There are critical factors in this life that are out of our control. At birth we do not get to select our gender, we don’t get to choose our parents, and we don’t get to pick the community where we will come of age. For all practical purposes my home today is Kingston, New York, but when I have traveled around the world and been asked where I am from, I do not hesitate with my reply: ‘I am from New Paltz, New York.’ No matter how rocky the relationship between myself and my hometown has been over the years, New Paltz will always be ‘Home’. The place where I came of age, the place where I learned to love athletics, the place where I learned to love the arts and the place that I learned their were so many different points of view other than the ones my parents held. It never mattered that after graduating high school I promised myself that I was leaving New Paltz in the dust. It is natural for some of us to narcissistically think we are bigger than the town that raises us. Despite my intensions of world wide fame and glory it turned out that besides four years of college and a couple years living in Orange County ‘New Paltz’ always stayed in my sights. Today I only live 20 minutes from the home I never really left. Last Friday afternoon, as the pandemic was reaching its climax, I hopped in my car and got ready to take a spontaneous visit back to the place that through observation and participation taught me so many valuable lessons in the convoluted game of life.
I hadn’t found my way to Mountain Rest Road since my dad passed last April. As I navigated the winding road and looked to the west at the Catskill mountain range I was reminded of the majesty of the Hudson Valley. I had the feeling of a driver competing in a Grand Prix race with a lead that I was not going to led go of. Before starting my descent I slowed a bit to checkout the entrance to Mohonk on my right and the scenic nine hole golf course where I discovered golf on my left. Mohonk, one of the most spectacular resorts in the world, was the backyard of my childhood. Alone, I crank the music to a sad song about finding your way back home. “All my sorrow, sad tomorrow, take me back to my own home.” About a half mile down the mountain I slowed again to see if the house I grew up in had been razed or was still breathing. It was a strange relief to see a children’s outdoor playground and a basketball hoop outside what use to be the ‘Siegel Family’ residence. Within two to three minutes the terrain was flattening opening up the view to the familiar sight of the Ferrante Family Farms. The corn was freshly planted reminding me of the old saying in regard to corn on the cob: “Knee high by the fourth of July.” The fields seem to go as far as I could see. I looked back to the mountain and saw the landmark tower of Mohonk before I turned the car left onto the Main Street of the village that raised me.
New Paltz on a late Friday afternoon is typically busy with traffic. The cars poor off the Minnewaska and Mohonk mountain ranges following long hikes, mountain climbs, or simply leaf peepers. The cliffs along the Lake Minnewaska ridge are considered the best place in America for beginner rock climbers to hone their trade. It took me ten minutes to make the left hand turn into town before I parked my car along side the relatively new Water Street Market located parallel to the both the Wallkill River and the Rail Trail. I stood on the edge of a street that I had been up and down more than any other thoroughfare in my life. As I waited to cross I looked both ways, to my left I could see the village of my youth and to the right was the old familiar picture that takes a back seat to none. Behind me, right near where I parked the car was Huguenot Street which became a National Historic Landmark in 1960 because it is considered one of, if not the oldest streets in the United States. There are still ten houses on the historic street that are now a combined museum. The houses were built at the turn of the 18th Century by a religious sect of French Huguenots who were fleeing discrimination and religious persecution in Europe. A smirk crossed by face thinking that it wasn’t until I was in high school that I understood why our mascot was something called a Hugie (New Paltz Huguenots).
Not wanting to fight the uptown traffic and bar crowd I walked halfway down the walkway of the market place until I came upon a cozy little tavern called Jar’d Wine Pub. The quaint bar is owned by a former student of mine from back in my teaching and coaching days. The inside was just opened again right after the Covid restrictions had been lifted. Unfortunately, my old friend was taking a holiday and I had to settle for a pour from a gentleman named Matt. There were only three people inside when I entered, a single male, and a couple in their 30’s. New Paltz is not a place where people sit around and stare into their beers without striking up conversation. “Where are you from,” the man who was alone, asked me. Not usually stuck for a response I was silent for a few seconds as if I didn’t understand the question. ‘I grew up in a house about a two miles from here, right below that tower you can see, I said pointing to the famed Mohonk landmark. I went to high school in New Paltz, today I live in the town just north of here called Kingston.’ There may have been a moment of silence before the other male who was with his girlfriend, soon to be wife, chirped up. “You’re just the person we want to talk to. We live in New Jersey, before we get married we are visiting several small towns in upstate New York because we want our kids to be brought up in a town in upstate New York. This weekend we are here to check out New Paltz.’
For the better part of an hour the couple from New Jersey (Mike and Nicole) drilled me with questions about New Paltz. While I am far from proficient in the history of my home town I rarely pass up an opportunity to get nostalgic. From where we were sitting you could see the open farm land that appears to reach the base of the spectacular mountain range. There isn’t another view in this world that makes my eyes mysty. I’ve taken this vision in thousands of times in my life, but the visual had not evoked the kind of emotion that I was feeling talking about my home town. ‘I do not consider myself a world traveler, yet I’ve been around some and it doesn’t get much better than this,’ as I pointed to the pararomic landscape that was before us. The Jersey couple nodding in silence prodding me to continue. ‘Looking back I consider myself one of the lucky ones to have come of age in this community. My parents were conservative, middle class, second generation immigrants. They met at Pat and Georges bar and restaurant while attending college at New Paltz State. They built a house on the land that extended off of my great grandfathers’ boarding house which was a summer retreat for German immigrants wanting to escape New York City. Growing up I played little league baseball, joined the boys scouts, I learned my religion at the Dutch Reformed Church on Huguenot Street, I saw Vietnam War protests on main street, I got a first hand look at the hippy culture, and I snuck into concerts at Elting Gymnasium that included The Who, The Band, Van Morrison and Jefferson Airplane.’ The couple sat quietly wanting to hear more, but it was time for me to move on.
I wanted to say so much more, but I didn’t want to sound like a member of the Chamber of Commerce. I only lived in New Paltz 18 years, but it will always be home to me. My car crossed over the recently named Carmine Liberto bridge confronting a scene out of a movie. How many times I had been heading West on Route 299 making the right hand turn onto the ‘flats’. It is difficult to understand why people don’t see the inspiration that is right in front of them. I had to leave New Paltz to appreciate all it means to me. I grew up in a historic town filled with culture and diversity. My mind went to the couple in the bar and their exploration to find the right place to raise their family. I was wishing I had made a harder sell to that couple back at Jar’d. I should have told them that they didn’t have look any further, that there was not a better place to call home than New Paltz. Driving over the mountain and back past the entrance to Mohonk resort, a location my brother, who has traveled the world many times, periodically comes on vacation I gave into the my emotions. I pulled off the side at rode and gazed at the valley below. I’ve spent so much energy attempting to leave New Paltz and the truth is I never lost the desire to return. The couple in the bar would be making a wise decision to raise their kids as Huguenots, in a place they would always be proud to call their home town.