It's late afternoon as I stand overlooking the sloping green field where, more than a third of a century ago this month, perhaps the single most iconographical event of the '60s took place: the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, an Aquarian Exposition.
On this hazy summer day, how-ever, the site of those unforgettable "three days of peace and music" in 1969 is little more than what it had been four weeks before the festival -- an alfalfa field belonging to an unassuming dairy farmer by the name of Max Yasgur, who, simply by donating his land, achieved folk-hero immortality.
But I have to hurry if I want to be in Woodstock for dinner. Yasgur's farm, you see, is in the town of Bethel, 50 miles from the artistic Catskill Mountain community whose name will forever be synonymous with the high-water mark of rock music, the anti-war movement (that's the Vietnam War) and the dearly eulogized -- but still not completely departed -- Woodstock Nation.
And therein lies a 34-year-old tale of mistaken identity. Tiny Woodstock, where the festival had been conceived and organized, had no place to put the 50,000 anticipated attendees -- much less the nearly 400,000 who eventually showed up -- so the promoters opted for Wallkill, in southern Ulster County.
But a month before the show, Wallkill authorities thought better of what seemed destined to be an invasion rather than an occasion, thus forcing the promoters to scour the countryside in search of a new location.
Despite the confusion, Woodstock -- the town and the state of mind -- are both alive and well, though the local chamber of commerce prefers to characterize the extended township of about 6,000 residents as "A Colony of the Arts." And with the country's highest percentage of professional artists and the fourth highest number of recording studios -- behind New York, Los Angeles and Nashville -- it has a point.
"It's all the extremely talented people who do the hard work and take the enormous risks that are required of being a professional artist that contribute the most to keeping the legend of Woodstock alive," says Jeremy Wilber, a lifelong resident and the current town supervisor, "not those more visible few who come and attach themselves to the community."
But Wilber acknowledges it's the "more visible few" -- those colorful, aging hippies who gravitate here -- that are part of Woodstock's tourist appeal.
Like me, many visitors are interested in reliving their own youthful exuberances and getting a glimpse (generally sobering) of what their lives might have become had they taken the tune-in and drop-out road more traveled then. Or as the popular T-shirt sums it up, the No. 1 Reason for Visiting Woodstock (barely beating out You Can't Afford the Hamptons): Latent Hippy Urges.
Blatant would be more accurate. Tie-dye shirts are everywhere -- as are beads, sandals and all the other sartorial standards of the '60s.
While waiting to check into the Woodstock Inn Friday night, I get an earful of the modern Woodstock when a thirtysomething, earringed and shaved-headed bartender at the Woodstock Lodge tells his lone customer, a sixtysomething Ph.D. in comparative religion (who has come all the way from New Age New Mexico just to hang out for a few days) that in an earlier life he must have been a powerful animal.
The Ph.D. nods and orders another glass of sauvignon blanc.
Cast of characters
Saturday morning breaks misty and cool, and I am soon en route to Woodstock's quaint and picturesque village green to see what's happening. Deer graze in the wooded lots that serve as front yards for the town's new landed aristocracy, and a flock of wild turkeys scurries across the road into the underbrush.
As it turns out, there's not much going on at 7 a.m. The only human shape I encounter belongs to a guy in his sleeping bag on the porch of the 18th-century Dutch Reformed Church, blissfully ignorant of the "no loitering" sign.
I make my way to Bread Alone where the town's early risers come to enjoy their coffee and conversation. Even if I could resist the display case of freshly baked pastries, there is no resisting the handwritten sign on an oversized container: "To Tip is to Love."
Before I have finished my cranberry-walnut scone, Grandpa Woodstock, the town's most conspicuous free spirit, wanders in, clad in several layers of embroidered vests, a flowing Madras print skirt and one of those Mad Hatter felt hats -- an ensemble that looks like it was worn not only at the festival but quite possibly every day since.
Grandpa, whose claim to having attended the original concert is disputed by many and whose colorful presence here dates back only to the '90s, is nonetheless a celebrity of sorts and is warmly received.
Woodstock is full of interesting characters. Some came for the concert and never left. Others, like Ronnye Jai, a painter from Fair Lawn, N.J., and her schoolteacher husband, Alan Shapiro, left after the concert but knew they would eventually return.
"In Woodstock, you're not only free to be whoever you are, but you're accepted for whoever you are," Jai explains. "We knew right away that we would retire up here, but we also knew that actually living here would be much too much fun for our kids."
So the family only visited on weekends until 1994, "when I opened my own gallery named Woodstock Undiscovered. Unfortunately, it stayed that way," Jai says, laughing.
Around town, brightly colored fliers inform me that today is the annual Chokor Day Tibetan Festival. But the festival doesn't begin until 11:30 a.m. So I drive up Meads Mountain Road to the whitewashed and vermilion-trimmed Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery, its rooftop mandala (wheel of life) and two ornamental deer flitting in and out of the morning mist.
I am impressed, not only with the 20-year-old monastery's architectural authenticity but also with its mystical presence.
This is Family Weekend, and the parking lot is full of minivans from throughout the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. In the unpretentious dining hall, a vermilion-robed lama presides over a group of 7- and 8-year-olds busy assembling small cloth prayer books.
Inside the two-story, naturally lighted main temple, a middle-age couple prostrate themselves in front of an 11-foot-tall golden statue of Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha. Colorful silk thangkas (stylized painted pictures) hang from the walls and ceiling, while atop a gilded altar are framed photographs of His Holiness, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, and the local abbot, who is currently in India "giving transmissions and empowerments," I learn later from the monastery's Web site.
As I slide my stocking feet across the well-polished floorboards, the monastery's docent arranges for the lighting of a memorial prayer lamp for a Tibetan man whose family has made the pilgrimage here to honor him. In the smaller meditation chapel in the back, another devotee slowly pivots a Tibetan drum while chanting mantras before forcing a few primordial toots from a polished yak horn.
Early arts center
Woodstock never became the prosperous agricultural community that its 18th-century founders had anticipated. What little arable land there was proved only moderately fertile, and the town settled into a century of only middling prosperity.
Woodstock's cultural and eventual economic renaissance was the doing of Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, a wealthy English Utopian. In 1902, Whitehead bought 1,500 acres of farmland and converted them into a 30-building Arts and Crafts community that he christened Byrdcliffe (a combination of his middle name and that of his wife, Jane Byrd McCall).
When the original flower children first assembled here 100 years ago, however, they could not live in peace, love and understanding, and Byrdcliffe disintegrated after only a few years. But it had permanently established Woodstock as a free-wheeling community receptive to the creative and the avant-garde.
In 1912, the New York Art Student's League established its summer campus here, where it still thrives as the Woodstock School of Art.
And where there are artists, there are bound to be musicians. In 1915, the first Woodstock Art and Performance Festival was held. By the 1930s, the festival had become a yearly tradition, attracting as many as 5,000 people.
When Bob Dylan and The Band set up a recording shop here in 1967, they were merely putting Woodstock back on the music map.
Like their predecessors, the town's current generation of nonconformists likes to hang out on the maple-shaded village green. But they are often outnumbered by the aging hippies who exude a calming aura of wisdom and experience.
On their turf at the western end of the triangular green, Dovid Krafschow, a bearded and beaded staff-carrying seer, has set up his tarot table where a spirited but reverential discussion breaks out over the validity of Sanskrit prophecies.
Nearby, American Indians from the previous evening's dance festival at the Town Hall mingle with Tibetan refugees, discussing everything from cultural alienation to the New York Yankees' pitching prospects.
Grandpa Woodstock, apparently the voice of experience, is discussing the dangers of excessive drug use.
I cross Tannery Brook, where mid-19th-century tanners used hemlock bark to soften deer and cow hides. Occupying the back half of the building that once housed a gristmill is Dharmaware, a shop that offers Buddhist, Hindu and New Age art, literature and countless self-help and personal enlightenment tracts.
Nearby is Not Fade Away, where those feeling out of it in their staid polo shirts or sports-team jerseys can score a multicolor tie-dye swirl and become conspicuously inconspicuous. I am amused by the self-deprecating bumper stickers for sale, including: "My Karma Ran Over Your Dogma" and "Inner Child in Trunk."
Now that the acupuncturists, yoga instructors, massage therapists and aromatherapists have taken over the modest, wood-framed town center, Woodstock's cadre of professional artists has scattered into the surrounding woods.
Potters, glass blowers, sculptors, woodcarvers, photographers and painters by the dozens have set out their creative shingles in front of their home studios. And whether highlighted by shiny new BMWs or vintage Volkswagen vans, yard signs everywhere show that Woodstock's new working class is solidly united in a boycott of the national drug store chain that is threatening to drive their small, local store out of business.
That's the kind of town Woodstock is. It is also the kind of town where trash is put in its proper receptacle, and if it falls out, passers-by stop to replace it.
At the Tibetan fair later that afternoon, held at the Community Center, the guest of honor, Lama Pema Wangdak, sits down next to me and assesses the prospects of Buddhism in his native Tibet, which he hasn't seen since fleeing more than 20 years ago. He is not optimistic. When he excuses himself to prepare for his lecture, I make my way to the playground outside to browse through the make-shift stalls of Tibetan tracts and handicrafts.
That evening, an overflow crowd of Woodstock's artistic cognoscenti -- blithely infiltrated by a few of lesser means but undoubtedly more appreciative of the free wine and cheese -- spills out onto Mill Hill Road at the opening of yet another gallery show.
In sharp contrast, a distinctly taciturn crowd has lined up for a book-signing at the nearby Golden Notebook. The book being signed extols the virtues of meditation.
It is, in short, just another New Age, '60s kind of day in the town where it really didn't happen then -- and still does now.
Fortified with a cone of Jane's Homemade Ice Cream, I take a seat on the village green to watch the real Woodstock's longest-running festival -- its mind-expanding human parade. As always, another free act is just about to begin.
An ideal day
Insofar as adhering to even a loose schedule is against the spirit of Woodstock, listed below is a general progression of how to let the day move you.
Breakfast: Coffee and homemade pastries at Bread Alone.
Morning: Hang out at Woodstock's unofficial event du jour, be it a Tibetan symposium, an art show or a traditional crafts fair. Shop and people-watch around the village green.
Lunch: Exert yourself and drive to the Bear Cafe two miles west of town. It's the area's premier dining establishment.
Afternoon: Wander around the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery. If you feel up to it, hike to the top of Overlook Mountain from the monastery, where you can look out over the majestic Catskills and the Hudson River Valley.
Dinner: Your choice of Indian fare at Mountain Gate, Mediterranean French at Blue Mountain Bistro, Mexican at Taco Juan's, Italian at the Woodstock Lodge & Cafe, seafood at Landau's Grill or fine dining at Joshua's.
Evening: Follow your muse -- folk music or poetry reading at the Colony Art Center, a professional production at the Byrdcliffe Theater or the recently rebuilt Woodstock Playhouse, or any of a number of amateur performances, recitals or lectures scattered hither and yon.
Afterward: A nightcap of chai or gourmet coffee at the musically inclined F-Stop Cafe on Tinker Street.
-- Marshall S. Berdan
When you go
Getting there: Woodstock is located in the northern Catskill Mountains, about six hours north of Baltimore. Driving, take Interstate 95 and / or the New Jersey Turnpike to the New York State Thruway (I-87) heading north. In Kingston (Exit 19), take Route 28 north to West Hurley, and then Route 375 north into Woodstock.
Byrdcliffe Arts Colony and Theatre, 34 Tinker St., Woodstock, NY 12498
* A resident artist community with a theater, art exhibits and open houses. Self-guided tours are available.
Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery, 352 Meads Mountain Road, Woodstock
* Hours: Open during daylight hours; free tours Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m.
Woodstock Lodge & Cafe, 77 Country Club Lane, Woodstock
* Wooded, rustic retreat offering motel rooms, cabins and efficiencies. Rates from $79.
Twin Gables, 73 Tinker St., Woodstock
* A 1930s-style tourist house offering basic accommodations in the center of town. Rates from $40.
Village Green Bed & Breakfast, 12 Tinker St., Woodstock
* Two rooms on the second floor of a Victorian mansion on the village green. Rates from $110.
The Wild Rose Inn, 66 Rock City Road, Woodstock
* Victorian home offering gracious accommodations a short walk from the center of town. Rates from $100.
The Woodstock Inn on the Millstream, 38 Tannery Brook Road, Woodstock
* A motel set in the woods alongside the Old Mill Stream. Rates from $99.
For more information about lodging, dining and attractions in Woodstock:
* Woodstock Chamber of Commerce & Arts: 845-679-6234; www.woodstockchamber.com
* Ulster County Tourism: