An unforeseen happenstance forced me to change direction. Sometimes we end up back to where we started from without even trying. As I turned from Springtown Road onto Mountain Rest a sign flashed in front of me: “Freshly paved highway, proceed with caution.” Those words were the green light to turn the playlist up, apply more foot pressure, and to place my brain on “cruise down memory lane mode.” Most of the titillating stories of the glory days growing up in New Paltz occurred in the town located now directly behind me. Today I was starting my journey to Kingston from the West side of the Wallkill River. Over the mountain towards all things that mean home to me. Not that there usually is, but today there certainly wasn’t a premeditated plan, simply a quest for a bit of self therapy. When my tenth grade English teacher said to the class, after giving us our first creative writing assignment was, “write about the people, places and things that are foremost in your mind.” On this beautiful cloudless May day it felt like everything was alright, and even if it wasn’t it would be real quick. Since my dad passed the trips on this ride are not getting any less emotional. This pavement was filled with bittersweet memories of my life before adulthood. The windows were up, radio blasting, and air was cranked up high. ‘Damn, you never stop wanting to go back,’ said the guy who never really left.
I was traveling on the road that held the secrets of my life. If Mountain Rest Road could talk this new layer they were putting on would drown out the noise coming from the layers below, but it couldn’t obstruct the view, though the steam was trying to. The haze rose off the pavement pushing for the sky. Through the smoke I could see all the vibrant blues and greens of a perfect spring day. The pavers hovered atop the mountain passageway appearing to be some sort of alien gladiators flying singular aircrafts. Realizing I was still sitting still, a bit of road rage began to brew. “They pick today to pave this highway? Look at these county worker’s; three guys working, three guys standing around… Unbelievable.” I declare punching down on the steering wheel. The conversation I was engaging myself was in need of a pile of enthusiasm and hope. ‘Stop it Rich. It’s the kind of day dreams are made of, traveling on a freeway that runs through the sacred grounds of my childhood.’
After my mental reboot I looked up to see the head flagman waving the parade on. Following the stream of vehicles, it took only two minutes for my mind to find myself in a mental malaise moving past 138 Mountain Rest Road in virtual slow motion. The solar panels were still in the field, a new basketball hoop had risen and there was a kids playground near the stone wall. I saw myself and brother Gary having a classic battle of “don’t make an error baseball” against the driveway’s retaining wall. There was John Schulte, my mountain road best friend hacking my limbs as I drive in for another two. ‘Come on, man this ain’t wrestling,’ I pleaded to the massive young man that always had my back, “that was no foul you little pansy.” There was my dad throwing the football with his two sons, just like back in the day his passes to Gary were perfect and the ones to me sucked. Those times were truly “the days” only nobody let us in on the secret and even if they did we wouldn’t have heard it. My eyes remained on the left preceding passed the New York State Aquaduct. In a house, 100 yards north of the pipeline, that only a keen eye could spot, lived my first “dance with romance.” In the summers of the late 1970’s I made numerous night strolls up the mountain to the waterway. “Over here Richie,” I would hear, and quickly retort “Where?”
There was still another mile to the top, and the gateway to Mohonk Resort. Passing the Spies’ home brought back visions of ‘Dark Shadows’, capture the flag, and my friend Erich Spies’s mature (voluptuous) older sisters. Erich passed last year at the age of 62, but today he was 15 with his shirt off running for a touchdown like it was his God given right. Up the road approximately 100 yards away sits the entrance to the old Mohonk Ski Center. Back in the 70’s Friday skiing was all the rage for 12-18 year olds in search of fun and romance on a chilly winter’s night. Right before Mohonk’s hairpin turn, practically out of sight, was the Westin’s house. Leslie, who was a sophomore when I was a senior, was one of the top “unofficial” social directors at New Paltz High. The Westin house had it all for teenagers looking for a retreat from downtown. There were great views, a sauna, swimming pool, refreshments and usually a bevi of underclass damsels (I heard). Approaching the pinnacle of the mountain, right before the official gateway to the resort, you can’t help but notice some golfing flag poles. On this bright May day a crowd of golfers was milling around the first tee in what looked like the first day of a summer golf league. The small gem of a golf course was the training ground for me learning a game that turned out to be such an integral part of my life. When we were kids myself and Todd Krieg carried our clubs up and down the hills of that course some days from sun up to sun down. I looked over to see two kids, with wild dreams dancing in their eyes discussing if they had enough light to go around one more time.
On the other side of the the road from the golf course is the official gateway to earth’s closest thing to heaven. The Mohonk Mountain House established by the Smiley family in the late 1800’s was the backyard of my youth. One mile from my house was one the most unique and well established resorts in in the entire world. The 260 guest room framed Victorian hotel resides next to a glacier lake, both peering up at the famed landmark tower. My brother Gary left New Paltz permanently when he was 18, but almost every year he brought his growing family back to the mountain for a week. Mohonk adventures included getting through the lemon squeeze, rock rift crevice, the granery, and the massive putting green in front of the hotel. There were the summer nights quietly skinny dipping underneath the sleeping vacationers. I would guess close to 50% of the kids who grew up in New Paltz worked at Mohonk at some point. Some of my friends lived on the property, most of them of high I.Q. It was definitely exciting to have a world renown resort in our backyard. My dad used to laugh about the guests that inhabited the getaway to, and, for the stars, “a bunch of newlyweds and almost deads”.
Sometimes a story falls right into your lap: when the date, the month, the weather, and the place, come together with a force of intensity and clarity. We spend a lifetime driving on a litany of roads on our way to the next destination. Mountain Rest Road is the road that takes me back to my own home. It is also the road thatI took when I needed to escape. By the time we reach the zenith of the mountain the paving had stopped and the caravan of cars had broken up. Now I was heading down the hill, away from my old hometown. The visions of the past were sprinting towards me, I was becoming desperate to stop and scribble down some notes to rekindle the images. I pulled off the side of the road searching for my pad and pen to pin down the story. I realized the last time I was parked in this pull off was a summer night in 1977. John Ferrante was driving faster then he should have when we collided with a deer sending us, and his blue Pontiac spinning into a bed of rocks causing a flat tire. I was sitting in the same spot I was in 44 years later writing “code words” onto the front of an old newspaper.
We don’t stop going back, no matter how hard we try to run from our past we inevitably can not escape.. We grow up, have families, chase our dreams and perpetually challenge the plethora of obstacles that stand in our way. For me, Mountain Rest Road is a slow and mirandering ride back into the times of my life. It has always been the road that takes me home.