From inauspicious beginnings in the marshlands and vineyards of the Lake Erie "grape belt" at the state's far western tip, the portion of US-20 that runs across upstate New York cuts a wide, scenic swath through a diverse terrain of flatlands, rippling hills, and spring-fed lakes.
This well-maintained, mostly four-lane road glides surreptitiously through four centuries of history, slicing through vast Dutch patroonships, serene Shaker colonies, blood-soaked Revolutionary War battlefields, Native American hunting grounds, the birthplace of the women's movement, Underground Railroad hideouts, and the long-calmed waters of the once-mighty Erie Canal. Sparkling baseball diamonds, dairy bars by the dozens, petrified creatures, stately longhouses, abandoned motor courts, prancing wooden horses, off-key nose whistles, and succulent, grill-toughened hot dogs are just a few of the countless other reasons to slow down and pull over early and often as you cross the Empire State.
The "Romance Road," as labeled by a 1940s travel writer, follows several old Iroquois Indian trails as it nudges its way through the western Niagara Frontier, then traces the 19th-century Great Western Turnpike through the Finger Lakes region before easing down into the historically rich Hudson Valley near Albany, where it begins a gradual ascent of the Taconic Mountains and Berkshire foothills that hug the Massachusetts border. All the way across the state, US-20 roughly parallels the crowded, rumbling I-90 New York Thruway toll road--a necessary evil that lures most of the diesel-spewing, view-obscuring 18-wheel traffic away from placid US-20 with a 65 mph speed limit and the promise of uneventful, predictable fast-food rest-stop dining experiences and fluorescent-lit motels.
Westfield: New York's Wine Country
The salt-whitened, snowplow-scraped roadway and endless, slightly hilly expanse of shaggy, kudzu-like vineyards on the south side of the road continue for a dozen monotonous miles between the state line and proud, hardworking Westfield (pop. 3,500), known locally as Vine City because of its large Italian-American grape-growing community and its proximity to some of Chautauqua County's finest wineries. The Johnson Estate Winery (716/326-2191 or 800/DRINK-NY) and Vetter Vineyards (716/326-3100) are within a goblet's throw of Main Street (US-20), as are the waterfalls and hiking trails of nearby Chautauqua Gorge, seven sylvan miles long and 100 feet deep.
The tangy Concord grape was introduced to the region in 1859, but it wasn't until 1897 that Dr. Charles Welch and his father moved to Westfield and founded the factory that led to Westfield's long-standing nickname, "The Grape Juice Capital of the World." Though many of the canneries have since vanished, Welch Foods still maintains a large plant and its corporate offices on N. Portage Street, on the western edge of Westfield's compact downtown.
Across I-90 on waterfront Hwy-5, Lake Erie's Barcelona Harbor is home to the landmark Barcelona Lighthouse, which was the first lighthouse in the world to be lit by natural gas when constructed in 1830. Drop by Jack's Barcelona Drive-In for fast food or the Barcelona Harbor House for finer, sit-down fare with a lakeside view. The no-frills Main Diner back in downtown Westfield is a pleasant place to grab a cup of coffee and sandwich while watching the pickup trucks cruise up and down the several-block Main Street.
The Sleepy Hollow Motel at 7254 E. Main Road (716/326-3266) and the Candlelight Lodge at 143 E. Main Street (716/326-2830) are two low-priced lodging options. The what-you-see-is-what-you-get Theater Motel and Restaurant on the eastern edge of town lets you stare at an abandoned drive-in movie theater, grab a greasy bite to eat, and flop in a budget ranch motel room with a vineyard view without having to move your car.
US-20 trucks through the cherry orchards and vineyards of Portland and Brocton before ebbing into the center of neatly maintained Fredonia (pop. 10,400), the namesake of the Marx Brothers' beloved Duck Soup homeland. Site of the first natural gas well in the U.S. (1825), Fredonia was also the birthplace of the agricultural Grange (1868) and--ironically, for a town in the heart of the western New York Wine Belt--the Women's Christian Temperance Union (1873).
Downtown Fredonia boasts the gracefully shaded, New England-style Barker Commons town square, bordered by a restored opera house and a host of Greek revival, Italianate, Victorian, and gothic 19th-century commercial buildings. A stroll down tree-lined Central Avenue to the north of Main Street (US-20) reveals an equally diverse array of turn-of-the-century homes, which stand in marked contrast to the sterile modernity you encounter up the road in the several I.M. Pei-designed buildings that define the State University of New York (SUNY) Fredonia campus, site of the Buffalo Bills' summer training camp.
A Days Inn near I-90 and the restored, veranda-fronted White Inn at 52 E. Main Street near Barker Commons (716/672-2103) are two distinctly different answers to the proverbial lodging question. The White Inn's stately dining room may tempt you, as may the Barker Brew Co. at 34 W. Main Street, which offers slablike deli sandwiches and an alehouse full of great microbrews in a restored 1860 building fronting the commons.
East of Fredonia, the soot from the city's Red Wing shipping works seems to cast a drab pallor over the landscape, which deteriorates into an unkempt maze of vineyards and dilapidated barns bearing badly faded Mail Pouch tobacco billboards. The vineyards suddenly vanish east of dirty, downcast Silver Creek, replaced by the thick stands of scruffy pine trees and cigarette vendor stands that crowd the roadside along US-20's two-mile passage through the northeastern corner of the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation.
Eden: Original American Kazoo Company
US-20 bumps up north along the lakeshore through several miles of scraggly forest, and you won't miss a thing by taking the I-90/NY Thruway to exit 57A, which lands you on a two-lane backroad bound right for sleepy downtown Eden (pop. 3,088). Eden, a make-your-own-music lover's paradise that lays claim to an annual summer Corn Days festival, is home to the one-and-only Original American Kazoo Company museum, gift shop, and factory at 8703 S. Main Street. Established in 1916, the company boasts the world's only still-operating metal kazoo factory (most of the plastic ones are stamped out these days in China and Hong Kong). A restored, two-story clapboard house contains an all-too-country-store-cute gift shop and a tiny free museum offering an up-close-and-personal view of the factory's belt-and-pulley metal kazoo production line and the opportunity to sign a petition aimed at getting the kazoo declared America's national instrument.
After viewing a short, jumpy video extolling the virtues of one of the few musical instruments invented in the U.S., visitors can gaze at a cramped display of antique kazoos, ranging from an original wooden model to the bottle-shaped kazoos churned out to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition. A large sign chimes in with some fascinating kazoo-related trivia, finally putting to rest those long-vexing questions concerning the most requested tune played on the kazoo ("Far, Far Away"), the most popular kazoo (the slide trombone), the largest kazoo ever made (the 43-pound Kazoophony, replete with four mouth pieces, resonator, and cymbal), and the number of kazoo bands registered in the U.S. (15,000 and still counting). You can pick up an adenoid-popping nose flute, a trombone kazoo, and a variety of noisemakers in the gift shop on your way out, or grab some wax paper, rubber bands, and an empty toilet paper or paper towel roll and invent your own kazoo.
A thick slice of suburban sprawl in the shadow of Rich Stadium (home of the Buffalo Bills football team), Orchard Park offers the culinary pleasures of the Donuts and Cream doughnut stand, 6494 E. Lake Avenue. In the heart of Orchard Park, dive into a salty, crusty sandwich full of a Buffalo specialty, beef on weck, or down a plate of fiery chicken wings (another local delicacy) at Eckl's, 4936 Ellicott Road, an area supper club institution since 1934; it's only open in the evening, so plan your route accordingly.
Founded as a Niagara frontier outpost in the early 1800s, Buffalo (pop. 328,100) exploded into a bustling shipping, manufacturing, and railroad center after the 1825 opening of the Erie Canal made the city the linchpin of trade between the Great Lakes, Canada, and the eastern seaboard. The departure of many factories and corporate headquarters to warmer, cheap-labor climes, has dented Buffaloans' self-confidence over the past several decades. Added to this are the legendarily difficult winters, which leave their mark in the many potholes and bumps pockmarking the city's concrete street grid; not to mention the Bills' seeming inability to win a Super Bowl. But the optimistic made-in-Buffalo spirit captured so eloquently in Verlyn Klinkenborg's 1990 magical portrait of Polish-American bartender Eddie Wenzek, The Last Fine Time, lives on in the city's burly, passionate sports fans, spunky local music scene, spicy local eateries, and ample cultural resources.
A 10-minute drive from downtown up wide, tree-lined Delaware Avenue takes you past the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's extensive collection of Picassos, de Koonings, and Pollocks, alongside the grassy expanses and ponds of Delaware Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect for New York City's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park. You'll also see the marble neoclassical structure that has housed the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society museum (Tues.-Sat. 10 AM-5 PM, Sunday noon-5 PM; $3.50) since its construction in 1901 for the historic Pan-American Exposition. The non-air-conditioned gallery can be a bit stifling on hot summer afternoons, but the wonderful "Made in Buffalo" and "Dividing the Land" local manufacturing and immigration exhibits should satisfy most of your local history thirsts.
Bookhounds will want to brave the leaning towers of tattered, bargain-priced old hardbacks leering from the dusty, grease-streaked windows of the dense, rewarding Circular One Bookstore, 799 Elmwood Avenue in the casually bohemian Elmwood Village neighborhood. A few blocks north, you can get the lowdown on the hottest local band or live music club at the venerable Home of the Hits record store at 1105 Elmwood Avenue--the place to pick up the city's biweekly Arts Voice for a listing of local clubs, films, and offbeat attractions, most of which are found in the funky, historic Allentown neighborhood along Allen Street.
The infamous Anchor Bar, "Birthplace of Buffalo Wings," is at 1047 Main Street on the southeastern edge of downtown. Skip the bland Italian entrees in favor of the bar's much-hyped specialty--the saucy, fiery, deep-fried chicken wings, now a great American fern bar cliche. Combine this required tourist activity with the more subtle pleasures of a AAA minor league baseball game at the Buffalo Bisons' beautiful 10,000-seat Pilot Field (716/852-4700), tucked away downtown at the corner of Swan and Washington Streets.
Most of the cheapest motels are clustered east of town around I-90 and the Buffalo airport. The in-town Best Western, 510 Delaware Avenue (716/886-8333), is a bit higher-priced, but its central Allentown location saves you hours of driving time and grounds you smack in the middle of the city's Allentown bar, restaurant, and club district.
If you have time for a quick upriver side trip, head up I-190 to that archetypal tourist trap, Niagara Falls. Everything costs on the U.S. side of the foaming falls--the famous Maid of the Mist boat ride costs $7.95, climbing the observation tower costs 50 cents, even the National Park Service charges $3 just for parking--but the very tackiest tourist attractions--Louis Tussaud's Waxworks, Movieland Wax Museum, and Marineland--are on the Canadian side. (It also costs 50 cents to walk back across Rainbow Bridge from the Canadian side, so take quarters if you go.)
Once you've seen the powerful falls, you might want to zoom northward on the Robert Moses freeway to the Niagara Power Project Visitor Center (716/285-3211) for a free view and technical lesson about how the surging Niagara River waters have been harnessed for local use. Heading back south to I-190, pull over at Whirlpool State Park for a shady picnic lunch and stunning vista below the free overlook of churning rapids doing battle in the river gorge below.
Between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda is a tough-looking factory town concealing one of the Buffalo area's best-kept secrets, the Herschell Carousel Factory Museum (daily 11 AM-5 PM in summer, Wed.-Sun. 1-5 PM rest of the year; $3; 716/693-1885) at 180 Thompson Street a half-mile to the east of Hwy-265. The old, barnlike 1915 factory-shed houses a restored 1916 pulley-driven carousel and a stable of immaculately painted wooden steeds, zebras, roosters, ostriches, frogs, bears, and bulls hand-carved by the factory's immigrant artisans for the countless carousels and kiddie rides turned out by the factory in its 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s heyday for amusement parks from the Jersey Shore to Santa Monica. Check the factory log at the front desk or chat with one of the veteran carvers during one of the sporadic demonstrations to find out if your favorite hometown carousel was built at the Herschell factory. Chances are, it was.
Before this Coney Island state of mind has a chance to wear off, head back south along the Niagara River to two Tonawanda fast-food jewels, both specializing in foot-long red hots with "all that jazz" (sauerkraut, chili, onions, Cheese Whiz, peppers, relish, and mustard), long-cut cheese fries, and cold, sweet loganberry juice. The cleaner, brightly lit Mississippi Mudd's, 313 Niagara Street, also serves up some great butter-topped Louisiana sweet fries. Ol' Man River, 375 Niagara Street, makes up for this one-up-manship with its trademark Buffalo burgers, beef on weck sandwiches, and badly chipped plaster whale mascot, which flops over this grease joint's sagging roof like a bloated, roadfood-stuffed kidney bean.
East of Buffalo, US-20 widens to four lanes, making a rigidly straight run through the flat corn and hay fields that climb the gradually rising plateau toward the Finger Lakes district. This 40-mile stretch is virtually devoid of traffic, thanks to the faster-moving NY Thruway and serpentine Hwy-5, which links up with US-20 at Avon. Splash some cold homemade root beer down your throat to wake up and address the burning sensation left by the grilled, vinegar-doused, chili-drenched Texas Hot and Pork Hot Zweigle brand hot dogs that are family staples at Tom Wahl's, at the US-20/Hwy-5 junction. This rambling, log-beamed Avon institution has been a required tour-bus stopover since 1955 thanks to its soft ice cream, frosty mugs, and gut-busting Wahlburgers (ground steak on a six-inch bun, topped with a slice of grilled Virginia ham and Tom's special, mayonnaise-based sauce).
A 30-foot wooden Indian and white horse stand guard over opposite corners of the US-20/SR 5 and SR 15 intersection in nearby East Avon, where US-20 crosses I-390.
There's plenty of culture in the sprawling Genesee River manufacturing center of Rochester (pop. 231,600), and the best of it is of the vernacular variety, making the 25-mile detour well worth your time and effort. Start your visit with the vast holdings of the Americana-rich Strong Museum downtown (clearly marked off I-490), a 20,000-item collection of toys, appliances, dolls, perfume bottles, marbles, salt-and-pepper shakers, and classic board games that is a must-visit for closet pack rats and pop culture fanatics.
The George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue, is a 10-minute drive along Rochester's fashionable mansion-lined main boulevard. In addition to relaying the Horatio Alger-like story of workaholic Eastman's incredible success and philanthropy as the founder of the city's still-thriving Eastman Kodak Company, the 50-room Georgian mansion in which he lived before shooting himself in the head in 1932 also houses a fascinating exhibit ("Enhancing the Illusion") on the history of photography.
Before sampling one of western New York's thick Genesee Cream Ales, you should first stuff yourself with a "garbage plate" (two pork hots, baked beans, macaroni salad, home fries, and rolls on a sagging styrofoam plate) at Nick Tahou's industrial-strength downtown coffee shop, 320 W. Main Street at Broad Street, open 24 hours.
If you're in need of sleep, the usual chain motels line the I-390 freeway near the airport on the southwest side of town.
East of the I-390 interchange, US-20 continues on its gentle, barely rolling course, gradually rising out of the flatlands to lap at the rim of the westernmost Finger Lake town, Canandaigua (pop. 10,700), an unassumingly pretty town that sits on a small hill to the north of the highway, overlooking the placid, 17-mile Canandaigua Lake. Iroquois legend has it that the 11 narrow Finger Lakes (six of which--Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Tuscarora--bear the names of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy) were created by the handprint of God.
East of Canandaigua, Calhoun's Books at 1510 US-20 (315/789-8599) is a low-key but seemingly limitless treasure trove of dusty period postcards, old maps, prints, and books in various stages of neglect, collectibility, and historical importance. The information-hungry roadtripper will thrill to the store's casually organized storehouse of 1930s WPA/Federal Writers' Project state guidebooks, as well as the boxes upon boxes of early 20th-century "Greetings From . . . " hand-tinted postcard folios.
Geneva (pop. 14,100) sits at the head of Seneca Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes, but is cut off from this sailboat-flecked jewel by a sadly unimproved section of lakefront to the south of the US-20/SR 5 roadbed. A worthwhile detour off the busy four-lane highway is a quick pass through the busy downtown on Main Street, grabbing lunch or a cup of coffee at Leo's Diner before parking near Hobart and William Smith Colleges to take in a relaxing view of the lake.
Save your roadfood appetite for Waterloo, 10 miles east, where the sagging, peeling Mac's Drive-In Curb Service Restaurant, 1166 Waterloo-Geneva Road, dishes out creamy Richardson's root beer floats ($1.60), frosty 16-ounce mugs of Pabst Blue Ribbon ($1.45), butter-dipped sweet corn (50 cents per ear), and burgers-in-a-basket ($3, with french fries and cabbage salad) at an awning-covered counter or right at your car window.
Seneca Falls: Women's Rights National Historical Park
You'd never know it from the signs for "Peaches Sports Bar" and "Filthy McNasty's Saloon" that greet you as you roll through the diminutive red-brick town of Seneca Falls, but the American women's movement was born here when the first women's rights convention was spearheaded by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in July 1848.
remains of the Wesleyan Chapel where the convention was held can still
be viewed at the center of town, on a guided tour staffed by the
well-informed National Park Service rangers who run the highly
interactive visitor center of the Women's Rights National Historical
Park (daily 9 AM-5 PM; free; 315/568-2991) at 136 Fall Street. A
brief exhibit on the scandalous pants-like "bloomers" popularized in
1851 by local feminist Amelia Bloomer combines with displays on
transcendentalism, abolitionism, and phrenology to place the rise of
this revolutionary movement in historical context. A block away, the
National Women's Hall of Fame, 76 Fall Street, is a
reading-intensive monument to the likes of Georgia
Red's Place at 57 Fall Street, and the aforementioned Filthy McNasty's at 41 Fall Street, are dark, beer-soaked dens where you can scarf up chicken wings or sandwiches with a cold Genesee before wandering out back to gaze at the abandoned Seneca Knitting Mill. The falls in Seneca Falls disappeared in 1918 when the Cayuga and Seneca Canal flooded to form Van Cleef Lake. A five-minute drive east out of town along E. Bayard Street lands you at Cayuga Lake State Park, a shaded beach where you can sit by the lake, pitch some horseshoes or a tent, and ponder your rising cholesterol level.
Auburn (pop. 31,300) is a proud industrial city with a solid, hilly downtown and a rich stock of historical homes, including that of ex-slave and underground railroad heroine Harriet Tubman, hard to find but still standing at 180 South Street. You can also see the home of William H. Seward, the anti-slavery Whig governor of New York, founder of the Republican Party, and secretary of state under presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, who single-handedly negotiated the purchase of Alaska in 1867. Seward's house at 33 South Street contains original furniture and historic exhibits, and is open for tours (Tues.-Sat. 1-4 PM; $3); he's buried in the town's Fort Hill cemetery.
Right downtown at 18 Genesee Street, the sparkling, streamlined Hunter's Dinerant offers 24-hour-a-day slices of thick lemon meringue pie and a panoramic view of the aging Genesee Beer sign that watches over the wide streets of the hill-hugging downtown.
Roughly midway across New York State, Skaneateles (pop. 2,700) is a pristine, sun-dappled resort nestled on the crest of shimmering Skaneateles Lake. This popular summer family escape houses arts, crafts, and antique stores along its immaculate Genesee Street (US-20), which fronts the lakeside Cliff and Thayer Parks. A stroll up the main downtown north-south drag of Jordan Street leads you past the delightfully unadorned Skaneateles Bakery to the Skaneateles Historical Society's petite Creamery Museum and elm-lined side streets full of well-maintained Greek revival homes.
If you're hungry, the stuffy colonial Kreb's Inn, across from the lakefront at 53 W. Genesee Street, will empty your wallet with its pricey-but-hearty lobster, roast beef, and chicken specialties. Greasemonger roadfood-seekers will feel more at home at the high-quality but self-effacing Doug's Fish Fry, 8 Jordan Street, "not famous since 1962" for its beer, fried haddock, clams, and Coney Island hot dogs. West of downtown, the Hilltop Restaurant at 813 W. Genesee Street offers one-stop family dining--and bowling in the adjoining Cedar House Bowling Center.
A number of $40-a-night motels like the Hi-Way Host, 834 W. Genesee Street (315/685-7633), line US-20 east and west of Skaneateles.
A short, 25-minute side trip from US-20 north to Syracuse (pop. 163,900) via I-81 yields an informative tour of the fascinating Erie Canal Museum (daily 10 AM-5 PM; free) at 318 E. Erie Boulevard in the shadow of I-690. Housed in an 1850 weighlock building straddling the paved-over canal bed, the museum has a 65-foot restored 1850s canal boat, and offers guided walking tours (free) of the city that gave birth to the electric typewriter, the loafer, and the turn-of-the-century, arts-and-crafts-style furniture of Gustave Stickley. A short film describes the staggering impact of the canal's 1825 opening on the booming city, an impact also visible in the cast-iron commercial districts of the historic downtown, a short walk south.
Cazenovia and Madison
East of I-81, US-20 follows the route blazed by the old Great Western Turnpike over gradually steepening roller-coaster hills, past sweet-corn stands, dairy bars, and cabbage fields, and into the western reaches of picture-perfect Cherry Valley. After passing through the Syracuse suburb of Cazenovia, which offers a refreshing breeze from whitecapped Cazenovia Lake, US-20 rolls east for another 15 miles to Madison, where the roadhouse-like Quack's Diner harbors no delusions of grandeur, just a huge faded duck-adorned sign and a sprawling dining room where area families, Colgate University students, and antique hunters fresh from a weekend run gorge themselves on chicken dinners, milk shakes, and cling peaches in whipped cream. You can even buy T-shirts and coffee cups with the diner's trademark yellow duck mascot uttering such pun-ishing lines as, "It quacks me up to cook here."
Hilly downtown Utica (pop. 68,800) lies on I-90 about 30 minutes north of US-20 along the Mohawk River and New York state's Barge Canal, the sea-bound industrial water route that follows part of the pathway of the Erie Canal. Beer fans will want to make the trip to the F.X. Matt Brewing Co. at Court and Varick Streets west of downtown, where the old West End Brewery still pumps out gallons of Matt's trademark Utica Club and Matt's Premium regional beers alongside its more heavily promoted Saranac line of premium microbrews. In-depth tours of the compact, family-owned facilities take you through the entire production process--where you are apt to spy some contract-brewed Brooklyn Lager, New Amsterdam, Dock Street Ale, or Olde Heurich slipping out the door--and drop you off in a velvet-lined Victorian tavern for your complimentary two glasses of Saranac or frothy root beer.
Shake off your post-lager drowsiness with a thick, delicious cheeseburger, coffee, and slice of lemon meringue pie at the timeless Triangle Coffee Shop, 244 Genesee Street at Bank Place, which manages to cram four sit-down tables, seven counter stools, and a hungry crowd of professionals into its tiny, bright, triangular space. In the midst of even the most hectic lunch rush, the friendly waitresses still find the time to call every customer "Hon" and whip out a clean knife at a moment's notice to unjam a clogged ketchup bottle.
The Utica Blue Sox, a New York-Penn League baseball team, hold court June-Aug. a few miles south at cozy Donovan Park (315/738-0999 for game/schedule information), which serves up cold Matt's beers and stunning views of the summer sunset from the tiny stands running along the first-base line.
Richfield Springs: Petrified Creatures Museum
Back on US-20 east, refuel for the rolling road ahead at the ramshackle Gatesdale Dairy Bar in Bridgewater, which sports a cooler full of creamy, rich ice cream and a sagging neon sign featuring a dripping milk bottle under the portrait of a satisfied heifer in a floppy chef's hat. Continuing east, the road slows down and becomes a rural two-laner at Richfield Springs (pop. 1,565), a peaceful crossroads with a gazebo in the center of its grassy town square.
On the south side of US-20, at the crest of a large hill several miles east of Richfield Springs, sits the terminally tacky Petrified Creatures Museum of Natural History (Thurs.-Mon. 10 AM-5 PM; $7). The steep admission buys you an information-intensive (but entertainment-lacking) tour of outdoor chicken-wire Devonian fossil displays, narrated by a tape-recorded, nasal-voiced announcer. You also get a self-guided tour of the tiny wooded backyard site's collection of several garishly painted, life-sized dinosaur sculptures, and the option of using the proprietor's crusty old pickax to hack out a few fossilized keepsakes from the totally picked-over slate pit--where most of the "petrified creatures" came from.
Farther east, your time and money are probably better spent at Burger World, at the US-20/Hwy-80 junction, a cabin-styled family fast-food restaurant that lives up to its "We're more than just burgers" slogan with filling chicken cutlet, pork chop, and meatloaf dinner plates and tottering, five-scoop ice-cream cones. The takeout menu includes a 1927 map of the Cherry Valley Turnpike route now occupied by US-20.
A dozen miles south of US-20 along Hwy-80, quietly bustling Cooperstown (pop. 2,200) has been known since 1939 as the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame (daily 9 AM-5 PM, till 9 PM in summer; $9.50), where a beautifully organized timeline of dioramas and display cases walks you through the sport's greatest--and most embarassing--moments. You'll see a pair of cracked black leather shoes worn by the ill-fated and latterly famous 1919 "Black Sox" player Shoeless Joe Jackson; the first plaster-covered batting helmet; and special exhibits on home run king Henry Aaron, amid a voluminous collection of uniforms, periodicals, programs, player records, scrapbooks, and film and audio holdings.
The neat, prosperous village of Cooperstown, founded in 1786 by the father of Last of the Mohicans novelist James Fenimore Cooper, has been transformed into a family tourist mecca, with the always-thronged Hall of Fame augmented by the subtler delights of the Fenimore House Museum (daily 10 AM-4 PM in summer, weekends only in winter; $9), which along with memorabilia of the writer has a massive new Native American artifacts collection and the equally engaging folk art and Hudson River School galleries. The Fenimore House is on Lake Street a mile north of town along the shores of Otsego Lake--the source of the Susquehanna River known locally as "Glimmerglass" for its spectacular, sparkling appearance.
Near the Fenimore House, the Farmer's Museum (daily 10 AM-4 PM in summer, weekends only in winter; $9) has illuminating exhibits on 19th-century rural life. Amid the dignified agricultural and local history exhibits that occupy most of the sturdy stone structures speckling this 1918 farm, the "remains" of the previously encountered Cardiff Giant lie in stony silence.
Avoid the in-town parking hassles and stash your car in one of the free lots near the Fenimore House. Then catch a city-operated trolley ($1.50 for an unlimited-ride day pass) down SR 80 toward downtown.
Surprisingly, the several-block central business district, where every other bookstore, restaurant, and variety store seems to be cashing in on their tourist customers' insatiable appetite for baseball-related camp and nostalgia, also holds Black Bart's BBQ, 64 Main Street, and the Bold Dragon Bar and Restaurant, 49 Pioneer Street, which serves up good 'n' greasy grub without a hint of major league interference.
There are literally dozens of motels from which to choose in the Cooperstown area, but remember to make your reservations far in advance to beat the summer rush. The Glimmerglass Motor Inn (315/858-2777) and Bay Side Motor Inn (607/547-2371) are among the countless lodging establishments crowding SR 80 between Cooperstown and US-20.
East of the Cooperstown area, US-20 begins its roller-coaster ride through the patchwork of hillside cornfields and dairy farms that drape the bubbling landscape through the fertile Cherry Valley region. On the south side of US-20 near the crossroads of East Springfield, wander through a 1930s motor court and grab a filling stack of pancakes or slice of homemade pie at the Otsego Diner and Motel. Just south of the highway, attractive little Cherry Valley (pop. 600) contains a small local history museum that recalls this tiny crossroads' early 19th-century boom period as a rowdy turnpike stagecoach stop. A small obelisk in the village cemetery on S. Main Street pays homage to the residents killed in 1779 in the Cherry Valley Massacre, a British-backed Iroquois raid during the Revolutionary War.
The Tryon Inn (607/264-3790) on N. Main Street (Hwy-166) serves up large, delicately prepared portions of pasta, seafood, steak, and poultry in an elegant 1927 dining room. The guesthouse out back has a handful of rooms for rent at incredibly cheap rates that vary by season; you'll have to share a bathroom down the hall, but the peaceful, wooded setting and antique washbasins in each room make this a pleasant sleeping alternative.
The 19th-century spa and resort community of Sharon Springs (pop. 543) was once on a par with Saratoga Springs, but those days are long gone, and the silent streets are lined by the slowly crumbling remains of once-grand wooden Victorian-era hotels. It's not totally dead; in fact, Sharon Springs has seen something of a resurgence of its fortunes, thanks to its unlikely role as a seasonal escape for Hasidic Jews fleeing the heat of New York City summers.
The health-giving waters still flow in Sharon Springs, bubbling up into a small fountain in a gazebo in the small park at the center of town.
Cobleskill: Iroquois Indian Museum
Southeast of Sharon Springs, the road from tidy Cobleskill (pop. 5,268) to Howe's Cave bypasses the threatening new Wal-Mart and follows the brightly colored Howe Caverns and sly, psychedelic Secret Caverns signs up the hill to the Iroquois Indian Museum (daily 10 AM-5 PM; $5). The imposing, longhouse-shaped structure contains artifacts, arrowheads, and more recent works of art associated with the Native Americans descended from the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, as well as an interactive, hands-on children's museum. The museum's collection of contemporary Native American painting and sculpture also asks tough, probing questions about the one-dimensional casino culture that has recently come to dominate reservation life across the U.S.
Howe Caverns vs. Secret Caverns
All over this part of New York, massive roadside billboards blare out the competitive presence of Howe Caverns (marked by simple, yellow-and-black "Howe Caverns" directional signs) and Secret Caverns (on which a Deadhead-ish wizard beckons you onward with pesky lines like "If you haven't seen the underground waterfall, you ain't seen guano!"). Though located within two miles of each other, these two tourist attractions are about as far apart as Pat Boone and Jimi Hendrix.
The sanitized-for-your-protection Howe Caverns (daily 9 AM-6 PM; $11) boasts a well-lit, guided elevator and flat-bottomed boat tour of a 156-foot-deep underground cave. But you know you're in for something completely different the moment you enter the dark, foreboding Secret Caverns--through the mouth of a giant, leering bat. Don't let the "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" sign scare you off from taking the twisting (and twisted) one and a half hour guided trek down into the clammy 180-foot-deep innards along a narrow, randomly lit footpath, which terminates at a steaming, 100-foot waterfall. Sarcastic guides point out Frozen Niagara Falls, Grand Canyon, and Liberty Bell slices of stalactite/stalagmite Americana along the way, and the gift shop sells tie-dyed T-shirts, psychedelic bumper stickers, and coffee cups emblazoned with swirling designs and countless cavern-related barbs in the mold of "good to the last drop," "most of it's over your head," "the cavity dentists prefer," and "whole lotta hole."
A nearly deserted US-20 climbs in and out of rippling extensions of the Cherry Valley and Susquehanna River watershed before cutting a dramatic path through the gorgeous Schoharie Valley around Esperance. An abandoned, sun-darkened set of Depression-era motor court cabins still stands in neat formation on the north side of the road, awaiting the waves of long-departed turnpike travelers whose unimaginative, fearful descendants now troll the lonesome, sterile NY Thruway. Dairy bars, hay bales, and yard sales proliferate nonetheless, as the wide, smooth four-lane road bestows limitless views of distant, farm-draped hills and hollows upon the patient traveler willing to pull off every now and then to take it in.
Outside of Duanesburg, the neat, geometric farmlands give way to a shaggier, flatter landscape, with creosote-soaked telephone poles and thick stands of weeping willows crowding the narrow two-lane roadway. The strip highway stretches about 10 miles west of the state capitol to McCormack Corners, where the Corner Ice Cream stand, 3914 Carman Road at US-20 and Hwy-146, is open daily 11 AM-10 PM for a last taste (subs, hot dogs, fish & chips, root beer floats, soft ice cream . . . ) of the open road before US-20 sneaks into Albany along Western Avenue.
The New York state capital, Albany (pop. 101,100) was founded in 1609 when Dutch traders traveling up the Hudson River from New Amsterdam on Henry Hudson's ship Half Moon went ashore and established a fur trading post. As the gateway between upstate New York and the increasingly powerful New York City port, Albany remained a powerful trading center through the 1820s and 1830s, extending its reach with the opening of the Erie Canal and the city's growth as a central railroad terminus and manufacturing center. Nowadays, the legendary canal has long since vanished, and the glamorous New York Central railroad's French renaissance-style, turn-of-the century Union Station, at Broadway and Clinton Street, has been transformed into the sleepy corporate headquarters of the Fleet banking group--Amtrak passenger trains now stop at a lonely platform on the opposite side of the Hudson River.
As the seat of the New York state government, however, Albany still wields obvious political power. Its rich array of museums, parks, and tree-lined boulevards--plus a few barely preserved historical neighborhoods that survived the wrecker's balls in the early 1960s--confirm the fact that the Capital City is still very much alive and well. The towering granite slabs and flying-saucer-like structures that stick out at the heart of the 100-acre Empire State Plaza government center hold exhibition halls, theaters, a 44-story observation tower, and the excellent New York State Museum (daily 10 AM-5 PM; donations), which includes a sensitively organized exhibit on the state's Iroquois and Mohawk Native American cultures, replete with a reconstructed longhouse. A huge section devoted to the history of the metropolitan New York City area blows away anything in "The City That Never Sleeps," with a re-created Upper West Side Hispanic barber shop, a Horn and Hardart Automat food dispenser, and a restored 1940s car from the A-train IND subway line.
For a lengthier foray into Albany's local history, trek over to the Albany Institute of History and Art, 125 Washington Avenue (Tues.-Fri. 10 AM-5 PM, Sat.-Sun. noon-5 PM; donations), a 200-year-old gallery that houses an Albany oral history exhibit, a group of locally made cast-iron stoves, several rooms full of Hudson River School paintings from the likes of Thomas Cole and Asher Durand, and a crowded little Egyptian room with two minor league mummies.
A mile northeast of downtown, the rolling hills and meadows of the Olmsted-inspired Washington Park have a beautiful, art deco lakehouse that hosts outdoor concerts and theatrical productions in the summer months. In between downtown and the park, the blue-collar bohemian Lark Street neighborhood is Albany's answer to Greenwich Village, sporting several tattoo parlors and some good restaurants. Margarita's, 286 Lark Street, is open from lunch till late for low-priced Mexican food, while the roadhouse-style Lark Tavern, 453 Madison Avenue at Lark Street, serves big mugs of cheap beer in a cavernous, dark setting thronged with an eclectic mix of yuppies, old-timers, and artsy types. For late-night coffee and/or poetry, pop into Lulu's, 288 Lark Street, which doles out a potpourri of poetry readings, art exhibits, and open mike nights.
Back downtown, if all the high culture and power politics leave you hungry for a back-to-basics roadfood experience, head to Jack's Diner, 547 Central Avenue. This New Jersey-built 1930s chrome-plated diner car attracts a diverse batch of families, local crazies, and travelers with its hearty meatloaf and burgers, bottomless cups of coffee, and friendly, loquacious staff; it's open Mon.-Fri. 6 AM-7:30 PM, Saturday till 2:30 PM.
Your motel options are legion in the Albany area, but the Motel 6 and Quality Inn off the I-90 Everett Road exit offer the best combination of value and central location. (They're also right next door to the Albany Bowling Center if you want to take out your pent-up carbound frustrations on any of your fellow travelers.) One very nice, centrally located place to stay is the Mansion Hill Inn, near the Governor's Mansion at 115 Philip Street (518/465-2038), which offers B&B rooms for around $100 and doubles as a fine restaurant.
For more detailed information, or to pick up walking-tour maps of Albany, contact the visitor center, 52 S. Pearl Street (518/434-1217 or 800/258-3582).
The grave of Uncle Sam and the birthplace of the detachable shirt collar are both across the river in Troy (pop. 54,300), 10 minutes north via the I-787 freeway. A world removed from downtown Albany, this narrow riverfront city was strategically situated at the point where the Erie Canal headed west from the Hudson River. It rose to national prominence as a manufacturing center in the 19th century, when its foundries and factories cranked out iron for stoves, stagecoaches, bells, and battleships.
Troy's factories have given way to a quietly picturesque college town, with Rensselaer Polytechnic rising on the steep hill to the east above the cast-iron business district downtown. In addition to its many impressive buildings, Troy's dense downtown has two great roadfood finds: Manory's Restaurant, Congress and 4th Streets, doles out stuffed combo sandwiches, home-cooked pasta, meat and seafood dinners, and really, really big breakfasts; The Famous Lunch, 111 Congress Street, is a delightfully worn-down greasy spoon with hand-lettered signs, tall wooden booths, and an eye-opening clientele of cops, winos, RPI students, and local businesspeople--nearly all of whom from noon to midnight every day but Sunday chow down on four-inch-long, chili-doused hot dogs served on Styrofoam plates with cold RC Colas on the side.
East to Massachusetts
If you want to cut some miles from your drive, the quickest route east from Troy is Hwy-2. This rural backroad takes you on a scenic but uneventful drive across the Taconics to Williamstown, Massachusetts. Alternately, you can follow old US-20 east through New Lebanon to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, then follow a short stretch of the Appalachian Trail route north to Williamstown.
For details on the Appalachian Trail route, click here.
Heading east from Albany across the Hudson River toward the Massachusetts state line, US-20 follows Columbia Avenue through the warehouse and factory town of Rensselaer, then climbs a long, retail-lined hill past innumerable liquor stores, minimarts, gas stations, and motels into the Taconic Mountains. After this 25-mile barrage of contemporary consumer culture, the tranquil hillside remains of Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, on the south side of US-20 a few hundred yards west of the Massachusetts border, come as a welcome relief.
Of the 20 Shaker communities once scattered over the eastern U.S., practicing a passionate but celibate form of Christianity, Mount Lebanon was the head ministry, founded here in 1785. The community endured until 1947, and some two dozen historic buildings still stand, including a 192-foot stone barn--the largest stone barn in the world when constructed in 1859--and a no-frills, but cleverly constructed, 1854 washhouse boasting hidden wall drawers and perfectly fitted floorboards. All of which is testimony to the Shaker edict, "Hands to work, hearts to God."
A small museum (daily 9:30 AM-5 PM in summer only; $4) gives background on the Shakers, sells some Shaker-style crafts, and has walking-tour maps of the former colony.