Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Two Solitudes

Back from Rhinebeck, a glorious weekend bookended by two hideous drives. I'm a pretty good driver, with a lot of Interstate experience, given the number of times I've driven from Canada to Washington, DC. However, this weekend was the low point in all that drive time. It started when, only 40 minutes from home, we were selected for a random search by the U.S. border authorities. It was a first for us. We waited inside, filling out forms (I had to declare the green pepper strips in my lunch) and answering questions while sniffer dogs went over our car. We were quickly cleared, green pepper strips included. It might have helped that Bill had his Royal Military College ID with him, showing him to be an employee of the Dept. of Defence. Anyway, we heaved a sigh of relief and sailed off in our rental vehicle.
Then the rain started. And what rain! Impossible to see more than a few feet ahead, and by the time we reached Utica, NY with all its interchanges, all we could do was to keep going. Nowhere to pull over at all. Surrounded by trucks, trying to read road signs, and with our flashers on (most other drivers had them on too, to warn of their reduced speed), we pressed on. I think it might have been a good cardio stress test. On the far side of Albany, on I-87, we encountered a tractor-trailer that had gone off the road. The front cab was so smashed in that it's hard to imagine how the driver could have survived. Very scary sight. At the earliest possible moment, we exited the Interstate, crossed the Hudson via the Rip van Winkle Bridge (I kid you not about the name), and emerged into a relatively rain-free landscape north of Rhinebeck. Whew!
We stayed at the Beekman Arms right at the central intersection in the village. The inn has been in continuous operation since 1766, complete with wide-plank floors (like our own house), low ceilings, and huge fireplaces. Classy, but not pretentious. Perfect. Best of all, we were able to park the car and spend the remainder of the weekend getting around on foot.
On Saturday morning, I left the inn and walked down Mulberry Street on my way to the fairgrounds, past houses like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.


I'm not sure, but I think flags might be mandatory. The main street was equally picturesque.

Rhinebeck is a weekend getaway spot for New Yorkers. No cigarette butts littering sidewalks, no panhandlers, beautiful boutiques, beautiful people. A lot of men in ponytails and expensive boots. A place to see and be seen. Curiously, no grocery stores within the village proper. You have to drive down the highway and back into the real world to find one.
Speaking of the real world, you don't have to go far to find it. Across the river in Kingston, is a different country, one hit hard by the recession. We also encountered this darker side of America during our hideous drive home. About half an hour past Albany, the warning chimes on our car signalled low tire pressure. Fortunately, we had warning chimes, and equally fortunately, we were near one of those monster New York Thruway service centres. By the time we parked, we had a full-blown flat. Without going into the details, let me just say that we ended up at a Ford dealership in nearby Amsterdam, NY. The dealership guys were terrific and did the best they could to assist us. In spite of that, it was FIVE hours before we were able to hit the road again. In the meantime, we learned a lot about life in a former manufacturing town, now filled with boarded up factories and young people looking for work. Bill, a retired IMF/World Bank economist, was especially interested in the town's story. This might have been the highlight of the weekend for him, alas.
We've all read about the hollowing out of the middle class and the increasing inequality in America (and the rest of the Anglophone world), but it's another thing to experience it firsthand. Even economists like Bill have no easy solution.
Interestingly, while we were waiting to get into a restaurant in Rhinebeck (Arielle, if you're wondering which one), we found ourselves talking to a man from Battenkill Fibers, who is working hard to provide American-grown fibre (sorry, but I just have to use Canadian spelling!) to the fashion industry. I visited the mill's booth the next day and was incredibly impressed with the quality and variety of yarns they produce. I wonder if one road back for (North) American manufacturing is the provision of quality, niche goods that cannot be produced elsewhere. Food for thought, on the eve of a most interesting election south of our border.
P.S. I promise photos of the glorious part of the weekend next time.