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Albany Excursion
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New York Times
AUG 24, 2001

Enjoying Upstate Wonders Under the Supervision of a 5-Year-Old


A cluster of five stark white towers that dominate the Albany skyline receded behind the treetops as our Dutch Apple cruise boat headed south on the Hudson River. Over the loudspeaker, the captain informed us that one of them, the Corning Tower, at 42 stories, was the tallest building in the state outside of New York City. A white-haired woman in a Yankees cap pointed to one of the towers and said to her friend, "That's where I renewed my driver's license."

My 5-year-old daughter, Willa, to whom we had promised but failed to deliver ice cream before boarding (the dockside stand was closed), was actively uninterested in anything that wasn't cold and soft and sweet. She refused to be amused when she heard that the original capitol building slid down State Street in 1868. And she remained impassive when we were told that, according to local lore, "Yankee Doodle," a tune she likes, was written at the manor house of the Van Rensselaers who built the mansion on the port side of our boat. Then, as we moved through the Port of Albany, the captain informed the passengers that back in January 1964 a barge spilled three million gallons of molasses while unloading — and that the man responsible for the accident had drowned in the goo. I'm sorry to report that this news seemed to cheer up my daughter. Maybe it was just the thought of a spill so massive and sticky that a bulldozer was needed to assist in the cleanup. "On warm summer days," said the captain, you can still smell the molasses." Willa rushed to the rail, sniffing.

So went our quirky, childcentric weekend in and around Albany.

After a string of weekend excursions that involved driving a half-dozen hours to canoe or kayak races, Willa had put her foot down. She explained how she felt about logging long hours in the backseat ("You don't understand the horrification of the car!") and that watching a race from a riverbank was tedious. My wife, Beth, and I decided it was time to build a minivacation solely around the junior member of our trio, and that it should be within about a two-hour drive of our Brooklyn home.

Some small cities, like Savannah or Nashville, beg to be explored. Albany was a city I associated with the chatter of legislators and the sordid underworld of gangsters and drunks, as described in novels by the native son William Kennedy; a place I sped by on my way somewhere else.

The city is billed as the gateway to three mountain ranges — the Catskills, the Berkshires and the Adirondacks. (Good paddling destinations all.) Even the bed-and-breakfast booking agent whom Beth spoke with admitted that Albany is not much of a tourist town. "It's easier to get a room on the weekend than a weekday," she said.

But although Albany, with nearly 100,000 residents, may not have the architectural sophistication of Boston or that city's Freedom Trail, it has its own historical charms. Henry Hudson landed the Half Moon just south of Albany in 1609; the Dutch established a trading post there in 1624; the British incorporated the city in 1686. Then in 1754 Albany earned the nickname "cradle of the union" because Benjamin Franklin's plan to unite the colonies was adopted at a meeting there. In other words, a lot of history lies beyond the ramp of Exit 23 on the New York State Thruway.

But with Willa calling the shots, history would get short shrift on this trip. Our first destination was Howe Caverns, in the Catskills. We got off the thruway at Exit 21 — 25 miles south of Albany — and headed west through Cairo, N.Y., on Route 23 to Route 145 north. Whoever said that travel begins when you get off the highway is right. Speeding along at 70 miles per hour, stopping at cookie-cutter rest stops with long lines, fast food and bad coffee, you focus on where you're going, not where you are. The moment we turned off the thruway, we began to see texture: bales of hay drying in fields that were cut into the wooded hills; a man in a wheelchair shooting baskets; a handwritten sign advertising rabbits for sale — for pets or meat.

Just north of East Durham we considered stopping at Zoom Flume, the Catskills' largest water park, but Willa wanted to push on to the caverns. We likewise bypassed Hubcap Heaven ("over 1,000 in stock") and Secret Caverns, a competing cave. ("Four out of five dentists prefer our cavity.") We stopped the car in front of the Iroquois Indian Museum, but if Willa wouldn't go for the Mighty Anaconda water slide a few miles back there was little hope for the Iroquois. It was Howe Caverns or bust.

At the caverns we crammed into an elevator, descended 150 feet and stepped out into a chilly, damp, artificially illuminated world of fantastic rock formations beyond the imagination of even a 5-year-old. Our guide explained how the caverns were discovered. During a hot spell in 1842, the farmer Lester Howe noticed that his cows congregated at a specific spot on the hillside, far from even a hint of shade. "He climbed the hill and found they were soaking up cool air blasting from a vent hole," she said. And so a tourist attraction was born. At $35 for two adults and a child, our tour cost $33.50 more than the one Lester used to give. And his lasted about nine hours, rubber boots and lunch included.

While the motel, restaurant, gift shop and petting zoo outside the caverns are pure kitsch, inside is the same geological marvel I remember loving when my parents took my brother and me there 30 years ago. Willa had a similar reaction. "I want to stay here forever," she said as we walked under stalactites — giant stone icicles dripping from the roof of the cave — along a twisting, narrow river. "Top this, Walt Disney," I thought smugly as the path petered out and we climbed aboard a string of flat-bottomed boats that would take us to our turnaround point — a pitch-black tunnel to Hades, apparently. Ninety minutes after we had entered, we returned to the world of color and light.

The fanciest hotel in Albany or nearby Saratoga Springs would not have pleased Willa as much as our quaint digs at the Agape Farm Bed-and-Breakfast on 33 acres in Corinth, 45 miles north of Albany. Fred and Sigrid Koch had more than enough animals — from ponies to emus — to wow a kid from Brooklyn.

Next morning, over a prodigious breakfast, we chatted with three brothers on their annual pilgrimage to the horse track in Saratoga Springs. "We've just about run through our winnings from last year," said the oldest, a retired geologist from Houston.

"Yup, all $200," said another, a retired airline pilot.

While I digested a lesson on handicapping, Beth took Willa to the barnyard. I got the highlights later: a goat jumped on the back of a sheep and stayed there. There was a white tom turkey with a voluminous blue- red wattle, so ugly that Willa named him Ugly. ("He looks like he took off his brain cap," she said.) She was butted by a goat named Blue Moon. And she was the first child to set eyes on a goat born that morning. Weeks later, the mere mention of Wobbly can still induce euphoria.

That afternoon we hit the New York State Museum in Albany, walking through 12,000 years of New York's natural history. I discovered that having a child along to whom I can explain the Ice Age heightens the pleasure of going to a museum by about a factor of 18. Willa enjoyed the displays of animals that, sadly, no longer inhabit the Hudson Valley or the Adirondacks — moose, bobcats, elk, wolves — until she realized the animals were actually stuffed.

We moved quickly on to minerals. At the collection of chunks of sparkling quartz, amaranth and other gorgeous rocks, Willa got so excited she began running around the free-standing glass cases flapping her arms. But the highlight was an interactive computer kiosk that allowed her to specify the size and speed of meteors on a collision course with Earth. I watched our normally peace-loving little girl chortle like a James Bond villain as she selected the "building-sized" meteor, traveling "incredibly fast" and watched it destroy a Midwestern farm.

We had lunch down the street on Madison Avenue at Lombardo's, an elegant dining hall with high tin ceilings that has been a favorite of lunching politicians since 1935. The sautéed escarole with garbanzo beans was so good you could picture all sorts of deals being made over plates of it. Our waitress confided that Billy Lombardo, the original owner's son (now in his 80's) still lived upstairs, although he no longer owned the place. The dozen or so large landscape paintings on the wall were done by an artist who owed money to the elder Lombardo — gambling debts, according to local lore.

We skipped dessert so we could get to the track in Saratoga Springs to catch the last few races of the day. It was the opening weekend of the season and well-heeled ladies in huge floral hats rivaled the number of highly tanned gents chomping on thick cigars. We arrived just before the eighth race — too late to bet, but just in time to run to the rail in front of the grandstand to watch Majestic Sea thunder by for the win (I think).

After the race we scrupulously studied the racing form for 85 seconds and headed to the window with $10. Willa, who regularly rides a 30-year-old pony named Midget back in Brooklyn, picked the favorite, Saf Link, to place. Beth, who has been to the track twice and read countless horsy books as a kid, cleverly played the long shot, Tortellini Ted, to show.

The anticipation was intense; the action riveting. Sadly, Saf Link got boxed in and finished a desultory fourth; Tortellini Ted finished on Tuesday. I'm not sure who took it worse, but the defeat was deflating. Willa had had a new Beanie Baby picked out in her mind; I had all but spent my winnings on a high-priced seafood entree at a Saratoga Springs restaurant. Beth just couldn't understand where she went wrong.

By the afternoon of the next day, our last, just one item on our loose agenda remained: a visit to the seat of government. Before the trip we had debated touring the state capitol. Beth's mother thought it was part of responsible parenting. Beth's brother had been an intern there and assured us the tour was "kind of fun." But somehow it had gotten to be Sunday; doors were locked and no tours were touring. The best we could do was explore Empire State Plaza, the architectural showpiece that is home to the Capitol Building, the Corning Tower, a spherical performing arts center known as the Egg and a lot of other important public buildings.

The plaza was empty. The white marble buildings standing around its enormous mall looked cool and clean in the hot sun. The glassy water in the huge reflecting pool mirrored sky and clouds and white marble buildings of its own. We passed the plaza several times in our wanderings, but from down at street level we had no sense of its size or grandeur. The Egg floated above us on its massive pedestal. Giant sculptures appeared to be waiting for someone to climb on them. So Willa did. I sat on the grass with Beth and remembered running around the Mall in Washington with my brother when we were kids.

Although Willa did not want to leave, she raised little protest; I think she may have actually had enough fun. As we pulled onto the Thruway heading south, we rolled the windows down and sniffed for molasses. Nothing. By the time we passed Coxsackie, Willa was sleeping hard in the back, the horrification of the car, at least for now, forgotten.