Upstate New York, 2017: You Can’t Always Go Home

I grew up all over the place.  As the son of a University Professor, I’ve often likened my experience growing up to that of a so-called army-brat.  From 5th grade through 9th grade, I was in a different school each year.  Friends came and went, and the only constant was my family.  It drew us together, but it made it hard for me to think of a specific place as home.  Home became the place where I was surrounded by my loved ones, not a single location, or a house where I grew up, and it was this feeling that instilled in me the wanderlust that has permeated my life ever since.  I’ve become accustomed to movement, grow restless with stasis, and chase change wherever I can find it.

When I think of the formative experiences in my life, my mind will always return to the five years I spent living in Upstate New York while my dad taught at SUNY Binghamton.  I have a few memories prior to my first day of school in New York, scattered memories of my early childhood in Oregon, but I have vivid memories of the years that followed.  As a result, much of the recollection of my childhood is tied to the creeks and forests of my years spent Upstate, of road trips to the Finger Lakes, of autumns playing in massive leaf piles, of three-foot snowdrifts and weekend trips to The City.

Following my friend’s wedding in April, 2017, I hopped in my rental car and made a mini pilgrimage back to my old stomping grounds of Vestal and Endicott, New York, suburbs of the small city of Binghamton, near the point where New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania converge.  I was in a backward looking mood, having spent two and a half days in New York City, and having just witnessed my best friend taking a huge step forward with his own life.  I wanted to reconnect with my origins before leaping forward into an adventure that I hoped would help me regain a little direction in my life.

My first stop when I hit Binghamton was a small, unassuming pizzeria called Mario’s, located in the back of a small strip mall with no way of knowing it was there if you didn’t already know it was there.  It was delicious, and I talked with the guy behind the counter about how I still had fond memories of the pizza almost 25 years after I’d last had it, when I’d ride my bike down after school just to grab a slice.  It was just as good as I remembered, though the slices were a bit smaller than my memory had led me to believe.  It felt like home, and I was excited to delve further into my childhood as my explorations continued.

I drove up the hill and found the street where my family had lived for our final year in Vestal, one of the suburbs of Binghamton, where the University was located.  While the pizza was still as I remembered it, little else was.  Gone was the record store where I bought my first cassette tape, the Wayne’s World soundtrack I listened to on repeat after the movie had come out.  Gone was the crab apple tree in the front yard of my old home, and the larger black maple I used to climb and shoot crab apples from in the sling shot wars I had with the neighbor kids.

The house itself was similar, but had changed so much that it took me two passes to recognize it as where I had once lived.  It seemed smaller, somehow, and the fence around the back yard where I tripped and cut my cheek as a kid seemed shorter.  Gone was the treehouse I had built in the tree overhanging the creek in back, and the heavily weathered slope on the far side of the the small stream was covered in undergrowth and trees that didn’t exist in my youth.

I stopped and talked to the owner of the house for a time, about the neighborhood and how it had changed, about the neighbors I used to know who had long since moved, or passed away, about the way the whole area had changed in two decades time.  I said my goodbye and walked up to the park where I used to ride my bike recklessly down the hill, and had crashed head-first into a car when my reckless riding took me across the bridge connecting my street to the park.

Stair Park Bridge
Stair Park Bridge

I scrambled down the bank to the creek where I had taught my sister to catch frogs, and took pictures of the trickling cascade that had once seemed an insurmountable obstacle in our explorations of the creek.  Memories flooded through me, how I would spend so much time in that creek and its surrounding woodlands, how my friends and I had watched from the bridge as teenagers would make out in the pool beneath the small waterfall, oblivious to our presence.

Fuller Hollow Creek
Fuller Hollow Creek

I followed a trail up into the Nature Preserve behind Binghamton University, the muddy ground concealed beneath a thick bed of fallen leaves from the previous autumn.  I meandered off trail to the small beaver pond I remembered all to well, and crossed the long boardwalk that crossed the small lake where my dad and I used to watch birds.

Beaver Pond
Beaver Pond
Broken Boardwalk
Broken Boardwalk

I tried to ignore the obnoxiously bro-ish college students who were taking turns jumping into the lake, and tried to recall the times when I would wander the surrounding woods, exploring every nook and hollow I could find, believing myself to be the first one to discover them.

Binghamton University Nature Preserve
Binghamton University Nature Preserve

Past the lake I began to take notice of the wildlife I hadn’t been around since I was a kid, the cardinals and white tailed deer that had once been ubiquitous, but now seemed like special sights.  The crab apple trees were blooming, and the smell of them mixed with the trill of eastern songbirds to fill the air with a nostalgic ambience.

Peek-a-boo
Peek-a-Boo
Whitetail Deer
Whitetail Deer
Trilling in a Tree
Trilling in a Tree
Crab Apple Blossoms
Crab Apple Blossoms

Afternoon clouds rolled in, the first signs of a storm still hours away, and I returned to my rental car knowing I had much more to see before the day was done.  I drove up to my second middle school, the one I attended for 7th grade. The blocky brick and cement building was nothing like I remembered, but I remembered the football field in the back, where a P.E. coach had first recommended I try running track because of my sprinting ability, and, after some time, found the window to the classroom where I met my first crush, a quiet girl named Katie, who I can neither picture nor remember her last name.

I drove across the bridge to the suburb of Endicott, where I first lived, and looked for the ice cream parlor where I used to get watermelon sherbet or, seasonally, georgia peach ice cream, always in a pretzel cone, which was the most perfect vessel for ice cream delivery I’ve ever found.  My wandering took me through the old downtown Endicott area, past my first junior high school, where I had been bullied so mercilessly I never wanted to return.  I stopped at the old Endicott Johnson Shoe Factory, or what remained of it, the decrepit brick building wasting away in a town that seemed not far behind.

Endicott Johnson Factory
Endicott Johnson Shoe Factory
Old Shoe Factory
Old Shoe Factory

My memories of the never had never been pristine.  I was under no illusions of the struggles the greater Binghamton area had been under in my youth, but there was more desolation here than I ever recalled.  As I drove down the streets of my old neighborhood, past my old house, with the driveway that seemed only half as steep, and walked through the woods of my childhood that seemed so small, so open, in reality, that I questioned my memories of dense branches within which I would carve out little hideouts, and take girls to sneak kisses and impress with my survival skills.

The whole area seemed to be falling into entropic dissolution.  The buildings seemed more weathered, the average level of poverty so apparent that it took me aback.  I remembered this being the home of IBM, the silicon valley of the east, the great industrial town that had shifted with the times and would always grow and be a bulwark against the kind of economic depression I saw at every turn.  Everywhere I looked there were boarded up store fronts, or abandoned houses, or factories locked up and left to the elements behind tall, warped chain-link fences.  This was not the home I knew.  Everywhere I looked I saw a town trapped in memory, holding on to the old glory of days past, when Union Endicott was the biggest shoemaker in the U.S., when IBM was the only name in computers.  I saw a town that was struggling with its present because it had never really looked toward the future.

Wine Country Sunrise
Finger Lakes Sunrise

I drove north, toward the trails of the Finger Lakes where I had fond memories of exploring with my family on weekend trips during the summer, and slept at a trailhead not far from the town of Watkins Glen.  I got up at sunrise and visited the winery that my parents had always taken my sister and I.  I still remember the taste of the grape juice they provided for the kids while the adults tasted wine, the freshness of it, the purity.  I watched sunrise from the vineyard, likely trespassing, but at 6am, there was nobody there who would care.

Sunrise at the Vineyard
Sunrise at the Vineyard
Lakewood Vineyards
Lakewood Vineyards

I was still exhausted, between my sleepless days in Manhattan, to the long night at the wedding, to my restless night sleeping in the car the night before, I had not had much rest the previous few days, and it was beginning to take its toll.  I drove down to Watkins Glen State Park, one of the most beautiful places I could remember going in New York, only to find the lower gorge had been closed due to flood danger.

Watkins Glen Gorge
Watkins Glen Gorge

Undaunted, I walked the upper trail around the gorge rim, detouring through the old cemetery on the north end, and hopped a fence halfway in to get at least a glimpse of the lower gorge.

Christ on the Cross
Christ on the Cross
Behind the Cross
Behind the Cross
Broken Tombstone
Broken Tombstone
Old Cross
Old Cross
Cracked Cross
Cracked Cross
Rosary on the Cross
Rosary on the Cross

It was as stunning as I’d remembered, a deep narrow cut through the limestone, with a torrent of brown water thundering down the slim channel.  The rocks dripped on me as I passed beneath them, and the sound of the deluge drowned out all other sound.  It felt peaceful somehow, raw, natural, and all mine.  Nobody else was out on the trail so early, nobody there to disturb my nostalgic explorations of what had once been my favorite place on earth.

Upper Rainbow Falls
Upper Rainbow Falls
Bridge over Glen Creek
Bridge Over Glen Creek
Gorge Trail
Gorge Trail
Forest Stair
Forest Stair
Down the Gorge
Down the Gorge

I left the park and wandered down into the nearby town, taking pictures of old buildings and cars, and wandering back to some of the dozens of nearby waterfalls.

Shequaga Falls
Shequaga Falls
Old Truck
Old Truck
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Cook Mansion
Cook Mansion
Montour Falls Courthouse
Montour Falls Courthouse
Overgrown Brick Wall
Overgrown Brick Wall

It calmed me, where the bustle of The City two days prior and the withering decrepitude of my old home town had just brought me stress.  I knew that I had moved past the desire to be in cities, to be surrounded by signs of industry and the bustle of commerce, but it really hit home in that moment.

Catlin Mill Creek
Catlin Mill Creek
Deckertown Falls
Deckertown Falls

What I realized then, as I photographed a particularly beautiful waterfall from a wet rock slick with moss and water, was that I finally felt at home again.  I had returned home, sure, but not to the house I used to know, or the city I had once wanted to live in, or the town I barely remembered.  My home was there, by the water, surrounded by the smells of rotting leaves and the sound of thundering waterfalls mixed with the trill of morning songbirds.

My home was in nature.  Not in any one place, but rather wherever I could find it, and that is what I remember most from my youth in Upstate New York.  The forests of New York were the places where I first found this particular peace, this particular feeling.  That was my home, and while I couldn’t return to that time, or that specific place, I still carried that feeling with me every time I’ve stepped outside since.

That was home.

Perhaps I could go back.

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Categories: pilgrimage, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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