Two summers ago I told friends I was going “upstate” New York twice. Both times I was actually going to different states -- Vermont and Connecticut respectively -- but the sentiment still stood.
It always means the same thing. You’re one of the lucky ones getting out of the swelteringly sticky city for a blessed weekend.
Last weekend I actually went upstate, to Phoenicia in the Catskills. To say it was a life altering experience wouldn’t be an understatement. Now I finally understand what all the fuss is about.
I took a bus, a very doable three hour journey, from the city to beautiful Phoenicia. I sat, harped on about how I find it impossible to nap on buses and then immediately fell asleep.
Mouth open, snoring, drooling, the works. Like a rabid dog, but mostly human. My brain had decided that vacation mode began the second I boarded transport, and that’s the mode in which I remained for the next three days.
En route, we drove through sleepy Kingston and the even sleepier Woodstock. Lush, dense, brilliantly green woodland blurred past the window, interspersed with pastel colored facades of homes, hostels, diners and antique stores.
Everywhere was adorned with dreamcatchers, everything was tie-dye and everyone looked like they’d been frozen in time since the sixties. I’m 90 percent certain I overheard at least four older men say “rad.” Maybe 85 percent.
When we got to Phoenicia, which is essentially a road running through a valley, I found myself making the presumably common connection between small New York towns and small Irish towns. The main street was bookended by a supermarket and a church with a strip of boutiques, shops and restaurants in between.
I was inescapably reminded of the tiny village where I grew up in Kilkenny: one shop, one church, one school, two pubs. Priorities in order there.
Only here, the landscape was totally breathtaking, the atmosphere was magical and the aesthetic completely transported me to a different time of simplicity and ease. We were staying at The Graham & Co, a boutique hotel that looks like the entirety of Williamsburg condensed into a converted stable yard. This place has gotten a lot of press, and I could see why.
With only 20 rooms, stripped back black and white decor and a clean, minimal layout, Brooklyn suddenly didn’t feel so far behind us. As skeptical as I was of this level of hipster activity neatly nestled in the mountains, I was pleasantly surprised at how much sense the entire design made.
Twenty rooms makes for a relatively small crowd which was perfect for the bright, cool and clean pool that sits in the middle of the yard, enclosed by firs. There is an element of privacy but also community, as you find yourself running into the same people over the course of the day.
Breakfast is served at reception which is an open, semi-outdoor space at the center of the yard. Bikes are provided to explore the town and surrounding terrain. White fluffy towels and beautifully scented locally made products are plentiful.
The rooms are minimal, clean, air-conditioned and private. Bonfires take place every night at 8 p.m. where guests can gather, make small talk and s’mores and watch the stars twinkle above.
The setting is ideal, the scenery idyllic. For two girls simply hoping to sunbathe, eat food, swim occasionally and generally fill our lungs with fresh air, it was the dream.
We took leisurely strolls, chatted with the locals -- some of whom were, of course, Irish by heritage. Alan who made our sandwiches at the supermarket had traced his family roots back to the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, as far back as the 1300s. And he wasn’t the only one who wanted to tell us a story.
Everyone was so friendly, so welcoming, and so willing to share their stories. It was like walking into a storybook land and getting one on one time with all of the characters.
Getting back on the bus on Sunday evening, sunburned to within an inch of my life, I wondered if I had had any kind of revelations during my stint upstate.
What would I tell my coworkers when I got back? What wisdom, newfound self-awareness or mystery of life had I uncovered?
The fact of the matter is that I realized nothing. Ultimately, nothing changed.
I don’t feel any better about my recent breakup, or any worse. I don’t feel any more certain about the future, or any less. I’m not happier, or sadder.
I got two great nights sleep, ate some truly delicious food, saw some stunning scenery and spent a lot of time in a horizontal position, breathing fresh air with no thoughts at all in my head. Just watching the clouds, or the stars -- whatever was floating overhead.
The reason this trip was so brilliantly life changing was that it changed nothing at all. The thing is, we put so much pressure on ourselves to reach these milestones of change and realization, that sometimes we forget that progress can be a slow process.
Once you get over the first few hurdles of heartbreak, you find yourself in these longer phases of grief that feel greater in size but ultimately more manageable in the long run.
Two of my best friends began their breakup journeys two weeks ago. I’m two months in and find myself reporting back from the frontline, like I’m hollering back from the trenches. Not so much warning about what’s ahead, but reassuring.
The first few hurdles come at you hard and fast, and each one does end up feeling like a huge milestone. Every Monday I made it through, I had a new thought, a new sense of myself as this new, single person.
And now it’s starting to spread out. “Now” is becoming a more consistent frame of mind, not something that changes every day.
Leaving the woodlands of upstate, I began to feel like I am finally out of the woods. The healing process has finally begun, the hurdles are tapering off and life, in the present tense, is making its presence known.
And I know I’ll be planning another excursion upstate for another weekend of blissful nothings to occur.