Category Archives: America

There’s No Pill for Being Bicoastal

Being bicoastal refers to a dual allegiance to East and West coasts, specifically, New York and Los Angeles. The running joke is that one is so bicoastal, she “doesn’t know whether to root for the Yankees or the Dodgers.” Furthering this bifurcated thinking is a recent New York Times article that appeared in the Style section (you know as soon as it appears in the newspaper’s style section it becomes instantly uncool) lamenting on the exodus of New York City’s creative class to Los Angeles (we hope to be among them in a few years). Following that article was a really funny, snarky reply to that piece, as if being being acknowledged by The Gray Lady and The Big Apple was akin to being liked by the cool kid at school.

Let New York and Los Angeles duke it out for popularity. My state of bicoastalness isn’t so urban-centric and runs deeper than that, and I’m willing to guess it does for other folks, too.

This past weekend, I felt like I had a foot on both sides. I attended a pool party and was passing around photos of my trip to Big Sur where we stayed at the giant human nest at Treebones, a glamping resort. Fellow pool party attendees were not the camping, outdoorsy type. (I’m not very good at being outdoorsy either despite having slept in a yurt in the Adirondacks, some camping on the beach in California and Maryland and in the woods at Shenandoah National Park—I stunk at all of it and was either eaten alive by bugs or froze my butt off at night.) Friends made jokes about being in a nest and how I got to the bathroom and why would I want to be exposed to the elements like that. At Treebones, we met some of the folks staying at the yurts, and they commended us for nesting. The yurts there are heated and beautifully furnished so by comparison, they were glamping while we were actually camping, one Californian native said to me. I hate pitching tents and cooking food over campfires, so the nest was perfect, and in late August, we didn’t have to worry about cold. Shelter was already provided and I could drag myself uphill to the main lodge for frittata at breakfast or sushi for dinner (yes, Treebones has a sushi bar). I did tell my friends that Mike and I didn’t sleep well in the nest, which is okay because we weren’t paying $150 a night to get a good night’s sleep but to experience the outdoors in an entirely different way. That was the intent of artist Jayson Fann, who builds nests for resorts, zoos, children’s hospitals, women’s shelters, and private residences.

And we did experience our surroundings like we never had before. Cocooning in a nest by a tree overlooking the ocean is not like balling up in a tent in the forest or on a beach—you lose the view once you go inside your tent. From the nest, you see everything. I wondered, “Do birds really have it this good?” I never saw moonlight move over water like I saw while in the nest, that late-summer gibbous moon and its intense white light gliding over the Pacific. It was incredible beauty. It made me think this was how the world looked before governments and television and smartphones and corporations. Sky and sea cycling through a rhythm that predates most of what fills our days now. I was witnessing something very old and sacred, something many miss out on, and all because I had to use the bathroom at three a.m. The Big Sur sky was so clear that moonlight filled our nest and it felt like a light bulb was on. Later in the morning, tendrils of fog circled between the branches of the nest and we watched minke whales breach nearby—observing whales from a tree! A bucket-list first and I don’t even believe in bucket lists.

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(Watching whales from the nest)

My Labor Day weekend poolside party chat might not have happened in Seattle, where I used to live, or perhaps in California or Oregon either. During my three years in Seattle, I learned that everyone camped. Everyone hiked. Everyone mountain-biked on trails at the base of actual mountains. It’s no exaggeration to say I’d come into work on Monday morning and people would talk about where they camped that weekend. Co-workers camped the way I went out to the movies; you just got in the car and did it. I felt like the outsider lacking cool REI gear and tales of reconnecting with nature. I even noticed this from some of my West Coast friends’ and colleagues’ social media feeds—over the Labor Day weekend they were hiking and camping all over the place out there, posting to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook lovely shots of trails and campgrounds and other magnificent scenery. And I get it. Why wouldn’t you constantly camp and hike when the world looks that goddamn awesome 24/7???

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(The nest at Treebones in Big Sur)

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(Morning view from the nest)

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(Big Sur country)

Nature-loving East Coasters do exist (we’re related to one who happens to be a tree scientist for the U.S. Forest Service, but he lives in rural Vermont). And there are parts of the interior Adirondacks that is deep mountain country and off the grid (we discovered this when almost running out of gas and being 16 miles from the nearest gas station). However, nature lovers don’t exist in abundance in the greater New York metropolitan area or along the Boston-New York-Washington, 1-95 corridor. New Yorkers—who often believe Manhattan is truly the center of the universe—spent Labor Day weekend by chlorinated pools, not mucky lakes. I sat by a pool recounting my two nights in a nest, and had to explain to folks where Big Sur was located. Unless you visit Big Sur, you have no frame of reference how truly wild the United States once looked. Yes, there’s a highway there thanks to convict labor, but some East Coasters have never seen a vacant, pristine beach like the ones in Big Sur, the empty kind where the surfers like to go; every inch of oceanfront from Maine to Florida is pretty developed (New Jersey is among the worst in terms of development whereas Maine still has some gorgeous, rocky, wild coastline left but you don’t have to go far to find a hotel or lighthouse). I imagine there are some places in Big Sky country that share that same, somewhat-unadulterated look as Big Sur, but again, that’s out west. The East Coast is quite built up. For a number of East Coasters, you say beach and they think Asbury Park or Ocean City. Vermont is an exception to the rest of the East Coast because the Green Mountain State has such strong zoning regulations and a fierce protection of its landscape—they outlawed billboards. New Jersey doesn’t seem to care about environmental protection and zoning, having said yes in the name of economic growth to anyone with enough money to build; just look at Atlantic City and all the countless billboards along the roads it takes to get there.

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(Sand Dollar Beach in Big Sur, a favorite among surfers, where there were more seagulls than people that day.)

The West Coast learned from East Coast mistakes. And when I think of being bicoastal, this is what I think of: a love for the natural world coupled with colonial settler ambition; a need for open space coupled with the Northeast’s cycles of four distinct, sometimes harsh, seasons; a preference for taking things slow coupled with an eagerness to do more. I feel that same sense of awe every time I see Mount Rainier peak through the clouds or the Manhattan skyline light up the night, both showing off their own distinct towering glory. Bicoastal is not a New York versus L.A. thing—it’s more nuanced. It’s finding different elements of America’s two very different coasts, realizing you belong to them both, and wishing you could physically be in two places at once.

The Adirondacks: A Small Place With Big Allure

On September 12, 1901, when there were maybe just a few hints of fall color touching the Adirondack Mountains, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt went for a hike. Vacationing with his family in his beloved North Country, he decided to climb Mount Marcy, New York State’s tallest peak at just over 5,300 feet. While hiking, some local man named Harrison Hall was trailing Roosevelt, carrying probably the most important piece of paper he’d ever held in his hands—a telegram with news of President McKinley’s life-threatening injuries. The Vice President got down the mountain, boarded a wagon and made it to a railroad station where he inched his way across New York State to get to Buffalo where McKinley had been shot. McKinley died on September 14, and Roosevelt was sworn in as America’s 26th president.

I think of this story every time I’m in the Adirondacks, which is where I spent this past weekend. Why this story? Because I think of how this understated 6.2 million acres of landscape used to attract some of the biggest names and most adventurous people. I mean Theodore Roosevelt chose to spend his down time here, where, 114 years later, I was spending my down time. This got me thinking how the Adirondacks’ timelessness appears indefatigable despite forest fires, global warming, and industrialization. Thirty-one years after Roosevelt became president, Lake Placid, the region’s biggest hub, hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and did such a good job hosting that they got the gig again in 1980, drawing some of the world’s best athletes to this tiny town surrounded by blue peaks. The area, once known for back country lumberjacks and rural poverty, was now under the global spotlight entertaining some of the best of the best who had crossed sea and sky to reach this place. Today, the Olympic Games tend to go to bigger places with bigger budgets, and presidents vacation in luxurious locales like Martha’s Vineyard and Hawaii. The Adirondacks is not Aspen or Jackson Hole; there are some four-star accommodations and awesome eats, but it’s still mountain country where grizzly guys are out in the open driving their rusting pick-ups. Outside of the American Northeast, people have heard of the Rockies and the Ozarks and maybe even the Smoky Mountains and the Olympic Range, but few people seem to recall the Adirondacks unless you specifically say “Lake Placid, where the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviet Union” and then you get a nod of recognition.

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On the ground, Lake Placid obviously looks quite different than it did during Roosevelt’s visits or even the 1980 Olympic Games. Towns, like lakes and mountains, are their own ecosystems, always evolving and adapting, as they should. But while kayaking alone on Mirror Lake yesterday morning, I looked around the mountains and sky reflecting off the water’s surface, Mirror Lake living up to its name, and thought of how much nature still manages to move us even while we’re all IV’ed to our smartphones. The buildings and roads in between the Adirondacks’ peaks and valleys change, but the impact the region has on those who live here and visit has not. There are still many, many places throughout the Adirondacks where you can’t get any cell service, and as long as there’s no emergency, this feels like a wonderful thing. To kayak alone on a serene lake without my iPhone on me, to be out there early enough before all the paddleboarders and boaters woke up, and to feel like I had the sky and lake and mountains all to myself, was intoxicating. And I imagined this was the pull that Theodore Roosevelt felt when he hiked Mount Marcy nearby. Maybe, like me, he thought “This is mine,” even though we knew otherwise.

There are countless beautiful places on this earth—the Adirondacks and Mirror Lake being among them—and it’s getting harder to keep them beautiful. Lesser-known corners of our planet struggle to hide from capitalism, climate change and population growth. Globalization means just that, where everyone’s backyards are connected even if it doesn’t feel so. When I kayaked across Mirror Lake, I thought “How much longer?” The state-protected Adirondack Park is home to 3,000 lakes and ponds and 30,000 miles of streams and rivers, including the birthplace of the Hudson River; Mirror Lake is shockingly pristine compared with some of the others. Powered boats aren’t permitted and no one is dumping cow shit into it unlike the farms surrounding nearby Lake Champlain, the almost-sixth Great Lake that divides New York and Vermont (equally stunning though not as clean as it could be). The clarity of Mirror Lake’s shoreline sometimes reminded me of the Caribbean. Yet the area deals with salt contamination due to aggressive salt use as part of winter road maintenance. Folks there shovel more than 100 inches of snow per year; 86 percent of salt and chloride buildup has been directly attributed to road salting to help keep roads as dry as possible. Pollution comes from neighbors, too: many of the Adirondacks’ lakes suffered depletion due to acid rain as a result of wind patterns mixing with Midwest plant emissions.

Thankfully, there are already signs of ecological recovery, for mountain folk are fiercely protective types. Because of their efforts, we had a gorgeous, lazy day on a pretty clean lake Sunday. No floating garbage. No slimy muck pooling at our feet. Locals and tourists apparently playing by the rules. I’m so grateful for this region and miss it the moment we leave. It’s a side of the American Northeast people don’t think of; our colonial history and that stress-junkie lifestyle that defines the Boston to New York to Washington, DC, corridor often overshadows the quiet, mountain interior that appealed to Roosevelt. But it’s still there, and if you have the chance, go and experience it before it changes into something I wouldn’t recognize.

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Thoughts on Money and Travel

Normally, I use this little online soapbox to talk about various destinations I’ve enjoyed over the years. But what was the journey like leading up to these trips?

Five summers ago, we bought our first house and moved into rooms that took forever to fill with furniture. About six weeks later, the recreational soccer season began and I registered our daughter, for the suburban soccer field has always been the go-to place to ingratiate yourself, the place to meet other parents, get the lowdown on the community, learn where to buy cheese, craft beer and organic produce and to find out who mows their lawns at unreasonable hours. This whole move was about our daughter. This was the town with the award-winning school district, so we took on a ton of debt to care for an aging colonial house in a neighborhood surrounded by McMansions so she could get the best public school education northern New Jersey had to offer.

It didn’t take long for me to feel out place. The town is populated by financially-stable families who are either second-generation middle or upper-middle class, not first-generation middle class as we are. The grandparents were educated entrepreneurs, not cafeteria lunch ladies or school bus drivers like mine. The parents are now lawyers, doctors, and managers in business with nice gigs at places like NBC and UBS. We know two people who are in the creative fields; they are both musicians and married to one another. Otherwise, we haven’t met many other creative types here and no one talks about the books they’ve read because everyone is too busy working hard to pay for this lifestyle.

I was at the soccer field in early September when it still felt like summer, watching my kid chase a ball. It had been about two months after we had unpacked. I began eavesdropping on a couple of moms sitting nearby on bleachers. One was complaining about her husband being late to some household renovation discussion. The lighting was being redone, she needed his input, their house was worth a million or two, the designer had a lot of questions, why couldn’t he be on time? These women had amazing manicures and their hands flew like agitated, coiffed birds.

I turned to my husband and said “I need to join someone’s revolution in South America stat otherwise I’m going to get stupidly soft here.”

Fast-forward five years and I still hate it here, but the kid is getting that great education, she has a great circle of friends, we have equity, and I too-often book trips to escape. I always had a case of wanderlust. I daydream of driving around the West Coast in an Airstream—which always looked like a mega-metallic Twinkie to me—picnicking my way north or south, reading books, writing whatever, answering to no one or nothing, not even an alarm clock. My husband is on board with this idea once our kid finishes high school. He moved around a lot as a kid, hated it, and firmly believes (and I agree) kids should have roots. So maybe these are girlish dreams to have at age 42, for the suburban parents I’ve met here tackle their responsibilities with gusto, chauffeuring their children to the gazillion activities they think will give them that competitive edge for who knows what, and, if anyone resents this suburban parent rat race, no one is saying so out loud, not even after too much wine at backyard barbecues.

So I book trips. I booked trips before we moved to this snobby suburb, but now travel has become a kind of lifeline, my way of holding on to a me I still recognize and like. Since moving here, we’ve gone to France, Mexico, Japan, Iceland. We have gone to California almost every year (Mike’s company is based there), we visited Colorado twice, and Canada, five times. All these trips would have easily covered the cost of a major kitchen renovation as well as several other home upgrades, for our house is old and crumbling in some places plus we would increase our property value. But we have postcards, not an open-concept kitchen with granite counter tops. We have great cocktail party stories about getting lost in Tokyo and biking Quebec, not new bathroom tile. I sometimes wonder if the frequency of our travels gives the false impression that we are rich, and here’s where the thoughts on money come in.

Three years ago, I left a communications manager job in which I was held in high regard. It wasn’t fulfilling, I had always wanted to be a novelist, and I thought, if not now, when? I could’ve stayed, collected regular paychecks every two weeks, lean in, as Sheryl Sandberg suggests, say yes to everything in the hopes that I would get another promotion and/or bonus, build up my retirement savings, maintain a decent working gal’s wardrobe, continue to pay through the nose for after school care and commuting (my commute averaged about $8,000 per year; getting across that Hudson River every day is not cheap, folks), and go on family vacations probably twice a year while watching my dreams of writing a novel ebb away because I’m not the type who can scribble plot on deli napkins in between meetings.

Instead, I’m under-earning. Way under-earning during what should be peak earning years. Juicier, larger projects that used to be easier to come by as a freelance writer are now fewer and far between. Budgets get cut. Projects fall through. The Internet continues to cheapen everything related to writing and publishing. Experts always advise to diversify; I have more clients yet less income, which goes against the equation many of us were taught. Every freelance writer I know is being low-balled for his or her work, and we’re all working harder now just to grab those smaller assignments that perhaps a decade or two ago we could have afforded to pass.

Despite this drop in income, I still travel though sometimes I question whether I should chill out, ignore my suburban surroundings and just save more and spend less. Two days ago, I hid from the Canadian wind by curling up and reading inside a Starbucks at the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac in Quebec City. I read about Scratch magazine, a publication covering the writing life and money, or lack thereof, coming to an end after two years. Scratch didn’t paint a rosy picture of the writer’s life—no one makes any money, which made me wonder if my choices were too financially risky after all. And then I read this great article by Chelsea Fagan about money and travel. Usually articles about money and/or travel remind me of what I’ve done wrong, but this one was so validating I read it twice. Fagan writes: “Encouraging that person to ‘not worry about money,’ or to ‘drop everything and follow their dreams,’ demonstrates only a profound misunderstanding about what ‘worrying’ actually means.”

I almost stood up at Le Château Frontenac and applauded. Holy crap! Someone finally said it. Out loud. On the Internet.

But, hey, Katrina, you quit your job, you’re following your dreams now, and you’re thanking Fagan’s candor from the lobby of a four-star hotel where you once stayed. All true, Internet, but here’s the thing: I spent my teens, 20s, and 30s working jobs I didn’t like to dig myself out of debt. We should all do stuff we don’t like for extended periods of time because it makes us appreciate what we really do like. I had six figures of debt when my daughter was born in 2004. My parents didn’t have bachelor’s degrees or any money when they were married and then when they divorced while I was a teenager, there was even less money to go around, and let’s just say getting child support from my father wasn’t easy. Money was so tight I missed out on my high school French class trip to Quebec City because I couldn’t afford to go (and I was the only student who didn’t go). My mother occasionally borrowed $20 from me—my earnings from babysitting, strawberry-picking and bussing tables at the town country club—to fill her gas tank to get to work. Growing up, our financial situation was precarious, and the cost of this dysfunction would be mine to pay off for years. I had to borrow to go to college, as most of us do, and worked a number of odd jobs to continue to afford college. I used credit cards to buy groceries and make ends meet. I once borrowed $3,000 from an ex-boyfriend (obviously, a super-nice guy, whom I did pay back in full). I didn’t come from any means whatsoever. Low expectations were encouraged, verbally and otherwise. I sometimes think middle- and upper-class families, where the money just moves from generation to generation, don’t get this, that lack of a safety net, what it feels like to stretch $20 bills farther than they are meant to go. My parents didn’t grow up with any money so “making do” was what you did, but as a teenager I resented this hand-to-mouth living. The breadwinner of our household had a debilitating mental illness and made a number of bad choices that would follow me for a long time. I wanted to break loose from all of it, financially, geographically, emotionally.

What changed? The first shift came in 1997 when we threw our few possessions into a small U-haul trailer and moved cross-country to Seattle, my first big life lesson that risk can indeed pay off. I came into a wave of dot-com money in the late 1990s and paid off $10,000 in student loans and a car loan (leaving about another $36,000 in student loans to go). A few years after being flush from our West Coast dot-com days, Mike and I both lost jobs and credit card debt went back up. Oh, and we had a baby. He was offered a job in New York City, and 11 1/2 years later, I’m still shocked we live here. We both did the nonprofit treadmill for a while and stayed afloat. I earned bonuses from exhausting office jobs and paid off what I could while Mike worked overtime. I got to the office early, Blackberried while driving home, arrived at daycare past closing, and watched a paycheck based on a 40-hour work week start to look small as the job consumed more of my life. Any windfall led to paying something off and, when we were lucky, a trip. First, small jaunts to the coast of Maine or back to Washington, D.C., where we used to live, and, eventually, trips to Belgium and England. Meanwhile, I contributed a meager 2 percent of my paycheck towards retirement—because daycare, credit card bills and other student loans ate the rest of my paycheck—and eventually that 2 percent grew to the point where we had enough for a rather laughable but legally-appropriate down payment on a house that was surprisingly accepted without issue. The real game changer, however, came in 2007 when my husband was offered a corporate gig that literally altered our lives. Nonprofit is called nonprofit for a reason, and folks can bash the corporate realm all they want, but the corporate realm helped us dig out faster, and I don’t badmouth the hand that feeds us. Because of one particularly awesome for-profit company that values my husband (and approves of work/life balance), I now have the freedom to attempt to write a novel while still being able to afford our daily expenses.

Which brings me back to the soccer field. The start of school and the new soccer season means the tail end of summer vacation. Sometimes I find myself chatting with a parent at the sideline and we talk about where we went and other trips we’ve taken. “Wow, you get around!” is usually the response, and I want to explain to this mom or dad how my mother, newly divorced, would yell at me for keeping my bedroom heat on too high because I was needlessly running up the utility bill when I could just throw on a sweater; how during my freshman year of college there was that discussion about whether I could afford to continue; how there would be a stack—a stack—of credit card bills on my desk; how I asked an ex-boyfriend for money.

But I don’t say any of these things.

When I meet others in our ‘burb, they ask what I do, the typical American chitchat filler. I explain how I stay at home and write freelance, and oh, yes, I’m working on my first novel, and yes, my husband writes for a mutual fund company, and really, you should go visit Iceland because the lava fields are beautiful this time of year, and I catch myself. But what can you really say on the sidelines of a kid’s soccer game? That it took you 20 years to dig out of debt, that you still worry about money even though the trips you take suggest otherwise because ever since you were stuck at home listening to your parents argue, you knew you wanted to see the world, that, yes, by all appearances you sound like a suburban corporate hausfrau but you’re focused on becoming a novelist and there are people in the publishing industry who think your manuscript is pretty good, that what you see standing before you here on this manicured soccer field isn’t always how it’s been, that you once counted pennies to buy spaghetti and butter, that when you were 23, your mother would call asking for money to help pay for your own health insurance because you were still on her plan and it was eating into her paycheck, that it was a long, weird, often difficult road, that financially, the woman you see before you is a late-bloomer compared with the neighbors, and that sometimes she’s surprised to be having this conversation at all?

A Four-Day Vacation With My Former Self

There appears to be three primary reasons people fly to Florida: to visit an elderly relative, to attend the funeral of an elderly relative, or to party on the beach. On the flight home, I sat between two people returning from two different funerals. At age 42, I can proudly say I was the one who had partied on the beach.

I use the word “party” loosely. I couldn’t hold my drink then and I can’t hold it now. While sunbathing in my SPF-50 long-sleeved rashguard on Siesta Key, I barely drank my daiquiri, some ruby-colored concoction that melted the second it was made (I’m discovering I’m a high-end tequila gal, anyway). Everyone else looked leathery and was gulping down what looked like cheap beer or neon-colored drinks like mine. On the beach, I scuttled toward any bit of shade, like some frightened crab eager for protection. I’m not getting any younger, and have somehow remained wrinkle-free, like some freshly laundered white Oxford shirt. In fact, I received a few compliments on my clear complexion while visiting Florida last week and at first, I thought “What the hell? Are the labels on my overpriced skin care products actually true?” Then I looked around at all the raisins in the sun.

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So what brought me to Bradenton, Florida? Me and my mates from college try to meet up every few years to just hang and reconnect. Without planning for it, this trip fell almost exactly 20 years after our college graduation. Our last jaunt was to Savannah, Georgia, in 2012, so it was good to get everyone together again; our chemistry as a group is something I’d snort and sell because it’s so special. Come to think of it, we meet up in the Southeast frequently and I have no idea why. We’ve met up in Savannah twice and New Orleans twice. One year, they threw me a bridal shower in New Orleans’ delightfully spectral French Quarter, a fantastic time in which I received far too many skimpy pieces of lingerie, drank lemonade that could trigger diabetes, and danced with an eighty-something-year-old man who had some serious sweet moves.

Now we’re all a decade or more into marriages and mortgages, some of us have kids and menageries of pets, some of us are already talking early retirement, because, Holy Crap! the mid-fifties are closer than we care to acknowledge. We’re scattered across the United States, one in Los Angeles, one in Kansas City, one in Washington, DC, one in my hometown of Rochester, NY, and then me. This past winter we were all bitching about the cold, Florida came up in the conversation, and one of us mentioned her mom’s friend’s place in Bradenton where this friend’s mom’s friend snowbirds with her husband. My advice to you, at any age: when a friend’s mom’s friend says “Hey, I’ve got a house in Florida you can use!” you show up. No matter where it is. Just go.

For four days, we hung out in a house about twice as big as mine and purchased at less than half the price because everything is bigger and cheaper outside the New York City region. I was grateful the house wasn’t decorated in the aquamarine-seashell kitsch I expect of Florida. I sipped morning coffee on a lanai—a word I never get to use in the Northeast—while watching lizards dart everywhere. We affectionately referred to the area as “Del Boca Vista” (a Seinfeld reference for those of you who came of age after 1998). Next to the visiting grandchildren, we were indeed the youngest in the ‘hood. The best perk—besides being almost free—was that the house stood just feet away from a beautiful, inground pool—a Florida backyard staple—where the water temperature never dropped below 80. Every day, my friends and I sat in the pool until our skin pruned. The pool was where we chatted bluntly for hours about everything under that unforgiving Florida sun because that’s what you can do with friends who have known you since you were 18; you can say anything, anytime. That’s why we do these trips.

I’ve always been sensitive to my environment, and was worried Florida would get under my skin and make me feel old before my time. The exact opposite happened. If anything, hanging with my college friends made me feel 20 again. We blasted the Gin Blossoms in the car. We gossiped. We compared notes on sex. No one counted calories because no one cared.

Which made driving around Bradenton a little weird because the town, like the rest of Florida, had its fair share of funeral homes, and since I was the one skipping the second daiquiri to drive three forty-something women around town, I noticed these things.

But the area surprised me, too. We encountered Loggerhead turtle eggs on the beach. I ate fish tacos that were almost as good as the ones I ate in Mexico. We visited Bradenton’s quirky, thriving arts community where we bought the same kind of funky jewelry we used to buy 20 years ago. It wasn’t all Winn-Dixies and funeral homes; there was a heartbeat in Bradenton that was still going strong. The Del Boca Vistas in America may be cookie-cutter, but they haven’t flatlined. In fact, they’re oddly rejuvenating.

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By the time I boarded my flight home, I realized I’d had a Doctor Who moment. Yes, Florida is strange—the crazy aunt of the Continental 48, as someone once said—but I had enjoyed time travel. While in Bradenton with my college friends, I got to revisit the old me, which is still vocal, chugging along, and dropping a few too many f-bombs, but is also occasionally overshadowed by the forty-something stuff, which is to be expected. We can’t be 20 forever. Yet it was fun to fly alone. I wore artsy jewelry and bought a $12 dress at some secondhand shop (though I think the term is “upcycled” now). I didn’t feel like a suburban hausfrau. I went four days without talking to a neighbor about school districts, property taxes or who has what disease (their favorite topics, not mine; I’d rather talk about books, but no one in my zip code reads for pleasure). I was just Kate, the blonde woman blessed with good skin tone who always loved to travel but hated to fly, the girl who never could hold her liquor, the one working on a novel, listening to the Gin Blossoms.

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Whales in the Mountains

My first clue was this goofy-looking, very dated, blue-and-white parking sign showing a smiling whale with wheels. We were figuring out where we could legally park and my initial thought was “What the hell is there a whale sign doing in the Catskills???”

Goes to show what I know. Turns out Hudson, New York, was an old whaling town. And I call myself a New Yorker.

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There are dozens of towns dotting the Hudson Valley, that fuzzy green space north of the Big Apple that has some of upstate New York’s rust beltness with a touch New Englandy pastoral independence. I’d never heard of Hudson, New York, until we wanted some custom-made furniture and after Googling “Hudson Valley cabinet makers” I found Jason, a tree-to-table artisan who maintains a shop called Fern Handcrafted on Warren Street in Hudson.

“What’s with the whale signs?” I asked him after drooling over all the beautiful stuff he makes from trees.

“This was an old whaling town,” he replied.

And I wondered, but didn’t want to say aloud, “Shouldn’t the Atlantic Ocean be involved?” Mystic, Connecticut, was an old whaling town. Nantucket was an old whaling town. But a riverside community a hundred miles from open ocean and just 30 miles from skiing? I had to know more.

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Long before Brooklyn hipsters moved north and the farm-to-fork scene became a scene, Hudson was the first Hudson Valley whaling town in the late 18th century, later followed by Poughkeepsie and Newburgh, all towns that hug the Hudson River and now siphon commuters south by train to offices in Manhattan. In 1774, when the Continental Congress decided to break off trade with Britain, Britain retaliated by taking over the colonies’ primary seaports, New York and Boston. That choked off whaling, which was in full swing after someone off the coast of Nantucket harpooned a sperm whale in 1712 and realized the commercial potential of what he just did.

Fast forward to 1783; two Nantucket brothers—one being an experienced whaler—went property-shopping around the Northeast for a place to keep the whale business afloat, perhaps not confident that the Revolutionary War would actually end that same year after eight long years. The two men, with the stout New England names Seth and Thomas Jenkins, went upriver about 120 miles from Manhattan, and stopped at what was then called Claverack Landing, a farming town of about 150 people. What caught the Brothers Jenkins’ eyes were two bays deep enough to accommodate whaling ships. Two years later, the brothers literally drew out a planned city that could support the whaling industry, and renamed Claverack Landing, Hudson. By 1790, Hudson boasted a population of about 2,500.

Around this time, Boston and New York were beginning to recover from the Revolutionary War and ports hummed with merchant ships again. Hudson continued to contribute, dragging dead whales upriver that had bled out along the way, and processing them in the valley refineries for oil, blubber, meat and bones for corsets. Whaling remained a vibrant industry for those first few decades of the nineteenth century and then kerosene began to take over in the 1840s, which is about when the Hudson Valley whaling companies stopped sending out ships. So now there was a town, and no industry, a story that would hit upstate New York farm towns over and over again for decades to come.

Two hundred thirty years after taking its current name, what is the city of Hudson doing now? It has a population of just under 7,000, which was its population at around 1850 when whaling was sputtering out. But its population is now more urban refugees with a fair share of Brooklyn hipster transplants, including my furniture guy, who decided he needed more space to carve sixteen-foot conference tables that he ships off to places like Miami and Japan, not to mention an easier time sourcing the trees that make the furniture that appears in Elle Decor and The New York Times.

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Guys like Jason restore my faith in small town America. And walking Hudson, I could see it. Outside, a thriving downtown lined with independent businesses, some painted a bright tangerine or a soft, buttery yellow or a deep hue of claret. Everything was old yet still full of purpose; one faded brick building in need of a paint job dated from 1805 and had served as a jail, a meeting house and a printing shop. Also outside: people not beeping at me to get the hell out of the way, which happens in suburban New Jersey, a vortex of patience and civility.

Inside these historic Hudson buildings, decorated tin ceilings, which were popular during the Victorian era, and countless shelves of fair trade goods or homemade goods or things designed to make you feel good, to reassure you that not everything was manufactured in China or assembled in the cheapest way possible. Hudson epitomized the shop local movement. There were tea shops, ice cream parlors, Jason, restaurants, books and tons of antiques—a word losing its shape. When I was a kid going on family vacations across New England, including Mystic, Conn., “antique” meant something fancy made in the 1800s; now it seems to mean anything not recently bought on Amazon. Hudson had several of these shops pushing “vintage” and “antique” wares, objects that too often looked like the same things your aunt wasn’t able to unload at a garage sale, such as a giant papier-mâché taxi. Yet even Hudson proprietors organized their junk in thoughtful, visually alluring ways, and Mike and I were both charmed.

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We didn’t have time to walk down to the river front or explore further because we had to get back on the road, but we’ll be back to pick up our bathroom vanity from Jason, and, likely place another order with him. And maybe I’ll snap a photo of that whale sign that sparked it all, an item that truly looked like it came from an “antique” store. Our relationship with Hudson is just beginning.

But what does all this mean? Ok, so I learned that a rustic town with urban flair had a brief, but colorful past in the whaling industry that came to be because of the Revolutionary War. So what? Well, this day trip got me thinking again about America, because America is a strange place, really several mini-nations recognizing the same flag. Before our drive to Hudson, what it means to be an American when America was pretty new had weighed on me, because it seems very different than what it means to be American now. The Northeast feels completely different from Texas. The West Coast feels completely from the Midwest. And then there’s Hawaii and Alaska. Different is good. National identities should evolve with the times, but there’s an undercurrent of anger and narcissism that’s palpable across America that troubles me. Racism, rampant obesity and sedentary living, the have-and-have-not socioeconomic subcultures, constant legal challenges against Obamacare, chronic political bipolarity, incessant consumerism, an inflammatory American media allowing no room for more nuanced points of view or discussions because it just doesn’t make for good TV (CNN and FOX are equally guilty here). All have me thinking what it would be like to perch somewhere else for a while.

I’ve been reading up about the Revolutionary War lately, and it wasn’t a picnic then either—obviously racism, poverty, starvation. Infections we consider innocuous today, such as flu and strep, sent families to their graves. I also read that George Washington had dysentery so frequently that he sat on a pillow when on horseback, something that freaked out his subordinates because it heightened their leader when he sat on the saddle—and he was already a tall guy—making him an easier target for anyone armed who disagreed with him.

But was there this anger and narcissism I sense now? Ambiguity, yes. History books teach American kids that everyone grabbed the flag and told Britain where to stick it, but we all know it’s more complicated than that, that people struggled with their choices, that many felt terrified of losing Britain, that many questioned colonial leadership. Yet, that entrepreneurial American attitude persisted even when choices remained unclear. You don’t get on a boat and strike out for the unknown unless you have an entrepreneurial spirit; it’s in America’s DNA. This can-do attitude has weathered wars and economic setbacks, and was on full display in Hudson this past weekend. What got lost along the way over the centuries, I could not say, but walking Hudson and reading about the formation of this community, I discovered that the best of what it meant to be American flourished there and still does. All that promise, not just capital potential in whaling, but in developing an identity, influenced the greater good and influenced a community and a culture. It was there in Hudson and remains there, though as I roadtrip the United States more and more, I question whether it’s everywhere.