Old and new friends
October 4, 2009—Some friendships thrive on daily contact. Others can lie fallow through years of separation, yet when a meeting occurs, spring to life again as if no time had elapsed. My former officemate Holly Knott has been a daily friend ever since she left our New Jersey-based company to become a full-time artist in New York's Finger Lakes region back in 2004. I've only seen her once since then—in the summer of 2005, shortly after I became a full-time RVer—but we've stayed in contact via email several times a week. It was a given that I'd stop and see Holly on my way east.
On the other hand, my previous officemate, Lou Mang, isn't big on correspondence. Since he and his wife Julie Eastland moved to Buffalo in 2004, I've only exchanged emails with him a couple of times. But when I told him I was coming east, his reply was immediate: "You can park your rig in our driveway as long as you want. I'll call you tomorrow. It'll be great to see you!!"
It's 225 miles from Tarentum to Buffalo, and after about 35 miles of driving around the hills of Butler County, I got onto I-79, and from there on the drive was uneventful. Late in the afternoon, I had my first encounter with one of the east's more annoying features: tolls.
Most US states, including all the southwestern states I normally travel through, finance roads with taxes. But a few eastern states, mainly for historical reasons, use tolls: every so often, all traffic has to pass through a series of booths, stop, and pay money for using the road. (I'm describing this for the benefit of readers who live in more enlightened parts of the country, and may not have encountered the practice.) EZ-Pass and similar "roll through" transponder schemes have made tolls slightly less annoying, but no less costly. I had to pay $23.85 in tolls to drive about 160 miles through upstate New York... about half as much as my fuel cost for that stretch of road. In other words, tolls made the trip half again as expensive as it would have been in most states.
Traffic—always denser in the east—gradually increased as I approached Buffalo, and the last part of my trip was fairly stressful, despite my GPS navigator's unfailing guidance. By the time I pulled up in front of Lou's house, unhooked the Fit, and backed Skylark into his driveway with about a foot to spare on either side, I was tired. The driveway was level as promised, though, and Lou still had room to park his car.
Lou and Julie served me a delicious dinner, and we brought each other up to date. It turned out that Julie, who used to work as the same New Jersey company as Lou and I, is now studying to be a nurse. My ears perked up at this, because I've always been interested in medicine, and in fact used to do brain surgery and histology on lab rats when I was in my twenties. Soon Julie and I were "talking shop," which I think made Lou squirm a bit. It doesn't bother me to discuss anatomy and physiology over a meal, but I know not everybody feels that way!
Before I arrived, we'd made plans to see Gunther von Hagens' "BodyWorlds: The Story of the Heart" exhibit at the Buffalo science museum on Saturday. This was something I'd been wanting to see for years: the best anatomical teaching displays in the world, made from real animal and (volunteer) human bodies that have been perfused with plastics ("plastinated") using special processes developed by von Hagens.
The next day dawned rainy and cold, but that couldn't dampen our enthusiasm. The exhibit was seemingly endless, and endlessly fascinating. Bodies in lifelike poses had been dissected to show the wonderful interplay of muscles, bones, organs and nerves. (These were all from people who had willed their bodies to the Institute for Plastination as a contribution to medical education.)
Organs were presented separately as well as in bodies. Thin 2-D slices let us see the body's inner workings in cross-section. Tar-blackened smokers' lungs made a shocking contrast with normal pale-pink lungs. The circulatory system, seen in isolation, formed a delicate tracery of vessels and capillaries. I couldn't help think how the pioneering anatomist Vesalius—or any physician of the old days—would have given his right arm to see what we were seeing. I was lucky: I toured the exhibit with nursing student Julie and two friends of hers who are full-fledged nurses, so I got their insights in addition to the detailed descriptions posted with each piece.
Photography was not permitted, so the pictures you see here come from the book I bought, along with a fascinating DVD, in the museum gift shop. We spent more than two hours touring the wonders of the human body (if you'll forgive a cliché), and by the end, I was exhausted but exhilarated by all I'd seen.
Afterward we had lunch at a local Greek restaurant, Ambrosia. My turkey Reuben sandwich was delicious, as was the side order of spanakopita, a flaky spinach and feta pastry that I haven't enjoyed in years. (Greeks are scarce in New Mexico.) I ended up so full that I didn't have room for dessert, which was a pity, because the offerings looked great.
Back at Lou and Julie's house, Julie put together an apple pie of monstrous proportions—by the time she added the crumb topping, the contents must have topped the crust by at least five inches. While the pie baked, we sat and chatted.
I already knew Lou well, since I'd shared an office with him for a couple of years. He's easy to get along with, a cheerful man with a good sense of humor and a rare combination of artistic and musical talents. (The only person I can think of who's comparably multi-talented is my sculptor/artist/musician cousin Hugh Watkins.) Some people would find it annoying to share an office with someone who tapped his fingers on the desktop, but I loved it. Lou is a very skilled and versatile drummer, so his tapping was always a treat! Visiting him now, it was easy to slip back into the comfortable relationship we'd always had.
But I hadn't really gotten to know Julie until this visit. Although she worked for the same company, I didn't see much of her in those days, and I'd only been to their house a couple of times in all the years I'd known Lou. Sitting in their kitchen now as the rain pattered against the window-boxes, I found Julie just as intelligent, interesting, and easy to get along with as Lou, and our shared interest in medicine gave us plenty to talk about.
The next morning, we headed downtown for a walking tour of the old Erie Canal's silo and dock district. Lou and Julie are both native Buffalonians, and the other branches of the Mang family are involved in city affairs—there's even a Mang Park, and one of Lou's relatives is mayor of the city's Kenmore suburb. Driving around town with them was lots of fun, because they knew so much. They showed me the spot where President McKinley was shot, and the building where Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as McKinley's successor.
The waterfront tour was led by a schoolteacher who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the area's history, and a simple and engaging way of explaining it. For a century or more, Buffalo was the transfer point between the large freighters that sailed the Great Lakes and the small, flat-bottomed boats that carried cargo via the Erie Canal to New York City. But the city's long era of prosperity ended in 1957, when the St. Lawrence Seaway bypassed Buffalo. That lead to an economic meltdown, and the city's population dropped to half its former size.
Because it was a transfer point, Buffalo needed ways to store the cargo before it was transshipped. We learned about the early wooden grain silos (which were extremely fire-prone due to grain's flammability), and the successive generations: designs lined with iron (not so good, because iron melts in a fire), clay tiles (too expensive and labor-intensive), and finally reinforced concrete—still the standard today.
The closer we got to the canal, the stronger the aroma of toasted grains became. "Mmm... you can smell the Cheerios!" Julie exclaimed. And indeed, much of the US's supply of Cheerios is manufactured in an enormous General Mills plant right next to the scores of grain silos flanking the canal. Our guide informed us that this particular plant manufactures flaked and extruded cereals (e.g., Wheaties and Cheerios), but not puffed varieties. Lou and I posed for Julie's camera in front of the plant—there are no tours permitted. (Maybe they're afraid we'd spot a mouse in their granaries.)
I haven't talked about Lou and Julie's house, but it's lovely. They've done a wonderful job of landscaping both the front and back of the modest-sized lot, adding lush floral plantings and a pond with a waterfall.
The glider rockers near the pond are great places to relax and meditate.
Sunday evening I said goodbye, and Julie gave me a jar of home-pickled green beans and a sticker with a 3-D dissected skull. Monday morning Lou went to work, Julie went to school, and I hitched up the Honda Fit behind Skylark and headed east toward the Finger Lakes region. I was aiming for Green Lakes State Park, a wooded park just east of Syracuse, which looked to be the closest to Holly's home in Marcellus and her co-op artists' gallery in Skaneateles.
About halfway there, my weather radio, which I always leave turned on, started squawking. I pulled over onto the shoulder, walked to the back where I have the radio mounted on a wall next to my desk, and listened to a warning of severe thunderstorms with winds gusting up to 60 mph—not a good situation for a slab-sided vehicle like mine. Still, it looked clear ahead, so I got back on the highway and proceeded cautiously. But in a few minutes the radio squawked again... and then I came upon this sobering sight:
What you can't see from this photo is that the truck had been traveling in the opposite direction, then had crossed all four lanes and the median to end up on my side of the road. It's a miracle it didn't hit any other vehicles in the process.
I didn't know for sure that this truck had been blown off the road by high winds, but it certainly could have been. Deciding to play it safe, I pulled into a rest stop a couple of miles further on. After making myself a snack, I called my friend Gary Oliaro on the cell phone and chatted for half an hour as the storm blew past me. The coach rocked a lot, but at least I was parked instead of trying to drive.