Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Other Upstate

The Other Upstate: The task was to meet Kate and Anna for a college evaluation visit, although it was really more of an Anna wants to see her boyfriend visit. The target was Binghamton, NY, about halfway between the east and west state borders, just over the southern border from Pennsylvania. Leave on Friday return on Monday. Driving to Binghamton is about an 8.5 hours chore. You can cut through Ontario or hug the south side of Lake Erie, either way it's about the same distance. I chose to skip the added complications of a border crossing with its passport requirement and sneering suspicions from the U.S. Customs grunts, so that meant an extended time on the Ohio Turnpike.

If there is a more tedious, mind-numbing road to travel in the United States than the Ohio Turnpike, I can't immediately think of it. It is a flat, straight toll road that crosses the width of the state. It offers no scenery to speak of. Generally, once on it, you stay on it so as to avoid any toll gates until you have to exit. There are official rest stops every 30-40 miles -- not bad ones as far as official rest stops go; they are clean and functional and do not horrendously overcharge their captive audience. And that's all there is. If you don't have Sirius, you'll wish you did. It's not a painful experience. It's better than sitting on the tarmac at some airport while to toilets overflow or any number of other potential horrors a traveler might encounter. It's just a persistent reminder that even at its best travel involves long stretches of boredom. The Ohio Turnpike puts that boredom in your face with a vengeance.

Just after Cleveland, you exit the Turnpike and drive for another hour over conventional highways and then through the tiny panhandle of Pennsylvania that borders Lake Erie and finally into New York State. I have driven through New York before. Twice, I think, but in both cases it was literally a matter of barreling through to some destination in Massachusetts. Having now trolled through its heart and wandered about, I see upstate NY as very similar to upstate Michigan. I would refer to them both as having Lake Culture. Of course, there are more lakes and fewer mountains in Michigan, but the lifestyle similarities are striking. It starts with a good sized state that has corners and pockets of urban activity on the peripherals. In Michigan there is Detroit at one corner and Chicago just outside the other. In NY there is NYC/Philly and the Rochester/Buffalo/Toronto region. In both cases, these populations feed into an extended array of quaint, semi-rustic towns loaded down with B&B's and vacation rentals, nominally centered around lakes. Lake Culture requires four distinct seasons, each bearing its own outdoor recreational opportunities -- hunting, camping, canoeing, swimming, boating, skiing, biking, hiking, etc. Then there are the telltale seasonal sensations: hot chocolate around the hearth in a ski lodge or the crackle of ice beneath your boots; the smell of newborn grass in the rain and the sense freedom of the first time you can leave house without your coat; the plunge into a cool freshwater lake on a ninety degree day; the flash of harvest colors followed by the scent of burning leaves. In New York they call it "upstate"; in Michigan we call it "up north". Same thing.

Binghamton proper seems like a fine little college town. Sort of half picturesque and half suburban strip mall chic. There doesn't appear to be too much going on except the University and its own little eco-system. It is situated a little over an hour's drive of the sublime Finger Lakes region. The Finger Lakes are a handful of long thin lakes splayed out over west-central New York. The region is loaded down with state parks, wineries, old-school colleges (most famously Cornell), and quaint towns and villages with historic districts: Lake Culture. We only had a few hours to explore so we made for Watkins Glen State Park.

Not really having any idea what to expect, Watkins Glen SP blew us away with a rim trail of striking cliff overlooks leading down into an eerily beautiful path carved into the rock, running deep into a stream-cut gorge surrounded by walls of heavily layered rock and winding past willowy waterfalls. It made want to punch myself: just after crossing the border into Ohio I realized I had forgotten my camera. That's right, Mr. 500-photos-a-day found himself at a site of extraordinary natural beauty without his Nikon. I was reduced trying to take snaps with my phone camera. In lieu of my usual photo set, I can only offer an image search on Bing. The whole Finger Lakes region is on my target list for future summers, though.

Back in Binghamton that evening we walked across the street to watch the Michigan football game, happened into another Wolverine fan, and ended up drinking beers and swapping Wolverine lore in an Applebee's the middle of upstate New York. You never know, eh?

That was it. Up the next day to grind out the reverse drive home. If find myself hoping Anna ends up going to school at Binghamton. I could show up on the weekend for visit, wander around the dorm in sandals and white socks just to embarrass her, then head up to the Finger Lakes for a little Lake Culture. Sounds like a plan.