Stephen Burke

Ithaca Notes

Henry Thoreau was a Harvard guy, not Cornell, and famously of Walden Pond, not Cayuga’s waters, but has facets of an honorary Ithacan. 

He was a prominent naturalist and conservationist: an ecologist before the word existed. Simplicity was a byword. His famous quote says “beware of all enterprises which require new clothes,” which certainly resonates in Ithaca (where we might also add “nice clothes”: I personally have a closet full of jackets, creased pants and dress shirts I haven’t worn since relocating here from a more metropolitan life many years ago). 

In another famous quote he notes “I have traveled much in Concord,” his birthplace, which was a small place even then. It is reminiscent of Ithaca’s well-known status as “centrally isolated,” yet full of depth and diversion.

Nature has been a solace to many in the time of pandemic, and Ithaca is part of a blessed natural region, with its lake, waterfalls, gorges, parks and hiking trails. But now society, widely vaccinated, is opening up again, and people are increasingly congregating for business and pleasure.

Observation shows that currently Ithacans are getting together avidly. On a recent weeknight two friends and I decided to go out to dinner, a rare enough treat in the past many months. We figured a Thursday night wouldn’t present problems of full houses.

We were wrong. “Restaurant Row” on Aurora Street was packed with a crowd of ready grazers. The place we approached had a wait of fifteen minutes for outdoor tables on the fine, temperate night. Tables inside were available, however, so it wasn’t a real problem, and of course in any case was a good one to have, borne happily.   

“Traveling much” in Ithaca is thus possible again, quite simply because there are destinations. Theaters and museums are reopening, gradually but surely. Smallish concerts are being held, and larger ones planned.

There are destinations outside Ithaca too. With travel restrictions between states largely lifted, it’s a new era of road trips.

On asphalt roads, that is, not airways. Air travel is still dogged by particular safety requirements and staffing issues. One weekend this month hundreds of flights in the U.S. were cancelled for crew shortages.

But it’s freewheeling on the highways. It’s a joyful time for those of us with families within driving distance whom we haven’t seen in a year or more. Generally there is plenty to do and see without going very far or planning very much.

(Still, planning should include a car check. Last year was not a big one for oil changes; maybe yours is due. An inspection of all fluids is a good idea. Of the brakes and tires, too. On a lesser level, you might want to test the air conditioning: when’s the last time you used that for any duration?)

Like Thoreau seeing much in Concord, recently I have been engrossed by novel notions gained by some travel to fairly proximate places.

As a starting point: Ithaca has always seemed to me a place of rather impatient drivers for such a small town. Drivers on Route 13 in the city, for instance, give the impression that their main reason for going anywhere is to prevent anyone from changing lanes or getting in front of them.

On a trip to Pennsylvania, conversely, in its second largest city, I discovered the phenomenon of “the Pittsburgh left,” where vehicles waiting at a red light routinely allow an oncoming car making a left to go first when the light turns green. 

Some things in Pennsylvania puzzled me. At a rest stop I saw a printed sign saying that attendants are not responsible for refunding losses in vending machines. That seemed to me to go without saying, but I guess people ask.

A hand-made sign in the men’s room above the sinks asked people not to fill bottles from the faucets, but to use the hose outside, which seemed disobliging, plus completely mysterious in reason. 

Another sign, on a trash can outside, said “Trash Only,” which made me wonder what else people would put in there that could ruin trash.

In tri-state travels, I also visited New Jersey. The Garden State, which also has many gas refineries, holds firm to its rule of making it illegal to pump your own gas. I have a sister who lives in New York but works in New Jersey and says she’s never done it in her life.

The state also held the line for many years on gas taxes in the interests of its industry. That has changed and now that taxes there are about as high as anywhere else there is no particular reason to fill up in New Jersey. Except in bad weather, I guess.

Traveling mercies to you, in upcoming days, amidst the mysteries, marvels and fun. 

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