AMERICA: BACKWATER AMERICA

GUARDIAN It’s a bargain 29 bucks to escape from the city that never sleeps. The silver Amtrak heaves out of Penn station and hugs the banks of the Hudson river on a spectacular journey north towards Montreal. I wave goodbye to Manhattan, listening to the evocative clanking of a bell and the doleful siren song of the train bouncing across water the colour of Prada tan trousers.

Spring doesn’t crank up until May in upstate New York – and is then likely to bring autumn, winter and summer as well. The barometric kaleidoscope ensures that it’s very much a four-season day and that I have to keep piling on – and then peeling off – the layers.

My first stop is Saugerties – a small place on a big river, postcard-pretty and everything an outsider could want from a traditional American town. The area was bought in 1677 from the local tribe in exchange for a blanket, a roll of cloth, a loaf of bread and a shirt – another bargain of sorts. Old Colonial buildings rumoured to have housed George Washington stand by clapboard houses with shingle roofs and storefronts ripped straight out of a Hopper painting.

It also has a whiff of religion; Christmas wreaths still hang on some doorways and an eccentric habit for half burying bathtubs to create Catholic shrines is endearing. Traditional red barns tucked by the roadside in birch and beech woods look fit to house Baptist congregations. Mercifully, the generic strip malls, Starbucks and Gap that scar a lot of the US have ignored this historic backwater. That’s not to say this American anomaly is packaged and preserved for tourists – it isn’t.

Once home to red necks and blue collars – apple growing, paper mills and lead mining were the staple industries – it’s now a little more sedate, a lot more sleepy and perhaps more gentrified. I love it. As do a slew of city dwellers from NYC who have colonised the area. David Bowie has seen fit to buy up a nearby mountain to build a retreat.

But these aren’t the only types attracted to the foothills of the Catskill range. The area was a moonshiners and smugglers paradise during prohibition and is still a favourite for quiet mafia family weekend breaks.

Of all the guesthouses and small hotels in the area, none are as charismatic as the Saugerties Lighthouse. This was the first lighthouse on the tidal Hudson, built originally in 1834 and reconstructed in 1867. It is now a conservation centre for the local wetlands and museum, with two rooms for paying guests on the first floor. Ask for the smaller bedroom, it has a double aspect facing south down the river and west into the harbour – it’s beautiful, remote and $160 a night for bed and slap-up breakfast in the homely kitchen.

Lazy Sunday mornings are characterised by yard sales, the wail from far-off trains and eggs over easy in any of the many restaurants – the Barclay Heights diner, fluorescent pink and perfect is a favourite. The town also boasts 13 pizza parlours, a figure bizarrely disproportional to the tiny population, unless the local Sicilian blood has something to do with it. Poking through junk and antique shops looking for more bargains (50s kitsch and Americana doesn’t get any better) and checking out the gallery scene is a must. I’d recommend a visit to the Pendulum Gallery at the bottom of Partition Street and the Inquiring Mind at the other end, which was running a superb exhibition of photographs taken by people with impaired sight.

Saugerties is proud of its festivals, playing host to Woodstock 2 and numerous arts and jazz events in the late summer. Intriguingly, they also have festivals devoted to garlic and to mums. I get the epicurean fair, but the maternal fiesta left me somewhat bewildered – as did Secretaries Day, an innovative neo-saints-day celebrated during my stay.

The iconic Woodstock of hippy fame is only 20 minutes away. This town is a prettier version of Saugerties, but perhaps a little too twee. There are still a few hippies who haven’t quite escaped the glory days of mud and LSD and tales abound of those who made fortunes selling bottled beer during that summer of love. The Love gallery outside town – resplendent with yellow submarine – happily trades on the connection.

But Woodstock never really was – the infamous concert was staged in Bethel some 60 miles distant because the local burghers voted against having it on their turf. Too late to change the publicity, the promoters staged the line-up anyway; same name, different venue. People in this town still smoke “pot” – naively, I thought that expression as vintage as Afghan coats and cheesecloth loon pants.

A car is essential in these parts – like it is in most of America. I head further south to the Mohonk Hotel for the afternoon. It has been an institution for the last century-and-a-half, providing a convenient escape for weary New Yorkers. The place is an extravagant example of American/Swiss gothic (not that I was aware such a school existed). The superannuated, overblown chalet provided inspiration for The Shining and was once a haunt for the writers on Saturday Night Live. There are some great walks around the grounds with varying degrees of difficulty and plenty of wildlife to spot.

And it’s while you’re on one of these walks or those meandering along the banks of the Hudson or in the mountains that you might find the last remnants of earlier inhabitants. If you’re very lucky, you’ll pick up a knapped flint arrowhead, the last vestige of the local tribe who sold up so cheaply. These are perhaps the best and most poignant bargains to be found in this atmospheric, charming place.

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