When I first moved to New York City in 2004, I often found I was unable to get to sleep. With so much stimulus around me all the time—even in the America Magazine chapel we could hear the city roaring around us—it was just hard to come down at the end of the day. Or to want to: The honk of a nighttime cab can be just as much of a siren song as anything you might glimpse out a window.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that leaving the city can be just as difficult. Somehow New York’s nonstop dynamism gives it a gravity that’s hard to escape. I saw traces of its pull all around me in mid-September as I boarded the Metro-North line headed up along the Hudson River. A guy in a blue hoodie sits with his face buried in a phone blaring as raucously as Midtown, while women across the aisle talk about what they’ve seen, where they’ve been.
Meanwhile out the window the city flies by. High-rise apartment buildings crouch around streets creating canyons that recede endlessly into the distance in the pallid light of dawn. Even as the streets dissolve into ugly, stripped-away highways, the lyrics to “What More Do I Need?,” Stephen Sondheim’s great hymn to New York City, run through my mind: “A subway train thunders through the Bronx/A taxi horn on the corner honks./But I adore ev’ry roar./And what more do I need?”
Then, without warning and far sooner than one could imagine, the city is gone. No abandoned strip malls tattooed with graffiti cling to its edges, or bleak gray suburbs stretch like undead fingers into infinity. Out the window, there is just the Hudson and a watercolor paint stroke of pink on the suddenly vast and lightening blue sky.
For centuries, writers have written about their experiences traveling along, gazing upon, indulging in the Hudson. Schools of art have been borne from its beauty. And there are moments traveling north from New York City that you get a glimpse of what must have inspired them, the vistas that drove explorers like Henry Hudson to sail north and see where it might lead. For me, it’s the misty blue hills in the distance where the river arcs to the west, the water’s expanding breadth making everything seem simultaneously more distant and enticing.
But more often than not on the two-hour ride to Poughkeepsie, it’s the other shore of the Hudson that commands your attention. Sheer bluffs rise in the south, their basalt stone reddening like a blush with the morning light. Farther north, the rising sun flares off a tiny window like an evanescent fiery jewel, while forested hills slowly gain definition and depth, their curves suggestive of some kind of giant lovely being at rest.
With every turn, there’s something to behold, like the ghostly mist rising from the water that looks so much like the little tufts of cotton that eventually come away from clothes. But the Hudson of the Lower Hudson Valley doesn’t have the majesty or drama that painters like Thomas Cole or Asher B. Durand presented.
Its power lies instead in the sense of spaciousness that it offers. New York City seems so enormous, even more so than it actually is. Like Oz, it’s so wondrous we can only find room for all of it in our imaginations, if then. But when you leave the city and suddenly a simple sky and river stretch out all around, there’s such a sense of relief and liberation. Here is a space that demands nothing of you, that invites you to rest and allow it to fill you up not with glaring neons and shrill sirens but with soft colors and the echo of a solitary bird along the riverside.
Over the course of my day trip along the Hudson, I stopped in a number of places, searching for the spectacular views which I thought I was supposed to find. But in the end what captivated me was a tiny glen hidden away at the Foundry Dock Park beside the Cold Spring train station. Here there were no signs of civilization beyond the footpath I walked and the bench upon which I sat.
By the end of the day, I would be back in Manhattan, drenched once again in the sensual delights of the city. But in that moment I rested in the stillness of the Hudson River Valley, feeling my chest rise and fall with each breath, and savored the quiet thump of a chestnut falling to the ground.