HelpXing in the Hudson Valley
On the wall of their living room is a larger-than-life sized bust of Frida Kahlo, in the style of her Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. There are no animals on her shoulders, as in the painting, but there are three large black dogs that occupy in the room. Frida is the remnant of a puppetry-on-ice skating show that my host, Sandy, choreographed. One small boy, named Miguel, who stayed in their guesthouses, politely told his mother that there was a monster in the house, and pointed at Frida. She is a fitting emblem for their house, hanging there, exaggerated, intense and surreal.
I meet Sandy in New York City and we catch the bus upstate together. She’s been in the city for skating practice. She thinks she doesn’t need to specify that this means ice skating, so I don’t mention that I wasn’t sure. This is the first time I’ve done Helpx-ing, which is similar to WWOOFing. I have no idea what it will be like, but Sandy seems nice. When we get to the closest township, New Paltz, I find myself going with her and her husband John to a wedding reception. It’s at a teahouse and I’m welcomed as a guest. It’s entirely sweet. John was the sole wedding attendant, ring-bearer and flower-man, and we are also the sole members of the wedding party. The bride and groom are in their 70s and are both wearing an item of white clothing made by new-wife Wilda. It’s not their first marriage, and they are well beyond any pretention. Over dinner, they talk about people they know who are dying. From New Paltz it’s about half and hour to John and Sandy’s property. We get to know each other on the way, while spotting deer on the sides of the road.
It’s a secluded and decent-sized property, with five guesthouses that are rented out. They also have five horses, three dogs, one pig and many kittens. The rubbish bins are five minutes down the road and the kittens like to sit in my pockets for the walk. My main job is to clean the guesthouses: change sheets, mop the floor, bring new toilet paper etc. It’s actually quite intense work when you need to get through several houses before people start arriving. I kind of get told what to do, and then everyone disappears, while I feel weird scouring their home for rags and Windex by myself, as all I was left with was wood varnish. It gets a lot easier once I find the cleaning products stash and get into the rhythm of it.
Over the next few days, there is a weird mood in the house. Whenever I’m alone with Sandy she tells me how hopeless John is, and we do things he was meant to do while she was gone. Whenever I’m alone with John he tells me he does what he can do to please his wife. I fill an awkward midpoint. Sandy has a lot of work to get done, between finalising her skating performance, an architecture job and organising bookings. After a few days, she starts ignoring everyone in the house and walking around strange and blank faced whilst not working. I might feel for her a lot more, but she manages impressive subtle insults directed at me and everyone else.
I am at the farm for thanksgiving. Sandy and John plan to go to Boston, and leave me to watch over things. On Thanksgiving morning, the water system supplying the house stops working. Amongst this, all the guesthouses are full and many guests are in the kitchen for coffee and chatting. When the water is fixed, we spend the morning racing around, with me trying to learn everything: how to feed the horses, how different horses get fed differently, how to feed the pig, a thousand little details about each house (as John designed the water and power systems they have a lot of quirks), how much power and water there is in each hut. When they haven’t left by noon, they decide to stay; John says, “I was getting exhausted just telling you all the things you’d need to do – I can’t imagine how you would do them all.”
By noon, we have an impromptu Thanksgiving organised with the family staying in the yurt guesthouse. They have brought a giant turkey, and are roasting it in the kitchen because it is the only oven large enough. I met them in the dark the night before and thought they were three friends, but actually they are a young mum, Cynthia, her 17-year-old son, Vincent, and Vincent’s school friend Tarik. Cynthia is very American and very talkative. She wanted a nickname for me and calls me Hattie. We make mulled wine while waiting the five or so hours it takes a turkey to cook. Vincent is very mature and wants to be a chef. While his mum sat with me, he was in the yurt making the sides – potatoes, sweet potatoes, greens, a kale salad, beans and rice, cranberry sauce, apple pie. It was a strange but sweet feast. The two boys manage to eat a ridiculous amount, but there is still enough turkey to eat for lunch and dinner for the rest of the week.
Over the weekend, the guesthouses are booked out, and so is the suite in the house. A woman and her daughter stay upstairs with their tiny chihuahua. The dog never leaves the mother’s side. At night, she comes down to sit and chat after a bath. She’s in her dressing gown, and the dog wrapped in the towel, with its wet hair curled on its head. Many other guests keep to themselves, and on Sunday everybody leaves and I set about cleaning up the post-Thanksgiving kitchens.
When there is not a lot of work to do during the week, I go for a walk across a field to a place where two streams meet. It’s a very cold, but magic place. When I’m walking back, John pulls up and calls out that he’s going shopping, and do I want to come? We go on a Cat-in-the-Hat style dash across the towns of the Hudson Valley as he does anything to avoid being at home. He tells me how crazy Sandy’s family, and right now Sandy, have always been. We buy dog and cat food, a yoga mat for his daughter, a pump for an aquaponics set-up and fridge magnets. On the way home we make several show-and-tell stops: there is the hill his friend mines for water where he once climbed deep into the mountain, the locks of the river that goes through the area, which was the first million dollar government funded project in the 1700s.
Sandy leaves for the city for skating practice again. No guests stay between Monday and Friday. Quiet country life begins. Two of John’s kids from his first marriage come for dinner. We explore the town of Woodstock, and John points out places that he thinks celebrities live – Robert Downey Jr this way, David Bowie that way. Ali, who keeps her two horses at the barn, comes to stay. She’s maybe left her boyfriend, or she’s at least moved out of his house. She’s also just quit her job. We talk about her plan to ride her horse down the coast and back. It would take three months, traveling at 50 miles per day, including rest days. Ali later gives me a bareback riding lesson. All is quiet on the farm.
Over the last few days it became really homey, and when I leave it feels like leaving family. Sandy came back from the city and I discover what she is like in the more normal mood, which is a lot less crazy. On the way to the bus stop I say that I might like being nomadic a little too much; John tells me that he thinks I’ve got everything sorted.