Day 28 – 315 Miles on the Erie Canal
I stopped for the night in Glens Falls, NY. I tried to get a campsite at a state park nearby, but the campground was, of course, closed for the season. I went back into town and stopped at a CVS to get photos developed, but, of course, their machine was broken.
The photo machine repairman was able to point me to a Target that had a working 1-hour photo machine. After spending $30 to develop 3 days’ worth of photos, I had one of those “this is stupid” revelations and walked back to the electronics department to buy a new digital camera. Anything, as long as it wasn’t a Samsung.
As I started up my engine to pull out of the parking lot, I saw an Amish man walk out of the Target store, carrying a plastic shopping bag. He climbed into the passenger side of a Honda Element that had stopped at the front door to pick him up.
Breakfast was late, and came at a small-town diner on the Mohawk River with the somewhat odd name of Antionette’s Café and Pastry Shop. I considered it an odd name because it was, basically, just a small-town diner. The breakfast special there was the same breakfast special found at every small-town diner in the United States: 2 eggs, hash browns (or simply fried potatoes), choice of bacon or sausage or ham, and toast or a biscuit.
Of course, I ordered the special.
As I walked to my table, a retirement-aged man sitting at a booth against the wall called out, “nice shirt!”
I looked over at the man, who was wearing a fleece-type sweatshirt thing with a button collar. Hey, I realized, I have a shirt just like that! I glanced down at my outfit. Oh, I guess I’m wearing that shirt today.
I would like to interject here that my sister bought me that shirt. So, if it is any kind of faux pas for me to be wearing the same thing as someone 2 generations older than me, you can take up that argument with Megan. I trust her fashion sense more than mine. Personally, I think I just happened to meet a very stylish retiree.
I walked over to talk with the man and his wife, and asked them if it was ever going to stop raining. In answer to their questions, I told them about my trip. They asked me where I was heading.
“To Oklahoma, by way of Minnesota.”
They said something to the effect of “wow”, impressed at the distance. “And where are you traveling from?” they asked.
“By way of Maine,” I said, in explanation.
I had begun to enjoy these types of exchanges. It was sort of a guilty pleasure of mine, that I could tell the facts in the most straightforward fashion and have them sound absurd to “normal” people. A few weeks before, I had been talking with a friendly acquaintance at a party, in what I thought was a really standard conversation—how are you doing, what have you been up to, etc. After about 5 minutes, she unexpectedly laughed. “That’s what I like about you,” she said, “the BS just never stops!” I was a bit taken aback (whatever that means), because up to that point I had been telling nothing but the unembellished truth. She literally wanted documentation and photographic evidence that I did, in fact, have a boat with flippers similar to a penguin, a personal list of 28 positive adjectives, and so forth.
By the time I left Antionette’s Café and Pastry Shop, the waitress was starting to point me out to people. “This guy is traveling across the country, living in his car!” All right, enough of that. I handed out a couple of my no-business cards, and crossed the Mohawk to begin my midday journey across New York.
I've got a mule, and her name is Sal,
Low bridge, everybody down!
The Mohawk River is the naturally-occurring part of the Erie Canal, that old New York waterway that seems to be mostly famous due to a song we always had to sing in grade school music class. Well, partly because of the song, and partly because it allowed Mr. Cottle to show that American History was not composed entirely of wars. It was composed of wars AND of digging big ditches, and occasionally of digging big ditches to fight a war.
But the Erie Canal was incredibly important, we were told, because it made it much easier to transport goods from Albany to Buffalo. Back then, everything needed to go to either Albany or Buffalo, it seems, perhaps because California wasn’t invented yet. And the roads back then were bad, and horsepower was limited to how many Morgan Horses you could hitch up at one time. Someone found that it took much less effort to haul a semi-load of grain if the grain was put in a barge, and the barge was put in the water, and the water was flowing downhill in the direction you wanted to go. That last bit was the tricky part to pull off, so they instead used a mule, or “Sal”, to walk along the shoreline and pull the barge.
All this was very, very important to our country’s development, we were told. What we were not told was that Canada then built its own canal, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, which had the benefit of being about 90% shorter than the Erie Canal while still allowing goods to travel between the Midwest and the Atlantic.
Today, the Erie Canal still reaches from Albany to Buff-a-lo-o, but seems to be pretty well devoid of any barge traffic. I watched it, off and on, while I drove along the modern version of the Erie Canal: The New York State Thruway. Also known as I-90, the Thruway is a toll road that provides the fastest route across upstate New York. Since I had talked with some friends in Michigan about staying with them on Thursday night, and day 28 was a Wednesday, I was somewhat interested in the fastest route across New York.
Mention New York, and most people first think of the city, not the state. But there are about 20 million people in the state of New York, and most of them do not live in New York City.
They live in Jersey.
No, OK, they live in a place called upstate New York, which seems to be the name for the 98% of the state that is not New York City. Upstate New York is fairly normal, as far as I would define it. People farm; they live in small towns and evenly-dispersed larger towns; they watch college basketball and like the color orange.
I flew right by Syracuse, though, which I haven’t been a fan of since their Big XII championship in 2003. I also flew through Rochester, which looked to be a dirty old industrial town, on my way to a scenic route along Lake Ontario.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lake Ontario: it’s a really big lake. Really big. Other than that fact, though, it is not all that scenic.
I checked out a campground along the lake, near the Canadian border, but of course it was closed. So, I followed the road as it bent south toward Niagara Falls.
As I came upon the city of Niagara Falls from the north, I noticed that I was suddenly driving along the rim of a pretty impressive canyon. Even more impressive, it appeared that someone had built a huge Petra-like structure that covered the entire canyon wall on the Canadian side of the gorge.
What in the world was that?!
There was some sort of viewing area/visitor center right next to the road, on the edge of the cliff. It was simply there to tease me, though, because you couldn’t actually get to it from this road. You had to somehow get on a different road, farther away from the edge of the cliff, and walk a sky bridge across the main highway to the viewing area.
Instead, I took the first available exit, which happened to be a scenic overlook farther along the canyon. An educational sign there informed me that I was looking at Devil’s Hole, part of the gorge formed as Niagara Falls eroded the land back to its current location. That seems like a task that would take forever, but the sign implied that there was originally a whole lot more water flowing over the falls. As the glaciers that carved out the Great Lakes melted, they created one super Greatest Lake, which had to drain through this gorge.
Glaciers are the answer to every question in the Great Lakes region, the source of every positive and every problem. The Great Lakes. The Finger Lakes. Niagara Falls. Devil’s Hole. Minnesota. Rocky soil. Good soil. The Buffalo Bills’ futility in the Super Bowls of the 90’s. The Detroit Lions’ futility in general. Barry Sanders’ early retirement. Toyota. The sinking of the Titanic. Celine Dion. Canadians in general.
If I remember correctly from Mr. Cottle’s class, the Erie Canal was even carved out by Irish Catholic glaciers.
It is hard to imagine having that much ice. It is really hard to imagine having ice that was so motivated. The Corp of Engineers could work for thousands of years, spending all of the government money they could get, and never dig out one Great Lake. Humans might be able to build a hydroelectric plant—which is what the Petra-style buildings on each side of the canyon were—to harness a bit of the power of Niagara, but they would never even dream of building a Niagara Falls. God builds a canyon, and we think it’s pretty cool that someone can simply build a stairway to the bottom of the canyon, so we can better admire it.
That’s about all we can do with God’s engineering feats: admire them, and in some instances, stay out of their way.
It is a bit less well-known that the above information is incorrect. There are three falls at Niagara, with the smaller third fall being the Bridal Veil Falls. Bridal Veil Falls is in-between the two large waterfalls, on the American side.
That is one of the things I learned when I drove over to Goat Island, the piece of land that keeps Niagara from being one single cascade of water. You have to pay to park on Goat Island, or anywhere else near the falls, but when I pulled into the lot at 3:50 p.m. local time, the attendant waved me by. He said that he was about to close up shop for the day, and wasn’t going to charge me. So, at least in the winter, you have a window of opportunity to see the falls for free.
The falls were huge, impressive, and surprisingly accessible. The same country that puts a warning sign up at peaceful Walden Pond finds that a smooth waist-high guardrail is a perfectly acceptable barrier against the certain death of the falls. And, it is. If you climb over that guardrail and fall in, you deserve what you get.
Some of the access to the falls was closed for the winter, though. The infamous Maids of the Mist I spied high and dry in a parking lot at the bottom of the gorge. The elevator to the cave behind the falls I believe was still open, but had no tours running that late in the day.
As the evening sky darkened, the lights from the casinos became brighter. That was another thing I hadn’t realized about Niagara Falls: it is a little Las Vegas.
I headed out to look for a motel room, remembering that Las Vegas hotels are relatively cheap because the town wants people to stay there and gamble money. I found a string of cheap hotels in Niagara Falls, on the road out to the airport. Really cheap hotels, in every sense of the word. And there were a lot of them—you could probably stay in town for a month, and stay in a different hotel each night, without ever leaving that one street.
Since I was just looking for a campsite replacement, a cheap hotel sounded all right to me. I chose one for about $25 that advertised free internet and breakfast.
“Where will the free breakfast be?” I asked, as I was given the keys to my room.
“We don’t have any. It’s too slow right now to mess with it,” the proprietor said, referring to the grand total of 3 cars in the parking lot.
No big loss. It didn’t look like the breakfast would have been any good, anyway. But the free internet would save me a few bucks at Starbucks.
© 2006 by Kevin McConaghy. All rights reserved.