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 bit.
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.
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.
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.
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, eskers, and drumlins – – piles of sand, clay, boulders, and gravel, dumped by melting glaciers when the Ice Age melted away.
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 huge corporation is ringing the till, trucking in trash from NYC and out-of-state, and pumping money into local elections, to make sure their supporters are running things.
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 $27,000. 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!
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.