Category Archives: New York State

Buck Brook #21 – Rusted

This story from my time at Buck Brook Farm in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York is for the amusement of my friends of the Western states. You folk from the east and midwest will fine it an excuse to ask, “What? Doesn’t everyone use their floormat to keep their feet off the highway?”

Actually, the answer is no. No, we do not.

I was twenty-two before I landed on winter roads in New York State. My driving skills had been honed in the traffic and on the mountain roads of Idaho. And in Idaho we used sand to give traction on our winter roads. Not salt.

Sure, sometimes a rock got through the sand sifters and rock chips were a part of windshields and paint jobs. But the undercarriage of our car lasted longer than the engine. 

Imagine my discomfort when I got in one of the small sedans of a Buck Brook staff member and felt lumps under the rubber-and-carpet floor mat beneith my feet.

It turns out the lumps were the frame of the car. Between the beams of the frame there was nothing but the highway zipping by at fifty miles an hour and only inches from my precious tootsies!

The car’s owner laughed it off with a shrug, sped up, and replied, “Oh, sure. This car is over seven years old and I never bothered washing off the salt.”

What? One has to wash the bottom of a car?!

They are funny folks, those Easterners.

Buck Brook #20 — A Manhattan Pothole

The school at Buck Brook Farm had one large van for when special events were attended by multiple students and staff. In case I was ever the only staff member willing or able to venture on such events I was sent to the county DMV office to get a chauffeur’s license. Even without proper cap and livery, this lanky twenty-five year old from the hippie school managed to pass.

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The only time I remember actually chauffeuring anyone in that extended van was to some event a hundred miles to the south — in the center of Manhattan Island. !

I had observed drivers in Manhattan, both as a passenger and a pedestrian. Zero to fifty between lights was the expected response to a green signal. And drivers were immediately responsive to your signal to change lanes but you better jump into that space they gave you or it was assumed you’d never mover over and the space was closed. The space was, after all, a good foot longer than your car!

By 1970 I had driven in Los Angeles and Portland and Seattle and San Francisco. What could be so different with driving a small bus filled with teenagers into Manhattan? I wasn’t even on a surface street when I found out. 

The divided highways toward town turned into the West Side Elevated Highway — a crowded freeway squeezed between the Hudson River and the towering apartment buildings of the upper east side. Like everyone else I was keeping some eight feet behind the vehicle in front of me. Like everyone else I was going some fifteen miles over the speed limit, maybe 70 but it felt like 100. 

And then the pavement just wasn’t there.

The car in front of the big van was still there. The car behind the big van was still there. But there was no pavement there. Just squares of rebar.

And between the squares of rebar were deep potholes of beat up concrete.

Without hesitation the van dropped some two inches off the surface of the road and began rattling out a very fancy rendition of Riverdance across steel squares and deep potholes.

This went on for some eighty feet before our tires hit the sharp two-inch edge that returned us to smooth concrete roadway, slamming the suspension hard into the van’s undercarriage.

It was Manhattan Island, folks. Shutting down the West Side Highway to fix a Manhattan-sized pothole sure would have messed up the commute. 

As to me? I came away with an entirely new respect for the technology that goes into building four tires to survive city driving.

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PS: Wikipedia tells me the West Side Elevated Highway was built between 1929 and 1951. In 1973, three years after our Manhattan adventure, the highway was shut down “due to neglect and lack of maintenance…” It was dismantled in 1989. Its replacement was completed in 2001.

Buck Brook #19 – Chicken Shit Truck

We staff members at Buck Brook Farm were kept busy driving the little crooked roads of the Catskill Mountains. 

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Whether we were on a shopping trip or carting students to functions, there was always a mixture of groans and laughter when we rounded a corner and saw we were coming up on a particular type of truck. 

These trucks were always slow and never more so than when loaded down with cargo and grinding up the abundant steep grades of this mountainous terrain. And the mountainous terrain made for endless curves so passing was never an option.

From behind these trucks were large metal boxes, the size of a semi-trailer. At the base of the back wall of the truck was a little sliding door some two feet by two feet. These trucks were aways older and the little doors were always oozing a milky fluid. 

These trucks were chicken shit trucks. 

The concept of being behind a chicken shit truck grinding its way through the mountains was squeamish. The patience of waiting for a place to pass was challenging. But the smell? Well. Pour a bottle of ammonia over yourself. You get the picture. 

When we first saw these trucks we’d stop and wait where we were. If another driver came up behind us they’d understand and wait as well. Once the truck was out of sight we’d go up the hill, go around the next corner, and see if there was a chance to speed past. 

And we’d have a story that was instantly recognized by all who heard it.

NOTE: NEVER POUR A BOTTLE OF AMMONIA OVER YOURSELF! I don’t even recommend getting your nose very close once the cap is off.

Buck Brook #18 – Caldron of Paradise

The entire process of gathering maple sap and boiling it to syrup was an education to me. And it was fun. But the moments that hold my soul so dearly are but a brief time in the days of reducing maple sap. They include one of students at Buck Brook, a very mellow guy named Billy Garvin.

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I had gone to the boiling shed in the evening to see what was up. It was dark by then and Billy was there by himself. We chatted a bit and added sap and threw on logs. Then we fell silent. 

The fire was glowing under the pan, flicking yellow light around the rustic walls and filling the shed with crackles and pops and smoke that was quickly dissipated. The steam rose in thick rolling clouds and passed through the shifting yellow light on its rushed journey through the open slots in the ceiling. 

Billy expertly tossed logs into the fire, keeping the flames contentedly busy. His curly hair and glowing face added the perfect humanity to the warmth of the flicking light and the rustic shed and the heat of the fire and the cold damp of a light snow that fell on the open roof, melting on the exposed boards and dripping  around us. 

All so active with dancing light and so noisy with active fire and so stirring with damp and heat and cold. And all so absolutely at peace.

How long did I sit there in the presence of this glorious life? I’m pretty sure my body sat there a good long time. I know my soul still celebrates being there.

Buck Brook #17 – Boiling Shed

One of the places my soul rests to this day is Buck Brook’s boiling shed, where some hundred and forty gallons of maple sap was reduced to three gallons of thick, satisfying syrup. 

By the way — if you have never splurged for some real, reduced-sap maple syrup, go get some now. Use a quarter as much real maple syrup as you would pour from a bottle of corn syrup with “maple flavoring.” Your taste buds and your body will be more content than any amount of artificial syrup can provide. 

But on with my story —

The spring snows of 1970 were wet and turning to cold rains when we fired up the boiling shed, and a good lot of that snow and rain had soaked up the shed, inside as well as out. After all, the object of boiling maple sap is to get rid of water and leave the maple sugars and flavors. The process releases copious quantities of steam and the shed must let that steam out. Imagine a simple shed with every fourth board of the walls taken out. And every third board of the roof. 

Yep. It was wet and cold. But the breezes were kept at bay well enough to let the fire rage and we got real good at establishing sit-spots close enough to toss on more wood while staying far enough back so the fire on our front sides balanced the cold on the rest of us. 

The floor of the shed was dirt and the logs, fire and ashes were on top of that, creating a fire pit that I remember as being some six by four feet. Cinder blocks were stacked three high around the fire pit, with some stacked in the middle to support the pan. The stacks of cinder blocks around the edges of the the fire were spaced some two feet apart to allow tossing on more wood and allowing plenty of air to the inferno we kept raging. 

Held above the fire by the cinder blocks was a metal sheet, large enough to cover the entire large fire pit and the cinderblocks around it. The metal sheet had a sealed metal wall around it, rising only some eight inches in depth. There was a lot of surface area exposed to the fire under the boiling sap and to the air above it.

I was not there for the lighting of that fire, but I often stopped by and helped. Well. At least I chatted — it did not take any effort at all to get all the students eager to play at feeding the fire.

And the fire needed constant playing. More wood. More distributing the hot coals. The buckets of sap needed to be regularly and carefully added to the steaming caldron, letting the sap loose its water but keeping it thin enough to boil, not burn. 

Night and day for more than a week the steam rolled out of the boiling shed, until the trees had returned their stored sap into their branches. The little stream of sap filling our buckets slowed to drips and the drips slowed to occasional drops. 

We started letting the fire settle and cool, gently boiling off the last of the water, boiling more gently and stirring the thickening liquid until, at last, the liquid was just the texture we claimed to be syrup! 

Just as I missed the lighting of the fire, I missed the moment of claiming syrup. Since it would have been difficult to completely extinguish that much hot ash and burning wood I’m thinking there must have been a concerted effort to get the hot liquid scooped out of that shallow pan and funneled into the glass jugs that were waiting.

We had saved one-gallon glass vinegar jugs for the occasion. We filled three of them and ate pancakes with gusto.

Buck Brook #16 – Buckets of Sap

It was darn cold and wet when the maple trees started running sap. And run they did! I was 25. I was at Buck Brook Farm in the Catskill Mountains, a hundred miles north of New York City. 

Having been raised in the evergreen forests of Idaho, the early spring of 1970 was my first exposure to turning the sap of maple trees into tasty syrup. 

I had spent 1969 in the Northeast, enjoying the different leaves and barks and branches of trees I did not know the name of. But when the trees started rising their sap from roots to budding leaves it was easy to pick out the maples — each one had a little peg on its trunk, like a pecker taking a pee. And every peg was easy to find — it sported a galvanized bucket hanging from it. 

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At least they did at Buck Brook Farm. We were a school keeping kids involved. Commercial operations had miles of plastic tubes draining the sap to common collection points but we made use of the tradition of wearing kids out by carrying buckets. 

My first astonishment with gathering maple sap was how fast those trees run it out! I had enjoyed years of visions of a leisurely drip, drip, drip as the pegs lovingly extracted the sweet liquid. Now that I think about it my assumption of collecting maple sap would have filled a bucket every two days or so. 

Folks, that’s not how these mighty trees move their life-giving liquid. What was coming from the pegs was not a leisurely drip. Or a drip at all. It was a steady stream. Think turning  your faucet just past drips. A thin stream, yes. But far from occasional drops.

For two weeks we were kept busy carrying buckets of maple blood through the forest to our pickup, where larger tubs were waiting to be filled and carried to the fire.

Carried to the fire? We’ll explore that next time. For now let’s just say what was running from the pegs was not syrup, folks. It was thin as water. But oh, what delightfully sweetened water!

Buck Brook #15 – An Adventurous Nap

Buck Brook Farm was tucked away in the Catskill Mountains. The nearest town was North Branch and it was too far for a walk and, only having a church, was of no interest to our students anyway. While the students were dependent on we staff for a driver, it was not difficult to find one of us being up to an adventure like catching a movie.

The campus did have vehicles available to us, and a motley assortment of vehicles it was! Being a commune, the staff brought whatever vehicle they possessed and made it available to one and all. 

So it was I found myself grinding the gears of an vintage GMC Scout stuffed wall to wall with six festive teens of every stripe.

By wall to wall, I mean another staff member was in shotgun and the kids were facing one another, packed into the short bench seats that lined the Scout’s sides to maximize seating and cargo space. A door over the back bumper served to load riders and cargo.

My fellow staff member kept busy wiping and scrapping and doing his best to keep the inside of the windshield clear, it being a sub-zero January afternoon and the confined Scout being filled with eight pairs of lungs pumping out plenty of potential frost. 

You bet I had the hubs engaged so we were powered on all wheels. You bet I knew brakes on ice are brakes on ice and it does not matter whether power is supplied to all wheels or not. And you bet I knew downshifting means there is more traction with all wheels turning under compression than having brakes locking the wheels. Even so, I was taking it plenty slow. 

Alas, these were the Catskill Mountains and the winding little roads feature plenty of up grades and down grades. The scout was heavy with eight of us. The road was covered with snow. Rounding a corner that looked like any other, the road immediately began a steep grade down a straight-of-way some thousand yards long. At the bottom of the grade the road made a sharp turn to the left and an abrupt hillside rose smack dab in our way. The hillside was topped by a cozy cottage, not that I was spending much time considering that!

The Scout was far too ancient to have synchronized gears so I double-clutched and wobbled the big gear shift coming up from the floor and found neutral. A second clutch and it wobbled as I found second. I hung on, desperate to get to the braking power of first gear but not wanting to get there when that much compression would cause the wheels to slip. The weight of the packed Scout pushed us down the hill so, despite my efforts, we were maintaining speed. Not gaining but not slowing. Another clutch. Another Neutral. Another clutch and a wobble of the stick into First. The corner was coming up too fast but maybe — just maybe, by using every inch of the corner … 

Tapping the brakes in desperation I turned into the corner and, at perhaps ten miles an hour, that Scout slid right off the side of the road and laid itself down on the deep snow that covered the hillside.

My heart and my brain were swamped with regret at endangering the kids and letting them down on our adventure to a movie. 

And the kids? 

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Well, this was before seatbelts were standard much less required. The three students who had been on the Scout’s left bench were busy finding handholds so they could get off the students who had been on the right bench. The kids on the right bench were trying to avoid elbows and knees. And all six were scrambling to get out the back door.

Getting out the door, the kids did not hesitate to jump into a game of let’s tip this thing up and get to the movie. We all lined up on the hill and tipped that Scout back on it’s wheels. I was so proud of those can-do kids. 

I have no idea what movie we went to see that night and I doubt anyone else does. We all might remember the adventure of the Scout laying down for a little nap.