Planning the Great Escape

NEW PALTZ, N.Y. - "MARCH is the month of expectation," Emily Dickinson wrote so plainly and so presciently up there in her agoraphobic attic in Amherst, Mass., that it seems she actually understood the early spring frenzy surrounding Berkshire summer rentals more than 100 years later.

March is generally so miserable, muddy, cold and nasty that it's hardly worth the 31 days it takes to get to April. But every so often there is a warm afternoon, then the nub of a bulb pushing through the thawing earth, which is inevitably followed by those first glorious bursts of ads on Craigslist and in the Village Voice touting idyllic summer cottages in the cool mountains of Stockbridge and on the warm beaches of Amagansett. And suddenly you're thinking about a summer getaway.

Of course, the belle of Amherst also knew profound disappointment, the betrayal of our March dreams, the cruelty of April that T. S. Eliot exposed so famously. By now it's old news: summer rentals arranged in the early spring often become for so many of us reruns of our junior proms, Valentine's Days, New Year's Eves and middle-age birthdays rolled into one huge disappointment: messy housemates, unrequited love, rainy weekends, hostile locals, bad oysters and onerous traffic.

Eleven months of the year, I live in the Shawangunk Mountains, where wired urbanites and, somewhat surprisingly, even more tightly wired suburbanites come to disconnect on weekends and summers. I also happen to have a small cottage on Hatteras Island, N.C., where, as unplugged as New Paltz might look to outsiders coming to the mountains for the cure, I go to unplug myself in August each year.

So, as Judy Collins might have crooned, I know summer rentals from both sides: as a local yokel and as a grinning visitor. I know why anyone leading a demanding, fast-paced life in Manhattan yearns to get away to something simpler, slower, more earthy, more in keeping with the wind and the weather. I know that despite their sophisticated ways and all the spoils of their successes, metropolitan New Yorkers are as unhappy and angst-ridden as anyone else, maybe more so. And they understand, maybe better than most, that money and position don't buy happiness.

Yet from the March-muddy oasis of my 20 acres at the base of Bonticou Crag, I also understand the deep anguished breath that locals take just before the summer invasion begins. After four or five months of talking about snow plows, high school basketball and local politics (or northeasters, high school basketball and local politics), we who live in summer destinations are as bored and exhausted as anyone else, maybe more so. But we also understand, maybe better than most, that while tourist dollars are necessary for survival and make for better local cuisine, they don't buy happiness, only traffic jams.

Such are my meager qualifications for offering up some advice to make your summer rentals happier. So, before you start scouring the Web for that perfect place to get away from it all, here are five suggestions virtually guaranteed to override the pompous joy that goes along with those down payments:

1. Leave your wires at home: Summer renters invariably arrive armed with laptops, cellphones, iPods, nannies, benzodiazepines and that all-consuming hunger for buzz. Free to roam the sunny fields or long beaches, they end up imprisoning themselves behind gates, fences, locks, alarms, sun blockers and mosquito repellents powerful enough to zap out happiness itself.

2. Leave your friends behind: You see them all year long; give them a break. If at all possible, don't rent a place with more than one other family or one or two friends and ditch them if you possibly can. It's not a vacation if you bring everything from home with you. Remember, you always return to work wishing you had a longer vacation.

3. When in Rome: If you want the locals to smile and treat you well, understand that you are not and never will be a native. Don't try to talk to the locals about chainsaws, northeasters, high school basketball; they've had all winter to get that out of their systems. Don't blather on to them about how you're eventually going to retire here. They fully understand that you're patronizing them.

4. Don't rent a place with a pool. Please. You might as well stay home and go to the gym or the Y. Go to the swimming hole. Go to the beach, for God's sake! Pools are for the locals.

5. Don't read crummy beach books on the beach or in the mountains. Those kinds of books are for when you're thoroughly blitzed back at home and require numbness. Read something difficult, something worthy, something that engages and challenges your soulful mind.

In the meantime, enjoy the spring, and we'll see you Memorial Day weekend.

Op-Ed Contributor Steven Lewis, a faculty member at Empire State College, is the author, most recently, of "The Complete Guide for the Anxious Groom."