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January 12, 2006

Potholes

What was that blank spot on the map of my childhood? Twenty years growing up here and I never saw the void, a trackless place off the road from Rome.

Greg told me it was the Tug Hill Plateau. I had spent much of my life within an hour's drive, and I had never before heard the name. It was the wildest of wilderness, to me: black bear and fisher and moose still lived in this place, under my nose and beyond my reach.

I still have not been there, but we looked in from its edges that day.

The Plateau is tilted, rising from 350 feet in elevation at its west end on Lake Ontario to 2500 feet at its east end. It is a trap for lake-effect snow. It holds New York's record for a year's snowfall - 39 feet in 1976-77, a winter in which Greg and I contended with a mere twelve feet in Buffalo - and a possible national record for a day's snowfall, 77 inches on January 12, 1997, in the hamlet of Montague.

The snow feeds a dozen upstate rivers. It flows out of taps in Rome. Anglers cast flies into it. The rock beneath was laid down in the Ordovician, a sandstone cap atop layers of shale. Snowmelt carves deep chasms – "gulfs" – into the land. Some are 300 feet deep.

In the Black River valley a thousand feet below, I backed over a steel guardrail stake. A loud sound of hissing commenced. Becky and I ran to Remsen to buy a tire before the town closed for the night. I wore a foul mood like a cloak.

Greg fretted aloud that Becky and I weren't enjoying ourselves. We weren't. It wasn't his fault. It would be four years before Becky and I mended the rift Greg felt that day. Were Greg to suggest that afternoon that one of our marriages would end before long I would have agreed, and guessed the wrong one.

His daughters fed Zeke, dabbled their feet in the angry Moose River. Julie warned them against going too close. They ran barefoot on the wet and tilted rock. Greg cast into a few holes, but the brook trout were recalcitrant.

I met Greg in 1976 in an anthropology class studying the Hopi and Kwakiutl. We did not speak until the next semester: we found ourselves together in a small group of students taking over the administration building. He knew the same Phil Ochs songs I did, and a few I didn't. In our youth we spent long winter nights trudging through snow, singing crazy improvised songs into the wind. I was always broke and cadged Greg's cigarettes, Camel straights to warm our hands around. In summers my guitar came out, his harmonica. The guitar case bore scratches from the top of a chain link fence, made the night the cops had chased us off Elmwood Avenue.

One summer after Greg moved to Syracuse he showed up at my house on a motorcycle, told me to grab a jacket and a sleeping bag. The cloudburst hit by the time we got fifty miles southeast. I stole firewood from a lakeside cottage and we cooked an illicit meal in the woods, wet smoke filling the tent. Sitting in the rain in the tent became tedious after a few hours. We lit out for a bar down the road in Belfast, drank weak beer and played pool as the locals scowled.

The next day the rain was even worse.

Greg had been out west, to California and New Mexico, and told me I ought to go. Eventually I did. It was fourteen years until we saw one another again. It was as if nothing had changed, but everything had changed. His land lay on the north of Bradley Brook, and the old mill dam in his woods had long since crumbled into Devonian shale. His daughters knew every inch of that hundred plus acres, where the snakes were, and the wild strawberries, where the trilobites would shake off their Paleozoic slumber and fall to the quarry waste below. We built a fire beneath a grove of staghorn sumac and floribunda roses. I had brought songs from the West Coast. The next day we drove past the Tug Hill Plateau.

At Lyons Falls the Moose River, running west from the Adirondack highlands, flows into the Black above a small escarpment. We watched logs pile up behind the pulpmill dam. We envied one another's lives, Greg and I, his growing intimacy with a fertile piece of land, my proximity to Vietnamese food.

Downstream on the Black we walked through sharp waist-high grass and pin oak woods to the water. Zeke treed himself atop a tall rock, whined and paced at the thought of climbing down. Becky led him down to a calm eddy, where he waded. The breeze smelled of wet strawberry leaves. Greg chipped at the rock with his geologist's hammer. Julie asked how these new samples differed from the dozens of seemingly identical ones littering their house.

The bedrock all around us was shot though with smooth holes, like burrows of some great worm. Some were a foot deep, or three, and each had smooth, round stones within, like eggs. Older, harder rock tumbled downriver from the Adirondack highlands. Basalt, schist, plutonic rocks a billion years old cleaved from the earth by rain, by frost and glacier, washed down toward the Black with each successive flood. Some stones landed in holes in the bedrock from which the next floods could not dislodge them. The water pushed and tore at them, slammed and ground the stones against the holes in which they lay. Pestle deepened mortar. Mortar smoothed pestle. Flood after spring melt flood shook the stones. They lay where chance and the river's flowing had put them. Each year drilled them a bit deeper into the earth.

Posted by Chris Clarke at January 12, 2006 04:42 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Comments

Interesting reminiscences.

You were my first actual Buffalo friend, Chris. I met Greg on the Greyhound to Buffalo from Syracuse. He brought you over my second night in town, and the three of us sat up all night on the apartment's only piece of furniture, a foldout bed, being hilarious as I recall. You were the funniest person I'd ever met and you made me funny as a result. The next morning Mary Anne, my high school bud who'd moved up to Buffalo the month earlier, was grumpy. Our laughter had kept her up all night.

I'm glad you're still in touch with Greg. I'm glad he has kids. I imagine Greg would be a great father. He had so much love in him. Say hi for me. 8-)

Posted by: elissa at January 12, 2006 05:17 PM
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Calling gulleys and gorges "gulfs" was fairly common in the first half of the 19th century.

Delavan Ave. in Buffalo used to be called the "Gulf Road" because of a gulley near the intersection with Main St.

Posted by: craig at January 12, 2006 08:48 PM
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Waaaaaait a minnit, neither basalt nor schist are plutonic... how can I believe anything you say ever again?

Posted by: yami at January 13, 2006 01:05 AM
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"Waaaaaait a minnit, neither basalt nor schist are plutonic..."

How do YOU know how deep their feelings for each other are?!?!

Posted by: craig at January 13, 2006 01:13 AM
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You probably knew this one would strike a nerve. The Tug Hill Plateau, eh?

Posted by: beth at January 13, 2006 03:45 AM
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"Waaaaaait a minnit, neither basalt nor schist are plutonic..."

There's an implied "and" in there.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at January 13, 2006 06:16 AM
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Why, you tell the depth of a rock's feelings using emogeothermobarometry, of course. Which is like regular geothermobarometry but with more crying about the lead investigator's ex-girlfriends.

Posted by: yami at January 13, 2006 11:08 AM
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