dispatch from 2017

this is it

Peekskill, New York, home to the Blue Mountain Reservation, is an hour north of New York City by way of the Metro-North Railroad. It’s a small-ish town in the way that any town so close to New York City is small, even if it, like Peekskill, has the average population of any other suburb — just over 20,000.

It boasts a number of famous people who were either born, raised, or temporarily stationed within its borders — think Mel Gibson or Stanley Tucci. But the most important thing about the riverside town is that when one searches online for hiking accessible from the city by public transportation, it’s at the top of the list.

On a Saturday afternoon in late October, the midday train that runs from Grand Central Station to Poughkeepsie is slammed. Bodies pack the seats, and inevitably, a newcomer is bound to ask, “If this is the weekend, what does a weekday look like?”

After an hour spent staring out the window at the the cliffs that line the western bank of the Hudson, they eventually break away to reveal large, sloping hills. No doubt mountains in a past life, they dwarf the skinny gray buildings which stand so arrogantly, fifty miles south.

(It’s difficult to put Peekskill in the context of anything other than its relationship to those buildings. It feels like the city’s distant cousin — vaguely associated, but inextricably connected at a microscopic level.)

Disembarking the train, the Hudson river engulfs the traveler’s vision. Its enormity, its openness, its massive hills standing guard on the other side — it’s a feat to reconcile with the fact that this is same river that Lady Liberty sits at the mouth of.

The people who get off the train are dressed down, but in a Manhattan sort of way. Sweaters are freshly laundered, athletic gear is neatly labeled with some store or designer name. Sneakers are clean and hair is blown out.

The mood is light among visitors, who echo refrains of, “Oh it’s just so nice to get out of the city, sometimes, you know?” to each other.

(It’s a clear, clean air that really drives this point home, reminding you of all the soot and exhaust you’ve become accustomed to.)

But in any event, there are a handful of restaurants located near the train station. An old-timey, blue-painted ice cream shop advertises a restroom for customers only, but purchasing a sugar cookie will gain you admittance and relief. The employees here seem to look through you —  another city person with eyes wide and an inappropriately large backpack for your, no doubt, impending hike up Blue Mountain. But if you can brush that off, there’s still a soothing calm in the tradition of it all that resists their flat disinterest in tourists.

Blue Mountain is barely a mountain, only reaching about 680 feet. Its summit’s view is largely blocked by excessive tree-growth, but glimpses of the Hudson and the larger mountains on the other side are accessible from certain angles. It should be the main event, but the palpable disappointment in every other hiker’s slumped shoulders dulls the allure.

“This is it?” they ask each other, squinting through the yellowing trees to find some semblance of a view. “Hmm,” they conclude, before emptying their water bottles into their throats. “Oh well.”

While the eponymous mountain in the reservation is lackluster, the trails around its base are winding, veering, and frequently disappear at the tops of cliffs that tower over more trees, more leaves, and occasionally a pond. It’s not the summit that drives the pleasure here, there is no culminating peak or rock or Instagram photo; it’s an outing for those who find pleasure in wandering, in the truest sense of the word. It’s a hike for the kind of hiker who enjoys imagining that they are avoiding British troops during the American Revolution — which is an easy thing to do, since an active shooting range lines the park and gunshots can be heard at a constant rhythm throughout much of the day.

It’s an amble, quiet despite its promotion on local travel websites, and it is moderate in difficulty, due to rocky trails and inclines.

It’s easy to lose the other parties who enter the trailhead simultaneously because each main trail offers a series of lesser-walked offshoots. Robert Frost inevitably comes to mind.

Returning to the train station after spending three or so hours exploring the woodsy reservation, a downtown brewery will lure you in. Similar in character to the ice cream shop in that the staff do not smile, do not welcome you, presumably because they suspect you are here to gawk, to take photos, to bask in the irrevocably rustic nature of a restaurant which makes all of its own beers. But it’s no matter. They serve you promptly and that’s all the relationship really requires.

There will be a wait during dinner time, but since there is a separate taproom, an hour at the bar flies by quickly. The week before Halloween, four bartenders on rotation are dressed in costume, as are many of the guests, who lean over the sticky wooden counter to argue about whether Penn State football players puts as much effort into games as members of the professional league. This is how you know who is from there. The beer isn’t that great, but it’s not that bad, either. It’s watered down and mostly IPA, but it’s what you’ll want after so much sweating and accidental ankle rolls.

When one travels somewhere new, it’s always surprising to find, upon arrival, that there is no welcoming committee, no Grand Central Station or “Welcome to ______” sign. In Peekskill, there is certainly no entourage ushering you into its township, but there is the the sky and the river and a convent high up in the trees, just above where the train winds round the base of a mountain, and for some travelers, that’s enough.