NYS Route 212

By Tove Danovich

Travel

Traveling in a car is like moving through two worlds at the same time. Inside you are mostly still while flashing past houses, people, and trees at almost unthinkable speeds. Entire towns and lakes vanish within minutes. Right now, we’re going sixty on a road made for half of that. The driver and the road controls our movement—the pull of our bodies away from and toward the window each time we run past a curve, the hum of vibrations that goes up through the seat. When I relax my mouth—which isn’t often because the conversation is funny—my teeth chatter against each other with an involuntary click.

We’re driving through upstate New York, trying to find our way to Woodstock. Matt and I have never been and even though Paul tells us that it’s full of hippies and gift shops it’s a good excuse for a drive. “It really shows you what would have happened if the sixties never died.” Paul bought his first and only pair of Birkenstocks there a few years ago but hasn’t been back since.

With Paul behind the wheel of his car, we get lost on the way and end up doing a big loop away from the town and then back toward it again. A five-minute drive becomes an hour long after taking the wrong road at the turnpike. “You need to get a map,” I tell Paul, and he glowers in response.

But getting a little disoriented transforms into a beautiful detour. We drive beside a lake that reminds me of Tahoe; the water is pure crystal with an island of trees in the center. According to a fire station’s sign, we’re in the town of Lake Hill, a place where the GPS on our phones won’t work. None of us can even tell how lost we are.

It’s seventy-five degrees outside. We roll the windows down and it doesn’t take long for my hair to get tangled from the wind in my face. It rolls over each curl, twisting it around until the hairs rub together and felt themselves into knots. With the windows down I can actually feel the speed. To be fair, I’m not sure I could tell the difference between sixty miles an hour and thirty from the wind alone. Colors blur together outside; individual plants and trees turn into streaks of green and brown and yellow. As we speed up, that swaying back and forth in my seat grows more rhythmical. Inside the car it’s still all hum and sleepiness and vibration. It reminds me of being in the rocking chair at home or out on a boat where the waves slap against the wood with a dull splash. Driving gets into your bones that way.

I can finally look down and see the pavement flashing beneath us, turning into one smooth panel instead of the gravelly asphalt that’s actually there. Water’s running right along the road now and I’m glad to have my seatbelt on. Paul’s road crazy again. His usual gruffness vanishes the longer he’s behind the wheel until he actually seems happy, enthusiastic even. It’s as though the road transforms into a racetrack in front of him—the Cliffside highways of Monte Carlo or the sharp angles of Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps track. Only once or twice have I ever told him to slow down. That doesn’t mean I don’t grip the door when he takes an especially sharp turn. It’s a little too easy to imagine this car crashing, tumbling in sideways somersaults down to the water and against all those sharp rocks.

The water rushes over the stones and natural dams of twigs and branches, turning white as it hits them and then flows back the way we came. It’s only a narrow river but the water’s energy gets more concentrated as the sides close in.

A while later in the drive, we pass through the Catskills. I can hear the waterfalls. It’s the first real melt of the season and all that runoff races from the top of the mountains and turns into a dull roar and spray. I love how the sound of water can tell you what type it is. Ocean waves crash against the rocks in a musical way; there’s a rhythm to the bursts of silence between them. Waterfalls stay at a consistent level of sound, static that gets into your ears whenever you stand too close to them.

All that water must be working its magic because suddenly the boys both have to pee. They get out of the car and walk into the woods. I trail after them and almost catch up with Paul whose back is towards me. Somewhere in between this sight and the fact that he’s yelling at me not to come any closer, I remember why we stopped the car in the first place. I’m left looking very intently at the scenery, pretending I’d meant to find my way to this spot all along.

Without the rush from being inside a car, the wind is calm in comparison. To look at the plants, I would think the wind was coming from all directions at once. Each tree or shrub moves in a different way. One little plant with seedpods on it splits stalks into two groups as if breaking to let the wind pass through. The largest tree branches groan a few seconds after the breeze is gone. Maybe if I hung colored strings in the air I could actually see the currents and tides of the wind.

Break over, we return to the car. We’d rolled up the dark-tinted windows before parking and now it’s like looking out of cheap sunglasses. On a warm spring day like this one, that invisible wind is the only link between what’s outside the car and in it. Without the air around me, it’s like I’m watching a poor-quality video of the Great Outdoors instead of being here, passing through.

The three of us are all a little off today. I’m hungry although it’s too early for dinner. Where’s a mom who packed sandwiches in the cooler? We’re winding down the mountain now, back the way we came. We pass through towns that are still covered in a foot of snow. The steep roofs of the houses make upside-down V’s; there are so many of them that it begins to look like a row of jagged teeth along the road. In an empty field, I see two dogs playing, kicking up white snow like water rapids. Through the dark glass, the colors are muted and the sky almost looks gray. It’s a little colder outside but I roll down my window one last time and see the colors open up into pale yellows streaks through a sharp blue. The car turns and I start rocking back and forth again in my seat.

I’ll Only Leave Manhattan in a Body Bag

 

Is it me or is the word suburbia loaded?

Like ‘stay-at-home mom’ or ‘Britney Spears’, suburbia has its fans, satirists, detractors. Until 2005, I was smugly ensconced in the third category, a self-styled city slicker who wore black garb, told cabbies the best route to get across town, exchanged intimacies with people riding elevators. Typical New Yorker. Suburbia to me — a psychologically-scarred Brooklyn-born kid whose family never ‘made it’ to Long Island — was an aseptic construct where women over 40 lost their edge and their calf muscles because they spent their days driving to the strip mall and schlepping kids to soccer practice.

“That will never be me,” I’d swear to my husband driving over the George Washington Bridge after visiting friends who lived in cavernous colonials with marbled foyers and Labrador retrievers. “Never!”

My lifelong scorn for suburbia enabled me to put up with every city-related inconvenience or absurdity. Circling like a hungry buzzard for a parking spot or keeping windows shut on hot summer nights to drown out whining sirens or the occasional gunshot. Even when I was tripping over my toddler’s loot, I believed IKEA was the solution to our ever-shrinking 700-square-foot apartment.

We could not afford a bigger apartment in a steroidal real estate market but I would not contemplate suburbia.

I was mentally and physically asphyxiated by my long-held beliefs that the sticks were filled with people who stopped going to independent films and who ate dinner before 7. Sure I was yearning for room and trees and a driveway but my childhood demons were ninjas. It all started the day my family piled into the yellow Cadillac to see the white house for sale in Long Island. At ten, this was the most glamorous house I’d ever stepped inside of – it was nothing like the cramped ones in Brooklyn. My mother wanted this house and this life more than anything in the world. My father didn’t. He thought a Cadillac in his driveway and a detached house in Canarsie was good enough. My mother’s brooding and envy for greener pastures turned into scorn for all-things-suburban. An emotionally resourceful woman, she came up with plan B: raise her daughters to worship Manhattan.

Throughout college, I tacked up in every dorm room I lived in a famous New Yorker Magazine poster that put Manhattan as the center of the universe. Then I went about spending my whole adult life there, becoming the quintessential New Yorker. You know, Woody Allen’s template.

Disturbingly at 43, for the first time in my life, my romance with Manhattan was wilting. Sept 11 had crushed me. The apartment walls were closing in on me. I wanted to step on Elmo’s face every time he said “Elmo loves you.” I was growing unrecognizable. I began to think my daughter needed a bedroom (rather than a creative space) of her own more than a first-class education on the Impressionists at the MET. I started to dream about what it would be like if she could distinguish between lavender and salvia. I thought about how delightful it would be to wake up to the whata-cheer-cheer-cheer of Northern Cardinals rather than screaming sirens.

My husband knew not to suggest suburbia – I considered it a four-letter word. Instead, Mr. Tactically Brilliant got me to spend long stretches of time in the country.

 

 

Call of the Wild

 

I am a city kid. Born in Brooklyn, I hung out on stoops, played kickball in the street, could hear neighbors when they fought.

But every summer, my parents shipped me off for eight weeks to sleep-away camp in the mountains. There I pulled a blanket over my head at night because I was afraid the bats in the rafters would sweep down and weave nests in my waist-length hair. At night, dark, black starry nights, I worried a bug-eyed country loon with a warm rifle would do us in. But each morning the sun rose and I plunged happily into the serene lake and was sad only when the sun set.

I was even sadder when the camp bus returned me to Brooklyn’s hot streets eight weeks later.

Three decades later, the country is a container of youthful memories. Julia was two when we rented a summer house in the Catskill Mountains. The little Arts-and-Crafts two-story cottage was set back from the dusty dirt road near a lake. I felt my chest expand every time we drove up on a Friday afternoon. Turning up the steep road after Ellenville, we’d pass hulking hotels, abandoned riding stables, bungalow colonies – some lived in, others reminders of days when the Catskills drew New York’s urban Jews by the droves. Sheep and goats grazed behind wire fences. This down-and-out depressed area is a no-man’s land to some but to a down-and-out stressed out urbanite it looks like paradise.

The cottage was rickety and unfinished – wires hanging where the owner meant to install a fixture – but the diaphanous lake seen through our window was like an Impressionist painting, changing colors with the hours of the day, altering perspectives with the opening and closing of the waterlillies on the lake’s surface.

I found unexpected peace and pleasure. I woke to bird song. My daughter and I yanked wild flowers, especially tiger lilies from the side of the road. We gathered bouquets in bunches and put them in tall skinny glasses. The day I swam across the lake to a tiny sandy beach on the other side I was transported back to my teen years at sleep-away camp, a time when I had felt most alive. The lake was telling me something. I had only to listen.

One day our landlord told us she was thinking of selling the cottage.

“Do you guys have any interest in buying it?” she asked.

My first instinct was to throw my arms around her and say “yes, yes, please, yes” but instead my husband said “We’d need to think about that.”

That night, after we tucked Julia into her crib, we went out on the deck. We crawled into a sleeping bag and gazed at a sky of diamonds. I think we were both afraid to start the conversation.

“So, have you given the idea any thought?” he asked.

“I love the idea but we can’t afford to maintain the apartment and a summer cottage,” I said.

“Yeah, I know, but it would be nice,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “If we could at least escape on weekends, I’d probably be a nicer person,” I said, wistfully.

“Maybe we should move up here permanently,” he said.

I thought he was joking, and left it at that.

In early September, on our final ride back to Manhattan in our car stuffed to the brim like the Beverly Hillbillies, I blubbered like a baby.

“Why is mommy crying?” my daughter asked my husband.

“She doesn’t like to leave the country,” he explained.

There it was—the simple truth. I wanted to be immersed in nature, to quiet the noise, to slow down the pace.

That September misery became a gauzy shroud. I secretly began scouring real estate listings on the Internet – unable to admit to my husband or myself I was thinking about leaving Manhattan’s hallowed ground. But viewing houses for sale on the Internet is additive. It was only so long before I’d break down and admit I had to live in one of those old farmhouses that looked so inviting on my computer screen.

The old house we bought was a total wreck. It had been on and off the market for five years. We viewed it on a January day, tramping through waist-deep snow. It was covered in cobwebs. Every window was broken, every door was warped, every wall was crooked. But a great brick hearth, strands of light pouring through skylights and a wall of windows facing acres of woods said “rescue me.” Deer grazing outside the window might have sealed the deal.

Taking in a shallow jittery breath, I said “I’ll take it.”

“Are you sure?” the broker asked. “This is a money pit.”

She wasn’t wrong but we jumped. Sometimes it is those insane decisions you make for the wrong reasons (or at least those your mother would say are the wrong reasons) that end up putting your life in the right direction.

The house needed a four-month top-to-bottom renovation. In that short span of time, I learned I had a knack for rebuilding a house. I discovered how good I can be under pressure. I figured out how the innards of a house work. I learned the alphabet soup of HVAC and BTUs. Four months gave me a life-time of experience, and at the end, a house that held my DNA.

During the renovation, we lived in the Catskills cottage. One night, I told my husband there was a drunk intruder stumbling around outside. We closed the lights in the house and peered outside. He was big, all right—I’d say about 400 pounds—and he didn’t give a rat’s bottom when we shone a flashlight into his beady silver eyes. He just looked up and presumably said, “Hey, I’m eating dinner. Buzz off.”

I accelerated the renovation, bringing down the whip even harder on the contractor. A week later we packed the car and drove HOME.

I cried again as we wended down the mountain.

“Why is mommy crying?” my daughter said.

“She’s crying tears of joy because we’re not going back to the city,” my husband explained.

 

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