On a Family Trip Gone Awry, One Writer Learns to Finally Embrace the Unexpected

A winter escape to the storied Mohonk Mountain House reminded one writer of the true meaning of vacation.
By Taffy Brodesser-Akner
February 20, 2021

I have a memory of going to Mohonk Mountain House in the Catskills with my grandmother and her boyfriend, Sid, when I was four or five years old. In this memory, I'm jumping on my bed while my grandmother begs me to go to sleep because we have so much to do tomorrow. My far more obedient older sister is already asleep, and Sid, a doctor, explains to me that, if I don't stop, I'm going to hurt myself and I won't be able to go ice-skating in the morning. Call that foreshadowing.

About four decades later, in the fall of 2019, I sat at my computer trying to narrow down the options available to a middle-class family with a two-week school vacation in December. Did we want to go somewhere warm or did we want to do a winter activity? Did we want to lay about or spring into action? I could have polled my husband and our two sons, who are 12 and nine. But I decided to meet my own needs first.

It had been a year of unrelenting motion. I'd gone on a book tour for my first novel; I'd done a long and harrowing investigative story on sexual harassment. My children's growth had brought a million new obligations in terms of deadlines, worry, attention, and mandatory attendance at sports games. Every night, my husband and I did the things that we had to do. We made dinner. We supervised homework. We screamed, "I said, go to bed!" at our kids. We resentfully held tight to the hour of television we watched together, though there were endless negotiations about exactly what we should watch. And then we would both fall asleep no more than 20 minutes in.

A view of the lodge from across the Lake Mohonk. | Credit: Amanda Villarosa

So when I say I met my own needs first, I mean I opted out of the traditional back-and-forth about where we would go. I wanted to jump on a bed again. I wanted to jump up and down, not move forward.

"You know what?" I said. "We're going to Mohonk."

"Why?" my husband asked.

"Because that's the first thing I thought of." And I said it in the tone of someone who is accustomed to announcing decisions that should probably have been made democratically, if it weren't for the fact that democracy just slows things down.

Mohonk it was. Mohonk, that old stalwart in the Hudson Valley just two hours from our home in New Jersey. The image on the website showed the tall, cascading hotel, now a National Historic Landmark, reflected in a silver lake.

The place didn't seem to have changed in all these years. Still owned by the same family, the Smileys, who built it back in 1869. Still those 85 miles of trails. Still the Quaker design and wholesome mentality: No TVs in most bedrooms. No video games in the family room. Just some trails and some ice-skating. Food taken care of by the resort's three-meal dining system, included in the cost.

I looked at Mohonk and the thing I found most beautiful was how contained and finite it was. Yes, by choosing Mohonk it felt like I could instantly reduce all the other choices. Except it didn't quite go that way.

From left: A chef station at lunch; breakfast in the main dining room. | Credit: Amanda Villarosa

A pang of remembrance for my grandmother and Sid shot through my sternum as we wound around the pastoral road leading to the lodge. We passed through the gatehouse, and I realized that it was quite wonderful to arrive in the front seat of a car at a place you'd only ever seen from the back. It was a moment that seemed to confirm the continuity of life—that something you loved as a child was something you could still love as an adult.

We checked in to our room, then went back down to the lobby and found a class on how to decorate gingerbread houses in one of the large ground-floor parlor rooms. So we sat down to decorate our own (it was our first time; we're Jewish). My nine-year-old got to talking to the family next to us. He reached over to grab a handful of Reese's Pieces and said to me, "These people come here every year." And I wondered why we didn't.

I wondered how I had determined that there was so much else to see in the world that I had forgone the comfort of being somewhere I once liked. That's the danger of a vacation, isn't it? If you like a place, it serves only to remind you of all the other places you haven't yet experienced.

On a table in the lobby, we found a menu of the day's activities. Mohonk doesn't have downhill skiing, but it has a bazillion other winter offerings, all of them thoughtfully executed.

Here is a sampling of what was on the schedule the day after we arrived: a one-mile hike; a four-mile hike; ice-skating on the hotel's very own rink; a tour of the Barn Museum, which has a collection of old-time carriages and a Ford Model A; a yoga class; swimming; a tour of the hotel; a meditation class; curling; cross-country skiing; a sip & paint session; afternoon tea; a tai chi class; a game of broomball; a Hanukkah celebration; a comedy performance; a movie. (In summer, there are lake activities available, plus tennis courts and golf and disc-golf courses.)

From left: Guests can use snow spikes for winter hikes in the Shawangunk Mountains; a fireplace in the Lake Lounge. | Credit: Amanda Villarosa

Back in our room, my husband unpacked while I sat on the bed and read the activity sheet.

"We could do a hike," I said.

"That sounds good."

"The hike is at 1 o'clock," I said, looking at my watch. "Our lunch is at 12:45, though."

"Can we get a different reservation?"

I called, but the dining room was going to close at 2, and there was nothing earlier. We decided we'd do the 3 p.m. hike.

After lunch, we returned to our room. My older son made the cogent argument that it was cold and that the pool was practically empty and it was vacation and couldn't we pleeeeeeease go swimming? My husband and I looked at each other. There were worse things in the world than lying on an indoor chaise and watching our kids play in the pool. We slumped magnificently in our chairs as the light drifted in through the windows to the soft sound of splashing. My body relented and I fell asleep. When I woke up, I realized that we'd not only missed the 3 p.m. hike but were, in fact, in danger of being late for our 6 p.m. dinner reservation.

We ate in the American bistro-style section of the cavernous eating room, near a window that looked out over the hiking trails—now covered in darkness. We lit our menorah, and the waitstaff brought us course after course, changing out a soup for a salad and giving my 12-year-old a burger that wasn't on the menu. Tomorrow, we decided. Tomorrow we would hike.

It was wonderful. So what went wrong? Why did I fall apart?

From left: The indoor pool; Quaker design in a guest room. | Credit: Amanda Villarosa

The next morning, the daily activity schedule in my hand, I began to have palpitations over the amount of choices before me. Let's pick two things to do, my husband said. Sure, I replied, and picked the 4:30 tea and cookies in front of the fire, which was exactly the kind of thing I pictured when I booked this not-inexpensive vacation.

We eventually decided our other activity should be the "aqua chi" class, only to find out upon arrival that we'd missed the symbol on the schedule that indicated that you have to be at least 16 to take part. I raised my fists at the heavens and bellowed because, by choosing this, we'd forgone a tour of the property's art collection, and we couldn't even use the pool. I was inconsolable.

I needed purpose, so I marched us to the hut where they give you micro-spikes to go over your shoes. We got there in plenty of time for the 2 p.m. hike, which was led by the exact type of person who works at Mohonk: a nature-obsessed son of the surrounding Shawangunk Mountains, who has been at the hotel so long he knows every tree on the property and how each has changed over time and with the seasons. We were marching along, taking pictures and listening to fragments of natural history, when we arrived at a fork.

Half the group wanted to extend the two-mile hike into a four-mile hike, and our leader blessed them to go on. We had to decide if we wanted to join them or not. I let out a low moan; my husband announced to the leader that we'd be continuing with him. We finished the hike to learn we'd just missed a window in which my husband and older son could have learned to ice-skate. Now, they'd have to wait till 4 p.m. for a lesson. But that left a mere half-hour before tea and cookies in front of the fire.

"We'll do the lesson," my husband said. "It's only a half-hour, and then we'll make it back for the last few minutes of tea."

Ice-skaters in Mohonk’s open-air pavilion. | Credit: Amanda Villarosa

"No," I said. "We'll have to pay and take off the skates and return them, walk back to the lodge, and besides, 4:30 is 4:30 is 4:30. I have learned nothing in my time on earth but the fact that 4:30 is 4:30, and that 5 o'clock comes right after it."

At this, I began to cry. Not for any good reason, just the fact that I didn't know what to do or what I should want to do. Even in this place, which I chose because it seemed like a simple option, I was still overwhelmed. But I couldn't explain it then, so instead I said, "Okay, ice-skating it is."

My husband gave me the wide-eyed look that he gives when he is trying to control a force he doesn't quite understand. It was only ice-skating. It was only a vacation.

"Why don't you stay here and take it easy?" He couched it as a question, but it was really an answer.

I went up to the room and got my book. I went downstairs to the parlor where they were setting up tea and cookies. How quaint, how perfect. Tea and cookies at 4:30 p.m.

From left: Ice skates for rent at the Skate Shop; afternoon tea. | Credit: Amanda Villarosa

My husband and sons returned after tea hour was finished, and I had made it through a chapter of my book. I'd forgotten how hard it is to treat vacation like vacation. It's easy for me to put work aside, but the other things that are arduous that have come to define my life—parenting, wifing, interacting, scheduling, doing—are things I rarely know how to categorize, much less confine to their corners.

My children came back from the ice-skating lesson talking about a glove that they saw on the way. Someone had dropped it.

"I wonder if that guy ever figured it out," my nine-year-old said. "Walking around with one glove."

"What a dummy," the 12-year-old agreed.

They didn't realize they'd missed tea and cookies. That night, at dinner, that was the whole of our dinner conversation: imagining the life of the lost glove.

Walking back through the hotel, we found a billiard room that was nearly empty, and so my husband taught our sons how to play pool. An hour or so later, the boys ran the length of one of Mohonk's hallways, with their wildly patterned carpets, and my husband and I walked behind, holding hands.

From left: A porch overlooking Lake Mohonk; a staircase in Mohonk's main building. | Credit: Amanda Villarosa

As I watched them, immersed in this totally unplanned, completely spontaneous activity, I finally understood: I had seen the various options as an extension of the control I was expected to keep over my life and my family's life all the time. I had forgotten that on vacation, there are no stakes attached.

Can you blame me? I spend my time thinking about who needs to get where and how long it will take. I am perpetually weighing up which opportunity is missed when we make one small decision: say, basketball instead of soccer, or dinner at home instead of at a restaurant; going to sleep or studying more; exercising or finishing that day's writing assignment. I was exhausted. In these moments when I had time to think, when I was faced with a glorious place to rest, I was still overwhelmed.

There are so many choices—a paradise of them, an embarrassment of them. Sometimes those options are ways to make us bigger and better and more productive; in this case, they were designed to give us a sense of relaxation we couldn't achieve in our normal lives. The point is, the choices are always there. They live within every day of work, every weekend, every vacation we take. A great vacation is a place where the choices lose their terrible, usual implications—that every road taken is also a road lost. On vacation, there are no roads not taken. There is only what you decided to do that day.

It was in that way that I returned to Mohonk as an adult and came out a child again. I remembered that night 40 years before, when I jumped on the bed. Somebody had tried to scream consequences into me, but I was incapable of understanding. Now I understood the consequences of it all, and the experience was far richer. You should try this; go somewhere and, once you arrive, just be a driven leaf. I vowed to spend the remainder of our time there in the moment.

And then, just like that, my choices were taken away. That night, our nine-year-old slammed the bathroom door in defiance of our gentle suggestion that a shower would be more expeditious than a bath, and caught his pinkie between the door and the doorframe. Within a few short minutes, I was holding his finger together as an EMT advised me to breathe. (There are a lot of ways to choose a vacation, but if you have nine- and 12-year-old boys, it is not unreasonable to choose a place that has EMTs on the property.)

I had a lot of time to think on that 40-minute ambulance ride and subsequent five-hour wait at the Vassar emergency room, and I thought about how lucky I was that I had choices, and also that I could be lucky and still be crippled by the overwhelming questions about how to spend my time, which are, at their heart, really questions about how to live.

It's months later. When we talk about Mohonk, we never mention the things we didn't do. Now that we haven't been able to travel, or even plan to travel, for months, I feel silly just remembering that I had mixed feelings about a simple jaunt to a beautiful house upstate. But if you ask us about the single glove they found one day on their short, unplanned walk home from the ice-skating rink, you'll hear the story of an excellent vacation.

Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz, New York. Doubles from $574, meals and most activities included.

A version of this story first appeared in the January 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Cold Comfort.