As I head farther south, scruffy Columbia County gives way to the better-heeled Dutchess County, as the upper Hudson Valley becomes the mid-Hudson Valley, and as the New York megalopolis draws ever nearer. Along with the deep funk emanating from Bard College and the rich acoustics of its Frank Gehry–designed performing arts center, the area is soaked in the arts. Each July brings the Edible Sculpture Party, organized by Bard College professor Tim Davis and his wife, painter Lisa Sanditz, in the pleasant village of Tivoli. Last summer featured a “Farrah Fawcett quesadilla” that brilliantly captured the recently deceased actress’s likeness, a pizza iPhone, and a sugary Michael Jackson glove. The summer before that, a student created a ham shaped like Kim Jong Il. Walking down Broadway, the Champs-Élysées of Tivoli, one comes across many pompadours that might excite the North Korean leader. Follow them to the divey Black Swan bar, where Bard students dance themselves raw whenever a cool band appears and where the backyard is the perfect place for a noisy, happy summer nightcap.
Those looking for real food should head for Mercato, in the neighboring town of Red Hook. Mercato is an Italian gem, the dining room’s creamy walls full of everyday cheer. Francesco Buitoni, red bandanna–clad descendant of the famed Italian pasta family, makes sweet, almost milky meat ragùs that are to die for, while his house-made spinach pappardelle is the king of green-colored pastas. The place often serves as a high-end canteen for Bard’s faculty. At the nearby table, an older academic declares to his waitress, a Bard student: “I’m the one who has garlic sensitivities.” Whatever one’s sensitivities, it’s hard to ignore the local chicken–liver bruschetta with aged balsamico and fresh sage.
My stay coming to an end, it is time to head farther south toward the inevitability of New York City. Before I run into the feisty village of Rhinebeck, which is another beast altogether (especially after Chelsea Clinton’s wedding), I turn west toward the river. Poets’ Walk, in Red Hook, is a 120-acre park with sparkling views of the Hudson River bisected by the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge. The two miles worth of trails take the wanderer from a dark forest into a fiercely lit clearing. One can hear traffic rumbling smoothly across the long span of the bridge, see the humps of the Catskill Mountains in the background, everything sunbaked, abundant, distinctly American. Somewhere horses are whinnying and, strangest of all, jazz is playing. The light is clear, the sound is clear. A train to New York City honks its horn and then clatters into view. This is going to be difficult.