Sleepy Hollow? I clearly remember watching the Disney animated version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as a youngster and I clearly remember reading the original story in a small, beige book I found on our family bookshelves one afternoon. I read the story in that small book many times over the years. But I always assumed that the town of Sleepy Hollow was as much a fictional creation of Washington Irving as the escapades of Ichabod Crane, the Headless Horseman, and the rest of the characters. The name itself of the town sounded like an artificial creation to me, growing up in a neighborhood of Seattle in the 1960s and 70s. What real town would ever be named “Sleepy Hollow?!”
Then I came back east to attend college. The arrival of the acceptance letter from Yale was my ticket out of Boredom and Exile and an admission into everything I thought life ought to be! Flying from Seattle to JFK in early September 1976 was the first time I had ever been in an airplane. Escaping the prison that I felt Seattle to be and arriving on the East Coast was already a foray into an urban-fantasy-come-true! But then, that autumn, as I was talking to a recent graduate during one afternoon shift of my student aid job at the Anthropology Library, he remarked in passing that he would be visiting a friend of his that weekend in a picturesque Hudson Valley village known as Sleepy Hollow.
“Sleepy Hollow?!” I exclaimed. “It exists? It’s real?” I was dumbstruck.
“Sure, it’s real,” he chided me, laughing. “It’s a real place, though I’m not so sure the Horseman is.”
That was the beginning of a series of mythical places suddenly becoming real, earthbound locations. London was suddenly closer and cheaper to reach than Seattle was. I could feel the axis which the world rotated around suddenly shift beneath my feet. New York was within striking distance as well, less than a two-hour train ride from New Haven. One day, walking with friends from the metropolitan NYC area along First Avenue, we walked under a large overpass whose concrete walls were carved to imitate rough-hewn stone.
“Remember the song, ‘Feelin’ Groovey?’ The one called the ‘Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge Song’?” one unexpectedly asked as we passed into the shadows beneath the underpass.
“Of course,” I replied, unsure why he was suddenly interested in my memory of that particular song.
“Well, this is the Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge.” He pointed to the wall and the massive structure it supported.
My feet froze. I stared at him and then at the stonework around us. It felt like I was seeing clouds and ether materialize around us, dreams taking substantial form in the waking world, an extra-dimensional door opening and taking solid form before my eyes.
Everyone else kept walking but then burst out laughing when they realized that I had frozen in place.
I reached out and carefully poked at the concrete walls, afraid I might disrupt the magic and the whole bridge suddenly disappear. But the stone was solid and rough to my touch. The bridge remained above us. As I walked to the next street, my fingers trailed along the wall beside me. I was touching myth and legend made stone.
Years later, I drove with a friend to visit mutual acquaintances who had recently moved to Sleepy Hollow. It was a village of picturesque houses and soothing river views along the Hudson and I had the sensation again of feathery, delicate dreams settling on the earth and taking on materiality. It was a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon in the early spring but a distinctly chilly shiver rippled down my spine as I opened the swinging gate in their picket fence.
Not even an appearance by the Headless Horseman himself could have been more fantastic than the ability to touch myth and music incarnate on those afternoons.
About the Author: Stephen has degrees in medieval history and theology from Yale and St. Vladmir’s Orthodox Theological Academy. A former priest, he served as the Eastern Orthodox chaplain at Columbia University. His previous academic writing has dealt primarily with Late Antiquity and Byzantine church life. “Come Hell or High Water” is his debut novel.
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