Sunday, September 5 2004
setting: Ithaca, New York
Today Gretchen and I set out into the Fingerlakes region of New York, for which Ithaca serves as something of a southeastern gateway. The Fingerlakes are a series of narrow north-south lakes in the center of New York State. They were carved by glaciers only about fifteen thousand years ago and have many interesting and scenic (though geologically-unstable) features such as waterfalls and gorges. (A common teeshirt in Ithaca reads "Ithaca is Gorges.") Ithaca is situated at the southern tip of the largest Fingerlake, Cayuga Lake, which is 35 miles long but only about two or three miles wide. For some reason Gretchen wanted to drive over to the next lake to the west, Seneca Lake, which is the second-largest Fingerlake. I'm glad we did, because it provided a good sense of what the Fingerlake countryside is like. It consists of a seemingly endless series of steep-walled U-shaped north-south valleys, the kind typically associated with glacial erosion. Such erosion tends to be horizontal (as opposed to water erosion, which is vertical). Some of the valleys are well-drained and agricultural, while others are filled with wetlands. Every now and then one is filled with water; it's a Fingerlake. The vegetation indicates harsher winters and shorter growing seasons than we have in the Mid-Hudson region near Hurley.
None of the Fingerlakes have any bridges across them, so ground transportation between the lakes is limited in the east-west direction. You can drive from one lake to the next, but if you're headed further you have to detour either north or south. Our goal today, though, was just to see one lake and maybe a waterfall.
We drove northward up the eastern shore of Seneca Lake a few miles until we came to a dramatic waterfall called Hector Falls. We pulled over on the side of the road and explored them from several heights, starting with the road and then working our way down to the lake through the grounds of a rambling multi-cabin inn complex. The substrate of the falls seemed to be comprised of thin-banded shale, not very different from the bluestone common around our house.
Down on the lakeshore we looked out at the sailboats and collected pieces of shale that had been sandblasted into thin smooth chips. It must not take long for Mother Nature to fashion such a chip; there were plenty of elegant examples of beach glass from bottles that couldn't have been older than 200 years, and that's only 1.3 percent of the age of the lake.
A guy in a kayak paddled past us on the lake and went up the dredged mouth of the creek that cascades down Hector Falls. Near the base of the falls, Gretchen asked him what his email address was so we could send him some of the digital pictures we were shooting. So he told us, and it was something we could easily remember without writing anything down. Ten years ago, of course, it would have been difficult (or creepy) for strangers like us to provide photographs to a kayaker. And it's not like he could photograph himself, beautiful setting or otherwise.
Next we went into the town of Watkins Glen, which is to Seneca Lake as Ithaca is to Cayuga Lake. It's a much smaller, less prestigious town, famous more for Erie Canal milestones and race car driving than being host to world-class intellectual institutions or famous vegetarian restaurants. We searched the main drag of Watkins Glen for a place to eat and found nothing more enticing than the pizzeria. We ducked into a clothing store and bought a few things for cheap, but while we were preparing to check out Gretchen bent over to try on some shoes and somehow threw her back out. She was semi-crippled from then on for the rest of the day [and for days afterward]. While we waited for our pizza to come out, I went to a convenience store to buy Gretchen some Advil. The woman behind the counter was wearing a Melissa Etheridge teeshirt, and I don't mean that figuratively (although it probably goes without saying).
Back near Ithaca, we found our way to Buttermilk Falls State Park and did a little hiking despite the condition of Gretchen's back. She was walking hunched over but with her shoulders back. This posture made her ass and her breasts seem much larger than usual, although passersby probably thought she suffered from a congenital neurological condition.
It turned out we were in the wrong part of the the park to see the falls, so we had to drive a few miles in a big loop that put us much further downhill in the outskirts of Ithaca. At the foot of the falls an area had been roped off and set aside for swimmers. The swimming area was only a little bigger than somebody's backyard pool, but a lifegaurd was on duty nevertheless. The water was far too cold for me so I mostly lay in the small, somewhat crowded lawn that served as beach while Gretchen swam. She found the cold water somewhat therapeutic. There was stark naked five year old girl running around and nobody seemed to care. If I'd taken a picture and posted it on this site you can be sure the FBI would divert resources from a pending sleeper cell investigation to come get me.
Heading south down State Route 96 we came upon a minigolf course, so we impulsively pulled in to play a round. I'd never played minigolf before, and was pretty miserable at it. But the sheer goofiness of the experience kept it interesting. I was trying to figure out if this course had some sort of theme. A part of it seemed to suggest Africa, with its fake palm trees, thatched huts, pink elephant, and gorilla. But then there was a paddle steamship, a horse from a carousel, a lighthouse, a graveyard, a castle, and (oddest of all) a cottage featuring Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. They must have been random sets from a variety of sources, obtained cheap and thrown together without thematic consideration. It was actually kind of depressing to walk around in an installation that had been built with so little concern for cohesiveness or, hmm, I guess the word is something like flow.
Down near Binghamton, which lies very near the Pennsylvania state line, the topography looked (if one could ignore the trees) as if the glaciers had melted only a few months ago. Hills had been trimmed of their sides and valleys seemed tailored to accommodate great swaths of ice.
We'd been listening to Fleetwood Mac's self-titled album, and there's a song on there that sounds a little like the Scorpions, so we played a greatest hits Scorpions compilation next. I'd never heard any of these Scorpions songs, and one of them, "In A Trance," was so incredible I had to hear it several times. The vocal harmonies in that song reminded me of Boston, so we listened to Boston's self-titled album next. This album really stands the test of time; there's not a repetitive moment on it anywhere, with little licks here and there that are played and abandoned one after the other. In the song "Hitch a Ride" is the first-ever occurrence of the grunge-rock default riff, you know the one I mean, the one that goes doo-doo-dachicka-doo-doo. But unlike in grunge, with Boston you hear it once as bridge-like melodic fragment and then it's gone. The only song that sucks on this album is "Smokin'," a whiteboy blues song that Gretchen and I always skip.
Back at the house, our housesitters from Brooklyn, Lin & Mark, instantly transformed into houseguests. Whenever I hang out with Mark, soon enough I'm bound to have a beer in my hand and an encounter with marijuana paraphernalia. The difference this time was that now the laboratory has a deck, a perfect place for drinking beers and smoking pot. Mark had been making heavy use of it in our absence. He particularly likes this deck's unique view of the northern end of the Shawangunks.
Later Lin's friend Mary came over with a couple of pizzas. Lin had baked a couple pies, which we ate while watching a rerun of The Wire since Six Feet Under wasn't on. The kicker was a rerun of the Ali G Show, which the others had never seen. This was the one where the Borat character performs "In My Country There is Problem" at a Tuscon honkytonk. It's an unsettling thing to watch when you're stoned. Another thing that's unsettling to do when smoking pot is thinking too deeply about the evil of the Bush administration. I learned today that when Michæl Moore was at the Republican convention (with a legitimate press pass) he was kept isolated by Secret Service from reporters who wanted to interview him. Why? The only possible explanation is that there was an organized effort to suppress dissident voices, and it was enforced by the Secret Service. I don't know about you, but I thought their job was strictly about security.
Route 79 cuts across a series of these north-south valleys between the two major Fingerlakes.
Posing with the camera at Hector Falls on Seneca Lake.
A small suspension bridge across the mouth of the creek that cascades down Hector Falls.
Kayaker at the base of Hector Falls. He uses Southern Tier New York Road Runner as his ISP.
There were a lot of motorcycles on Route 79 as we headed back to Ithaca.
A gradually-collapsing barn.
Gretchen photographs the mirror while I drive.
She found a Twinkie-flavored chapstick at a clothing store in Watkins Glen.
We played a little minigolf on Route 96 not far from Binghamton.
It was difficult to figure out what the course's theme was: it had Snow White, a gorilla, a pink elephant, a steamboat, a castle, and a graveyard, among other things.
The Catskills viewed from the west on Route 17.
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