The Great Road—Heading West of the Hudson

There’s no place like New York City, except in July. Besides the heat, humidity and crowds of tourists on Fifth Avenue, most of my friends are at their country houses. As am I, except when I decided to rent mine and head West.

A bit of background first. Growing up in a tiny town of 2,700 people in rural Idaho (I realize that rings redundant), Highway 20 was the route to the “big city”–Boise, population then a mere 8,000. Fast forward a few decades, when I discovered my country house in upstate New York was just three miles south of the very same Highway 20. Still in use, it traverses the country from Boston to Oregon, once the only major cross-country highway before the Interstate Highway system was built under the Eisenhower Administration in the 1950s.

Three years ago, I explored parts of Highway 20 while riding my bicycle on the Erie Canal Way in Central New York State, when we detoured a couple of miles from the canal path. My interest piqued, I did a quick Google search and discovered a book, 20 West-The Great Road Across America, by Mac Nelson. It seems The Great Road is full of history. Six of our presidents were connected with it, as well as several religious sects, including the Mormons and the Shakers. Women’s rights were spawned on the road, too. I thought it would be fun to explore it. Call it a sand pail on my bucket list.

Doggedly dissecting the “20 West”cover to cover, I marked particular points I wanted to visit, and signed up for Triple A. I also bought a GPS and forced myself to read the instructions, handed the house keys to my renters, tossed my bike into the back of my Jeep and turned left, heading west.

We New Yorkers are known to be myopic about our city, perhaps deservedly so, but there’s another world out there. Four hundred miles of the Great Road are in New York State alone. I hit the Finger Lakes region on my first night, home of vineyards, lovely clear lakes, and friendly people. July 4th weekend presented a bit of a predicament, as there were no vacant hotel rooms. But I found a family run motel, somewhat spartan but clean, and the owners treated me like royalty. Up at dawn, I jumped on my bike and rode several miles along Lake Canandaigua to a wonderful restaurant, Wolf’s Grill and Marina, smack dab on the lake, for breakfast. The wait staff told me about a couple of B&Bs on the lake, and I vowed to come back. And I did, but I’m getting ahead of my story.

Back on the Road, rolling farmland, prosperous and well-maintained farms and friendly people lined the route. While not quite America’s Breadbasket, it certainly could qualify as its Vegetable Bin. Hundreds of acres of crops, shiny silos, rambling hills, and the Great Road always in front of me. My GPS came in handy when I wanted to find a Subway (sandwich shop, not the train), for a healthy, inexpensive lunch, and the shop became my go-to for a quick repast most days from then on. Farm stands were full of fresh fruit.

My next night was in Erie, PA. Thanks to the GPS, I discovered the Microtel chain, sort of the McDonald’s of motels—clean, convenient, affordable—a real bargain, complete with pool, Wi-Fi and an all-you-can eat breakfast buffet. (From the appearance of my fellow lodgers, some took this literally.) The next morning, I went running Lake Erie for six miles, noting the kindness of strangers who smiled and said hello, something that but a few intrepid runners ever do in Central Park.

Across Ohio, there are several spots to see, and 20 West held its own as a reliable tour guide. Camden, Oho is the birthplace of Sherwood Anderson, says the sign, noting “famous author” just below. He moved to Clyde, in Western Ohio along the Great Road, and some say his Winesburg, Ohio influenced both Hemingway and Faulkner’s later writings.

Indiana is full of cornfields, and not much else, so lots of time for books on tape as I headed for Chicago, where I once lived for two of the coldest years of my life before embarking to balmy New York City. My dear friend and mentor (and her family) live on the Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue, atop the swanky Bloomingdale’s building, with drop-dead views of Lake Michigan on three sides. I’ve always been green with envy—she has the perfect husband, perfect daughter and perfect life. Except in this economy. Her husband’s business failed in the credit crunch, and their beautiful apartment is seriously “under water.” For the first time in their lives, they are feeling the pinch that permeates much of America’s housing market. It’s sad to see someone dear struggling so. The Great Recession is not reserved solely for the have nots—the haves are suffering, too.

I stayed on Lake Shore Drive at the University Club, and went running and rode my bike for miles along the tranquil shore of the lake. I rewarded myself for all the exercise with a scrumptious apple pancake breakfast at the Original Pancake House on East Bellevue Place. The place was packed, a testimonial to it’s reputation for yummy food, even after 30 years.

Sated with carbs, I climbed back on my bike for the ride back to the Club, and discovered I had a flat tire. A damsel in distress when it comes to bike repairs, my trusty iPhone came to the rescue—a bike shop was just a few blocks away, and the new tube and repair were a fraction of what it costs in New York. Note to self: maybe Chicago is a bit warmer now—people are friendly, prices are lower and on a clear day, Lake Michigan is arguably as pretty as the beaches in the Hamptons.

Galena, Illinois was my next stop. Its claim to fame is Ulysses S. Grant, and even Abraham Lincoln figures in its nearby history, commanding a small force against an invading tribe of Indians at the Apple River Fort, in Elizabeth, Illinois, a few miles east of Galena, several years before the Civil War. Just nine miles this side of the Mississippi, Galena boasts good restaurants, fun shops, lots of scenery and of course, Grant’s house, open for tours. I dined in style for dinner at Fried Green Tomatoes and happened upon a wonderful kitchenware store, Specialty Gifts, that yielded treasures for every gourmet cook imaginable. The next morning, I biked along the banks of the Galena River, where it was hotter than blazes, and the breezes were a welcome respite. Some brave souls were biking on the Great Road; I joined them for less than a mile, frightened of the huge semis lumbering past. I have a healthy respect for 18-wheelers when I have just two.

Finally, I hit the mighty Mississippi, and crossed it to Dubuque, Iowa. Dubuque is the butt of jokes, but it boasts an opera house, good theatre and lots of restaurants. My original plan was to continue on to Mt. Rushmore, in South Dakota, a good two-day drive from Dubuque. I thought long and hard about another two days in the proverbial saddle, and opted to save that leg of the trip for another day. Truth be told, New York State’s Finger Lakes were beckoning, so I did a 180 and headed east.

Remembering how popular a destination it is, I did a bit of research and discovered a lovely B&B called The Pine Grove Inn, seven miles south of Skaneateles. I called from South Bend, Indiana to book it, and drove 385 miles to get there, this time on I-90 (not nearly as picturesque, but a lot faster—the speeding ticket I got in Indiana is proof). I arrived at 8:15 p.m. and the owners, Anne and Charlie McElroy, greeted me with a cool, crisp, crystal goblet of white wine when I walked in, and we sat on the veranda overlooking Skaneateles Lake. They also made a reservation at 1820, a terrific restaurant just a mile or so away. I dined at the bar on scrumptious roasted chicken, creamy mashed potatoes and a berry cobbler. A far cry from Subway, that’s for sure. Exhausted after a hard day of driving, I sank into soft Egyptian cotton sheets and was out like a light.

I biked into town the next morning and breakfasted for $2.50 at the Hill Top Restaurant. Atop of a long, arduous hill, it earned its name in spades, but was worth every pedal. I needed the nourishment for the ride back to the inn—seven miles up another hill, probably penance for the pancakes I ate.

A friend made a reservation for lunch for me at the historic Sherwood Inn, owned by his good friend, Bill (Skip) Eberhardt. Arguably the swankiest spot in the Finger Lakes, the lunch was first-rate, and Bill as cute as a bug. Skaneateles has lots of shops and attractions, and is in the heart of the wine country—definitely worth the trip.

I headed home along the path I’d come—back on the Great Road, just as pretty as the week before. Antique shops, country stores and local ice cream parlors made the drive pleasurable. I sampled them all.

My final stop was the American Hotel, in Sharon Springs, a sweet town once the playground of the rich and famous (Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Roosevelts). The hotel recently was renovated, and boasts nine well-appointed guest rooms, a first class restaurant and cozy bar. Just down the street a few paces is Beekman 1820, a fun store, built by a couple of transplanted New York guys, that sells locally made artifacts including goat milk soap, heirloom linens and unique (but pricey) household goods. As I strolled up and down Main Street, I could imagine horse-drawn buggies delivering summer guests and steamer trunks in times past.

Too soon I was at the end of the road, at least my part of Highway 20, and as I turned south toward my house, I thought of all I’d seen in 2,400 miles. It sounds like such a cliché, but there really is a big world west of the Hudson, and a road trip is a delightful way to see it all. I was spared the indignity of being strip searched at the airport boarding gate, could take my time to stop and meander and got plenty of exercise to work off the countless calories consumed in our country’s heartland. Knowing I was on the same road traveled by my pioneer ancestors who went west via Conestoga wagon gave me a special appreciation of my heritage.

Well-meaning friends were shocked that I embarked on this trip solo, and “weren’t you afraid to go by yourself?” was a common query. Truth be told, traveling alone can be fun—you get to do what you want when you want to do it, with none of the prescribed give and take that companionship demands. It may not be for everyone, but it worked for me. Meanwhile, I may make Mt. Rushmore yet.

About Merry Sheils (63 Articles)
Merry Sheils won the New York Press Club’s Journalism Award for best business writing in 2011 and 2012. As a portfolio manager for private clients, she writes a financial column for as well as features and profiles. She frequently writes economic and capital markets commentary, including white papers, thought leadership pieces and investment reports, for companies and investment managers. Prior to becoming a writer, Merry worked as a senior portfolio manager and investment analyst at BNYMellon and Wilmington Trust Company (now M&T Bank). A SUNY graduate with a degree in finance, she is the author of “Debt-Based Securities” and has been published in The Financial Times, Forbes and Chief Executive Magazine, and has appeared as a guest on CNBC. She founded First New York Equity, Incorporated, an investment advisory firm, and sold it to Price Waterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers). She divides her time between New York City and her 18th century house in Columbia County, NY, where she is active in the North Chatham Free Library, the Old Chatham Hunt Club and the Columbia County Historical Society.