As I drive around from job to job, often herding kids to a widening array of events, I like to remember what pulled me up here to the Hudson Valley. I also like to ask friends and colleagues who live elsewhere what they think of this place.
I’ve been flummoxed for years now about the many requests for home exchanges we’ve gotten. People from sunny Rome wanting to spend the mud season here? Owners of a a twelfth-century farm in Burgundy pining away for Catskill in July or August? Really?
When I was newly settled in the Catskills, I liked to drive incessantly as a means of exploration. I loved the way mountain landscapes mixed elements of my previous homes in Alaska, Virginia and Ohio. There was also an urban residue and sophistication not encountered by me in other parts of the country. Friends would come up regularly. We all seemed to have more time on hand in those days before omnipresent electronics, before careers instead of jobs. Or before kids.
We’d hike trails up to long vistas, or past the ruins of storied 19th-century hotels. We’d take long drives to crossroads hamlets that felt like ghost towns, trying to see the strata of old land patterns, the era of settlement, the Empire-State booms of agriculture and industry followed by decades of stagnation. We delighted in finding hole-in-the-wall French or German restaurants opened by earlier transplants from the city, and peopled by similar exurbanites like us. My experiences increased my affection for the region.
How do we survive as a destination? This is where those new travel phenomena come in. In addition to home exchanges with families in Rome, Paris and Lisbon, and several in NYC, my family has entertained a stream of requests from Amsterdam, Germany, Hong Kong, Montreal, London, the Loire Valley, and Spain. Our Airbnb listing for a bedroom/living room/porch combination on our top floor has attracted visitors and inquiries from all over the world. What are they looking for when they come to stay? And what do we suggest they do once they are here?
Most coming here from the Airbnb rental are looking to get out of the city for a night or two, or looking to break up their journeys while traveling between places. They like the look of the house as posted in our listing, and the porch view of the Catskills, even in winter. They note how close we are to Woodstock, Kingston and Hudson, which seem to be on the radar now. Curiously, they say they’ve heard a bit about Catskill, and not just mistaken the name of the village and town with the mountains.
The exchangers from abroad are either visiting friends and family in the general area, looking for a bit of time outside urban areas, or looking for homes like their own that are big and roomy and good for kids, with access to fun things to do. They understand the attraction we feel for their places, be they in Amsterdam or the French countryside, or even in Rome or Lisbon. We’re talking casual abodes with lots of art and decent kitchens, toys and yards and places to walk to, like our Main Street, or views of the Hudson River a couple of blocks away.
When they arrive, we give them a listing of local restaurants to try out, quiet places that aren’t too expensive. We point out our village’s old-style movie theater. We suggest some events happening within a half-hour radius, but then note how people would rather stick close to one place. We suggest trails, the brewery up the road, Friday-night art openings, and maybe a few small nearby museums. We also provide a library of travel books and histories of the region, local newspapers, and special sections like this one.
You know what’s surprising? Just as old friends have retained a great sense of where we live through memory, vowing to make it back once their lives grow less harried (and we make trips to where they now live), so our own memories sharpen with each new guest who comes … and each suggestion we make of a side trip they might find magical.
From where do those treasured experiences come? More often than not, they come from the deep reservoirs of memories and experiences that old friends have shared with us. We pass on to new people what we’ve decanted from old friends who for one reason or another no longer spend as much time here as they used to.
When I ask old friends about my home turf, they fall back on memories. Working now in the city or Bay area, filing stories out of London or balancing childrearing and artist incomes in France or Florida, they note how hard it’s become to get up here as much as they used to. They bring up the quieter joys found in their memories: a picnic by the Hudson, cross-country skiing along an old rail-trail, sitting on the edge of a deep Catskills waterfall, or just hanging out over drinks and something grilling in our, their or someone else’s backyard.
They all see the area as “sweet,” whatever that means, homey with nice restaurants and a good crowd of people. They note favorite bookstores they’ve visited, quiet swimming holes we’ve taken them to, great restaurants and farm markets, good breweries, and a relaxed lifestyle they acknowledge as compensating for the lesser earnings we all make here. They acknowledge they’ve started coming up less than they used to, drawn away by frequent-flyer miles, by expanded wanderlust and by bucket lists. They head off elsewhere when they can. We tend to see them more often than not in the off seasons.
The people in Albany where I keep a desk several days a week talk about restaurants in Hudson, skiing and hiking in the Catskills or the Taconics, and occasional field trips down to hear music around Woodstock or Bard. I hear about the rope courses that their kids like, and about tubing the Esopus. Those based in Albany who used to head north or west more often than not tell me that southward attractions have recently gained more pull for them.
Some faroff relatives, not the traveling kind, see where we live as “the sticks.” Excepting those annual occasions when families gather to sit around on couches and laugh about their various life challenges, they head for bigger cities or more exotic locations. Those few that like to go places get a kick out of our local fairs and gallery scenes, chamber music outings and college campuses. They have grown tired of the many fireworks we can see from our front and back porches all summer long.