Out of a sense of obligation, Tom and I visited the Rijksmuseum on a trip to Amsterdam about ten years ago. I realize now it was more to say that, yes, we’d gone there, and, yes, we saw the Rembrandts and the Vermeers, and how wonderful it was. It was wonderful, of course.
As teenagers, my best friend and I often snuck over to the city to spend days wandering through its museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, and the Guggenheim especially. Our moms thought we were window shopping on Journal Square; they would have had kittens if they knew we’d hopped on the PATH train with nary a glance through the shop windows, and then negotiated the New York City subway, which never in its history was grimier or more rattletrap, even on so edifying a mission. Those were magical days, made more exciting by the frisson of danger and insubordination. Museums and libraries contributed much to the person I am today.
But on that trip to the Rijksmuseum, I found myself chafing. I was surrounded by tourists, many of them wearing masks, which, so many years before Covid, struck me as paranoid. What were they protecting themselves from? Microbes? Bad smells? Recognition? Little did we know. We bobbed up and down behind clusters of people for the glimpse of a masterpiece. Two of the paintings I’d most wanted to see, The Milkmaid and The Jewish Bride, were, at that time, on loan to museums in New York and California. Geez.
We were desperate to escape the stale air of the Rijksmuseum to see Dutch people doing Dutch things, like pedaling their bikes helmetless, long hair and long skirts threatening to get caught in the gears but never getting caught, a sight worthy of capture by a great painter. These days, I gravitate toward the open air, which is having a moment this year – art walks and sculpture gardens and archaeological sites.
Even a trip into the wilderness will reveal a prize for the art lover. Nature inspires us all to be artists, in some small way. We work to capture the interplay of light and shadow in a grove of trees, or the texture of clouds massing over a mountain peak. I’ve seen that irrepressible urge expressed in many other ways: A garland of autumn leaves draped along the trail like the velvet ropes in a theater. A bouquet of wildflowers placed inside bullet casings arranged in the shape of a heart. A 3-D mosaic of rock in the shape of an alligator slinking along the trail, and so real-looking it makes me jump. Inside a couple of lean-tos along the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey hang impressionist paintings of those shelters, an act of supreme kindness by the artist, Joe Janaro.
In the stone walls that line many local trails, you can tell the pioneer who just wanted to get the rocks out of their way and the one who took the time to satisfy their sense of artistry. We like to pause in front of a particularly beautiful stone wall and study it like a mandala.
On a hike along the Mahackamack Trail earlier this summer, I felt a pair of eyes on me. How many times had we hiked past and not noticed? The wide-eyed angel that stared at us from the side of the trail, carved from a section of dead tree, was not new. It might have been there for years and years, all that time eluding our attention, which was probably drawn to the pretty creek and its many little cascades on the other side of the trail. The angel might be either male or female, or neither. Its blank eyes are either all-seeing or blind, its hands are clasped in either prayer or supplication, its wings are folded behind it either in rest or readiness. Its expression has an uncanny quality hard to turn away from. We always look forward to seeing the angel, as another friend to greet on our journey, another work put out into the world by an artist unknown, who beckons us to pause a moment, and who asks: What do you see?
Trailhead: The Deerpark Dam Reservoir parking area (accessible by following Academy Avenue or Upper Brook Road in Port Jervis/Deerpark) in the Watershed Trail Park
Loop trail: Turn right out of the parking lot and take the Holography Trail along the reservoir (0.3 miles); then left, briefly, on the Delaware Trail; right onto Lost Bear Trail (1.8 miles); then to the Mahackamack Trail (0.5 miles); left onto Tufted Trail (1.3 miles); left onto the Delaware Trail for a short walk before making your final right onto Upper Brook Road and back to the parking lot (about 1 mile).