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Waking Van Winkle 

click to enlarge “Dis von don’t count.” U.S. actor Joseph Jefferson, in his celebrated character of Rip Van Winkle. Associated name on shelflist card is Bencke & Scott.
  • “Dis von don’t count.” U.S. actor Joseph Jefferson, in his celebrated character of Rip Van Winkle. Associated name on shelflist card is Bencke & Scott.

Just where Route 32 splits into 32A, where Ulster County is about to give up and Greene County make itself known, across from the Big Belly Deli and unapologetic in the early January light, the Ace of Clubs gentleman’s club beckons me. It is closed, of course, as it is not quite noon, and there is nothing to see through the dark, curtained windows. A sign on the door lays down the rules—banning tank tops and weapons alike, insisting all patrons meet a four-drink minimum—and the parking lot has been courteously cleared of snow and ice.

I am looking for ghosts. I am seeking mystery. Close to the Greene County trail of Rip Van Winkle, I hope to hook into some magical vision of my own. The sleepy protagonist’s story only became fabulous when he was faced with the phantoms of Henry Hudson’s crew and sipped at their liquor. Forget that Washington Irving had never been to the Catskills when he wrote the classic tale; the origins of the best stories are always based on some enigmatic fact belonging to the collective unconscious. As a descendent of the esteemed author, I believe this link can only serve to better my chances of discovering magic today.

I wait in the cold outside the Ace of Clubs. Not a car passes; no face appears at the door. Across the street, the Big Belly Deli stays quiet. But there are miles of exploration to go, so I hop back into my salt-coated RAV4 and proceed to the Greene County line.

Palenville is the site of the first American arts colony. So says Harry, a retired truck driver, as he sits at the counter of the Kindred Spirits Steakhouse & Pub, enjoying a refill of coffee. Prints of the 1849 painting Kindred Spirits by Asher B. Durand are on the restaurant’s sign and wall and menus, which explains the origins of the name. The painting depicts 19th-century poets Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant discussing something surely mystical and literary on a rocky ledge of Kaaterskill Clove.

“Why name the place Kindred Spirits?” I ask owner Kathy Guart, a South American beauty and former registered nurse who came to these parts with her family for the fresh air and the views. I think she might reveal a profound and personal link to the poets who balance on a precipice on every one of her menus, but her answer is simpler, more practical.

“Kindred spirits are happy, loving people who take care of each other,” she says. “The way we take care of our customers.”

She offers me a coffee as her three-year-old daughter comes out from the kitchen, dressed in pink and dancing coyly at the sight of a stranger.

“What’s your name?” I ask the girl.

“I don’t have a name,” she says.

Harry and I nod, and he tells me of his coming out East after the war in pursuit of a Kingston girl he still sleeps next to at night, six decades later. Greene County used to be farmland, he tells me. Now Story Farm down the road is the biggest farm left around. But Harry doesn’t mind being left around still.

“Where else is there to go?” asks a man who spent his working years driving from state to state, coast to coast.

I sip my coffee, happy for the warmth of the liquid. Rip Van Winkle might have had liquor as his magical elixir, but black coffee will work fine for me.

My story has now been furnished with ghosts. William Cullen Bryant and Thomas Cole speak of iambic pentameter and the Holy Ghost in the back seat of the RAV4, as we glide along Route 23A. We enter Catskill Park. The road narrows and winds. We traverse Kaaterskill Creek. A historical marker along the edge of the road conjures the legendary Rip Van Winkle and reminds me that he was accompanied by his faithful dog, Wolf. I miss my own dogs at this mention, and I wonder if their presence might have increased my chances of finding magic even more. Of course, it would also have made it more difficult to fit my dead poet friends in the back of the car.

The ice on the cliffs is magnificent as I head toward Haines Falls, great torrents stuck in arctic mid-motion. I look in my rearview mirror to ask Cole and Bryant for words to describe this natural wonder, but they have vaporized as ghosts are wont to do. I am on my own as I turn into the Mountain Top Historical Society’s lot.

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  • Erika Alexia Tsoukanelis follows the trail of Rip Van Winkle to find magic of her own.

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