Warrior nation on the Hudson
“You know Woodstock? That’s near here,” says Andy my host, in a tone that suggests he doesn’t altogether approve of or quite understand what drew 500,000 hippie kids to Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York in 1969.
Andy has picked me up from the train station on the Hudson River and is driving me to the Thayer Hotel, West Point. It might be a stone’s throw from Woodstock, but West Point houses a United States Military Academy on a federal military installation as established by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, the longest serving installation in the country. On its grounds stands the Thayer, established in 1926 and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. So here are two worlds up against each other which could not be further apart.
As with many pieces of prime real estate the world over which are owned in perpetuity by militaries, the area in and around West Point is almost incandescently beautiful. It is also enormous, far bigger than Manhattan.
In October the green mountains are beginning to dot with autumnal reds and yellows, and we wind past castle-like private properties nestled into the sides of hills walled off behind white pickets fences. This is where you can come to buy locally made apple cider from the side of the road. The roads themselves are wide and smooth and long, cutting swathes through the mountains and clips of motorcycle riders frequently overtake us, roaring ahead around corners, disappearing. The area is also popular for weekend fairgrounds and hiking and as we come up to rather banked traffic crossing a bridge over the river, “Octoberfest,” Andy explains.
There are two ways to get West Point if you are without car or motorcycle: an extremely pleasant train ride, just over an hour from Grand Central in Manhattan, up the length of the island, and which then hugs the banks of the Hudson up to the Catskills. Or, if you are one to take part in executive training team building exercises such as those undertaken at the hotel, then it can be arranged for you to travel the river by speedboat and to arrive an efficient 35 minutes later.
West Point is a huge military town. It just happens to sit atop a rise giving an uninterrupted view of the Hudson, which sits dappled in morning light as you see first thing from the windows of the Thayer. This is the geographical vantage point – the S curve in the river – which made it a garrison during the Revolutionary War, and it was nearly lost to the British in an act of treason unsuccessfully perpetrated by Benedict Arnold in 1780. But the British never got that far, not even close enough to test the enormous iron chain laid across the river to snare their ships.
The dastardly lot was revealed to General Washington when a British Major called Andre was captured with rather revealing documents. Andre was given the noose by the Americans, the British gave Arnold a pension, a travesty if ever there was one.
Back to the 21st century, arriving on a Sunday, it’s curiously empty, and very quiet. An early afternoon bus tour on route to a local winery takes in the entirety of the academy, which is at this point in the year festooned with “Go Army/Go Navy” signage in every available window, the remainders of football season. Sometimes we see the odd pair of cadets jogging down a roadway, sometimes a car drives past. But mainly the atmosphere of the place could best be described as austere. This is after all, a military base in a military town. Even at the winery once we reach it, sitting on a bucolic field with a farmhouse converted in a gift shop/bar, there is a sign on the door reading, “Hippies Use The Back Door.” Inside a two man band play guitars, but it’s not folk music, it’s country covers of pop songs.
Back at the Thayer itself the true history of the place dawns. The corridors outside the rooms are hung with portraits of Generals Petraeus and Schwarzkopf. Graduates of West Point have also included two Presidents, Ulysses S Grant and Dwight D Eisenhower – whose portraits also adorn the walls – and dozens of captains of industry, four heads of state, 70 Rhodes Scholars and 18 astronauts. Unlike the brave spacefarers' space capsules, however, the Thayer's rooms are fitted with a generously sized bed and a small television complete with HBO.
If you are a military history buff, an ex-military person yourself, or interested in getting your kid into West Point, The thayer's appeal i is obvious. For anyone else it’s a peek into a world that civilians will never truly be allowed to know.
Most importantly if you want to observe the nation's superlative warriors at close quarters in their natural habitat while steeping yourself in US history you should drop what you are doing right now and head to the Thayer.The Thayer Hotel 674 Thayer Road West Point, NY 10996 (800)247-5047
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