Back to Beauty

C. and I decided to spend inauguration weekend far from the adulatory crowds gathered in Washington, DC to cheer on their favorite orange-haired strongman. I tipped my hat to the brave marchers and demonstrators who stood tall for a kinder America, and we headed out of town into north-central West Virginia for a long weekend honeymoon. Our home base was a bed and breakfast in the ghost town of Douglas, two miles down a winding road from Thomas, in Tucker County.

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Tucker, once home to booming coal and lumber industries, has just 6,966 residents remaining (after peaking at 18,675 in 1910) and voted for Trump by a 50+ percent margin. We weren’t overwhelmed by white desperation and resent, though—far from it. Sure, we found some raggedy towns and saw the scars left by exploitative resource extraction industries, but we also found friendly locals, a thriving artist colony, and an amenity scene kept lively by hipsters, ski bums, and temporary DC expats.

(Stick with me: lots of pictures here!)

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Thomas (pop. 565; 2,354 in 1910), a former coal town incorporated as West Virginia’s smallest city, has a terraced street network extending up the steep sides of the North Fork Blackwater River valley. The lower street of the business district (pictured) represents the gentrified portion of downtown and features art galleries, music venues, cafes, and organic food stores. The upper main street still faces neglect and decay.

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The Buxton and Landstreet Gallery sits where Thomas gives way to hardscrabble former coal patch towns, including Coketon and Douglas. The building once housed the administrative headquarters of the Davis Coke and Coal Company.

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Ruined coke ovens dot the banks of the North Fork Blackwater River like abandoned hobbit holes. The North Fork is still reeling from the effects of acid drainage from coal mines, although liming efforts are underway to raise the water’s pH and bring back aquatic life.

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Davis (pop. 658; 2,615 in 1910) was a major center of the region’s lumber industry. After the virgin forests of the Allegheny Mountains were clear cut, fires swept across the high plateau resulting in permanent soil loss. Today, only boreal (Canadian taiga) vegetation can grow in some areas, although spruce and hemlock forests have recovered in others.

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History meets crass modernity in Parsons, the Tucker County seat (pop. 1,431; 2,077 in 1940). Parsons is further removed than Davis or Thomas from the spending power associated with Canaan Valley ski resorts and second-home owners. While its population never dropped as precipitously, its modern-day economy seems much weaker and poverty is more in line with rural West Virginia norms.

The people and businesses were great, but those weren’t the big draws for us. At nearly every turn, we found landscapes of epic beauty in the “high Alleghenies.” Average elevations exceed 3,000 feet and the traditional spruce and hemlock mountain forests compete for space with boreal ecosystems defined by wind-swept heaths and bogs.

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Southwest of Thomas, US route 219 overlooks the Cheat River Valley before descending near Parsons. From this vantage point, massive windmills loomed up hundreds of feet barely a quarter-mile to our right. Wind turbines are prevalent in the area, although the coal industry is a shadow of its past. The remaining mines are strip mines that seem to employ more heavy machinery than miners; mechanization across the industry makes it unlikely that Trump will bring back mining jobs.

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State route 72 is a roughly east-west “highway”–in reality, a switchbacking paved road that seems to narrow to one lane at the most terrifying possible moments–connecting the Parsons area to just south of the Canaan Valley. It passes by several farms and through stunning high-elevation meadows.

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Route 72 offers this view of Canaan Mountain (a relatively uneroded portion of the high plateau) to the north.

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A barn in the foreground of Canaan Mountain gives a sense of scale.

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Self-explanatory?

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The Blackwater River–named for the dark tannins imparted by spruce, hemlocks, and bogs within its watershed–drops 62 feet from the plateau into the Blackwater Canyon.

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For close to three miles between the town of Davis and the falls, the Blackwater is considered prime catch-and-release trout water, despite being heavily stocked and dependent on liming at Davis.

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Shay Run, in Blackwater Falls State Park, is also a blackwater stream. Its smaller size allows hikers to get up close and personal as it runs through boggy flats.

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A sphagnum bog sits at the edge of Shay Run. Many bogs on the plateau and in the Canaan Valley feature wild cranberries and Canadian blueberries.

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Shay Run boasts a series of picturesque falls before it leaps over the edge of Blackwater Canyon.

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A miniature spruce forest plays at the feet of the big boys, just feet from the canyon rim.

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There are great views of Blackwater Canyon from near the park lodge, barely a mile below the falls.

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The canyon becomes downright majestic just another two or three miles below the lodge overlook. Lindy Point offers a 270-degree view of the Blackwater (pictured here to the southwest) and two tributaries–including the North Fork, which was audible outside our window at the bed and breakfast.

Back home, I thought more about the people who live amid such natural splendor. I can certainly sympathize with folks whose livelihoods have melted away, even if they channel their frustrations in non-constructive ways. But as an environmentally minded outsider, I’m glad to see the natural order reasserting itself to heal the scars left by destructive mining and lumber industries.

I’ve reflected on the history of the mining industry previously in this blog. Douglas, our quiet home base, was once a smoldering, treeless hellscape where mine employees owed their lives and souls to distant overlords. I tried to imagine the miners’ elation when the company bosses announced a great commitment to their employees’ futures, and sold them all the homes they’d lived in for years. The next day, ownership shut the mines down completely and fired each and every person there who’d toiled to enrich someone else.

It’s good to see nature return to such a place.


To close, here’s a great band we saw perform live in Thomas, at a cool little place called the Purple Fiddle. They’re a five-piece outfit from Ann Arbor called The Ragbirds.

Posted in Community, Environmentalism, History, Nature, Place, Rural, Science, Traveling | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

The Tradition Transition

As humans (and I trust that most of my readers are in that demographic), much of our experience is anchored in tradition. The best traditions hold us close to our cultural roots or our families, and our most cherished examples tap into some element that lends an almost primal sense of belonging or warmth. For the last two years on this blog, I’ve written about my favorite tradition: a Christmas Eve journey that starts with a walk up and over the wooded hillside to the south of my parents’ home, and ends with the classic German Christmas Eve family dinner.

Road sign in the woods, on a snowier Christmas Eve in the recent past (photo courtesy of Rivertop Rambles)

Road sign in the woods, on a snowy Christmas Eve past (photo courtesy of Rivertop Rambles)

In recent years, some of the specific cornerstones of this larger tradition have faded as my paternal grandmother—a proud matriarchal figure—became gradually less physically and mentally capable of coordinating our family’s biggest annual event. Last year, I wrote about the shock of seeing her transferred to a nursing home and the near-final nail in the Christmas Eve tradition, as the big dinner was moved to Christmas Day. But the pre-celebratory hike still happened as it (seemingly) always had. My dad and I joined my uncle at the “car bar,” where we sipped good whisky and chugged cheap beer as we walked through the snowy woods.

But even the best traditions can come to an end, and the Christmas Eve ramble of the three Franklin (wise?) men came to an end this year. First, I was unable to join the family up in New York on the eve itself, so my sister, visiting from the Virgin Islands, was set to take my place in a surrogate walk scheduled for the preceding weekend.

Then, on the Sunday before Christmas, we received the news that my grandmother had died, apparently peacefully, in her bed. The walk was forgotten.

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Grandma and Grandpa Franklin on Christmas Eve, with little Brent getting excited about presents (late 1980s/early 1990s)

From the DC area, it felt surreal. I’d been fortunate to catch grandma in one of her last relatively lucid moments, a couple months before, and we had all seen this coming for a long time. But still, she couldn’t actually be gone. Who would stand (or sit, brandishing her canes) at the head of the family and keep us rooted in our longest-held traditions through strength of will and belief in the value of cultural heritage? Looking back, it never did feel real until I stood at a small podium and tearfully thanked her for all she had given.


Traditions are powerful, though, and if they disappear, they can still leave behind strong emotional residue. The Christmas Eve tradition and all of its components—the walk through the woods, the food, the drinks, the warmth—will remain one of my life’s warmest, most cherished memories. Even if it all fades, I’ll always remember my grandmother’s presence when I think of Christmas.

My grandmother was one of my most loyal advocates and always believed in the value of everything I did, no matter how seemingly trivial. She nurtured my musical ambitions and showed up to every single concert, even when it had to have been torture to listen to the other kids farting through their mouthpieces. She treated me for every grade in every report card and kept silly artwork from me and my sister for years.

My grandmother will remain inseparable from nearly all of my formative experiences: every holiday, every concert, every moment where she was there to indulge a young child in the way that only a grandparent can do. Her faith in me extended to every decision I made, even the one that took me away from the only home I’d ever known, for reasons I’m not certain she ever fully understood. She didn’t need to know why I was doing something; she knew, deep down, that it would make me grow, that it would advance me toward fulfilling the promise she’d always seen in me, and that I’d probably have a healthy dose of fun while doing it.

I know she was always proud of me, which is why I think she’d understand and appreciate why I wasn’t around for our family’s Christmas this year. Two days before Christmas, C. and I stood on a chilly riverbank in Washington with our parents, her brother, and my sister. We made promises to each other—some light-hearted, some trivial, but all intended to guide us through the rest of our lives. Those promises ended with an exchange of rings.

20161223_184824Two days later, our respective nuclear families celebrated Christmas together for the first time. It’s too soon to say whether this might become a new tradition. After all, a marriage is a give and take, and maybe sometime she’ll join me in whatever’s left of the old Franklin traditions. And maybe the best thing about a good tradition is that as its old anchors pass away, there’s a chance for renewal or for the start of something else wonderful.


To my grandmother, thank you for everything. I will miss you every day.

To my wife, I can’t wait to see what traditions we cook up together.

To our families, thank you for being our anchors, and giving us our appreciation of family and tradition so that our lives together may be all the richer.

Posted in Family, Introspective, Relationships, Tribute | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Beware the Post-Election ‘What-Ifs’

Following the 2016 election, left-of-center Americans progressed variously through the five stages of grief. For some, the second stage, anger, took the form of a retrospective ‘what-if’ scenario. Anger, as in: “I can’t believe we [Democrats] had an untrustworthy corporatist shill, Hillary Clinton, shoved down our throats. If we’d have nominated Bernie, we wouldn’t be in this situation!” Bargaining morphed into a sort of what-if scenario: “What if we had nominated an honest, straight-forward candidate without the ethical and transparency baggage of Hillary Clinton?”

Full disclaimer here: I, too, wish it could’ve been Bernie. I voted for him in the Virginia primary, and I stand by that choice. But I’m not sure he would’ve succeeded either. A Newsweek reporter explored Bernie regrets after the election, and reported that Republicans’ general election campaign playbook on Sanders made their tricks against Hillary seem congenial and respectful. I wish our society truly supported Bernie’s stated values, even under close examination, rather than just embracing his ‘outsider’ status during the primaries. I wish ‘socialism’ wasn’t a dirty word.

Basically, while Bernie might have won the general election, it’s far from certain. I’m now inclined to think that Bernie would have tried and failed to go head-to-head with Trump on populism, only to find his opponent willing to stop at nothing to out-promise him—and, needless to say, outdo him on what many voters were actually looking for, which was a promise to restore white male privilege.

No matter who the Democrats nominated, though, we might very well have seen a different electoral map. Let’s explore.


Election results depend on a viscous stew of thought processes and impulses among the voting public. These may be logical or policy-based for some voters—likely a relatively small minority—but are demonstrably emotional for the majority. Much of the wishful Bernie thinking has focused on the states that Hillary Clinton unexpectedly lost, and has ignored some of the states that she narrowly (or less narrowly) won.

No-doubt states for Clinton (>10%)

Let’s first look at the states that, frankly, either Democrat would’ve been able to count on. After that, we’ll look at those states that probably would’ve gone to Barry Goldwater (or, heck, Mussolini!) if he ran as a Republican in 2016.

State Margin of Victory Electoral Votes
District of Columbia 86.8 3
Hawaii 32.2 4
California 30.1 55
Massachusetts 27.2 11
Maryland 26.4 10
Vermont 26.4 3
New York 21.2 29
Illinois 17.0 20
Washington 15.8 12
Rhode Island 15.5 4
New Jersey 14.0 14
Connecticut 13.7 7
Delaware 11.5 3
Oregon 11.0 7
Total   182

No-doubt states for Trump (>10%)

State Margin of Victory Electoral Votes
Wyoming 46.3 3
West Virginia 41.7 5
Oklahoma 36.4 7
North Dakota 35.8 3
Idaho 31.7 4
Kentucky 29.8 8
South Dakota 29.8 3
Alabama 27.7 9
Arkansas 26.9 6
Tennessee 26.2 11
Nebraska 25.6 5
Kansas 20.6 6
Montana 20.6 3
Louisiana 19.7 8
Missouri 19.1 10
Indiana 18.9 11
Utah 17.9 6
Mississippi 17.8 6
Alaska 14.7 3
South Carolina 14.2 9
Total   126

Notice that there’s a big edge for the Democrat here. That was always going to be the case, but Hillary lost this election in the closer states.

Narrow-win states (<10%)

Clinton

State Margin of Victory Electoral Votes
New Mexico 8.3 5
Virginia 5.4 13
Colorado 4.9 9
Maine 2.7 3*
Nevada 2.4 6
Minnesota 1.5 10
New Hampshire 0.3 4
Total   50

* Maine has 4 electoral votes; the electoral vote in the state’s 2nd congressional district went to Trump.

Trump

State Margin of Victory Electoral Votes
Michigan 0.2 16
Pennsylvania 0.7 20
Wisconsin 0.8 10
Florida 1.2 29
Arizona 3.5 11
North Carolina 3.6 15
Georgia 5.1 16
Ohio 8.1 18
Texas 9.0 38
Iowa 9.4 6
Total   179

Add these closer states to the mix and you get the final electoral vote total: 306 to Trump (including 1 from Maine), 232 to Clinton. Electorally, it’s not all that close, although Clinton’s popular vote lead is up over 2.0 percent. Here’s where we can play with the ‘Bernie what-if,’ because some of the close states might have shaken out differently had Bernie carried the Democratic nomination.


Would Bernie have pulled this off?

In my experience, the “Bernie would’ve won” argument has relied on his Rust Belt primary victories against Hillary and the assumed strength of a populist campaign in the region. The primary argument cuts both ways, though, and certain demographic factors would’ve worked against Bernie as well.

For example, I’ll grant that Sanders would likely have won Wisconsin. In her (some would say hubristic) overconfidence in the Midwestern ‘blue firewall,’ Clinton didn’t even visit the state—a traditional populist stronghold—after June. Adding Wisconsin’s 10 votes to the Democratic total gives the party 242. Let’s also give Bernie Michigan (16 votes), where his primary results were unexpectedly strong; and Maine’s 2nd congressional district, close to his New England political roots. He’s now at 259 votes. For the sake of this exercise, let’s also give him 20 votes for Pennsylvania, where anti-trade populism obviously resonated, for a total of 279 to the Democratic Party. Voila! Trump loses, and we can all rest easy at night.

Not so fast, though. Bernie didn’t perform well among minority groups in the primaries, and his brand of populism wouldn’t necessarily have enthused wealthier, economically moderate urban liberals. So let’s hypothetically take away Virginia, a Clinton state, because Democratic votes here are heavily reliant on black and Hispanic turnout, and on support from hyper-educated white voters living in densely populated northern counties. (The latter, it’s worth noting, tend to be rather fond of the economic status quo, which serves them quite well). Now the Democrats are back down 13 electoral votes, which leaves their candidate at 266 and puts Trump in the White House. Add Colorado to the list of switchers, for the same reasons as Virginia—or Nevada, for its heavy reliance on Hispanic turnout—and you can see the problem.

There were other states that Obama won and Hillary lost. Could Bernie have triumphed in Iowa, despite Hillary’s considerable margin of loss? Sure, I suppose. But Bernie might have lost by an even bigger margin in Florida and North Carolina, states whose Democratic populations are minority-heavy and where Bernie performed poorly in the primaries.


As of early December, while some of us on the left have moved on to depression or even acceptance, others still seem stuck in the third stage (bargaining). We’re busy seizing on outside possibilities like an electoral college bailout or outrage over Russian hacking allegations, conveniently ignoring that both of these slim hopes rest on the willingness of a critical mass of Republicans to show some political courage. With such a significant caveat, I’m afraid that these hopes only prove that some folks remain in denial.

Posted in Analysis, Politics | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Happy Thanksgiving, from a Peaceful Place

20161124_115208Having exorcised a few demons with my last post, I’d like to offer my readers a postcard, of sorts, from a place of beauty. The Moormans River is a small stream in the James River watershed, flowing out of the Blue Ridge just west of Charlottesville, Virginia. Two miles upstream from the Charlottesville Reservoir, the Big Branch tributary spills over several rock ledges. Standing quietly below the falls, one hears only the water, songbirds, and a slight breeze (see video below).

As always, I’m thankful this year for my wonderful and supportive family; my lovely fiancee, and her family; my good friends; talented colleagues; and for those moments and places that make me feel happy or at peace in an otherwise loud, confusing world. Happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers.

With that, I’ll step aside and leave some mementos from a hike on a beautiful late fall day.

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Posted in Introspective, Nature, Photo Journey, Relationships, Rural, Short posts, Virginia | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

On Finding It Difficult to Write

With apologies to America’s most-often marginalized populations—including racial and ethnic minorities, members of non-Christian faiths, LGBTQ persons, and the poor of all demographics—what I’m about to say is as trivial as it gets. But part of my stated mission as a blogger, to write about the urban-rural divide, effectively withered away during the presidential campaign and on election day. In at least one important way, the gap has become too big for me to comprehend. If I don’t understand it myself, it’s hard for me to facilitate a greater understanding through my writing—to bridge the gap (if you will).


I’ve lived in a major metropolitan area for more than seven years now, a significant portion of my adult life. Granted, there are several social quirks here I’ll never warm to. For example, there’s the “DC hello”: in many circles of career/politically ambitious (typically young) people, there’s a tendency to begin a conversation with “And what do you do?” An exchange of names or pleasantries comes second, once the other person’s social bona fides and/or career utility to the questioner have been established.

But there’s also, usually, a genuine respect for and willingness to understand other cultures and walks of life here in this city, even among many in the “DC hello” crowd. It’s partly an intellectual curiosity, but it’s also a sense, born of circumstance and necessity, that we’re all in this together. Black, brown, white; gay, straight; Christian, Muslim, Jewish—we’re all participants in the experiment called human existence. Plus, we’re all damn close to each other, physically, and we might as well get used to getting along.


Then there’s the place that I left, physically and psychologically. In rural Upstate New York, I used to feel, a person met at a gathering would likely open a conversation by asking your name, offering you a beer, or lamenting the Bills’ latest terrible season. It was a friendly, simpler affect, distinct from the social-climber tendencies seen among ambitious urban millennials. If you’d asked me, I’d have told you that I aspired to combine this unassuming rural quality with an urbanite’s cultural openness.

Then 2016 came along, and my tendency to romanticize the people back home ran into a major obstacle named Donald Trump.

Many of my liberal friends—the kind who genuinely want to believe the best of all people—have said something like the following: “Well, we can feel that Trump voters made the wrong choice, but we need to show them some empathy, since they obviously were feeling disillusion/desperation/disaffectation/[insert the word of your choice here]. However, it’s incredibly dangerous to normalize what just happened, to cast this election as anything other than what it was: a backlash against the perceived erosion of rural white privilege and traditional gender roles. It’s dangerous to look at the neo-Nazis Seig heil-ing their new savior, and then dismiss them as outliers among more passive members of the movement that empowered them.

Believe me, I genuinely understand that many Trump voters believe that they had legitimate reasons, aside from racial or cultural animosity, to cast their vote as they did. Some are childhood friends, or neighbors, or even extended family members. Other folks, strangely, may not consider Trump’s rhetoric or behavior problematic. But many—perhaps most—of these folks cast their vote despite knowing, incontrovertibly, that their candidate espoused the worst racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic tendencies America could show to itself and to the world.

At best, a vote for Trump born from economic anxiety was a vote to exchange one injustice—the hollowing out of rural, small-town America to enrich agribusiness or multinational corporate interests—for another, more implacable and pernicious, form of injustice. This decision allows rural whites, who have long benefited from American structural biases (including the ability to win an election as a minority population), to take out their frustrations not on the capitalist class, but on the populations that have always carried the burden of what used to be considered American exceptionalism. In the great game of divide and conquer, the lower socioeconomic classes (no matter their race or identity) will continue to suffer as they tear at each other in a zero-sum game, while billionaires like Trump laugh their way to more power and hate groups lurk like vultures at the margins.

Perhaps most galling is that a Trump administration is very likely to make things worse—not just for traditionally oppressed groups, but also for white rural America. Massive tax cuts for billionaires on top of pledges for huge infrastructure projects (some worthwhile, to be sure, but also the promise of a wall to keep out the only demographic actually moving to rural America these days)? Vindictive trade wars that may preserve an American job or two for another year, but that will also raise prices on cheaper imported goods—including those sold by big retailers disproportionately catering to small-town residents? And I’m not even talking about the damage the next four years could do to democratic institutions and norms that were designed explicitly to protect citizens from predation.

Call me crazy, but it sure seems like a lot to risk for the dubious satisfaction of slapping down minorities or transgendered people for the crime of wanting to be treated like humans; or to show a certain ambitious, pantsuited politician that a position of authority is not a “proper” role for women.

It’s a profoundly selfish, short-sighted act, and it’s an amazingly successful long-con by Donald Trump.


Back to this blog. Some of my best moments here have been when I’ve captured some essence of the rural culture—with all its warts, still something I felt deserved a voice—that my unapologetically liberal parents chose to raise me in. Now, my confidence in writing on behalf of this culture has been shaken, and I feel betrayed by many of the people whose communities and values I had chosen to believe in.

The election is over now, and it’s on all of us to see the next four years through. It’s also been nearly two months since I’ve written anything. I now wonder if my blogger’s block was a result of feeling this whole thing coming, deep down, like a slowly unfolding nightmare, when so many of my urban friends and colleagues couldn’t fathom such a degree of mean-spiritedness and authoritarianism.

I haven’t gone away, but it remains to be seen where Bridging the Gap will go from here. My continued thanks to my few regular readers, especially to those who actively keep the light on for human decency in Trump country (you know who you are).

Posted in Analysis, Demographics, Inequality, Introspective, Philosophy and theory, Politics, Rural, Social Justice | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Labor Day Travels, Part 2: Watkins Glen and the Finger Lakes

Watkins Glen, NY: motor sports enthusiast paradise, scenic wonderland, and gateway to the most celebrated wine-producing region in the Eastern United States.

On Labor Day weekend, we visited Watkins Glen for two of the three, but the small town (pop. 1,859) was already overrun by IndyCar aficionados augmenting already-heavy holiday crowds. The madhouse atmosphere was evident from the time we arrived at the upper entrance of Watkins Glen State Park, usually the quieter approach. That day, though, numerous tour buses were disembarking, several hundred feet of altitude above the lower entrance in the village. Scores of candy-munching families and screaming kids spilled onto Jacob’s Ladder, a staircase of nearly 200 steps (of a total of more than 800 on the gorge trail).

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From the park’s upper entrance, visitors descend Jacob’s Ladder into the gorge

20160904_130330For those unfamiliar, Watkins Glen State Park highlights a spectacular gorge, up to 400 feet deep, formed when retreating Ice Age glaciers carved a deep valley in the northernmost reaches of Appalachia. That valley is now mostly filled by Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest of New York’s Finger Lakes. At the southern end of the glacial trough, Glen Creek was left “hanging” above the valley. Over the millennia, the creek’s now-dramatic gradient carved a narrow gorge through the largely shale bedrock. This gorge is one of New York’s most dramatic and is marked by 19 waterfalls (both on the main creek and several tiny brooks that drop 100+ feet from the sheer cliff walls), narrow cataracts, rapids, and potholes.

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Railroad trestle over the upper gorge

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Ruler-straight fracture lines appear in the shale of the stream bed

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In the 19th century, developers promoted the gorge as a private resort; it was later purchased by New York State in 1906. Since then, a network of trails has attracted hundreds of thousands of annual visitors. These trails follow the north and south rims of the gorge and wend up the narrow valley itself—carved into the cliff walls themselves, and often passing through or behind waterfalls. The Finger Lakes Trail, part of the North Country National Scenic Trail (one of the Appalachian Trail’s less famous cousins), also passes through the park via the South Rim Trail.

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In several places, arched stone bridges cross Glen Creek and connect to side trails leading out of the gorge.

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20160904_130038The crowds became steadily more claustrophobic as we descended toward the main entrance. At one point near the mouth of the gorge, the trail actually overlooks itself, a dozen or so feet below, dropping through a narrow winding staircase carved into the rock. Below, it narrows to single-file and passes behind a waterfall. Due to the number of people and their tendency to block the narrow path for photographs, it took nearly 20 minutes to pass through. We all had to scramble under a ledge beside the standers, bent nearly double and holding our breath.

Despite the often-overwhelming crowds, it was a solid return to one of my favorite parks. Ironically, the low water conditions—which I had feared would detract from the beauty of the gorge—ended up almost doing the opposite, exposing even more of the fascinating whitewater-shaped formations in the shale bedrock.

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The bigger-picture backdrop for Watkins Glen is the Finger Lakes region, defined by the long, deep glacial lakes that run north-south through a wide swath of Western New York. After leaving behind the crowds of the state park and the touristy downtown, we drove north along the western shore of Seneca—which, as mentioned before, is the largest and deepest (618 feet) of the Finger Lakes. In fact, Seneca’s great depth creates a significant “microclimate” that moderates the normally harsh winter temperatures found in Upstate New York and allows vinifera wine grapes (usually grafted onto native labruscum [Concord] rootstock) to thrive. Today, more than 100 wineries cluster along the Finger Lakes, a majority of them around Seneca Lake.

Our drive north and west through the Finger Lakes region took us to Keuka Lake, unique among the group for its crooked “Y” shape. We finished the day’s outing at Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery, one of the region’s most renowned. The winery was founded by Dr. Frank himself, a Ukrainian German who emigrated to the U.S. Initially unable to speak English, he took janitorial jobs before (allegedly) meeting a Cornell professor with whom he could speak French. It was Dr. Frank who introduced the idea of root grafting to New York winemakers, boosting the regional industry.

Readers, next time you enjoy some wine from America’s East Coast, reflect on how you’re not drinking something that tastes like Manischewitz or alcoholic Concord grape juice. If that’s a positive in your book, be grateful for an immigrant who couldn’t speak English when he arrived on the shores of America.

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Keuka Lake, with vineyards in the foreground

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Posted in Family, Friends, History, Narrative posts, Nature, Place, Rural, Science, Traveling, Upstate New York | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Labor Day Escape: Part 1

Yes, lately my blog has become a repository of pictures from my little road trips, but I’m actually okay with that for now. Hanging out in cool places—far from the twin daily drudgeries of working and commuting—is one of the simple pleasures in my life. If I can bring someone along for the ride, that’s cool too.

This time, on Labor Day weekend, C. and I literally brought someone along for the ride. A friend of ours had little previous experience in Upstate New York (pity the poor soul!), so he joined us on a trip to hang out with my parents in the country. After a long drive north from DC, we met my parents for lunch in Corning, the small city where I’d attended middle and high school.

For some context about Corning, I’ll refer readers to an ambitious (and short-lived) project I began a couple years ago. (I’d made it my goal to explore each town and city in Steuben County, my home county). Broadly, Corning is a small city largely defined by the presence of two major institutions: Corning Inc., a Fortune 500 manufacturer/researcher of glass and ceramics technology; and the Corning Museum of Glass, an internationally renowned collection that brings a lot of tourists to the area. While we weren’t there as tourists, per se, I took the opportunity to snap a lot of pictures.

The Rockwell Museum, a recently designated Smithsonian affiliate, proves that museums in Corning aren’t all about glass. The Rockwell is housed in a Romanesque-style building and focuses on Western art and artifacts—perhaps unexpectedly, given its very Eastern location.

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Rockwell Museum

20160903_132607Corning also boasts one of the most charming and economically healthy historic retail districts in Upstate New York. Market Street is a five-block stretch of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, galleries, salons, clothing stores, outlets, newsstands, and various eclectic mom-and-pops. The architecture is gorgeous, featuring mostly two- to four-story brick buildings. I found some outlet store clothing bargains to fill holes in my work wardrobe, and we poked around a funky used bookstore with a cool (and fairly extensive) selection of vinyl records.

20160903_135347Back in the high-tech stock bubble of my youth, when Corning Inc. stock flew high at nearly $400/share, Market Street was actually a bit more staid. Granted, it was very pretty then, too, but corporate executives and professionals mostly lived in big suburban houses. While they spent their money downtown at stuffy bars and Italian restaurants, Market Street could feel almost like a living history museum exhibit. I don’t even remember ethnic food beyond Chinese takeout.

20160903_135338Then, the company and its stock took a hit. It certainly didn’t die out or leave town, but artists and hipsters started to sniff around in greater numbers relative to the corporate types. Further, this was happening around the time that recession and shifting preferences started to make urban living more appealing. Increasingly, lofts and renovated luxury apartments appeared above stores and restaurants, and the street became livelier with a more varied character. It’s inconceivable to think that our lunch spot—featuring an inspired craft beer selection along with menu items like pork belly banh mi—could have existed in Corning in the early 2000s.

(I do feel obliged to mention, as my dad would note, that dive bars with the real-deal “local flavor” have been casualties during both eras. That’s certainly an unfortunate phenomenon in DC, too.)

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Market Street (and photos below)

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We left Corning after lunch, making for the old farmhouse in the rural opposite corner of Steuben County. The drought from earlier in the summer had receded a bit (although it had worsened further north and west) and the lawn was once again lush and green. As always, I felt an ineffable sense of comfort upon arriving back in the narrow hollow of my youth. The creek, even at a trickle, still gurgled softly as it dropped into the waterfall’s small plunge pool; the breeze rustling the leaves of the poplar grove still carried a clean, sweet smell.

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That evening, family and friends alike sat around the bonfire, ate homemade jambalaya, and engaged in the venerated Franklin tradition of drinking lots of beer—but not before I’d paid my respects to our departed furry friends. Mustache and Brook still rest in the shade of the poplars, where I like to imagine them cavorting with the red foxes and enjoying some of the best views afforded by my parents’ 10 acres.

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View to the east

Posted in Community, Family, Friends, Nature, Pets, Place, Relationships, Rural, Traveling, Upstate New York, Urban | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments