Northern New York
So I can’t really walk right now, which I figure is as good a time as ever to write you this email. I pulled a groin muscle last week, and have been going through that cycle where I stay off it for a couple days, it feels fine, I return to hardcore physical activity, and promptly tear it again. I thought I was fully recovered this morning, so I walked to the grocery store (about a mile away), was limping by the time I got there, and in extreme pain by the time I got back. Luckily it’s gray and rainy, so I have no strong reason to be outside, but I feel there’s something wrong when I see some crippled old woman in a wheelchair and am jealous of the wheelchair. I’m sure it’ll be fine in a few days. But my invalidity raises a more pressing question: how exactly did I tear my groin muscle? Is it somehow related to the fact that spring break was last week? Perhaps, perhaps.
I spent most of winter quarter freaking out about what I was going to do for spring break. I spent my last two spring breaks doing cool projects—-the coffee table I built my first year, the Boston/Middlebury/Adirondacks road trip I took last year. I figured I could do another road trip, but that seemed kind of repetitive; likewise with some sort of construction project. Then, a couple weeks before finals, the idea hit me. Spring break is the time when everyone goes and parties on beaches, right? Obviously, Cayuga Lake isn’t big enough to attract revelers, but what about that Great Lake nearby? Surely there would be some spring break action going on by the shore of Lake Ontario—-and what better way to enjoy it than to take an International Spring Break Bike Trip along Lake Ontario and up to Canada!
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a good idea. My bike is still missing its rear wheel thanks to last summer’s fiasco, but my dad’s bike was in working condition. (Also in Ithaca.) He gave me for my birthday last year a tiny one-person tent (technically it’s a two-person, but they’d have to be East Asians who were malnourished as children), with the intent of making my bike trips more comfortable. I could sleep in that. The area is almost desirable—the eastern shore of Ontario has state parks and a couple of War of 1812 historic sites, and the Thousand Islands is everyone’s favorite second-rate vacation spot. I began sketching out routes: turn right at the end of my driveway and bike for 100 feet, turn right again and bike for 500 feet, turn left and bike for 70 miles and you hit Oswego and Lake Ontario. I’d never been to Oswego before. From there I could pick up the “Seaway Trail” that encircles the New York half of the lake, sleep at a state park, and then head up to the St. Lawrence. There’s a ferry that takes you from the New York side to the Ontario side—oh, but turns out it’s closed for the season. (For a very good reason, it later turned out: the river is completely frozen.) The US-Canada bridges aren’t really an option for biking, since they squeeze two lanes of traffic into about twenty feet of road (150 feet up); god, they’re frightening enough to drive over in a car. There are tractor-trailers going 55 mph in the opposite direction that roar six inches away from your window, and the pressure wave pushes your car even closer to the edge. The terrain surrounding the St. Lawrence is more or less flat, but the bridges have to accommodate ocean-going vessels, so they shoot up and then back down again. It’s like driving over the Gateway Arch in St. Louis—except the bridge is 75 years old, rickety, and rusting. So maybe I couldn’t go to Canada, but I could still hang out up near the St. Lawrence. And then I could call my dad and ask him to come pick me up. I didn’t really want to bike all the way BACK through Upstate NY, and I figured I could sell the idea to him with the contradictory goals of a) father-son time in the car and b) I’d drive on the way back, giving him time to do work. I felt rather guilty about this, but tried to compartmentalize it away.
Anyway, finals ended the earliest for me that they ever have, on Wednesday afternoon. I hadn’t remembered about break until plane tickets were already more expensive than usual, and I’m still mad at Amtrak for the time my twelve-hour train ride took nineteen hours. Greyhound it was. On Thursday afternoon I hopped on the bus, and after a quick transfer in Cleveland, and then in Buffalo, and then in Rochester, I was back in Ithaca at 9:30 on Friday morning. My dad was surprised to see me; he apparently misread the bus schedule I sent him and thought I was arriving on Tuesday. And I was somewhat surprised by the weather. When I left Chicago, it was 60 degrees and I was wearing shorts. By the time we got to Buffalo, I could see snow out the window of the bus. In Rochester, I got off to transfer, and nearly froze in my light polarfleece. There wasn’t much snow left on the ground near my house in Ithaca, but on Saturday afternoon, my dad and I went down to Shindagin Hollow in Caroline to go hiking and boy, what a difference a couple hundred feet makes. My dad had some trail he wanted to take, but we ended up having to change our plans because the road—unmaintained in winter—was blocked by snow. (It ended up being a really good hike, though—conifers covered with snow and streams rushing just fast enough to not freeze.) I looked at weather reports. In Ithaca, the high for the next few days was 40, low 20. In the places I was going, the high was 30 and the low 10. I started to get quite nervous, since the weather in Chicago had made me think that I was going to be doing spring biking—chilly but not cold. But this was still winter. I began seriously reconsidering my trip—in warm weather, the worst-case scenario for my reckless bike adventures is that I hitchhike 25 miles through Vermont and sleep in a city park until the next bus back to Boston. But the consequences of mistakes in winter can be life-threatening.
I had brought all my winter clothing with me, of course, but it wasn’t going to be enough. So I went out and bought some more (or rather, I went out and my dad bought me some more). I got a pair of Under Armour cold-weather tights which were phenomenally expensive—I felt really guilty—but definitely the most useful piece of clothing I had. (In addition to keeping me warm, they showed off my curves.) I found a crappy pair of Old Navy wind pants in our basement; I put them over the tights and my lower body was in perfect shape (thermally if not physically). My pair of sneakers was sort of coming apart, but I figured I could just duct-tape the sole back together. Since I wasn’t going to be walking on them I didn’t have to worry about the duct tape coming off, and the duct tape, which was around the toes, had the added benefit of windproofing the shoes. I didn’t want to go all out and put on thick hiking socks, so I bought a pair of light athletic socks. They were cheap enough that I didn’t feel guilty about buying them, and expensive enough that I figured they would properly warm my feet and wick moisture away and do all those other fancy things the tag advertised. On my torso, I put on an athletic t-shirt that I bought in 2000 before going hiking in Japan. The shirt cost $25 at the time, and I was horrified that I was spending so much (of my dad’s) money on a t-shirt—but eight years later, it still works great! On top of that I wore the fleece liner and shell for my ski jacket (but separated, which made movement easier and, I suspect, made it more insulating). I wanted to buy a balaclava to cover my head, but I couldn’t find one anywhere in Ithaca—the stores were mostly out of winter clothing. So instead I wore a fleece neckwarmer, ski goggles (probably unnecessary, but they ended up making my upper face feel really good), and cool hat I bought that claimed to be (and was) windproof. I also wore my ski gloves. All in all, the clothing worked out quite well. The fact that I was working hard seemed to negate the wind chill from biking, and though I got cold if I stood around for more than ten or fifteen minutes, I was quite comfortable biking. (Even, I should note, my extremities—I was worried about my hands and feet, but they were fine. My hands were sweating profusely, in fact—I wish I had had some type of breathable (yet windproof?) glove.)
Then there’s the question of the bike. My dad’s bike is new, a year or so old, and so I was expecting it to be in tip-top shape. I went down to the garage to look at it, and it was covered in rust. “I bike every day in the winter, so it gets all the salt and slush,” he said. “And I leave it outside a lot of the time.” Still, his bike is rideable, which is more than I can say of mine. I figured that in terms of gear, I needed my tent, sleeping bag, and ground pad, as well as a stove, fuel, and some food (powerbars, oatmeal, cocoa), some bike tools (bike multitool, leatherman, patch kit and spare tube, pump). I’ve never carried this much stuff, and in the past, I’ve put the little stuff I’ve had into a backpack, which isn’t the greatest idea in terms of balance and weight distribution. I figured I could buy a rack—they’re cheap, I’ve been needing one anyway, I could get a universal one that would fit both my road bike and my dad’s mountain bike—and then use some combination of bungee cords and webbing to lash stuff sacks filled with my gear to the rack. Not a great plan, but panniers are really expensive, and I figured this would work just as well. Then, as I was down in my basement looking for miscellaneous gear, I ran across something I didn’t think we owned: panniers!!! I was very surprised. It was quite old-looking, but had two large side pockets and an even-larger rack pocket. To my shock, my tent fit perfectly in the top pocket, and my sleeping back perfectly in to one of the side pockets! I asked my dad about them, and he said he bought them in 1975. “Spring break my junior year, I decided to bike the North Shore of Lake Superior from Duluth to the Canadian border. It was pouring rain. I got about 40 miles out before I called Bonnie [his sister] to come pick me up.” He thought for a moment, and added: “Also, they’re not waterproof. I biked home from Carleton to Minneapolis for Thanksgiving break one year and it rained the entire time. My copy copy of [such-and-such]’s Waves and Optics got ruined and I couldn’t do my homework.”
None of this seemed to bode terribly well for my trip. Still, everything seemed to be working out. I attached the rack and the panniers, and then pimped my dad’s bike even further by adding two water bottle cages (he has none) and swapping his pedals for mine (which have toe clips). I printed out a final itinerary and filled my gas bottle from a rusty can of kerosene in the basement. Then at 7 AM on Sunday morning, I set out, with no shortage of anxiety about the trip and the weather. Starting out in the winter is a double hit—not only have you not yet gotten into a rhythm, you haven’t warmed up yet and so are really cold. But in retrospect, the 35 miles between Ithaca and Auburn (the next city to the north) was probably the best of the trip in terms of biking. I had lots of energy (I had consumed half my kitchen before leaving), and while there were plenty of hills, they were low and rolling. I was up on the crest between Cayuga and Owasco lakes, and even after I got out of the ‘hood of Tompkins County, the fields and farms and the way the hills sloped down on both sides towards the lakes made it feel like home. A few miles south of Auburn I saw a sign for a multi-use path that purportedly went to Auburn, so I took it. (I had a mountain bike, after all.) It was a nice change of pace. The trail was in poor shape, though, even considering that it’s probably not covered with snow and ice during the summer. There were huge potholes, and several segments where the railroad ties—like most multi-use trails, this was clearly a converted railroad path—several segments where the railroad ties were still there—they had only removed the tracks. It was like biking over a corduroy road. I saw a bright-red condom frozen into the ice at one point. Eventually the trail abruptly ended and dumped me out in Auburn, somewhere. I was in a neighborhood that was an odd mix of single-family houses and factories. I passed an enormous Bombardier plant that looked brand-new but was shuttered and covered with “NO TRESPASSING” signs. Eventually I found my way downtown. But at 10:30 on Easter Sunday, everything was closed, so I ate a Clif Bar and had some Gatorade in the middle of an empty pedestrian mall. The downtown area actually looks reasonably nice, for Upstate NY—it’s not as nice as Ithaca, but they’re clearly trying to make it a usable downtown. (Incidentally, remember Melina Carnicelli, the ICSD administrator? She was mayor of Auburn for a while in the late 90s and early 00s.) I went into an empty parking garage and committed my first infraction on the trip by peeing next to the stairwell. (There was nowhere else to go!)
North of Auburn, the gently rolling hills gave way to short, bumpy hills—drumlins, the remnant of the retreating glacier 10,000 years ago. The drumlin field between the Finger Lakes and Lake Ontario is apparently quite famous for being one of the best examples of such a landform. The first photo of a drumlin on Wikipedia is one near a town that I biked through. I passed over I-90, the Amtrak tracks, the Seneca River, and the Erie Canal, all in rapid succession. The towns between Auburn and Oswego were evenly spaced out, every ten miles along Rt 34. In Cato I stopped for another quick break and regretted that I had brought my food—I really wanted to eat at the nice little diners along the way. Tastier food, hot food, and better travelling. I resolved to find a diner in Oswego and treat myself to an early dinner there. I pushed on, and bought more Gatorade at a tiny convenience store in Hannibal. Finally I saw Lake Ontario, and began the slow approach to Oswego through its suburbs. Oswego isn’t very large—maybe 40,000 people with suburbs and students—but compared to the sub-thousand towns I had been biking through, it was a metropolis. I biked past the entrance to the SUNY Oswego campus, which looked like it had been designed by Stalin’s finest architects. Seriously, there were buildings (dorms, presumably) that looked like inner-city Chicago housing projects. I passed an enticing diner but needed some cash, so I kept going until I found an ATM. Not far from the ATM was a McDonalds, which was advertising their seasonal Shamrock Shakes. I’m a sucker for milkshakes of any kind, but the mint Shamrock Shakes I’ll do anything for. They kind of taste like the mint-flavored flouride treatments you get at the dentist, but, god, they’re so good. I always bought them at the rest stops on the way to New York during the CSPA trips in high school, and Last year, they practically fueled my four-day, 1,000 mile New England jaunt. I hadn’t yet had one this year, so of course I went straight to the McDonalds and bought a large. I walked my bike the rest of the way to downtown Oswego, smiling with simple-minded happiness. Unfortunately there weren’t any diners in downtown Oswego that I could find, so I settled on a place called “GLOBAL BUFFET.” The windows were covered with butcher paper, but a sign on the door said it was open, and that the lunch buffet lasted for another half-hour—and was only $5.55! So I went in, and of course it was a Chinese buffet with pizza, macaroni and cheese, and a salad bar with jello and chocolate pudding. No matter; I just wanted food, and I stuffed myself with chicken and beef of all types.
Then I set out from Oswego, and passed over the Oswego river, which was really rushing into Lake Ontario over a surprisingly steep gradient and with a lot of force. On one side was a system of locks for the NYS Barge Canal system. Apparently the river drops 45 feet in its valedictory half-mile. I rode around historic Fort Ontario, site of some important War of 1812 event or non-event. I passed the giant cooling tower for the Nine Mile Point nuclear plant (another scenic lakeside attraction!). Despite the feeding, I didn’t have much power leaving Oswego, and felt rather sluggish. This was a consistent theme through my trip, and I think it had a lot to do with how laden-down I was. I’m used to riding on my bike, which is super-light, and to carrying very little extra stuff. But my dad’s bike is quite heavy (it’s a mountain bike), and I had a lot of stuff in the panniers. Altogether it must have weighed forty or fifty pounds—a pretty big difference. My dad’s bike doesn’t have a computer, so I don’t know exact speeds, but I can make some rough estimates by knowing distances and time. Between Ithaca and Auburn, I only did about 10mph—pretty pathetic, and I thought that was the most efficient part of the trip, even though it was hilly. By the last leg of my trip, I was down to seven or eight (but over completely flat terrain). It kind of sucks to be putting out maximum effort and still watch yourself going so slowly. Loathe am I to want any sort of artificial propulsion—and those electric motors are really heavy—but a rocket-assist device would be nice. I guess rockets would be inefficient over the long run, which is what I’d want, but up hills or something, if I could just, you know, have a couple of rockets mounted to the back of my bike to speed me up… it would be really cool.
Oswego is at the southeast corner of Lake Ontario, and I had been hoping to get a good ways up the eastern shore. But, like I said, I was getting tired, so I pulled over at the first state park I came to, Selkirk Shores. The park is officially open year-round from dawn to dusk, but camping only runs Memorial Day to Columbus Day. My plan had been to sneak in and feign ignorance if a park ranger found me. But the gate house is positioned so it sees quite a ways down the access road, and as I got close, a guy came out and stood in the middle of the road. I waved, and then asked him if he had any campsite. “Well, the campground’s closed,” he said.
“Huh,” I said. I nodded pensively to look like I was considering this new and unexpected development.
“It doesn’t open until May. The campsites are all covered with snow.”
“I guess not many people want to camp this time of year,” I said, demonstrating that I now understood the logical connection. “Are there any other campsites around here? Would maybe some of the other state parks…?”
“Where are you coming from?”
“From Ithaca, this morning.”
“Ithaca! That’s a long ways. Well, I’m just the AAA guy—someone got their car stuck in a ditch. The campsites are over that way, if you go over that hill and turn right at the snowmobile trail, and I doubt they would notice if you went back into the trees…”
He described the way to get to the campsites three or four more times, even though the sites were 200 feet away. He seemed worried that I wasn’t going to be warm enough, and my reassurance that I had done a “demo” of my winter camping setup back in Ithaca didn’t reassure him. Nor, for that matter, did it reassure me. “It’s a lot colder up here than in Ithaca,” he pointed out. And there was something that I hadn’t realized until I was west of Oswego and suddenly the snow was blanketing the ground and not just lying in patches by the side of the road: this is the snowiest part of New York State. The lake effect snow from Ontario affects the entire Rochester-Syracuse-Watertown area, but right there, on the eastern shore, is the absolute worst. The precipitation comes off the lake, hits the Tug Hill plateau, 2,000 feet higher in elevation, and dumps everything. I wasn’t quite on Tug Hill—which regularly gets 300 inches of snow a year—but I was right next to it. No wonder there was still two feet of snow on the ground. And this made me even more nervous about my survival for the next twelve hours. I suppose cold-weather camping on top of dead grass (my plan) isn’t much different from cold-weather camping on top of snow, but it was another reminder that I wasn’t just kidding around—this was genuine winter camping. I’d only been winter camping once before, with the Boy Scouts in 1999, and out there in shuttered state park, I realized that being by myself was another bad idea. It’s like when the Red Cross instructor pauses the training video and asks the class, “What did he just do wrong?”—except I was in the training video. But I have a mummy bag and the AAA guy barely fit into his overalls, so I decided not to invite him into my portable abode.
Then I bumped over the frozen snowmobile tracks and had my first—and only—spot of bike trouble. In retrospect, the most astonishing thing about the entire trip was that I had no significant bike problems! I mean, there was a period last summer when I couldn’t bike to downtown Boston without having some sort of breakdown. Four of the five major bike rides I’ve taken have resulted in epic disasters—the suburban Chicago flat tires, the 60-miles-on-rims incident, the suicidal rear axle. That time we biked around the lake in 2006 was the only time I haven’t had any problems—and on that trip, like on this one, I was on my dad’s bike. An earlier incarnation, perhaps, but his bike nonetheless. I guess mountain bikes are more rugged? In my defense, most of the problems with my bike have been either a) stupidity on my part that I’ve learned from or b) really bad luck. I am now very well-versed in how NOT to fix a flat tire. It will probably remain a mystery why my axle decided to freeze up near the Vermont border last summer, but it’s hard to imagine how that could have been my fault—I hadn’t taken it apart or anything. Man, I’m still pissed about that—it was a new wheel! I had only ridden 200 miles on it! Where was I going with this? Oh, right. So I was wandering through the bare football field of snow-covered campsites when my rack fell off. Not completely, though—the screws attaching it to the seatpost came off, and the rack/pannier assembly spun back around the wheel. I guess I didn’t attach the screws tightly enough. I looked for the screws in the snow, but they were quite lost. So I went into my panniers, took off a strap of webbing from my thermarest, and tied the rack back on. I figured this would last until I made it to a hardware store, but it ended up lasting for the rest of my trip. Worked perfectly. I don’t know why the jerry-rigs I make on my own bike—like the cheese in the tire—never seem to work.
There were some sites on the campground that were tempting—underneath some trees, there was just enough bare ground to pitch a tent—but I didn’t want to be seen, and I didn’t really want to be camping in a car camping/RV park shithole, anyway. So I plodded on towards a thick grove of pine trees that I thought would make good cover, and turned off the main road onto a deer path. I never saw a single deer in the park, but the path was very, very well-worn—easily six inches shallower than the surrounding snow. There was deer poop everywhere—I guess it stands out better against the snow than against dirt, and the cold preserves it. I followed the path for a while, trying to get reasonably far away from the roads. Eventually I settled on a spot next to a small, frozen stream. It was slanted, covered with two feet of snow, and sprinkled with deer poop, but so was the entire grove. I set up my tent, and the snow was icy enough that I was even able to stake my fly in it! I thought it might be nice to build a fire, more for entertainment than warmth, and I gathered up a lot of dead wood, separated it by size, and made a half-assed attempt at building something that would only have caught with the aid of several large fire starters. I considered dousing it in gas, or at least using my stove to help starting it. Then I got hungry. I decided to make oatmeal instead. I went over to the stream to get water, and after breaking through the ice, discovered that even my most careful efforts at straining water into my pot gave an orangey-brown liquid. So I gathered up some snow to boil.
After I got my stove going, I tucked in to my sleeping bag and made oatmeal and cocoa out of the door of my tent. My feet had gotten quite cold walking around camp—although the rest of me was just fine—so I took out some of those insta-heat toe warmers and taped them inside my socks. I’ve never actually used them before, although they keep piling up as stocking stuffers. I always think that I’ll have a better opportunity to use them, but I had brought several packages of them along with me, thinking that winter camping was as good a time as ever. And boy, did they work well! They heated up almost instantly, were incredibly hot, and lasted the entire night (or at least my feet were never cold enough to wake me up). In fact, despite all my fears, I slept incredibly well. I dropped off instantly, probably thanks to my exhaustion. I only woke up once, at one AM—and that was because I was too hot. (I took the outer layer of my coat off.) Oh, and I made a really awesome pillow! I turned the stuff sack for my sleeping bag inside out and stuffed my shoes inside them—keeping my tent and stuff sack clean, my shoes warm, and my head correctly propped up. And I was astonished how much I slept. I figured that I would probably wake up super-early, be freezing cold, and get on the road as fast as possible. This has always been my experience, especially with biking, and I figured the cold weather would just exacerbate that. But I slept in. I went to bed around 8:30, and although I started to stir around 5 (my cell phone was one of my many buddies in the sleeping bag), I didn’t get up until 7:30. I was completely closed off in my bag, so when I unzipped it and saw that it was light out, I was startled. I got up and slowly started to make breakfast and take down my camp, but I didn’t get cold, and I didn’t end up leaving the park until 10:30. Quite strange. And it’s not like it was warm out—according to Weather Underground, the temperature dropped from 30 to 20 over the course of the night.
But eventually I did set out. I kind of wanted to explore the park some more and go out to Lake Ontario (which, presumably, was just a couple hundred feet away), but I was annoyed at my late start, so headed back to the Seaway Trail and going. I had planned to make my first stop in Sackets Harbor; I didn’t know exactly how far away it was but figured it was between twenty and thirty miles, comparable to my 35 mile initial leg to Auburn the previous day. But I got tired pretty quickly, and I should have just stuck to the 10 or 15 mile rest intervals that I usually do. Instead I dragged myself along, and paused a couple times to finish off the last of my Clif Bars and drink the water I had boiled and bottled that morning. I would have been fine if I had allowed myself a decent rest and had bought some food, but there is very, very little in between Selkirk Shores S.P. and Sackets Harbor. There were a couple eateries, sure, but I stupidly dismissed them, telling myself I could make it to Sackets Harbor. And I eventually did make it, completely ravenous and exhausted. There were McDonalds wrappers by the side of the road that made me salivate, but no McDonalds in sight.
And there was not much to eat in Sackets Harbor. Of all the towns and cities I passed through, Sackets Harbor was very much the anomaly. The village (pop. 1,400) was first the location of a major naval shipyard during the War of 1812, later the headquarters for U.S. naval operations on the Great Lakes during the war, and finally, the site of a major battle. The entire village has some sort of state/federal designation as a historic park, and there’s no shortage of preserved buildings, plaques, and whatnot. There’s a big vistor’s/interpretative center run by the U.S. Park Service. There’s a big harbor with all sorts of expensive-looking boats in it. (Next to the harbor there was a sign for “U.S. CUSTOMS VIDEOPHONE”; apparently, if you sail there from Canada, you’re supposed to go to this videophone mounted on the side of a wastewater treatment building, call a customs officer, and use an attached webcam to show him your passport. Opt-in passport control? Doesn’t seem like it would work.) The “business district,” which looked a lot like downtown Ithaca with old buildings resorted to splendor, was filled with restaurants advertising gourmet brick-oven pizza and fancy wine selections and “caf�s” with French names. Needless to say, it was a little bit different than the run-down diners, crappy gas stations, and fractured sidewalks of every other town I had been through. I wish I could have stayed for longer to observe more and explain it better, but there you have it. It’s a boutique town—it’s supposed to be the upper-middle-class’s idea of a picturesque little village they can go to on weekends or retire to. Watertown is just ten miles away; I guess Sackets Harbor is where the Watertown elite have weekend houses. But as interesting as the economic differences were, what I was really thinking about at that point was food. It was 2 PM, I had biked 35 miles, and had nothing to eat. There were no McDonalds in Sackets Harbor. The immediate downside to the town’s monoculture became clear: the entire town was shut down, more or less, for the season. There were a couple eateries that were open, yes, but I didn’t want to pay $7 for a slice of tomato on top of a cracker. There weren’t even any gas stations or convenience stores; I searched the entire town! So I headed on. I didn’t even take the time to wander through the interpretive center (suggested donation: $4 adult), since I was incredibly hungry and also worried about time. Someone was ice-fishing next to the yachts in the harbor. I headed on.
I rode past Watertown’s inappropriately-named “international airport.” Someone had an ice-fishing hut up on blocks in front of their house. It was only four miles from Sackets Harbor to the next settlement, Dexter, and somehow I dragged myself there. In Dexter my nearly forty miles of ardor were rewarded not with a McDonalds and not even with a convience store, but with an entire grocery store. Or rather, a small grocery store, the Dexter Market, a mini-IGA. I was so hungry. I bought a large hot chocolate, a Saranac root beer, three 20oz Gatorades, a roast beef and cheese sandwich, a bag of Snyder’s pretzel bits, a “Double Chocolate Whoopie Pie” from “Steve’s Snacks Bakery” (written in Comic Sans), a stick of beef jerky, a bag of spearmint-flavored gummy candies, two Hershey bars, a dark chocolate Hershey bar, a Fifth Avenue bar, and a chocolate truffle. I kept putting stuff in the basket as the cashier was ringing it up. The best part? All that food cost only $20.20! It felt incredibly cheap. I went outside and ate it on the steps of a shuttered church that was apparently being used as the Dexter Historical Society. But of course I only managed to eat the sandwich, the whoopie pie, and the hot chocolate before I felt completely stuffed. My dad called me and asked when and where I wanted to be picked up. I told him that I was going to be in Cape Vincent—right at the head of the St. Lawrence! He said he was leaving work and would start the three-hour drive as soon as he got home. I stuffed the rest of my food in the panniers, which was difficult, and set off! 18 miles to Cape Vincent, according to the road signs—I could make it! I had already cut quite a bit of that day’s route; I had planned to take a lot of back roads that go closer to Lake Ontario and meander out on some of the peninsulas, but Cape Vincent was my ultimate goal.
I set off, but it was quite tough. The entire day had been fairly flat, and this last segment was more or less completely flat. But there was a bit of a headwind, and I was still going quite slowly. It took me two hours to get 18 miles, which, considering they were flat, was fairly pathetic. I stopped at the town of Chaumont and used a gas station bathroom. I saw a water tower with “CAPE VINCENT” on the side, but when I got to the base of the tower, Cape Vincent was nowhere in sight. The terrain was flat and covered with farms; it smelled like manure. There were flocks of deer in the fields—ten, twenty deer, just standing around like they were cattle grazing. Then, all of a sudden, I was in Cape Vincent. I didn’t turn on to the main commercial strip. I biked straight for another block or two, and all of a sudden, was at the St. Lawrence. To celebrate, I got out my Saranac root beer, and opened it with the bottle-opener feature on my bike multitool (which doubles as a spoke-tightener). Apparently bottle openers will open twist-offs, too.
I got there about a half-hour before my dad said he would get there, so I wandered out onto the ice and went for a walk. It was beautiful. The ice on Cayuga Lake in the winter is constantly fracturing and re-freezing, and so it’s bumpy and ugly. But this ice you could have held a speed-skating competition on. There was only one fracture in sight, a single fracture that must have stretched for thousands of feet. I went up to it, and you could see the tectonic action of the two ice sheets in great detail. There were parts where the sheets uplifted and formed a ridge, there were parts where one sheet subducted the other, and there were interfaces between the different modes. It was really, really cool. It’s only a mile across the channel to Ontario and I really wanted to walk it—walk to Canada!—but my dad was going to show up soon, and I wasn’t sure how solid the ice was in the middle of the channel. Really tempting, though. In any case, the scene was absolutely beautiful. The sun was coming down right over the middle of the river, right over where the river opened up into Lake Ontario. The U.S. land dropped away on one side and the Canadian land dropped away on the other side, and in between there was nothing but this ice sheet, spreading out in every direction. Forgive me for the cliche, but it felt like I was standing at the end of the earth.
I really wish I had brought a camera. It was so beautiful. And there were so many other things I wanted to take photos of on the way—the towns, the signs, my campsite. There was one point where, for about ten miles, NYS Route 3 was signed (erroneously) as “US Route 3”. There was a sign that had three apostrophes in four words; the apostrophes were incorrectly used (each to show a plural), but were /consistently/ incorrect. My film SLR needs a new battery and probably would have been to big to take; my parents didn’t seem to have a digital camera when I was home. I took a couple photos of the extra-amazing sites with my cellphone camera, but I think I need to just break down and buy a D40, or some other dSLR. The ability not to easily take good photos is annoying.
Anyway. My dad called me, and I directed him out onto the ice. Then we went back to the frozen boat launch and loaded the bike into the back of our van. “I would offer to drive, but you probably don’t want me to,” I said, too tired to feel guilty. And then we drove back to Ithaca. It took a little under three hours. I was really sore, and one of my groin muscles kind of hurt.
There was one more cool thing I did over break. Cornell’s break didn’t line up with Chicago’s this year, so I sat in on my dad’s class on Wednesday and Friday. (My dad told me that he had gotten a call on his cellphone from an unknown number with a 315 (Syracuse) area code on Monday morning during his class. Ordinarily he would have ignored it, he said, but he thought it might be related to my winter camping, so he interrupted his lecture to duck out and take it. (It turned out to be some reporter from Science asking about budget cuts at his lab.)) Anyway, he’s teaching a semester elective for physics majors on particle physics, and what he was talking about that week was the Higgs boson. This, of course, is the yet-unseen particle that purportedly is the basis of mass. And it’s the last remaining part of the Standard Model of physics that has yet to be experimentally verified. In fact, that’s what the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland is supposed to do when it starts up later this year (which, appropriately enough, was the subject of an xkcd comic on one of the days my dad was talking about it). I guess my dad spent Monday doing some background mathematics on the Higgs, so I was slightly lost on Wednesday, but then he spent Friday talking about the search for the Higgs boson. It was fascinating to see how much uncertainty there is—the predictions of its mass vary by a huge range. (And even if it /does/ exist, the Standard Model is still far from perfect—it’s stuffed with no shortage of experimentally-derived constants that come out of nowhere.) If you wanted better proof that scientists don’t believe that they are infallible standard-bearers of Truth, you’d be hard-pressed to find it elsewhere.
Anyway, like I said, I was slightly lost on Wednesday, when he was doing the math, but only slightly—and this was very surprising. After all, this is an upper-level physics class, and my knowledge of physics consists of B’s in freshman physics. Yet I was able to more or less understand what was going on (which tends to be the standard I hold myself to in science classes that I actually do have the prerequisites for). I think this says more about my dad’s skill as a lecturer than mine as a student. He was quite good. He spoke very clearly and his ideas all followed each other. His use of the board was amazing—I’m used to professors writing lines and lines of equations as fast as possible, filling up a dozen chalkboards in a period, but he only used three. He wrote slowly, and drew beautiful fourth-degree polynomials freehand. It was impressive—and it made me think, gosh, maybe particle physics is kind of cool. I had been considering taking the particle physics course here, actually—I have room for my second elective ever this spring!—and I asked the professor if I could take it even though I had taken the chem department’s quantum course and not the physics department’s. From the course evaluations, the class looked pretty easy—the people who took it last year were complaining that there was no math. But the professor took a month to get back to me, and by the time he wrote that he’d love to have me in the class (which happened on one of the days I went to my dad’s class) I had already gotten excited about taking Babylonian Knowledge instead, a course on Mesopotamian intellectual history taught by a really cool Orientalist I had in the fall. Oh well. Maybe I’ll get another chance at some point. Babylonian Knowledge looks really, really sweet.
This is now a bit on the long side, so I should probably stop. Anyway, I thought I would share this with you, since you were privy to my last spring break trip and my last bike trip. Call me sometime! We haven’t talked in a while.