What its like to paint with the Hudson River School...
As I pack to head up to the Hudson Valley to teach a workshop at Olana, I'm going to give you a sneak peek at my latest work of fiction. This is the second story of a trilogy based on the Hudson River School. It's a draft, and I welcome any feedback from my esteemed subscribers. I hope you enjoy it over the next 3 weeks while I travel and teach...
By Shawn Dell Joyce
The crisp air had the musky scent of Fall to it. I hefted one hiking boot onto the gravel path and began scanning the trees for blue blazes, trail markers to lead me. It wasn’t hard to find the first one, affixed to a small wooden square on a Maple. The blue blaze contrasting perfect with the bright orange maple leaves around it. Complementary colors, I thought, perfect time of year to be painting the New York landscape.
The easel on my back felt heavy at first, but the longer I walked, the more used to the weight I became. It was aluminum and lightweight, but still fully-loaded with tubes of paint, brushes, solvent and canvas, had to weigh at least 20 pounds, plus my water, towel and jacket. Everything fit neatly into a backpack that pulled my shoulders slightly back and made me walk a bit taller on the trail.
The sun felt good on my face, even though clouds were moving in from the horizon. Typical weather for the Hudson Valley, changeable and quick. If you don’t like it, just wait five minutes and it will change. I was enjoying the comfort of my own thoughts, and the sounds of the woods. Occasional voices in the distance of other hikers reminded me that I was alone but still away from civilization. I immediately missed my phone.
I laughed at myself. Not five minutes into the trail and I was already missing my phone. I’m totally addicted! I was far to accessible to work, needy friends, and email, so I made a conscious decision to leave my phone in the car. My best friend knew where I was and that I would be back by dark. Women who are alone as long as I have been, know to do these things.
The trail was popular and public enough that someone would happen by If I needed help. I put the thought out of my head and moved into the solace of the woods. Soon I was enveloped in sunshine, cool air, and tantalizing glimpses of bluish-violet hills in the distance through the trees. It was a two-and-a-half mile hike and would take me a couple hours because of the terrain.
The path was through the trees with knobby roots holding soil like steps leading up the escarpment on the mountain. There were breaks in the trees where the path was muddy and covered with leaves like confetti on the forest floor. Steep rocks blocked the path periodically and required scrambling up and over with the help of roots for hand holds.
I pulled a folded map from my jean pocket, it was a pen and ink drawing of the escarpment with landmarks leading to Sunset Rock, my destination. Judging from the time and the map, I was about half-way. A splatter of water fell on the paper in my hands, distorting the lines beneath it. I looked up, the dark clouds had gathered and were now threatening with rain. Another drop fell on my cheek, it stung a bit, and I knew the rain was about to let loose. I looked around for a tree or rock to shelter under.
Slightly off the trail I saw more rocks jaggedly marching up the hill. I left the trail and hastened towards them, they offered no shelter. Further, in the forest was a larger rock mass with a dark shape under it that might be shelter. Rain began in earnest now, with large droplets pelting the foliage around me, bending plants and rattling leaves in the treetops. As I neared the structure, a roar came up in the forest as the rain came down in sheets. I could dimly see the shape of a small dome, like an port-o-potty but made of rocks. It was a little wider than an outhouse and seemed to be built into the side of the hill so that there was shelter on the sides and a hollow in the center. I pushed into its darkness.
My eyes instantly adjusted as the rain cascaded off the stones in rivulets outside. This was one of the many stone structures around the area that I had read about in the New York Times. I was glad for the shelter and instantly grateful to the builders, recalling in the article that no one really knew who that was. I dropped my pack on the dirt floor and noticed there was no drain, or true floor to it, which ruled out an ice house or root cellar. Also, as far as I knew, there had been no settlements this high up in the hills other than the Catskill Mountain House which was fairly far away from this ruin.
The New York Times reporter had interviewed archaeologists who disagreed about the origin of the stone huts. One thought they were Native American structure since nothing like them existed in Europe, but another thought they were ancient Celtic structure since the indigenous tribes were nomadic and didn’t use permanent structures. One interviewee posited that they were extra-terrestrial and had a mystical purpose because compasses often went haywire inside the structures. I happened to have a compass on my multi-tool in my painting kit. I pulled it out to test this theory.
The compass pointed North, then rolled gently East, then back North, then began making circles like a clock running backwards. How funny! I thought, maybe the UFO theory is right!
Rain pounded for a long spell. Without my phone, I realized, I had no way of measuring time. Who wears watches anymore?
I had explored every nook and cranny in the stone hut which divulged nothing but dry leaves, a gum wrapper, and a cigarette butt. Whatever clues may have been here of the hut’s origin had long since been picked clean. No marks on the rocks, no signs of tools or chipping to shape the rocks, just basic stone masonry. The kind that could be accomplished with a horse and dirt ramp.
The rain began to peter out. I could hear a few remaining droplets sliding down leaves and plopping in puddles. A humid breeze blew into the hut, and caressed my cheek. Time to get moving. I hoisted my pack, and exited.
Something felt different. The forest was lively, birds twittered, squirrels rustled and chipmunks scurried. It seemed like the woods just came alive. A heaviness hung in the air, along with the humidity. Water droplets caught the sunlight like glistening jewels on the leaves. Everything seemed more beautiful, richer somehow, like I was seeing it for the first time. I was enamored with the woods!
Laughter in the distance caught my attention. Feminine and unselfconscious. Whoever was laughing was someone I would want to be friends with. I headed back toward the trail, scanning trees for the familiar blue blazes. None could be found. The trail was overgrown and lush with grasses, not gravel and dirt. I must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, but this is the exact direction I came in from…
Laughter again, this time more women, like a group, and closer! I looked in the direction and could see sunlight and movement up ahead. I walked towards it, ignoring the lack of a trail. Where there were people, I was sure to find a trail. I was a few feet away from the clearing now, and could see the figures through the trees.
Oddly, it looked like five women dressed in costumes right out of 1800’s; long white dresses, shawls, parasols and hats, bustles in the back of the two closest to me. Four of the women were engrossed in conversation with the fifth. She had a girlish grin, her hair tightly tucked into a bonnet on her head and she held a ribbon in one hand. “Watch this!” She giggled, pulling hard on the ribbon and causing her long skirts to ride up like a window shade made of hula-hoops to expose a pair of trouser-covered legs. The women gasped, and tittered. “They are so manly!” one exclaimed, “did you have to make them yourself?”
(to be continued next week...)