I was standing on the terrace of a tiny stone chapel that has miraculously clung to this steep, wooded slope overlooking Keuka Lake, far below. The gingerbread structure sits alone among mature oaks and beeches that reach to the sky at an angle, like arms waving – “Look, Ma, no hands!” – attesting to the stability of this steep overlook. I’m at the end of a journey, the seed of which was planted a generation ago.
My elbows rest on the railing, my binoculars aimed through an opening in the smooth, grey beech trunks, trained on a tiny white cottage – one of many – on the opposite shore, a mile across the soft blue-green water of the lake, where I spent the first eight summers of my life.
Twenty-two-mile-long Keuka is the exact middle New York Finger Lake, flanked by five sister lakes to the east and five to the west, and I believe I could recognize these waters if I were deaf and blind. I could recognize Keuka by its smell, its taste, and the feel of the stones that wash up on its shore. I could further recognize how, in vapor form, Keuka’s waters penetrate and odorize bed linens, solidify old mattresses, and cling to the inner walls of smoke stacks, condensing in the cooling afternoon to push kindling smoke back out through the wood stove into the room.
I recognize the way a Chris-Craft, with its V-8 engine idling in the water two cottages down, can gently vibrate the ground and magically rattle the flatware on the wooden kitchen table. And how Keuka can attract aunts, uncles and cousins from afar, often at unexpected times. I recognize how the peacefulness of this lake can lull you into complacency, until one day it is gone, the cottage sold to settle a grandmother’s estate.
Keuka deviates from the finger theme; she’s Y-shaped. As a child, I preferred “slingshot-shaped.” This could also have been used to describe my personality. I was a bit of a human rubber band, but, although overactive, I was a generous, sharing child and, throughout eight summers allowed my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents free use of the cottage, even allowing the latter to paint their name on the mailbox.
I was just happy to be able to do my “work,” collecting stones, shells and driftwood from the water, and lining them all up like trophies on the breakwall. Then, before my little brother had a chance to come out and mess with it, I’d throw most of it back in. There was an art to this. I added new items: caterpillars imprisoned in a jelly jar, a license plate from the shed and, on one memorable occasion, I threw my little brother in. I recall my mother waiting impatiently one Friday for my father to arrive for the weekend, with the car, so she could dispatch him immediately back up the shoreline to search for an oar I’d set free earlier that day.
I took breaks from my work, lying on the dock in the sun, chin in hands, I stared across the lake, wondering what they were doing over there, and just who they were. Like, that big green barn-like cottage…was there a girl there, sitting on a dock, looking back at me, who would like me even if I did talk too much? Did they even speak our language? Were they rich over there? Did they have a boat with a motor? To where did they return in the fall? To me the twinkling evening lights coming from over there were as far away as the Big Dipper, reachable only by rocket ship.
It turned out not to be in the cards for us to board our Plymouth four-door sedan and find out about the other side of the lake. My family lived under a terrible curse called procrastination, especially when it came to life and death matters like this. Besides, when my father finally arrived at the lake from the city, the last thing he wanted to do was get back in the car and drive around the lake.
My grandmother, mother, brother and I lived in our tiny clapboard paradise all summer. My father worked in the city and came out on weekends. Grandpa was a minister and was with us during the week, leaving on weekends to preach in Pennsylvania.
Our family, including visiting aunts, uncles and cousins, spent fair weather evenings on our front porch at the “everything” table, under a bare lightbulb with hosts of insects flying around it, assembling jigsaw puzzles. The adults talked…about how many glass gallon jugs of drinking water were used up during the last wave of guests, about preparing tomorrow’s meals, about the possibility of rain. Occasionally someone would start to sing a church hymn and we’d all join in, improvising on harmony and words. When we’d exhausted our mental hymnals, we’d slide over into secular songs – to the chagrin of some of the oldsters, like “I’ve been working on the Railroad.”
It was at the everything table one evening, kneeling on a chair, moths casting aircraft-sized shadows on a map unfolded atop a puzzle-in-progress, that I was first confronted with the reality that Keuka was not my lake. There lay the undeniable evidence; it was on everyone else’s map, surrounded by towns and roads I had neither named, nor heard of.
My eighth summer there was our last and the cottage was too easily forgotten as I spent three decades finishing school, working and raising a family. Twenty-eight years later, spurred by a family reunion at my cousin, Lucy’s cottage, a short oar float north of my grandparents’ old cottage, I decided it was time to see the other side of the lake…on foot.
I left my car at Lucy’s one summer day and headed south. In about thirty minutes I came to the old cottage. I walked around the outside. It was small and unspectacular. Possibly even smaller and less spectacular than the other tiny bungalows that line the shores along this part of the lake. The back screen door was not the same one I slammed from sunrise to sunset. The front steps were not the one’s Grandpa repaired on an annual basis. In fact, the front of the cottage porch was enclosed, with standard windows. It did not even suggest the evening puzzle marathons, hymn singing, sudden rainstorms that scattered puzzle pieces, or the people who retrieved them. I tried to appease my disappointment by staring at the mail box and telling myself I could still make out my grandparents’ name peeking through more recent coats of paint.
I continued around the south end of the lake and pitched my tent in the woods. The next day I rose at sunup and walked sixteen miles to the north end of the lake, then seven miles back out to the tip of the bluff, where a man let me camp in his apple orchard. The third day – today – I set out at dawn and in a few hundred yards I arrived here at this spot on the chapel terrace.
Standing here on the bluff on the other side of the lake, the place to which my parents would never drive, that had eluded me for decades, I now find myself still intrigued with the other side. Only it’s not the side I set out to find. Even though that big green barn-like cottage I wondered over as a child is right below me on the shore, instead, I’m squinting to see if I can make out our old cottage. From the tiny white dot almost completely hidden by huge poplar trees, I am trying to make out an old screened-in porch where my mother and grandmother are husking corn…my grandfather tinkering with the front steps that are beyond repair…my father and little brother running around the cottage having a water pistol war. I can see the combination of glee and sheer terror in my little brother.s eyes as my father surprises him at the corner of the front porch, aims a loaded water pistol at him point blank, and blasts him right in the chest.
I lay the binoculars down on the railing and realize, I have finally found the other side of Keuka Lake.
Lake walking is addictive. Since walking around Keuka Lake, Rich Gardner has walked around 41 lakes, including three of the Great Lakes. You can read his 24-day journal from his Lake Ontario walk-around at: www.lakecompasser.com.
by Rich Gardner