Before America was a thing or a thought – settlers and colonizers clung to life in the frigid wilds of the Hudson Highlands. A beautiful little alcove just north of the great metropolis, split in half by a mighty unforgiving river.
Before America was a thing or a thought – people built wondrous lives together and formed cities and communities that predate our great nation. Rolling green mountains flank the riverfront, and tucked away in her clutches lay decaying mansions of better days.
The area gets its name from the river and the river gets its name from the great English explorer. The hamlets and towns get their name from similarly long dead white guys far away from home trying to make their names stick. And stick their names did.
My great-grandfather grew up in New York City. Apparently he hated it and wanted to be a farmer. So in the ’30s he packed up his stuff and found his way to the Hudson Valley in upstate New York.
This is where my great uncle George and my grandmother grew up. On a farm in slightly-upstate New York. They tilled the land in the shadow of West Point and built their lives. This is where I was born.
When I was a young kid, we had a full vibrant family that was deeply entwined in the culture and community of towns like Middletown, Newburgh, Wallkill, and Cornwall. And it’s in that sleepy little town of Cornwall where I grew up.
But time is cruel and my family is not prodigious reproducers. In 7th grade, my mother, father and sister moved away. Time and cancer took my Uncle George and Uncle Tommy away. My cousin Jennifer left, as kids are wont to do. The climate eventually drove my grandparents down to the swamps of Florida. Eventually my Aunt Janet sold the old homestead and joined my grandparents down in America’s penis and that left one aging widow in the tamed wilds of the Hudson Highlands.
My sister was born up there but we moved when she was still very young. She doesn’t have an attachment or an affinity for the lands. She is a Jersey Girl through and through. Last year my great aunt Carol passed away.
That leaves me, way out in Arizona, as the last great king of the Hudson Highlands. My family lived in that community for less than a century and is now scattered across the United States and entire towns that used to be “Somewhere” in my heart and mind are now just dots on maps filled with the decaying memories of a slowly forgotten youth.
Last year I took my girlfriend back home to visit the place I grew up, and I still feel a pull to those cities and those communities. I still feel the energy and excitement that comes from being a kid running around in the woods with friends pretending to be anything. Pretending to be everything.
But this visit came with a mission. I would finally fulfill a childhood dream. I would finally get to visit my castle.
My great uncle and grandmother each had a yacht at the Cornwall Yacht Club and as a kid I would go down there some weekends and hang out on the boat. And I would stand on the docks and stare out at an island in the middle of the Hudson river and see the peeking corner of a great Scottish castle.
When we would take the boat out on the river, we sometimes would drive past that island I could see this antediluvian castle slowly being absorbed into the encroaching wilderness. I was young enough to still be living in stories of King Arthur and dragons and knights.
So every year, we would take to the waters of the same river that the great explorers set out on, and ride past this castle. I would draw pictures of it from the shore. Daydream about what it would be like to step foot on that island. Explore it. Learn it’s mysteries.
But it was forbidden. It was dangerous.
I grew up and moved away and it became some weird fever dream of childhood.
A couple years ago, they finally opened the island and the Castle to the public and I was finally able to visit that island. To set foot on it. To be with my castle.
In time, my grandparents and parents will pass. I will be the last person in a once-great family to remember our time in beautiful hills outside New York City. These are the things that make old people sound crazy and out of touch. These memories and thoughts are time-bombs in my brain that will eventually isolate me from the young folk. I will talk about memories they’ll never know. I’ll talk about experiences they can never have. And none of it will mean anything.
Eventually time will take this castle too. It almost has. But as long as that castle stands, as long as kids on the banks of the Hudson gaze out across the water and dream of the adventures and mysteries that exist inside that castle, so too will my ties to the Hudson Valley.
Time, migration and illness can erase a legacy. The coming years will not be kind to my family. I will lose more than I can ever gain back. But the castle on Bannerman’s Island in the middle of the Hudson River will always make me feel like a wide-eyed 8 year old filled with wonder and surrounded by the love and protection of his once-great family.
And there isn’t anything that can take that away from me. And for that I am so thankful.