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The International Writers Magazine
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USA

Driving America
Ari Kaufman

February - a good time to remember the summer in America's Mid-West

Prior to my fifth and final move over the course of an 11 month period last year, I spent about five weeks living with relatives in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. During that time, my girlfriend (Maria) worked in Washington D.C. as a summer camp counselor. But as we cleverly planned, she made plane arrangements that allowed her to arrive in the Washington area nearly two weeks early—this, of course, enabling me to drive down, meet her and take a whirlwind mid-June road trip over the course of roughly a week to mostly northeastern haunts; some being new, others having significant memories for us. Afterwards, we’d scramble back to Georgetown in order to (hopefully) be assured Maria would be timely for her summer employment.


I departed Cleveland and eschewed the Pennsylvania turnpike in order to take a more scenic and cheaper route to Richmond, Virginia, where Maria was staying with friends. It was also longer (about eight hours instead of six), naturally, but enabled me to not only add Charleston, West Virginia, to the list of US state capitals at which I’ve gawked, but also to take a mountainous, scenic highway from Charleston through Central West Virginia gorgeous hills on a warm, sunny day--as well as Interstate 64 across Virginia from the western ranges of the verdant Appalachians until they leveled out past Charlottesville and eventually into the impressive, wooded west Richmond suburbs where I met Maria and her friends.
 
For my money, Virginia is the prettiest state east of the Mississippi, as it encompasses the best of the Appalachians (the Blue Ridge portion), quaint towns, nice cities and college towns, unmatched history, oceanfront property near Virginia Beach and Norfolk, and even the elite cities just outside Washington like Arlington and Alexandria, which contain more history as well as great jumping off points to the rest of the state below.
 
After a night in Maria’s friend’s big house in Richmond where we, she and two other friends who made the two-hour drive up from Durham, North Carolina, sat along the Jones River “catching up,” Maria and I departed to the west the following morning which was a typical hot, humid sticky one as the Virginia summer set in.
 
We stopped for a few hours to have lunch and a stroll through two of the nicest college campuses in America: The University of Richmond and The University of Virginia in Charlottesville. If I could do college all over again...well, you get the picture. As the vast daylight then lasted into the afternoon, Maria and I headed west, then north into Shenandoah National Park, specifically the top of the park (we’ve done most of the rest of this marvel that encompassed the Blue Ridge Parkway before, at other times of the year as well) and a serene, elevated-road known, aptly known as “Skyline Drive.”
 
It was a hot and hazy day so visibility was not at its zenith, but I have been told that on clear days, one can see the Washington Monument (90 miles away through the Shenandoah Valley) in the horizon from the peaks of this road. Hours and many photos later, we exited down a steep grade into the western portion of the Shenandoah Valley, eventually hitting 9pm darkness of this June day at a hotel just over the border in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
Interestingly, this was the very same hotel I had stayed at the past December (2005) on a cold, icy, snowy day as I drove down from New York to Florida. Needless to say, I realized seasons mattered, as Maria and I stepped out to the car at 9am the following day to 91 degree temps.
 
We matriculated northbound on Interstate 81 through a thin piece of Western Maryland near Hagerstown, then hundreds of miles northeast through the green hills of Pennsylvania towns like Harrisburg, Hazelton, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, until leveling off somewhat at the New York State line near Binghamton.
 
Next on this interstate-laden day was a westward drive on I-88 to what I was told was the quaint town of Owego, New York. (“Owego” should not be confused with much larger “Oswego” along the Northwestern NY coast near Lake Ontario.) Rather, Owego sits innocently enough along the Susquehanna River somewhere between Endicott and Elmira, NY (if that helps). During the summer months, few places are prettier or more charming than upstate New York.
 
Some walks, pictures, a trip across a beautiful bridge, and a rest on a bench along the river on a near-record hot day in this region later, we headed two dozen windy miles or so up Highway 96 to the prize of the day: Ithaca and Cornell University, where my dad attended college for four years in the mid-60s.
 
Ithaca is an isolated, hilly town of roughly 30,000 people, more than four hours from New York City, and sits at the southern edge of the “Finger Lakes Region,” specifically adjacent to Cayuga Lake. It is an artsy, hippie/bohemian town (much more so than when my dad graduated nearly 40 years ago) and home to two colleges: Ithaca College, a small, unremarkable campus on the South Hill, known for its less than stalwart academics, beautiful women and many parties; and Cornell University, a large, half-public/half-private, obscenely gorgeous campus on the other hill (inaccessible during common snow and ice storms), known for its stalwart academics, beautiful buildings, views, statues, arboretums, subpart parties, and perhaps because of that, dearth of attractive co-eds.

Confirm this with any alumni of either school if you’d like.

On this Sunday Father’s Day--as I called my dad to tell him where I was and wish him my best—the campus was, not surprisingly, dead. It was also very hot…still. The thermometer in downtown later that evening at 9pm read 97 degrees. Upon hearing this news, my dad noted that in his four years in Ithaca, usually from September through early June, that would not only be by far the hottest, but he never saw a temperature even hit 80. (Earlier this week, the late January temps barely crossed ZERO.)
 
After dinner and a night in a hotel off Highway 13 just west of campus (a road my dad told me was just being constructed when he graduated, and which he once tried to walk along to meet a girl near Elmira), Maria and I embarked upon one of the longest--and most impressive--driving days my car has ever completed.
 
Our ultimate destination was the town of Shelburne, Vermont, just a few miles south of Burlington, where we met during the summer of 2005 and wanted to visit again. As the crow would fly, Shelburne is a 325 mile climb on state highways and eventually some interstate, then across Lake Champlain and more state highways; but we had other destinations in between, so we were up early on--thankfully--the longest day of the year.
 
My Sentra cut east from Ithaca, past the farms and onto Interstate 81 southbound which led us to Interstate 88 which we took northeast bound to the Oneonta area, where we picked up Route 23, following it nearly 100 miles east through the old towns of the Catskill Mountains, just north of where Woodstock occurred 37 years prior. After crossing the Hudson River via the Rip van Winkle Bridge, our destination was the tiny Hamlet of Copake, New York, nestled at the western foot of the Berkshire Mountains, near the tri-borders of NY, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
 
From the time I graduated from high school until I began my teaching career, I spent seven long, hot, memorable summers traveling from Southern California to upstate New York in order to work at Camp Pontiac, a co-ed, residential, sports camp in West Copake, New York. After the summer of 2002 though, with fewer friends returning each year, the camp turning into more of a country club than summer camp, camper tuition rates rising far faster than staff salaries, and my needing to stay in California to procure full-time teaching employment for the fall, I declined to return for the summer of 2003 and my eighth summer. I thought I’d miss camp, but really didn’t, thus didn’t regret this decision one iota.
 
This however, was a necessary diversion and would serve as my first time back on “Pontiac soil.” That my Maria, the best part of my new life, could join me, made it all the more special as we ate a familiar pizza place outside town that I often frequented, then headed down old County Road 7 toward Pontiac.
 
Being late June, the camp was in the midst of staff orientation, with many of my former campers likely on campus training to become counselors. Suddenly I felt old, and with the warm late afternoon sky turning grey and with—-believe it or not-the bulk of our driving still ahead of us, I pulled about halfway down the camp road, stepped out, took a photo, a deep breath, kissed Maria, regaled her with a couple of stories about the place, then got back into my car and closed that chapter of my life forever. No regrets, just some necessary “closure.”
 
We next drove around Copake Lake where I spent many warm days in the water and playing golf at the country club up on the hill with a great view (I was the “Head of the Golf Program” my first two summers and took kids twice-weekly to play golf on dewy mornings), then once more back into town; first past the antiquated clock tower in the center of town, then the Laundromat, general store, ice cream place and finally the bar a few miles outside of town adjacent to Taconic and Bash Bish State Parks near the Massachusetts border.
 
It was nice to have Maria along and I felt more relief and resolution as we left the state of New York, then spent the next dozen or so miles winding through the trendy Berkshire towns of Western Massachusetts that I had killed many days off over the years: Egremont, Great Barrington, Butternut Basin, Stockbridge, Lenox and finally Pittsfield, where the historic minor league baseball stadium, Wahconah Park, has stood since 1919. I attended games there most summers, either with kids on a night trip or on a day off.
 
These areas are without question the prettiest part of the otherwise flat, dull, but historic state of Massachusetts. Debating the beauty of the Bay State’s summer coastal retreats like Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Falmouth or even Marblehead and Gloucester versus the Berkshire region as it stretches all the way north to Williamstown (home of Williams College) on the Vermont border is an exercise in futility. Either you like greenery, mountains, quaint towns, lack of crowds and American culture or you like overcrowded, flat, over-priced, oceanside retreats that are only accessible by ferry or, if not, basically inaccessible anyway due to SUVs and Mercedes hogging the narrow roads in and out each weekend for three months per year.
 
The Cape Cod Summer League, college baseball’s premier amateur league, does add a nice touch to “summers on the Cape,” but actually the non-summer months are the only time in which to truly experience a yuppie-free, American summer off the coast of southeastern Massachusetts.
 
And with that, a major storm hit hard as we drove up the western spine of Massachusetts toward the border and eventually a stop in the second town of Southwestern Vermont: Bennington.
 
We pushed through downtown Bennington and the remainder of this Berkshire mountain rainstorm until we hit the gates of Bennington College on the northside of town. I had been to this campus on a day off from Camp Pontiac (just 90 minutes away sans traffic and weather) during my last summer in 2002, and it was much as I had remembered it: weird and empty.
 
Of course it was summer, which made it easy for us to enter a barn (the classroom halls look like barns from the outside but are ordinary inside) and use the facilities to clean up. Then Maria and I shook our heads at some of the “literature” adorning the walls: “Study Abroad in Lovely Paris and Cannes,” multi-cultural this and that, anti-war this and that, feed to poor everywhere but in America, etc. We concluded our time on campus by strolling out to the immaculate but wet lawn, and then were on our way north out of town through the southern portion of the Green Mountain Forest.
 
The Green Mountain Forest hits you throughout your drive on the western side of Vermont - even when on Route 7 which is the main artery on this side of the state - going through five of the ten or so “major cities” in our nation’s second smallest state in terms of population at roughly 600,000.
 

Covered Bridge Vermont
At the southwestern corner of this “death penalty free” state near Bennington, it is only 40 miles across Highway 9 to the southeastern corner and the ritzy hippie town of Brattleboro, which sits majestically along the Connecticut River on the other side of New Hampshire with its “pickup trucks, hard earth and Wal-Mart.” That was an actual quote from some grey pony-tailed man looking to regain the glory that never was his, in August of 2005 when I visited.

But anyway, aside from some of the “unique” folks so out of touch with reality that they plan to be the next state to secede from the USA, Vermont is the quintessential New England state.  I spent nearly two months in the Green Mountain State during the summer of 2005, and they have just the type of cute towns, bed and breakfasts, scenery and architecture that you’ve heard about, but would not believe as things are rarely what they seem. In Vermont, they basically are though.
 
Just don’t think Ben and Jerry’s is what makes Vermont. Most Vermont resident loathe the former New Yorkers, as their commercialism, materialism, obnoxiously out of place factory, overpriced food and generally anti-Vermont outfit brings in too many loud tourists and ruins the bucolic state (of the state). I suppose the two nerds from Long Island only survive here because their pacifistic, peace and love views fit in “naturally.”
 
As the sun peaked back out just an hour or so from setting over the Adirondacks that border Hudson River and eventually Lake Champlain to the west, we cruised up Route 7 another hundred miles or so to the north, past the skiing town (and jumping off point to the Adirondacks of NY State and the Lake George/Saratoga region) of Rutland, then Middlebury, and finally into a hotel off the side of the highway in Shelburne, a familiar town to us from last summer as it sits just six miles or so south of Burlington and hosts most of the inexpensive, chain hotels in this Northeastern Vermont region. Vermont does not allow interstate billboards or urban ghettos, so, occasionally, things aren’t always what you’d think they’d seem here in the state that gave us Ethan Allen, Howard Dean and Phish.
 
The incredibly popular grunge, hippie band, Phish, was a big favorite while I worked at that summer camp in upstate New York, some 200 miles south of Burlington. But by the time Maria and I worked at the camp on the campus of the University of Vermont in 2005, the men had broken up, and very few of those teenagers seemed to know nor care that the band played their first gig in downtown Burlington’s "Nectars," a cute bar that Maria and I ate at a few times last summer and did so again on this day.
 
Aside from that, as the rains came in intermittently, we strolled through the campus, into the dorm and the rooms we “enjoyed” last summer, sat at the benches that one walks by as s/he moves down the hill from campus to downtown, window-shopped along the infamous Church Street and prepared for an evening cruise along Lake Champlain.
 
At the end of last summer, the camp took everyone on this wonderful “sunset” cruise atop a ship known as the Ethan Allen, but Maria had to stay back with children who had misbehaved, so I knew it was a must-do this time around. And it was wonderful as we snapped photos of the rainbows, waters, bluffs and port towns we steamed past, all while chatting and imbibing, arriving back at the port of Burlington as darkness came 150 minutes later around 9pm.
 
If you look at a map of Vermont, you can see that for about 100 miles, if not more, there is nary a way to cross Lake Champlain from Northwestern Vermont into Northeastern New York. There is a strip of land in between the two states way up north, belonging to Vermont that has state parks, camps we visited last year and two towns called North Hero and, yes, South Hero. But it is long, narrow and windy, so we drove 50 miles or so north on Interstate 89, didn’t pass any billboards (though we couldn’t see them at night, of course) and cut over a small, narrow, twisty 20 mile or so road (Highway 78 looked nice if it had been daytime) into the extreme tip of New York just a few steps from Canada (we saw the sign) in what appeared to be a quaint, patriotic/flag-waving, 224 year-old village of 2,200 inhabitants called Rouses Point. I’m sure it’s darn cold in the winter there, though. The name sounds historic, but I’ll skip that, and end the day by telling you we hopped on Interstate 87 and drove 23 miles due south to a very crowded hotel in Plattsburgh, the gateway to Route 3 and our westbound trip across the Adirondacks the next morning.
 
I believe it was a Wednesday morning at this point, though sometimes days of the week are forgotten when you are on lengthy road trips, especially in the summer. But it is a fact that the heat wave broke and a lovely, sunny day was spread out across Upstate New York for our drive through the nation’s largest “state park,” Adirondack State Park.
 
As noted, we’d take Route 3 west through the center of the region, replete with hills, cute villages and many folks—-who departed alongside us on their way to a big speedboat race near Plattsburgh—-all the way west until we exited the region near the Northern New York city of Watertown. Then we’d head down I-81 (for those paying close attention, the same road we started on a few days back just outside Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, 440 miles south of here) to Syracuse, then west on the New York Turnpike (I-90) toward Rochester. I get that out of the way now as not only do you see little on interstates (maybe the reason boring Americans “in a hurry” take them so often) but because Syracuse was as ugly as its university and students’ myopic attitudes about their basketball team.
 
While Maria and I quickly stopped a few times and drove slowly along lakes and over hills at others, our only lengthy stop was in the wonderful village of Saranac Lake, population 5,000 and just a stone’s (seven mile) throw from Lake Placid, home of the 1980 Olympics where the USA upset the USSR in what most Americans consider the most memorable sports moment of all time. We went there with the camp last summer and enjoyed it, as well as the nearby High Falls Gorge area, thoroughly. "Do you believe in miracles?" Al Michaels? Remember? I was two, but I do.
 
Saranac Lake, however, seemed, for obvious reasons, less touristy, flatter and more romantic. Thus, we bought some Italian food at a local place and ate it near the lake, next to some big teddy bears placed there, ducks and the war memorials. It was lovely, but we eventually had to move on, out of the Adirondacks, through all the aforementioned cities and towns, finally meeting our friend from camp last summer, Adrienne, whose family was kind enough (like most folks outside of main cities are) to let two “strangers” stay with them in their remote house/farm a dozen or so miles southeast of Rochester.
 
It was quite an experience; a unique house where her dad slept on a chair and awoke at 2:30am to “get to work” on his farm. This is not the lawyer in Washington or the “consultant” in San Francisco nor certainly the actor in Santa Monica; this is America. 
 
Waking up many hours after Adrienne’s dad and her 6 foot 6, 310 pound college football-playing brother did, we hit the road toward Buffalo, Niagara Falls and the western edge of New York, headed—-by the end of the day—-all the way back to my aunt and uncle’s house in the east Cleveland suburbs. Adrienne’s mom, bless her heart, gave us sandwiches, fruit, chips, soda, water, you name it.
 
We drove briefly through Rochester, which though mundane, was nicer than Syracuse, then the outskirts of Buffalo, before looping up to a curiously special spot in the very northwest corner of the Empire State.
 
You’d have to check a map closely to see it, but the Village of Youngstown (seemingly all places in NY are “villages” inside “towns” instead of towns/villages inside cities like most of America) is a picture-perfect town of fewer than 2,000 denizens on the east bank of the Niagara River, about 15 miles north of Niagara Falls.
 
We sat on a bench above the top of the river with a view off to the north of Lake Ontario with Lake Erie about 25 miles to the south, swallowing up the southern edge of the Niagara River after the water rushed down. See how Niagara Falls works now? We enjoyed this immensely, eating our sandwiches, sipping soda pop, relaxing after long drives as we neared the end of our sojourn.
 
The village of Youngstown is across the Niagara River—-which essentially is a canal between two great lakes that is highlighted (to say the least) by Niagara Falls--from the region called Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada, and the actual community of Niagara-on-the-Lake where “The Youngstown Levels,” one of the largest amateurs sailing regattas is held annually, though thankfully not today as we wandered down some wooden steps to sea level and a pleasant view to all sides.
 
There is an old fort that has since been turned into a state park at the edge of town which we cursorily explored. According to Wikipedia, “The village's early growth was under the protection of “Fort Niagara.” The village was destroyed by the British in 1813 during the War of 1812. The Village of Youngstown was incorporated in 1854.
 
So there you go, and off we did go toward the back roads to Niagara Falls and a much less crowded and more scenic way to one of the world’s most famouns tourist destinations.
 
My first and only trip prior to this one to “The Falls” was during my Summer 2004 Midwest Baseball Trip on a cold, rainy day in August. Today was a warm, sunny day in June, and Maria and I parked, then strolled through the gardens, avoided the tacky tourist shops on our way to the falls. Many readers of this piece have likely visited this natural wonder and words—-even mine—-couldn’t do it justice, so I’ll cease there, only to say that if you have never been, GO. Do not pass Hollywood or any other un-American vacation, and GO. There are also hotels, wax museums and casinos for the much-desired tacky vacationer.
 
So we looped down the “Kingsway” or the “Queensway” (QEW) as every Canadian highway is seemingly given that moniker or something absurdly similar to obfuscate your travels further; first west into the setting sun, then south, then east, finally over the border past a huge yellow sign saying “Buffalo, USA.” I’d never been more relieved to be in Buffalo, and that truly says a lot.
 
I’d rather not relive the next three hours that ended our trip. Amidst Maria trying to get important medical and housing information from incompetent Walgreens’ and Georgetown employees in Cleveland and DC respectively, we drove through a monsoon from Buffalo to Cleveland, along Lake Erie, Fredonia, Dunkirk, Erie (PA) and I-90. It was as ugly as the other two times I had been on this road, and these were all summer trips.
 
Maria and I would spend three days in Cleveland, attending an Indians baseball game at Jacobs Field downtown, playing mini-golf in Chagrin Falls--a gorgeous, patriotic town a few miles south of the Cleveland metro area at the base of the Cuyahoga Valley—-and much else, before I drove her back to Washington DC to embark upon her summer work at Georgetown.
 
We barely made it to Washington as we decided to detour in the inspiring greenery of the Applachian Mountains of Western Maryland, spending an unplanned night there. Nonetheless, I got Maria to “The District” and her dorm room in the northwest part of our nation’s capital in time. After that, I drove 600 miles west in one day and moved into my apartment in Indianapolis, thus starting my new life.
 
© Ari Kaufman Feb 2007
ajkauf7@yahoo.com

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