Leaving West Marin: Life in the Catskills

06/15/2016

In September 2013, my wife, Suzanne, and I received an email that changed our lives. It was our 12th anniversary and we were doing last-minute packing for an upcoming trip to New Zealand. The note was from our landlords; our first thought was that they were ready to renew the lease on our Inverness home, as they had done every September since I first moved in nearly 20 years earlier. 

Instead, we learned that the house was going on the market early the next year. The price—for a modest mid-century two-bedroom home in need of over $100,000 in repairs and with very little land to speak of—was $995,000. They were not willing to negotiate.

Nearly three years have come and gone since that day. We have looked into every conceivable way of maintaining a toe-hold in West Marin: buying a house (out of our league); renting a house (nothing that would work); caretaking (wishful thinking); the usual websites like Craigslist, airbnb and VRBO, and lesser-known ones like Caretaker.org and SabbaticalHomes.com (nada in West Marin). 

For the first two years, thanks to a compassionate couple from Oakland who saw our ad in the Light, we were able to spend several months in a vacation rental in Seahaven. But the owners are using it more themselves now, so in April we flew to New York to spend nine months in a circa-1850 woodsy vacation cottage in Cragsmoor, a hilltop hamlet and erstwhile artist colony located in the Schawangunks region of the Catskill Mountains. 

How did we end up here, rather than, for example, Portland or Ashland? Long story. Suffice it to say that we’re getting on with our lives as best we can. Suzanne has a studio for her artwork, while I have an office out of which to run my garden tour company. Though there’s a lot to like about where we are and what we’re doing, we can’t wait to return to Seahaven and the friends, family and support network that we left behind.

Though I grew up in Northern New Jersey, I left home at 18 to attend U.C. Berkeley and never looked back. Except for three years in London, I’ve lived all my adult life in the Bay Area. Had anyone told me a time would come when I would consider moving back to New York—let alone at age 69—I would have laughed. New York? With the congestion and overpopulation, air pollution and impatient drivers, brutal summers and winters? You gotta be kidding. Yet with Bay Area housing prices soaring into the stratosphere, relocating to the Catskills or the somewhat more upscale Hudson Valley no longer seems so far-fetched.

Which brings me to the subject of housing. While we knew home prices were significantly lower in upstate New York than in either the Bay Area or New York City and surrounding suburbs, we had no idea just how much lower they would be. Even here in Cragsmoor—an island of upper-middle-class gentility—well-built and aesthetically pleasing three and four-bedroom homes, some as old as 150 years or more, go for as little as $250,000. And that often includes several acres of woods, meadows, or gardens, and views to die for. Drive down highway 52 into the surrounding towns and villages and it’s not unusual to see well-maintained three and four-bedroom homes on a quarter acre going for $150,000. 

Of course, home prices in the Catskills are low for a reason: there are few good jobs to speak of and many of the cities, towns, villages and hamlets are in an economic depression. In Ellenville—once a proud and industrious community with an elegant “Borscht Belt” hotel and a bustling downtown—at least half the storefronts are boarded up. The only factories in town are long since abandoned. In neighboring Napanoch, the main street looks like a ghost-town film set and the only employers of any significance are Walmart, a couple of dollar stores and a maximum-security prison that looms menacingly over the village like a bad dream. 

A little farther afield, once-thriving commercial centers like Newburgh, Middletown, Liberty and Monticello are shadows of their former selves. To people like us, used to the good life in the Bay Area, it’s jarring to see so much poverty and deprivation.

At the same time, the natural beauty of the Catskills is undeniable. Just a 20-minute walk down a quiet country lane from our house, inside the Sam’s Point Preserve of Minnewaska State Park, is a lookout with a nearly 270-degree view of forest and mountains. The rock formations in this area are stunning, attracting climbers from all over the country and beyond. One can drive for miles on picturesque back roads dotted with 200-year-old farmhouses, red barns and wooden silos and not see another car. Though the late 20th and early 21st centuries have not been kind to most inhabitants of the Catskills, the region has been mercifully spared the frenetic pace of over-development that has irreparably altered the face of so much of the Bay Area.

For a young couple that can work at home, the Catskills could be a great place to raise a family. The summers can get quite warm (though not as hot as in the city) and the winters quite cold, but the beauty of the changing seasons and landscape more than compensates. Places like New Paltz, with its SUNY campus and abundance of artists and writers, and Woodstock, one of the prettiest towns we’ve come across and which seems destined to forever be a magnet for creative types, are good places to begin your explorations. For older folks like ourselves who have been spoiled by Bay Area weather, summer, and especially winter, can be a problem. 

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for us, however, is starting out all over again in a new and different part of the world. On the one hand, it could keep us young. On the other hand, trying to fit into a new community can be exhausting. If we had our druthers, we’d be back—in a New York minute—living full-time in West Marin, the one place we’ll always think of as our true home. But not having our druthers, well, it could be the Catskills, the Hudson Valley or—who knows?

 

Paul Coopersmith is the owner and founder of COOPERSMITH’S One-of-a-Kind Tours, North America’s oldest international garden tour company, and the author of “Rule of Thumb: A Hitchhiker’s Handbook to Europe & North Africa” (Simon & Schuster, 1973).