The vacations of my childhood were cheap and simple. We would take a long car ride to a humble motel or cabin, which might smell like mildew but also might have a pool. We bought exotic food at a market I had never heard of (Goober Grape, every time), and spent our waking hours where the mountains met the water. While canoeing, hiking, lake swimming, and sitting around a bonfire, my mother would inhale deeply, then ask “Doesn’t it smell so good here?”
It took a long time for me to recognize the smell of the woods, and 23 years to return to Phoenicia, New York, a tiny and unassuming town in the Catskills. Going back to favorite childhood places is always a risk, but I was thrilled to see that Phoenicia remained as it lived in my memory. One small road in and out, a two-block radius that contained all the town’s businesses, and the eternal tumbling of the craggy Esopus Creek. Friday’s dinner was spent outside, under the awning at Sportsman’s Alamo Cantina, facing Main Street. We savored burgers and beers among fireflies and mosquitos, and I observed artsy aging hippies, sporty families, overdressed city folk, and outdoorsy college kids lingering on the sidewalk, reading menus, or sidestepping fire hydrants and hollyhocks on the way to their next plan.
I remember tubing down the Esopus as a kid, bobbing like a cork in the whitewater. The former tire I sat in felt warm in the sun, and slippery like a dolphin. I paddled futilely with my hands and feet, but my tube spun and ricocheted off rocks and carried me down twists and turns under sun-dappled trees. When my devoted boyfriend agreed to tube despite his inability to swim, we walked over the bridge to the Town Tinker. The old red building had a Dutch door that doubled as a registration desk, and behind the college kids with clipboards were damp, black tubes stacked two stories high. After the bouncy ride up-creek on the old white school bus, we took off in frigid water. While C navigated the rapids flawlessly, I bounced out of my tube mid-waterfall and nearly lost my tube as I tumbled along the rocky bottom, gathering bruises and losing a shoe along the way. Walking back to the Tinker to return our tubes, I felt the tiny pebbles on the road dig into the bottoms of my wrinkled feet, and remembered how those same pebbles somehow ended up inside my old sneakers, which my mother kept in the house specifically for tubing and rafting. I stood on the side of the road in my wet swimsuit, wearing one topsider, while C kindly retrieved the truck to pick me up, and I felt uncomfortable yet exhilarated. Busy adulthood doesn’t offer much for everyday excitement, so the physical sensations of icy water, rushing rapids, and belly laughs that bounced off the water felt extra precious.
After an indulgent dinner at the Phoenician, C and I built a bonfire. We sipped bourbon and ate Oreos from under a blanket, and listened to the constant creek rushing past us, only a few meters away. I inhaled, looked up at the sky outlined with evergreens, then exhaled, and a few more stars emerged to greet me. I smelled burning wood and heard the crackles and pops of the twigs in the fire, and wondered how this wonderful place managed to stay relatively unchanged. Honey sticks in the General Store, shabby camps by the river, bundled sage in the gift shop, and no life vests for tubing. I come to the Catskills; I breathe the trees in and the tension out. It really does smell so good.