September 25 - October 1, 1991 Upstate New York

Some Terrible State Park, New York September 25, 1991

Boy, what a wretched afternoon I've had. My detour to Niagara Falls was a waste. Wasteland, that is. What a terribly ugly place. You can't see the falls for the tourist attractions completely surrounding them. By the time I finished walking around and dealing with customs, it was 5 o'clock and I needed to find a place to sleep. I picked the nearest state park on the map and drove there only to find it closed. Not just closed: locked-and-chained closed. And it was the only state park for 50 miles. I managed to find the park administrator's residence and asked him where the nearest camping was. He directed me 8 miles down the road to Skyline Camping, a privately owned facility. Well, Skyline turned out to be a dump. It made my skin crawl just to walk around that place, and they were asking $12 a night. Ha ha, I said, and went looking for someplace to pull off the road. Every place I went had "No Trespassing" signs and/or evil looking people. The sun was just about set. I studied the map and found Some Terrible about 50 miles away. I figured I'd get there in the dark, but at least it would be a state park, and if it wasn't open I could break the lock. I just got here a few minutes ago, and it's open. It also costs $13.50 a night, but at this point I don't really care. And it's really not too bad. I've got a fairly secluded spot in amongst the pines. Which is more than I've come to expect from state parks. The only nice ones I've been to have been in California -- all the others are electrified mazes of asphalt and chemically green grass.

But that's not to say things don't vary between states. One of the most highly variable of attributes is the Deer Crossing sign, a many-faced road marker, and possibly and indication of a state's disposition. California's deer are lithe and frail, bounding airily across the yellow diamond. Montana, on the other hand, has immense, powerful deer -- possibly even elk. Other states range from the cartoonish figure of Ohio to the Franz Marc of South Dakota to the unusual protruding breastbone here in New York. Some are unnaturally fat, others just unnatural, and some have little black wings drawn on in felt tip.

And that's not all that varies. Crossing the Ohio-Pennsylvania border was particularly spectacular (and much appreciated). Suddenly you go from the flat, rectilinear landscape where every square foot is cultivated to a hilly, forested, pre-Township and Range region with windy roads, oil towns, and accents. Not to mention the churches changing from red granite and sandstone arched block monsters to wooden double steeples. Hey, I'm on the East Coast! All the residents seem to think so, too, because as soon as I crossed over people started looking at my plates and saying, "You're a long way from home." Those exact words, every time. Little do they know I'm actually in my home.

And speaking of oil towns, I happened upon a "ghost town" called Pithole, which has to rival Probolingo for most excellent city name. I say "ghost town" in quotes because there was no town left to be inhabited by ghosts -- just a big grassy field where you could still see the outlines of the roads. Maybe the town itself is a ghost. In any case, oil was discovered on a farm there just after the Civil War, and in three months there was a city of 15,000, with pipelines, railroads, and hotels. One year later the wells dried up and everyone sold their houses for firewood. At the height of it's oil production, Pithole was sold for $2 million. Three years later the government bought it for $4.27.

Another really nice place I went to was Allegheny National Forest. I mean really nice. I camped at a place called Minister Creek: six sites and all of them empty. I was going to write from there, but I was having too much fun. I went on a seven mile loop hike up the valley, through the intensely beautiful forests, and up to some very cool sandstone and conglomerate rock protrusions. The forest was a deep green speckled with fiery red -- the early stages of Fall -- and scattered with rectangular chunks of rock 40 feet on a side, growing with moss and encrusted with roots. The lookout from the top was unbelievable. I should've stayed there for a few more nights rather than come here by way of Niagara Falls.

Before all of this, I had an extremely pleasant weekend in Ann Arbor visiting Eric. On Sunday we went for a bike ride out to an apple orchard for cider and donuts. I missed my bike. I was riding one of those skinny unstable things with a hard seat and terrible brakes. And I had to reach all the way down there to change gears! I was very sore that night, but it was a good time nonetheless. Before I left I went to the co-op and stocked up on Seven Stars Farm Yogurt. A really cute redhead behind the register was being very friendly, but of course I had about ten minutes left in town! Such is life.

Adirondack Park, near Speculator, NY Friday, September 24, 1991

Well, boredom and lots of energy combined today to make me feel miserable and give me my first taste of claustrophobia inside the truck. I've been worried about claustrophobia since the beginning, but had yet to experience anything but comfort and joy in the back of the truck.

I got a late start this morning and spent the good part of the morning looking for a hiking map of the Park and mailing books home. The hiking map quest was fruitless, and based on various combined sources I decided to laze around the rest of the day and do a good 15 mile hike tomorrow up to a fire lookout -- all of my previous fire lookout experiences have been wonderful. Anyway, I found an out of the way logging road and spent the morning reading the local paper and watching the thick dark clouds. The local paper was particularly interesting, USA Today having been the last paper I read. This one was so full of detail and local people that at times it was very much like a soap opera. By the time I finished the crossword, though, I began to feel enclosed and get short of breath.

The solution to this was of course a walk. In fact, I ran some of the way. I took my camera and spent a few hours photographing my usual assortment of abstract multiple exposures. I've been taking a lot more pictures on this trip than the last. When I went around the world I shot only 5 rolls of 24 in six months, and I think this has a lot to do with me seeing my camera as a means to capture my trip on film. Everything I saw was far too overwhelming to get on film, so I ended up taking just a few pictures -- mostly shots of temples and ruins. This time, though, I'm using the characteristics of the various regions as fodder for my usual picture-taking habits. Thus, since there's so many new images to use, I've already shot 2 rolls of 36! It's like discovering a new palette every few days.

Two unusual things happened on my walk. One was an unbelievably deep growl from the woods. The animal that produced it must have been immense, so I thought it might have been a snatch of distant helicopter noise. Nothing in the bushes moved or made any more noise, so I still don't know what it was. The other thing was a ripple in a lake made by something swimming just under the surface. I noticed it about halfway across the lake and it made a beeline for me -- fast! When it was about three feet away from my feet on the shore I thought, my fear rising instantly, "Alligator? But I'm in upstate New York!" It disappeared at the shore, and I didn't see anything below the surface of the water...

I came back and worked on a t-shirt coloring project and then made dinner. After dinner I was claustrophobic again and ran down the road to the trailhead. It never rained all day and I would've had plenty of time to do the hike. Fortunately, it's dark now and I should be able to fall asleep pretty well. Tomorrow I can take that hike (I'm sure it will rain) and then drive somewhere really fast like I did yesterday when I was supremely frustrated with the New York State Park system.

It's days like this that make me wonder why I left an interesting job, a wonderful and cozy apartment, and the best girlfriend I've ever had. There's a plan in the works to fly me home for Christmas, and I can't decide if that's what I want. On the one hand it would be really nice to see everybody and maybe even go see the Dead, but days like this make me think I might not want to return to my truck. I'm also worried about destroying the continuity of my Journey, but since what I'm doing is so unlike real Travel in that I'm in such close contact with my friends and my own culture, I don't worry too much. I feel more like a postman than an explorer.

Sharp Bridge Campground, Adirondack Park, NY Sunday, September 29, 1991

It's strange how fast things can change. I've been in such a good mood since yesterday that the previous report seems silly. Maybe it was the hiking, maybe it was the chocolate, maybe it was the driving, maybe it was People Magazine (the well-known sedative, Entertainment Tonight, in print form), maybe it was the gloves, maybe it was the Gas Station Incident.

I was well aware that I had hit a bird -- the stupid things fly right in front of you. Nevertheless, when I pulled into a gas station ten miles later and the grizzled attendant with the Abe Lincoln beard and the small round glasses -- a true-to-lore Adirondack Hillbilly Old-timer -- came out to service me, I couldn't help laughing when he said to me, "A bird just fell off your bumper." It made me smile, which is something I needed.

He and the other people I've run into have also illuminated to me drastic differences between East and West Coast styles of camping. Everyone out here is dressed in ragged wool clothing layered on a foot thick, loose jeans, mismatched tennis shoes, and an ancient backpack ladled with a ragtag assortment from the local Army surplus store. And they're wet. You gotta wonder when the vast majority of lean-to charcoal graffiti -- some of it dating back to 1972 -- uses phrases like "It rained a lot" and "We got wet". Of course there was the requisite drug graffiti: "Smoked a lot of pot". Why is it that some people feel the act of smoking itself is of value and should be shouted to the world? It seems to me that it's of more interest what you did once you were stoned. Anyway, contrast the above backpackers with a specimen of the Western Mountain Man I encountered in Glacier National Park: seven feet tall, rippling with muscles, strapped down with numerous neon accessories, webbing, and plastic clips, tan, exuding a force field of unimaginable power, and with two ice blue wolf eyes.

The hiking, by the way, hasn't been too great. The trails are in terrible shape, with many bridges out and huge tracts of swamp one must slog through. The weather, too, has been terrible, as one might expect from the aforementioned graffiti. Strangely, though, I am now sitting in a sunny forest -- a campground closed for the season into which I managed to break (not as criminal as you might think: another car just came over the hill, looking very surprised to see me here typing on the picnic table). I think the only reason it's sunny is because I'm in the lee of New York's highest peak, Mt. Marcy.

As you can see from the length of this communiqué, I've decided to ignore my previous decision not to write as much. Just goes to show you should never believe anything I say. To tell you the truth, I never left California. I've been holed up in a bunker in Orange County, hired to help catalog an obscure friend's vast postcard and road map collection. Seriously, though, I was just faking myself out: my first letters were pretty boring and it served to relieve the pressure to write. Thank you all for your words of encouragement, too -- they helped a lot. I remember a similar stage on my last trip. I remember, too, looking back at the first letters from that trip and cringing at my naiveté and eagerness. About four months into the trip, in Katmandu, we miraculously ran into a friend of Mark's from Stanford. He'd just arrived from the US and spent an entire evening ranting to us about how weird and neat and exciting it was to be in Nepal while we sat, smirking, and filled him in on the tricks of third world travel. Oh, to be jaded.

Montreal, Quebec Tuesday, October 1, 1991

I know it's going to be a good visit with Alex: I'm hungover already. I got into town yesterday afternoon and spent some time walking around -- exercising my strange powers of Comic Shop Location -- while Alex was in class. At 7:30 I knocked on his door and he ushered me in, gesticulating wildly at the TV: The Simpsons was just starting! We sat, nigh wordless, for half an hour, then greeted each other heartily. After helping a friend's mother start her car (with the aid of the CAA), we went to a pub and drank cheap beer while ogling women. Alex and I are both firm believers in the theory that speaking French is some sort of key to beauty. Alex further explained to me why all of the signs are in French and yet everyone speaks English. It's legally mandated. The signs in French, I mean. People speak English merely because we're in an international section of town. And when they do speak French it's like they've got a mouth full of cotton and Novocain.

Ahhh...but let me go back...

The previous night, at Sharp Bridge, was magical. Those other people who drove around the barrier like me didn't stay and I had the entire campground to myself, all 150 or so sites. Sharp Bridge, built in 1920, is the oldest campground in the Park. It's a rolling hillside next to a small stream -- a forest of tall, slender pines equally spaced at about 40 feet apart, devoid of underbrush. The ground was covered with a layer of needles half and inch thick, obscuring roads, campsites, and trails like a brown, velveteen snow. Scattered seemingly at random through this pseudo-winter wonderland were picnic tables and concrete fire pits -- an altogether surreal landscape in which I romped with vigor. The sky was a clear, deep blue, and the setting sun stained the few remaining clouds red. It was heavenly.

There was evidence, however, that a work crew would return the next morning to continue cutting down trees. I fretted over their reaction to my forced entry. One of my irrational fears is the fear of people being irrational, as in: "You're going to put me in jail for jaywalking??" or: "You're going to beat me up because I have a beard??" I think this all might stem from various encounters with grade school bullies. I was thinking of writing a book analyzing in detail all the times I've been shaken down for lunch money. In any case, I decided to attempt to avoid the confrontation by waking at seven and quickly fleeing the premises. Needless to say, I set my alarm but forgot to remove it from my jeans pocket. I awoke promptly at 8:30. The work crew had not arrived and I drove quickly around the barrier.

Much to my surprise, it was still sunny. In fact, it was stunningly clear and beautiful! After four days of grumbling in the rain about how terrible a place Adirondack Park was, I woke up to find it...fantastic! I drove happily onward through the mountains and gorges, the fire of fall spreading up the slopes, the frost blanketing the lawns of the happy, fog-breathed hunters, listening to The Dukes of Stratosfear and They Might Be Giants. It's great what a cup of coffee in the morning can do.

After a while I ended up in Lake Placid, a strangely familiar town, eerily reminiscent of the theme from the Wide World of Sports.

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Chez Zeus: Writing: No Simple Highway: Upstate New York

Last modified: Mon Dec 10 16:05:32 2001
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