Sometimes the thrill of driving is wondering where the road will lead you. A random drive makes a destination thatís minutes from your home seem like a wild adventure. Maybe the town you go to is no different from yours, except for the street signs. Maybe you wonít even leave your county. No matter. A trip with no endpoint on the map makes you wonder where you are going, even if youíve seen it all before a million times.
With that in mind, one misty summer day, having no other plans, I got in the car and decided to head north through the Adirondacks. The general idea was to find a way to cut through Herkimer County to get to St. Lawrence County, the county due north of Herkimer. St. Lawrence had the distinction of being the county adjacent to the Canadian border, so getting there would feel like I had gotten a mini cross-country trip under my belt. Since I wasnít familiar with Herkimer, I was planning to drive up using state roads.
I brought a map with me, but I didnít really want to use it. It felt a little deceptive to use it, unless I really got lost. What was the purpose of going on a drive with no destination, if you had it plotted from start to finish? It would be like finishing a coloring book and saying I just completed a work of art from scratch. There just wouldnít be the same sense of discovery if the route was all planned out. I may as well go on an all-inclusive trip. At least Iíd get drinks delivered to me.
As I said before, I was heading up using state roads only. It was my way of not using maps but still having a sense of direction. County and town roads donít tell you what direction youíre driving in. You have to rely on external signs like the sun to navigate your direction, which isnít so wise to do when youíre driving and have priorities like staying on the road. State roads have periodic signs telling you how many miles you are away from this town or that town. Local roads generally donít have that. And while driving on unfamiliar local roads, you may wind up in some seasonal dirt road with ďNo TrespassingĒ signs during regional mud season. Then you get lost and stuck in the mud at the same time. A little too much excitement for me. State roads would be enough of an adventure, thank you.
There are several state highways that take you north through the Adirondacks: NY 167, NY 8, NY10, NY 30, NY30A, and NY 28. NY 167 is the only one I knew for sure that cut through Herkimer. Iíd been on 167 once before with my spouse. 167 had few towns and many fields interspersed with houses here and there. Considering that this road was in the foothills of the Adirondacks, it was relatively flat. It reminded me of Nebraska, where there were reams and reams of small hills, fields, and the occasional knoll sticking up out of nowhere. There werenít a lot of trees either on this road. There were more trees in Nebraska. As you drove on 167, it yielded a weird surprise in this hamlet called Jordanville. A tall building that looked like a caricature of St. Basilís Cathedral in Russia appeared out of nowhere. I later found out that it was a Russian Orthodox seminary. After you passed the seminary, it went back to neo-Nebraska. The Russian structure came and went so quickly that you wondered if you imagined it, like you had a brief craving for caviar or White Russians, and the building appeared like an oasis.
I decided to start my trek on NY 167, because even though I had been on it before, I hadnít followed it to its conclusion. Maybe it would take me to the Canadian border. That would be exciting. At least, that was my hope when I started out. But honestly, as a person who has done a lot of random driving, I should have taken the hint when I pondered taking a three-digit highway. As a rule, three digit highways are pretty short, which distinguishes them from two-digit ones. If I were looking for a long odyssey, in other words, I would have been better off choosing NY 28 or NY 30. By taking NY 167, I ran out of road not much past the Russian edifice. I was nowhere near St. Lawrence County. NY 167 died in a small town called Dolgeville, which was still deep in southern Herkimer County, just barely north of the New York Thruway. Obviously, a change in plans was in order. Good thing I brought the map.
According to my trusty atlas, good thing I hadnít persisted in my goal. There were no state highways whatsoever taking me to St. Lawrence. Not only that, there were no apparent county ones either heading due north. There were a lot of paths earmarked for ATVs and hikers, but obviously I didnít fall into either one of those categories. Herkimer was the heartland of Adirondack Park, which was earmarked as undeveloped by the government. The only state highway in northern Herkimer was NY 28, which swooped in from nearby Lewis County and then took you in a more easterly direction. The only significant town on NY 28 was Old Forge, a village that probably bore the weight of bringing in commerce for the northern part of the county via ski lodges and other tourist attractions. Then after Old Forge, it was back to miles and miles of endless forests. To get to St. Lawrence would require a whole lot of maneuvering west that would have defeated the purpose of going through Herkimer County in the first place. I scrapped my plans and started fresh. May as well go with the flow, I figured.
From where I was at the terminus of 167, the state highway available to me was NY 29. I knew that NY 29, if I took it east, would eventually land me in Saratoga Springs. Seeing I had traveled portions of this before, I decided to head the other way towards unknown places. NY 29 west actually heads north for awhile, an interesting note for when you want to plan a trip without a map. It wasnít long before NY 29 died in NY 29A. It didnít seem like I was getting very far on these random trips, so I took NY 29A back east again. Maybe I would run into a significant road that I was familiar with so I could actually make plans to go somewhere, instead of being stuck at junction signs.
This time, my luck was good. I ran into NY 10, which I knew went pretty far south, down to Deposit in Delaware County, which isnít too far from the New York/Pennsylvania border. Iíd never dealt with NY 10 this far upstate, so I decided to head in a northerly direction. At least I knew what to do if I wanted to get back home: just turn around and head back in the other direction. With the clouds getting darker, it was good to have this assurance. I didnít want to get stuck in a blinding rainstorm two hundred miles away from home on an unfamiliar road.
Driving through on NY 10, like many roads in the Adirondacks, was a moving meditation through the woods at fifty miles an hour. Trees lined roads for miles on end, with the exception of the occasional hamlet offering trinkets and gas. The road looked like a passerby in a civilization that was comprised mostly of woods. There was no deception of man thinking himself the most prolific creature here, with the vast tracts of forestry that surrounded the narrow strip of concrete. Although I partake of civilization and donít subsist on acorns and pine needles only, I was glad to be in an area where preservation was so dominant. I truly felt as a human being, I was only a guest here.
NY 10 ended in a junction with NY 8, another major north-south route. If I had realized that I was going to arrive here, I would have brought my book that features fifty hikes in the Adirondacks. I know it featured a bunch of hikes around this intersection. But I didnít know where the trailheads were exactly, and I didnít feel like turning around back and forth on an unfamiliar highway causing an accident looking for them. I figured, if a trailhead popped up with adequate notice and easy access, maybe Iíd hit that trail. The idea of a hike sounded nice, even though I didnít have the best footwear for it. I was wearing working boots, which werenít the worst for hiking, because they did have good tread. But they werenít the best, either: not a lot of cushion, not water resistant, etc. However, it wouldnít be fatal to take them on a short trail.
I found my trail as I headed north on NY 8 towards a town called Speculator, a town I deemed the turnaround point. The trailhead was in a parking area off of NY 8. My car was the only one in the parking area. This suited me just fine, seeing that I felt like being private. These pullovers are plentiful in the Adirondack area; youíll be driving for a time, and then you see a sign telling you that there is a trail within half a mile. Then itís up to you to look out for the pullover. You could probably spend most of your free time going from trailhead to trailhead and still not get them all done within one season. I didnít know where this one would take me, but it would be fun to try.
So my working boots and I set out on the trail to see what there was to discover. Walking by yourself on a strange trail is a little like going to a foreign country without knowing the language or customs. You donít know what to expect, because itís all unfamiliar. You donít know for sure if youíre going about things the right way, or if you are unwittingly endangering yourself. I could see mother hens fretting over what I was doing right now; to them it would be one of the most dangerous things I could be doing during daylight hours in my own country.
Certainly I was undertaking one of the riskier activities while traveling: I was hiking alone in an unfamiliar area. I wasnít wearing the best footwear. There were bears in the area, and it wasnít like I had a Remington rifle on me. And no one knew exactly where I was. True, my car was parked at the trailhead, which could definitely give an indication of my whereabouts should trouble fall. And I wasnít planning to walk to Mount Marcy; Iíd probably walk a half hour in and walk right back. But that didnít mean that nothing couldnít happen. I could twist my ankle a quarter of a mile in, and no one would see me. My cell phone didnít even get a signal here. So if something did happen, I could be here for awhile. Maybe that was part of the thrill.
The thing is, once I get on a trail, I donít really think about those things, at least not in a way that I fret about it. They are like background noise; there, but with less prominence than what is in front of me. The fretting occurs after the hike, when it is safe enough to worry. Out on the trail, Iím too busy navigating what is in front of me, scanning my surroundings, and listening to my intuition to really pay attention to ďwhat-ifĒ and ďoh-noĒ. Maybe that is why I have such a yen for hiking. Itís one of the things that keep me centered.
The walk in itself was uneventful. But being that it was a new trail, it was an odyssey to me. It was the sense of being on different terrain that was novel. I felt like I was pushing past an internal comfort zone by doing this. The stretching of my external boundaries was expanding the boundaries within me, showing how much expanse I could cover if I just put the effort in. The path was a little slippery from recent rains, so I grabbed a fallen branch as a walking stick to balance myself. At the trailhead, there had been a couple of signs mentioning destinations a couple of miles inward. I didnít remember them, but I knew one was three miles away while the other one was six miles away. Normally, the prospect of a twelve mile hike excites me, but the skies were a dark grey now, and I wasnít sure how muddy this path got. About forty minutes into the walk, I turned around and headed back towards my car. It only took about a half hour to reach it. Iíve noticed this when I go hiking somewhere: the trip back always takes less time than getting there. Maybe it is being more sure of the path. I donít really know. Iím sure there is a Zen koan in there somewhere.
By the time I reached my car, it had begun raining; making me glad that I trusted my gut in the situation. So far, on this drive through the Adirondacks, my intuition had served me well, and I had no reason to believe it would let me down. It was just a reminder to trust myself as the final arbiter of the direction I needed to take in life. With that piece of wisdom in mind, I got in my car and headed towards Speculator to get something to eat.