The winter had been cruel this year. Harsh wind and dirty snow prevented me from taking Robert out on our weekly adventures. But today, the temperatures climbed into the 50s, and the sun radiated warmth across the island.
Robert and I got off to a late start. It is an impossible task to suit a light jacket on a baby with one hand, while holding him with the other, akin to dressing a screaming octopus. Fortunately, his pleasant disposition allowed me to finish with no crying, as evidenced by the adorable photo shown above.
After a short ride, we turned onto the Southern State Parkway. We were heading west, to Babylon. I never minded driving on the parkway. Sunrise Highway is littered with ugly strip malls, and the expressway is monotonous, straight and often congested. But the Southern State is known for it’s curves, winding roads, tree-lined shoulders and low bridges. Most Long Islanders can even rattle off an urban legend about those bridges.
Rumor has it that Robert Moses tried to deter minorities from traveling from the city to Long Island’s parks. Since most would have made the trip via bus, Moses allegedly had the bridges constructed low to the ground, so that large vehicles could not pass underneath. This is course is mere speculation and myth. But today, it remains true that vehicles of a certain height are not permitted to ride on the Southern State. Sometimes we’ll even hear about some foolish truck driver that got the top of his rig stuck under the bridge.
Although we were headed to Belmont Lake State Park, our small history waited for us on the parkway itself. A misnomer really, today’s quest is anything but small. We were looking for a number of very large trees. And as we approached the turnoff, we spotted them. On our left, standing tall and proud on the median, was a solid strip of pine trees.
For a good part of the ride along the Southern State, vegetation along the median includes mowed grass or short trees. But as drivers come through Babylon, these mighty pines seem to pop up unexpectedly. Why are they here?
Belmont Lake State Park was created in 1926. Prior to that, it was the 1,100-acre estate of banking tycoon and horse breeder (his father founded Belmont Raceway), August Belmont Jr. Today, the 24-room mansion is gone. Virtually nothing remains to remind anyone that a century ago, this was the playground of a wealthy Manhattanite. What has survived, however, are some trees.
The strip of pines in the median predate the construction of the parkway. In fact, they were planted in pairs. The space between them served as Belmont’s private driveway, leading into his estate. When Robert Moses had the Southern State built, he simply mirrored Belmont’s old driveway, laying both eastbound and westbound lanes around the trees. This is why today, the parkway splits around the pines and then merges together after the Belmont Avenue exit.
Having accomplished our goal, Robert and I decided to take advantage of our time in Babylon. We left Mr. Belmont’s pine-lined driveway behind us and turned off the parkway.
What!? $8 parking fee!? No thank you sir. I know a better way…
August Road- named for August Belmont- runs along the outside boundaries of the park. When I was a little older than Robert, my grandfather lived on a cross street called Leeds Lane. I have many treasured memories of riding bikes with Grandpa Sam from his home, through a wooded path and into the park.
I was reminded of a verse from a song by The Red Season:
And we will congregate with all our friends,
Alive and gone
Where Leeds meets August Road
Against a red/black backdrop
Of the Belmont Forest eating the Southern State
I left the car on Leeds Lane, placed Robert into the stroller and headed west into the forest along that same path.
After a short walk through the woods and across the parking lot, we arrived at the lake.
Robert was quiet, but pleasant. This didn’t last. He soon began screaming, just as I had resolved to walk through the peaceful and sylvan path around the lake. We turned around and strolled back the way we came. But here, we found the playground.
All was well that day in the Belmont Forest.