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My August '96 vacation guide
to the area is preserved here by popular demand
My Riverby Tour along with an update
A 4th grader's project - Barclay's Bridge - in Saugerties
Day One Day Two Day Three
August '97 Tour
DAY ONE - Cooperstown / Blue Mingo / Farmer's Museum
Too many months of sitting at my desk (thank you readers for keeping be busy!) left me in no shape to begin this "vacation" with a hike, besides, it was raining. I decided to limber up by driving what I thought was the long leg of this tour. Fortunately, Kaatskill Life magazine (free plug) featured an article on Cooperstown that raved about a restaurant where people gathered to watch the storms on Otsego Lake - so, with my ever present appetite for good food and scenery - and a similarly armed companion - we set out.
Showers, gray clouds and rare flashes of sunshine painted the landscape with everything but a rainbow, it was a beautiful day! Or maybe it was my mood - but excitement and adventure were in the air and Margaretville was the first stop. All that beautiful architecture forced me to find a parking spot, and we set out on a walk and a bit of antiquing. An aggressively friendly flock of ducks nearly trapped us on the foot bridge, and there was a workman's ladder across the sidewalk to tempt the unsuperstitious, but dodging each had us turning corners we might not have, and back streets and pleasant townspeople greeted us warmly. Margaretville is a charming village, and the movie-theater sized antique collective is filled with treasures. It was a good beginning. The aroma of food from the various eateries was tempting, but I wanted my appetite sharp for the Blue Mingo. (No, that is not a rare delicacy, I'm talking LUNCH here, that's the name of the restaurant!) So - off we went.
A little way up the road a sign for New Kingston reminded me of its origins. 350 years ago the British fleet, in its aborted advance up the Hudson River to join with Burgoyne, paused long enough to burn the then-capital of NY, Kingston. There was little personal injury, but 350 houses were destroyed and nearly as many barns. The destruction was total save one house, with various stories of a "lady in red" or a Redcoat turning back the torchers. When the smoke cleared, Kingston was razed!
Hearing of the plight of the residents, Robert Livingston offered 5000 acres of land within the unsettled portion of the Hardenburgh Patent to be divided among the victims. Many years later, 100 Kingston homeowners were each given 50 acres of this land and New Kingston was created - not soon enough to address the immediate needs of the homeless, but in time to improve the property values of the surrounding Livingston holdings. But I digress.
Remember all that wonderful signage I mentioned in last year's tour of Cooperstown? Well, this year I got lost and drove right through town! The signs are still there, but I was sure I knew the way until I was sure I didn't, and by then I was headed northwest, miles out of town. Instead of turning around, (This was, afterall, an adventure, not the shortest distance between two points!) I kept angling right - through Fly Creek and Bed Bug Hill - names that let you know you've left refined Cooperstown far behind. I was confident I'd come to Otsego Lake sooner or later. Meanwhile, on back roads over rolling hills, through forest and field, we enjoyed the rural scenery. It was a perfect day for a drive.
Finally, the misty lake appeared in the distance between the hills, and we followed that vision to Rt 80. We continued right and down the west shore looking for Sam's Point Boat Yard and the hidden Blue Mingo behind it. Named after local Indians, and with a canopied deck over the water, this secret rendezvous of the cognoscenti is now on the map. Find it if you can - the food is great! I recommend anything in Thai sauce.
What could be more perfect than a leisurely and delicious lunch watching the fish and the waterfowl? Welll . . . OK . . . silly question. But, next on the list of perfection is a stroll through the Farmer's Museum, which - not so coincidentally - is right down the road., nearly into Cooperstown, and on today's agenda.
If you don't know anything about the museum you are in for a surprise. Especially if you approach it from the North, as we did. It looks like a modest operation, with a small parking lot, a cottage sized museum store and a beautiful stone barn that you can't see the half of. Of course, if you approached it from the other direction on one of Cooperstown's famous trolleys, you had ample time to see the fields and many buildings. The Farmer's Museum is actually a large village of period buildings staffed by docents who illustrate the lives of the shopkeepers and farmers they represent. The druggist makes real pills, the printer does handbills, the farmers have real livestock and gardens - it's an incredible look into the yesteryear workings of a community. I don't mean that in a hokey way, either. This is not like other villages where the docents are in character, and you try to trick them into admitting it's 1997. No, these are refreshingly real, congenial people doing (and explaining) the chores as they talk about what life was like in the first half of the 1800s.
Starting at the huge stone barn with three floors of displays, dioramas, and examples of everything from broom making to weaving, and from barn construction to wagons, you really see what life was like for our ancestors. Be sure to bring the kids and plan to spend the day. Everyone is invited to participate in what is definitely a hands-on, learning environment. But, don't get me wrong, the many children I saw thought they were just having fun!
Outside the barn are at least a dozen buildings: a school, church, inn, doctor's office, drugstore, printshop, farmhouse with outbuildings filled with livestock, blacksmith, and a working general store where you may purchase all the goods produced here. We spent so much time at the Farmer's Museum that we had to leave a visit to the James Fenimore Cooper Museum across the street and the entire Village of Cooperstown for another day. One I look forward to! But, it was late and we were 2 hours from some good home cooking where my own bed beckoned.
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DAY TWO - Shaupeneak Ridge / Shaker Museum / Old Sheep Herder's Inn
The sun was less reluctant this morning and I needed to get the kinks out after yesterday's drive, so the prospect of a hike helped to brighten the day. Shaupeneak Ridge, I say shaw-pin-neck, my Maniac friend says saw-pin-e-ak, (you'll have to ask the next Delaware Indian you see.) but it's a beautiful hike no matter how you pronounce it. Located off Rt 9W in West Park, above the ravaged ruins of John Burroughs' Riverby, the trail offers enough changes in elevation to get your heart beating, but it's not so difficult that you wouldn't bring the kids. Finding it was easy once I read Peggy Turco's careful directions in the "Western Hudson Valley" ($15) guide, which is part of the "Walks and Rambles" series from Back Country Press. I recommend these books to anyone trying to follow in my footsteps. I'm following hers!
The ample parking area provides a "you-are-here" map and booklet dispenser that will keep a careful reader from getting lost. There is a short handicap access trail to benches at the water's edge of an alpine pond/partially-filled-in glacial lake, and a nearby canoe launching area. It reminded me of the swamp below the "Pond House", part of the John Burroughs Slabsides trail system just to the South, and was obviously created during the same geologic period. From here the trail continues around the lake back to the parking area. But we'll save this walk for another day. We were out for bigger game - literally!
Walking back up the driveway, out of the parking area and across the road, we began a gentle hike through damp woods. At times the foliage overhead was so thick and the light so dim that it could have been raining, then a sunny clearing would appear and we'd realize it was only left-over from the night before, dripping down from the leaves. It was a surreal morning in those glistening woods, magical in a way, and the appearance of a spotted faun, too young for the season and too curious not to twitch big ears at our approach helped to make it so. We stood still for a moment as an errant sunbeam caught the otherwise frozen animal in a pose so fragile I was sorry not to have a camera. Miles and days can be spent searching for just such a perfect moment. We bumped into it a half-hour from home!
Tearing our eyes away from Bambi, we could see the first of the promised vistas ahead, and in a short distance found ourselves on a ridge overlooking the Hudson Valley with a view as beautiful as promised. What a day this was turning out to be! The rest of the hike was filled with the expectations of further wonders, and the 2nd promised vista, of the Catskill Mountains this time, as-well-as the numerous wildflowers and salamanders we saw, delivered them. It just seems anticlimactic to recount them here!
Too soon we crossed back over the road to the lakeside trail and were shortly at our starting point. I paused there to savor the perfection of the morning with the knowledge that, try as I might, I could never repeat it. Before my hunger helped to heighten my senses to the point that I couldn't think straight, at least I thought it was before, I decided that the Northern hinterlands of Columbia County held the key to the afternoon's adventure - and we were away!
Now - a moment about food. I rarely eat out. Restaurant meals are usually too rich for my wallet and my stomach. On the bright side that means I'm fortunate to have the means to match my tastes, at least where dinner is concerned! But, lunch is another matter. It's usually half the price of the same food served in the evening, and, if I'm careful, I can work through the discomfort from a rich lunch that, if it occurred after dinner, would keep me awake much of the night. So, my free days are usually exercise and edification centered around lunch. I try to make it special.
I'll start by saying - we never really got lost. I mean, just because all the roads going North and South on the East side of the Hudson are Rt 9, or some variation of Rt. 9, such as 9N, 9G, etc., and most of the roads going East and West in Columbia County are some variation on the theme of Rt. 23, you might think one could get confused, not to mention lost. The problem was in the directions we received and poor preparation. With my unerring sense of direction we were never lost.
My only road map was of the Eastern Hemisphere, and my only directions to food "to die for" were: "It's right across the street from the Shaker Museum." How could I go wrong, generally speaking? Here was a museum I've always wanted to go to, great food at the Sheep Herders Inn in Old Chatham, and a tour of beautiful, rural Columbia County. It sounded perfect.
Following signs for the Shaker museum was easy enough at first, until they tried to take us through the city of Hudson. I've been there twice and found it depressing, although I'm told the antiquing there is fine. Instead, I opted to detour around it and pick up the trail on the other side. Major Mistake! The first sign we saw said Rt 23 North with an arrow pointing left, Rt 23 South with an arrow pointing right, and Rt 23 with an arrow pointing straight ahead. The next sign said "Beyond Here Be Dragons" and we proceeded to fall off the face of the earth.
And found ourselves in Chatham. It's a pretty town with industrial roots, a rotary at the major intersection, and nineteenth century architecture. I parked in front of an impressive town hall to get directions. Walking between the massive pillars, I stepped into the Twilight Zone . . .
and found myself in a formal municipal area with arched ceilings, doors leading off on either side and a grand stairway in front of me. It was dark and empty and there was no sound. No one answered when I knocked and the doors were locked. Upstairs was the same except that one door had a note inviting me to get the key from reception. A real catch-22 situation here, but I could think of no reason to break into reception to retrieve the key to enter an obviously empty room! I felt like a trespasser, sure to be apprehended, or like someone trapped in an alternate, unpeopled universe. It was strange being all alone, so I walked out . . .
into a busy sunlit street. It was noontime. Chatham is so charmingly rural that everyone was away from their desks for lunch! I felt like an idiot, only better. Instructions out of town were forthcoming, and the belief that we were on the right track was bolstered by signs that got alarmingly smaller and smaller as we passed through East Chatham and Old Chatham, until they vanished altogether at a peculiar crossroads. It was an H intersection with 2 eateries, a general store and a post office facing each other in the center part. I swear every road from there led right back as if I were stuck on an interstate cloverleaf. Finally, I parked to ask for directions. The post office was empty, but I was used to that, (do we just mail checks to "no-show" municipal workers, was it still lunchbreak, or was I in a time warp here?) so I went into the store. The storekeeper's instructions were, "Follow those people, they work there" as he pointed to a couple just leaving. Well, 2 miles down a road I swear didn't exist a minute before, we found it. They may work there, but the museum is closed on Tuesday! We were cordially invited to stroll the grounds and visit the museum store, (which is open on Tuesday!) but declined.
Worse news - our hot, sweaty, hiking clothes attired, not-to-mention ill-tempered, group (did I forget to tell you I had an audience through all this?) felt that the most impressive looking Old Chatham Sheep Herder's Inn, with one-way drives, just-so plantings and delicious aromas emanating from a perfect white farmhouse, was too ritzy for us. They refused to go in!
Wait - there's more! Lunch was a can of Pringles and a six-pack of Coke from a convenient Gas & Gas Store. Following signs to the Librarium Book Store we learned it was closed that day. Then, 4 miles into the backwoods following a sign that said Rodger's Book Barn 3.5 miles, I gave up. For a day with such great beginnings it was truly a bust. I dropped everyone off and went home to regroup for tomorrow. It couldn't possibly be any worse than today!
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~~~~~~~~~~~ DAY THREE - Sam's Point / West Point
Chastened after yesterday's debacle, I was determined to pull a great day out of the hat today. Lake Awosting, on the Shawangunk Ridge, beckoned, but no one was willing to make the 3 mile hike in (or out) to what I hear is a beautiful spot. I thought a scenic drive and a walk through a charming village was in order, so we headed to Ellenville. I know, I know, but my directions were "Make a left at the light in Ellenville for the best scenic drive, with plenty of turnouts to admire the view." And I knew Cragsmore was on that road. So we were off!
Rt 52 East from Ellenville is a great, ok - some would say - the best - scenic drive, certainly in Ulster County, maybe the Hudson Valley. What a find it was! We had a clear sunny day and a place to pull over to admire the view at every turn. From one lookout we spied bright circus tents and ant-sized figures conducting what we finally realized must be a horse show. Their loudspeaker fading in and out was the only sound we heard. I wanted to stay, but up ahead a sign for Cragsmore would not be ignored. Cragsmore, an artists colony on a mountain eyrie, is not a bustling little Woodstock filled with tourists and crass commercialism. No, this is a quiet residential community with no evident business hub, not at all what I expected. We may have missed it though, because, just as I began to envision a repeat of yesterday's troubles, a sign for a nature preserve, in magic marker on cardboard (!) lured us spiraling ever upward . . . to Sam's Point!
You are probably all familiar with the story. Trapper Sam, chased by hostile Indians, was cornered on a clifftop. Rather than be tortured and killed by them, he risked certain death by leaping off, and escaped when his fall was broken by the trees. Well, the site of this heroic feat has been beautified with a series of tacky "tourist" enterprises that, fortunately, are now defunct. I can't imagine what possessed anyone to invest money in a life-sized billboard of club-toting Alley-Oop dragging his woman by the hair, or what would make visitors poke their heads through the cut-outs to be likewise immortalized in that pose! An abandoned snack bar, souvenir stand and miniature golf layout are further reminders of the depths to which "Yankee" interlopers (and I mean that in the 19th century pejorative sense) would stoop in their pursuit of the All-American tourist dollar. But, enough ranting. They are all closed and there is some evidence they will not reopen.
It seems the ownership of the site has changed - if not - certainly the focus. A real sign declares this: Sam's Point Dwarf Pine Barrens Nature Preserve, with a map of the trails and a notice that the Ice Caves are closed while their safety is ascertained. (read that: while the insurance underwriters wrangle over liability issues.) A smaller sign cautions against straying from the trails onto the diamondback rattlers. (!!) With its message bolstered by a recent news article about a snake-bit mountain bicyclist, you can bet we stayed in the center of the trail.
Fortunately, the trail was an old road, so that was easy, and the incline was a gentle series of switchbacks up to the cliffs just below Sam's Point. As tempting as the many caves and crevices were, the thought of rattlesnakes was too fresh in my mind to explore them. Besides, the view off to the right was developing into a first class panorama. We hurried to the top.
It was a surprise to leave a towering deciduous forest for the ridgetop dwarf pine barrens and the magnificent view sweeping over 180 degrees before us. Spectacular! Suddenly you are on top of the Shawangunk Ridge with a five state view - NJ and PA to the south, and Conn to the east. You can see the Hudson Valley with the River squeezing between the Highlands, and rolling green hills to the South and West, but very little evidence of civilization! Amazing. It was here I made the plans for the afternoon, (I'll tell you later) but first we walked North along the ridge to the lake. The: Posted No Trespassing Violators Will Be Arrested signs on the shoreline were distressing to see, (and weren't mentioned on the map) but the ducks didn't appear to heed them. Across the lake a forest of telecommunications towers was the only other sign of civilization, (??) incongruous on the horizon. The trail went around the lake and down to the parking lot, but the signs and the towers left a bad taste in my mouth, so we turned around and started back. Fortunately, the "gunks" are well-known for their blueberries, and the bushes laden with sweetly ripening fruit soon improved my disposition. It really was a beautiful day, and, if they ever reconcile the no trespassing signs and the closed Ice Caves with the reality of hikers in a nature preserve wanting access to both, Sam's Point will be perfect.
But - on to my idea for the afternoon. It was brilliant! We'd finish the Rt 52 scenic drive, then continue to Newburgh and shoot over to Fort Putnam for the afternoon. Across the flat bottomland breadth of the Valley, with the distant highlands looking deceptively close, we made a beeline for the most historic site in the Hudson Valley - West Point.
Wellll, what looked close from the ridge top was over an hour away through Southern Ulster and Northern Orange County farmland. But, the drive is pleasant, and the villages encourage someone without a destination to tarry. Perhaps another day. We picked up Rt 9W outside of Newburgh and were quickly on top of Storm King Mountain following signs for West Point and the Stony Lonesome Gate.
The confusing thing about entering via this backdoor is that following the Visitor Center signs will draw you all through the campus and out to the main street of Highland! Don't worry though, just when you think you are lost, the Visitor Center looms on the left with plenty of free parking in front. Here you can mingle with tourists from all over the world and marvel at the complexity of West Point. Afterall, you have a College, a Military Base and Hotel Thayer, all laid out on a beautiful campus dotted with historic sites, monuments and museums, on the Hudson River. This place is impressive! From the Visitor's Center you can walk, drive or take the tour bus. If you have the time, I'd recommend the bus tour, then a drive to the areas you want to explore on foot. But first, walk around the back of the Visitor's Center to the Military Museum. Various wings off both floors offer access to spectacular collections of military memorabilia grouped by era. I gravitate toward the earlier periods, where the patina of age mutes the bloody reality of war, but suit yourselves. It's all here for the viewing. Armed with a sense of the history of this place, you are better prepared to appreciate what you find on your tour.
I'll warn you now, Fort Putnam is not open on Tuesday or Wednesday, and the very visible presence of the Military Police discourages even an attempt to break the rules and walk through the grounds. (Remember, this IS a military base. Different rules apply.) Enough said.
So visit Custer's Grave, walk through Hotel Thayer, admire the dozen monuments and the views from every turn. Drive down to the water's edge and take in a breeze, then get ready for a real surprise - leaving West Point.
We'll take the original Storm King Highway. Think what a monumental feat the construction of it was. Not that 4 lane divided wonder you arrived on, but the old one, with workmen literally hanging from cliffs to carve out the route, and the Hudson far below. To experience it, take the Washington Gate exit from West Point to the MOST SCENIC drive in the Hudson Valley - forget Rt 52! This narrow two-lane track high above the water offers views up and down the River. Crown Point, Bannerman's Island, The Narrows - with misty Highlands rising from the water's edge to the South - and the Newburgh Beacon Bridge connecting the widening valley to the North. This is beautiful! There are one or two tiny pull-outs, so be sure to look for them and try to get way off the road. With sheer cliffs above you and below, and traffic speeding past, it can be a frightening experience. But, this is the one place you can see the strategic importance of West Point, see why so many lives were lost defending and assaulting it. Here you see our history spread out before you in the magnificent afternoon breeze.
Well, I guess I can't leave you here, as beautiful as it is, although we stayed awhile before continuing North to pick up 9W in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson. The Newburgh Hudson Highlands Museum must wait for another day, and as we passed the exit for that famous apple farm in Cornwall, I remembered David's hospitality many years ago and vowed to stop the next time.
It was a tiring day, and as enticing as an evening drive through the Historic Waterfront District of Newburgh may be, I wanted to head back. We passed the Gomez House historic site in Marlborough, fortunately too late to be tempted to stop, and picked up fresh produce in New Paltz before the final leg home.
It really was a GREAT 3 days off! I know I have to plan for more time and remember to take the detours we skipped this trip. But, for now, it's back to work. I hope you enjoyed the tour.
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