Peel back the thin veneer of modern life and you will find layers and layersof history, stories of struggle and conquest, innovation and revolution. Turn your motorcycle into a time machine and immerse yourself in the past.
Fun fact: there are more museums, historic sites, and historical societies in the country than McDonald’s and Starbucks combined. That’s right, more than 35,000 places, from little old historic buildings to giant museums, where people can marvel at what life was like before the smartphone. New York State has its fair share, and I spent several days in mid-October touring museums in western New York while astride a 2017 BMW R nineT Scrambler.
Ithaca to Rochester
The trip begins at a geological wonder. Millions of years ago, an ice sheet two miles thick gouged deep valleys into the earth, and when the glaciers retreated at the end of the Ice Age, they left behind steep hills and long, deep lakes known as the Finger Lakes. Taughannock Creek empties into the longest of the Finger Lakes (Cayuga) but first must drop 215 feet into a cavernous gorge with sheer rock walls that rise even higher while leaning precipitously inward. Taughannock Falls is the tallest single-drop waterfall east of the Rockies; taller even than Niagara Falls.
I ride along Cayuga Lake, enjoying the views and admiring the wineries that dot the countryside until I turn west toward the town of Seneca Falls and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. In 1848, 100 women and men gathered in this small town to declare that “all men and women are created equal” and called for giving women the right to vote and other rights that we take for granted today. It was a long 72-year road to the 19th Amendment. At the park, there’s a re-creation of the meeting hall as well as a museum filled with artifacts that remind us how far we’ve come. A photo from 1914 shows an anti-women’s suffrage headquarters with a convoluted poster that that says, “WOMAN’S RIGHT IS THE RIGHT OF FREEDOM FROM POLITICAL DUTIES. VOTE NO ON WOMAN SUFFRAGE NOV 2,” and others.
The land flattens north of the Finger Lakes and then I approach Syracuse, a crossroads of upstate New York. The Erie Canal came through here, opening up the entire state to commerce as goods floated on blunt-nosed barges between the Great Lakes and New York City. Cities like Syracuse boomed thanks to the canal, but it was eventually replaced by the railroad and now the interstate. The Erie Canal Museum preserves a section of the canal, a barge, and other relics to give visitors a sense of what life was like back then.
Motorcycle & Gear
North of Syracuse, small farms dominate the gently undulating landscape until I get to the edge of the country and the shores of Lake Ontario. For years the Sodus Point Lighthouse reached into the inky black night over this Great Lake to warn sailors of the nearby cliffs. Today, GPS makes this little lighthouse completely unnecessary, but I’m glad it’s still standing so that I can climb up a narrow circular staircase, squeeze through a tiny porthole, and step inside where there is a great view of the lake. A giant Fresnel lens still resides here, while down below a little museum is staffed by volunteers with a passion for preserving local history.
I head to Rochester for the night, a short ride to the west.
Rochester to Jamestown
It’s cold and raining in the morning, so I loiter at the George Eastman Museum. Rochester is the home of Eastman Kodak and the museum celebrates the life of the man who brought photography to the people, with exhibits from its vast collection of photos, moving images, and cameras. Tours of the estate, made of reinforced concrete, are also available, making this a must-visit for photo and camera buffs.
It’s still raining as I leave Rochester and put in miles on flat, featureless terrain. Warmth and color return when I stop in Le Roy at the Jell-O Gallery. Housed in a small building off of Main Street, the gallery contains more quirky and whimsical Jell-O-related items than you even knew existed—molds, advertisements, toys, a giraffe (yes, a giraffe), art, and even a Jell-O-themed painted cow. I have the pleasure of speaking with 91-year-young docent Ruth Harvie while I visit and she regales me with tales of Jell-O that make both of us smile. A peek in the basement reveals an unexpected bonus—a small room filled with vehicles of the late 19th/early 20th century, including horse-drawn wagons and a 1908 Cadillac.
The rains finally relent and the skies clear with a stiff breeze as I head toward Tonawanda. I pause to admire the scenic wetlands at Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge as the clouds sail overhead like frigates. I visit the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum and marvel at the craftsmanship of another era. There are carousel horses and zebras and pigs (oh my!) here and you can visit the wood carving shop where these fantastic creatures were made. As an added bonus, the museum also contains a Wurlitzer player piano display and two working carousels.