Just outside of Medina is a giant culvert, the only place cars travel under the Erie Canal along its entire expanse. Farmlands sprawl to my right, left, ahead and behind. I learn the canal provides irrigation and flood control along with the transportation it was initially designed for. The next small town boasts a sign that states “affectionately called Podunk”, where many are stopping to have a picture taken and I decide to ask someone to take mine as well. This is a town where many Italian immigrants came to work in the Medina sandstone quarry. Yet another, bigger town is where a factory to manufacture grain reapers was established so it could ship them via the canal to large Midwest farms. It becomes increasingly clear why and how factories and businesses sprouted along this busy thoroughfare, literally watered by the needs—both expected and newly invented—of a culture on the move from agricultural to increasingly industrial. Access from the port of NY City to the west by way of the canal cut the cost of transportation of goods to a fraction of what it had been by way of land—once a three-week journey cut to only days.
It is difficult to imagine the canal as it was at the peak of its use. Most factories are gone or remain only in pieces. Remnants of stone and brick walls now curtained in moss and vines line the trail. Towns once robust now struggle. This trip is part of the reinvention of the canal, highlighting recreational opportunities; gaining support and funding to expand the bike trail into a completely off-road route across the state from East to West and connect to a North South route from the Canadian border to NYC. The contrast between old neighborhoods in poor repair and new housing developments along the route is striking. I stop along the water to rest briefly and am surprised at the unexpected clarity of the water. The canal was known for its polluted waters, from factories, businesses and occupants as much as it was for its transport opportunities. The1972 clean water act was responsible for the prohibition of dumping and the requirement for treatment plants that have now opened the canal for recreational opportunities – which is its predominant use. Some factories have been turned into condos, offices or new manufacturing businesses.
We end the day in Fairport and camp at a school there. Buses are available to travel into town but I want to rest, have my arm attended to, and think about the day as it has progressed from a moment of pure defeat past fields and towns to where my tent now waits for me. I am grateful to find my tent empty. I need some time alone to absorb all the sights and information the outside world has offered, along with all that my inside world has pumped through my thoughts. The canal was created through innovation and invention, and is now being reinvented after the ebb of its use. I feel a sense of my own initial push to reinvent my world as I moved from a poor rural setting and parental restrictions into the bigger realm of college and life in a small city. Then into a marriage, family and home in suburbia as I tried to fit into middle class America. A feeling of not being ‘good enough’ grew despite my hard work and advancement in career. I closed the doors to my house, and to my true self, afraid others would see the shadows that lived in the dark corners. The time for another transformation seems at hand, time to ride beyond beliefs that have limited my view of possibilities. Eventually I find my way to the gym showers to rinse off and head to bed. I am worried I will wake with the same trepidations that tore through my heart this morning, but also know I am in a different place–physically and emotionally–than I was just hours ago.