A Little Cartography

Many years ago, my Cousin Chris and I were constant companions in the woods around Camden, NY. In particular, we explored the region between our homes. His place was several miles away to the west if you took the old dirt road that emerged onto the highway 50 yards from the house I grew up. We also did a lot of camping and hiking in the woods east of my own home.

Here’s what that area looks like today (well, a few years ago via Google Earth):

I grew up along Route 70 – Wolcott Hill Road – about two miles from the town of Camden. Wolcott Hill Road runs roughly South to North away from Camden, so this view is oriented with East at the top and West at the bottom. You can see the small lake in the lower half of the image; that is a reservoir, and part of Camden’s waterworks system. If you were to walk due West from the South corner of the reservoir, you’d come out on Wolcott Hill Road right next to my childhood home.

From the ages of 12 to 16 or so, I started making maps of our haunts out in this section of land. When I was 19, I decided to make a larger, more refined version of the map, bringing together all of the various places we used to camp and hunt. The result is below.

Watercolor map of area around my home. 24×22 inches. 1996.

There are some obvious mistakes of guesstimation here, most glaringly in the position of Route 85, which we locals know as Skinner Settlement Road. There is also some distortion of the placement of various fields, and a bit of miscalculation of distances, but I’m pretty pleased with my effort since I did not use any proper map as a source.

There are some great memories here.

At Winter’s Night, we camped in -2° weather. In the morning, we were lying in impressions in the hard snow caused by our heat coming through the tent.

At Cowadunga, we cooked venison in beer and used hard, flat cow poop for fuel – hence the name we gave the place.

The Reservoir Cabin Site was a special spot, and we stayed there quite a few times.

One night, at View, we had amazing, super clear skies all night long. It seemed as if we could see forever.

Though we never camped at Lone Tree Hill, we often climbed the massive maple there.

At Earthview we had one of our strangest camping trips ever, when we were accosted by a large number of Woodland Jumping Mice. What seemed like dozens of them came through our area, but the issue was that this was in the wee hours of the morning, so it was very dark, and the rhythm of their jumps through the underbrush sounded like footsteps. Pretty wild.

I’m glad I made documents like this throughout my teenage years. Though most are in a more rough or not so presentable state, they represent my attention to and interest in my surroundings and experiences. I’m glad to have them.

The Star Road

A little more than two decades ago my cousin Chris and I began to take long drives northward from our home in central New York State. We almost never went south. There were many adventures on those forays; our families knew what it meant when we said we were going “up North.”

StarRoadThe Star Road’s length over the geography of New York State

Many hours of conversation accompanied the drives, as did many hours of silence or reverie to the music we loved then. Over time the purpose of these trips showed itself in clearer and clearer form: the road was for a kind of tandem contemplation of what had been before us, what lay beyond us, and what was permeating our existence. We drove north to explore. Though moving through space we were motionless and silent in our souls. We found transformation and dreams along the road.

Untitled-14Heading out in the mid/late 90’s in Christopher’s old Nissan pick up truck

One of our favorite routes is an iconic stretch of highway that runs nearly 250 miles through the interior of New York State. State Route 3 begins (or ends, depending on your perspective) near Fair Haven State Park, practically in sight of the southeastern end of Lake Ontario. After a short jaunt eastward, Route 3 turns emphatically north and holds the eastern shore of Ontario for 60 miles. The road’s great northeasterly meander across the deep woods, lakes and mountains of upstate New York commences in historic Sacket’s Harbor, soon passing through Watertown and Carthage, then running just to the south of the Fort Drum Military Reservation. Roughly 70 miles from the streets of Sacket’s Harbor, Route 3 enters the great Adirondack Park.

Untitled-31Chris adjusting his old Pentax SLR during a photo stop, 2003 or so.

Just near this entrance to the Adirondack Park sits the hamlet of Star Lake and its eponymous body of water. The section of Route 3 that runs between Star Lake and Tupper Lake is majestic and ephemeral to drive at night. Tupper Lake is a crossroad of sorts, situated as it is along Route 3 running east/west and other routes running north/south. Though it is often a center of activity in daylight, especially in the summer months, Tupper Lake in the twilight – or at midnight – is glorious. The ancient, rounded-off Adirondack Mountains seem to circle in and provide a black frame for the jeweled vault of the sky. Chris and I have seen this many times.

This effect – a dark horizon circumscribing the grandness of the Milky Way, or Polaris, or Cassiopeia – is perhaps the reason why we started calling Route 3 “The Star Road.” It could have been the presence of Star Lake near the entrance to the Park. It might also be that there are, in fact, two real Star Roads off of Route 11; one between the towns of Malone and Ellenburg along a stretch of Route 190 and the other very close the border with Canada on County Road 17. We’ve traveled both of those roads and they could have influenced us.

Untitled-1A dusty old photo of the shore of Lake Ontario near Cape Vincent

Whatever the reasons, we spent many a dark, snowy night driving along Route 3, or glimpsing northern lights amidst the summer stars beyond Saranac Lake. The ending – for us – was to either come into Plattsburgh then strike a new route home, or to break off The Star Road early and head north toward Malone or south toward Lake Placid and Mt Marcy. There were many nights we merely ran along Route 3 for a short distance beside Lake Ontario, then slipped onto Route 12E from Watertown up to Cape Vincent. There, at the inflow of the St Lawrence River, we’d creep out of Cape Vincent toward Tibbetts Point to sit beneath the lighthouse with all of Ontario spread out westward before us.

Untitled-3Tibbetts Point Lighthouse near Cape Vincent, NY

I loved those drives and talks and silences. I loved listening to the Chateau D’Isaster Tapes while cruising along, angling across the brow of New York State, and imagining what the future might hold. In some ways these trips are behind us. We have families, homes, and other responsibilities. But I know we both still feel the pull of those hills and lakes and forests. I’m sure we’ll aim headlights northward sometime soon, and find ourselves in dream-driving together once again.


UpstateNYmapA section of one of the old, fold-able NYS maps we used to use

This Week in 2005

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This week in 2005 Alison and I arrived in Florence, Italy. Above is the path we took almost every day during our stay – from our apartment on Via Ricorboli (right hand of the picture) to the Church of Santa Felicita. (On the left – click the image above to explore the area).

Why did we make the nearly 2 kilometer trek so many times, even if our final destination was in some other part of the city?

Because Pontormo’s epic Deposition resides in that church. Here I am gazing up at the piece:


I must have spent 6 or 8 hours in front of that painting. I have thought about it, written about it, and taught about it many times over the last 8 years. This painting is ingrained in my life.

I can’t wait to walk once again along the Arno, sidestep the Ponte Vecchio, slip into the cool silence of Santa Felicita, and see it again.