An Ode to New Paltz, 5 Years Later

time-fliesBy Maria Pianelli

I started college five years ago this week. Five internships, two jobs, a degree and a mountain tattoo later, what a strange, beautiful trip it’s been. I began a city girl, embedded within the East Coast and never seeing more than what was in front of me. A dreamer, shy, head in the clouds and constantly worried of what others thought of me. I had a hard time in middle school, not quite meeting the standards of Staten Island beauty with my long, wavy hair, dislike of mainstream music and quick grasp of all things intellectual. I retreated back in my shell, hoarding words like weapons and careful not to meet others’ eyes. High school was easier, but within me grew a frustration, a longing for something more than the moment and a greater celebration of life and all its inhabitants.

Come graduation, I had enough. My friends were already a year removed, deep within their own college experiences, and I skipped my own prom. New Paltz itself had been a happy accident, a passing anecdote at a friend’s graduation party the year before.

“I toured New Paltz,” Mike has said. “Cool college, but full of hippies.”

I had never thought of myself as a hippie, but I had seen them on TV, bursts of color brightening the silver screen. Free-spirited and brimming with unabashed confidence, they were as far from Staten Island stereotypes as you could get.

New Paltz became a mental note in my planner — cool place upstate, if you have a free Saturday, check it out — and sometime between September and October 2010, I did.

It was a single construction paper sign that struck me, nestled in the corner of a campus dormitory. At this point, I had toured an excess of colleges dotting the east coast, each showier than the next. They were quick to impress with their 5-star dining halls and notable alumni. But while New Paltz boasted about the same textbook I used in AP Bio, my eyes traced the unassuming notice:

Apple Picking Trip, Saturday, Meet in Lobby

Perhaps it wasn’t even meant for me to see, but in that moment, images of orchards flooded my thoughts. My hair billowing in the Ulster breeze; hiking; exploring the great outdoors; lying on the quad, book clasped in hand. The reprieve of city and the comfort of simplicity intrigued me. And for the first time in an endless slew of tours, I was able to picture myself in a place so vastly different from home.

And so the city girl moved to the mountains. Somewhere between 19 and 23, I stopped caring what others thought of me, a confidence I fully credit to those years. I fell in love with the mid-Hudson Valley and all the art and opportunities she had to offer. I frequented farmers markets, went — religiously — to open mikes and found friends as wonderfully weird as me. I embraced the person I always wanted to be — never apologizing; never overthinking; doing, not simply dreaming. I no longer fled the moment, in search of something more — I chased it, inserted myself fully into every breath.

Among the mountains, millions of years old, everyone is small. Everything falls into perspective. I spent my weekends in the Gunks, hiking with my parents, classmates and friends. I lay in fields and on the roofs of cars, gazing blissfully at the stars. Galaxies opened before me, splattered planets and suns previously unknown to naked eyes. I drove up spiraling country roads in pursuit of barns filled with music, strange and beautiful. I learned what it was to love a way of life and embody the creativity bubbling through my veins.

I was only on campus two-and-a-half years and in college for three before I settled back in New York with a promising internship and an early degree. People often misunderstand when I told them of my early departure, unsure why someone would want to rush those formative years along. But it wasn’t that at all. I longed to live them so fully, I ravaged through, hungry for more more more until there was nothing left.

It’s been five years, but it feels like a lifetime. And as I glance at the tattoo on my wrist, skin still puckered and raised, I know with a full heart that I made the right decision.

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