“The Gregory House is less than 3 miles from here” said the nice elderly gentleman standing outside his house. It was almost 10 pm on a Friday evening in August and we were standing in front of a big house, next to the Crooked Lake in Averill Park, upstate New York. We had mistaken this house to be our hotel - thanks to the pitch darkness, the last mile crookedness of our GPS, and the complete lack of service coverage of T-Mobile (the best plan for families that love data!), that suddenly and fatally rendered all our smart phones useless.
15 minutes after getting precise graphic directions for the remaining 3 miles from the nice elderly gentleman, directions that involved only 3 simple turns, and after carefully following each of the instructions to the letter, we were again hopelessly lost! We had reached route 43, the road on which the hotel was supposed to be, but we just could not find the hotel.
Meanwhile it had started to rain and a thick fog was settling in. Glorious weekend weather expected in the Northeast, I remembered fondly reading in the weather forecast earlier that week while planning this quick weekend getaway.
The thought did occur to me that we should try knocking on another door, but I quickly discarded the idea of knocking on strange doors that had signs saying “Beware of Dog”.
Our decision to not stay in a big hotel that was part of a known chain was influenced by the lack of such hotels in that area and also our long dormant desire to stay in a place with some “character”. We had already paid in full for 2 rooms for that night. So if we could not find the place it would be a “no-show” and not only would we have to now find another hotel at this late hour but we would also lose the prepaid money.
The little surprises of booking trips online! Little did we know at the time of booking that such places with so much rural charm and character often do not have big neon lit signs like in the cities, and can be very hard to find on a dark rainy night.
I brought the car to a slow stop on the side of the wet road. The car lights reflected off the surface that seemed to have just been painted with a fresh coat of rain.
The empty roads looked eerie. There was not a soul to be seen at that hour.
No GPS. No phone service. Nobody to ask. Stomachs growling meanwhile...
Then it started raining hard. The time clock in the car dashboard seemed to be winking uncontrollably at me. I had just changed the battery! Was this my imagination?! I did not want to think about the consequences of a dead car battery.
The thin fabric of technology had worn off and we were now exposed to the ugly wrath of Nature. And Nature could get really ugly. Thunderstorms, flash flooding, a tree crashing on our car, even a sudden landslide…wait, I was clearly imagining things...
Was it really the fear of Nature or the fearful side of my own nature that was suddenly taking over...
Powerless in the hands of nature. That sounded poetic. But we were really getting hungry now. I scratched my head. What do we do now?!
I knew that the worst case would be a 5 hour drive back home, but this was no time to imagine worst case scenarios. Who knows what an unexpected worst case really could be like, so let’s just keep thinking and keep trying, I thought to myself.
The rain subsided as suddenly as it had started. I started driving again slowly and then I noticed a limo coming out of a hidden apartment complex ahead of me, it was waiting for me to pass before it could turn into the main road.
A sudden old-fashioned idea overtook me - instead of driving straight on, I turned into the lane leading to the complex and stopped right next to the limo, desperately trying to seek the driver’s attention in the midst of the rain, fog and darkness. He obliged by stopping and pulled his window down. After I had explained our predicament to him in 2 or 3 short sentences, he said in a cool and confident voice “The Gregory House is closed”.
“How is that even possible, we have made reservations for tonight…”, I wailed in protest.
“Oh well…maybe the restaurant is still operating, who knows…!”, he said perhaps to console us but I could already suspect that we might have been victims of a big con job. Maybe the hotel was really closed and some bad guys just cheated us and took our money.
Nah, that seemed preposterous, I thought to myself.
Gathering my wits to make that plea that would make or break the situation, I asked if the limo driver would be kind enough to lead us to the Gregory House. He seemed to agree quickly. Well - that did not need much of my convincing skills at all. God bless his soul. I quickly turned the car which was on a slope - in a dangerous slippery second filled with nervous excitement and hunger induced panic, and followed him right back on the road.
5 minutes later: we were parked outside the elusive Gregory House.
And we were profusely thanking the limo driver - who by the way had started driving off and could not even hear us any more due to the expanding distance between us!
“The kitchen is about to be closed shortly…” announced the bright and cheerful attendant while helping us put our luggage on the side, as he advised us to quickly eat dinner, even before we went through the check-in formalities.
A warm glow of wholesomeness, hospitality and history was effusing out of every corner of this old house. This house was certainly open tonight for us!
It seemed like we had stepped into an old period movie, where time was on our side and various kinds of hunting trophies watched us from their long established places in the decorated ceiling of the dining hall.
When we finally got to our charming little “character” filled rooms, it was past midnight. This was certainly a memorable night – not to be forgotten easily.
The next day morning we were up bright and early, and after a good breakfast we were off to the Clark Art Institute where we wanted to see the much discussed 50 Van Gogh paintings on special display. The Clark Institute is perhaps one of a small number of institutions in the world that is both an art museum and an international center for research and critical discussion of the visual arts. It is a beautiful campus designed by celebrated architect Tadao Ando, and the 140 acre campus that is still being built, has been opened to public just 12 months ago.
Van Gogh is perhaps the most popular artist of all time. The visit to the art museum was really an intellectual treat. Van Gogh's great works and especially books about him and his posters seem to be everywhere today, but during his own short 37 year old life he was completely neglected. 30 years after his death, his paintings became prized possessions and demand for his work far outstripped supply, thereby creating a large market for fraud paintings. (See my earlier blog: The Art of Faking).
In his last unfinished letter to his brother, Van Gogh wrote that he felt “powerless” in front of nature. His paintings were his way to try and control nature that could not be controlled. In one of his last paintings he adds the sudden effect of rain - like in Japanese art he had seen, to show how a perfectly beautiful painting can be ruined. He seemed to be depicting the illness that could apply to nature.
In the end he shot himself and put an end to his short miserable life. An artist as powerful as Van Gogh felt powerless. And the most fearful side of Van Gogh’s internal nature seemed to have finally taken over.