My father, a dedicated high school history teacher, was at heart an adventurer. Many a Sunday afternoon he'd lead my brother and me on a hike through woods and fields yet to become North Jersey suburbia. Or we would mount one more quest for the Lost City of Yuva Itcha, which took us across a rushing creek on a narrow plank that always scared the daylights out of me.
He must have inherited his adventurous spirit from my grandfather, whose wanderlust began with riding the rails as a teenager in the 1890s.
One summer's day, the two of them concocted an expedition through a buggy swamp and miles of overgrown road just to find out where it went. We kids, along for the excitement, caught the spirit that has stayed with us for the rest of our lives.
In the family car, Daddy was intrepid. He believed in traveling as the crow flies. If the map showed a road going straight from here to there, no matter if it was the merest thread or a questionable broken line, he'd follow it. My grandmother often declined to join one of the Sunday afternoon rides that were so popular in the 1930s. "You'll just end up in someone's back dooryard again, and I won't be home in time for 'Roses and Drums,' " her favorite historical radio soap opera.
But the adventure to top them all was the conquest of Berlin Mountain. For years we had driven down what we called Berlin Mountain, into the little village of Berlin, N.Y. It was a steep, winding grade, and Daddy was elated when our new l932 Ford V-8 made the return ascent in no lower than second gear. But we had never been over the real Berlin Mountain, east of the village.
Once, we had driven up the remains of the dirt road through high hillside pastures until Mother panicked and we had to back down to the nearest turnaround. From time to time we wondered about that road - it went right over the summit, according to an old geological survey map.
When my brother was in high school, he talked my other grandfather into buying a Model A Ford to convert into a vehicle for chores around the farm in upstate New York, where we spent summers. Will worked for a couple of years restoring the engine and adding a wooden pickup body to the "jitterbuggy," christened Baling Wire Bess. The menfolk used it to haul firewood and gravel, but all that work and no fun did not satisfy our teenage hearts.
So Will persuaded Granddad to buy a "farm" license that would allow the buggy limited access on town roads. We extrapolated this permit into evening joy rides around back roads of the countryside. By then we were college students with driver's licenses.
That's when Daddy came up with the grandest scheme of all.
"Let's see if we can get to the top of Berlin Mountain," he proposed one fine day. We had learned that the road shown on the old map had been the main stagecoach route from Albany, N.Y., to Boston. Mother held her peace and started praying as we packed a big lunch and loaded up Bessie with gas, axes, a two-man crosscut saw, shovels, tow ropes, and whatever other gear we thought might come in handy. There were no such things as ATVs or chainsaws in those days, but that wouldn't have been half the challenge or fun.
Off we went, over the narrow county road, down the ersatz Berlin Mountain, through the village, and up the real Berlin Mountain.
All signs of civilization fell behind as the seldom-used dirt road turned into a surprisingly open and straight track through old-growth hardwood, decades deep in forest duff. We got stuck a few times, but with me at the wheel and the guys pushing, we carried on, clearing fallen trees as we climbed. Eventually we began to see daylight ahead, and emerged into open blueberry fields on the summit.
We were ecstatic. We had confirmed Daddy's belief that the shortest distance by stagecoach from Albany to Boston was via this route - as the crow flies.
We documented the historic moment with photos that are still in my possession. Then we admired the 360-degree view and devoured our sandwiches, along with handfuls of blueberries. Noticing that the descent down the other side was well worn by blueberry pickers and other revelers, we decided to head back by that roundabout route.
Even more astonished than we were at our accomplishment were the folks in farmyards farther down the mountainside, who certainly knew they hadn't seen us go up past them. We waved cheerily as we continued down to US Route 7 and real highway traffic. In those days, it was manageable in our open buggy - no seat belts, no turn signals, no headlights, and no proper license plate. We were honked at, waved at, and gawked at, but we encountered no state troopers. We arrived with considerable jubilation, in time for supper - to Mother's heartfelt relief.
The love of traveling as the crow flies was one of my father's finest gifts to me, one that has kept me exploring back roads - and sometimes having to back up to the first turnaround - all my life.