COMMENTARY

Ralph Gardner Jr.: Taking on the Taconic State Parkway

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The Taste of New York store on the Taconic State Parkway sells a bounty of locally produced eggs, cheeses, honey and maple syrup, as well as providing much appreciated comfort facilities.

But what it’s lacking, and I have no doubt would sell well, are medals that attest that you’ve made it that far on the Taconic, one of the nation’s most accident-prone roadways, without suffering a scratch.

The back of the medal could be emblazoned with anything from the state bird, to the Statue of Liberty or greetings from Gov. Andrew Cuomo extolling the virtues of organic produce.

But the front of the medal is a no-brainer. It has to be what I affectionately describe as the “Wall of Death.” That’s the Depression-era stretch of parkway where the road narrows to two lanes, plunges into rugged terrain more reminiscent of the Rockies than Putnam County, and flirts with a soaring stone retaining wall, absent any guardrail, along its east side. This may be the reason the Taconic isn’t more popular; the cowardly are willing to drive miles out of their way to take the New York State Thruway instead.

It takes a special kind of person not to pull off the road — not that you can — crawl into a whimpering ball and call an Uber.

Indeed, the closest my wife and I have come to divorce is when she’s haranguing me to slow down during a pounding rain. In my defense, I’ve only grazed the guardrail once. (Fortunately, there is one separating the north- and southbound lanes.) That occurred so long ago that I was driving my teenage brother, now a middle-aged man, to his admissions interview at Vassar College.

The car, a Ford Maverick, was a lemon, so I didn’t lament shearing off the car’s side even though I learned my lesson. Never get cocky on the Taconic.

The Taconic State Parkway, looking north, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
The Taconic State Parkway, looking north, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Mastering the parkway, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, takes many years and may indeed be impossible since you’re battling not just such potential risk factors as its design, darkness, renegade deer and the occasional deluge, but also centrifugal forces, the very laws of physics.

As I tell my children, by now veteran Taconic drivers themselves, there’s no humiliation in hitting the brakes, though chances are there’s an SUV the size of a Sherman tank tailgating you.

It’s also prudent and even amusing, when you’re battling one of the Taconic’s iconic hairpin curves and there’s no one else around, to employ both lanes and the shoulders. You get to fantasize that you’re an Indy car driver.

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Simply stated, the Taconic, proposed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1925, wasn’t built for an age when vehicles, such as pickup trucks, are as wide as the parkway’s lanes and drivers treat the speed limit more like a polite suggestion than the law.

Also, back when the road was constructed, there were far fewer of the distractions that we face today. For example: Vehicles careening across lanes as their drivers search the internet for their favorite podcast or check how many comments their latest Instagram post generated.

However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the Taconic has become marginally safer over the years. It’s now three lanes through much of Westchester County, allowing for a greater margin of error. And most of those at-grade intersections that turned crossing the parkway into a game of Russian roulette have been removed.

The former intersection at Miller Hill Road accounted for my only real collision when a motorist drove across the road, lost her nerve and came to a complete stop, blocking both northbound lanes and making contact inevitable. Fortunately, no one was hurt, though our then-infant daughter was roused from her nap and started to wail.

Yet for all its idiosyncrasies and imperfections — and I haven’t even gotten to the speeding tickets that, abetted by the Taconic’s roller coaster theatrics, are virtually inevitable and turn the parkway into a toll road — I wouldn’t trade it for any other route departing New York City.

It’s the city’s only exit ramp that isn’t perennially jammed and once you clear the walls of death — there’s more than one — around East Fishkill, it feels as if you’ve taken flight, broken the surly bonds of the 9-to-5 world. The weekend has officially begun.

If you can manage to avoid traveling during rush hour, that sensation occurs from the moment you hit the West Side Highway and then the Saw Mill River Parkway — our preferred escape route — until the Taconic concludes near the Mass Pike. That’s because you’re immersed in nature all the way. The Taconic is basically a linear 104-mile park, without the benches and water fountains.

And returning to town Sunday night, you don’t feel your vacation is over until, in our case, we approach that crosswalk at the corner of 96th Street and Broadway. In 60 seconds, you’re exposed to more people than you probably were all weekend.

The rush of humanity shocks the senses because the Taconic isn’t just a road, it’s a state of mind, an abbreviated adventure vacation; it’s even loving in a passive-aggressive sort of way. After people watching until the light turns green, you’re almost tempted to perform a U-turn and head back to the country.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The New Yorker. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com.


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