The wind is in my face, the sun is shining, I’m paddling furiously for my life, my muscles are burning and I’m dripping sweat. A mad smile splits my face in two. Jackie and I are in the middle of the Hudson River trying to outrun a speed boat that threatens to swamp us if we don’t pass the barge lane in time. We are in a slowly leaking tandem kayak, headed for an island with an abandoned castle and partially submerged towers and turrets in the waters around it. As we race, the colors of early fall become brighter because of the adrenaline in my veins. One of the submerged towers is growing closer. Jackie is swearing like a sailor about the jerk driving the speed boat. “I f****** know he can see us!!!!” she screams. We are fighting the strong currents too; nothing is working in our favor, and I love it. Sure I don’t want to get swamped, but I’m a good swimmer and I’m wearing an ugly yellow life vest, I will be fine.
We drift out of the boat lane and into the shallow waters around Bannerman Island. Instantly a wall of fear hits me. Is this a delayed reaction from the ordeal we just faced? We can now just drift in peaceful eddies. A beautiful old piece of castle juts from the water not 15 feet from us, and all the hairs on my body are suddenly standing on end. Jackie wants to get closer for some better pictures. I want to go right back across the river. Give me a racing speed boat any day, this damn island is so haunted, the chilling vibe rolling off its shores is even penetrating my thick skin. I try to play it cool, but every time Jackie wants to paddle closer, I veto. She’s been here before, and she’s blissfully taking pictures, and raving about the foliage. She takes some photos of me, and I can’t even smile. I look slightly pissed on the screen of here phone when she shows them to me. When we stop paddling and sit, no matter what side of the island we are on, the current pulls us slowly toward the island like a vortex. This adds to my freaked out feelings, and I suggest we start back before the tide turns and the river’s pull is too strong.
I know what some of you must be thinking, an island with an abandoned castle would be an obvious place for one to say they felt creeping haunted feelings, but I’m not just dramatizing here. Jackie, too, when I told her my feelings, shrugged and told me that Bannerman, the man who build this castle over a hundred years ago (though he was an arms dealer who stored most of his bombs and weapons on the island) was kind of a nice guy and did a lot of philanthropic work. As she talked, I knew damn well that whatever I was feeling from this tiny, looming lump of earth was more than just the spirit of Bannerman’s wife who had died here. No, this was some serious voodoo.
Later on I would do research and find out that, well before Bannerman built his edifice, the Island was a prison camp for civil war captives. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of men were imprisoned, abused, and died here. Even more chilling to me though, was the discovery that, 400 years ago when the Dutch were first exploring and populating the banks of the Hudson, both the Native Americans and the Dutch settlers would not set foot on the island. It was dead land. Without even speaking to each other about it, and in separate accounts, both cultures claimed that the Island was haunted by ‘goblins.’ I have no Idea what that means, but all the hairs on my arms stand up when I think of the feeling I had near those shores.
The water current on Cornwall is famously strong, andJackie and I did have to fight the turning tide on our trip back to the opposite shore. The sun still shone, but Storm King Mountain hulked over us like a sleeping bear. As I paddled with all my might against the river’s pull, I couldn’t get Bannerman behind me fast enough. Jackie still seemed unfazed; ever practical. I told her as we went that the Dutch, who were the first Europeans to sail their ships up this river, called this part of the Hudson ‘World’s End’ because back then the currents here were so strong that the river would sometimes pull whole ships under if they were caught in the wrong tide. Jackie then told me that during the revolution, the Americans planted spikes under the water, at the narrow point just beyond Bannerman, in order to sink the British ships as they sailed up the river to attack. Since then the river has been dredged and altered by human invention so ship wrecks are a thing of the past, but just the fact that this river is deep enough to allow barges to pass daily and to hide ship wrecks that are very possibly still down there is both fascinating and so sinister.
Perched on a rock on top of Storm King Mountain six months later, I look down at Bannerman and it appears so harmless. Small and seemingly innocent of all accusations made against it. Jackie drove us up to the lookout on Storm King, promising me amazing views. The narrow route 218 (Storm King HWY) winds between a cliff face and a drop to the muddy waters below and the view is positively majestic. The drive up from Cornwall is short and even if you have to drive down the other side and turn around because there is only room for three cars at the lookout (it is often occupied) it is well worth the effort.
On both days that I spent at Cornwall, we ate dinner at a funky place called Painters. Eclectic art crowds the walls inside of a musty, spacious old building. After our Bannerman adventure, we sit outside in front of the restaurant. Between the fear and my sore muscles, I think that I deserve a nice big drink. I order some kind of fruity martini-like cocktail. The waitress brings out a chilled martini glass brimming with pale pink beverage, and then, after carefully placing the glass on the table in front of me, she plunks the whole shaker down next to the glass. For the price of one cocktail, I get about two and a half drinks worth of vodka and very little mixer. Perfect. I am happily tipsy before the delicious food even arrives at the table. Jackie just sits and smirks at me; the self-satisfied smirk of a friend who recommends a great restaurant and then watches you getting contentedly drunk at said restaurant.
Adrenaline, endorphins and booze are giving me a hazy euphoric feeling, and by the time the food comes out, you could give me pig slop and I would enjoy it. But the food at Painters is far from pig slop. It is unpretentious and just plain good. There are gluten free and vegan options clearly marked on the diverse menu. Jackie has a Thai peanut noodle bowl with gluten free noodles that I am somewhat envious of, even though my food is fabulous too. For dessert we have Jackie’s favorite homemade butterscotch pudding which is luscious.
On the day we visit the Storm King lookout, six months after my first Painters experience, Jackie has me meet her at 2 Alices; a hipster coffee shop and bakery on the main drag in Cornwall. They have fresh baked stuff, a few bagels, sandwich options, and homemade soup. I sit across from Jackie on the outdoor patio. She has chips with homemade hummus and I slurp at a giant iced coffee and turkey vegetable soup with a nifty sidecar of oyster crackers. I contemplate the difference between the nearby sinister drama of the river, Storm King, and Bannerman, and this friendly, well kept little town. This is life in the Hudson Valley, dramatic, sinister and bombed out at times, and other times upscale, friendly, new, sunny.
With lunch in my belly and a nice coffee buzz, we head for a nearby waterfall; a favorite spot where locals swim in the summer and hike the rest of the time. We drive about five minutes to Old Mineral Springs Road (Highland Mills, NY) in the woods and hike five more to an impressive waterfall. It has been a snowy winter and a wet spring and the falls are deafening. Jackie says she hasn’t seen them like this in years. We snap a bunch of photos, then head up the trail along the side of the falls. I wander off to pee in the woods, and, of course, I get caught by a couple who doesn’t even have the good manners to look away. What the hell?? About fifteen minutes later, I conclude that it is just not a good day for me when I clumsily dunk my sneakered foot in the freezing water trying to cross a stream. Despite my bad luck and clumsiness, it is a beautiful spot and I always enjoy a tromp through the woods whether my feet are wet or dry. We sit for a while on an outcropping above the falls contemplating life and making plans for our upcoming road trip. It is one of the first real days of spring and everything feels right.
Before heading to dinner at Painters (again), Jackie wants to go back to the Storm King overlook for the second time that day. We sit on a rock high above the Hudson and make dirty jokes about trains as we watch the Metro North entering a tunnel.
This river has been a part of my life for a long time; from the very first time I set eyes on it I felt that it was sinister. Growing up on the New England coast, I was used to dark sapphire ocean, sunshine, yellow sand and rocky beaches; drama and majesty. This river is wide and low, always muddy and, it seems, clouds are often lumbering above when I am here. It is dark and murky with a history to match its appearance and hulking mountains along its shores. Yet, it is beautiful. I now understand that there are many kinds of beauty, and that its strangeness has a unique splendor. This place stirs the imagination if you are not afraid of a dark history or even if you are. Yet, it is also easy to ignore history, if you want to, because things in the Hudson Valley are constantly evolving. There is always some cute or funky little town, like Cornwall, to explore not far from the banks of the murky old Hudson.