“This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it
Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman”*
The winding two lane cuts through the rocky Hudson Highlands; the river, in reach but out of sight, is omnipresent. The rocks, draped in ice falls, hold the snow all through winter, until the first thaw.
In summer, the ghosts of Knickerbockers will bowl in the clouds noisily asserting their dominion. The very name of the valley and indeed the names of the villages serve as year round reminders.
But the winter gives no mind to any of that. It blankets everything in it’s cold white grip, pushing the ghosts to warmer climes, or wherever legends go when the elements betray them. Life here is cold and warm, lonely and hospitable. Northerners don’t make a show of their hospitality, they just live it quietly. Your neighbor with the plow truck does your driveway; someone with jumper cables starts your daughter’s car so she can get to work. Someone knocks on your door and asks you over for a drink and to watch football on a cold winter night.
You live your life going from the cold to the warmth and from the warmth to the cold. People will comment on the cold but it’s not a complaint. It’s the reality, and part of the reality is the warm place that is always waiting when you come out of the cold.
Someone asks you to go cross country skiing…there is a rental place with trails up in the hills. You drive up, the snow getting deeper as you climb, until you find the place. Its a tricky drive but that’s part of the adventure. You had no idea what you were getting into, the trails are steep and icy. You carry on, half skiing, half waddling, falling all over yourselves…laughing. You get the sense you’re the only guests, maybe for years. The owner, happy to have visitors, asks you if you had fun, and you reply, honestly, that you had more fun than you thought you would. He and his wife send you off with hot chocolate mixed from a packet and some homemade brownies. You promise to come back, but you know in your heart it’s a one time thing. She sits right up against you in the car, you hold hands and kiss, but you know this too, is a one time thing.
You find a collectible or a hobby item that someone has in a little house way off the beaten path. You go to fetch it, wondering if the place is real, hoping you don’t go off the road. It’s easy to get lost and eventually you dare not drive anymore and you return empty-handed. But it’s okay, you’re coming home to a warm house and that seems to even everything out…maybe even make it better.
The towns and villages are old, well, old by our standards. British, Colonials, French, Mohawks and Iroquois danced their deadly dances along the waterways and through the hills. Hard men with hard women, their marks are everywhere: Ashokan, Tappan Zee, Kingston, Carillon, and a hundred others. You’re thinking about this sitting in the Thruway Diner. There is a pile of donuts under a glass cover and coffee in Anthora cups. You are, after all, not that far from Manhattan. Outside there is a small graveyard, so obvious that no one takes any notice of it. The tombstones look like you could chop them in two with a fake karate chop. But they have survived hundreds of years and they will survive you.
A train slithers, eel-like, along the opposite bank of the river. The river is wide enough that you see it but cannot hear it, except for the distant sound of its horns. Even the train evokes an earlier time. Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, hard-flirting in the diner…sealing the deal in a Pullman car. Thousands, no millions less immortal followed the same rails and sealed their own deals in more prosaic ways. Flirting as they rounded across from Storm King Mountain and ensconced in dark compartments so close to the waters edge you could reach out and touch it. Lips touch for the first time, serenaded by the whistle drifting back from the head of the train as it glides beneath the Bear Mountain bridge.
A giant stuffed beaver leers at you from a storefront. It’s for sale and soon you are sorry you did not buy it. It’s a sophomoric idea that only a single man could entertain, the beaver, seeing you turn away, will wait for the next lone man to come along. The village of Saugerties is a few blocks of bookstores, bakeries, and churches with Esopus creek bisecting it before emptying into the ever present Hudson. Summer camps, the Catskills and Yasgur’s farm. Joni Mitchell, who was forbidden to go because she was a girl, immortalized it in song. Crosby, Stills and Nash turned it into an uptempo hit but Joni’s lilting original rendition captures the mellow vibe of the area. No one here would sing a song that fast: the natives, naturally laid back are intertwined with escapees from “the city” along with famous artists, actors…writers. They come here because they can enjoy the quiet of the river and the mountains and be left alone. If Julius Caesar himself walked into a local pub people would turn around to check out the weird getup then go right back to watching the Mets getting trounced by whomever they were playing.
It tugs at you, one of your homes, lost to you now. You can go back and drive around Ashokan, its pristine waters protected…full of clear mountain rain and runoff. It’s not for you though; it will make its way down to the city, through ancient aqueducts. There they will enjoy it, bragging how its the best city water in the world, never once setting eyes on its source. On a rainy, misty day it is breathtaking in its isolation.
Or you could drive by old summer camps…Starlight, Talcott, St.Josephs, Dominican, Da-Ro. The camps bring to mind rides in the backs of pickups to Dairy Queen, boat rides on the Hudson, singing Peter Paul and Mary songs around a campfire, hiking the Appalachian Trail and drinking out of clean streams. They are all closed now, save Talcott. The buildings gone to ruin, victims of changing times and tastes. You could walk the grounds of all of them. There are no developers to buy them and turn the area into condos. They may stay this way, untouched, until the end of time.
But that was summer.
It is winter that pulls at you…has always pulled at you. Your people are of the North and over the seas, ripped from here and ripped from there. They were shaken and stirred in the land of zydeco and gumbo before being poured out in Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx. All of it matters, it all matters but it is the north woods that have your soul. It is the collective memory of deep loss, seared Into DNA and passed down along with the color of your hair and the shape of your eyes.
You can tell the poet “I know where the hearts are.”
* Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie”
© Glenn R Keller 2022, All Rights Reserved