I WILL BE A WRITER when I grow up.”
I’d found those words messily printed on a stray piece of hotel stationery stashed in my grandmother’s cabinet just after she died. I was 8 when I’d written them in September 1999, the year my mother and I had joined my grandmother at Mohonk Mountain House, just outside New Paltz, N.Y., to celebrate my grandmother’s 75th birthday. We’d stayed in one of the Gilded Age-era resort’s tower rooms overlooking the lake. My mother and I had scrambled to the top of the Labyrinth rock path—40 minutes of climbing up ladders affixed to rock walls and skirting around sheer drops—while my grandmother took her afternoon tea in indulgent simplicity on the lakeside terrace.
I’d developed a childish devotion to the children’s camp counselor, a lanky and dynamic blonde 20-something named Kimberley who took her wards on sloping walks past the stables, into the darkness of the fir-lined trails. The character of Kimberley recurred in several of the two-page-long “novels” I produced that year, embarking on various adventures in perilous forests.
I’d fallen in love with Mohonk then. With its sprawling, seemingly senseless architecture, built between 1879 and 1910, it looked like a mashup of a Neo-Gothic castle, a ski lodge and a garden folly. It was, I remembered, so easy to get lost in the hotel, meandering down Victorian hallways and through wood-paneled lounges to the resort’s 259 rooms.
I framed that piece of paper after my grandmother’s death: kept it on my desk in New York City to remind myself of my childhood self’s fanatical surety. And when, last year, I came close to finishing a novel I’d been working on, on and off, for years, I decided to finish it at Mohonk.
There is a famous line in Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” a book that is as much about memory as it is about Manderley, another sprawling, stately estate. “We can never go back to Manderley again,” the narrator says—we cannot relive the past. And as I took the slow, winding drive up to the house, hairpin-turned and snow-capped, I was also afraid. The Mohonk I remembered was constructed as much of memory as of stone, and with its tinge of nostalgia, melancholy.
But the Mohonk I found last winter was not that Mohonk. Instead, I found a ramshackle, contagious exuberance.
Blithely cheery, its lattice of lounges filled with varying shades of wood and floral carpeting, the mountain house felt less frozen in the 19th century than in the chintzy 1990s. Pastel Victorian china sat on display in the common rooms, alongside sepia photographs of luminaries who had once made this place theirs (John Burroughs, Rutherford B. Hayes, the Old Boys’ Golf Club). Neon Christmas lights were threaded over the fireplaces in every chamber and antechamber. Daytime meals were served buffet-style in the vaulted ski-chalet-style dining room, overlooking the glassy lake. It was midweek; trails and lounges alike were empty, and at times the young, chipper staff—seemingly transplanted from the Catskills set of “Dirty Dancing”—outnumbered the guests. They were buoyant, even to the point of uncanniness. “I missed you in the greenhouse!” one staff member, whom I had never seen before, exclaimed with what seemed like the sincerest consternation when I passed him on the greenhouse path. I was on my way in, he had just left. “It’s like a tropical jungle in there!”
“You smell amazing!” a waitress exclaimed when I sat down to dinner, dashing off before I could ask if she meant my perfume.
Taking lunch, along with a couple of autumnal rye cocktails, at the Carriage Lounge, Mohonk’s casual-dining room, I ended up in simultaneous conversations with two bartenders. One kept insisting I try all the different off-menu wines he liked; the other was intent on sharing her love of sports-cars with me. One of the chefs, Carlos, decided to show off a plate of his latest masterpiece: slabs of maple-glazed bacon. They weren’t yet on the menu, but Carlos was sufficiently excited about his invention to sneak me a few slices at breakfast the next morning.
‘Six stories up, I heard the wind howl savagely until dawn.’
When I made my reservation, I hadn’t specified a room, though I’d offhandedly mentioned the reason for my visit. The room the Mohonk clerk gave me was my grandmother’s, from almost 20 years ago: a six-sided “tower room,” rosily Victorian, with a chaise-longue and a working fireplace. Hotel attendants interceded when my multiple attempts to light the fire failed. Six stories up, I heard the wind howl, magnificently, the sort of wail I had never known existed outside Gothic novels. It would go on, no less savagely, until dawn.
For two days I wrote and I walked. Boots and snowshoes, a necessity for most winter trails, are included in Mohonk’s room rental. All but alone on the trails that sloped around the lake, I walked up the nearly 2.5 mile route to Skytop, a neo-Gothic stone tower as propitious a place for a literary murder as for literary inspiration. Every lakeside bench, every cliffside gazebo I passed had an inscription on it: “Glory to God,” one said; “Beloved Grandfather,” another. My own past was here, of course, but so were those of many strangers.
At sunset on my final night, I walked around the lake’s edge, off the path and knee-deep into snow so fine it didn’t soak me. I got lost and came back well past dark. I had to illuminate the path with my cellphone. In the distance the house was the color of the sky. All I could see were the lights—golden, Gothic—from the tower, the terrace, from so many fireplaces in so many rooms.
I thought again of du Maurier’s Manderley: the house you can never go back to, at the end of the winding road. I had not gone back after all. This Mohonk was not my grandmother’s Mohonk. Instead I fared forward: After I climbed the stairs to my room, I finished the last line of the book I had been working on for years.
THE LOWDOWN // Tucking Into Mohonk Mountain House
In New York’s Hudson Valley, just outside New Paltz, Mohonk Mountain House is an approximately 90-minute drive north from New York City. If you’d rather not drive, buses run frequently between Manhattan’s Port Authority and New Paltz. A taxi to Mohonk costs under $20. Rates for double rooms include a buffet breakfast, afternoon tea and a three-course dinner. In winter, rates also cover rentals of ice-skates, cross-country skis, snowshoes and snow tubes. From $660 a night, mohonk.com
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