The New York countryside blurs as we head west on U.S. Route 20 into the Finger Lakes.
Route 20, with roots dating to trails blazed before the Revolutionary War, provides welcome relief from the modern monotony of Interstate 81. Greek Revival homes from the early 18th century share space with 1950s motor courts along this blue highway. It’s a reminder that until the New York State Thruway opened in 1954, Route 20 was THE major east-west artery in this part of the country.
The history of the Finger Lakes predates the history of motorcycling by about 2 million years. This distinctive line of lakes across central New York was formed when glaciers advanced across the Allegheny Plateau during the last Ice Age, carving deep trenches into the region’s river valleys. When the glaciers retreated, they left a series of 11 long, narrow lakes that run from north to south, as if giant hands dragged their fingers through the earth.
This geography means that most east-west traffic bypasses the lakes on either the New York State Thruway to the north or Interstates 86 and 88 to the south, leaving the space between the lakes to those seeking a quieter pace where ties to the past linger.
It’s still early in the morning when we roll into Skaneateles (scan-ee-AT-uh-liss). Perched at the northern tip of the lake of the same name, the town looks like it was plucked from New England. It has the elegant air of a place where the wealthy visited for recreation in centuries past.
At the center of town is the waterfront Shotwell Park, where we watch a group of scuba divers gather near their charter boat on the pier. As we admire the view across the lake, clouds begin to roll in, hinting that rain may be near. Rain begins to fall by the time we roll into the larger town of Auburn, at the end of Owasco Lake.
A wrong turn off Route 20 puts us a block south on Genesee Street, and then we reach the Seward house. It’s the home of William H. Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state during the Civil War and the architect of the 1867 Alaska purchase. The brick mansion, Seward’s residence from 1824 until his death in 1872, opened its doors to the public in 1955 after Seward’s grandson donated the house and its contents to a local foundation.
The home is packed with unexpected bits of history, from Seward’s extensive Civil War-era library to a collection of souvenirs from his world travels. These include an Aleutian boat made of animal skins and a gold ring made from the last spike driven in the first transcontinental railroad.
The strangest display of all, though, is the blood-stained sheet left from a bizarre and nearly successful assassination attempt against Seward the same night Lincoln was killed. Despite the eerie violence of that historic episode, the Seward House provides a welcome break from the rain still splattering the windows of the old mansion.
At Seneca Falls, with the rain behind us, we pick up State Route 414 and point the bikes south toward Watkins Glen, home to the famous racetrack and our base for the next couple of days.
We meander south between the two largest Finger Lakes, Cayuga on the east and Seneca on the west. The twins are in their element, loping down the road past Amish farms, roadside produce stands and some of the many wineries that dot the region.
The riding gets even better when 414 curves west to meet the shore of Seneca Lake, just past the burg of Lodi. Enticing views of the pristine lake open up on our right as we pass breaks in the trees.
Then we come across an unexpected sight—Hector Falls, a curtain of water tumbling down a rocky wall less than 50 feet from the edge of the road. We stop for a while and listen to the roar of the falls.
An even more breathtaking sight awaits just 2 miles up the road at our destination for the day, the town of Watkins Glen. It’s Watkins Glen State Park, and it’s smack dab in the middle of this quaint little upstate village.
It’s not the biggest of parks, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in sheer beauty. At the core of the park is a massive gorge carved through a sedimentary rock cliff over thousands of years by Glen Creek. Fed by the waters of nearby Seneca Lake, the creek tumbles down no fewer than 19 waterfalls as it drops more than 500 feet in elevation over just a mile and a half.
After a restful night’s sleep, we set out for Hammondsport, at the base of nearby Keuka Lake, to find a piece of motorcycling history.
It’s here that a 22-year-old bicycle racer named Glenn Curtiss, who is now in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame, opened a shop in 1900. A year later, the budding young mechanical genius fitted a primitive single-cylinder engine sourced from a foundry in nearby Buffalo to one of his bicycles, creating his first motorcycle. Unhappy with the power plant, Curtiss designed his own engine, which powered his first commercial motorcycle, the 1902 Hercules.
The following year, Curtiss introduced a new model, fitted with a lightweight V-twin, again of his own design. The 5-horsepower motor propelled the machine at sustained speeds in excess of 40 mph, an alarming velocity for the roads of the day, and cemented Curtiss’ reputation as an engineer.
Today, the Glenn Curtiss Museum, on state Route 54 in Hammondsport, is one of the few places to see a collection of his motorcycles. Half a dozen of them, including a 1903 Hercules, a 1908 twin fitted with a wicker sidecar, and a replica of the 1907 land-speed bike, are on display amid numerous aircraft, engines and artifacts.
Leaving the museum, we head up Route 54A through Hammondsport for a lap around Keuka Lake. This circuit provides some of the most enjoyable riding yet—the torquey twins pull us easily through the rolling hills that surround the lake, as we pass winery after winery.
Then it’s time to leave the Glen and ride back toward the interstate and the modern world. But we know that the simple joys of motorcycling’s past are just a twist of the throttle away.