NEW PALTZ, N.Y. — In 1973 we stumbled upon this modest paradise 90 miles north of Manhattan, an unassuming hamlet that we could slip into as easily as a flannel shirt. It had four nearly plumb walls that we could almost afford and neighbors who fitted the landscape as naturally as purple loosestrife on the side of the road. So we dug in and we grew roots and somewhere along the way scraped up enough cash to buy 30 acres of woods and swamp and build a home big enough for seven kids.
And then, just when we'd grown comfortable enough with our own humble destinies as local yokels, the high-cultural zeitgeist slammed on the brakes at Exit 18 on the New York State Thruway and this frayed-at-the-edges town was suddenly a weekend destination.
Admittedly, all the well-heeled metropolitan area interest that followed the zeitgeist into New Paltz, was interesting at first – even flattering – and certainly profitable for real estate agents. And, of course, it was nice to have a good restaurant or two or three (or 10) to take your sweetheart to on a Friday night.
But then one Saturday morning a few years into the boom, en route to the dump and stuck in traffic congested with automobiles that cost more than the average ranch in town, I realized things had changed around here – and by the time I made the return trip to the bakery (named The Bakery), I suddenly felt woefully underdressed in my Carhartt jean jacket. And by lunchtime a season or two later, I realized that my college French courses were finally proving useful, at least in reading the menu at P&Gs, the locals' favorite watering hole.
PHOTOS OF THE DAY Photos of the day 02/08
Predictably over the next few seasons, the meteorically rising property values that preceded the meteorically rising property taxes began to knock off my neighbors one by one like high-tech real estate snipers. Worn old farmhouses along the country lanes were systematically gutted and renovated to look like… well, faux worn old farmhouses with gleaming wide board floors and restaurant quality kitchens. The crooked creosoted posts and cattle fencing were replaced with shiny white vinyl ornamental enclosures, and manor-sized homes designed by University of LEGO architects were cropping up overnight in former wood lots, orchards, and cornfields, now mazes of country-cute street names.
From the long front porch of my well-worn home at the base of Bonticou Crag, it is easy to see why harried cosmopolitanites yearned to own a piece of this backward Eden. They longed for the same beauty, tranquility, and respite from the crudeness of contemporary life that my wife and I sought back in the '70s "back-to-the-land" days when we packed three dogs, two cats, and two kids into the Dodge Tradesman van and arrived here. I get that.
What I don't get is why so many of these nouveaux yokels didn't just hang back and relax once they purchased their priceless deed to salvation.
Free to sink into the chipped Adirondack chair left on the front porch or dig in the predug garden or romp in the fallen leaves or dive into a stream, it seems they barely take a breath of the fresh country air before installing A/C units and closing all the windows. They stay inside, peering out at the landscapers, pool guys, and carpenters making the old place picture-perfect.
But not really. And so it seems that half the town is leaving town this summer – or trying to. Many of the old-timers have already moved on to leaner pastures or at least have become "motivated sellers."
And some of the newer newcomers are now fence sitting, most uncomfortably I might add, on pricey mortgages and home equity loans that threaten to overtake the newly devalued value of the properties they purchased when the bull was just beginning to break through the pasture gates.
The shame of it, of course, is that practically everyone had to have known all along that it would all lead right out of town … to the next frayed-at-the-edges paradise up the pike that promises simple beauty, tranquility, and respite from all the crudeness of contemporary life.
Steve Lewis is a member of the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute faculty and freelance writer. His most recent book is "Fear and Loathing of Boca Raton: A Hippie's Guide to the Second Sixties.