Old and new friends
October 4, 2009—Some friendships thrive on daily contact. Others can lie fallow through years of separation, yet when a meeting occurs, spring to life again as if no time had elapsed. My former officemate Holly Knott has been a daily friend ever since she left our New Jersey-based company to become a full-time artist in New York's Finger Lakes region back in 2004. I've only seen her once since then—in the summer of 2005, shortly after I became a full-time RVer—but we've stayed in contact via email several times a week. It was a given that I'd stop and see Holly on my way east.
On the other hand, my previous officemate, Lou Mang, isn't big on correspondence. Since he and his wife Julie Eastland moved to Buffalo in 2004, I've only exchanged emails with him a couple of times. But when I told him I was coming east, his reply was immediate: "You can park your rig in our driveway as long as you want. I'll call you tomorrow. It'll be great to see you!!"
It's 225 miles from Tarentum to Buffalo, and after about 35 miles of driving around the hills of Butler County, I got onto I-79, and from there on the drive was uneventful. Late in the afternoon, I had my first encounter with one of the east's more annoying features: tolls.
Most US states, including all the southwestern states I normally travel through, finance roads with taxes. But a few eastern states, mainly for historical reasons, use tolls: every so often, all traffic has to pass through a series of booths, stop, and pay money for using the road. (I'm describing this for the benefit of readers who live in more enlightened parts of the country, and may not have encountered the practice.) EZ-Pass and similar "roll through" transponder schemes have made tolls slightly less annoying, but no less costly. I had to pay $23.85 in tolls to drive about 160 miles through upstate New York... about half as much as my fuel cost for that stretch of road. In other words, tolls made the trip half again as expensive as it would have been in most states.
Traffic—always denser in the east—gradually increased as I approached Buffalo, and the last part of my trip was fairly stressful, despite my GPS navigator's unfailing guidance. By the time I pulled up in front of Lou's house, unhooked the Fit, and backed Skylark into his driveway with about a foot to spare on either side, I was tired. The driveway was level as promised, though, and Lou still had room to park his car.
Lou and Julie served me a delicious dinner, and we brought each other up to date. It turned out that Julie, who used to work as the same New Jersey company as Lou and I, is now studying to be a nurse. My ears perked up at this, because I've always been interested in medicine, and in fact used to do brain surgery and histology on lab rats when I was in my twenties. Soon Julie and I were "talking shop," which I think made Lou squirm a bit. It doesn't bother me to discuss anatomy and physiology over a meal, but I know not everybody feels that way!
Before I arrived, we'd made plans to see Gunther von Hagens' "BodyWorlds: The Story of the Heart" exhibit at the Buffalo science museum on Saturday. This was something I'd been wanting to see for years: the best anatomical teaching displays in the world, made from real animal and (volunteer) human bodies that have been perfused with plastics ("plastinated") using special processes developed by von Hagens.
The next day dawned rainy and cold, but that couldn't dampen our enthusiasm. The exhibit was seemingly endless, and endlessly fascinating. Bodies in lifelike poses had been dissected to show the wonderful interplay of muscles, bones, organs and nerves. (These were all from people who had willed their bodies to the Institute for Plastination as a contribution to medical education.)
Organs were presented separately as well as in bodies. Thin 2-D slices let us see the body's inner workings in cross-section. Tar-blackened smokers' lungs made a shocking contrast with normal pale-pink lungs. The circulatory system, seen in isolation, formed a delicate tracery of vessels and capillaries. I couldn't help think how the pioneering anatomist Vesalius—or any physician of the old days—would have given his right arm to see what we were seeing. I was lucky: I toured the exhibit with nursing student Julie and two friends of hers who are full-fledged nurses, so I got their insights in addition to the detailed descriptions posted with each piece.
Photography was not permitted, so the pictures you see here come from the book I bought, along with a fascinating DVD, in the museum gift shop. We spent more than two hours touring the wonders of the human body (if you'll forgive a cliché), and by the end, I was exhausted but exhilarated by all I'd seen.
Afterward we had lunch at a local Greek restaurant, Ambrosia. My turkey Reuben sandwich was delicious, as was the side order of spanakopita, a flaky spinach and feta pastry that I haven't enjoyed in years. (Greeks are scarce in New Mexico.) I ended up so full that I didn't have room for dessert, which was a pity, because the offerings looked great.
Back at Lou and Julie's house, Julie put together an apple pie of monstrous proportions—by the time she added the crumb topping, the contents must have topped the crust by at least five inches. While the pie baked, we sat and chatted.
I already knew Lou well, since I'd shared an office with him for a couple of years. He's easy to get along with, a cheerful man with a good sense of humor and a rare combination of artistic and musical talents. (The only person I can think of who's comparably multi-talented is my sculptor/artist/musician cousin Hugh Watkins.) Some people would find it annoying to share an office with someone who tapped his fingers on the desktop, but I loved it. Lou is a very skilled and versatile drummer, so his tapping was always a treat! Visiting him now, it was easy to slip back into the comfortable relationship we'd always had.
But I hadn't really gotten to know Julie until this visit. Although she worked for the same company, I didn't see much of her in those days, and I'd only been to their house a couple of times in all the years I'd known Lou. Sitting in their kitchen now as the rain pattered against the window-boxes, I found Julie just as intelligent, interesting, and easy to get along with as Lou, and our shared interest in medicine gave us plenty to talk about.
The next morning, we headed downtown for a walking tour of the old Erie Canal's silo and dock district. Lou and Julie are both native Buffalonians, and the other branches of the Mang family are involved in city affairs—there's even a Mang Park, and one of Lou's relatives is mayor of the city's Kenmore suburb. Driving around town with them was lots of fun, because they knew so much. They showed me the spot where President McKinley was shot, and the building where Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as McKinley's successor.
The waterfront tour was led by a schoolteacher who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the area's history, and a simple and engaging way of explaining it. For a century or more, Buffalo was the transfer point between the large freighters that sailed the Great Lakes and the small, flat-bottomed boats that carried cargo via the Erie Canal to New York City. But the city's long era of prosperity ended in 1957, when the St. Lawrence Seaway bypassed Buffalo. That lead to an economic meltdown, and the city's population dropped to half its former size.
Because it was a transfer point, Buffalo needed ways to store the cargo before it was transshipped. We learned about the early wooden grain silos (which were extremely fire-prone due to grain's flammability), and the successive generations: designs lined with iron (not so good, because iron melts in a fire), clay tiles (too expensive and labor-intensive), and finally reinforced concrete—still the standard today.
The closer we got to the canal, the stronger the aroma of toasted grains became. "Mmm... you can smell the Cheerios!" Julie exclaimed. And indeed, much of the US's supply of Cheerios is manufactured in an enormous General Mills plant right next to the scores of grain silos flanking the canal. Our guide informed us that this particular plant manufactures flaked and extruded cereals (e.g., Wheaties and Cheerios), but not puffed varieties. Lou and I posed for Julie's camera in front of the plant—there are no tours permitted. (Maybe they're afraid we'd spot a mouse in their granaries.)
I haven't talked about Lou and Julie's house, but it's lovely. They've done a wonderful job of landscaping both the front and back of the modest-sized lot, adding lush floral plantings and a pond with a waterfall.
The glider rockers near the pond are great places to relax and meditate.
Sunday evening I said goodbye, and Julie gave me a jar of home-pickled green beans and a sticker with a 3-D dissected skull. Monday morning Lou went to work, Julie went to school, and I hitched up the Honda Fit behind Skylark and headed east toward the Finger Lakes region. I was aiming for Green Lakes State Park, a wooded park just east of Syracuse, which looked to be the closest to Holly's home in Marcellus and her co-op artists' gallery in Skaneateles.
About halfway there, my weather radio, which I always leave turned on, started squawking. I pulled over onto the shoulder, walked to the back where I have the radio mounted on a wall next to my desk, and listened to a warning of severe thunderstorms with winds gusting up to 60 mph—not a good situation for a slab-sided vehicle like mine. Still, it looked clear ahead, so I got back on the highway and proceeded cautiously. But in a few minutes the radio squawked again... and then I came upon this sobering sight:
What you can't see from this photo is that the truck had been traveling in the opposite direction, then had crossed all four lanes and the median to end up on my side of the road. It's a miracle it didn't hit any other vehicles in the process.
I didn't know for sure that this truck had been blown off the road by high winds, but it certainly could have been. Deciding to play it safe, I pulled into a rest stop a couple of miles further on. After making myself a snack, I called my friend Gary Oliaro on the cell phone and chatted for half an hour as the storm blew past me. The coach rocked a lot, but at least I was parked instead of trying to drive.
Green Lakes State Park was a case of YAWC (Yet Another Wooded Campsite), so I won't bore you with the photo (unless you click that link). My small campsite had plenty of electricity, plenty of trees... and plenty of mud. In fact, it has rained every day for the past two weeks, which makes me yearn for New Mexico's sunny climate. Lack of sunshine for more than a day or two depresses me—I lose ambition and just want to curl up with a good book or movie.
The next morning I slept late while the rain drizzled down. After breakfast I made a batch of gingerbread, put it in the oven, and then drove to the campground office to pay for my stay.
It turns out that the NY state parks have a rather clumsy system. To begin with, all campsites are reservable—or from my point of view, all sites must be reserved, which is a pain when, like me, you'd rather not be tied to schedules. (Hey, I'm retired!) But unlike all other state parks I've been in, these people don't put "reserved" placards on posts at the campsites, so you can't tell whether a site has been reserved without going to the campground office... which is closed most of the time, due to funding cuts.
Even when it's open (I was lucky!), they can't give you a list of the reserved sites. Instead, you have to drive around the campground, make note of some likely sites, then go back to the office and see whether one of them is available for the period you want. If not, you have to go back to the campground and look some more, then return to the office and pay. This is an unnecessarily cumbersome system for both campers and staff.
Add to that the fact that in this campground the sites are very small, muddy, unlevel, and there are no pull-throughs, and I wasn't left feeling very charitable toward NY state parks. But eventually I did manage to reserve another site for seven days (at about $22 a day)... and then was told to go back and move my rig immediately, even though nobody had reserved my current site until Friday.
When I got back to Skylark, the rig smelled deliciously of fresh gingerbread, which magically improved my mood. And despite all the rain, I did have something to look forward to that day: I was going to visit my good friend and former officemate Holly Knott in Skaneateles.
I have to make a confession here: when I first met Holly back in the early nineties, I didn't pay much attention to her. She was so quiet that I thought there wasn't much going on. Well, that was my loss. It wasn't until ten years later, when a software project brought us together as officemates, that I discovered how wrong I'd been. As I got to know Holly, I realized that she was smart as a whip, highly articulate... and an artist with talents that go way beyond mine. The designed-by-committee software we were turning out didn't give those talents a chance to shine, but when I saw her paintings and—especially—her quilts, I was bowled over.
We're not talking about traditional block quilts here; Holly creates textile art—paintings made with fabric. Consider her 28" x 40" rendering of the four-century-old Lafayette Sycamore at Brandywine Battlefield in Pennsylvania:
It's not your grandmother's log cabin quilt, but it's a stunning piece. On a smaller scale, I love her 16.5" x 16" quilt "Salsa!", inspired by fresh vegetables from her garden that ended up as a spicy sauce in her kitchen:
(You can see more of Holly's work, including art quilts, cards, and other gift items, on her website.)
The more I saw of Holly's work, the more impressed I was... and the more time we spent working together, the better friends we became. So when she moved to upstate New York with her husband Paul to pursue a full-time art career, I was sorry to see her go, but delighted that she was following her dreams. Since then, we've kept in touch via frequent emails, and collaborated on a website for people who want to photograph textile art inexpensively, "Shoot That Quilt!".
In the past five years, Holly's artwork has been featured in many shows and galleries. In addition, last year she wrote a book called "Quilted Garden Delights," featuring eight easy yet beautiful quilting projects based on her mother's watercolors. (Holly's mother Diane Knott is a successful commercial artist and fabric designer.)
But despite all the good reviews and recognition Holly's work has garnered, it's hard to sell "wall art." People buy jewelry, ceramics, and other small artwork on impulse... but when it's something that hangs on the wall, that's a bigger decision. Holly's been co-owner in a couple of small-town co-op galleries, but sales were sporadic at best.
Nowadays, Holly sells her work through her always-interesting "Finger Lakes Art" blog and her "Cottage by The Pond" Etsy shop. The online Etsy shop is especially cool—it features not only merchandise such as scarves, totes, and pillows, but also patterns (such as the Coffee Pot Cozy at left) by both Holly and her mother, Diane Knott.
The patterns, which are downloadable PDF files, are printable at full size, and they're profusely illustrated with color photos. I had a chance to review one of Holly's scarf patterns, and I can testify that she's done a great job of explaining and showing how to make the piece. Even a person like me with basic sewing skills can follow these directions. As in her book, the pattern includes not just instructions, but a number of clever and helpful sewing tips.
Sorry, I didn't mean this to turn into a plug for my friend! But Holly does such excellent work, thanks to a combination of her artistic eye, excellent design skills, and knack for clear writing, that I can't help bragging about her work... it really is topnotch! (And while I'm on the subject, she's also an outstanding website designer.)
It was a rainy drive to Skaneateles. I bought coffee for us at a nearby shop, Holly added some of her favorite pumpkin spice latte-in-a-bottle mix, and we munched on fresh gingerbread while we chatted about old times and recent events. She showed me the corner of the gallery where her work was on display at the time, and I tried to take her picture, but it didn't come out well because of the lighting. (Here's a portrait taken by her husband Paul.)
A few customers wandered in from time to time, but on a rainy fall weekday there's not a lot of tourist traffic, so we mostly had the place to ourselves. As with Lou and Julie, I felt immediately at home with Holly, even though we hadn't spoken face to face in four years. But all too soon it was time to close up the shop, and I headed back to my campground in a much better mood than I'd left it.
Next stop: New Jersey.