For the last 5 months, I’ve been planning a new adventure: a 2,000 mile trip down the Ohio and Mississippi from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. I’ve wanted to build a boat and sail the Mississippi since 2006, when I first started building rafts for the Hudson. I figured I would do it after I rafted to NYC, but then that took four years, and by the time I checked that goal off of the list, I had a career at the NYS Legislature. Then I left to go back to school, and by the time that was over I was completely broke. Then I said I would do the Mississippi after I published my first book. But that took longer than expected, and I figured I ought to try and sell some books to make money first. Now it’s time to piss or get off the pot.
The Mississippi has a current, unlike the Hudson which is tidal. I’ve built a houseboat before that floated on barrels. My plan is to do the same thing again, and use the river current to move me slowly south. But because the Mississippi is so sinuous, I needed to acquire a motor of at least 10 horse power to steer myself out of the channel to avoid river traffic. I really wanted a motor of 50 horse power. I’d rather have more power than I need, and use 1/10 of it’s capacity, because at some point there will probably be a strong wind or some kind of contingency where the extra power will come in handy.
A 50 horse power motor costs between $3,500-$5,000. But a guy from Tivoli (on the east bank of the Hudson just north of Rhinebeck) was selling an old boat with a 50 horse power Mercury for $875. He told me I could have the boat and the trailer, too. So on the one really nice day that we’ve had so far in 2018, my dad and I took his truck an hour south across the river and I bought the boat. The guy was nice enough to put two new wheels on the trailer and rewire the break lights and blinkers. We brought the boat back to my parent’s house in New Baltimore, and for the first time in 13 years of Hudson adventures, I became the owner of a boat that isn’t a one-time use item.
It was really a wonderful purchase. I just expected to get a motor that I could put on the barge I was planning to build, and instead I got a whole boat with an electric start, hydraulically powered steering, lights, bilge pump, chairs and cupholders.
So that was a warm day in February, and then it snowed or rained every day I was off after that, and today (Monday, April 9th) was the first day I could go down and work on it.
In the mean time, I’ve been drawing plans. I want the boat to be big enough that me and my partner on the adventure can live relatively comfortably and have our own little space. It needs to be water proof because I will be bringing my computer in order to blog about the communities I visit as I travel down the river. Also, Sam, who is going on the trip with me, plays guitar and harmonic and sings, and I play keyboard and sing, and we want to try our hand at pod casting and busking, so there has to be space for the instruments too. Also, space for a wet bar and an ice maker so I can have afternoon cocktails, a galley for making food, space for storing provisions and clothes and a telescope and a microscope, because I really do want to learn as much as I can about the rivers as I go down.
Rob (my partner on the Hudson adventures) and I have been talking and going over some designs, and it seems like the best plan is really to go with a square wooden platform like a dock that floats on 16 55-gallon plastic barrels and has a 12X10 foot cabin on top. We’ve built a similar vessel before. We discussed using plastic pipes or metal pontoons for floatation but they are too expensive.
My friend Andrew is an engineer and he will help me wire the two 1Kw windmills which I have owned for ten years, which should supply us with more than enough power.
The motor boat I just bought, which I call Delaney, because she looks like a floating DeLorean to me, will function as a tug, interfacing with the cabin in order to steer it at something like 3mph relative to the current, while remaining detachable in order to operate independently at 35 mph.
So, Sam is my co-worker, and he has been in the Israeli army and made road trips across the U.S., and he’s looking for an adventure, and we have complementary strengths, so he is going to join me on the trip. But he is not terribly familiar with my previous river trips, so I thought it would be a good idea for him to come down and see the boat and see a representative day of boat work, which usually entails a lot of driving and hardware store planning and helping my parents move furniture and very little progress gets made, but we get ideas for the next time we work.
And sure enough, that’s how the day went.
I picked up Sam from his Albany apartment at eleven, after getting lost. We drove to my friend’s house, because he was giving my parents’ a patio set and they needed help loading it into their truck. Then we drove to New Baltimore and ate a sandwich with my folks, and I gave Sam a tour of the “boat graveyard”–the 4 canoes, 1 sunfish, 1 sailboat, 1 motorless motorboat, and 1 homemade fiberglass catamaran–that I’ve managed to accumulate in the woods behind my parent’s house.
The big order of the day, though, was to bring the motor boat over to my mechanic, Glen, in Hannacroix, about five miles away. I wanted him to give Delaney a once-over and to fix the trailer, which was missing left hand turn signal.
We had to fiddle with the trailer to get it on the hitch. Meanwhile, my uncle Paul showed up with a kind of wooden diner table he’d gotten from a worksite, which he was going to give to my mom, which annoyed my dad because they have more furniture than they know what to do with but always take more–and I said I would take it down the river with me. So, boom, I have two benches and a table for the boat now.
Then we set off for Glen’s shop. We were doing alright until I looked in the mirror and saw that the boat was tipping way to the left and I shouted to dad to slow down. We heard a scraping sound and came to a stop. Dad looked back and said,
“Oh, crap, the wheel fell off!”
We pulled off onto a side road across from the New Baltimore Town Offices.
Sam and I went looking for the wheel, which had rolled onto somebody’s lawn, and then we came back and called Glen.
“Hi Glen, it’s Dallas Trombley again. We ran into a little problem. The wheel fell off the trailer. We’re stuck across from the town office. We were wondering if you might be able to help us out.”
“Oops! Okay, do you have the bolts? Or they came out?”
“I’m thinking the guy who sold me the trailer forgot to put them in back in February.”
“Well, okay…give me a minute and I’ll mosey on over.”
As we waited we looked behind us, where two quarter horses were watching us from ten feet away. Somebody came by in a pickup truck and said “Hey Kirk,” to my dad, and he said, “Hey, Jimmy.”
“Wheel came off the trailer, huh?” Jimmy observed.
“You find the bolts?”
“They’re probably here there and everywhere a mile back.”
“I think so.”
Another guy passed and offered to help us because he had some bolts and lived a little down the road, but we thanked him and told him the mechanic was coming.
Glen came and got under the boat and jacked it up pretty quickly. As he was working he laughed and said,
“I told Steven the mechanic I was coming here and he said ‘Can’t those people get over here without their wheels falling off?'” Because my father had been driving to Glen’s a couple of years ago, and his front wheel fell off, and Glen had to go help him.
Glen took two of the four bolts off the other wheel and used them to put the first wheel on, and then we followed him as he drove Dad’s truck with the trailer the last mile to Glen’s shop, the wheel wobbling the whole time.
Back at my parent’s house, Sam and I decided to try and open the 1980s popup camper that has been rotting in the woods for 15 years and hasn’t been opened in 5, in order to see if anything might be usable for our trip–like the sink or stove or inverter or table.
First I had to find the lever that turns the capstan or ratchet which lifts the top up. I found this under the camper under years of leaves. The popup works by turning this ratchet which has a spool on it and this pulls a cable which runs under the cabin and somehow lifts the top. Of course, as soon as I turned the spool, the rusted cable snapped.
So now we had to find a way to get the top of the popup off. We went down to the workshop and found a vice and a come-along and tried to squeeze the vice unto the cable, anchor the come-along, and use it to pull the cable. But the cable pulled out from the vice immediately.
I crawled under the camper and managed to tie a loop into the cable and hook the come along directly to it. We ran a heavy rope between two trees and hooked the come along to it. But it kept stretching the rope rather than pulling the cable.
Sam and the come-along with the camper.I then ran a rope to a tree that was farther away, and we got everything taut, but instead of pulling the cable, it started to pull the whole popup forward. Sam observed that the whole cable apparatus under the camper was probably seized up and rusted. So we gave up with the come-along plan, but not before I jammed my hand releasing the tension. It was the first blood of the new trip.
Sam asked if I was alright, and I said “There will be worse injuries than that on the trip, I’m sure.”
We tried to lift the top of the popup and some weird chewed-up cushion material flew out. Then we heard my mom calling that dinner was ready, so we gave up.
We had a nice dinner, and afterwards, as Mom and I were clearing some plates, Dad asked Sam sincerely, “Hey, what’s going on with you guys and the Gaza Strip or whatever. I saw something on the news.”
I wanted to say, “That’s quite the topic to bring up casually to someone you met three hours ago,” but Sam went into an immediate summation of the issues based on his experiences and seemed to explain it to Dad in a way I never would have been able to do.
We left around 6:30 and on the way back we re-hashed the events of the day.
“So, we managed to bring the boat over to the mechanics’ shop,” I noted.
The tide and the wind were both moving downstream. As I left my parents back on the dock, I threaded between red buoys that lead to the main channel. I’d never had to stay in the channel before.
A third of a mile south of Coeymans Marina a green buoy marks the southern terminus of a long dike of rocks, which rise about four feet from the water during low tide, but were submerged during high tide. I worked my way south to this green buoy, then bore to port until I came about and faced upstream, heading north, against the ebbing tide, and into the wind blowing south at 5 mph. Within five minutes I was back even with the dock at Coeymans where my parents stood, now on the other side of the river. In another five minutes I was astride the cranes and barges of the industrial trade zone which has recently been built on the site of the old Powell and Minnock Brick Plant, and where they have been building the new Tapan Zee Bridge and floating it downstream in sections.
Now the boats docked outside of Yanni’s on the western shore blocked my view of Coeymans Landing and my parents, and I focused on motoring north. Across the channel from the trade zone were four five barges moored or just sitting right on the shallow waters outside the channel, though they appeared, at high tide, to be in almost in the middle of the river. After another five minutes I’d passed the trade zone and came abreast of the green conveyer belt of Lafarge Cement Plant dropping gravel into a the bed of a black barge. This conveyer belt runs inland, across 9W, under the Thruway, and through my high school campus into the cliffs behind the high school, which are the southern ridges of the Helderberg Escarpment, of which Thatcher Park is the most famous part. I passed Lafarge and drew the tiller 10 degrees toward me, so that my bow moved to starboard, toward the eastern bank, then straightened out so that I was heading for a spot toward the opposite shore between two pillars of the Castleton highway and Alfred H. Smith railroad bridges. The Castleton bridge brings you across to the Mass Pike, while the Alfred H. Smith is the southernmost freight rail bridge on the Hudson. This bridge creates the Selkirk Hurdle–any freight going to New York City or southern New England has to travel north as far as Selkirk to pass over the Hudson on this bridge. There used to be a railroad bridge next to the FDR/Mid-Hudson Bridge in Pougkeepsie but it burned. After sitting vacant for four decades it opened about five years ago as a pedestrian walking bridge connecting Poughkeepsie and Highland.
It was just past one as I went under the bridges. On the north side of them I started to look around and see what the boat was doing. I looked back at the motor swashing the water in white bubbles. The backs of the canoes cut deep in the water from the force of the motor. The bows of the canoes were out of the water in the front. I worried that water might be splashing or even washing into the canoes at the back. I let go of the motor and jumped to the middle of the boat to look into the hatches at the bottoms of the canoes. There didn’t seem to be too much water coming in. I got back to the stern of the boat and grabbed the motor’s tiller to straighten out again. Now I was passing a little area of river where there are only trees on both shores. This was the spot I’d gotten marooned on The Manhattan Project when a storm hit when Jim Gadani was towing me north, and he’d had to untie me and set me adrift to get back to Coeymans. I saw the beach on the eastern shore where I’d rode out that storm, before moving The Manhattan Project north in the middle of the night. That was back in 2007. That was the first time I’d been on the water, alone, at night, with nothing to eat and no way to call for help. That was two days before somebody stole my boat and set her adrift in the river and I had to call the police so nobody hit her as she floated without lights.
The water was choppy. The wind was blowing south and making waves. When the wind blows in the same direction for hour after hour the water gets a momentum of its own, even when the wind isn’t gusting. The water gets going like a conveyer belt made out of triangular braille waves. Each little wave and trough bounced the boat. I looked behind me to make sure no barges or other boats were coming up behind me in the channel. I played with the throttle and learned how to turn it up or down. When I turned the throttle up, the motor pushed the back of the canoes even lower into the water and the bows even higher out of the water. That’s called “planing.” It used the most gas, and moved me fastest, but it made it hard to steer because the raised-up bows caught the wind, and it made it more likely that I’d swamp the back of the canoes. So I kept the motor around half-power. A motorboat passed me traveling south. A wake radiated out behind it. In a canoe it might take almost a minute for the wake to reach me, and I always had time to steer into the wake so it wouldn’t strike me broadside. But since I was moving upstream quickly, I struck the wake just a second later. I ran over the wake going 4 mph. It sent the boat bouncing up and down and it looked like the cabin would snap off. I hadn’t had time to tie the standing rigging to the tops of the windmill poles to give them extra support. I vowed to slow to the lowest throttle setting whenever I crossed over a boat’s wake, and to hold the cabin’s walls to stabilize them.
As I passed Castleton and it’s marina I saw a No Wake sign. I wondered if I was generating a wake with my motor. I’d never made a wake before, and I’d built eight boats and travelled a cumulative total of almost 1,000 miles on the Hudson and Delaware Rivers and the Champlain Canal. I throttled the motor down so it was almost stalling as I passed the boats. It took about six minutes to pass the marina on the lowest setting going into the wind and against the tide. When I got above the marina docks I opened up the throttle and started planing again. Around 1:45 I passed Henry Hudson Park on the western shore and Campbell Island on the east. The tip of this island I’d named Trombley Point and where the Papscanee Creek meets the Hudson I call Babcock Ellis Bay. My friend Rob and I were caretakers of this island for a short time in 2009, but it was full of all kinds of gun-shooting people and a guy who accused us of scaring eagles away who threatened to have our cars towed and we got terrible poison ivy from head to toe and so we stopped going to the place. Things got worse but you’ll have to read my book to get the juicy details. Anyhow, after I’d passed Henry Hudson, but before I got to Albany, I saw a big boat coming downstream. It turned out to be the Dutch Apple. Some puzzled passengers waved to me from the top deck.
It was after two now, and I hadn’t yet reached Albany. Meanwhile I had planned to meet a reporter from the Troy Record in Troy at 2:30–ten miles upstream. The Troy Record was the only newspaper that deigned to reply to my emails about the book tour, so it was important to me not blow off the meeting. So I left the tiller, crawled forward to the dash, grabbed the dry box with my cellphone, lighter and wallet, and texted the reporter that I was likely to be late, and that I might not make it to Troy even by four o’clock. She said that getting to Troy was basically the hook by which she’d sold the story to her editor. I said I would try as hard as I could, and I’d text her at 3 p.m. to let her know if I’d past Albany yet.
I looked behind me and saw the Dutch Apple turning around a mile downriver, just north of the Castleton bridges. When I looked north I was rounding a bend by Cooper Kill abreast of the three smokestacks from the power plant you see if you drive south of Albany on 144 in Glenmont, and my first view of our fair city was ahead.
A few moments later I slid past the juncture of the Hudson and the Normanskill Creek. This was the spot where The Manhattan Project was stolen, burned, and set adrift in 2007. On any of my raft trips I always slow here and observe a moment of silence.
The wind agitated me as I entered the Port of Albany. From the Normanskill up to the railroad bridge above the city is about two and a half miles of straight river with no bends. So there was nothing to stop or slow the wind and nothing to slow the momentum of the water which moves like a conveyor belt after its been whipped by the wind for 12 hours. I couldn’t even move to the side of the water to get where the current slows down, because both sides of the Port of Albany are occupied with industry or decayed and rotting piers, all labeled with signs saying “Keep Back 200 Feet” and “Coast Guard Patrolled.” It was 2:30 when I passed the warehouses and salt piles and trash heaps of the Port and I texted the reporter from Troy and said “I don’t know if I’m going to make it up to Troy by 4. If I don’t make it north of Albany by 3 at least, it doesn’t seem likely.” It had taken me about 1.5 hours to go the 8 miles from Henry Hudson Park to Albany, and Troy was at least another 10 miles.
There is basically no way to go from a boat to the City of Albany unless you rent a dock from I don’t even know who, and I’ve gone up and down the river from Albany seven times over eleven years. Albany gets as much tourism from the Hudson as Coeymans Hollow derives from the Alcove Reservoir. The only thing that passes as an attempt by the city planners to connect people with the river is a waterfront park which I refuse to call Jennings Landing, but that’s what it’s called. I call it the Corning Preserve. Anyway, you can get an idea of how much this park and the Hudson River are regarded when you consider that this was a beautiful day, the last day of August, and absolutely no one in the whole city of 80,000+ people was down at the only riverfront park.
To get to this one landing area, you have to park in Downtown Albany, which is dead like a ghost town after 5 p.m., and take a walking bridge over a highway and railroad tracks, until you come to an amphitheater. If there isn’t a city-sponsored concert going on, then there is nothing going on. Unlike most cities and towns with river frontage, you’re not even allowed to tie up to the docks jutting from the shore. A few years ago I got a call from 20 people from Brooklyn who had built a series of paper boats which they were taking from Troy to Manhattan. They wanted my advice about Albany. The leader of the group was exasperated. “Every other town along the way, we’re just pulling off at their dock and resting at the municipal park. Albany is the only city that says we can’t stop there. They said if we want to take our boats out of the water in Albany, we have to buy a $1,000 liability insurance policy!” I told the guy just to take the boats out and rest at Corning Preserve anyway, because nobody ever goes to the park, so the chances are he wasn’t going to get into any trouble. But I told him not to look like he was having too much fun–not to open up a can of beer or play music or dance or laugh too loudly–because then a lot of people would be annoyed, if they heard about it, somehow.
Just a few minutes later I passed The Riverfront Bar and Grill, which I call The Barge, where I was having my first book signing that evening at 7 p.m. This is Albany’s only riverfront restaurant.
After The Barge I passed under a railroad bridge and then passed the boat launch where the crew teams launch their sculling boats, and where the Albany AquaDucks used to begin the river-portion of their tours. Now it was 3:15, and I texted the reporter to say that I didn’t think I’d be in Troy until at least five. She said it would be better to do a follow-up interview after my book tour was over than to rush that Thursday night. I agreed. Up to starboard, on the western shore, I saw a beach and a dock, and steered for that. About 50 feet from shore I killed the motor and let my momentum bring me onto the beach. I slid in and grounded on the sand. I jumped off with the anchor and dropped it halfway up the mud and gravel beach. Then I sat down and looked over my boat at the river. Then I laid back and closed my eyes in the afternoon sun with the end-of-summer breeze blowing. It was 3:40 and I’d made it as far north as I was going to go, used an outboard for the first time, taken the boat 20 miles north–that morning the boat was on a trailer with a flat tire and I’d not had gas or batteries to charge it. I figured a ten minute power nap was in order.
I heard some talking over my shoulder and saw a white man and a black woman sitting in the shade in the grass on the hill behind me. I thought it was odd that they didn’t think I was odd, but just sat there talking quietly. I had three hours before my signing at The Barge just across the river and downstream. I figured I’d take stock of the boat’s condition and by that point hopefully the beach would be vacant so I could nap.
I brought the anchor line back aboard and started pushing the bow toward a dock up the beach. I heard the man up the hill shout to ask if I needed help. I said “No thanks! I’m good. But what town is this?”
“Rensselaer!” he shouted, surprised.
As I dragged the boat through the water I felt a sharp pain in the soft skin of my left index toe. I assumed I stepped on a water chestnut or bulls-head, but when I looked down there was a big yellow bee flopping around in its death throes still affixed to my skin. I kicked at the gravel and water to pry him off. After I’d reached the dock a moment later my toe and the toes to the right and left of it were achy and itchy and starting to swell.
I tied the boat to the cleats on the municipal dock. I saw the jacket I’d set off with in the morning lying on the deck. One of the sleeves were soaked, so I hung it over the 1″ boards that formed the deck frame to dry. I walked aboard and opened the hatches that led to the port hull. Two inches of water sat still in the hull. This was a result of the splashes made by the waves as I motored from Coeymans. The splashes hit the bottom of the deck and splashed through the space between the deck and the top of the canoe. Two inches for four hours on the water wasn’t bad. I checked the hatch that led into the other canoe and there was about the same amount of water. I removed the clothing and equipment from the canoe that I wanted to dry–like the orange garbage bag of clothes I’d stowed below deck, and some of my electrical equipment. I lifted one of the 60-lb marine batteries onto the deck and hooked up the wires to the bilge pump around the battery’s positive and negative terminals, jammed the clear plastic hose into the pump’s valve, and held it into the bottom of the canoe. The water shot up through the tube and poured over the side of the canoe. I had to stay bent with my head down in the canoe for about ten minutes, conscious of being watched by the people on the shore. Then I crawled over and used the pump on the starboard canoe. The bilge pump can never get the last puddles out of a boat hull, because it is like a vacuum cleaner that pulls water through a grate, and if any air gets in at the same time, it can’t seem to pull the water up. So for the last 1/8″ of water in the canoes I took a towel, dipped it in, held it overboard, then twisted it dry. About five times I did this and then the port canoe was dry. I repeated the process on the starboard canoe, then I hung up the towels so they’d dry in the sun. Then I removed my clothes from the orange plastic bag and hung them around, so they would dry in the afternoon sun. As I did this I heard footsteps coming down the gangplank to the dock.
“You need any help? Came to give you a hand,” I heard.
“Come on, come on, I’m sick, I’m sick, don’t feel good,” I heard, from a woman.
I turned and saw the white man and the black woman who had been sitting in the shade up the hill in the grass behind the beach.
“I’m good, just tidying up,” I said.
“Uhhhh, come on, come on,” the woman said. She made puke noises like she was dry heaving.
“It gets shallow here. There’s tides here,” the man said. “I could give you a push. You better get to the deeper water. You got maybe, ten minutes.”
“I’m alright,” I said. I went about the boat inspecting the supplies that had gotten wet in the bottom, pulling them up and placing them on deck.
“Now you stop it. Stop it now! Go up in the grass I told ya. You gotta get off the water. Go up there now.”–the man. The woman did not go back up the gangplank. She stood sort of hugging the man, looking at the water. The man watched me as I took out my inverter and electric speakers and untangled the cord. “Just a little push, I’m here to help you,” he said. “I know this river. This is the Hudson. I come here all the time.”
“I’m just going to be here a little longer and then I’ll push off,” I said.
I put the inverter on the aft deck next to the marine battery. The inverter translates direct-current (DC or battery power) into alternating current, so you can run appliances that you would plug into a wall. The inverter had a red and a black wire to hook up to the positive and negative battery terminals, respectively. There was a plastic screw to hold the red wire in place on the poles of the inverter. The black plastic screw for holding the negative terminal in place was missing. I looked in the dash and in the bottoms of both canoes, but I couldn’t find it.
“You don’t see a black plastic nut anywhere, do you?” I asked the man. He was staring as his girl friend made puking noises.
“No I don’t see one of those. This is your boat?”
“You built this boat yourself?”
“Yes, out of two canoes.”
“Where’d you come from?”
“New Baltimore, it’s south of Coeymans.”
“You’d have an easier time going the other way. The power of the river goes down, not up.”
“Yes,” I said. “This is as far north as I’m coming.”
I reached into the canoe and twisted the nut off of one of the other batteries. I tried to screw it onto the negative terminal bolt on the battery, it to hold the black cable onto the inverter, but the nut was too large. I held the black cable to the inverter and pressed the power button, and the inverter turned on, but when I let it go, it beeped and turned off. I grabbed a roll of black duct tape from the dash and taped the black cable in place on the inverter. It turned on, then it turned off again.
“That kinda stuff don’t work good for electrical kinda stuff,” the man said.
I needed a steadier connection between the black wire and the inverter. In the dash I found a small L-bracket. I put the eye of the black cable around the negative terminal on the inverter, then I slid the L-bracket on top, then I taped the L-bracket in place. When I turned the inverter on it stayed on. I brought the speakers back to the inverter and plugged them in. I put the headphone jack from the speakers into my cell phone. I opened up the Spotify App and pushed the “shuffle play” button on my “Jazz for Cocktails” playlist. “The Good Life” by Sinatra rang from the speakers.
“Success!” I shouted. “This is the first thing I’ve jerry-rigged since I’ve been out here on the water. Feels good.”
“Frank Sinatra,” the man said. “I like him. I like ‘Singing in the Rain.'”
“Sinatra is good for an afternoon sunset on the water,” I observed.
The woman made puking noises and the man sent her up the dock, but she came back less than a minute later. As I tidied up, she saw the Milkduds and Skittles I’d unpacked to dry.
“Let’s go to Walmart and get some money and get candy!!” she pleaded.
“Later,” the man said. “This boat is like Gilligan’s Island,” the man said to me. “I bet you didn’t think I was old enough to know that.”
“Sure I did. I know it; but I wasn’t alive when it was coming out new.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m 33,” I said.
“Wow, you’re younger than me?” the man exclaimed. The man had no hair and was missing his front teeth.
“I guess so,” I said.
“I thought you were older than me!”
“You saying I look old?” I joked. The woman laughed. The man said nothing for a while. Then he said, “Hey, you think I could have a cigarette?” and I gave him one. He sat Indian-style on the dock, his girl friend hanging on him while continuing to stand.
For about 20 minutes I organized the supplies and put them into the hatches out of the way. I brought out two chairs like you might bring to a sports game if you’re sitting on bleachers–they had no legs but a fold-up backrest and armrests with cupholders. I’d filled a grocery bag with trash.
“Is there a garbage can around here?” I asked.
“Up the beach,” the man said.
“Do me a favor and stay here with the boat for a minute while I throw this out?”
“I’ll carry it up for ya!” the guy said. “Got any returnables?”
“I got one,” I tossed him an empty Coors Light can.
“Thanks! Hey, I’ll bring that garbage up, no problem. But I got one favor to ask. My girl, she ain’t never been on a boat before. Permission for her to board, Captain?”
I said she could. She was very afraid and squealed as the man held the boat and tried to help her over. When she’d gotten onto the boat she laughed nervously.
“I’ll give you a tour,” I said. “That’s the bow of the boat, and back here is the stern. There’s the dash, there, watch your head. Under here are the hatches to go to the bottom of the cabin.” She didn’t say anything, but clutched one of the 1″ cabin frame sticks.
“See, it ain’t so bad, I told ya,” the man said. “Permission to board, Captain?” I told the man he could come onboard, too. So then they were both standing on board.
“You guys want a beer?”
“Yeah!” they both shouted. For a second I wondered if I was somehow immoral. I wouldn’t feel bad giving a beer to any stranger that wanted to sit on my boat and talk to me, but these two people seemed like they might have special needs. But then I thought, what the hell, it’s a Coors Light, and maybe they would enjoy having a beer on the boat more than anybody else would. So we all sat and had a beer and listened to jazz music and talked for a while. They bummed two more cigarettes off of me. The man gave me his number and said his name was Buck and he was from Rensselaer. He asked me about every bracket and rope and little part of the boat. So I got an interview after all, even if these strangers wouldn’t publish what I said in a newspaper. After we finished our beers I was eager to get across the river to a vacant little inlet to steal a nap before I went to The Barge. Buck offered to push me off from the dock after I readied the electric motor. (I only had to go across the river and down about 1/4 mile, with the wind and tide helping me, so I figured I’d just use the motor to steer.) Buck pushed me off and I turned the motor to reverse and plowed myself right back onto the beach. He pushed me off and I turned the motor on and the same thing happened.
“Now, Captain, I said I’d push you off once. This is gettin’ too much,” Buck said. I realized I’d put the cables from the trolling motor on the wrong terminals, and that made the motor turn the propeller in the opposite direction, so that when I hit reverse, it moved me forward. I switched them to the correct position–red to positive, black to negative–and then when Buck pushed me off and I turned the motor on reverse it pulled me out into the river, and the wind and tide started me downstream. A regular stranger would have stood on the beach and watched me for a little while, but Buck and his girl hurried up the beach with the four empty Coors cans, I assume to get to Walmart to get some candy.
I turned around and switched the motor to the forward position to propel myself across the river. Two teenaged crew teams, one male one female, were practicing their sport on the glassy slack water. The young people sat in six long sculling boats, followed by an aluminum bass boat with three coaches, the one at the back barking commands through a megaphone. The electric motor moved me across the channel so I disrupted their nautical meanderings with neither noise nor wake.
Once back on the Albany side of the river I turned off the motor and drifted. I had an hour to go 1/4 mile south. I could see the old railroad bridge and The Barge beyond it.
It was nearing sunset; the shores were shadowy, though the middle of the river, the railroad bridge, and the buildings rising above the tree line to the south reflected yellow and salmon sunlight. I call this the Melancholy Time of Day or the Nostalgic Time of Day. I opened my cooler and used some ice to mix up an Old Fashioned in a rocks glass I’d carefully wrapped in a towel in my backpack.
Before I’d taken a single sip I drifted astride the plastic docks by the rain location for Alive at Five, next to the ramps that the Albany Aquaducks used to launch, and there was a boy about ten years old standing alone looking out at the river. When he saw my boat approaching he waved. I slid my Old Fashioned out of sight and motored over to the dock in front of him. When I tossed a line along the dock cleat he ran over and greeted me.
“Wow did you build this boat?” he asked.
“Yeah. It’s made out of two canoes and wood, and those propellers up there are actually windmills, so if the wind blows it will start to move those propellers, and they have a kind of motor inside, but instead of using power themselves, they take power from the wind and turn it into electricity, and that gets stored in batteries under the deck, and the motor at the back of the boat is hooked up to those batteries. So it’s like maybe you’ve heard of a ‘hybrid car?’ Those are cars that run on both gas and electricity. This is a hybrid boat!”
By now I was standing on the dock while he had his hands on the 1″ cabin frame boards and was leaning way over the deck.
“Can I get on it?”
“You’ll have to ask your mom,” I said. A woman with brown hair was walking toward us from further down the dock where some people were getting ready to greet the crew team when they returned, and a man was launching a jet ski.
“Can I go on, Mom?” the kid shouted.
“Sure!” the mother smiled at me. “But don’t touch anything.”
The kid leapt aboard and I showed him the center hatch and the hatches that led under the deck down inside the canoes, where it was dark, where there were batteries and ropes and the electrical inverter and tester and wires.
“Can I go for a ride?” he asked.
“If it’s okay with your mom,” I said. The mother said sure. She seemed like a cool mom.
“Okay we’ll go for a spin in a big circle around that little island of weeds and come back,” I said. The kid nodded and sat Indian style in the middle of the deck. I motored us away from the dock and back upstream, close to the shore, around a strange hula-hoop-sized circle of weeds fifty feet out from shore.
“What is that?” the kid asked.
“I donno,” I said. It looks like a little island. Imagine that was somebody’s garden, and they had to take a boat out here to work on it?”
“That’d be a lot of work! What are those metal things?” There were some kind of metal poles sticking out of the circle of weeds.
“I donno,” I said.
“Can we take the pipes?”
“I think we better leave them where they are. They look pretty dirty. Plus, what if we pulled the pipes out and they’re holding the island in place and it goes floating down the river?”
We got back to the dock and the kid asked to go out again but I said I had to get moving on. The mother asked about my boat and said her daughter was on the crew team, which was coming back to the dock now. When I untied from the dock, I started drifting south slowly. An old man strolled along the dock asking me questions, until there was no dock left. I retrieved my Old Fashioned and enjoyed a sip as I drifted beneath the railroad bridge toward The Barge.
I was in easy sight of the people eating at The Barge once I’d passed under the railroad bridge. I took my time drifting past them, so they’d get a chance to read DALLASTROMBLEY.COM Coming of Age on the Hudson written across my bow. I was still listening to Sinatra and sipping my Old Fashioned, so I wasn’t in a hurry. This was the nicest time I’d had on the boat since I put her in the water. I actually drifted a little past The Barge but Katie texted me that she’d gotten there already so I used the motor to head into The Barge’s dock and tie up. Katie came down the stairs from the restaurant with a couple of bags, followed by a family with two little girls who wanted to look at the boat, while a couple of guys stood at the railing on the top deck of the restaurant and yelled down some good luck greetings having just googled DallasTrombley.com.
This was the first time that Katie had seen the boat since I’d put the motor and signs and the canvass walls on it. She checked out the gas motor and I showed her how it raised and lowered. She looked at the motor with a mixture of respect and fear. Loud machinery like chop saws and outboards connected to gas tanks make her nervous. I remember the first time she watched me on a woodworking project. Two years ago she wanted to make a half-barrel into a wishing well for her friend’s bachelorette party. She had the half-barrel and I designed a roof with a dowel to lower a hanging pale. The gifts would go inside. Anyhow, my tools were at my friend CJ’s garage at the time, because I’d just lost my apartment in a fire. We drove to the garage at dusk and I cracked open a Coors Light and held a cigarette in the other as I held a board in place with my foot in the near-dark. When the saw screeched, Katie looked faint. Back in the present, I showed Katie the hatches and we stored those supplies she didn’t mind getting wet. Then we strolled up the steps to The Barge and ordered some steamed clams and a gourmet salad and drinks while we waited for people to arrive at seven.
The Barge was nice. It is permanently moored to the land, it appears. Of course the interior is an open concept, with the bar located in the middle, rows of high-top tables surrounding it, and then a dining-room dance floor and stage at would have been the bow or stern of the barge. There was a warm cross breeze. Our friends Nick and Louisa showed up first, followed by my friend Bridgette and her cousin, and Rob and Roxanne, who have been involved in boat trips down the Hudson for 12 and 9 years, respectively, (Rob took part on the first trip of the U.S.S. Crablegs in 2006 and participated in every other raft trip, most of the time as the only other participant). While we were looking at the boat, Marty, a friend from my first period of employment at the Assembly, came and chatted for a while, and my former colleague Lekeya, who I knew from working at the Assembly the second time, brought her son, Nick. My boss from 14-10 years ago, who was a kind of mentor for me in my early twenties, Nora, also came, and we ended up drinking Old Fashioneds until the restaurant was closing up. It was a grand evening because I sold five books (my quota for each day was five), Bridgette game me a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, and I just always love seeing people from different parts of my life, meeting one another.
We descended to the dock in the dark. The tide was creeping north again, while we were headed south. Luckily, the wind was blowing downriver, in the direction we wanted to travel. I wanted to use the electric rather than the gas motor now, because it is almost silent and I looked forward to Katie experiencing the river at night, especially south of Albany, where the light pollution wears off and the stars shine through. We bade goodbye to Nick and Louisa and Bridget and Nora and Rob and Roxanne. I was at the top of the wave.
Katie and I had a nice time piloting the boat under the Dunn Memorial Bridge and looking at the industry on the west shore of the Port of Albany. It grew chilly, however. In previous years, Rob and I made trips in canoes or open boats two or three months earlier in the year. The temperature was in the seventies at night. Now it was 56 degrees and the windchill cooled us. We dropped the canvass at the back of the boat to catch and break the wind. The canvass turned concave as it caught the breeze. My back started to knot-up from sitting at the back of the boat facing Katie while twisting my left arm around to steer the trolling motor. After two hours (about 11:25) we passed the Normanskill and left Albany.
Now that we’d been on the water for two hours, the novelty started to wear off. I’d been awake for 18 hours, having put the boat in at Coeymans and travelled to above Albany earlier that day. And I was disappointed not to be able to share the full night-river experience with Katie. In other years, barges passed, and it was eerie how they appeared silently in the night, moved by almost unheard, seen only where they blocked ambient light along the top of the tree line, silent and invisible though they weigh hundreds of tons and cover the area of a football field. But no barges passed on this evening, so I didn’t share this experience. Also, I’d wanted Katie to see the stars. When you look south from the middle of the Hudson over Schodack and Castleton, Bethlehem or Selkirk, (you can’t tell where one jurisdiction ends) you see the sky nearly as the natives of 400 years ago. Transecting the black dome, the Milky Way spills a spectre of stars and you start to think how the sun is a star like all those other stars and there are lightyears of space between each of them, and the disc of the Milky Way is like Saturn’s rings but instead of dust is starstuff, and it takes 500,000 years for the light from the stars in the middle of the galaxy to reach our eyes, and another half of the galaxy stretches on the other side, and we’re just one galaxy out of 100-billion galaxies, and the earth is a lot smaller than any of those stars and you’re a lot smaller than the earth, and you feel afraid at first, because of your smallness, and then you think about it some more and you start to feel liberated by the fact that you exist and there is all this space out there. But the sky was overcast, so we couldn’t ponder the stars. We could only motor on, at 2 mph, on top of liquid blackness, with blackness to either side, under a dome of blackness. We grew tired and the temperature fell.
We started to shiver after 1:30 a.m., as we approached Henry Hudson Park. I suggested to Katie that we forget about getting to Coeymans, where we had dock-space waiting for us, and tie up at Henry Hudson and sleep under the gazebo. We could see the lights of the Castleton Bridge clearly, and Katie knew that that bridge is visible from Coeymans, so she said she’d prefer just to keep going and sleep at my parent’s house. As we motored astride Henry Hudson, it was 2 a.m. and we’d been on the water for six hours, having left The Barge around 9. I told Katie it would take at least two more hours to reach Coeymans at our current speed. She said she was game, so we kept going.
I hadn’t used any of the 4 deep-cycle batteries on the way north that afternoon, so when we left The Barge I’d had a full bank of reserve power. Unfortunately, the windmills weren’t working, so that bank of power was all I had; when they ran out, Katie and I would have to row or drag the boat or try to start the gas motor for the second time, not really knowing how it worked, in the dark. The windmills didn’t work because I hadn’t been able to install the sacrificial overvoltage capacitor, which is a device which burns itself out if the wind gusts, instead of destroying the battery bank and motor. Basically, each deep-cycle battery provides about 1.5 hours of propulsion before they need recharging, depending on the speed at which you run the motor. I’d pushed the batteries so far, using each one for 2 hours, since we left The Barge. I’d hooked up a new battery when we passed the Normanskill at midnight, and I hooked up a new one halfway between the Normanskill and Henry Hudson. Just past Henry Hudson I hooked up the last reserve battery.
As we floated under the Castleton Bridges, the trip was growing irksome. By now I’d been sitting for six hours with my back twisted to steer the motor. The temperature had fallen to 45 degrees. First we’d sat next to each other with the canvass behind us to break the wind and my zero-degree sleeping bag spread over our laps. Now we untied one of the canvass drop-cloths that formed the side of the cabin and used it as a second blanket. Still we shivered with our arms around one another. We snacked on cheese and crackers and Skittles but these failed to fortify us.
Nowadays Coeymans has a tanker which is semi-permanently moored at the Carver industrial facility, with half a dozen cranes and spotlights lighting it up like a small city. We saw the lights on this tanker eight miles upstream. We knew our berth at the Coeymans Marina was less than half a mile south of the tanker. You can imagine how numbingly frustrating it was to see the lights of this barge as we froze and our stomachs grumbled and we tried to keep our eyes open–yet it took four hours to reach the tanker. Think about it: in the time it took us between spotting and passing the tanker, we could have watched Saving Private Ryan (2h 49m), an episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine (43m), an episode of Darkwing Duck (22m) and a clip from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight sequentially.
We finally passed the tanker at 4:30 a.m. and saw blue lights on the western shore downstream which I knew were party lights at the Coeymans Marina. We were in the middle of the channel in order to avoid the tanker. Downstream I could just descry a white buoy which I knew was a warning for a submerged rock bank which stretches a mile down the middle of the river to protect Coeymans from the wake of passing boats. I steered us toward the western shore above the buoy and then…crunch! We fell forward and came to a dead stop. I shined a flashlight into the water and saw that we were grounded on the line of boulders I just described. We’d missed another unlit buoy a little north which marked the beginning of the boulder dike.
So now it was 4:45 a.m. and we could see our destination 200 feet away, but we were paralyzed. I bent one of my 7-foot aluminum oars trying to push us off the rocks an inch below the surface. It was no use. Our momentum had propelled us right overtop of the rock pile which was nearly as wide as the length of our boat. Nearly exhausted now, I made a fleeting suggestion that we just sleep on the boat and deal with getting off the rocks later. Katie, also exhausted, asked me to try anything I could think of to get us off. In retrospect it was good that she pushed me, because at this point we’d gone through the entire flood tide and the water was ebbing, and if I didn’t do something in the next few minutes, while the boat was still somewhat buoyant, then the boat would have been transfixed on the dike for the next 12 hours, until high tide floated us off, and in addition to the inconvenience of not being able to get to shore during that time, my boat (which blared “DallasTrombley.com” across the bow) would have been marooned for the entire morning and half the afternoon, so I’d have advertised myself as an idiot. I remember a few years back, the RavenaNews Herald ran a story and a picture about a sailboat that got stuck on that shoal. At low tide the rocks rise out of the water five-feet high. It would have been very embarrassing. After sending the News Herald and other papers a press release about my boat-book-tour, I wouldn’t blame them for putting such a picture on their front page.
So I took off my shoes and stripped down to my boxer briefs.
“You’re going in the water?” Katie exclaimed.
“I don’t see any other choice!”
“You’re going to freeze!”
I jumped off the boat onto the submerged rocks, thigh deep.
“It’s actually warm. I guess that’s one benefit to doing a boat trip in 45 degree weather. The water actually warms you up a little.”
I was able to lift the bow off the highest rocks and slide it a little back toward the channel. The bottom of the canoes left yellow paint on the points of the boulders. After I’d pointed the bow toward the channel I waded to the stern and lifted the boat, scratching.
“Can you walk to the front of the boat and put your weight there?”
With Katie at the front I lifted the back a slid her, scraping, down the rocks. I kicked off the rocks as I jumped aboard and turned the motor back on. I pointed us back downstream and donned my pants, shivering again.
Now the dock we were supposed to land at was directly to starboard, but we couldn’t get to it without motoring south one mile to the end of the rock shoal, and then motoring north a mile back to the berth on the western side of the river. By now the crepuscular birds were chirping in the trees ashore. We rounded the shoal at the south and turned north toward Coeymans Marina again. Now we fought the tide as well as the wind that had been helping us, and our progress noticeably slowed. Rather than 2 mph, it took us almost half an hour to travel 1/4 mile north.
We approached the municipal dock in Coeymans, which is a stone’s throw from two docks which extend south for 100-feet from Coeymans Marina. Tied to both docks were yachts and sailboats. Between the yachts was a space twenty-feet wide, through which we would have to motor to get to our berth. The wind was making white caps on the water. The whitecaps reflected in the lights from the streetlights in the Coeymans parking lot.
“Honestly, Katie, I don’t really feel comfortable taking the boat between those yachts,” I confided. “The motor is almost dead, the wind is blowing hard–if it blows us into one of those yachts, one little ding and I owe thousands of dollars. What if we just tie up here at the municipal dock, and I’ll come back down here at 7:30 a.m. and bring the boat down to Jake’s island before anybody even sees it tied up here?”
Katie thought that was a fabulous suggestion. We tied to the dock and grabbed any supplies that might blow away or be easily stolen. We climbed onto the dock, crossed the parking lot, and walked across the soccer field with our sandled feet and ankles getting wet with morning dew, to my Uncle Paul’s house on Main Street, where I’d left my car 20 hours before. It was now 5:30 and we’d been on the water 8 hours. I’d been awake for 24 hours. I’d spent 10 of those hours sitting on the boat with my back twisted to steer the motor.
We drove to my parent’s house two miles away, in New Baltimore, washed in their basement bathroom so as not to wake them, crawled into their guest room, and passed out immediately.
It seemed like I’d closed my eyes for 20 seconds when my cellphone alarm went off at 7:30. I’ve had enough boats vandalized, ticketed, and wrecked from weather to know not to leave it tied up on a public dock after sunrise. So I forced myself from bed, drove to Jake’s island, borrowed his kayak, and started kayaking the mile north to Coeymans Marina. The wind was really, really, blowing south now. It had been blowing south the entire day before, so the water was moving in a sheet southward, but the wind was stronger now, and steady rather than gusting. The leaves on the trees ashore showed their blanched undersides, devoid of chlorophyl, which normally weren’t exposed to sunlight. Up ahead the flags on the boats shot southward as erect squares.
I kayaked north of the boat and let the wind blow me back onto the municipal dock. The boat was tied just as I’d left her 2 hours earlier. I lifted the kayak aboard, untied the boat from the dock cleats, and pushed her into the river.
Immediately I moved south as quickly as the motor propelled me the evening before. I hooked up the electric motor just to steer, keeping the bow pointed toward the dock with Jake’s sailboat at Barren Island a mile downstream.
Jake’s sailboat is tied to the north side of his dock. So I approached just to the west, the turned the motor on full-blast to hit his dock on the south side. This is normally an easy maneuver. When I was inches from Jake’s dock I reached out and grabbed one of the dock cleats. Normally it is easy to pull the boat beneath me and hold it to the dock as I’d toss a line around the cleat. But the wind blew the boat south, so that I became outstretched holding the cleat with the boat blowing back behind me. A moment before I’d have lost my footing, I let go of the cleat and ran to the back of the boat. I turned the motor on full power, but it made no difference. I continued drifting south in the wind and the tide toward the rocks on Barren Island.
Less than two minutes later the boat was grounded on the rocks at the bottom of Jake’s island. Obviously I couldn’t use the motor to get back to the dock, because either the battery was dead or the wind and tide were too strong. I think it was the latter, because I jumped off the boat up to my waist in the water, and whereas normally I could push the boat around by hand, on this day the wind kept slamming it into the rocks. When I paused to think, the wind blew the back of the boat around so that the boat hit the rocks broadside. I pushed the stern back out into the water and the momentum carried her stern around onto the rocks, so now the bow faced toward the river, and I worried about the propellor on the gas motor striking the rocks and breaking.
By wading up to my chest in front of the boat, I was able to pull the bow around an outcropping of rocks. On the other side of the rocks was a bay with a shore of sand. I let go of the boat and watched it be blown into Colewell Cove, onto the mud beach. I waded over to the boat and assessed the situation. The wind was blowing south directly into the beach, at at least 15 mph. There was no way that the boat would float out into the river even as the tide rose. I carried the anchor up the beach just in case the wind changed, and dropped it on the other side of a log. Then I took the kayak off the boat and kayaked back around the outcropping of rocks, carried the kayak up the steep steps at the landing at Jake’s island, got in my car and drove back to my parent’s house. I crawled back into bed with Katie at 9:30 a.m. and fell immediately back to sleep.
At 11 a.m. my alarm sounded again. Katie turned, then shook me urgently.
“Hey! Weren’t you going to move the boat?”
“I did that 2 hours ago,” I said. I hit the snooze button.
“Oh my god, I didn’t even hear you get up I was so tired. So it’s moved already?”
“Yeah. I was gone 7:30 to 9:30.”
“Let’s sleep for 15 more minutes, then check on the boat on the way back up to Albany.”
We rose from the bed fifteen minutes later the way zombies wake from the grave: unsteady and with groaning noises. We made two coffees and grabbed two cans of strawberry seltzer from Mom’s fridge. When we stepped into the driveway Katie asked why my pants and shoes were laying on the blacktop.
“Because I had to jump into the water when I moved the boat.” I pulled the insoles from my sneakers and wrung the water out. They were clammy and cold on my bare feet. It was still only about 55 degrees.
In the car Katie said she’d forgot to pack her contact lenses and glasses.
“I’m basically blind,” she lamented. “I shouldn’t have taken my contacts out last night without making sure I had ones for today. I thought I packed my glasses. I hope I didn’t lose them.”
“Well, we’ll be home in 45 minutes and then we can jump in bed and sleep for a couple hours,” I said. “We’ll just stop at the island so I can make sure everything’s alright with the boat, and then it’s only a half hour back to Albany.”
“Sounds good. I’m just going to shut my eyes for a minute, to remember what it feels like.”
At Jake’s, I took down the chain that blocks the road through the woods, then parked at the tip of the island. From there I saw Jake’s dock and sailboat rocking in the southern wind.
“I’m just going to run to the top of the hill and look out over the beach and check on the boat. I can’t see it from here.”
“Okay, babe. Do you mind if I wait here? I can’t see anything anyway.”
“Sure babe, I’ll be right back.”
So I left Katie in the car and walked to the top of the knoll overlooking the beach cove. When I got to the top of the hill I looked down through the trees and saw the boat in the water.
My spirits sank at the sight.
The boat was sitting in three-feet of water, ten-feet from the shore, stuck on the beach. The port side of the boat was submerged and waves were washing over it. The port canoe must have been completely full of water. As the tide continued to rise it would submerge the other canoe, the batteries, and wreck the outboard motor.
At that moment, the boat was salvageable. But in an hour she’d be ruined. I needed to get her batteries off, and to do whatever I could to make sure the starboard pontoon didn’t take on water, so that the tide wouldn’t bring the water up over the outboard motor. I jogged back to the boat and told Katie about the problem. There was no way she could help. I ran back to the knoll and looked for a way to get to the beach, because by now the water had covered the outcropping of rocks at the bottom of the island where I normally brought the boat to shore. I tried to scale down the cliffs on the east side of the island overlooking the beach, but the cliffs are sheer. I could walk along the top of them and down a ridge maybe ten-feet, and then they fell off thirty-feet directly into the water. I went back to the car.
“I’m so sorry. I’m going to have to put Jake’s kayak into the water and kayak over to the boat. Then I’m going to have to take everything off the boat that can be damaged from the water, and carry it up the beach past the high tide mark: the four batteries, the trolling motor, our supplies. Then I’m going to have to try to move the boat up the beach so the high tide doesn’t wash over the starboard canoe. Ugh. Do you want to drive back to Albany and I’ll deal with this?”
“Well, I would, but I can’t drive. I’d go up to the hill to see what you’re talking about, but I won’t be able to see it. I’m literally blind without my glasses. I’ll just wait here.”
So I carried the kayak down the cement steps and paddled over to the boat. The waves by now were washing over the middle of the boat, over the hatches, almost into the starboard canoe. I lifted the lid of one of the hatches in the port canoe and saw it was totally swamped.
I deduced what had happened. I’d left the boat with the bow facing toward the beach, so that it would float up the beach as the tide rose. But the night before, as each battery died, we removed the dead battery and wired up the new one. The gas motor was in the middle of the boat, so the electric motor was mounted on the port side. Therefore each of the batteries I’d used, I’d stacked on the port side of the boat. Each discarded battery I’d placed on the port side of the boat. Though it made little difference as far as we could discern with our eyes aboard the boat, the four 60-pound batteries stacked on the port side must have made the port side sink lower in the water than the starboard side, even just an inch. As the boat crept up the beach, the wind blew it until it touched the sand. The port side touched the sand, because it sank lower in the water, while the starboard remained free. The wind then twisted the floating, starboard side, further up the beach, pivoting on the heavier port side, which was touching bottom. Then each whitecap splashed into the broadside of the port canoe. Each drop of water made that side heavier, anchoring it to the bottom, until it was completely submerged. Then as the tide rose, it rose over the canoe and over the middle of the deck, and soon it would start to flood the starboard canoe.
I carried each of the four 60-pound batteries out of the water to a log that marked the high point of the tide, and put them on the other side. I carried the trolling motor, my plastic tote full of books, the cooler, the lifejackets, the oars, the voltmeter, the inverter, the electric speakers, the bag of clothes. It took about ten trips wading through the water up the beach as the tide kept rising. When I’d removed everything that could be damaged from the water, I bent down and grabbed the deck atop the submerged canoe. I figured if I could lift it just a little, then it would float on the starboard buoyant canoe, and I could float it up to the place where the water was lapping the beach. But it was too heavy. I lifted and moved the boat an inch or two, then rested, then tried again. On my third attempt I felt a pop in my back and a feeling like lightening shoot up my spine. I could hardly stoop at all after that. Bending my knees seemed to put my left hand and left leg asleep. So if the water was going to rise, I hoped it wouldn’t rise as high as the outboard, the motor housing of which was now only two-feet above the waves. I looked at the line on the rocks and vegetation which marked the high water mark, and it seemed like it was a little lower than the motor. But if a barge or speedboat passed at high tide and sent a wave higher than the high water mark, it still might wash over the outboard and ruin it. To make sure that the boat wouldn’t somehow work its way back into the channel when the tide receded, I brought the anchor inland and tied two lines to submerged limbs on the beach. That was really all I could do, because I couldn’t even walk along the rocks back to the landing on the other side of the cliffs. I got into the kayak and paddled back. I carried the kayak up the hill and stowed it. Now it was 12:30. I knocked on the window and woke Katie.
“My only choice is to leave the boat here and hope it doesn’t get ruined, and come back at low tide and use the bilge pump to empty the canoes, so that it floats again, hopefully, and hopefully the motor isn’t ruined.”
“When can you do that? I mean, when is low tide?”
“Tonight low tide is at 7 p.m., right in the middle of when I’m supposed to be doing my book signing at Yanni’s. Then the next low tide will be at 1 a.m. but it’ll be too dark to do anything.”
“Jeeze. Can you come back the next day?”
“No, because I have my book signings at 1 at the Stewart House in Athens, and then 4-8 at Crossroads Brewery, and low tide is going to be, again, at 7 that night. I don’t want to cancel events that were the main point of the book tour. So I’ll leave the boat here until Sunday, and pump it out that afternoon.”
The problem was that I was supposed to have been at least as far as Kingston by Sunday afternoon, in order to make it to Poughkeepsie for an event on Wednesday. If, in the best case scenario, I pumped out the boat and got it floating by Sunday, I’d have to travel constantly to make it to Poughkeepsie on time. And I wouldn’t be able to charge any of my batteries, because I wouldn’t get to them until Sunday, and they take 8 hours to charge apiece. And if the water washed over the outboard, it would ruin that, too, leaving me with no propulsion whatsoever.
“Honestly,” I said to Katie, “it looks like the boat part of my book tour is over.”
The tides of the Hudson rise and fall as much as six feet in September, in the northern Hudson Valley, depending on the phase of the moon. The tides rise and fall twice a day, so you get two high tides and two low tides, roughly every 6 hours and 5 minutes. My fortunes over the last week have been like the tides, up and down, up again, down again, never abruptly, but noticeably, and, perhaps, predictably.
There was hardly a waking moment between the Friday before my launch and the Friday that I had to abandon ship that I wasn’t either working on the boat, working at my job, driving from my job to work on the boat or vice versa, or sleeping. During the four days before I launched the “finished” boat, I didn’t even shower. I slept between 3 and 5 hours per night.
On Saturday, August 26th, I left Albany for New Baltimore at 9 a.m., having worked till 11 the evening before. The whole point of building the boat was to raise awareness about the book I wrote about my experiences on the Hudson River, so first I checked on the progress of the sign my mother was painting.
The sign on the top, with the stencils still taped on, needed a second coat of yellow paint, while the bottom sign needed three coats of polyurethane on either side to protect it from the water. Painting the second coat of yellow took most of my time. After every few letters I sprayed a coat of poly on the other sign. Then I drove down to the island where the boat was tied to Jake’s dock. I unloaded some supplies I’d bought at Lowes and Walmart for Monday’s planned construction work. Then I drove home, sent emails to reporters, bookstores, restaurants, etc, until I had to leave for work 3:30-11:30. The next day, Sunday, was similar except I worked on the second sign and drove back to Albany in order to leave for work 2-9:30, and do my correspondence after.
Monday, August 28th, was supposed to be the big day to finish the cabin, get the windmills wired, and try out my 2nd outboard motor. (I’d decided, once again, to supplement the wind power with an outboard motor, because I’d used the electric motor for only an hour since putting it in the water a month earlier, to go 100-feet from Jake’s dock to the landing at Barren Island and back, yet when I’d used the motor on Sunday it barely pushed the boat against a 5 mph wind).
I was excited to go to New Baltimore on Monday and woke up at 6 a.m., like I was getting ready to catch a flight to NOLA. Monday was my first day off in five days and the last I’d have off before I set sail three days later. Having to drive to New Baltimore and back, and clean things up, etc, each time I had a morning to work on the boat, ate up a lot of time. On Monday I figured I’d lined up all the dominoes and now I’d drop them into the “finished” pile one by one.
On the way to New Baltimore I stopped by my friend Justin’s house. He’d a left an outboard motor and gas tank in his barn for me. He said it ran good the last time it was used, and I could have it for $150 (a good price for an outboard) if I wanted it. I’d told him I’d try it out first and let him know, because I’d already bought one outboard motor which was supposed to work, but I couldn’t get it running. So I pulled up to his barn and loaded his 50-lb outboard and gas tank into the passenger seat of my 2005 Ford Taurus sedan. I dropped them off in my parent’s yard and drove to the island (I needed another person to help me carry the motor down the island’s steep cement steps) . I kayaked across Colwell Cove to the boat, pulled the tarps off, stacked the anchor and other junk onto the dock so I’d have room to work on the deck, and then I trolled back to the shore, eager to work in the crisp, cool, late-August morning river air.
This was the high tide; it began to ebb, and continued, through the end of Monday.
The first problem I tackled was the cabin. I didn’t want a cabin made of plywood, because I didn’t want i) the extra weight; or, ii) the wood to act as a sail, shoving my boat over the water instead of where I tried to pilot it. So the cabin was made of 1″ pine frames, over which I would unroll canvas. I’d gotten a dozen reeds of bamboo which a local restaurant was throwing out after using them as decor. My plan was to slide the bamboo over the 1″ cabin joists to look like tiki. But when I carried the bamboo down to the shore I saw that i) they weren’t hollow but had thin disks baffling the inside every foot or so, which were impossible to knock out without splitting the wood; and, ii) most of the reeds were either too narrow to slide over the boards or too thick so that the hole on the inside of the reed was too small. So after trying to knock to inner discs out, cut them out, etc, I gave up trying to make any supports out of the bamboo, and started cutting and screwing more wood and brackets to strengthen the cabin walls. Unfortunately, after I’d added extra joists, diagonal buttresses, etc, it was hard to get in and out of the cabin from the sides of the boat. Now whenever you got onto the boat you had to crouch under a horizontal board two-feet off the deck. And it didn’t really strengthen the cabin walls.
By now it was 12:30 and I drove home to meet my dad, who was just getting home with my mom from . My mom showed me how the sign looked after she took off the stencil. It needed touch-up work where the yellow had bled. At least two hour’s worth. She had small paint brushes and offered to touch up the sign as Dad and I loaded the outboard motor into Dad’s truck and drove to the island. I kayaked out to the dock, brought the boat back with the electric motor, and Dad and I carried the motor and gas tank down the steep cement steps. We loaded these onto the boat, and Dad got onboard for the first time. I pushed us off and motored us over to a mud beach at the inside of the cove. We had to be in water to start the motor, but I wanted the boat to sit steady while we attached it to the transom. Unfortunately, the water at the beach was too shallow to put the motor onto the transom. So we used the electric motor to go back to the dock and tie up, and then we clamped the motor in place. Aside from the little bit of fiddling we’d done with the 60-year-old Johnson motor earlier in the summer, neither of us had ever even looked at an outboard. So we guessed how to hook up the gas tank to the motor, and I bent over the back of the boat to try to read the instructions on the motor. But the instructions were warn away. So we looked at the various levers and figured out which was the choke and which was the throttle, and guessed that a lever on the side was the shift. We primed the motor, turned the choke on, put the throttle to start, and I stood up to pull the starting rope. On the first pull I hit my head on one of the 1″ beams I’d screwed to the top of the cabin. I cursed and unscrewed that beam. Then I pulled the starting rope ten or twenty more times, and it didn’t seem to want to pull over or do anything. We played around with everything again and it didn’t seem like the fuel was going out of the tank into the engine. The palm ball didn’t even get hard when we primed it. So, frustrated, I motored Dad back to the shore, motored back to the dock (the electric battery now almost dead and moving me only inches every few minutes), tied up the boat, and kayaked back to the island. Dad and I drove home, met Katie who had just arrived from Albany and was helping my mom touch up the sign, and I sat and had a beer.
“My god, this is frustrating,” I said to Mom and Katie, who were hunched over the sign, and Dad, who sat at the other end of the table.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Katie asked.
“Grr. Well, there are ten thousand things that I need to do within the next 48 hours, but they’re all moot unless I can get a damn motor working.”
“What about the electric motor?” my mother asked. “I thought you had the windmills for that?”
“Yes, but the batteries give me like an hour and a half of propulsion apiece before they need to be recharged. But they take like eight hours to be recharged. So if I kill one battery by using it for 1.5 hours, let’s say, then I can hook up the next battery, while the first is recharging. After 1.5 hours I’ll have a second battery that is dead, another that is less than 1/4 charged, and two full batteries. So after 6 hours I’ll have three dead batteries and one that is only 3/4 charged. And the windmills only charge if the wind is blowing. But the electric motor isn’t really that strong for pushing a boat through the wind and the tide. So it’s like, I can use the electric motor if I’m going with the tide, and then by the end of 32 hours, I can use it for another six-hour tide. But on Thursday I’m supposed to go up to Troy, so I’ll be using the motor to go up, and then back down to Albany, and then from Albany back down to Coeymans. That’s going to be like 12 hours worth of traveling. I’d really feel more comfortable if I had a motor. It’s not even about comfort. I don’t think I can get from place to place reliably on the electric motor. I have appointments to make on the book tour–it’s not like other years where I could just drift from place to place.”
“Yeah and you don’t want to get stuck out on the river and the battery dies or something and you’re stuck,” my mom said.
“Yes. But now I am the proud owner of not one but TWO NON-WORKING OUTBOARD MOTORS! Ugh!”
“Well, just relax, baby, we’ll figure something out,” Katie said.
“It’d better be soon, because I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do if we can’t figure it out by tomorrow.”
“You could call Jake and ask him to come down and look at the motor tonight,” Katie said.
“I could call Glen [Peters–our auto mechanic] and see if he knows anything about boat motors,” Dad offered.
“Is there anybody else might have a motor you could use?” Mom asked.
“I did text Jake,” I said to Katie, “and he is coming tonight after his Executive Committee meeting to help me figure it out.”
“Oh! That’s good,” Dad said.
“Yes. And if you could call Glen, I’d love to know if he can take a look at the motor, but I’d need it by Thursday.”
“I donno about that…”
“Well, exactly. It doesn’t solve the problem if I can’t get it before Thursday. Oh!” I touched Katie on the arm. “Remember when we went to your co-worker Kate’s housewarming party, and I was playing Corn Hole with that guy? He said he’d just gotten a new outboard motor right out of the box. Maybe I could rent his for two weeks or something!”
“Do you have his number?”
“Yeah–I texted him pictures of the boat the night I met him. I’m going to text him right now, just as a backup plan.”
So I texted the guy, and Dad called Glen the auto mechanic, and then we ate some homemade tomato pie from Mom’s garden and waited for Jake to get out of his meeting.
After dinner, Katie and I went to the island to do some painting and anything else we might do as we waited for Jake. When we were out on the dock we saw Jackson, Jake’s dog, running along the beach, and then heard Jake shout down to us from atop the steep cement steps. So we trolled back to him and we went through the same steps that Dad and I had gone through with the motor four hours earlier, with no effect. We tried taking the gas tank off of Jake’s sailboat and attaching it to my motor, but the lines had different fixtures. Now it was dusk and Jake had to go home to put his daughter to bed, and all I’d really accomplished on this Monday when I was supposed to get everything done was to put up a couple of support beams and for Mom and Katie to touch up the sign. Very discouraged, we drove back to my parents’ house to debrief them. There, my Dad said he’d spoken to Glen who did know about outboards, and who said he would take a look at mine if we dropped it off to his shop the next day. It was too dark at this point to get the motor from the island, so I told Dad I’d come down the next day so we could get the motor before Dad had to leave with the truck, and he would drop it off to the mechanic. Meanwhile I got a text from the man I’d met playing Corn Hole, and he offered to let me rent his motor. I figured a working motor in hand was worth two non-working motors on hand, so I told him I’d drive up to his house in Cohoes and get the motor that night. I left my parents, drove up to Cohoes, met the guy at 10 p.m., gave him $100 in cash, and for the second time that day I loaded an outboard motor and a gas tank into the passenger seat of my car. I can’t say I loved the idea of having the gas tank in there as I drove, or the expensive motor in the passenger seat as I parked in Center Square. Back in Albany I spent a couple hours corresponding with parties interested in the tour, and making Facebook Event invitations, and went to bed at 2:30, knowing had to get up at 6:30 to drive the borrowed outboard to New Baltimore, because I didn’t want it sitting in my car during the day.
On Tuesday I drove down in the morning and dropped off the borrowed motor. I showed my mom what I was looking to do with the canvass drop cloths functioning like curtains to roll up and down the side of the cabin. I drove to the island to check on the boat and saw Jake’s gas tank floating away. A barge had just passed and the dock and Jake’s sailboat were rocking from the wake, and the red tank was bobbing out into the channel. I a kayak down the steps and paddled out to rescue it. It was good timing, but I’m not sure Jake would consider it fortunate that I was there, since the whole reason the tank was on his dock (and therefore knocked into the water) rather than on his sailboat, was because he took it out to help me get my motor working the previous day. I brought some supplies from the island back to my parent’s house and then it was time to head back to Albany to go to work. I got out at 10 p.m. and, like the night before, spent the night corresponding and doing clerical tasks for the trip.
Wednesday was do-or-die-time. It reminded me of the days before launching one of our rafts back in the two-thousand-and-0’s. I knew I’d be spending the entire day (outside of work) finishing up the boat. I met my friend Nick in New Baltimore at 7 a.m. Right as we arrived, Jake pulled into my parent’s driveway with his trailer. He left it there before going to his New-Teacher Orientation at Coxsackie-Athens. We put the ball-hitch on my father’s truck, and he took my car to his morning job. Nick and I drove to Barren Island, where Nick dropped me off. He drove up to Coeymans with the trailer.
I kayaked out to the boat and used the trolling motor to go up to Coeymans. We backed the truck down the launch ramp and brought the boat onto the trailer. It was difficult tying it to the trailer because the boat is almost sixteen-feet long, while the trailer is only ten-feet. We ran all of the ropes around the front of the boat so it wouldn’t bounce off the trailer on the way back to my parent’s house. By 9 a.m. we were back with the boat.
The first order of business was to attach an outboard motor mount to the back of the boat. An outboard motor mount is a pretty heavy metal hinge that the outboard vices onto. You can adjust a lever on the mount in order to raise the motor out of the water so it doesn’t strike rocks or mud in shallow water or when transporting or launching the boat. I just happened to have an old mount lying around from a 21-foot sailboat I’d bought off of a man from Delmar 4 years earlier, and cut up into pieces. Nick and I went back into the woods and found the mount among a bunch of other odds and ends I’d collected over the years, like the old paddlewheel from Assiduity, another dilapidated speedboat hull I’d gotten for free from Amsterdam NY, two boat trailers, a sunfish, and some sailing masts. We brought the mount back to the boat and bolted it to the transom, or back end, of That’s Life.
Next, we made a cover for the center console, to stow small items. It always helps to have a second guy when you’re running a piece of plywood across a table saw. Then we measured and drew out the hatches to cut in the deck so I’d have access to the space in the canoes to store my equipment. The problem was cutting those hatches out. My circular saw is broken, or dull, or something, and burned more than it cut. So I asked my mom if she’d call my Uncle Paul, who is a carpenter, and see if he’d come down and cut the hatches for me while I was at work that night. He said he would. Nick had to leave around 10:30 a.m.. I helped my mom with the canvass coverings she was making for the cabin, then headed up the Napa in Ravena to buy three deep-cycle marine batteries. These cost $349. That included $30 in savings because I returned three old batteries and there is a kind of deposit or credit you get when buying a new battery if you return the core from an old one. Unfortunately the batteries weren’t in stock and the clerk said I’d have to pick them up at 7:30 a.m. the next morning (the morning of my launch). I ensured with the clerk that the batteries would come charged, because I’d have no time to charge them, and he said that they would. Next I went down to Coeymans Marina and bought the “coast guard package”–which is to say, the items which the State mandates I must have on board my vessel. These included a four-pack of flares ($34.25), a white stern light ($20.99), a red/green bow light ($16.95), a throwable life preserver ($16.19) and some other items I needed to finish my boat, for a total cost of $166.49. I’d been saving $10 every shift I worked since last November for the boat, and this finally depleted my budget. I brought the supplies back to New Baltimore, checked on my mom’s progress, and we realized I’d need to buy two more drop cloths to complete the canvas covering for the deck, one more set of hinges, and four more pieces of 1″ boards. I told them I’d pick up the items on my way back down to New Baltimore that evening, then set off for Albany to work my serving shift.
Luckily, it was a slow night, and my coworkers, the manager and the owner of El Loco were sympathetic to my book sale endeavor. They let me leave at 6:30. I went to Lowes and Walmart (to get the food and other provisions for the trip) and got to New Baltimore at quarter ’til eight. My parents and Uncle Paul were working on the boat under the floodlights of the workshop. Uncle Paul had cut the hatches into the deck and put hinges in place, and drilled holes and ran bungie cords through to close them. This opened up a ton of space. My mother was in the process of sweeping the deck with a broom, because it had gotten covered with mud and pebbles while I worked on it at Barren Island. At the back of the boat I saw that they had attached the motor to the motor mount. After showing me the improvements (Uncle Paul said the price for the work was to take his son, my cousin, Pauly Junior, out on the boat when the trip was over), my dad left to bring Uncle Paul home, my mother went inside with the drop clothes I’d bought at Lowes to make the rest of the cabin walls, and I brought some 2x4s out of the workshop to build the poles that would hold the windmills up under the floodlight. The windmills rotate on 2″ diameter pipes, through which the wires run down. To attach these, I cut 2x4s to the correct height, then used a jigsaw and a chisel to cut 2″ slots in the 4″ sides of the 2x4s, then I lowered the windmill mounts in and duct taped them in place. You’d be surprised how well this holds. This was the same process we’d used to attach the windmills to Assembly Required in 2010 and they held all the way to NYC in 15 mph winds 150 miles. Once I’d bolted these vertical boards to the deck I ran a horizontal board connecting the posts halfway up. By then my Dad was home and we built a frame for holding the gas tank for the outboard motor in place, with a bungie to keep it from popping out. Dad then went inside to help my mom with the canvass flaps for the cabin as I cleaned the boat off, put all the tools away, and loaded the back of his truck with all the supplies I would need for the next day. My mom finished the canvass sides just as I finished cleaning and loading–12:30 a.m.. I drove home to sleep for four hours.
Thursday, August 31, was launch day. I woke up at 6 a.m. and drove to New Baltimore. My mom realized she had sewed one of the canvass sides incorrectly, so we took it apart and she started re-glueing it. Dad and I drove to Napa to get the three 60-pound deep-cycle marine batteries, and I bought 5 gallons of gas. Back home we mixed the gas in a 50::1 ratio with marine 2-stoke oil and put it in the boat’s gas tank. Then we noticed that the trailer had a flat tire. So we brought out my grandfather’s old air-compressor and filled the tire. Then we backed up the truck and it took my dad, mom and I about a half an hour to maneuver the trailer with the heavy-as-hell boat hanging 6-feet off the back into place above the ball-hitch on the truck, lower it, and snap it into place. I got into my car and followed my parents as they drove slowly down their driveway. At the bottom of the driveway, which is steep, the back of one of the canoes scraped the pavement. My dad stopped, but I told him to keep going, because we probably wouldn’t go over another section of road as steep as their driveway.
My plan had been to have the boat in the water at Henry Hudson Park, which is ten miles north of New Baltimore and about 15 miles south of Troy (where I was meeting a reporter that afternoon) at 9 a.m.. But it was 9 a.m. already, and we had to creep along the road because every bounce sent the back of the boat bottoming. I got more and more nervous as we turned onto 144, which runs along the river up to Albany, and started to accumulate traffic behind us. Over one bump a washer came bouncing off the boat and almost hit my car. As we got into Coeymans, where the road is full of potholes, I thought the boat might hit the ground again. Worse, I feared that my parents might get pulled over and a cop would tell us we couldn’t have the boat on the road. So I called my mom on her cellphone and said “Let’s just launch in Coeymans. If the motor works I can make up the time.” So we turned down to Coeymans Marina.
Dad backed the boat back, as Mom and I directed him, down the boat launch, until Jake’s tires were nearly submerged. Then Dad and I took off our shoes and waded into the water to untie the boat as Mom stood on shore with a length of line. Once the boat was untied we tried to lift the front off the trailer, because the back was in the water. It took a series of back and forth lifts to get it off, but we lifted it and pushed it down into the water with a splash. Once tied, I jumped aboard and opened the hatches to load the supplies from the back of the truck. I was startled to see a foot of water in the port hull. It had never leaked before, but if there was that much water in the hull, it must have a massive hole, I thought. Maybe the hole was made when the boat scraped the driveway. I couldn’t tell how fast the water was coming in. As my mom held the boat and my dad started unloading the truck I ran over to Coeymans Marina to buy a bilge-pump (a battery powered kind of sump pump), for $50. I ran back and hooked it up to the battery to pump the water out. This took about fifteen minutes, and once the water was pumped out, it didn’t seem to flood again. I decided that the boat wasn’t leaking; rather, when Dad and I pushed her off the trailer into the water, the back of the left canoe had gotten pushed under the water and scooped the water up.
By now it was 10:30–an hour-and-a-half later and 8 miles south of where I’d planned to launch. We started loading the supplies on board and putting the windmills in place and bolting the boat together. A couple of older men gathered around the dock and watched us. Dad had to run home for a hammer and an adjustable wrench. One of the onlookers came over and gave us a hammer without our asking, and we were thankful for it. He asked what we were doing, but seemed exceedingly shy and a share skeptical. By the time we’d loaded the supplies onboard, and screwed in the boards that needed to be screwed, and bolted in the boards that needed to be bolted, it was after noon. Mom started to tell me how she planned to affix the canvass to the frame of the cabin, but I exclaimed that I had to just throw the stuff on board and get going, because I was running out of time. Likewise, Dad tried to suggest how to run the fuel line to the motor so it was out of the way, and different ways to load the supplies onto the boat. Finally I said “I’ve got to just try out this motor already, because if it doesn’t work this whole trip is over!” So we primed the motor, set the choke, Dad and Mom got off the boat, and I pulled the cord. On the third try she started, then began to stall.
“Kill the choke now!” Dad shouted.
I did, and the motor roared to life. Immediately I moved away from the dock. This motor made much more momentum than the trolling motor. Rather than turning on a dime, I started arcing from the dock awkwardly.
“Watch where you’re going, now!” Dad shouted. Indeed, I was headed right for the boats docked at Coeymans Marina. I jerked the motor around and twisted in a 180. Then I turned the throttle lever and twisted her down to a troll. Still I was moving away from the dock. I twisted the motor to face south, toward Barren Island, in order to take the channel around the mile of rocks in the middle of the river, at the end of which was a buoy, where I would turn to port and head north again. After just a moment I was already 50 feet from the dock where my parent’s stood. My mom was shouting to me, but I couldn’t hear her over the motor.
“I can’t hear you!” I shouted, moving rapidly downstream. “I’ll call you in a few minutes. Thank you!”
I saw them nod and stand watching me on the dock. Every second, they grew smaller from my perspective. I sat down and looked toward the buoys in front of me, and glanced back at the motor, which I’d need to learn how to use on the fly. My trip had begun.
I’ve got one week until Katie and I set sail from Troy to Manhattan on my book tour. I need to finish the boat, connect with the media, and finalize the schedule with the businesses at which I’m stopping. I just started to remember, today, what the last week before a raft trip used to feel like. There are lots of problems, and I’m not totally sure that everything will work out. But it feels exhilarating.
I decided to ditch the gas motor. It always felt like cheating, since I’d never used a gas motor on the trips that my book is about. Or, it felt like I was getting old, because I never worried about a gas motor when I built boats before. And if you read the previous post, you know the motor was 60 years old, it was hard to start, and it had a gas tank that the boating blogs warn poses an EXTREME EXPLOSION HAZARD. I was spending too many hours fiddling with the thing every day, when I should have been focusing on something I already know how to do (more or less), which is to wire together a bank of deep cycle batteries and hook them up to the two windmills I had on Assembly Required, the boat that I sailed to Manhattan in 2010.
Next I decided to ditch the idea of taking the boat apart into pieces and shipping it in the back of a pickup truck whenever I wanted to drive it from place to place. It was a good idea back in February, but the pieces were heavy, and required two people spending an hour to put the boat together whenever I wanted to work on it, and then a half-hour to take it apart again. Instead, I decided I’d get a trailer, put the boat together on top of it, and then I could work on painting it, wiring it, and building a structure on top to protect from the weather, without wasting time whenever I had 3 hours to go to New Baltimore to work on the vessel before I had to drive back to Albany to go to work.
So I drove to New Baltimore and Katie, my dad and I put the boat together in the yard. This time we used bolts but I put a whole bunch of screws through it too, so that the boat is really one piece now. To attach the platform to the canoes I crawled under the boat and tied the platform’s joists to the cross-beams of the canoes. Katie and Dad were unsure this would be a sturdy enough connection, but I knew from building Mother of Inventions in 2009 that rope is a really great medium for connecting hulls to platforms. They can take a lot of stress without snapping.
The bow of the platform floats between the two canoes, as does the back of the boat. I wanted to support the bow so I could stand on it. Also, I didn’t want the canoes to shift or pizza-slice like a person trying to slow down on skis–the canoes have to stay exactly parallel. So I tied a rope through the loops at the fronts and backs of either canoe, to a bolt with two eyelets on either side, which when screwed together, adds tension to a line.
After screwing in a set of oar locks, the next step was to lift the boat onto a trailer. My friend Jake had dropped his trailer off early in the morning, but he’d to leave to help demolish a house. So it was up to me, Dad and Katie to get the boat, which now weighed about 500 pounds, onto the trailer before Jake came back, so we could take the boat to the river that night and test it out. Getting The Manhattan Project (2007) and Assiduity (2009) onto trailers required cranes and 20 people, respectively. But this boat is much smaller. My father and I were able to lift the front of the boat while Katie slid a 12-foot 2×4 underneath, so we could hold it better. We then rested the 2×4 on higher and higher piles of lumber until we could back the trailer underneath the bow. Then I put a series of pipes under the bow on top of the trailer, and Dad and I lifted from behind and rolled it forward. This was how we rolled the bridge off of Assiduity 16 feet in the air when we had to move that monstrosity to the river in 2009.
By 2 p.m. we’d gotten the boat permanently put together and onto the trailer. Jake was not due back to tow the boat to the river until 7 p.m. It was at this point that I saw a big difference in my Dad, compared to years ago. Back when I was building rafts, as I describe in my book, Dad used to joke about how silly I was, how I was ruining his yard, messing up his driveway, and wasting my time. My dad read my book about those adventures, and told me he didn’t like the way I’d described him, like an adversarial figure. I didn’t really know how to respond to that, because I know he wasn’t trying to be adversarial, but that was how he seemed to me, then. Well, now Katie and I rested on the boat and Dad sat on the stone wall that’s waist high across the driveway by the hill below the house. We were trying to figure out what to do next. Suddenly, he stood and asked, “Do you want me to drive over to Glen’s [our mechanic in Hannacroix] and see if he has my trailer hitch?” Dad and Mom had bought a newer truck which did not have a hitch attached, and Dad was waiting for the mechanic to fix the flat tire on the wood-splitter, and he was going to install the trailer hitch, which would only take a second to install, while Dad happened to be out there to get the wood-splitter (whenever that happened). “I’ll go over. What the heck. We gotta try out the thing sooner or later, right?”
“If you want to go over to Glen’s and get the trailer hitch, and use it to take Jake’s trailer to the river sooner rather than later, I’m down for that! I just don’t want to inconvenience you or anything with the truck. I’d really like to get this thing to the river as soon as possible.”
“It’s nothing,” my dad said, and took off to get the trailer hitch so we could finally try out the boat that I’d been designing and building since April or something like that. I didn’t feel total relief, but I felt partial relief because the solution to one problem–how to tow the boat conveniently–was largely solved. I could borrow my Dad’s truck, or he could drive.
Once Dad came back with the truck hitch it was a simple matter to hook up the trailer, then Katie and I followed behind as he and Mom drove up to Coeymans Marina. Katie and I veered off in order to drop my car at Barren Island, then we met my parents by the docks in Coeymans. This was the easiest transport of one of my boats to the river yet. We simply backed the boat down the launch until the trailer’s wheels almost touched, and the overhanging canoes licked the water. Then I untied the boat, lifted the bow off the trailer, and she slid right in.
Well, we tied the boat up to the dock and loaded the oars, the marine battery, the trolling motor and our life jackets. In a tupperware “dry box” we kept our keys and cellphones. While Katie, Mom, Dad and I stood on the dock, I did a little dedication ceremony. I threw a pocketful of coins onto the deck, popped a bottle of champagne, poured the first three libations to Poseidon, poured a little over the deck, and I named her “TL” — short for That’s Life.
It was obvious that she wasn’t taking on any water and that the whole deck held together well. She only drew about 6-inches of water, just about what a canoe would normally draw. My dad was surprised because he thought the extra weight of the deck and battery would push the canoes under water. Katie was visibly relieved because she has been in a canoe only about four times, and of course a singular canoe threatens to tip whenever you shift your weight. But when we got aboard she saw that the two canoes cancelled each other’s tipping motion, and that it would be very difficult to capsize the boat (more difficult than it would be to capsize a V-hulled boat like a speedboat or a sailboat, whose ballast must be kept below water level). We only had about two hours of daylight left, and I wanted to test the boat out and tie her up in Colewell Cove, on Barren Island, where Jake had planted a dock and moored his sailboat. So Katie and I boarded and waved goodbye to my parents. I hooked the electric motor to the battery and turned her on. We started moving downstream on half-power at about 3 mph, which is just below the boat’s cruising speed of about 4 mph. I remarked to Katie that it had been seven years, but I was now I was the captain of a boat again!
There is a point on Bannerman Island that makes a peninsula and cuts off the view of Coeymans from downstream. On our first raft it took us nearly 45 minutes to pass this point. On our later boats with oars it took us about 12 minutes to pass this point. On this night, with the water like glass, and no wind, and the perfectly streamlined hulls and an electric motor, we reached the point in 5 minutes, before my parents had pulled away from Coeymans in their truck.
It was mid-August and this was the first time Katie and I had been out on a canoe the whole year. We had the bottle of champagne to pass back and forth. So we decided to motor south to the beach at the southern side of the bay formed where the Hannacroix Creek meets the Hudson, a mile downstream. Katie watched her first three barges pass in close proximity. I told her,
“You’d think we have to worry about the wakes from barges, but they’re not so bad. Their wakes come at you slow and rolly. All you’ve got to do is turn and face them, and they’re over in a couple of seconds.” We turned and rode the wake of a barge and it was no problem. “It’s the speedboats that you have to watch out for. When the go by at 40 miles an hour, their wake comes flying out, and they’re bigger and less predictable than the wakes of the barges.”
You can tell it’s low tide because the littoral grass and lily pads are protruding from the water almost out to the channel. After we made our stop, we motored back up to the north side of Barren Island. I brought us to shore and we carried a canoe down from a hill where Jake keeps it. We put this on the boat, then motored out to the dock where Jake has his sailboat. We tied up TL, then canoed back to the land, where there’s a path through the woods which led to where we’d dropped off my car. I took a final picture of the boat tied to the dock next to Jake’s 30-foot sailboat. It’s grainy because I had to zoom in with my camera. All the lights and cranes behind are the works they’ve built just north of Coeymans. None of that existed when I was taking rafts down the river. We stowed one of our rafts where the tanker is moored in the picture below, because the whole place was an abandoned brick plant with some falling-down sheds.
The next day was Monday and I had a book event up in Dana Park in Albany, the Monday Night Concert Series. It is the little park next to Lionheart in the triangle formed by the intersection of Lark Street and Delaware Ave on Madison Avenue. I spent three hours there, and made a profit of $5. But I feel like every movie you watch about some comedian or singer has a scene at the beginning, when they’re just starting out, and they are performing at some hole-in-the-wall place with about two customers, one of whom is heckling them. So I didn’t resent being there–in fact I was honored to be asked to attend. I was adding to my starving artist creds. While I was there, the publisher of Boating on the Hudson Magazine, John Vargo, emailed me a proof of the cover of the September issue. Boating on the Hudson is a free magazine; 6,000 copies are distributed each month between Lake Champlain and Manhattan, and he put a picture of me and my book on the cover with the caption “The Next Hemingway.” That sure felt good, especially since Hemingway was one of the main authors I emulate in my writing (the first chapter of my book, which uses driftwood as an epic simile, is a nod to the first chapter of A Farewell to Arms, which uses falling leaves as an epic simile).
I didn’t have a lot of time to go down to check on the boat over the next week (August 14-20), because I worked every night, and every day I had to email restaurants, breweries, bookstores and marinas about the book tour. Sometimes in the serving industry you have the option to leave early if business is slow, but for two weeks I couldn’t leave early because I needed the cash so badly to order copies of the books, which take a couple of weeks to be printed and mailed, for the book tour. 20 copies of Volumes I and II cost $290, and I wanted to have 100 on hand before I set sail. So I definitely had to work every night, and still transfer $600 from my line of credit to get the books. The worst thing I can picture would be to have people show up to buy my books at an event, and I am sold out. So eight days went by and I didn’t have a day to go down to New Baltimore to check on the boat, and then on Monday I started to get nervous. On a raft trip in 2007 I’d left my boat tied up in New Baltimore, and first the wind snapped its anchor line, then the tide washed it onto shore, then the police ticketed it, and then somebody cut its mooring lines as an intentional act of vandalism. So I made a point of getting up early and driving down to check on the boat on Monday morning.
If I’d gone down to check on the boat one day later, I wouldn’t have a boat to write about. I hadn’t thought to screw in cleats when we’d launched the boat, so I’d had to tie her to Jake’s dock by throwing climbing ropes around the bow and stern lines that connected the two canoes, and I tied one line to an oarlock and passed it through a cleat on Jake’s dock. When I drove to barren island and kayaked out to the dock, the boat was literally hanging by a threat. The line that had been tied through the oar lock had snapped the oarlock in half; the line tied around the bow had snapped; the one remaining line was chaffed and threatened to break at any moment. I retied the lines and ran home in order to get cleats to attach to the boat. This was the day of the solar eclipse, and as that was going on, I ran a long lead line behind my parent’s house, over the hill, stringing three 100-foot lines together, and carried up the electric drill. I used the drill to harvest the cleats and other hardware from the my old boat, Assembly Required, which I’d sailed from Albany to Manhattan in 2010, and which was now a pile of rotting wood and chipping fiberglass. I removed the hardware as the noise of the drill sent bees swarming and grasshoppers jumping all around me.
I’d bought an inverter–a mechanism that you can hook up to a big battery like a car battery which converts the current from DC to AC so you can run appliances off of it. I brought this device, the drill and the cleats back to the river, kayaked out to the boat, brought the boat back to shore, and loaded them aboard. While I was doing this, several boats passed, and I saw why the ropes had snapped over the previous week. Jake’s dock is in shallow water, and when the wakes from the passing barges and powerboats hit the shallow water they grow in size. I watched as the wakes hit Jake’s dock and sent it and his sailboat bouncing violently. Meanwhile a couple of boats passed–I think one was Riverkeeper–and men stood with binoculars gazing at me. I managed to screw in one of the cleats, but the inverter kept beeping because the drill drew more power than the inverter could handle. So I got some of the cleats half-screwed in, then brought the boat back to the dock and tied new, stronger lines, directly around the boat’s frame. I decided I needed to come back to the boat on my next free morning (two days later, Wednesday the 23rd) with a cordless drill, to attach the cleats more securely.
Wednesday started, for me, at 6:30 a.m., because I had to go to traffic court in Delmar at 8 a.m., because I had a totally B.S. ticket for not counting to four at a stop sign coming off the Thruway in Selkirk, but I decided not to fight it if they gave me a plea, because it doesn’t matter if you’re guilty or innocent in a traffic violation, either you get found guilty or a lawyer finds some procedural error, and I didn’t feel like getting a lawyer. (As a side note–I can see how the process is very confusing to a person without experience in government–the Prosecutor appears to be a functionary of the court system, and when they call you into the room alone, it seems like a representative of the judge is speaking to you. I accepted the plea of parking on pavement, and then the prosecutor started lecturing me on the dangers of “blowing a stop sign.” I didn’t blow a stop sign, I stopped a stop sign behind a dump truck where I could see a quarter mile of highway in either direction, and I didn’t stop a second time, but drove onto Route 144 at 2 mph behind the dump truck. I must have had a look on my face because he stopped halfway through his sentence and said, “Well, I don’t need to lecture you,” and I felt like saying, “Yeah, you’re function here is to make sure that these BS tickets take the money out of my pocket and put them into the town coffers, let’s cut the pretend-moral-authority.”)
I drove back to my apartment and Katie and I drove down to New Baltimore. It was now eleven a.m. Katie worked with my mom toward making the signs which will be on either side of the boat reading “DALLASTROMBLEY.COM, Coming of Age on the Hudson.” I’d already cut and painted the boards on which the letters would be displayed, and my mom was using a high-end printer she got for Christmas to cut out the letters. Then we’d just have to tape them to the boards and they’d function as stencils.
As mom worked on the stencils, Katie and I drove to Barren Island with some one-inch boards, screws, and the cordless drill. The boat was still tied up fine when I kayaked out to the dock. We beached the boat on land and used the drill to put the five cleats in more tightly, so now we have the ability to tie up to docks quickly. Then we built the frame of a “cabin.” It’s basically a stick frame that we can unroll a canvas drop cloth on top of, and bungie it down, to make an 8-foot by 6-foot room which is 4-feet high. Larger than a tent, it will give us a place to ride out summer storms, and a place to hook lanterns and navigation lights.
By then it was past two p.m. so we had to pack it in. I retied the boat. We drove back to my parent’s house, where my mom was still working on the stencils. She offered to finish them, tape them to the boards, and give them the first coat of paint. I’ll check out the signs tomorrow. As of today she had a first coat.
Tomorrow (Friday morning, 6 days before launch) I’ll get up at 7:30 to go to Lowes for L-brackets, hinges, polyurethane, and 1-inch boards, then bring back two of my old marine batteries to NAPA and get three new ones (if you return a marine battery you don’t have to pay the NYS surcharge of $10), then go to Yanni’s to see about getting a boat slip for my book signing there are 9/1, then to the island to work on the boat for an hour, then to Uhaul to see about renting a trailer to bring the boat up to Troy before my trip, then clean up and head back to Albany for a 4:30-11:30 table waiting shift.
My friend Paul, who used to administer the website for my raft projects, found this gem in his files. It’s a radio interview on the Don Weeks Show on WGY in 2007, after my third raft was stolen and wrecked by vandals by the Normanskill Creek on the border of Albany and Bethlehem. The audio file takes 7 seconds to start.
We set our sights on grand goals–for me, the publication of a new book; my book tour down the Hudson Valley; ultimately, a “grand tour” of the U.S. though the Great Loop. But the great majority of our lives are filled with mundane minutiae. It’s hard not to lose motivation when the victories are so rare while the work is so frequent, unprofitable, and unacknowledged.
Toward achieving happiness we have choices. We can push our dreams and goals out of our minds in order to rid ourselves of the anxiety that comes with trying to attain them. (That strikes me as a pretty sad path). We can set goals and fight through the work that needs to be done, biting our lip and numbing our mind, while telling ourselves that the work will be over soon, and then our goal will be met. But over a timeline it seems like such a path would lead to an aggregate of annoyance for fleeting feelings of success. Or we can take what I think is the enlightened path, where we acknowledge that the minutia, the unacknowledged and unprofitable steps, are part of the whole experience of obtaining the goal, and try to enjoy those steps as part of the chosen experience.
Eleven years ago I read an essay in Farmer’s Almanac about Grace–a word I’d never really thought of before, especially in a secular sense. The author talked about how he used to loathe shoveling snow. As soon as the snow would pile up he’d get mad, then go out and rush through shoveling his driveway, taking the biggest shovelfuls he could lift in order to get back inside as quickly as possible. I remember he said that if you see your neighbor doing that, and you don’t like them, you should let them keep going on that way, because they’ll have a heart attack soon. (If you’re reading this blog I probably like you, which is why I’m trying to convince you not to act that way.) Anyhow one day the author of the essay was outside and suddenly he just had a change of opinion. He realized that picking up the heaviest scoops of snow didn’t get the driveway shoveled faster, because he tired himself out and had to rest. It also made his back hurt. Instead he started taking little scoops, and he stopped sweating, and then he stopped shivering. Then he wasn’t so uncomfortable or cold or achey. He looked around and noticed that it was actually quite beautiful outside as the snow fell. He realized he was getting exercise, which made him feel good about himself. He found himself even making little side paths just for the hell of it. After that, he didn’t look forward to snow falling, but he didn’t resent it either. He just acknowledged that when the snow fell, he had no choice but to go out and shovel it, and that he was equal to the task, so he might as well do it his way, enjoying what he could about it, because what possible benefit was there for him to deplore the idea of doing what he had to do before and while he was doing it? He called that Grace: doing what you have to do without complaining, in a mindful way, and even deriving some joy from what could otherwise be unpleasant. The essay struck me as really very wise, and for the last decade I’ve tried to follow the author’s advice. I think it’s helped me attain an aggregate of happiness that is far beyond what a person feels if they don’t enjoy how they spend the majority of their time.
For example, last Wednesday was a pretty average day. I had a neat dream that made me think at 5:45, and since I drifted awake, I decided to get up and start living. (If you hate the idea of getting out of bed in the morning because you’re afraid you’ll run out of energy and get yelled at over the course of the day, you’re probably not living gracefully). So I got up and started doing my Fives, as I call them: I wash exactly five dishes, put away exactly five articles of clothes from my hamper, practice a melodic progression on the keyboard exactly five times, do five sit ups, five push ups, and read five pages of a book. None of those things are themselves very taxing, and over the course of the day, if I do my fives five times, I’ve done 25 sit ups and push ups, read 25 pages, learned a melodic progression, done my dishes and put away my clothes. I enjoy going from task to task, thinking about how my hands or stomach muscles feel, or what my mind is thinking as I read. I feel like I’m Here, Existing, which seems to me so much better than having my mind somewhere else because I’m daydreaming because I don’t like what I’m doing because I’m working for someone else’s profit just to get money.
After each set of Fives I do a task which is mundane or boring or irksome–the minutiae of everyday life. I was done with my first set of Fives at 6 a.m. and I updated my Excel spreadsheet which has my list of receipts for expenditures for my book business, including the cost of building my boat for my boat tour. I updated the list and it took about 15 minutes and I thought “Why did I think this was going to be so irksome? Because I had to open a drawer and look at receipts and type them into boxes?” I found that so far this year I’ve spent $1,409 to purchase copies of my book, build a model of my boat, and build the plywood deck. I would normally pay 30% of my income to taxes at the end of the year, so keeping track of this amount (which is tax deductible) will save me about $400. Not bad for 15 minutes worth of work. I did my next round of fives.
Now it was 6:45 and although I hadn’t done much, I had the satisfaction of knowing that I’d done a fair amount of “over-and-above” work before most people’s alarms had gone off. Next I set about re-formatting my new book, Siren Song, so that it will have a title page, a blank page, and then the page numbers would start on the first page with text. First I tried to figure out how to reformat the Word document by clicking on the drop boxes in the toolbar. I didn’t want to Google how to do it and have to find different answers and read them and click between the web browser and the document, reading and following the directions on a help page. But then I did, and discovered that you can divide a Word document into sections using the Headings tab, and number them independently. I made a section including two blank pages, then the title page (so that the title page would appear, like in a book, on the right-hand side after the reader flips one blank page, then an empty page on the left, so that the text would begin halfway down the middle of the next right hand page.) Then I had to Google how to delete the numbers from the first section (which was complicated). After completing and saving the formatting of the draft I signed into CreateSpace, the publishing website, and uploaded the file. They have a proof-reviewer after the document is uploaded. In reformatting the book I’d added an extra page after the title, so the text began on the left page after a full blank page after the title page. Etc. I edited and re-uploaded the draft six times, each time taking several minutes for the draft to upload. I began to wonder if I would get the draft finished before I had to set out for the day. With some luck, just after 8 a.m. (1 hour and fifteen minutes later) I got the document uploaded, the cover designed, and the whole package submitted for final review to the publishing outfit. Review takes 24 hours, and when the book is done I can publish it on Amazon and Kindle. (I have to charge $4.99 to make 84 cents per copy; I will be lucky if I sell 100 copies of the book, called Siren Song, about leaving my employment at the New York State Assembly. So this hour, added to maybe 300 other hours, will bring me in maybe $84. That comes out to about 28 cents per hour–though theoretically I could always sell more copies. (If it wasn’t for grace and patience I could never be a writer.)
By now it was a few minutes past 8 a.m. and I had to leave by quarter to nine to meet my friend Sam at Lowes to get some materials for finishing the construction of the deck of the new boat (which I will use for a book tour down the Hudson Valley in August). So I had about 35 minutes, which I used to edit and post a picture I’d taken two days earlier with Tess Collins, who runs McGeary’s and used to own the Lark Tavern, which was the best bar in Albany, and in which several scenes in my book are set. I emailed myself my picture, then realized it was in my “i-cloud”, but then I had to edit the picture and save it so I could post it on Facebook, and then I struggled trying to tag McGeary’s and the old Lark Tavern page (though it was easy to tag Tess)–so the post took 30 minutes–another piece of minutiae. But, as with the other minutiae that morning, it has the potential to be profitable: the post got 6 shares and 160+ likes, many from people who I do not know, through Tess’ page, who now know about the book. If five people buy the book as a result, I’ll earn $24.25, which isn’t bad for a half-hour’s worth of minutiae.
By 9 a.m. I’d driven to Lowes in Glenmont for the next step that no one will see when the boat is finished. I had to buy a piece of 15/32″ plywood, two 2X4s, 25 3-1/2″ bolts, nuts, washers and a 1/4″ drill bit. I didn’t have a way to transport the plywood with my 2001 Ford Taurus, but my friend Sam met me and we loaded it onto his car’s roof rack. By 9:50 we’d driven the materials to New Baltimore. By 10:10 we’d carried all of the materials out of my parent’s workshop, lined up the canoes, and put the parts of the deck together on top. So 4.5 hours after waking up, I could finally begin the physical work for the day. My goal was to build the bow of the deck, which, like the back portion of the deck, had to sit higher than the middle of the deck, in order to allow for the rise of the canoes at their bows and sterns.
We began by building a simple wooden square, which will be bolted to the center deck and extend between the canoes forward to support the foredeck.
The battery in the picture is keeping the square from falling off. The final boat will have a cable running from the bow of each canoe under the deck as a suspension support. For added support we cut two lengthwise beams running from the bow of each canoe back to the deck. These required a little math to make the correct cut at the front of each beam to allow for the “rise” of either canoe (the two canoes are different brands and rise at different angles.)
Next we built cross-wise braces, and then we screwed the plywood on top and cut it at angles in order to match the shape of the aft deck.
Here is a picture from the opposite angle:
The angles need to be cut and sanded into a prettier shape, but by now it was 1 p.m. and we had to take everything apart and store it in the work shed. By this point in the day I’d been up since 5:45 doing minutiae items and the only “progress” anyone besides me would observe was that I’d built a small front deck for my boat.
I drove back to Albany and slept from 2-3 p.m. before getting ready for work. I worked 4-9:45 and earned $168 dollars from the job that pays my actual bills. By the time I got home, my girlfriend was asleep (she works 8:30-5 in an office), so I kissed her goodnight, then worked on this blog post from 10:30 to midnight. I did not complete it but by midnight I was exhausted, and I wanted to get up by 7 a.m. the next morning, because there is always more work to do, so I went to sleep.
In the past, on boat projects like these, I’ve often felt overwhelmed. But in the past on boat projects like these I was working at the Assembly working 60+ hour weeks, whereas now I work about 32 hours per week. I’ve got a lot more flexibility in how I spent my time. But the main improvement is that nowadays I don’t think of my job, or driving to Lowes, or making expense reports, or cleaning, working out, reading or practicing piano as obligations. Rather, I’ve got hobbies and goals that I want to experience, and an experience includes all of the preparation. I often joke that at 32 years old I’m “semi-retired.” But if you go through your life gracefully performing the minutiae of daily life, it doesn’t seem like work, and since I don’t seem to be doing work, I do feel like I’m retired. Ironically I’m probably more productive now than I’ve ever been, but I feel like I’m playing around all day. So the point of this post is that you can really get a lot more pleasure from life if you own what you’re doing and don’t think of it as toil. Your moods become more even, you get more accomplished, time seems to last longer, you become proud of the miscellany you’ve finished, you’re more mindful, you sleep better…all of that adds up to being happier and healthier.
My dad is 68 years old. He was born in 1949. Harry S Truman was president when he was born. America was experiencing full employment, and thanks to the Marshall Plan, which funded rebuilding Europe after WWII, probably its widest world respectability.
My father grew up in Ravena, New York, a small town about 152 miles up the Hudson River from NYC, or 15 miles south of Albany. When he was a kid there were three bars, two restaurants, a hardware store, a pharmacy (where he and his mother worked), a roller skating rink, two churches and miscellaneous stores on Main Street. He went to elementary school on Main Street. His goal in life was to retire to Ravena where he had a front porch, so he could sit out most of the day and chat with people he knew. But he moved to New Baltimore, where I grew up, in the woods. And it was a good decision because Main Street of Ravena is now a ghost town of broken windows and abandoned businesses.
The empty storefronts trigger my dad’s nostalgia. He and I both think of the decaying town like we would think of a bedridden friend. We used to park the car on Pulver Ave outside his old house, when I was in high school, and walk down Main Street, and chat with one another as a man and an adolescent.
Nowadays we’ve turned, my dad and I, the way a fruit discolors. There is no Main Street to fulfill his 40 year goal, and as a member of the modern generation, I feel bad, but can’t understand why he wasn’t cynical to begin with, since (today) nothing every turns out positively.
So last Monday I went to New Baltimore to work on my new boat, which I am hoping will be my ticket out of the cycle of broken down Main Streets. I left my apartment at 9 a.m and met my father at Lowes. I carried a list of materials which included 10 1X10″ boards, five 2X4s, four pieces of plywood, two gallons of paint, rollers, and four 2X4X16 foot boards. We loaded my dad’s truck with the plywood and 2X16s, which stuck out of the bed by eight feet, and he drove them to New Baltimore while I followed.
Dad and I, I don’t think you could describe us with any kind of cliche description. We are friends in addition to father and son. But not friends the way that Jared or Mike or Morgan and I are friends. Nor the way that Katie and I are friends and lovers and roommates. Dad is my fundamental roll model, and a very good one. But we are different people. I want to travel all over the world and teach myself piano, history, economics, literature, and law; Dad’s fundamental goal is to hang out with me, my sister, and my mom as a family as frequently as possible. He is like a neutron which has mass and therefore gravity, while I am like a proton which has significantly less gravity but charge. I sometimes envy electrons, which have movement and charge, but they are insubstantial, literally, and so I don’t emulate them. My father neither envies nor emulates electrons. He is certain in his gravity, and for him, rightly so.
We unloaded the truck, stacking the plywood and boards in front of the new garage he and Mom built in front of their driveway (which is newly paved). Since I didn’t want to clutter their front yard or detract from the improvements they are making to their home in their retirement, I stated matter of factly after he’d parked Dad’s truck,
“I guess we’ll have to carry these boards over the hill, past your house into the woods.”
But my father said, “Wouldn’t it be easier if we go up and get the canoes and bring them down here?”
Such a scenario saved several steps.
Dad’s second-hand F250 didn’t start, so he slid the shifter into neutral and backed through using his rearview mirror down the slope off the driveway where he’d parked. His truck doesn’t have license plates. He has offered to sell it to me for a dollar and keep it at his house if I pay the insurance, but I’m short on funds at the moment and trying to fund a boat.
I drove my Ford Taurus halfway down the driveway, popped the hood and attached the jumper cables. The truck started after Dad and I shot the shit for two or three minutes.
We drove up my parent’s law which is quite steep by the driveway, across a level yard about fifty yards wide, past their in-ground pool, down a ramp formed after my cousin poured concrete on a hill made of limestone rocks that served as a ramp to convey the truck to the next level of my parent’s property. My parents own eight acres of hills composed of shale expulsions covered in a mix of deciduous and coniferous flora. It is completely unproductive but quite picturesque. Down the first slope into the woods Dad parked, where my two canoes and speedboat, as well as several cords of wood and a 16-foot picnic table, are stacked along a precipice. I had to push his truck out of the mud when it got stuck. We loaded my canoe into the bed. It dangled 8-feet over the tailgate. We lifted Mike’s canoe, carried it, and slid it on it’s side into the bed of the truck. Then we slid the lumber Mike and I had carried over the hill two days earlier. Dad drove the truck and the boards and canoes over his back yard and down the hill to beside the garage, leaving ruts in his yard, and then we unloaded everything in the grass.
I hadn’t planned for such cheerful help. I thought my parents would complain if I built my new boat within sight of their house. I figured I would have to spend at least an hour every time I worked on the boat running lead cords and carrying power tools and hardware to the workspace. So my dad’s alacrity will save me probably a hundred man-hours over the course of my construction project. My father said,
“Okay Son, so what do we do now? I assume you want to take the canoes off first.”
“Well of course,” I said. “Let’s lay them approximately eight feet out from the outside of each canoe’s gunnels, which will approximate the diameter of the finished boat.”
“Ha, okay, you just grab the damn thing and tell me where to place it down.”
So we laid the canoes eight-feet apart: the diameter of the finished boat.
Problem 1. We didn’t notice this until six days later, but each of the canoes has a kind of seam, running 1/2-inch deep from the bottom of its hull under its length the entire way, which makes the canoe cut straight through the water instead of sliding sideways. On the ground, the canoe would not balance on that line, but rested to either side so that the gunnels of the canoe (the uppermost part of it’s side walls), sat at an angle to the cross beams that connected the canoes. This made it difficult to lay the cross beams across the canoe to connect them.
(The last picture above is from a week later, after I’d given each canoe a coat of white paint.)
So we were standing in the driveway with a bunch of lumber and my sketches and the little model I’d build of the boat, and it was apparent that we had to change the plan.
I have to underscore that my father and I have never really worked on one of my boat projects together, though I’ve built seven boats over five years at a cost of $20,000 in his yards. I always worked with Mike or T.J. or Jared or Morgan or Oliver. When Dad and I worked together, we fell into arguments almost immediately. It was like we couldn’t just focus on the task at hand, but wrapped up in construction was the feeling that Dad didn’t really approve of my lifestyle living in an apartment in Albany instead of buying his and my mother’s house; that I wasn’t settling down and starting a family like he did; that I didn’t want to pursue a career like he did for the State. And also he is so extremely modest as to consider himself dumb when it comes to construction projects, which somehow annoyed me, because I am dumb when it comes to construction projects, but I found that if you just sit there and think of solutions you can create them. Anyhow we always argued before. But in the last six months our relationship has changed. His father and his best friend have passed away and I feel more empathy for him lately. Also I published my book last November, and I never thought he would read it (he’d never read a book in his life)–but he is the only person so far who has read the book cover to cover. There is a lot of tragedy in the book related to our family and to my former depression. Ever since he started reading my book our relationship has changed. He quotes little passages. It seems like the book really affected him, and that he empathizes with me too. It’s like between the book and the deaths he’s faced, we now treat each other as two equal male friends, with all the respect that that entails, rather than just father and son. Like we are working on this boat together because we like spending time together. Like we are friends. I’ve respected my father because of the setbacks he’s had to deal with, but now I feel respected, too. So instead of getting mad at not being able to follow my sketches and model step-by-step, we stood beside the two canoes with the four pieces of 2X4s stretched across unevenly, and considered what to do, together.
The original plan called for six 2X4s to run perpendicular to the canoes, connecting them together, and four 2X4X16-foot boards to run parallel to the canoes, on top of the crossbeams, to support the main deck, which would be composed of four pieces of plywood. This would create a boat that floated on two canoes and was eight-feet wide by 16-feet long. The deck would be built in two sections, each four-feet wide by 16-feet long, which would be connected at the river. I wanted the boat to be detachable so we could ship it to the river in pieces in the back of a pickup truck, because we don’t own a trailer.
Since neither of us are engineers, I decided we’d just build one-half of the deck and see what went wrong–something always goes wrong–so we could make a new plan from there. Over the course of seven hours we built one half of the deck.
Here the 2X4X16s are running parallel to the canoes on top of the 2X4 crossbeams, and the middle piece of plywood has been added. If you look closely you can see the next problem: each canoe is shaped like a banana. Where the bow and stern of each canoe rises, the plywood for the fore and aft deck could not be attached to the 16-foot beams. I’d planned to cut holes in the plywood deck to allow the bow and stern of each canoe to rise through the deck as a kind of aesthetic design–like a fin on an 1950s hotrod–but I couldn’t plan how to do it. And it didn’t help that my canoes are two different lengths. Dad suggested I cut the front into a T shape and cut the back through a series of larger and larger incisions until I cut a hole in the plywood that allowed the deck to lay flat on the 2X16 beams. But it ended up looking kind of shoddy.
Where the canoe protruded from the stern there was an asymmetrical cut; the front appeared unsupported; and the deck would not cover the entire canoe, so rain and waves would splash inside (where I plan to store my batteries and electrical equipment, as low and wide as possible, for ballast and convenience).
So I wasn’t really satisfied, but I felt that we had made progress insofar as we had tried plan B of the design, and now I can think about how to make improvements.
Thus ended Day 2 of work on my book-tour boat. This was a Monday, I drove to New Baltimore on Friday and painted both canoes with a first coat of white metallic paint (it will take at least three coats) and I planned to come back on Monday with a new work plan.
[Originally published January 17, 2017 on Facebook]
It was quiet and serene at 6:45, as I stood on the stoop this morning, a Meadowbrook Farms milk truck backing up, the tree branches black against a sky that brightened from navy to cyan over a period of ten minutes. I had been reading a biography of Wilson, and I started musing on America and what it means.
“America…is not a piece of the surface of the Earth. America is not merely a body of towns. America is an idea, America is an ideal, America is a vision,” Wilson said while running for Governor of New Jersey–his first attempt at political office.
As I stood on the stoop, a thin, middle-aged man crossed to my side of the street, pulling a wire cart. Last night was garbage night in Albany, and the man bent from one pile to another, retrieving cans. As he passed he looked in my direction and nodded to me, humbly. I nodded back. I return cans, too. I considered that this man was simply more entrepreneurial than me, when it comes to can-collecting.
The buildings I could see were all in good shape, made of stone and brick, leftover from the 1870s and 80s. I thought of the phrase “make America great again” and considered that it is not the apartments and towers or trees or stoops that are or are not “great”–it is the people who live in the structures, and the systems we put in place for the purpose of increasing our “greatness.”
A garbage truck passed, its side reading “Republic Waste.” Republic is the name of the trash company, obviously, but it was also ironic to see “Republic” and “Waste” so close to one another after thinking about Wilson’s statement of America as an ideal, and all the recent talk about making America “great again,” whatever that means.
The One-Way sign on the corner is chipping and bent, like it’s been hit by a hundred garbage trucks over the years, but nobody thinks to replace it. The intersection of the sidewalk is spray-painted with red letters and arrows from a utility company, though the work has been finished for months, because nobody thinks its necessary to compel utility companies to clean up their spray paint (though we have a graffiti Task Force in case someone puts spray paint on a wall). The sidewalk up and down the street sports accumulations of leaves, black plastic bags, and white plastic cup lids, because no one has swept their sidewalk, because even if they did, the leaves would blow back in front of their houses again because their neighbors didn’t sweep, and the street sweeper hasn’t been down my street in 3 weeks (though The City has given out tickets on the cars that didn’t move because the street-sweeper was supposed to have come). The One-Way sign, the utility graffiti, the leaves and trash, the exploitative tickets without compensatory benefit–these are the signifiers of society being not “great.”
“I feel like everything is like a sham–” (I’m paraphrasing my friend Jess) “–like nothing is built to last or…like you go into a building and its new and from far away it looks impressive, but then you look at the moulding and it doesn’t line up, the paint job is bad–its like we all do 90% of the work on stuff and never do the finishing work.” She was talking about the deck that her father built years ago, which looked great, but he never stained it, so now it’s full of splinters. But she was talking about a trend not just in the built landscape, but in the social landscape.
I continue to feel that the biggest problem with our time in history is the alienation of individuals from the rest of society. All of our other problems basically branch from that main issue, because we could solve most of our problems if we recognized our mutual interests within a community, and used our resources productively.
When I think of a time when America was “great,” I think what people are probably referring to is an idealized version of the 1950s, in a small town, if you were caucasian and Christian. The national economy was operating at near full-employment, there was access to credit, new mechanical gadgets were continually appearing to lessen the toils of life, more people had leisure-time than ever before in history, etc. But none of that gets at why the period seems like it must have been “great.”
What’s missing from the dry statistics is a description of the spirit of the times. What we picture are block parties, backyard barbecues, drive-ins, malt-shops, bake sales, baseball games, rotary club meetings, Church picnics, family picnics, weddings at small community venues–things that involve friends and families–wholesome social structures of which individuals identify as members–which through continual meetings continually reinforce the idea that I–as an individual–am part of larger groups, and those groups are part of a larger society–and it is all possible because we live in a republic.
Immediately, many people will point out, “but that spirit of the times was only great if you were caucasian and Christian, etc. For a lot of people it didn’t apply. Therefore it was a myth.” But between the last two sentences is a lapse of logic–it wasn’t a “myth” for the majority–that’s why people who used to be a majority latched onto the phrase “Make America Great Again” during the last election. Instead of declaring that an inclusive, progressive society is impossible, we ought to seek to make the spirit apply to more people, so that there are fewer who are left out. That is America as “an ideal.” It needs to be a hybrid of conservative and progressive principles.
The flaw in the Republican platform of the last election is that it chose a wall–the great symbol of division–as a symbol for how the party plans to bring about the ideal of an inclusive society. That was a great mistake, which reminds of Harry S Truman’s statement at a dinner of the Federal Bar Association in 1950: “We are not going to turn the United States into a right-wing totalitarian country in order to deal with a left-wing totalitarian threat.” A republic cannot exist if it is to be composed of cloistered individuals cowering behind symbolic walls, everyone suspicious of one another, cynical about their own government. A republic must be based on citizen’s mutual self-interest and self help. The Party diminishes republicanism by the same proportion as it diminishes mutual self-interest and self-help. By cultivating divisions in society it encourages segments of the population to depend on the government for their elevation over other segments. It is superlatively ironic that the party that calls itself Republican and champions small government stimulates the conversation that erodes both of those things.
Our politics are like a revolving wheel, turning over cyclically. The people are the actual units that revolve, tied to the wheel. We started at the center, generations ago, but the arguments and philosophies have become more extreme, turning the wheel faster, and causing our people to fly outward, so that we feel connected to society no longer by some great gravitational force, but through a little string of geography: we just happen to live here, next to other people, all under the same government–rather than as fellows who are part of the same society.
In April of 2015 I went out on my stoop, and my neighbor, an old man, was sweeping the sidewalk in front of his stoop. I had planned to smoke a cigarette, but instead I went back inside and returned with a broom, and began to sweep the sidewalk in front of my apartment. “Hello,” the old man introduced himself, “I’m Robert. Do you own this building?”
“Oh no, I just moved in here,” I said.
“Oh, well, its nice of you to sweep, then.”
“Well I saw you doing it and figured it looked pleasant enough that I might as well give it a try!”
I think that is the great challenge of our times, which we should not expect politicians to accomplish: how do we get our neighbors to proverbially sweep? Will we go out and join them? Will that encourage other people to pitch in, because they know that if they sweep just then, they won’t have our leaves blow onto their sidewalk, because we’re sweeping, too? And when the sidewalk is clean, will we finally sit there and realize we are all neighbors, and have the same interest, and demand together that the city send the street-sweeper and fix the One-Way sign, and force the utility company to come back and clean up its graffiti? If we could manage that in all the little patches of earth that make up the towns and cities of America, we’d be much closer to our “ideal.”
[Originally posted October 18th, 2016 on Facebook]
I like to compare cities to Albany when I travel, to see what stimulates economic activity in those places, that might work here. In the last year, Katie Carnahan and I have been to New Orleans, LA, New Hope, PA, Cooperstown, Ithaca, Geneva, and Syracuse, NY. Many of these places face similar problems to Albany. Albany and Syracuse might be distinguished by what they lack: a coherent plan that takes advantage of their physical or cultural assets to draw people to their several business districts.
I know that tourism and nightlife are not the only revenue-generators for a city. But they are an important part of bringing capital from outside into the city in order for that capital to be circulated and concentrated. Tourism and nightlife are perhaps the main factor in providing a place with an identity which is then celebrated by residents and used in local advertising. A vibrant identity leads to more civic activism, cleaner streets, a growing population, therefore innovation, better government, community spirit, lower crime, lower taxes and greater employment through new and thriving small businesses, which are all good things.
We visited New Orleans back in April, after spending a night with my friends Dan and Amy in Picayune, Mississippi. Picayune is a dry town in a backward state. The tumbleweeds blow through the boulevards of a “downtown” that becomes a ghost town after 7:30 pm. Dan pointed out that “you have to try very hard to be optimistic in this place.” In the modern world where a community requires some sort of a tax base, it seems like Picayune cuts off its nose to spite its face by outlawing anything that might draw visitors to it, in the name of morality or old times that never existed or something. New Orleans is the opposite. The place bursts with energy and life–and people spending lots of money to have a good time. If there is one thing that distinguishes New Orleans from other cities in America it is its personal freedom. It is a feeling that the city cultivates: Come Down and Enjoy Yourself. Live music pours from hundreds of bars in the French Quarter alone. People spend $500 to fly to New Orleans, $30 for a taxi from the airport to the city, and $150 a night or more for a hotel, just to be able to carry their cocktail from one bar to another down the street. Thousands of people clog the sidewalks 15 or 16 hours a day, simply because it is enjoyable to feel temporarily unrestricted. Why is it that the French Quarter has bounced back from the physical devastation of Katrina, while cities like Detroit were decimated by the Great Recession? Because there is organic energy in New Orleans which is allowed to grow. In Albany very few people busk on the streets, because pedestrians do not linger on the streets enjoying themselves. Patrons power-walk from bar to bar as quickly as possible, to avoid the mendicants in Albany. In Albany there are very few live bands, because they are disincentivized through a cabaret license fee. The problem is compounded by the fact that there is very little to do in Albany besides go to bars, once you’ve been to the museum and admired the Million Dollar Staircase at the Capitol.(Don’t try to eat on a sandwich on the steps of the Capitol that face the parks to the east and west, they’re off limits thanks to barricades.) You cannot easily stroll to the riverside like you can in New Orleans, there are no pedestrian streets where artists hang and sell their paintings as in Jackson Square in New Orleans–so the reality is that people go to bars where they talk to people they already know because there is no music and you can’t drink outside. Ultimately, what distinguishes New Orleans from Albany is a difference in “feel” or “atmosphere.” People travel to New Orleans because the place feels inviting–the local businesses thrive as cash flows into the city from all over the nation. Few people travel to Albany to spend their money unless they live within a fifteen minute drive, and even then, the feeling is more like “thank goodness some people I know also showed up at this bar so I can have someone to talk to about how cold the winter is, or is going to be.” A lot of the money circulating in Albany is transferred from one resident to another, rather than flowing from out of the city. Workers in the service industry often joke that the same $20 passes from a customer at one bar to the bartender, who then becomes the customer at the next bar, the same $20 being passed through three hands and back. The downside of New Orleans vis a vis Albany is the high crime rate, for you cannot stray outside of the populated areas at night without risking your life and limb in NOLA–and they have a lot of beggars. Albany seems to have about 1 to 2 beggars or just anti-social weirdos per block in the Lark Street area which bleed down into Center Square. New Orleans has many more, in proportion to the multitudes of out-of-towners with cash.
New Hope, PA, is worth the drive from Albany (though the opposite is not true, unless you’re doing research at the NYS Archives). It’s rated the highest-valued real estate in Pennsylvania. Unlike New Orleans–but like the rest of the cities in this comparison–New Hope is not massive. It is a small village just across the Delaware River from NJ on what was once a lock on the Delaware Canal. They have a little museum in an old lock-tender’s house. Amazingly to a New Yorker, there are no employees inside the museum. The door is unlocked, and you just let yourself in to look at the exhibits. Behind the museum and the main street of the town is a walking/biking bath through the forest that follows the path of the old canal. So you can either drive to the town and park on the only street, or bike or walk to the town and have lunch. Albany, of course, has nothing like this, because the day- and night-life areas are separated from the river that was the original reason for establishing Albany in the first place. The main street buildings of New Hope emerge from the woods and suddenly there are six or seven restaurants and book stores and antique shops. The restaurants and bars face the main street and sport heat lamps. You feel like you are in an 1800s community because of the trees and pedestrians, yet the businesses are thriving because the place is clean and the establishments are concentrated. At night the businesses have live music. It is PA so you can smoke in the bars, at least outside, for most of the places have bars which begin inside and continue out onto a deck beneath a colorful awning. The “feel” of this town to someone from Upstate New York is like “Wow, it seems like someone decided to orchestrate a cultural identity here, with some sort of an economic plan.” The downside of New Hope is that there is little free parking. Just as Albany might attract more consumers, provide more variety to its residents, and cultivate an identity by liberalizing its laws with regard to drinking and live music at least in certain areas, it could designate another area(s) as pedestrian and bike friendly and cultivate the image of an old community in the style of New Hope–perhaps along the bike trail by the river, if the bridges and railroad didn’t monopolize that area.
Also, New Hope is in PA, which, like the rest of the world, has Uber and other car-sharing services, which Albany doesn’t(thanks to state-level rather than city-level legislative inaction.) We have a nano-science school to manufacture machines to repair our mitochondria, but we don’t have car-sharing, which the rest of the world has come to expect as a basic service, like indoor plumbing. Instead Albany, like Syracuse, has a reputation for having really really crappy taxis.
So last fall, Katie and I had five days to make a vacation out of. We didn’t want to spend two of those days driving or flying, so we decided to travel somewhere in the northeast within three or four hours of Albany. Our first instinct was to go to Boston, but hotels there were $300 a night. We wanted to see the foliage changing. We decided to go west to the Finger Lakes, to Cooperstown, Ithaca and Geneva.
As we were planning the trip I realized that we chose those cities because they are located in an area with a distinguishable cultural identity–the Finger Lakes region. The name calls to mind rolling hills, waterfalls, hiking trails and wineries. Those images immediately suggest things to do, which are attractive, which are why people go there, which our region lacks. When multiple cities within the same region work together to cultivate a shared identity, it promotes each of the cities,allows for advertising on economies of scale and multiplies the reputation through word-of-mouth and social media. A person might take a picture of a waterfall and apply the hashtag #Fingerlakes. There is a lost opportunity in the reputation of the Capitol Region. It brings to mind the four Agency Buildings and Empire Plaza, which is about as quaint and welcoming as a security camera mounted above some bars on a ground-level apartment window, and the Capitol itself, which would be harmlessly boring if not for its reputation as the corruption capital of the state. Albany as a city cannot get rid of these state-owned structures and problems, but it could work to vary and to improve that image.
Cooperstown has the Baseball Hall of Fame, which we skipped. It also has the Otesaga, an old hotel at the southern terminus of Otsego Lake. We stayed at a Best Western and took a taxi to the Otesaga, where we had classic cocktails and danced to a live jazz band on a Wednesday night. I wouldn’t drive out to Cooperstown just do dance to a live jazz band, but I would dance to a live jazz band in Albany, except that nobody dances to jazz here. It’s so rare that if you happen to hear actual live jazz at The Speakeasy or Taste (if that place is even still open, I couldn’t find the website), you sit there and listen like you would to a museum exhibit. Which of course is the opposite of what jazz is supposed to be. It was impossible to get food in Cooperstown after 9 p.m., so Katie and I ended up eating bar mix for dinner. So Cooperstown itself is kind of boring if you don’t want to go to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But the next day we went to Ommegang Brewery, which is worth the trip from Albany. We did the tour and got our flights and fell into a conversation with a woman who knew we were from Albany when she heard us mention Lionheart, which is the last remaining neighborhood bar in the Lark Street area.
From Cooperstown we drove to Ithaca, on the southern tip of Cayuga Lake. Ithaca is another city with a pedestrian street which forms their downtown business district and contributes to their identity, even as it makes driving there horrendous. The pedestrian street is made of brick with pretty street lamps and benches. There are clothing and book stores, bagel shops, restaurants, etc. I know that Crossgates Mall has all of that and more out in Guilderland, and Stuyvesant Plaza has it a mile closer, but why doesn’t Center Square have a clothing store, a real bakery, a bookstore? Instead of people flocking to Lark Street as the Greenwhich Village of upstate, people drive for culture from Center Square to visit the City of Hudson, a city which 15 years ago had as many vacant storefronts as Coeymans. We stayed outside the town at spa/hotel that had an event called Ithaca by Starlight–bonfires and outside bars under canvass tents with live music and hot totties. We had a great time except that, like Cooperstown, everything closed early and we went without dinner for the second night in a row.
From there we travelled to Geneva, which is on the northern tip of Seneca Lake. This was our favorite part of the trip. During the day we went to several wineries and breweries, many of which were startups founded within the last year, thanks to a state law that has incentivized the winery and beer brewing business. Downtown Geneva is basically just a few square blocks, but it has the look of Bedford Falls from It’s A Wonderful Life. As we were walking around, what surprised Katie and I most was that there were no vacant buildings and every facade was painted and in good repair. I think I actually exclaimed aloud, “How is it that this town in the middle of nowhere in the center of the state can have a thriving downtown with great restaurants and fifteen different kinds of bars, and Albany can’t?” It was clean. We went to about five different bars after having a delicious dinner at a restaurant whose name escapes me. We played shuffleboard with twocollege professors in their fifties who were partners, and when it started to snow everybody ran outside to see the flecks falling for the first time. The next day we walked around the antique stores downtown–something else missing from Albany (unless you count that place on the corner of Madison and Dove, which I’d love to check out, but after living in Albany for 10 years I’ve never seen it open).
Our trip to the Finger Lakes last year was so cathartic and relaxing that as we drove through farm fields and the sun shined down on silos, I told Katie that I wanted to quit my office job so I could see what else was out there besides the doldrums of legislative work in the Capitol Region. Looking out the window at the green fields, red and yellow leaves, and robin’s egg sky, Katie said “I think you should quit and be a writer.” I’m glad getting out of the city inspired me to do that, but I wish there was more to inspire people here in this city.
This year it was more difficult to travel, because we’ve been moving and setting up our new apartment, I’ve been editing my book about rafting down the Hudson River, and I no longer work at a job that provides a paid vacation. But we wanted to see another city in the middle of upstate. We chose Syracuse because it was close, and it has the Erie Canal Museum, and I’ve been researching for a book about the canal (the enacting legislation for the canal was passed 200 years ago next year, in 1817).
Whereas the other cities in this post were interesting because of ways in which they differ from Albany, and are thereby thriving, Syracuse was striking because of the similarities to Albany. So much so that we took to calling Syracuse the Negative Photographic Image of Albany as we explored. First, like Albany, you travel into the part of Syracuse where there is stuff to do by driving over a series of tangled overpasses which twist past old industrial buildings in various states of disrepair. Nothing suggests urban decay like overpasses, which are designed to let suburbanites drive overtop of the poor people who live on the periphery of a city’s core, without having to look at them. It was five o’clock on a Saturday when we parked in a lot next to Armory Square, which is similar to but more vibrant than Center Square in Albany. We walked overtop of a feeder canal with running water, which would have been cute except for the amount of garbage floating along, which suggested an open sewer. As soon as we approached the bar at the corner of the square, a middle aged man implored us to give him money–so we felt right at home. He reminded me of John, who solicits outside of Mobil and Dana Park in Albany, except this man seemed less schizophrenic. In quick succession we passed a pub without a name, which was empty, then York restaurant which had a raw bar in the window that made my mouth water, then Kitty Hoynes (which is in the running for best Irish Bar outside of Ireland). At the next intersection we laughed, because we were already noticing the similarities between Syracuse and Albany, when ahead of us a big sign on a corner bar read “CSP”. We passed this bar because it was overflowing with football fans. A Syracuse game was on that day and it obviously attracted people to all of the bars. We explored by walking around and just looking. We came across the eponymous armory, which looked similar to The Armory in Albany which, oddly, is also on the perimeter of Center Square. When we took a left we passed an entire block of businesses which were not open.
“I’m surprised that these places aren’t open,” Katie remarked. “It’s 6:00 on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.”
We decided that the blocks in this section of town looked exactly like the blocks across from the SUNY Administration Building on Broadway in Downtown Albany. Cut off from any sort of housing, this area is also practically abandoned on a Saturday afternoon, though it is right in the middle of the business district and the historical epicenter of the city. We turned left and saw a big box store across from a closed-up theatre, and immediately felt that we were on North Pearl Street looking across the intersection at the Rite Aid in Albany. We made our way back to Kitty Hoynes and had corned beef fritters and french onion soup.
We wanted to sample other parts of Syracuse, so we looked up the nightlife on TripAdvisor. It said what we expected, that Armory Square was the place to go for any night life. There was another section which is known as the student area. We figured that meant sticky floors and bros, and didn’t feel the need to check it out. But there was an area called the Tipperary district which was supposed to have neighborhood bars, so we decided to drive up there and have a beer before coming back to Armory Square, at which point I’d have had two beers over two hours, which is my limit for driving. To get to the Tipperary area, we had to drive down a street with railroad tracks to one side and warehouses on another, as the night descended. Like Broadway in Albany, this was a disincentive to walking between the two areas of nightlife, because it looked dangerous. We stopped and took our picture with the “green on top” red light, which is the main tourist attraction in the area. TripAdvisor said that Blarney Stone was the bar to go to in Tipperary square. Amazingly, the place had the same vinyl siding as the old Stone Crowe in Albany, and the same atmosphere inside. So we drove back to Armory Square after one beer.
We found a really nice bar called Al’s Wine and Whiskey Lounge, with leather couches and so many varieties of whiskey that they have ladders to reach the dusty bottles on the top shelves. I had an Old Fashioned; Katie had wine. The decor was beautiful but I can’t say the bartender was particularly friendly. After we left, Katie gave a donation to a homeless man and his six year old daughter who said they had just come up from Greensboro, NC and sang us a verse of Amazing Grace in two-part harmony. We caught a really cool band with a horn section at Funk and Waffles next door and met a nice couple named Chelsea and Paul, who’d met one another playing PokemonGo. We checked out two more bars and we were ready to go back to our hotel. First we got in line to get pizza but there was a line out the door and it looked like it would take a half hour. Katie called a taxi company and they said they were booked for the next three hours. So we jumped into an idling taxi and watched the meter tick up twenty cents about each time that the cab’s wheels made a rotation. It cost us almost $35 to get back to our hotel 12 minutes away before we even tipped the guy. I wished they had a carshare service! We paid $28 to get back to Armory Square the next morning.
The next day we went to the Erie Canal Museum. Katie and I were impressed. We pictured a dinky sort of place with maybe some pictures of mules tied to boats or something. I’d read three books on the canal since August so I was afraid I’d be bored, but the interactive exhibits were fun and educational. You could press a switch on a map to show the various routes of the canal over time, turn a cylinder filled with gel and water to learn about hydrostatic force, and operate a miniature lock. The museum is in the old Syracuse weigh station and the office of the station manager is preserved. They have a canal boat (on land) that you can get inside of and interact with. Upstairs they have exhibits which explain the economic impact of the canal on the development of cities like Syracuse. For example, toll-collection at the weigh station contributed to the construction and development of banks to hold the toll money, which then lent the money to capitalize other businesses, as well as the construction of warehouses, hardware and grocery stores, and grog-houses, all of which provided employment for local people. The young woman who worked at the museum was very pleasant and helpful, and the three of us fell into a conversation about the economic impact of the canal and the construction the overpass bridges in Syracuse. The woman remarked, “You can’t put in a highway without making two neighborhoods, one of which is going to get redlined.” As we left we mused about why historians, of all people, seem most interested in economic programs to create equitable wealth. Katie suggested that it is because historians study what has worked in the past, and contrast it with today, and want to implement what worked and avoid what hasn’t. I realized that that is basically what we do when we travel to other cities, except instead of comparing past cultures to those of today, we look at the physical, legal and cultural conditions of cities, and wonder why the best of those cities aren’t synthesized here, in our home city.