The trail continues east to Chittenango Landing Boat Museum. A reproduction of a canal boat pushes the story spun by yesterday’s captain closer to the reality of life on a canal boat. The space is even more limited than I imagined, especially considering the mules were housed and transported here as well. Boats came here for repair in three adjacent dry docks that still survive in much of their original form. The reconstructed village includes a canal goods store, sawmill and a blacksmith shop.
Much of today’s trail winds through the Old Erie Canal New York State Park. This is where it all began. The land was most level here. It was important to start where the most progress could be made in the least amount of time to entice further funding for its continuation. This was not the first attempt to connect the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Ontario and the interior of the growing country. But the expanse of the Allegheny Mountains blocked success, with elevations too great to overcome. The only route through them is this break where the Mohawk River flows.
We ride into the small city of Rome and stop at the Erie Canal Village, a reconstructed 19th century settlement on the site where construction for the original Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817. Much of it is closed, and it seems poorly cared for with little use. We walk around and explore a bit, then move on to the next stop – Fort Stanwix. The vital access to a route between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Ontario consisted of a trail that was used for centuries. As Europeans settled in this area, the homeland of the Oneida Indians and of the Six Nations Confederacy, conflicts arose. The Fort is part of that history. It would become most well known for its role in preventing the British from taking power over the colonies.
I have passed the fort many times over the years on my own vital route to visit my family in the town I grew up in. First the canal, then railroads, then the interstate highway system followed this path through the Alleghenies. A new appreciation for a familiar route grows. Sometimes we have little or no idea of the history that lies behind what we take for granted. I couldn’t help but wonder if my ancestors had arrived in this area because of the canal, as laborers. Had a relative of mine ever lived on a canal boat? Growing up, there was little talk of where our family had come from. My father told me we were mongrels, some Dutch, some German, a little Irish and maybe some French blood running through our veins. But our identity is 100% American, not a country left behind long ago. I never asked questions about my heritage. We were not the kind of family that talked about our ancestors, or anything else for that matter. My quiet nature may have come in part from an inborn disposition, but it definitely included learned expectations and behaviors that reinforced it.
As I ride up to the fort, I spot my husband’s car. The plan, made way before this journey began in Buffalo, included a day off along this stretch. A friend and I biked a good part of tomorrow’s route a few years ago. There is no reason to cover it again. I feel like a cheat. But I doubt I would be here if I had not given myself permission to take a day off. A decision to honor my own needs and not get caught up in what others thought I should do. This is my trip and no one else’s. This sounds like a simple choice, but not for me. My need to follow the ‘rules’ is deeply ingrained. The ‘good girl’ inside needs to know she is doing what is considered ‘right’, even at the expense of her own time, energy, health and emotions. When I was in the planning phase, before I committed money to the entrance fee, struggling with fear that I could not really do it, my husband casually stated: “Take a day off if you need to, nobody says you have to do it all.” That simple common sense statement never entered my mind. My internal ‘rule buddy’ and I started arguing: “But you’re supposed to do the whole thing! Says who? And why? It’s my trip and I can do whatever I want.” It was a slow revelation that cut through the shadows in the woods that still occupied a corner of my brain. My childhood fear of my father’s disapproval lingered on, still effecting decisions in my adult life. As soon as I realized the source of my resistance, I knew I would do this trip.
We load my bike into the back of the car and drive a little over an hour back home. Mild guilt soon disappears as I sit in my house eating a home cooked meal and retire to my own soft dry bed.