Snowboating Across New York

That was a year of several major snows, the kind that the Alberta Clipper pushes down on us from Canada, and coming over the Great Lakes it gives us quite a belt. I was snug enough at home, a beautiful New York State farmhouse called The Cricket built about 1850 overlooking the valley estate of that village’s most eminent family. Their farmers clipped the pasture just over the split rail fence; their gardeners tended the formal gardens which we viewed, from a distance, with great pleasure.

I was living about 150 miles as the crow flies east of my hometown, in a village by historic Glimmerglass Lake and not far from the Catskills. You’ve probably heard of Cooperstown in the context of the Baseball Hall of Fame, but this was before that small town was destroyed by the malignant growth of baseball memorabilia. Its pharmacy sold drugs by prescription, its market food and its jeweler watches in a beautiful downtown setting, and not as it is today where the shells of businesses remain but inside they are all “collectibles.”

Cooperstown also hosted the New York State Historical Association which, with the state university, sponsored a graduate program in American folk culture. I was a student in the folklore program taught by the man who wrote “Things That Go Bump in the Night.”

Around mid-December when we the holidays were coming up, my girlfriend from Glen Lake, Minnesota came to visit. Jesse and I had met four years before at a Quaker school in Pennsylvania, and we had a lot in common. We both liked to travel and were students of philosophy and natural history. We kept in close touch. She had arranged to stop with me in Cooperstown as part of longer trip east, and we agreed that she would travel with me to my parents’ home just before Christmas.

At the Cricket, there was no television; there was a small radio but no good stations within miles so we scarcely listened. I never would have thought to look for a weather forecast. We piled our gear in my car late on Friday afternoon and drove off.

The car was the first one I ever owned: a cream-colored 1967 Plymouth Valiant. “Violet” was imbued with many magical properties to go along with its trusty slant-six engine. I had traveled across the continent in Violet, and she and I had lived beside the Puget Sound for a year. One of her fabled properties was that she was “good in snow.” I helped that with sand bags in the trunk and studded snow tires. The Valiant had been a small car in the year of its manufacture but survived long enough to become at least mid-sized. As its springs deteriorated, it wallowed a bit like a boat sideways, an effect exaggerated by the rear-wheel drive.

As we drove north to connect with NYS Route 20 for the trip west, the dusk seemed to fall unusually quickly, aided by gusts of snow. In fact, it was snowing hard from the moment we left until the moment we arrived hours later. Night had fallen by the time we reached 20 in Richfield Springs, and the road began to grow indistinct. It was as if our headlights were feeling their way along, and we were pulled behind.

Main Streets of West Winfield, Nelson and Cazenovia were lit and decorated for Christmas. We bustled past the displays.

South of Syracuse, 20 rises and falls over a series of hills and valleys, remnants of the Appalachians. Going up the hills, we seemed to be in a constant, semi-controlled skid. Coming down, I worked the brake lightly and used the whole road. We climbed to Pompey, then descended to Big Bend, crossed Butternut Creek swathed in snow, and rose to LaFayette. At LaFayette, we nodded north to where the Onondaga Reservation lay in darkness. From LaFayette, we descended to Onondaga Creek, sweeping by the village of Cardiff, where the stone giant had been buried (we’d visited him, lying naked outside in the cold, protected only by a shed roof at the Farmers Museum).

The road and its signs became part of the general blanket of snow, distinguished only by an occasional light or marker. The snow was blowing in from the northwest and formed drifts across the road that lifted us slightly as we breasted them, like a boat in waves. I aimed for the centerline, to allow the maximum clearance for error. A few other cars approached on the road, and they seemed to be following the same principle, since we would aim right at one another then pull to our side within a few hundred yards. I joked about it with Jesse, to let her know it wasn’t accidental.

After crossing Onondaga Creek, we were on a long rise into Navarino, then Skaneateles, and finally Auburn, where U.S. 5 & N.Y. 20 combined for our westward trip. Coming into Auburn, the streetlight globes were shrouded in snow as we proceeded downhill into the business district on Genesee Street. It seemed like everything but the bars had been closed down by the storm. We had been on the road four hours, saw few other travelers and wanted to stop somewhere safe and warm. At just the moment that we began to wonder if there was any place in Auburn for us, the Parkside Diner appeared, all lit up and open for business.

The Parkside is a railroad-car-style diner that sits on a steel trestle above the Owasco Lake Outlet and, being a stormy Friday night, had left-over clam chowder as a special on the menu. The warmth of the diner reminded me of how tired the tension of the drive had made me. Jesse and I had talked at first, listened to radio reports of the storm blowing in, then grew quiet.

At the diner, the bright lights and warmth made an enchantment. I’ve never known food so delicious nor company so pleasant. There were only two or three customers and as many waitresses, all glad to be comfortable inside, watching the drifts pile up in the parking lot across the street. We each had a piece of pie, which tasted fresh and home-made, and several cups of coffee.

It was hard to leave the diner. I looked back on its warm lights as we drove away west. But I knew that, though the storm might increase, we were only sixty miles from home and 5&20 settled into the same trough once occupied by the Erie Canal, so we’d been through the worst of the hills. In fact, the next leg of our trip took us across Montezuma Swamp near its juncture with Cayuga Lake, through once-suffragist Seneca Falls and Waterloo and along the canal linking Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. When the bright crown of lights appeared along the Seneca Lake shore, guiding our entry into Geneva, we were on familiar ground and needed only to push through the next fifteen miles of familiar landscapes half-hidden by snow, past local landmarks of roadhouse and gas station, to see the glow of Canandaigua’s lights in the clouds at the horizon before us.

-by Stephen Lewandowski

A long-time York Stater, Steve has published eight books of poetry and his poems and essays have appeared in regional and national environment and literary journals and anthologies. An environmental educator, he is a founder of the Coalition for Hemlock and Canadice Lakes and has worked with numerous environmental and community organizations in the western Finger Lakes.

His most recent book of poems, One Life, was published by Wood Thrush Books of Vermont. His work is either forthcoming or recently published in snowy egret, Bellowing Ark, Pegasus, Hanging Loose, Free Verse, Avocet, and Blueline.

1 comment:

deerjohn said...

Well done. York State's Lake Effect snow can be daunting, even for the native.