The rocky hills of home

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

There’s a common story about how people end up living in the Catskills. They visit, drawn up to the mountains by a friend or a vacation or a wedding they attended. They eat the fruits of Faerie, and they are enchanted. They start spending weekends, then summers. They buy some property. They begin to fantasize: “What if we could be here all the time?”

Not me.

I grew up here, with a childhood full of clear running streams and meadows of fireflies and the Milky Way draped like a glittering shawl of mist over the mountains. And then I left, headed for somewhere a person like me could find a date, or a university, or even a decent espresso, muttering “Good riddance” under my breath. Couldn’t get out fast enough.

Coming back home was a rough landing. It took me a few tries to get it right. The ground around here is rocky and hard, and famously tough to put down roots in. Home is beloved, home is many things, but it isn’t comfortable.


When you grow up queer in a rural place, home is always fraught. Plenty of people raised an eyebrow when I decided to move back home, but none so emphatically as my own mother, who grew up here herself, and who ought to know. “Are you going to send Ruby to Margaretville School?” she asked me incredulously, as if it hadn’t occurred to me that a small-town school might be rough on a kid with two moms.

I do worry. Of course I worry. She is beloved at that school, but you never know what fate has in store.

Whenever I fret about my daughter, I remind myself that we’ve always been here. I recently came across my late great-uncle Cliff, notorious town gender deviant, in a 1960 history of Margaretville by Ethel H. Bussy.

“Our present day character is Clifton Birdsall who keeps bachelor hall, bakes, sews, crochets and does tatting,” Bussy writes, leaving plenty of room to read between the lines. “‘Cliff,’ as he is called, was far ahead in the fancy shirt styles and color worn by the men of today, always having on the gayest print shirts that he had made himself. Now he wears shorts, sandals, fancy shirts, and is right up to all the present day styles.”

I don’t know, and can’t quite imagine, what sort of slings and arrows Uncle Cliff had to endure to be an unrepentant Hawaiian-shirt-wearing bachelor in 1950s Margaretville. Family lore holds that his mother left him to his own brother in her will — the implication being that nobody so mentally unstable could possibly look after himself properly.

Margaretville has changed since Uncle Cliff’s day; even since I was a teenager here. So has the world. I’m grateful for that, because I love it here, with a love that feels less like infatuation and more like the hard-earned, tough, fibrous stuff of which marriages are made.

I bartend on weekends at the Union Grove Distillery in Arkville. We have our local regulars, but our crowd is mostly tourists. I like them. For the most part, they’re friendly, they’re here to have a good time, and they’re adorable in their ineptitude. Where can you get takeout, they want to know. Is there Uber? How do you get to “Shandanken”?

Last weekend, I got talking to one of them, a twentysomething out-of-towner with a raffish air who was putting away Moscow Mules at a terrifying pace. “What is there to do around here?” he asked, already incredulous that people would live here voluntarily.

“Oh, there’s stuff to do. But you gotta make your own fun,” I said. At that, he snorted.

It’s true. The best pleasures of the Catskills don’t come neatly packaged for consumption — and I love that about this place, more than just about anything else. We won’t hold your hand. We don’t have axe-throwing bars, but if you want to spend an afternoon drinking PBR and throwing hatchets at trees, nobody’s going to charge you $35 an hour for the privilege.

I think I understand why the mountains feel like an escape, to people who grew up feeling oppressed by noise and action. That would be nice, to look around this little town and feel a sense of tranquility and repose. To me, home is not an escape. In fact, it’s a constant pressure, being recognized constantly, being known everywhere I go by old reputations that my family spent seven generations building.

Most of the things in my life I have sought to get away from were here to begin with. It has been the great miracle of my adult life, discovering that I am grown-up enough after all to come back and live peacefully alongside them.

These days, when the pressure and stress of small-town life become too much for me, I take refuge in blessed anonymity. I go to Manhattan, breathe deep from the scent of pretzel carts and wet sidewalks, and feel the tension melt away from my shoulders as hundreds of people stream past me without making eye contact.

I’ll always come back home. I don’t need to be comfortable to know I belong here.

There are 4 comments

    1. Lissa Harris

      Thanks Don. Christian’s was still around when I was a very tiny kid — I have a vivid sense-memory of sitting at that soda-parlor bar drinking egg creams. I can still smell the place if I close my eyes.

  1. TD

    Why haven’t you written about the Governor’s proposed tax plan? It would change the way State-owned land is taxed. It would be economically ruinous to Catskills and Adirondacks towns. Taxes on State land would be paid via PILOT and grow by the Tax Cap percentage instead of with the LOA applied to other real property. The New York State Assessors Association and many Towns have spoken out against it. Even the dopey Catskill Mountain News has published a decent article about the issue!

    1. Lissa Harris

      I just saw this comment. Why haven’t you written me an email yet?

      (I kid. It’s always delightful to hear from readers. Even if it so often comes in the form of “why haven’t you already done X thing????” I don’t know why. Weak moral fiber, no doubt.)

      You’re absolutely right, that would make a good column topic. It’s been on my list of things to learn more about. Into the hopper it goes.

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