Some families have summer homes, vacation rentals, timeshares. We weren’t set up like that — rather on the frugal side — but we did have a place we loved to visit (and not be so frugal) when the savings account was full enough: Mohonk Mountain House.
Mountain House is a “Victorian castle resort” in the Hudson Valley. About a 2-hour drive from New York City, its claim to fame is that it’s a National Historic Landmark in addition to a semi-all-inclusive (yes, that’s the actual jargon) getaway spot, which makes for the perfect escape from reality. If you love mountains, you’re at the top of one. Want to be surrounded by trees? You can stroll among them or just view them from above — again, mountaintop. Feel like imagining you’re Princess Mononoke and bonding with wild animals? They’ve got guided nature walks up the wazoo, or you can do your own exploring of the trails, then take in an evening nature presentation after dinner in one of their many meeting rooms. Speaking of dinner, their food is impeccable: three meals a day (plus teatime!) are all covered by the nightly room rate, and everything is “farm-to-table”, with a spread of options that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And don’t get me started on the spa treatments, the hot baths, the indoor pools …
But really, it’s a freaking castle. I mean, come on.
Flies and Flashes
First, a disclaimer. My memories of the past are akin to a lightning storm. Sometimes there’s a strong smell, sound, or taste — but they are primarily short visual and auditory clips. They are also often profoundly emotional. In acting classes, this is often referred to as “sense memory”. I like that phrase, but I find “flash memory” does a slightly better job of conveying the lightning-esque aspect of my internal experiences, especially since “flashback” has been commandeered by the PTSD and LSD crowds.
The downside of flash memories is any recall attempts require making various flashes fit together in some semblance of a narrative, like creating a storyboard for a film. This takes time, and effort, and comes with the constant nagging feeling that I’m getting the details (in particular, the chronology) wrong. This brand of remembrance provides infinite fodder for the philosopher, but is quite disastrous for the historian.
Keeping that in mind, here’s how I recall my childhood experience with Mountain House:
I’m fairly confident that our stays included watching movies nearly every night with the other kids staying there. I remember sitting on the floor and looking up at the screen, until my parents would find me in the dark and bring me back to the room for sleep.
I recall rocking on rocking chairs that were way too big for me, and hence supreme levels of “cool”. Sometimes with a book, sometimes not. The rocking was its own reward.
I remember the rooms themselves always seeming to be at the top of a castle spiral (so many steps!). The rooms were large and ornate, with separate beds for everyone (no need to order an extra cot for the room) and even desks to do our homework. Yes, homework on vacation. That was an exciting aspect of Mountain House for me: missing school. My parents took us to Mountain House during “off-season” for the discounted rate, which meant excusing us from class for a week in exchange for keeping up with assignments while we were away.
I also have flashes of an evening presentation for the kids (they have one every night) where they were putting an improvised play together, with puppets and audience participation. I was picked to be a volunteer “actor”, which was a dream come true — my answer to what I wanted to be when I grow up was often Broadway actress, when it wasn’t Judge or Famous Writer or Really Rich. Although I should mention, I’m not sure this actually happened. This is one of those flashes that could have been a dream. In my mind’s eye, the setting is absolutely Mountain House, for real or in Morpheus’s realm. It’s also one of the first flashes I get when I ponder Mountain House, so, there’s that.
All in all, my memories are fond, fantastical, and fabulous … until I get to The Day of the Fly.
Again, there’s a voice in my head thinking, did this really happen at Mountain House? Then the image appears: the ornate room. The separate beds. The desk for our homework, which I was about to use while our parents were on a walk, leaving my older sister and me behind to get some schoolwork out of the way. The fans turning on the cathedral ceiling. And the buzzing of a very big, very loud, housefly.
I hate flies. Let me say it again: I. Hate. Flies. I hate the look of them, the shape of them, and most especially, the sound of them. I consider one of the best parts of having progressive hearing loss to be the eventual loss of ability to hear these horrible, ugly, annoying affronts to nature. I should clarify, I don’t like any other insect that buzzes either and put them all in this category, but the fly is at the top of the heap. It gets the gold medal in vileness, the trophy for Things that I Vilify, top marks in the Get That Thing Away From Me department.
And my child self’s reaction to things I hate? Flee. Flee, and freak out.
That pretty much summarizes the next hour, as I cowered under the covers in my bed and the fly made its buzzy way around the room again, and again, and again. I think my sister may have tried to swat it, but with those cathedral ceilings, the fly had the advantage. All I could think was that we were on our own, away from the secure protection of Dad — who for sure could get rid of this monster — and under strict orders from Mom not to leave the room, so we were essentially stuck there, imprisoned with my worst nightmare, and there was no option but to shelter and shake in my bed until my knight in shining armor (again, Dad, the Fly Destroyer) returned. The wait was interminable, and I doubted my blanket could remain an effective shield from the enemy for much longer, when the doorknob finally jiggled, and I was rescued at last.
Even now, whenever I hear buzzing, I think of this afternoon of terror, and the long wait to being rescued. I experience a quick freak-out flash that goes through every skin cell of my body. Then I turn down my hearing aids, find the nearest swatting tool, and get to work.
A Better View
I went back to Mountain House for a small family reunion several years ago — joined by my mother and stepfather, my three kids, my sister, her husband, and their two kids. This visit stands out as my favorite of all of them, in no small part due to my memories of it being fresher, clearer, but also I cherish the time away more as an adult.
I suspect this is common when you have a day job and it takes effort to plan and execute vacations, where as a kid you’re just along for the ride. The difficult path can feel more rewarding because of the sacrifices you made to get there. I find I’m also more willing to explore solo, and make sure I have time in the itinerary to do so, like when I hiked the Sky Path trail (see above photo).
Whereas the highlight of my adult wanderings has often been discovering new places (like the Sky Path), or meeting new people, the pleasant surprise this time was the joy of watching the next generation and their unadulterated love for one another. Prior to this sojourn, the families had gotten together for Christmases and the occasional few days in the summer at one of our houses, but this was our first extravagant getaway together. They were now old enough to be vibrant social creatures (they were all either just starting, in the middle of, or just leaving elementary school), which was a “sweet spot” for tribe-building.
Family vacation memories are funny things. The flash memory I cherish most from this reunion is captured in the above photo, deceptive in its simplicity. There was a koi pond, conveniently situated just outside of the main entrance to the resort rooms. Your typical array of orange and white, pink and white, yellowish white — and then there was this one deep onyx (practically blue in its blackness) that captured everyone’s attention and affection and quickly earned the name “Ninja Fish”. It was only a matter of time before they made up a song about this gorgeous creature (set to the tune of Oh Christmas Tree), which became a theme song for the rest of our stay, all five munchkins singing and swaying together in Christmas Carol homage:
Oh ninja fish Oh ninja fish How lovely are thy fins ...
When we get together now, despite the kids just entering, or in the middle of, or about to exit their teen years, it only takes one of us to start with “Oh ninja fish” for anyone else in earshot to chime in, almost in spite of themselves, often without looking up from what they’re doing. And when that happens, it feels like family.
It’s been 8 years since my last visit. I have a long list of locations I’ve never been that I’ve been trying to work through instead, the proverbial “bucket list”.
Yet anytime I talk about my travel wish list for a long enough period, the inevitable “come back soon” section will make an appearance. Kyoto, Japan and Dingle, Ireland being the clear frontrunners. Then eventually, these flash memories of Mohonk come into view, gently, without warning, without presumption, and nudge it to the front of the pack.
I am certain I’ll find myself back there again, it’s just a question of when.
Perhaps I’ll see you there.