up to the Adirondacks
Thursday, June 29 2006
setting: rural Hurley Township, Ulster County, New York
Today I left the dogs behind and drove solo into the Adirondacks to visit Gretchen, who is midway-through a one-month residency at the Blue Mountain Center near a hamlet called Blue Mountain Lake. It three and a half hours away by car, and aside from a terrible downpour near Albany and spilling a beer on my lap along Route 28, the drive was easy. I stopped near the hamlet of Indian Lake and used the waters of Abanakee Lake to rinse the beer out of my clothes. Then I completely change into new ones.
I hadn't known much about the Adirondacks before venturing out. On the drive I had a hint that they haven't been occupied by white men for very long; a little sign on the side of the road spoke of the burial site of the hamlet's first settler, who had either settled the place or died in the 1840s. Contrast that with Hurley; the stone house at the bottom of Dug Hill Road dates back to the 1600s.
I'd also assumed that the Adirondacks were part of the Appalachians, but this isn't the case. Instead, they're a strange circular-shaped dome of uplifting rock some 150 miles across. The uplift began only about five million years ago and continues to this day. Because of erosion, all the younger rock has been stripped away, exposing ancient Pre-Cambrian rocks throughout most of the Adirondacks.
Blue Mountain Center does not make itself easy for a random motorist to stumble upon it. Even when carefully following directions the last mile or so was daunting, what with the signs saying things like "Private Residence" and "Do Not Enter." The letters "BMC," never more than a double-digit point size, were the only clue that I was headed on the correct vector.
Finally I was at the end of the drive and I parked. There were a few people walking around so I said hello and where might I be able to find Gretchen.
She was out on the front porch, the one facing the lake, sitting (appropriately enough) on an Adirondack chair, reading or something. Others presumably with residencies were also sitting in similar chairs, also reading or pecking away at their computers. People in these residencies seem to prefer iBooks by a wide margin. After an enthusiastic greeting and quick introductions to a variety of artists and writers whose names immediately ricocheted from the part of my brain whose job it is to store them, Gretchen showed me around the place: the kitchen, the dining room, upstairs to her room, and around to various other cottages, boat houses, and what not. Everything was well-made, well-considered, practical, and tasteful, in an get-away forest cottage kind of way. The idea for the place is to provide a serene environment conducive to art, where one never has to think about who's making dinner or paying the electric bill. All of that is provided free to residents. In fact, there are artists and writers who work the residency circuit so effectively that they never actually have to pay for their own sustenance and are free to create. It's sort of like what the dole is for British art and culture, though much more concentrated on many fewer people, who are permitted to create in much better conditions than the sort of council estates that (as a side effect) produce so much of exportable British contemporary culture.
Blue Mountain Center was founded by one of the Whole Earth Catalog people and its mission is to help artists, musicians, and writers having a lefty bent. Inside the initial mandate is a lot of room for someone to play around in; back in 1982 someone installed a formidable array of hot water solar panels on the main house's southeast-facing roof as well as a huge array of photovoltaics on the boat house.
The lake out in front of the main house is called Eagle Lake, and due to recent rains its level was unusually high, flooding the treated plank floors of the boat house, part of which normally house an artist studio for one of the residents. The Blue Mountain Center provides canoes for any resident who wants to take them out into the lake. All you have to do is unhook the rope and paddle away.
Gretchen and I paddled a canoe westward to a narrow swampy straight where Utowana Lake flowed into Eagle Lake, and just into Utowana, on the right, was a largish green building housing, Gretchen said, a sea plane. We rolled back the huge sliding doors and went inside. The floor inside was flooded to a depth of three or four inches, and there it was, the sea plane. We looked at the tidy little cluster of analog controls on its dashboard and noted the one piece of cargo behind its single backseat, a paddle. The pontoons were huge and I wondered to what extent they made the thing an inefficient flier. All the cables controlling all the movable flight surfaces were on the outside of the plane. There were tiny rudders on the back of each pontoon. As for the hangar itself, Gretchen told me she liked to sing inside of it because of its incredible acoustics. She began singing a Joni Mitchell song whose vocals would have grated on me had Joni been singing. But in the hangar with Gretchen singing it sounded like a chorus of angels.
I'm going to cut ahead now to dinner, which was prepared by the center's professional chef and eaten in a communal dining room down the length of a long table. There was both a fish option and a tofu option and I have to say that in this particular meal the tofu was better. Does tilapia have any flavor? I've never known it to so far. Someone had also provided wine for the meal, though in this case it wasn't the center. Alcohol is the only thing that residents have to buy for themselves. This is simply because there would be no way for the center to afford to keep this collection of creative types in booze. Creativity and drinking go together like cashews and chicken.
After the meal Gretchen gave her "presentation" - something every resident is expected to do at some point during his or her stay. Gretchen, being a poet, read poetry. And she did so in her usual entertaining, well-delivered way. And since the center has been working out for her admirably, she actually had a number of completely new poems to present. Throughout her presentation she kept apologizing for the fact that many of them were downers. Perhaps she felt she'd given insufficient warning to her many new friends about the huge disconnect between her bubbly extrovertism and the grim nature of her creative output. Nonetheless, her peers seemed to enjoy her presentation thoroughly.
Afterwards a large number of us drove to the hamlet of Long Lake (15 miles to the north) and drank alcohol at a watering hole called the Blarney Stone. It's a popular place with Blue Mountain Center people; the Blarney Stone even leaves their door unlocked on occasion so that Blue Mountain Center people can get in to watch World Cup soccer games that happen when it would otherwise be closed. The Blarney Stone is a very ordinary bar. What mattered was access. When, for example, we wanted to turn down volume on the jukebox, the bartender handed us its remote control. Who even knew jukeboxes had remote controls?
Most of the tunes playing on the jukebox were selected by David and Little Tim, two of the BMC residents. All was going swimmingly until a song by Lenny Kravitz came on, his cover of "American Woman." I couldn't help myself, saying, "Mr. Kravitz actually managed to take a terrible song and make it even worse." Other topics covered in our long, rolling conversation included the evolution of the American strategy to "carpetbomb" cities with nuclear bombs, whether or not Futurama is better than the Simpsons, the ballsiness of Stephen Colbert, and whether the idea for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to birth their child in Namibia was a good publicity stunt. My sentiments on this last one included, "I think they've set a very good example; if only extremely photogenic people reproduce, the world's problems will soon be solved." and "I don't know why they didn't have their baby in Guantanamo to draw press scrutiny to that place."
Guests are normally discouraged from Blue Mountain Center because it is felt that they detract from the zero-distraction creative vibe of the place. Because of this, Gretchen had arranged for us to spend the night at the Adirondack Hotel in Long Lake. The price of the place was $95/night, so we sort of expected it to be nice. But alas, we had no such luck. The hotel was in a grand old building and had a view of Long Lake, which was nice, but this was across a busy highway frequented by tractor trailer trucks. On the front of the building someone had seen fit to hang a huge American flag, because, well, America, fuck yeah! Inside, past the rearing stuffed Black Bear and the moosehead trophy, the floors were covered wall to wall with stained industrial-strength carpeting. The hallways featured stained, peeling wallpaper and transoms patched over with luan plywood. Our room didn't have a teevee of any description but it did have a piece of orange peel under the bed. The only saving grace of the place was that our room didn't smell like an ashtray, something that wouldn't have surprised me.
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