Em and Stu do America Part 2: The Catskills and Woodstock

An overnight Amtrak out of Chicago was the first leg of a 24-hour journey to reach upstate New York for a week in a Catskills hotel, courtesy of Mum!

The idyllic Catskills.

The idyllic Catskills.

It ran so late we nearly missed our connecting bus from Syracuse to Binghamton but we dashed on to the Greyhound as it rumbled into life in time to discover afresh how lovely Americans can be.

The bus was packed by the time we piled on but “JD” noticed the whites of our eyes rolling in panic deduced we were together and moved seats so we could sit beside each other. As our heartbeats slowed he told us he was a professional tour guide. He then dispensed a pile of professional advice on our route and transport selections before going to sleep, whereupon we gaped out at the increasingly dramatic mountains.

On the next bus, from Binghamton to Monticello, driver Brad regaled us with tales of his beautiful and entrepreneurial Brazilian second wife, who is setting up a lucrative food business from their backyard to his general bemusement, and with facts about the surrounding, impossibly green maple forests, and the Delaware River glittering far below the windows. 

We saw hours and hours of this.

We saw hours and hours of this.

The Catskills, he said, were in their heyday akin to The Hamptons, a holiday destination for the rich and famous, including the Rockefellers. Now, we have found, they are targeted by the Italians and blue-rinses who choose Villa Roma for its odd cruise-ship-on-land feel and Roman theme, complete with Caesar night in which the Director dresses up and rides a chariot around. Yep.

On the final bus from Monticello to the resort, which we staggered on to exhausted and smelly, driver Eric regaled us with stories of his two little boys who he teaches to ward off bullies, to greet and farewell every house guest politely and never to say “I can’t” but rather to say “I need help”.

He pointed out scenery and told us that very close to the resort lay the site of the original 1969 Woodstock festival, now home to a monument and museum.

Bethel Woods Centre for the Arts’ Woodstock museum.

We lost no time in going and learned amazing details about the organisation of the festival itself, how it came at a pivotal moment in the decade of upheaval that was the 1960s, and about the performers and their performances there. Richie Havens’ iconic Freedom was improvised on the spot while he was trying to keep the impatient crowd happy as the opening of the festival was delayed. Hendrix’s spine-chilling rendition of Star-Spangled Banner was full of sonic improvisations reflecting the sounds of the Vietnam War using feedback from the instruments. 

We walked to the site itself, setting off down the deserted street picturing what it was like when half a million pilgrims did the same nearly 50 years ago, abandoning the impossible gridlock to complete their journeys on foot.

Taken from the stage area – a peace sign mowed into the grass in the background, mirrored by the peace signs pilgrims have made from rocks in the foreground.

There is now a a peace sign mowed into the lawn overlooking the slight rise upon which was built the stage where Baez, Joplin, Hendrix and Santana made history. We sat on the stage, feeling squashed by the bigness of it all, and ate our sandwiches (also squashed).

We then walked to the lake in which all the Woodstockers skinny-dipped and washed mud off themselves and their clothes. We looked at its quiet expanse and understood something of why one of the festival attendees said, in the museum’s videos, that bathing here, surrounded by so much love and joy, had felt like a kind of rebirth.

Filippini’s Pond, where the concertgoers bathed.

Walking back up, we greeted the very same guy, Duke, recognising his impressive beard from the video. He had gone to the festival as a young man then got odd jobs in the area afterwards. He just never left. Eventually he served as site interpreter for the museum before retiring.He now still hung around there because, he said, the site held such a strong pull for him.

Along with an hour’s horse-riding in the Callicoon forest I treated myself to and a hike we went on with awe-inspiring views, Woodstock was the week’s highlight. The four hours or so we spent poring over it all were a counterpoint to the generally entertaining but sometimes disturbing business of observing rich old people whose lives were generally dedicated to golf and making loud phone calls.

We were going to Woodstock. They were going to the casino.

ALL NEW!!! By popular demand, StuMo gets his own segment:


I did proof read and offer some suggestions for Part 1: Chicago, but from now on will be writing a section of my own.  Here are some dot points to add to the previous post:

  • Tipping is something I will never fully appreciate.
  • WiFi does not always = Netflix. Stoopid red circle.
  • Citibank US and Citibank AU are completely separate entities with separate databases and contact info. Totally different banks, people.
  • Beer on tap is more expensive than bottled beer –> hello Budweiser my new friend.
  • “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!” is prolly not the best choice of shirt to travel in.
  • Keep right applies to foot traffic as well. Backwards!

StuMobservations Part 2: Catskills

  • Once again Wifi does not = Netflix… unless you stay up til midnight and are the only person in the entire hotel using the free 1.5Mbps connection speed. (4Mbps was $20US for the week and I was not prepared to pay for the upgrade).
  • Despite multiple attempts at different combinations of speed, inflection and accent, I have yet to successfully order a Budweiser without repeating myself 3 times.
  • Break in any new clothes/shoes prior to travelling.
  • 1 in 5 bean salads are not too bad.
  • Don’t watch a youtube clip of a comedian to see if they are funny before you go see them live, you’ll end up ruining more than half their act for yourself.
  • Saw me some deer and a groundhog.
  • Americans will tell you anything and everything about themselves without prompting.
  • I now see the true value of diet and exercise… or at least where we are headed without it.

Groundhog makes a break for it.

What we’re reading
Em: All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr, 2014 Pulitzer winner; 1992 classic The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron; Pet Sematary, Stephen King; New York literary memoir My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff.
Stu: the first draft of Em’s novel (74% through!) and The Red Queen, Isobelle Carmody.

What we’re listening to
Audiobooks: Stephen King’s IT; Lee Child’s Die Trying; Robert Galbraith’s Career of Evil
Music: Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin.

What we’re watching
Original Twin Peaks series, Archer 


Em and Stu do America Part 1: Chicago

Spoiler alert: we did nothing literary, unless it counts that we visited two libraries in a frantic search for wifi. It was enough for our first leg to come to terms with raging jet lag, culture shock and inevitable but still alarming logistical problems.

Free wifi with a side serve of book-related inspiration at Chicago Public Library.

Free wifi with a side serve of book-related inspiration at Chicago Public Library.

We arrived at 8pm at our AirBnB wondering why the hell the sun was still brightly shining outside. We crept confusedly into the small supermarket opposite our AirBnB. We had just spent 18+ hours on planes and it felt as though the floor was rocking as we walked. We gazed around in terrified wonder, bought a roast chicken with cash, devoured half of it from the plastic tub back in the room, then slept like the dead for 13 hours straight.

The three-day visit was intended to contain things like architectural river cruises and well planned DIY walking tours as well as, obviously, deep dish pizza and hot dogs. Actually, who am I kidding? The priority was the food. And that’s lucky, because while we did locate fantastic food thanks to meticulous pre-planning, we spent the hours intended for tourism locked in libraries frantically phoning banks that mysteriously stopped our debit cards despite us having completed all the necessary steps pre-departure. They reinstated them several days later, after StuMo emailed them in ALL CAPS.

We had neglected another necessary step, though; forgot to give the USA mobile number to our banks before leaving, and being unable to call them and unable to receive that miracle of modern technology, SMS confirmation codes, left us in a panicky pickle.

Free wifi with a side serve of public art at Chicago's West End Public Library.

Free wifi with a side serve of public art at Chicago’s West End Public Library.

Thus, attempting to book what turned out to be outrageously complex public transport options to reach our next destination turned out to be a four-hour nightmare spent in Chicago’s West End public library. Eventually we gave up trying to buy online and I spent 40 minutes on the phone to Amtrak cowering in the library vestibule, wincing at the street sounds and trying not to shout confidential credit card numbers into the phone too loudly. As it was, the automated voice recognition software enthusiastically picked up the sound of all the much louder Americans also on their phones in the same five-foot-square space. If you’re wondering why we didn’t get an AirBnB with wifi, we had – it just turned out to be not-as-advertised.

We headed downtown for deep dish pizza in a state of nervous collapse but the deep dish fixed everything, though the shock of the burgeoning realisation that we are privileged young adults with no conception of what it is like to have to do anything without the help of delicious free flowing Data Coverage remains and will take some time to adjust to.

IT'S OK, WE HAVE PIZZA. The deep dish marvel at Gino's on La Salle.

IT’S OK, WE HAVE PIZZA. Deep dish heaven at Gino’s on La Salle.

While problems such as these reduced our time in Chicago and we didn’t manage any river cruises or get to properly plan our DIY walking tours, we still managed to get around, doing hours of walking around the city and river both to save cash and take in the sights as best we could while rationing our Google Maps and general staring at phones.

We were staggered by the scale and grandeur of the buildings in this city, the largest either of us has ever seen, and it was StuMo’s job to keep an eye on my dangling handbag and keep me crossing streets at the appropriate time as I goggled amazedly upwards, freely pointing at and photographing everything, blithely uncaring of the tourist spectacle I was making of myself.

Beside gazing at Chicago’s stunning architecture we obviously visited the magic Bean, sorry, the Cloud Gate public art piece that draws crowds every day, and explored the Millennium Park that surrounds it, down to the beautiful shoreline of Lake Michigan.

Cloud Gate at Millennium Park

Cloud Gate at Millennium Park

We were taken aback by First Contact with the aliens themselves, by which I mean the American people, who are not only “just like on TV”, as we whispered to each other, but somehow bigger and louder and madder and more colourful versions of the stereotypes we had assumed until now were only stereotypes. And not only that but kind, friendly and cheerful in a way I was completely unprepared for, despite having been warned. I don’t mean this to suggest that I had thought Americans would be unfriendly – I had just always thought of Australians as friendly when now, by comparison, they seem incredibly quiet, laid-back and self-conscious. In a line, at the gym, out walking, on the bus, on an elevator – anywhere you can think of that an Australian would keep their eyes on the floor and attempt to pretend they are actually alone in that space, an American will already be smiling and greeting you, if not actually having a conversation with you and trying either to find out your life history or tell you their own.

At Lou Malnati’s Italian restaurant in downtown Chicago, ‘Mike’ heard our Australian accents at the bar as we bought drinks while waiting for a table. He struck up a conversation while he waited for his ‘buddy’ to go and see a band, offered us his spare two tickets for said band, helped us work out the accepted way of tipping the bartender, warned us to order our deep dish while we were waiting and then told us which one to order. When we went to our table and his buddy arrived, he bought us drinks and sent them over.

Merchandise Mart, one of the largest buildings in the world.

Merchandise Mart, one of the largest buildings in the world.

As an Australian, behaviour such as this makes you only suspicious that you have been marooned with a Crazy Person and you frantically plot your escape. But the behaviour of everyone else we had already encountered had prepared us to believe that Mike was actually just a Really Nice Guy like absolutely everyone else. A quick ‘sorry’ to someone you bump in a crowd meets an ‘oh no, you are totally OK!’ Everyone you meet tells you to ‘have a great day’. Waitstaff you are scamming free sachets of mayonnaise off because you are a povo traveller say “oh no, I got ya.”

The highlight of our visit was undoubtedly returning to Millennium Park on Friday night, our last night, for the first headliner of the three-day Chicago Blues Fest, a free three-day concert that draws big names every year.

Nightfall at Millennium Park's main stage.

Nightfall at Millennium Park’s main stage.

We saw the sun go down over the park’s massive amphitheatre and city skyline to the sounds of Billy Branch & the Son of Blues with guests Lurrie Bell, Freddie Dixon, J.W. Williams, Carlos Johnson, Carl Weathersby, Bill McFarland and Chicago Fire Horns and Mae Koen & The Lights. Locals, meanwhile, treated us to impromptu dance performances that ranged from charming to breathtaking. If you have a spare four minutes check out the video at the end – it’s worth it.

Mum, plastic cups of Chardonnay come with lids on. Genius!

The final day we spent much of trying to locate currency exchanges as a safeguard against our stopped cards, ducking into the relative quiet of airconditioned supermarket aisles to escape the sheer cacophony of the streets outside as we spent more time wrangling with banks on the phone.

The blues fest continued to rage inside Millennium Park, audible across the city, competing with countless deafening conversations of passersby and the sounds of young shirtless men stretching the music festival into every street corner, banging out drum solos on upturned buckets with the kind of talent and showmanship you should really pay to see.

A must-do destination, gleaned from Gabriel Iglesias' stand-up, was Portillos' Cake Shake - yep, whole pieces of cake smashed into drink form. I can't believe I ate-drank the whole thing. Totally worth it.

A must-do destination, gleaned from Gabriel Iglesias’ stand-up, was Portillos’ Cake Shake – yep, whole pieces of cake smashed into drink form. I can’t believe I ate-drank the whole thing. Totally worth it.

Later we braved the most insane food-hall scene we have ever seen in the maelstrom of Portillo’s hot dog emporium – an utterly bewildering experience, but the best way ever to close off the night before heading to Union Station to catch the overnight Lake Shore Amtrak east.

As magnificent as the river and architecture were, it was the blues fest and these chance encounters more than anything else that made us feel like we at least managed to glimpse the soul of Chicago.

Postscript: Stu did want to draw more attention to the entertainment reference in this post title by calling it “Emvis and Buttstu do America” but I said no.

What we’re reading
Em: Walden, Henry David Thoreau (seemed appropriate); Closed Casket, the second of the new Hercule Poirot mysteries by Sophie Hannah; Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach.   
Stu: the first draft of Em’s novel (gah!) and The Red Queen, Isobelle Carmody.

What we’re listening to
Audiobook: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)
Music: songs from the 1969 Woodstock Festival, because we’re soon to visit the site!

What we’re watching
Reruns of The Simpsons and Community, smuggled aboard by Stu.