Monday, September 2, 2013

In search of Woodstock Nation

Monday, September 02, 2013
With the exception of passing it by accident in the vain attempt to seek out land to settle on during the 1970s, my first visit to the Village of Woodstock didn’t happen until 1994 – during the week leading up to the 25th anniversary of the concert that gave our generation its name.
I knew the concert didn’t take place in Woodstock – but at a location significantly far from the village that it had almost no impact that weekend in 1969.
But in 1974, people flocked to it – just as they had after the concert – seeking renewal of a spirit much of the 1970s and later the Reagan era of the 1980s had managed to destroy.
I came for the same reason, although I managed to somehow make it work as a story for my newspaper, going to this place to find out about the way it was dealing with traffic and other issues as an example of what might take place back in New Jersey faced with a similar upcoming event.
The nostalgia of that weekend clouded the reality, even for me, in fostering the illusion that this place, this enclave to the past had somehow retained values we had lost during the previous 25 years.
I thought if I went there often enough and looked under every rock, I might find that lost spirit. So this became something of a yearly ritual, similar to one we had established in October by going to Cape May.
Most years, we went around the anniversary of the concert in mid August, even sometimes staying over at the Woodstock Inn, or one of the motels just off the Thruway on Route 28 near Kingston.
Occasionally, as in 2012, we took the trip in spring because of vacation scheduling issues. After about four years from the first trip, the polish of Woodstock wore off, partly because many of the institutions that had existed prior to that were fading away. Our generation growing older and no longer able to maintain the illusion of the Woodstock Nation, not even in Woodstock.
The place was already a relic, a themed shopping mall for the wanna be hip, drawing artists of all sorts, who went through the pretense until they came to realize that art wasn’t a place, but a frame of mind, and could be done in some other place that didn’t have its streets clogged by tourist traffic nearly every weekend of the summer, its roads packed with ice in the winter.
We had even thought about moving there. But the isolation of the place would have been unbearable, and then we considered Kingston -- which was still an option until earlier this year.
We did finally make our way to Bethel where the concert did take place, when it still resembled the place I saw that hot and stormy day in 1969 when I flew over it in an army helicopter – minus the few hundred thousand people.
Yet despite knowing how bogus the hip illusion was in Woodstock – damn it, they sold The Big Pink – we continued to go back, making the usual rounds of Tinker Street, and even read in a few of the poetry readings at the Tinker Street Café – before it closed and turned it into a photo studio – a concept somewhat as extinct in an age of digital cameras as Woodstock itself became.
We had friends up there, people who had wandered up from the old Beatnik scene, helping to establish the place as a hip community long before the concert put the place on the map. At one reading, Sharon was such a hit, they wanted to give her a feature reading there the next week.
Each trip, we searched for a quicker way to get there.
The most familiar route was one I often took to New York State when Pauly, Hank and Garrick wandered up into that neck of the woods in search of a farm we could buy and settle on (a misguided concept to say the least). Pauly had pulled a scheme during the concert in 1969, arranging to use Rob’s car to drive concert goers up, and then would leave them off at the foot of the NY Thru way in Mahwah – where I was once arrested on a weapons charge during my high school years.
In school, I cut classes and hopped a freight train that inevitably left me off at the Ford plant in Mahwah. Later, Mahwah was a short cut Hank used to take on his way to other places, and I occasionally passed through it to get to remoter sections of Pennsylvania on my way to see my daughter.
But after a time, we sometimes took alternate routes such as the Palisades Parkway, and eventually found our way to the Thruway.
I suppose after a while, we would have given up the trip if we hadn’t stumbled onto the farm animal sanctuary, which turned us away form eating meat and for a while dairy products. I don’t remember if it was on 2009 or 2010 trip that we found the place.
Partly because we had restored meat in our diets, and partly because we needed to renew ourselves, we went back for a one day trip north yesterday.
We took the old way, Route 80 to the Parkway, to 17 and then the thruway, only to discover on the way back that we could do away with the Route 17 portion entirely, a section of the state I hate mostly because of the mall, but also because I had worked in that area in the early 1980s and it did not hold fond memories for me.
Once in Woodstock, we parked in the gravel lot near the old graveyard, and slowly strolled back to the village square. This had changed over the years – especially the stores, which were as one realtor’s door confirmed no longer surreal. Musicians still played there. But many of the other places were simply capitalizing off the name and offered no inspiration, although I did see one woman carrying her yoga mat on her shoulder as she headed off for a session, making me think I should buy one also if I wanted to get back a ritual I had done since 1978.
The threat of rain, however, kept many of the usual merchants near the square and farther down at the flea market from displaying, so it was a quick walk up one side of the street and then the other, before making our way to the Sanctuary.
The place had grown in popularity since our first visit. It even offered a bed and breakfast feature to help fund the project that protected animals from slaughter. We said hello the chickens, and then the pigs.
This last proved a bit of a chore for me since two of the very large animals had some running gripe with each other over a particular piece of muddy real estate one wanted and the other refused to give up. Later, when we were allowed to go onto the pasture to greet them, the two continued their dispute and I got caught in the middle, my legs covered in the mud these two so coveted it.
I found a hose attached to one of the buildings and washed myself off before moving on to visit the goats – one of which butted Sharon from behind because she’d not paid it enough attention. It was a hog for pets.
Some the sheep wanted pets, too, which we accommodated, knowing that we would draw significant attention from our cats when we got home later.
When we tried to leave, three large gray and black spotted pigs decided they liked the small patch of mud in front of the gate, forcing the few dozen people on the tour to exit through the barn.
On our way out, I took a wrong turn in the car and we wandered the tree lined roads for a while not sure of where we were or how we would get back to Bearsville or one of the other villages we recognized. But like all roads, they all eventually bring you somewhere that you recognize, and so this one did, too.
We stopped back in Woodstock to look for a place to eat – now true converts again—at least for the afternoon. Since vegan place was no longer a vegan place, we hit the road again, and settled into a diner near Kingston where we feasted on black bean veggie burgers and contemplated – not our navels – but the dim future of where we would end up, and again, gave up on Woodstock or Kingston as an option. Too remote. Too full of illusions.
Most likely, and pretty definitely, we would move to Scranton where my remaining family lives, and investigate enclaves elsewhere, which had fewer artists (I’m an artist, one woman in one shop boasted as we passed earlier in the day) and more real people.
Then we drove home, having gotten our fix for another year. But even as Jimi Hendrix played on mp3 player (we’d listened to the Grateful Dead and Joni Mitchell on the way up) I knew we would need to return here, not just next year, but in the years to come, just in case there really was some magic we missed, some secret to the old culture that only those most dedicated to finding it can find.
We will go back.

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