A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: Highway that cuts across the southern extremities of central and western New York, connecting Binghamton on the east with the Pennsylvania state line on the west. Historically signed as New York State Route 17; being gradually consumed by Interstate 86. Still sports Native American-themed logo signs (as seen below) years after other highways got rid of theirs.
I’m on it a couple times a summer traveling to, from and around the Finger Lakes.
And here’s why I like it:
1. Quiet places. If I were good enough at creative writing (or guitar playing) to actually make a living at it, I might make my home in either Elmira or Corning. Corning has more of an arts community, from what I understand. But they both seem like charming, down-to-earth little places to get some thinking done. (If the creek don’t rise.)
Elsewhere on the expressway, the exits will take you to small towns and open country to get lost in. I don’t usually take advantage of that: When I’m on the expressway, I’m usually making time to reach either home or vacation. But I’ve enjoyed getting off the road before, and I’m sure I will again.
2. Geographical anomalies. The road — remember, it’s New York State Route 17 — actually dips across the state line into Pennsylvania between exits 60 and 61.
If what I read online is correct, the land where the highway would have passed in New York was already built up, and there was no choice but to route it farther south. The highway is posted with signs reading “STATE BORDER” where it crosses in and out of Pennsylvania.
I suppose this is less impressive now that the road is in the process of being converted to an interstate. It’s still an interesting little diversion, the sort of thing you don’t encounter on every road.
(Some would say it’s all the visit any traveler really needs to make to Pennsylvania. Did I say that out loud?)
3. Forgotten history up close. Whether you’re a conventional history buff or more of a modern pop-culture junkie, there’s something on the Southern Tier Expressway for you.
The Revolutionary War Battle of Newtown, where Continental troops beat a joint British-Iroquois force, was fought near Elmira in 1779.
Today, it’s a historic site you can see literally without leaving your car. For some shortsighted reason, the expressway was routed directly through part of the battleground; you can see monuments from the roadway marking troop positions.
If you want to pull off and get out for a longer look, Newtown Battlefield State Park is right off the highway.
If you prefer true crime or forgotten 20th-century history, Exit 66 will take you to Apalachin, the otherwise obscure village that hosted a 1950s gathering of many of America’s leading organized crime figures. A local state trooper caught wind of the gathering, and more than 50 people were arrested, some of them while fleeing through the woods in expensive suits.
I tend to doubt there are any monuments there, or anything much to see. But, what better souvenir for anyone who likes Mob movies than to snap a pic of themselves next to a sign saying, “Apalachin”?
(I’m not even going to get into the story of the town along the Southern Tier Expressway named after the mass slaughter of animals. That’s a curious bit of history too.)
4. Progress. Not far east of Bath — maybe around Savona or Campbell — is a big-box retail development with room for a couple stores.
It has a great big facade that’s very visible when you’re driving west. And for years and years it’s been almost entirely empty.
Last time I drove by, a couple weeks ago, there was at least one new store in there and maybe two.
I have no idea what they sell — probably craft supplies or something inessential like that — but I hope they’re there next summer when I drive past. In its own weird way, it’s like a small blossoming of hope.
5. Mellow down easy. I’ve been on interstates that were unpleasant to drive on, and ones that were clearly carrying more traffic than they were meant to carry, and ones where I feared for my safety.
The Southern Tier Expressway is none of those. As I said before, it wends its way through a lot of places that don’t tend to draw huge crowds.
I suppose if you’re on it in winter weather, it can get kinda crappy. But I never am.
So when I think of the road, I think of warm clear summer nights where the natural light holds on until close to 9 p.m., and there’s plenty of breathing space in the traffic, and a ballgame’s on the radio, and the staties aren’t paying too close attention, and the miles just roll by until it seems like I got from Exit 65 to Exit 34 in the time it took John Farrell to change pitchers.
Yes, the Southern Tier Expressway might just be the Mellowest Interstate in the Northeast. Enjoy it before something screws it up.