I was a teenager already studying architecture in high school, and I wanted nothing but New York City. I wanted to live on a boat in a marina. I dreamed of tailored mini skirts; long, fitted blazers; and three-inch slingback heels. I would zip about in my charcoal gray Mazda RX7 with stick shift, tinted windows and a kickin’ sound system. I would meet clients over cocktails, and sketch on napkins.
I ached for the city because that’s where our most constant and favorite friends lived.
We summered in the Catskill Mountains, growing up, in a private community called Elka Park, three hours north of the city. It was one of three “sister” communities; ours, the smallest and most humble of the three, and we loved it that way. (Picture Elka Park as the Carbondale of the three; Twilight Park akin to Basalt; and Onteora Club as the purer, higher thinking aspects of Aspen.)
The constancy of Elka Park and our friends there were a north star, as we moved almost every year or two, all the way through high school. Those mountain summers were how Oma and Opa stayed close to us after our mom (their daughter) died very young.
We stayed in Great Uncle Ed’s three-story Victorian, amid verdant forests on the side of an ancient mountain. We walked forest trails and red dirt roads, had picnics, swam streams and reveled in the clash of the ancient gnomes bowling — wild thunderstorms.
The clubhouse and ball field were clearings in the forest. With a restaurant, bar, game room, and library, it had a funky smell to it, familiar and welcoming. Wooden floors echoed; low ceilings prompted your gaze to a southern bank of windows, beyond which drifted the Seven Sisters: purple undulations and wavering blue mists. Past the shuffle board and horseshoes was an eight-room lodge for overflow friends and guests. Uncle Ed was an architect and had designed it. I associated him, architecture and our summer house with the best parts of growing up.
The cadence of summers was celebration — Lobster Night with live crustaceans flown in from Maine. Western Night’s wholesome square dancing landing in a beery, competitive round of live musical chairs. Ahhh, the Fourth of July — sparkling, effervescent magic: lawn blankets, staying out late and summer crushes. Extra friends and family always came on those weekends… perhaps why I’m always planning celebrations today — recreating the seasonal rhythms of “gather.”
The jewel of the summer, though, was the swimming pool, a bowl of sky filled with screams and laughter. The park caretaker, Paul, filled it from a mountain stream; it was icy cold. Between robust games of Blind Man’s Bluff or Marco Polo, we’d crawl out, shivering and pruny, to lay on the massive, sunbaked flagstone slabs surrounding the pool. Every summer it was the same kids, all of us, with a few new faces as we began to share this special place with our friends from home.
Why do I share these stories?
I guess because I’m growing older. Because our town is changing so fast. There’s an urban edge too often nowadays, and so I know I will leave someday. Carbondale has been the closest I’ve come in my adult life to the halcyon summers of yesteryear. Except here, we get to live it year-round. Between June’s First Friday and Sunday’s Music in the Park, an appreciation for Carbondale bursts in my heart this morning.
It wasn’t just the friends that made Elka Park so dreamy. It was the reliable quiet, the relative stillness. One June, we pulled into the ballpark clearing — arrival! We crawled onto the car door window frames, leaning back and gasping at the stars — so profuse, so close, hovering just beyond the wall of cricket song and lusty frog calls. We have that here, too, in Carbondale, after the dinner hour, when all the cars are tucked into bed.
We walked everywhere in Elka Park. There was no reason to drive, or even bike. It was so beautiful to stroll, and to see — these were the mountains, after all, altered very little, with so much to discover. The older parts of Carbondale are like this, too. Nature has moved back in, along our ditchways, bike paths and shortcuts. When I walk around town through each of the seasons, I feel as though I am (re)visiting with friends — the first black locust I ever smelled; the two maples I love most, one on Garfield, the other on Euclid; each season, a different colored carpet.
This morning, I woke to hummingbirds, fed our hens, checked on our broody ones — chicks in a few days! Puttering in my garden, I chuckled at old dreams of city life. What was I thinking?