Tag Archives: Catskills

Big, Black, Bright Stillness

City life has many things to offer and engaging with the cosmos isn’t one of them. Lately, I’ve been feeling about the night sky the way I felt about the sun when I lived in Seattle for three years—I miss it. I saw part of that lunar eclipse three weeks ago, which was amazing, yet on a night-to-night basis, I can count on one hand the number of stars I see from my backyard or from my front step. Neighborhood street lamps and that massive light bulb across the Hudson River known as Manhattan block out a substantial chunk of natural sky. New York City is America’s biggest city, something I feel acutely whenever I ride the subway, wait in line for a bagel, or try to enjoy anything remotely celestial. Look up from my backyard and you’ll see United Airlines crisscrossing with some transatlantic flight crisscrossing with some rich guy’s Cessna (we’re also near Teterboro Airport) crisscrossing with the occasional police helicopter. Sometimes, on a clear night, you’ll see a star or two, which, one of them you later learn turns out to be Venus. In the winter, I can usually spot Orion, but that seems to be the only visible constellation from my little corner. This weekend while driving around the Catskills, I stood under a black, cold sky punctuated by millions—no gazillions—of stars. I saw the Big Dipper for the first time in ages.

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I’ve met people here who find the silence and vastness of rural landscapes and open sky overwhelming. They need the buzz of urban life to feel tethered. I increasingly prefer the country. If walking around the forest changes the brain (and I did that in the Catskills, too, and genuinely felt calmer afterward), my guess is stargazing at night also positively affects our synaptic energy. But under proper conditions, like what I enjoyed Saturday night. No planes. No helicopters. No anything trying to go anywhere. Just big, black, bright stillness.

Escaping the city for the something more pure is about as old as New York City itself. The word “vacation” is said to have been created here during the previous turn of the century because the rich regularly vacated the city for more pastoral backdrops, Theodore Roosevelt among them. I find myself craving starscapes, feeling pulled toward big open spaces so I can drink in that sense of awe that is the night sky. I’ve never been a very successful student of the sciences; I earned a C in my freshman astronomy class. When looking up, I have no idea what I’m looking at and I’m okay with that. I trust everything Neil DeGrasse Tyson says. I like the mystery of what’s above. Night skies are humbling, with a depth and complexity that surpasses mountains and oceans, perhaps because unlike mountains and oceans, the sky is untouchable. Simultaneously aloof and daring with a rhythm that we are a part of but where we have no say. The last time I witnessed a sky so pregnant with stars was when we were in Taos, New Mexico, a town that preserves much of the outdoorsy mysticism once in abundance in this country, and perhaps explains the alien lovefest that still thrives there. New Mexico is a place where people look up. New York City is a place where people look down, eyes glued on smartphones, away from each other.

Inside the Catskills farmhouse where we were staying, I thumbed through a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”. On the subject of stars, would it please Thoreau to know that on Amazon—an arbiter of the unnatural world—“Walden” averages 4.2 out of 5 stars, with more than 530 reviews? Even online, more stars is better. And would he be intrigued by the conversation happening in the reviews of “Walden” where people discuss the generation gap among those who appreciate Thoreau’s observations and ideals? I appear to be in the middle of this gap. Thoreau’s phrasing is thick—paragraphs go on for a page—and while I enjoy a long read and resent the current listicle-ADHD online reading culture, the pages were a commitment.

But I want to keep going and read more. Thoreau struggled with respiratory illness much of his adult life and wrote about the restorative powers of being outside. “I cannot preserve my health and spirits,” he said, “unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Truth. Though who does four hours of anything anymore that doesn’t involve WiFi? I’ll be the first to admit I’m not very good at being outdoorsy. Camping is a lot of work. I don’t own gear. I hate bugs (I’m allergic to hornet and wasp stings). I can’t read a map. I don’t really care for trail mix.

But I do love being outside and grabbing what little pieces of it I can. Thoreau might find today’s ideals of communing with nature somewhat ridiculous. So much as been pushed out that great effort is made to create sanctuaries for what’s left, such as the one square inch of silence in Washington State’s Olympic National Park. Noise pollution is just as much of a problem as sky pollution (though the suburbs are quieter here, just not very dark). Who besides Zen monks and hunters spends hours of uninterrupted time surrounded by trees and silence? My last four-hour stint with Mother Earth was hanging out in a nest at a Big Sur glamping resort where I could walk uphill for sushi. Saturday night, I lasted less than 10 minutes just standing alone on the frosty grass watching the stars, no street lamps interrupting my view. Temperatures had dropped to the thirties, and while I wore a hat and warm coat, my body was still holding on to September.

Yet that ten minutes mattered. I felt my nerves disentangle a bit, my pulse settle, my thoughts slow down. Watching the whorls of stars, a wave of calm moved through me, something I hadn’t experienced since being out on the California coast last summer. The night sky made me feel small. And for that I was thankful.

Winter Break

Spring holds its breath in the Shawangunk Mountains. It’s been one of the mildest winters in years–terrible for skiing–great for hiking. Nature looks confused; buds bloom next to anemic patches of snow while a pond layered with both ice and melting puddles sleepily weighs its options. We traveled to Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York, thinking this would be the winter we would introduce Anna to skiing. Sixty degree temperatures quickly scrapped that plan and instead we enjoyed a restful 26 hours at a place we can’t wait to visit again.

The Shawangunks lie at the foot of the Catskills, which lie at the foot of the Adirondacks. Pretty by East Coast standards, these blue mountains roll for miles like a gentle lake; nothing juts into the sky or looms over the land like the mountains out west. I had never even heard of the Shawangunks until this past week despite living only about 80 miles south of them and Mohonk Mountain House. Francisco Goldman and I have never met, but I have him to thank for introducing me to this area; it was mentioned in his 2011 novel “Say Her Name,” a beautiful, sad story about a marriage that ended abruptly because of a rogue wave off the coast of Mexico. Mohonk Mountain House was a place he and his wife had frequented. Now, it can be ours.

We only spent one night there; Mohonk Mountain House is not a budget hotel. Ranked by CondeNast Traveler with a placement on its 2011 Gold List, and praised by Organic Spa magazine, and Travel & Leisure, this Victorian castle on a rock attracts those who seek a certain kind of outdoor tranquility. Rustic without rust. The outdoors as ones with disposable income imagine it to be. The “House” is about five or six cavernous mansions linked together; the Alfred Smiley family recognized they had a good thing and kept adding on. Floors undulate like water as you move from section to section. Yet despite the large maze that is Mohonk, the rooms feel cozy and intimate. Fires crackle in stone hearths everywhere; velvet sofas sit patiently in every corner of every hallway; potted amaryllises on windowsills plead with the sun for more. There are no televisions in the hotel rooms; just fireplaces and balconies overlooking a partially frozen pond. Don’t worry. You won’t miss the remote. There are 2,200 acres of bucolic beauty outside, and inside, if you’re not snuggling up in front of your fireplace reminiscing about your amazing day, you’ve done something wrong.

During our first day, we skated, hiked, then swam. On our second day, we mixed it up more by swimming, skating and then hiking. Access to all the facilities are included in the price, however, we missed out on complimentary snow tubing and cross country skiing because of the lack of snowfall, and the horses were on their winter break, too, so no horse back riding. Next time. The price also includes a robust buffet of breakfasts, lunches and dinners in a large dining room overlooking the Shawangunks. There is also afternoon tea and cookies in the Lake Lounge held promptly at 4 pm. Get there on time or early if you want to enjoy your tea and cookie from the comforts of another velvet couch facing another fireplace. We came back physically tired and emotionally rested. No doubt the changes in the seasons unearth Mohonk’s secrets. We’re looking forward to a summer time jaunt so we can experience the private lakeside beach and watch the fish. The gardens are said to be stunning. During our stay there, everything was brown and the only real color was the way the sky shifted across the Shawangunks. On the ground, bare branches were caught up in knots, as if twisted in thought about what to do next. Kids wore mittens and snowsuits but complained about being too warm. Was it winter? Was it spring? No one seem to know for sure that late February day.