Chapter 16: Julie
Spring Glen, NY
There’s a gleam in her eyes as we park the car in front of the Homowack.
Homowack Lodge, that is. We both find the name of the abandoned Borscht Belt resort — a fading jewel in Ulster County that sits rotting some ten minutes down the road from the Nevele Grand Resort — humorous, deeply stupid, and very appropriate for our twisted sense of humor, two queer people who, by the grace of God, met and immediately realized a kinship. A fierce, very childish kinship.
As we prepare our provisions for the adventure into the wiles of the expansive property (vacated in 2009), I look into her eyes as she explains all of the gear she’s brought for us to make our trip successful. Today nearly didn’t happen. Yesterday was a bad post-chemo day, and her stomach was causing issues. When your buddy has cancer, you roll with the punches, or at least I do because I know its effects on the body are entirely unpredictable.
Not that we’re concerned about her recovery from the Big C, not nearly as much as we used to be anyway. Not a cancer cell in sight on her latest scan, a remarkable sign considering she was only diagnosed a few months ago, when the Hudson Valley winter still raged and vitamin D wasn’t readily available in its natural state.
These thoughts flutter about in my head with joy, little butterflies bursting from my eyes as we exit the vehicle, wicked grins on both of our faces. My queer compatriot and I are elated to be here. We always are. These adventures bring us so much gratification. It’s our third abandoned space together. I don’t know anything about her astrological chart, but I imagine it’s like mine, beaming with Sagittarius energy. It’s tough to find someone with a hefty amount of Sagittarius in their chart who doesn’t like to wander aimlessly through the world, with intention. And as crucial as I know the dastardly chemotherapy is to her treatment plan to kick this fucker, I also know that exploring is equally important to her recovery. She is an expeditioner at heart, and it’s a big heart, to match her loud and rambunctious personality. I’m astonished, always, by the power with which she navigates the world. So open, at least on the surface, so compassionate and so kind to everyone she meets. You will be hard pressed to walk down any given street in the world without her stopping to talk to someone.
I recall a time when we met at Rough Draft Bar and Books in Kingston, NY, on a sunny day, when light poured the windows and doors. Julie got stopped by at least five people she knew, and each time, they, each of them, became the center of her attention, with gusto. I watched her with admiration, a friend to the masses, a fierce fighter for empathy and understanding in the world, ensuring that, if not unintentionally, every human she spoke to knew she saw them — just as I know she sees me as we pass under the ivy-soaked trellis on one side of the resort, a large back patio that wraps around an entire wing of the main building, and into the belly of an indoor pool.
I pull out my new camera and begin to snap photographs of the empty pool full of artifacts from a history that’s unknown to me, and yet, as always, as it has been in every abandoned space I’ve poked about, feels somehow vaguely familiar. Julie saunters down into the depths of the damaged tile pit, calling out the name of each and every item she picks up, examining them like an archeologist who has come across a pivotal discovery that will shine a light on a speck of human history that has been buried until now. She is generous that way, genuinely excited to share her finds with me.
This may be a spot where we differ. Any time I visit an abandoned space, I like to imagine that I am one of the phantoms that wanders about — but Julie, true to her boisterous disposition, walks proudly through glass, inadvertently knocks objects strewn about on the floor, and vocalizes each and every thought that passes through her head. It’s all out of the innate goodness within her because she is good, and her illustrative and thunderous presence balances out my introspective and sensitive spirit. They complement one another because both of us possess highly active imaginations. Any time we adventure together, this dichotomy works well, and I adore her company. Which is why, more than any of my friends, she is my favorite wanderlust companion. She’s game, she’s stoked, and I love it.
We make our way down a series of passageways, inspecting rooms full of furniture, stocked up far more than most abandoned resorts I’ve been to. Julie remarks at how fascinating this particular location is because of how much stuff is still here, and I agree. At any given All-American Ruin, one might find a few lingering relics from a time before ours but not to this extent. This one is different. “This one hits differently,” she says. “I can’t believe how many wasted resources are just sitting here.”
Our interests schism as we make our way to a second floor hallway. I go one way, poking my head into an adjoining corridor, now only a skeletal framework indicating what it used to look like. There’s a telephone strung up over a wood beam, and I decide it looks like that mythical gang symbol when shoes are hoisted up and dangled over telephone or traffic wires, marking that a murder took place there. I start to ponder if any murders took place in the Borscht Belt, the true crime junkie in me taking over for a moment or two. I’m never afraid of that kind of storyline, but in this moment, I do feel a little creeped out when I hear Julie call my name, asking me to identify my whereabouts.
When we reunite, she’s got a million and a half stories to tell me about our five minutes apart, including a letter she found in a room down the opposite hall. It’s mostly in Yiddish, but one line is in English and in quotes.
We don’t know what it means, but the mystery is more appealing than the answer.
The heat of the late spring air that encroaches on the East Coast during this monumental heat wave gets to us, and Julie requests a water break at the car, a chance to get a breather out of our masks and out of the moldy air. En route to the car, we come across an old sign with rules for the mini golf course. We’ve passed by a few signs in the resort which indicate that it’s somewhere inside, and I realize that a room we passed through had outlines on the floor where the putt putt greens used to be. Later that evening, while researching the joint, I find a photograph that shows what it used to look like.
The photo makes me sad.
We sip water and laugh about queer culture, a typical thoroughfare of giggles between the two of us. Julie knows how to make me howl hard, and I her. During this medical nightmare I’ve watched her endure, in the throws of a pandemic no less, I have been in complete awe of her intact, if not more powerful sense of humor. Later on, she’ll ruminate, with an immense amount of vulnerability, about her gratitude for the laughter that’s appeared during this precarious moment in her life. I marvel at how much more actualized this already sincerely evolved person has become over the last few months.
Julie mentions she wants to leave our own version of graffiti behind and pulls out a selection of variously sized rainbow decals she’s picked up at the dollar store, just in time for Pride Month. We agree that our next stop will be the bowling alley downstairs, a part of the hotel I know exists because today isn’t my first trip to this space, though it’s already far more comprehensive. On my previous venture, I came across a group of graffiti artists, and though I think we all knew inherently that none of us was dangerous, we spooked each other, both parties likely believing that there might be a narc in our midst, despite a clear lack of “No Trespassing” signs — and the sizable holes in the lackluster fence bordering the property. My fear encouraged me to leave much earlier than I wanted to that day, before really getting to explore the full scope of the monstrous sanctuary filled with the ghosts of vacationers past.
We head downstairs as Julie continues to voice her wonder about how much stuff just sits and rots inside this massive complex. I feel full of electricity, knowing that the bowling alley I’m about to show her is a centerpiece of this particular location, but upon arrival, my stomach flops: vandals have completely annihilated it. The conveyor belt gullies have been knocked over. All of the windows have been busted out, and any remaining bowling shoes, pins, and balls have been stolen. Even the facades above the mouths at the end of the lanes have been obliterated, and the ancient, steel pinsetters are all that remain. The lanes have also been heavily damaged, both by human hand and by Mother Nature. The ceiling above the center of the lanes has partially caved in from a winter of heavy snow, ice, and high winds. Julie acknowledges my disappointment, but the kid in her still gleefully pokes back behind the lanes in the mechanical room anyway.
I stew quietly. It’s something I’ll never quite understand. It’s one thing to mark these architectural artifacts with stunning artwork. It’s another to completely ruin an experience for the rest of us. “I can imagine I would have been equally as destructive as a kid,” Julie observes, and I can’t help but agree. I would have been too, so I allow grace to flood my current desert of disappointment.
We snap more photos of this downstairs playground where we find a bar, another bar, a large fire pit, and a theater before heading upstairs and outside once again. After attempting to get on top of the tallest building on the property using various ladders left by previous adventurers — and wisely deciding there’s too much structural damage to get up there safely — we mosey in the mid-afternoon sun down a path behind the resort. Julie openly contemplates about the community who’s rallied around her during this health crisis, about how much of a change she’s felt within her, about her love for life, and about how others have noticed the change too. She also opens up about how she’s fallen even deeper in love with her wife who has inadvertently led the charge to assemble the troops to lift Julie up as she wages this war on cancer. My heart melts and my eyes well up as she explains the strange joy that’s come along with the immense pain.
And though we don’t mention it, I know that she’s considered her own mortality too. It would be impossible not to.
I feel the heat wave catch my lungs as I consider my own gratitude for this remarkable human’s will to survive this shitty situation. We make our way to a huge warehouse at the back of the property, and I watch her pull her hat off and wipe the glint of sweat off her bald head. She’s been a hero to me since we met, but I realize how much more of a hero she is to me now, and I am proud to stand beside her at this particular crossroads in her life and do everything in my power to support her. Like Meryl Streep’s character Clarissa Vaughan in The Hours barks at Ed Harris’s character Richard Brown, “Well, that is what we do. That is what people do. They stay alive for each other.”
These musings on life and death are naturally amplified by this dead space, filled with the proof of former human life, which comes into full view upon entering the warehouse, formerly the ice skating rink. It’s impeccably enormous, packed to the brim with mattresses and chairs and all sorts of furniture, bearing witness to the lives who once roamed the premises. To me, these objects symbolize survival and humanity’s impossible existence. What objects would I leave behind?
I head upstairs to the crow’s nest to watch Julie scavenge the room, chuckling as she remarks on the vestiges scattered about. I’m glad I was able to honor this companionship and share this sacred space with my dear friend. It’s as healing for me as it is for her.
Our day begins to wind to a close as Julie begins to feel the exhaustion from the sweltering heat and this past week’s chemo treatment. We agree that our final stop on this particular quest will be the pool house sitting behind the ice skating rink, and again, as we reach our final destination, we are amazed by all the things left behind, including a basement full of old skis and ski boots. I recognize a particular graffiti artist from other resorts I’ve visited in the Borscht Belt, a special little minion grasping a balloon, floating up and away from the walls of each abandoned space. Julie takes my portrait with my little friend and showcases the vast landscape where the resort sits, rolling hills that seem to stretch into infinity.
I stare up at the sun and consider how lucky I am to know someone else who understands this powerful feeling of anemoia, the word that describes a longing for a time and place that isn’t our own, but somehow, feels very familiar. It’s the wick on the candle that’s the true healer of us all, the imagination.
In the distance, I hear ATVs roaring around the ski hill, about a quarter mile from where our expedition ends today. I think about all of the spectres who wander among us, not just in these relics of the past, but everywhere. If I really consider it, the fact that we happened at all is unfathomable, and as a species, we have come to determine how the impossible, our existence, happened. Our collective imagination, a magical powerhouse and unexplainable deity inside each of us, has formulated an infinite number of answers to the questions of our existence.
And as we hop into the car to begin our journey back north to our respective, cozy homes in the heart of the Hudson Valley, I realize something: for me, my imagination isn’t so much as a thing or a concept, but a healing destination, a medicine that nourishes my spirit as I continue to try and cope with the state of the world, the unfairness bursting inside of it, including the kind of injustice that someone like my friend Julie was diagnosed with cancer. How fortunate it is, then, that the Homowack Lodge still exists in the state it does, and how lucky we are, then, to have gotten the opportunity to explore it together.
Before I turn the key in the ignition, I take one more look at my friend sitting in the passenger seat beside me, going on and on about how marvelous today was.
And wouldn’t you know? There’s a gleam in her eyes.