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The Lands That Hype Forgot

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To hear one of them tell it, the typical Litchfield County weekender is only slightly less resourceful than the members of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery. "I don't have a jacket here, nor a tie," boasts Peter Duchin, a Washington, Connecticut, resident. "Bill Styron and Arthur Miller certainly don't wear jackets, and if I go to Oscar's or the Kissingers', I would never wear a jacket, either. Henry doesn't dress up. I think he probably has a jacket for doing interviews and that's it.

"I got a call one morning," Duchin continues over the phone from the woods as his dog bays in the background. "He's barking at a wounded coyote who just pulled himself out of the stream -- I'm joking. It's the FedEx truck or something.

"I got a call one morning -- not a call you'd get in the Hamptons -- from Nancy Kissinger. She said, 'I'm taking out about 30 blueberry bushes. Do you want them?' I jumped into my pickup truck and went right over. I only use that as an example of how relaxed things are, as opposed even to Bedford."

While one devoutly wishes not to disrespect any area the New York weekender has colonized and delegated Heaven's little acre, and at the same time doesn't want to challenge Duchin's image of Litchfield County as an Arcadia only slightly more tame than it was in the days when the locals hunted with arrowheads, the fact of the matter is that life and the landscape get funkier -- or, to borrow Doug Cramer's description of his friend's (the artist Ellsworth Kelly's) place in Columbia County, more "rustic" -- on the New York than on the New England side of the border.

"It doesn't have anything like the really restrictive zoning Connecticut has," Cramer observes. "It took me about a year to get an approval to put up a barn for art. But at the same time, I'm grateful for it."

When people refer to less restrictive zoning, it means something different in Dutchess and Columbia Counties or out west in Callicoon on the Pennsylvania border -- where the most anticipated event of the summer is the tractor parade down Main Street -- than it does in Sagaponack.

The problem upstate isn't megalomaniacs who want to build 100,000-square-foot Taj Mahals that block lesser millionaires' ocean views -- hell, there's so much space, you could probably erect something the size of the Louvre without getting zoning approval -- but two-bit developers loading 50 mobile homes onto a two-acre site.

It's what Geoff Kerr, a resident of Millbrook, New York (perhaps the toniest weekend community north of the George Washington Bridge and south of Newport), a wing-shooting instructor at Orvis's Sandanona shooting range and a purveyor, in his spare time, of reconditioned vintage Land Rovers to the weekend gentry, describes as the "dog-patch ratio."

He's referring to the frequency with which one's view is sullied by mobile homes on cinder blocks and rusted cars in backyards -- a ratio that roughly increases as one travels from east to west, perhaps culminating in the Catskills. "The Columbia County weekender is more capable of overlooking the occasional dog-patch home down the road," Kerr observes, drawing a distinction between his tweedy clientele who dress in plus-twos with kilt hose to bag startled pheasant, grouse, and woodcock and those intrepid souls who travel further north on the Taconic State Parkway into Columbia and even southern Rensselaer Counties. "I'll go visit friends in Columbia County, leave the home, and a half-mile down the road there's a refrigerator with two old stoves lying next to it and they're all rusted."

Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, the author of Comfort Me With Apples, and a part of the Columbia County weekend contingent, has a simple explanation for her fellow part-time country folks' open-minded attitude toward the occasional landscape eyesore. "We're poorer," she says with a laugh, referring to a part of the world where it's still possible to pick up an eighteenth-century farmhouse with a pond and a hundred acres for the price of a privet hedge on Lily Pond Lane.

Of course, it would be an exaggeration to paint Dutchess County as an utterly rust-free zone. While Millbrook is distinguished by secluded estates and a level of snobbishness that could make Mort Zuckerman and the entire Hamptons Artists and Writers Softball League drop a routine pop fly -- "The Hamptons are to Millbrook what Cats is to Un Ballo in Maschera," snorts one Millbrook weekender who, as is their wont, declined to be identified -- other parts of the county are somewhat sketchier.

In fact, Michael Korda's mission in Country Matters, his latest book, seems to be to convince the reading public both that he and his beautiful wife, Margaret, are the real thing -- not weekenders at all but fully credentialized country folk (perhaps the final stage in weekender evolution) -- and that their neck of the woods is not some sort of stage set but farm country where men are men and the sheep are nervous.

"I really live up there," he insists even though he is speaking from Simon & Schuster's office in Rockefeller Center, where he serves as editor-in-chief. "Margaret lives up there completely and comes into the city only for what she calls 'maintenance' -- doctors and hair and so forth. I'm up there about four of seven days. I vote up there, and I think of myself as a resident. I've long since given up thinking of myself as a New Yorker.

"It's not everybody's cup of tea to move up to a place on the weekend that is basically a farming community," he goes on, "where you can't say to yourself on a Saturday morning, 'Gee, what I'd really like to do is go out and buy a whole bunch of wonderful bagels.' It's even hard to buy a copy of the New York Times."

Indeed, Korda's book devotes an entire chapter to manure. "We produce a lot of manure," he says, apparently referring to his animals, "although most people don't find pig feces disagreeable, actually."

One might logically deduce that Columbia County or, even worse, Ulster or Sullivan County weekenders, up to their asses in rusty appliances, would be crippled by self-doubt were they forced to compare themselves to the country squires in Dutchess County, the professional musicians and their hangers-on who flock to Tanglewood just across the border in the Berkshires, or Connecticut's constellation of boldfaced names. However, the opposite seems to be the case.

They embrace the local color as a badge of honor -- to say your kids play with the town road crew's kids is way cooler than attending one more birthday party on Georgica Pond with the obligatory petting zoo and Good Humor truck -- and point to the lack of indigenous culture as proof of their intellectual self-reliance.

"I have my friends up there," explains Reichl. "A lot of writers and artists and absolutely no pretension. In a place like that, you have to have people to talk to. What I do is cook all weekend and have people to dinner. Nobody gets dressed. There are no shops. There are no restaurants."

Unfortunately, Reichl's vision of a culture-free utopia is already in peril. Slowly but surely, Mercedeses are starting to fill the parking lot at the local Grand Union and social X-rays have been spotted unit-pricing the Skim Plus milk. "I see New Yorkers standing in the aisles trying to find the bay leaves," reports Susan Bodo, an art dealer who lives in Pine Plains on the Dutchess-Columbia border. I'm thinking of moving to the other side of the river."


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