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The Long and Winding Roads

We capped off this hectic summer with a trip to visit my husband’s family on Lake Chautauqua. And because it was Labor Day weekend and because interstates ensure a drive that is, paradoxically, both boring and nerve-wracking (Not another tractor-trailer! Not another high-sodium, fast-food pit stop! Not more road work!) we took back roads.

Taking back roads ensures that the trip will take longer, reveal the shifting micro-cultures and economies of the state—and require a hotel stay both coming and going. Which is how we ended up at the Quality Inn on Vestal Parkway in Binghamton.

I was happy as a clam to be in Binghamton where I had been an angst-filled English major spending my time watching Bergman movies, eating city chicken at Sharkey’s bar and drinking pints at Fitzie’s, where everyone was Irish once you walked in the door.

We drove around the campus, which looks remarkably the same, except the students are much younger these days. We got bagels at Eliot’s Whole in the Wall on the south side—when I was at Binghamton, Eliot didn’t have a restaurant; he just made them at home, brought them to campus and sold them at the Coop. They are their own amazing species of bagel.

We drove by the house where I shared an upstairs apartment with two other girls. Our landlord didn’t allow male visitors, but she was nearly deaf and, in addition, spent the winter in Boynton Beach.

West of Corning we picked up a lonely, rolling road, passing through verdant pastureland and small towns that had actual centers and no strip malls. We slowed down again and again for Amish buggies hugging the shoulder, clopping along.

At Bolivar we wondered what the storefront New York State Oil Museum was all about, and at the Seneca Nation reservation, we stopped to shop for the Native American crafts the AAA tour guidebook said we’d find. We didn’t, but we did find a Dunkin Donuts and cheaper gas and cigarette prices.

Lake Chautauqua is probably best-known for the Chautauqua Institute, but the real happening place is Bemus Point. It’s a sleepy resort town right on the lake with a concert series. We took a pass on the ABBA tribute band, but we did have breakfast at the Hotel Lenhart, a stately behemoth with a bright array of painted rockers lining the long veranda.

Heading back we snaked along on more back roads, passing through town after town that looked down at the heels. Shuttered businesses alternated with churches advertising ham dinners or rummage sales or posting warnings like “Don’t be God’s weakest link” and “Think it’s hot here? Try hell.”

Then we rounded a bend and were suddenly in western New York’s version of Aspen, Ellicottville, a little ski resort with shops and condos and streets clogged with day trippers from Buffalo.

But right past Ellicottville it was rural and remote once again until, on the other side of the Genesee River we were in the Finger Lakes region, surrounded by farmland and vineyards and hillsides topped with massive white windmills.

We timed it all wrong—we were too late on Sunday and too far east on Monday, so we never got to any wineries, but the grape culture is in the air. We passed an ice cream stand that sold grape-flavored sherbet and a bakery boasting grape pies.

We almost didn’t spend the night in Skaneateles, since we didn’t have reservations and hadn’t counted on it being an upscale destination spot. We finally snagged a cancellation at the Hummingbird Home, but had to settle for grocery take-out salads since all the restaurants were closed by nine.

At breakfast we ate with a couple who were marathon runners and worked in the space program. We didn’t say what we did or mention the date of our last visit to the gym. Instead we excused ourselves to go join the people streaming in and out of high-end shops and walking along the lakeside.

Back on the road again, we continued to search for a winery. But just as quickly as you enter wine country in New York, you leave it behind for apple country. At almost every turn in the road was a farm stand selling cider, apples, pies, pumpkins. We turned in at a place that made apple wine and we sampled the different varieties, expecting it all to taste like Mott’s with carbonation. But we found some made with Empire apples that was tart and bright and we bought a couple of bottles, along with some apple butter.

We stopped to read the Pennysaver over slices of pizza in West Winsted. There were accounts of family reunions, a surprise visit an out-of-town man paid to his former Korean Army buddy and a profile of the secretary to the superintendent in one of the local school districts.

As we got closer to home, the road descended and the wide-open farmland gave way to a more intimate landscape, a familiar landscape of small farms and stands of trees. We paid our ritual homage to Sharon Springs, the weirdest and most wonderful place. And we stopped to buy vegetables and flowers from an eighth-grade English teacher who told us she dreaded trading in her farm-stand shorts and flip-flops for business clothes and closed shoes.

Then, before long we were in our own driveway, feeling more like anthropologists than tourists—although maybe anthropology is what being a tourist is all about.

—Jo Page


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