A bartender talks about turning 30, accidentally taking meth, and her fight to save the family farm.
Sullivan County is a green and secluded corner of New York State. Tucked into the northeastern cradle of Pennsylvania by the lower arm of the Catskill Mountains, it has the Upper Delaware River Valley all to itself.
The villages here started life as mill towns but, with the advent of 19th century naturalism, became miniature tourist meccas for folks summering from New York City. Most of them boast just one main street, sometimes featuring a bandstand or a prim little park set with a single bench. Their tall but modest homes bespeak the rare summer leniency of the Yankee work ethic. Any of them could serve as the set for a Thornton Wilder play.
Summers in Sullivan County feature produce stands, pie raffles, weekly brass band concerts flanked by polka dancing in the streets. The sunny sides of hills turn thick with clover and Queen Anne’s lace, while red lilies nod in the shade. The river steams the air with fragrant heat by day, condensing into a cool cloud of mist that drifts through the woods until daybreak.
Winters here are another story. Sullivan County has largely gone the way of the railroad that used to run through it. While the Delaware and its tributaries still run clean and strong, the industries they used to power have dried up. The best looking homes in the area are inhabited maybe six months out of the year; the other, scrappier ones are decaying around people who can’t afford or are too proud to leave.
Following the Callicoon River along Route 52, you find the North Branch Inn, a place breathing cosmopolitan life into this secluded backwood. Revamped by Brooklyn restauranteurs, it’s the kind of place that curmudgeons call “hipster” and hipsters call “authentic.” The heavy oak bar that anchors the place, reputedly built for the World’s Fair, grounds the inn with a soulful grandeur that transcends mere agrarian chic.
Behind the bar stands Cat, pouring local ciders and mixing cocktails with an apothecary’s precision and a gravitas to match the setting. Her flax-colored hair winds in a thick braid down her arm. Her face is timeless, her shoulders strong and her chin delicate. She looks like she could as easily throw you to the ground as she could arrange flowers.
As the inn’s other guests filter out and her perfect old-fashioneds keep sliding my way, our conversation about the county leans toward the much more interesting topic of her own history. She’s as close to native as you can get without being born here, having spent every summer on her grandmother’s farm in the nearby village of Jeffersonville. She fronted a band, nannied for the family of a movie star, trained as a yoga teacher. She’s currently contemplating a master’s degree in plant science, training in mixed martial arts, and her side job is growing and selling flowers for a nearby farm.
Oh, and she’s only 28 years old.
Given her wealth of life experience, this realization is shocking. But even more shocking is her next intimation: that she’s nervous about turning 30.
Some kids, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, will answer something they are familiar with, something a grown-up in their lives does. Other kids will answer something grandiose.
The answer is predicated on the scope of their imagination. Without having experienced any real limits, a kid will answer whatever he or she considers possible.
By the same token Cat, if you’d asked her, would have answered that she wanted to be a prodigy. At the age of 12, she already felt a sense of failure, of being behind schedule.
“I was a straight A student, I was athletic, I was a really good kid…but I wasn’t blowing up the charts or breaking records, so I thought I was failing.”
It was a relief to look forward to 30 and think that by then, she’d have everything sorted out: a family, a career, a well-established path. She’d have a history behind her of traveling the world and being a rockstar, and a clearly identified future ahead of her.
For a while, it seemed like it was on track to happen. She got a full ride to the University of Colorado Boulder. She took on physics as her major. She was going to be a scientist and do music on the side.
And then one night, a recreational ecstasy trip turned into a nightmare. Someone had added methamphetamine to the mix; Cat found herself on the side of the road in the middle of a cold Colorado night, wearing only Converse sneakers, shorts and her grandmother’s fur coat. Hypothermia was the least of her worries; she could feel herself in the midst of an OD. Somehow she managed to call her mom, who called the police, who took Cat in to the hospital.
While she was being treated, her godfather showed up.
“He’s a very stoic man, an old school farmer. And he cried. He said ‘You have to promise me you’ll never do that again.’
“I promised. And shortly after, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died a week later.”
The blow to Cat was intense. Devastated by his loss and still reeling from the effects of the drug overdose, Cat dropped out of school. It would be more accurate to say she simply stopped going. Letters from the dean warning her that she would lose her scholarship, that she had lost her scholarship, that she’d be liable for all her previous tuition money, barely registered in her mind.
“For a year I couldn’t handle anything. I couldn’t sleep. I had intense paranoia. I felt crazy.”
The one thing that helped was music. She formed a band–all girls with a guy drummer–and started writing songs and playing shows. Life became a blur of jobs, side jobs, art and vagabondry from one city, apartment or roommate to another. It felt as though everything was an opportunity, and since everything came fairly easily to her, it was hard to know what to focus on.
“That’s always been my trouble. I was afraid of making the wrong choice, so I never really committed to one thing.”
When you’re young, things change so quickly. From age 10 to 18, you change vastly, understand so much more about the world, have so many milestones. It’s natural to assume that you’ll do and see and understand at the same rate in your 20s.
What you don’t realize is that so many of those milestones are things you’re ushered into and guided through. You’re compelled to attend, school, you’re taken on vacation, you’re offered information you didn’t seek out by friends, you’re pushed by authorities to think deeply about things and to try harder when you’d rather be lazy.
When it comes time to pursue your own destiny, you don’t necessarily know how to do that. No one is pushing you anymore; in fact, the world has folded its arms and is waiting to see what you do with yourself.
If you have a lot of interests and abilities, like Cat does, your inability to choose can look like laziness. Four year went by that, despite their constant activity, now feel as if they’d been lost.
And then another misfortune occurred. Only this one presented the opportunity she’d been waiting for:
Her grandmother’s farm was on the verge of foreclosure.
And Cat decided to save it.
The farm had been in Cat’s family since 1959. Her grandmother was one of many Long Islanders who used their unexpected money from the post-war boom to purchase cheap land in the Catskills as a summer and weekend retreat. She got her family in on it, her sister and brother-in-law and mother, and together they spent the next decade installing electricity, fixing the plumbing, shoveling shit out of the upper story where the previous owner, a senile Luddite who drove a horse and buggy until she left town, kept her chickens.
They learned the history of the place—an artist had hung himself in the barn, it was used as a hospital during the Civil War, the original foundation was built in the 1700s–and began building their own history.
And they began building their own history there.
The summers in Sullivan County, Cat says wistfully, are incredible, especially when you have a magical farmhouse to spend them in. From her earliest memories, Cat looked forward to spending days on end on the farm with her grandmother, learning to bake and ballroom dance, watching old movies and reading books, building cities out of sticks in the cool, quiet woods. The older she grew, the more she began to envision her future there–not just for the summers, but all year long. Her overachieving anticipations for age 30 included raising her nuclear family in that house.
But her grandmother’s death in 2010 changed everything.
Remembering it, Cat permits a tight, resigned sigh.
“The thing is, my grandmother didn’t own it. Her sister had left it to my aunt and my sister. My aunt and my sister owned it and my grandmother ‘rented’ it—she paid the taxes. When my grandmother died, the family decided we’d all pitch in and cover taxes. But we realized if it didn’t pay for itself somehow, we couldn’t keep it.”
Her aunt and her sister, who by then lived far from New York, were all too ready to give up the farm. But for Cat, this was like a death sentence. The prospect of losing the most magical place in her childhood galvanized her into action. She’d found her purpose. She got on a plane from Colorado ready to make the farm work again.
“I didn’t know how to farm; I just knew that I wanted to. I came back here and got a job on an organic farm, studied, went to a lot of conferences, took a small business course, got a lot of inspiration.”
At age 24, she took up residence in the house again. But it was different–now she was alone there, with no one to teach her. The daily activities weren’t fun summer projects–they were year-round necessities for survival. And without her grandmother there, she was no longer viewed as being part of the community. Instead, she was once again an outsider in the place where she’d felt most at home.
“A lot of crazy stuff happened—like right before the fracking ban had passed, I had ‘No Fracking’ signs and I woke up one day and someone had ripped the signs down and slashed my tires and spray painted the signs and left them in my front yard along with a bunch of beer bottles.”
It was alarming and hurtful, especially when the police shrugged it off as a prank–“probably some drunk kids from Bethel Woods,” they surmised. Cat had always felt safe during her summers there, but the winters brought a new awareness of the area’s desperation and xenophobia. Hard as she might try to make the house belong to her, she couldn’t make herself belong in Sullivan County.
Looking back, she says, what kept her going was the dream that she dared not even admit to herself:
“I guess I was secretly hoping my family would come back and we’d all work on it together.”
Spring came, and with it a blow to the gut: her sister and aunt told her they’d decided to sell the place.
Cat was devastated. She’d broken ground, she had planted, she had weathered the winter all alone, believing that this was her purpose and it would bring her family back together.
Now, she realizes that they probably wouldn’t ever have joined her. No matter how much she worked to prove she could do it, her aunt and sister didn’t believe she would commit to the project. In their minds, she was the flaky one, unfocused, bouncing from one place and project to another. She tries not to blame them, but the thought of what could have happened if they’d given her a chance eats away at her when she remembers.
“I had come up with a lot of ideas for how to make money for it, but I didn’t have any investors. I didn’t have the confidence to sell my ideas. I needed support and I didn’t get it.”
There must be something just quintessential to American life about the idea of having and then losing the land you’ve worked on. I’ve never worked the land, I’ve never tried to own any or even hoped to, but I feel this loss of hers in my gut as if it’s something I’d experienced myself.
On top of that primal feeling is the very familiar and recent feeling of your character being found wanting before it is even defined. However you might feel about turning 30, you can be assured of some level of being taken seriously. Even if your life hasn’t been as figured out as you hope, something about that age brings validation from the outside world. People give you credit for being a grown-up now.
Maybe if Cat had been 30, her proposal to make something of the farm might not have required the burden of proof. But her family didn’t wait long enough for her to reach that age of definition before they made a decision that took away the purpose she’d discovered…and with it, her final chance to get her 20s figured out.
“I was like ‘Fuck it. I’m leaving Sullivan County.'”
The house is set at the back of a gentle slope, ringed by trees. Riding slowly past reveals its capacious size. It has more generous proportions than the prim Yankee saltboxes in the village, with extra wings that embrace the round hillsides. The front of the house is flooded with sun, while the back is embraced by trees.
It’s easy to imagine spending summers here, especially as a child. It’s easy to understand Cat’s ambition to rescue the place where her grandmother taught her to bake and ballroom dance, where she learned to farm, the place that showed her what she wanted to do with her life.
Once it wasn’t her place anymore, Cat’s love for the farm quickly soured into contempt for the area. There was no work to be had. She was regarded as an outsider. The one place that made Sullivan County magical for her was being taken away from her.
Again, she sighs, allowing a little more breath to escape her.
“It’s heartbreaking to think that that place belongs to someone else now. I can’t even drive down the road that the house is on.”
At this moment, a tall, thin man in a plaid shirt and beanie approaches us from the other room.
“Excuse me?” he says. “I think I live in that house.”
Cat takes his statement completely in stride–the look on her face and the tone of her voice betray nothing but delight at meeting him. They chat for a few minutes while I try not to make it obvious that I’m monitoring Cat for signs of grief.
The man, his wife and two kids have recently moved to the area from Tarrytown. They’re planning to live there year round, possibly have AirBnB guests, create a self-sustaining farm, but they don’t know what they’re doing, the man confesses. He asks, almost begs, Cat to come and visit sometime–they would love to see her and have her teach them.
She is very gracious and at the same time promises nothing. Once he has shook her hand and goes back to his seat, she takes a slow, even breath and looks at the floor, then back at me.
“Yeah. It’s been hard.”
There’s one nice thing about not having the definition that comes with age 30: you can run away with relative impunity. That’s what Cat did–she took the opportunity to go join a friend in France who is planning to open a restaurant. It seemed like the perfect place to start over with a new purpose.
But her mother wasn’t doing great. She was calling Cat every day, asking when she was coming back.
“She afraid I was going to stay there. That was my plan. I was going to maybe go home, pack my stuff up, put it in storage and move back. But then I realized while I was away I can’t just leave her there right now.”
Like her mom, Cat was a mess in her own way. She hadn’t grieved the loss of her childhood home and the dream that went with it–she’d simply survived it and fought her way forward. But when she came back and moved in with her mother, the grief began to wash over her in waves. For the first three months, everything was bleak and worthy of resentment–the lack of opportunity in Sullivan County, the poor options for dating, the fact that she was living with her mom, her mom’s deep depression.
And then it occurred to her, maybe for the first time, that there was an advantage to being young.
“It really pisses me off when people say I have ‘plenty of time.’ Even as a child I knew there is no guarantee of that. As a kid, I dealt with my dad leaving, and a lot of people around me dying. I was like wow, I really can’t expect anything. I can work toward something but it doesn’t mean it’s going to work out.”
But as that fall progressed into winter, she realized that it wasn’t going to last forever. Her life might be cramped by circumstances, but those circumstances would change before long. They could only rent their house for so long before the owner sold it.
“I realized even though it might cramp my style, in the grand scheme of things I’m going to look back, and if I don’t appreciate it now, I’m going to wish I had. So I just made the choice to just enjoy it. That’s when I first started appreciating my mom. And that’s when she started coming out of her depression. When we decided to loosen up and just enjoy it, because we realize that it’s not forever.”
She started doing the same things she’d done before, but in a new way. Rather than just being things to do, places to fit herself in, she started doing them with a more critical eye. She started looking at the deeper needs of the area, getting involved in local politics, putting her farming knowledge to use in the local economy.
She bought a bunch of recording equipment to start making a record, but felt her resolve fail her. The inner critic was still too strong.
So instead, she started a podcast.
Facing Thirty is a series of interviews with the people who make up Cat’s life in Sullivan County. Each show starts with Cat announcing how many days are left until her 30th birthday. A spirited riff on her guitar leads into her musing on recent events, local and global, and her current thoughts around the issues that beleaguer her. It’s existential but winningly self-aware. It sounds as if an older version of Cat has arrived from the future to read her current diary entries.
The interviews are just as interesting. While many of the interviews are with people who have passed age 30 already, some are nowhere close to it, and others are in the same position as Cat, verging on it with trepidation and a certain amount of irritated eagerness.
The conversations have provoked Cat to feelings and actions that surprise even her.
A local politician (Ep. #540) convinced her that change is only possible through sustained action.
A polyamorist (Ep. #490) illuminated the value in trying a lot of different things, even if other people judge you.
A Russian expat (Ep. #547) proved to her that you’re never too old to go back to school.
A massage therapist (Ep. #497) schooled her in the value of letting life unfold in its own time.
Her own mother (Ep. #388) taught Cat compassion for being shy.
All Cat’s guests have helped to remind her that transition is necessary and almost always awkward. The growing collection has proved to her that she does have what it takes to focus and commit to a project.
Not only has it alerted her to the hidden worth of Sullivan County, but it has also proved a new way to reconnect with her grandmother, who was skilled in the delicate art of getting people to open up.
“It’s a skill my grandmother tried to pass on to me. When I asked her why she has so many friends, she said, ‘I just ask them questions. People love to talk about themselves.'”
Sullivan County, viewed from behind the microphone, has proved much more interesting than Cat gave it credit for. Against all odds, she finds herself with a new investment in staying.
“At this point, I feel like I’ve put so much in, if I’m at the point where I might get something back, why would I bail now? I feel like I’d be walking away from all this time. I just feel like there’s something happening here.
“There’s an incredible quality of people here. I’ve made so many good friends, and we’ve all worked so hard to kind of make this place something and it’s just starting to come together.”
These days, many of the summer people are becoming more and more full-time. The influx of young urban creatives is breathing new life into the small farms and trades. They are organizing against environmental evils like the gas converter and fostering new expressions of art and culture. There is even talk of bringing the railroad back up to Callicoon, which would be a huge economic boon for the county.
Most importantly, they are not trying to replace the long-time residents, but instead are seeking them out for insight and training in how to make a sustainable life in the country.
I half expected Cat to resent all these moneyed young people for their ease in creating the life she worked so hard to achieve. But she says she doesn’t resent them. She’s met them at the North Branch and they’re cool people who, like her and the many people before them, have fallen under the spell of Sullivan County summers and dream of creating a life around them. She knows, maybe better than anybody, that dreams can’t be accomplished alone.
Driving past Cat’s grandmother’s house, I’m struck of how good a life it would have been, to be the one to turn that place into whatever it is now. It looks so complete, so large and welcoming, so easy to fit yourself into.
Before I turned 30, that’s how I thought of growing up. Finding the place where I fit in, somewhere warm and ready-made, and tailoring myself to its demands.
But that didn’t happen. I was forced instead to figure out what fit me, to build my own place.
For much of my 20s, that process felt like wasting time. But when I can look back now, it’s easy to see that I was finding out what I truly fit for. I was testing out my ability to do and be something I’d never seen before.
For people like Cat, who can do anything, I suspect that the undergoing that process, the patience and the uncertainty it involves, is the biggest challenge.
“I just want to live my life well, with purpose, and I feel like I’m getting in my own way by being afraid to just do something.”
This desire makes it hard, she says, to give herself freedom to discover what her purpose is. By being so eager to find her purpose, she’s cutting short the process needed to reveal it.
At the same time, she recognizes that losing the family farm was a crucial step in the direction of self-discovery.
“It gave me freedom from the fear of failure. I feel like I’m still getting it—doing things and not worrying how it works out. That’s been very freeing.”
It would be nice if we could apply one life lesson to another area of life as easily. She still looks at her recording equipment and feels it scolding her for not making music. She still dreams of going to France. She still feels lonely.
But maybe now there’s less of an expiration date. Maybe now, instead of 30 being a place to end, it’s become a really good place to start.