August 18, 2010

Summer Road Trip - New York: Welcome Home from Iraq & Sailing

Upstate New York Horses
My flight from Salt Lake City was a red-eye, with an aisle seat and nowhere to lean my head. I stuff my lower and upper back with a blanket and jacket and had my neck pillow but I could not get comfortable. My upper back started to tighten with the all-too-familiar upper back tension and knots and it prevented me from sleeping much. I sat next to a mother and older daughter pair who tenderly snuggled up together for sleep. It did strike me as slightly irritating that the mother talked to her grown, young-adult daughter like she was twelve, but what do I know? I did manage to sleep a couple of hours, maybe. When I landed in JFK airport, I hunted down an electrical outlet and a seat near my gate for my three hour layover. I watched at least three flights leave from my gate, to exotic places like Jamaica and I was a little envious. When it finally came time to board, they assigned us seats as we went through the gate and walked outside, where we boarded a bus that shuttled us out to our small plane. It was a hot, humid, muggy morning at JFK.
The flying time was only 40 minutes to Syracuse and we landed before 11am. I cleaned up in the bathroom, collected my bags and waited outside for my brother-in-law.  It was hot and humid, I had forgotten to change into my shorts. Oh well.
Rolling New York hills
Here I will take a moment to go off on a tangent about my "New York" pet peeve. When you say you are going to "New York" most people assume you are going to New York City, which I find incredibly annoying and irritating. There is a whole state, which includes other cities which are NOT New York City. How arrogant does a city have to be to assume that it is the only "New York"? I am going to New York the STATE, not the arrogant, self-centered city. In fairness, it is not just the residents or former residents of New York City that make this poor assumption, in fact I don't even know if the city residents came up with this annoying misnomer. If I am going to New York City, I will say "New York City" and if I am going to New York then you should assume I am going to somewhere in the state of New York. The same annoyance goes for Washington and Washington, D.C., although this confusion seems to happen much less. Ok, I am done with my rant.
Downtown Sackets Harbor
New York farm
My brother-in-law, we will call him Susan for purposes of this story, picked me up and we headed north one hour. We drove along Interstate 81 and got off somewhere that took us through North Country New York, along back roads past farms, fields of hay and corn, along cow pastures and, best of all, up and down the rolling green hills that I love so much about the Mid-Atlantic states. Up and down the hills with ease and grace, gently turning, it is not boring, it is not so thrilling, it is comforting, like closing your eyes and rocking in a rocking chair. We take these roads to the small town of Sackets Harbor.
Sackets Harbor
Sackets Harbor is a gem. It is a slice of the original, perfected recipe for Americana pie. I believe it was founded in 1801 and has a small downtown lined with colonial brick buildings, hanging flower pots, historic street lamps, and American flags. It is a harbor town, as the name suggests, along a bay of Lake Ontario, harboring mostly sailboats at the marina at the end of town. There is a large, white gazebo overlooking the marina, like something out of an American, small-town storybook. Next to the gazebo is a historic battlefield from the War of 1812. There are several restaurants, shops, galleries, Bed & Breakfast's, and a micro-brewery. The place fills up in the summer with tourists. Outside of downtown is a long road that goes out to Madison Barracks which sit along the banks of Lake Ontario.
Sprawling field before Madison Barracks
The Watchtower
Madison Barracks is a grouping of old, historic, brick barracks for the soldiers, along with some other impressive looking war buildings, some of which are empty and being fixed up, some are cracking and crumbling and some are apartments. They all still look historic and open up to a huge, sprawling field where soldiers once marched and some, it was recently discovered, are buried in a mass grave. Across the field are more historic war buildings and an old, stone watchtower. Being there is like stepping back in time to another place in history, at least, if you took all the cars out of the scene, it would feel this way.
A view of Sackets Harbor
Chrissy Beanz
Susan and I head straight into downtown to Chrissy Beanz, a bakery and coffee shop, where we get weak coffee and a delicious peanut butter cookie. We sit outside and enjoy the beautiful, New York summer day. Then we head to their Madison Barracks apartment and I say Hi to my fuzzy nephew, Merle. I arrange my stuff and go to take a shower. It is while I am in the shower that my sister Therese gets home from work.
Fiesty Therese
Therese. Therese is the youngest of my three sisters and she is a twin to my only brother. She is 25 and has been married to my brother-in-law, we are still calling him Susan, for almost two years. She is fiesty with peachy, orange, red hair. Therese is good, and I don't mean that in the goody goody sort of way. She is a good person, she is amazingly thoughtful. Her thoughtfulness is worth more than buckets of gold and if you happen to be the lucky recipient of her thoughtfulness, it will touch your heart like few others can. She is reliable and dependable. Therese has an innocence, a naiveness, that reminds you that when you pull away all the layers of thick skinned bullshit we all develop to protect ourselves from being hurt, there is an honesty still left at the core. Thank you for the reminder, we can still see it in children too. Therese is a Captain in the Army and, less than two weeks before, has returned from her nine month deployment in Iraq. This is why I am here. Oldest sister goes to see youngest sister after returning from a far away war, where I can do nothing to help her or protect her. It has been a long nine months and I am glad to have her back on American soil. I no longer obsess about the news, to wait to hear about a bombing in Iraq and if any Americans were killed or hurt. I would feel guilty about being relieved that it was only Iraqis that were killed. Yes, I admit this. No, I don't want anyone to be killed, but yes, it is a relief to know that your little sister is still with us, on this earth. I still check the news, more out of habit now, and I feel guilty to hear about soldier's deaths in Iraq or Afghanistan and to know, that an American family somewhere, will never feel the relief of knowing their loved one has returned safely.
Considering the purpose of my trip, it seems a little anti-climactic that my sister should return from work at Fort Drum, while I am in the shower. No, running towards her for a big hug, no tears, no Hallmark moment. Instead, I emerge from the bathroom, hot and still damp from my shower with a pile of clothes and towel in my hands, and there she is and it is a more casual hello then the dramatic one I had envisioned for nine months. But still, it is good to see her, of course, and I have known that she was back safe and she has time to adjust and so, it was more like a normal I-haven't-seen-you-in-awhile-and-I-just-flew-across-the-country-to-visit sort of hello. We hang out a bit and then get in the car to head back towards Syracuse, to Oneida Lake.
Oneida Lake
Waimea Bay, the raft is out there...
Oneida Lake is where my brother-in-law, Susan, has been learning to sail. He sails here, instead of Sackets Harbor, because here they sail the small boats, catamarans, called Hobie Cats. He has been gathering on Thursday evenings with this Hobie Cat club to go out as crew on one of the boats for their races on the lake. Last week was Therese's first week also going out and this week they are going to attempt to get me out on a boat as well. I guess when you sail a Hobie Cat, you can go by yourself, but often, you have one captain and one crew. Last week, Therese told them she was going to bring her sister to go sailing, to overcome her fear, after being hit by a Hobie Cat. Yes, I was hit by a Hobie Cat, a small sailboat, but I do not have a fear of them or a fear of sailing. Last summer in Hawaii, visiting my sister Christine, we took their giant seven-person raft out on Waimea Bay on Oahu. This is a huge, wide open bay. In the winter they hold a huge surf competition, if the waves get big enough, and in the summer it is calm and perfect for swimming and peacefully floating on a raft in the middle of the open, protected water. While floating on the raft, several hundred feet from shore, with several hundred feet of open water on either side of us, a Hobie Cat took off from the beach, nearly hitting and killing several dozen swimmers. Then, the boat turns to the open water sails right towards us, coming right towards where I was trying to scramble out of the water and safely in the boat, and hits the raft. I was knocked into the water, tumbling about fifteen feet under and came up under the Hobie Cat, between the two hulls. The man sailing the boat was an idiotic, far-too-laid back, emergency room doctor on the North Shore, who had no business sailing. I don't know how you manage to hit one of the only objects in a wide open bay, really, I think you have to be an incredible moron. I hope he is a much better doctor than sailor.
A Hobie Cat
They team me up with Marcie, for Hobie Cat sailing that night. Marcie has a boyish cut of blondish hair. She looks very athletic and has raced and crewed for mono-hull boats all over the country and world, including week long races. Her experience with a double hull (by the way, I have no idea if I am using the correct sailing terms) and as the captain, is not as deep. I get a quick lesson, on the beach, about crewing on a Hobie Cat. As the crew member I have to operate the little sail, the jib sail, that I guess helps you change direction, I don't really know. My head is nervously swimming with the meaning of port, starboard, bow, stern, tack, trim, cleave, jibe, when I have to do what, pull this in, loosen that, pull the jib sail to the other side, shift my weight, etc. Marcie is a good teacher and the wind is low, so I ease into it. We sail out into the middle of the lake and begin these races with the other boats. I am on my knees, taking orders from Marcie, as she shouts out, "We are going to tack on three" then she counts down and on "one" I uncleave the jib sail on one side, duck under it (so I don't get knocked unconscious), pull the sail around the mast to the other side and pull the line in to trim it. Sometimes I move the sail angle out, sometimes, when we turn I have to move to the back corner of the boat to help shift the weight for a quick turn. I am starting to get the hang of it, but really, I am not paying any attention to what Marcie is doing as captain. I am so focused on doing my part quickly, correctly, smoothly, following directions that I don't have time to figure out what she is doing. I am nervous that I am messing up her races, but I start to get the feeling that I am actually doing just fine. I am quiet, concentrating, not talkative. My knees get raw, I am banging myself around, but it is fun. I am getting better, the wind picks up, we get some amazing race starts and some good turns. Marcie tries to teach me more about sailing, I don't know if my brain can absorb any more. She is talking about Port Tack, Starboard Tack, the difference between a jibe and a tack, how to tell when and where the wind is changing direction, what boats have to yield to other boats, etc. It is warm and humid and the water is not cold at all. The wind picks up more and we lean off the side of the boat, anchoring our feet, to keep the boat upright in the strong wind. This is even more fun. I guess when you get really serious you use a trapeze to hold you on the boat which allows you to lean way over the side to shift your weight against the wind.
The sun is dipping below the horizon and we head back to shore. We had sailed for several hours. Back on shore, everyone takes the sails off, and some of them load their boats on trailers, since they are taking them to Rochester that weekend for a regatta. The air is swarming with mosquitoes, but is a warm, humid, New York night and I love it. It is such a change from the California nights, where the temperature always drops and you have to pull on a light jacket or sweatshirt.
After saying goodbye, we head off and stop at a pizza place. Yum, a New York pizza (okay a New York state pizza, even I have to take my hat off to New York City pizza), it has been a long time. What a long day, how did it begin? Trying to sleep a couple of hours on a place from Salt Lake City? It seems like Salt Lake City was so, so long ago, after flying into a new time zone, climate, landscape, sipping coffee in a 200 year-old town, reuniting with family, sailing on a lake in warm weather and eating real, East Coast pizza.

Syracuse Airport to Sackets Harbor, New York:

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