“TRAVEL IN LOCAL SPACES”
by Jessica Kuzmier
Newspapers can be a great source of ideas for traveling in local spaces. For example, an article in our local newspaper that inspired us to go to our next destination. It was a small feature announcing the reopening of a fire tower on Mount Utsayantha. This is a mountain peak located outside the town of Stamford, New York, which is located in Delaware County.
According to the article, the fire tower was now open, day or night. There had just been a grand opening. Though things were still in the development stage, the fire tower with its spectacular views was open to the public. Great views from the fire tower's observatory deck were promised. On days of clear skies, you could see five states. Eighty steps got you to the top of the tower. Mount Utsayantha itself was at an elevation of 3214 feet. It sounded like a neat trip; a quick way to summit a mountain and get home before lunch.
We decided to take our van, because the article claimed that the road needed development, without elaborating further. That sounded like an arbitrary statement. It could be a concrete road with a couple of potholes. Or, it could be complete dirt. To be safe, it seemed logical to leave our car at home, in case we encountered an off-road experience. The day was forecasted to go to ninety degrees, which was hot for a summer day, at least in this area. It was already getting hazy, so this led us to want to go as early as possible in the day.
At first, the drive there was mild enough. It was the usual morning traffic, with people pulling onto the main highway without looking. All were in a rush to get to work, school, the mall, or a nail appointment. Along the way, tourist posts tried to persuade drivers to pull over and sample their wares. One gimmick was a garlic princess. She looked like the Swiss Miss girl, jumping up and down waving at traffic. I guess this was her sales pitch for the garlic farm. At our turnoff, there was a purple wedding bell made of construction paper. I don't know if it had any significance. Maybe it was a creative idea to let people know where to go next. It was then we saw the sign for Mount Utsayantha.
Finally, we came upon the road which was to lead us to the park, the one discussed in the article. To say it needed development was an understatement. Not only was there no concrete on the road, there wasn't much in the way of stones to smooth it out, except for the ones naturally put there by nature. The pitch was at an intense and extreme angle. As far as width, to say it was enough for one vehicle to pass by us would be an exaggeration. At some points of the road, there was no shoulder, just a precipitous drop.
It seemed like we slow down to one mile per hour, stopping to catch our breath at the one parking area that the road had. This wouldn't be the best place be driving if your engine decided to go. According to the article, they planned on improving the road by putting crushed stone on part of the road. I'm not sure why the rest of the road was getting gypped, though it's always easy to suspect fiscal reasons first. But as we careened upwards, any crushed stone was better than nothing. Pebbles would do at this point.
Finally, we reached the top of the mountain. Luckily, we didn't fall off a cliff, or get our vehicle stuck in a ditch or pothole. I don't know what I was expecting when I got to the summit. Considering that so many officials were quoted in the article, I presumed that there would be some kind of park ranger, or at least a huge crowd. But when we got there, we were the only people. Maybe everyone else saw the dirt road and said forget it, we'll just wait for it to come on the Internet. Maybe we were the only ones nuts enough to be there.
The summit had a clearing that appeared to be about ten acres, though the article claimed twenty acres had been dedicated by the late Dr. Stephen Churchill as a park. Presumably much of the park parameters were within the adjacent woods. An electric generator hummed noisily, a strange encounter to see considering that there area was dedicated as a park. I wonder if this is what Dr. Churchill had in mind when he donated the property. Or maybe he would have been delighted. After all, this was a fire tower. Maybe it was something for emergency personnel. Who knew with these things.
There was a rundown building, which I assumed would one day be observation kiosk. Right now it informed me that Travis loved Lynda in bright red spray paint. We walked around the property surrounding the fire tower. There was a scenic view with a drop, which didn't seem so severe after dealing with the so-called road. Eventually, the entire area was to be redeveloped: the fire tower, the observation building, and all of the trails. A campground was in the works as well. There was supposed to be an exhibit, and the road was supposed to be all fixed up. None of these things were here at the moment. Especially the fixed up road.
And, of course, the fire tower itself. It seemed to be about fifty feet in height. There were eighty steps to get to the top landing, according to the article. And it looked pretty old. As we approached it, I began to question the wisdom of making the climb to the top. My fear of heights suddenly stepped in and informed me that I was safer on the ground. I could always go online and look at a webcam.
But one of the reasons I travel is to challenge myself and try new things. I reached the first landing, deep breathing as I went. Ensconced in fear, I didn't notice whether the staircase and the bannister were of wood or metal. The wind blew into me. Seeing it was at the top of the mountain, I knew it was stronger than at the lower elevations. But now that I was gripping onto a bannister and trying to climb up fifty feet of stairs, I noticed how the breeze wobbled the tower I was trying to climb. This whole idea of climbing to the top of the fire tower seemed completely nuts. The exaggerated sense of danger my fear perceived made it feel like the wind was going to blow over the thing at any moment, with me on it.
I almost didn't continue. I almost came down. But then I remembered a similar situation I was in about a year ago. It was at the top of Kaaterskill Falls, and I had the opportunity to walk right up to the precipice and look over the cliff, but I was too nervous of the height. I gave into the fear, and passed up the experience. Everyone else in the party got to see a totally awesome view, including two people making out on the ledge below. But not me.
I missed out that time. I didn't want to miss out again now. With that I gripped onto the staircase, and proceeded upwards. I was glad that the stairway was narrow enough that I could use both hands to balance myself on the respective bannisters. I kept breathing deeply, inhaling and exhaling. I looked only at the step in front of me. I told myself all was well. And I kept climbing. I was glad that I'd read Buddhist literature to keep myself centered in the moment. It kept me from thinking about how I was going to get down from this thing once I got up.
And reach the top of the tower I did. The bannister cut off just before of the staircase, making me pitch slightly forward to maintain my balance. But I made it to the overlook, such as it was. When you reached the top, there was a narrow platform to stand on in front of the staircase. It widened once you passed the opening of the stairs, but not by much. There was no barricade if you took a wrong step backwards to prevent you from falling down the staircase. This could prove hazardous if there were many people up there at the same time, especially if small children were involved. Or if someone was squeamish of heights.
The wind blew much harder up where we were, or at least it felt that way. The good thing was that it cooled things down on a hot day. The bad thing was that it made the fire tower sway back and forth, hardly a comfort at fifty feet up. There were windows with open panes all along the tower's perimeter to give you a different view. The view of five states was muted slightly by the haze. The views seemed to alter between endless rolling hills and vast fields. But for all I knew, I was only seeing into the next county. I was glad to make it to the top for this experience.
I went down as carefully as I went up. The biggest challenge in beginning the descent was the uneven means of balancing myself. Instead of a bannister as a guide, I climbed down as though I was on a ladder. I turned backwards at the top of the staircase. Then, I grabbed onto the walls and the railings of the observatory window. When I was low enough on the staircase to retain my balance, I turned around, and grabbed onto the railings. The rest of the descent took place without mishap, of which I was grateful for.
We walked on some of the trails when we got down. Up until now an organization known as the Utsayantha Flyers Organization that flew kites and gliders had maintained the property, so it wasn't complete brambles. Major trail work had yet to be undertaken by the redevelopment committee. Most of the trails were allegedly privately owned. I don't know if the trails would be reworked into the land already designated by the park, or if they were going to try to buy the land from the current owners.
On one of the trails, we saw a rock that overlooked a steep precipice. I stepped on the boulder and stepped to the edge. The view yielded a wooded ledge dipping into an equally wooded valley, though the pitch of the drop was pretty steep. The trails seemed easy to follow at first, but this was an illusion. They started getting steeper and it felt like a maze. Between this and the heat we decided to head back.
One day, there would be a visitor center which included lavatory rooms. There would be a parking area of gravel big enough to fit ten passenger vehicles. For your dining pleasure, picnic tables and pedestal grills would be supplied. Or, so the article boasted. But none of this was here now. Even though the fire tower had its "grand opening", it really wasn't open with much of anything just yet. But at least you could climb to the top of the tower. Which is what we did.
Just as we began our drive back down the crazy hill, hoping we wouldn't kill our brakes, another car came up the other way. It was a car with two older people in it. I wonder how they fared in their off-road experience, and if this is what they expected. Luckily, this whole exchange took place near the parking area near the top. We backed up to the parking area so they could pass us. If we had been anywhere on else on the road, letting them pass would have been one heck of a challenge.
Going down the crazy hill we pulled over at the only place wide enough to pull over. There, we grabbed our last photos. The rest of the trip down, the van's brakes were really straining. So much so we had to downshift to control our speed. It was quite an adventure!
At last, we made it back down the road with our vehicle and our persons in one piece. We survived, and we felt we had some story to tell. If you can survive the road and the steepness of the fire tower, it's a trip well worth it!