In Columbia County, you can learn to appreciate the opportunities presented by being caught behind a slow-moving tractor.
For one, it allows you the chance to scribble on your dashboard pad the variety of interesting places along the rural routes wending their ways through the small villages, hamlets, and farmland: If you’re on Route 66, for example, there’s the sign for Grazin’ Angus Acres, whose grass-fed Black Angus meats seem a great idea around barbecue time; and the Hudson-Chatham winery, which seems a pretty tasty idea at nearly any time.
Along Route 9, through Valatie and Kinderhook, you could easily fill your small notebook jotting down just the historical markers: The Burgoyne House (where the British general was entertained for an evening as a prisoner during the Revolutionary War), the Dutch Reformed Church (organized in 1712), the Benedict Arnold House (where the famed hero/traitor was allegedly cared for after being wounded in the Battle of Bemis Heights in 1777), and many others. They seem to sprout along this route like summer wildflowers.
And if you happen to be stalled at the traffic circle there, the life-sized sculpture of eighth US president and Kinderhook native Martin Van Buren, chilling nonchalantly on a park bench, might tempt you out of your car for a photo op.
But aside from the appeal for the note-taking agritourist or the history buff, there’s another reason to be thankful for the poky John Deere: Look to the right. Look to the left.
The open and gently rolling land of Columbia County has a wealth of well-known scenic points: There’s artist Frederic Edwin Church’s breathtaking Middle-Eastern-influenced mansion, Olana, overlooking the Hudson; the High Falls on the Agawamuck Creek in Philmont; the miles of trails and the picnic spots at the Greenport Conservation Area.
But an A-ha! moment can arrive in the form of the blinking hazards of a forest-green traffic obstacle. Stop virtually anywhere in Columbia County and you’ve got a lush, unspoiled rural vista before you.
Which makes the artsy urbanity of the county seat all the more compelling.
As you approach the art gallery a couple stroll past you, the woman explaining into her phone, “No, we can’t even find a place to stay. We’ve been calling around but everything’s completely booked.” At the same time, you’re passed in the other direction by a scruffy hipster in a Civil War cap and a keffiyeh.
To your right, a group attend to a small motorcade of heavy-duty baby strollers, one woman dipping at the knees to soothe her front-slung infant rhythmically to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” which plays from speakers at the outdoor theater across the street. (Later, these speakers will broadcast the audio for Chaplin’s film Modern Times, which will be screened in an open-air courtyard for free.)
Inside the Carrie Haddad Gallery, the art on display—that of photographers Gary Schneider, David Lebe, Robert Flynt, and Warren Neidich—reinforces the sense that you are among the culturati. (Schneider, alone, has work on display in the Guggenheim, the Met, the Fogg, and the Art Institute of Chicago.) But at the same time, there is an openness, a kind of social porousness to this crowd that one does not associate with Manhattan. The opening is both surprisingly upscale in content and surprisingly easygoing in context.
Much has been made of the city’s arts-led revival in recent years, and the evidence is ample. Though the seeds were planted back in the middle `80s by antique dealers opening shops along Hudson’s Warren Street, it has been in recent years that a kind of cultural critical mass has been obtained. Transplanted city folk and weekenders patronizing the variety of retail and dining establishments on now-thriving Warren have added an air of sophistication to the small city (most evident in the latter portion of the week).
What is less commented upon, however, is the way in which Hudson retains its own character: This is not simply Williamsburg North or the Greenwich Village Bargain Basement. Hudson has both a distinct history of its own as an important small urban center and, as the seat of Columbia County, a relationship to a largely rural and agricultural setting that distinguishes it from that other city downriver.
Though much praised for its architectural elegance (it’s been called one of the richest dictionaries of architectural history in New York State), there’s still roughness about the place, which can be seen as either unfulfilled potential, or opportunity. It’s frontier.