Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Eight): Secret Meadow

The largest undeveloped parcel of land within my Hidden in Suburbia range has long eluded me, as its perimeters are rendered formidable for three reasons:

  1. A good portion of its boundaries are defined by bogs and swamps that are beyond Trusty Steed’s capabilities.
  2. Most of the non-aquatic segments of its boundaries are blocked from easy road access by houses, fences, and backyards, through which I generally don’t pass.
  3. The owners have done a particularly fine job of properly signing its boundaries with “Posted” and “No Trespassing” signs, which I don’t cross, so long as they’re clearly presented and obvious.

I’ve done a lot of research trying to figure out how to get into the heart of what I’ve come to call The Secret Meadow, and have generally been foiled, time and time again. Until this week, when a low-expectation push from the east revealed an incredible network of large trails that are completely invisible to Google Maps and Google Earth due to rich, full, over-hanging foliage. While the aforementioned signage issue stymied me in the end, I actually got deeper into The Secret Meadow than I’d ever been before, and I was awed by what a beautiful piece of property it is, right smack in the middle of deepest, darkest suburbia, where you’d never expect to find it.

Click here for this set of photos.

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Seven): Racetracks

In the early years of my adolescence, dirt-biking was a big part of my life and lifestyle.

My friends and I would strip perfectly good road-bikes down to remove any civilizing or sissifying elements (you know, things like safety reflectors, baskets, mud-guards, or brakes) and then take them back into the woods to jump ridiculously unsafe ramps and race around well-worn around dirt loops that had served generations of kids before us, and then likely served countless other kids after we aged out of that particular demographic. (Well, most of us anyway . . . I never really stopped bombing around in the woods on bikes, but that’s a whole ‘nother therapy session, for some other time . . . )

In my 12,500-acre Hidden in Suburbia range, I have found three fantastic deep-woods racetracks over the past decade that clearly have just as much draw for today’s kids as our racetracks had for us all those years ago. Unfortunately, one of those great courses disappeared two summers ago under a new housing development, and I had noticed another new development going up in a different area that looked like it could have obliterated a second one. (I shot the third one as part of an earlier Hidden in Suburbia report this summer, here).

Tonight, I went to check up on that second racetrack, to see if it, too, had succumbed to (so-called) progress. I am pleased to report that the course endures, though it’s even more hidden now than it used to be. While it looks like kids might not be riding there as often as they used to accordingly, there’s still plenty of evidence of those other great woods pastimes: dumping and burning stuff.

Click here for this set of photos.

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.

 

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Six): The Mill

I wrote the following poem, which is titled “The Mill,” on May 4, 2004:

The old mill burned down last night.
You could see the flames from far across town.
It was really quite an awesome sight.
The firemen were helpless, just standing ’round,
while that eyesore burned down.

Built in eighteen ninety four,
they made shirt collars and fancy pressed cuffs there.
It had survived countless floods and storms,
but last night it disappeared into the air,
with not a timber spared.

The mill had been closed for years.
Fashions changed, starched collars became obsolete,
one by one all the jobs disappeared.
By the late ’40s, the shutdown was complete,
and they blocked off Mill Street.

But folks wouldn’t stay away.
It became a place where hoboes crashed and drank,
sometimes dying there, old, spent and gray,
in death, as in life, lying there, foul and rank.
The old mill really stank.

Then, later, the railroad closed.
The boxcars no longer rumbled through with freight,
stranding all of the local hoboes,
who were rounded up and bussed out of state,
without public debate.

Teenagers found the mill next,
swarming toward it like waves of horny bugs.
Teachers and parents alike were vexed
as we went down there to make-out or buy drugs
from unsavory thugs.

Yes, I went down there a lot.
I was there yesterday, as it comes to pass.
Terre had scored some really fine pot.
We held hands and giggled as we smoked her grass,
then doused the mill with gas.

This was a completely fictional character study (of both a building and a boy), but it has gained a new resonance for me, based on this week’s Hidden in Suburbia adventures.

A few nights ago, I set out on Trusty Steed, planning to explore and photograph an area around an active cement plant and its quarry. Unfortunately, before I could even get the camera out, I was spotted by some of the plant’s employees, so I quickly pedaled on, looking for a new adventure, away from prying, police-calling eyes. I decided to ride up to a new housing development that sits mostly atop what used to be one of the better backwoods biking plots in my area, trying to see if I could locate any of the old trail heads behind the development.

With a little bit of poking around, I found a solid trail that dropped steeply down the slope, through the woods, toward the industrial areas I’d photographed a couple of weeks ago in Part Four of this series. It was a good riding trail and I was able to work up a decent amount of speed as I rumbled down the hill. As the slope began to level off, there was a sharp turn to the left, which I successfully navigated . . . only to find myself pretty much smack in the middle of what appeared to be a large, active, multi-person camp in the woods.

The one thing I don’t ever, ever, ever like to find in my suburban woods explorations is other people, since odds are that any other humans (especially adult humans) that I encounter in the woods are not likely to be taking photographs, nor are they likely to want to have their photographs taken. So without missing a stroke, I pedaled through the camp, put some distance between me and whoever was in the vast network of tarp tents in the clearing, and powered down the hill to the point where the trail disgorged into a particularly swampy stretch of abandoned dirt road that I’d ridden and photographed last month.

The reeds in the abandoned road had grown taller than me since I was last there, so there was no way I was riding through them. I shouldered the bike and started pushing my way forward through them, knowing I had maybe 200 yards to advance before the muck and reeds gave way to a paved road in front of an old mill building.

I couldn’t really see much in front of me due to the tall reeds, but I did hear noises from up near the mill, and as I got closer to the pavement, I could see some trucks and other vehicles in the road. Now, normally, I would have turned and gone another direction, but given the choice of surprising whoever was living in the tarps in the woods, or surprising whoever was in the trucks in front of the mill, I decided that the latter group was the safer bet.

When I cleared the reeds, I put my bike down and walked it toward the trucks. When I passed the first truck and had a clear view of the area, two things surprised me: (1) most of the vehicles were Town police and fire vehicles, with policemen and firemen in them, and (2) the mill was gone, with a pile of burnt rubble on a slab where it used to stand.

Oh boy . . . here I was walking a bike, coming out of the woods (likely private property), strolling right into a crime scene (had I come at it from the road over the railroad tracks where people were supposed to be, I’d have seen the yellow tape barrier), looking, no doubt, like a perpetrator returning to admire the scene of his crime, especially since I had photos of this very mill, before the fire, saved on the camera in my backpack!

I decided that confident obliviousness would be the best approach to defusing the situation, so I approached the nearest fireman and asked what had happened, made appropriate clucking and “oh, that’s a shame” noises, then slowly, casually, saddled up and went on my way, as though nothing was wrong. I then rode back home via an odd route involving lots of turns, looking over my shoulder at each intersection to see if the police were following me. Twice, when I looked back, I actually saw patrol cars . . .

So I must admit that I experienced a deep sense of personal relief after a quick Google search revealed that three teenagers had already been arrested for burning the mill to the ground. They used a bottle of gasoline with a rag wick in it. Two responding firefighters were injured as a result of their actions.

Once my sense of relief passed, it was replaced with a feeling of sadness, both for the building, and for the boys who burned it. I suspect they acted with the same degree of unthinking nonchalance and lack of concern for consequences that the protagonist of my poem did. There was probably a girl to impress in the story, somehow. That’s a pretty endemic mental state for adolescent boys, and it’s never a good thing when you inject fire into that hormone-addled mindset.

I wish these boys had shared my adult respect for these old buildings as objects to admire from outside, rather than as things to actively enter, violate, and destroy. Nature will do that eventually, so there’s no need for us to hurry that natural process along. This senseless act of destructive acceleration is going to have life-altering consequences for the perpetrators, though hopefully they’ll learn the lessons they need to learn, be given the chance to make some serious acts of restitution, and be able to move on with their lives.

Likewise, here’s hoping that the injured firefighters recover quickly and fully. Bless them for their work.

Last night, I went back to the mill, this time approaching it via public roadways. The firetrucks were gone, and an amazing amount of progress had been made in clearing away the debris. I got close enough to snap a few photos, then turned to head back out via the only paved access point. As I saddled my bike, though, I felt a heavy rumbling in the ground, and looked up to see a fast-moving freight train approaching me from the south.

When the train reached the at-grade crossing, I was essentially trapped on that short strip of pavement in front of the fallen mill, with the tent-dwelling woods people and a quarter-mile of muck blocking the only other escape route. It was kind of a creepy feeling, since it represented the sort of improbable combination of unrelated factors that script-writers use to build suspense in horror movies. I was glad to wave goodbye to the train and head back up the hill to home once it had passed.

You can see the before and after photos of the mill by clicking here.

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.

 

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Five): Locks

In Part Four of this year’s Hidden in Suburbia report (linked below), I visited some crumbling industrial facilities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For this week’s Part Five installment, I go further back in time to visit some of the many, many crumbling locks and dams of the old Erie and Champlain Canal systems, which run throughout my little patch of suburbia.

When I was working at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), I used to take students across the river to look at some of these locks. The canals serviced by the locks were considered to be among the greatest industrial achievements of their day, playing a key role in the opening of the American West to exploration, settlement, and commerce. Now they are dry, overgrown, and crumbling, with homes, businesses and woods pressing up against them on all sides, leaving them as slowly healing scars that cut incongruously across the suburban landscape.

Sure, it’s great to dream of changing the world, but it’s also important to have a sense of where the next great “killer app” stands in the grand, long-term scheme of things. In the end, nature always wins . . .

Click here for the photos.

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Four): Industry

One of the most impressive things, for me, about riding and hiking into woods around my home is the ability to stand in, on, or near some truly historic industrial artifacts.

The most obvious of these (well, relatively speaking, anyway) are probably the abandoned locks of the Erie and Champlain canals that stand, completely landlocked, throughout Cohoes and Watervliet. When I worked at RPI, I used to take students to look at these crumbling relics, while pointing out to them that these locks and the tiny canals connecting them were once considered to be the most significant industrial accomplishments on the North American continent.

Bodies to ashes to dirt to dust. Cities to ruins to iron to rust. I think it’s good for a prospective engineer to have a sense of humility, and if that won’t do it, nothing will.

Less famously, the lowlands on the west bank of the Hudson River between Albany and Troy (once West Troy, now mostly Watervliet and Menands, with a little sliver of Colonie between them) were home to formidable steel mills and armories. The Watervliet Arsenal and Albany Steel survive as local manufacturing centers to this day, while many other large neighboring businesses (including the Ludlum Steel Company, once headed by Edwin Corning, father of legendary Albany mayor, Erastus Corning 2nd) eventually closed their doors and began the long, slow process of returning their constituent elements to the ground beneath them.

Today’s Hidden in Suburbia post centers on this crumbling post-industrial wasteland. These spaces are so alien to our suburban sensibilities, and yet they are so very close to us, if we’re willing to look into the darker spaces behind our developments and shopping centers. It’s humbling and awe-inspiring to visit them.  Click here for the photos.

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Three): Rains, Trains and Snowmobiles

I managed to swing a couple of trips into the woods on the bike this weekend, after my first accident-infested foray last week, though monsoon season has left many of my normal haunts squishy and stinky messes at this point. Still, I slogged through the mire to visit one of the cooler spots within the two-and-a-half mile radius surrounding my house: the place where trains go to die in the woods. I also sought out, and found, an old friend (well, if you can consider the carcass of a snowmobile to be a friend, anyway), and I checked up on Indie Albany headquarters to see if it’s still sinking into the flotsam that washes up around it. (Answer: yes, it is). Finally, I went to get an updated photo of Miss Indie Albany (our mascot, at right), and received quite a surprise when I returned to her road-side home. Oh, the drama!

Click here for the photos. Trains in the Woods kick ass, just for the record.

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.