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Amid the wedding-planning mayhem this summer we took a long July 4 weekend to camp in the Catskills — specifically, Devil’s Tombstone. It wasn’t easy to find a relatively last-minute place to pitch a tent on a holiday weekend.

Getting there was an adventure. M. got stuck in Albany for work — with the car. I was in Brooklyn — with all the gear. So I overstuffed my pack and, leaning precariously on Subway train walls and poles, made my way to Grand Central to catch the Metro North to Poughkeepsie. Me with hiking clothes, crazy stuffed Osprey with boots and sleeping bags dangling off, and a train full of Manhattanites with lap-dogs bound for Catskill summer homes.

M. borrowed from friends in Albany what I couldn’t carry on the train, and picked me up at the station.

We rolled into the campground right at 9 p.m., right when the park office closes.
But the duo who run the campground stay open an extra 15 minutes on summer weekends just in case city-folk like us get stuck in traffic, or some such.

The guy running the place was rugged and muscular, with about 20 years on us and looking like he could still out-outdoors us in every way. Our campsite was on a small clearing overlooking the road, surrounded by trees — and no light. Knowing we’d have to set-up in the dark, he came to check on us. He couldn’t have been nicer. The tent couldn’t have been more uncooperative. (A lesson we know well, but clearly needed to relearn — kids, never attempt to set up a new tent for the first time in the dark.)

We gave up and slept in the car. Our Mountain Man friend was clearly disappointed in us, but we were far too tired to care. We know from experience that us plus dog fit very comfortably with the seats down.

Day dawned, and we explored. Devil’s Tombstone is a small, primitive campground, with a bathroom and not much else. But it was quit, blissfully so. No electricity meant no RVs, or radios, or much other noise but the occasional (very, very occasional) car on the road below.

Because it’s so small, state parks and rec granted us access to the massive North-South Lake Campground — as noisy and packed as our campground was serene. We strolled around the lakes on the Loop trail. Sirus, lured by a passel of ducks, actually swam.

A map of the area from the NSL office showed a more rugged route starting just before the formal park entrance, and so we had a second-day adventure along the Catskill Escarpment above Kaaterskill Clove.

(We thought about hiking up to the popular Kaaterskill Falls — I had never been. But the weekend crowds dodging traffic to the trail entrance quickly dissuaded us. On the escarpment trail, we met perhaps a handful of people.)

The trail took us up up up, around the backside of a small peak, and to the front again. Rain had come hard that week, so while the sun broke for us, the footing remained muddy. This isn’t a trail for the unsure of foot, and frankly, I’m not sure I’d tackle it again with the dog. On the far side, the trail narrowed precipitously with a steep drop to our right, nothing but a few scant inches of grass between my right pinky toe and things I’d rather not think about.  Sirus kept wanted to pass to our right. I yelled at her more than I should have, out of nervousness.

Our payoff — two overlooks, slightly cleared openings around granite outcroppings, with views to Connecticut and down the Hudson Valley.

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We fled the city for the Great Sacandaga Lake this weekend. Funny thing about camping, though – kinda hard when you forget the tent. Thankfully the new car, aka the Multibeast (it’s apparently a Phish thing, it’s not my car, don’t ask me) fits two and a dog with the seats down.

Our first order of camping business – two camp chairs, a book (me), the NYT (him), and nothing to do otherwise but nap. It was a lovely few hours. We roused ourselves to walk the lake front with the pup and finagled a canoe for a bit. Sadly, it seems the Great Green Grill has passed on to camper heaven – a leak was sprung, and all we could do was mourn and try cooking over a fire. Note to self: broccoli and fake chicken strips do not fireplace food make.

We snagged fishing gear, and the next morning a canoe, but sadly no fish. Pup had her first jaunt on the water, and thankfully was so nervous she stood stock still. Mostly. Except for the times she tried to put her nose in our laps as we paddled. Which was about as successful as one could imagine.

We stayed at the Northampton Beach DEC campground (a moment of appreciation here for the Brady Bunch-era photos on the site – nice trunks!) Many people brought bikes and that seemed like a swell idea . It really is a beautiful Adirondack lake, although not really, since it’s a man-made reservoir. But the views of trees and mountains all around are lovely, no matter who created the water. From Albany, you either drive to north to Amsterdam and cut right, or to Saratoga and cut left (literally – you drive to the heart of town and turn at the Starbucks). A friend has a family camp on the northern end, and I’m crossing my fingers I’ll get to go later this summer.

PS If you drive the Saratoga route, there’s the greatest general store ever on the way to the lake. Sorry, I don’t remember the name. I love it because of the cheese and the cranky lady behind the counter. She sells all of the old-fashioned candy my parents sent me at sleep away camp – but she hates children. It’s highly entertaining. She makes her own cheese so good she limits the packages you can buy on a single trip. She’s got a wheel of it on the counter she cuts to order, covered with a lid attached to string, a pulley and a water-filled milk bottle so delicately balanced a drop would change it. It’s a fascinating bit of physics. If she doesn’t yell at you for standing there staring at her for too long.

My mother’s friend Dana has very specific tastes. She lives two and a half hours from Baltimore and DC, and refused to stop at any but a handful of specific gas stations whose bathrooms were deemed acceptable, or at least not quite as bad as the rest of ’em. This is how I became, at a young age, a pit stop snob.

Cleanliness doesn’t bother me. I want food not involving a bun, strong coffee and easy in, easy out. Hard to find all three at once, but I try. We all need goals.

The rules:

1. Any stop without gas is pointless.

2. The Ulster rest stop is exactly as far as I can go if I have a morning coffee in Albany before leaving. They have a lovely summer farmer’s mini-market come June.

3. The Plattekill rest stop is exactly as far as I can go if I have a morning coffee in Brooklyn before leaving. They have hands-down the best food stop on either stretch, a Cafe with a full bakery spread, sandwiches, surprisingly large salads and very thin crust personal pizzas. I haven’t tried the latter, but they look really good, which isn’t something one often says about rest stop food.

4. The Modena rest stop on the other side has a dangerously leaky roof (car-sized puddles so big I wondered if a roof that porous would stay up long). However, the bathrooms on the second floor are only a few feet from the top of the parking deck, the quickest pit stop by far. Very important.

5. The Thruway Web site is no help. Though they do point out a Denny’s in Angola near the PA line I-90, which makes me jealous.

Orioles

In two weeks I’m taking Michael to his first game at Camden Yards.

I miss my home stadium, even if Maryland hasn’t been my address for a decade now. I’m spoiled – the good kosher hotdogs, Boog’s BBQ, the seventh inning minion under the stairs, the kids atop the dugout spelling O-R-I-O-L-E-S like it’s Y-M-C-A. Most of the them weren’t even born when the original drunken blue-collar fan started that in old Memorial Stadium, but that’s ok. That’s what baseball is all about – random traditions that mean everything to fans and just look really, really weird to everyone else, which just makes the first bunch feel even more superior. Sports really are like religion.

Which is why Michael and I get such looks when we do baseball. He wear his Yankees shirt, I sport an O’s cap.

When we first started dating, he asked if my parents would mind that his father wasn’t Jewish. Oh, but there’s a bigger issue: he’s a Yankees fan.

He laughed.

I wasn’t kidding.

Growing up, my parents let us skip school for two reasons: Jewish holidays and Orioles tickets.

In Cooperstown last year for the Hall of Fame exhibition game – O’s vs Jays, in honor of Cal – we saw a couple who had maybe 40 years on us. She was Baltimore from the brim of her black and orange hat to her golden necklace charm of a bird and bat. He wore blue pinstripes. We ran up to them,  excused ourselves and asked them the secret of their success. They just smiled the knowing smile of a couple who had worked out the kinks decades ago.
In Yankee Stadium people stop us and ask, “Seriously?,” or “How does that work?,” or my favorite, “How do you put up with him?” My answer: He buys me tickets to all the Orioles games and doesn’t shush me when my guys are up. That’s love.

Now my father, who I only really talk to during baseball season, sends me emails and text messages to pass on to Michael teasing him about Orioles’ wins or New York losses. I guess he’s in. We’ll see how it goes, everyone side by side, popcorn and beer in hand, on my home turf, in our shiny green seats – and Michael in his pinstripes. The boys on the field may not have rings, but the green field and brick wall of my childhood turf always gleam – even with a bit of blue.

I’m packing. I’m leaving the apartment building that’s been my home for five years for a free townhouse three blocks away. After a few months there, we plan to move to New York City. A new journey begins, and it starts by boxing up my books. Sometimes packing is monotonous, but sometimes a cover made me pause. This time, two – Alexander Hamilton: A Life, by William Stern Randall and The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto.

I don’t read many biographies, but the book came free, and I had long been curious about Hamilton. Turns out he lived in my Albany neighborhood. He married a local girl – I could walk to her family’s mansion (he also cheated with her sister, but I’ll leave that to the book). They lived locally too, with his law practice down the street. He strolled through the space that is now Washington Park. I walk through the park almost daily.

While reading the book I imagining the horses and cravats, the creation of a nation, and my footsteps in theirs. A handful of brownstones in my neighborhood still date to then, same with the layout of streets. I wonder how familiar the city would look to him today. I loved the book because Hamilton is such a brilliant yet tragic American figure. I loved it even more because the book made me a traveler in my own neighborhood, seeing the streets with new eyes. (A caveat: some say Randall stretched the truth too far in this book. Other Hamilton biographies have better reviews. But again, the book was free.).

The Island at the Center of the World
covers the early history of New York City – specifically, the development from New Amsterdam into a world capital through a handful of decisive colonial choices.

The first page placed the author, and the reader, in the state library on Madison Avenue. In good weather I run the giant steps outside the archivists’ offices. The author describes paging through rare documents recently translated from the Old Dutch. From those translations he plucked the story of a rising star in the new Colony and his political battles. It’s an exemplary piece of historical genre writing.

The author sprinkles the book with tidbits that stuck in my head. The young hero bought land to farm north of Manhattan. In the old language a young gentleman is a Jonker. Hence Yonkers, the town immediately north of Manhattan. He describes the rivers that ran through what is now Upper Manhattan and the swamps of the Bronx.

Every time I take the train south to the city I look at the office parks, highways and apartment buildings, and imagine the homesteads that once stood.

This is why I love reading books with such strong senses of place. They offer new contexts for viewing a small slice of the world. It’s why I travel – it’s why I read.

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Top on my weekend getaway list for the Capital Region/New York City has to be the Mohonk Mountain House. My mother stayed there once for a business meeting and raved about it so much that my brother and I gave our parents a night there for their 30th anniversary. We joined them for the day and dinner, and fell in love with the place.

Mohonk is an old-time castle of warm stone and warmer wood, a high-class version of everything cozy and comfortable about a Catskill or Adirondack retreat – but only 20 minutes max from the highway that connects Manhattan to Albany and Montreal. The house sits on a lake, which in turn rests at the base of a cliff. The house has paddle-boats in the summer and Nordic skis in winter. A gazebo offers warm-weather barbecue. Afternoon tea in a massive great room with sofas is a must. A broad veranda with rocking chairs overlooking the lake offers the perfect place to read, knit or chat.

Day passes to the grounds are available, but an even better option is to make a meal reservation. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are gourmet affairs in a cavernous, circular wood-panelled room with picture windows above the Catskills. Dinner has an old-fashioned jacket, tie and skirt dress code. Room stays include meals, but reservations for a single meal, without an overnight stay, include a grounds pass. So while $30 may be an expensive breakfast (rates range up to $61.50 for dinner), the perks are priceless.

The House also offers a lovely afternoon tea with cookies. It’s meant for overnight guests only, but no one asks questions if day guests quietly join in.

I’m sitting in an Albany coffee shop, trying to work, and a family of 10 just invaded on their way down to Mohonk. A woman said their father is treating them and his grandchildren for a Sunday night there in honor of his birthday. Are you listening, mom and dad?