Posts Tagged ‘Upstate New York’

I made my usual drive from upstate to downstate on Sunday.  My car was packed with provisions for the week: My washed and folded clothes, two computers, and energy snacks to sustain me through my teaching days. The students have just come through Regents exams week and it will be good to move back to real learning.

Driving through the valley and the Catskill Mountains on a day of brilliant sunshine and graced with linen-white snow, I passed tired hamlets and run down homes, abandoned general stores, and old farms weary with age. So much of the human landscape in upstate looks this way, and winter makes it even sadder.

I passed cold, rushing streams half choked with snow laden boulders and ice. On a string of ponds I saw brave people ice fishing.  I always wonder about those who fish on frozen ponds.  I might like to try it sometime; for an hour.

Ice fishing

I stopped to take this picture of those hardy souls out on the ice.  In the parking lot above the pond, some of the winter anglers were packing their gear into the back of pickup trucks and wearing camouflage outerwear.  I wondered: If you are going to wear “camo” while ice-fishing, shouldn’t it be white?

Until the past week, this had been a mild winter in the northeast.  Then our friends to the north sent us a week-long blast of cold, and there were days when it was almost unbearable to be outside. This might be fine weather in northern Canada, but here in downstate it is a peril.  One day last week, the closest parking spot I could find was some eight blocks away, and by the time I made it to my school my eyes were tearing and the water droplets were dripping from my nose. “’It’s-not-freezing-cold,” my daughter would say. (Say it quickly.)

I’ve lived in cold weather states most of my life, including two winters in Fairbanks, Alaska.  With a few years in northern Vermont, twenty winters in Maine, and quite a number in upstate, I know what winter means.  Still, there is not much that can prepare you for day after day of bitter cold weather and wind chill factors that approach, and then sink, below zero Fahrenheit.  That’s been our weather lately.

The days are getting longer in our latitude.  It is noticeable.  But, there is still a lot of winter left in these climes. Weekends, when I am back home on the farm, I toss log after log into the woodstove.  In the Bronx, I wipe the tears from my cheeks, the snot from my nose, and pray my classroom is warm. The goal at this time of year is, as Van Morrison sings, to get through January and February.



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Each week now, since the school year started, I begin and end my work with a drive from and to my home in upstate. About 80 miles of the trip are on the Taconic State Parkway – the TSP on road signs – of eastern New York.  It is a beautiful road to drive, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can read more about it here.

The Taconic, as it’s called by frequent drivers, is a road you have to drive. Sharp curves, steep grades, stone walls that serve as unyielding guardrails, and bucolic views that compete for your attention, are all part of the route.  I could take I-87, the New York State Thruway, from upstate to the Bronx, and fall into that semi-conscious state of driving that interstates allow, but I prefer the Taconic.

The TSP demands your attention (though not a toll, as the Thruway does) and trucks are prohibited from traveling on it.  The exits have names, but not numbers, so over the years I have had difficulty giving directions.  I am more apt to describe terrain, road features, or prior exit names, when telling a soon-to-be-guest where (and when) they should exit.  Here’s an example:

“When you see the exit for Near Road, you’re not far.  There will be a parking area and scenic overlook on your right, and then a long downhill just before the exit you want.  Be careful, you’ll pick up speed on the parkway and the exit ramp is sudden and unforgiving.”

Along the Taconic white tail deer are abundant.  They are so inured to the traffic that they graze along the roadside mere feet from cars whizzing by at sixty or more miles an hour.  Even the young, spotted fawns can be seen grazing along the road with their mothers nearby.  It is almost as if they are taught at a young age not to worry about the cars, but it is a bad lesson.

Along the section of the Taconic which I drive twice weekly, I will spot a dead deer almost as frequently as a live one.  The road kill statistics for this route must be shocking. Driving south last weekend I counted a dozen.  Some were twisted into repulsive shapes.  Others had their hind legs pointed straight to the sky, or were laying so far from the road that I wonder if they were thrown that far, or if they managed some final steps before death found them.  It is a slaughter.

But there are many more beautiful sites along the Taconic.  Red-tail hawks are common.  Vistas of farms, fields, and low rounded hills sometimes seem dreamlike. The fall is a time of unbelievable beauty, and once the trees have lost their leaves new or expanded views open up. I often feel as if I am driving through a park and not the densely populated Hudson Valley.  The route reminds me of roads I have driven through the Shenandoah and Great Smokey Mountains.

Along the TSP

My drive on the TSP is also the time when I transition between two worlds.  At home upstate I am surrounded by a rural landscape. Neighbors are not nearby.  The second closest home to mine is at least a thousand feet away.  I often hear the sounds of cows, or a neighbor’s rooster. Mornings in upstate are a thing of beauty as the light of the rising sun first hits the mountains, and then lights up the lower farm fields.  Nights bring so many stars; uncountable when the Milky Way glows above.  At times, the stillness is so deep your ears may ring.

My downstate home stands in contrast. There are the sounds of passing cars and the horns of the Metro North trains.  The sirens of emergency vehicles are frequently heard.  Jet planes taking off from LaGuardia Airport in distant Queens often roar overhead.  And there always seems to be a dog barking somewhere.  It is a crowded, suburban neighborhood with the houses set close to one another.  Looking out the windows of my mother’s home I can count more houses than exist on the entire four miles of the rural road I live in upstate.

It is between these two worlds that I travel each week, and the Taconic State Parkway is the road that links them.  Sometimes, I imagine myself as a traveler in space on a journey from one planet to another.  At some point in my journey the pull of gravity from one world ceases and I am drawn in by the gravity of another.  Even after these many weeks of making the trip, I can feel the change come over me as I leave or approach one home or the other.  Upstate and the Bronx.  Two worlds I call home.

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