Escape from New York

Some people are leaving the big city for the countryside

I am here in upstate New York, somewhere in Sullivan County, about two and a half hours (northwest) from the hustle and bustle of New York City. I came to visit family and ended up staying for a few more days in the countryside, where my brother has a restructured barn turned into house and art studio. 

He’s not the only one. Since the pandemic, many people have been escaping from New York City and moving towards the countryside or to smaller towns. Covid regulations, the rise of crime — NY seems to be slowly inching back to the bad old days of the 1970s — inflation, higher rents, or just the growing stress of living in big cities have made people reconsider their living arrangements. 

I wrote before about the difference between country people and city people in the context of Sweden, but here, it’s like two completely different nations altogether. The little country village nearby (population: 389) is only two and a half hours from New York City, and is still in the same state, but both places couldn’t be more different. While NYC is mostly Blue or Democrat, up here it is definitely Trump country. There are already several “Trump 2024″ and “Fuck Joe Biden” bumperstickers and American flags all around, and I doubt many people around here lost sleep over the recent Roe vs Wade abortion overturn.

People in the country tend to view people in the city as smug, annoying liberals, while people in the city view those in the country as ignorant rednecks or reactionary bumpkins, but the truth is more complex than that. From what I’ve heard and seen, there are quite a few lesbian or gay couples in the area. There are even Democrats. But you won’t see many “Pride” flags. What people around here most object is the politicization of issues, but country people are much more open-minded than they are given credit for. Of course, if you come up with a Biden T-shirt and say that you support gun control, you may get a few angry looks. But — probably — you won’t get shot.  

Guns are a hobby, and may be a necessity for many around here. After all, there are wild animals around. Bears, foxes, coyotes, eagles, snakes, to name just a few. Most are not dangerous. Perhaps the most dangerous ones are the bears, but they are black bears, which usually not as aggressive as the brown ones. I haven’t seen any yet, but a few neighbours have reported close encounters with them. 

But most of the dangers are imaginary. A strange shadow in the forest… Is it a bear? No, it’s just a tree stump with a weird shape. Something is moving behind the bushes. A coyote? No, just two chipmunks, you shouldn’t worry, unless you’re Donald Duck. A green shape moving in the water. An alligator? No, we’re not in Florida, dummy, it’s just a beaver carrying a mossy piece of wood.  

Mostly, the main worry are bugs. Living in the country basically means daily encounters with bugs of all kinds. Big flies, little flies, microscopic flies, butterflies, bees, wasps, spiders, beetles, mosquitoes, ticks — perhaps the most dangerous ones, as they may transmit Lyme’s disease — and a whole lot of other insects, many of which may not have been officially discovered yet. 

It’s just a different way of living. The worst dangers in the city come mostly from other humans: contagious respiratory diseases, robbers, shooters, a crazy guy pushing you into the metro tracks. In the country, it’s perhaps more likely a bear, a snake, a car accident, a hunting accident, drowning in a river, a gun going off by mistake. 

Because so many people left New York City in the last two years during the Covid pandemic, the demographics of a few towns have changed a bit. In Callicoon (population: 3,057), about 20 miles from here, there are quite a few former New Yorkers that have moved in and brought a bit of their “city culture” with them. The town now holds film, literature or music events, and a couple of more “sophisticated” furniture or wine shops. They may even sell good European wines! So it’s not all black and white. Even in terms of people — sure, the countryside is on average whiter than NYC, perhaps even 90% or 95% white, but there are a few black, Latin American or Asian families too.

There is certainly a lot of division currently in America — political, economic, social, sexual, racial — and some of it lead to resentment or violence, but here in the countryside you don’t see it so much yet. People tend to be friendly, and although perhaps some may be a bit suspicious of strangers, when you explain to them that you’re the brother or the cousin of someone who lives here whom everybody knows, all is well.

New York City still has a lot of appeal, for sure. And, for certain jobs, you may have to live in the big city anyway, even in this age of remote work. But country living, as many are discovering, also has its charms.