My friends all take vacations, and swear by them. I don’t, and after due consideration I’ve decided to blame this idiosyncrasy on my late father, who planned the family vacations of my youth on the mistaken assumption that the point of going somewhere is to do something. An anxious, restless man, he was never much good at doing nothing, whereas it seemed self-evident to me from childhood onward that the whole point of taking a vacation was to do whatever you wanted—including nothing—whenever you wanted.
As usual with small-town parents, his views prevailed, and so our vacations were action-packed. Even when we bought a mobile home on Kentucky Lake and started spending summer weekends there, he was all but incapable of simply taking it easy. Instead, he preferred to immerse himself (and us) in elaborate home-improvement projects, and when he couldn’t come up with anything else to do, he’d turn a hose on the white gravel with which he’d landscaped the lot and wash the dirt off it. It was at that point that I started thinking up plausible-sounding reasons to spend my weekends home alone, reading.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I never got into the habit of taking vacations on my own after I grew up. By then I was working for a newspaper in New York, halfway across the country from my parents, and whenever I got more than a few days off I’d usually fly home to see them. I thought my schedule would become more flexible when I became a freelancer, but the opposite happened—I found myself covering performances the whole year round—and the notion that I might want to spend a week or two going somewhere purely for my pleasure simply never occurred to me. Thus it was that I became obsessive about work, and thus it was that I eventually put myself in the hands of a psychotherapist who told me, among many other things, that I needed to start taking vacations from time to time.
At her increasingly firm urging, I took my first one in nearly twenty years, but it ended up being an art lover’s rendering of one of my father’s holidays-on-a-treadmill. I went to Isle au Haut, a Maine island portrayed by Fairfield Porter in a 1975 lithograph that hangs on my wall, visiting a half-dozen art museums along the way and writing an article about the trip for The Wall Street Journal immediately upon my return. To be sure, it was a medium step in the right direction, and I enjoyed myself hugely, but a busman’s holiday wasn’t quite what the doctor thought she’d ordered, so she told me to take two or three days off this time around and spend them on an uncomplicated trip to nowhere in particular.
Not long after receiving my new set of marching orders, I fell ill. Finding myself with time on my hands, I spent some of it surfing the Web for travel-related ideas. Along the way I read about a village on the Hudson River called Cold Spring. I liked the sound of it, and I also liked the fact that I could get there by train (I don’t own a car and don’t like to fly). Further inquiry revealed that Cold Spring was the home of the Hudson House Inn, a riverfront inn built in 1832 and located a block from the train station. I looked at my calendar and saw a three-day hole in June, so I called the inn on the spur of the moment, booked a room, and spent the next three weeks wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Cold Spring, it seems, is known for its antique shops, but not much else. While the surrounding area contains countless toothsome-sounding tourist attractions, you can’t get to any of them without a car. For better or worse, I’d planned a trip that would have driven my poor father howling mad: three days’ worth of nothing to do. What effect would it have on his oldest son?
When the appointed day came, I packed an overnight bag, turned off my computer and telephone, caught a cab to Grand Central Station, and boarded a Hudson Line train for Cold Spring. It was hot and rainy in Manhattan and warm and noisy on the train, and I squirmed uncomfortably as I watched the river roll by outside my window, feeling more than a little bit nervous at the thought of all that time on my hands. An hour and ten minutes later, the train pulled into the Cold Spring station. I was the only passenger who got off. I couldn’t see the village through the trees and wasn’t sure what to do next, so I called the inn on my cell phone and asked for directions. Three minutes later, I was standing in front of the Hudson House Inn, looking across the street at the broad, tree-lined river and listening to birds chirping away just over my head. On the far shore was Storm King Mountain, shrouded in the light gray mist of a muggy June afternoon. For no reason at all, my eyes filled with tears.
I checked in—I was the only guest—and took a shower and a nap. Then I went out again and planted myself on a rough-hewn park bench a stone’s throw from the water. Behind me was the inn, before me the mountain, beside me a neatly painted hexagonal bandstand whose cornerstone proclaimed it to have been built in 1929, three years after my father was born. A pier lined with old-fashioned streetlights, all but deserted on that quiet Tuesday afternoon, jutted out into the river. I sat for a half-hour and watched the freight trains rumble down the tracks at the foot of the mountain. A white sailboat glided by in the warm orange sunlight. Some wry impulse had led me to tuck a copy of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shadows on the Hudson in my shoulder bag, but I didn’t feel like reading, or using my cell phone to check my messages, or doing anything other than sitting on the bench, gazing in silence at the river and the mountain and the summer sun.
An hour or so later, I crossed the tracks and climbed the hill to the Upper Village. I strolled up one side of Main Street and down the other, peering in the windows of the antique stores and restaurants. It was time to eat, so I chose a pleasant-looking grill, ordered crabcakes, and turned my attention to the bookshelf by my table. It was filled with the dusty volumes that interior decorators buy by the foot, and as I waited for my dinner, I looked at their frayed spines, charmed and a little surprised by what I found:
Mountainmen Crafts and Skills
Elizabeth Goudge, The Child from the Sea
Sibylle Bedford, Jigsaw
The Valley of Silence: Catholic Thought in Contemporary Poland
Barbara Pym, A Very Private Eye
If I Live to Be 100…: Congregate Housing for Later Life
Rock Hudson: His Story
Agatha Christie, Curtain
Ralph Bellamy, When the Smoke Hits the Fan
Complete Short Stories and Sketches of Stephen Crane
Hamilton Basso, The View from Pompey’s Head
John D. Macdonald, The Empty Copper Sky
Penelope Ashe, Naked Came the Stranger
Kahlil Gibran, The Forerunner
Richard Wilbur, New and Selected Poems
I pulled New and Selected Poems off the shelf and opened it at random. My eye fell on this couplet: When I must come to you, O my God, I pray/It be some dusty-roaded holiday. Spurred by the coincidence, I took out my appointment book and started scribbling down the titles of the other books, thinking that it might be amusing to write a little essay about them. No sooner did I enter the last title, though, than my crabcakes arrived, and they turned out to be so tasty that all the clever thoughts I’d been thinking promptly fell out of my mind, never to be thought again.
After dinner I went down the hill to the water’s edge and sat on the same park bench I’d occupied earlier. This time I saw a brass plaque on the back:
IN LOVING MEMORY OF
ADELAIDE R. SMITH
“WE COULDN’T HAVE A MORE PERFECT DAY”
Once again the writerly wheels in my head started turning. Who was Adelaide R. Smith? Had this been her preferred stopping place? How had what I took to be her favorite saying come to be inscribed on a plaque and bolted to a park bench by the Hudson River? Interesting questions, to be sure, but I lost interest in the answers when I saw that the sun was about to slip behind Storm King Mountain. I let it burn blue-green spots into my eyes as it slid down the evening sky, and no sooner had it vanished than the streetlights blinked on one by one. A police car rolled up to the bandstand, then cruised away. The birds were still singing. I left my bench and returned to the inn. My room was small, simple, and comfortable, and I curled up in bed with Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, which Our Girl in Chicago had assured me would be the perfect book for a vacation (she was right), and read myself to sleep.
I could tell you everything I did the following day, but it wouldn’t sound much different than what I’d done the day before: I sat by the river, looked in store windows, searched out meals, took an afternoon nap, read when I felt like it, and listened to the birds. At one point I started counting the number of cars in the freight train on the far shore of the Hudson, and when I got to 118 it occurred to me that I hadn’t done anything like that since I was a little boy. Minutes and hours dissolved without my noticing, and once more I watched the sun set, returned to my room, and marveled at how unhesitatingly I had taken to having nothing to do.
It occurs to me that middle age consists in part of learning all the obvious things you either ignored or dismissed out of hand when you were younger and more knowing. In my case, one of them is that if you want to unwind, it’s a good idea to get out of town. By removing myself from the scenes of my professional excesses—the desk, the computer, the city itself—I had catapulted myself out of my confining routine. Instead of reconstituting it in Cold Spring, I happily frittered away the better part of two whole days without a second thought. Anywhere you go, there you are: so runs a favorite saying of mine, yet in my case it turned out to be not so true as I’d always thought. Yes, I was still me, but a slightly different me, one unexpectedly content to be idle. Perhaps I had rediscovered a part of me that my father had buried under the weight of his own obsessions. Perhaps I had simply figured out for myself what my friends always knew, which is that to do and to be are not necessarily the same thing, at least not when you’re sitting by the Hudson River, watching the sun set behind a green-topped mountain.
Of course such moments are not meant to last. Their evanescence is part of their charm. I checked my voice mail after breakfast the next morning and found an urgent plea from a neighbor in distress, the kind of help-me-Obi-Wan-Kenobi-you’re-my-only-hope summons to which the one decent reply is in the affirmative. The trains from Cold Spring to New York City leave two minutes before the hour, so I checked out a bit earlier than I’d planned, spent a half-hour sitting by the Hudson, then trudged up the hill to the station. As if to emphasize that my brief idyll was over, my car was full of shrieking teenage girls en route to Manhattan, there to spend the day shopping, and I listened to their prattle all the way back to Grand Central Station. Cold Spring seemed a thousand miles away.
Yet my parting words to the friendly young woman at the front desk of the Hudson House Inn were still fresh in my memory. “I know you had a good time,” she said with a smile, to which I replied, “I sure did, and I mean to come back soon.” Who knew that a three-day trip to nowhere in particular could be so full of delight? I didn’t—but I do now.