Adventures in the Wilderness, extolling the freshness and purity of the Adirondacks. Before then, most regarded the Adirondacks with disdain.
In 1791 William Gilpin noted that “the generality of people” found wilderness dislikable. “There are few,” he wrote,” “who do not prefer the busy scenes of cultivation to the greatest of nature’s rough productions.” Mountains and deep woods were things to avoid, or, if one were a merchant, soldier, or pilgrim, to go around. Mountains, as a whole, were anathema.
How did it Change?
So, how did this mindset change? Some of the shift, perhaps, had to do with the palpable deterioration of the cities of the day, especially smoggy, coal-blackened New York City, with its rising fatigue and social atomization.
The success of the agricultural revolution, with its techniques of crop rotation and protective enclosures, created a steep upwards curve in food production, and in turn, population. As more people flocked from the fields to the economic opportunities that cities promised, sewage got worse, crime increased, urban blight spread, and faith in a higher power that looked after those in need faded.
By the middle of the 19th century, more people lived in cities than in the countryside, and more were employed in industry than in agriculture. From this dynamic, tuberculosis spread in the perfect storm of population density, the damp winter climate, and the concentration of smoke from factories and homes.
In the wake of this corrosive wave there evolved the romantic notion of the virtues of the simple, clean, and healthy life in Nature.
It was, however, the industrial revolution that led to vastly improved means of transport, and to a class with disposable income.
Those developments allowed and inspired travel to the Adirondacks, where the high mountains and its clean water and air set the minds wandering, and perhaps got rid of that nasty cough.
It was about this time Ralph Waldo Emerson and Teddy Roosevelt discovered the wild resources and reserves of the Adirondacks.
Emerson wrote poetic tributes that influenced a generation to see Nature as something to explore and embrace. Roosevelt, as governor of New York, baked into the Constitution protection with a big concept he called “Forever Wild.”
The result of that gazetting is the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park, the largest park in the continental United States, larger than the state of Vermont, bigger than Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Glacier, and the Great Smoky Mountains parks combined.
And within the blue line that defines this considerable area is an elaborate medley of men, their works and nature. It strives for an exceptional balance, as it contains nearly every kind of land classification: wilderness, wild forest, primitive area, land owned by investment groups and private clubs, industrial land, land held in trust by environmental organizations, private land under state easement, and private land without easement, not to mention 103 municipalities within the park, including the enfolding mountain town of Lake Placid, the only place in the U.S. to have hosted the winter Olympic Games twice.
I trundle into town beneath a white flurry, watching the falling flakes reflected in the lake. Despite the tag, the placid body of water next to town is not Lake Placid — it’s Mirror Lake. The namesake is down the road, a bit off the beaten track.
I check into the Mirror Lake Inn, a vertex of rustic luxury, which Condé Nast Traveler readers just ranked as #1 in the Northeast. It’s owned by Ed and Lisa Weibrecht, whose son Andrew is an Olympic medalist with the U.S. Ski Team.
The Inn is designed in the Arts & Crafts style of the mountain lodges in the Adirondacks (rough-cut wood and unpolished stone), with wood-burning fireplaces in every room, and spectacular lake views from almost every vantage. But what makes it extraordinary is the bottomless plate of freshly home-baked chocolate-chip cookies that sit on the Reception table.
Lake Placid is a small town in a big place, to which every point of interest is walkable. I first make my way to the Winter Olympic Museum, the only one of its kind in the U.S., tucked next to the rink where Eric Heidenwon five individual gold medals, and set four Olympic records and one world record at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games.
The museum is bursting with commemorative posters, torches that look like medieval bludgeons, medals, and memorabilia from both the 1932 and 1980 Games.
There are video monitors replaying the “Miracle on Ice,” the moment when the US hockey team, made up of amateur and collegiate players, defeated the Soviets, who had won nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament since 1954.
This, of course, was during the height of the Cold War, just weeks after the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, and so the victory was symbolic, at least to those in the West, of some kind of triumph of the greater good. Jim Rogers, a member of the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee and continuing champion for the region, tells me he thinks the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union traces to the Miracle on Ice.
His theory….the Soviet athletes were fed unremitting propaganda about their infallibility, and when the West bested them, a belief in regards the whole system cracked a bit, and like a fissure in warming ice, widened and spread.
Moving further down the lake, along the two-lane Main Street, past a profusion of intersecting circle logos, I turn up come to the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, and stop in for a lusty ale.
Christopher Ericson, the owner, sidles over and recommends his signature microbrew, Ubu, and tells me a bit of his story.
Chris found his passion early on with a homebrew kit, and almost at once knew he wanted to ferment. In 1996 he and a buddy bought a small pub in Lake Placid.
They installed some barrels and started brewing, first in the area. One of their concoctions was Ubu, named for a patron’s chocolate lab, and it became a local legend.
He sips, and shares his favorite story about the success his local brew.
“In 2000, the Pub was a stop for some White House interns accompanying Hillary Clinton on a trip through the area.
They loved my Ubu Ale and decided to bring some to President Clinton as a gift. After he tried the brew, the President called in and ordered three cases of Ubu growlers for a party at the White House.”
“Ale to the chief,” I raise a glass in a toast.
I stroll back to the hotel the long way, completing the 2.7-mile loop around the white-rimmed lake, working up an appetite. I take dinner at The View, the only Four Diamond restaurant in Lake Placid, and a leader in the farm-to-table movement, working closely with local and regional meat producers and processors, along with local cheese and vegetable producers to, to offer up organic ingredients as fresh as a stone’s throw.
The View also hosts an 8,000-bottle wine cellar, with many of the selections produced nearby. George Bernard Shaw said, “There is no sincerer love than the love of food,” and this is a place to fall in love.
With the window open a crack, the morning air infuses vigor and elasticity into every nerve and muscle. Myskin is cool, and my frame tingles with anticipation of the adventures ahead.I head over to Whiteface Mountain, which boasts the highest vertical drop in the East, a cool 3,166 feet.
In the pure morning light of the mid-morning, I sluice down long faces that hosted crushes of Olympic athletes, and can’t help but hear the roar of the crowds as I carve a turn in front of the imagined 1980 booth of Jim McKay’s.
Then, for the afternoon I head over to The Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic Bobsled Run. The track is a twisting chute of steel, concrete and ice, down which you can luge and bobsled at rocket speeds. This is the place, as the philosopher William James wrote more than a century ago, to “aspire downwards.”
I go for the luge first, lying on my back, gloves clenched on the sides, feet tight against the front tillers.
And as I charge down the run, feeling at the edge of capsizing on the sharp curves, feeling the torque and rattle in my bones, my heart feathering through my breast, it occurs to me that this is a modern example of Forever Wild…there is a fierce feeling of freedom hurtling through the icy air, a savage thrill plummeting down a groove on the brink of catastrophe. The run mimics a descent into the abyss, devouring me by wildness.
Tearing down this mountain course, banking through the shrill turns, and shooting through tunnels like a bullet, I feel energized, vibrantly alive, and once at the bottom, I can’t stop myself from heading back up the mountain to try the run again, but this time in the bobsled.
It seems Forever Wild is not just a designation, but a state of mind, a measureless but authentic feeling. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who found his own private paradise in the Adirondacks, expressed the eternity of Nature here when he wrote:
“We struck our camp and left the happy hills
The fortunate start that rose on us sank not;
The prodigal sun rested on the land
The rivers gamboled to the sea
And Nature, the inscrutable and mute,
Permitted on her infinite repose
Almost a smile to steal to cheer her sons
As if one riddle of the Sphinx were guessed.”
Jon Lundin, a long-time resident, takes me for a short hike above the bobsled run, to a point where the light opens up overhead, and where an endless trust of white ridges marches to a tantalizing promise.
“Forever Wild allows us to come here and see exactly the same landscape as those who stood here 40 years ago; and if we come back 40 years from now, we’ll see the same exact view.”
The Spirit of the Catskills
Before arriving at a new place we all carry the luggage of pre-conceptions. There are usually holes in this kit; we’re almost always wrong, at least to some extent, about our notions. My idea of the Catskills came from two very different periods, the live television run of the 1950s; and the Summer of Love in 1969, the year of Woodstock.
As a young boy I would run home from school every day to turn on the TV and drink in whatever show or movie was playing. It turned out all my favorite performers were veterans of the Catskills, Borscht Belt comedians, mostly Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews, who cut their teeth in the Catskills at resorts like Grossinger’s, Brickman’s, and The Overlook.
The catalog is thick of the funnymen with Catskills cred who flickered in my living room: Woody Allen, Morey Amsterdam, Bea Arthur, Milton Berle, Shelley Berman, Joey Bishop, Mel Blanc, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Red Buttons. Sid Caesar, Billy Crystal, Rodney Dangerfield, Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields, Shecky Greene, Buddy Hackett, Danny Kaye, Alan King, Robert Klein. Harvey Korman. Jerry Lewis. Richard Lewis, Chico and Harpo Marx, Jackie Mason, Zero Mostel, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Rowan & Martin, Mort Sahl, Soupy Sales, Dick Shawn, Allan Sherman, Phil Silvers, Arnold Stang, David Steinberg, Jerry Stiller, The Three Stooges, Jonathan Winters, Ed Wynn, Henny Youngman and on, as some above would say, ad libitum.
In August 1969 I was a river guide on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. My college sweetheart decided to go to Woodstock, but I couldn’t get away for the little music fest in the Catskills. So I was insanely jealous as the media rolled out declarations that it was a seismic cultural event, one of those generational revolutions that changed everything.
But I was even more green-eyed when my girlfriend announced she met someone at Woodstock while they were both naked and tripping, and she was leaving with him to an Ashram in the Himalayans.
So, when I finally arrived in the Catskills I expected Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, and overkill of free love and recreational psycho-tropics. Instead, I found an unexampled rebellious spirit that stretches back to the 18th century, and is a connective tissue between Woodstock and the Borscht Belt, and a life-force that upholds today.
I first head straight back in history to Kingston, a little town on the Hudson that displayed early-on an independent spirit when it set up shop as New York’s first capital. It was the fall of 1777, a year after Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
A government on the run was being chased north from New York City by the British Army, who scorched everything in its path.
In the algid air of February, the government took up residence in the Ulster County Courthouse to create a formal state constitution. While the Assembly met in a local tavern, the Senate convened its first session in the old stone home of a sympathetic Dutch merchant.
On October 16, British forces swarmed through and set fire to every house in town as punishment for Kingston’s role in supporting the Revolution. The razing didn’t snuff the spirit, though, or keep a colony intact, and today there are proud reenactments and displayed documents of the episodes that set a defining disposition in motion.
Jacob Coiro, a local guide, resplendent in the tri-cornered hat, shows me around the original stone house, now a museum, and says “The people here knew what they had. They looked around the Catskills and saw how beautiful it was, and it made them feel as if it belonged to them.”
All this energetic independence works up an appetite, so I stop at Dallas Hot Wieners on North Front Street, and order up a spicy dog drenched in the family secret sauce, an inverse correlation between flavor (long) and life expectancy.
From Kingston, I find my way down NY Route 28 to The Emerson Resort in Mt Tremper, home to the World’s Largest Kaleidoscope, a former 64-foot high barn silo-turned tourist attraction. It takes chutzpah to name an inn after one of the most famous American literary figures, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in 1836 wrote “Nature,” an essay inspired by the severe beauty of the area. The publication prompted the American Conservation Movement, which led to the establishment of the 600 square-mile Catskill Forest Preserve that surrounds the Emerson today.
It also takes chutzpah and spirit to rebuild after burning, as did the early citizens of Kingston. In 2005 the Emerson burned down (like so many of the Catskills resorts), but rather than pack up and withdraw, the owners rebuilt with a vengeance, inserting a giant Rajasthani door as an entrance to the spa, outfitting the suites with stone fireplaces and Zen touches, and effecting a mash-up of Asian and Appalachian sensibilities that seems to work, though Emerson would likely head down the seam of light that is Esopus Creek rather than check-in.
I take dinner then at the fittingly-named Phoenix Restaurant and meet Michael Brothers, the head chef, who is so passionate about creating meals from local ingredients he practically leaps over to my table to tell me so. He says passion is the spirit he shares with his patrons, as most are pursuing such when they come here, be it art, agriculture, Buddhism (the Zen Mountain Monastery is down the road), comedy, nature… “whatever it is, they go for it full force.”
I head out the next morning to the town of Woodstock, which didn’t host the eponymous 1969 music Festival, as it turned down the initial permit application. The rock event was actually held 60 miles away at Max Yasgur’s Farm in the town of Bethel.
Nonetheless, Woodstock has become the meme for generational liberation through music and art, though it is today a rather chic high-end gallery and café mecca. Nonetheless, a pungent whiff of those high times remains, along with some stringy ponytails and shops hawking tie-dies and old LPs.
I chance up with local historian Richard Heppner, who wrote the book Remembering Woodstock, which recounts the town’s early history of wintry hardships, courageous settlers and rebellious farmers who set the stage for a saga of spirited and creative personalities. He tells me how, too, the spirit of the land began to take on meaning after the Civil War.
“It was then Woodstockers began to realize they could earn money from what people saw in the land and felt in the land rather than exploiting it through quarrying, tanning or timbering.” It was a time when folks sought sanctuary from the heat, dust and asperities of the city, and looked to the vital portal and pure waters and air of the Catskills.
This was also about the time Woodstock played host to the brotherhood of Hudson River School painters, such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Church and Jasper Cropsey, the sublime watercolorists who turned brooding landscapes into rock stars. “Today you can almost feel that same sense the artists felt when they first came here. It was like seeing the South Pacific for the first time.”
Richard directs me to up the road to the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony. In 1902 a wealthy Englishman, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, poked around these parts looking for the ideal spot to create a utopian community where all the arts would come together, painting, sculpture, music, metalwork even furniture making.
The result: a 300-acre sylvan spread that has drawn thousands of independent-spirited artists and craftspeople. Isadora Duncan danced here; Bob Dylan lived here in the ’60s and early ’70s; Joanne Woodward performed at the theater.
Byrdcliffe is the oldest continuing arts colony in America. I find Matthew Leaycraft, executive director of Bydcliffe, who tells me “the spirit of artistic expression began here, and it continues. It’s extremely vibrant and alive today.” He talks a bit about how the Catskills became a place to retreat for inspiration. “There’s a certain kind of purity that comes from contact with the natural world. It lifts you up into your highest plane, and becomes a refuge where people can find the beauty within. It’s profoundly restorative.”
Matthew takes me over to a studio where Richard Conti, the Ceramics Program Director, is hunched over a pottery wheel. He’s masterful, of course, but watching his hands mold the spinning mud into something with contour, character and beauty reminds me, and I know this is gauche, of Patrick Swayze guiding the hands of Demi Moore in the movie Ghost. And of course it was Patrick Swayze who did more to sex up the Catskills than perhaps anyone ever with his turn in the movie Dirty Dancing.
With a light snow falling I head over for a bite at the Phoenicia Diner (not to be confused with the Phoenix Restaurant at the Emerson….rebirth seems to be a popular theme throughout the Catskills), and order up the Arnold Bennett Skillet, smoked trout, parmesan cheese, crème fraiche and scrambled eggs, with, of course, de rigueur for a true diner, a cup of joe.
The owner, Michael Cioffi, plops down on the bench next to me, and tells me he is from Brooklyn, where he had a hard time finding authentically locally grown produce and meats (they was mostly trucked in, sometimes from the Catksills).
He went on a quest to find a place where he could serve food in a diner that he would want to eat, and landed here. His menu offers up Wild Hive Farm Polenta, Grass-Fed Burger, Prosciutto Sandwich with brie, apples and arugula, and, my favorite for health nuts, house-made beer battered onion rings.
His is the first menu I’ve encountered that offers up the practical regional advice: “If you are camping, you can protect your food from local black bears by suspending it on a rope between two trees.” As Michael gets up to greet another patron he tells me he aspires to a diner that is a destination, an eatery that transcends his current motto, “Come for the mountains, stay for the food!”
To round out my little winter visit to the Catskills I head over to Hunter Mountain, highest peak in the county, and host to the fastest, longest, and highest Zipline Canopy Tour in North America – and the second-largest zipline in the world. It is over four miles long, and reaches speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. Movement is life; velocity is spirit, and here, all troubles are left off the ground.
This is the spirit of fierce exhilaration. Brad Morse, the owner of NY Zipline Adventure Tours, tells me “The spirit of the Catskills has to do with adventure, the outdoors, the beauty of the mountains. When you zip-line 600 feet off the ground, you get a perspective of what spirit is really about.”
And so, though it seems the spirit here is articulated in so many sundry ways, there is a tie that binds.
It is a powerful nexus of faith, creativity, independence, and courage, and over the bench of time it has not been subdued or softened. It is a spark where creative beginnings are always possible. It is the spirit of the Catskills.
Richard Bangs is a travel pioneer, Emmy-winning producer and award-winning author. richardbangs.com