Under-the-Radar Upstate NY
The Empire State. When you hear the two words 'New York', raise your hand if your first thought is about dynamic New York City. I'm guessing a fair few hands went up, right? As electric as NYC is, I'd like to ignore it completely for this entry.
This one is about the rest of a fascinating state - "upstate", if you will.
Sidebar: Much has been made about the nebulousness of this term; for someone from NYC, it could be adjacent Westchester County. To some it might mean the Catskills, Albany, or even the Adirondacks, way up near Canada. Over the years I've learned that the term is pretty well meaningless out of context, and mighty confusing geographically, since New York State is a giant (to a New Hampshirite anyway!), blobby triangular shape that extends as far west as it does north.
Before we go further, I will admit that I have still seen but a tiny fraction of this amazing state - though I have driven across it on I-90 approximately 73 times. I'm just astounded by the number of different natural personalities - mountains, lakes, seashore, forests, farmland - which is to say nothing at all about its incredible human diversity, among the greatest in the US.
Let's look at my New York State travel résumé for a moment, shall we?
New York City: have visited all 5 boroughs, 2003-2012, 2021
Westchester County: Been visiting White Plains (Alyse's hometown and Julia's birthplace) & vicinity multiple times per year since 2004; lived in WP from Sept. 2009-Nov. 2010
Catskill Mountains: amazingly, only one visit in Sept. 2007
Albany/Capital Region: June 2018, Nov. 2021
Adirondacks/Lake Placid: Winters of 1995, 1996, 2016; incredibly, never in warm or even comfortable weather!
Utica: June 2017
Buffalo: June 2003, June 2017
Niagara Falls: Summers of 1993, 2003, 2015
Cooperstown: Aug. 2003, Nov. 2021
Some notable NYS places I've never been but are on my list:
Finger Lakes/Ithaca (I hear it's gorges)
Adirondacks in a season other than winter
Letchworth State Park (NY's wild west - worth a Google!)
So why am I writing about the Empire State now, you ask? Well, my brother Evan and I just returned from a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where we had been on our way back from Cincinnati in the summer of 2003. 18 years is a really long time ago, especially when your camera broke and you have no photos from the occasion. It was high time to return...
I picked Evan up at his Brattleboro, VT home on November 5, 2021 before driving the second, three-hour leg into New York's rural interior. My memories of the 2003 visit had faded to nearly unrecognizable snippets. Now I'm not the world's biggest baseball fan, but I've watched a fair few ballgames in my day (go Reds!), and I have a genuine appreciation for the sport's unique cultural home in our national consciousness.
NY Route 20 west of Albany was a tantalizingly scenic ramble through pastoral landscapes made more appealing by the utter lack of traffic. The windshield ahead framed the scene as we burst into a painting, October's brilliance having faded to a still-handsome russet. We rolled over the hills, tidy farms appearing and fading. Leaf-strewn homesteads protected brilliant emerald meadows as nearly-naked trees scratched skyward. The road was ours.
Turning left onto County Road 31 for the last few miles, Otsego Lake appeared to our right, fringed by a blast of flashy foliage. The dazzling November sun flickered, making the whole scene glow gold. It looked like something straight out of a car commercial. At the wheel, I regretted not being able to photograph the earthly majesty, but nonetheless enjoyed plying the twisting way with some spirited driving.
Cooperstown itself is a smart little settlement, sitting in brick-and-Victorian refinement on Otsego's southern shore. The town itself is tiny, with a year-round population of only 1,800. However, the downtown has a very solid feel to it, bolstered by the Hall and Doubleday Field, an updated structure on the site of where the first-ever baseball game was played.
A return visit after 18 years* was worthwhile not only for its own sake, but also because a tremendous amount of players that I watched as a kid were now in the Hall that weren't there in '03. A few that come to mind are Cal Ripken Jr. Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Larkin, Mike Piazza, Jim Thome, Vlad Guerrero, and Randy Johnson.
*not that anyone cares, but the 18+ year gap between visits is the third-longest of any destination I've ever been to; there was a 20-year gap between both Lake Placid (1996-2016) and Martha's Vineyard (2000-2020)
The exhibits, as expected, were fascinating, from 1800s equipment to 2021 World Series memorabilia that had literally arrived the day before and hadn't even been archived yet.
After a couple hours, our brains couldn't hold any more information so we ducked out. We made a quick stop to snap some photos by the lovely Lake Front Park before heading several miles south for dinner and a quiet overnight.
Day two arrived with a mighty chill. The previous day's glorious sunlight belied temps that didn't make it out of the 40s. Looking out the hotel window, frost covered the shivering grass as if someone had done a number on it with a spray can.
Cold as it was, I couldn't resist ambling outside to grab some photos of the nearby hills with the frosty foreground. The car was as icy as any winter morning. We were at ~1,200' in elevation, which was somewhat surprising given the flat appearance of the land and hilly backdrop.
Before leaving Cooperstown I mused that this teeny, middle-of-nowhere town incites knowing looks from anyone who's ever even heard of baseball, across the United States and surely beyond. Its very name is legendary. When combined with beautiful landscapes nearby, surely this town has it made, right? I wouldn't want to be here in the heart of summertime when tens of thousands must make it a traffic-choked nightmare. November had been the perfect time to visit.
After a long car-scraping session we proceeded back eastward, climbing a tremendous hill on a narrow road while raising an eyebrow or two at how the GPS had routed us. Then, it was Interstate 88, the most deserted stretch of freeway I'd been on in a very long time. We continued for probably 15 miles without passing a single car (or having one pass us), which made me wonder why there's an interstate in these rural parts to begin with.
This particular road was built to connect the Capital Region to New York's "southern tier" city of Binghamton (pop. 47,969) before joining up with I-86 and continuing westward past Elmira (27,054), Corning (10,538), and Jamestown (28,712). It then connects back with I-90 near Erie, PA. I had driven it before with my family as an alternate route to Cincinnati many years ago.
At 9:30 we arrived at our next destination, Howe Caverns. I was looking forward to a spot of spelunking before lunch. In reality, the caves were very well-trampled - several hundred tourists a day promenading down the brick underground pathways. That said, it was still incredibly fascinating, if not "off the beaten path".
The highlight, for me, was the 1/4 mile boat tour. Underground. By the time the 25 or so people in the tour group were loaded on the boat, we slowly made our way to the other side, where there was a dead end. After a very cool demonstration of "absolute darkness", we were paddled back the other way, past natural rock formations and and very unnatural (though dramatic) lighting.
Was it touristy? Yes. Was it unique and fun? Also yes.
Before we continued east toward Manchester via Brattleboro, it was time for a lunch stop. Prior to departure I had been browsing on Google Maps and found the nearby city of Schenectady (sken-ECK-ta-dee), population 65,173. Ha, I thought - probably another rust belt special, highlighted by boarded-up buildings, bedraggled denizens, and a general feeling of being unsafe while walking around.
Before dismissing it though, I came upon a neighborhood called the Stockade. Apparently, it was the oldest continuously-inhabited one in the United States - who knew?!
We entered downtown, and while there was a bit of a gritty feel to it, there were also a good deal of fresh-looking buildings and new construction. We parked and perambulated an attractive pedestrian mall before finding lunch at a dive-y pizza joint. I had a chicken marsala slice that was to die for (better than to die from, right?).
Then, it was time to explore the Stockade. True to my research, this neighborhood was a real stunner. Impeccably preserved historic structures dated back several hundred years, but most had crisply-painted trim and welcoming flowers out front. This was to say nothing of the leaves lazily blowing across manicured brick walkways. The magnificent weather (50s but felt warmer with brilliant sunshine) made for an exceedingly pleasant stroll.
Had we not been exhausted from two long but wonderful days, we could have walked farther. Nonetheless, it was the perfect place for a mini jaunt, and rounded out an excellent road trip.
With all due respect to the Big Apple, New York State has so incredibly much more to offer the traveler. As with just about every other destination, I'd love to spend more time appreciating its natural and cultural wonders. With limitless time, I'd devote two weeks and circumnavigate the state, from the Vermont border to the Thousand Islands, along Lake Ontario's shores and back through the Finger Lakes.
Someday perhaps I'll write about each state's charms when their biggest city or attraction is taken out of the equation. If I do, the Empire State will surely rank very high on the list.