1 Looking down at a stone bridge in Watkins Glen, NY.

 

Well, ’tis the season for ancient airs and dances.

I was breathing the air of a forest, full of hemlock, cedar, and oak, and listening to alternative/indie bands from long, long-ago.  The 1980’s – -90’s, mostly British and American.  Especially Cocteau Twins, Mazzy Star, My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain, Lush, Yo La Tengo.

When I tried to read about the bands, I kept finding that back in the day, critics often lumped them together as “shoegaze.”

We all like shortcuts and labels – – humans seem to be programmed to sort & categorize.  But I really don’t get the usefulness of this “shoegazing” label, because the music is so varied – – sometimes dreamy electronica, or neo-psychedelic, sometimes kind of punk or metal-sounding.   Maybe “shoegaze” was about critics concerned with clever-sounding snarkiness, instead of any real appreciation or insight.  Apparently bands got tagged this way, because they’d perform standing still, and literally looking down at their feet.  From the feel of the music, and videos, some of the musicians I guess were maybe introspective, lost in a groove, and concentrating on their sound.  (I also read that they were using a lot of foot-operated effects pedals, to create a distorted sound.)

Anyway, the bands achieved some very cool music.

 

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So…so what?  what brought this to mind?  you ask, perhaps in a puzzled, somewhat irritated manner.

These photos today are shoegazing shots.  They were all taken looking downward.

(Do you still hear the expression “I’m down with that,” where you live?   I looked it up, thinking it had a ’60’s or ’70’s vibe, but found it goes all the way back to the 1930’s!?)

So the album is downcast, but not depressing – – Watkins Glen, a park in the Finger Lakes, is beautiful in the fall and winter.  Once cold weather begins, the stone pathway and stairs in the Glen are closed, so you can only walk around the top perimeter, looking down into the little gorge and the stream, and even then, you need to watch your step, the trails are often pretty icy.

You’ll find tons of great photos online – – during the summer, it’s probably photographed millions of times.  I’ve walked through there many times during the summer, but always with out-of-town visitors, and haven’t ever tried to photograph the twenty-or-so falls in “good” weather!

But during the park’s “downtime,” it’s pretty interesting, in it’s own way.

 

 

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Watkins Glen is a small village at the southern end of Seneca Lake.

NASCAR & Trans-Am, etc. fans recognize the name, because they’ve been racing cars there since 1948.   The races used local streets and roads at first, until they ran over a kid, and then built a track.  There’s also boat races on the lake.

 

Ok, you have to look up once in a while. This was a cellphone snap during the summer, and I like the way the overexposed water looks like a streak of light.

 

 

Glen Creek runs down from the hills into the village, dropping about four hundred feet over a two mile distance.  The original settlers, in the 1790’s, just saw that as water power, for grist and sawmills, etc.  But on the 4th of July 1863, the day after the Battle of Gettysburg, the Glen was opened as a tourist attraction, and it’s been an attraction every since.  Now a state park.

 

I’ve never visited the racetrack, but I’ve walked in the park many times, and never get tired of it, in any season.  If you visit, definitely bring some headphones.  “Water Music” to me means Handel, maybe Debussy, Ravel, but Cocteau Twins would also be a perfect soundtrack.

 

 

 

Autumn, Finger Lakes, FLX, Nature, NY, Things to Do When Your Water Crystallizes on You, United States, Upstate New York, Winter

Walks in Upstate New York. Watkins Glen. November, mostly.

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In autumn, a single maple tree can carpet an acre. So then you can cut a rug, and dance in the leaves.

 

 

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4.  A lot of different hues in the bricked-up window of an old mill.

 

 

5.  A marshy area was saturated with leaves.

 

 

6.  Oak leaves swirl around, hundreds of feet in the air, almost like they’re trying to follow that hawk.

 

 

7.  The holes in this oak leaf are pretty small, apparently the bugs only took a few bites before buzzing off.  The high tannin content in oaks, redwoods, etc. provides some level of protection, from bugs, bacteria, and fungi, but of course, we happily ingest small amounts of tannin every day, in coffee, tea, chocolate, berries, etc.  And I prefer to use witch hazel solution, another source of tannin,  instead of aftershave.  I read recently, that scientists have created some high-tannin tree hybrids, to discourage beavers from chomping them down.

 

 

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9.   Skeleton of an 1840 “pony truss” bridge, which once led to a now-vanished hamlet

 

 

10.  The bridge now serves as a trellis for wild grapes.

 

 

11.  The bridge during summertime

 

 

12.  Tentative identification: Black Rat Snake. Kind of a terrible name, I think it’s actually pretty handsome. My only complaint, is that it can climb trees, and that sort of behavior by snakes should be discouraged.

 

 

 

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14   Remnants of an old lock and dam

 

Keuka Lake just doesn’t fit in with the other Finger Lakes.

It’s absolutely lovely, but it only resembles a finger, if you got careless using a table saw.  It’s really shaped more like a crude letter “Y,”  if you drew it in the dirt, with a stick, blindfolded, liquored up & left-handed.   Go ahead try it, we’ll wait.

map is courtesy of the NYS DEC

 

Anyway, to me it looks more like a forked branch, and in fact, the hamlet on the northwest branch, is called Branchport.

At the top of the other, northeast branch, there is a creek which flows from the lake, through the village of Penn Yan, heads east, and eventually drains into Seneca Lake.

The village has a fascinating history, and was once home to a Quaker sect called the “Society of Universal Friends”.  Maybe a topic for another article some time.

Today I’ll just mention two things –  where the odd name originated, and a bit of local history.

One – Penn Yan is a contraction of “Pennsylvanians & Yankees,” after the original settlers.

Two – The village kind of relocated, without moving – – in a manner of speaking, it was once in Massachusetts, even though that state is 230 miles away.

It’s located  just west of the 1786 “Preemption Line,” a north-south line bisecting New York, from the Pennsylvania line, to Lake Ontario.  You’ll cross a marker for the line, walking on the trail. 

Land west of the line was claimed by Massachusetts, based on a grant from King Charles I.  After the Revolution, the two states went to court, and it was decided:

  • the land was part of New York
  • but was owned by the Iroquois, and was therefore part of their sovereign territory
  • but Massachusetts possessed a preemptive right of purchase from the Iroquois
  • but Massachusetts sold their interest to private speculators
  • but the speculators went broke
  • but they sold their interest to Robert Morris, one of the Founding Fathers
  • but he sold most of it to a British syndicate
  • but non-citizens couldn’t own land
  • but they found a Scot who became a naturalized citizen, to front for them
  • but then the non-citizen rule was revoked, so a Dutch syndicate could buy land
  • etc.

Meanwhile, while all this was going on…the natives were dispossessed, settlers moved in, Rochester and Buffalo were founded, and eventually, in 1960, the Bills joined the AFL.  That’s as brief as I can make it.

Is that all clear?  Welcome to New York, the State of Confusion!

Anyway, at Keuka Lake, there were settlers from Pennsylvania and New England = Penn Yan.

In an area replete with interesting place names – drawn from Europe, classical Greek and Roman history, Native American sites, and land speculators – this creek we’re going to walk along, was somehow left with the utilitarian and totally un-poetic name of Keuka Lake Outlet.  “Outlet” means a discount factory store, or a place to plug in a lamp, or a method of venting.  This is a waterway desperately in need of a good PR firm.  Brook, stream, bourne, creek (prounounced “crick” by the older folks here) – – any of these are better.  Heck, I’ll take “runnel” over “outlet” any day.

In the 1830’s, the state government constructed the Crooked Lake Canal alongside the creek.   “Crooked Lake” is another name for Keuka, and is not a reference to state officials.  As is traditional for New York State ventures, the canal lost money for each & every one of its forty-four years of existence.  It was replaced by the Fall Brook Railroad in the 1870’s, which was in turn washed away by Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

 

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A local group restored six miles of the towpath/railroad bed, and created a walking trail, from Penn Yan, on Keuka Lake,  to Dresden, a hamlet on Seneca Lake.

The creek drops 270 feet, from Keuka to Seneca, and in the old days, it powered three dozen mills and little factories, starting in 1790.  Buckwheat, paint, plaster, paper, tanneries, etc. and in more recent times, insecticide.  So, depending on where you were standing, it must have smelled like breakfast cereal, or like paint, or just plain horrible.  Until well into the 20th century, a key component in tanning leather was dog manure.  Where they got it, how it was transported, and what price it fetched on the open air market, we’ll reluctantly leave for another day.

Quickly segueing to hair of the dog, there was also a distillery somewhere along here, which, with our forebears’ customary frugality, included a hog pen.  The hogs consumed the leftover mash from making alcohol, and no doubt contributed to the general eye-stinging atmosphere of the place.

In summary, the 19th century along the stream was a bucolic tiptoe through the daisies.

If you begin your walk in the village of Penn Yan, you’ll pass Birkett Mills, founded in 1796 and still grinding up buckwheat.  If you’ve ever felt nostalgic for the days of Tsarist pogroms and serfdom, and really enjoy chewing for extended periods, the mill is supposed to be the world’s largest supplier of “kasha” (buckwheat groats.)

Most remnants of the 19th c. industries have fallen down, crumbled, and been washed away over the years, but as you walk along the water, through what is now a wooded ravine, you’ll pass a few traces.  Circular stone and brick pits, nearly filled-in with dirt and leaf mold.  A towering brick smokestack, rusted remnants of water turbines, some foundations made of huge stone blocks, and a couple of crumbling concrete buildings from the 20th century.  A triangular chunk of millstone, embedded in a tree’s roots.  The shattered remains of a steam boiler, and a massive iron fly-wheel, were removed a few years ago, and taken to a local steam engine museum.

 

16. A wall from an 1884 mill, that converted straw into paper and cardboard.  During WWII, it was running full-time, making paper to wrap munitions..  Some of the stones may have been re-purposed from the canal locks. This was taken four years ago, and I believe most of this wall is now in the creek. Generally I’m a big advocate for historical conservation and preservation, but somehow in this little valley, it seems just as positive and proper to watch this creek return to its natural state.

 

Even as the industrial relics vanish, there’s sometimes still an old-fashioned feel to the little valley.  Many of the nearby farms are Amish or Old Order Mennonite, and young couples from the farms come to the falls to picnic and court, arriving in horse-drawn buggies.

One of the families, the Hoovers, has a welding/blacksmithing shop, and I’m guessing it was one of their sons, who showed up one day with an all-metal buckboard.  Gleaming steel diamond plate, like they use for factory floors or pickup tool boxes.  Must have weighed a ton, but dazzling, quite a sight.

I’m guessing the church elders found it to be an act of vanity, and made him get rid of it, or perhaps his horse died, dragging it back up the hill, but I never saw it again.

 

Autumn, Finger Lakes, FLX, hiking, History, Nature, NY, Upstate New York

Walks in Upstate New York. Keuka Outlet Trail.

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Chile, Frostbite, hiking, Pucón, South America, Sudamerica, Uncategorized

A hike of new expectations. Pucón, Chile.

As it gets colder, I’ve been thinking about a winter I spent in South America.  I was living in Pucón, Chile, teaching conversational English to school kids.

You’re thinking, having me teach “Conversation” is like having Long John Silver demonstrate “Ballet.”

 Actually, we had a good time together, and often talked about music, movies, pop stars, and everyday life in the USA.  The kids were pretty great, as were the teachers and the townspeople – honest, straightforward, and friendly.

But my entire stay in Pucón, every day, I would look up at a mountain looming over my small wooden village.

The “Volcán Villarrica” is the country’s most active volcano, over nine thousand feet tall, erupting as recently as 2015, and forcing an evacuation.  Poisonous gases from the ’74 eruption killed a dozen people in the village.

It’s been carrying on like this for centuries, and the conquistadores recorded events back in the 1500’s.  After I returned home, I read that the indigenous Mapuche called it “The Devil’s House,” but I never heard that while I was there.

 

Every day it exhaled smoke, and some days, eating lunch in the teachers’ lounge, I’d look up to see it bellowing out.  At night, I walked under a sky of unfamiliar stars (different from those on my side of the equator), feeling disoriented, and I’d see it, snow-capped year-round, a mass of blueish white against a backdrop of deep black.

I strolled through Pucón’s streets, and down to the lake, down an unlit lane that gave me the creeps, between the baying stray dogs and the croaks of death-bird ibises, and from that pitch-black area, I’d look up to see there was a dim reddish glow above the summit. It looked almost fake, like a movie set, maybe the Paramount Studio’s mountain. But this was real, and that glow was from the lava lake, thousands of feet above the town.

 

 

Every day, I would look up to see this menacing-looking mountain.  I often wondered when it would next erupt, but figured the smoking was good, it was letting off some steam, so to speak.

Over coffee, my friend Paul suggested that instead of watching the volcano every day, we might as well climb it.

I was surprised that I hadn’t come up with that idea; I guess I didn’t think it was feasible. I’m not a mountain climber.  I grew up in a town a few hundred feet above sea level, and liked it there.  Pucón was only a couple hundred feet higher.  Perfectly fascinated by looking up at the volcano, it had never occurred to me to climb it, and thus look down from it. I was surprised not only that I had agreed to the climb, but also that despite my fascination, it never even crossed my mind to do so.  I think of myself as being fairly responsible and not at all daring, and yet, without a moment’s hesitation, I agreed to climb an active and smoking volcano. Not surprising, was that my planning and preparation were entirely non-existent. I suppose, had I planned or had any expectation of what it might entail, I wouldn’t have agreed to do it.

 

So we set out to find which one of the local eco-tourist outfits offered the best deal on volcano hikes.  Then, we set out to climb the beast.

It was an early morning, and as the realization dawned, of what I was about to undertake, I was a bit worried. We were given an obscene amount of gear, all of it strapped to our backpacks and belts that were loaned to us for the hike. We drove up to the basecamp, and from there we were to hike up with a guide. There’s a chairlift that gets you as far as the snow zone, but our group didn’t take it, adding an extra hour to the hike. It was not as easy as I had expected. Foolishly, I figured it would be solid rock, a bit steep in parts but no biggie. It wasn’t. It was like walking on a beach, except uphill, and over bits that would sink deep below our feet or sheer off. Volcanic tufa on top of hard rock. Slowly we zigzagged across the mountain until we reached the ice. That was when we were instructed, to put on the heavy winter coats we were carrying. And then the winds picked up.

 

 

As we hiked it became evident that we had a long way to go. Our guide was very nice, but kept us moving, telling us several times we couldn’t stop or we would die when the wind changed, something that had happened to a French family who went without a guide a year or so ago. As we walked, eventually with crampons strapped onto our feet to get a grip on the icy surface of the volcano, I became a bit uneasy.  There was 25% less oxygen than I was used to, and I was getting short of breath. Our pace was at a decent clip; we had to reach the summit in a certain amount of time, for some sort of safety and weather protocol. When we had breaks, we would sit down on the cold surface and feel how our muscles ached all over. Everyone was tired, thirsty, and no one looked like they were enjoying themselves.

There were some pretty spectacular views, but as I looked up, to my dismay, it looked like we had at least another half a mountain to climb, it was hard to gauge until we got higher up. There was a large lip of ice hanging off of the volcano about 3/4 of the way to the top, and from the basecamp it appeared to be the summit. I was less certain I could make it and increasingly unsure I would be able to breathe at the full altitude of 9400 feet. I was already struggling and feeling light-headed and began to imagine passing out and rolling off the mountain to my death.  No one but Paul knew me; my family did not know where I had gone.  The distance between us and the other groups grew wider and wider and soon even our guide was ahead of us a bit, though at last he stopped for us to catch up.

I recall sitting under an icy ledge as the wind picked up. I don’t know how fast it was but everyone was straining against it, and we felt cold through our bodies. As we lay against the ice, on mats that weren’t quite big enough, I began to really panic. What if I didn’t make it all the way up? How was I to get back down? I couldn’t quit. One of the guides was going up the mountain, UPHILL, the entire way, on downhill skis. The amount of strength and stamina humbled me and shamed me into walking more.

Paul, a fellow English teacher from Dublin, was the one who got me through. Just as running is best with someone to help you go farther, so is hiking. I do not think I could have made it had I just gone myself. But Paul encouraged me step after painful step, and got me psyched up enough to continue. It was painful, with my sides cramped up and legs like lead and my head heavy, but we made it to the top. He got me into this mess, but he got me through it.

 

 

The view was stunning. Pucón was tiny, as was Villaricca and all the many other villages in the distance. We could see to Argentina, the mountains and volcanoes on the border of the two nations were an incredible sight.

 

 

The crater itself was releasing gas and despite the gas mask my eyes were burning and I kept coughing. I wasn’t able to spend more than four minutes looking, as I felt myself feeling more and more sick. So much for that, I thought. Despite the spectacular views, I was underwhelmed, I’d expected reaching the summit to be more rewarding, somehow.

 

 

The highlight turned out to be the way down. We used the small round disks we had lugged up there, like heavy-duty versions of the “flying saucers,” when we were sledding as kids.  We strapped it on, and rode down the slope, using our ice picks to slow our descent so we didn’t die, careening along the mountain. My pick was ripped from my hand, so I had to claw my way back up the mountain to retrieve it. Paul couldn’t control his and crashed, banging himself up pretty badly. It was the most painful sledding I had ever experienced, but the ride was exhilarating. We descended about 2000 feet starting at the 8000 foot mark, so the world was literally racing by us and it was quite the thrill. Also the fact that it seemed we could be severely injured, or actually die at any moment, made it more thrilling, even if terrifying.

At that speed, all of my remaining energy was focused on making it down in one piece. It was only after I had made it to the bottom, crampons removed, ice pick stowed away so I’d never have to look at it again, that I began to realize what I had done.

In many ways, the hike was a bust. I was in pain and exhausted. But the experience taught me humility. I think part of that stems from being let down. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I experienced. In fact, I think back, three years later, but my expectations remain unknown even now. The following morning, bruised, stiff, sunburned (the sun is a lot more intense when you’re a mile up a mountain), I looked at the volcano again. This time, my slowly functioning brain registered awe. Before, it seemed unreal. After the hike, it became almost too real. This was a monstrosity of nature, bent on breaking our will, and difficult to climb. I felt less like a champion who bested the mountain, and more a sense of awe. I survived without any preparation and zero thought given towards this venture. I was so confident when I began and then so thoroughly humbled by a natural force much greater than myself. Hardly a stroll in the park.  I also learned that I could test my strength and overcome my previous limits,  and it was all thanks to a combination of the urge to survive mixed with an encouraging friendship.

 

head in the clouds

I will probably never climb a volcano again, which should not be an issue living in New York or Wisconsin.  But still. It was a heck of a trip and won’t soon be forgotten. Occasionally, when tasked with a “mountain” of work, I return to this moment. Not to feel too cocky, but to be realistic with my expectations of what can be accomplished and how to get the job done.

 

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There is a Presque Isle on the northern border of Wisconsin, and another in Maine.

The pictures here are of a third place with the same name, and the only one I’ve visited – – in Lake Erie, west of Erie, Pennsylvania.

The name was popular with French explorers, because Presqu’île means “Almost an Island” – – this is actually a long, sandbar peninsula.

Kind of like the character called Nearly Headless Nick, in the Harry Potter stories. (More formally, Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, played by John Cleese in the movies.)

Both Presque and Nick kind of drift along – Nick, because he’s a ghost, who died after a botched beheading, hence the “nearly,” and the peninsula, slowly moving eastward, as the sand is redistributed by the lake.

Autumn, Pennsylvania, Uncategorized

Pictures of Presque Isle ~ ~ ~ Erie, Pennsylvania. October.

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Halloween, Uncategorized

Wayward Sisters’ Apothecary

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An old iron bridge, closed to cars for many years, takes hikers over the Seneca River, to Howland Island, a few miles north of Port Byron, NY.  About halfway between Rochester and Syracuse.

 

 

The island is a state “wildlife management” area, 3,500 acres, near the better-known Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, 10,000 acres, run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Like so many words connected with the federal government, “refuge” is used ironically, since they allow hunting and trapping.

“Wildlife management” seems more honest, with its suggestion of headhunters, cutthroat competition, and getting the ax.  Or maybe, like, letting the animals run things, which seems to be the current political trend.  Howland is hunting land, and not a park, but most of the year, it’s a great place to just walk and bird watch.  The rifle & shotgun “downsizing” season for deer would be the exception, and in late November/early December, you don’t wanna go near the hunting areas.

Waterfowl season, it’s pretty safe, just stay away from the ponds, wear orange, and I always remove the plumes from my Tyrolean hat.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)  Which despite its name, turns reddish or coppery in the fall.  Now that I no longer have to mow a lawn, I’ve grown enthusiastic about grasses.

Howland is just barely an island, almost a peninsula most of the year.  The channel on the longest, northwest side is narrow in some places, hardly more than a big ditch, except during the spring floods.  But the river along the south shore is pretty broad and impressive.

 

 

The Seneca River begins in Geneva, as the overflow from Seneca Lake, and then wanders more-or-less northeast, picking up water from a number of creeks, and most of the Finger Lakes.  North of Syracuse, it helps to form the Oswego River, which empties into Lake Ontario.  It was a trading route for the Iroquois, and then for the colonial fur trade, and for almost two hundred years, sections have been dredged and “canalized” as part of the Erie Canal system.

So today, you can cast off your boat from, say, Watkins Glen, on the southern end of Seneca Lake (42° N), only thirty miles north of the Pennsylvania line, and sail, by way of canals, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, all the way to the North Atlantic, at Nova Scotia or Newfoundland (49° N).

(Or you could reach the Atlantic by way of the Mohawk River, and then south on the Hudson River to New York City.)

(Or, if it’s a really small, inflatable boat, you could put it in a duffle bag, go to the Trailways station in Elmira, take a bus to Patchogue, then take the ferry out to Fire Island, and row into the Atlantic from the beach.)

(And the buses do have WiFi now, and I’m guessing the St. Lawrence River doesn’t, unless you’re really close to Montréal.)

(If you do choose that St. Lawrence route, remember, when asking for the WiFi password as you float past Montréal or Québec, they pronounce it “le wee fee.”)

(I’m not trying to tell you which is the best route, you know, but if you did take the bus to Patchogue, you could stop by Flo’s Luncheonette, and have waffles, before you get back in the boat.)

(But for heaven’s sake, wait half an hour, after the waffles, before you go onto the ocean.)

 

a calm backwater along the eastern border of the island

 

Waffles, yeah.  I have not had waffles since I moved to Milwaukee.  It is getting cold, and time for waffle long johns, and for waffles.  Where was I?

 

cellphone snap of a heron enjoying lunch

I’ve walked around the island many times, and am often struck by the relative scarcity of game.  I’ve don’t recall ever seeing any grouse, pheasants, or rabbits, or even their tracks.  Despite the hickory trees, even squirrels make themselves scarce.  A few whitetails, groundhogs, and ducks, but there are way more deer, geese, and turkeys in the surrounding farms, than that woods and ponds here.  So maybe word gets around, and the animals actually avoid a designated hunting zone?

 

A young painted turtle was flipped over, next to a culvert, and looked pretty disgruntled, but it cheered right up once we got it right-side up, and set it on a nice patch of mud

 

Some acreage is leased for growing soybeans, but no one lives on the island anymore.   Woods, fields, sandy hillocks, ponds and marshes.  Settlers in the early 1800’s spent a lot of time draining the swampy areas, and then in the 1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corp reversed course, and spent a lot of time creating ponds and marshes, for waterfowl.  The CCC barracks later housed POWs from Rommel’s Afrika Korps, who worked as farm labor ($.80/day), and in a nearby Procini & Rossi pasta factory.  (Apparently, things worked out peaceably – I’ve never read of any escapes, or trouble of any kind.  Although, being German, they insisted on straightening the elbow macaroni.)

 

 

On a walk in October, it seemed surprising to find dozens of orange butterflies, fluttering around with the falling leaves, almost like they were trying to blend in.   I think they were Question Mark Butterflies (which seem to have a varied appearance, depending on which book or website you’re looking at), but please let me know if that guess is wrong.

 

 

The very green frog, is named appropriately – Northern Green Frog.  He blew a lot of money on that camouflage outfit, feeling pretty fly, as frogs said back in the ’90’s, but now he finds he’s no longer blending in, as the leaves and ferns turn brown.  You know the song sung by Kermit on the Muppets, right?  I had to look up the writer, Joe Raposo, and I had no idea it was covered by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Van Morrison, Shirley Horn, Lena Horne, Diana Ross, Della Reese, Ray Charles, etc.

It’s not that easy bein’ green

Having to spend each day

The color of the leaves

When I think it could be nicer

Bein’ red or yellow or gold…

There is absolutely nothing spectacular about Howland Island. It’s just a pleasant place to stretch your legs. There are generally a couple of people fishing in the river, and on a typical day, when it’s not hunting season, you’ll probably have the place pretty much to yourself.

Looking at that frog reminds me.  Did you know our military now has at least ten types of camouflage, for different situations?  The Navy has a uniform for the desert, which is a bit mystifying, unless your ship was going really, really fast when it hit land.  Or maybe, once in a while, the sailors just like to get as far away from water as they can?  And according to the Washington Post, the Navy wanted to distinguish their uniforms from the Marines’, so their desert pattern is green.

Maybe “sand” was too obvious?  I guess if the Navy guys are green, and sticking out like a sore thumb, they could hunker down, and pretend they’re frogs?  Just abnormally large, Northern Green Frogs, who tragically, have become lost in the desert.  Technically, that kind of camo’s called “mimesis,” trying to look like something else, rather than “crypsis,” avoiding detection.

 

A discarded snakeskin almost made me jump out of my skin

Well, I had been feeling kinda good about this post, actually staying focused & on track, but now somehow we’ve wandered into a discussion of Muppets and camouflage?  I suddenly thought, wasn’t the inventor of waffle irons named Howland?  That would be a nice coincidence and a good wrap-up.  But I was thinking of Elias Howe, and it was a sewing machine.  But I’m sure some people are aware of another Howland Island, a tiny coral lump somewhere in the Pacific, where Amelia Earhart was headed, when she disappeared, kind of like the thread of this story.  The airstrip there was another New Deal project, done about the same time they were constructing the ponds on our local island.

The Pacific’s Howland Island, now managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, is one of only ten remaining territories still claimed by our country, under the Guano Islands Act of 1856.  That law is still on the books, allowing us, the citizens of the U.S.A., to take possession of any unclaimed islands, as long as they (the islands) have a really big pile of bird excrement.  No kidding.  And on that note, I’m gonna go get some waffles.

 

Washington Post May 8, 2013  “U.S. Military has 10 Kinds of Camouflage”

[http://wapo.st/18u4O50?tid=ss_mail&utm_term=.8147b05254f2]

Finger Lakes, FLX, Nature, NY, Uncategorized, Upstate New York

Walks in Upstate New York. October. Howland Island.

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I was lying on the ground, gasping for oxygen after summiting the highest peak in my county, and trying to staunch a nosebleed with a handful of alpaca wool.

I was surrounded by decaying carcasses.

 

 

So, good opening, right?

Maybe…dramatized, just a tad.

I wasn’t actually prostrate, for example, but I am prone to exaggeration.

Technically, there was no need for oxygen, no nosebleed, no alpaca wool.

The “carcasses” were just old tree stumps.

Some people are into bicycling or making yarn – – I’m learning to spin alternative facts.

 

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One of our more intimidating trails – up to a 1 and a 1/2% grade!!!  And in places, some really tough weeds.

 

In Seneca County, NY, the highest elevation soars to … 1640 feet above sea level.  Not too impressive.  An easy stroll up the hill, through woods and pastures.   The neighboring counties top out at 2,000 – 2,200.  You don’t need ropes or mountaineering boots – – the only thing spiked around here, is the apple cider.

I’ve found it’s really hard to hire sherpas, or rent an alpaca, to carry stuff for you, for anything under 20,000 feet, they find it an embarrassment.  Sometimes a kid with an ATV will give you a lift.

 

 

 

Come to think of it, there actually are some alpacas around here.  Upstate New York has over 600,000 dairy cows, but you’ll also run across pastures with sheep, goats, and llamas, and every once in a while, alpacas, bison or ostriches.

But no mountain goats.   It’s just that all summer, I’ve been reading WP stories of mountains.  Rocky Mountains and Alps and Andes and Carpathians, hiking & rock climbing – – and I’ve been wanting to write “summiting,” like the cool, more  adventurous bloggers.  I’m going to post a story about climbing a volcano in Chile, but today, it’s about the decidedly tame, non-volcanic region where I grew up.

 

 

This old stump triggered this story – – with a bit of imagination, it resembled a rocky mesa

 

All summer, I’ve admired pictures of spectacular ranges, peaks, alps, buttes, mesas, and cliffs.  The masses of stone are almost overwhelming.  Evidence of titanic energy and uplift – – lava flows and volcanoes, and the weathered faces of former seabeds, eons of sediment, pushed sky-high by tectonic plate movement.

Everything’s standing tall.  I’ve visited some of the western states, gone to the mountains, and met a lot friendly  folks with positive attitudes.  It’s a forward-thinking, upward-trending kind of place out there, in the West.

 

 

Here in the East, in Upstate New York, the landforms are pretty modest.  Like our infrastructure and many of our residents, the topography is half-cracked, old and crumbling.  Once upon a time, the Taconics, on the eastern side of the state, were as tall as the Himalayas.  Eons and a couple of Ice Ages flattened out the hills, and smoothed out the valleys.  Instead of purple mountains majesty, we run more to gullied hillsides covered with cow pastures, and what we call “mountains” in the Finger Lakes, are wooded hummocks really.

 

 

About 130 miles east of here, New York does have mountains, but less than half the height of the Rockies.  The Adirondacks top out at 5343 feet, and the Catskills at 4180.

New York’s official motto is “Excelsior” i.e.”Higher,” (didn’t you think that was Colorado?), “Ever Upwards,” but some days, it seems we’re really more about erosion and running downhill – – of land, civility, ethical standards, you name it.

The state has amassed a mountain of debt, over $64 billion, and climbing.  We’re specialists in fits of pique, more than peaks, and slippery slopes.  Our legislators recently voted on the Official State Sport, and chose “Backsliding.”

 

 

 

 

When you travel from New York City to central New York, where I grew up, it’s all downhill, economically.  NYC is still a Himalaya of financial services, and much of Upstate is an eroded depression of former manufacturing centers.

Every little city around here has stories about “we used to make…”  from shoes to cigars, fire engines to cameras, steel to furniture.  My village was known at one time for its pianos and organs, but its well-made wagons and sleighs were the most famous – I’ve run across them several times in museums around the Northeast.  The company successfully evolved into a maker of car bodies, making various types of “woodies,” until those went out of fashion, and it folded in 1957.

 

 

A 1942 GMC “Waterloo Woodie”

 

All these economic peaks are ancient history, and long gone, along with many skills and well-paying jobs.  The region now looks to “agritourism” to climb back up.

 

 

 

Still…even though good jobs are scarce, the lakes and surrounding hills are beautiful.  The region is ever more popular as a busy tourist destination.  Waterfalls, boating, fishing, wineries, cheese-making, cideries, Amish farms, distilleries.  In my little village, and neighboring Geneva, there are hundreds and hundreds of hotel rooms, and in summer & autumn, they’re often booked solid, and the restaurants are crowded.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, while we’re waiting for a table…we started with mountains, and then wandered into the local economy…maybe now, a little glass of vodka, and a two-paragraph detour to the Russian Empire.  Not to climb the Urals, but to visit Potemkin villages.

Grigory Potemkin was one of Catherine the Great’s boyfriends, and a pretty interesting guy, who fought wars, built fleets of ships, calmed the Cossacks, etc.  Like Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit,” a one-eyed fat man, that you shouldn’t underestimate.  But sometimes he’s only mentioned for something that probably didn’t happen.

Potemkin governed the Ukraine, and whenever the Empress of Russia came to inspect,  supposedly he’d nip out and have cute little sham villages erected along her route,  staffed with smiling serfs, washed and dressed in embroidered peasant clothing, so Catherine would believe everything in her realm was just peachy.

 

 

These pop-up “Potemkin villages” may be kind of a myth, but sometimes, that’s how I think of the Finger Lakes.

Except without the borscht.

 

 

Visitors here (to New York, we’re done with Russia now, please keep up) follow the embroidered Chamber of Commerce pamphlets and winery tours, and see a Potemkin village, a flower-strewn facade of summer cottages, lakeside music fests, rose gardens, boat tours, balloon flights, microbreweries, and one hundred wineries.  The Amish in their horse-drawn carts add a touch of quaintness.

And just o’er the hills and not far away from the wineries and waterfront properties, are ramshackle trailer parks and rundown farmhouses, heated with woodstoves, not because that’s so cozy and nostalgic, but because they cannot afford the heating oil.  Pillars fall from dilapidated Greek Revivals, and big brick Victorians go topless, as their roofs cave in.

 

 

The local farm co-op went bust and closed all its stores in 1999, and half the shops in the rural hamlets are boarded up.  Deer season’s a big deal, not as a sporting proposition, but to stock up the chest freezers for winter.

 

 

 

Politicians and state officials sometimes venture here, to look down upon the hayseeds, chew the scenery, and talk endlessly of natural beauty, tourism, agri-tourism.

Eliot Spitzer once left his Manhattan penthouse and drove by, while campaigning for governor.  (And lasted for well over a year in office!  before resigning after a prostitution scandal.)  He compared the area’s economy to Appalachia, apparently not recognizing, that the hilly Southern Tier region (bordering Pennsylvania) actually is part of Appalachia.

 

 

More about hills.  The hillocks and ridges to my north, closer to Lake Ontario, are mostly glacial deposits called “moraines” and “eskers,” piles of sand, boulders, and gravel, dumped by melting glaciers when the Ice Age melted away.

 

 

And we’re still getting dumped upon.

The highest point near my hometown?  It’s a series of terraced barrows, where we gather and store up earthly wealth.

In other words, a giant garbage dump, hundreds of feet tall.  Now that the Ice Age is done leaving glacial till, a Canadian company is ringing the till, trucking in trash from NYC.

 

 

Waterloo is between the northern ends of Seneca and Cayuga, the largest of the Finger Lakes, almost forty miles long, and in places, 400-600 feet deep.

The only lakefront property, however, in the town, is occupied by a state park.  In this county, mostly agricultural, and with a substantial Amish population, per capita income is less than $26,000.  So, since before I was born, Seneca Falls, the village immediately to our east, has accepted millions of dollars to host “Seneca Meadows.”

This sounds lovely, but it’s actually a landfill, covering hundreds of acres between the villages.  Six thousand tons of garbage are trucked in daily, almost all of it from downstate, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.  Millions of tires are “recycled” by grinding them up, and using them as a substitute for gravel in drainage beds.   So much methane is produced, that it’s tapped to supply an electric-generating plant.   A mile of plastic piping is strung between tall poles, spritzing a flowery deodorant 24/7.

 

 

It’s a well-run operation.  The trucks and earth-movers are precisely choreographed.  Technically, we’re informed, these man-made hills are called “dry entombment.”  And sure, isn’t that cheerful-sounding.  The operator reaps tens of millions of dollars, every year.  A lot of locals aren’t excited about the new landscape, hundreds of feet tall, but there’s only 19,044 active, registered voters in this county, and NYC has 4,420,737, so guess which direction the local politicos and state authorities flop.

So pile it high.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I guess when you don’t have mountains, we have an urge to create them.  Barrows, cairns, pyramids, we like to pile stuff up.  Sometimes around here it’s piles of rocks, raked out of the fields by generations of farmers.  Sometimes a heap of rusting harrows, seed drills, broken stanchions, and old cars.  Defunct breeds gravitate to the hamlets and small farms – – Mercury Sables, Pontiac Sunbirds, and brontosaurus-sized Oldsmobiles – – following hereditary paths laid down by dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, AMC Eagles and Pacers.

The old cars migrate up into the hills to die and return to the earth, mostly rusting away in ravines and farmers’ side yards.

 

 

Hiking around our little hills and patches of woods, it’s sometimes hard not to envy those cool state-of-the-art Westerners, cruising in their Land Cruisers, trekking with nano-tech jackets, mirrored Oakleys, freeze-dried goji berries, GoPros streaming adventures in the huge wilderness areas and high peaks, all drama and dramatic vistas amid giant spruce and firs.

 

 

Meanwhile, back in the unexciting Upstate boondocks…I find there’s always something interesting in these woods and creeks, and there’s a sort of charm in the quiet green valleys around here.  And no choking forest fires!

 

Part of the new economy. Microbreweries are popping up everywhere around here.  Hops (used as a preservative and flavoring in beer) have been grown in NY since the early 1600’s, and Upstate dominated the market in the 1800’s. The large-scale production is now in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, but small-scale growers are beginning to be a familiar sight.

 

Let’s go back up to the highest part of my county.

I’ve walked many times along the Hector Backbone, the ridge running between the longest of the Finger Lakes, Cayuga and Seneca.  Part of the ridge is within the Finger Lakes Forest – a mixture of pastures, 2nd-growth woods, and pine or oak plantations,  16,000 acres managed by the USDA.  The remnants of the original hemlock woods, clinging to the ravines, are beautiful, but the pine plantations aren’t looking that great, chewed up by beetles and wind storms.  The foresters are now planting red oaks instead.

There used to be a hundred small farms along here.  A lot of the little hill farms were already eroded, marginal, or abandoned, before the Depression finished them off.  On your walk, if you see a half-dozen ancient sugar maples in a row, you’ll inevitably find an old stone foundation nearby.  The houses and barns are long-gone, but even after eighty years or more, I’m still tripping over rusty old buckets and scraps of iron and wire, hidden under the leaves and humus.  Stone walls, painstakingly stacked by immigrants and Civil War vets, that used to define fields and pastures, still run straight as an arrow through the forests.

 

 

I started writing this at the height of summer, and now it’s fall.

Like most of my high school classmates, I’ve found a job out-of-state, and moved away.

 

 

And believe it or not, I’m gonna miss this place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Autumn, Finger Lakes, FLX, History, Nature, NY, Uncategorized, Upstate New York, Waterloo

Upstate New York. Fall of 2018

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