Time to get in the car. Grab a seat by the window, and settle in. This is going to be a long, long blog post.
The good news? You don’t have to buckle up if you want. This is 1975, you see.
Specifically, it’s Friday, May 23, 1975. My grandparents and great-grandma are about to spend (almost) 10 hours (mostly) in a car, driving from the southwestern edge of Connecticut to (almost) the shores of Lake Ontario.
And we’re all going to ride with them, as I re-create the sights and sounds of an all-day interstate car trip with the Blumenau family elders as faithfully as I can.
Don’t worry — you’ll get a chance to pee.
Your vehicle for the trip will be a 1969 Ford Fairlane 500, somewhere between cream and pale green in color. It was extensively described in this earlier post, if you want to go have a look at it. It’s reliable and well-kept, though the vinyl upholstery might get a little squirmworthy after seven or eight hours on a sunny day. There is, of course, no air conditioning.
(My grandpa — he’ll do all the driving — has one of those plastic seat inserts that cab drivers use to get just the tiniest bit of airspace between one’s arse and the vinyl. Being The Man has its perks.)
Your fellow passengers will be my grandmother, Corine, in the front seat and my great-grandma, Pauline (known in the family as Grossee, short for the German Grossmutter) in the back. There’s plenty of room; you can stretch your legs.
A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step on the gas pedal.
And this journey starts on the back roads — specifically, on Long Ridge Road (a.k.a. Connecticut Route 104), which my grandfather takes across the Rippowam and Mianus rivers and over the state line, roughly 13 miles to the little town of Bedford, New York.
Once in wealthy Westchester County, the roads gradually start to get bigger. State Route 172 westbound from Bedford feeds into Route 684 northbound, which connects in turn to Interstate 84.
I-84 wends westbound through the quiet southern chunk of New York state between Westchester County and Woodstock, occasionally watched over by wary staties in ungainly yellow-and-blue Dodge Monacos. The Fairlane does nothing to attract their attention, and they take no notice of it.
Doing a responsible 60 mph or so, the Fairlane crosses the north-south Taconic Parkway in the company of Ramblers and Mercurys, then sits in a bottleneck until it finally gets a chance to soar over the Hudson River on the 12-year-old but already overcrowded Newburgh-Beacon Bridge.
Around this time, you start to notice that the ride lacks for interpersonal stimulation.
My grandfather is largely content to focus on his duties as driver. My great-grandma — while ordinarily affable — clams up during car trips, reluctant to do anything that might distract the driver. And my grandmother’s bursts of chattiness are hindered by her deafness and the engine noise, which conspire to turn any conversation into an adventure.
For a time, the putative conversation turns to the Blumenaus’ beloved grandchildren — one four-and-a-half, the other not yet two — who are waiting for them in western New York. The kids are still at ages when life consists of one big discovery after another, and the members of the traveling party look forward to hearing about the latest.
At the otherwise unremarkable downstate town of Middletown, N.Y., my grandpa turns onto New York State Route 17.
Route 17 carries the big cream-colored car north through Catskills towns like Wurtsboro, Monticello and Liberty. Even at this late date, it is possible to see both billboards for Borscht Belt resorts and the fading resorts themselves from the highway. Billboards for Monticello Raceway are also frequent, some of which feature neon horses waiting for nightfall to come out and trot.
Route 17 flirts with the Pennsylvania state line in the towns of Hancock and Deposit, where my father was stranded for a night in April 1972 by an unseasonally heavy storm en route to Stamford to play organ at my Uncle T.J.’s wedding. No doubt that story comes up among the travelers.
Route 17 meets Route 81 North near the city of Binghamton, and my grandpa turns onto still another major interstate. Traffic is again heavy in spots: It’s Memorial Day weekend, and even in the early afternoon, people are trying to get somewhere else.
By this time, you and your fellow occupants of the Fairlane are hungry and need a break. Once back on a big highway, you start looking for an opportunity to get off the road. (Being frugal Yankees, my grandparents and great-grandmother have packed their own lunches, so the enticements of McDonald’s hold no appeal to them.)
Unfortunately, the nearest rest stop on northbound I-81 is several miles behind you, just north of the New York-Pennsylvania line. You have to wait 30-odd miles until the town of Homer, near the colleges-and-farms burg of Cortland, for a proper rest area.
Once there, you hit the bathroom, claim a shady picnic table and settle down to your delayed repast — ham sandwiches on white bread with mayonnaise, apples, and a thermos full of lemonade. The family chats and eats without hurry, oblivious to the cars and trucks grinding past to their own destinations. You make a note to pack some sriracha for the return trip, to lend your sammich something resembling flavor.
At some length, everyone bundles themselves back into the waiting Fairlane. The windows have been closed, and the air has become hot and thick inside, and scented with vinyl. Fighting the urge to drowse, the family sets off again.
But only for a short time. This is 1975, after all, and you’re riding in an American car with at least a V6 engine in stop-start traffic. So my grandfather grabs the first opportunity to pull off the highway again and refill his tank at some small-town gas station, perhaps in a town like Homer, Tully or Preble. He pays cash.
The Fairlane creeps north gradually toward Syracuse. It is roughly 5:15 p.m. by the time you reach the Salt City, and Memorial Day traffic combines with the regular Friday-afternoon drive-time exodus to choke the roads.
The worst of it is leaving the city — not coming into it, as the Fairlane is — but as my grandpa hangs his final left turn onto the New York State Thruway westbound, the pace of traffic slows a bit.
From Syracuse it is a straight shot westbound to Rochester, the last real leg of the trip, roughly an hour-and-a-half in regular traffic. My grandfather, his right foot perhaps getting heavier, manages to make it in more or less that time. (Perhaps there is another bathroom break, quicker this time, somewhere along the Thruway.)
At 7 p.m. or so, as the skies hint at their eventual darkening, you get off at Thruway Exit 45, Route 490, Rochester.
And about 15 minutes later, my grandpa’s Fairlane is in the driveway of his son’s suburban home at 50 Timberbrook Lane, Penfield. A late dinner and family comforts await. The trip is over.
Get out. Stretch your legs. Relax and enjoy.
In three days or so, you’ll be doing it again, the other way.
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