Right up front, Woodstockers will tell you that the famed rock concert didn’t happen there. Of course, this will not stop them from trying to sell you an “authentic” souvenir commemorating those three muddy, giddy, iconic and inimitable days of peace and music. And why should it? The show might have taken place in Bethel, but it got its name from the town that spawned the idea for it and lent its considerable good vibes to the proceedings – good vibes that exist there to this day, in much the same way that they did then. Manhattanites come, old folkies go, but, to an extent that is almost miraculous, Woodstock remains Woodstock. The concert happened nearly 70 miles away and 45 years ago, but the echoes reverberate still off Overlook Mountain.
Come into town (we were heading in from Woodstock, Vermont, via Massachusetts), along Route 212 or down 375 (what is soon to be known officially as the Levon Helm Memorial Boulevard), take a gander at the mountain range all around, and then notice primarily what is not in the village, the central core of the town: except for a couple of national-brand pharmacies, there is no big-box store, no chain restaurant, no big-name shop – this is by design. Woodstock wants none of that, thank you. There are more Buddhist prayer flags than American flags (not that it is an unpatriotic place, it’s just that it has its priorities), and more ponytails per capita than most other towns – and that’s just on the men. Where other village greens in other towns display old cannons or heroic statuary, Woodstock, N.Y., has a Peace Pole. It also has, on warm-weather Sundays, a drum circle, complete with volunteer dancers swaying in abandon, and a bizarre Father Woodstock – dressed like a sorcerer by way of Sergeant Pepper and Doug Henning – giving peace signs to passing motorists.
It’s the boutique-y shops, oddball businesses and natural beauty that attract weekend tourists to this oasis in the Catskills just two hours north of New York City, but what draws artists and writers and musicians to make Woodstock their home, even if they’re just weekenders, is that it is a place that, since the early 20th century, has been a gathering place for the creative of word and deed and imagination. The town calls itself the Colony of the Arts; its town crest hasn’t the usual symbols of government on it, but, rather, representations of painting, theater, music and writing.
It is a town with a laissez-faire attitude toward outsiders and art-makers – it is known as being a place where you don’t have to explain yourself or your oddities, and a place where those attributes might even be celebrated. There is even a cemetery dedicated to artists. Folks from Milton Avery to Joan Snyder, Bob Dylan to Steve Earle, The Band to Donald Fagen, Helen Hayes to Uma Thurman have all called Woodstock home at one time or another. Even David Bowie’s around there somewhere. These days, real estate is a bit pricey, and younger folks are taking their artistic baby steps in outlying smaller towns and in the nearby city of Kingston, but even they know that other places are for paying your dues – Woodstock is the reward.
We began our Woodstocks wanderings with the intriguing though half-baked concept of touching base with as many towns of a similar name as possible, and seeing if there were any commonalities. There weren’t many – shared names, even if from identical origins, don’t mean that there are any other similarities. They weren’t separated at birth; they don’t have shared DNA. Woodstock, Conn. and Woodstock, N.Y., might just as well be in different countries. What they do share, though, is a sense of what they are, a solidity of values and a refuge from urban woes. They are all relatively small outposts, and they have lives beyond the shadows of behemoth cities. They all have nice people. Maybe what they share is a kind of goodness, a spot of safety and the sense that if all the rest of the world starts slipping down that drain with a loud sucking sound, they will not be going that way, or if they are, they will be last.
What we came to realize, too, on our road-trip journey was that next time we will try a different theme: Paris, Texas, sounds good as a starting point to get us to that other Paris; or maybe Athens, Georgia, with that Greek namesake as the endpoint; there’s also Rome, N.Y. and Berlin, N.J., and we could stretch things and go to Notre Dame in Indiana, or Venice Beach in California, and find our way to those foreign places that come to mind. Finding our Woodstocks was grand, but there’s a whole, other, places-with-similar-names world out there. And, of course, there’s still Woodstock, Ga., and Woodstock, Ontario, and …