I love New York City. But the cabbie on my right apparently is beginning to doze after 12 hours at the wheel and is squeezing me into the Volvo driven by some guy on his phone.
One wrong move in this kind of traffic, and I’ll be just another road-grimed clump of debris.
Have you ever noticed that New York is a city with a cover charge? However you arrive, you pay a fee just to get in the door: bridge tolls, tunnel tolls, airport taxes. I hear there’s a way to sneak into the Bronx from the north on a surface street without paying a toll, but that could be just a rumor.
I love New York, but sometimes you have to get the heck out. Great roads are waiting, not as far away as you’d imagine.
The ambiance is vastly different just 60 miles northwest of Times Square, as the crow flies.
Along State Route 97, just north of Port Jervis, N.Y., there’s a stretch of pavement slithering along the cliffs above the Delaware River that will have you thinking Western Europe rather than southeastern New York. A rock wall guards the edge, but there are plenty of spots to pull over and marvel at the view.
The road is a magnet for motorcyclists. On a summer weekend, bikes account for the majority of the traffic.
When you get out to Port Jervis, where New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania meet, you’ve got a choice. The Delaware Water Gap, heading south, is more famous. But it’s thronged with city escapees on summer weekends. It’s also uncomfortably close to the low-cost honeymoon land of the Poconos, where heart-shaped tubs proliferate and neon signs cast a pastel tinge on the scenery.
The Upper Delaware, north from the point where the three states meet, retains more of its natural charm as a federally managed Scenic and Recreational River.
The towns of Port Jervis and Hancock, N.Y., bookend this stretch of river and Route 97 connects them. On any summer weekend, you see brightly colored kayaks bobbing down the Delaware, along with canoes, row boats, rafts, even innertubes. If it floats, people are headed down the river on it.
The Delaware is the only major river east of the Mississippi that hasn’t been dammed. Given a few days of free time, sufficient motivation and an extra-large, waterproof bag of munchies, you could plop your butt in an innertube at Hancock and float to Trenton, N.J.
Better yet, you could ride your motorcycle.
From State Route 97 I take a side trip. Sullivan County Routes 31, 42 and 43 lead me through winding curves and forested, rolling hills.
Wildlife is plentiful. I spot two deer grazing just off the road. Adrenaline-addicted squirrels keep me on alert with road-crossing dashes. I even pass a few wild turkeys that are amazingly unruffled by my presence, barely bothering to move into the woods to avoid me.
A 12-mile run brings me to the Mongaup Valley Wildlife Management Area. The one-room building perched on the lip of the manmade lake is actually a blind for observing eagles. Inside, posters detail the bald eagle restoration project under way here.
By raising foster chicks in the area, the project brought eagles back to this part of New York. In the winter, the eagles migrate south to find unfrozen, open water on the Mongaup and Delaware rivers for fishing.
As I return to Route 97 and head north again, the road dips and weaves but rarely strays far from the water. Several bends upriver, I spot the National Park Service signs for the Roebling Bridge.
What’s the big deal about a bridge? Well, opened in 1849 as an aqueduct, it’s the oldest surviving wire suspension bridge in the nation. So you can actually ride across a bridge that once carried boats across, and above, a river.
It was necessary back in the 1800s, when barges on the Delaware & Hudson Canal carried coal from northeastern Pennsylvania to New York City, while the Delaware River was used by loggers, who floated timber downstream. Where the two crossed, the inevitable collisions spawned more fistfights than profitable commerce.
So the canal hired John Roebling to design a bridge. The bridge carried the canal across the Delaware River until the canal closed in 1898. For a while, it was a toll bridge.
Route 97 carries on northward, skipping past and through river towns such as Narrowsburg and Callicoon. On the northern part of its run, the road leaves the cliff-hugging curves far behind and tends toward gradual, sweeping bends.
The end point is Hancock, wedged into the valley where the West Branch and East Branch of the Delaware merge. The native Iroquois called this place “Chehocton,” which means “wedding of the waters.”
So what’s next?
On north into the Finger Lakes region? Or loop south on Pennsylvania Route 191 before cutting over to Callicoon on back roads?
Either way, I’m miles from Manhattan and enjoying my escape from New York.