Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Roads of the Northeast #1: Route 44/55 in New Paltz & Gardiner, NY - w/Pictures & Video

This is the first installment in a series of articles featuring the roads of the Northeast, in an attempt to help enthusiasts locate and increase their knowledge of where these roads lie and why they are great.  There's big emphasis here on bringing out the driver in those of us who live in this region, so sit back, read along, and then go for a drive!  The anecdotes that follow are meant to inform but also to entertain.  Enjoy, and report back!

Road #1 - Route 44/55 through New Paltz and Gardiner, NY

There's a smell in the air.  This high in the mountains, a smell this strong could be a number of things: pollen blowing in the wind, dead animal in the woods, you name it.  But no, it's not natural; this smells mechanical.  And, much to my dismay, it's coming from my Chevy Avalanche's stopping hardware, spewing its tears in the form of the horrible smell of burning brakes, the result of hustling the vehicle through the mountains at a rate no 6,000-pound SUV/pickup-thing should be driven.  Bringing the Avy was a double-edged sword, one head bearing the sad duty of moving the last of my furniture out of the college apartment in the town I called home for the previous four years, the other head showing its teeth and fighting every bit of the way as I pushed the truck to its physical limit, camera rolling, to create a "sense" (if you can call it that, at 1/2 the speed a proper sports car could run on the same road) of the beautiful, terrifying, and challenging Route 44/55 that twists, turns, and climbs through the famous Shawangunk Mountains outside the small, historic, "upstate" town of New Paltz.

Situated about 80 miles north of NYC on the west side of the Hudson River, New Paltz is a town famous for its Kiplinger's-ranked "best value small public university," for its historic heritage dating back to the Huguenots in the late 1600's, and, to be honest, for its reputation as a hippie haven laden with drugs and more hat-tips to the Woodstock era (the location being only an hour west) than you can or would like to count.  But make your way down Main Street, across the bridge, through the country-side, pull a right when you get to the "T" at the Mountain Brauhaus Restaurant, and you've found yourself a road worthy of every driving enthusiast's attention, time, and praise.

Think, for a moment, of what makes the perfect road.  Hairpins?  Elevation changes?  Long sweepers, banked corners, natural slaloms, decreasing radius turns?  Sights, scenery, sections to test your brakes and sections to test your go-pedal?  If you're imagining your favorite road, you know what I'm talking about.  It's like the Pythagorean Theorem for driving: just the right amount of each and it all adds up, but too much of one and it's not perfect.  The road we have here is just that: the Pythagorean Theorem of roads.

Up in the scenic mountains known to the locals as the "Gunks" lies a stretch of pavement that combines the best of all of these into one beautiful, well-planned road that serves as a great drive and only gets better the harder you work your car.  Starting at the bottom on the New Paltz side with the hairpin as the beginning, your smile only gets bigger and bigger until you exit through what almost seems like a cloud-level passageway into the Hudson Valley.  Toward the end of the scenic area that's filled with parks and hiking spots, the road makes one final quick climb and you come through a small cut-out of the rocks that brings you out onto the backside of the mountain, revealing the entire valley hiding on the other side.  Once you're out past this section, turn around and drive it in the opposite direction, with the hairpin at the end.  It's just as, if not more, rewarding.

But what about in-between Heaven's Gate and the hairpin?  A slew of banked turns, long sweepers, and the perfect combination of technical and flat-out sections will bring out the best, and the worst, in whatever it is you decide to attack the mountain behind the wheel of.  Hang out at one of the overlooks or pull-offs and you're guaranteed to see a fair share of sports bikes that pass by, their riders enjoying the scenery and surfaces on their two-wheelers.  Occasionally you can see a car-lover blasting up the mountain in his toy, exhaust echoing off the geologic gold-mine of sedimentary rock that serves as the "walls," but beware of the tourist who is driving painstakingly slow trying to take in the sights.

If you're in the area, spending the time to travel the length of this road is an absolute must.  Drive it in the spring in a track car, drive it in the summer in a convertible, drive it in the winter in a Subaru, but save the drive in the fall for the car you call your favorite.  Attacking the curves and climbs in your most beloved vehicle makes you enjoy its company more and more, and the layout enables you to push the car in a way few other roads allow you to.  The scenery, with the wide variety of foliage that creates the amazing rainbow of colors the Hudson Valley is famous for, along with the way the clouds play with the sun and its shadows, is stunning and utterly beautiful.  Ironic, isn't it, that high in the mountains above a town known for being able to get you high lies its true treasure.

Turn your speakers up to hear a little of the Avalanche's exhaust

This last bit is a personal section and goes back to those brakes that are cooling off as I shoot photos for this article.  Readers, forgive me, for I have sinned: I've driven a five-seat passenger vehicle with ten inches of ground clearance as if it were a track toy.  Though if the motto, "it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than it is to drive a fast car slow" were to be true, this is the prime example.  I sincerely wish I could have driven a faster, more appropriate car for the video, but hell, this is what driving is all about: pushing your vehicle.  My Chevy Avalanche was, despite 120K miles and the truck (YES AN AVALANCHE IS A TRUCK) having seen better days, it was a more than willing dance partner considering what it is.  Oh, and remember that some people like to drive vehicles the way they aren't meant to be driven.  This is the opposite case of guy who buys a Ferrari and never goes over the speed limit and never tries to put the pedal through the floorboard and never uses it the way Enzo would have wanted.  I love my Avalanche, and if I want to drive it like a sports car, nothing is going to stop me...especially on a road as good as this.

Bonus find for this road: read up on "Shaft 2A" and plan enough time to go for a hike.  You have to park at the end of the dirt track (getting there is half the adventure!), find the river on the other side of the valley that looks like it could be in The Hills Have Eyes, and follow the river up-stream for a good while, but the payoff is a breathtaking 90-foot waterfall.  The best part?  After a few hours of hiking, you can still enjoy the road on your way back into town.  Better days are hard to find.

- Ross, 7/31/13

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