Breakneck Ridge, Cold Spring, Garrison, Manitou. I’d glimpsed the names of these Hudson Valley towns from the window of the Metro North commuter train dozens of times before, but never did more than wonder how many miles they were from my destination in New York City. I was, I reasoned, too busy to stop at every little town along the way, regardless if it had a tranquil waterfront park or an abundance of attractive cafés and storefronts.
Without noticing, I’d tumbled into the same trap that befalls many of us who live in the region: I’d treated the train as a one-and-done method for getting to the city and back again. But these days, with the pandemic forcing me to slow down, I’m getting to know my local region on a deeper level. I’m letting the train be my guide, taking me to cities I’ve long traveled through without a second glance.
My husband and I arrive in Beacon at 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday, and strike the jackpot: the chilly weather of the past two weeks had given way to an unseasonably warm day. We have our pick of parking spots at Beacon Station. This is one of the sharp points of the double-edged sword of pandemic-depleted tourism: while devastating for local businesses, it has eased congestion in up-and-coming cities like Beacon, which throng with visitors in the warmer seasons.
We queue up for the Bannerman Island Boat Tour. In 1900, Scottish-born merchant Francis Bannerman, the world’s largest purveyor of used arms and munitions, purchased Pollepel (the island’s official name). He built his storehouse—the turreted, rust-colored ruin that’s visible from the train—of Hudson River bricks, and packed it with massive stores of munitions. Nearly 125 feet up the hill from what was essentially a three-story powder keg, he constructed a Scottish-style castle for his family.
Even this late in the season, the manmade garden overlooking the armory is still blooming with bright pink and purple flowers that buzz with the industry of fat, furry bumblebees and monarch butterflies. Our guide pauses frequently to let the growl of a passing boat or the bleating of the train’s horn subside. A spontaneous 1920 explosion that rocked the armory, he explains, was heard for 400 miles around, and blew a 25-foot slab of building clear across the river and onto the railroad tracks, where it blocked traffic for three days. In 1969, what remained of the weapons stash went up in a blazing, three-day inferno.
In the two and a half hours we were on the tour, the streets, shops, and restaurants of downtown Beacon have populated with people. There’s a common misconception that the upstate region grinds to a halt once the leaves drop. That may have been true a decade or two ago, but these days, if you can’t find something to do in the fall or winter, you’re probably not looking very hard.
We meet a colleague at the Roundhouse, a circa-1800 brick industrial complex that’s been transformed into a luxury hotel, restaurant, bar, and event space. The service is friendly on the outdoor patio, which overlooks rushing Fishkill Creek. We share an oozy wheel of burrata with toast, apple slices, and blackberries as big as nickels, and a satisfying portion of spicy lobster mac and cheese that’s velvety and full of flavor, if not especially spicy.
With afternoon sliding toward evening, we scrap our plan to try some of Beacon’s many walking and hiking trails around Madam Brett Park and Mount Beacon, and make an abbreviated tour of the downtown. We stop in hip, industrial Denning’s Point Distillery and Glazed Over Donuts, a rustic, wood-paneled shop where you can customize fresh cake doughnuts with an array of glazes, toppings, and drizzles.
My colleague recommends one final stop: the Mount Gulian Historic Site. Where downtown Beacon is constant movement and energy, Mount Gulian is hushed and serene, from its small Heritage Garden to the expanse of lush lawn that tumbles down to the river’s edge. The handsome wood-and-stone Dutch manor house, once a Revolutionary War headquarters, is closed to tours for the remainder of 2020, but usually hosts a variety of educational and social events.
Beyond its significance to military history, Mount Gulian boasts another important connection. James F. Brown, who was born into slavery in Maryland and escaped north via the Underground Railroad, worked here for decades as a gardener and coachman. Brown kept detailed journals of his life—some of the rare few documents we have that draw an authentic picture of the Black experience in early America. (He’s buried a few miles away in St. Luke’s Cemetery.)
The train chugs into motion. A few months ago, I wouldn’t have considered taking public transit. But safety protocols—and my own perspective—have evolved with our knowledge of how to travel safely and responsibly. It’s a lot simpler to do when there are fewer people: the MTA estimates that train ridership is down 80 percent, meaning most times of day are low traffic, and social distancing easy.
I shield my eyes from the late-day sun that flashes between the trees. The extravagant colors of autumn rush by, blending into brushstrokes of red, burgundy, gold, green, and bright yellow, an abstract painting come to life. In twenty scenic minutes, we pull into Peekskill Station.
A hilly city of about 24,000, Peekskill has the gritty-artsy feeling of a town on the rise. It’s also remarkably diverse, with significant Latinx (37 percent) and Black (19 percent) populations, and a growing number of Islamic residents. By my unofficial count, there are at least ten restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and delis, representing a wide range of global cuisines, within a five-block radius. On North and South Division streets, near the iconic gilded onion dome, the city has blocked off part of the road for outdoor dining. Looking up at the signs for Guatemalan, Mexican, Caribbean, and New American food, I wish I’d been less eager to fill up at lunch.
We detour into Bruised Apple Books, a community landmark since 1993. The shop boasts 50,000 used, out-of-print, and rare books, plus CDs, LPs, DVDs, VHS tapes, in about 200 topic areas. I linger, as I always do in bookshops with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and floorboards that creak with years of devoted use, too long. My husband taps my shoulder. It’s 6:00 p.m. Our train leaves in a half hour. I slide the copy of Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, its smooth cover and uncracked spine crisp in my hands, back onto the shelf, and reluctantly exit the shop.
Ignoring the blister forming under the ball of my left foot, I speed-walk back toward the station. I’d hoped to view many of the 30 public art displays, from mural to metal sculpture, located around Peekskill’s downtown. Instead, we round the corner from Central to South Water, where the Peekskill Brewery’s beer garden is doing brisk business. We make a hasty tour of the paintings of local artist Peter Bynum decorating the overpass next door, and the sculptures at Peekskill Landing Park, just in front of the train station.
There’s barely a minute to spare as we jog up the steps to the platform. Sweat flecks my forehead and rings my shoulders under my backpack straps. Across the way, the electronic board flashes a message: the train is 12 minutes late. I sigh and drop my pack to the ground, hands braced on my knees to catch my breath.
Exploring Tarrytown & Nyack
During the 25-minute ride to Tarrytown, dark and fatigue set in. The hotel is about a 10-minute walk from train station, but we break down and hail an Uber. The doors of the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Tarrytown shush open, the air-conditioning like a balm against my clammy skin. While we wait in line, I drain a bottle of water in three gulps. Though we’re given a room with two double beds instead of the requested queen, I don’t protest. At this point, I could fall asleep on a towel in the hallway.
It’s already after 8:00 p.m., so we order takeout from the hotel restaurant and head up to the room. We sit cross-legged on a bed, passing the wax-lined cardboard containers back and forth in the light of the TV, the laugh track from a rerun of The Big Bang Theory playing in the background.
Having slept a dreamless, rocklike sleep the night before, I’m ready to go early in the morning. Our first trip of the day: a foot tour across the 3.6-mile pedestrian and bike path on the renovated Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge.
Walking close together, the volume jacked up against the ever-present noise of traffic, we use the TravelStorys app to narrate the history and significance of the Plexiglas-walled lookouts and art installations that mark regular intervals on the bridge. The Half Moon overlook, for example, pays tribute to sailors and explorers, and has a seating area shaped to mimic the prow of a ship. The Painters Point overlook, my favorite, honors the Hudson River School artists, with a bronze and wood canopy that cleverly frames Hook Mountain.
The trip takes about an hour and fifteen minutes on foot, or 20 minutes by bike. We exit the path on the Nyack side just as traffic has doubled, and follow the shaded walking path into the village.
Though most shops and galleries aren’t open—either because of the time of day or pandemic restrictions on hours—we take an unhurried walk around some of the streets to admire the meticulously preserved Victorian, Greek Revival, and Federal architecture.
We’ve been on our feet for over 5 miles now, and take a load off at True Food, a tiny but friendly health-foods café. Cyclists zip past our table—Nyack, it turns out, is one of the most bike-friendly towns in the area. I crunch into an avocado toast with microgreens and savor the easiness of the town, a quiet antidote to the busyness of the bridge.
Exploring Sleepy Hollow
We take the mostly empty city bus—a bargain at $3—back into Tarrytown and head a few blocks past the hotel to await the Line 13 bus into Sleepy Hollow. We’d prepared. We’d looked it up, and have $3 in cash per person at the ready. But when we step on, the driver informs us that a MetroCard or coins are the only accepted payment methods. Either because the bus is occupied by just a handful of riders or because we look like we’ve been walking for miles, he motions us on for the 8-mile ride to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
The graveyard is massive, filled with upwards of 45,000 internments. It’s nearly silent, despite dozens of visitors on this 80-degree, relentlessly sunny day. We stick mostly to the partially shaded paths, where patches of sunlight filter through the trees and dry leaves crackle underfoot. In one area, death’s-head markers dating back to the 1700s tilt, topsy-turvy, toward one other. In another, we gawk up at mausoleums larger than the average house, the final resting place of people with surnames like Rockefeller and Helmsley. We visit Andrew Carnegie’s Celtic cross–marked grave, and the modest, round-shouldered headstone of Sleepy Hollow’s favorite son, Washington Irving, whose deeply funny and pointed story about social climbers and the spooks who love them is memorialized all over town.
We curve around the seventeenth-century Old Dutch Reformed Church and exit through the main entrance, in search of the Headless Horseman Bridge, a crucial setting in Irving’s story. We do a double-take when we realize we’ve walked over the small concrete structure twice without realizing it.
With several cultural attractions closed because of the pandemic, we head into the downtown. On bustling Valley Street, we stop at Santorini, a homey, old school Greek restaurant with chunky wood tables and chairs, tile floors, and coastal paintings on the walls. We take solace in the air-conditioned dining room, examining the remainder of our itinerary over stuffed grape leaves, a felafel wrap almost too big to hold, and an order of brandy-steeped saganaki that the waiter lights on fire with a flourish.
After lunch we amble the riverwalk at Pierson Park, which winds around a ribbon of rocky shoreline and a railed pier that looks out onto the Cuomo Bridge to the south and the Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse to the north. Families and groups of friends gather under the pavilions, cheerful helium balloons tethered to the legs of picnic tables, or on blankets spread over the lawn. A woman slices a birthday cake topped with pink rosettes and drops the squares onto plates, which another woman, so close in appearance that they must be sisters, hands around a table.
We swerve to avoid a brindle-colored dog catching a frisbee, and pad onto the green. My husband parks himself at a picnic table in the shade of a tree, secures headphones over his ears, closes his eyes, and lays one cheek against his backpack. I leave him to rest as I pace the riverwalk, snapping images of a trio of kids climbing the rocks, and a woman paddling with two young children in a fire-engine-red kayak, her life vest bobbing to her earlobes on the upstroke.
Exploring Croton-on-Hudson & the Great Jack o’ Lantern Blaze
We arrive in Croton-on-Hudson for our final stop of the trip, the Great Jack o’ Lantern Blaze. With a couple hours to go, we aim for the village center, where Baked by Susan beckons on South Riverside Avenue.
Bright and jovial with a glass-walled front, the cafe is an oasis of cool and quiet. We order snacks and a pair of fresh-brewed iced teas, pull up red metal chairs to a table in the corner, and plug in our phones to charge. During our stay, only three other customers filter in and out. It’s not a reflection on quality, but a sobering reminder of what business is like for small operators these days.
With opening time of the Blaze at hand, we walk down the street to Van Cortlandt Manor, a seventeenth-century estate founded by an enterprising family of Dutch settlers that once owned 86,000 acres in the region. While the manor is operated as a historic house, like many museums this year, it’s closed to tours. The Great Jack o’ Lantern Blaze, which takes place on the manor’s grounds, is the exception.
I fully expected the Blaze to be a rinky-dink country festival—and I say this as someone who lives in a region that hosts numerous rinky-dink fairs, and who attends them annually. But right out of the gate, the 7,000 pumpkins carved by a small army of volunteer artisans blow my misconceptions out of the water. I’ve seen some wild jack o’ lanterns, but not bunches of them clustered into world-famous artworks like the Mona Lisa or The Scream. Nor did I expect a rotating merry-go-round made of creepy carved horses, a spooky garden with gourd-carved eyes watching me from the trees, or a “Headless Horseman Bridge” composed of dozens of jack o’ lanterns that’s far cooler than the real thing.
By the time I get to the final installation, a sprawling graveyard populated by ghoulish figures and the larger-than-life headstones—made of, you guessed it, jack o’ lanterns—of the Van Cortlandt family, I’m happily speechless.
We board the commuter train for our trip back to Beacon. I sink against my seat, flushed with the kind of tired that comes from exploration and discovery. I watch in the glow of streetlamps as my window reveals the neatly trimmed waterfront buildings of Cortlandt and Garrison and Cold Spring, towns I don’t know yet, but look forward to boarding the train for soon.