The Hudson Valley Art Trail begins or ends at my front door. Some days it feels like living inside a Thomas Cole picture. Other days it’s like an action painting done by an artist suffering from salmonella. Today, though, it was a Frederic Church kind of day because I had an appointment at his house—called “Olana”—to talk with some high school students about the sublime, how important it was to mid-nineteenth century American artists and writers. It’s important to me too, but in a different way. Anyhoo, it was too far to walk to Olana and still be on time for my appointment, so I drove. Besides, the Art Trail is paved the whole way.
It wasn’t long into this journey before I spotted one of those dreaded blaze-orange highway signs: “Reduced Speed, Work Zone Ahead, Fines Doubled”. Things slowed down drastically from there. Soon I came upon a road crew re-paving a forlorn stretch of the Art Trail. A little late in the season, it seemed to me, as this end-of-October morning was blustery and cold. Thick and noisome vapors were rising from freshly laid tar, enveloping the workers and their equipment—not to mention all innocent passersby—in an appalling mephitis. The scene brought to mind a line from D.H. Lawrence: “Darkening the day-time torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto’s gloom.” It sure smelled like it.
For the next several miles I was outside any pretty picture of the Hudson River School. Instead it was more like a dreadful creep through a failed installation piece, some monstrous cross between a drunken night ride on the Jersey Turnpike and a Robert Smithson glue pour. Close to the road was a fetid-looking lake with dead trees. A deer carcass lay in the breakdown lane. An old man was inexplicably riding his wobbly bike against traffic. What was going on around here? Then a billboard came into view—an ad for something called WatchTVEverywhere. com. I wanted to stop and take a picture of it but I had to keep my eye on the road, I mean, the Art Trail. After what seemed an eternity, I came out the other side of Pluto’s gloom. It was like making it to the end of Plato’s Republic.
And there was Olana, on the far side of the Hudson River, shining gloriously atop its venerable hill in golden morning light! By that point, I was having a little trouble breathing, but it would pass. In any case, I was ready to talk about the sublime.