In January of 2020, we moved to Vermont from the Catskills. We were leaving Andes, New York, a Catskills town settled into a valley, for Charlotte, Vermont, a wealthy town near Burlington nestled alongside Lake Champlain. A tapestry of farmland and Vermont picturesqueness, Charlotte seemed like the town we’d been seeking our entire lives.
New York, the state where I was born, is a vast territory, and its upstate and downstate are two different worlds. Everyone not from there thinks only of Manhattan, sleek and populated by the tides of oceans of people: sinners and stars, Nobodies and Somebodies. The town we were leaving, Andes, is quiet and lonely, ruled by landscape—a meadowed and mountain-ed paradise where the sunset turned the mountains red so that winter-time walks with my dogs sometimes felt like a baptism by bloody light.
My husband, a chef, had taken a job on a 400-acre regenerative farm in Charlotte with the intention of helping them build a restaurant program, and so we took a few trips from Andes to Charlotte in the dead of winter, moving our possessions by ourselves via U-Haul. We first drove toward the Hudson Valley, through towns we loved, Phoenicia, Shandaken, Woodstock, picking up the New York Thruway, 87, in Kingston, New York, a gritty town with a surprising food and culture scene. We loved the name of the bookstore and café there: Rough Draft.
My husband and I are both road trip professionals, but these relocation journeys to Vermont—driven by a brave leap into the future—felt especially freighted. We drove the route probably four times, fighting the snow and the cold, and each trip felt both heavier and lighter, as we left New York’s vistas behind. My husband piloted the U-Haul, and I drove my blue CRV, so we were alone and together, the structure of our relationship most days anyway.
The highways and roads I drove led me to the past. North of the Hudson Valley, I drove up the New York Thruway, a road my father, as a young Civil Engineer, had helped to design and construct. As we neared Albany, we drove by signs for Troy, where my father had attended graduate school at RPI to study Engineering. From that gray town he’d wooed my mother, who’d lived in Utica, 98 miles away.
Wooing seemed like a thing of the past. When we’d taken a day trip together to Charlotte in the fall to check out the place, I’d made my husband listen to a DJ groan-scream into the microphone on a local station out of Troy for twenty minutes or so, the sound stopping only for the D.J. to inhale. I wanted to find out why this man was groan-screaming for such a long time, but it wouldn’t end. My husband said, Please turn that off, and I abandoned my curiosity to the road. I changed the channel to sports radio from Baltimore, where we’d met and married and owned dogs and a restaurant together; where we’d gone practically bankrupt and drank too much to suppress our own frightening disappointments.
We stopped for gas in Saratoga Springs, the town where an old boyfriend had settled. I remained half afraid that I’d run into him at the gas station like I stumbled upon him every so often in my dreams. We drove through the area just south of Lake George, where my mother had vacationed as a young woman to cavort with her girlfriends. On those trips toward our new lives, my interior universe was so open and elastic, I could access to my mother’s memories, like the cells of her joys and sadness still lingered in the places I was driving through—her life called to me across the years in the snowy, winter air of the places she’d laughed in.
We’d head east on Route 147 toward Vermont, through hardscrabble New York towns like Whitehall and Fort Anne until we crossed the state line, welcomed to Vermont by the classic green sign. It was January and snowy so we were careful, my husband rattling in front of me in a wide U-Haul truck. Driving across the flat wide-open space of southwest Vermont, you begin to feel the clutter of humans fall off and you become solely the land and the thoughts the snowy land gives you. Houses far apart, lives carried by the natural world surrounding them, all this brought a deeper and quieter chosen aloneness than what I’d experienced in the Catskills. You can feel your heart burrow into the snow when you enter Vermont in the wintertime.
I’d been to Vermont before, had gone to graduate school at Bennington, had spent time at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson. But driving this route at this time in our lives was like swimming there. There was a depth and slowness to my emotions as I prepared to make a new geography my home. My brain and heart would transform (just as they’d shifted to reflect the gray mountains and the intricate wildflowers of the Catskills) to mirror the furrows and waters and lines of mountains that were the Green State. The anticipation I felt was like the queasy joy you feel when you are afraid you are falling in love.
We drove east on Route 22, witnessing the outlines of self-sufficient lives in the snowy dark, and then turned left to head north up Route 7, one of the most beautiful stretches of land I’ve ever driven. We headed up toward Burlington, a city that seemed to look out over Lake Champlain with lively-sad memories of once being a great seaport.
We had already rented a storage unit that would hold much of what we would bring to the new place. We couldn’t bring everything. We left behind an antique desk of my mother’s that was blonde oak. It had sat in our living room, never used when I was a child, with an antique lamp upon it. In the Catskills, in a fantastical and abandoned farmhouse we were allowed to use, I’d cut peony and placed one on the desk. I’d write on that desk. It had a keyhole and a key that fit into it that hung from a string. I had placed beautiful books on it and looked out the window while I sat in front of it—gazing at the pond and the Catskill mountains and the reflections that settled on the pond as the sun began to set.
The desk wasn’t all we left behind in Andes. We left the antique hutch that sat in our kitchen for my childhood life. Pretty useless on its spindly legs, with its silver closure and its tiny storage space up top that my mother hid random trinkets in. Its legs were uneven, and it wobbled, but it was a beautiful shade of wood, almost strawberry blond. Perhaps no one would ever use it again. Perhaps someone would chop it up and use it for kindling. But perhaps it still sits in the garage in Andes in that house where we were happy sometimes, where my husband and I sat around the firepit and talked about life, where I grew too many tomatoes and planted delphiniums and echinacea I’d eventually have to leave, where my dog of 19 years—my “buddha dog”—died in my arms; where we’d hear coyotes yipping and howling at night, sounding as close as if the coyotes were on the street in front of our house; where my husband stayed up nights with me when I couldn’t sleep reading to me about Alan Watts because, in the Catskills we had the time and space to listen to books about Buddhism and to the lectures Thomas Merton gave to his novices about James Joyce. In Andes, we left behind a bartender named Stu from Florida who had demons and a handlebar mustache. We left behind a tiny church two doors away called Saint Anne’s that was never locked, and sometimes—when desperate—I’d go say the rosary there. In Andes, we left behind an oil painting called A Night Out by Dan Keplinger, an artist from Baltimore who had cerebral palsy and painted a stick attached to his forehead. He became famous for a short time because a documentary made about him, King Gimp, was nominated for an Oscar. The painting was barter. We’d catered Dan’s 200-person wedding in Baltimore to get the painting. We hung that painting in our restaurant, and we brought it to the Catskills in hope of I don’t know what. I hope the painting ended up in one of the thrift or antique stores that surprise you in the Catskill landscape; I hope it was discovered by someone who knew. The picture, a mustard yellow rugged oil, always reminded my husband of how much of our lives we gave away back in our Baltimore days.
Mostly, what I left behind in the Catskills were the gardens I’d built and loved at the inn where my husband and I worked. I knew they would become wild and unkempt and anonymous without the kind of love I’d poured into them. I’d become a new self in that quiet greenhouse, spent time burying tubers and pressing into dirt seeds of all shapes that would become bushy seedlings and then perfectly alive beauty, flowers that would be my closest companions on the loveliest of my displaced, silent summer days.
In Charlotte, we were to stay in a suite in the Mount Philo Inn for a couple of months while we searched for a house. The Mount Philo Inn once housed a commune; it now held my husband and I and our two dogs for a commune of four. Every day, I hiked Mount Philo with my younger dog, a rescue Blue Merle border collie named Pearl. Every day, I looked out over the valley of Charlotte.
The first night we stayed at the Mount Philo Inn, the sunset lay itself orange across the Adirondacks like some kind of mink stole of light around the shoulders of the mountains. The entire sky became operatic, ethereal light. I knew that westward at around the same latitude sat Watertown, New York, where I’d been born in one of the snowiest winters in history in 1962. When I looked across the Adirondacks, I could sense both a past that went years beyond my own life as well as a future that would prove itself to be as fiery and natural as this sunset I was witnessing.
We were at the top of the country. It was a new year. We would live off the land. We found a church where we could go to mass in the early evenings. It snowed often.
Every day that early winter of 2020, from the top of Mount Philo, I could see miles across the valley to Lake Champlain laid out like a puzzle of land where the pieces fit together snug and secure, and I began to write a book in my head. It was the first book I’d ever written in my imagination that had a happy ending.