“So where will you be staying when you’re in upstate New York?” my boyfriend asked.
“I don’t know,” I told him, “probably Ithaca or Binghamton?”
“You could stay with my Aunt Jenny, she’s cool,” Rob said.
“Would you describe her as Cool Aunt Jenny?”
“Yes,” he said, “but all my aunts are cool.”
Libra and Orion’s Belt
It is baffling to me that dogs aren’t always jumping off of boats. I guess because it seems like they’re constantly going off in whatever direction they choose and chasing after whatever looks interesting. Jenny and Daryl’s excitable black lab, Libra, was quite happy on their boat. She walked along the open edges without fear, never needing the stability of the metal hand rails like us humans. Personally, I always feel like I’m about to fall off of boats. Maybe not huge ferries, but anything small enough to be recreational seems like an invitation to go head first into the water.
Sometimes when I’m on private boats I imagine a life of living on a boat exclusively. I remember a woman I learned about a few years back who’s been living on a sailboat with her cat for years. She travels the world, making friends along the way. As I sat on the bow of the boat, watching the sun bounce off the water, I pictured my possible life on a boat. I would give away all my possessions – save for the ones that could fit inside. I would travel from port to port. I would stay where it was sunny and warm all year round. Jenny told me it’s possible to take a boat from the Finger Lakes in Ithaca all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. That would be a real trip.
Provided, of course, that I didn’t fall off.
The Best Compliment I Received the Entire Trip
The five of us were sitting on the dock in the sunshine.
“I’m driving across the country,” I told Mai An, a friend of Jenny and Daryl’s.
“Not just across the country,” her husband Kevin interjected. He had been looking at the route on my business card.
“Well,” I said, “I guess technically the term would be circumnavigating.”
“Damn right, Magellan,” Kevin added, taking a swig of his beer and smiling. I grinned from ear to ear.
As we were getting ready to leave for dinner, Jenny became suddenly preoccupied with the selection of tiny stuffed animals. She pulled out a few Beanie Baby-sized creatures and set them up in a line. She chose a small pair of bees and said they would be joining us for dinner. No explanation was given. At the restaurant Jenny pulled the bees out of her bag and set them on the table. When I asked her later what they were all about she smiled and said, “Oh they’re just our little friends. They go places with us.” And that was that.
Nothing to Do Today But Smile
Back in the boat I sat on the couch as Jenny got ready for bed and Daryl turned on some music. The light in the cabin was warm and dim, and outside the stars were shining in the sky. Daryl put on “The Only Living Boy in New York.” I laughed and explained to him that I had heard that same song only three days earlier. The singer/songwriter who performed at The Skinny Pancake in Burlington had played it during his set. Sometimes it felt like certain songs were following me around. Daryl asked if I liked the song and I told him I couldn’t think of a more perfect tune to play in that moment. Listening to Simon & Garfunkel, rocking on a boat in the Ithaca marina – upstate New York was like I was living in a low-budget independent film.
Cool Aunt Maggie
Jenny’s sister Maggie drove me to and from Syracuse to meet their mother. Maggie and I ended up having one of the most interesting and involved conversations I’d had with anyone on my trip. We talked about politics and religion and agnosticism and the need to constantly question one’s own stance. We talked about how people view the world and how our own systems for viewing have evolved overtime. Maggie and I did not always agree on specifics, but we were certainly on the same page when it came to method. We both seek out people with whom we disagree, in hopes that we might ward off personal fundamentalism.
Lunch in Syracuse
As soon as I walked through the sliding glass door of June’s ground floor apartment, she stood up to embrace me. “I’m hugging you like we’re old friends,” she said apologetically, “but that’s how I feel because I’ve been following you on your blog.”
Maggie, June, and I talked about our respective travels. When the subject of rock formations in the Grand Canyon came up, Maggie’s mother told me it was always something that interested her. “Maybe I’ll be a geologist when I grow up,” she said. June is 87 years old.
When we arrived at the restaurant for lunch I got out to help June, carrying her purse and offering a steady hand as we made our way inside. We stopped in the lobby to give her a chance to sit down and catch her breath before the walk to our table. June wears a nasal cannula at all times and her mobility is limited. There’s a frustration I’ve become familiar with that I think all of us are destined to experience. It happens when we get older and we stop being able to do things that used to be so easy. I’ve seen it in my grandparents, even in my parents. Sometimes I get a flash of it myself, when I see the way little kids run and jump in the park across the street from my work. The frustration within us grows as the tasks get simpler. It’s one thing to long for a time when you could cross the monkey bars, it’s another to wish you could still make it all the way to your table without stopping.
June offered to buy us lunch, and when the check came she produced a plain, white, envelope full of twenty dollar bills. She pulled out a number of bills and insisted to the waitress that she didn’t need any change. When I’m an old lady I hope this is exactly how I treat all my business interactions: with an envelope full of twenties and a tipping strategy that assumes personal abundance.
On the way back to Syracuse I asked Maggie if she knew how closely her mother had been following my travels online. Maggie had no idea. None of them did. I’m so happy we decided to make the drive.
Back at their home in Binghamton, Jenny and Daryl cooked up the most gigantic clams I’d ever seen. As I wandered through their house, I couldn’t help but notice the shelves full of huge, identical mason jars. Each jar was filled with a mysterious dark liquid.
“What’s in the jars?” I asked Jenny.
“Maple syrup,” she said. “We make it ourselves every year.” She grabbed a jar off the wall and handed it to me.
“Wait, really?” I said, holding the syrup. “I get a whole jar?”
“We have plenty of it,” she replied. Normally I avoid souvenirs, especially large glass ones, but there was no way I could turn down a jar of homemade maple syrup. I don’t think anyone could, or should.
There aren’t many cities in the U.S. that can boast a ten-minute drive between downtown and multiple natural waterfalls. Jenny and Maggie gave me a lot of suggestions, and I managed to visit both Buttermilk Falls and Lucifer Falls on my way out of town. There’s not much to say about waterfalls. They are beautiful. They are serene. They are the good kind of isolating. Sort of like the City of Ithaca, which claims the title of being “Centrally Isolated.” Sometimes it’s nice to feel like you’re in a city while still being miles from a freeway.
The first time I sat down to write about Ithaca, I ended up with a 2,500+ word monster. I edited and re-edited, but it just didn’t work. There was no central theme to grab on to. All I had was a collection of scenes – fantastic in their own right but disconnected from everything else. I guess some places aren’t about swooping changes to your life. Some places are about boats and lasagna and tiny stuffed bees. They’re about good people and good times. Some places are about being in the center of everything, and in the middle of no where. Some places are waterfalls.