A Last Farewell to Summer

A grassy field with trees and hills in the backgroundDescription automatically generated

The first reds of autumn were dabbed on the long hills above the long lakes of Central New York.

This year we set out on the last weekend of September for our annual trek from Ithaca at the south end of Lake Cayuga to Watkins Glen at the south end of the next Finger Lake to the west, Seneca. This earlier start meant we were just ahead of hunting season. Those sections across private land closed from October 1st in previous years were now open to us.

These trail segments—a leafy disused railroad grade and a steep, deep gorge perched directly above the busy road leading down from the bluffs into Watkins Glen—make up only about three of the hike’s forty-five miles and come in the last couple hours as we turn around the southeastern corner of Seneca Lake. One might expect that this jewel of the Finger Lakes, forty miles long and six hundred feet deep, has a carried classical allusion for the last three hundred years since these are sprinkled all around the region in towns like Ithaca, Aurelius, Ovid, and Ulysses. But no, this body of water is not named after the Roman philosopher famed for his stoic suicide committed after his involvement in a foiled plot to assassinate Emperor Nero. The lake is named after the native peoples, the Seneca Nation: Onöndowa’ga:’ Gawë:no” — people of the big hill. The name is a European corruption, with its Latin resonance, a convenient one, as all forms of corruption are.

These are big hills, but mostly gently rising—easy on the knees on the way down.

During the nineteenth-century, the golden age of Upstate agriculture, the region was ninety percent deforested. Now that proportion of woods to fields is reversed. Before winter strips the hillsides bare one enjoys views of long unbroken stretches of the deciduous canopy, with some evergreens and an occasional cell-phone tower. Farmed fields are the exception not the rule.

The 11,000 acres of the Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area are spread across the divide between the two lakes’ drainages. This forest makes up the magical center of the walk. It carries another native place, or better, out-of-place name brought with European “settlers” from the Atlantic coast. Wildlife Management is a technocratic update of Old Testament dominion-over-other-animals ideology inherited from Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U. S. Forest Service.

The trail winds its way down along the Cayuta Creek gorge that cuts its way along the edge of Connecticut Hill to a large swamp at the southern end of Cayuta Lake, the smallest of the Finger Lakes. The path then works its way not west towards the terminus of our walk, but north for ten miles through the haunted Texas Hollow Nature Preserve and onto the southern slope of the Finger Lakes National Forest. We encountered just a couple of other folks walking short sections of these trails leading through woods and marshes and occasional fields, remnants of old stone walls and abandoned cemeteries left behind by families who came to the region after the American Revolution but had moved to the Midwest and elsewhere a century later.

I love living in rust-belt adjacent rurality, but there are signs along the trails and the country routes leading between the forest preserves and on the edges of towns and in the deep country that cheap land and fewer impending environmental threats are drawing opportunists and refugees from hot and fiery spots to the ever-more-mild Finger Lakes.

We had walked out the front of our house down the Cascadilla Gorge, the stream quiet for want of rain through the old town. A friendly woman asked us if we were “training for a Camino.” In my battered and optimistically named Osprey “Anti-Gravity” pack I doubt I looked much like a mendicant friar or medieval pilgrim. But in training? Walking from point A to point B should be the default mode of transport, I suggested. The woman said that she had flown in from Colorado to visit her son at Cornell. She had done many variants of pilgrim routes in Europe, including a recent 650-mile walking tour on the Camino de Santiago. We parted at a traffic light, and as my daughter and I continued through the residential blocks with their clapboard houses and into the urban sprawl with its big boxes south of Ithaca, I thought—not self-righteously, I want you to know—what joy it is to walk out your front door rather than be airdropped to a marquee destination.

After taking off our boots to ford Buttermilk Creek and doing a mile or two on the railroad tracks, we crossed under the highway into Treman State Park. The Finger Lakes Trail now led through the golden-green forest. The traffic thundered alongside, the drivers oblivious to the resilient natural world within spitting distance, the woods still and defiant as they disappeared into their own evening shadow. After the long climb, we came to the clearing where there was still enough light to admire the upper steps of the spectacular Lucifer Falls of the Enfield Gorge, which begins narrow then opens into the airy sublime.

As we walked back into the darkening forest my mind wandered to my thirteen-year-old self. “Ba-ee-yah, ba-ee-yah,” intoned lead singer Maurice White from way back in 1978, his voice soaring on the jubilant updrafts emitted by the tight and bright Earth, Wind and Fire horn section. This band could blow the leaves off of any tree. “Our hearts are ringing / our souls are singing,” White celebrates as the savory harmonic sequence chugs towards the darkness of December.  This irrepressible dance music feeds the feet and the feeling, and it keeps me going after dark. It’s a love song that glows and pulses autumnal orange even as it remains an ecstatic evergreen in any season.

I sleep ever more fitfully in a tent as the years accrue. The bright moon shining through polyester fabric didn’t help. Roger Whittaker’s “Last Farewell” came into my mind. I never listened to him, but ads for his LPs and eight-tracks would come on afternoon television, folksy companions to those spots pitching Liberace—“These are some of my favorites.” We teens, just discovering Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon, mocked these purveyors of schlock adored by our grandparents.

After reading the New York Times obituary of Whittaker, I listened in full to his greatest hit, that hokey maritime ballad of duty over love, “The Last Farewell.” I then tracked him across YouTube to other performances and found myself having to admit that, in spite of all the disdain harbored by my younger self for Whittaker’s music, there was something compelling to that voice, something that cut through the overproduced studio glaze.

Whittaker’s baritone was often described as rich, yet his vocal assets were not derived from power and pomp, but from warmth, texture, and sincerity. In the “Last Farewell,” he raises his voice in a noble crescendo along with the reluctant heroism of the horns, but the opening phrase begins in speech-like intimacy, the hint of vulnerability soon giving way to full-throated resolve. Even as he performed in front of large crowds or for even larger ones on television, it was as if he were singing to a single person, addressing you alone, his eyes fixed directly on the camera. The voice had the heft yet softness of the wide wale corduroy jackets he favored, and it was that plush but unpretentious vocal fabric that made him 60-million-records-sold rich. For grandparents, his was a voice you thought you could trust.

How addictive is the prescription-less drug marketed as Nostalgia? ‘Round midnight (Miles’s version from the 50s) bedded down just off the Finger Lakes Trail was not the time or place to think of the “last hike” I’ll ever take. Be silent, Roger Whittaker! And anyway, tomorrow there were many more steps to be taken in those Miles Ahead (yet another teenage musical discovery!), many more songs to remember and new ones to sing.

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