Monday, September 7, 2015

Gladiator Combat at the Three County Fair

Demolition Derby.  It’s the closest you can get to blood sport in the politically correct northeast, and it’s it right here at home.  Kill-crazed drivers swarm the field in battered wrecks, bent on annihilation of their fellows. The last car rolling wins.  Local farmers and merchants encourage their sons and daughters to compete, for family honor.  They find themselves up against the spawn of criminals and outlaws, and the nature of the victor is always in doubt.

Finally the day comes for the Derby - the affair that will settle everything.  Trucks converge on the fairgrounds with a fleet of cars, and the drivers and their supporters trickle in through the afternoon.  The get read backstage as the field is readied by dragster tractor pulls and clowns.

Everyone knows what's coming next.  Meanwhile, the sun beats down and the teams other among their cars.  Some hope, others wish, and a few prepare . . .

There was a time when drivers fortified themselves for the combat with whisky.  Those that do so today, do it in secret.  The only consumable liquids you'll see backfield are water and sweet drinks.  

The situation is somewhat different for the fans, who have a beer emporium right across from the entrance to the grandstands.  And there's food and drink for the kids everywhere you look.  This is, after all, a country fair.

The grandstand seating sold out, with thousands of fans filling the stands, roaring louder with every new crash.  Fun as that sounds, the best place to be is the box seats. There you are up close and personal, like the ringside seats in a boxing match.  

Families put their kids out front, like bait for the drivers, where they shake their little arms and yell.  By the end of the night the lucky ones are spattered with dirt from the field mixed with antifreeze and transmission fluid – the blood of beasts sacrificed on the field.  All of them have a story to tell, and a few have souvenirs – pieces of car that fly into the seats when car hits the concrete barriers with particular emphasis.

Nothing stands between the fans and carnage but a few referees and some cabled concrete barriers.

At Northampton they race on the old horse track, where the grandstands saw countless fillies running under the Labor Day Weekend sun, and the betting windows did a brisk business below.  The betting is closed now, but when the beer if flowing and the cars are out there butting heads hard, you want to a pick favorite, and anything can happen . . .

As day turns to dusk the carnage intensifies.  Drivers are shrouded in smoke and fog of their own making and the track is marked with the blood of the four-wheeled beasts.  Firemen stand ready, but mostly the competitors work things out among themselves.

The spectacle starts with little cars and ends with the big bruiser V8s - Deathmobiles like the one made famous in the movie Animal House.  When it's all over the survivors stand atop their cars as trucks haul away the bits of wreckage.

It’s an American tradition for sure, like deep fried Twinkies and sweet sausage grinders.

Words and pictures (c) 2015 John Elder Robison

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Journey through the Adirondacks and Northern New York

This weekend I had the honor of being the convocation speaker at the opening of Clarkson University's 2015-16 academic year.  I drove there on Saturday.  If you plan a similar trip I advise bringing a powerful car, extra fuel, survival gear and defensive weaponry.

The road to Potsdam runs through the heart of New York’s Adirondack forest, which has become a place of ruins.  The Adirondacks were once the playground where all New Yorkers went to vacation. The camps were filled with kids and parents, and the resorts were booming with couples and groups of all sorts.  Not any more.

That said, with the humans subtracted it remains a place of wild and rugged beauty.  It's home to some of the northernmost rattlesnake dens in North America.  

Nowadays, though, it's largely forgotten as New Yorkers go to Aspen – or even farther - and the opportunities closer to home are abandoned.  First the resorts closed, and the great complexes like Grossinger’s were reclaimed by the woods.  The campgrounds were closer to woods to begin with and they disappeared even faster.

Then went the people who served them.  Whole communities depended on the tourist trade, and as it dried up, so went the means of support.  Anyone who could moved away.  Realtors put signs on the properties that were paid for, but there were not too many buyers.  Banks foreclosed the properties that had debt, and they had even less luck with remarketing.

Some of the houses people abandoned were pretty grand.  You wonder who they were, why they left, and where they went . . .

Today you drive wooded country roads, seemingly devoid of houses.  But when you look close, you see they are in there, surrounded by trees.  Some standing, others fallen down.  It is impressive, how quickly nature reclaims its own.

Then there are the roads themselves – the ones with pavement last longer.  Dirt roads can vanish as fast as the camps they led to.  Can you see the road in here?

It should come as no surprise that abandonment has even touched the road maintenance, and infrastructure like dams and bridges . . . And the 2011 hurricane and flooding did its part, too . . .

You need to be careful up north.  Infrastructure has gone to seed, and what looked at a distance like a friendly gas station is now abandoned broken by man, and it's home to wolves and were-bears.  God help you if you step too close to those doors late at night.  A fellow across the street says the flag hangs there as bait, and I saw for myself how true that was.  The screaming was unearthly.

There are places up there that make books like The Shining seem like kiddie stories.  And you don't hear much about them because those who learn the truth never emerge.  Your best advice - enter the country with a full tank of gas and a shotgun. Don't step out of the vehicle at night.  

When you see those heavy grates welded over storm drains . . . that is not to keep you out.  It's to keep THEM in.

Then, as you get father north, you come into farm country.  Abandonment there too a different form.  Half the farmers left, and abandoned or sold their holdings.  The houses and many of the barns were left to their fate, and the land was worked by those who remained. 

Closer to New York city these abandoned houses would be filled with the homeless, and with crack dealers.  Up here, they are just empty.  Mostly.  And the ones that are not . . . you will surely wish they were if you make the mistake of walking inside.

In the northern towns there is a pattern of struggle, then abandonment.  The working men and women who once populated this part of New York are leaving, to be replaced by transient college students at Clarkson, SUNY Potsdam, St Lawrence and a few other schools.  Health care is big up here too, thanks to an older core population and rising health care costs. 

Places like the 3 Bears Gluten Free Bakery are thriving, but you know times are tough when the tavern next door goes bust.

And for the rest . . .

In some places abandoned storefronts would signal crime and danger.  Here the people are mostly gone.  Yet they still manage to leave their mark . . .

The strong smell of urine is the first thing that hits you as you approach then Potsdam Court.  Then you see where the odor is concentrated – the collection box.  Clearly the people of northern New York have brought more than money to show their regard for the state court.

Then there is whimsy.  A block up from the court, the Patron Saint of the Bathroom stands before his legions.

Potsdam is actually known far and wide for having a whole house lot devoted to the Art of the Urinal

Most people don't think of New York as rural, but this is some of the most rural and wild country in the Eastern United States.  And it's empty.  You know it's remote when the accoutrements of modern highways slip away.  First the road widens a bit, and there are no guard rails.  Then there are no houses.  Finally there are no telephone poles.  And of course there are no other cars.  Run off the road up there and you'll be waiting a long time for rescue.

I left Clarkson in Potsdam and headed home Sunday night about 9.  Once I cleared Potsdam, it was 150 miles through the mountains to the honky-tonk of Lake George.  In that whole distance I passed 16 moving cars.  Think about that.  Can you imagine driving from Boston to New Haven and seeng less than 20 other motorists?  It gives pause for thought . . .

Until next time . . . 

All words and images (c) 2015 John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and the forthcoming Switched On. He's served on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.  

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.