story and photos by Catherine Ravensong
As I crossed the invisible border between Pennsylvania and New York, beginning the final leg of an almost-26,000 mile journey begun two years ago, tears stung my eyes and blurred my vision. I eased onto the shoulder of the road, rolled down the window and smiled. Two years since I’d seen this land … these lakes, these waterfalls, these trees. This lush greenest of green! The scent of a thousand flowers filled my nostrils, and the damp air clung to my skin. I’d been meandering this incredibly beautiful country for two years; I’d photographed and stayed in some of the most amazing places from the Atlantic to the Gulf to the Pacific – and yet I chose to return to the Finger Lakes. Why? Why leave behind the towering red rocks and other-worldly arches of Utah, the white powder of saline deserts, the colorful striations of ancient earth upheavals, or the massive 800-foot-high gorge of the Rio Grande? Why trade the great redwoods of the northwest for the fat oaks and maples and dancing willows of the northeast? Why say no to the craggy snow-capped Rockies … and yes to the gently rolling hills and flat farmlands of this region?
Let me start by telling you that I am not originally from the Finger Lakes, or even New York State. I was born in Philadelphia and lived most of my life on both sides of Pennsylvania. My father’s family, however, was from the Geneva area, and after visiting once when I was ten, I told myself I would live there one day … and it only took another 37 years to reach that goal!
It’s funny, though, how life can take us on some surprising journeys, and just 13 years after I arrived here, a friend’s sudden death along with a looming 60th birthday catapulted me into the adventure of a lifetime. Within just a few weeks of her passing, I’d decided to sell everything I owned, toss a few remaining clothes in the car and set out to meander the country. Little did I know I would wander for two years and 26,000 miles, and even further removed from my mind was returning to New York.
Yet there is a siren-song that beckoned me back … a song Seneca Lake sings silently to many of us who live here. A magical melody reaches out from her denim depths, singing to those who listen. Her cobalt-blue waters, topped with frothy, bobbing white hats on windy days, her deep musty perfume; her endless shoreline painted with vineyards, crisscrossed with farms, dotted by thick woods. Her friendly, simple and happy people … a mix of races, religions and occupations. To drive the loop from Geneva to Watkins Glen – perhaps stopping for a sip of wine and a breathtaking sunset – is a perfect way to spend a long, lazy Sunday afternoon. And a drive I missed.
But there is something deeper. Though all long-past now, many generations of my family were from this area, and I truly believe that it’s a part of my DNA. Studies have been done recently on DNA memory – specifically regarding early trauma suffered by our Indigenous people – and they found that there is indeed a change, a memory, imbedded in the subsequent generations’ genetic makeup. If this is true, could it not be so for those of us with familial history tied to an area? Could, in essence, the waters of these lovely lakes have become a part of our chromosomes? I truly believe so.
So many I know who choose to leave – for any number of “logical” reasons – always seem to come back. A year, two, maybe a decade … but they come back. Perhaps there is indeed a magic, a bewitching spell, cast on those who take the time to walk along the shores of these captivating sirens. A magic that cannot be denied, and a magic that lasts a lifetime.