She wanted a cow the way someone who grew up a million miles away from a farm wanted a cow.
“They’re so cute,” she mooed, riding shotgun while driving up and down the hills of Route 20 in Upstate New York.
Real upstate, not downstaters version of upstate.
Tri-state New Yorkers think anything outside Yonkers is upstate, but there’s a whole lotta acreage between the Hudson River and Lake Ontario, the route I took first as a little girl, jammed into the way-way-back of a dusty blue Ford Torino, where my sisters and I argued and cried over The Cow Game, a game we played on long road trips.
When the Mayer sisters piled into the back of the family station wagon, sometimes still in feety pajamas, for the five hour drive upstate to Grandma’s house, the cow game replaced the license plate game, because once off the NYS Thruway there were more cows than cars to count.
There were plenty of cows to count, back then, when drinking milk was a prerequisite to grow, and almond/oat/coconut milk-substitutes were not even a glimmer on venture capitalists’ agenda.
The cow game was serious business, with rolling fields full of 10-20-30 – you could count to 100 if you could count super fast, or by fives, or cheat — and happened to be sitting on the correct side of the car. Highest number won, except once you passed a decrepit churchyard cemetery or family farm tombstone garden — any cemetery would purge the mental inventory, erasing your cow count and you had to start over. Cemeteries were kryptonite, leaving somebody in tears, not wanting to start over, whining and crying about how unfair life was and they didn’t want to play this stupid game anyway and will you change seats with me.
But that was when the fields were full of moo-cows: dairy, beef, swiss, jersey — all sorts of bovine beauties, but black and white were the most popular, back in the pre-no-dairy hype days of yore.
(Whenever mom or dad pointed out the dark brown cows, they’d say to us: Right there — there’s your Big Mac, girls! Hot roast beef sandwich, anyone? Prime beef — the before not the after! They’d laugh at our naivety, and when it finally clicked, I was super disgusted. And sad. And mad. But still loved burgers.)
A generation later, when I was a mom making my own kids squirm, I made a friend.
One hot and sunny summer, I invited her and her kids to my favorite spot, an upstate hunting cabin tucked away in the foothills of endless woods and fields, for a weekend getaway.
Not for hunting, per se, not for us, but for rock skipping, star watching, salamander catching, skinny-dipping. Way way upstate, for her, not for me.
The family farm.
Not my family, I married in, but still took great pride in this 4th generation gem, built on the outskirts of their dairy farm. The Family Farm, still operational albeit struggling greatly, and the hunting cabin on the property, dubbed The Camphouse by all who knew it, for the family use. Even those who married in. Like me. And now my friend and her kids.
The entire ride up my friend ooohs and ahhhs, enchanted by picturesque farms dotting the landscape, already on vacation, ignoring the kids in the back, “Are we getting a cow mom? Really? We’re getting a cow, you guys!”
She hears nothing; kids are on mute and she’s on vacation.
“It’s magical,” she sighs. “Hey, can we hit a Starbucks? I’m dying already,” she said, wiggling her empty venti in my direction.
I shake my head, knowing full well there’s no Starbucks in these here parts. My friend, she doesn’t quite get it. Or me, and I wonder if I’ve made a mistake, bringing her here. Perhaps she’s not ready. Maybe it was too soon to share — like putting out on the first date, I should have waited longer to share what matters to me.
“We could get a cow,” she bemoaned, “Seriously. People have chickens, right?” to no one in particular, but her kids in the backseat delight in every word.
She continues thinking out loud. “We could keep it in the front yard, build it a little shed maybe. Maybe one of those Light Brown ones – they’re soooo cute,” the suburban soccer mom is clearly dreaming already, enjoying a weekend away, flip-flops off, designer sunglasses on, pedicured toes on the dashboard, on her way to an upstate cabin, just like rich people.
But this isn’t a weekend home from Pinterest, full of country air and luscious gardens and luxurious lounging from the pages of a magazine. ‘Cabin’ to her rich friends is code for weekend retreat. Estate. Cottage.
People who make a verb out of weekend: “We weekend at the Cape. At the shore” are not my people.
I weekend at Costco.
But she thought that was what she was getting, and at the time, I thought that was what I was sharing. Our family treasure: the camphouse. Apparently, my friend and I spoke different languages, and I should have known when she wanted a cow for a pet.
This is a hunting cabin, a real one, not a made-for-Air B’nB Instagram influencer.
No electricity. No water. No heat. No wifi. No cell service.
An outhouse, for real, up the hill behind the pines. With old, dusty yellowpages for TP if no one remembered to replenish the TP after their last visit.
Nothing but a long dirt driveway leading through the woods to an open field, where the sun rains down on the brown cabin like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The grassy knoll it sits upon is hugged by giant pine trees to the west, a forest climbing the hill to its backside, acorns rolling down and pelting off the metal roof. The open area is looped with fence posts, barbed wire covered in vines and wild blackberry bushes, delineating where the cow pastures once stood, but are now shrinking away, farther away, up the hill afar, where you can often catch sight of a couple stragglers late to the barn for milking, halfway up the mountainside, heads down, munching away.
Down below, the little cabin sits brookside, a padlocked door keeps people out but mice and bats, as well as the occasional woodchuck or raccoon, in.
My suburbanite friend didn’t seem pleased, “we’re staying here?” somewhat dismayed at the rustic reality.
And when the padlock fell open the barnwood door, soft and rotting at the bottom where generations of boots tap the door open with a swift kick, swung open, and a bird flew out, happy for the easy exit, and sat on a pine high above and looking at the kids shrieking and laughing, leaping over the brook in a single bound, grabbing sticks and poking the water in search of turtles and minnows with their sneakers and jeans already soaked and soggy.
The wayward mom didn’t seem as happy as her kids, leaning her head into the cabin, her feet planted firmly on the porch outside, without a word. She’s disappointed, not seeing what I see: this itty bitty vestibule of family, so small and simple and able to hold everyone close, without wires or plugs or updates, just secrets, sticks, and stars.
She turns away from the open door – not in, not out.
The cows bellow, more of a moan than a moo, their welcome echoes into the valley where the cabin sits. A tractor bounces into view across the horizon, spreading manure, before sliding out of sight toward the barn I know sits just on the other side of the hill.
“What’s that smell? Omg, what is that stench?” the soccer mom scowls, and I regret bringing her here. I regret knowing her. Like a bad one-night stand, except now we have a whole weekend ahead of us.
I shouldn’t share something so special who wants a cow as a pet. I should have known better.
But it was too late, here she was. I bite my tongue and for the first time, keep my mouth shut while the cows moo quietly in the distance, oblivious to the tourists in their midst.