The Impulsive Traveler: Details, Ithaca, N.Y.
Ithaca, home of Cornell University and Ithaca College, is smack in the middle of New York. But it’s far enough from any highway to maintain its middle-of-nowhere feel. I spent four years snowed under at Syracuse University, an hour to the north, but never enjoyed summer in the Finger Lakes region. Late summer in Ithaca blew me away: The city and its outskirts, filled with gorges and waterfalls, are surprisingly lush.
Plus, you’ve got to love a town whose 25-year-old mayor gives up his car and turns his parking space into a miniature park. And whose townsfolk are equally intense about saving the planet, killing the chain store and consuming locally produced you-name-it.
My first stop was GreenStar Natural Foods Market, where I was told that I could buy some Ithaca Hours — the currency created two decades ago to help promote the buy-local movement and encourage community building. People might use Hours to pay the local farmer or mechanic, instead of paying with greenbacks. And Wal-Mart and Amazon don’t take Hours, so it keeps the money in town.
The founder has since moved away, and use of the once-popular currency has declined. But I’d heard that a local businessman was trying to single-handedly revitalize Hours and catapult them into the e-banking era.
At GreenStar, the first person I queried about Hours was, by chance, Steve Burke, a market manager who’s the former president of the board for Ithaca Hours. Steve sold me $50 worth of Hours (one Hour equals $10). I marveled at the currency, including one-eighth- and one-quarter-Hour notes. They all said “In Ithaca We Trust” and “Ithaca Hours are backed by real capital: our skills, our time, our tools, forests, fields and rivers.” But at the moment, I was thinking more about my growling stomach. I walked over the railroad tracks to Ithaca Bakery, where I peeled off a few colorful bills to pay for a bialy sandwich.
Just north of town, I stopped at Stewart Park and took in sparkling Cayuga Lake. Then I drove to the Ithaca Farmers Market, on Cayuga Inlet. The big social event of the week, the market is so well attended on the weekends that locals say it’s the only thing that causes a traffic jam (largely consisting of Subarus, I suspect).