I have an old roadmap of New York that was put out by the Shell Oil Company in 1946. "Tour with confidence," it says, under the familiar scalloped-shell logo.
In those days, you could pull into any gas station and pick up a map for free, but this one was published long before I was able to drive. It covers northern New Jersey and parts of New York as far north as Bear Mountain State Park. The paper is brown with age, and there are tears along the folds, but every once in a while, I open it up just to relive one of my favorite memories.
In the summer of 1958, my friend George and I decided to ride our bikes to Bear Mountain. There was only one drawback: we would have to cover 42 miles, round-trip, and be back home by 7 pm, so we wouldn't miss American Bandstand.
For anyone under 30, American Bandstand was one of the first modern music shows on tv. It was hosted by Dick Clark, and featured recording artists like Bobby Rydell, Paul Anka, and The Drifters. If I’m not mistaken, we were anxious to get home that night to see Clarence "Frogman" Henry. It was the only opportunity we had to see these artists "live," and the Saturday night shows were always special.
On the day of our trip, we left around 7 am, and headed north. We didn't have much money, so we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, wrapped them up in brown paper bags, along with our bathing suits, and tied them to the backs of our bikes. Looking over the roadmap we were using, we figured we could stop along the way for sodas.
We took what seemed to be the easiest route, and sometime around the middle of the morning, we ended up in a very rural area, farther from home than we’d ever been on our bikes. We were somewhere up in the mountains above Haverstraw, New York, with beautiful meadows and rolling hills all around us. At one point, the road took a natural bend to the right, and I remember heading east toward the sun, before we came to a rock quarry with a crane and a couple of conveyor belts visible just over the horizon. We must have been riding along a mountain ridge, because as we got closer to the quarry, the road made an abrupt left, ran uphill a little, and passed through a man-made notch. When we reached the top of the hill, the view in front of us was so breathtaking that we both stopped pedaling, and pulled over to the side of the road.
Off in the distance, thousands of feet below us, was the Hudson River. Patches of morning sun sparkled off the water, and we could see Route 9W, and the tops of trees and houses, and stores in the area along the river. Looking farther upstream, we could see the Bear Mountain Bridge, and the mountain itself, but what really caught our attention was the fleet of Navy ships anchored along the edge of the river. We knew right away it was the Mothball Fleet. I had passed it once on a school trip to Bear Mountain, but seeing the gleaming grey ships from our vantage point high above the river was the first time in my life that I ever encountered such a fantastic view.
There was so much to see that it took us a while to get going again. We pulled out our map and identified parts of the area below us, and then coasted down the mountain and headed north on 9W until we reached Bear Mountain. It was 12:30 in the afternoon when we got there. We ate our sandwiches under the trees in a small shaded picnic area, and then rode our bikes to the pool, where we swam for an hour, sat out in the sun, and then got dressed and started on the trip home.
On our way back, we stopped at a place called “The Snack Shop" on 9W, in the shadow of the same mountain we had crossed over earlier in the day. We had about $2.00 left between us, and had a hard time deciding what we could afford, but when the woman behind the counter asked us where we were heading, and heard our story, she made us both sandwiches and gave us sodas for free. I still remember her kindness.
The rest of the trip was easy. We made a wrong turn, but once we came to Nanuet, we took 304 and followed it down to New Jersey. It was 6:50 pm when we walked into my house, just in time to watch American Bandstand.
My mother asked me where we'd been.
"Out riding," I said, trying not to let on that we had just taken the longest bike ride of our lives. I wasn't sure what she would have said if she knew we had gone all the way to Bear Mountain and back, but after all of these years, it remains one of the most memorable experiences of my childhood.