I'm speeding south on Rt. 26, in search of the rumored roads I didn't make time for earlier in the year. Roads that traverse a different kind of wilderness... one that's become tangled with civilization as humans and forest have struck a constantly shifting balance.
A week ago, I rolled my '78 CB400 into the garage, satisfied with the thousand plus miles I put on it in my first year of riding. With its peeling faux leather seat beneath me, I coasted along contours in the Adirondacks and lakeshores in the Thousand Islands. I created new bonds with new friends, and strengthened old ones with my father. Today, I'm rolling it back out, to bond with the hills I call home and make my peace with the changing seasons.
Late October roads in northern NY are typically reserved for the most diehard of motorcyclists, but this year has been different. As soon as I put my bike into storage, I regretted it. Everywhere I went, I saw people riding, often with their coats unzipped and flapping in the unseasonably warm autumn sun. As if the visual reminder wasn't enough, the warm wind spilling in from the rolled down windows and teasing my sleeves filled my waking dreams with hum of the motor and the tint of my helmet visor.
But they aren't dreams anymore. I'm speeding south on Rt. 26, in search of the rumored roads I didn't make time for earlier in the year. Roads that traverse a different kind of wilderness... one that's become tangled with civilization as humans and forest have struck a constantly shifting balance. I pass the dilapidated and abandoned shell of the house I spent the first four years of my life in as I complete the thought. A fitting earthly punctuation.
A few miles down the road, I pass a brand new farmhouse. Its fields are freshly cut, and the wildness surrounding it stands a respectful distance away. For the time being. Along the main roads this alternating pattern of wilderness and settlement is occasionally interrupted by small single-traffic-light towns. Take a turn off to a side road, and who knows what you might find. Naturally, that's my first impulse.
This is the top of the Tug Hill Plateau, a region best known for its harsh winds and harsher snows. It averages over 30 feet of snowfall each year. Now, the only thing falling is the leaves.
I turn on to the Osceola Road and say goodbye to the familiar. By the time I reach third gear, the dense second growth forest is crowding the edge of the road. By fifth, all I see are trees and pavement stretching out before me. The sunlight is golden in the late season afternoon. The air smells of freshly cut leaves. The road slithers around bends and over hills like a living thing, twisting and rising, following the ecstatic and erratic path of a dog on scent. Grassy swamps break up the relentless forest, perhaps with their own rambling hounds on the hunt inside them.
The few houses I pass sit low or guarded by trees, with steeply angled roofs designed to shed snow as early and often as possible. It's a testament to the indiscriminate power of the weather at its worst, and it makes me all the more grateful for the gift of sunshine and warmth I'm experiencing now. The side roads branching out are narrow, often unpaved. The same urge to make the unknown known that set early explorers out to sea tugs at my core to see where they lead, to follow the thread of civilization to its end, and maybe beyond. But not today....
Curve after curve, rolling hill after rolling hill. They break, at last, on the shores of the Salmon River Reservoir. I follow the single arcing contour at the rivers edge back familiar territory, though it's no less wild. Just before the pavement ends, I reach the parking area I used as an excuse for this whole excursion. A few hundred yards away, the trees will end, and the ground beneath them will, too.
Salmon River Falls has drawn people to its roaring leap through space for hundreds of years. The Iroquois would fish here, amongst the spray, for the spawning salmon whose upstream progress met an end at the 110 foot waterfall. The Europeans followed, and in 1912, American engineers did too, harnessing the might of the falls in an early hydroelectricity project that continues to this day.
Although the hydro project dramatically decreases the flow over the falls, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has directed them to make a minimum flow release increasing the aesthetics of the falls. This minimum release keeps water flowing over the falls, but also allows the daring to explore the riverbed just upstream of the edge, and the motivated to view the falls from the plunge pool at its base, provided they're willing to climb back up to the gorge rim via the steep path.
I linger here, enjoying the way the light filters through the radiant autumn leaves. It's hard to imagine that snow has already fallen in the North Country, that it will fall again, this time permanently, soon. At that thought, a chill breeze from the gorge below tickles the back of my neck, and I'm reminded of my first motorcycle trips in the southeast. Days warmer than this that ended with frozen fingers and black ice after the sun went down.
My bike is still warm from the ride here and starts immediately without the choke. Back in the saddle, back to the hills, racing daylight all the way home. The return trip goes by far too quickly, as it always does. I remember most of the major curves, and I lean hard into them, delighting in the dips and weaves. The suns rays crash through the trees, lighting the road in bars that zip beneath my knees.
In Osceola, I stop for gas at a station with pumps that still haven't been digitized. The meter rolls along, and the pump buzzes with exertion. Inside, post cards and homemade baked goods line the shelves. The daughter of store owner, standing on a stool to see over the counter stares at my leather jacket timidly, but smiles when I wave to her.
I reach the open fields at the top of the plateau once again, some recently harvested, others long overgrown with tag alder and thistles. My shadow dives deeply into them, flickering and bouncing along the uneven ground while I cruise steadily on. I know as soon as I drop down to the lower steppe the chill will reach my bones in a matter of minutes, so I take one more look at the wide horizon flooded with sun and try to remember the warmth of the summer. I twist a little harder on the throttle, say goodbye to my shadow, and settle in for the last few miles.
All things considered, it's hard to imagine living here, on what some might call New York's final frontier. But people do, and the role the savage beauty of the region plays can't be understated. The sparseness, the "big sky" feel, they make you feel small and insubstantial, but in a good way. The twisting, winding roads and the hidden gems like Salmon River Falls let you in on intimate secrets. And the wildness of the tangled woods calls you to be wild and tangled; too... something we all need a little of in our lives.