Thursday, June 12, 2008

Into the Berkshires

Greetings from Stockbridge, a charming little town in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, famous to our parents' generation as the home of nostlgic artist Norman Rockwell and, to those of us inclined to be nostalgic about the '60s, as the location of Alice's Restaurant. But first, a little about the trip here.

We spent a wonderful week in Ithaca with Louise's daughter Lisa and family, and fully recharged the batteries. We also put the tandem on a strict diet, and left behind about 16-18 pounds by removing the front panniers and rack and rearranging what we were bringing to a much leaner selection of clothes and gear. Our first day out we felt like we were flying, although being well-rested and having a 12 mph tailwind probably had as much to do with it as our reduced baggage. A week later and we can feel the difference when we're climbing hills, and haven't missed what we left behind too badly (mostly cooking gear, rain pants, a few extra items of clothing, and compact but somewhat heavy binoculars).

We rode 50 miles north from Ithaca to Weedsport, the "port" in its name referring to its location on the Erie Canal. For the next 4 days we followed the canal route eastward.
At times we were following the old canal route, abandoned 90 years ago when the canal was deepened, widened and in places rerouted. The revised canal is technically called the
NY State Barge Canal to reflect that it was for motorized craft, with no more donkeys and horses pulling the canal boats. The first picture is a soft-surface part of the old towpath we rode where the canal has largely returned to nature and is simply a wide low spot next to the trail that is often but not always wet. Near Syracuse we rode another section of towpath past some farms and by a section
that has been restored to hold water for a few miles, and a museum runs boat trips a mile or two down and back. There are plans to extend the watered part of the canal by rebuilding
the aqueduct you see the stonework for here. The canal bottom would be laid with wood planking to hold in the water, and boats floated over streams just as cars and bikes cross them on bridges today.

After a breakfast stop in Chittenango where a yellow brick road -- well, yellow brick part of a sidewalk -- celebrates hometown hero Frank L. Baum, we reached the Barge Canal near Rome. As you can see, it's quite a bit wider!
At the nearby museum they had a great painting on the wall
that illustrates how much earth had to be moved by hand or by oxen power in the 1820's when the original canal was built. They also had a full-sized model of a packet (passenger) boat, the left side done up to show how it looked at night, the right side for day use. Packet boats had priority on the canal and used horses rather than donkeys, and were allowed to speed down the canal at a maximum of 4 mph.
Since they kept moving day and night, they actually covered almost 100 miles a day, way more than we do by bike!

At Little Falls we crossed the modern canal lock on the narrow walkway. When built in 1918 this was the tallest lock in the world, raising and lowering boats just over 40 feet in one lift. Several miles further and we were in Canajoharie,
a very cute small town that is the home of Beech Nut, the chewing gum and baby food company. The founding family has done much for the town, including building one of the finest small museums in the country, the Arkell Museum. Mr. Arkell was particularly fond of paintings of rural America such as this one of the Mohawk Valley near Canajoharie, many of which were reproduced in magazine ads touting his products.
But he also admired Winslow Homer and purchased 21 of his paintings for the museum, and also works by other turn-of-the-century greats such as George Inness, William M. Chase, Childe Hassam, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andrew Wyeth, Maurice Prendergast and Robert Henri. We spent over two hours in this oasis of culture.

We were now in groundhog territory, as a photo in one of the area museums reminded us, not far from where we encountered one of the little varmints four years ago. If you haven't yet read our account of it, you might find it amusing to see what happens when a groundhog takes on a tandem in our posting called "Groundhog Day" (look at the end of the Older Posts section). Much friendlier to tandems were two more couples who are Hospitality Hosts
for the Tandem Club of America. Unfortunately Marvin in Manlius NY had to host us without his wife and stoker Karen, but we had a nice middle eastern dinner in a restaurant nearby and traded tandem adventures, and had a good night's rest in their guest room.
In Scotia we met Bernard and Celia, who fed us some dishes from her native Brazil and put us up even though they were two days away from a trip there to see her relatives. Bernard printed up the application to the Eastern Tandem Rally for us, and we are considering going to it August 1-3. It will be in Durham NH, not far from South Berwick ME where Jeff lived for 3 years. Stay tuned for further developments.

Following the Erie Canal route, we rode a few sections seen above of the old towpath, but mostly took "Bike 5,"
a series of roads that form a bike route from Niagara Falls to the Massachusetts border, mostly paralleling the canal as far as Albany. The state has well marked the route, and most of it featured wide well-swept shoulders and light to moderate traffic. It does climb some big hills, however, and Jeff managed to find a backroad route that largely avoided one 600-foot climb, and a paved railtrail that avoided another 500-foot grind. Add in some tailwinds and it should have been easy riding, but we hit three days of high humidity and temperatures over 90 and we actually laid down a trail of dripping sweat across parts of New York. Ironically, the most comfortable way of dealing with the heat was to keep moving on the bike, generating a breeze as we moved along.

As soon as we crossed the Hudson, however, we were in for some serious climbing. Bike 5 kept us out of the worst road conditions,
but no route across that part of New York can avoid the Taconic Mountains, a series of more-or-less north-south ridges that had to be surmounted. At the end of the second day there we reached this idyllic porch at the lovely Churchill House B&B in New Lebanon NY. The next day we climbed that ridge you see behind Louise,
and had this rewarding view to the west over the Taconics.

After a short sweet downhill we were at Hancock Shaker Village,
which Jeff biked to 39 years ago en route from Boston to St. Louis. It was just starting out as a museum village then, but of course still featured the wonderful Round Barn.
The third floor features a ramp that hay wagons would ride around, pitching the hay to where Louise is standing. From there it was easy to pitch hay as needed to the 50 or so cows that would be hitched on the second level of the barn, all with their noses toward the center of the barn. Behind each cow was a metal trap door. Lift it up and you have a place to sweep the cow pies.
They dropped down to the first floor, where the dung wagon would ride around and pick up the newly-made fertilizer for the agricultural fields. Amazingly efficient!

As you may recall, the Shakers believed in celibacy, but their communities were co-ed.
The large brick building is where most of them lived, women on the west side of the building, men on the east, an invisible line dividing their rooms and their
activities -- even in the dining room which ran from the west to the east walls, women sat at one end, men the other. The village demonstrates Shaker furniture and crafts, including these wide flat-bottomed brooms that brought them a good reputation for quality and a steady income, or these clever double rolling pins that do a faster job than single pins (and are still made for the tourist trade).

Stockbridge became our first resting spot since Ithaca. We spent three nights in the Red Lion Inn, which traces its history back to 1773, although the current huge hotel is largely a 111-year-old rebuild after a fire destroyed much of the original and various earlier expansions. It was large and quirky but comfortable, with a front porch that did not seem overcrowded when we counted over 60 people swaying back and forth on rocking chairs there.

On our first rest day we rode 2 miles on back roads to the Norman Rockwell Museum.
It's hard not to love his paintings and sketches, he was so good at capturing ordinary moments and making them seem magical. He lived 4 doors down from the Red Lion, but the museum moved out to a new building some years ago when it proved one of the biggest attractions in the Berkshires.
They brought along his studio and set it up on the hillside where it looks out over the nearby hills. We tried riding around those hills after the museum, but mostly seemed to be riding up and down them on what proved to be a fairly strenuous 20-mile ride without luggage to nearby Lenox and Lee.

On our second rest day we indeed took it easier and limited ourselves to a walk to nearby Naumkeag,
a country home built by wealthy New York lawyer Joseph Choate, who also served as Ambassador to the Court of St. James under Presidents McKinley and T. Roosevelt. Our favorite part of the home tour was hearing about a judge who was getting annoyed with Mr. Choate and asked whether he was trying to show contempt for the court.
"No, your Honor," he replied, "I am trying to conceal it." The house was gorgeous inside and out, and yet quite comfortable, thanks to the brilliance of architect Stanford White of McKim Mead and White. Landscape architect Fletcher Steele is also well-known for the gardens
he desiged here, especially the so-called "Blue Stairs" that lead water and walkers down to the lower fields.

It's now on to central Connecticut, where we have plans to meet with Jeff's college friend Fred Fletcher and his wife Mary, and with two couples we met earlier on this trip. We'll write next to tell all about Old Home Week in Connecticut.

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