Higher Ground, March 1, 2015
On Valentine’s Weekend, Bo had business in Kingston, New York so I found myself parked at the counter of Dietz Stadium Diner for a little over an hour. It’s a totally American tableau: brown swivel leather seats, booths lining the right and middle sections, the type of place where you can get an egg-and-cream and a solid hamburger, and eventually everyone knows your name. Or at least, your face.
This particular afternoon Kingston is due for a snowstorm and the temperatures are at record breaking lows. (It was only 10 degrees out.) Everyone’s talking about the weather. Ellie, a waitress, the youngest with blonde hair, says that her dogs been howling at the wind. Another fellow, David, who sat to my far left at the counter and ordered without a menu, kept saying that the empty slopes were the big sign: it’s really, really cold. Too cold to ski. Everyone’s shocked at his proclamation. I wonder how close to the mountain he lives, and if his business is the ski business. He shakes a large amount of salt on an iceberg salad and shrugs.
“No one is on the mountain.”
A man plops down right next to me. He’s tall, a little bit of weight at the waist. He cut himself shaving, so a hairline of blood is falling down his face.
“I want an egg sandwich to go, and the lentil bean soup. To go,” the waitress nods and recognizes his immediacy. “And a coffee to take at the counter.”
He turns to me.
“My finance is at home, and I thought it would be smart to pick her up dinner on the way home,” he said. “I wouldn’t want her yelling at me since I’ve been out all day. She’s at the mall, getting her hair done.”
I nodded. “That is smart.”
“You can’t go wrong with the lentil bean soup here,” he said. He starts to down his coffee.
“You’ve got a little blood on your chin,” I say.
“Ah, I cut myself shaving, it’ll work itself out in two hours,” he says. I order a hot chocolate, I need to relax and kill more time since Bo is still occupied.
“Your honey is working hard,” the waitress says, having met him earlier. She hands me the hot chocolate with whipped cream.
“Now, all you need is a nice fireplace,” the man said. He starts to tell me about all the historic spots, where exactly the best fireplaces are. He asks me where I’m from, what I do but doesn’t offer that information in return. He’s driven through Mobile (my hometown) just once.
“But only for like, an hour,” he says. He misses southern food. Biscuits and the like. “My fiance tells me not to try to do a Southern accent because I might offend someone.”
“She might be right,” I say. His sandwich comes and he disappears without saying goodbye. But soon enough another man sits right next to me. He’s in his 80s, wearing a coat with a patch that reads: “Rhinebeck Aero” and an image of a plane in red.
“Are you a pilot?” I ask. He laughs.
“No, just a member of the club.” His name is Eddie. Everyone knows him. He’s seems warm, the way he smiles, no teeth, but with the wrinkles drawing up his face.
“There’s lots to do in Rhinebeck,” he says, mentioning the town just across the river. “If you get a big group together, its more fun.”
The waitress takes his order, a roast beef sandwich. It comes on a plate, smothered in gravy. Not a piece of bread in sight.
“What is this?” he asks. “I ordered the sandwich.”
“Eddie it comes open faced,” the waitress says. Eddie is angered, but finds it funny.
“I don’t have teeth for all this chewin’!” he laughs with me. We get ourselves in a fit of giggles, we can’t stop laughing. “Next time I ought to draw them a picture of what a sandwich looks like. Or have em bring me some bread. I need help over here, all this meat! No teeth anyways. But you know, who needs teeth? I used to have dentures so much trouble. Say, I’d share some with you but I already ate off of it…”
We laugh and the waitress comes up. “How is it Ed?”
He and I look at each other simultaneously, then back at the waitress.
“Chewin!” he says, and we erupt into laughter and she just shakes her head at us.
“It’s so cold out,” he says when the laughter has died down. “you better have your whiskers on! You know, all I hear is old women complaining they have nothing to do and it’s too cold. They ought to go home and turn on the Hawaii chanel and put on a bathing suit. Well…” his voice lowered and he shrugged. “I guess it’s not the same.” The sad tinge of his revelation saddened me too. I wish I could just send him to Hawaii.
The owners of the diner, two men in their 50s sit beside me. They have lots of questions about Bo. They have deep Eastern European accents and big, expressive eyebrow that bounce off their faces. But they aren’t brothers like I thought.
“He must know a lot,” one of them says. “How old is he?”
I tell them Bo’s age. Both of them jump in his seat. “I’m thirty,” I say.
“You both have the face of a baby,” they say.
For another hour I conversed with the patrons and Bo and I waved goodbye to everyone. The business was behind us, and now we could do what we came there for: to have a romantic weekend in Phoenicia. The remainder of the trip played out like a set of tween book titles: “Ariel’s First Mountain” which I saw in the dark. Our driver wound us around every frightening, deep dark road. We went through Woodstock. We never drove downhill once, and the driver cut on the bright lights to see her way. Then the bus stopped in what seemed like the sleepiest stretch of blocks. Phoenicia. Our stop.
Bo and I got out in the snow, 9 degrees fahrenheit, and walked to our Bed and Breakfast for the night, the Phoenicia Belle. In the portion titled: “Ariel’s First B&B” we entered an old 1875 house and met the proprietor who took us up the stairs to our room, The Sparrow Room. It was beautifully decorated with pictures of birds. Another couple staying in the hotel were watching TV in the B&B’s lounge, a room in red velvet, a fireplace roaring. It was exactly to my liking.
Bo’s friend runs a retreat center in Phoenicia, so he joined us for dinner in town. He picked Peek-A-Moose, a sort of cabin-in-the-woods themed spot. Moose and deer heads covered the tiny dining room and wooden decor. In the dark we stood around a fire roasting marshmallows, and on our walk to the car, I grabbed Bo’s arm, “You can see the stars out here.”
The mountains and the little mountain town were so quiet that we slept easily and well. The B&B proprietor made us breakfast in the lounge: Organic granola, fresh vanilla yogurt, fruits, toast and coffee. It was a painful -7 degrees when we woke up, but we tried to ignore it.
Bo’s friend met us again, this time at the local cafe, and drove us even higher into the mountains for a tour of his retreat center. We crossed a bridge of a stream that hadn’t frozen, and then hit dirt roads. “The retreat center is in a valley between two mountains,” Bo’s friend explained. The center was on a mile stretch of land, an arrangement of hotel cabins and spiritual centers, spas and a seasonal pool. We parked and went walking. The snow was about a foot deep and walking through it exercise in itself. Bo and I spotted a family of deer, paused in the meditation room, and then walked a bit further to see the conference center. There we met a man named Alexander, who stopped strumming his banjo to give us the full tour.
The "wilderness" (insert a pause for a sigh) is more unknown to me than the density of New York City. It really felt like Bo and I were “far out”. I liked the isolation. We couldn’t hear a sound besides our voices echoing up the valley and the crunch of the snow. The trees were thick enough to cover the houses far away, but one could see the intermittent smoke from a chimney.
Sun was setting when we took the bus back to New York City. Everything was like a picture from a postcard, the houses were all set far apart under snow laden trees and lakes. The front doors were barred with long icicles.
“It’s like Currier and Ives,” I told Bo, “Or better.”