Stephen Burke

“How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?” is the musical question from Dan Hicks’ old would-be standard.

Even in jest, it’s been a pertinent question during the pandemic. For a while much of the world was in lockdown.

Things have eased up after two years, and while the ultra-careful note that virus cases still propagate widely, many of the vaccinated feel free to act normally as of old, with the understanding (or belief) that inoculation protects them, if not from the virus completely, at least from its worst effects.   

Thus this summer is vacation season again, although now there is peril to one’s pocketbook, with what is considered by the cynical, or the aware, rampant price gouging among oil companies.

Recent air travelers I know in Ithaca report that while there are few bargains among the airlines, at least procedures are careful and considerate, and passengers cordial and cooperative. I’ve heard this about arrivals at Ithaca Tompkins International Airport (its official name now) from this country and from overseas, all of which involved connecting flights and multiple airports, as most Ithaca air travel does. That means plenty of potential hazards, or at least complications, but things seem to be functioning smoothly.

Car travel is simpler. Air travel once involved compensatory glamor, but those days are long gone. The car is a pleasant enough means of transit, except for the gas tank.

It used to be you could get to most places in New York from Ithaca, isolated as it is but also quite central, with a fill-up that gave change back from two twenties (in the vernacular of those who still occasionally use cash). Like airline allure, this is no more.

But when you gotta go, you gotta go, and like a lot of people this summer, I felt I hadda, not having had a vacation since 2019. A fifty-dollar tank of gas (even in a Corolla) was not a disincentive.

My destination was the Adirondacks. I’d never been there, though the region is mere hours away, in fact closer than New York City, where I generally journey every few months. I’ve been everywhere else in the state, from Niagara Falls to Montauk, and have long recognized that the omission of this beautiful, vast area, a natural wonder and entirely one-fifth of the state, is practically an infamy for a proud New Yorker. So, north I went.

On the topic of gas, I can report that it’s a good idea in the Adirondacks to top off your tank frequently, if you don’t mind stopping occasionally, lest you stop completely, on empty. It can be a long way between stations up there.

While stopping you can get to know the natives, who are also sparsely sighted (not many population centers), and get confirmation on directions, because road signs are also rarer than you might expect.

Travel broadens by revealing both similarities and differences between oneself and others. Sometimes it’s hard to decide which is more surprising.

I stayed with friends in Saranac Lake. I’d been told it is “a little like Ithaca,” as one often hears about various places: Boulder, Asheville, nearby Burlington. On Saturday mornings everyone goes to the Farmers Market. 

It was a strange scene, as it indeed felt a little like Ithaca, but with a certain oddness. It took me a while to realize that below my threshold of consciousness, affecting my mind without my being aware of it, I was subliminally preparing to greet myriad people hither and yon, as one must at continual intervals at the Farmers Market, as almost a physical reflex. But this was a different Farmers Market, with different people, despite surface appearances.

One obvious difference which cleared the air irrevocably was the role of coffee at the two markets. In Ithaca there’s a long line for it, and you can get espresso drinks in a wide range of configurations. In Saranac Lake, one vendor has it, off to the side: plain coffee, which you dispense yourself from an Igloo jug. There was no line. I was their first customer, and when I returned for a second cup, I was their second. When I went to hand them another three dollars they said oh, no, refills are free. If this were the policy in Ithaca, people would never leave.

I stayed ten days, in Saranac Lake and on Lake Champlain. It was a lovely environment, although I think the Finger Lakes are just as scenic, unless you consider altitude.

Ten days is long enough to refresh one, and even change perception. When I got back my apartment seemed smaller, like one’s childhood home. Two years between vacations is possibly too long.

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