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In October my ex-wife and I decided to take a drive from Asheville, N.C., to Sullivan, Maine, to visit our old college friends, Sandro and Mu. This is Part 2 of that trip. 

Oct. 12

The plan was to drive no more than 200 miles a day. Yesterday, we did 305; today, we did 370. We woke up this morning in somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, and are going to sleep this evening in Massachusetts. Again, not our plan. But sometimes fortune intervenes. 

The problem, once again, was finding a motel. I’ve driven all over France, where the guide books tell you that hotels are scarce and you should always plan ahead and make reservations. We never did, but always found a place to stay, and some of the cleanest, best-designed rooms I’ve ever seen. You can’t beat the Ibis hotels. 

Who ever thought that we’d come a cropper in upstate New York or western Massachusetts? 

The day began well. A fast trip to the Delaware Water Gap and a slow 15 mph drive up the National Scenic Area along the Old Mine Road on the New Jersey side. At the visitor center the ranger told us to be careful of the potholes. “Some of them are bigger than I am,” she said. The road alternated between pothole pavement and gravel, with a couple of patches of new macadam. We played pothole slalom for most of the way, weaving from one side of the road — call it a path most of the time — and back to the other. For the first nine miles or so, we saw no other car, either coming or going. 

The Gap is a place where the Delaware River has cut through the Kittatinny Mountain ridge, leaving a notch in the hills. On the Pennsylvania side, Mount Minsi rises to 1,540 feet and on the Jersey side, Mount Tammany, about 20 feet lower.

The 40-mile stretch of the river and surrounding country is now the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, and the whole area has been a tourist draw since the 19th century, when landscape painters, such as Thomas Doughty, made scenic and romantic paintings of the region. 

It is also about 4 miles from where I went to summer Boy Scout camp as a boy.   

The Delaware River is gorgeous in the morning. We stopped away from the river at an old bridge and watched a couple of fishermen tossing their lines into the tributary creek.

Bear Mountain Bridge, Hudson River

Then we hopped back on the Interstate in Port Jervis, N.Y., and drove across Orange County and into Harriman State Park and Bear Mountain. By this time, Anne was feeling hungry and bladder-bloated, so we had to find a place to satisfy both urges rather than drive up Bear Mountain. 

So, off to West Point. In the town of Hudson Highlands we found a pizza joint — a storefront with three tables and a counter to order at. We asked the man if they had a bathroom. “No, no bathroom.” But, he said, “They have bathroom two buildings up street.” I hope you can tell by my brazen attempt to capture accent that he was not born in New York.

We walked up the street and found the public library, a tremendous old wooden building white with columns in front. Inside there was no one. You could hear the echo of your own footsteps on the wooden floor. But they had the conveniences that Anne required. We walked back to the pizzeria and had a damned fine pie. New Jersey style. The way it’s supposed to be.

Each time I drive anywhere near the tri-state area, I seek out a non-chain pizza joint to achieve that satisfying foodgasm of a New York pizza, the only real pizza to anyone who has grown up with it. 

Every region has its food chauvinisms. North Carolina barbecue, Seattle alder-smoked salmon, Philadelphia cheese steaks. One of the lesser regional contenders is the soft pretzel. These are the size of calzones, with a malty, bready interior and a thin crisp brown crust coated with kosher salt. They taste like nothing else, especially when they are still warm, and the only place to get them in their true form is in eastern Pennsylvania and in a belt up through New Jersey and parts of New York. Oh, you can find them elsewhere, but they are no better than the so-called “New York style” pizza you find in Kansas or Saskatchewan. Worse: the frozen pretzels you can find in the grocery store. 

Well, Anne, who has barely left North Carolina through most of her life, had never had one of these. We stopped at a turnpike rest plaza and I bought one for the car. She took a bite of it and decided she had to have another. And another. We spent a good portion of the drive all the way to Maine looking for another pretzel, but never found one. We had left the pretzel’s home territory. 

Anyway, we drove up U.S. 218 around Storm King, a great mountain of rock that juts out into the Hudson River with a tiny two land road curving around it above the water and below the summit. This is a road my family used to take when driving up to the family bungalow in West Park and the ride on the thin ribbon of road around the mountain was the part of the trip that I loved most, but gave my poor father white knuckles.

Finally, we got to Newburgh, where we had intended to spend the night. But, I thought — like an idiot — let’s just get over the river on the bridge. So, we crossed over the Hudson to the other side and immediately came a cropper on finding a motel. “Motels are often found along the freeways,” I thought to myself, so we turned north on the Taconic State Parkway. No hotels. No nothing. Robert Moses designed this road in the 1940s and must have purposely routed it through empty terrain to make a pleasant and green drive. But it meant no hotels. We drove for a hundred miles. No hotels.

Got off the parkway and back on U.S. 9, which is a commercial road. No hotels. We drove through Hudson, N.Y., home of Frederick Edwin Church’s Olana. No hotels. Up through Kinderhook, boyhood home of Martin Van Buren. No hotels.

“Route 9 will hit the interstate soon,” I said to Anne. “There are always hotels along the exits.” No, there aren’t always. The interstate turned into the Massachusetts Turnpike. We asked the man at the toll booth if there were any motels along the pike. “Yes, he said, every exit has them after Exit 2.”

We sighed relief and drove on. Turns out, the turnpike runs for more than 30 miles before any exit. We both thought of the old song about “running forever ’neath the streets of Boston.” The MTA.

The deal was that the turnpike runs up and over the Berkshires and there were no exits until the road came back down from the hills. Then we turned off into Exit 3 in Westfield, Mass. Hooray, a single solitary motel. I went in to sign up. No room. All full.

“There’s a dog show in town and a couple of 50th anniversary school reunions and a football game, so everything is booked. You might try the next exit; there are several hotels there.”

So, back on the turnpike to Exit 4. A Miracle Mile sort of place and several motels. But this time, I am pretty well blasted. We have driven 370 miles so far today. I pulled in to a Clarion Inn. Anne stayed in the car and I went into the lobby. Eight people were in line at the desk and when I finally got to the front of the line: “No, we’re all filled up.”

I drove up and down the highway, trying to get into motels that always seemed to be on the other side of the median, making me drive up the street to make a U-turn and back to the place. Full.

“There’s a Red Roof Inn over there,” Anne said. Up the road. U-turn. Into the lot. A room. A blessed room. A holy respite. Peace at last. Second floor, up the exterior stairs with all our bags.

“I’ll go out and get something for supper,” Anne said. She walked up the road to Five Guys and got a couple of greasy burgers and a bucket o’ fries and brought them back. We ate. We watched the glum news on MSNBC.

It was getting dark when we finally pulled into the motel. Sleep will be early tonight. Tomorrow, we head for Portland.

Oct. 13

We are in Portland tonight, at a La Quinta. We are wondering what is it about New England that they try to hide their motels? We came up I-95 into South Portland and took an exit that had a “lodging” sign by the roadway. The ramp emptied into a roadway that came to a stoplight in the middle of nowhere. All around us, vacant lots and empty fields. In the distance, a few office buildings.

I tried to find signs for the airport. Motels usually cluster around airports. But when I got to the airport: Nothing. We circled the airport and found zilch. How is this possible?

Anne thought she saw a Comfort Inn near the freeway, but when we drove to where she thought she saw it: Bupkis. We drove aimlessly for a while, trying to scare up something and finally drove by the La Quinta. Drove by is the operative word. It came up on us too fast and I was in the wrong lane. So, I tried to loop around, but faced a maze of one-way streets. Finally, we got there. It is the most expensive hotel I have ever stayed at, but I wasn’t going to venture out into the jungle again to find something cheaper.

Earlier today, we drove through Concord, Mass. When I first visited Walden Pond, so many years ago, I remember we were dreading that it would turn out to be a tourist trap. We imagined fast food restaurants and miniature golf. But when we got there, there were only a few parking spots beside the road and no one at the lake except a couple of fishermen with their lines in the drink.

I’ve been back to Walden Pond maybe a half-dozen times, maybe eight. I have circumambulated it three times. Each visit back, the site is a little more built up. Still just a wide spot in the road, except for the swimming beach on the east end. Walden Pond, it turned out was the local swimming hole. The last time I was there, for the newspaper, someone had built a replica of the original cabin across the street from the pond.

Well, this time, it was the full catastrophe: Tour busses, parking lots, a new visitor center and the street choked with pedestrians crossing from their cars to the beach. I got into the line for the parking lot, but when I got up near the turn-off, I could see the cars extending like a freight train into the distance and so decided to drive off without visiting the shrine.

“Maybe it’s because it is a weekend,” Anne said. “Maybe we can come back on the way home during a weekday. Maybe it’s because it’s Columbus Day weekend.” I dunno, but it was Myrtle Beach all the way. How horrifying.

The other misadventure was Kittery. It was lunchtime and Anne was hungry, so I got off I-95 and looped into town on U.S. 1, only to find it was clogged with tourists. We found a Dunkin’ Donuts and had a sandwich and got back on Route 1 heading north. At Ogunquit, we found the highway turned into a parking lot. The road into downtown was stock still. It took us nearly an hour to get through town. We felt a teensy bit better on traveling north as we watched the parking lot headed south go on for miles and miles, much worse than we had it going north. Phew.

Anyway, as soon as we could, we got off Rt. 1 and back onto the interstate and cruised into Portland.

Tomorrow, to Augusta, Rt. 3 to Belfast and then zip the rest of the way past Ellsworth and into Sullivan.

Oct. 14

We have arrived in Sullivan, Maine. It has been a drive of 1472 miles. The fall color has been absolutely neon. I don’t remember the last fall with this much color.

It is overcast and chilly this afternoon, and although it is only 4:15 p.m., it is already getting dark. We are a touch on the pooped side, and will probably turn in early tonight.

To be continued

Click on any image to enlarge

Part 1: In which the mountains change character

Bear Mountain Bridge, Hudson River

Bear Mountain Bridge, Hudson River

If you look at a map of Pennsylvania, you will notice that all roads through the central part of the state seem to travel in long parallel curves, sweeping like lines of marching soldiers taking a ”column right.” eastern pa map

In few places in the country do the road maps so accurately reflect the topography: Those highways follow the valleys between the Appalachian ridges that bend through the state. One ridge lies behind another, lined up like so many pleats in a curtain.

The high, wild Appalachians of the South give way to the rural hillsides of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

The central Appalachians are even pronounced differently. In the South, the middle syllable rhymes with the ”a” of ”apple;” in the North, the ”a” becomes long and rhymes with ”hey,” a word you will hear with increasing frequency the closer you draw to Philadelphia. harvestore silo and barn

So, as the ”Apple-LATCH-ins” give way to the ”Apple-LAY-chins,” the whole character of the land changes. Hardscrabble family farms give way to large dairies. Small gray weatherboard barns give way to large red barns with blue Harvestore silos. Tobacco gives way to coal mining and steel mills.

Finally, as you travel north and east near Philadelphia and New York, the land becomes suburban.

The roads do manage to cross the ridges occasionally, although something as big as the Pennsylvania Turnpike finds it easier to tunnel under Tuscarora and Blue mountains on its way to the flatter eastern portion of the state.

What is more surprising is that at least three major rivers cut through the mountains, too.

Susquehanna River

Susquehanna River

The Susquehanna and Delaware rivers in Pennsylvania slice through them in what are called water gaps. The most famous of these, the Delaware Water Gap, knifes through the Kittatinny Ridge and divides its Pennsylvania and New Jersey halves.

Old post card

Old post card

And in New York, the Hudson River cuts through the Ramapo and Catskill mountains as it drops south from Albany to Manhattan.

These rivers helped create the history of the area, providing routes for early settlers to cross the difficult mountains.

Most famous among the early settlers are the Pennsylvania Dutch peoples of Lancaster and York counties — although you will find them north well into the mountains. Among them are the Amish and Mennonite ”Plain People” of the popular imagination.

They were German immigrants who began coming to the religious-tolerant commonwealth in the 1600s. Others were Swiss, and French Huguenots.

The Pennsylvania Dutch, though, were not Dutch. They were mostly German, and the German word for themselves, ”Deutsch,” was mistranslated.

By 1790, they made up a third of the state’s population.

But there were many real Dutch immigrants up the Hudson River Valley. Their influence is found in such names as Yonkers, Peekskill, Staatsburg and the Catskills.

Catskill Mountains and Hudson River

Catskill Mountains and Hudson River

All through the region you can find the influence of ethnic groups unheard of in the more culturally uniform Southern mountains: There are Irish, Italian, Spanish and Jewish enclaves in the mountains. It is in the Catskills of New York that the famous ”Borscht Belt” of Jewish resorts gave rise to a whole generation of stand-up comics. Does the name Shecky Greene ring a bell?

Shecky Greene

Shecky Greene

What may be surprising, though, is how much nature there is surviving in the central Appalachians. So close to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York City, there are still forest and wild lands.

You can find much of this along the Appalachian Trail as it curls through the region.

The footpath, which begins in Georgia and ends in Maine, enters Pennsylvania near Gettysburg, climbing through the Michaux State Forest and along the ridge of South Mountain. Geologically speaking, this is the northernmost tip of the Blue Ridge. Snowy Mountain, Mount Alto and Pleasant Peak are all just about 2,000 feet high.

Devil's Den, Gettysburg, Penn.

Devil’s Den, Gettysburg, Penn.

The trail crosses the Susquehanna just north of Harrisburg and climbs along Blue Mountain, the largest of the parallel ridges.

Big Mountain, Penn.

Big Mountain, Penn.

There it passes Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, where geology and prevailing winds create a perfect spot to view migrating birds, and especially a series of birds of prey, including Cooper’s, sharp-shinned, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks and bald eagles.

On the ridge, at about 1,500 feet, you can see the quilt of farms and forests that spread out in the valleys below. The gray Tuscarora sandstone is tumbled about the peak, covered by patches of green lichen.

Past the resort-area Poconos, the trail follows the Kittatinny Ridge to the Delaware Water Gap and on into New Jersey, following the wooded northwestern edge of that state past long, clear lakes and Boy Scout summer camps to High Point State Park, at 1,800 feet the highest elevation in the state.

The trail loops to the southeast for a short bit before heading north into New York near Greenwood Lake.

There, it follows the Ramapo Mountain into Harriman and Bear Mountain state parks, finally crossing the Hudson River on the Bear Mountain Bridge before heading north again, across the Taconic Mountains and into New England. Hudson panorama

At the bridge, the Appalachian Trail is only 35 miles north of Manhattan and only about 100 feet above sea level.

The woods along the trail are increasingly littered with boulders — chunks of granite or sandstone torn from the bedrock by the continental glaciers of 18,000 years ago. It makes for a beautiful woodland vista, but it is hell for farming.

Storm King Mountain, Hudson River

Storm King Mountain, Hudson River

And unlike the woodlands in the South, cluttered with undergrowth, the woods of Pennsylvania and New York are easy to traipse through. There are rocks underfoot, but not a lot of shrubbery. You step through a cushion of rotting leaves, brown and soft to the sole of your shoe.

It is true that the central Appalachians are less distinctively mountains than their brothers to north and south. They often feel more like hills. Yet the farther you manage to find yourself from the population centers, the more you will uncover the familiar Appalachian culture.

In the plateaus south and east of Pittsburgh, for instance, you still can be eyed suspiciously by a farmer who wonders why you are taking a photograph of his farm. If you hear him talk, you still will hear the short syllables and clipped speech of the mountaineer. You will find homesteads with kitchen gardens and men on autumn weekends walking the gravel back roads with their sons, shotguns slung middle-broke over their shoulders and the two in matching red plaid coats, out for a bit of hunting, hoping perhaps to scare up a turkey.

NEXT: Home of the diner