May 16 – 23, 2017
Johnstown, New York
When we read about the construction the Erie Canal in our American history book, I didn’t get it. But when we drove from New England into upstate New York, we got to see it with our own eyes and it finally made sense. This man-made water way, through an elaborate, celebrated system of locks & dams allowed boats to travel upstream from NYC to Lake Erie. This connected a waterway all the way from Chicago and the Great Lakes to the booming Big Apple, which meant that the Midwest was now connected to the whole world. Small towns sprung up all along the route, bringing life and trade and culture and American pride to upstate New York.
Since that time however, there have been a few changes. Railroads. Cars. Airplanes, to name a few. Traveling upstream by boat is no longer an efficient way to get from the NYC to Chicago. And the local economy tells the story of this shift.
As we drove through the small towns in the green New York Adirondacks, we saw lots of empty factories, broken windows, boarded-up businesses, and the kind of graffiti that doesn’t have many redeeming qualities. We read online articles as we drove through the area about the booming industry here in the early 1900s, and how changing economics and culture has slowly turned it from the heartland of America to the “Rust Belt”. This seemed both figuratively as well as literally true, as dozens of pick up trucks made more of rust than metal passed us on small highways, and crumbling silos stood as nothing more than monuments to the wealth that was once stored inside. The Rust Belt is definitely not confined to the path of the Erie Canal, but this is where we first encountered it.
Despite the rather gloomy state of the overall economy of the area, we ended up at a great campground outside the town of Johnstown, NY called Royal Mountains RV. The campground has been in operation about 30 years, but is really just the side project of the main attraction there in the woods – Granny’s Ice Cream. This place seemed to be in the middle of nowhere – it was 20 minutes either direction on a small 2-lane highway to get to a town big enough to have a grocery store. But all hours of every day there were a dozen people enjoying the delicious Granny’s softserve at the roadside stop.
The campground has been slowly carved out of the woods behind the ice cream shop, so we camped under a canopy of mature trees. The campground also boasted a small pond with covered bridge, a playground, and a pavilion where group BBQ s and activities take place on summer weekends.
It was a clean and welcoming place, and the owner zipped around all day every day on his tractor or golf cart, picking up limbs, clearing leaves, mowing, repairing, always with a cup of Granny’s soft serve in one hand. The place had a happy tone and it was completely set by the man making himself available at every moment. We commented multiple times on how he was like a busy bee working all over the campground every day of the week. He was finishing up spring cleaning and getting the place ready for summer. But even when he was walking from place to place, he would stoop over and over again to pick up every little stick laying on the ground. He defined the morale of the place, and we noticed many of the residents and visitors following his example. This owner is the son of “Granny”, and he has only recently inherited the business from his parents. But you can tell that he learned his work ethic from them. Granny still walks around the campground every day at the same time with a green watering can, refreshing potted plants hanging here and there, even on the days that it’s rained. On one of our final days there I saw Grandpa walking down the campground road, picking up sticks the same way that his son does now. One warm afternoon our family indulged on our first ice cream treat of the entire adventure, and as we sat there enjoying the final drippy bites we were joined by Granny herself. When I asked if they had any maps of the neighboring national forest, she went into her house next door and brought me her phone book. This family was sweet and personable and generous. They made the place feel welcoming, safe, and comfortable, despite the fact that the sign on their garage said “If you can read this, you’re in range.” They had some other interesting signs as well:
As I’ve mentioned before the campgrounds in the Northeast have a different culture to them, with many people paying for seasonal spots. This place was the same, but many of the older residents were arriving for their summer stays. In the campground culture at these places apparently you are nobody if you don’t have a golf cart to drive around the campground. Little old women or large old men zip all around in them, usually with a small dog in tow – often in the passenger seat.
We had intended to explore the Adirondacks from this location, but every time we tried we found the trails to be more like muddy streams than enjoyable paths. On one family hike there were so many swarming bugs that we made it to our destination, a small pond, and immediately turned and ran most of the way back to the truck.
We all drove into a larger town one day so that Brad could find a good location to get some work done while the girls and I checked out another science museum.
I know that I recently wrote about not judging a place by brief nonconsequential experiences, but in the rust belt town of Schenectady, we had an awkward run in with a very grouchy mother at a local playground, and then we were gently rear-ended by another car at a stop light. So we were pretty eager to put that town behind us.