How To Do The Perfect Upstate Escape
New York man-about-town Mr David Coggins on how skipping the city can help recharge the creative batteries .
What attracts New Yorkers to New York – the vitality, the energy, the hum – also forces us to take a little time away from it. Yes, we love the Met, 21, Film Forum, the opera, the Greenmarkets, the bars (both high and dive), but sometimes you need to go off-grid. So we ditch the double-breasted jacket, loosen our tie and head to the country and take time to read, reflect and realign. And, of course, light a fire and grill some meat over it.
I’ve lived in New York for 20 years. I head Upstate New York in my rather too-old Saab – it seems that as I age, I like sport coats and cars that have been around a while. When you’re away from the distractions and attractions of the city, your perspective sharpens.
Upstate, fly-fishing is the thing. When you’re fishing, you take your time and nominally think about trout. But, of course, your mind wanders at a natural pace (which is to say slowly), and that’s when ideas strike. If you’re lucky, a few fish strike, too. I’ve always loved the great Russian writers, and many of them loved spending time in the country: Mr Leo Tolstoy, of course, but also Mr Ivan Turgenev, author of A Sportsman’s Sketches. And it’s hard not to mention Mr Ernest Hemingway, who spent his formative summers up in Michigan, the place he regarded as “the last good country”.
They knew what we still know now: that it’s good to get outside. Years ago, I read that if you stand all day on a side street in Manhattan, you get something like just six minutes of direct sunlight. I don’t know if that’s true, but it certainly feels true. There’s a special anticipation when you head fishing on the river – you’re going to be out of reception, breathing fresh air the whole damn day.
My family has a cabin in Wisconsin where we spend time in the summer. When my sister arrives from LA and I get in from New York, we are there to cook. She takes command in the kitchen, I’m invariably out on one of the many grills our father has acquired over the years. Standing around a fire considering a piece of meat surely serves some primal urge. It’s also a good time to drink the local beer. Or a glass of wine. It’s funny, I generally like things slightly more rustic in the country: bad beer when I’m fishing, wine that’s a little less refined than in the city. Really good Scotch, however, seems to make sense wherever you are, dressed up or down.
Being in the country is not just swimming, canoeing and sautéing morels – at some point, as a writer, you have to get down to work. When I was working on Men And Style – my new book about how interesting men developed their sensibility and worldview – I wrote huge sections at the cabin. There’s a lot of mythology about writing in the woods. It might have something to do with the fact that men in the forest often bravely decide to grow beards – and it’s well known that bearded men are blessed with fertile minds. (Mr Tolstoy would agree.) But, really, it has to do with the lack of the grid and everything that implies. You can stare into the distance and not see buildings, not see people, not see delivery trucks double-parking and causing traffic. Whenever I go back to New York after a long time in the country, it’s the first car that sounds its horn that really fires my temper.
I like to sit outside in the morning and drink coffee and write. I also like to hike, a short walk if I want to get back to work, a longer one if I’m struggling for inspiration. Then I come back take a swim and write some more. This isn’t some rustic posture; I’m not working in pen and ink by candlelight. I use a computer, and listen to a Spotify playlist of instrumental music that my sister says sounds like it belongs in a Japanese spa for depressed people.
In the city, I wear a sport coat every day. That’s certainly true in New York, but I wear a sport coat in any city I visit, even LA. A knitted tie, Oxford shirt… a certain easygoing formality. In the country, the jacket takes a break. I prefer a big cardigan over a shirt buttoned all the way up. I go heavy on texture, like corduroy, and the colours of nature. Indoors, I like pyjamas so much, I worked with friends at Sleepy Jones to design my own. Outside, a good overcoat or hat travels well anywhere. So does a solid pair of boots.
In the country, you’re connected to the rhythms of the season, whether it’s the frogs making a racket in the early summer or eating the corn from nearby fields late in it. But fall remains a favourite. The colours are striking, but you sense the days getting shorter and the chill makes you appreciate the open fire just a little bit more. The last meal you have outside is always bittersweet.
In the end, the country restores your balance. As fall arrives, you walk down to the lake for the last time, late at night when it’s so dark you can’t see anything but stars. Then you walk back up the hill to the house, which is lit like a constellation set low in the night sky. You know it has to end, and when it does, you feel the call of the city. That’s why you live there, after all. So you look forward to the opera, a serious lunch, seeing friends. You also have to face the facts and start working on your next book.
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