Sometimes you just have to get away, but you don't have the money, time or inclination to go to one of those resorts on TV. So you do what you can with what you have. That's what was on my mind when I hopped on a bus to Woodstock, NY.
This wasn't the first time I'd done something like that. I'd gone to Kingston this way, the week before the September 11th attacks. Serena Williams battled her sister for the US Open title on a TV in a vintage record and CD store that I'd wondered into. The store claimed they had new artists as well as the classics, so I asked them if they had India.Aire. They claimed they had never heard of her. So much for being up on new artists. I left and went home, thinking that maybe next week I'd go to New York on a bus, maybe on a Tuesday because I had to work on Monday. But I got too sick on Monday to even think of going anywhere on Tuesday. Then September 11th happened, on that Tuesday, and I was glad that my little self stayed home.
Up until now, the Kingston trip was the last time I had been on a bus anywhere. The fear of terrorism had something to do with it, at least initially, especially when in the following week after the New York/Washington attacks, a crazed man on a bus attacked fellow passengers, and everyone believed at first that this was another attack. Luckily it was a separate incident, but with the events of September 11 still fresh on my mind, traveling anywhere seemed to lose its flavor. Then I just got busy doing adult things like work and taking care of everyday life so I never made the time to go on a bus anywhere. Until I went to Woodstock.
Woodstock isn't all that far away from me, probably two hours or so if I take the long Sunday drive way. And usually I like driving, but this day I just wanted a break from everything. I didn't want to deal with traffic snarls or someone cutting in front of me because I am too slow, only to go into a driveway fifty feet ahead of me. Leave the driving to us, goes the popular motto of a popular bus company. So fine, I thought. I will.
It was an early May morning that I embarked on my day trip. There were a whole bunch of people on the bus with me, but being that this was a bus whose final destination was New York, and judging from the amount of luggage that was stowed away, I gleaned that perhaps these people weren't joining me in Woodstock. The bus wasn't too crowded, however. We were still far enough upstate and too early into the summer season for hordes to be the norm. This only changed somewhat as I we proceeded further towards New York, but the trickle was big enough that I was glad that I wasn't going to New Paltz or a crowd-gatherer like White Plains. Here, not only did I get a window seat, but no one plopped down next to me either. So I didn't have to deal with some stranger asking if I knew Jesus, or if I was married, or asking if I wanted my palm read. I had come for solitude and peace of mind. There was someone in the front talking to the bus driver for the whole time I rode down, so you could get an informal history of each landmark on the way down by listening to the dribs and drabs of conversation that flowed if you wanted. Most other passengers stayed in a world of sound bites care of headphones, and like me, looked out the window. I watched as the countryside gradually transformed into larger and larger hills, and the foliage became thicker and greener the further south we traveled, signalling the arrival of spring. We were now entering the Catskill region, the official playground of the downstate city people. Each town we passed through looked like hosts waiting to have guests for dinner, with little shops promising their version of the authentic slice of the Catskill life; woodcarvings, candles, pure maple syrup, local organic goat's milk, cheese, and other natural foods were all waiting to be consumed by you, the customer.
Woodstock is very much like these little towns, except slightly bigger, and more seemed more infused with people than the other places. Many of the people looked like they had come for the 1969 music festival in Saugerties (I guess calling the festival Saugerties wasn't as cool as calling it Woodstock, man), made some dough in the eighties on Wall Street, but decided they like the fields of their youths better. A wave of tie-dye saris and shirts with designer jeans and shoes walked the streets, along with a college age population that seemed like it wanted to hang out in this groovy town. Getting off the bus, you don't get off at an official bus stop, per se, but in front of a row of novelty shops that has a centrally located coffee house for refreshment. That sounds like a nice landmark, except most of Woodstock comprises of rows of novelty shops with centrally located coffee houses for refreshment, so it seemed like it was going to be difficult for me to keep track of the bus depot. I headed into the first coffee shop for lunch more for the fact that I didn't want to get lost on an empty stomach more than any culinary preference.
The place was crowded, as I ran right into the noon lunch crowd. Most of the people were young, in their twenties. When I was seated at a table, I took out my notebook and made my first observations of my lunchmates. One was of a college-age couple feeding each other, their heads together like they were sharing a potion from Cupid. There was a slightly older couple where the man had curly hair and was wearing a purple sweater and cargo boots. The woman had short black hair and wore a copper sweater. Later I met her by the restroom where we waited on line for our turn in the unisex single stall by the kitchen. In between personnel squeezing past us, I learned that she and her friend were from Manhattan, and that they were driving through just to see what was there. I told her I had done the same thing, but from the other direction, up north. When I was finishing my coffee after having a Japanese tofu curry lunch, I overheard a conversation between a fiftyish woman who was a Montessori teacher and a fortyish woman wearing a tank top and shorts. Next to the woman in shorts was her small daughter, squirming while trying to behave by sitting as still as a small child could. The Montessori teacher was from Kingston and was just driving through. The young mother said that she and her husband had moved up here from the New York City when they had their kid. He still commuted down to the city for work, however. He only came up here on weekends. It seemed like everybody here was from everywhere else.
After my lunch and stopping in a bookstore that had the kind of books that promised to teach me how to balance my chakras, as well as possibly every Kabbalist and Gnostic scripture revealed to humankind, I took a long walk that led me out of town. On the way, the novelty stores became more of a trickle, and instead it was the grocery store, the laundromat, and the video store. There was a pizza place where five young skinny white guys wearing aprons hung out by the front door, smoking cigarettes. Occasionally one or more of the guys would go in to answer the phone or check up on the pizza. Hip-hop that I didn't recognize blasted from a speaker somewhere inside of the store loud enough that I could hear it across the street over traffic. I couldn't tell you which artist it was, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't Eminem or Vanilla Ice.
I turned down a street away from the main drag, where all the quaint old colonials that you tend to see on the outskirts of most Northeast towns stood. There was an empty playground, and a graffiti artist had painted a collage on the kind of stone wall that is used for backhand and solo tennis practice. The collage was full of color against in a mostly gray environment; it was in a gated off section that was used by for skateboarding. It stood alone, waiting for visitors.
I walked further away from town, where the houses became further and further spread apart and more hidden by trees, leaves and creeks. The houses were custom made to look like nature made them, with waterfalls artificial and otherwise in the front yard, and stone gates and walls that were supposed to it look like the occupants had trekked from elsewhere and built the house from scratch from whatever was lying around. A woman crossed the street to get her mail, and when she got back to her house, began a conversation with her next door neighbor who was gardening two acres away. They were talking about weeds and what kind of organic fertilizer worked best. Egg shells seemed like a good thing to use, at least if you were doing a vegetable garden.
I walked for a long time, and it was quiet except for the occasional rush of a glen or a bird singing as he flew by. The valley of downtown made way to the hills of the mountains. As I climbed up and down, the vista held the views of more and more small peaks. In that silence and with the climbing, it felt like the hills would go on forever. After awhile I wondered if this walking thing had been a good idea, because I was beginning to feel like I was getting lost. The bus was supposed to be showing up in twenty minutes or so. And here I had been concerned about losing track of coffee shops.
Well, I figured as the time rapidly approached the bus time and there being no sign that I would meet it, I could always take the next bus, which was two hours from now. Or, with enough luck, I was at least heading in the right direction, and could maybe flag it down if I met up with it. That is, when I found the main road again, wherever that was. The pastoral setting prevented any panic from setting in, though. Why fret in paradise?
I eventually found the main road, and found I had been walking in the same direction that the bus took to get to and from Woodstock, but was probably several miles away from downtown. The bus pickup time came and went, so every vehicle that came by, I strained to see if it was the bus to so I could hail it. Mercedes Benzes and Land Rovers mixed with old Hondas and Chevy pickups whizzed by, but no bus. It was ten minutes before the bus careened around a corner, and by then I was beginning to accept that I had missed it and was thinking of getting a cup of coffee once I got back downtown. But I waved the bus down, and it stopped for me, and I was on my way home. It felt good to sit down after having been on my feet for so long, and good to have my sense of place back after being lost. As I dozed on the bus, I overheard the talk turn to weather- a thunderstorm was on its way, even though the skies were clear and blue now. As soon as the bus got me home, it began to rain heavily. If I had taken the second bus, I would only be leaving Woodstock now. I was glad to be back on familiar territory, and glad to be back home.