Of Driving and the Original Wilderness

I am a train lover. I am an airline-intense-disliker (especially of the constitution-violating security measures they employ). I am an avid city-walker and an enthusiastic, if occasional country-hiker.

Perhaps it is a surprise to hear that a person (me) living in a place where one needs no car loves–truly loves–driving. Perhaps it is because that person doesn’t ever really need to drive? And never has commuted by car in his life (except for a grim and thankfully brief period in his teens, intra-suburb,”carpooling” in the back seat of an AMC Gremlin, an experience so dispiriting it may have been life-changing)?

But I do love driving. And I can think of no more act quite as assuredly enthralling as pressing down on the gas, rounding a curve, coming upon a new vista, passing some relative slowpoke perhaps, and feeling quite in control and on top of the world. I like to think of myself as a “good driver”. I don’t do stunts. I don’t speed. I use my mirrors. I am respectful of other cars, inanimate objects, the odd small animal and especially pedestrians. I am probably a regular goody-two-shoes of a driver. But none of that innate caution detracts from the feeling of power and ascendancy that comes from moving at speed through a gorgeous landscape–protected from the elements, The Basement Tapes playing off the iPod–I become misty at the thought.

Then there is the choice of venue. Perhaps a tour through the clamor and waste of, say, southern Nassau County, or to spin oneself endlessly in circles around the magnificent, vast parking lots of the Paramus Mall would not afford the same exaltation. But I do a fair amount of my driving in the storied, gorgeously well-endowed, quasi-rural and sophisticated Hudson Valley–a geography that has certainly got its due historically but remains underreported as one of the world’s Great Locations.

The Hudson Valley is America’s first “wilderness”–wilderness being a concept that requires a non-wilderness (and in this case that would be the million-footed beast clutching that last Palisade of the valley before its great river washes out past the skyscrapers and into the bay and the bight and ultimately the sea). It was sold to the masses cramped in city-quarters as such, and so many carriages and trains and parkways endeavored to take them there over the course of, say, the time just before the Civil War to the time just after Woodstock, that it became after a time overlooked and came to be seen as “your father’s paradise” and therefore kind of dowdy and maybe even creepy. Certainly the dozens of abandoned, wretched-looking tourist shacks that cluster near some of the interior roadways do nothing to dispel the notion it may have been, for a time, pretty much a lowlife destination and kind of creepy.

I’m here to tell you today that it’s not anybody’s paradise, but that it’s got as much charm and intrinsic beauty (and as many great restaurants) as any richly endowed valley in any part of the world. The other day I drove up River Road on the eastern side of the Hudson north of Rhinebeck (a very winning little crossroads town in and of itself) and was astonished at the autumn finery in the trees, the ancient, native architecture of the houses nestled in crooks of the valley, the way the road wound about through woods and over streams, and at last how it ended up in the entirely underrated river town of Hudson, New York, a very small city whose main street happens to be a study in American architecture from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century and is lined with stores and restaurants of a quality and sophistication more to be expected in urban centers like Tribeca and Soho.

There is a long story waiting to be written about how the Hudson Valley now beckons the driver to its winding, shady roads and tempts the driver with succulent feasts at charming restaurants owned by chefs that might as well have made their mark in Manhattan. But that would be a much longer story than this format will tolerate.

Let me just say it again: a) I love driving and b) I especially love driving in the Hudson Valley.