After the Albany Pine Bush New York opens up.
Albany is the cave’s mouth, the gaping wound, the toothsome grin and inside is the larger state of New York, the Empire State and deeper still the echoing promise of the west, and deeper still, perhaps, America.
In many ways this trip, drive, walk, was a descent into that dark cave, or a leap.
I remembered a trip to Cooperstown a decade or so ago with the family, a drive down a long, endless valley but endless only in the sense that we had a specific destination and speed was our only concern.
On this day there was no family, and only a temporary destination: a night’s stay.
Drive west young man.
For Cooperstown we had taken Interstate 88 which has a kind of non-committal feel: it is separate from the environment it passes through.
This was a different road. Route 20?
If this was Route 20 it was the first of what would be many famous east-west roads I expected to travel in the next year.
If this was the same Route 20 that passes through Worcester it goes a long way, starting in Cambridge I think, moves halfway across New York State. Maybe I have it confused with another 20.
This 20 rides west along a wide ridge, changing names and numbers, sits upon a plateau of sorts for a time, through a number of small towns, boroughs, villages, hamlets, some crowded along rivers, some built along the ‘crick.’
I love the changing vernacular of the road.
I thought at first that this would be a good alternative route – thinking of my walk back – both for its population density and because it didn’t seem to have too many changes in altitude, too many difficult ascents for someone carrying a heavy pack, but instead ran along the spine that would eventually end in the Allegheny though long after I had turned south. But an hour or so west of Albany that changed.
As I drew near the fingers, the Finger Lakes – those strange flooded valleys that appear like deep claw marks in the mountainsides and that, looking from the water, appear to be landlocked fjords – the road began to roller coaster violently.
I imagined myself spending days walking down, days on the way up, with little in between. I had anticipated that my largest challenge would be weather, but here I could see that topography would play a large role in the distance I might cover, the shelter I might find.
That’s why I was driving out though, wasn’t it, I asked myself? So that I would know what to expect, what to avoid on the way back. I guess I thought this would be easy.
Should I avoid these hills I asked myself? It was, I thought, too soon to consider avoiding anything.
At least there were towns, villages, hamlets, boroughs, and the chance to interact: that’s what I really hoped for, needed, interactions, conversations. That might no be so easy out west, with long distances between anything of any size so, for the moment at least, I chose to simply note the topography, nod to it.
I drove through Plainfield, Eaton, Erieville and DeRuyter, passed a number of small, quaint post offices, a rare A&W Root Beer drive-thru.
I drove on.
I found myself tongue tied in a village spelled “Tioughnioga” which, after I had tried on several pronunciations one local told me when I got out to take a picture of the voluntary fire department building was pronounced – although he may have been pulling my leg – ‘tough night?’
In Guilderland I stopped at the town hall, dropped of a few posters but the clerk wasn’t in.
I never knew, after I introduced myself, who I would be referred to. In Guilderland it was the clerk. In Kingman the tourism services manager. In Tucumcari the city manager.
By the time I reached the outskirts of Ithaca the sun had disappeared and a slight mist was falling.
Ithaca is crowded, steep, up and down and in and out and overrun by students.
In an area crammed with restaurants and businesses catering to the college I stopped for a few minutes, parked, and considered sleeping in the car but then I had an idea.
I called the Cornell Student Union and asked the first person that answered the phone, Caroline she said was her name, if she was a student? Then I explained my predicament. I am walking – though not yet – across the country, talking – though not yet – about community – sleeping – though not yet wherever I can and asking everyone I meet – and that means you Caroline – if they can help me out in any way.
By which, I explained further, I meant a place to stay, sleep, nod without fear of being interrupted?
Yes, Caroline said, and without further prompting offered “Martha Van Renssalaer Hall.”
“If you’re in there at 8, they lock it up but allow you to stay, and study.”
I found my way to Garden Avenue and a parking lot, out of the light and waited. Then I reconnoitered: What is the “College of Human Ecology?” I felt, instinctively that its students would want me laid out on a slab, secured to the table with bungee cords and Twizzlers, would marvel at my insecurity.
I walked into the hall and took the elevator to the second floor, and to a study area. There was no one there.
I waited ten minutes, then returned to my car and pulled out my sleeping bag and then quickly returned, found a cubicle out of sight of the entrance and waited until 9 p.m. Then, when I was sure that I would be alone, I got out my sleeping bag, spread it on to the floor and..
Around ten two students came in but did not penetrate the room beyond a noisy printer that was near the entrance.
Around 11 there was a similar visit.
I think I slept, a few minutes at least, disturbed only by the thought that this would be my fate for the next year: sleeping on hard tile floors, in empty office buildings.
Somewhere around 12:30 a custodian came in and began to systemically move through the room, emptying trash cans, cleaning up, slowly making his way toward my cluster of cubicles and workstations.
I tried to ignore him. I pretended to be asleep. He has to see me I thought. The floor was hard but the room was warm. It was just day 2. I had such a long way to go.
“You can’t sleep here,” I heard him say.