Of Fire and Ice

We don’t stop enough.  Something about the power of having infinite info at our fingertips and free 2-day shipping created the overwhelming need to keep on moving.  The funny thing is that you don’t notice how distressing it has become until you’re forced to stop. Usually that stoppage comes at a cost — injury, loss, or extreme distress — but when it happens by choice, it becomes an exceptional, life-altering reward.

On Friday afternoon,  I drove out from Guardian Adventures to the Spillian Estate for a weekend of Fire and Ice.  There’s something wonderful about a long, solo drive. With ample time to think, and no need to justify the occasional distraction, it’s an ideal way to decompress.

The westward drive was expansive.  As Boston retreated into the distance, the world got larger.  Mountains grew all around me, and somehow the sky got bigger.  Slowly, the stresses of work and life got further away.

Exiting the New York Thruway, it’s another 40 minutes until you reach Spillian.  Winding roads take you past cheese shops, antique barns, and a surprising number of breweries and taprooms.  Rustic farmhouses have chimneys puffing smoke from their fireplaces. Their woodsy smoke combines with the mountain air, and your inner environmentalist reaches the surface.  Why can’t the air at home be like this? You start, even from behind the steering wheel, to feel healthier.

Upon entering the town of Fleischmanns, you turn off the main road onto the Spillian property.  The access road winds up the hillside with two small curves before the estate reveals itself above you.  There’s a wonderful warm light — inviting in every way — that shines through the windows. It’s not that you want to go inside, you need to;  that warm glow is positively intoxicating.

Entering through the main door, your first sight is the fireplace.  Coming in from the cold, you’re drawn to it. It’s a primal need and one that Spillian graciously indulges.  Once you get past the fireplace, and it takes a few minutes, you notice the rest of your surroundings. The estate, built in 1888, sits somewhere between Victorian splendor and an arts and crafts sensibility.  The decor is exquisitely formal, yet undeniably comfortable. This sets the tone for the entire weekend. We have work to do: deep thought, meditation, experimentation, and exploration. Conveniently, if not karmically, our environment could not be better suited to the tasks at hand.  

Within seconds of my arrival Spilian’s founder, Leigh Melander, greeted me with a warm hug.  The sense of welcomeness was powerful — the fire and hug makes you feel at home, like you belonged there, even though you’d just arrived.  This was going to be an exceptional weekend.

Leigh showed me to my room — the Four Seasons room — where I was thoroughly and gladly distracted by the view.  With a rounded front, like the softened edges of a well-weathered castle, the Catskills were on display through large windows.  And, magically, the sun was just starting to set across the tops of the mountains. If the weekend ended right there, I’d still feel totally fulfilled.  But there was still so much more to come…

Staying at a hotel is ultimately a solitary experience.  You’re in your room, or you’re elsewhere, but there’s not much of a communal aspect to things.  Spillian is different. The focus on community is immediately apparent. Meals are served family style with an understated elegance hiding the tremendous effort and ability that went into their preparation.  

Over delicious cheese and chocolate fondues, stories were shared.  It was a great evening with friends who you felt as if you’d known for far longer than just the few hours you actually were.  Leigh offered magic wish paper to each of us. The instructions were simple: write your wish, roll it up, and light it on fire.  The flaming wish will then ascend skyward toward actuality.

With our wishes cast to the heavens, the first night was concluded.  

Day two started with apprehension.  It was hike day. Truth be told, I’m not much of an outdoorsy type.  I like nature in small doses — the occasional campfire, dining al fresco, and the yearly trip to the apple orchard.  But once there’s snow on the ground, or you have to dress in layers, you lose me.  I’m more of cocoa by the fire type guy than a trek into the wilderness type.  

With all that said, I’m at Spillian and have become cocooned within, and bolstered by,  this supportive, welcoming community. We’re here to explore fire and ice, so having sat by the fire, I feel obligated to experience the ice.  The hike awaits…

My first hike was in 1989 — Mt Monadnock.  Four miles. Low impact, or perhaps it seemed that was because I was in high school.  

My second hike was in 2003 outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Five miles through jungle and rice paddies in 106 degree weather with 200% (or so it felt…) humidity leading to an amazing waterfall.  At one point during the hike, our guide (all of 15 years old) was concerned about my less-than-stellar pace along the trail.  He offered to send for an elephant to come transport me back to the lodge. Somehow, and with slight delirium, I made it through — and slept 16 hours through most of that night and the next day.

Now I was about to embark on my third hike:  Balsam Lake Mountain Fire Tower. 3500 foot elevation, and 6 miles in length.  And it was raining.

I noticed that none of the others in our hiking expedition exhibited even the slightest amount of trepidation.  This, I surmised, was a good sign. If they’re not concerned, I shouldn’t be either. At the base of the trail, our guide offered me a pair of hiking gaiters.  Apparently “real” hikers don’t hike in jeans. Rookie mistake, I guess…

Gaiters applied, we began our ascent.  At first, it wasn’t that difficult. I huffed a little, puffed a bit, but I was getting up the mountain.  My feeling of “gee, this won’t be so tough” dissipated somewhere around the 2 mile mark. Suddenly we went from wet ground, rocks, and mud to sheets of ice.  If you looked closely, you could see running water under the ice. It looked, to my less-than-confident and vastly inexperienced eyes, like an invitation for disaster.  

Right as my sense of dread was shifting into high gear, Will (our guide) broke out the crampons — metal cleats that fit over your hiking shoes and provided (magical) traction on the ice and snow.  Confidence (if not energy) fully restored, our trek continued.

Going up the mountain, you find yourself becoming wrapped up in … nature.  There’s no road, no powerlines, no city sounds. Just a lot of … nature. If I was walking around the city, I might have headphones on — blocking out the sounds and avoiding any contact or interaction with everything around me.  Now though, I reveled in the simple sounds around me: running water, the crush of my shoes against the snow and ice. The occasional sounds of branches breaking, or wind blowing through. It was calming, centering, and most importantly it was affirming.  

Nearly three hours into the hike, we reached the fire tower.  The sense of personal victory was overwhelming.I overcame the elements.  I climbed a mountain!  A real mountain!   

My reward for the effort was a bowl of roasted red pepper and tomato soup.  At that moment it was the best meal I’d ever had. Hot soup on the mountain top during a cold, rainy day is bliss.  

My bliss, however, was short-lived:   Unfortunately he who goes up must also go back down.  No elephant, gondola, or limousine was waiting to escort me off the mountain.   And so began the descent.

For the uninitiated, it takes certain leg muscles to hike uphill.  It takes different muscles to hike downhill. I know this for certain since the muscles that didn’t ache on the way up, were becoming sore by the second on the way down.  

Another lesson learned:  gravity is your friend. Going down the mountain took far less time than climbing up.  But when you look ahead of you, and the ground slopes downward, and all you see is a giant sheet of ice, well, it makes you consider many things.  Every step was a judgment call. I considered where I placed my feet and what angle to walk at. Moving downhill sideways was often more steadying than trying to walk forward.  

Upon turning 40, a friend told me that the only difference was that now I was able to hurt myself without actually doing anything.  Prior to reaching this milestone, I’d never broken a bone and never spent time in the hospital. As I gingerly navigated my way down the mountain, I remembered 2017’s broken foot.  I dwelled on 2016’s fractured ribs, and chastised myself for even considering the hike as I imagined what might happen over the next 3 miles.

The more I thought about all of this, the less I realized how far along the hike I was.  The distraction was helpful as Will announced that there was just a little over a mile to go.  And by the way, would we want to stop at a distillery on the way back to Spillian.

Suddenly life had a purpose.  I found my reason to go on. The pain in my legs was getting to the point of being unbearable.  I would generally take about 50 paces, then stop for a minute. But again the distractions of how I would come to an untimely end coupled with the promise of a craft distillery, pulled me through.  

Then, there in the distance, I saw the road … and beyond it … the car!!!  I made it off the mountain! I didn’t end up in an ambulance! I overcame the elements, not to mention my own lack of confidence and/or fitness.  The sense of accomplishment was intense. While physically exhausted, I was emotionally exhilarated. In all honesty, nothing I had accomplished to that point matched the feelings I had in that moment.  Man vs Nature, and (this) Man won!

A quick stop at the distillery yielded a little (what I referred to as…) Catskills moonshine — a maple based liquor that falls somewhere between bourbon and rum.  Two bottles made a perfect reward for my mountaineering success.

Back at Spillian, Leigh again greeted us upon arrival.  One quick look at the three of us — cold, wet and exhausted — and she recommended a hot bath.  Each of our rooms featured giant clawfoot bathtubs which, when filled with hot, steamy water, eased my aching legs, back, and well, everywhere else.  

Andy Warhol once said, ““When I got my first television set, I stopped caring so much about having close relationships.”  While the rooms are lush and sumptuous, there are no tv’s to be found. Leigh said it was a conscious choice, and it’s one that makes absolute sense.  As someone inclined to just pop on the tv and zone out, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it wasn’t missed. There were books to read, and the view out every window surpassed anything on HBO.  Television pulls you away from the world around you — which is fine — but who’d want to be pulled away from Spillian?  I found myself developing a relationship with Spillian — every detail was a discovery.  The art and furniture and comfort in these surroundings was such a profound and gratifying experience.  

I work in an office.  Fluorescent lights are everywhere.  They’re terrible as much as they’re unavoidable.  Odds are you don’t have them in your home. At Spillian, lighting is a vehicle of expression as well as feast of color.  As I explored the estate, I was caught up in the number of stained glass and art glass lamps that filled the rooms. Each one provided a soft, diffused light that (like so much of Spillian) was warm and inviting, not to mention absolutely beautiful.  The lighting defined areas and created spaces for conversation and contemplation.

[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”10″ display=”basic_thumbnail”]But enough of that … it was time to feast!

Perhaps the centerpiece of the weekend was the Saturday evening dinner.  Seated at Spillian’s enormous dining table — replete with chandeliers and a candelabra — we dined like kings.  From a savory amouse bouche to start to a salad with locally produced goat cheese from Two Stones farm (the most amazing thing I’ve ever tasted…) and crispy leeks, to venison (who knew I’d like venison?!) in a brandy and rose hips jus, to fresh trout that was swimming earlier that day, it was overwhelming in all of the most wonderful ways.  The creme anglaise ice cream for dessert was a decadent conclusion to the meal.

Following dinner, the conversation flowed freely — stories of hikes past, the eccentricities of the Catskills community, of personal experiences, and shared triumphs.  It was a community of friends — some of whom, again, had known each other for barely 24 hours.

The conversation continued on into the night, but alas, the evening’s food and libation coupled with lingering exhaustion from our mountain expedition, caused me to say good night rather early.

Sunday morning came a bit earlier than I expected.  Normally this would be a disappointment, but in the Spillian environment you welcome time alone with your thoughts.  Without feeling bored, you can sit and stare out the window for hours. Outside Spillian is Currier and Ives. And at times, you find yourself conversing with the estate.  The walls can talk. This meditative, explorative state brought me nicely into the morning movement and meditation with Leigh.

As much as I’m not a hiker, I don’t do yoga.  And I’m not much on meditation. I lack the ability of both mind and muscle to relax and float downstream.  But in the spirit of Spillian, why not give it a try?

Leigh encouraged us to breathe in the air around us and feel it travel through our body.  Feel it in your fingertips, your shoulders, through your arms and legs. Carefully, and methodically, Leigh opened us up to our surroundings and in the process unjumbled our thoughts, spread out our minds, and left us feeling open and receptive to the world around us.  For me, in just a few minutes she managed to erase much of the cynicism and weariness that I carried with me into Spillian.

The weekend concluded (as many weekends should) with brunch.  Fluffy pancakes, rich french toast, and bacon (presumably from local pigs…) with fruits and yogurt, granola and honey, and more conversation around Spillian’s great table.  

With the car packed up, I left Spillian.  As I headed down the hill, I noticed a small building that seemed … random.  Pulling over, I hopped out and walked into what turned out to be a mikvah.  Dating from ancient Jewish times, the mikvah was used to become ritually pure by immersing oneself in water.  The water in the mikvah must be derived from a natural source — rivers, lakes, rainwater, and even melted snow. 

Mikvahs, while common in observant Judaism, are not common sites in the modern or everyday world.  There’s hardly one on every corner, or even in every city. Their purpose, cleansing the body and discarding the impure, seemed profound to me as I left Spillian.  

During my three days, I found that in fact I had nurtured and purified my soul.  I discovered a well of confidence I didn’t know existed. I persevered through an experience that I would have normally avoided.  I discovered community. And I brushed off that hard outer layer that comes from being so wrapped up in daily life.

I reveled in my experience at Spillian, and I can’t wait go to back…

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