The Driving

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One could say that it’s all over but the driving. It also seems that it was a certain Mr. Berra that said something along the lines of it not being over till it’s over. What I seem to be trying to get around to saying is that there are about two more weeks of this to go in this adventure, and that in the most figurative of senses it seems I am coming around to the realization that I have paddled all the way out here and now I also have to paddle back. As it is, the car trip odometer reads something close to 7500 miles- The calendar says I have been gathering those miles over the past 36 days. I have given myself about 10 more days to make the return voyage, but there should not be anywhere near as many side trips and reasons to linger on the way back as I encountered coming out here. After a visit with friends in New Hampshire, preceded by a drive by of Horace Greeley’s birthplace in the Amherst of that state, I hit the road late yesterday and landed somewhere around Wilmington in Delaware.

For three nights last weekend, though I was camped in a roadside motel on New York route 4 between Low Hampton and Whitehall. It seemed like a place that was quite out of the way even though it was less than a hundred yards from the two lane road bed that passed it by. What I found curious and somewhat disruptive in the realm of dreamland was that there was a perpetual stream of traffic passing by at all hours of the night. Besides being shaken through the night by the random but consistent turning on and off of the room heater, I noted during these unexpected samplings of the wee hours that instead of a persistence of relative quiet from the rural surroundings in the nearby out of doors, that there was an uneven but regular pulse of whoosh and whine from vehicles on nocturnal missions. Generally, one could discern a marked difference between the passing passenger vehicle, which came and went with just a hint of a rise in volume of something like a bit of white noise, to the commercial tractor and trailer which obviously pushed a greater volume of air as it went by, along with adding a bit of whine from its numerous truck size tires as well as a varied addition of rumble and clank, depending on the burden of transport it was hauling through the dark.

I spoke with the innkeeper about this the last morning I was there and he related a story about how the owner of the motel had been complaining to him about the relative lack of business there was of late, to which my host had pointed out the fairly obvious fact that most of the traffic was using this mid-state, east-west route to get from here to there and in fact, they were neither, so of course they would be a blur in the side window of the bulk of this highway’s travelers. It was also between seasons- the summer tourists and the winter skiers were either long gone or hopefully soon to be showing up to slide downhill on sticks, if the weather gods and anthropogenic greenhouse effects allowed it.

The innkeep also talked about a rise in police activity in the area because of an increase in a variety of drug traffic through this particular asphalt conduit. Apparently, this stretch of roadway had recently become known as the “heroin highway” because of the amount and form of contraband the police were gathering from planned and random stops of the whooshing and rumbling passers-by at all hours of the day and night. All I have noticed in regard to the presence of the police state is that, coming from the wilds of the west and the relative, nearly complete absence of law enforcement variety of roadside surveillance of any kind, once I crossed the New York border from the west, the covert stakeouts and drive along presence of state police throughout the parts of the northeast that I have passed through has been extensive and somewhat disturbing, not that I have been flying along in the face of local speed limits- I have not. It’s just weird to go from having seen almost zero speed limit enforcement west of here, to flashing lights and tensed stomach reflexes whenever a surprise, partial view of a police vehicle jumps out from behind a bridge abutment or amongst the bushes in the u-turn median pass-ways on every roadway in this region.
While I have been keeping an eye on the local constabulary, I have also been keeping up my survey of trees as I do my part as one of the whooshing, vehicular peregrinators. I have continued to notice the curious dead, but I have been altering my theory as to why I am seeing so many of the trees as standing deceased. A day ago  I stayed with a swimming buddy from many years ago, and he and his wife have a view of Mount Monadnock out of their back window, and during breakfast he told me the tale of how it got its false tree line. Way back during the settlement of the area, most of the region had been clearcut, as evidenced by the numerous stone walls that run through the once again, now forested surroundings. These were mostly grazing fields for sheep around here. At the time there was also a wolfpack- one of the last in the area back then, and those wolves called the very top of Mt. Monadnock their home. As the farmers lost more sheep to the wolves they searched for a way to stem the tide of sheep slaughter by the pack.

The solution they came upon was to burn the top of the mountain and deprive the wolves of the tree and shrub cover of their home. This seems to have worked, but as with most man made solutions to natural “problems”, it had unintentional consequences. With all of the vegetative cover gone from the entire top of the mountain, when the rains came the soil was washed away from the underlying rocks, leaving the top as a bald, rocky cap on what was once completely forested mountain. The lower areas of the mountain still had soil and gradually repopulated with trees, transitioning form conifers at the higher altitudes and working down to a mixed deciduous forest toward the valley below. If one did not know this story, it could easily be assumed that the bare rock that is still dominant up at the top today is the result of altitude and a naturally occur alpine region where trees had never grown. I do not know if wolves have returned to the area, but as I drove away from here and toward the south on one of the main interstate routes I did see signs along the highway warning of moose- something I recall having never seen when I was in the area forty or so years ago.

As for the dying trees of America that have been noted here in the recent, past odyssey episodes, a friend of my cousin’s in the Catskill region of New York where he lives is on a fourth generation farm, and he mentioned when we were there that he has been noticing an marked increase in dead trees on his property. I was talking with a member of the Poultney (VT) Historical society the other day and among other subjects she noted that she had something to do with managing a tract of land that was forested- not managing in the sense of foresting and logging, but rather stewarding and preserving. She said that they had noticed some dying off around there as well. But she concurred with what I was saying regarding my latest postulation as to why this was happening, and that is that perhaps we were seeing the end of a growth cycle- that because these areas had mostly been logged off in large tracts at the same time, that there was not a great age diversity in the populations of pine and fir and oak and maple. Instead, since they all were of the same relative age as the areas began to repopulate, the trees are also ageing out of their various expectancies at similar times. It is a theory, but it seems to make some sense.

What I have also been seeing around the area is a marked lack of color in this region where fall foliage is usually a major tourist attraction. Again, what I heard from my cousins was that in many cases the trees were going from green to gone as far as their leaves were concerned. Normally the hills all around here would be a tapestry of vibrant reds and yellows and greens and browns. They are not, and this has been attributed to the over-abundance of rainfall that drenched this region this summer. They were also noting that there had not yet had the usual killing frost, let alone any frost at all. When I first moved out to the Seattle area I noted the basic lack of brilliant foliage color each fall. In the summers when we had less rain fest and more drought, especially as we have experienced the past couple of years, the colors all around the Puget Sound were more intense and brilliant. I am looking at various Instagram posts  from back there now and see colors I would normally have been seeing here at this time. Drought creates stress conditions that tend to increase the brilliance of fall foliage color.

There was a dappled bit of bright and random sun breaks as I drove across mid Vermont the other day and the colors there were starting to intensify a bit. But then further on, after a bit of a climb and I crested a pass, I found myself in a higher valley that was covered from valley floor to hilltop with naked, deciduous trees. They were not dead, just stripped and dropped for the winter. I heard from the same innkeeper from earlier that he understood that the ski areas near him had begun to make snow. Along Rt. 89 in New Hampshire the other day, on the shaded and northeast facing bare rock road cuts I saw freshly frozen icefalls where the abundant seeps had now been preserved by the overnight cold. With fall color and winter snows being major attractions for this region, one can only wonder how this continually shifting climate will affect things here in the not too distant future, as it seems these things are already happening, kind of like everywhere else.