My favorite days of the year are ones when the Amtrak train pulls me up to Hudson, New York. I’m being slowly chugged out of Manhattan, past the sun-dappled Hudson River, past some of America’s most storied suburbs with their spotless platforms. When the train arrives in the small, historic city of Hudson after only a two-hour ride upriver, city slickers do a double take. There are no platforms here. Baggage in hand, I leap onto a footstool and then onto the asphalt and gravel lining the tracks, the tired hulk of the massive silver train shuddering behind me. Nothing makes me happier than that loose track gravel banging on my city shoes, the feeling of entering one of nature’s privileged strongholds. Welcome to the Land of Rip Van Winkle says a sign on a nearby bridge, and the profitable sleepiness of Washington Irving’s hero infects my soul. These days there are many things to do (and see and buy and, especially, eat) in the upper Hudson Valley, so close to New York City’s bustling insanity. But, thankfully, there are just as many things not to do.
This is a part of the world where teenagers passing on bikes (with all this exercise, where do they find the time to play video games?) will shout out, “How you doing?” and “Hey, the cut grass smells like watermelon!” Which it does. Settled by the Dutch, the Palatine Germans, and, now, in the city of Hudson itself, many Bangladeshi families, this part of the Hudson River Valley reminds new settlers of their ancestral homes centuries past. “It’s like an old country road in Austro-Hungary!” “It’s like the clouds massing over Aberdeen!” Indeed, for me, the wide birch floors of my Swedish landlady’s rented cabin speak of warm summers near my childhood home of St. Petersburg, Russia, the sunlight white and piercing, the mosquitoes out for blood. Wherever you’re from, bring your own nostalgia. This countryside is still primordially country.
The first thing I want to do when I get off the train is get close to the river. Not too far from the city of Hudson, tiny Cheviot Landing, in Germantown, opens out onto the water. Here the landscape is clear and dramatic. Clouds, thick and determined, crash into the peaks of the Catskill Mountains, which wind down into foothills as lush as the promise of the New World. The Hudson is still a busy, workmanlike river. A necklace of cement plants along the western shores mars her beauty, but one is quick to forgive civilization when a thick-hulled red barge glides gracefully mid-river. The eyes close easily. There is the reassuring honk of an Amtrak speeding silver-bullet-like past a riot of vegetation choking the banks. As the tides roll in, a meadowlark begins to speak.
My Hudson River Valley stretches north from the villages of Red Hook and Tivoli, with their Bard College–accented youthfulness, up through the antiques center of Hudson, over the river to the sleepy village of Athens, back through Hudson, and then east toward Philmont and Hillsdale, where the relatively manicured communities of the Berkshires are close, and yet so far. Come summertime, it’s hard not to soak up Tanglewood and the other delights of western Massachusetts, but crossing the border to New York State presents a scruffier, more true-to-life reality. Here’s a hair salon open just five hours a week and only on Mondays, there’s a ramshackle church advising, “Satan wants you to believe that Jesus is optional.” Between the aspens and drooping willows flashing by the road you’ll see fantastical-sounding businesses with names like Mrs. Sew ’N’ Sew Repairs & Minor Alterations. But there’s new blood in these towns and villages. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that there are no second acts in American lives is disproved here every day, with each new restaurant or shop opened by a former New Yorker or Bostonian who’s traded his Bimmer for a Subaru Forester and said enough’s enough.
Max Dannis, a former management consultant, and his wife, architect Linda Gatter, opened the restaurant Local 111 in Philmont in 2006. Max’s first reaction to Philmont, a town that can be most generously described as up-and-coming, was “what a dump.” Gradually that view changed to “what a charming village!” Philmont is, shall we say, transitional, its crime blotter reportedly a thing to behold, but where else in prime Columbia County can you find a 3,600-square-foot Victorian manor for $350,000? Linda and Max, both detail-oriented MIT grads, wanted their restaurant to be completely accessible yet sophisticated, a place where the local volunteer firefighters could have a great time. The couple turned a former two-bay service station in the middle of town into a stunner of a contemporary dining space. They updated the concrete floors, the bay doors, and flashes of metal, but turned them oddly homey and inviting through a series of little touches: a vibrantly colored landscape on one wall; an original fan; a 1940’s Coke ad recovered from underneath someone’s floorboards. I’ve yet to encounter any firefighters in my four years of eating here; indeed, on some nights the place seems like an extension of the local Democratic club, those besieged second-home owners squaring off against the deeply rooted local Republicans (Oliver North, of Iran-Contra fame, grew up in Philmont).