On the edge of the Berkshires

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By the time I had finished my third drink, getting into the hot tub with strangers didn’t seem so weird. It was a perfect summer hot tub night – dry, a little breezy and not to hot. Located just outside the main door of the hotel, there had been a steady flow of people in and out of the thing for about an hour, so when I saw the older couple holding court step out, I made the decision to head in.

A chatty couple sat to my right, my husband and a single man clearly warmed on wine sat to my left. I turned to the chatty couple and asked, “What do you do?” The man was an attorney who split time between New York and Washington, D.C., and the other wrote for the New York Times, mostly about art.

“I’m a writer, too,” I blurted out, wishing almost immediately that I hadn’t. The Times writer looked back at me expectantly, steam circling her head. I opened my mouth but for a few seconds, all you could hear was the low gurgle of the bubbling jets.

“I write mostly for trade publications and some regional publications.” I paused. The wine, the steam and the late hour made this exercise seem more exhausting than ever. “Look, I’m not going to do that thing where writers try to impress each other by listing off all the places they write for. I write, but not for any place you’ve ever heard of.”

The attorney smiled. Clearly he had heard others go through the exercise before. The Times writer looked surprised at my bluntness, then relieved. She didn’t want to hear it and I didn’t want to give it. I sat back against a jet and let the bubbles work out a knot in my lower back.

My kind of art.

My kind of art.

My evening in the hot tub and this interaction pretty much sum up my experience at the Porches Inn at Mass MoCa and most of North Adams’ art scene. It’s nice but not overtly friendly. Cool, but in that elite liberal arts college kind of way. It’s a nice mix of odd and cozy — and a little bit awkward. North Adams is for people like me, its got the culture without that Berkshires pretense.

The Porches occupies a stretch of mill worker row houses across from Mass MoCa, housed in the old mill. It was gutted and updated with retro lamps and vintage art; the rooms have large, clean bathrooms outfitted with the little extras (shoe shine kit!). The king sized bed was backed against the wall on one side, which I hate, but the turn-down service and locally made chocolates on the pillow made up for it. Our room had a small porch with a bistro table and chair set. It was a great place to sip wine, play cards and watch the action in the heated pool and hot tub.

2014-06-23 13.43.04Walk over to Mass MoCA and you’ll find a sprawling industrial-era campus of brick stone and wooden buildings. Finding the entrance was not intuitive, nor is the gallery layout. An impressive set of installations by Teresita Fernandez greet visitors as they enter. Metallic pins wind their way along the walls of the first gallery, while in the next room, a wave of plastic, colored tubes floats into the cathedral ceiling. Walk up and down the gallery and you’ll notice a low murmur – the sound of the air movement created as you pass underneath.

Sol LeWitt

Sol LeWitt

There is much to love about Mass MoCA. The Sol LeWitt collection is comprehensive and colorful, including information on how the galleries were constructed. There is much to leave you unsettled, confused and uncomfortable. I don’t know how it’s possible to make someone feel claustrophobic in a space as open and large as these galleries, but somehow Mass MoCA does it.

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Mass MoCA’s success lies in its comprehensiveness. Every room, every walkway, every last vestige of the manufacturing complex it once was is cultivated in a way that impacts and impresses.

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We dined primarily in North Adams, a small on-the-rebound town at the northeastern end of the Berkshires. The Italian restaurant recommended by Porches staff was adequate, but had a limited menu. Nearby Public made us much happier. My husband drooled over the craft beer offerings from tiny New York and upper Midwest breweries. I sipped on a Hemingway, a variation of the classic daiquiri, served with fresh squeezed lime in a martini glass. I had spent the early weeks of summer in search of a good rum drink. This was it.

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Driving into North Adam and the Berkshires region is very disorienting. Winding roads and switchbacks challenge your sense of direction. Rolling hills quickly arch into steep mountainsides that threaten to suck your car into the abyss. Abandoned and ramshackle motor inns line the roadways, devoid of hope of every being rehabilitated. The whole place seems like it’s been forgotten, and for many it probably has.

Yet the payoff on this drive is grand. A scary curve next to a dingy mobile home twists into an expansive vista with views of the entire valley. Wind turbines line the ridges, turning slowly, reminding busy city folks to slow down too.

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A drive to the top of Mt Greylock revealed great views in this a harsh and blustery place. It has been centuries since settlers first stood on this peak, but the Berkshires still feels like a place of pioneers. It’s hard to scratch out a living, but it seems to have so much promise.

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