Coming Down the Mountain
We spent the long weekend at the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York. My wife’s family goes every five years and this is my second visit. The place is amazing, not just because of what it evokes, but because it evokes so many things. As the setting for the adaptation of TC Boyle’s The Road to Wellville, it evokes an earlier stage of American empire. And with its endless rows of porches, lounge chairs, and rockers, it’s what I always imagined the Valbella Clinic in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain would look like.
Its conservators have done such a good job of preserving the place that being in it today still carries a tinge of otherworldliness, like Mann’s Mountain or perhaps Kubrick’s The Shining. Part of it is that it’s just so big. The last time I was overwhelmed by the size and the ambition of a place was when I visited DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, which in the 1930s was thought to be the world’s largest high school, with more than 12,000 students. Mohonk only sleeps 600, but it seems every bit as ambitious, like something Millhauser’s protagonist Martin Dressler might dream then build.
I can’t quite put my finger on what, exactly, this feeling is about. We still have gigantic things—like malls and airports and casinos. And we still have handmade things—like quilts and bookcases and letterpress wedding announcements. But what we no longer often experience are gigantic things that are handmade, and so dwelling in one—even for a long weekend—feels like being transported into a mythical era of American idealism and optimism.