Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Three Gems in Four Days

The four days that followed our visit to Gary and Carol took us to three gems of places as we returned from Pennsylvania's Allegheny Mountains to the Southern Tier of New York.  We'd like to share them with you.

The first was the Pine Creek Rail Trail, which runs north from Jersey Shore PA to Ansonia PA.  "Jersey Shore"???  This place is 250 miles from just about anyplace on the true Jersey Shore.  According to Wikipedia, that font of wisdom, a fellow set up a store on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in the 1700's, then had competition move in to a spot across the river from him.  Farmers bringing goods up or down the river stopped either on the "Eastern Shore" or the "Jersey Shore." 

The nickname stuck and the town officially changed its name from Waynesburg to the current confusing one.  A week ago we passed through the city of Northeast, PA, which is located in the extreme northwest of the state -- but in the northeastern corner of Erie County!  Oh, those wild and crazy Pennsylvanians.  We'll revisit more Pennsylvania place names like Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand when we visit that part of PA in October. . .

The Pine Creek Rail Trail was as scenic as any we have been on.  The only downside was the limestone/clay surface, which could have used a little more clay and a bit less fine gravel on the surface.  It never felt squirrelly or unsafe, but the road friction knocked about 3 or 4 mph of speed off the average for any given amount of effort.  Like many trails it had gates to keep cars off the trail, and these were wide enough for us and our panniers to pass through without dismounting, except for this time to take the picture.

The trade-off was worth it, as the bridges, rock outcroppings, tunnels of trees and constant presence of Pine Creek were wonderful.  We rode 25 miles from Lock Haven to the start of the trail then 25 miles down the trail on day one, staying at the Hotel Manor, then another 30 miles to the north end of the trail the next day.  The hotel restaurant patio overlooking the river was a great place to hang out!  The weather even cooperated and got cool enough that night that we could sleep with the windows open, listening to the gurgle of Pine Creek.  The next morning as we recrossed the bridge to the trail we watched these fly fishermen trying their luck just below the hotel. 

The northern end of the trail goes through an area known as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.  It is a grand canyon, but nothing like its stark, rocky namesake in Arizona.  This photo from the PA state park website shows the view from the top. 

As we suspected, the view from the bottom is not particularly awesome, as it just looks like a bunch of really tall, heavily wooded bluffs next to you.  We did come to one hiking trail we could have taken to the top, but leaving the bike and all the gear for an hour or two did not seem like a good idea. Perhaps we'll come by another time and check out the view from above in person.

Like New York, Pennsylvania has a series of marked bike routes following roads with wide shoulders, low traffic, or in this case the Pine Creek Rail Trail.  We followed Bike Route Z along the shore of Lake Erie a week ago.  This time we followed Bike Route G from Jersey Shore to the NY state line.  It was a pleasant ride on remarkably flat roads as we exited the Alleghenies and headed to the Southern Tier of  NY.

Our next destination was Corning, NY, and it had two gems of the highest order that we spent a day and a half exploring.  The first was the Rockwell Museum of Western Art.  It has nothing to do with artist Norman Rockwell (although they did have a Norman Rockwell print of a cowboy on display), but rather was the outgrowth of a fabulous collection of art related to the American West put together by the Rockwell family of Corning.  It was donated to the city on the condition that the city house the collection properly, and Corning's former city hall, built in Richardsonian Romanesque style in 1893, has been its home since 2001.  We're fairly sure the buffalo broke through the bricks about then.

They have a number of exceptional works, such as Albert Bierstadt's Mount Whitney (1877) and Cyrus Dallin's 1914 bronze On the Warpath, which seems to be taking a hard look at William Robinson Leigh's 1947 The Buffalo Hunt

On special exhibit, they had two painting from 2006 and 2007 by Mark Knudsen that caught our eyes, Coyote Mesa and Mile 95.  Another special place was the Remington-Russell Lodge, a room set up like a western lodge complete with fireplace and ringed with paintings and sculpture by Frederick Remington and Charlie Russell, two of the giants of western art.  At the risk of our readers discovering that our photos aren't perfect, we invite you to click on any photo in our blog to enlarge it.  To get back to the blog, just hit the back button on your web browser, up there in the top left corner.

More importantly, the Rockwell Museum had excellent commentary about various pieces in their collection that described the tension between stereotypical views of western subjects, particularly of Indians, and more recent attitudes and insights.  It was odd to have a museum of art devoted to the American West in south-central New York State, but the collection and curatorship were outstanding and we came away enlightened as well as entertained.

Which brings us to the final gem, and one which truly shines like a gem -- the Corning Museum of Glass.  In a modern building they have put together a museum that knocked our socks off.  As befits a place claiming to be the world's largest museum devoted to glass, it has a most impressive historical collection.  As fairly old folks ourselves, we are always drawn to the really old stuff, and these three pieces attracted our attention more than others: a colorful small (3-4" across) bowl from Rome, about the time of Christ; the bearded face of a man, from Lebanon in the 3rd century BC; and a cup with the face of a rather different man, from Germany in the 3rd century AD.  One of the oldest pieces they have (and the oldest extant glass image of a person yet found, if we understood the commentary correctly) was this image of Amenhotep II, made using the lost wax method usually used for bronze sculpture, and dating to his reign about 1400 BC.

We viewed literally thousands of pieces from the Middle Ages and beyond that we somehow restrained ourselves from photographing, and learned more than we imagined we could absorb about glass-making and the creativity of man using glass.  But we couldn't pass up this stained glass window by Louis Comfort Tiffany, created for a Hudson River mansion that is no more.  We will be in the Hudson Valley next month, and suspect we'll see a bit more Tiffany in situ as we tour a half-dozen of the fabled mansions still to be found there.  For a nice contrast, they had on display around the corner this modern stained glass by Narcissus Quagliatta from 1982 entitled Melancholia.

Another large gallery focused on the modern art glass movement that began in the 1960s, including this close-up of Michael Glancy's 1989 glass and copper work Global Entropy, and a few others we failed to note the names of in a neighboring gallery.

Then there were the galleries and demonstrations devoted to the chemistry and physics of glass, particularly the "Glass-Breaking" demo in which a youngster from the audience became the envy of every other kid in the room as she destroyed regular glass, safety glass and plate glass as the presenter gave a quite erudite explanation of the physics and safety issues connected with each type of glass.  The most surprising point he made was why they make the side windows of cars with plate glass rather than the safety glass used in windshields -- if you crash, you sometimes need to get out through a side window, and plate glass will let you out by shattering into little shards, while safety glass will not.

For another short demonstration we stood, protected of course by glass, as this fellow pushed glass rods into a flame and with a pinch here and the pull there, made the little dolphin we could see on display afterwards. 

Nearby we got this joint portrait, of sorts, in front of the reversing mirror.  As you stand away from it, you appear upside down.  As you walk toward it, your image suddenly explodes into fragments of light, reappearing as you step even closer, this time right side up and enlarged.  Youngsters found this one pretty hard to resist.

Another fascinating exhibit for the adults (but one which put a few of the kiddies to sleep) explained fiber-optic cables.  Suffice it to say that they are pretty amazing things, and we'll move on to the grand spectacle that we ended the day with, a one-hour-long glass blowing demo that involved two craftsmen and a commentator who sometimes pitched in when things got complex.  It was pretty amazing to see them go from a few globs of clear molten glass to a bigger and bigger glob which then got rolled through a glazing material, lettered (it says Syracuse Chemistry to honor a field trip by the Syracuse University Chemistry Department in the audience), and then spun out with centrigual force into the grand bowl that we came back the next day to photograph (it had to be cooled gradually in a furnace overnight to "cure" it properly).

We're now on our way to Cooperstown NY, not to see the Baseball Hall of Fame but rather to spend a week at a cabin on the shores of nearby Lake Otsego, for half of which we will be joined by daughter Lisa and family.  We had a close call leaving Corning for Elmira.  But, as you can see, NY Bike Route 17 wanted to avoid Big Flats every bit as much as we did, we stayed to the right, and the tires stayed inflated.  It will probably be 2 weeks before we write again, as we hope to "veg out" full time this coming week.  After a little over a month on the road and a little over 1000 miles under our belts, we will need a vacation from our vacation when we get there!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Into the Alleghenies

After three relatively flat weeks crossing Ohio and the Lake Erie shore of Pennsylvania, it was time for some hills.  The terrain along Lake Erie was mostly flat, as you can see in this first photo, but on a terrace 100' above the lake.  From time to time we plunged 50 to 100 feet as a stream cut through the plateau, but these climbs were nothing compared to what the Alleghenies had in store.  Curiously, we almost never saw Lake Erie.  Perhaps the lake shore is too valuable to waste with a road, or more likely it was just easier to lay down a road on the broad terrace above the lake.

At Westfield NY we headed due east, mostly following "NY Bike 17," a marked bike route that uses mostly quiet state highways that parallel busy NY 17, a limited access road now being renamed Interstate 86.  But for the 800' climb from Lake Erie up to Lake Chautauqua, we took back roads hoping to take a rail trail.  We found it but it was unimproved, barely rideable with a wide-tired mountain bike, certainly not with our tandem.  Plan B was to continue on a back road.  The bad news was this hill, which got us into "28th gear" (walking, since the bike has only 27 formal gears) that topped out at a 15% gradient just ahead of Jeff.  The good news is that our back road took us through a very quiet corner of Chautauqua County where we encountered several Amish buggies trotting by.

Back on Bike 17, we had a wide shoulder and modest traffic along the shores of Lake Chautauqua, then wide shoulders and exceedingly quiet roads the remaining 100 miles in NY before we turned off to Pennsylvania.  Just before hanging that right turn, we saw smoke coming across the road, followed by the most wonderful aroma of a town picnic that perfectly coincided with lunch time.  What a happy find!

The Alleghenies look and feel like mountains, but the topography is actually that of a deeply eroded Plateau.  The top of the plateau is now generally 2000-2500' above sea level in this part of Pennsylvania, intersected by valleys that can be anywhere from a few hundred feet to as much as 1500 feet below the ridge tops.  There is precious little flat land anywhere but in the wider valleys, such as this stretch of riding on the flood plain of the Allegheny River we followed into Pennsylvania.  At Coudersport PA, however, we ran out of valley flood plain and had an 800' climb up to the ridge top, half of the climb in a mile-long stretch of 8% gradient that we once again walked.

Before that, back in Coudersport, we passed this attractive if quirky town hall, and a decaying Victorian home that looks like it's just waiting for a film crew to make a horror movie there. 

Seven miles out of town, just before that big climb, we found a little piece of heaven, the Frosty Hollow Bed and Breakfast.  Yes, that cottage was our little nest for the night, and a kitchen in the nearby farm house was the scene of a simple but satisfying spagetti and meatball dinner we prepared with ingredients picked up at the supermarket in town.  Next morning the owners got us prepped for that big climb with baked eggs and other breakfast treats.

After climbing the ridge to 2500' we followed the ridge line for ten miles.  Unfortunately, erosion has eaten away at the Allegheny Plateau at different rates along the ridge line, so we were climbing or descending every foot of those ten miles.  Halfway along we pulled off into Cherry Springs State Park.  Many parks focus on endangered plants, endangered animals, endangered pieces of rivers or meadows or forests.  This one focuses on endangered darkness.  Because there are no cities of any size in this part of the state, and with even the small towns buried deep in those valleys, this site is one of the best places for astronomy on the east coast, as you can see from this "darkness map."  Cherry Springs is of course right in that black spot of minimum light pollution. 

They have several "astronomy domes" at the park which stargazers may rent for the night to minimize wind disturbing their telescopes, plus a second astronomy field where white light of any kind, including flashlights, is strictly forbidden after dark.  Around summer new moons, we hear, the place is really hopping with stargazers.

At last it was time to descend from the ridge, but not before catching a glimpse of the view into the valley 900' below.  Thank goodness we have a drum brake on the rear wheel, a drag brake that applies constant braking when we do major descents and dissipates the heat safely.  Even with it, our three-mile plunge downhill at a 6% gradient went around so many sharp turns that we worried about heating the rims with our regular brakes to the point where the tubes could melt and therefore go kaplooie

But the tires stayed inflated, neither the tire nor we went kaplooie, and at the bottom of the descent we had -- by prearrangement, of course -- our tandem friends Gary and Carol waiting to escort us the remaining way to their home in the woods.  We met them in Florida two years ago, and when they bought a summer home up here they invited us to visit them.

We stayed three nights, giving us two "rest days."  Well, our regular readers know us . . . here we are "resting" on day one with a six mile hike.  It started with a challenge, getting across Hammersley Fork.  Gary showed us how to do it on the wire, actually two wires one above the other that stretch ten feet above the stream. 

The rest of us chose the take-off-your-shoes-and-wade method.  We passed a number of "camps," i.e. places used a few days of the year mostly during hunting season, then struck up a side stream to get a real feel for the Alleghenies by climbing yet another of those ridges.  A salamander entertained us along the way.

For our next "rest day" we did a twenty-mile bike ride, but it really was a different experience since it was without all our luggage.  They described it as "relatively flat" since it followed a small river, but we're talking "Pennsylvania flat," not Real Flat.  Think we got in the granny gear five times at places where the road took little short cuts across bends in the river, sharply climbing and descending in the process.  This time we had rattlesnake road kill for entertainment.  After lunch Gary and Carol took us by car to a spot we most certainly would not have biked to, Hyner View State Park.  We were at 1940' above sea level, more importantly at 1300' above the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, seen below in these three photos.  The little pretend road and toy bridge below us proved real enough the next day when we rode down them. 

Then on the drive back we had this little black bear walk across the road to amuse us.  Hey, we think we're ready for civilization again!  We'd rather not meet this little guy while on our bike, cute as he is and all.

Gary and Carol's place was very comfortable and the road down the valley quite pleasant to ride, but there's a killer hill to deal with when it's time to push on.  After considerable thought, we came up with the idea of driving our two tandems to the top of that hill.  It took some creative van-packing, but we pulled it off.  Next morning, we launched from the top of that hill and started the day with an 8-mile gentle descent that dropped us 1000' in elevation to the W. Br. Susquehanna. 

Gary and Carol then took a longer way back that avoided the big hill, although Gary had to switch bikes to his mountain bike after they got home and get back up those 1000' to retrieve the van.  How's that for a send-off!!!  As we headed along the West Branch of the Susquehanna today, we had pleasant memories of our time in the Alleghenies and at their home.

Tomorrow we begin a two-day cut through the Alleghenies on the Pine River Rail Trail, which will take us through an area called "The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania."  Since we'll be at the bottom of the canyon, it won't be as grand as from the top, but it should be relatively easy going along the rail trail.  We'll tell you more about it in our next blog.