Like many moved to the region from New York City, I was drawn here by dreams of an idyllic rural lifestyle. Mind you, this was before the Internet. The day I drove a U-Haul north from Brooklyn nearly 30 years ago was a flood event. Yet my second-floor rental overlooking a raging creek stayed dry and warm, with a small woodstove and non-interrupted electricity to run a folksy soundtrack during my unpacking.
After a decade of living in city hovels, I thrilled at the chores of my new life: finding furniture from auctions and yard sales, lending homey touches to a badly renovated space, and chopping endless cords of wood. But within a year I wanted more: a full house. I rented again, this time deeper in the woods to an old three-bedroom log cabin. I redid windows, put in a bathtub, redid a porch and veranda, and eventually put in a large garden with a fence around it. I hosted piles of friends intent on making their own moves to the area.
Within another two years I wanted even more house. With the help of family, I bought my own place even deeper into the mountains, a good 15-minute drive to the nearest store. That old seven-bedroom boarding house, surrounded by a cemetery and left vacant after several previous attempts at habitation by couples who only found divorce, came with its own yard-sale finds and auction furniture.
It took more than a month for me just to get its systems up and running adequately for basic living. The structure itself had to be bolted back together and placed back up onto its fieldstone foundation. Its old boiler, set in a room at the center of the 150-year-old clapboard building, was in need of a good cleaning.
The shed kitchen got not only a scrubbing but also a jerry-rigged center island painted blue and yellow to mimic the then-new craze for this place called Ikea. It got an even more improvised sink and cabinets. Everything, including the battered floors, got coats of paint.
I never had the money to fix that old cemetery house up as it deserved. Later buyers would do that. But I lasted there ten years.
Then I met my wife-to-be and moved out of the mountains to a former schoolhouse a bit closer to others, and to towns. Even more home-improvement projects swallowed our lives, including the building of a new bedroom/office wing, the completion of an outside studio, and plenty of interior upgrades.
Then we found ourselves with a newborn, after which everything changed.
I moved back into town from the country because of childproofing worries. Plus, an author friend talked a bit too convincingly about how the end of time was nigh, which got me looking at our old schoolhouse in the woods with new eyes.
We set our wee one up in what had been my office, now an ante-room to our new bedroom, with a strange bed ledge that just happened to be the perfect height for diaper changes. We added a new sink, in a back bathroom, that was the perfect size for bathing babies in. And over the next year everything was cozy and perfect.
When young Milo learned to crawl, we noticed how many rock surfaces there were in our home. There seemed to be stairs everywhere, plus weeds and more rocks outside, not to mention a woodstove at the center of everything, giant old overheated radiators, and that bedroom we had to tiptoe through to get to ours.
We spent many nights trying to figure out how to reconfigure our home to fit our new reality. And then our friend Jim came for dinner, wanting to see the baby.
The man had just published a series of pieces about how oil was running out and about how American lifestyles needed to change dramatically. He talked about starting a series of novels to explicate his theories, and then ranted on about how the biggest hits would be taken by American cities, so vertical and separated were they from food sources. He also was critical of modern rural residences, reliant on deep wells that needed electricity to work. He noted the dependence of a nearly extinct sense of local community for supplies.
After Jim left, I lay in bed wondering what would be involved putting a cistern into our old belfry, now used as an aerie for watching videos. Could we run electricity up a hill a quarter-mile from the fast-paced creek our property touched upon? Would vendors eventually start taking a horse and carriage out to areas like ours, distributing food stuffs and hardware supplies like they had until a century back?
Within a fortnight we started looking into village homes around the area.
The first few weeks in our new home up on a hill in Catskill, overlooking the Catskills I used to inhabit, were as disconcerting as might be expected. Even the two months we spent preparing the place by stripping wallpaper and painting, moving walls and completely redoing a huge kitchen room from a Sizzler Steakhouse-like monstrosity with Tiki overtones into a Scandinavian-themed loft space, hadn’t prepared us for the forgotten phenomenon of streetlights blocking stars, fire sirens and train whistles, arguing neighbors, or the awkward sound of the manhole cover thwapping at odd moments all night long out front.
Our kid loved the carpeting in that loft-like kitchen space, where he could bound about while we cooked dinner. He had his own room, across a hall from ours. We could all walk to Main Street in five minutes to see a movie, or get ice cream, and walk ten minutes in another direction to a pre-school. There were other kids in the neighborhood. We even had a wall fireplace that could be turned on and off with a remote control, third-floor guest rooms and studio spaces, and renters on our second floor to pay most of the mortgage each month.
Did our efforts involve renovation work? Of course it did. Houses, especially those over 150 years old in their bones, need work. We’ve had to paint the place, fix pipes and ice-dam situations that flooded my kid’s bedroom, put in fences for our dog, and spend a decade puzzling out how to solve a leaking spot in that giant kitchen that we’ve finally admitted will require a whole new roof. We might also install solar paneling.
We’ve done some things right, redoing the top-floor guest rooms for Airbnb use, and then securing a long-term rental tenant, which turned the whole place into something not unlike a boarding house. We switched our heat to natural gas. We shifted our gardens, and expanded them. We put in a playset for the kid (we’re now thinking about replacing it with a pool of some sort). We have to start painting again after a decade.
Occasionally we bring up the idea of moving somewhere else. Our son will have none of it. He learned to walk here, to read and play here, to watch television and spend hours on smartphones and other electronic devices here. He has friends nearby and can now walk down to Main Street himself. The place keeps paying for itself, with our “boarders” now friends sharing in the house and its chores.
Do we miss living in the country? Not at all. We can see it out our kitchen, from our big back yard. Or smell it, this time of year, whenever a skunk clambers through the yard.
We actually spend more time in rural settings than before, taking drives out to favorite hiking spots to run the dog or spend family days by and in creeks or fields, or along the mighty river that runs by our town.
Our friend Jim ended up writing those novels about a dystopian America returned to small towns like those in the Hudson Valley. And I often lie in bed at night figuring out how our town could harness its waterfalls, or the Hudson’s flow, should the electricity ever go out. Or run passenger trains and day boats to other places. The electricity has never gone out in our home, by the way, not even for an hour.
What I miss, though, is renting. I miss not owning. I’m tired of being responsible for house repairs and for the comforts of my own renters. But that’s another story, one beyond childproofing worries, let alone the dystopian dreams of a broken America approaching.