The Road Begins Here – Part III – Nine To Freedom

Imagine if you will, being excited, happy, and scared all at the same time and during one of the hugest lunges towards your independence. I’ve always daydreamed about driving on the highway, especially at night. I loved the stripes of the markings appeared to jump off the road beneath the headlights. There was something relaxing about the juxtaposition of a green highway sign against civil twilight and how the yellow and red sea of lights flowed through it. Little did I know, I was about to become a part of that flow.

A Metro North commuter train arrives at Peekskill station.

I left work around 5:15 and walked to Grand Central Terminal to board the train to Poughkeepsie. My lesson was taking place in the evening, except it wasn’t in Dutchess County like my past lessons. Matt was waiting for me in the city of Peekskill, in northern Westchester county. (For reasons that you’ll find out to be incredibly obvious, this city became one of my favorite places to hang out)

Sunset from the Peekskill waterfront, looking across at Jones Point.

As I arrived, I got to see one of the more beautiful sunsets to fall upon Jones Point. On the other side of the train tracks was Matt and the car that I was accustomed to driving – a 2012 Chevrolet Impala. I grabbed my work bag and proceeded toward the car with my usual greeting of “hey Matt!” albeit slightly tinted by the day’s workload. I climbed into the driver’s seat, and we discussed what we were doing for the night. We were going to drive home. Not his home, but mine. We were going to drive from the city of Peekskill to Brooklyn under his direction. While we discussed what I was to expect, I stood silently, all of 6 feet small, at the intersection where the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach met the exhilaration of realizing a daydream become reality. With my foot on the brake, I shifted into drive and put my John Hancock on the emotional investment into this journey.

US Route 9

As we left the parking lot, I remember reciting a mental checklist in my head. I held the wheel at 10 and 2 and marched with a feigned confidence toward the entrance of US 9 south. As I merged with the flow of traffic, the speedometer mimicked the trepidation in my motions. The higher the needle of the speedometer sat atop the blue-green fiber optics, the tighter I held the wheel, and it showed. Although I could keep a lane like nobody’s business, my speed didn’t keep up with traffic. New Yorkers are more than happy to give you that nudge in the right direction with a honk of the horn,or a quick flash of their brights. After a couple of exits, I began to calm down, and I focused on the tires on the asphalt. Before I knew it, I was calmly navigating myself through the turns of 9 south through towns previously reached only by a trip on Metro North.

I was living my daydream. I was driving down a highway and at night, too. Even though the car wasn’t mine, for the first time ever, I felt in control of a destiny that I never thought had applied to me. I remained stoic on the outside as I concentrated on the road, but if I were to say that tears weren’t shed, I’d be lying.. I’d be lucky if I had any time for that. My instructor’s voice whisked me back to reality letting me know that I should take the next exit – the exit for the Saw Mill River Parkway.

As I merged with the red and white stream that flowed along the parkway, I flashed back to the times when my uncle Danny would be driving with my mother, sister, and myself in the car. I remembered how excited I would be to call shotgun. At the time of this lessen, it had been almost five years since he left us. I felt him there. Even though it was dark and even though I was putting my night vision to the test, whenever I felt his presence, I wasn’t so scared.

Hutchinson Parkway south at the New England Thruway

We merged with one more highway to leave Westchester County – the Hutchinson River Parkway. For the first time during this trek, I began to feel some sort of confidence behind the wheel. I was familiar with where I was, and I began to negotiate the curves with a sort of nervous conviction (if there is such a thing). For the first time, I got out of the right lane and into the center. I flashed back again to how my uncle Danny would take us home from points north and mentally plotted and calculated my route in my head, running each turn by my instructor. His reply? “If you know where you’re going, go for it.” Those words were enough to fuel whatever conviction I had in me for the rest of the trip.

Crossing into the Bronx fueled another set of memories. As I came off the drawbridge between City Island and the mainland, I saw the familiar green and white sign for Pelham Parkway. As a child, I would go to summer camp right off of that exit. I remembered being attentive to the route the bus would take to get us there and back home. It was as if I was being reassured by everything around me that this was the way to go. The road was well lit, and I had no problem keeping to my lane. A lot of the shakiness had passed. I followed that gut feeling right up to the toll booths. [This was back in 2015. Cashless tolling was still not a thing on any road except the Henry Hudson Parkway.]

Bronx – Whitestone Bridge from Francis Lewis Park

Aftet the toll was paid, we continued our trip into Queens crossing the blue-ish lit up Bronx- Whitesone Bridge. I hugged the right lane all the way across. I’ve crossed this bridge so many times as a child but never like this. Between the suspension cables, I saw the orange glow of the lights from Francis Lewis Park. I eventually crossed through the Whitestone section of Queens and passed Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. To this Yankee fan, this was a welcomed sign. I was almost home.

Whitestone Expressway, north of Citi Field

I can still remember what it felt like to revel in the shimmering concrete of the Van Wyck Expressway as I passed just west of that big globe in Corona Park, even the sudden jolt of traffic stopping as a car in front of us stalled. Traffic was as thick as a freshly made vanilla milkshake, and it was backed up until our last exit, the Jackie Robinson Parkway, which I came to know as the Interboro.

Jackie Robinson Parkway

Natives of Brooklyn and Queens have shared many stories of just how dangerous this parkway can be. Just because the speed limit is set at 45 MPH, doesn’t mean people will follow it. I made my last merge of the night into traffic as we marched two by two, descending toward the orange-lit underpass that connected Queens Boulevard to both ends of Union Turnpike. The majestic brick buildings surrounded by the trees of Kew Gardens flanked me on both sides, along with the apparition of 11 year-old me looking out toward the parkway from the windows of the yellow school bus. I remembered how I inquisitive I was and how accepting I was of the probability of never, ever being able to do exactly what I was doing now. I continued west on the Jackie Robinson, being reminded to stay on my Ps and Qs by the occasional scuff marks on the K-rails made by motorists who decided they wanted to tempt fate.

After everything was said and done, I did make it home safely. I remember pulling up to my house, feeling relieved. My instructor and I spoke briefly about what I could do better and then spoke with my mother about how the lesson had gone. By the end of that night, my nerves were frayed. I was exhausted. I was shaken up, but I was proud of myself. For the first time ever, I had not only driven on the highway, but I also drove for a significant distance without incident and with the minimum amount of hiccups. This is not to say that I wasn’t afraid. I was scared senseless when I initially merged onto route 9, but I had to prove it to myself. I had to push myself to do it. So it begins, Nine to Freedom.

Stay tuned and follow from a safe distance. It’ll be worth the trip.