Watkins Glen Road Trip

12 Nov

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Debbie and Bongo
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Yesterday I journeyed with my Methodist WIM (Women in the Middle) group to Watkins Glen, a nearby city to Ithaca that is famous for its beautiful glen and its race track. Unbelievably, I had never been near there except at night when driving back from Minnesota. The WIM women range in age from fifty-something to seventy. In these days, when people often reach their nineties, we are definitely in the middle.

Our means of conveyance was a Gadabout bus, a red and yellow vehicle for the physically handicapped that fit all of us comfortably, including Tina, who is a regular rider. Our driver, Jeff Lovell, is the husband of one of the women in the group, Nancy. He drove for us in exchange for shrimp, gas money, and lunch with his friends. We strained his patience a bit when we wanted to pose near a sign for exotic dancers, but he was generally very agreeable to us.

Our tour began at Clute Memorial Park (The park is named after Ed Clute’s grandfather.  Ed Clute is a remarkable blind piano player.), located on the southern end of Seneca Lake. The two lakes, Cayuga and Seneca, are almost twins of one another. Cayuga is 38.2 miles long, while Seneca is 37.9 miles long, but Seneca is deeper at 630 feet, while Cayuga is 435 feet deep. I swam once in Seneca and can attest to its frigidity. The upper central section of New York State contains seven Finger Lakes, four of which each represent a tribe of the Iroquois nation.  A  fifth tribe, the Mohawks, has a river named after it.  The remaining lakes are named after other tribes.  Of course, because I grew up in Ithaca I know more about Cayuga Lake and the Cayuga Indians. The Senecas have been memorialized as the toughest, tallest, and meanest of the tribes when conducting warfare. At school we celebrated Columbus Day, but were told that actually Leif Erikson, a Viking, had arrived in New York before Columbus had arrived in the New World. New Yorkers always like to be first! A couple years ago, the book 1492, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, came out and the author said that the Vikings had made it to the St. Lawrence Seaway. The legend we were told when growing up  was that the Vikings had intermarried with the Senecas and that was why the Senecas were tall with blue eyes and warlike. Christine, the scientist of our group, was skeptical, saying that it had only been proven that the Vikings had made it to Newfoundland. I’ll have to research that one. The battle of the Iroquois to get their land back is ongoing and a testament to how badly they have been treated.

Both lakes are being relieved of their salt by Cargill, an international company, and the second largest private company in the United States, right behind my very favorite paper company, Koch ( pronounced “coke”) Industries, the nemesis of all Democrats. Somehow I don’t think that was what the Great Spirit intended. Cargill does provide jobs though. My brother explained to me later that while Cargill does operate a salt mine at Cayuga Lake, their factory at the end of Seneca extrapolates a brine mixture from the area. It is not a mine. I went ahead and took a picture to remember it by–just another part of the experience.

It was hard to be ironic about the next part of the experience, Shequaga Falls. I tell students not to use unnecessary intensifiers, but very beautiful is still inadequate in describing the falls. I grew up amid the falls and gorges of Ithaca and find that I am still astounded at their beauty. This falls had a giant pool of water in front of it and the water was so clear that we could see the golden leaves where they lay on the bottom. I did point out a star just underneath the bridge that crosses over above the water. We figured that they probably light it up for Christmas.

Still impressed, but on that one tacky note, we moved to the exterior of the Lee Jackson house, one of a number of restored Greek Revivals in the area. The area comes off as a small version of Williamsburg, but with Victorian rather than early American architecture. We would have stayed, but found the need to move on for our appointment with lunch. The WIM group always eats well.

The Seneca Harbor Station was close to the lake with a beautiful view. The good part of it being older was that it had wide plank flooring. An unusual feature was the dated suitcases in the women’s room that held various cleaning products. However, several men from the kitchen had to carry Tina’s wheelchair up to our table and down when we went to leave, because older buildings don’t have to be handicap accessible.

We all ordered lunch along with two bottles of wine and three desserts, one of which was a raspberry bongo that Debbie had had her eyes since reading the menu outside the restaurant.  Wendy broached a conversation about movies.  She had just seen the new Redford movie, “Lost at Sea,” and exclaimed that she was riveted to the screen and that Redford “still has his red hair.” I mentioned that I saw Redford at Sundance years ago and that he was shorter than I expected but had a very good build.

From there we went on to the mandatory shopping. I bought things for Meghan, my youngest niece, including cookies and cream fudge at Famous Brands and a cat-related item at a store for the Schuyler County S.P.C.A. Meghan is desperately in love with cats. Debbie and I, both bibliophiles, headed over to a bookstore that was going out of business. It was a strange experience in that we had to “suck it in” to get through the aisles. Used books were accompanied by faded and torn pictures of race car drivers and various bric-a-brac. The stock was interesting but so compressed and with so little space around it that it was hard to know how to navigate.

Watkins Glen is only twenty-eight miles from Ithaca, but the travel back seemed long. There was less excited chatter. I brought up gambling, which was a topic in our recent election on the NY ballot. I was the only one out of eight who voted for casinos, so the conversation was a bit awkward. Still, I had a good time and only wish I had gone to Watkins Glen earlier.

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