Ashley Vitiello's Favorite Place
Ashley Vitiello, Division 2, 12th grade #ws16e-s2d2

 I would have to say that my personal favorite place to go to is Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz, New York, located in the Shawangunk Mountains.  These are very ancient mountain ridges that are the foothills of the Appalachians, just before the Catskills.  They are beautiful, wild, and I find them to be very spiritual.  The Mountain House itself is owned by the same Quaker family who purchased it from a man who had a small traveler’s inn on the mountaintop in the 1800’s; and he had actually purchased it from the Indian tribe who lived there in the early days of America’s settlement.  So the land is basically unspoiled, with lots of original old-growth forests.  The Smiley family originally owned thousands of acres of land, but the taxes and improvements of the twentieth century had them enter into an agreement with both the State of New York and the Nature Conservancy to relinquish their title to the land, but at the same time making certain that it would be kept sacrosanct for future generations.  The Mountain House still does contain over six hundred acres of private land, which contains hiking trials, rock- and mountain-climbing paths, and bridle paths.

  My family has been visiting Mohonk annually for many years, and we all love it.  Imagine a place where you have to enter through a gatehouse, and then drive about three miles through the woods to get to an ethereal view.  First you see gardens on your left, and a massive ancient copper beech tree on your right while you are driving slightly uphill.  Then you see the twinkling lights of a huge wooden porch cantilevered over a mountaintop lake that is actually a fjord that was caved out by the last glacier to come through the area.  And then you see what appears to be a magnificent Victorian castle attached to the porch - complete with a huge stone arch (leftover from the days when the only way to approach the House was by horse and carriage), cupolas on the high roofs, banners flying, and the sun reflecting off the ice-cold waters of Mohonk Lake.

 Then you circle around to the back of the house, where a valet will help you get your bags out of your car and whisk the car away to an almost invisible parking lot, situated down a hill from the entry to the house.  The house itself is a beautifully-maintained Victorian building, with lots of oak and - yes! - chestnut wood throughout.  On the main floor is a large bulletin board which lists all the day’s activities and menus, which are prepared by students and graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, which is located just up the road, so you know how well you will be dining!  Three meals a day are included with your room, all taken in a huge dining room with delightful views of the Catskill Mountains located to the west.  Also included is my favorite: Afternoon Tea served faithfully every day at 4 pm in the Lake Lounge, which is attached to the outdoor two-story porch.  Nothing tastes better after a day of hiking and climbing than a cup of Mohonk Tea with their home-baked cookies!  And this is the perfect time for a game of Scrabble.  Mohonk is such a special place that even my Mom can beat me here (something she can never do at home!).  
The rock-scrambling and climbing is considered some of the best on the East Coast of America.  There are a variety of trails, ranging from the short, but intense, Eagle’s Cliff Ascent, through the more difficult Humpty Dumpty Path, and all the way up to Lemon Squeeze, the hardest and scariest way up Skytop Mountain - straight up the side of it!   I first accomplished this when I was eleven years old, and had been given the advice by my grandmother, “Just don’t look down until you get to the top”, and it worked.  I found out later that my family thought they would have to take me down the mountain on one of the supplemental trails made for that reason, but I surprised them all.  It is certainly a wonderful feeling of accomplishment after you wedge yourself through a crevice and then pop up through an opening at the very top, and realize that you have made it to the top of the mountain.  
The wind is blowing and the view is magnificent.  My favorite sight from the top is the view of the Old Home Farm way, way down below where you can see the horses who are not being ridden that day grazing and relaxing down in the field below.
You can go horseback-riding also along the miles of bridle paths,  or go for a hayride in a wagon pulled by the resident mules, but my personal favorite is going for a ride in a horse -drawn sleigh in the Wintertime.  It is crystal-quiet, with only the sounds of the horses’ tails swooshing and the delightful sounds of their sleigh bells ringing as they walk. It is, of course, cold as the North Pole up here in the Wintertime, but you are snuggled under a rug and you just know that you will be enjoying a cup of tea when you return!   
The hiking is just like the climbing, where there is a variety of trails and paths offered, everything from wide and easy carriage roads through woodland trails to longer and more difficult trails.  They are all a lot of fun, and make you feel truly one with Nature - particularly when you come up on a doe and her fawn munching on flowers right in front of you!   And to me, that is the very best thing about Mohonk:  that it is a pristinely natural place where Nature is truly respected, which I wish so much more of the world would understand.  And best of all, that it will remain so in the future - and hopefully forever.
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