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Whether it's taking a daily ritual from expected to extraordinary or discovering the wonderment and beauty of anew travel destination, J.R. McCabe elevates the everyday with timeless taste and comfortable confidence.
I’m walking out of my house into the darkness. It’s twenty after five in the morning, if you can call it morning. There’s the moon, oh, and there’s my husband just finishing checking the pressure on the Tahoe’s tires. He’s standing at the ready because to him it’s game day.
“What time were you up this morning?” I inquire as we pull away from the curb.
“Three thirty. The game is in the morning,” he replies.
My husband gets more done before 10am than most people accomplish in a week. For thirty-two years he was an NYPD sergeant in precincts throughout the Bronx and Manhattan. He retired in 2019, but still treats every morning as if he’s got to take care of roll call. His motto: the game is in the morning — meaning you should be the first one on the road, at the store, or taking care of whatever business you need to attend to, because once the day gets going things don’t run as smooth. I’m a morning person, but my “morning” doesn’t usually start until at least six thirty.
On days we travel the Sergeant’s penchant for early rising takes on exaggerated heights, as if he is preparing for one of the signature annual events that demand a heavy NYPD presence.
“You’d think it was New Year’s Eve, but we’re just going to Vermont,” I joke, relaying the current situation of events to our Instagram story audience who are likely still sleeping. “But the Sergeant had us mustering up at the crack of dawn. Explain what it means to muster up, honey.”
“Mustering up is when you have a detail like New Year’s Eve or the U.N. or whatever, you get notification to be at, say the corner of 42nd and 2nd, at o five hundred hours . . . and you all get in formation, get in line, they take a headcount, and split you up into groups and give you your assignment.”
In the case at bar (legal speak for the case presently before the court – in this matter – the story before you; as a law student for the past three years you’ll have to forgive me if my legal education seeps into my creative work as I’m finding the coupling of the two an interesting pairing as of late) our detail is a weekend getaway to Vermont and our assignment is to fill the next five days with all the sights, sounds, and tastes of autumn in New England.
We take the Taconic State Parkway north for about two hours and then dip in to Vermont at Bennington, crossing over onto US-7 N. By nine o’clock we’re driving down Main Street in Manchester Center and the Sergeant suddenly brakes as a red fox darts across the road in front of us. Welcome to Vermont. I set eyes on the breakfast spot I’ve scouted online and instruct the Sergeant to pull into the adjacent lot.
“When you see a line that’s a good sign,” Pat remarks. “It’s gonna be good.”
My husband has two rules when it comes to eating out. First, only go in to restaurants that are crowded and second, make sure there’s a few “silver foxes” at the tables. Let me digress here for a bit of Pat McCabe translation on the term silver foxes. As defined, and in most circles, the term silver fox means a handsome, older man typically with white or graying hair. However in the world of Pat McCabe silver fox means someone over the age of seventy who has a scrutinizing, clever, and perhaps at times demanding and incorrigible personality. Bottom line: older people have eaten thousands of meals in their lifetime and know where the good food is. Trust them.
After a fifteen minute wait we’re seated at a tiny two-top by the window. Up for Breakfast is the quintessential New England breakfast spot. Generally these spots go by three golden rules: 1) they serve only breakfast and lunch and are closed by 2pm, 2) the cutlery, plates, and glasses are usually a hodgepodge of various sets dating as far back as the sixties, furniture too, and 3) the menu is simple yet particular. You’ll find everything traditional with one or two local specials thrown in for good measure. Oh and reservations? No way, what’d ya think ya in New York? Up for Breakfast serves simple fare, in a no frills but cozy decor sprinkled with lovely knickknacks. It’s an intimate space, where you can see the cook work her magic from behind the grill and waitresses know every regular by name. Today, we’ve got Gail, who likely figured us out the minute she heard the bell ding as we walked through the front door.
“In town for the weekend?” she asks.
“Is it that obvious?” jokes Pat.
“No, I’ve just never seen you guys before.”
We’re both starving, so we decide to order a little bit of everything. Two standard breakfasts which includes eggs any style, home fries, bacon or Canadian ham and in our case, gluten free toast. We add to that an order of the gluten free buckwheat pancakes and a side of corned beef hash.
Thirty minutes later, fully satisfied and ready to dive into all that Manchester has to offer we head south on Main Street for the eight minute drive to Hildene, the former Lincoln Family Home. Given the Sergeant’s desire to hit the road early, we often arrive at our destinations way before hotel check-in time, so I always plan the lightest activities of the trip for that day.
Robert Lincoln, son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln built Hildene, a Georgian Revival mansion, in 1905 and for more than seventy years it was the home of the President’s descendants. The property is expansive and houses not only the mansion but a restored Pullman car (Lincoln was President of the former railroad car company), a farm and dairy and long walking trails that wind through the woods and meadows.
The Sergeant has no patience for guided tours — not to mention the fact that his NYPD blood makes him prone to investigatory behaviors — so we explore the mansion on our own and he indulges my lingering in rooms filled with early 20th century delights. If I could live in any other time period it would be sometime between 1860 and 1920, the turning point between treasures of the old world and the onset of modern conveniences. Back then, the post delivered handwritten letters twice a day, everyone was properly poised and dressed at all hours, meals were a leisurely and semi-formal affair, and conversation was an art form filled with intelligence, wit, and good humor. As I wander through the rooms I am transported to that time by the likes of letter holders on old heavy wooden desks, floral wall coverings, fine upholstered chairs, burning fireplaces, and a fine china tea set-up with all the lovely lace accents.
After perusing both floors, we head out back and are planted in the most exquisite garden. Given that it’s October I know we’re not catching it in its full glory but the landscape architecture, symmetry and harmony of this space still resonates even as the burnt orange leaves litter its corners. We stop and ask the German tourist to snap a shot of us cuddled up on a bench tucked away in the back of the property.
By two o’clock we’re at Shaw’s, the local grocery store. No matter where we travel we always hit the grocery store for water, Pellegrino, healthy snacks and happy treats. Hotel minibars are often filled with stale and flavorless junk food and we are quite particular about our water (flouride free only) so given that we’re settling in for five days it’s best to have a good stock of McCabe approved options. Just as we’re walking down aisle four the front desk from the hotel calls to tell us our room is ready, and luckily we are just two minutes down the road.
The Kimpton Taconic Hotel is old New England charm – fine woodwork, plaid patterned throw blankets, in-room fireplaces, and a traditional sitting porch — mixed with modern minimalist whimsical decor. The interior is covered with hues of creme, chocolate, deep blues and greens and its unique shape makes for impromptu sitting areas and cozy nooks in which to take a quick break, enjoy coffee/tea or a cocktail (both complimentary in the morning and early evening), read, play a board game, lounge or warm up by the fire.
Two hours later, awakening from our late afternoon nap, it’s tough to leave our cozy room but alas our stomachs have reigning power at the moment and so we venture out for dinner. We take a ride up Depot Street at the suggestion of the front desk associate and as soon as we see the parking lot filled with cars the Sergeant swings in to join them.
“The silver foxes are running into this place!” Pat exclaims, noting the three cars of elderly couples that have pulled up fifteen minutes before five and are hurriedly making their way to the door. “I thought you said this place doesn’t open up until five?”
“It doesn’t,” I reply.
“Then it must be good. If they’re getting here before it even opens that means something.”
As always, the octogenarian natives are on the money. Dining at Zoey’s Double Hex is like having dinner at an old friend’s house — the staff greets you and treats you as if they’ve known you for twenty years, the curtains and booths have age but add to the restaurant’s character, the food is traditional New England fare — fish, meat, potatoes, delectable desserts —all fresh, well-flavored and made with love (you can taste it). Needless to say, my Irishman is happy and comments that the Fried Calamari Diablo tossed in garlic butter with spicy banana peppers is the best he’s ever had. The house salad dressing is to die for, they really should bottle it. I enjoy the maple glazed half chicken and the Sergeant has the grilled rib-eye steak. The waitress convinces us that the house “birthday cake,” is not to be missed and so we add that to the feast.
I wake up to the chill of the crisp Vermont air grazing my ear and the sound of the Sergeant’s voice in conversation with someone just outside our room window (it can be minus twenty and the man always leaves the window open a crack. He claims the fresh oxygen is good for sleeping. He might be right.) I tip-toe over to the window to sneak a peek and he outs me by yelling up “Jenn, Jenn, are you up?” I’m in my pajamas but assuming the nice gentleman he’s corralled from his morning walk can see me, so I peek my head out.
“Good Morning,” I offer gingerly.
“This guy, sorry what’s your name,” Pat asks the man.
“Richard,” he replies.
“Richard has the best dog I’ve ever seen! Come down and play with her,” he requests.
“I just woke up, maybe in a bit.”
“What room are you in?” Pat inquires.
“201. Feel free to come by anytime,” he responds.
My husband does this all the time – and by this I mean talks to anyone, at any time of day, wherever we are in an exaggeratedly familiar way. Perhaps it is from his days on the beat, perhaps it is his Piscean empathetic and intuitive manner, perhaps it is the enthusiastic conversational trait known to his Celtic tribe shining through. In any event, I adore this aspect of his personality, especially since while gregarious in most situations I have been known on occasion to have a reserved side that doesn’t lend easily to informal chit-chat. Whether on a street corner in the Bronx or a rusty leaf peppered green in Manchester Center, the Sergeant adds adventure to everything he does.
As it turns out, Richard and his wife Sophie are from Long Island and on their babymoon. They brought along their first baby, Mabel, a soft coated Wheaten Terrier who just turned seven months. While I’m preparing to head straight out the door to make our ten o’clock date with a few equine friends, the Sergeant can’t resist a quick stop down to introduce me to Mabel before we leave.
We’re cutting it close as we pull up to the J.J.Hapgood General Store, they’ll be no time for a sit-down breakfast as planned. We order egg and cheese sandwiches and home fries to go and roam the store while we wait. Anytime you’re in a New England town and you spot a general store you must check it out. For the most part the local general store will have inexpensive odds and ends, regional wares, toys, cards, and candy. However I was pleasantly delighted and surprised by J.J.Hapgood which is one of the more sophisticated general stores I’ve ever been in — with both local and international gourmet finds, fine quality home goods like dish towels and soaps, and carefully curated genuine Vermont touches from authentic jingle bells to old-fashioned maple sugar candy. A place bursting at the seams with fine and desirable provisions.
We pull in to Horses for Hire in Peru five minutes after ten and I see Deb, the owner, straightaway. She’s already got our two horses saddled up and ready to ride. The Sergeant isn’t keen on this exercise (a member of the NYPD mounted once told him that you never know what a horse is going to do and he’s sworn to stay off them ever since) but I’ve promised tomorrow’s activity will be more his speed, so he obliges. I haven’t been on a horse in at least thirty years. Within five minutes he’s on George and I’ve got Scout and Melissa, our guide, is leading us up a step hill towards the woods. The two hour ride through the Green Mountain National Forest is magical, filled with incredible views painted in hues of burnt yellow, brick red, and dusty orange. We go at a steady pace, moving into a trot here and there when instructed, it’s just us, the fresh mountain air and the sound of hooves tossing the leaves.
Next up is Equinox Mountain, the highest peak of the Taconic Mountain Range. There’s a line of cars to enter Sky Line Drive, we pay our twenty bucks and start to ascend. It takes us about ten minutes to reach the summit and what a summit it is. The views are breathtaking at nearly four thousand feet in the air. The sky is crystal clear and there are mountain ranges as far as the eye can see, which in this case includes the Berkshires.
A fun outdoor adventure day is topped off by Zoey’s Double Hex once again for dinner — when the Sergeant finds something he really likes, he sticks with it. The clouds have rolled in so as the gentle rain hits the windshield we head back to the Kimpton to nestle in for another evening of movies, popcorn, and a cozy bedroom fire.
The rain lingers and so do we. Sleeping in is not the Sergeant’s strong suit, so when it happens I don’t resist. We hit Up for Breakfast again and duplicate our order from the first day. When a classic country breakfast tastes this good you could eat it every day for a week and never tire of it. Gail greets us at the door and seats us before the other four patrons in line. Wherever we go — big cities or small towns — people seem to have an affinity for NYPD officers, and our waitress in this quaint northern village is no different. Pat never understands it. To him, being an NYPD sergeant was a grueling and tough job — a job he started when he was twenty-one and committed to for thirty-two years. To him there was nothing glamorous or glorifying about it. I’ve tried to explain to him that the NYPD has the reputation for being the finest police force in America, maybe the world, and he’s seen, handled, and resolved situations few on the planet will ever encounter, with that comes a reverence from others for the honor, courage, and perseverance it takes to put yourself literally in the line of fire every day. When we got upgraded to a three room/three balcony suite at the St. Regis in Bal Harbour, Florida after they learned of his retirement he was dumbfounded, “because I was a cop?” he turned and said to me in astonishment. “No dear, because you were an NYPD sergeant for three decades.” My dear, sweet, honorable husband, just a boy from the Bronx with a humble nature and a heart of gold.
As we finish another spectacular breakfast Gail regales us with the tale of an at-home date last night with her new beau. Of course the Sergeant got all the comical details out of her — he could get a canary from a cat. We exit with a good laugh and full bellies and promise to be back tomorrow morning. Given the wet and chilly weather, we decide to stay close to home and hit the shops. Manchester is filled with familiar outlets as well as one-of-a-kind family run shops, all centrally located. Pat is not big on brand names. Growing up as he did with more mom and pop stalwarts makes him suspicious of larger retail experiences, however he has one exception to this rule. You can’t keep the man out of Costco, but Costco has that curated never know what you’ll find kind of feeling wouldn’t you say?
He says he spotted his kinda place while out on his early morning patrol yesterday. So that leads us to Family Footwear and what finds there are to be had! Family Footwear has the feeling of a ski lodge and is equipped with everything you’d need to hit the slopes. I don’t ski. I’ve never had a taste for it. I’m more of a sit cozy by the fire and read a book kinda gal. However I do enjoy to look the part. I pick up two Turtle Fur hats and a pair of sunglasses and am feeling all the snow bunny Vermont vibes.
Next up we hit Orvis. There’s a huge Orvis two-story outlet right on Main Street. Come to find out Orvis was founded in Manchester in 1856 as a fishing tackle retailer. Pat has been telling me to buy a proper rain jacket for years, but I could never find one that fit the bill. I’ve done the trench coat look, I’m not into the cutsy bright color vibe, and there isn’t much in between. Have you ever seen a sophisticated, well-cut rain coat? Well I just spotted one. She’s an icy muted blue on the outside with soft navy on the inside and made by Barbour, a trusted British brand.
“You want a three hundred dollar rain jacket?” he probes.
“It’s the only one I’ve seen that I’ve ever liked.”
“Well I’ve been telling you to get one for years, so try it on.”
The cut and fit are perfection, however a pen mark on the lower left hand corner is raining on my style parade.
“We can give you twenty percent off,” encourages the sales associate.
“There’s another one around here somewhere in my size,” I remark. I have this thing when it comes to shopping. I intuitively know if there is another one of whatever I want in the store, even when the store personnel swear there is not. It happened to me in 2008 when I was at Restoration Hardware and three store members said they scoured the back stock in the basement and swore there were no more iron drape rods of the type I preferred. I told them twice to look again and finally a manager went down and found them. Then again at a high-end shoe retailer in Manhattan who claimed there was only size six left in the heel I wanted and surely I could just buy the six and put insoles in it. Keep looking I told her. Sure enough there was a five and half tucked behind another design two shoe stacks over. The lesson —trust yourself when you believe in what others cannot see. So here we go again, with the sales associate telling me this is the last small. Then my valiant husband sees the jacket on a mannequin in a different section ten feet away. Sure enough it’s a small. The two wrangle it free and as luck, synchronicity, and the unfailing generosity of my husband would have it, I found my perfect rain jacket one drizzly Sunday in Manchester, Vermont.
Given the off and on again rain I find it a fitting day to stay in the car and show the Sergeant the famous covered bridges of the county. I grew up in Massachusetts so I’m quite familiar with these weathered wooden structures, reminiscent of a simpler time in New England. Covered bridges served two purposes — first, the primary purpose was to protect the old timber constructed bridges from the harsh winters. The roof acts as a shield to the ice and snow and keeps the beams from deterioration; second, since farmers often crossed with horse and cattle, the covering and side walls served to calm animals as they crossed over rough rivers. Vermont happens to have the most covered bridges per square mile than any other state and most are on the National Register of Historical Places. I love them because they transport you the minute you drive through. You can feel the presence of the New Englanders who came before . . . the unflappable constitution, the steady and powerful work ethic, the no-nonsense attitude, and an appreciation for the little things in life. Those are the values I learned from watching my grandfather, a true New Englander in blood, bone, and heart. So I’m excited to introduce Pat to the iconic landmark that is the covered bridge.
We start in Arlington at the West Arlington Bridge and park next to a little white church. I can see the Sergeant is already impressed as we exit the truck.
“Do you know how strong this is? What it takes to build something like this?” he remarks.
“I know, it’s fascinating right?”
Once on the bridge he places his hands on the trusses, connecting to the carpenters and craftsmen whose souls echo in the sound of our feet on the timber deck and we stand in awe and silence for a moment. Ten minutes later we’re on to the next one in Sunderland. We are greeted by a hand-painted sign that adorns the Chiselville Bridge and warns travelers that they’ll face a one dollar fine for driving faster than a walk on the bridge. Good ‘ole New England sense of humor or strict adherence to the rules, it’s hard to tell. As we approach the Silk Road Bridge in North Bennington twenty minutes later I’m instantly struck by her grace. She just has something — in the way an ancient piece of architecture has something. I have to take a picture with this beauty to remember her by.
After three full days of my favorites — historical sights, horses, architecture, shopping, and culture — the Sergeant is ready for some speed. As we approach Stratton Adventures on Stratton Mountain I see a group of three attending to our mini motor chariots. From the moment I called to book this ATV tour I had a good feeling. April, the founder and owner, is a lovely and cheerful Vermonter whose connection to the mountains resonates in her eyes. She’s right at home as she shares all the dos and donts and her enthusiasm is just making the Sergeant even more excited to get going. We start the ascent on a trail of matted down yellow grass, then turn to take a gravel road through a sparse crimson and pumpkin colored forest. We keep climbing and climbing and then finally April pulls over and motions to us to stop. I’m so intent on hearing what she has to say I don’t even see the reason why she’s temporarily halted our adventure. She points, and it is a scene fit for a postcard.
“Give me your phone. I’ll take the picture,” she suggests.
Pat and I cuddle up for a snapshot against an expansive skyline of cornflower blue and periwinkle crowning the valley of Manchester in all her vibrant fall colors, spotted with tiny white homes and deep evergreens.
Two hours later on our way back to the hotel I spot a nursery on Main Street outfitted in full October fantasy — a scarecrow, pumpkin patch, and corn maze. After a nosh of fresh apple cider and donuts we head into the corn maze. I love a good corn maze, the ones that really twist you around, this one is tame by comparison but the first one for my Bronx boy, so moderately thrilling for that reason alone.
“So what, you just walk through?” he asks.
“Well, in a more advanced corn maze you would walk and think you were figuring it out and suddenly hit a dead end and then get all disoriented, but this isn’t that.”
“Clearly. There’s a trail,” he jokes.
But after all, a fun-filled, fast-paced ride always sits best when it’s capped off with the clear path that leads you back home.
Waking up at seven am to an empty bed is something I’ve grown accustomed to. In fact, in all candor, it’s something I enjoy. I lived alone for twenty years before I met my husband so even though I’m married now it still feels comfortable. Just as I gaze out the window at the clouds floating by the mountain, my phone rings.
“You up? I’m running real low on oil.”
“Okay, so are we going to make it home?”
“Yes, but quick change of plans, we need to get an oil change before we head out. Must have been that damn mountain the other day.”
“No big deal.”
“There’s a Chevy dealership right here. I just talked to the guy, but I was going to come and get you first so we can walk to breakfast.”
“Sounds like a plan, give me ten.”
I take care of checking out and then exit the back door of the hotel to find my husband in the parking lot taking his shirt off and turning it inside out.
“What are you doing?!”
“You turn your shirt around cause if you dirty it then you’re good because you just turn it back around.”
I know nothing about cars. I’ve never owned a car in my life. The Sergeant has been working on cars since he was twelve. He nestles himself under the Tahoe in searching of something.
“What are you doing?
“Grabbing my filter magnet. Cause if I don’t take it off and I go in for an oil change it’s gonna disappear.”
We drop the truck off and stroll down Main Street to say our farewell to Gail and have one more hearty country breakfast before hitting the road. The Village Center is on the National Register of Historical Places and I can see why — its quaint buildings, immaculate sidewalks, and sprawling greens make it a treasured valley like no other. The story goes that at the turn of the 19th century this unassuming town was a welcome respite for weary New Yorkers. A hundred years later that’s still the case.
Be sure to watch my Instagram “Vermont” story highlight as the visual companion to this post.
It’ll make you smile, laugh, and long for a trip to the Green Mountains.