Saturday, September 26, 2015

Found Weekend at Canada Lake

Canada Lake Expedition, September 17-20, 2015


 Haas kicks back, majorly.


Cast of lovable misfit ex-cons, AKA the Dirty Half-Dozen:

Mark Hotchkiss (known to grow a mustache if he feels like it)
Scott Hotchkiss (wears a hat just like a stone-cold killer would wear)
Fred Hotchkiss (something about this guy just ain't right)
Dave Haas (wanted in three states for assault by belching)
Dan Thomas (referred to by the inner circle as El Bizarro)
Dave Rockwell (related to the notorious Hotchkiss Gang; kills with his camera)





And, appearing offstage in the role of the Ghost of Claudius, Mark Haden, mysterious mastermind and possible supercriminal Cosa Nostra fixer type.


 The cabin of fantasy, five hundred miles north of anything, accessed by floatplane only.


It was a fine Thursday afternoon. We were gathered out on the dock; and we had gotten quickly into the beer. There was a high-powered speedboat tethered in the locked boathouse, with the rear end showing, and very soon Fred had Tarzaned into the boathouse underwater, a long Bowie knife in his teeth (figuratively speaking) and ascertained that the boat had the key in it and would start. This prompted a terrible temptation and madness in some of the company, but not all. Calls were made to Haden – increasingly incoherent and profane calls, but Haden wisely would not touch these proposals even with an infinitely long theoretical pole, and no illicit powerboating ensued. We subsided into the inaudible muttering of Inuit tribesmen chewing blubber, and more beer was transported across the long gangplank, built on a set of bolted steel rails stolen from a train yard a century ago. Clouds drifted by, and an Hispanic stonemason tapped interminably on stones in the waterfront just to our east. Each tap eroded, ever so slightly, the plaster bust of our sanity. However, I think the primitive harmonies of lake, cottage, campfire and freedom shored up that crumbling sanity a little more than it was eroded and we came out of the weekend restored, at least enough to carry on.


 Fred rests from his labors.


Every man carries within him the trapped personalities of himself in previous stages of life, so they say, and I believe. There is a toddler, and a boy, and a teenager, and a young adult, all sitting back in there twiddling their thumbs while the mature adult goes about his boring, unavoidable routine, just waiting for death (according to the younger personalities). And for any reasonable level of happiness, those earlier selves need to be let out and indulged to some degree. So naturally this trip is a yearly escape from the cage just for the teenager and the young, unmarried adult: most rules relaxed or eliminated; personal hygiene strictly optional; self-discipline in food or drink waived; and the time available completely unscripted, with only the cohesion of a small gang of adolescents with no clear leader. Once again the female world is returned to its former status, when we didn't understand it as we do now, and the mystery was intoxicating. I made a toast around the campfire: Here's to our wives, God bless 'em, and to them not being here. 


  A rare moment of Porch Nirvana.

I was able to do some lengthy kayaking, and view a full spectrum of cottages from palatial to post-rustic; here are a few examples of interesting craftsmanship:


 Beautiful stone work, possibly unmortared.
  

Railing just made for collapsing under dozens of Western movie bad guys dropping into the calm waters.


A fugitive from the last Ice Age, hiding in plain sight, like Whitey Bolger.

And there are plenty of forgotten docks to be found which are clearly deathtraps, unfit to be walked on by anything bigger than a cat:


  


We did have a general goal to do some golfing together, but in a style and manner completely lacking in seriousness and rigor; hence as balls disappeared forever in the Adirondack backwoods on either side of the fairways, we would curse just for the fun of it, and get another ball. In three carts we hustled along and kept ahead of the real golfers in their foursomes. This was not the kind of course where you get escorted off for wearing the wrong plus-fours – if such courses even exist anymore. Mark was the one real golfer, and Danny showed good skills, but the rest of us had to be content with the rare good shot which was occasionally better for that spot. And for the kid in us, that rare shot is the whole beauty of the game, and the score is just a nuisance to be ignored. For the average golfer, this attitude is necessary to prevent the famous golf-induced frustration that will always set in, because if the score is all you crave, there are always a huge number of players whose game you will never even approach. Golf need not be “a good walk, spoiled.” But it forces you to get your mind right, if you want any satisfaction at all. A drive that lands somewhere near the fairway and a solid six-foot putt once in a while are all I need to be happy.





Canada Lake is a fairly large, oddly-shaped lake surrounded by hills and mixed forest, with fine clear water and houses new and old scattered along much, but not all, of the shore. The surrounding forest is a dense mixture of hardwoods, pine and hemlock. Our cottage, rented very reasonably in the off-season, is charmingly and genuinely rustic and run-down, but still quite functional. It lends itself to the gothic imagination: painted dark brown, with every floorboard creaking, and the whole engulfed in hemlock, one could easily sink into a Lovecraftian dream and imagine a race of misshapen humanoid squirrels living in the dank crawl space with the more decrepit boats. Hemlocks and other small trees have even been allowed to nearly obscure the view of the lake. But the kitchen is excellently equipped with the needful: coffee maker, modern stove, quality utensils and fine large chef knives handy for slashing at zombies and the like.


 Notice the matched pair of eight-point bucks guarding the parlor.
 

There is also a large, sagging boathouse with a completely renovated bedroom suite upstairs (not rented by us on this occasion), and two kayaks, a canoe and an ancient Sunfish sailboat, identical to those in which we as children played pirates and perhaps learned the first basic requirements of sailing on Quaker Lake, a half-century ago. 



 The cottage of real life - a few broken windows and a million creaking boards.  Oozes charm, as the agents say.

Unfortunately the sail on this Sunfish is completely worn out, just waiting for the next good squall to tear it to ribbons. The last foot for so at the end of the boom is torn, so that the trailing edge of the sail flaps free, and in several other spots small holes have worn through. Hence on Saturday when the wind picked up nicely during my morning kayaking trip, and Fred and I decided to go out sailing, the poor old boat could just barely meet the challenge. We managed to broach it right at the dock while hoisting the sail, which is also a clue to our level of incompetence, but soon we were scudding – maybe a better term is trudging – downwind, with me as captain by default, as Fred had last sailed the Sunfish about 40 years ago.





We rounded the tiny rocky island (use caution, real possibility of hitting the centerboard on a submerged boulder here) a half-mile west in a few minutes and started to tack back up the lake, and soon discovered that our upwind travel with the terrible sail and the overloaded boat was going to be a real struggle. Not far upwind of the island a sudden shifty gust caused an unplanned tack, and our scrambling about caused water to pour in over the side, and we were swamped, and drifting helplessly toward a rocky lee shore, that much-beloved phrase so common in stories of maritime adventure.


  Tiny dock on the tiny island.
 
Luckily a Sunfish can be quickly bailed out, and we clawed our way back up the lake as the wind faded, shifted and gusted in that enchanting manner which makes small-lake sailing so maddening. There was much recrimination and blame cast as Kirk blamed Spock for being drunk and disorderly, and Spock blamed Kirk for being paranoid and incompetent, but eventually the tiny ship warped into port safely, and beer was drunk. 





Cooking was rudimentary, only slightly more advanced than typical Neolithic or Neanderthal cuisine, especially as the gas grill supplied was almost as craptastic as the Sunfish sail, and had to be lighted with a long burning twig from the campfire. Steaks and hot Italian sausages cooked in the dark kept us alive and drinking. I am a breakfast aficionado, though, so on Friday morning we had cheese omelets, bacon and toast with our coffee. On Saturday morning it was Jimmy Dean sausage and toaster waffles, etc. 


 Do not take this boat out unless you are a world-class small boatman and have insurance.


Central to the flow of time was the firepit, flanked by ancient wooden benches, surrounded by hemlock, near the kayak/canoe launch ramp. We kept the fire going the first two days, using available moldy logs and fallen sticks, and also by the slightly questionable but traditional method of scrounging moldy old logs than might technically belong to an adjacent property. The last night firewood was purchased and brought in, and used liberally, though we could still sit on the benches without broiling. Each morning we rebuilt the fire from embers. 


 Rustic detail.


The fire helps the time flow harmoniously, and the mind is freed to remember the summers of long ago, and the tongue freed to tell the tales that we could not forget if we tried. Some of them, anyway. And Saturday night we got out Fred's drum, and Mark's didgeridoo, and Haas's hilarious little wheeeee! device, and made some interesting noises to accompany a wild variety of classic tunes from Haas's playlist. My boyhood dream of becoming a world-famous didgeridoo virtuoso and Tuvan throat singer was shattered, though, as apparently I just don't have the right sort of floobly horse-farting lips for it, and I don't have the knack of inhaling and exhaling simultaneously, either. Oh well! Fortunately there was no recording made of this session, as far as anyone knows.


 Duke, duke duke, Duke of Earl, duke, duke...


I drove out early Sunday with Scott, as he needed to meet his wife in Canajoharie (Indian name, translates as “The Jar that Washes Itself” – apparently a reference to some pothole feature worn into the granite of a nearby streambed). I dropped him at the Betty Beaver gas station – a name that is self-explanatory, once you see the impressive bas-relief logo. This just begs for a syrupy country western song in the antique style:

She said she'd meet me
At the Betty Beaver
And I swore I'd never
Even try to leave her;
In Canajoharie
That crazy old town
The skies are starry
And the beer's not bad.


 Let us pray that the new management doesn't dare to change the Beaver!


Our early departure apparently was highly fortuitous, allowing us to avoid seeing Tarzan without his breechclout wading out to secure the Sunfish sail before checking out. With any luck there exists no photo of this, if such a thing is still possible in this horribly virtualized world we have created. 


 Mennonite country in upstate New York; almost a green version of Montana.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Cycling in Paris

                                 We spent the last week of August in Paris, just as tourists, celebrating life milestones. I quickly noticed that cycling in Paris is nothing like cycling in American cities. A case could be made for it being the premier large cycling city in the Western Hemisphere. This is not an in-depth study, though. Herewith a set of photos as tentative evidence:



Art bike:
                          A standard step-through city-use bike that is nearly always plain black; but someone went to a lot of trouble to give it a brilliant, unique Jackson Pollock-style paint job. And it gets regular use, as I found it gone some days. Maybe it was on loan to the Pompidou.



The Classic:
                                I include this shot of an ordinary vintage bike just for sentimental reasons; I rode a nearly identical bike for many years in the 80s and 90s, down to the chromed fork, top bar cable clips and center-pull brakes, and I hated having to change. (I did have a better seat post.) I forget what happened to it. Probably stolen. Nice to see someone keeping this thing going indefinitely.



Boulevard de Magenta Bike Lanes:
                               I was so amazed at seeing the Blvd. de Magenta for the first time that I was almost run down by a fast-moving young Parisian on a bike. You will note (if you are a cyclist) that there is a long, straight, well-marked, unobstructed, separate bike lane on each side of the boulevard which is protected on both sides by trees. There is a buffer zone on both sides of the lanes where the trees are planted. Cars stay on the roads, bikes stay on the lanes, pedestrians stay on the wide sidewalks next to the cafés. This was not installed last week; it has the solidity of time behind it. There is the occasional bench in the buffer zone, and bike racks on most blocks.
                               It's almost as if – dare I propose something so outré – as if the French consider cycling to be a normal adult activity on a par with any other, and cyclists to be ordinary human beings rather than depraved thrill-seeking children!
                               I'd dearly love to see a comparable photograph of any street in any major U.S. city. Anyone? 



Bikeshare in Paris:
                                   Named Vélib', it is ubiquitous, heavily used, and ridiculously cheap, considering that the first half hour trip is free, and there's no limit on the number of trips per day. A person could quickly become familiar with the locations of the stations and work it to be completely free after paying the yearly fee of 29 Euros. This would be a huge savings over any other form of transportation besides walking. There are other rate options, such as the one-week rental of 8 Euros, making sense for able-bodied tourists. According to the Wiki, in 2011 the system averaged almost 86,000 trips per day. The bikes are grey, either bland and soulless or tastefully chic, your choice, and I witnessed a wide variety of people using them, in all kinds of attire, almost never with helmets. This system was initiated in 2007. I would have thought that it would be closely studied and imitated by every city worldwide when planning their own bikeshare systems; but that would be painfully logical. To blazes with you, Mr. Spock, you pointy-eared pedant! We'll go to hell our own way, thanks.



The Bullitt Clockwork:
                                  A bakfiets with disc brakes and a Fifties-style modern art cocktail lounge.



Delivery Trike:
                           Give a man a brand-new, heavy-duty machine, maybe with one of those electric-assist front wheels, and what's the first thing he does with it? That's correct: he makes bets on how big a thing he can move with it. In this case it appears that the limit has been reached. Merde!



Derelict:
                                    I saw rather few abandoned bikes compared to the average American city; of those, most had been heavily scavenged. So this stood out as an oddity: a typical step-in town bike, sitting there long enough for the tires to go flat and the pigeons to coat it with guano, and yet it is still fully equipped. Alternatively, it might be an art installation. This is Paris we're talking about. Art lurks everywhere, like young love, ready to ambush you and play you for a fool.



The “Fastlife” Fixie:
                            Elegant, sleek, stylish, yet inexplicably crowned with a torn up ruin of a seat. Minor disguise to discourage theft? Victim of sabotage? Something to do with protesting the evils of globalization? Or a police search for contraband cigarettes electroniques?



The White Foldie:
                          Notice the integral welded rack and the seat with the springs, which the owner locks to the frame.



(in voce Poirot) Observe, mon ami, here we have the Most Peculiar Ménage à Trois:
                               In close cahoots, an inexpensive ordinary, a bakfiets with dwarvish coffin, and a velocipede apparently custom built for a member of some other species. Yeti? Wookie? Steve Buscemi? I regret I could not wait for this trio to emerge from their café.



The Insouciant:
                             Raffish, devil-may care, competent, and with a plywood platform (plate-forme de contreplaqué) securely mounted between the inverted bars. One imagines an impeccably Mohawked young savage briskly striding out of the bookstore with a volume of Marxist romantic poetry stuck in his jeans, clipping into his Looks and warping out into traffic as if piloting an X-wing fighter.



The “Railway”:
                              Probably the most typical privately-owned bike. Chain guard, mud guards, generator, headlamp, rack, wire basket, bell, paint it black. Practicality gone mad!



The “Gazelle”:
                               Poorly named, but with many interesting features: the braking rod below the handlebars, the integral rear-wheel lock, the full chain guard, the heavy duty mudguard, the fancy rear light, the heavy-duty rack, and the frame pump. Stolid, totally reliable, lasts forever. Maybe owned by a German?



The “Sparta Pickup”:
                              Alright, wipe that smirk off your faces, wiseguys. This is the bike that that original Marathon runner – Pheidippides, I think his name was – would have died for if he hadn't died from running so hard. Note the super-duty front rack, the extra-heavy-duty chromed seat springs, the doubled top bar, the fully enclosed chain and the industrial-strength bifurcated kickstand. If you're going for practicality, dammit, go all the way. None of this plywood crap. Spartans – We brake for nobody.



The “Kolkhoff” - For Madmen Only
                                  Okay, let's take the mystique of the Practical Black Bicycle one fucking step too far! Take your time as you scan this magnificent machine. Your eye is irresistibly drawn to the sex toy in the center, on which the cyclist sits and pilots his Mystery Ship. A passenger sits in the back, his feet on the bars (check your shoelaces!), wearing a little black bowler and reading his newspaper; a charmante mademoiselle perches elfinly (there is so such a word) on the seat welded to the front bar, her feet on the bars bolted to the fork and her silk scarf waving gaily in the breeze. It would be nice if she'd tear open her blouse and start waving a huge tricolor, but let's not go nuts. We're trying to get to work and deliver a gross of perfect croissants in the big plastic crate in front before the expresso passes its peak. And when we arrive, we will have a choice between the sturdy bifurcated kickstand or the standard kickstand – unless the latter is actually some kind of antenna that continually reports back to the Central Scrutinizer somewhere deep under Paris. 


 
Velotaxi at Work:
                           Velotaxis are common wherever tourists might be found; they go fearlessly into traffic. They come in such varied design that I don't think I saw two alike. A fine thing I'm sure, but I wouldn't ride in one on a bet.



Velotaxi waiting for a fare:
                            I have no explanation for this. Perhaps the guy just got this job last week. Maybe he's filling in for his cousin. Maybe the round thing behind him is a grill full of sausages. That would get my business. But the colors! Sacre Bleu! (I picked up lots of French in a week.  It's an piss-easy language.) Unfortunately this was typical of the place: filled with outstanding works of art, gorgeous women dressed in impeccable taste, and all kinds of monuments of great charm and dignity, and, with dismal regularity, things that are exactly the opposite. Ugly graffiti, ridiculous clothing on people other than tourists, establishments selling le cigarette electronique under the moniker Le Crapoteur. Truth. Will supply proof in my essay in preparation entitled Paris Street Scenes. 


 
The Yellow Delivery:
                                Another very heavy-duty practical bike with impressive racks, but at least it's not black. Two big locks. We did not meet any of the legendary suave and debonair Parisian thieves, but I'm sure they still ply their trade with alacrity and diligence. 



 The Little Local Velovia:
                               Bakfiets for sale!  I didn't actually see any of these orange wheelbarrows in use anywhere.  All the ones I saw looked both more functional and more elegant.  But somebody must be buying them.  Pilgrims from Portland?



To Sum Up:
                        Ah, Paris. Elegant, oblivious women everywhere; small dogs lifting their legs over the bizarre shoes of store-window mannequins. Interesting bicycles on every block. And should you feel for some reason deprived of the refreshing sight of beautiful naked breasts (les beaux seins nus), simply raise your eyes and scan the majestic buildings for statues, and soon you'll find relief. Just don't stumble into a busy bike lane as you are gawking thusly; it would be terribly gauche.

 
 Typical Parisian university students cramming for exams.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Iron Man of Brackney




                 Hannah and I left our pond, headed north, slogged through mud, briars and deep wet meadow to reach the spring and cistern; I pulled out a few buckets of silt, and we left, veering northwest, off the property, across the road and onto Scott Van Atta's land, through young maples and old apples, the latter locked into a doomed struggle to keep some light, growing tall and spindly, then curving down over to reach open space at the edge of the meadows.






                 Scott died not long ago. He was about 80 and in generally fine health. He still rode his fancy road bike with great regularity, and in the winter he snowshoed his way up the nearby Catskills. At some time not too long ago he had a sort of fainting spell while riding, and went to the doctor, who after careful examination cleared him to ride again, as they couldn't find any specific reason to forbid it. Then he had another episode while riding and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance; he was conscious and joking with the rescue people, and gave them contact information; that night he died in his sleep and could not be resuscitated.



Spring-fed cistern that feeds the pond
 

                I've known him at a distance all my life; he was a childhood and lifelong close friend of my mother. He lived in a very small house on eleven acres just up the hill from my parents, who retired to the ancestral farm in Brackney, Pennsylvania about twenty years ago. He was a fairly introverted person, apparently, but did show up occasionally, and was an excellent neighbor, always willing to help my parents out. One would not call him a hermit, as such, but his house consisted of one room, a small enclosure holding a hot tub, a deck along the southwest edge of no great extent, and a modest woodshed. One might call it a shack, but it did have electricity and a wood stove, and was well-built and insulated. Hannah and I, walking his meadow, found his long gravel driveway and went down it to pay our respects.




Just as he left it.  Chainsaw, splitting tools, this winter's heat all ready.


                   On our right as we neared the house was an area devoted to splitting large rounds of wood into firewood chunks; on the left was the woodshed, about half full of neatly stacked chunks. The single object leaning against the back of the house was a high-quality bicycle pump. There was no trash, litter or clutter of any kind. There were no windows except the entire southwest wall: an expanse of glass facing the beautiful hills surrounding Quaker Lake. Under the deck behind a low door I could see, through a gap, a large gas-powered snow blower, a wheelbarrow and a lawnmower. There was nothing resembling a lawn, though; he must have mowed immediately around the house as it suited his convenience. I asked Hannah if she saw any books inside; she said no, but then said, yes, there's a stack of books apparently propping up a piece of furniture. There was a large bird feeder on the south side, with two heavy-duty cylinders, and it looked as if the metal-sheathed post was smeared with axle grease to discourage those without wings.  Behind the woodshed there are eight plastic garbage cans full of rainwater.


Patton Road


                Perhaps a decade ago my cousin and I went to visit him at home, though I can't remember the circumstances; he invited us in and we admired the view, and it seems in my memory we said very little, or perhaps it was just Scott who said almost nothing. But we were all comfortable; although the visit was a unique occurrence, the three of us are aborigines, so to speak, of these hills, and there was none of the normal underlying tension one feels with the average human gathering.


Scott's View


                So the mystery of the man himself remains. Was he, as I might idealize him, a sort of Zen master or simple Taoist sage, or, had he just come to resemble such a person through some kind of convergent evolution? The subtraction of things from a person's life can destroy the person, or teach him and change him. He had lost his marriage; his four children had all moved away, though as far as I knew they were not estranged; he did have a female companion though they didn't routinely live together; he had little money, or if he had it he did not use it on worldly goods, except his bicycle. To me he always seemed quietly cheerful and content enough not to have to speak of things general or specific. It's a much overlooked, but nevertheless high achievement: to feel no anxious pressure to chatter, to fill the silence, but rather, to inhabit the silence comfortably – to enjoy rather than fear it.




Haiku for Scott


The bicycle pump
leans against the silent shed;
split wood is stacked high





for the winter he
will not see as it returns
to his hills this year.



The great window looks
southwest and down to the lake,
now an empty stare;



no hungry birds wait
on the empty feeding post
at the meadow's edge.




We remember him
with respect and affection;
yet hardly knew him.


Ancient giants: locust and willow


Let us imagine
a phantom cyclist circling
the beautiful lake.


Scott's deck chair


In another month
the maples will conjure fire
and the last blooms fly;



The insidious Fallopia Japonica


I will walk the woods,
harvest wild apples among
squirrels and walnuts.



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He clasps the crag with crooked hands; Close to the sun in lonely lands, Ring'd with the azure world, he stands. The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls.