Flesh and Blood, Bits and Pieces

I walk for hours. Sometimes my hip will end up hurting from the unevenness of the trek, one foot on the shore, the other in the water. I have learned to wear an old pair of sneakers tied tight so rocks don’t get in my shoes. My hair is now long enough to pull back out of my face when the breeze blows. I have become my favorite animal, the red tailed hawk, able to spot even the smallest bit of colored glass in large expanses of wet stones.

I grew up in a little town on Lake Ontario. My sisters and I used to gather beach glass after swimming. Our collection is long gone, seen as just a foolish child pastime. Our jar of precious gems has been thrown away.

At age eighteen, I left Western New York to start college but I have returned from time to walk the Ontario shore to reclaim the lovely smooth glass pieces weathered down by 20 to 30 years of wave action. My travels have taken me even deeper into uncharted territory, to a new exotic place called Barcelona, New York on Lake Erie. The beach glass is abundant there because, over the course of history, 2000 shipwrecks have found a resting place below its cold waters.

I have jars of glass but I love the search. Walking on the beach is a kind of meditation nicely interrupted by the excitement of seeing the sparkle of green, brown, or blue treasures among the pebbles. I have found rare red glass, four pieces to be exact. Red is the ultimate prize for all who roam the shore. Even having achieved this, I still go back and I think there are many beachcombers who would understand.

I decided to stay a week in Barcelona in early September. I considered my continuum of comfort and my budget. Should I tent? The campsite I usually stayed at sometimes had high winds that in the past have blown over my equipment. At the other end of the spectrum was the option of a hotel room but that would have been expensive. I compromised and chose to rent a little barebones cabin at a KOA campsite. It would be economical but sturdy enough to shelter me from any type of weather.

I drove across the state to the campsite on the NYS Thruway. I stopped once to get a cup of coffee and use the restrooms. I glanced at the large posters on the walls that gave historical information about the area. I knew some of the history of my state. I had gone to Seneca Falls to the Women’s Right Museum and sitting on Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s porch, I silently thanked her for all she did in 1847 to help females get the vote. I took art classes at The Chautauqua Institute established in 1874 as a church camp and later turned into an education center. I knew Frederick Douglass frequented this part of the state and that John Brown, the abolitionist, was buried in Lake Placid. The Underground Railroad had passage through New York and after Harriet Tubman helped so many slaves escape to freedom she settled in Auburn, NY. I had heard once about the strange Oneida Community founded in 1848 which offered a system of free love to all its members. In Lily Dale, the Spiritualist community that has been in existence since 1848, I listened with a bit of scepticism to the claims about contacting and communicating with deceased relatives.

I noticed the words “The Burned-Over District” on a poster directly in front of me as I drank my coffee. It explained that this was the label given Western and Central New York in the early 1800’s. What? I had never heard that phrase before. Was there a fire? Maybe a very big explosion that had scorched the area? A book was mentioned,The Burned-Out District, published in 1950 by a professor named Whitney R. Cross and before I got to my campsite I had bought it for my Kindle.

Every morning at my little cabin, I would start a fire, make my coffee and read for hours.

Social science was my major in college and still peaks my interest as I have come to realize nothing in life or history is one dimensional. My reading of Mr. Cross’s book confirmed this as I read through the clues that explained the dynamics of the antebellum era of my Western New York home. I soon learned that this area had been a hotbed of reform. All my life there were hints around me but, in school, history was only presented in dates and battles. I have come to realize that the true story is one of flesh and blood and actual things that happened, bumping and pushing around in one big motion that goes on and on and touches us today.

In the early 1800’s, our new nation was already looking for ways to expand. People in The East wanted more farmland and space. The Appalachian Mountains running from the south to The Adirondacks were a difficult wall to cross. But there was a way to get through, The Mohawk River. Using this natural waterway, the Erie Canal was started on July 4, 1817 and completed when it reached Buffalo on May 17,1821. Transportation was easier on this much shorter route to The Atlantic as compared with the route to the ocean down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

Because of the sudden rapid development and migration from the east, at this time at least thirty spiritual movements, cults, utopian communities or religions sprong up. The Shakers, Mormons, the Oneida Community and the Spiritualist are the best known. And there were many more divergent groups that are now gone and not as well know.

Joscelyn Godwin in his book, Upstate Cauldron, states “the whole phenomenon, with its concentration in time and space, is without parallel in social or religious history.” The forming of the Burned Over District itself that got its name from the emotional experiences of revival meetings lit the fire of new ways of thinking all over the countryside. Charles Finney was instrumental in this evangelist movement. I had no idea he moved and peach throughout my county and got his ministerial training from a mentor in Adams, New York.

As Mr. Godwin points out progressiveness of this area was due to”the mass emigration of New Englanders cut loose from their home churches, the mushrooming of towns along the Erie Canal and the opening to the West, with its sense of a new world dawning, and the growing disgust with institutional racial and gender injustice.” The passion of the revival meetings pushed many to action. The temperance movement gained strength and the crusade for women’s right to vote took off. The Liberty Party founded in 1839 in Warsaw, New York was dedicated to the freedom of slaves and had followers all over the state, including in my village in The North Country. Churches in almost every town worked for the abolitionist cause.

All these revelations about my home, the places that I thought knew but never really did, overwhelmed me. People in my state once banned together to help others. Why wasn’t I taught more about this? Has too much history passed for us to remember the good that was done? Has The turmoil of The Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and The Civil Rights Protests moved us away from the original goals of fairness and inclusion?

My little cabin faced a small creek and I spent some peaceful moments just thinking. I thought of the present, my existence in a world with so much conflict. I wondered if I would have been happy two hundred years ago in my little town in Burned-Out District. At least there wouldn’t be any internet. But would it matter? We are all on this continuum called history and each one of us must find our place in all the pushing and pulling. The people of Western New York did the best they could. Can we do better? Maybe our salvation as a society will come when we stop slipping so close to the edges and realize that over two hundred years later we are, still, all in this together.

Copyright 2019 @ The Autonomous Traveler All rights reserved.

My Imaginary (and Real) Friends

Because of family dynamics and the fact that I was very shy, I spent a lot of time alone when I was growing up. But life is about adaptability and I came to enjoy my own company. I always found things to do, to see , to ponder. When my life became too overwhelming I would ride my bike through my neighbor’s orchard, across a wide field and visit an old friend, a tall maple tree that for some reason was left standing in the acres that had been cleared so long ago for crops. Like me the the tree was alone but it was so much more, beautiful and majestic in its solitude, happy to just be. It became known as my “thinking tree” where I sat under its sturdiness and tried to find peace and some of my own strength.

There was also a woods near my home. My parents used fear to keep us safe and told us that terrible things would happen to us if we wondered there. I remember that when I was about six or seven I wished that I could own a gun, a very strange thing for a little girl to want in the 1950’s. I wanted to know the trees that lived in the cool darkness. I’m proud to say with determination and no gun, I eventually came to know them and added them to my group of acquaintances.

I am no longer shy and I have evolved into quite a people person but I still enjoy my own company and the company of trees. Last week, I returned from a camping trip near Lake Placid in my beloved Adirondack Mountains. I spent six days tenting. A friend who loves creature comforts wanted to know what I could possibly do for six days without a hotel bed and with only a gas camp stove to cook on. Here is my answer.

I set up a well organized, cozy campsite. It takes awhile but I made myself a very comfortable home on my site at the KOA in Lake Placid. I always have flowers on the tablecloth that covers the picnic table provided.

I caught up on my reading. In 2020, I’m taking an 80 day solo road trip through the southern states, going as far as New Orleans, and writing about it on my blog. Every morning at the campsite, I made coffee, build a fire and delved into two American history books, These Truths by Jill Lepore and The Half has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist. I was brought to tears as I read about the horrors of slavery in our country.

I visited the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehab Center in Wilmington. One of my sorority sister’s who lives in the area told me about this place which was not far from my campgrounds. I was thrilled to see so many animals that I had come to know and love, especially a red tailed hawk which I have chosen as my totem.

I listened to the whisper of the pines. They make their own mysterious sound and seemed to inspire me. As I looked up into their lacey beauty, the clutter of my thoughts and feelings seemed to sort themselves out into words and ideas that I might be able to write about in my blog.

I figured out a way to go for ice cream even though it was the day of the Iron Man races and all south bound lanes were closed near my campgrounds. Because of a good sense of direction and a little luck, I got my treat and was able to get back to my site by taking back roads.

I had the same bird visit me each day. I soon learned that it didn’t like bits of hot dog rolls but loved whole wheat crackers.

I thought of my dad and how he had instilled in me the love of trees and nature. He took my family to Canada to show us where he liked to fish and he bought us to Wilmington Notch Campground long ago when the white birches there were still alive.When we moved to a new house, one of the first things he did was plant trees all over our property.

Decades later, I realized that, through his example, he also taught me to take an interest in people and seek out their stories. He had a great sense of humor and loved “shooting the breeze” with anyone who wished to converse.

I drove to Keene Valley I remembered when I had passed through this valley on the Saturday after the Twin Towers had collapsed after the attack on September 11. I wondered then how something so beautiful and peaceful could exist when the rest of our world was falling apart

I stopped at Noon Mark Diner named after Noonmark Mountain. An elderly lady was looking for a table as she proclaimed to some people that her usual lunch spot wasn’t serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that day. Like my dad would have done, I started a conversation with her by commenting on her “Adirondack Women, Forever Wild”. I had a t-shirt that said the same thing. I asked her if she wanted to join me for lunch since the waitress hadn’t come yet and I thought that maybe two of us would be easier for her to notice.

We compared our Adirondack experiences. I had climbed eight of the High Peaks and she had climbed twenty-seven of them. Her name was Elizabeth Clark Eldridge, “Betty” for short, and her family had founded The North Country School, a prestigious progressive private boarding school attended by kids from all over world. In fact, she had become friends with one of its famous alumni, Peter Wilcox, the Greenpeace captain and environmental activist. She sailed with him on several excursions and was the ship’s cook. She was proud to say that Peter always corrected her by calling her “The Greenpeace Chef”. Betty was joyous, kind, and a very interesting person.. We are going to be pen pals and it all started with a passing word about her T-shirt.

I went swimming in The Ausable River! In Jay, by the old covered bridge, are lovely grey rocks that allow the Ausable River to jump and laugh and dance. I went there, hair tied back wearing my ugly black cover up and swam in my bathing suit in a quiet pool, unashamed of what I looked like as the younger swimmers dove and slid with daredevil enthusiasm. I’m sure I got as much joy out of the experience as them, maybe even more.

I finally visited the John Brown historic site. In my fireside readings about slavery, of course, this famous abolitionist was mentioned. Like a lot of Americans who are inadequately taught history, I had not paid attention to this man’s homestead and eventual resting place in Lake Placid. He was an quite a person, a man who wouldn’t support the injustices of his time and tried to do something about it.

I was carrying my copy of The Half has Never Been Told, the book about American slavery as I walked around the grounds. A woman stopped to talk to me. I think she heard me tell the site ranger that I would be touring The South and writing about it on my blog. Her name was Marsha Southgate and I later found out she was a published author. But what was important to her was that I knew about her mom who in 2002 walked through Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Canada to retrace the steps of history. I have since ordered the book her mom wrote, In Their Path: A Grandmother’s 519-Mile Underground Railroad Walk. Mrs. Joan Southgate also helped establish Restore Cleveland Hope, an education center dedicated to the anti-slavery and Underground Railroad history of the area. What a wonderful coincidence to become connected to these two women.

I stopped at the iron bridge to remember Sharon. Sharon taught Bonnie and I how to fly fish on the Ausable River. The two of us came to the iron bridge after Sharon died to recognize her spirit, to thank her for all she had taught us, and to say “goodbye”.

I observed the first goldenrod of the summer. For my children and I, these yellow flowers always seemed to announce that school would be starting soon and summer was almost done. I’m retired from teaching now and my kids are grown. The message of the goldenrod is now different but in many ways more intense. These flowers seemed to be telling me to live these days of sunshine and warmth to the fullest, warning me not take them for granted.

So that’s some of what I did for six days without a hotel bed and only a camp stove to cook on. I connected with my friends the trees and the rest of nature. How could I be alone when I am a part of them and they are a part of me? They have taught me to look around and see the significance of even the smallest parts of our existence. They have opened my heart and mind to other human beings showing me that I’m connected to them, too. Thank you, trees. Thanks, Dad.

Copyright 2019@ theautonomoustraveler.com All right reserved.