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The Great Divide: 90 Miles North

Posted: 09/02/09 05:14 PM ET

Four years ago my family and I left Manhattan and relocated to a Hudson River town. I have found that sweet spot of comfort. While I tread these familiar waters I take heart my gardener will arrive Wednesday, Didier will bake buttery croissants and Nyack's librarians will go out of their way to locate any book I ask for. I'm wearing the fuzzy bathrobe, walking in shoes that have molded around my feet.

I know one day an irresistible itch will evict me from this geography.

When that wind will blow in a new direction I don't know but I suspect it will blow me north. North, where farms roll endlessly to the horizon, mud kicks up around tires in April, split-rail fences lean leeward. It will lead me to a place where I'm no longer at such a safe distance to Manhattan that I can visit my dentist when a tooth chips. I will have to relinquish what last connective tissue I have to the city if I'm to live in a place where I can get lost in corn fields in July and lie under a sky so velvet black it feels like I'm hiding under a blanket.

I've accumulated a treasure chest of rural memories. I recognize how September smells different from August in the Catskill Mountains. I know water from gurgling mountain streams is not safe to drink. The lines around my eyes slacken when I'm upstate. I breathe from my diaphragm. My daughter likes to be around the lady who jumps into the lake naked and swims to the other side.

I've etched my experience over time, in summer and winter, living in rented tumble-down houses. For a week or two I play house, read the local paper, cook furiously, gather wild flowers to arrange in glass vases, browse library shelves. I drive as far as necessary to find a health food store or organic ice cream or the day's fresh fish catch. I figure out everything I need to know as if I were going to live in this place.

With every country escape I try on something that may become permanent. At least that's what I presume I'm doing. I remember every time we took a family vacation when I was a child my parents were a magnet to some blood-sucking real estate agent who convinced them to spend an afternoon looking at houses or time-shares wherever we happened to be traveling. Mine is not a fantasy sport. My efforts are R&D for a future life.

Ulster County, 90 miles north, is like a giant dressing room where I try on towns and villages for size. I love New Paltz's sunflower farms and the Gunks, Kingston's Rondout district, Rosendale's health-food restaurant. With each fragment of living up there, I stand in front of the "mirror," waiting for my reflection to tell me what feels right, what needs tailoring, what to discard.

This summer I tossed a wild card into the parlor game.

"Woodstock?" my husband said, when I told him I'd rented a house there for 10 days. "I thought we hate Woodstock?"

The Woodstock we thought we knew is the town of tie-dyed hippie skirts and life-sized cutouts of Bob Dylan. It's a cliché on the map of '60s culture that has lived off its association with a concert that actually took place an hour away in Bethel New York. It's where photo-snapping day-trippers waddle down the streets and wild-eyed Vietnam veterans read poetry on the village green.

I can't say what possessed me to choose Woodstock -- I presume I heard a faint wind whistling, pointing me to this town that crouches like a praying monk in the shadows of the majestic Catskill Mountains. We spent 10 days living in a rental house deep in the woods by a stream. Though it was late summer, a time when Woodstock is most susceptible to being a caricature, I found a different essence. I was more aware of the 40-something women who don't dye their flowing grey locks and children who eat tofu. I noticed advertisements for local farm dinners and book readings at The Golden Notebook. I watched a community going about its daily business, baking bread, selling its wares at Mower's market, carrying yoga mats.

I saw myself gazing in the mirror, trying on Woodstock, and liking it.