My roommate said to me last night: “I was just awakened by the wind.” I lived in Manhattan 35 years, and no wind ever woke me up. If you move to the Hudson Valley, you’ll be amazed how much moving air can sound like a massive battleship 300 feet high crashing into a mountain.
In fact, there are many surprises in the Catskills. If you’re considering moving up here, read this article carefully – perhaps even twice!
For one thing, bring a sweater. The whole climatological system in Ulster County is like a massive air conditioner. I sleep under two blankets, two quilts, a heavy green curtain, a thick bedspread, plus an unzipped sleeping bag – and that’s in August!
You will never be disturbed by upstairs or downstairs neighbors, because you won’t have any. The closest humans will be about 50 feet away, and will be perfectly benign, except for playing a little heavy-metal music on a Saturday night – and even that you won’t hear from your bedroom.
Also, time is different here. Out in Western civilization, everyone complains that they “have no time.” Here, time is generous and abundant. A typical Tuesday evening is as interminable as your brother-in-law’s slideshow of his recent visit to Poland.
Here in Phoenicia, we have too much water and too much time – especially in winter, when the hours stretch endlessly in all directions, like the great icy plains of Antarctica. I suggest you stock your garage (or attic) with piles of books: Latin-American history, rock biographies, feminist mystery novels, opera librettos. And not just books. Also CDs, cassette tapes, DVDs. You’re going to need amusement, and it should be varied.
Visual art is different in these parts. What lower Manhattan calls “art” means nothing up here, and vice versa. A person who can paint a landscape with a red barn that nicely captures the afternoon light is considered an artist in Woodstock. Down in Chelsea, such people are derisively called “Sunday painters.” City artists must study the history of neo-conceptualism before they attempt their first art installation. (No one paints in Brooklyn any more, except ironically.)
Even if you aren’t a menstruating woman, you will develop a very close relationship with the moon. Three nights out of the month, the moon is unimaginably lustrous, so bright it casts a shadow. On the other hand, for three nights out of the month the night is completely dark. You can get lost in your own back yard.
Warning: trees may begin speaking to you. It happened to me after six years here. Nowadays, a tree in my back yard offers me advice almost daily. I asked her if she wished to speak for this article, and she said (to all of you), “Do everything slowfully.”
You will go years without seeing an airplane overhead, though occasionally a black helicopter will fly mysteriously low over your valley, which will plunge you into 20 minutes of anxiety about the NSA.
Which reminds me – all of your new friends will be conspiracy theorists, and you’ll “learn” a lot about the Federal Reserve. Remember: whenever anyone says, “I’m doing a lot of research on the Internet,” it means they’re losing their mind.
Upstate radio is quite odd. During the day in Phoenicia, only one station comes in clearly: K104, hit radio for teenagers, from Poughkeepsie. At night, however, tantalizing frequencies from distant cities suddenly appear: French news from Montréal, Cleveland Indians baseball games, 1930s radio serials rebroadcast from Toronto, WWVA from Wheeling, West Virginia (now entirely Christian), Chinese voices, Bloomberg Radio. Often the stations appear, flourish and dissolve into static within minutes. It’s like new outtakes from the Beatles’ “Revolution No. 9” every night!
The good news is there are no cockroaches in Ulster County. The bad news is the mice. You’re up against a long and arduous battle with rodents, unless you give up completely or adopt a cat. Each night you must scrupulously sponge the stove. Otherwise you’ll awaken to tiny cigar-shaped turds beside your burners.
My wife and I have evolved past have-a-heart traps, because we’d compassionately carry the trapped mice outside, release them, and watch them sneak back in the kitchen. So we bought old-fashioned murderous traps. Our long-tailed enemies grew smarter and stopped getting caught. (Still, they manage to eat the peanut-butter bait. By setting mousetraps, we’re feeding the mice!) As those who have followed American history in the last 40 years know, it’s very difficult to win against a disciplined guerrilla army.
In the city, one sometimes sees a celebrity. In the mountains, one occasionally meets a bear. Bears have essentially the same digestive system we do, which means they eat exactly the way you would if you’d never read a book on nutrition. Their preferred diet is pizza, chicken nuggets, Snickers bars – and every day they go dumpster-diving in Phoenicia, searching for these delicacies.
This has been a big bear season for me. My friend Mack and I went walking in Phoenicia Park one day, as a “teenage” bear cavorted nearby. He stood on his hind legs, reaching up to a tree. He lay on the ground, and he paced about. At one point – as we sat on a bench – he walked right towards us, either through aggression or myopia. We didn’t flinch, and he drifted off to the right. A bear is a fine companion on a Wednesday afternoon, I learned.
The next week, the smallest, cutest bear I’ve ever seen bounded in front of my car near the Salamander Pond in Allaben. I’d heard that many cubs have been abandoned this year. This was one such orphan.
New York City gets impressive sunsets, due to the thickly toxic atmosphere of New Jersey, but in the Catskills a mountain stands between oneself and the setting sun, so all you see are vaguely pink patches above. But at night, the stars are close – closer than the ones on the ceiling of Grand Central Station. And dawn is glorious, with its chill air and voluminous dew. It’s like the birth of the world.
So move up to the Hudson Valley. But if possible do it slowfully.