A New Home Port

A nineteenth century view of Lake Cayuga. Remarkably, it still looks like this in some places.

I started building my boat because, to be honest, I was unhappy. And one cause of my unhappiness was our home. Ten years ago we bought a 200-year-old stone house in a semi-rural corner of eastern Pennsylvania, charmed by the exposed beams, pine floors and deep window wells. Smitten by the house, we were tone deaf to the culture of the surrounding community. While I lived by the rules of suburban conventionality (be quiet, be tidy, be polite), my neighbors surprised me by, for example, firing guns from their back porches after a night of heavy drinking and idling Harley motorcycles in their front yards.

Most were friendly, but none could figure us out. I worked at home and, as one neighbor summarized, “did something with computers.” We could chat about the weather, but wisely avoided religion, politics and professional sports (about which I know absolutely nothing). I was starved for intellectual companionship, but found none. To buck up my spirits, I made frequent trips to distant cities, just to sit in cafes, browse bookstores, and see people who shared a similar set of life experiences.

Because I disliked our community, I grew resentful of our house. In previous homes, I was always mister fix-it, eager to paint, patch, build and garden. But our ancient, crumbling home defeated me. I didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm needed to keep up with the weeds, the peeling paint, the rotting windowsills, or the leaky roof and I resented every dollar spent on antique septic systems, faulty electrical wiring, and crumbing stucco.  Yet leaving didn’t feel like an option. Because the real estate market was dead in our blue collar community, we felt trapped.

Sailing was, in this way, more than a psychological escape. It was, to some extent, the dream of physical escape. As I worked in my garage, I felt like an inmate at Alcatraz, secretly building my raft to freedom. These dreams of serenely gliding to Bora Bora grew more vivid every time the local Harley bike club roared by– twenty, thirty, forty bikes at a time—violating every municipal noise ordinance devised in the Western world.  And I redoubled my efforts when reminded that the “grand dragon” of the local KKK lived just down the road.

And then, one day, I finished building my boat. I loaded it on a trailer, drove it to a lake, sailed around, and then…came home. A few hours had passed—I was tan and happy—but nothing fundamental had changed. A small boat on an inland lake was, quite obviously, not going to take me away from my house. And a few trips on the Chesapeake wouldn’t magically heal a leaky roof, or produce a neighbor eager to chat about art, history, or philosophy.

The boat was a kind of therapy when I needed hope and a distraction. But it was not a real solution to my problems. Obviously, the only real way to get away was to leave in a more conventional manner: Put up a for sale sign, pack boxes, rent a U-Haul truck and drive off. And two months after I finished the boat, that’s what we did. The market was still bad, but we no longer cared. Life is short and we were miserable.

I sometimes wonder what role, if any, my boat building project really had on the timing of our move. Did the effort and emotional energy devoted to building the boat delay the day of reckoning and keep us tied to Pennsylvania longer than necessary? Possibly. But I think the opposite is true. I believe that building a boat helped me imagine a richer life and articulate my values and my dreams. It could not be the means of my physical escape, but it nurtured the emotional fortitude needed to make a change that was complex and financially unwise.

On the rebound, we decided to find a town that was, to the greatest extent possible, the exact opposite of everything we experienced in rural Pennsylvania. After many exploratory trips—Asheville, North Carolina; Bisbee, Arizona; Shepherdstown, West Virginia; Portland, Oregon—we settled on Ithaca, New York, which is home to Cornell University and a well-known outpost of progressive thought. How much cooler is Ithaca? Well, it has four bookstores within four square blocks and actually supports a multiplex art movie house.  I can go to a different café every day of the week– and agonize over which one makes the better cappuccino.

And, oh, yes, it happens to sit on the shore of Lake Cayuga, the largest of New York’s famed Finger Lakes. Only a few miles wide, but 38 miles long, it is filled with dozens of sailboats, both large and small, on breezy summer days. Officially, the lake was not a factor in our decision-making, but, unofficially, I was consulting charts even before we found a house to rent.

And that’s when I discovered that the lake is also connected to the famed Erie Canal, which meant—get this!–that I could embark from my home and sail, unimpeded, all the way to the Great Lakes or the Atlantic and destinations beyond. My mind reeled at the possibilities:  Montreal, New Orleans, and Bimini were all there for the taking, requiring only a right turn or left turn once I reached the top of my lake. My dream of sailing away was rekindled and burned bright.

The move was hard and stressful. Our Pennsylvania house didn’t sell and when it finally did, nine months after we left, it went for a firesale price. But we never regretted the decision to leave, or our choice of destinations. For the first six months, I walked around town with a goofy “pinch-me” smile and drank up the artsy-bookish culture like a man who had nearly died of thirst. I marveled that people related to my work as writer and we found ourselves in the disorienting position of not being the most liberal people in the county. My kids liked their new school and my wife started making connections that would lead to rewarding employment.

All was right with the world—except for one thing: I had not yet sailed my boat. And accomplishing this goal turned out to be an unexpectedly difficult and, initially, humiliating task.


18 Responses to A New Home Port

  1. Monte Andress says:

    body{font-size:10pt;font-family:arial,sans-serif;background-color:#ffffff;color:black;}p{margin:0px;}Paul – you are correct in following your bliss ! ! ! !  Don’t look back.

  2. Sara Flower says:

    It sounds like a wonderful plan to sail away down the Erie canal and see the Great Lakes.

  3. cartoonmick says:

    Let the mind and body roam free. Great relaxation.

  4. Z says:

    Wow, beautiful writing if I say so myself. I’m glad you found the happiness you where looking for. Good things never come easy but you worked to gain your happiness and that’s good to see.

  5. This was so awesome. I can completely relate to feeling somewhat extraterrestrial for following a different path. I am truly encouraged by your story and am now wondering what project I can jump on to get my freedom juices flowing. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

  6. What an inspirational story. Thanks for sharing your struggles and eventual triumphs. Great writing too! -Rene

  7. umanbn says:

    Nice post and great blog…looks like I’ve just found it as your boat building adventure is well and truly on its way…but makes great reading al the same. We have also just moved to an older app’t than we’re used to right on lake Lugano. One of my unfulfilled dreams since growing up by the sea has always been to sail….but building my own boat …..! Umanbn

  8. Ithaca, NY is a gem! A great choice. One of the most beautiful places in the state, there are so many things to do, see and experience. As I’m sure you’ve found already.
    I am in Rochester, which I’m sure you know is on Lake Ontario. Every year we have a Harbor Festival, you should consider sailing up for it next year. There are Hotels nearby, if you don’t want to sleep on your boat. Come in to the city for an afternoon and explore the Art District, you won’t regret it. I would be happy to show you and your family around a bit.

  9. Dawn says:

    YES! Having recently relocated to the Asheville area from a conservative, military, very Southern town, I totally get it! I still have the goofy “pinch-me” smile. Don’t ever lose it!

  10. Sarah says:

    What a wonderful story! I’m glad you didn’t let the financial setback keep you from moving forward with your life. You’re right: it really is too short to let ourselves be dragged down in important ways.

    I remember camping on the shores of Lake Cayuga when I was a kid. We drove there from Cleveland for a couple of summers, and I think I remember riding in a boat called the Cayuga, which my 5-year-old brain thought was a terrifically funny name. Beautiful place. Best of luck to you, and I’ll be interested to see what happened (and happens) with sailing.

  11. Good for you!

    There is nothing more soul-deadening than living somewhere (no matter how pretty) where you can’t talk to anyone about anything that matters to you. After a life spent in Toronto, Montreal, Paris and London I moved to Lebanon, NH to follow a man doing his residency at Dartmouth. I loved the landscape, our apartment, the seasons.

    I thought I was really going to die of loneliness. I’m a highly social person who’s always made friends! But as a career-oriented feminist, with no kids and no desire for same, I had zero in common with anyone I met there — in 18 months. We fled to a NYC suburb and I’ve been (happily) here ever since. I admire your persistence and happy you’re once more in a place that nurtures you and your family.

    As a fellow sailor, glad to hear you’ve got lots of water nearby!

  12. Yasir Imran says:

    thanks for such a beautiful post

  13. susielindau says:

    Your story gave me shivers. I love the process you went through in order to move away. This would actually make a fabulous book and movie. Your hopes and dreams are an inspiration to all of us!
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  14. Armand Lamoureux says:

    The article ably the boat is interesting where to take a direct route is at times given a different approach. In the double split photon experiment in physics where electrons give the impression of being unpredictable could reflect living destinies in its own way.

  15. Thank you so much for sharing your story! I’ve lived in and left a few places myself. Though it was usually a financial set back, the end result was beneficial. I look forward to hearing more about your adventures in Cornell and sailing! The summer I was expecting my first born my husband took a class at SUNY Buffalo. We took a tour on the Erie Canal which was thrilling for me, because I had always loved singing the Erie Canal song as a kid growing up on the west coast.

  16. Patricia says:

    “Life is short and we were miserable.” Absolutely. That’s what fueled my own escape from suburban Florida across the country to Portland, Oregon. Thank you for sharing your story; I’m sure countless people can relate!

  17. Nice bit of writing, cheers.

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