Last weekend was my nephew’s high school graduation up in Syracuse. We drove up Friday after work, and back on Sunday afternoon. As always, the long slog up I-90 through the Mohawk Valley and past Herkimer where I was born and spent my childhood caused a certain introspection, and what I believe I have to call nostalgia. To people in this part of the world, the layout of central NY is somewhat foreign. Connecticut is so entirely built up that all the little towns flow into each other almost nonstop throughout the state. The longest span between exits on any of the interstates that I know of is ten or fifteen minutes. Driving the Thruway through NY with the long spans of time and miles between exits is quality time with the highway and the landscape. I used to be able to distinguish the Mohawk River, the Barge Canal, and the remnants of the Erie Canal from each other. Even at 70mph, you have time to muse about it because the exits are so far apart. Towns pop up at the off ramps like islands of humanity, separated by hills and farmland. In some places you can almost see a line where the "town" stops and the in between spaces begin. There aren’t wide expanses of untouched land – there are always roads and buildings and farms. But the towns are strung along the river and hence the highway like those wire and pearl necklaces – contiguous but untouching. I think it inspires a different mindset than we have down here where the communities flow together into a continuous suburban landscape.
All up the highway you see these tired old houses. But if you think about it, they were probably grand homes in the 1800’s. You can see in the lines of their bones that during their heyday they were the fancy new construction. Set up the hill from the river, away from the shipping and hustle and bustle, they were probably where the local country squires (so to speak) lived during the valley’s zenith. Now they’re tired, off the beaten path, desperately in need of a coat of paint and a weed whacker. Little pieces of faded glory from when the nation’s goods were shipped through, the immigrants flowed in, and the Erie Canal was an engineering marvel of the world. If you look – really look – you can see how beautiful they must have been once. But the world turned, and times changed. The manufacturing was leaving before I was born – my bedroom window had a view of the old smokestack of an egg carton factory that had been abandoned for years. Now even that is gone. The town demolished it as a hazard decades ago. I drive up the Thruway and I have to wonder what these little towns are surviving on. It makes me a little melancholy reflecting on fading glory and passing time.
I also can’t make that drive without thinking about my childhood. This trip I was thinking about how different I was than kids are now. Partly that’s because the world is so different, and partly I think it’s from growing up in a small upstate New York town. A few times a year my mother and I would drive to Utica to go shopping at the mall. I stopped in that "mall" a few years ago. It’s barely big enough to warrant the name. But it had a fountain and an escalator, and I would get so excited to go. We’d ride the escalator, I’d get to look at the fountain, and we’d get a box of caramel corn. On really special occasions we’d go to the Lake House for lunch, where I would get to have a ham sandwich. Not deli ham, but big thick slices, with lettuce. It was a real restaurant, with tablecloths and waiters who refilled your water glass for you. I really had a bucolic childhood. I still remember how exciting it was when the library moved into their new building. During the move itself, they let you take out as many books as you wanted at one time so that they wouldn’t have to pack them, and you could keep them until the new library was open. Normally there was a limit. This stuff was a big deal. Herkimer was a wonderful town to grow up in.
But every time we stop there for dinner on the way to Syracuse it’s brought home to me again that it’s a wonderful town to be *from.* I’m sure the people who stay have good lives, and I’m sure that I would have if we’d stayed. But I wonder if my world would be smaller. Connecticut doesn’t have a lot of regional identity like they do up there. Squashed between New York City and Boston, who could? But squashed between those two cities there is so MUCH available. Your world broadens. When we first moved I was miserable. I was a country mouse among city mice. Let’s be honest – I was a provincial hick. But I think that upbringing has stood me well over the years. I didn’t quite grow up Mayberry, but it was pretty damn close. It was a good place, and I’m always surprised how small it looks to me now.
Growing up is an odd process, isn’t it?