New York - “I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin' about half past dead/I just need some place where I can lay my head.”
So go the opening lines to The Weight, the Band's folky, country-tinged slow burner from its 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink. It's a song I've heard a thousand times, since I first bought the album my sophomore year in college. But never had I identified with that sentiment more than when I pulled into Woodstock, N.Y., this past Labor Day weekend.
For the prior two weeks, I'd been toiling from the predawn hours to well past midnight to clear my schedule. I was hoping to ensure that my four days away from work and first-time fatherhood would be uninterrupted and restful. I was ready to take a load off.
Woodstock was the perfect destination for a little relaxation and rejuvenation. A charming community of artists, aging hippies and agriculturalists, it's a two-hour drive north of New York City.
Though the Woodstock Festival actually took place 60 miles away in Bethel, its namesake town still embraces the festival's freewheeling spirit. Tie-dye isn't uncommon; neither are images of Jerry Garcia or Jimi Hendrix. One bumper sticker I spotted read: “Welcome to Woodstock: Now Leaving the Known Universe.”
Easing up the gravel driveway that hooked in front of the house I'd rented with three friends, I was pleased at the sight of our choice. It was just about two miles off the main downtown drag, tucked away from the main road on a quiet, heavily wooded side street. There was a charming man-made water-lily pond teeming with frogs, a saltwater swimming pool and a sprawling lawn perfect for a game of cornhole or a Frisbee toss.
The century-old two-story stone cottage boasted white accents and a pair of weather-pocked concrete lions on either side of the front steps. Another leonine face peered from the front door in the form of a heavy knocker. Designed by architect Myron Teller, the house was built in 1917 for noted painters Caroline Speare Rohland and her husband, Paul. The couple originally used the high-ceilinged room with exposed beams at the northern end of the cottage as a studio, but it has been converted into a second living room.
A small writing desk tucked into a corner gave me pause. On the wall above it was a Woodstock poster and a vertical row of three framed records - The Best Of The Band; the Band's eponymous second album; and Bob Dylan's 1974 LP, Planet Waves, which features the Band playing backup.
These albums are a nod to the property's real noteworthiness, which began in the 1960s, when it was purchased by über-manager Albert Grossman. He handled a high-profile roster, including Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and the Band, all of whom used the place as a crash pad when they were in town. In my first-floor bedroom, there were several framed black-and-white photos of the Band, which looked to have been taken out on the side lawn.
The house was later taken over by the Band's guitarist, Robbie Robertson, and his wife, Dominique Bourgeois, but they no longer live there. Though the house is officially known as Goodbrooks, I found out when we went into town later that day that locals simply refer to it as “the Robertson House.”
Conversations would go something like this:
“So, you're from out of town. Where are you staying?” a clerk or server would ask.
“We're over on Speare Road in the stone cottage,” one of us would answer.
The questioner's face would light up with a fond smile. “Ah, yes, the Robertson House.”
After a walk through town, we picked up New York strip steaks and ears of fresh local corn at Woodstock Meats. When dusk fell, we cooked dinner on the outdoor stone grill, dressing the meat simply with salt, pepper and a couple of pats of Kerrygold Irish butter. The corn got similar treatment. Both were simple and satisfying.
The next morning, after some long-overdue sleep, I saw a quartet of wild turkeys ambling through the back yard along the tree line. A little later, someone spotted a pair of deer grazing off in the distance behind a tangle of foliage.
We sought out breakfast at Sunfrost Farms, a short walk from the house. The nursery/produce market/cafe offers a menu of morning favourites, fresh pressed juices, salads, sandwiches and smoothies, including the invigorating Iced Coffee Caribe - iced coffee blended with banana, half-and-half and a liberal dose of maple syrup.
Later that day, we strolled through Mower's Saturday Market, an outdoor gathering of artisans, antiques dealers and bric-a-brac salesmen. The offerings were eclectic. One booth was selling a pipe-smoking garden gnome painted to look like a skeleton, replete with a bright red pointed hat and a harlequin green jacket; another had a taxidermied eagle on display. I bought neither, though the gnome tempted me.
In the mood for New York-style slice, we grabbed a table in the backroom at Catskill Mountain Pizza Co. that evening. Plenty of beers on tap helped wash down two large pizzas spangled with fresh produce, including basil that I saw one of the chefs plucking from the small herb garden out front.
Back at the house, we lounged in the pool, played plenty of poker on the covered back porch and set up a giant inflatable screen on the lawn to watch the 1984 sci-fi epic Dune in all its grandiose glory. I even managed to squeeze in a few writing sessions at the desk surrounded by Band albums. I'm not sure whether it was the spirit of the house or the time spent with friends, but every time I sat down I found inspiration coming easily.
The day before we left, I stopped at the impossible-to-resist Peace, Love and Cupcakes. Set back on the main drag of Tinker Street, the compact shop showcases a series of handheld treats that take their names from '60s icons. Two are nods to our homestead's former owner: the Band (strawberry cake and frosting) and the Big Pink (strawberry cake with strawberry cream cheese frosting).
However, it was the triple-shot espresso-cake Jimi Hendrix with mocha buttercream and the lemon-times-two Santana that ultimately made it into the carryout box. The fetching pastries were slightly the worse for wear — the icing sliding off sideways — by the time we enjoyed them that afternoon, but that didn't matter. They were the perfect sweet reward to bookend a restful jag in Woodstock.
As I pulled out of town on Monday morning, another Band lyric, this one from “The Rumor,” the closing track to “Stage Fright,” came to mind: Open up your arms and feel the good/It's a'comin', a brand-new day.
The weight had definitely been lifted.
* Martell is the co-author of The Founding Farmers Cookbook (Andrews McMeel, October).
WHERE TO STAY
75 Speare Rd.
Historic turn-of-the-20th-century stone cottage nestled in the woodlands outside town. From $375 (about R4 000) a night for up to eight people.
The Woodstock Inn on the Millstream
48 Tannery Brook Rd.
Charming B&B with colorful gardens right off the main drag. Rooms from $137.
WHERE TO EAT
217 Tinker St.
Fresh sandwiches, salads and smoothies with loads of vegetarian options. Entrees start at $5.95.
Catskill Mountain Pizza Co.
51 Mill Hill Rd.
New York-style pizza, Italian favourites and beers aplenty. Pizzas start at $10.80.
Peace, Love and Cupcakes
54F Tinker St.
Sweet treats with hippie-fied names. Cupcakes are $3.01 each.
WHAT TO DO
Mower's Saturday/Sunday Flea Market
Maple Lane, Woodstock
Handicrafts and secondhand goods abound at this outdoor market. Saturdays and Sundays from about 8am until 4:30pm starting the weekend before Memorial Day and lasting through the end of November. Weather permitting. Free.
www.woodstockchamber.com - The Washington Post