Imagine stepping into an avalanche of sunlight and refreshing breezes, and walking above an immensity of blue that shifts nuances with every mood of the sky. Cars fly by, but you are completely detached from them as you hover above that magnificent body of water, the mighty Hudson River. Bikes whiz by, for the double-lane path is meant to be shared.
You become oblivious to them too as your senses get wrapped up in water largesse and coast lines, from the bold Palisades to the gentler Tarrytown shore and back to the slender Piermont Pier. The Manhattan skyline is discernible across an imposing 183-feet width of eight general traffic lanes, bus lanes, emergency shoulders, and sweeping traffic. You can stop at six scenic overlooks jutting out over the water, with names like “Fish and Ships,” Half Moon,” “Palisades,” “Tides of Tarrytown,” rest on creative seating—in mini amphitheater, park, lounge or concert-hall style—and absorb some history from the informational displays.
And you cannot help but feel a sense of awe when you walk between two of the four pairs of cable-stayed, 419-feet-tall towers of concrete that lean outwards with their steel stay cables arranged in a fan or ship sail shape. From the right angle and distance at night these towers seem to proclaim the Hudson royalty, as they resemble the spikes of a crown glowing in colored light with blinking rubies on top.
Welcome to the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge path. Its 12-foot wide, two-lane bicycle and pedestrian path is one of the longest shared use paths in the United States at 3.6 miles one way, with three of those miles over water. Located on the northern side of the westbound span, the path is an invitation to walkers, joggers, bicyclists, dreamers, tourists, locals to hover between two worlds and cross a water boundary. Well, it is not as dramatic as that: those two “worlds” are counties, Rockland and Westchester, that welcome you at their respective landings with amenities and interactive kiosks. But different worlds did collide around this part of the Hudson River Estuary. Its composition is, in itself, an encounter—of sweet and salty waters—and the ocean gifts it with two high tides and two low tides a day.
The first known European settlement of the area around this natural widening of the Hudson dates from 1675. A twenty-year-old Dutchman, Harman Douwenszen (Tallman), who had come to America from Amsterdam as a child and grew up in Bergen, New Jersey, moved here on land purchased from the Tappan Native American tribe. Hence, the name given to the three-mile wide, ten-mile-long widening was “Tappan” along with the Dutch word for sea, “Zee.” By then these estuary waters had a history of miragelike allure: on September 14, 1609, Henry Hudson had sailed into them from New York Harbor and took the widening to be the Northwest Passage—the sea route between the Atlantic and the Pacific along North America’s northern coast. It was when he arrived at present-day Troy, that Hudson realized the strait he was searching for would not be found here. The Tappan Zee area would prove an auspicious and prosperity-inducing location, known as “the fishing place,” NAY-ACK in Algonquian dialect, which became Nyack. In a short time, the settlement here flourished, especially thanks to increasing demand for the local red sandstone used in brickmaking. Nyack would also become a thriving shipbuilding port.
Fast forward about two and a half centuries, and the automobile takes center stage, precipitating an irrevocable transformation of the Tappan Zee. As the 1920s roared their way into society and culture, car ownership naturally surged. Vehicle registration doubled between 1920 and 1927, from one to two million, making it imperative to grant more access to crossing the Hudson from Westchester to Rockland, as the Bear Mountain Bridge and the promise of the future George Washington Bridge would not be enough. While life took a sharp turn and the country plummeted from the exuberant heights of the roaring twenties into the abysses of the Great Depression, the Port of New York and the Rockland-Westchester Hudson River Bridge Authorities opened talks about a new bridge. Westchester and Rockland locals disagreed. They embarked on a ferry and protested in the middle of the river. They blocked surveyors. Their message was clear: let the site of the new bridge be anywhere else but here! Yet the transformation was inevitable.
About two decades later, with the creation of the New York State Thruway Authority whose mission was to build a superhighway from Buffalo to New York City, the new bridge’s fate was sealed despite continued protests. Construction on the Tappan Zee Bridge began in 1952. On December 15, 1955, the bridge opened with iconic actress and Rockland-county resident, Helen Hayes, cutting the ribbon alongside New York Governor, William Averell Harriman. At three miles, the Tappan Zee Bridge became the longest bridge in New York. Another famous movie star would immortalize the crossing of the bridge: Elizabeth Taylor in her Oscar-winning role as Gloria Wandrous in the 1960 film BUtterfield 8.
As years of increasing traffic took its toll—no pun intended—on the Tappan Zee Bridge, a long study determined that it would be more cost-effective to replace it rather than repair it. Under Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s leadership, it was decided that a new twin-span bridge would be built. Construction began in 2013, and in September 2018, the new Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge was officially open and dedicated. And, finally, the bridge path opened this year in June.
At this moment in history, we are, in a sense, crossing a collective bridge: a bridge between two years, and on a larger scale, between two eras. The post-pandemic world will be different than the world we knew before 2020. But with the vaccine distribution already happening, with the change in our leadership, and with all we have learned from facing unprecedented challenges, including working and socializing remotely, this convergence of a new world and new modalities of being will open the door to previously unimagined possibilities.
I often walk the Mario Cuomo bridge path and think, here I am crossing these estuary waters on foot, I am doing something that the inhabitants of the previous worlds of the Tappan Zee area may have never imagined. In crossing our personal 2020 bridges towards a new year and a new era, we may have discovered or developed traits in us that we never dreamed we had or could develop. Walking across the Hudson on foot gives me hope. And—all philosophizing aside—the experience is a picturesque, fun, informative, cardio-increasing, calorie-consuming, photo-op-abundant option to get out of the house and do something both special and healthy. May our own crossing to the other side of this era lead to better, healthier, and more special times. And may these twenties that began with such an upheaval take us into a strong, humane, enlightened, and innovative new epoch.
The Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge path is open daily from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. For information, please visit its website.
All photos of the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge by Maria-Cristina Necula