4,017 miles

When I first started this exercise of traveling around the edge of the lower 48 states, I decided early on to go in order — that is, to pick up where I left off and continue around. I decided this after the first segment from Venice, LA to Big Bend National Park in Texas. The basis for the decision was that, 1) there some benefit in seeing how things change as the geography changes next to those things, and 2) it meant I couldn’t “plan” for what a particular area would be like weather-wise — I couldn’t say, pick warmer times to be up north, cooler times to be down south — I would just have to endure whatever the folks living there endured. I’m glad I am doing it this way. It somehow feels more correct to finish where I started. But it does mean I’ve caught some weather. This trip was no different. From Cleveland to Savannah, in April, I didn’t get out of a winter coat until Ocracoke, Island, NC. And I need two even there to make it through the night in the tent.

I’ve said before that I am really amazed at how I don’t seem to ever catch anyone having a bad day when I meet people out on the edge. That may be the one unifying thing I take away from all this — people are nice. This is the first segment where, while I didn’t run into any mean people, I definitely got a sense of the reserved nature of folks in the upper northeast. I felt like my interactions there started with a bit of distance. Like I was being sized up. My view was, and is, that when someone shows up and tells you he is taking a lap around the country on the ground, in order, from Venice, LA all the way around, he should be greeted with some reserve. He should be sized up a bit. So, I don’t mind. In fact, I usually say “I know this is odd, but…” when I describe my journey. In some parts of Maine — the northern interior before I got to the Acadians — I could almost see the gears turning in folks’ heads, coming up with all the things they would do if they had the time and ability to do what I was doing. And that list never included actually doing what I was doing, I could tell. And I recognized that when they said, in that distinct accent, “well, thanks for stoppin’ by” they really meant “boy will I be glad when this nut is gone.” But, again, they were perfectly nice about all of it and I didn’t have a single negative encounter, again, on this entire trip.

As for the edge itself, it’s hard to compare this to any section I’ve been on before. With the exception of a couple of spots on the West Coast, I’ve not been in areas of this much population before. And in particular, this much continuously populated area. Even on the West Coast, the density was heavy, but intermittent. For a large section of this trip it was non-stop. In that regard, Maine was a nice intermission for this segment. While I was in it, it was a little bewildering, but on reflection, I needed it. That period of being wholly alone for long periods built up a space that could accept being wholly surrounded in the sections that followed.

Being essentially that spot from which it all began, the East Coast from Boston to Washington, more clearly than any other, shows the edge as a starting point, rather than a boundary. I talked earlier about how hard folks up there have worked to find an escape on the edge. There isn’t much space left since folks started building right away when they landed, so it takes massive amounts of money in most parts, and in others, massive amounts of steel and concrete as the condos rise vertically, in order to look east instead of West. Other areas, people were going to, this one they are/were going from, as we built the nation. So the people that settled here piled up instead of out. Again, the parallel is on the West Coast, where the same thing happens, but only because they ran out of space to keep going. Culturally this is a big difference — the West Coast is newer, for sure, but it is also the product of folks who journeyed across the entire country to get there. SO, out west, when I told my story, I was more likely to get “wow, that is so cool” in response as opposed to “thanks for stoppin’ by.” On the East Coast it was a journey, to be sure, but across an empty ocean from a totally different approach to governance than the one we would build here. And it was a journey of necessity, to escape persecution in most cases, rather than a choice. But uniformly, east, west, north, south, middle, I am finding a diverse and approachable country. Some areas may emphasize some portions of our founding ideals more aggressively than others, but I have not felt a stranger — even as a child of the Deep South — in any part of the country so far. I think that’s a big deal. I have felt strange, but not a stranger.

Until this trip, I think I tended to greet people and situations with a set of ideals and expectations against which I judged and prepared for them. In other words, I brought myself to them. In that way, I strengthened my own worldview through experiences that validated it. Since this trip, I think I tend to meet people where they stand, to confront situations as they are, in the context of everything I have experienced to get to that person or that situation. And, importantly, I don’t get to choose people or situations — I have to take what I get as I motor around the edge. Meeting someone in rural Northern California after crossing the entire continent to get there is different than dropping in out of the sky and meeting them. This is not to say I have altered any of my core beliefs because of all this, merely that I have a gained a perspective on how and why others have theirs. And that perspective has certainly added depth and color and nuance. That’s a big deal, I think.

I still have one section left — basically all of the Florida Coast, with a smidgen of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi thrown in, before I return to Venice, LA. At the outset, my son and I wondered if it would different out on the edge, where people were closer to everything else than they were to the heart of America. It is. But it is different, too, in the heart of America where people are further from the edge than to anything else. What is shatteringly the same is that, if you meet them where they stand, in the context of the history and struggle of the place in which they stand, you find America. It isn’t always pretty, and it isn’t always something you want to emulate or live in, but it is us, and the alternative(s) are so inferior that millions leave them to come here. Just as we did.

I said early on that the border, the edge, defines the limits geographically of what we call America and that everything inside those borders demonstrates America as an idea. It’s becoming ever clearer to me that this sentiment starts at the edge. And doesn’t stop until it, too, runs out of ground.

South from the Outer Edge

Sunrise at Ocracoke

(Note: I updated yesterday’s post with photos, if you want to go back and see those.)

I got up very early to do two things: 1) see the sunrise over Ocracoke, and 2) Leave no risk of missing the early ferry to Cedar Island. The ferry ride takes two hours and this time of year it only runs early in the morning and in the middle of the afternoon. It was a cold night, but not north Maine cold — maybe high 20s — and for once the wind stopped blowing about 9 o’clock. It was a pleasant, good sleep, that comes when it is cold and the sea is crashing away rhythmically and there is nothing else. Ocracoke is the gift that keeps giving.

An early morning ferry ride from Ocracoke Harbor

Once clear of the dock, it was power napping in the sun for the next two hours (there is nothing to see on the crossing except water). Among all the collective great things about the North Carolina Outer Banks, is that their ferries don’t hassle me over my gas tanks. It meant I could travel a long way south on the outer banks, and it meant I could come ashore at Cedar Island.

My talisman, Toomai, comes ashore at Cedar Island aboard the ferry

In addition to the beauty of the Cedar Island Wildlife Refuge — which is formidable — the island is a great introduction to the next section of the eastern edge. The edge here south of Ocracoke is what is known as the Core Sound, protected by the Core Banks. At Harker’s Island, the coast bends back west behind what is called the Back Sound, down to Beaufort. From there on the coastal islands are not so much barriers as playgrounds. Anyway, when you come ashore at Cedar Island, everything seems slower. There’s more room for the water to wander and more braided, twisting marsh creeks with squatting duck blinds in the bends and ramshackle docks here and there. As peaceful as Assateague and Ocracoke and the rest of the Outer Banks — from Currituck, Corolla, Duck, Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, etc., there is a tension there. And real power. The power is obvious — you are way out against the Atlantic. The first defense. The point man. The tension is realizing how little you have to work with. Once on the shore of the core sound, you are on the mainland and the core sound is closer to you. It’s calming. You can see it in the towns along the way. Folks sell crabs from the front porch. The mini-market at the crossroads seems to always be the place where things get done. Yards are clean, but not necessarily neat. These towns feel of the sea, and the pace feels of the tide — not the crashing waves and winds of the banks.

It may be they are just drawing their collective breaths, because the outer banks have earned the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Depending on the source, you can find over 600 or over 1,000 ships lost in wrecks on the outer banks. Add in some Civil War battles (the Monitor lies on the bottom offshore here), frequent storms, the collision of two Atlantic currents — the Labrador and the Gulf Stream — and pirates, and you have the recipe for the Graveyard. Calico Jack, Anne Bonney, Mary Read and Edward Teach (Blackbeard) all called Ocracoke and the Outer Banks home for their piratic pillaging. And it was the calm shoreline behind the banks — like Cedar Island — with all its creeks and channels and hiding places that made raiding the big boats offloading at the Outer Banks easy prey. So, the edge inside the banks is quiet, even secretive, and it always has been.

From Cedar Island it is a winding, slow ride around to Morehead City, then out onto Atlantic Beach, Emerald Isle, North Topsail, and on and on to Wrightsville Beach. Then it’s a quick run inland to slip south of Wilmington and get across the Cape Fear River before continuing south to Oak Island and Ocean Isle. And then your in South Carolina. If you aren’t trying to ride right on the edge, most of this is repetitive. These are all vacation towns, unashamedly so, and they have increasingly begun to all look alike. Whenever possible, the old, hunkered down against the hurricane beach homes are being replaced with the vertical, multi-gabled, pottery barn homes that are easy to instagram and rent. They are attractive if unimaginative, and as far as I can see, they are well built. The next big storm up here will tell. But the net affect is to bore you if you see one after the other. By the time I get to the rent-me champion of Myrtle Beach, I can’t take anymore.

I bump one row inland on the roads and use SC 701 and 17 to ply the back bay areas and delve into the Francis Marion National Forest. It calms me. Interestingly, this area feels a lot like Cedar Island, even though it is back from the shoreline. I finally kick west of Charleston to avoid the traffic and settle in for the night.

Tomorrow I will finish this section of Edge Trek 2018 when I reach Savannah. It is the penultimate segment. In the Fall, I will finish my lap, going from Savannah down the Georgia and FLorida east coasts to Key West before turning north to follow the western coast of FLorida around to the panhandle, Alabama and MIssissippi coasts and, finally, to Louisiana, from whence all this foolishness came. As usual, I will have some cumulative thoughts about this run from Cleveland around to Savannah. And, as usual, I will spend most of the ride from Savannah to Atlanta piecing those together in my mind. Regardless, this segment was different from others as all others have been different. The edge changes as it surrounds and defines the limits of this American idea, and I have changed as I have explored it. I don’t know that I have found America, but I have found peace and understanding about America. And so, no matter the conclusions I draw, I will be forever grateful for these opportunities to back out of my driveway and take a drive on the edge.

The Outer Edge

Assateague Pond and the work of the pine bark beetle

Assateague was just as good with the sun rising over it in my rear view mirror as it was the day before. But the edge continues south and so must I. Down the index finger to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, over and through which you get to Norfolk. The bridge-tunnel is 23 miles long, and was opened in 1964 — the year before I was born. I know how I feel in the morning, and I don’t have hundreds of thousands of people riding on my back every day. I felt for the old boy. For $13 you get to save a bunch of time and get a spectacular view of the bay. I videoed the trip over and under, but it’s waaaay too long to post with this. So far, since opening, more than 100 million vehicles have passed over and under. Today, I added one more.

Somehow, once on the other side, I felt like I was legitimately inVirginia. I have no claims on the state one way or the other — though I did spend four of the best years of my life in it — but the DelMarVa kind of felt like its name, a little bit of a lot of things and not really any of any of them. It took getting off it, to the barrier island of Assateague, to get much of a sense of place. Some of this is because the peninsula is in a bad way. The two Virginia counties on it are the poorest (or nearly) in the state. The idea of being a waterman or a crab fisher or an oysterman on the bay, and having a home and raising a family are gone. It’s an interesting process, and one that seems to happen a lot on the edge. The foundation of a place is built by people around a set of skills. Those skills become either obsolete, illegal, or so regulated that the cost isn’t up to the price. The people who built it (and those like them) leave, the folks left don’t have any skills or resources, and the place, and all its rich culture falls to ruin. One of the folks I talked to was asking if I’d been to Tangier Island, which is in the middle of the bay. I said I had not and asked if that was something I should do. He said, well, once, you should go once.

Tangier used to be a relatively thriving community of watermen and crab fishers and oyster men. Maybe 800 or so on the island with no connection to the mainland except boat and air. They didn’t care, they could catch crabs and fish and oysters, and take them to the mainland and make money. Money they needed very little of to live and thrive on Tangier. They knew how many traps they needed to catch enough crabs to make enough money to set enough traps the next season. They knew. They knew when to keep crabs and when to throw them back so they would make more crabs for the traps they would set next season. They knew. Then someone, somewhere, with power lines and roads and water and no salt on the windowpanes read a study and said this is the number of traps you can set. No more than this. And it wasn’t enough. The population on Tangier is dwindling now and the residents are working on rigs or just moving ashore. The thing is, too often, in my opinion, the folks who make a living off natural resources are not considered the experts on the natural resources. We assume that the greed of the corridor I just came through applies to everyone — but it doesn’t. The guy who will starve next year if there aren’t enough crabs is not going to exploit the crabs. He doesn’t need a bunch of studies to tell him when the stocks are low, he just takes less and charges more. He needs the resource.

I thought about those folks on Tangier when I was crossing the bay. I hoped somehow there was someone out there figuring out how to hang on. To keep the possibility of a life away from all the corridor possible. To keep the noise of everything except the wind and the water somewhere else.

I think the peninsula will be okay. But it will be chicken that saves it. I can’t say if that is better or worse, but Perdue and Tyson have big processing plants, and immigrant populations are becoming citizens and building their own success stories with big chicken houses and that’s not a bad thing. The processing plants are a bit piquant, and I’ve seen much better architecture than the huge chicken houses, but the market is working and poverty is being fought tooth and beak with a new weapon. Maybe in a hundred years when the place is thriving again, they too will get told how to manage birds and they too will have to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Maybe it’s all a cycle, no matter the romance of the beset.

The old gray Hundy finally gets her feet on the edge north of Corolla on the The Outer Banks

Once on Virginia proper, it was barely a cup of coffee before I was crossing over to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This is the edge of the edge of the edge. The graveyard of the Atlantic is a series of barrier islands and shoals that basically encircle the coast of North Carolina. It’s a daily battle out here of wind and sea and sandy land. The shoals move a lot, but the wind is good next to the shore and that, over time, has lured sailors too close. Over 600 ships are on the floor of the sea off this coast. Out here we’ve lost boats to the Germans, lost horses that swam ashore, learned to fly and found a place to hide. I drove the entire Outer Banks, basically from the Virginia line, on the actual beach, through Currituck where I got on pavement, Corolla, Duck and Kitty Hawk. From Kitty Hawk to Hatteras, where I ran out of road and ferried to Ocracoke. The southern section, from Kitty Hawk to Hatteras, is National Seashore and that continues onto Ocracoke. This makes a big difference. Most of the section north of Kitty Hawk is pretty much a vacation land. There’s a good deal of that south until you get clear of Nags Head. Then it is almost as it was. Empty beaches and dunes on one side and wide marshlands dotted with wooded hummocks on the sound side.

The beach at Ocracoke Island, Outer Banks

This is doubly true on Ocracoke. I would like to stay here. There isn’t anything, save a small collection of houses and businesses at the south end. It’s all National Seashore. It is sublime. It’s kind of how I want the edge to be everywhere — a big empty, perfect, unmolested space that guards all our foolishness, like a buffer zone, from the outside. A place where, if you sit long enough, you can remember what we are supposed to be — not what we hear and struggle with everyday. But the edge is an edge of a country. A country we built and fought for and fought over. A country that values our individual liberty over everything. And sometimes people, individuals, get away with stuff. That’s how it is. Someone somewhere makes a decision that changes everything on an island in the middle of nowhere. A group of people figure out how to make a ton of money doing something no one ever imagined, and we all go along because we like what they figure out. And the edge gets crowded in some places, and in some places that where crowded it gets empty again. It can’t be different, because if it were different it wouldn’t be here.

The quiet emptiness of this outer edge. Ocracoke Island.

A Changing Edge

The salt marshes of Assateague Island

I woke up in the middle of the night remembering a ferry ride somewhere early on in the edge trek — must have been the Texas coast somewhere — when I was called back from boarding because I had gas cans on the bumper. My plan today was the Cape May-Lewes Ferry and I have two 5 gallon Jerry cans on the bumper. So, I started checking on the Ferry rules and discovered I had been foiled by The Man. Each car on the Cape May Ferry can have one gas can, empty or full, totaling no more than something like 6 gallons. Unless that car is pulling a boat. The boat can have two gas cans, empty or full, with the same amount of gas. So if you are pulling a boat you can have three gas cans. But if you aren’t pulling a boat you can only have one gas can. There’s a 50/50 chance I could have just slipped on, but basically to be safe, I could buy a boat, give up one gas can (I love my metal Jerry can), or find another route. I chose the latter. In the end it was shorter time-wise, but I was looking forward to the boat ride. I did it once before with my son and it’s a nice ride.

Instead, I plotted another route down through New Jersey, across the Delaware River, along the Delaware coastline to Maryland and over into Virginia just south of Pocomoke City. I traversed the eastern side of the DelMarVa peninsula. If you look at the map, from Philadelphia south, there is what looks like a hand hanging down — its wrist is at Wilmington, DE, its closed fist is due east of Washington, DC, and its long index finger is pointing at, or trying to touch Norfolk. This is the DelMarVA peninsula. It also happens to be the entire state of Delaware essentially, but they long ago figured out how to stay quiet and make all the money. They are probably satisfied that it isn’t the MarDelVa or the VaDelMar peninsula.

I said it yesterday, I think, but New Jersey is a very nice state. Once south of about Elizabeth, I found the entire central part of the state and southern part of the state to be delightful. Beautiful mixed hardwood forests, clean agricultural communities, Christmas Tree farms. Certainly there were areas of transportation warehouses and other industry clustered near strategic points, but the state is nice. Same with Delaware. Once out of the neck at the Delaware River, the state is lovely, with good — if expensive — roads and nice communities. The folks in the gas stops and cafes are uniformly nice and respond when you “hello” them.

I have a list of things to do after each of these trips and one of the things on this trip’s list is to figure out how and why Virginia ended up with the index finger. Looking at the map, it makes no sense, but own it they do and that’s where I ended up. I wanted to visit a relative — she is the daughter of my maternal grandmother’s cousin, so I don’t know what that makes her to me, but we share a lineal blood line of the same family from northern Arkansas/southern Oklahoma and there aren’t many of us left, so it is important. To me. She lives around the Onancock area and I was thrilled to meet her and have a nice visit. After our chat, I backtracked up to Chincoteague/Assateague to visit the National Seashore there. Assateague is a barrier island that is basically the first knuckle of the index finger — Maryland owns the north part, Virginia the south part. I was on the VIrginia part.

An Egret so wet from fishing he’s having a bad feather day and a squirrel so old he’s gone white on Assateague Island

There is no permanent population of people on Assateague. It is all preserved for wildlife and the coastal forest habitat. It’s moving north a little bit each year because of a set of jetties that were built to maintain navigation for Ocean City Maryland. At its current rate of movement I’m not sure anyone is going to notice for a few million years, but still, we messed with Mother Nature, so I’m worried about the results. For now, it is a sublime place. You have probably heard about it because of the ponies. Either a group of Spanish horses swam ashore after their ship wrecked nearby (they have found a wreck, so this is plausible), or they are descended from colonial horses that were roaming free and got away from their owners. Either way, they are a unique genetic line. At less than 14-point-something hands high at the shoulder, they are by stature, ponies. But they have the genetic markings of horses, so some believe their small size is an adaptation to the environment. Regardless, they are the charming ambassadors for this windswept paradise on the eastern edge of the eastern edge. The herd is divided between the Maryland end and the Virginia end. A fence prevents cross-breeding. The Virginia ponies are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. How this happened is a mystery, but it is one of the better pieces of data I’ve come across on the edge. The Maryland herd is owned by the state. Once a year, the firemen round up the Virginia ponies and swim them across the channel to Chincoteague where some are auctioned off. This benefits the fire department and provides the necessary control of the wild herd so they don’t overrun the resources of the island. The Maryland side just sterilizes a few of the mares each year to accomplish the same thing. You can decide which method you think is better.

The fat, wild Chincoteague Ponies of Assateague Island

While the Virginia ponies can go pretty much where they want on their end of the island, they generally stay on the western side in a salt marsh where they have their preferred feed of salt marsh grass. Because of the salt content, they drink about twice as much as a normal pony their size would. So they are fat. Bloated belly fat. And adorable. I hiked a trail around the salt marsh for a couple of miles and finally found a few of them. Enjoying a hike on this beautiful island, finding these iconic ponies, and spotting deer, more birds than I could count, and squirrels so old they look like Santa Claus, was an example of why I love this whole exercise so much. If you get a chance to visit Assateague, please do. It’s accessible and remarkable.

Easternmost Virginia gives way to the Atlantic Ocean at the edge of Assateague Island

Tomorrow I will poke south over and under the Chesapeake Bay, and follow the coastline of Virginia down and out onto the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I’ve been there before with my son, and I hope to camp in the same spot. It’s been a long ride already from Cleveland around the top of Maine, and I think a night under the stars by the sea will do me good.

The Corridor

The morning sun lights up Star Island off the coast of Rye Beach, New Hampshire

The most densely packed region of the Western Hemisphere is the I-95 corridor between Boston and Washington, DC. With over 50 million residents, it accounts for 17% of US population within only 2% of US landmass. It averages 1,000 people per square mile while the US average is 80.5 people per square mile. It holds 20% of US Gross Domestic Product. Today, I skirted it and drove through it on the Edge Trek. After spending the first part of this trip in the least densely populated portion of the US east of the Mississippi with fewer than 1 person per square mile in Northern/Western Maine. It was a culture shock to say the least.

My plan was to stick to the coast on US 1 and US 1A as much as possible in the hopes I could skirt the madness of the Megalopolis. This works until cities like Portsmouth, Boston, Providence, Bridgeport and New York — all of which are hanging over the edge — come into play. In those cases, the hope was that I could time things so that my drive south was against traffic flow, or happened in an off-peak time period. To put it bluntly and immodestly, I ruled.

The early morning was glorious — down the rest of the Maine coast and through New Hampshire, enjoying surprising places like Rye Beach, New Hampshire which managed to be a beautiful vacation spot on the coast without being too touristy. Then came Massachusetts. Geographically, Boston is like a pac-man mouth, with the big city as the throat and it’s reach out to the edge like the teeth and lips. From Newburyport south to the Cape, everything is within it’s bite. And it even dribbles out down the chin to Providence, RI. You can get there from the city with relative ease, and this means that the edge — for the entire length of the corridor really — becomes a very different place.

This is not to say it is unpleasant, or lacking in beauty in spots. But it has become a place of escape. It is where the madding crowds run away to escape the madding crowds — which of course isn’t happening because the madding crowds are all at the edge trying to escape. It is an edge with its back specifically turned to the west. Specifically aimed at the great empty sea. Specifically altered to be not what is behind it. Elsewhere on the edge sea towns, even vacation towns, seem to have a sense of that which they are hanging off. Here they almost defiantly turn away, anchoring themselves firmly in the face of the rising sun, though occasionally forgetting to leave behind all they hoped.

No where is that more evident than Newport, RI. Originally rising to fame on the backs of the whaling and slave trade business, the city of Newport is now, perhaps, best known for the “summer cottages” along Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive. Pound for pound, I’d put Newport against any city in the world for magnificence of residential architecture. And I don’t mean that in a design sense, though the design of many of the “cottages” is sublime. I mean in the sense of utter impracticality, yet inspiring and exhilarating presence. These houses are ridiculously large and lavish and they still manage to occupy their ground in a piece. Scaled to their setting they got their start when rich Southern plantation owners began building places to escape the summer heat. Not to by outdone, the gilded age barons of industry from the big cities like New York and Boston, from Vanderbilts, and Astors, all the way to descendants of the American Royalty like Kennedys (John and Jackie were married there) plopped their “mine is bigger/better/more unique than your’s” homes on lots the size of stadiums so they could escape the din of the city. What they ended up with, was a society as busy and complicated and gossipy as they left behind. Edith Wharton wrote a book about it. What they left us with, thanks to an active preservation group, is a remarkable way to spend a day letting your imagination run wild. To be sure, there are still families leaving behind the melee of the corridor to join the melee of the summer season in Newport, but for the most part, the real gems are preserved and open to the public so that we can pretend. From Greco-Roman marble manners, to towering Victorians, to gleaming white veranda-clad plantation homes, Newport is worth the time to visit and wander.

Newport is also the place where, in 1965 amidst national turmoil, a poor black man from Texas showed up at the Newport Folk Festival with a guitar and, instead of protest folk songs for the largely white audience, sang of real pain, and real love, and real vengeance, and real redemption. Lightnin’ Hopkins stole the show. The irony of that in a place like Newport is nothing compared to actually watching the performance, which you can still do online, and which I strongly encourage.

Having successfully slipped through and under Boston with relative ease, and enjoyed a wonderful few hours touring around Newport, it was time to blast down the Connecticut coastline in such a way as to hit New York City with the best chance of avoiding disaster. That meant a hop-scotch of I-95 and US 1 with the hopes of making it to the Garden State Parkway and across to New Jersey with my sanity in tact. With the help of Wayz and my impeccable timing, I can say the trip was stress-free. I’m crediting the zen rock from yesterday.

New Jersey, in general, gets a bad rap. The bulk of the state — the coastline and the central pine barrens, and the southern farmland are actually very nice. I’ve been through and around in the state many times in the past. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s trip south as well. Avoiding the vomit-inducing places like Atlantic City is easy, and the whole trip doesn’t take long anyway. I’m trying to get to the eastern shore area of Virginia — specifically the Onancock area — to see a relative who has lived and thrived on the edge there for years. I’m hoping to learn some things. I’m hoping to share those with you when I do. From the most powerful escape artists of the corridor to the happy Acadians of northern Maine sawing trees and dispensing hospitality, the edge continues to intrigue me. As I continue to ply my way southward, I don’t expect that to change at all.

The Turn South

Cadillac Mountain in the distance

Once out to the mouth of the St. Croix river I turned south down the Atlantic coast of the United States. That starts with the rocky, uneven, dramatic coastline of Maine. All of this started more than 600 million years ago. After numerous shiftings, meltings, upheaving, burying, eroding and other stuff over a period of 200 million years through geologic periods with funnier names than they deserve, came the Acadian Orogeny of the Early Devonian period about 400 million years ago. But you already knew that. What you might not know is that event — the Acadian Orogeny — was a mountains building event. It created the Boundary Mountains of Maine and the Appalachian Mountain Range. We clambered through the last of the Appalachians in order to get to Calais yesterday, today we headed out to one of the more notable Boundary Mountains that remain poking up as islands off the coast — Cadillac Mountain, which rises from Mount Desert Island as part of Acadia National Park. Cadillac is one of a handful of mountains that are in the park, the highest, and is said to be the first place in the United States to see the sunrise.

Schooner Head at Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park is the oldest park east of the Mississippi, which admittedly isn’t saying that much, and includes a history as a French missionary colony, and the active participation of one of the country’s greatest philanthropists in its restoration. Like much of the area up here it was caught up in the conflict between the French and British during the Seven Years War when it was ceded from French control to the British and the then governor and legislature granted land grants to the two children of the French explorer Cadillac who discovered it. Around the turn of the 20th century, the state of Maine began acquiring land and the largest portion was granted to the state by a woman in Boston who, I presume, was an heir to the Cadillac family. Having established the land for the public interest a fire burned nearly all of it in 1947. Led by John D. Rockefeller, Jr who personally laid out new carriage trails and oversaw design, the park was restored to its current state.

The Cranberry Islands from Mt. Desert Island

The park is remarkable, chiefly for those carriage trails, in my opinion. They are wide and maintain less than 10 percent grade, and are winding throughout the park. They make for marvelous walking. There is, of course, also the coastline. With the surf crashing at the base of the Boundary Mountains and great granite blocks breaking like tables along the shoreline, it is a dramatic site. The majority of the place was still closed for the season, but I was able to explore, and hike, and get a real sense of what this piece of land, 400 million years in the making has grown to be.

Maine’s iconic coastline

Carrying on south down the coast was as the postcards capture in terms of beauty. What they don’t capture is the rhythm of the place. Punctuating the rocky shoreline are estuaries and basins drawn nearly dry on the outgoing tide, their colorful boats laid over awaiting a fresh batch of nutrient-rich seawater on the ongoing one. Periodic deep harbors tuck in behind granite guardians and are surrounded by iconic villages with histories as rich as the waters themselves. All of it combined repeats and repeats and repeats in a rhythm that is hypnotic. From whaling to codding to scalloping and lobstering, these are all places of the sea as much as places of the land.

A bite of lunch overlooking the harbor at Camden

Just south of Camden comes Bath, and a hint of what is to come. It is a beautiful town, evenly divided, with churches and quaint village shops to the north of the bridge and a great sprawling ship works to the south bedecked in cranes and girders and dry docks. There is industry to be plied here on the edge. And it will continue to thicken, as will the population. By the time I get to Portland where I stop for the say, the corridor of development is in full swing. From here on, Portsmouth, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington will pack the edge with people and power. The scenery won’t be bad, but it won’t be what it has been. Replacing it will be the history of first a foothold, and then a stranglehold on everything else that happens inside the edge. One relatively small stretch along the chain that defines our boundaries will contain more of how what happens within those boundaries than any other place on the edge.

It will be different for the next few days. No more wandering and imagining and relaxing. I will have to be hard on the wheel, fighting traffic and dealing with a landscape more man made and vertical than natural and sprawling. I’m not going to lie, I’m going to get through it as efficiently as I can — my target is Cape May, New Jersey, where, with a ferry ride to Lewes, Maryland, I will be back in the natural setting of the eastern shore with the outer banks to come. I’ll sleep tonight with horns honking in my head and do my best to hold onto the images of Maine as the roads thicken.

Stare at a rock and find your zen. Going to need this image over the next day or so

Another Corner on the Edge

A pause on the Arastook Wilderness Road in April. This was the drive all the way up.

What a day. Every time I’ve been out on one of the segments of this Edge Trek, whenever I have a frustrating day, it’s almost always followed by a very fulfilling one. Such was the case today. After a wander about yesterday, my mission today was to get to the northern edge, turn the corner and begin the long southern trip down the Atlantic Coast. Before I get to that, a confession: I grossly misread the weather for this part of the trip. Which is to say, I studied the forecast during planning, checked them again before leaving, and believed them. I am comforted somewhat but the fact that everyone up here seems completely surprised by it as well. I had visions of catching smallmouth and brook trout in the waters of northern Maine — waters that are frozen. I was planning for cool nights, maybe around Mt. Katahdin and somewhere in the Green Mountains of New Hampshire — nights that turned from 30s to single digits coupled with an historic windstorm including gusts of 65mph where I was and over 100mph in Central Maine. What I’m getting at is I woke up with 3 inches of new snow and more falling, and I drove right into the teeth of it. It didn’t matter one bit.

Maine has 17.5 million acres of forest land. That is almost 90% of the surface area of the state, and includes almost 25 billion live trees. Certainly there are states with more trees, but I don’t know of any that are more completely forested. This is relevant because that completeness, the sheer un-ending nature of this biomass, has a real effect on you. No individual tree is interesting — they are various spruce and birch and maple mostly — but the whole of them, dense and together for every inch of the ground is almost overwhelming. I left this morning and basically followed the eastern edge of the Allagash Wilderness/North Maine Woods all the way to the top of the state. There is only one road, so nothing to do but get on the Arastook Wilderness Scenic Highway and head north.

The snow kept things quiet, and the deep green Spruce provided a nice canvas for the white accents. The road was fine, if a little vague beneath the covering. It got progressively heavier as I got further north, and by the time I got to the top there was about 6 inches of new snow. On top of the two and half feet already on the ground. So with two hours of zen-inducing straight line between the constant forest I had a very relaxing first couple of hours. Everything to my left (west) all the way to the New Hampshire line represented the least densely populated area east of the Mississippi, and everything to my right (east) was completely hidden (and not very populated either). So it was hard to be tense about anything.

Fort Kent has a fort because of some tension back in 1838-39. There are three Maritime provinces of Canada — New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. They considered themselves largely independent and were settled by Acadians — Frenchmen, Basque, Native American mixes who were tough, proud settlers. They refused to fight for the British or the French in the French and Indian War (Seven Years War). Somewhere in the St. John’s River valley a British officer captured some French soldiers and believed an Acadian with them was fighting for the French. And thus began a period of attempted eradication of the Acadians from the territory at which most progress was made after the Revolutionary War when loyalist British moved north and wanted land. Acadians were pushed into servitude in several places across the globe. Including Spain, with which they returned to America and helped settle Louisiana. Many also ended up on the western banks of the St. John in what was then Massachusetts. In 1820, when Maine became a state, the governor was very keen to have a good census and clear borders as he and his pals went to work making money. The British were keen to sneak back some of the land they ceded in the Treaty of Ghent, which re-instated the 1773 borders between Canada and Maine (Massachusetts). If you look at a map and go east from Montreal to New Brunswick you will see why they wanted it back. Anyway, lumberjacks were cutting timber where they pleased, politicians were squabbling, Maine called a special census of its own and authorized money for surveying and — for raising the state’s defenses. And the Acadians wanted nothing to do with the British. Things were getting pretty sticky with state militia massing at the border and by 1839, the parents got involved and settled it all with another treaty — signed in 1842. The result is that the St. John’s river is the border until the valley plays out at Hamlin, Maine, and then on a straight line south to the Monument River and through the middle of various lakes until the St. Croix River and from there to the sea. And the Arastook War fort at Fort Kent. And the fabulous Acadian culture of most of northeastern Maine.

Mid-way between Fort Kent and Calais, I visited Al’s Diner in Mars Hill. It is everything that is great about diners. Solid food, a friendly, talkative proprietress, and a great crowd of patrons. The accents were very different but the spirit was familiar if you’ve ever been to a crawfish boil in Louisiana, or a bar in New Orleans. One table as a guy with his 97 year old mother on her day out from the home. He had his wife and sister with him and they all doted on “Mom.” Another table was in deep discussion about a particular Catholic priests view of the transfiguration. Another was a steady weather report back and forth with the kitchen. (Mars Hill had 16 inches of snow this week.). It was delightful. On the way out I talked to the owner about the town and her business. She said all winter the place is packed every weekend with snow mobile riders who come from all over, and snow sledders who come from as far as Pennsylvania. She said 85% of her business comes from visitors. We love our regulars she said, but we don’t count on them to make money. She had the natural hospitality, visiting each table, that I haven’t seen since, well, New Orleans.

I started this whole trek with the great Acadian culture of southern Louisiana and never in my wildest dreams did I expect to find it’s bookend in the northeast corner of Maine. This is why it continues to be such a joy to be on this journey. I’m in Calais tonight, where the St. Croix finds the sea and the Atlantic coast of America starts. I’m on essentially the same road I will be on all the way to Key West, Florida — US 1. I will peel off for the outer banks and one or two other places, but the “1” it is for a long while. Tomorrow I go to Acadia National Park and see what is available this time of year. I’m looking forward to the scenic coastline and a different set of images, but I will not soon forget the dark, dense woods of western and central Maine.

The Deep Woods

Morning sun on a frozen Vermont Lake

Cold and clear with very little wind was a great way to start the day on the edge in northern Vermont. Through Derby Line and Morgan Center, over to Wallace Pond, and finally to Canaan on the New Hampshire border. Technically I think I was east of the Green Mountain range, but there are several 3,000+ foot peaks in the northeast corner of the little club-shaped state of Vermont. It is a beautiful part of the edge with nothing more than some Canadian Flags on the storefronts and a few French language signs to give you any indication that you are anywhere other than America. The little towns are nice little towns, and the in between is a series of well framed vistas with lakes (all frozen), streams, and mountains joining the maple and birch forests in the composition.

At the New Hampshire border, I had a choice to make. The very northern edge of the state juts up above the 49th parallel in a little bubble of three lakes — Francis, and First and Second Connecticut lakes. But there is no road around the edge, just one that splits the middle and goes into Canada. So, I could drive up, see the lakes and drive back, or I could cut the tip of the state off and cross the White Mountains through Dixville Notch and then climb back north in Maine. I chose the latter; down to Colebrook, across to Dixville Notch and Errol, and then up on HWY 16 into Maine. Dixville Notch is famous for being the first votes cast in the first in the nation presidential primary every four years. The town is not a big deal, but I did love recognizing the source of the name. Just west of the town, you arrive at what looks like a wall of mountain, with Dixville and Kelsey peaks over 3,500 feet. Then you see the notch — a broken granite gap that can’t be anything other than a “notch” and the corresponding slot through the mountains. Out west they call these “passes” but when they look like this, they have be “notches.” I liked the little bit of New Hampshire I was in. The scenery is postcard perfect with mountains and forest complementing each other. Also, the gas station chat when I stopped for coffee was pleasant and the old guy was interesting. He asked what I was doing there and I gave him the short version of the Edge Trek and said I was headed over to Maine and up to the northern edge there. “Oh,” he said, “that’s a long way. Maine’s a big state.” I said he should see Texas. “Oh,” he said, “it’s bigger than Maine?” I said just a little. Maine is the 41st largest state in the US, but when you’re New Hampshire…

New Hampshire river in the morning sun

I have mixed emotions about my Maine experience. In terms of the goal of the Edge Trek — it has so far been a failure. There is a substantial edge from the northeastern corner of New Hampshire to the northern border of Maine. All of that border is within the 3.5 million acres of the north Maine woods with no towns and no paved roads – save the small stretch of US 201 that goes west/northwest into Canada. The area is managed by a loose coalition of private timber and state timber interests and it has roads — just not paved ones. And not well marked ones. And not well maintained ones. And not plowed in the winter ones. Determined to get as close as I could, I came east into the Rangeley Lakes area, north into Eustis/Stratton, around the lakes south to North Anson, and then back north all the way to Jackman. From there I went east to Moosehead Lake and Rockwood, and south around the lake to Greenville before turning north again up the Lily Bay road. If you look at all this on a map it looks crazy, but what I was doing was probing for logging roads I could use to get to the edge. The maps I have were pretty good and I could generally find the entrance to the roads, but they were un-plowed and blocked by the snow bank from the main road plowing. By the time I got to Rockwood, on the western side of Moosehead Lake, I realized I wasn’t going to get to the western edge of Maine. But I thought I could get across to Millinocket without going further south — and this would allow me a direct route to the northern edge in the morning. On the eastern side of Moosehead Lake, the Lily Bay road runs north all the way up to the southeastern corner of Baxter State Park where the Golden Road goes east to Millinocket. These are through Plum Creek Timber company land and were reported to be plowed and open. I made it about 8 miles north of Kokadjo, chose the eastern fork (unmarked) of what I believe was Lily Bay road and followed the two track slush in the general direction of north and east. This was a two track, not a plowed logging road. Eventually, the snow was drifted too deep to continue and so I reversed back to a wide spot and turned around. Then I went 60 miles south to Guilford, across to Milo, and back north to Millinocket. I found the terminus of the Golden Road outside Millinocket and it was beautifully plowed. I just never found the other end.

If you are gathering a tone of frustration, you’re comprehension is on point. I really thought I could figure this out and make it through. I want to be mad about it, but I can’t. In the end it is astounding that in 2018 there is a portion of the border of the United States that, at least at this time of year, you can not get to unless you go to Canada and come from that side. And I think I mean astounding in a good way. Like, you have to park it and saddle it and brave it to see it. By the way, the north woods are rumored to have all sorts of mythical creatures in them, including squirrel-like creatures that drop poisonous moss in your eyes at night. So, while frustrated, I will simply head north, along the eastern edge of the north woods, all the way to Fort Kent, round the top and then head south along the Atlantic. I’m looking forward to the lonely ride through the middle of the state and intend to keep my eyes well protected.

A rare gap in the Maine forest and this is what you get to see

I should talk a little about what it is like traveling in this part of Maine. It’s beautiful and unspoiled. And it’s like a tunnel. The roads are rough, narrow and tightly bordered by dark green, almost black, evergreens. As a result, you rarely get a sense of anything except what is directly ahead. There is wildlife — I counted turkey, deer and a fox (or marten I’m not sure) in today’s roster and I’m going to be disappointed if I don’t see a moose tomorrow — but it is only in front of you. Every once in a while, you top a rise, maybe near a clear cut, and you see the northern end of the Appalachian Range — chiefly Mt. Katahdin — but it is gone in a flash, replaced by the dark tunnel of softwood. It is difficult to describe the density of the forest of here — my only comparison is the western slope of the Amazon Rain Forest in Ecuador. If you step into the forest here — maybe 20 feet or so, and turn around three times, you’d be lost. It is very much like a wall on either side of the road. The result is a real sense of isolation. I’ve been in very remote places out west — miles away from anyone or anything — and it didn’t feel as isolated as that two track in the north Maine woods. I would like to think that if I’d stopped and just chilled out a little bit before hammering it in reverse, I would have found Frost’s sense of the “lovely, dark and deep” woods. I might have. They were lovely and dark and deep. But they were also in the way. I’m going to try and be more accepting tomorrow. And I’m going to get to the edge.

A Weathered Edge

Lake Ontario enters the Saint Lawrence River. The foreground and tree branches are iced over from the spray of waves over the sea wall.

At 6:30 this morning it was apparent that the wind gods had decided to take a break. This, of course, was the signal to the snow gods, who took up the cause with fervor. Just east of Rochester, NY, on the banks of Lake Ontario, in April, we were having a white out. From Pultneyville to Pulaski, it was one lane, 10 feet of visibility and 15 minute stops to clear the windshield. And then it stopped. 10:30 am and the skies over Lake Ontario went from impenetrable to absolute bluebird. It wasn’t like the storm front passed or anything, it was as if the clouds evaporated in a matter of minutes. They weren’t off in the east, they were gone. Which was the signal to the now refreshed wind gods…

Of course, I had experienced “lake effect” snow. Cold winds from the northwest cross the lake, picking up moisture and dropping it when they cross the land. The southern and southeastern shoreline of Lake Ontario is actually known as the snow belt. Lake Ontario is the smallest of the Great Lakes by surface area, but not volume. It is deeper by a stretch than Erie. In fact, its deepest point is about 200 feet off shore from Oswego. Just north of Oswego, when the snow has disappeared and the sky was clear blue, Lake Ontario looked almost purple. The water is clear, but, I assume because of the depth, it was the deepest, darkest blue water I’ve seen.

The Tibbetts Point Light at Cape Vincent

I followed the blue Ontario all the way to the northwest corner of New York at Cape Vincent. This is where the Great Lake empties into the Saint Lawrence river and from thence to the Atlantic Ocean. I would keep the Saint Lawrence immediately on my left all the way to Rooseveltown, NY, and I was thoroughly glad to do so. I’ve noticed around the edge, when a significant body of water is involved, the towns seem more organized. Most of the northern edge is a border that is man made, and the towns sort of wander out into the brush and don’t have much identity — save the rail junctions. Along the Great Lakes, and certainly here on the Saint Lawrence, there is work to be had, harbors to be built, fish to be processed, goods to be stevedored. And on the Saint Lawrence, such has been the case since well before we were even us. The principle method by which the French developed the (mid) west well before independence, it would become a key part of the first war we fought as independents — in 1812. From fur traders who found their way all the way to what is now Northern Minnesota, and south to what is now New Orleans via the Saint Lawrence, people have been living and trading and building along its banks for a long time. While the ability to navigate all of it was seasonal, the early French “Voyageurs” built special freighter canoes that made it almost possible year round. The ability for real trade would have to wait until Dwight D. “Mr. Interstate” Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth officially opened the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959. The Seaway used locks and dams to alleviate the Lachine Rapids and make real commercial shipping a possibility.

The Saint Lawrence has such an effect on the geography that when the New York border leaves it, everything turns to, well, average. The towns are boring. The landscape is uninteresting. There is no sense of history or culture. There is nothing really, until the Mohawk Reservation Casino. This is, I’m sure, a tad unfair, but when you drive though town after town and can’t find a single interesting thing — or even different thing — it becomes a grind. The houses are all either built or reconstructed in the vinyl siding era. The farms are non-descript. The landscape neither rolls nor fills the horizon. Frankly there are just enough beautiful rivers cleaving northern New York (to get to the Saint Lawrence) to keep you from going totally bonkers. They last about 60 seconds as you see them, cross them, and then move on. Looking at the map,with all the finger lakes to the south I had high hopes for the edge along northern New York. If you go, stay in the finger lakes region and avoid the edge along highways 37, 122 and 11 like the plague. There is nothing up here east of the Saint Lawrence River boundary.

In absolute proof that there is a God, I got to Lake Champlain and the Vermont border. The lake is beautiful, but it’s the view from high atop the bridge across, halfway when you enter Vermont, that renders all that northern New York drudgery moot. Lake Champlain in the foreground and snow topped Green Mountains lining the horizon. Mountains make every view better, but in this case, it is the mountains and the approach to the mountains and the getting out of northern New York that make it really special.

I stayed hard on the Canadian border through Berkshire and Richford and North Troy, Vermont. I saw my first maple syrup farm 25 miles west of Newport. I crossed through the Green Mountains amidst blue sky and thick snow and gleaming white birch trees. The roads are narrow and have no shoulder. You have to pay attention. But every glimpse you get is glorious. I realized once I got to Newport and settled in, that this is my final one — the last of the 50 states and Puerto Rico that I have not been in. So in addition to significantly improving my mood after northern New York, Vermont is a milestone for me. And tomorrow it will be my starting point for New Hampshire and northwestern Maine.

Western Maine is not well marked for roads. Most of the roads are private and, while you can use them, they are built and maintained for the timber business and its log trucks. They are opened and closed at will. They are abandoned and left open and unimproved. They are sparsely marked. I’m going to do my best — solo — to find a way north in some general vicinity of the edge before turning south along the Atlantic coast. Oh, and it’s in the mid teens at night up here. Wish me luck. I hope tomorrow to get as far north as Jackman, before finding a way across to Millinocket from whence I get all the way north to St. Francis. Stay tuned.

A Ragged Edge

Like a bridge over troubled waters (sorry)

Between the hours of around 7:30 am and 10 am today, the Cuyahoga River did not burn. At least not within the park boundaries. In fact, it didn’t appear in the least bit likely to combust. It is swollen with rain and melt water, running at the very limits of its banks and bridges, and very cool to the touch. (You aren’t supposed to swim in it, but I figured dipping a finger in couldn’t hurt.). There are points in the park that are truly beautiful, but, for the most part, this feels like a “make up call”. Like we were so aware and ashamed of the near total destruction our quest for growth produced here we said, lets try and make up for it by making sure nothing like that can ever happen again. The National Park designation and protection is like a salve; a great bandage under whose cover we all collectively hope this place can recover. It’s 33,000 acres along 22 miles of the river, so I didn’t see all of it, but I did see the full length of the Cuyahoga River within the park. It is crooked, as its name implies, and the mixed deciduous forest throughout the valley around the river is lovely — particularly the presence of giant sycamores with their battered and broken bark shining white among the gray oaks — but it’s not spectacular. What is pretty special are the myriad of walking/biking/horseback trails that course through the park, mostly along the old canal towpaths. I spent a few miles on some of them in the middle of a snow and windstorm and still found them delightful. In the end, it is good to know this old wound is being healed. It’s good to have a protected stretch between Akron and Cleveland to remind us all that industry has its limits and its results. It’s good to have a nice path to walk without any indication of a city at all, and to listen to the sounds of the river, the birds, the trees in the wind and to hear, just maybe, the heavy chuffing and jingling of a pair of mules as they tow their barge.

A beautiful stream at the Brecksville Crossing on the CuyahogaThe Brecksville Crossing Bridge deck. The oldest wrought iron bridge in the Valley gets a deck of end grain wood

Top – the towpath and what is left of the canal.

Middle – a beautiful creek at the Brecksville Crossing of the Cuyahoga

Bottom – my artsy shot. The oldest wrought iron bridge in the valley crosses at Brecksville and its bridge deck is end grain wood

That windstorm, it seems, is a big deal. The steady wind — all day and continuing through tonight in the Niagara Region — is 35 mph, and the gusts are 65 mph. And it is periodically snowing heavily. The snow is not like any I’ve seen. It is almost round, like little “Dippin’ Dots” ice cream. I thought it was sleet, but it’s not ice, it is snow. It is odd, I think. Anyway, the result is that Lake Erie dropped 5 feet on its western end and rose 3 feet on the eastern side, which is where I am. And that’s without the waves, which were cresting at 13 feet in some places. Towns along the shoreline that look to me like they could take on a Russian tank battalion with their bare hands are near vacant as residents stay indoors and power goes out all around. In Buffalo, they close one of the main bridges to trucks for fear they will blow completely off of it. I don’t know if you’ve ever been exposed to sustained periods of sustained high winds, but it is exhausting. When I get out of the truck to hike around — in Cuyahoga or at Niagara — it takes longer to do anything. When I stay in the truck and drive trying to escape it, it takes more concentration and effort to hold things on the road. I ask the local folks about it when I get a chance and they all say, “this is bad.” I ask if it gets like this a lot, and they say, “oh yeah, every year around this time.” Living on this edge means dealing with weather — and I’m hear in the Spring.

I chat with some folks in Buffalo and they are uniformly nice. They are worried about the power situation because they sort of arbitrage the seasons and the fuel bill — they let the oil run out if the ice breaks up — and they need electric power to stay warm if the temps drop after that. It’s going to be in the teens tonight. And the wind is knocking out power all over the place. But the folks I talked to sort of take it in stride. One of them stopped talking to check on her mother and move her to a hotel, but said she’d figure out what to do for herself later. I can only imagine the winter, when feet of snow are involved. It makes me think of all those videos of Buffalo Bills fans smashing themselves through tables. I’ve watched them and thought these people are crazy. I’ve judged their judgment. But now I sort of feel like if you carve out a life for yourself and your family in a place where every single thing you have to do is a battle against the natural world for at least 9 months out of the year; and you want to or need to smash back a few beers and jump through a table as you root for the home team, then go ahead. God bless you. This place is brutal — again, in the SPRING.

Geographically, I hit the edge at Cleveland, on the southern shore of Lake Erie. Erie is the 4th largest (another way of saying almost smallest) of the Great Lakes, and it is the shallowest. With a maximum depth of 210 feet and an average much less than that, it is subject to the great swings in depth end to end that I described above. This is caused by the wind blowing the water from one end to the other. The lake is fed by primarily the Detroit River (though the Cuyahoga pours its, ahem, water into Erie as well) and it empties via the Niagara River. It covers over 10,000 square miles of surface area.

At the northeastern end of Erie are the aforementioned folks of Buffalo, NY in all their glory, and the largest waterfall in North America. Six million cubic feet of water per minute crash over and into the Niagara River Gorge on their way to Lake Ontario. Niagara Falls is really three waterfalls — two on the American side and one of the Canadian side. American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls are our’s, Horseshoe Falls is Canadian. There are two islands that make the three falls three falls — Goat Island being the main one, and Luna being the small one that creates Bridal Veil Falls.

A brief moment of light in the midst of the snow and windstorm shows American and Bridal Veil Falls in the foreground and Horseshoe Falls in the background

And, except for the work of a gardener, all three falls might be burning like the poor Cuyahoga. Around the turn of the 19th century, the town at the brink of the falls was a huckster’s paradise. Every hat trick, tin type, boat ride, souvenir rock from the falls themselves, was finding its way into the pocket of daily sojourners from the surrounding cities. And the banks of the Niagara River were lined with Aluminum Smelters, iron works and every manner of industry for whom the cheap power of water could make a difference. In came the river to power the plant, out went the water polluted with whatever the plant used to make its wares. Into this fresh Hell comes the gardener. And not just any gardener — Fredrick Law Olmsted — who wold go one to design Central Park, Prospect Park, the U.S Capitol Park, my own neighborhood in Atlanta along with its parks, and, the master plan for Yosemite National Park. Fred showed up, saw the natural beauty of the falls, saw the disaster unfolding, and called up money and politics and public opinion in the “Free Niagara Falls” movement. It worked. Private businesses were acquired, factories removed, and commerce limited as Niagara Falls became the first state park in America, and a model for the National Parks system.

Below the falls the Niagara River makes a big bend before finding Lake Ontario. The result is the Niagara Whirlpool.

I walked across from the American side to Goat Island and then on out to Prospect Point overlooking Horseshoe Falls and the Canadian side. The lower observation points are still closed for the season, but the views are unchanged. It is a remarkable sight, and even a little uncomfortable to be in the presence of so much power. For me of course, it was another corner on the edge — the inside right corner, from which I head east and north to the top right or northeastern corner. But there is some northern edge left. Tomorrow I follow Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence River, and then the 49th parallel across northern Vermont. Let’s hope the wind dies down a bit.