Williamstown sees a quixotic start to a New Year

A traveler contemplates a dented, mildewed breast-plate and cuisses (thigh armor) piled on a watering trough. He paces around the inn yard on a hot and still night, wearing a paste-board helmet that sticks to his sweating forehead. I imagine the inn as a low-slung building with dust ground into the stucco and water stains on the tiled roof and black-and-white storks nesting in the chimney.

From inside a bar room a group of us are watching him and laughing. Where we’re sitting a fire burns in the fireplace, and the lights are warm and dim in the high ceilings. On a hard-frost night in January we are sitting in a circle at the Log and reading Don Quixote. We take it in turns to read aloud as he faces down mule drivers who bring their teams to the watering trough, and an innkeeper with the soul of a pickpocket solemnly dubs him a knight.

Around me people are saying I didn’t know the book is so funny. They sip coffee and glass mugs of beer, and I look up at the banners on the brick wall and think I didn’t know the Log is a bar. I know where the name comes from — U.S. President Garfield saying the best possible college would be Williams president Mark Taylor at one end of a log and a student at the other. But I know the Log as a place for student lunches and conversations about sustainability and ecological change. This warm wood-pannelled room where community people are drinking spiced cider is new to me.

This town is new to me, and I’ve lived here before. I’m a Williams alum, and after college I stayed four years while I worked as a cub reporter at the old Berkshire Advocate. That was 12 years ago. I left for coastal New Hampshire to get my MFA along the Oyster River, and I came back to become editor of Berkshires Week and get to know Pittsfield from the inside.

The Berkshires’ central small city had grown while I was out of state — new theaters, a downtown festival that draws thousands, a major renovation of the museum, a sweeping change in city government … and since then a new movie cinema, 10×10 and WordxWord and jazz festivals, Shakespeare in the park in summer, restaurants from Malaysia, Columbia, Mexico, Japan, Italy and Spain, a monthly arts walk and a farmers market that has just become year round and a bronze sculpture of a dancing woman …

I would come through Williamstown on the job often enough. I know the museums and the coffee shop, Cricket Creek Farm and the Taconic Crest Trail. Now and then I’d come to campus to look out the three-story windows at the new library. Last spring at River Fest I found the walking trail along the Hoosic for the first time. And yet I’m still trying to get my bearings.

In December I moved back to Williamstown at the winter solstice, just before the holidays. I’ve moved with a friend into a roomy half-a-house where the landlord keeps a contented flock of chickens and a big goofy black dog and a garden. It’s an old place, full of wood and light.

Monday night after the reading I walked home in the dark with my scarf wrapped close against the wind and thought about Don Quixote sweating and stumbling in dry hills with twisted olive trees and blunt fields of sunflowers. When he sets out on his rail-thin Roscinante, everything around him seems unfamiliar, and yet he is traveling within a day’s easy ride of his house. He does not recognize the inn or the farmer next door. Everything he sees becomes an adventure.

Maybe I find some fellow feeling in the book, in the surreal sense that the world has spun on its axis and come down in a new direction. But I would not want to see the world distorted, as Quixote does. I would not want to mistake a rundown inn for a castle — the real trick is to find magic in the inn and humor in the scalawag innkeeper. That’s why Don Quixote is mad and Miguel Cervantes is a genius.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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