Dipping Into the Finger Lakes

By Ambrose Clancy
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 2, 2002

At the end of "Tender Is the Night," F. Scott Fitzgerald dooms his hero, Dick Diver, formerly of the Riviera and Paris, to wander New York's Finger Lakes. After spending some time here, my only reaction is that we should all be so lucky.

It's a simple place -- just villages, towns, orchards, vineyards, corn and dairy farms sprawled on hillsides, dipping into glens. Serene small towns are set in landscapes mostly free of billboards or roadside attractions.

The area's borders are, roughly, Lake Ontario to the north, Syracuse at the eastern end, Rochester to the west and the town of Elmira to the south. A line of 11 slender lakes, all running north to south, define the region. These exceptionally deep lakes (Seneca is more than 600 feet to the bottom) are sailed, fished and swum, and take their character and color from the changing skies. Stands of birch thrash in the wind, bordered by meadows, and the land rolls away to the silvery shine of waterfalls.

Vladimir Nabokov fell in love with America while living in Ithaca, the college town at the foot of Cayuga Lake. He taught at Cornell and set his novel "Pale Fire" in Ithaca, which he renamed New Wye and moved to Appalachia. The fictionalized region was apt; the country surrounding Ithaca has hollows, streams, dirt roads, the '84 Pontiac rusting next to the beleaguered porch that someone didn't quite get around to.

"Ithaca Is Gorges," say the bumper stickers. That's right on both counts, and a good place to start for a two- or three-day drive around the area. The downtown pedestrian Commons is clean, quietly funky, without chain stores or "Clockwork Orange" attitude. The Saturday farmers market has ragamuffin kids running free past stalls selling everything from Cambodian food to Hawaiian shirts patterned with '40s bathing beauties. Slow rags and jump blues are played by blissed-out musicians. Most vendors look as if they came to school here in 1970 and never left.

Gorges are everywhere throughout the Finger Lakes, and to explore one cutting directly through the heart of Ithaca, start at the corner of Court and Linn streets. In the distance is a waterfall with a path sliced out of rock leading up to it. This is Cascadilla Gorge. Like its countless mates and the 11 lakes, it was formed -- the Iroquois have it on good authority -- by the Great Spirit who blessed the country by laying on his hand, creating the fingers of water. Some people don't believe this but insist that 550 million years ago glaciers pounded through north to south and, when they thawed, carved out a singularly American place.

The waterfall is about an hour's hike up through the broken light of Cascadilla, and on late mornings it's rare to encounter another person. Within minutes you feel as if you're in wilderness, the town gone and forgotten, and find yourself whispering when the gorge flattens to water moving as slow as syrup past high walls of shale. Approaching falls and rapids at the next bend of the stream, you have to shout to be heard. Smells of moss, grapevine, wet sandstone stay constant up to the top, where a wooden stairway leads to the lip of the gorge and a sudden, startling reality worthy of Nabokov: bicycles, cars, buildings, reversed baseball caps and backpacks. Cornell University.

After your hike, stay healthy and have lunch at the Moosewood Restaurant. Yes, that's the same Moosewood beloved by hippies and vegetarians, the same people who produce the best-selling cookbooks. It is an unpretentious place with an attentive staff of college kids. The curried egg salad and vegetable soup with wild mushrooms is delicious with a glass of the local Riesling.

As you drive up the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, the country opens out with lush farms and tall white silos anchored to weathered red barns. (Although Cayuga is the longest lake, it is only 40 miles south to north, so you can easily meander along its shores, then visit Seneca Lake, and make it to Canandaigua Lake by late afternoon.) Past the town of Aurora, a narrow road rises to a brick plaza next to a converted dairy barn high over the white-capped lake. This is MacKenzie-Childs, where 240 artisans create pottery and furniture in a style where country inn meets the Casbah.

A tour takes you through workshops where you can follow raw clay and rough wood making their way through skilled hands to brightly finished products. The restaurant's ceiling looks like the Sistine Chapel, if Michelangelo had used found objects instead of paint: chairs, dolls, desks, bird cages, Coke bottles, tasseled pillows. Outside are gardens and livestock, including a herd of shaggy Scottish Highland cattle -- four-legged representations of the MacKenzie-Childs idea.

The lovely drive along Cayuga, tracking hills rising and falling next to lake coves, can remind you that it's difficult to go anywhere in America, even the most idyllic spots, without traveling over a strata of tragedy. In August 1779, Gen. John Sullivan came this way, carrying a brief from George Washington to make total war on the Iroquois and "lay waste all the settlements around so that the country may not only be overrun but destroyed." It was the end of the Iroquois confederacy of six tribes, a centuries-old organization that kept peace among themselves, one so successful that New York Gov. George Clinton named them the "Romans of the West." Sullivan's men massacred or put to flight everyone in their path and burned everything to the ground.

In the 19th century, the Finger Lakes area was called the "burned-over district," not in memory of Sullivan's rampages but because of the fiery religious passions the place inspired. Joseph Smith went into the woods surrounding Palmyra and came out as the first Mormon. Other groups, who believed in celibacy for all members, weren't thinking too many moves ahead. There were Perfectionists burning for converts along with Spiritualists, as well as Jemima Wilkinson, who changed her name to Publick Universal Friend. Born of this spiritual heat were earthquake social movements, including abolition and feminism, the latter celebrated in Seneca Falls by the National Women's Hall of Fame and the Women's Rights National Historical Park.

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