Globetrotting: The Catskills of New York
Once Himalayas-high and populated by Paleoindians some 13,000 years ago, the Catskills (three hours or less from New York City) are truly ancient. Other than Father Time, no sage befriended this four-county collection of farms, forests, lakes, valleys, and mountains more than influential American literary naturalist John Burroughs (1873-1921). Growing up on a farm outside Roxbury in rural Delaware County, “Boyhood Rock” was his favorite perch. Summering at the farm in his later years, he gathered with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and others around the boulder, which today marks his gravesite.
“The peace of the hills is about me and upon me…The dissonance and the turbulence and the stench of cities—how far off they seem!” wrote Burroughs in “Summit of the Hills” (1913), penned here at the farm.
That is why I call upon the Catskills whenever I can, for a century later, these elixirous hills remain instant tonic for the harried urban soul. Lying in the grass of Burroughs Memorial Field by his national historic landmark Woodchuck Lodge, the summer breeze is alive with his spirit, which helps guide my pen.
The Catskills have long provided escape for artists and independent spirits. Established in 1903, Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild (34 Tinker St., Woodstock. Tel: 845-679-2079. www.woodstockguild.org), nestled on a 250-acre mountainside campus in longtime liberal bastion Woodstock, was one of America’s original art colonies. Documented in the 2005 book of the same name, Casa Susanna, a 150-acre bungalow camp near Hunter Mountain, was a safe haven for cross-dressers in the early 1960s. Back in Delaware County, Roxbury Run Village was a failed hilltop condo development successfully remarketed to the gay community in the 1970s. Featuring two swimming pools and a disco, it was party central until AIDS decimated its resident crowd.
“There used to be ‘If You Like the Island, You’ll Love the Village’ billboards on highways up here pitching Roxbury Run as an alternative to Fire Island,” recalls Eric Wedemeyer, first in the Catskills with his parents in the 50s and then permanently since founding his Timberland Properties here in 1971. “That was then,” continues the Long Island transplant, whose firm, since joined with Coldwell Banker, is the region’s largest independent brokerage. “Today, the Catskills are the opposite of the Hamptons,” he says. “This is not the place for panache and parties, but for fresh air and pure relaxation.”
Seconding that emotion are Gregory Henderson and Joseph Massa, owners of The Roxbury (2258 County Highway 41, Roxbury. Tel: 607-326-7200. www.theroxburymotel.com). In Manhattan theater at the time, the couple first ventured to the Catskills in the 80s, eventually buying a cabin in Delaware County, and after 9/11, moving up for good. Seeking a creative business outlet, they saw the rainbow-flagged window at Wedemeyer’s office in Margaretville, and the rest is history. Wedemeyer, who Henderson calls a “Pied Piper” in his embrace of the gay community, showed the couple a run-down motel in Roxbury. “Nothing crazy, he told us, just a good quality inn for the area,” relates Henderson. The couple had a very different vision in mind. Celebrating ten years in 2014, their mid-century modern homage to the Catskills’ heyday, roadside motels, and 60s and 70s films and TV shows is a fantasy hotbed. Indulge away in themed rooms like the Wizard’s Emerald, Golightly a Go-Go, and the new stand-alone Archaeologist’s Digs cottage, but as Henderson says, “you’ll be disappointed if you come looking for a scene.”
You will find, however, roots already in place that are certain to be nourished by the LGBT-specific component of the state’s new $60 million tourism campaign.