I Went on Vacation and Found Cow Heaven
I can trace my aversion to taking vacations back to my first job after college. At the company where I worked, I was introduced to the policy of “unlimited vacations,” which sounded nice in theory but meant nobody was ever reminding you to take time off, so I never did. I worked five and sometimes six-day weeks and occasionally took a “comp day” when work didn’t feel totally overwhelming and still ended up checking my email on my day off. Anyway, vacation is a luxury, and it’s not one I’m familiar with being able to afford for myself.
But then this year I started a new job, one where I have managers who know how to manage people very well and say things like “please take your vacation days.” So I did. This summer, I chose a destination from dozens of open tabs on my laptop: a farm sanctuary bed and breakfast in the Finger Lakes. The suite had a hot tub overlooking an expansive backyard, and the whole thing was surrounded by wineries. They had an opening one week in September. Plus, the very sweet-looking couple from the Netherlands who owned the place rescued cows and horses, allowing for you to sign up for a one-hour “cow cuddling” session during your stay. It’s the kitschy thing some idiot city slicker would sign up and pay $65 for, which is exactly what I did.
Last week, I picked up my rental car with my friend Mary and we drove four hours upstate, through New Jersey and then Pennsylvania, and back into New York, up I-81, a road I’m familiar with every exit of after four years spent at college in Central New York, and then west. After months of looking out my bedroom window at another apartment building, seeing changing leaves and cornfields and winding dirt roads made me feel weirdly homesick for central Pennsylvania. We got to the bed and breakfast, checked in, and spent the night drinking wine we bought from a vineyard along the way in the hot tub.
The next morning, we had breakfast made for us by our delightful hosts, signed some paperwork that said that we understood that the farm sanctuary accepted no liability if a cow kicked us in the head. (I’m only guessing that this is what it said since I didn’t read it.) Then we headed out of the guest house and through the fields of yellow late-season flowers, toward the barn. My friends, it was time for our hour with the cows.
When we got to the barn, I was a little upset because it was raining and I didn’t know if the cows would like to hang out with us in the rain. I don’t really know anything about cows, despite growing up in proximity to dozens of dairy farms. Rudi, the husband half of the bed-and-breakfast owners, handed each of us a brush and encouraged us to brush and pet the two cows, Bella and Bonnie, two gorgeous Scottish Highland-hybrid cows who are not related despite looking similar. He also warned us about the new electric fence surrounding the cows’ area and explained that a few weeks prior, Bella, who is 1700-pounds, had been in heat and smelled a bull a mile away, so she cleared the fence and tried to make a run for it. We found this story extremely funny. Rudi did not. We brushed Bella first, and then we brushed Bonnie, whose favorite pastimes include whipping her head wildly from side to side with no regard for humans who may be trying to cozy up next to her.
The way Rudi and his wife Suzanne care for the animals in their farm sanctuary — they also have a half dozen horses and two mini-horses — was foreign to my idea of what a farm is. Their animals aren’t bred or kept for dairy or beef production. The horses don’t wear horseshoes. The farm follows the Dutch tradition of koe knuffelen, which means “cow hugging,” which Rudi and Suzanne discovered on a return trip to the Netherlands a few years ago. When they rescue a cow or a horse, it stays at their farm forever, living out the rest of its life in a comfortable, safe place. The cows choose whether they interact with people who visit the farm. They aren’t confined to a small area or tied down, and if they walk away, Suzanne and Rudi don’t follow them or let their guests follow them. It’s pretty much the opposite of the petting zoo I went to at the Bronx Zoo earlier this summer in a quest to see the tigers who got Covid (they’re fine now). The only time guests come to interact with cows is once or twice a day, or a couple times a week.
We had shown up at the right time. It was in the high 50s when we were at the farm, so the flies that usually plague the cows and horses in hot weather were gone. After petting Bella and Bonnie, and trying desperately to get them to like me, we went to go meet the horses, which were very even-tempered, and the mini-horses, Suzie Q and Missy, which stood there and let us pet them for as long as we wanted. Then Bella and Bonnie sat down in the grass, so we returned to their area to do what we had really come there to do: cuddle the cows.
Cows have a slightly higher body temperature than humans, and their heart rate is slower. Together, this had the effect of making my body briefly stop humming with anxiety. Rudi told us some people like talking to the cows and some people just like hanging out with them quietly.
I didn’t really have anything to say to either Bonnie or Bella beyond the same words of affirmation I use for nice dogs I see in the park, such as “Pretty girl!” and “You’re so cute do you know how cute you are you’re so cute.” I was having the time of my life. All of the things I could normally find to worry about— dreading having to go back to the city, wondering if I remembered to turn off and unplug my hair straightener that morning, the general state of the world—simply didn’t occur to me. Brain empty. No thoughts. Only cows.
Mary and I took turns cuddling and brushing Bella and Bonnie, and Rudi very nicely took a picture of us with Bella. (I can’t imagine going to a farm sanctuary and not taking a picture of or with a cow, so I have to assume it’s a request he fulfills often.) The girls chewed their cud and got comfortable on the ground next to us, and we continued to pet them until Suzanne thanked us for coming. I checked my phone. 70 minutes had somehow passed since we first met the cows, and now it was time for us to go.
We got up and brushed the dirt off of ourselves. I gave one last goodbye squeeze to Bella. Nothing about me really lends itself to pivoting my entire personal brand to “farm girl” — I live in Brooklyn, I don’t particularly thrive when covered in dirt, and I like the cold comforts of delivery food and cell service too much to instantaneously make the switch from “comfortable professional middle class worker” to “farmhand.” But I did leave the B&B on Friday and immediately Googled the next-closest farm sanctuary to the city. Aside from owning a gold chain, I assume that quietly appreciating an unassuming animal is the closest I’ll conceivably get to being Tony Soprano.