I knew nothing about Upstate New York…and The Catskills blew me away. Who would believe that a mere 2 hour (or so) drive out of Manhattan is this amazing area of natural beauty. We had free run of our old friend Quique’s house in Stone Ridge. Set in a large plot with beautiful trees and backing on to a large wooded area. We met Quique when we were all travelling in 2008 and our paths crossed in Vietnam. All these years later we’re borrowing his house and hanging with his folks just down the road. Travelling is a beautiful thing…you meet all sorts of great people.Quique’s house sits in a few acres of natural woodland, a big part of which is covered with a carpet of lush green ferns. The woods are gorgeous…but 5 minutes in and Dave was bitten to shreds by mosquitoes and midges. The floor is alive with the smallest white, almost opaque frogs hopping from ferns to decomposing vegetation. Newts the colour of fallen autumn leaves wriggle through the undergrowth. It’s a magical place….but avoid the stagnant areas of water where the mozzies swarm…and feast!
Dave…hiding from mosquitoes in the living room of Quique’s house, safe in the knowledge of bug screen protected windows.
Every evening here in Stone Ridge there was an odd sound like someone sanding down a table top. As there are no immediate neighbours I was baffled. I eventually discovered a bird visiting it’s nest high up in a hole in a tree trunk; when it reached in with food all of the young chicks popped their heads out and started screeching like sandpaper. Mystery solved. We drove nearby to visit Quique’s folks. We sat on the deck near the swimming pool with Quique and his Dad, George (aka Don Jorge). Master Chef supreme of The Northern Spy (a type of apple). As he’s nearer to our age than Quique he’s not seeming very Dad like – hah!The boys…not quite shedding the city look even in shorts and relaxing footwear. Beer, food, great company and great surroundings. We had so many great times with George and Brigitte whilst Quique was back in Manhattan at work. We had a funny night watching a movie on their home projection screen on the other side of the pool. The Way Way Back, great movie even when everyone in it has a green tinge to their faces and half of the action takes place off the side of the screen. Hilarious night, laughing at the screening limitations and watching fireflies dazzle and bounce across the field behind the screen. Mama Quique – Brigitte. A dazzling smile, very funny, smart as a whip and a lover of life….that’s really all you need.There was a massive storm one night; pouring rain…. I could hear branches cracking in the woods outside the bedroom window. Nice and fresh the next morning, cooled the temperatures, cleared the muggy air, albeit briefly. I went out to check on the birds nest which was sitting on top of a security light at the back door. Deer came right up to the window whilst Dave and I were watching England’s woeful attempts in the World Cup. They didn’t hang around to watch for long…didn’t blame them. We met Quique’s grandfather on Father’s Day Sunday. Frenchy used to be a rodeo rider. Hanging on Quique’s wall in his house; an old poster of Frenchy rodeo riding a bull in Texas. Frenchy and I sat and compared scars. I still won. It seems that motorbikes still do more damage than bulls when you come off them. Frenchy was born and brought up in Queens, New York and ended up rodeo bull riding in Texas from the age of 14. Woodstock
Dylan? Check. The Peace sign? Check. Campervan? Check. We have officially entered the Hippy Utopia that is Woodstock. It is a scenic place but they have cashed in on its famous namesake despite the festival not actually taking place in this town because the license was turned down for the event. It took place in Bethel approximately 60 miles from Woodstock at Max Yasgur’s 601 acre dairy farm. Despite that Woodstock is definitely worth visiting. Its reputation as an artist’s and musician’s colony lives on. Away from the tie-dye merchandise and hippy jewellery there are walks through wooded landscapes and a river with a small waterfall. The town is situated within the borders of Catskills National Park. There are plenty of happy hippy shops full of gongs and incense sticks. Dave almost had an asthma attack. He left. I stayed to listen to the healer banging singing gongs. Quite relaxing actually. That’s a bit more like it. I’ll be very disappointed if he’s not reading Timothy Leary. Quite an exceptional Birdhouse. Impressive.And I love this sign. Sadly if you had one for every small business in the same situation, America would be saturated with them. The rise of the automobile and then the mall did a lot to kill off small town America. Driving back to Stone Ridge, lying rusting off the side of the main motorway was this old train. Left purposefully in honour to the trains that ran on the track here. I got a bit obsessed with it; found an old track nail spike in the long grass and brought it back to London with me as a souvenir, in fact it was the only thing other than a keyring that I brought back with me. Still beautiful in it’s decay. Phoenicia
Another beautiful day, another scenic Catskills town; Phoenicia a small community thought of as the gateway to the Catskills. It hit over 30 degrees centigrade as we wandered it streets looking at the pretty weather boarded houses. Quique had tipped us off about Steve’s place, called Fabulous Furniture. He makes pretty incredible stuff from old cars and trucks and the rocket ship is a truck cement mixer with the top of a car welded on it. Pretty much all of it has working lights. Amazing fun. Quique knows the owner and bought a beautiful carved heavy wooden table here.
We stopped to have a late lunch/early dinner. Dave’s pizza in Phoenicia was so large they brought a luggage rack to the table to stand it on. Thankfully he didn’t order the beer tower.
Saugerties and Opus 40
Artist discovery; Harvey Fite. He spent 37 years working with huge hunks of blue stone to create this stone monument, walls, ponds and pathways, cutting and lugging all that stone by hand using pretty basic machinery. The shape of the monument and the flow of the dry stone walls and pathways pays homage to the landscape of the mountain behind it.He built his own house and workshops. His wife Barbara would ring a huge bell erected on top of their house to call him in for dinner each night. Stunning place. His onsite workshop is now a museum of his tools.We need more eccentrics in the world. You can read more about their story here: http://www.opus40.org/harvey-fite/ Well worth a visit, it’s an inspiring place.
Kingston (Hudson Valley)
Out on the road exploring again, dropped by in to the small town Kingston which is in the Hudson Valley area. A pretty river walk alongside the marina and a town which feels like it’s in two sections. The area closer to the river with it’s cafes, ice cream shops, bars and antique shops and a short drive away through the streets a more upmarket part of the town with fancier shops and covered pavements, fancier restaurants.
High Falls and the giant driftwood Redwoods of Jim Dowd
Along with Opus 40 in Saugerties, the wonderful old sculptural Redwoods were a highlight of exploring the Catskills. George took us to High Falls on a plot of land according to some internet sources as being called Grandmother Land; but something that George had never heard before, so as much as I would like to give clearer directions, I really can’t…and I’m glad because the place would be overrun. These giant driftwood relics of the 1860 to 1930 logging era are around a 100 years old; twisted, silvered and gnarled by the natural elements. In early years once logged from millennia old virgin forests the tree roots were uprooted before it was realised that new trees could sprout from the old roots and the practise of digging them out was stopped.
Washed up on the rivers and beaches of Northern California, many of them spending several years buried in sand, many of these huge roots were collected and milled in to lumber and beautiful furniture. The beaches are now closed to further removal of the roots but when open Jim Dowd spent 35 years amassing this incredible collection, hauling them thousands of miles across the country to the Catskills and displaying them as natural sculptures next to a small road in High Falls. Jim worked on several of them but for the most part they are natural forms. The landscape around this part of the Catskills is beautiful; scattered with silvered wooden buildings… red painted barns.
There’s a bridge over the Ashokan Reservoir near to Stone Ridge in Ulster County. The reservoir was built between 1907 and 1915 to provide New York City with its water and the local residents who were flooded out fought bitter eminant domain opposition to its creation. Standing on the bridge you look out and across to the Catskills Mountains.
This town had a great vibe, we really liked it. A bit seedier and worn around the edges with a strong creative community and some cool places to eat, shop and drink. We thought it was much more fun than Woodstock. We ate lunch at a small place owned by one of the musicians from Murphy’s Law…right on the high street. Good food and the best cornbread I’ve ever tasted.
The old part of New Paltz town.Dumb I know but Dave and I created a game based on vehicles we passed on the road (we did a hell of a lot of driving around in the 9 days here)…basically you spotted a vehicle and had to categorise it; Meth heads, Serial Killer…or Estate Agent (Realtor). It’s been a blast driving around the Catskills, time with Quique and seeing his folks…but after 9 days it’s time to hit the city. New York City
We leave the Catskills on the Tuesday and drive back to JFK to drop off the hire car, then subway it in to the city to check in to The Ace Hotel Manhattan. Our nighttime view from our 12th floor window was pretty unbeatable. The Empire State lit up each night in red, white and blue. Whilst putting our stuff away Dave happened to look at his Twitter feed and saw a tweet posted by our musician friend Sid Griffin (Long Ryders, The Coal Porters). A Kentucky boy by birth but living in London for many years now, coincidentally Sid was in town for work on some music stuff with Bob Dylan’s manager. We got hold of him and arranged to meet for dinner. Sid was meeting his old friend Peter Zaremba, lead singer with New York band The Fleshtones and we had a great night eating Korean BBQ. There is a fantastic book written about the band called ‘Sweat’ by Joe Bonomo. If you have any interest in music and especially the 70s/80s New York garage scene (Iggy and The Stooges, The Ramones etc) this book is a fantastic read.The Fleshtones still tour, get info here at their label Yep Rock: http://www.yeproc.com/artists/the-fleshtones Sid’s got a new solo album out right now recorded in Nashville called ‘The Trick is to Breathe’. After dinner we wandered down the street to Bryant Park, a privately managed public park located between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and between 40th and 42nd Streets in Midtown. They were just cleaning up for the night and about to close up but we hung out for a little while to admire the backdrop of skyscrapers and old buildings lit up. The New York Public library is the building you see running across the back of the photo. Bryant Park is built entirely over an underground structure which houses the library archives. In the 1980s, the park was closed to the public and excavated. The new library facilities were built below ground level and the park was restored above it.Our view from our room at The Ace in the morning. Great building opposite with a roof garden. Rooms at The Ace are good fun, even the standard double rooms are pretty generous in size compared to most Manhattan hotels which are notoriously small. We had a guitar and record deck in the room, big bed and a large leather couch. Full size black Smeg fridge fully stocked…nothing mini-bar about it. Next day we went for a long walk around Manhattan. Dave took me to walk the highline; a 1.45-mile-long New York City linear park built on a section of a disused New York Central Railroad spur called the West Side Line straddled by The Standard Hotel. The High Line Park uses the disused southern portion of the West Side Line running to the Lower West Side of Manhattan. It runs from Gansevoort Street – three blocks below 14th Street – in the Meatpacking District, through Chelsea, to the northern edge of the West Side Yard on 34th Street near the Javits Convention Centre. The planting is beautiful; long swathes of grasses and Echinacea flowers, foxtail lily… and wooden sunbeds that roll along the edge of old track so you can move them closer together or further apart.
Later we met up with old friends Dan and Andrea who drove from Amherst, MA to hook up with us and introduce us to a couple of their friends who have an apartment in the Osborne Building. Started in 1883 and completed in 1885, Leonard Bernstein, the composer famous for West Side Story, lived in apartment 4B and additionally rented a studio apartment where he worked. You can get more info about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osborne_Apartments and for a bit more gossip here: http://ny.curbed.com/places/the-osborneWe introduced Dan and Andrea to our Manhattan friends Kat and Jon and had a great night catching up and stuffing our faces with crisps coated in blue cheese. Sounds gross, tastes amazing. Found my old favourite bar The Yaffa Cafe…changed a lot and sadly is no longer a hang out for all the freaks and geeks I fell in love with the first time I found this place years ago.Food trucks, love them! Especially Mexican ones…but hot dogs and pretzels are about as New York City as you can get. We saw a band unloading their gear from a venue whilst walking around the side streets…on the side of their guitar cases it said “Shit Kill’. Because they had such a superior name, we looked them up on google where their band manifesto states: “Shitkilling is our business”. We wandered to the Sony building where Dave has to come for meetings…so he showed me his walk to work when he’s here, his favourite coffee places and where to grab some lunch…including the main New York library in Bryant park which is a fantastic place to visit. They had a kids book exhibition on.Union Square Market around 14th has a farmers market. The stacked carrots in different colours look amazing.Manhattan icons. On Madison and 26th.
Went over the bridge in to Brooklyn for a few hours. We had breakfast in Williamsburg; formerly an industrial area but known now as the hipster area since all the trust fund kids moved in. Exited at the wrong stop in to an Hasidic Jewish neighbourhood; I went in to a deli and asked the elderly Hasidic owner with long grey ringlets where the hipster area was….(a ridiculous question I realise); he said you need to tell me what you are looking for specifically, like are you looking for Jewish clothes? Big grin on his face. Lovely man. Fun day out…no new wardrobe hah! Hasidic Jewish children in their striped tops. They reminded me of when high street retailer Zara had to remove a striped shirt design featuring a yellow star on the front after social media users in August compared it to the uniform worn by Jewish prisoners in concentration camps during the second world war. Street mural below with Williamsburg bridge in the background.There’s quite a lot of character in Williamsburg; an unusual juxtaposition between Hasidic Jews and Hipsters. A Brooklyn neighbourhood that has become achingly trendy. In a few years time the artists who ‘claim’ it will be priced out and it will be overrun with coffee shops and overpriced craft beer shops. We wander the streets painted with street art, stickered and tagged, old shops repurposed, old buildings pretty in their decay. It’s apparently THE place outside of Manhattan to be seen in and there are loads of bars, cafes and restaurants. It feels young and it’s trying very hard to be cool but it also feels a bit exclusive. The young people here have money…and they’ve taken this old industrial area and created a hipster enclave away from the hard edged skyscrapers of New York.On the subway back in to Manhattan we watched a busker at Bedford Avenue station, his face turned inwards, singing in to the riveted recess created between the steel subway supports to amplify his soulful voice and guitar. Simple but very effective. And New York is still filled with these passing examples of creativity and eccentricity…but at an increasing rate they’re getting pushed aside or pushed out in the juggernaut of money which is cutting a huge gentrifying swathe through the city’s 5 Boros, replacing character with clinical. I don’t know how long the edgy New York we originally fell in love with at the movies will survive. Like everywhere else in the world, it’s feeling smaller as homogenisation sacks its streets of individuality and the wealth climbs forever upwards stacking its people on top of one another in ‘luxury’ new-build apartments.