Cold Springs is a little town over an hour's drive on the highway from New York. Traversing the meanders of the Hudson river, the highway seems to take you to a place far, far away from the big city. It doesn't really, but the idea is nice. Commuter towns in upstate New York seem very quaint - lots of flags, hanging baskets and thoughtfully decaying antique lawnmowers resting on front lawns. Only the Hummer sitting in the driveway suggests that the regular trains departing from the station will take you back to Manhattan, not middle-America. Camping in a national park on the Appalachian trail gives a similar experience. Prodding through the paths to a pond in the woods, the strange quiet (there were few birds and no insects) is broken by the rumbling sound of a Ford Mustang, over-revving to get up the slope to its allocated zone. Apparently this campsite had deer (you can shoot them if you like, but you'll need a bow), but the only sign of life were the mosquitoes, who made up for their size in numbers. Deeper into the backwoods we needed to go.
Hitting the road, and its pretty but monotonous wooded vistas, broken by intermittent Wendy's and their 3/4 pound burgers (or 2/3 pound, I can't remember after the meat sweats), you occasionally catch a glimpse of an ATV repair shop, plastered with NRA posters and enthusiatic comments about gun ownership. So far, so wild. Passing the towns of Windsor, Damascus, Syracuse and Ovid, the idea of culture and history is rubbed closely alongside the battered remains of destruction derby cars waiting for the next round, brown snowmobile tracks ready for winter, and signs warning about deer, tractors, and off road vehicles. And then you come to Ithaca. Home to Ivy League Cornell University, and a substantial aging hippy population.
The town is clean, small, efficient, and punctuated by small shops selling clothes that are probably made from hemp. The library is clean, cool, and well stocked, (they have hundreds of copies of The Grapes of Wrath - group reading apparently). It also has lovely toilets and is just down the road from a bar. Enter that bar though, and you may hear a conversation relating to how uncomfortable it is to hit a deer with you motorcycle while doing seventy. Apparently the poor animal was sent flying into the woods, where the motorcyclist in question, who had scratched his jeans, could not find it, despite its cries. Shame really, he would have slit its throat to put it out of its misery, he said. Why he was doing seventy in the woods, was more concerned about killing a deer than checking himself over, and why he was carrying a knife big enough to do the job, while riding a motorcycle, at seventy, through the woods, he didn't say. Still, you got the sense that we were getting more rural.
That sense was heightened by the appearance of a skunk that night, in the campsite alongside Lake Cayuga. I was probably more afraid of the skunk than if it had been a bear. I am in the same van for the next three weeks, and if it gets squirted we would be in serious trouble. One dead in the group wouldn't make half the mess. Next to the lake is a waterfall that is higher than Niagara, and only attracts a handful of tourists. The lake itself can be swum in, and if you go after a storm, when there is a tornado warning and the lifeguards and police are elsewhere, panicking, you can have the whole thing to yourself, which is nice.
Niagara is a horrible town. Like a tackier, smaller, and less polished Blackpool, the Canadian side, surprisingly, is more grotesquely developed than the American side. Particularly at night the towering casinos overlooking the falls are not the most attractive of vistas. The falls are spectacular, which isn't really surprising. The sooner you can get out of the town after seeing them though, the better. Next stop Chicago, via a whole lot of nothing.