Last weekend, I got to leave the city for a few days, and it was like hitting reset in my brain. There are few things as refreshing as a change in location and perspective. Just waking up to different sounds and sights, not to mention pacing the day in unpredictable ways, can do wonders for your awareness and sense of presence.
If you live in a city and don’t get out of town occasionally, your perceptions may dull, and your attention to detail mute. Some variation in scenery can do wonders for the psyche. Of course, I do love New York. There is so much to see and do that you can spend your whole life here and still be surprised. If you ever get tired of hanging out in your own neighborhood, you can just go to a different neighborhood, or even a different borough, and make a day of it. But it’s easy to get in a routine that doesn’t celebrate all the cultural opportunities on offer. I know many people, me included, who say some version of, “I don’t really see the sights unless I have someone visiting.” (This makes an excellent case for being a tourist in your own city from time to time, but that is a topic for another day).
New York is like many, many smaller towns strung together, collectively forming the entity we call a city. On the average day, you might not leave your “small town.” You stick to your neighborhood, and perhaps travel to work or on errands to the same places, using the exact same routes over and over. The repetitive nature of these routines can influence your perception of space, sound, time, travel, and people. We are creatures of habit, and we often seek the familiar. Sensory overload is a real possibility in a town like this. I think to an extent that’s why we fall into these routines. You simply can’t be in sightseeing mode all the time, it’s too much to think about on the average day. So, even in a place as big and varied as New York, it’s easy to let all the awesomeness fade into the background. That’s when it’s time to hit reset with a little trip away.
We have a friend with a house a few hours north of the city, and when it’s available, we love to stay there. The land is quite vast, with a large yard, apple trees, and an enormous field, bordered by a gentle river deep enough to swim in some spots, shallow enough to wade across in others. The Catskill Scenic Trail also runs through the property, offering a chance to explore the land off the beaten path, immersed in nature.
It’s early springtime, and so not exactly warm yet, but the weather variations were invigorating just the same. Over the course of a few hours, we cycled from sunny and mild, to cool and rainy, to cold and snowy. Then the whole cycle repeated itself again and again. It did this for a couple days. Far from viewing this fickle display from nature as an inconvenience (which I could easily have done if I were in the city trying to run errands) I found it so refreshing to hear the wind shake the house, feel the breeze and sunshine and precipitation on my face, and to walk among trees on uneven, sometimes muddy ground. If I got caught outdoors in inclement weather, I always had a fireplace to return to at the house. I spent many hours in its comforting orange glow, surrounded by the cool blue light of the many windows overlooking the property.
My sense of space also morphed from the city version – a vertical, concrete gridded landscape, punctuated by whatever plants have been allowed to grow – into a horizontal landscape under a wide open sky, wildly populated with endless, intricate tree branches and bushes, hints of verdant green foliage and low mountains all around. Though there were farm fields, roads and other obvious signs of our species, the human element was minimal, and I felt that shift in the balance acutely. I cannot guess what this change in surroundings does exactly to the parts of our brains that calculate spatial information, but I’m certain that by exercising those cognitive functions, we do ourselves good.
Another experiential difference was in traveling from place to place. In New York, I can spend an hour traveling a few miles, by car (stressed out) or subway (tuned out). In the country, the number of miles I travel is roughly similar to the number of minutes I need to travel that distance: 20 miles takes about 20 minutes. It’s a good thing too, since you may need to drive a bit further to get the things you want! There is a lovely bakery in a nearby town, Andes, that makes top notch bread, but you need to arrive on the early side, because once they sell out, you’ll have to wait till tomorrow.
So, in the city, you have a lot of options packed tightly into a few square miles. In the country, there are fewer, and everything is spread out. But traveling in the country is such a different game, because you always feel like you’re moving, you’re never underground, and there is scenery. Driving 20 minutes through the country for a great loaf of bread is just not equivalent to spending the same amount of time running the same errand in the city, through congested streets, gridlock, horns, sirens, busy sidewalks and crowded trains. Don’t get me wrong – I actually love the bustle of the city. But I also need a break sometimes.
You don’t need a reason to take a vacation. Sometimes it’s a good idea to just get away. Even if you work for some portion of it (which I did), it doesn’t have the same repetitive feel. And when you return to your regular surroundings, you may appreciate them all the more: it’s so nice to have multiple bakery choices! Exercising in fresh country air can reinvigorate a stagnant workout routine once you’re back in the city. Spending time in a rustic house with a central fireplace as its focal point, versus a TV, a Peloton, or an excess of electronics, reminds me that all of my usual conveniences at home, although wonderful, can be a distraction. As we make our way into spring, I am that much more excited for the outdoors, because I got a nice reminder of the unique power of nature to infuse the body with health.