My husband and I were born in May and September of 1967, baby bookends to the Summer of Love. We entered the world grooving to a soundtrack of the Beatles, the Turtles and Jefferson Airplane, against a backdrop of love-ins, be-ins, hallucinogens, dirty denim, flowers and fringe.
Forty-eight years later, the times, they sure have a-changed. Those two little peace-and-love babies have grown up into urban professionals, living a life of deadlines and stress, much less likely to dance in the rain with flowers in our hair than to make a spreadsheet about how we're going to pay for our kids' braces. Not that I'm complaining—despite the constant thrum of noise and stimulation, we love our hyper-charged New York City life. But when a health crisis with my mom and some complicated office politics pushed our stress levels into overdrive this summer, we decided we needed to get away from it all, if only for a weekend, to reconnect with our hippie origins. So with one kid at sleepaway camp and the other parked with her best friend for a couple of nights, we hit the road and headed to Woodstock.
Now, when you say you're going to Woodstock, there are actually two different destinations involved. As I plotted out our weekend, I realized that the Woodstock of legend, the site of the "three days of peace and love" concert that has loomed in the public imagination for 46 years, is actually nowhere near the artsy Catskills town of Woodstock for which it was named.
So our trip to Woodstock actually started in Bethel, New York, about two hours from our Manhattan home, in the heart of rural Sullivan County. As we drove along route 17B, which famously became a backed-up parking lot of abandoned cars as some 450,000 hippies converged on the tiny farm town in August 1969, we could feel our city lives peeling away. Sun-bleached billboards dotted the road, along with barns, trailer parks, abandoned motels and the occasional metallic peace sign propped up in someone's yard.
But the seediness turned to slick commercialism as soon as we arrived at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts on the former site of Max Yasgur's dairy farm, now home to a 15,000-seat concert venue (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Chicago and Rascal Flatts were a few of the acts scheduled to appear this summer) and the Museum at Bethel Woods, which opened to much fanfare in 2008. As we bought tickets and wandered through the multimedia exhibits about the fashion, politics and music of the '60s and listened to recorded reminiscences about the festival by its organizers, local residents and concertgoers, I started to loosen up a little. But it wasn't until we drove a few yards down the road that I really felt the spirit of the '60s enter my soul.
We followed directions to the top of a hill, looked down, and there it was: shaped like a natural outdoor amphitheater, the lush green hill where close to half a million kids spent three days smoking pot, covered in mud from torrential downpours, subsisting on the few bits of food that could be scrounged from neighbors and listening to legendary sets by the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, the Who, the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. As I stood there and closed my eyes, I could hear the music, imagine the crowds of scruffy, happy teenagers, feel the electricity in the air. It truly felt like sacred ground. It didn't hurt that a guy named Duke, a huge, gray-bearded Woodstock alum, was sitting under a small tent with a blown-up photo from the concert, pointing out where the stage, food stands and overused port-a-potties were 46 years ago.
As we left the concert site and drove back down W. Shore Road, heading out of Bethel, a truly amazing sight appeared before our eyes. There were young people—dozens of them—streaming down the side of the road, some pushing strollers, most of them holding books and a few even trying to thumb a ride. These weren't hippies on their way home from a concert, though. They were Hasidic Jews, presumably spending the summer in the many bungalow colonies we had passed, escaping the heat of Borough Park or Crown Heights, Brooklyn. They were wearing the long black coats, side curls and hats their ancestors had worn for generations. Jeremy and I hadn't just gone back in time to 1969—we had momentarily jumped back a hundred years or more to the shtetls of our own distant past.
Soon enough, though, the crowds petered out and the road turned back to rolling green hills with the occasional gas station or farm stand. We bypassed our usual NPR station and listened to classic rock as we headed northeast toward the town of Woodstock. An hour and a half later, we pulled in to the Emerson Resort & Spa, in Mt. Tremper, about 10 minutes east of Woodstock, where we had booked a room for the weekend. Getting a last-minute reservation had not been easy—the summer at Emerson is filled with family reunions and weddings, with guests taking advantage of the gorgeous location on the Esopus Creek and the gracious restaurant and spa. Our duplex room had an Adirondack theme—there were bears and other wildlife painted on the walls of our enormous bathroom, complete with a Jacuzzi big enough for the entire family to frolic in. But we only had a few minutes to unpack and admire the room before we really got down to the business of relaxing.
We had booked a couples' massage at the Emerson Spa, and it was the perfect introduction to the laid-back luxury of our destination. We relaxed in our robes on the back deck facing the creek, sipping spring water with orange slices, until our two lovely massage therapists called us in for an hour of muscle-soothing, during which they worked out all those knots and kinks acquired from our usual positions hunched over a desk. We followed the massages with a casual vegetarian dinner in town at Joshua's Cafe, then shared a bottle of wine and a dip in the Jacuzzi. Already, those backed-up invoices on my desk at home seemed far, far away.
The next morning, we had one of the best breakfasts of our life at the unassuming little roadside diner in the nearby town of Phoenicia. We walked in expecting greasy hash browns and toast, but were surprised with a menu that focused on locally sourced, creative food (I highly recommend the Wild Hive Farm polenta skillet with sautéed kale and eggs). We spent a few hours digesting the meal with a walk through downtown Woodstock, checking out the cute cafes, candle and jewelry shops, ice-cream stands, and a funky flea market. The town attracts an eclectic mix of grizzled hippies wearing homemade clothes, young kids playing guitar on the streets for change and escapees from the city, like us.
The midsummer weekend we were there was truly gorgeous—the sky, the air and the greenery were so fresh and clear, it seemed impossible we were just a couple hours from the miasma of Midtown traffic. To get closer to the nature surrounding us, we decided to leave the car behind and rent a couple of bikes from Overlook Mountain Bikes for the afternoon. The folks at the shop recommended a loop that took us east through the town of Willow, and then up and back down past the picturesque Cooper Lake reservoir.
The route, it turned out, was 20 miles long, about twice what Jeremy and I had expected from the hand-drawn squiggles on the improvised map they gave us. But I am proud to say our creeping-toward-50-year-old legs managed to make it the whole way; we only stopped a couple of times to walk our bikes up particularly punishing hills. And once we got off the main roads, the ride was absolutely blissful. There were no sounds other than birds chirping, my tires squeaking against the road and the '60s soundtrack playing in my head. We whizzed past acre upon acre of wildflowers—sweet-smelling purple, white, gold and pink dotting the mountainside. And yes, there were inclines that made my thigh muscles burn with the effort, but the beauty part of riding up a hill is that on the other side, you ride down. For the last couple of miles, I barely had to pedal as I glided back into town.
At one point, when we still had a few miles left to go, Jeremy and I stopped by the side of the road to finish off the last few drops in our depleted water bottles. At that moment, a young woman puttering in her yard called over to us: "Hey, do you want to come inside and fill up? I've got fresh well water." Dripping with sweat and bursting with gratitude, we replenished our H20 in her kitchen, chatted a bit and thanked her a million times before finishing the ride. It made me think about the communal vibe we heard so much about at the Bethel Woods museum. Food and water ran out quickly during those three days in August back in 1969, but everyone shared what few supplies they had. Thank you, nice lady of Woodstock, for showing us that spirit is still alive.
After returning the bikes, showering and collapsing in our hotel room for a bit, we worked up enough energy to head back to Woodstock for a delicious dinner at the Bear Café, perhaps the only place in town where locals put on a skirt or long pants for an elegant, satisfying meal overlooking the Creek. Cocktails, locally sourced smoked trout and a fabulous burrata-and-tomato salad were the perfect ending to the day.
When we woke up the next morning, with our legs still just slightly sore from the bike ride, we talked about the music, the friendliness, the nature, the sharing, the peace we had been able to experience over the weekend (thankfully from the comfort of a top-notch resort, rather than a mud-covered hillside—I'm almost 48, for heaven's sake!).
One thing we hadn't yet experienced: '60s psychedelia. Since we are, after all, responsible parents, and did have to drive 100 miles safely back home, we skipped the drugs and instead checked out the World's Largest Kaleidoscope, conveniently located in a stand against one of the tilted backrests inside the silo. Normally, you would view the kaleidoscope by leaning against one of the tilted backrests inside the silo, but since Jeremy and I were the only guests in the silo at the moment, the lady who let us in suggested we lie down on the floor.
She closed the door, the lights went out and a booming voice intoned, "YOU ARE ABOUT TO EMBARK ON AN AMAZING JOURNEY THROUGH SPACE AND TIME." As memories of childhood field trips to the Hayden Planetarium washed over me, loud music started to shake the silo and bunch of psychedelic images started to shift and change up on the domed ceiling: shapes, colors, eagles, flags, spaceships, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln. It was weird. And strangely relaxing. And no one had to sit in the medical tent afterward coming down from a bad trip.
Our last stop was the hotel's little row of gift shops, where we stocked up on pear-shaped candles and fancy jams. (It's never too early to start your holiday shopping!) Then we got back into the car, a year's worth of tension and city grime at least temporarily replaced with peace, nature and delicious, farm-fresh food, and headed back down the road, singing along to the music of our youth, having experienced a tiny taste of our own little Summer of Love.