Charles Komanoff


Komanoff post-9/11 essay, "River Road, Still Here"

The maps call it Henry Hudson Drive, but New York-area cyclists know it as River Road. By either name it's nine miles of bicycling heaven along the Hudson River, from just below the George Washington Bridge to Alpine, NJ. A thrilling ribbon of pavement alternately climbing, twisting and descending -- with very few cars.

To one side are rocky cliffs, verdant hills, talus slopes and waterfalls. To the other, leafy woods, wisps of beaches, the Hudson. The scale is vast, the road is incidental, and the landscape has a hint of the wild. You're not riding through scenery, you're in nature.

I first found River Road almost 20 years ago. I was astounded that this skinny stretch of blacktop with the soul of an old carriage road had somehow been sculpted out of the Palisades. Wondrous! Alpine Hill, the northernmost mile that climbs 400 feet from river level up to Route 9W, quickly became my measure for climbing fitness. I rode there often, especially during the campaign, some dozen years ago, by Transportation Alternatives and other local cycling groups that ended police harassment and won cyclists full-time use of the road.

Then I became a parent, which made for fewer weekend jaunts. And I had a new favorite route, on back roads north of the city to a distant reservoir hideaway, culminating in a quick, sinful swim and a sweet train trip home. Perfecto, and never more than on Sept. 9, that glorious last Sunday before the world caved in. Now my reservoir spot is probably history, cordoned off by fences even I can't get around.

So it's back to River Road. I've ridden there three times since Sept. 11, from lower Manhattan, where I live. I'm close enough to Ground Zero that my world is badly out of kilter. My kids' schools are shut, friends have fled for good, the neighborhood is shriveled. Each day brings new reminders of what we've lost. So pardon the cliché, but these rides have been quests for healing. Fortunately, I found it.

The first time, in mid-October, reaching the GWB took forever, and then I had to face seeing the downtown skyline -- the whole city really -- without the twin towers. But then I was in Jersey, clattering downhill on 505, hurtling past the entrance. When my eyes re- focused, River Road was as it always had been: stately trees, shimmering leaves, the dazzling yet soft blue sunlight.

I pounded up the first uphill to the grove of oak trees behind the picnic area. I climbed off the bike and sat down. All was solid, intact, safe. From the arm of an elm tree two branches extended downward, intertwined. Were they strands of DNA, or were they arms clutching, a figure dancing? I stopped thinking and just sat. I cycled home in high winds and imagined the fires in the rubble extinguished, the world swept clean.

The next week I brought a camera. The day was gray and chilly, and I had three flats before making it to my spot. But nothing was going to keep me from River Road. I snapped my picture, and now the tree with the dancing branches sits on my desk, a reminder.

The charm came two weeks later, on the first Sunday in November. Each twist of the road brought new reds, yellows, oranges and golds. In places the road practically vanished under the fallen leaves. I was coasting, weightless, through an ancient forest.

Since then, the daily struggle seems easier to bear. It's not just the passage of time, it's those rides telling me the world isn't all gone. River Road is still here. Quiet is still here. Trees and sky -- still here. Some measure of nature -- still here. My legs, my heart, my breath -- still here.

© Charles Komanoff, November 26, 2001