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.
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.