Thursday, August 16th, 2007
The ongoing adventures of one woman’s decision to chuck it all, go for broke, and open up an ‘eco B&B’ in Woodstock, NY.
By Megan Reynolds
Check out Megan Reynolds’ Flickr stream of shots from her life at the B&B.
I. This Old House
Six months ago, I moved into my family’s vacation house in Woodstock, New York. Now it’s known as Retreat at TreeGap, an eco-friendly bed and breakfast.
I’ve had this idea, or an idea of this idea, for about seven years. As with everything, the timing of the project (umm, now) and its exact manifestation (the Retreat) was a surprise to me. I had considered this an “ultimately” kind of project, as in, “ultimately I will move to Woodstock and start some kind of land-based enterprise at our family house.” But it became obvious in the last year and a half that ultimately was going to come a lot sooner than I had expected. So here I am, 27 years old and living in rural New York. And it seems as if I now run a B&B.
My interest is not specifically the bed-and-breakfast aspect of this venture, and eco-friendly is vague enough to indicate anything. But for marketing purposes it is, well, friendlier than ecological, less obnoxious than green, more explicable than sustainable. The eco-friendly aspects of my bed and breakfast are as follows: I grow a lot of my own food; I have solar panels for electricity; I have an Airstream trailer renovated to include a composting toilet and gray water system.
The decision to move here, at this time, necessitated getting a little more specific regarding the nature of my “land-based enterprise.” I’m primarily interested in permaculture and local food systems, and when I think of a best-case scenario for my life, it’s spending many years learning about my land and providing for myself from it. Sounds more homesteader than innkeeper, something I’ve been acutely aware of through the hours of picking out natural fiber window treatments and agonizing over web site copy. But though I aspire toward self-sustainability, I am equally attached to my family’s land. Right in the middle of Woodstock, there are shockingly high taxes to pay, as well as a sizable property to maintain. The challenge becomes conceiving a way to keep the house and live a sustainable lifestyle. The bed-and-breakfast idea helps make a living, but it is also a way to share the property with others, which was another important element in defining the use.
I am fairly solitary by nature, so buying a plot of land and plunking my Airstream onto it was a possibility, temperamentally speaking. That said, I am also moved by the idea of community, of neighborliness, of local solutions. The intentional communities founded in Woodstock in the early 20th century provide an inspirational model. When I consider what I have to offer my community, the obvious answer is this unique location. As the steward, I have to try to put aside my sometimes-misanthropic tendencies in service of something larger. And while I don’t consider a bed and breakfast to be “larger,” per se, it is something. Someday my “something” could be permaculture design classes and all-night festivals with greased pig chases and maypoles. But hey, you have to start somewhere.
If life is about striking a balance, this project is a metaphor writ large. Making 4,200 square foot former barn energy efficient is near impossible. I have a one-room eco-friendly bed and breakfast to which I’ve added air conditioning, a refrigerator, and a TV. These amenities are needed to justify the price I’m charging—which I have to charge because the room is gigantic and the market can sustain it, and because, frankly, I can’t afford to undersell it. Then again, I’ve been given a house. And not just any house, but one that I love and that means a great deal to the people who have spent time here through the years. It’s like a marriage, I decided the day my parents signed the papers. It would be easier to disengage, and yet beautifully, inexplicably, you stick around and give it a shot.
The poet John O’ Donohue has said that relationships demand some solitude; it is when we try to completely colonize our partner’s space, destroy their wilderness, that we destroy the mystery that was feeding us in the first place. So we are partners now, this house and me, and despite misgivings and disappointments, with some compromise and some regard of our respective unknown, we will get what we should.
II. Eddie Vedder Slept Where?
I’m a Pisces, so I’m willing to let a few things slide. Hard working, organized, good follow through, but not necessarily detail-orientated. As my cousin, a fellow water signer, would say, “Wouldn’t be noticed from a trotting horse.” I’m usually OK with that.
But that was before I was serving people, and before I made a web site detailing what they could expect when they paid money to come to my home. Now I can’t come up with enough miserable scenarios. Last month I picked up some woodchips at the dump, thinking it would save me the time of chipping my own wood while being cheap and local. But on the drive home, I started thinking about what my neighbors could be throwing in their woodpiles. Three miles later, I had convinced myself I was about to mulch my grapes with chipped railroad ties, and all of it went into the woods. Don’t even get me started on botulism.
My anxiety has been quietly building, sprung from one essential question: Who are these people? And more irrationally, what do they want from me? The calls start coming, and I try to figure it out from one-sentence emails and 30-second phone calls. Are they coming because they think I’m doing something amazingly “green,” so drastically reducing my ecological footprint that they will travel great distances to witness it? If so, I’m afraid they’re going to be disappointed. Or are they expecting extensive, ravishing gardens? Again, that’s going to be awkward. Whatever promises I’ve made, no matter how vague, I analyze extensively so that I might craft some excuse against the forthcoming complaint. It’s not that I’ve misrepresented myself, I argue (to myself), but that the project, literally every part of it, is nascent. C’mon people, beautiful perennial gardens take years!
Speaking of nascent, I was amusingly insistent on referring to myself in the plural on the web site. Mostly because I thought (and still think) that young, female, single B&B owners raise suspicion. The typical horror story seems to operate along the lines of a super chatty and oblivious proprietress imprisoning her guests for several hours, causing them to miss their best friend’s rehearsal dinner. I tried to indicate a life full of “we’s” as if a promise not to interact with them anymore than necessary. However, the moment must come when they arrive at the house and find…me. My age in the context of this adult space will no doubt prompt confusion, if not something else. I hope it’s fear. In the face of such incongruity, they will be more scared of me than I am of them, and at the very least, feel silly yelling at a twenty-something year-old for mispoaching their eggs.
The only remedy to my paranoia and neuroses are the first guests. Until then, all I can do is work, and try to remember how much I wanted this. On these spring evenings, I’m sometimes able to appreciate my flat-out luck at getting to call a place so singularly beautiful home. Everyone who has ever been here has been knocked back on his or her heels, and that’s nothing my age, inexperience, or lack of deer fencing can sully. The magic of this land is indestructible. After the sun goes down, it’s harder to stay positive, so I comfort myself by going to web sites of hideous B&Bs across the country. One in my own town boasts Pearl Jam as guests. I lull myself to sleep imagining Eddie Vedder in the Rose Jr. Suite, among the owner’s collection of antique dolls.
III. Zero (Carbon) Hour
Along with the fear of my guests was the fear that there would be no guests to fear. Research suggested I wouldn’t be idle, however, and I haven’t been. Most people come from New York City, visiting friends or celebrating a special occasion. They don’t care about my gardens, or solar panels, or about anything but being somewhere quiet. Everyone is overwhelmed by the room, so they are lovely.
I think they are lovely anyway, but getting more than you expect does great things for a person’s disposition. So, beyond the panic of the first guests arriving, I’ve been…enjoying myself. I’m getting more comfortable possessing such a precious thing as this house, and that ease makes the situation less strange to other people. While I exchange no more than 100 words with some guests, they are so sincere in their praise of the place, so appreciative, that I am aware they will remember staying here for a long time. And that is touching. People call who can’t afford my posh room and I find myself putting them up at friends’ places, trying to squeeze them in somewhere here as if they were houseguests. One girl tells me that she feels better after talking with me, less anxious about the coming months. Despite the fact that she calls her dog her partner, I don’t hang up on her, but tell her I will make it work. It’s a strange business.
But this is still essentially a weekend job, and my intention was always to become involved with the larger community. In the winter, I applied for a seat on the Woodstock Environmental Commission, a voluntary committee appointed by the Town Board. I expected this foray into local politics to be a frustrating affair, but it’s made doubly so by Woodstock’s progressive reputation. A lot of people here seem pretty pleased with themselves, despite the fact that nothing particularly innovative has happened since the 1920s. The smugness and unreality extends to the town’s environmental protocol, like the zero-carbon initiative, which mandates that the town be carbon neutral in 10 years. I am as irritated by the impossibility of this goal as others seem impressed by its loftiness. But I joined the zero-carbon initiative committee as well, accepting that the collaborative process is innately irritating, but necessary. Now I read the Woodstock Times and find myself knowing the people, knowing the issues, having opinions about them myself. I enjoy that this familiarity increases every week.
Meanwhile, my mother and I start planning our mid-season farm stand. Local food is pretty much unavailable in Woodstock, which is ludicrous considering the number of people farming in this county, and the number of people talking about this town being zero carbon. Working to change this in a small way is so tangible, and such a welcome balance to the political processes above. It’s just nice to be in the ground after sitting in meetings and cleaning the same room over and over. It’s nice to have something I’m sure I love. Sometimes people come, look out over the field and ask if I will ever farm it. I usually tell them about the bluestone, the poor soil, my mother’s more appropriate garden. But people farmed here for years, and someday, I just might. There is a lot to be done, and this is the first time I’ve felt able to take on even a little piece of it.
To be continued…