138 Road Signs
Its beginning is less than a mile from my favorite rocking chair on earth. The roadway of my dreams. Not far from the place where I find contentment at the end of a ride in a warm fire, a small garage with the Fat Boy parked inside and a fresh cup of tea. This rocking chair so close to my most intimate stretch of motorcycling road, I can look out the window and see its ascent to the top of the mountain pass it courses. An upward climb on cracked pavement five miles to the summit of two converging peaks complete with a wild river cascading the conjoined cliffs that separate them. It could be anywhere on earth for you or your riding pals. I hope if you are reading this, you have picked this ribbon of highway for yourself. That favorite ride. Be it a mile or a hundred miles it should exist on a map or existentially in your heart or if you are like me, both. This roadway travelling the course of the river’s easterly ascending bank was first conceived by Mohawk Indians leading from valley floor to mountain top above and 10 miles east from the bank of the grand Hudson River. At the bottom of this five mile stretch of pavement lays the small country hamlet of Palenville, New York. The village where Washington Irving concocted the reputed resting place of old Rip Van Winkle. Not far from where his “Headless Horseman” terrorized villagers in 1820. The top of this ribbon of highway being the hamlet of Haines Falls, a tourist destination and head of the ‘Kaaterskill Clove’ so anointed by the Dutch that settled the area some 400 years ago. An oft painted subject of the likes of Bierstadt, Church, Durand and Cropsey all now hanging in the Louvre, the Met, the Smithsonian and like cultured venues across the globe. Painted when MY roadway was but a simple horse path upward.
Originally a trading route cut into deep hemlock and birch its modern progeny a two lane road separated by two yellow lines, 1 lane up, 1 lane down. The road’s course occasionally dotted for passing lumbering delivery trucks or cattle rigs. Its modern iteration conceived by assumedly educated engineers with little to work with, given the topography scattered with stream crossings and misty waterfalls. I first ascended the pass in youth seated in a family sedan. I do not recall it, but every often travelled road is navigated a first time. My passes up and down this road by my calculation number in the thousands. Mostly now by motorbike with no purpose but to run the road and its lovely sweeping arcs. Living at one end and working or schooling at the other in childhood and adolescence its beauty never depreciated for me. In my mind’s eye, not much has changed on this road in the 40 or so years I’ve travelled it. Sturdy guardrails have replaced thick logs ended by large rocks. Stone bridges over storm culverts have given way to modern metal spans with expansion joints and steel cables. The roadway curves with their ‘Tail of The Dragon’ style turns about 50 times in the 5 miles of my favorite section. It makes no difference to me up or down, either way a delicious recipe for motorcycling. The several thousand feet of elevation change is simply a bonus. My starkest recollection of the trip started in the 1960’s is the elevation change with the associated inner ear popping in back of my parent’s car, both up and down. That odd sensation has not changed. Nor has the cure, chewing gum and swallowing to ‘pop’ the ears! We all know the popping sensation. It comes from riding a tall elevator in a downtown building or in an airplane on takeoff or most apropos, a motorcycle ride up a tall mountain.
I awoke at its base in my little lodge one morning last summer and it called to me. The roadway begged to be navigated by virtue of the perfect weather, the roaring water flowing past my bedroom window or the light mid week traffic meandering up it. I leathered up, thumbed my starter, and pulled onto its course with rapid breath and fast beating heart. I went up it then u turned and went down it at leisurely pace and repeated that process for half the day. Pulling over at pull offs and wide shoulders to breathe in the awesome beauty. What struck me after several passes was something I did not recall from my youth. Something utterly modern not found in the deepest recesses of my memories of MY road. It became crystal clear and then yelled out to me as illuminated by the sun and increasingly highlighted with each turn. Signs!!! Lots of them. Not billboards or advertising but municipal signage. My road courses through the Catskill Park, a forever wild forest and no commercial signage is allowed. Government signs, seemed everywhere. I turned to town elders and was informed that what I noticed is a development of the last 25 years. Not much long after I first ran the road’s course on 2 wheels sometime in my teens, they began to magically appear. I moved away for college and I do not recall the invasion on my trips back. The SIGNS, metal squares and rectangles yellow and brown and black and white. “Slow Down,” “Bridge Ices,” “Speed Limit,” “Sharp Curve,” “Caution, Falling Rock,” “Dangerous Pass,” “Narrow Bridge Ahead,” “No Parking,” “No Standing,” “No Fishing Here,” “No Jumping Off Bridge,” “Sharp Curves Next 2 miles,” and so on. As a matter of fact, these modern day warnings, admonishments and general reminders that your government knows better, were everywhere. I mean exactly 158 times everywhere. I went up once again and counted. All curves, straights, banks, cliff, bridges, and descents, containing one or two or sometimes even three in a row, admonishing signs. A general observation of speed, danger, direction and location dreamt up, rubber stamped, manufactured, approved and installed by a government concerned that we in some way will fail to think for ourselves. All the while completely robbing the experience of its purity and beauty. Stripping the observer of that natural experience sought after by Frederick Church, the painter, or Bob Dylan the singer/biker. I found myself wanting to scream in indignation “I can see the curve,” “I know its steep,” “I know where to brake” and even “why would I jump off this bridge?” Then again, perhaps there is a family carload of adventure seeking travelers. Somewhere behind me, kids buckled in back seats, staring in awe over the cliffs and down into the foamy water into gorges, ears popping – a Mom handing gum out to awestruck kids – “here, chew this, your ears will feel better.” I hope so. -Irish
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