How is it that we can enter a place and feel … something: aesthetic engagement, emotional resonance, at times an almost deja vu memory and familiarity, a comfort, a relationship? And in other places, even places designed by smart people to provide those attributes just mentioned, how is it that we feel … nothing? They can be like looking at or being in nowhere at all (see James Kunstler’s Web site, www.kunstler.com).
It has, we’ve learned, little or nothing to do with size, or expense, or even intent. It just happens that, sometimes, fortuitously, out of the blue, you come upon locations that have arisen, mostly organically, that are so redolent of placeness that they practically define the term and rise to the level of art. And they can take your breath away, or insinuate themselves into your memory forever.
Such a place is Phoenicia.
At first glance, it is nothing special. At second and every subsequent glance, it is only special.
Take a look at the terrain-view map reproduced below (click on it to get a better look).
There, amid a canyon of lurking, hovering mountains in the Catskill range – reminiscent, in a way, of images we’ve seen of the Yangtze River and its gorges, both having verdant gumdrop-shaped mountain walls all around, with the New York version including the burbling Esopus Creek rushing through – Phoenicia, a not-so-distant neighbor to the equally magical Woodstock, has set up shop.
We stayed in a funky motel complex just off the main drag in town. Notable – beyond the level of funkiness, which was extreme – was that if you walked out your door you practically walked into a side of a steeply rising mountain. The mountains here are so abrupt and surprising that they appear to be distinct entities rather than part of a chain.
The town as well as the setting, for us, is the draw. It is intentional only in that its site was selected; beyond that, it has grown as it needs and wants to. For those familiar with the revered TV series “Northern Exposure,” this IS Cicely, Alaska – in the flesh. The main street, all several blocks of it, looks remarkably like that of the show. There’s even an eating establishment, Sweet Sue’s, that’s like The Brick, complete with a number of Shellys serving up perhaps the world’s best pancakes (and even a kicking tofu dish). There’s a general store. The bookstore doubles as the town library. And the night we spent there, we stumbled into an art opening at a second-floor gallery that was distinguished as much by the multitude of pot-luck dishes as by what was hanging on the walls. All that’s missing is Dr. Fleischman and Morty the Moose. It is a haven, a vision in the mist, a Brigadoon – and, yet, just a town. And, yet, more than a town – a place that is art by being artlessly itself, and unselfconsciously perfect in its form, suis generis yet representative of something we’ve lost in the rush to be big, and look the same, and set up divisive walls. And it coexists so well with its hidden and unlikely location.
Placeness does not mean, solely, a spot where you feel you belong. But that can be one element of it. It can be a place where hope resides, or highest intentions – even the modest ones – are manifest, or where someone left a soul to be discovered and shared. Or where nature and the manmade complement and determine each other, each underscoring and threatening the other. That placeness – for us, and for many who come there, for Sweet Sue’s or art openings, tubing or as a spot to stay during ski season, or for no set reason – against all odds can be found in Phoenicia.