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A family pilgrimage to Halloween heaven

by Kathryn Geurin on October 26, 2011

On Sunday morning, as we wait foggily over empty mugs for the final sputter and hiss of coffee to brew, a three-foot blur in owl pajamas pats purposefully by us.

“Shoes!” insists a tiny voice from the living room. And, as we finally savor the first rousing sip, our 20-month-old daughter reappears, shoes in hand, at the foot of our breakfast stools, barefoot in flannel, eyes slightly crazed, her bed-head toddler fuzz shooting in all directions like a diminutive mad scientist.

“Back-a punkins!” she demands.

The night before, we made a Halloween pilgrimage to Van Cortlandt Manor, a Revolutionary stone manor nestled on Croton River, in the storied lands of Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. Thanks to Washington Irving, the pocket of Hudson Valley around Sleepy Hollow has crafted a reputation for quaint historic eeriness and the charming paranormal.

Halloween in these foothills of the Catskill Mountains is not something to be taken lightly. Within the span of a few miles, Historic Hudson Valley holds an array of All Hallow’s Events: Horesman’s Hollow, which turns Phillipsburgh Manor into a haunted mansion, and “takes The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to its darkest extremes”; Irving’s Legend, a dramatic retelling of the spooky local tale, and our previous night’s adventure—The Great Jack o’ Lantern Blaze.

Halloween is not something to be taken lightly in our house either. A fair chunk of our limited spare time this past month has been dedicated to crafting a “screen-accurate” Mothra costume for a baby who gleefully sings the giant lepidopteran’s ’60s-era Japanese theme song and counts “Moffa” among one of her early words.

Her current seasonal fascination with “punkin faces” inspired the southward trek to the Jack o’ Lantern Blaze, a Halloween mecca that promised thousands of hand-carved pumpkins winding through the rolling grounds of Van Cortlandt Manor.

Our 9-year-old nephew, who happens to be the little one’s best friend in all the world, joined us on the venture. We armed ourselves surprisingly well against the two-hour, two-kid drive with trail mix, pit stops, songs and stories.

Before a single “Are we there yet?” was even uttered, at least by anyone under 10, we were there, parked in a hay-covered field between a riverside Shop Rite and the historic Van Cortlandt estate. A grinning, pumpkin-skewered archway beckoned us onto the grounds, where we queued up for the gates to open for our entrance time.

We tumbled into the Blaze to gasps from our nephew and the dizzying toddler squeals of “Punkin face! Nother punkin face! NOTHER punkin face!!!”

Hundreds of freshly carved, candle-lit jack-o-lanterns, their orange faces winking, crying, grinning, silly and sinister lined the old stone walls leading to the eerily lit manor, where more pumpkins gazed down from the balcony railings. The cozy smell of singed squash crackled in the fall air.

To our left, curving trails of intricately carved, prone pumpkins merged into fiery snakes dozens of feet long. To our right, hundreds more faces, cats and dogs, clowns and deamons rolled over the hillside. And at the foot of the manor steps, gauze-clad, glowing skeleton ghosts hovered before a pumpkin rotunda. Our winding walk along the worn cobblestone paths carried us past acres of grazing skeleton sheep, a giant spiderweb soaring over a field full of individual squash spiders, a billowing hive of bees, a fairy-speckled mushroom patch, Cyclops, herds of skeleton dinosaurs, schools of fish, towering sunflowers, a cemetery with rising dead, even a glowing King Kong, perched atop the roof of an out building, all built from scores of intricately carved pumpkins.

While the glowing outdoor art installation is surely enough to stir a childlike wonder in any visitor, the logistical scope of the annual undertaking is truly mind-boggling. More than 1,000 volunteers scoop, carve and light the more than 4,000 fresh, preserved and artificial pumpkins that comprise the spectacle, which now draws tens of thousands of visitors to the manor each fall, raising money for Historic Hudson Valley to continue its mission of preservation and education.

The result is astounding. Our leisurely walk through the glowing sculpture park was regularly punctuated by gasps, shrieks, peals of laughter and mouth-dropping  “Awesomes!” And it was awesome. In the truest sense of the word. Awesome enough we were able to hustle two kids through the long gift-shop/snack-tent exit without the baubles and treats tempting even a moment’s distraction from their still-beaming jack-o-lantern wonder.

After running crazy circles in a field to expend some pumpkin-induced energy, peeling off hats and mittens and refilling juice cups and trail-mix hordes, we bundled back into the car for the long ride home.

Asked what he thought about the adventure, my enterprising nephew promptly replied: “If I was going to do a review I would get a job at that magazine you work at.”

But, after some urging—and a handful of pretzels—he finally caved and offered some sincere feedback. Asked how long it took to carve the thousands of pumpkins, he ruminated over a pretzel before concluding, “probably at least a million hours.”

“My favorite was the dinosaurs. The T-rex,” he said, his younger counterpart clapping, “Di-a-SAURS!”

“Oh, and the spiders,” he added, followed by an echo of “Pi-deeews!!! And ghosties. OooOooOooo. Ghosties fuh-ny!”

Asked if it was worth the drive, as he curled down into the backseat darkness, he bolted upright and blurted an unequivocal “Oh yeah!”

Past midnight, nearly a tank of gas, three-and-a-half hours of vintage Sesame Street tunes, one traffic ticket for a blown headlight, 40 ounces of coffee and an ungodly amount of trail mix later, we adults in the car were seriously doubting if it really was worth the trip.

Until a tiny voice from the backseat, already bundled in owl pajamas but still fighting the battle against sleep, peeped, “Back-a punkins now? Yeah. Back-a punkins pease.”

The Great Jack o’ Lantern Blaze continues through Nov. 4 at Van Cortlandt Manor  (525 South Riverside Ave., Croton-on-Hudson). For tickets or info visit hudsonvalley.org.