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The Wandering Eye: The Taconic, Reconsidered

Our blogger, interior designer Carey Maloney, and his partner Hermes Mallea, an architect, are princpals in the M (Group).

Rural Intelligence StyleSo, there we are cruising along the Taconic headed back to town on a pleasant Sunday evening.  Pondering.  Pensive.  Bored out of my gourd.  What to fix The Eye on next??

The Taconic!  A subject if not dear to our hearts, then certainly one we all have an interest in.  That Love / Hate thing.  I’ll bet you are like me (do I sense a shudder through the readership?  “No way..” ), I have favorite trees, favorite exits (that would be Route 199—our exit!), and useful landmarks (the intersection of 84 is the precise halfway point for us—one hour to go…).  Quick calculation: we’ve covered over100,000 miles of Taconic driving over 18 years—four times around the earth.  That should qualify anyone as an expert.

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The favorite exit.  So many options! My new favorite international symbol, seen last month in the Jacksonville, Florida Airport.  Larry Craig (ex-Senator) got his own sign!?  Nah - it’s the Airport Chapel (Not that I’ve been in many, but they’re not ‘happy places’..)


You have to love the ‘look’.  Sweeping vistas, gently rolling hills, stone bridges – a total of 105 miles of parkway built from 1929 to 1963. 

Of course, as our designated driver, I never see these vistas.  To ride the Taconic is lovely – to drive it takes un peu more concentration.

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OMG.  No central divider.  They call this four lanes???
The chunk we all hate is about 20 miles of terror-inducing tarmac from Putnam up to Southern Dutchess.  Under the best of circumstances, this stretch demands the driver’s undivided attention. Good weather and no traffic—pay attention anyway.  But add rain and/or snow and/or darkness and/or traffic, and you’ve got HELL.  Stone walls on one side, imminent over-the-cliff death on the other, cunningly divided by a nasty slew of jagged iron rails.  It can be very white-knuckle.  That bit’s over in about 20 minutes… In our youth, when we first headed north for weekends, there were 40 minutes of Hell.  The endless construction has indeed resulted in real improvement.  !?Who’d have guessed?! 

We can thank Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted for the parkway concept.  Their Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn was completed in 1874—the novel idea of a beautifully landscaped road designated for recreation, not commerce.  It originally connected Grand Army Plaza to Olmsted’s Prospect Park.  Our Taconic was conceived by Robert Moses and championed by TSPC(ommission) chair,  Franklin Roosevelt. When Moses found his beloved Long Island projects were pricier than anticipated, he stalled funding on the Taconic.  FDR fought for the bucks and building continued.

Our route is the Henry Hudson (Parkway) to the Cross County (Parkway) to the Sprain Brook (Parkway) to the Taconic (Parkway) all the way up to Route 199 Red Hook / Pine Plains.  All Parkways all the time.  And Parkways—by definition —forbid commercial traffic.  For this we are very very grateful.  Having grown up with Interstate 10 as our town’s Main Street, I know from commercial traffic.  A 16-wheeler manned by a cranked up cracker who hasn’t slept in 48 hours is not a vehicle to trifle with.  But on the Taconic, no trucks! (Cranked up crackers—peut etre…). 
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Damn.  Ok. Ok.  It’s the law, it’s the law. Damn. And would you understand the Low sign if you didn’t speak English? “Arrows? What ees low arrows?”
BTW, you know you are in rough conversational territory when it devolves to “And how did you get here?”  Very L.A.  When Bette Davis was asked by a starlet for advice on how to succeed in Hollywood, Miss Davis replied, “Always take Beverly.” Probably not the advice the newcomer expected, but useful!.  Years ago, seared in my memory, I overheard a friend ask her dinner partner, “And how do you get to work?” and I knew the evening was gonna be looong for all of us…

The TSP, as it is called (? by whom?), was built in four chunks. Watch the stonework on the bridges, you can date the stretches yourself.  Starting in Valhalla in 1929 (Ouch! Bad year for new public spending…), it crossed the Croton Reservoir in 1932.  It got to Route 55 (Poughkeepsie exit) in 1938 and in 1949 made it to our exit, Route 199 Red Hook/Pine Plains.  By 1963 it had made it north to connect to the Thruway at East Chatham.
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Why would you ever leave? “Valhalla” by Emile Doepler, 1905.
Our Taconic stays pretty true to its recreational roots as a beautiful route for holiday makers. Two other jewels in the National Parkway crown are the Natchez Trace (a national park and 444 miles long) and the Skyline Drive (another national park – 105 miles). “Parkway” gets broadly defined.  Two less successful examples are the Garden State Parkway (it passes through Newark—‘nough said) and the Arroyo Secco Parkway (Trips off the tongue, no? It’s the Pasadena Freeway.).

I would attach lots of lovely photos but no way I am pulling onto the shoulder—the rare places there is one—to snap the remnants of the defunct Lookout at Bullet Hole Road (!) or the Noxon exit ( Where did “Noxon” come from? The sign was just there one day, right? Palindromes (good word) always sound fake.). Upshot - I’m sure you’ll sympathize.  You’ve driven and ‘lived’ the road yourselves, no need for me to die to showing it to you again.
Rural Intelligence StyleWe aren’t the only ones admiring the views. There was a rash of UFO sighting in the 1980s. To quote witness Ed Burns, “Then the craft seemed to stop.  The different colored lights seemed to go off, and just the white lights seemed to stay on.  It was hovering a bit.  It was just there looking like it was observing us as we were observing it.”

“This guy I was talking to—I was rambling on to him about how excited I was about this strange craft—never answered me. He looked at me once and then glanced up at the craft.”

Mr. Burns, perhaps what that man was not saying was , “Shut the F’ up, Man!! We’re about to be abducted by F’ing aliens!!!!

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Which of these guys is the loquacious Ed Burns….?
OK, admonishment time.  Don’t speed on the Taconic. Even if you see a UFO.  It’s too busy these days.  We have to slow down.

Safety aside, ‘in this economy’ (blech – stop talking about it…), there is the (potential) expense of speeding. Multiple municipalities seem to want a bit ‘o the speeding ticket proceeds action, and there are cops galore.  Rumor has it Westchester is pretty free and easy, but once you cross into Dutchess and Columbia, slow down.  I suggest keeping it under 70 mph.  The one speeding ticket I’ve gotten was for 78 (‘gettin’ down’ with Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” didn’t help matters…I didn’t hear the si-reen).  Getting it knocked back to under 75 mph cost a bundle in lawyers hours but I felt it was worth the effort; 20 miles over the limit and the ‘points’ rise exponentially.

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The good old days.  No way that horse could catch our car.
I got pulled over another time. There was a weird convergence of traffic and in an innocent effort to expedite matters, I passed/pulled in front of a cop (he’d sneaked in line).  Not a good move. He pulls me over (very Village People—tall, handsome black guy in full Captain’s highway patrol drag—even those high riding boots. Hot).  He says “You passed me??”, shaking his head like that had never happened before. Another cop pulls up.  (Hermes mutters, “Oh great. Back-up…”)  The Captain leaves, sorta huffy I thought, and the new cop (not Village People material) steps up and says, incredulously, “You passed the Captain??”  I realize at that point some law enforcement protocol had been seriously breached.  “He said to let you off.”  Like the frontier American Indians, the State Troopers won’t harm the retarded.

Now that I think about it, I guess I’ve been pulled over a few times. Once this nice young man let me off with an invented seat-belt infraction to save us the consequences of a Moving Violation.  I said to Hermes after, “He was nice to us because he was gay”.  HM looks at me like I am mad. “He was wearing a lavender tie. What straight cop wears a lavender tie?” Turns out New York State Troopers do—with matching hat bands.  OK – get this – the purple is a reference by the uniform’s designer to the Roman Praetorian Guard. Whoever thought up that one?  Gay.

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Nice tie! Such a handsome couple.  Great body language.
Anyway, traffic tickets aside, our Taconic is dangerous and us regular users have to respect the Sunday Drivers and ease up a bit.  As the years pass there is more and more traffic – and truth be told, I find that if I go 60 mph or if I go 70 mph we pretty much get home at the same time (Oh noooo!!  A math ‘word problem’!  No way I’m going to figure that out. I’m still haunted by New Math).  Upshot - It ain’t the Autobahn and it’s dangerous and rude to drive aggressively.

Another bit o’ road advice.  My youthful Texas driving experiences were, safe to say, extensive.  I had 14-year-old friends with cars. I cringe. We were so bad .  Texans drove everywhere for anything…five hours to Dallas or Nuevo Laredo—no problem. Two hours to Houston to get your pants shortened—d’accord.  This resulted in useful knowledge (for example, travel with ‘ponies’; the beer stays cool longer than in a big can…).  Today’s advice is: if your car is disabled, it is best to walk away from it and wait for help elsewhere.  Leave the car.  Seems parked cars are more likely to be sideswiped.  Like a moth to a flame, passing cars gravitate to the lame one.  Oddly makes sense…And I’ve seen it happen. True.

Enough happy stories! The National Register of Historic Places and I agree—the Taconic State Parkway is a treasure.  —Carey Maloney

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 08/05/09 at 07:36 AM • Permalink