Welcome to Chautauqua Institute, “THWACK!” That is the sound I heard as the gate came down on the windshield of my car. Ugh. My first stop on my second journey west started with a bang.
Chautauqua is a village in western New York State, that is completely enclosed nine weeks out of the year. You have to pay a gate fee to enter, and park your car outside the gate. It is like a Disneyland mix of the Lost Horizon, Mayberry RFD, and Brigadoon, except when they unwittingly close the gate on your car. Fortunately no harm was done.
The town needs further explanation, because nothing that I read prepared me. I had called a little motel, looking for a cheap room, got an answering machine, which was a sign right there of the dark ages. She did call me back and was very helpful in explaining the gate fee that everyone has to pay to enter. The amount you pay depends upon the time of day you arrive and how long you stay. It’s tricky and I’m not sure I understand all the various regulations. People walk around with a lanyard around their necks to hold the pass that will be scanned at every event, a badge of “I belong here.” It cost me $47 to get into the town for the evening including the parking space outside the walls and I have to leave tomorrow morning by 10am or they will charge me more. This is not including lodging or a fancy little lanyard. I stuffed my pass in my purse and preferred to dig it out to have it scanned rather than conform to the Sneetchiness of the star-bellied, lanyard crowd. (If you haven’t read Dr. Suess’ The Sneetches, you should watch this 12 minute YouTube version)
Appalled yet? Well, I was! But for that $47, I got to hear a wonderful symphony concert in their 4000 seat amphitheater and it truly was astounding. I heard Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony and was moved to tears, and then Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 that thrilled me to my toes with it’s majesty and dissonant sounds that resolve into lovely unexpected harmonies. I had not been to a symphony for such a long time, so it was a lovely evening in the huge, covered, outdoor amphitheater, even with the grouchy old couple sitting next to me spitting combative barbs at each other. I sat behind the musicians, so close as to feel part of the orchestra. It was spellbinding.
My first foray into the Victorian-era town felt a bit like I was entering Shangri-La. There are no resort stores or kitschy shops, hardly any restaurants, one bookstore, no bars, I’m not sure if alcohol is even allowed here and it LOOKS charming, feels peaceful and pedestrian since only a few random cars are around shuttling suitcases and the like. If you have ever seen Brigadoon where the two lost hunters walk into a town that only materializes in the Scottish Highlands every 100 years, that was me, one of those hunters. If haunting music and fog had developed I would not have been surprised. Something was just a little strange and otherworldly. The town borders a lake and has a bell tower that chimes every half hour and a carillon concert twice a day. I happened on the bell concert on my sunset stroll to the lake and I heard the strains of a significant song from my past. Memories flooded my body with sweet sentiments.
“I have dreamed that your arms are lovely,
I have dreamed what a joy you’ll be.
I have dreamed every word you whisper
When you’re close, close to me.
How you look in the glow of evening
I have dreamed and enjoyed the view
In these dreams I’ve loved you so
That by now I think I know
What it’s like to be loved by you,
I will love being loved by you.”
Chautauqua was started in 1874 as an educational experiment in “vacation learning” by a couple of Methodists. It succeeded and is now an interfaith center with church welcome “houses” on every corner instead of coffee houses, and courses in art, music, dance, theater, lectures from nationally recognized leaders on a broad scope of topics, and religious services daily. Families play frisbee in the parks, they run the oldest summer day camp and I walked through hundreds of kids doing various activities from juggling and rope tying, to soccer, tennis, kayaking, well, just about everything! Even the squirrels felt safe here as one ran by my feet a few feet away, stopping to pose for a photo.
After the evening symphony concert I went to an experimental theater production down on the beach at 10pm. It was dark and crowded so I stood in the back and enjoyed seeing what looked like a bunch of drama grad students doing their wacky thing. They used sounds instead of language to create a movement/theater piece. I’m not sure what it was about but that was ok. Being out in the warm beach air, with tiki torches and flashlights was romantic enough. I took the long way back to my hotel walking the quiet deserted streets along the water. The little lapping waves added more music to my ears.
Now that I know what is entailed with fees and the logistics of staying there during the education/lecture/art series it would be great to take full advantage and stay a week, but it would be costly. I think I would enjoy being there in the off-season just as much when you can soak up the small town ambiance for free as I did on the porch of the Athenaeum earlier that evening.
I was told with a smile on the way out the next morning that I could come back, but not with a motorcycle. They are not allowed under any circumstances! Sigh, so many rules, so many judgments, if only religion and morality could be more welcoming. “I have dreamed and enjoyed the view” for one night, and it was pretty sweet, but the reality of such a way of life is only for the wealthy and privileged.