I wanted to take a longer ride to shake out my gear and I had a week to make up my mind, but that didn’t stop me from deciding only the day before where I would ride to: Nassau, NY. Why? Because Maria read to me a classified ad from the New York Times for a 1850’s homestead that sounded like something to see, I had never been to Nassau and, since she would be busy with more of Tanya’s wedding stuff, I would have the whole day. I found it on a map and laid out a course for Sunday. I considered going to Marcus Dairy, where they were holding Super Sunday but that involves a lot of waiting and walking (I heard the next day that the turnout at Marcus was bigger than the usual thousands and everyone was treated to hour-long waits in traffic backing up the highways— I chose well).
All that and that I already knew the general lay of the big roads around Albany and Western Massachusetts from tooling around by car and my excursion up that way in 2001. Having a mental map of the major highways and the relative locations of towns might take some of the mystery out of exploring secondary roads but it also ratchets down the risk of being stranded by a mechanical failure or just getting so bassackwards that even with the map you can’t find a gas station before your twenty miles of reserve fuel runs out. Neither are fun, even if they are unforgettable. Adventure, some wit remarked, is the result of poor planning.
I took the familiar ride up Route 9 and headed onto the early crossroad to 9G before Hyde Park. I had the road almost to myself to through 308 and 199. Dutchess county was popping with Spring- dogwoods, cherry blossoms, shrubs and bulbs were putting out their best colors. There were lots of other bikers out and most of them like me were just out stretching after a long winter. Motorcyclists have a practice of waving to on-coming bikes, the recognition of a compatriot, easier than a secret handshake and more than a thumbs up. Some folks, mostly the chrome and loud pipes crowd, will only wave back to riders of a particular brand and I was glad that most riders returned the gesture. I got on the Taconic Parkway, figuring I could make time on the way up and then wander around.
The Taconic, one of the most scenic roads in NY, winds through Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess and Columbia counties but was laid out when traffic volume and speeds were much lower than they are today. It sports tight curves, fast changes in elevation, short entrance and exit ramps and unmarked intersections. Several crossroads have been closed to avoid repeating the gruesome crashes caused by people plowing or being plowed leaving or taking side roads. The lower part, south of Poughkeepsie, is heavy with traffic and usually moves at extra-legal speeds. I like to think of it as a series of chicanes that connect Fahnstock park and I84 but that is another ride (but do watch out for the trooper who always stations himself at the left side of the junction beneath the overpass). The Northern part of the Taconic is an easy ride, a few curves and great vistas. Except that is, the miles between the end of Dutchess county and the exit for Ancram. The scenery is still grand but if you’re on two wheels you’ll have other things on your mind. The Columbia county highway department is proudly continuing its almost two decade-old test of patch compounds and suspension components. The road there is a hard, almost white trail of ruts, heaves, joints and pocks humped at irregular intervals with black asphalt mounds just slighly lower than the average suburban parking lot speed bump. For good measure, "Tar snakes", long rubbery road patches that squirm under your tires and are wickedly slick when wet, scurry more or less along your path for long stretches before darting left or right. It is a piece of road that, stripped of road signs, would make Pennsylvania proud. The area before the Hudson/Ancram exit is, oddly enough, smooth and well-paved— probably so your last memory of the highway before leaving it is a pleasant one. The road smoothes out further ahead but after the fifteen or twenty mile kidney-pounding compression and rebound test, you hardly notice.
It clouded over and became surprisingly cold and windy as I approached my exit and I had to close the front zipper and vents on my jacket. Getting off around Chatham, I wandered Routes 295, 203, 20, and 22. Spring was off to a late start in the Capital Region but the air was fresh with turned fields, manure, forsythia and other early blooming plants. I stopped in Chatham, Old Chatham, East Chatham, Nassau, Valatie and Kinderhook before picking my way South. Why so many stops? Some for photos. Several were to admire bugs. From almost clear gnats to wispy little lattice-like mayflies to big, black, slow-moving pasture cruisers, flies emerged in the warm damp sunshine to take the gentle breeze and make kamikaze sallies against my visor. Despite a windshield, I had to close the chin and forehead vents on my helmet to stop them from spattering on me. I also stopped several times to remove and reinsert my ear plugs. Wind noise, even within a helmet, can cause hearing loss and I’ve been trying to find the perfect disposable plug. So far, the Howard-Leight Max is my favorite with their Laser-Lite a close second. These were their Max Lite model and they loosen up or work out and generally don’t block the noise.
Coming through Hudson, the sun was in full beam and I reopened my vents. Very few cars were out which was odd, I thought. At the intersection of 9H/9G/9J I came to a stop light beside two guys in a new Volkswagen Bettle convertible. The had the top down and were sporting goatees, dark shades and a very cool burnt orange colored car. I popped my helmet open- the entire face lifts up- and pointing at the car yelled my admiration. The driver leaned way across the passenger to take in the compliment and then the light changed and we took off on different routes. It is one very sweet-looking little car.
A few miles south I had a full and complete "pucker" moment. A clapped-out brown and rust-stop gray GM van stood at a side street waiting to cross the four lane road. A SUV was approaching Northbound, I was in the left lane and a pickup truck was ahead of me in the right lane tooling along at a fast pace. A car behind us was signalling to turn right and was moving onto the shoulder around us when the van pulled out. I grabbed the front brake, pulled in the clutch and stomped the rear brake ramming into the my tank as the rear end hopped a little. The pickup locked his brakes in a howling smoking black streak. The van cut off the turning car, the pickup, me, the SUV and then, panicking, continued turning in behind me before swinging wildly back into its lane. I pulled off at the gas station a few hundred yards down the road to get myself together. The rest of the ride back to Poughkeepsie, thankfully, was less exciting.