The drive from East Randolph to New Paltz was, I think, one of my favourite legs of the trip. It’s not often you get the chance to use the word ‘verdant’ and not come across like something of a tool, but verdant is the word to describe the woods that line the roads as you hook out east over peaceful highways that, more often than not, you have to yourself.

You could get lost out here, and be happy for doing so.

It’s country that feels friendly to me; maybe this is just my own presuppositions and prejudices talking, or maybe it’s fond dreams and memories of unreal constructions overlapping. Upstate New York is the heart of Yankee territory, as far as I know. This is the North, man. This is where the good guys come from. Right? This is, as Don Mitchell told us, Mark Twain territory. This is Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer stuff; this is easy adventures under trees and off the beaten track. This is quiet, sunny, America, with dapples of light and shade under the branches. This is small, picturesque towns and Main Street. This is the kind of landscape I think of when I think of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the kind of landscape that I wanted to find somewhere on this trip.

I could spend more time in New York State. I really could. We drove through, easily, unhurried, and I looked out of my window and thought that to go camping out here with someone you loved would be a wonderful thing.

As long as the Wendigo didn’t skin you alive, of course.

So we drove under the sun, along highways and past small towns.ย  We crested hills and saw forests that extended out as far as we could see. We made stops that took us off the roadways and onto lazy side streets, that plunged us into the deep cold shade of the mountains, and took us by cemeteries that slumped and staggered down the sides of embankments. This was the one of the images of America that I grew up with, the green, undisturbed, sleepy America.

It was getting to late afternoon as we hit the last leg towards New Paltz and the Olears and Lenore, and the light started to turn ever so slightly flat and dim, just enough to know that twilight was coming on.

What to say about the Olears?

They fit this place. And it fits them.The relaxation here, the depth out here, the charm of this place… this is Greg and Steph. Relaxed, charming, thoughtful people. They laugh easily, and readily. And Steph makes a badass mojito.

We got in and unloaded our bags, and took up residence on the front porch. Lenore had come up earlier from New York that day, and sat with Dom, Greg and Steph’s son, and played Imaginary Animals.

‘Have you ever seen a Bad Luck Bird?’ she asked.

Dom considered, then shook his head, in the unrestrained way that children do.


I forget the shape of a Bad Luck Bird, precisely. As far as I can remember, it doesn’t have a head, and it has multiple sets of wings, so it can never eat, and when it tries to fly, it just stays in place.

Discussion of Bad Luck Birds turned to the inflation of the Kiwi toy that Zara had brought for Dom, and then to steak, wine, and mojitos.

And then, once night had fallen, it was a return to the porch, where Greg and I, as we had promised each other, lit up cigars. We sat, and smoked, and perfectly, the simplicity of the woods around us made a backdrop for the simplicity of sitting, and talking, and drinking, and smoking, with friends.

Spots of light began to flicker on and off in the garden, and I realised with some wonder that I was seeing my first fireflies. We watched them swoop in the darkness of the front yard, mirrored above by the brilliance of the stars in the night sky above.

A night spent with friends in the woods of New York State?

There are so many worse ways to spend your time.

Accidentally letting out the cat, for instance, who has been shut in the garage for the night and who yowls unmercifully as he slips your grasp. Or muttering ‘FuckfuckfuckIcan’tbelieveIletthecatout,’ is another.

Fortunately, the poor chump was trusting enough to go running right back to my arms as soon as I held my hand out to him.



The next morning saw us pack, eat breakfast in town, and get ready to head to New York. But before we left, we needed one reminder for all time of all the fun we’d had staying with the Olears.



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SIMON SMITHSON is an Australian writer and editor. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia, but frequently finds himself in Los Angeles and San Francisco. His work has appeared on both sides of the globe in print and online in publications such as BLIP, Every Day Fiction, Beat, The Loop, My Sinking Boat, and more. He has a tumblr at www.simonsmithson.com and he runs a lifestyle experiment at www.selfhelpless.net.

49 responses to “TPAC 2010 – Day 16ish: Twain Territory and Bad Luck Birds”

  1. Lorna says:

    Oh, a story with pictures. My kind of stuff. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Beautiful piece, Simon. I love the description of the drive, the trees, the quiet, the connection with friends in far away places, the adventure. And that mountain cliff picture….I do beleive I have nigtmares of that road. Yikes.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Oh, thanks, Lorna!

      Yeah, the addition of pictures means that this piece clocks in a few thousand words over the actual ‘word count’, technically.

  2. Greg Olear says:

    The picture is worth a thousand words!

    Was so great having you guys here. What a fun time!

  3. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Oooh, the WOODS!!!! Did you see critters?

    By the way, there is a sentence in the third paragraph that I am choosing to read in a literary sort of way, rather than political. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Simon Smithson says:

      We saw no critters per se, unless you count the fireflies.


      We may have seen some squirrels.

      Heh. It’s more about the simplicity of perception than anything else, Ronlyn. I think the North and the South of America both had many wonderful things to experience, and wonderful people.

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        Fireflies count!!! The last time I saw some, I was in the woods by myself. It made me miss the ones that appeared during the summer in the neighborhood where I grew up. Increased urbanization and pesticides may have something to do with their vanishing. As for squirrels, they were probably monsters compared to the city dwellers.

        Coast to coast, North to South…you’ve seen it all and know that what you say it true. Wonderful people everywhere.

  4. Gloria says:

    Jealous. Sick with jealousy.

    Sounds so amazing.

    Tom Sawyer was set in Missouri, by the way. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Simon Smithson says:

      You are right to be jealous, Gloria.

      I can’t remember what happened in Tom Sawyer. Wasn’t he like Huck’s polar opposite?

    • Matt says:


      Why is everyone calling New England Mark Twain country?! This is driving me batty!

      The dude lived in Connecticut for a large chunk of his time, and wrote one book set there, but the works he is best known for are all set in the American south, below the Mason-Dixon line.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        What you say about Mark Twain is true, but these things are also true:

        He lived in Elmira, NY for some serious chunks of time.

        He lived in Buffalo, too.

        He wrote for the Buffalo Courier.

        Thus . . . this area is reasonably called Mark Twain Country, although I admit I could have been clearer about it when I laid it out to S&Z.

        And this isn’t New England.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Not to mention that he’s buried in Elmira. I forgot that.

        And I got the Buffalo paper wrong. By the time I got to Buffalo it was the “Courier-Express,” and I never can remember which was which, before they merged. Twain lived in Buffalo for 3 years and wrote for the Express, not the Courier.

        Matt, does this sound testy? If so, I’m sorry.

        I made a wretchedly bad mistake and just spent a hour on a remarkably ill-tempered anthropology blog, which I won’t name. The comments were snarky and puffed-up and some of that must have leaked from my screen into me.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Wait, didn’t Twain write Sawyer, Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and Connecticut Yankee while he lived in Elmira?

        • Zara Potts says:

          We went through a town that was dedicated to Mark Twain -Doesn’t that make it ‘Twain Country’?

        • Zara Potts says:

          Oh. That would be Elmira. Silly me.

        • Matt says:

          Don – No, not testy at all. At least, no more testy than I sounded, indignant ass that am.

          I sense the truth in your truth, but by that logic several other places in the United States can be labeled “Twain Country” as well; he lived, worked for a newspaper, and wrote fiction in San Francisco, for instance. Not to mention his free-wheeling time as a roughneck abroad in the west. This whole country, more or less, is “Twain Country.”

          I suppose it’s a question what matters more, the physical location where they lived or the geographical space inhabited by their fiction? Jack London spent most of his life in California, but it’s the Yukon everyone thinks of as “London Country.” Same with Faulkner & Mississippi. No real answer, I suppose, but it’s an interesting intellectual exercise.

          Also, sorry about the New England thing. Being a Californio uneducated in these matters, I tend to think of just about everything north of the Mason-Dixon and east of the Great Lakes as “New England.”

        • Becky says:

          He’s most famous for his documentation of the Mississippi River Valley, though, in a way that other people aren’t. That’s his thing.

          So that’s what I assumed was meant by “Twain Country,” which left me very confused. I think you have to be either a Twain biographer or REALLY hopeful to have Twain associated with your area of the country not to think of the Miss.

        • Matt says:


          Say the words “Mark Twain” and what comes to mind? Steamboats and rafts on the ol’ Mississip, runaway slaves, and barefoot southern boys up to no good. Not upstate New York. That’s James Fenimore Cooper territory, who’s work Twain hated.

        • Becky says:

          He was a regional author, and his region was not New York.

        • Gloria says:

          He may have lived in New York, but no one remembers him for that – except the people that live in the area. Everyone else will always associate him with the Mississippi River. Or at least I will. And I think I can safely speak for everyone else. Everywhere.

        • Zara Potts says:

          Why can’t he just belong to everyone?
          New York, Mississippi, Missouri?
          Maybe the essence of Mark Twain is larger than any state.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          No, no, I think these guys are right. Mea culpa, apologies, slip of the pen on my part.

          I guess… I guess there’s nothing for it now but for me to skulk in defeat back to the pleasant little town of Elmira, NY.

          I guess I’ll probably take the Clemens Centre Parkway into town; I hear it’s a nice road. It winds right past the Mark Twain golf course, I’m not sure if I’ll go to the Mark Twain grave site, which would depress me, or the Centre for Mark Twain Studies, which is at Elmira College, and has is one of the only two places that offers Mark Twain studies in the world.

          Maybe I won’t; the whole town is pretty busy commemorating Mark Twain in 2010, which would explain the Mark Twain banners and posters that hang all over the town. But I certainly hope the centennial doesn’t overlap with the four year international Mark Twain Conference the town holds! That’d be a real kick in the teeth.

          I don’t know; maybe I’ll just take it easy and go to the Mark Twain exhibit at Hamilton Hall.

          I’m sure I’ll find something to do, after all, this is the place Mark Twain described as ‘a foretaste of heaven’ during the twenty years he spent there.

          But of course, I’d be mad not to catch a show at the Clemens Performing Arts Centre!

          I just hope they have wireless. I’ll need to get to http://www.marktwaincountry.com, the tourism site all about Mark Twain’s time in Chemung. Strange, that name. I mean, it’s a site based around tourism in the State of New York!

          Anyhow, I’m sorry, you guys. I don’t know where I got the idea to call upstate New York Mark Twain country. What was I thinking?! Must have been the long drive.

        • Becky says:

          No one’s blaming you, Simon.

          If anything, we’re blaming New York for trying to lay claim to a man who is associated with New York by virtually no one except the New York tourism board. The sheer volume of things named for him point to…desperate insistence. And despite all that insistence, he remains associated with the Mississippi River valley.

          I mean, Bob Dylan’s from MN, and Minnesotans are always quick to point that out. But any attempt to assert to the world that we are the place most associated with him would be silly. Similar thing.

          We’re making fun of New York. Not you.

  5. Zara Potts says:

    That really was a lovely drive. It kind of reminded me of NZ in a way.
    And then the Olear’s with their wonderful porch and wonderful children and wonderful mojitos and wonderful fireflies.
    This trip was so great for so many reasons, but the biggest reason of all – the people. How spoiled and lucky we are, brew, to have met such amazing folk.
    Oh. Too much love.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      I remember you saying, brew, it was very similar to South Island.

      We lucked out (heh) on the people of TNB. We really did. You guys are awesome, you know that?

      • Joe Daly says:

        You guys are awesome, you know that?

        Matt Baldwin and I are still sort of scratching our heads and marveling how your road trip across the USA could somehow miss our little paradisiacal border town. Hmph. Next time I got to Oz, I’m going to substitute Cronulla for Melbourne. Oh yes- I just went there.

        • Zara Potts says:

          You should totally go to Cronulla instead of Melbourne, Joe. They have great race riots there.
          And look – You didn’t even MENTION New Zealand in your comment.
          Huh. Typical.

        • Joe Daly says:

          Wait, I thought those were in Maroubra. Cronulla, too? What do you wear to a race riot?

          New Zealand is on the list. I just have to find a city about two hours south of your home and go there instead. It’s not rocket surgery, yanno…

        • Zara Potts says:

          HAHAHAH. That would be Hamilton.
          You should totally go to Hamilton.
          Actually, I’ll drive you there myself.

  6. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Love the last pic. Nothing like a fun, er, all.

    No, again thanks for keeping this up. Now after enjoying TPac live, we can enjoy TPac echo, kinda like watching a film in the Grand Canyon.

    And one day I’m coming to enjoy the wonder of the Olear porch, and affiliated company. Don’t think I’ll be trying any tobacco, though, but I might bring some Charleston Chew so I can pretend?

    • Simon Smithson says:


      That was our ‘bored’ pic.

      I keep getting confused emails from people asking if I’m still in the States…

      I’ve never had Charleston Chew. Or Abba Zabba. I want to try them both.

  7. Joe Daly says:

    I actually first read this while I was still in bed, half asleep, from my iPhone. It was surreal. Like “Cats and Smoking in New Paltz.”

    I wonder if the Bad Luck Bird could be a TNB mascot of sorts? Is there an opposite character to BLB? Wait- is that code for Brad Listi? Well now… sounds like someone has cracked your little code! Hmmm… I better go back now and read everything again…

    • Simon Smithson says:


      That’s the name of my upcoming guidebook. And you’ll get no royalties, Joe! Not a one!

      I know nothing about this BLB acronym. Talk to Lenore…

  8. Judy Prince says:

    Loved this—-all of it in all of its moods and seriousness and jokings, Simon! Same thing with the perfectly-matched photos, esp the last, natch.

    Upstate New York, people always say, is beautiful. They always say that right after folks talk about New York city, and they say it with immense drama for the contrast.

    Did you feel Ichabod Crane moments up there in NY state? Headless Horseman et al? The scary woods at night?

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Thanks, Judy! More and more, I think my voice is developing as a combination of them all.

      It really is beautiful. And there certainly is a huge contrast with NY.

      No Ichabod moments, but I’ll have to go back and see if I can find some.

  9. Richard Cox says:

    All I know is those pictures look better than Nebraska. And I bet there is cell service where the Olears live.

  10. angela says:

    lovely simon. (i’m only now catching up with your TPAC writings.)

    i forget how beautiful some parts of upstate New York are. Tarrytown for instance, the real home of Sleepy Hollow and Ichabod Crane, so gorgeous in the fall with all the leaves changing.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Thanks, Angela!

      Having been once, I can’t wait to go back. Maybe we should organise a TNB woodland camping trick.

      • Simon Smithson says:


        Woodland camping trip.

        I don’t even know what a woodland camping trick would be.

        ‘Hey guys! Look! My thumb’s come off! Also, watch out for bears.’

  11. Thanks for this, Simon – I love your recap of our splendid time together.
    And I forgot that you got to experience our date rapey cat, Leo – and that you somehow
    got him back into his sleeping quarters.

    It’s so funny that you say we were relaxed – I only remember furiously searching for my herb roller to get the mint just right for my special guests’ mojitos. I actually wished I had been more
    relaxed and soaked it all in more. Because then – poof – you guys were gone – like fireflies (oh dear – this is starting to sound like that Justin Bieber song – did I spell that right? – I better stop).

    And we’re left still eating the candy (which we worried that you guys had left here by accident – Zara let us know recently that is wasn’t an accident – phew) and the blow-up kiwi gets fought over by the kids – who gets to ride the kiwi in the pool and who has to wait.

    And I suppose we’ll have to wait our turn to see you guys again.

    • Simon Smithson says:


      Leo, that poor stooge. He ran right into the trap of my affection.

      Oops. Sorry to spoil the ruse, Steph. You seemed very at ease, if that helps.

      Don’t worry. I’m sure it won’t be too long.


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