Tuesday, September 15, 2009

EXPLORATION: Harmonist Cemetary - Pennsylvania

Every once in a while, the hand of fate wraps its cold fingers around the wheel, wrestles it from your grasp, and steers you away from the hustle and bustle of highway traffic. It's touch might come as an ache in your back . . . a stiffness in your legs . . . a thirst, at the back of your throat . . . or a gentle pressure, building slowly, then suddnely crying for release. Regardless, those who listen close, who heed its advice, are often rewarded with sights from the road less travelled.
Such was the case one sleepy Sunday morning upon a featureless stretch of highway in Northen Pennsylvania. We hadn't been driving long when we felt the touch, the guiding hand of fate directing us to a nondescript single-lane exit. There was nothing to catch the eye, nothing at all to promise it'd be worth our while to delay our arrival back at home. We hit the exit anyway, drove a few miles into farmland, took a few random twists and turns, and then we saw it -- a wall of stone, with arched gates, surrounding an empty field of grass. It looked so odd, so out of place, I had to check it out.
According to the historical plaque aside the road, fate had drawn us to the Harmonist Cemetery. Over 200 years of history lay inside those 150 year-old walls, with not a single tombstone to be seen. That mystery alone was enough to peak my interest. Had it not been, the sight that greeted my eyes upon ascending the hill would certainly have sealed the deal.
Those pitted, pockmarked, chipped, and faded doors absolutely defined the very idea of finding beauty in ruins. They were like a pair of matched tombstones, standing nearly six feet high, and set upon an invisible pivot, set deep into the stone. The ancient iron press-plate had clearly seen better days, and looked as if it might even be locked. I pressed my hands against the stone. Nothing. I pressed harder. Nothing still. I shifted my hands to the very edge of the gate and leaned into it.
Lo and behold, the gate swung inward, as smoothly and silently as if it had been greased that morn. I stumbled into the courtyard and stared at the hillside swath of grass, bordered on all four sides by a wall that kept the outside world at bay. Feeling very much like an intruder, an interloper, a defiler of sacred ground, I stepped out into the yard. I watch the ground as I walked, with one eye searching for half-buried markers of old, and the other watching for the first bony hand to emerge from the dirt and wrap its cold, dead fingers about my ankle.
I reach the bottom corner unmolested, and unrewarded by a gravemaker of any kind. Looking up, across the yard, towards the gate, was very surreal. Had I not pushed my way in, I would have sworn I was on the outside looking in. As cemeteries go, it was strangely empty. Dissapointed, I started making my way back up the hill.
And then I saw it.
A single, lonely tombstone lay propped up against the wall, clealy mended where it had been split in two. Who Johannes Rapp was, I have no idea. Why he, of all those souls buried within those walls, deserved a stone, I don't know. What I do know -- or, at the very least, strongly suspect -- was that he didn't want me there. Quite literally, the moment I laid my hand upon the rough, cold flowers embossed upon the stone, a peal of thunder descended upon me. Startled, I looked up. Where I expected to find heavy clouds of grey, I saw instead the same white puffy clouds of ealier, with patches of blue between them.
Amused at myself, I forced myself to reach out once again and allow my fingers to trace the (presumably) Dutch lettering of the stone. There were two centuries of history in those groves, laid down by one man and traced by another, 196 years removed. Feeling a chill, I stepped back to take a picture. I'd no sooner touched my knee to ground, and the rain began.
By the time I made it back to the gate, it was absolutely pouring. There were still patches of blue above, but I was already soaked to the bone. Thunder ushered me back through the gate, and lightning marked my hurried attempt to push it closed once again.
It took us twice as long to find the highway as it did to lose it. The rain pounded us so hard, so fast, we had to stop twice because we simply couldn't see the road. Having steered us to a bit of history, the hands of fate seemed determined to wash away all trace of our discovery.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

EXPLORATION: Third Welland Canal (part 2)

Beyond Lock 19 lies the towering ruins of the Pumphouse. In an ironic nod to the past, 'Siren Sounds' stands silent sentinel over the slumbering locks of the Third Welland Canal. Chipped and worn by time, its walls lie permanently stained by decades of mold and mildew, while the wooden sluice gate stands fast against the darkness inside.
Sitting several stories above the base of the canal, the Pumphouse itself is but a shadow of its former glory. Its windows are bricked over, it's doors cemented shut, and vandals have spray-painted every inch within their reach. Only a single access door remains, it's solid steel secured by both key and combination, protected by a second gated door, itself padlocked against intruders. Intimidating, well-intentioned, and - on this day, at least - susceptible only to the hand that reaches out . . . and finds it all unlocked.
Inside, the Pumphouse retains little of its original equipment, but what remains provides an interesting glimpse into history. In one corner lies a floor-mounted winch, still connected to the wooden sluice-gates far below.
Not far away, a motorized system sits atop the two spillways, dirty and rusted for sure, but not entirely neglected. High atop it all, an antique series of pulleys and chains hang from the ceiling, wanting only a shot of oil and a strong hand to return them to life.
Now, step back outside and take temporary solace in the sunshine. Having traveled from end-to-end, from the ruined beauty of Lock 12 to the unlocked interior of the Pumphouse, it is now time to descend into one of the canal's best kept secrets. Well off the beaten path, far below the Seaway Haulage Road, lies the ruins of the Grant Trunk Railway tunnel.
713 feet long, 16 feet wide, and 18 feet high, the tunnel once carried trains from one side of the canal to the other, sending them under those very same boats from which came their cargo. Abandoned in 1915, the tunnel has been buttressed against the crushing weight of the canal itself, yet it remains a cold and damp, perpetually dark, and prone to flights of imagination.
Stepping into the tunnel is like stepping into another world, especially once you make the first turn into total darkness. Old railways ties, slick and slippery from years of dampness and decay, provide an uncertain footing. As you stumble carefully along, the temperature drops rapidly, so cold you can see your breath and literally watch as your body heat escapes into the air. Above you, water drips from the ceiling, forming a curtain of rain that slowly freezes itself into a wall of icy stalactites over the course of the winter. What's more, those who brave the long, dark journey do so only to find their progress abruptly halted by a a few feet of mud and water.
With its tragic history of 2 men killed just 100 yards from the tunnel during a 1903 railway accident, and an even more morbid tale to follow -- multiple graves from the St. Peters Church graveyard not moved, but left to be quite literally washed away when the Pondage reservoir above was created in 1923 -- it's no wonder that these conditions prompt visitors to see ghosts in the mist and orbs in the water-laden air. For this reason, the GTR is far more commonly known as the BGT, or Blue Ghost Tunnel.

Friday, August 21, 2009

EXPLORATION: Third Welland Canal

Just off Glendale Avenue, nestled between General Motors and the Royal Niagara Golf Club, lies a curious stretch of wilderness known as the Welland Canal Wetlands. Drive down Glendale and you'll see a sign directing truck traffic to Gate 12. Follow it, and your first turn along Seaway Haulage Road will expose you to the northern end of the Third Welland Canal.
Just north of the curve, a dirt trail meanders off into the trees. At the end lies the ruined beauty of Lock 12. This, the most exposed section of the canal, is at the mercy of the weather. Battered by the rain and broken by the ice, enormous sections of the stone wall have broken free to come crashing down amidst the surging waters.
Retrace your steps, cross back over the road, and there is an entire series of canal locks waiting to be explored. Of these, the first recognizable section you'll encounter is that of Lock 14. Approach it from the west, and you can climb down along the widely strewn rubble to the base of the canal.
Gaze down into the racing current and you'll find the last, lonely gate languishing beneath the shallow water. Over 80 years old, these worn and twisted panels stand strong against the elements, refusing to succumb to the years of damp rot and silt erosion.
Continue north, along the canal, and you'll come to Lock 16. At the top end of the lock, you can clearly see how the steady flow of water has eaten away at the base of the canal, carving new paths as it cascades down the first real waterfall of the canal.
The bottom end sports ruins of another kind. Less of a beauty to be admired, and more of a blight to be tolerated, a trio of crashed cars lay upside down upon the bed of the canal. The years have not be kind to them, as the water has slowly pressed them against the canal wall, even as it conspires with the air to rust away the intruders.
The next lock is best viewed from the railroad swing bridge that arches over the canal. Still very much in use, the bridge is a questionable perch at best, but somehow irresistible. Gaze over the side and you are rewarded with one of the clearest, most complete pictures of a canal lock - from the ruined walls where doors once stood, to the staged waterfalls pouring in from above.
Above those staged waterfalls lies Lock 18, one of the most ruined, and most beautiful stretches of the canal. Here, the walls stand buckled and bent, leaning precariously inward as they strain against the years of decay. In many places, the rocks have split, exposing the older, jagged, softer rock inside. Beneath the waterfall atop this lock lies what used to be a smoothly rounded, curving lip of stone. Today, it's a cracked and broken speedbump, at best, eroding more and more with each passing year.
The last lock - if it is, indeed, a lock at all - of this journey is Lock 19. Hidden away within the trees and the reeds, well below the gravel road, lies a dry section of canal. As you push your way through the trees, the steeply slanted overgrown walls remind you more of an Aztec pyramid than a thoroughly North American waterway.
Given a good running jump (in a decent pair of boots) and you can scramble up the wall. From here, deep within the wilderness, all thoughts of a canal are gone. There's no water to be seen, no gates to be found, and nothing to suggest upon what you may have stumbled. Climb a little further, however, and you are rewarded with your first glimpse of the Pumphouse - affectionately known as 'Siren Sounds' for obvious reasons.
. . . to be continued

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Phantom by Terry Goodkind

What is there left to say about Terry Goodkind and The Sword of Truth saga that hasn't been said before? At times, he has been nothing less than brilliant. Wizard's First Rule and Stone of Tears are classics of epic fantasy. They were fresh, they were original, and they were challenging. The 'Seeker of Truth' . . . the 'Mother Confessor . . . the 'Mord-Sith' . . . daring, creative, fascinating concepts, with believable characters behind them. The philosophical moralizing was heavy-handed at times, yes, but still a welcome change from the typically 'spiritual' distinction between good and evil.

After that, the series began slipping downhill. Goodkind admitted that he was more interested in exploring his philosophies than in following the plotting of an epic fantasy - and boy did it show. Action gave way to talk, and talk gave way to . . . well, more talk. What was once original became boringly repetitive. Ironically, it was a book that hardly featured Richard or Kahlan at all that recaptured my interest.

Pillars of Creation was not what I expected after 6 volumes, and I couldn't have been more pleased. There was still more talk than action, but Lauren breathed new life into a stale series. Too bad Naked Empire couldn't sustain it. That brings us to Chainfire. I generally loathe it when characters are stripped of their powers/identities, just to create tension and restart a sagging plot. It rarely works for me, and this was no different. Richard and Kahlan are great people, but it's hard to get excited when there's no seeking of truth and no explosive confessions. Not only that, but the plot felt . . . recycled. After all, we'd already dealt with the Boxes of Orden in the first 2 books of the series.

The only reason I picked up Phantom is because I'm curious to see how Goodkind plans to wrap everything up in this, the 2nd volume of the 'final' trilogy. Things don't start out well. Over 200 pages of talking, of saying the same thing over and over again, of bashing us upside the head with the obvious. I was about ready to give up when, suddenly, we rediscover the lost art of the plot. Not to spoil anything for those who haven't read it, but there are some really interesting developments in this book. After building up the armies of the Order to the point where they truly are unstoppable, Goodkind deftly sidesteps the issue of confronting them with Richard's shocking advice to the D'Haran troops - and it absolutely works for the reader.

We get a confrontation between Jagang and the Sisters of the Dark that beautifully resolves so many nagging questions, and sets the stage for a new conflict. Richard learns a lot more about himself and his role in the grand scheme of things, and all the myriad plot pieces finally begin coming together. The ending is a shocker, and something I never expected to see. For the first time in a long time I am looking forward to the next book of the series. If Goodkind delivers on even half of what he seems to be promising, it will be well worth the wait.