When I was still driving to Albany three or four times a year, first from Long Island and later from southern Westchester, friends thought I was crazy for following Route 9 along the river rather than jumping on the Thruway as soon as possible. The more polite ones would lift an eyebrow just slightly, while others would blurt out “why?” In their minds, the meandering road involved too many stop lights, low speed zones, and a longer, more exasperating trip.
Inexplicably, I felt compelled to defend my choice of routes. Sometimes I would simply say “I prefer the scenic route.” Other times, I would go into more detail. “I find the Thruway mind-numbingly boring. If my child, who is prone to car-sickness, feels nauseous, I have to drive 30 miles (give or take) to the next rest stop before she can get out of the car.”
On Route 9 (or 9D, 9W, 9H, 9G or 9J), I can pull over at almost anytime, not just for her, but for me. It gives me time to make a cell phone call, stretch my legs, reach for a snack or change the CD of whatever audio book we’re listening to. Things no-one should be doing while driving 70 miles an hour on the Thruway.
And being on the “skinny road,” as my father calls it, actually involves, at least in some stretches, some driving skill. I love hugging the mountainside as Route 6/Route 202 narrowly snakes over Anthony’s Nose, linking Route 9 in Peekskill with 9D, which leads north to Garrison, Cold Spring and Beacon. Sometimes, especially if we are with friends, tourists to the mountaintop, we stop at the scenic overlook at the summit and take photographs of the river and the Bear Mountain Bridge.
Following the 9s also involves choices; the longer the trip, the more choices. “Which bridge should we cross this time?” I ask my daughter Grace. There’s the Bear Mountain, Beacon-Newburgh, Mid-Hudson, Kingston-Rhinecliff, Rip Van Winkle. Never the Tappan Zee, with its high toll and city traffic. Most times, we take one bridge crossing from east to west, and another on the way home, just to mix things up. High above the river, I sneak glances at the broad expanse of water, hoping to glimpse the sloop Clearwater under sail.
I can explain all this. What I can’t explain is the gravitational pull toward the small towns and their businesses, the historic markers and roadside oddities that are now as familiar to me as my own village block. To be sure, there are stretches of big box stores and traffic lights (most notably on Route 9 in Fishkill and Poughkeepsie), and run-down city streets. But these are part of the character of the Hudson Valley as much as the hills, quaint downtowns and river views.
There are memories here too, experiences shared with a companion, many years ago, who loved exploring the back roads as much as I did and the time spent aboard the Clearwater as we sailed from one port to another. When I adopted my daughter, bringing her home from China just before Christmas 2002, our first road trip together was to Albany along various 9s. Over the years, we have hiked Mt. Beacon and Sugarloaf Mountain on Route 9D, explored the shops of Cold Spring, eaten picnic lunches in the gazebo at the Garrison waterfront, toured the Saugerties lighthouse, and stopped for snacks and smalls gifts at Black Horse Farm stand on 9W in Athens.
My parents moved from Albany to North Carolina four years ago, so Grace and I rarely travel that far north anymore. But this weekend, we will go apple picking upstate, following the 9s to another adventure.