Collection of the author
We arrive in Lily Dale in the afternoon, a week before Memorial Day which marks the beginning of the season, so we are early. Having seen the films Rose sent me links to, of the crowds at the height of the season, I am glad. We would have had a very different experience had we visited even a week later. We would have been caught up in the midst of the tourists and what happened would have been muddied and muddled. More muddled and less – how shall I say it? Less convincing. In the off-season the rows of cottages, most dating from the turn of the last century or earlier, are empty, few residents have returned for the summer; the day is overcast, the air still heavy with spring, with lilacs, with a quiet damp greenness, the gravel and dirt streets with patches of asphalt settled and still, not about to rise up in summer dust underfoot. Lily Dale is a stage set before the show, before the audience arrives; it is a place undiscovered. Lily Dale, when Rose and I finally get there, out of season, reminds me of the stories I read as a child about a lakeside community that went away and was found again by children, a real but almost magical place that was lost and forgotten and rediscovered. Gone-Away Lake (1957) and Return to Gone-Away Lake (1961), a Victorian summer resort lost and forgotten when the lake receded and turned to swamp, and nature grew up and hid the gingerbread cottages from the outside world.
Lily Dale has a lake, not overtaken by cattails, empty of boats but gently agitated by the breeze. A duck family cruises the grassy shoreline; a gazebo sits poised for the view of a not so distant shoreline under an overcast sky. A couple clapboard hotels with broad porches (closed at the moment) wait for the season to begin.
Today the air in Los Angeles, gray from the morning marine layer, carries the same expectation, the same waiting.
Have I been here before? I wonder as we pull through the gate. We are not far from another 19th century town on another lake – Chatauqua – where Mother and I did visit a number of times when I was young. A religious community that gave its name to traveling religious revival gatherings in the early days of the last century. Did she ever say, we’re so close, let’s go to Lily Dale? The memory grows slowly. To go to Chatauqua means going to Mayville and Mayville is to Chatauqua as Cassadaga is to Lily Dale – they are the towns before the communities, the places you go to in order to reach the place you are going. The Venn Diagrams of Village, Town and Township within the larger jurisdictions of counties in upstate New York are complicated. Change obscures original intent. Cassadaga – the Seneca Indian word for “water under rocks” was founded at the headwaters of the Cassadaga Creek, originally navigable but no longer, thanks to beavers. That said, a place becomes a place out of proximity. Here we will settle at the headwaters, or, here we will be with our fine view of the water beyond, the vista below. And then – perhaps long enough after for everyone to settle and unpack – some errant outlier, some adventurous member of the party says, let’s get closer, and moves to the water’s edge. It is always this way with people when it comes to water: one group goes for distance, for view, and one group goes close. Going close, of course, comes with risks: the water rises and you are gone beneath; the water recedes and you are forgotten. The lake is gone-away and so are you.
The village of Mayville, founded in 1804, is more impressive than Cassadaga, truth be told, and commands a picturesque view of the lake beyond. The broad avenue descends majestically to the lake below and was laid out with ambition, the older homes set back dramatically in anticipation of some imagined grand boulevard that never materialized, the rolling lawns now embracing spindly sidewalks and a street that seems to have been allotted much more room than it needs. The effect suggests a distortion in Time: are we looking at Before or After? Is this open space a sign to archaeologists, like a change in vegetation in a satellite photograph, of all that remains of a once-thriving, ancient metropolis, the thoroughfare an enticing shadow in the landscape, a path cut by Man and reclaimed by Nature, a long-ago piece of Roman road built by soldiers and slaves and crowded with chariots and carts and horses and wagons and thieves and armies and a Lost Tribe? Or the reverse: a bold vision of city planners of a future that never happened?
Everywhere we go on this trip, we are confronted with the matter of scale. The reverse of Hollywood, where everyone is so much shorter and smaller than you imagine, here everything seems bigger than the pictures, bigger than necessary. Signs for town limits appear in open countryside, miles before any evidence of civilization or a crossroads with a gas station even. Broad streets for no reason. Massive Masonic temples (for sale, cheap). Imposing mansions behind the gas station when you do find one. Scale too big for today, for us, partly because we are traveling by Subaru instead of horse or train or on foot. Mode of transportation changes everything. Technology and Time alter the relationship between us and the world, between man and landscape: we are moving faster and riding lower to the ground than anyone did in 1804. Or in 1879 when Lily Dale was incorporated as Cassadaga Lake Free Association, a camp and meeting place for Spiritualists and Freethinkers. Or in 1903 when the name was changed to The City of Light and finally to Lily Dale Assembly in 1906.
Or in 1904.