On the Road to Rochester, By Bike

The glaciers were bigger then. I gained renewed appreciation for their scale two weeks ago when making the long climb by bicycle out of one of the holes they dug as they withdrew northward during the last Ice Age some 12,000 years ago.

Among the glaciers’ most triumphant excavation projects were the Finger Lakes of central New York State. Just over three miles at its widest point, Lake Cayuga is one of the longest of the group, stretching nearly forty miles from Ithaca at its southern tip to Seneca Falls at its north.  Ithaca is 384 feet above sea level. At its deepest, Lake Cayuga extends 435 feet below its surface. This narrow glaciated basin is filled with water—the increasingly beleaguered residue of the ice sheet that made it.  However impressive and beautiful the lake, it represents a mere puddle in the bottom of a giant geological trough.

Last Thursday I cycled from Ithaca, New York northwest to Rochester on the shores of the much larger and deeper Lake Ontario. The route I followed is a hundred miles, the first twenty a relentless uphill pull to the divide between Cayuga Lake and its twin to the west—Seneca.  Tracing the underside of the vanished glacier, the long ascent gains 2,000 feet from lakeshore to ridge top.

The first ten miles northwest from Ithaca city rise steadily on the Black Diamond Trail—an old railroad grade repurposed for recreation and barred to motor vehicles. After an unseasonably warm autumn the deciduous forest is still leafy, but there are intimations of winter: it’s 9am on November 9th and the temperatures are still below freezing.

The feeling that I’m ascending through geologic time is encouraged by the sight of bison grazing an uphill meadow. Perhaps genetically reanimated heirloom wooly mammoths and bison latifrons will mill among these herds in the farm-to-table operations of the future. Every mile or so a bridge crosses above a stream cutting its way through the shale on its way down to the lake. The progression of brooks culminates eight miles from Ithaca at the mighty Taughannock, the highest waterfall east of the Rockies—higher, if less voluminous even than Niagara. These streams both intimate and sublime have been here ever since the glaciers left, they’ve clocked some 10,000 well-earned holidays each winter when frozen to a standstill. But these vacations are themselves being eroded under pressure from global Big Heat: the carbon economy extracts ever more labor from the faithful flow.

I’m mostly an in-town cyclist. Mine is a heavy city bike, by no means the fastest thing on two wheels, but the right equipment for this ride, as I’ll find out later in ten punishingly slow and bumpy miles over the old railroad beds and rights-of-way known as the Ontario Pathways between miles 60 and 70 of the tour. I own none of the colorful and costly cyclist’s Lycra nor insulated shoes for cold days. My kit consists of a bulky, wind-catching school backpack inherited from one of my kids; a helmet shedding its plastic shell; gray sweat pants and fleece pullover; old running shoes crammed into flimsy toe-clips (by now practically medieval technology); orange day-glow safety vest whose Velcro is shot so that the thing flaps wildly when at speed; and newly acquired USB-chargeable LED lights that squandered their supposedly “sustainable” and “off-setting” benefits before I even put them into use. They were manufactured in Taichung, Taiwan.

My first pause comes in the picturesque village of Trumansburg ten miles northwest of Ithaca for some water and a pee at the popular Gimme! coffee shop. I lock my bike next to a Prius with a Clinton-Kaine 2016 bumper sticker and slip by the queue of slackers seeking their carbon-fueled fix of caffeine. Trumansburg is 980 feet above sea level.  I’ve got another 1,300 to gain the divide.

After a few miles of paved roads I’m on agricultural gravel lanes running past industrial dairies, swaths of forest, mobile homes next to abandoned Victorian houses, Amish farms and saddle makers.

The only vehicles I encounter for an hour and some are a combine harvester and a black covered buggy driven by a young Amish woman. I call out “Grüß Gott!”  and she lifts a hand from the reins and smiles. At gravel crossroads a German shepherd encourages upward progress by giving menacing chase.  Just before 11am I reach the highpoint of the ridge, some 2,300 feet above sea level. That’s 3,000 feet above the bottom of Lake Seneca, now visible below to the west. Instead of the russet landscape of fields, forests, and gray-blue lakes, I imagine the endless ice. Ahead to the north the terrain slips towards the Great Lakes.  There are some low hills between the Finger Lakes and Lake Ontario, but I can see now the downward tilt of the earth: I’ve got 2,000 feet of hard-earned equity to pay out over the next eighty miles to Rochester. But the loan officers have changed the terms of the agreement: a headwind gathers strength. Seeing its opportunity, my mutinous iPhone goes dark. Like Captain Bly set adrift in the South Pacific, I will have to navigate from memory.

I pay out most of the gained altitude in a few miles on the steep descent to Seneca Lake, down through the town of Willard, home to a state prison for drug-addicted convicts. Three miles due north is the Five Points Correctional Facility also enjoying outstanding views of Seneca Lake. Incarceration—of cows and, more lucratively, humans—is vital to the flagging Upstate economy.  As I let gravity pull me down along Willard’s Main Street abutting the prison grounds I hear the inmates singing a bluesy call-and-response somewhere beyond the razor-wire fence and imposing nineteenth-century brick buildings.

At the bottom of the hill the lakeside road dead-ends in another car-free path running along the edge of the disused Seneca Army Depot where munitions were once stored and disposed of. The troops are gone, but the area remains home to the world’s largest herd of white deer. Whether these animals ever did active military duty as moving targets—and inactive duty as venison in the officers’ mess—has never been disclosed. But here’s betting that the fury of ordnance is etched into their genetic memory, so it’s not surprising that the PTSD-plagued beasts keep a low profile. I see neither hide nor hair of the fair-furred, four-legged creatures.

Back on the paved road I sight Geneva set dramatically on the lakeshore like its Swiss namesake. New York’s Geneva boasts handsome brick buildings from its prosperous past, most of them now vacant and neglected.

The afternoon warms and the wind holds steady. A wrong turn at Geneva adds ten miles to my itinerary—five miles out and five miles back.  Strangely I seem to battle the headwind in both directions of the detour, though more likely my morale and mental faculties are slipping.

I push on past a huge cabbage farm next to the highest hill for miles—manmade mountain garbage. After another hour it’s time to go off-road again along another series of railroad beds flanked by veal sheds and cornfields. The trees on either side of the path shield me from the wind but also send out their bone-rattling roots beneath the carpet of crunchy leaves. These grueling ten miles take me ninety butt-bruising, spirit-sapping minutes.

Suddenly above the maples the sunlight dazzles off the cupola of the Ontario County Courthouse crowned by a gilded statue of Justice with her scales. Down below, the view is less Apollonian: the litter-strewn railroad leads into the flanks of the city of Canandaigua on the north shore of the eponymous lake, the next one to the west of Seneca.

After cycling up the broad boulevard with its grand mansions and even grander public buildings, I follow back roads and more footpaths that get me to the town of Victor. A desperate sugar boost of a Dunkin’ Donuts pit-stop raises the energy. In the twilight I forge northward on Route 96, a busy four-lane road that feeds the suburbs of Rochester. I’ve come to the journey’s most dangerous moment: crossing the on- and off-ramps of the New York State Thruway as the 18-wheelers and harried commuters whiz by.  I dismount and wait for a break in the hectic traffic, sprinting with my bike from median to median.

Thinking myself half as brave and twice as stupid for making the crossing as John Wesley Powell was for running the rapids on the Green River in 1869, I mount up again and ride on to the Eerie Canal and the car-free, former towpath alongside. Around the affluent suburb of Pittsford there are placid stretches of open space, before I pull into downtown Rochester in the darkness as sleet begins to fall after nine hours on my bike.


The nominal excuse to undertake the trip was to attend the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society (AMS) held this year in Rochester. What better way than a brisk 100-mile day’s ride across rural New York to brace one’s self for four days of scholarly papers delivered by music historians flying in and driving to Upstate New York from around the country and the world?  As you might have guessed from last week’s column  on the carbon-consuming habits of academics and their conferences, I can’t muster much enthusiasm for such events. Over the years I’ve carpooled to a handful of AMS conventions when they’ve been within automotive striking distance in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and New York City. But I’ve never flown to one.

I don’t consider this a moral position as do many of the ardent no-fly reformers described last week in this column. While my carbon-whoring done for academic purposes is far less extravagant than that of almost all of my colleagues, I’m hardly Mr. Clean. No, my main reasons for avoiding these annual gatherings of musicologists are that I hate convention hotels and, though I can throw myself into the conference rituals every few years, I can’t muster an annual gumption for glad-handing at parties, kibbitzing at the bar, talking shop over three meals a day, with coffee and/or cocktails in between. Whatever the fleeting appeal of hotel breakfast buffet and afterhours cigar bar, I’ve got neither talent nor enthusiasm for networking.

Then there’s the purported reason for holding the conference in the first place: scholarly papers and intellectual exchanges. The quality and quantity is astounding. This year’s edition of the conference began with a paper on “Fantasia and Variations on a Celebrated Air a la Russe Vesper Hymn” from 1842 by one Augusta Brown; a copy of the piece survives in the Eastman School of Music’s Sibley Library, a few blocks from the convention center complex and contiguous hotels. The meeting ended with a paper entitled “Sonic Impossible Worlds and the Syrian Conflict.”  But as these were delivered there were others being given at the same time in parallel sessions. On Friday morning at 9am, for example, you had to decide between “Operatic Fantasies in Early Nineteenth-Century Psychiatry” and “Chirographic Cultures of the Sixteenth-Century Instrumentalists” and eight other presentations besides. There is an app to help with planning a course through the richness of the program and the disorienting warren of rooms where they are held. The chronological, geographical, methodological reach of the papers is mind-boggling.

But hearing a fascinating investigation of the seventeenth-century Antwerp composer Leonora Duarte, a Portuguese Jew whose family converted to Christianity, delivered in a forlorn Louis XIV-style hotel auditorium with garish paisley carpet, no windows, greyish LED lights, while being force-fed recycled air only stokes larger queries about the point of it all—not just of musicology, but of human existence. It is hard to remain optimistic when the pursuit of human knowledge, especially in the magical realm of music, has led the pursuers of the knowledge to congregate in such a dispiriting place.  One might even be forgiven for thinking that these scholars don’t give a dried fig about their environment.  That very suspicion taints panels like that devoted to “A Dialogue on Current Directions in Ecomusicology”  (a recent volume published by Rutledge) convened on the conference’s first night. The panelists had flown in from California, Texas, Germany, and other far-flung locales, the closest coming from New York City 350 miles away.  By my rough calculations the carbon output of the eight-person session ran to some ten metric tons, roughly equivalent to a year’s worth of the carbon emissions of 250 Ethiopians.

I had planned to attend that session clad in hiker-biker motley and holier-than-thou carbon-free virtue. I made it to the hotel in time, but by then I needed carbs and booze not ecomusicological enlightenment.

The promotional material that encourages the AMS membership to attend the annual meeting reflexively reverts to the language of tourism.  This is not surprising given that the eighteenth-century founding father of music history, Charles Burney, was himself one of the greatest musical tourists of his or any age.  In that spirit, the society’s August newsletter begins: “We welcome you this November to the AMS Annual Meeting in Rochester, New York. Rochester is a special place: the confluence of the Erie Canal and the Genesee River created an industrial boom in the early-to-mid nineteenth century and still provides ‘gorges’ views today.” The invitation then extolls the city’s cultural offerings of museums and concert halls, as well as the abundance of parks.  This view of Rochester’s urban health is belied by the facts on the ground: vacant buildings; blocks flattened to make way for parking lots; ghost-town streets that sometimes give the impression that a neutron bomb has just been detonated. The sky-bridges that connect the hotels and convention center seem more geared to avoid contact with the African-American underclass than Rochester’s infamous cold weather. I walked the downtown on Saturday afternoon across the Genesee River over to the Kodak Building, the company name emblazoned on its steeply pitched Gothic roof. Finished in 1914, the nineteen-story tower stood as Rochester’s highest building for the next fifty years. The company had 120,000 employees in 1973; it filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and now employs just over 6,000. Little more need be said about Rochester and post-industrial America. “Our inner cities are a disaster,” Donald Trump is fond of saying. Rochester proves him all too right.

On my way back to the conference, just a block from the convention center, three men in African- and Anglican-inflected religious garb held a sidewalk service in front of one of Rochester’s many parking garages. “What I am talking about is the disenchantment of America at the hands of the white people,” he shouted pointing across the street in my direction. I picked up my pace, not wanting to be late for a paper entitled “Listening to Voiced Fragments of Global Nuclear Ruination: Cold War Decay and the Acoustical Resonance of Nation Building.” In Rochester there is plenty of decay to go around, though the people living in places like the hideous modernist high-rise in the Andrews Terrace, a long block from the Convention Center, get more of it than others.

Rochester’s grim urban present is glossed over by all this promotional zeal and music-historical inquisitiveness. The conference might as well be held at a NORAD bunker deep in the Rockies or a floating convention center in the middle of Lake Ontario—and it might well have to be, what with the Doomsday Clock a couple of ticks from midnight and the waters rising all around.

For all the scholarly imagination and dedication on display in Rochester, I didn’t notice much reflection on the connection between the globalization that the business of international musicology participates in and environmental collapse, not to mention the decline of the city hosting this year’s annual conference.

The cosmopolitan story of Burney’s heirs is written in carbon and contrails. While consciousness of these contradictions is suppressed in pursuit of professional and scholarly advance, there are increasing shadows of unease.  A recent survey devised by the School of Psychology at Cardiff University in Wales circulated to academics sought to understand how they viewed their jet-setting conferencing habits: did they believe in climate change, but nonetheless think their scholarly goals trumped those concerns?

As chance would have it, one of the first people I ran into on my first full day at the Rochester conference was the Head of Cardiff’s School of Music; he also serves as International Dean for the University’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. A brilliant pianist, definitive scholar of the Lisztian Golden Age of nineteenth-century pianism, and a virulent foe of American political correctness, the Cardiff Dean flies around the world for concert engagements and travels frequently to Asia (that great source of students for western universities) on academic/administrative business. I forgot to ask him whether he’d filled out the Cardiff psychology department’s survey.

After my two-wheeled arrival in Rochester it snowed lightly in the night and the temperatures plummeted below freezing. I’d gotten my ride in just ahead of the oncoming cold front. The headwind had been a harbinger of the shift in the weather, itself a reminder of more frigid times—from the Pleistocene and into the Cold War. The icy sidewalks were treacherous, though that didn’t affect the foot traffic much.  Whatever the season, few people are seen on the streets of Rochester’s devastated downtown.

I spent most of the morning warming myself at a session entitled “Composing while Female” in the Convention Center’s Lilac Ballroom South, a dismal chamber that seemed all the more dank for its fanciful name. At noon all the meeting quarters emptied out, their titles evoking either European Monarchs or Captains of Industry or both: the Grand, the Strong, the Regency, the George Eastman, the Morgan. Along with three other conferees, the Cardiff Dean and I met in the Riverside Court whose terrace is some fifty feet above the Genesee River raging in its concrete channel. The racing brown water sent an angry message to the few musicologists who cared to throw a glance its way. Our group of five piled into a car and drove a few miles to the restaurant—an Ethiopian buffet.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com