Home Page

Call of the Wild

By Tina Traster

May 4, 2006 -- I never wanted to live in suburbia. I feared I’d morph from a black-garbed, indie-movie-going urbanite into an SUV chauffeuring soccer mom. Until my daughter turned two, I clung to the idea she should be raised in the city, even though her bedroom was a windowless foyer in our 700-square-foot Upper West Side one-bedroom apartment. Without a spare million to buy a two-bedroom, I figured we’d manage in the city and buy a country cottage somewhere upstate.

Nice dream, but it only works for a while.

By the time the 2-year old turns 3, her territory expands tenfold. Books and talking stuffed animals and things with wheels are constantly underfoot. There’s just nowhere to go.

During the ensuing nervous breakdown, you have two choices: medication or scanning the real-estate listings and imagining what it would be like to have a real bedroom for your child. And a kitchen that’s not also a home office. And land. Yes, a speck of green turf that hasn’t been sprayed with rat poison.

Suburbia was inevitable. However, I set two conditions. I didn’t want to be more than an hour from Manhattan because I would need to return for occasional doctor visits and haircuts. (Frederick Fekkai doesn’t snip in the burbs). Second, I would not live in a raised Ranch or a steroidal McMansion in a new development without vegetation. I vowed to find a peaceful little spot that looks like it could be in the Catskill Mountains.

The budget?  Less than $425,000.

The 18-month search was grueling. We scoured the counties of Westchester (too crowded), Putnam (too bait and tackle shop) and Dutchess (too far). The real breakthrough occurred when we crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge and discovered that Rockland County does not have an easy rail connection for commuters to Manhattan -- and that is a good thing. While it is no longer rural, the county has not been as badly afflicted by strip mall and housing development mania as southern Westchester, Long Island and northern New Jersey.

Here’s a factoid: 30 percent of Rockland County is green with city, county and state parks.

We started with Nyack – a hip Hudson River town with many city expats. This village, an architectural gem of the late-19th- and early-20th-century buildings, has a great library, a YMCA, the Elmwood Playhouse, the Riverspace cultural center and a fading antiques scene being replaced by banks and restaurants.

Sticker shock quickly forced us to widen the net, which turned out to be a blessing because the broker never would have shown us the sad old house perched on a mountain ridge. Riding in the back of her VW to view the house, I noticed on the map that the house, just a mere mile from Nyack, was situated on a road which had no real development for at least an inch on every side. How could this be?

We took the river road out of the village of Nyack. We passed a shuttered summer camp on the right and Nyack High School on the left before turning onto a serpentine road with a frozen pond, old farmhouses, tumble downs, and a couple of  old abandoned summer bungalows. “Here we are,” the broker said with sing-song broker enthusiasm.

When she pried open the door to this 150-year-old farmhouse, I was charmed and alarmed. Something about it – the big hearth in the middle of the living room and a wall of windows facing acres of woods – said this is worth rescuing, even though it needed to be completely rebuilt. We didn’t linger long and when the broker took us to a less ravaged house along the same road she became much more animated.

I stopped her sales pitch and said, “I want to go back and see the other house again.”

She replied, “That money pit?”

Too many episodes of This Old House,” and the unexpectedly high price we had gotten for our apartment led me to a moment of temporary insanity and I said, “Yes, I’ll take it.”

For less than $400,000 – half the price of a large one-bedroom in Manhattan – we bought this 2,000-square-foot house on nearly an acre. We snatched an enchanting location on a mountain ridge though we are only minutes from the Palisades Mall. What we purchased was a good stone foundation and a chicken coop. Much of the rest of the home was going in the dumpster.

It took four months and about $100,000 to gut-renovate. We saved old floors, French doors, the beautiful hearth and a 100-year-old cast-iron claw-footed tub. But we raised the roof and replaced every wire and widget to bring the house into the 21st century.

This labor of love paid off. Our perch is peaceful and I enjoy the distant whistle of the freight train a few times each day. Manhattan is less than 30 minutes away, though trips there now are infrequent. Our land, which abuts 250 wooded acres untouched for a century, is home to grazing white tail deer and wild turkeys.

We toy with raising chickens and growing vegetables. It would be lovely to have a pair of goats, and our precipitous mountainside would make these beasts as happy as I am. At night, the bare branches of our maple trees are silhouetted against a moonlight sky. Yes, this is technically suburbia but it sure is hard to tell.

Columns | Essays | HuffPo Blog | Newspapers | Magazines | Business/Finance | Travel | About Me | Contact