Stand on a New York City subway platform in the summer and you'll know how Dante felt at the gates of Hell. Down there, beneath the melting tarmac, the air is so thick with heat it can be cut with a plastic knife. The subway cars are air-conditioned, but the platforms aren't, and when the moist air released from the cars hits the tubes and the platforms it steams the creases out of your finely pressed work clothes and burrows into the sweaty marrow of your being.
It's no wonder, then, that at the end of a hazy, hot, and humid work week locals flee the Big Apple via planes, trains, and automobiles. Some head to the beaches of New Jersey and Long Island. Some to the mountains of Vermont. Others follow the path traversed by artists and industrial barons up the Hudson River Valley, to calmer and cooler climes. It's this last alternative that sounds the most appealing on this July weekend as I load up the Piaggio BV500 maxiscooter and hit the road.
The trip starts, oddly enough, beneath the Hudson River in the Lincoln Tunnel, one of the busiest vehicular tunnels in the world. Carrying over 120,000 vehicles per day, this 1.5-mile long tunnel runs along the bottom of the river, connecting Midtown Manhattan to Weehawken, New Jersey. Weehawken, the site of the infamous Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr duel, is also home to one of the best views of the New York City skyline. I continue north along local roads running parallel to the river, with the gleaming skyline to my right.
At the George Washington Bridge, I meet more Manhattan escapees. The bridge is a popular route for the city's more adventurous bicyclists, breaking away on weekends from the six-mile loop in Central Park they circle like hamsters during the week. They cross the GWB along a pedestrian walkway and turn north on Route 9W, an old-school, pre-interstate route that follows the river. With these cyclists as constant companions, I continue north, the suburbs eventually giving way to the lush greens of Palisades State Park and thereafter the New Jersey/New York border.
Route 9W winds its way past the outskirts of river towns that dot the Hudson. The river, well before the Interstate and before the Internet, was a liquid superhighway, carrying people, ideas, goods and prosperity. From brick-making in Haverstraw to steam boilers in Newburgh, the river and its towns flourished with commerce during the Gilded Age. The economic tide has changed in the intervening years, however, and wealth now flows down different tributaries, leaving these old river towns to find new identities. Some of them have struggled with the change, while others have found new life. To get a sense of where these towns have been and where they are going, venture off 9W to find the town centers and other points of interest. Nyack has a charming downtown with fine dining. Haverstraw has a marina filled with pleasure boats. And Stony Point lays claim to a Revolutionary War battlefield and the oldest lighthouse on the river.
The development along 9W thins as the road enters Bear Mountain State Park and begins to rise and fall and bend to the will of the rising land. A popular getaway for urban dwellers, Bear Mountain boasts hiking, boating, swimming, and picnicking. A lodge sits at the base of the mountain and a great view of the Hudson River Valley greets travelers at the top (via Seven Lakes Drive to Perkins Memorial Drive).
North past the dramatic Bear Mountain Bridge, 9W morphs for a short while into a divided highway as it slices through the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. Access to West Point is understandably restricted to authorized personnel, but guided tours are available and a museum is open to the general public. A quick detour off 9W leads to Route 293 and one of the highlights of day one. The road starts innocently, skirting the edge of the academy before entering Storm King State Park, and then it narrows and begins to climb and weave through thick summerwoods before revealing a spectacular vista, hundreds of feet above the river. Inspirational views like this one have long been popularized by artists here, most famously by the members of the Hudson River School movement in the mid-1800s.
Route 293 loops back to 9W and I continue north through Newburgh, an industrial city in decline, with tired streets and tired buildings. Often named the poorest city in the state, Newburgh has yet to find a way forward.
The rest of the ride is relatively uneventful, as 9W makes it way through a succession of small towns, each with its own story and place along the Hudson. My first day along the Hudson ends in Saugerties. Not as famous as neighbors Woodstock or Saratoga Springs, Saugerties, seeking its own post-industrial identity, is attracting artists and restaurateurs to its small downtown. There is kayaking in Esopus Creek and unique accommodations at the Saugerties Lighthouse if you plan ahead. Tonight I'm the guest of two friends, Annick and Tom, urban exiles who left the Big Apple for a change of pace and a change of place. A couple of burgers and beers on Main Street end day one - 100 miles from New York City, but a million miles away in other ways.