NY Trip Day 4: Poughkeepsie and an Epiphany

This post covers the fourth day of my trip to downstate New York with Sean in July of 2011. The events occurred July 17, but it took me two days, July 18 and 19, to write about them.

This was a highly satisfying day. I was out later than usual and didn’t end up writing a thing when I got back, so I started this update the next morning.

I had a plan for this day: Samuel Morse historic site, Culinary Institute of America, FDR site, Vanderbilt mansion. The first wrench in the works came when I realized the Culinary Institute was closed for the summer. There would be no tours or meals at the campus restaurants. So I had to cross that one off my list.

I got started early enough to catch the 10am opening of the Samuel Morse historic site, located on the south side of Poughkeepsie. When I arrived, I discovered there was a car show going on all over the grounds! I wasn’t sure where to park, so I pulled right into the main entrance. “If you’re showing the car, pull up and around to the left,” a guy directing traffic said.

“Actually I just wanted to see the museum…where can I park?”

“You’ll need to go back out down the street to Merrill Lynch and walk back through the woods.”

This wasn’t difficult, and soon I was at an entrance table where I paid $6 for the car show (why not? I could simply pay an additional $4 for the house tour, which was normally $10 anyway) and then meandered on into the grounds. I took some time strolling around all the cars, snapping plenty of photos. Finally I headed to the visitor’s center and bought a ticket for the tour of Samuel Morse’s house, Locust Grove. (As is typical of these older homes, photography was not allowed inside.)

Locust GroveIt turned out the house had had several owners, and it currently exists as its last owners, the Youngs, had it set up. Samuel Morse did own the home and make some amazing additions to it, but the home is also notable just for showing how people lived. The most impressive room to me was the billiard room with its rounded, vaulted ceiling. The room was huge, with walls curving around a pool table in the middle, and the extraordinarily high ceiling is capped off by what used to be a skylight–it leaked, so it was closed off. Closets with curved doors to the left and right of the entry served to store ball gowns, so there was no smoking in the billiard room. There was a music player that played wax rolls.

I also loved the add-on back room, with its huge windows and French doors. It was like a giant sunroom, with access to the veranda and backyard. The room originally boasted a beautiful view of the Hudson, but trees have since grown up to block that view.

Every room in the house was filled with collectible items. Some were antiques or valuable and others were knockoffs. The Youngs apparently didn’t throw anything away. But I found the eclectic collection quite charming. One lady of the house collected teapots, and it was neat to see them all around.

The dining room had, I believe, been added on by the owners previous to Morse. The butler’s pantry off that room features a mirror that allowed the lady of the house to signal the butler without it being obvious to the rest of the table. There was also a nice dumbwaiter leading down to the kitchen and a safe hidden behind a painting.

This home was a neat contrast to Boscobel. Boscobel is Colonial era; this house, Locust Grove, had been lived in and updated until 1975, and after that was restored to turn-of-the-century. So you see things like electricity and real bathrooms with tubs, sinks, and toilets. The hearth area where cooking would have been done over the coals in colonial times now boasts a gorgeous black gas stove.

After I was done in the house, I went back to the welcome center and looked at the Samuel Morse exhibit, which shows off many of his portraits (I’d had no idea he was a painter), other paintings, and a sculpture. It also, of course, detailed the creation of Morse Code. Reading it all was really exciting. To think that before the telegraph, instant communication simply wasn’t possible…this breakthrough summoned forth our current age.

I also liked seeing the books and toys that taught children Morse Code, making it fun to learn the tools they’d need for work in the future. It reminded me of mail-order science kits or those build-it-yourself radios you could get at Radio Shack when I was a kid.

Finally I headed back outside and looked at more cars on my way back to the Camaro. The gentleman who’d waved me out when I arrived recognized me and was stunned to discover that the car was a rental.

I hadn’t had breakfast, and by now it was time for lunch, so I searched Yelp! on my phone for a nearby restaurant and ended up at the Derby on Main Street in Poughkeepsie. It’s right up the street from the water and pretty easy to find. When I walked in, the place was dead…probably due to the fact that the air conditioning wasn’t working in the bar or in the first dining room. The second dining room had window units, though, so I was good to go. I sat down and snapped some pictures and looked at the menu.

The Derbyme at the DerbyIt seems to me like pulled pork is becoming a thing up here. Or maybe it has been for awhile. Coming from the South, I kind of wanted to try something different, something more local. Many of the menu items sounded like stuff I could get at downtown Augusta restaurants. Finally, with the help of the waiter, I settled on their Derby Summer salad, which includes strawberries, nuts, and Brie. I asked to have salmon added.

I waited for a very long time, drinking two or three refills of water in the interim. Finally the waiter came back, looking embarrassed, and told me that they actually had no salmon. Somewhere the lines of communication had completely broken down. He gave me the salad without the salmon and said it was on the house.

Derby summer saladThe salad was amazing. It might have been the best salad I’ve ever eaten. Plus, I really didn’t care about having to wait, or having no salmon. I can be pretty easygoing when I’m by myself and don’t really have a deadline. I left a $10 on the table, which now that I think about it wasn’t enough to cover the food, tax, and tip, but since they were giving it to me for free hopefully they can work something out so that the waiter gets a fair share.

I thought about walking down to the river from there, but the parking was only for restaurant customers and I didn’t want to risk being towed. I decided against driving around looking for a riverfront parking area and continued on Highway 9 to the north.  I passed the Culinary Institute of America, to my left as I was leaving Poughkeepsie, but as I mentioned before, it was closed, so I just drove straight past. By the way, for those of you who don’t watch Law & Order, Poughkeepsie is pronounced “puh-KIP-see”. ;)

The next place on my list was the Franklin D. Roosevelt historic site in Hyde Park. But I somehow wound up in the wrong lane and had to make a right turn off of the road I was supposed to be on. I was going to just turn around and go back, but then I saw a sign pointing the way to Eleanor Roosevelt’s house. Purely on a whim, I followed the signs and ended up at Val-Kill.

Val-KillThe grounds are lovely. I drove in and parked, then purchased a tour ticket at the welcome center. The Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site is maintained by the National Park Service, so everyone, tour guides and ticket sales alike, was in uniform. The tour began with a video about Eleanor Roosevelt’s life.

Watching that video, and then listening to the tour guide as she showed my large group through the house, I had a revelation. You see, I had never really known much about Eleanor Roosevelt before. I had a vague understanding that she was a first lady who championed causes, but I never realized what those causes were or why she did it. She didn’t do what she did because she was expected to; she did what she felt was right. In fact, what she did often clashed with the majority opinion of what she should be doing…but she didn’t care.

She wanted to help, to take care of people, to ensure that everyone was treated equally. She cared about people. She wrote and wrote and wrote. And her home was a simple, comfortable one where she could entertain family and friends with dinners and potlucks and swimming.

She started out shy but madly curious, uninterested in “girly” stuff such as her “coming out” and eager to learn all she could about everything. She met and married a kindred spirit and together they achieved greatness, despite his infidelity.

At one time the Ku Klux Klan put a bounty on her head, and she drove winding country roads in the black of night to get past them so she could attend an important meeting.

The reality, the power, of believing in people and oneself and actually doing something about injustice thrummed through me to the bone. Here was a woman who didn’t, say, get a job in TV news and then censor her own opinions for five years, crippling her writing and miring herself in fear of what current or future employers might think. Here was a woman who simply did what she believed was right. All in. All the time. She wrote every day and she pulled no punches.

I was profoundly affected by learning the story of Eleanor Roosevelt. I think I will finally be able to get myself back on track now.

I took a short walk around the grounds and got some photos, then headed back to the car. As I was messing with the GPS, two older ladies tapped on the window and asked if I was going to the FDR library, and if so, could they get a ride? Yes, and yes! We fumbled around and figured out how to move the passenger seat so one of them, Ann, could get in the back, then the other, Elaine, sat up front. We chatted about how it was really too hot to walk all that way; they thanked me profusely and I said it was no problem. I mentioned that I hadn’t seen the FDR site yet, and I wondered if I had enough time to do it all. They recommended the library over the house, and I took that recommendation.

The FDR site is much larger than Eleanor’s. The sprawling estate includes the house, the library/museum, a large visitors center, and various gardens. The Roosevelts are buried there. After parking, you go through the visitors center, get your ticket, and then exit a different door onto the grounds.

statue of the RooseveltsIt was indeed a very hot day, I thought as I marched up the gravel path to the library. The site is currently being renovated and restored for the first time since it opened–construction started this year and there’s taped off areas and construction equipment and dirt and concrete all around. It gave the area a starker feeling than I think it would normally have; I can imagine the site being much more pastoral and beautiful.

At the library I learned about FDR’s life and presidency and about the reasoning behind social security. A lot of the opposition back then used the same arguments we’re hearing today. The exhibit included a place for people to write their own thoughts as to whether or not social security is the right choice moving forward. I was also interested in the sections concerning FDR’s role in the atomic bomb and Japanese-American internment camps.

However, I had been so wowed by my epiphany at the Eleanor Roosevelt site that I didn’t pay as close attention to the FDR site as I might have otherwise. I looked at everything–one nice touch was that photography was allowed–but I didn’t feel the same connection. There was a room dedicated to Eleanor in the museum, but it was small and I felt I had already gotten to know her at Val-Kill.

Finally I went outside and walked the grounds a bit. I checked out Springwood, FDR’s house, the main house used by the couple. (Val-Kill was originally a furniture factory and then a summer home before Eleanor moved there after FDR’s death.) I was too late for a tour but I got some exterior shots. I also saw Franklin and Eleanor’s grave.

SpringwoodGrave of FDR and ERI headed back to the car through a field filled with leaping insects, long waving grasses, and clover. All I could think was how happy I was to have gone to Eleanor’s site. How there was no one saying I couldn’t write anymore–I was the only one blocking myself. I felt a new hope and optimism that had been missing for a long time.

Why should I be afraid to write what I’m thinking, and how I came to think it? Is the alternative, writing nothing, really better? No. It’s worse. I’ve always known it was worse. But I was afraid. And I’m tired of fear.

My last stop was the Vanderbilt mansion. Again, I was too late for a tour. I’ve toured the Biltmore, and it felt like a very “look how rich they were!” tour, which is completely unappealing to me. But I’ve heard that this mansion tour focuses more on how people lived, and I’ve also heard that the Vanderbilts were extremely generous with all that wealth. So I do want to go on the Vanderbilt mansion tour someday.

Vanderbilt mansionWhen the grounds are open–they’re free to the public from dawn until dusk–you can just drive on in and park. I saw lots of people walking, running, and bicycling, and even one woman laying out getting a tan. The grounds are extensive, covered with trees, and well-maintained. This open, public, comfortable atmosphere is a sharp contrast to the theme park feel of the Biltmore. There, you pay an admission fee of $44 to $59 for access to the house and grounds (which includes a self-guided audio tour of the house), and there’s more driving around on all the winding roads than there is walking or bicycling. But of course, the Biltmore is not a public park; it’s owned by a Vanderbilt descendant.

I walked past the visitors center and around the house, which is lovely, then followed a path far back into the woods until it ended at a large Italian-style flower garden. Maintained by volunteers, the garden has several levels filled with blooms. There’s a small fountain at the top, and below, just above the lowest-level rose garden, there’s a pool filled with lily pads and watched over by a pale statue. There are some arbors, but most of the garden is in direct sunlight, making for a steamy meander. I strolled through most of the levels but left the sparse rose garden unexplored.

Vanderbilt gardensflowersgardensEvery now and then at these sites I’ve seen a sign indicating a private residence. A house alongside the garden is one such property. I wonder what it’s like to live in the middle of a public park?

I walked back to the mansion, this time taking a moment to walk around back. I was glad I did, because the Hudson River was visible. The back of the home was lovely as well. I took more pictures and then headed back to the car.

Hudson River viewrear of Vanderbilt mansionWith this, my mission for the day was complete. I knew, though, that if I went back to the hotel now, I’d be stuck shivering in the air conditioning for hours doing nothing interesting. So on my way back south on highway 9, I took an exit in Poughkeepsie called “Water St”. The sign was huge, so I figured this was the best way to get to the riverfront.

And it would have been, too, if it hadn’t been for all the construction! Not long after I got onto the ramp, it turned into gravel, with traffic cones demarcating a rough lane. I was unsure I wanted to go this route, but there was no way back, so I plunged forward, following construction cones and detour signs until I was back on regular roads and the river was before me. Ah! The riverfront! I drove straight down into a cul-de-sac and found a park area. Perfect. After a little confusion about where to park the car, I finally found a four-hour public parking space on a side street.

As I was walking back to the park, I saw a restaurant called Captain Cliffy’s River Station. Seafood. Awesome! I headed on in for an early dinner. They seated me near the back window so I could see out to the park and the Hudson River beyond without missing out on the air conditioning.

Captain Cliffy'sThe place has your normal bar and grill on the coast sort of feel. Comfortable, a little loud, great view. I had the swordfish and it was wonderful.

Once I was fed and watered, I headed down to the riverfront park and walked its length, first right, then left. There was music playing at a picnic shelter near the park entrance, and lots of people were dancing or sitting and listening. There was a skate park and a playground further down the path. Up ahead was what I thought was a working train bridge, but then I came across an informational sign that let me know it was a former train bridge that had been converted to a walking and bicycling path. The thing is really long. I wanted to find where it started and cross it, but there was no way I had time. A little further up the path is one of those binocular machines–free–and I was able to see the people walking along the bridge.

Poughkeepsie riverfrontPoughkeepsie riverfrontPoughkeepsie riverfrontbinocular view of converted train bridgeThe path ended with a large covered area suitable for small concerts and gatherings; a young couple was walking around inside. The riverfront park really isn’t all that big, and Augusta’s Riverwalk, it could be argued, is far more elaborate in terms of landscaping, gardening, and walkway design, but there were all kinds of people there, from the nearby apartment building or restaurant patrons or visitors, and it all felt very friendly and nice.

Back the other way from the entrance, there’s a three-piece whale-serpent statue lying across the grass such that it appears to be swimming, with only its tail, midsection, and head visible. Each piece has beautiful decorative tiles embedded along the top like scales. Beyond that, the trail meanders down to a pier that extends out into the Hudson, affording lovely views. There’s no railing at the end, so I assume boats can dock there briefly to let people on or off. To the right of the pier, down the river, is the train bridge walkway; to the left, almost immediately, is a highway bridge, light blue.

whale serpentwhale serpent's headdockPoughkeepsie riverfrontAs I walked back to the car, I just drank in the happy view of a Sunday evening at the river, families and couples and individuals all out having a nice time.

When I got back to Fishkill, I rode with Sean to get his dinner (Wendy’s) and then up to Friendly’s for some ice cream. This time I had a strawberry shortcake sundae, and it was yum. And that concluded my fourth day in New York State. I went to bed as early as possible to prepare for Day 5: New York City!