Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Riding the Erie Canal Towpath

The Erie Canal Towpath is the land’s second longest continuous bicycle path—or rather, it would be if it were considered to be a single trail, which it sort of is anyway.

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Rami and I somewhere. 

The path links Buffalo in the west to Albany in the east and comprises a network of dedicated paths, local park trails, some city streets, and under 50 miles of state road shoulders. The trail goes for about 360 miles and passes through virtually every kind of terrain Western and Upstate New York have to offer (mountains excepted). Riding the Erie is rather more of an adventure than taking on the C&O/GAP but it is by no means too much to take tackle and it really is worth it—it is a great ride.

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A typical view along the active portion of the Erie Canal–this one near Fort Plain, NY.

Our trip was in July and while it was warm, we never hit high heat and we avoided rain—we were lucky. We were two riders: me on my 2009 Surly LHT with a Brooks B17, Surly front rack and Topeak Tourist rear rack carrying a set of Ortlieb front and back rollers, and a Chrome roll up seat post bag for tools. My 15-year-old son Rami on a 2010 Surly Cross Check (my commuter with no front brazeons) with a Brooks B17, Bontrager rear rack carrying two Axiom Seymore Panniers, and a large Axiom seatpost bag filled with Hammer gells. We both carried Revelate Tangle top tube bags as well. These were genius—the best thing I have added to my kit in a while. They were easily accessible and super handy carryalls. They were never in the way (except maybe when it came to putting the bikes on the car) and were easy access bike handy wallets.

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My Surly LHT loaded and leaning on a tree. The shot shows the Revelate Tackle bag in its natural habitat. Great addition to the kit.

One thing to know before you get one (as well you should): the large size is deeper than the medium and small and so it intrudes more into the space one usually reserves for water bottles.

We covered the whole distance in 6 riding days (we took a 0 mile day in there) meaning an average mileage of about 63 miles per day. Our biggest day was 86 miles but I do not recall the shortest. Subtracting our biggest day creates an average mileage of 58 per day for the remaining 5 and that seems about right. I should add that no day felt really challenging—even with the hills and roads. We stopped to smell the roses and took breaks for worthwhile sites—in short, it was far from grueling, and if our mileage was low some days it was because we were pleasantly diverted. Nevertheless, I want to head back up and try it again and shoot for finishing in 4 days this next time—anyone with me?

When I was planning this trip I found less info online and in discussion forums about the Erie than other rides, and so my goal here is to fill in some holes and provide some of the info I would like to have known before I set out. The main source of information I turned to was the website run by Parks and Trails New York (PTNY) which is the body that oversees and promotes the trail. They manage that very helpful website, organize a large group ride in July, promote the trail, and are working to secure more sections.

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The PTNY map works well on a smart phone and they have made a little icon that links you right to it as if it were a stand alone app. The colors of the trail’s run in the map indicate road surface and were very accurate. Find the map at this link

I relied on their website quite a bit during the ride—particularly the interactive map they provide. That map carries current information about closures and route changes and has a handy mileage calculator that lets you plot out a trail section’s distance with a reasonable degree of precision. The calculator though can only do straight lines, so some of the curves become a bit more square in your calculations.


This is a section of the PTNY map on my phone showing the milage counter against the color-coded map.

Nevertheless–super helpful. There also is an independently published book or two available that has some pretty nice section maps. I did not have the PTNY book when I set out, but I grabbed a copy along the way and found it helpful but not essential.

Despite the great trail and amenities, there is not a fully developed culture of through travel on the Erie, so most of the info in books and sites is targeted at people planning short rides and looking to do their rides in maximum comfort. Much of the material out there stresses the trails’ doability and the path’s unquestionable beauty and history. It seems targeted at those considering a ride who may not have tried one yet and need some reassurances about the value of the trip and trail. No knock on any of that intended at all, but long distance riders’ questions often get deep into the weeds and I found it hard to get from the web the kind of brass tacks answers I most wanted. Where can you camp? What grades are the hills? How available is water, how far between supply points and so on—I found it hard to get these important questions answered in advance. So, here we go.

First thing to know is that there are really three Erie Canals—and the path does bits of each. The first is the original canal completed in the 1820s.

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This is a typical section of the now-disused 1820s-1860s canal somewhere near Syracuse. On the left is a standard section of double track and on the right is the glint of some over grown canal ditch and water. Some of these sections had HUGE carp in them, so if you like fishing this is your place! On the whole though, you would be forgiven for thinking this was the C&O in Maryland.

The second is an expansion of that original system in the 1860s that left bits of the original rare things indeed. The third was a further expansion in the early 20th century that swallowed up the 1860s canal in some places and created a whole new route in others. You need to know this because the trail touches parts of all three and each presents different challenges and advantages.


Here is a view of what much of the trail looks like between Lockport and Rochester. Fine crushed stone, wide path, and an active waterway are constant companions. It was no effort at all to stay above 15mph fully loaded on these stretches, there also were lots of towns and resources along the way.

On top of that, there are seasonal boaters using the active canal and info for them abounds. But—their route is slightly different than the one cyclists ride in some areas—so use the boat info carefully. What all of this means is that sometimes you are riding along side of a wide and usable canal and passing by modern operating locks—each of which is state owned and a legal camping spot–while other times you will be riding next to an overgrown and forgotten ditch—much like riding the C&O—with few amenities and only stealth camping if needed. Knowing that in advance makes it a lot easier to plan things out.

The operating locks are numbered and all have well manicured lawns. A few have bike lock racks and picnic tables. An even fewer have unlocked Portasans. There is very little visible notice that camping is permitted—but it is, so just set up and settle in.

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This was our camp at the lock at Marcy, NY. This was the largest and most fully equipped lock campsite we saw, but I am sure there are others. This one is right on the path (seen at left) and coming upon it at about 5pm made it just too inviting to pass up. This was still during the early Pokemon rush and poke trainers were strolling all over.

It is probably a good idea to lock up (no pun intended) since more than a few of the locks are fairly close to civilization and its occasional sticky fingers. With that said though, we had no trouble at all and in fact loved chatting with the lock master at Marcy New York and watching the boating action in the morning. The lock by Schoharie Creek near Fonda New York though was a bit off the trail and had nothing to offer other than a great lawn and a big shade tree. But—having the run of the place and a long sunset was great. One of the staff had left a nice pair of field glasses on a table next to the main building and that made for fun viewing up and down the Mohawk. On top of that, an open maintenance shed had outlets where we could recharge. We even considered sleeping in the shed, but there was no threat of rain. Lacking any way to say thanks though, I swept out the shed so at least the floor was nice and clean the next day.

Many of the towns—particularly west of Rochester and just to its east along the active canal—also allow free camping in public places for cyclists. Again, there is no public posted notice of this, so you may have to ask to make sure. The best example was Brockport where we spent a 0-mile day wandering in town and meeting people.

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Our camp at the Brockport Visitor Center. We locked the bikes to the tree over there and ate at the table on the other side. It was a wonderful comfortable camp.

As with the GAP, some towns have embraced the canal and others not so much so. Brockport is one of the best examples of a place taking the trail to heart. There is a nice visitor center right on the canal which welcomes both cyclists and boaters (smart move since both parties have wallets). The wonderful volunteers showed us where to camp right on the lawn and gave us the pass card that granted us access to a big clean bathroom with a shower and outlets.

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The bathroom at the Brockport Visitor Center

All we had to do was stop by the police and let them know we were there (they were nonplussed) and we were set for two nights at no cost. The visitor center also has a nice sitting room and we spent time there chatting with the volunteers and other guests. We were the only cyclists, but there were a few boaters tied off at the dock. It was nothing to walk over to the main strip in town where there was a bike shop, food supplies, and tons of people chasing pokemon. Oddly, few of the in-town business owners knew that cyclists were allowed to camp at the visitor center—and in fact we only ended up there because a sudden late day rain just after a coffee stop in town had us sheltering in the Brockport Fire Department. It was the firemen who directed us to the visitor center—so now I pass on their advice. Brockport is a must stay when you ride the trail.

Hotels are all over the place on the trail, but there are no real hostels we could find, so if you plan on staying under a roof each night, plan on shelling out between $75 and $100 for the privilege. PTNY’s web site has a list of hotels and other amenities which is worth the look over. It could be a bit better though if it also said just how far from the trail was each hotel. It is one thing to see that the town ahead of you has 6 hotels listed. It is quite another to discover that they are 4 miles away, uphill, and on an un-shouldered state highway. More details about the viability of hotels would have been good to know. Even so, we avoid hotels as much as possible to save money—maybe doing one hotel night to three or four tent nights ideally when touring. For that reason discovering the free camping in towns and at locks was a blessing.

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The sun going down just west of Montezuma on State Road 373. This is at the top of Cayuga Lake amidst lots of Amish farms.

We also stayed at a commercial campground at the Montezuma swamp near Clyde, NY at the top of Cayuga Lake. Although on roads, the passage on the trail here was lovely and full of fun hills and Amish farms. We cruised through this terrain as the sun was getting very low and just loved it—no cars at all, just us, the road, and the occasional Amish buggy.

The disused sections of the canal—mainly the miles east of Clyde, NY—are very different than the heavily trafficked western sections. This is where road shoulders become more a part of a cyclist’s day and the condition of the canal trail is far worse than the western miles of very solid crushed stone.

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The Erie is great for your cycling tan.

Riding here was often very much like riding the C&O in Maryland: a swampy overgrown canal trench on the right and single or double track dirt-in-grass paths to your front. Lots of road crossing here as well and towns were thick on the ground. That meant that we never worried for water even though it would have been hard to find a good camping spot if it came to it. It was no effort at all to maintain 15mph or more on the crushed stone but road speed dropped significantly on the older canal sections—13mph was good, but ruts and puddles often slowed us down to 11mph. Another irritation here was that many sections of the trail had patches of loose crushed gravel filling in potholes and water damage.

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It does not look like much, but this hill was one of two that I had to dismount for. In this case it was due to loose gravel that bogged my tires. This patch was somewhere near Jordan, NY.

These were rarely for any distance, but they came on us suddenly and sometimes threated to cause real trouble if we hit them at speed. A little bogging and fishtailing was the worst we got and neither of us went over the handlebars as I had worried. Nevertheless, I got a few good heart stops as I hit these patches. One rise to a road crossing was so loose that I could not gear down in time and was reduced to a full stop as my wheels sunk in and I had to unclip and walk a few steps (only one of two times in 400 miles, so that is not so bad).

The diversity of trail conditions makes tire choice and interesting problem. What with covering everything from to loose pack to ice-smooth tarmac, getting the right tires is as important as it is impossible. I had arranged for our support team to meet us at each crucial junction with a change of tires—road worthy 25mms for the paved sections, light tread 32mms for the hard packed crushed stone, and nubbly 40mms for the rougher areas. But back in the real world where there is no such thing as our support team, I had to make a single call at the start and trust to luck.

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Sometimes there is work going on which shuts down the trail and it makes more sense to push through rather than take a two mile on-road detour. This was outside Rochester.

Since we were doing the Erie right after covering the C&O/GAP the tires had to do multiple terrains over close to 800 miles. I went with 32mm Continental Touring Plus run up to 80-100psi. These are a bit thinner than the 38mms I used on my last tour and thought were exactly wrong. I wanted the lower rolling resistance of the thinner tire and yet still wanted some beef and tread. They worked fine, but in truth, no tire can be all things. I saw other people with a variety of choices and each had some good and bad to them. I was happy with the Contis though and would happily use them again. They were good all arounders but it all depends on what you want. Some riders clearly prefer the cushion and bite of a thicker tire with low PSI. I on the other hand hate pinch flats as much as I hate anything in life, and would rather take some knocks than replace inner tubes. I also want to be able to get up to the mid- 20mphs the second the trail lets me (pushing 40mph on some of my favorite down hills)—but obviously not everyone wants that. If you want to get speed you need to have the tires that agree with you on that project. One complaint about the Contis was that the rear tire on the Cross Check was oddly worn when we were done—more than the other tires despite not bearing a heavier load and enduring the same conditions and psi. I am not really sure what was up there and it may simply have been a bad tire. My next tour is going to be either 1000 miles or 3000 so I may move over to Schwalbes then. We’ll see.

Signage on the Erie is a mixed bag even though the trail managers have done a good job over all of getting a fairly uniform marking system in place. Admittedly, on large sections of the trail there is no need for signs: the choices are pretty simple—either I ride on this crushed stone ribbon, or I can turn left and slam into that cornfield or I can turn right and plunge into the canal.

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That circle shield is the most common trail sign. Note the color of the arrow–whether sun faded or a curious choice, the arrow can be hard to see when you are at speed, unsure where you are, and wary of cars.

No sign needed for much of the trail–especially west of Rochester. But it gets a bit trickier when passing though towns and riding state roads. Here the right and left turns are easy to miss at your cost. We were very lucky to be following the big annual July ride which left behind its spray painted marks on the pavement—little red hobo signs that helped us (and the 700 some odd riders the week before) keep on track. This is where the Erie is more like traditional bike touring and less like the C&O/GAP—you have to know where you are and are going. Even so though, clearly the goal is to increase the number of riders on the trail and some better signage would help sooth nerves. A problem though is that the many municipalities along the way will have something to say about signs and that can be just too much for advocates to take on. So for that reason, uniformity would help. There is a basic trail logo and it is on any of the signs. There are often helpfully posted at directional changes accompanied by an arrow. But in many cases the arrows were hard to read white on tan and sun faded. Since there are often cars around and signs pass by in an instant while riding, I found that we had to stop at many signs to be sure. That is not a really big deal, but I think it is a good thing to know about as you prepare a trip of your own.

Be prepared to be a bit confused in cities too while hostile cars whiz by. The issue was most pronounced passing through Syracuse and on the approach to Albany from Schenectady.

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Riding in Buffalo will take some concentration.

This section of the trail links together lots of local dedicated bike paths to mixed effect. A few turns are a bit sudden and unforeseen as you charge ahead eager to make the much-awaited destination. On top of that, this is the hilliest stretch of the trail. That is no big deal—but there are a lot of ups and downs—few being more than a 5% grade. There is one killer hill though just east of Schenectady in the Niskayuna area. That one is big enough to have its own warning signs. The worst part of the hills though was that more than a few of the down hills—especially in Colonie—end at stop signs and traffic or sudden tight right turns. That means riding your breaks hard right when you should be enjoying withdrawing your deposit in the gravity bank.

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Intersection near Albany

Beware too that things get pretty weird in Cahoes (in many ways). There is a very sudden left onto a city street that we overshot and I gather others did as well since the local bike path just carries on happy as a paved clam. Working back through hilly Cahoes was not fun to begin with, and then finding and navigating the road bridge in town was no picnic either as we were there close to 5pm and traffic was thick. I would say that this was the single most challenging urban riding we did—and that includes the whole of Syracuse (the largest urban stretch) which all in all was pretty straight forward. The long on-street ride on Broadway through Watervliet is worth careful attention too.

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The trail as it passes through Green Island. NY outside Albany

The streets here are numbered, but there is a sudden 3rd Avenue thrown in just to confuse your counting—when you see 3rd Avenue, the turn on 4th St is still a ways away. This is just the sort of place where a good sign could make a big difference—and given the traffic issues, confusion can become an issue of safety.

Another useful thing to have in advance are the mileages between towns, crossings, and waypoints. This bit of vital trip planning intelligence was also hard to come by—but knowing distances is essential to planning out how long you think it will take to get from point A to point B. The published guidebooks have mileage tables, but these are hidden in the back and are a bit spare anyway—and of course, are not available online. I kept a record for myself using my Cat Eye and I am sharing my results here. There is some imprecision in my miles though. I was not always so careful about clocking the mileage in the same place in each town—some I recorded at the edge of town, others right in the center. Some waypoints were little more than road crossings while others were whole cities, like Syracuse which I only clocked where the trail merges with Rt 173—but when planning your ride keep in mind that Syracuse occupies most of the 12 miles eastward until DeWitt. I also made no record of Colonie, Cahoes, Green Island, and Watervliet but just lumped them into the 32 miles between Schenectady and Albany. In a few places I also had a diversion to a campsite or a resupply a bit off the trail. Rarely were these infrequent jaunts more than a mile or two, but I did not carve those miles out of my totals. So, there is a little imprecision in my table, but it certainly will help you plan out where you might be day to day. As they say, “your mileage may vary,” but not by all that much.

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All in all, the Erie is a great bike ride and many many more people need to make it a regular part of their riding. It is a great mix of place, exertion, and adventure and I really hope a more fully developed through ride culture comes into being. It is a great resource and it is calling out for more prominence. Ride it.



Barbados Day Six (and Five Too) (Very late!)

I just noticed that this was in my drafts folder. No idea why…

Well, Day Five was a Saturday so that meant Saturday stuff including sleeping late, reading, napping, and taking a walk. Day Six though began with some interest. I was awakened around 7am by the smell of smoke. IMG_3103.JPGAt first I ignored it, but it got stronger and stronger. I went out into the living room and there was visible smoke in the room! Nothing seemed amiss, but I could see that two houses down someone had decided to set the yard on fire. They were burning dried palm fronds and yard waste, but the dry grass had caught fire and the two hapless yard enflamers were now using a garden hose to try to delineate a perimeter. The long and short of it is that the wind carried most of the smoke into my apartment. Windows closed and all was well—but everything smells of wood smoke.

With that matter settled I headed back up to the north end of the island to find some more old stuff and see the hills once more. Lots of driving for half the day again with an eighteenth-century map and some historical travel narratives as guides, and some old stuff was found. IMG_3109.JPGThere are lots of older buildings in varying state of ruin while some are very well cared for. All are in private hands though. My wanderings took me into some of the ritziest zones—the places where the homes cost 5 mil British pounds! I also found the very opposite, but that is pretty easy here. I was very interested to get to the highest points and one of my new friends—Adrian the Kisok Guy in this case—directed me to Harrison’s Cave in St Thomas Parish. I ferreted it out, but I did not want to pay money to see the cave, so what I really did was look for views on the hills. There are these sort of upland savannahs here that are a total contrast to what is on the lower altitudes and great views everywhere. I also sought out the older churches of which there are quite a few. Busy drive.

I recovered back at Oistins from too much road time for a bit and then thought that it made good sense to end this trip with an afternoon at the beach. Aviso: I am not a beach person. Growing up in Brooklyn we went to the beach once in a while when it was hot. The beaches of my formative years were made up of sand, chicken bones, cigarette butts, and plastic tampon dispensers all mixed in equal proportion. It was years before the idea of the beach did not leave me vaguely nauseated. The Outer Banks of NC helped me warm a bit to beaches—but just a bit—still covered in dead fish and plastic grocery bags. Florida has some nice beaches (so I am told) but I have not really found them yet—maybe the barrier islands near Pensacola. But the beach near where I am staying is actually very nice. Not many people, really clean pinkish sand, and the water was lovely (no condoms and cigarette butts floated by). I did the beach thing and then watched the sunset before going and buying more oranges. I am not going to be able to finish all I need to do on this trip. That means a return visit. Not the worst thing.

Fredericksburg’s Farmers’ Bank II

The Free Lance Star reported yesterday that on Monday the city issued a stop work order on the demolition of the 1950s drive-through bank additions behind the Farmers’ Bank on Princess Anne st. farmer's bankIt seems though that the order was almost literally a day late and a dollar short. Last year, developer Mike Adams purchased the property from PNC Financial Services and floated a few plans for the building and lot. The latest is to turn the bank building into a restaurant and offices and put seven town houses in the lot. The former seems like a reasonable low-impact use of a historical structure, the later through still threatens to overwhelm the lot and over shadow the old building. The project began with the removal of the drive-through, but at the last moment the city’s Architectural Review Board–frequently a site of preservation battles–has thrown cold water on Adams’s plans. He has replied with a suit, and the city returned fire on Monday by sending over the cops to enforce the ban. From what I saw though, there was not much left to cry over. IMG_4297.jpeg

Magic Means Stay Asleep


How well did that magic multi-roadway bridge work out in that image future?

Wow–look at how technology will solve our traffic problems! Sensors, slots, half autonomous cars whizzing past each other with barely a thought from the driver of each one: it’s like future magic. Too bad we don’t have a simple tried and proven technology for just reducing the number of cars on the road in the first place. If only we had something like that, then we could address this problem right away and not have to imagine some mystical future where our ENTIRE road network is remade AT PUBLIC EXPENSE to accommodate new gewgaws. Oh well, I guess I am just a head-in-the-clouds dreamer and lack the down-to-earth practical problem solving skill of geniuses conjuring up star trek road ways for some imagined future.

Mount Vernon Living

I have not commented much here on my time at Mount Vernon. I have been in residence here since the start of December and loved every moment. As this phase of my work winds down it is time to share some thoughts and insights. First some background. On September 27, 2013, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association cut the ribbon on the new Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. It is a long title, true, but it is a pretty impressive place so it is worth enunciating all the syllables. The idea was to create what amounts to a presidential library for Washington—an idea he actually imagined before his death. The result is a gentle modern toned glowing paneled library with a subtle W footprint, nestled amidst some tall trees on a rise of ground across the road from the entrance to the Mount Vernon grounds.

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The main reading room of the library. Even though fellows have fine offices in the wing off on the right, I prefer to be here as much as I can. Wouldn’t you?

The collections digital, special, and circulating are large—although much of what Washington wrote and owned (book wise) was scattered soon after his death. Bit by bit, elements of that collection are returning home, and when they do, they are housed in a state-of-the-art facility managed by a professional staff as committed to collection management as they are to facilitating scholarship. Everything about this place is both an exhortation to produce scholarship and an efficient organism for making it happen. I have been blessed to meet many wonderful and highly engaged people—both on staff and passing through—during my six months living “on campus.” My work has developed and matured, my horizons widened, and my friends list lengthened. While my focus is GW and details of his world, the library really is rapidly becoming a hub for all manner of issues related not just to GW, but the founders and the founding largely. A short review of the cast of fellows past, present, and future shows the kind and quality of work happening here. The energy is so strong that the place almost hums aloud!

What’s in a Date? Or, Barbados Time.

Washington had a hard time reckoning time while he was on Barbados. Many of the dates he listed in his diary are off—and not even in a single predictable way as if he had miscounted by a day or two and pushed the error forwards. Instead, he was off by two days and sometimes four in November, and then one day off in December and so on. On top of that, we have to factor in the great change from the Julian calendar to the currently prevalent Gregorian one (with apologies to Ethiopia) in 1752 that pushed dates eleven days ahead. Washington was born on the 11th of February before the date change which makes us think of his birthday as the 22nd. Likewise, the dates in the diary also have to be pushed forward if were interested in commemoration for example.

One has to have a good reason to keep a close reckoning of the passing of time. The long term cycles—months and years for example—pass by slowly enough to be missed. They matter in agricultural settings, but primarily as seasons. 11days8.jpgThe fact that today for example is the 14th and not the 17th will not cause to miss my planting or harvesting. The coming and goings of commerce give months and dates a bit more immediate consequence as certain expenses must needs be met at certain times or ship arrive and set sail (weather and tides permitting) at certain days. Confusing the 14th for the 17th in this case could cause me to miss a ship’s sailing. The actual days of the week though are rather more immediate and easier to keep a handle on. Even today, we can ask on a given Tuesday “what day of the month is it?” and not get the odd looks we might get if were to walk up to someone and say “what day of the week is it? For that reason it is easier to believe Washington when he said that he dined with the Clarke’s on a Wednesday even if his November 6th was really the 10th. It is hard to pin down just what caused this error. It may that he was jus wrong about his dates. It also may be that he filled in some details later (as we know is did on some parts) and just made errors along the way. It also may be that the whole “original” is a copy of a lost older original and things just got confused in the interim. In any event, it is clear that Washington’s sense of the calendar was a rather dynamic object.

There is another reason that made it easier to keep the days of the week in focus, and that reason is spiritual. The Sabbath marks a break with the routines of the week, and even when Washington did not attend St Michael’ s Anglican parish church in Bridgetown, the change in the larger community regime would have marked Sunday as distinct and made it easy to know just were one was day-wise for the rest of the week. The spiritual calendar is another reason as well an individual or a community might pay close attention to the passing of dates and months. The cycles of religious devotions that must happen at certain times require constant counting.

For these reasons I found it interesting that Washington wrote that he was “strongly attacked with the small pox” on Saturday, November 16, 1751. I believe him when he claimed the disease overtook him on a Saturday, but it was more likely the 20th than the 16th given his miscounting. That fateful Saturday would have had a totally different set of calendar and spiritual meanings for a community of Barbadians living only a mile or so from where Washington lay suffering.

The Jews of Barbados had their own calendar and reckoned it with great care. While experts in England were already discussing the merits of exchanging their Roman calendar for a newer Christian one, the Jews world wide were still using the same counting system they had for millennia. By that reckoning of time, Washington fell ill on the 2nd of Kislev, in the year 5512.


Treating the “Speckled Monster”

Even if Washington was having a hard time keeping his dates straight—the Jews were not. Restricted to something very much like a ghetto in Bridgetown and limited by law in their trading options, the community maintained the count of days and marked the significant ones as they came and went. As Washington lay ill, the “holy month” of Tishrei would have only recently ended and the Jews would have completed a holiday routine that begins with a new year, and ends with restarting the annual cycling of reading weekly sections of the Torah—the Five Books of Moses. In the middle of that was a fast day in which they would have tried to look all of their misdeeds in the face, accept upon themselves the guilt for having done them, and plead with God to postpone the well-deserved execution sentence for one more year. “Who in the upcoming year would die by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by illness” they had asked in solemn liturgical tones. There would have been no answer yet, but they could take comfort in the verse reminding them that that prayer, repentance, and charity lessen the harshness of heaven’s judgment. They also would sing three times a prayer that would exempt them from future vows when those vows were or a certain nature. This rather distinctive request was originally penned to provide a backdoor way out for Jews forced to accept Christianity at sword point or on pain of the flames—an experience all too familiar to the great grand parents of many of Bridgetown’s Jews. Coming out of that intense, absorbing, and emotionally roller coaster of a month, Bridgetown’s Jews were settling into a long period with no significant holidays—only the weekly reading of the Torah made the counting of spiritual time obvious on a day-to-day basis.


Map of Bridgetown showing the synagogue marked with a red star. Thanks to for the image.

The day Washington took ill was Shabbat, the 2nd of Kislev. That week the Torah Parsha (weekly reading from the Five Books) was Parshat Toldot—the sixth division of the first book which began with the creation of the world. During those weeks, the Jews of Bridgetown had been reading some of the most familiar stories in the Bible. Since the creation, God had flooded the earth and seen it repopulated with people. Avraham has met God and Sarah had a child despite her age. Avraham and his son Isaac showed what faith meant and also showed that God abhors human sacrifice. In Parshat Toldot we begin to see the growth of Isaac’s family—the people for whom he dug all of those wells. Early in Toldot there is a passage in which God tells Rivkah that she is going to have twins. The congregant singing out the weekly reading would have intoned the words for all in the Bridgetown synagogue to hear (my guess is that he would have sung it at about 10am), and they are as follows:

[Bereshit/Genesis 25:23] And God said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your innards, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger.”

These are the words the Children of Isaac heard in synagogue that Shabbat morning in 1751/5512 as George Washington took ill only a mile or so from the constrained world they called home. The younger kingdom will become mightier than the other. What a line! I would not want to suggest that this was prophetic—maybe poetic is a better way to see it. No one could have connected that line in the Parsha with the nineteen-year old off-islander settling into what could easily have been a fatal illness, but time has allowed us to. I write this in a year in which the 2nd of Kislev was once again on Shabbat, and as in 1751/5512, Parshat Toldot was once again heard in synagogues the world over.

I need to think more about just what it means that Washington had his dates so wrong. But it helps to keep mind that there were others in that world carefully counting dates, and hours, and moon phases to make sure that times were reckoned correctly and that promises were kept and that words were sung in their appropriate times.

Washington in Barbados (or a Long Post About a Short Trip)

George Washington was famously well-traveled. His careers as a surveyor and soldier of the King gave him a detailed familiarity the Appalachians and Alleghenies. Riding at the head of the Continental Army brought him to and through cities and communities all along the eastern seaboard, and once elected president he used travel as a way to see and be seen by the people of the new United States.


Walter Kerr Cooper’s imagining of GW in Barbados.

But for all of this travel, he only left the continental US once in his life. For four months at the end of 1751 he accompanied his sickly brother Lawrence to the British Colony of Barbados. The trip was meant to address his older brother Lawrence’s weak lungs by bringing them from Virginia to the softer, breezier, less humid, supposedly more healthful air of the Caribbean. Lawrence’s problems had actually begun years earlier in the Caribbean, but the view that changing one’s air could change one’s health was one was tenet of one of the competing regimes of medical logic confronting an ailing eighteenth-century Briton looking for relief. The Washington brothers had already traveled up to the Appalachian foothills to seek out the warm springs and cool dry air of what is now Jefferson County West Virginia. But that had limited effect at best. The Barbados trip was another attempt clean out, air out, and dry out Lawrence’s failing lungs.

And so it was that the two took bunks on a Barbados-bound vessel. There is some disagreement about just what ship this was. Some advocate a trip from a Potomac port aboard the Success, while others have argued that the sailed from Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock about the aptly named Fredericksburg. The George Washington Papers project at UVa and the Fred W. Smith Library at George Washington’s Mount Vernon are in the later stages of creating a new and probably authoritative edition of the small, damaged, and fragmentary journal Washington kept during his trip.


A little section of GW’s navigation note courtesy of The Washington Papers

Project Editor Alicia Anderson has made it her business to master enough trigonometry to be able to use Washington’s navigation notes to plot out the pace and path of the voyage. The chart she will create will go a long way towards settling the port of embarkation question. While we wait though, the most commonly read copy of the Barbados Journal is the one edited by J.M. Toner and published in 1892. It is full of oddities and errors, but it works. I have kept a copy of it on my phone so that I can refer to it on the fly while on the island. The George Washington Diaries also handled the Barbados Diary with a very good descriptive essay and a facsimile of the original which resides in the Library of Congress. The book I am now writing has a chapter on the Barbados trip and soon the new edition of the Diary will be out. Erin Holmes also will be pairing Washington’s homes and Barbadian homes in her University of South Carolina dissertation comparing plantation landscapes in Virginia, South Carolina, and Barbados, so GW’s time on the island is really happening!

The Brothers W arrived at Bridgetown in late October (or so it seems—the first actual entry on the island is dated November 4th, but pages before it are missing). They had a fairly calm crossing in which they enjoyed the swells of the sea and ate dolphin—a Caribbean favorite which smart marketers have renamed Mahi Mahi so that no one thinks they are eating a porpoise. In arriving at Bridgetown, Washington landed in the most cosmopolitan British city he had ever seen. The two colonies were roughly the same age, shared a somewhat similar history, had long-standing and extensive trade connections, and bore a superficial resemblance in government and society. Before sugar took over the island’s acres, planters had made a short- lived stab at tobacco planting hoping to recreate Virginians’ early seventeenth-century success. Like Virginians, Barbadian Britons could talk of an assembly, a governor and his council, they lived on plantations, and relied on enslaved African labor to keep themselves fed and have their fortunes made.


Henry Partleton’s 1880 photo of Bajan cane cutters.


On top of that, the mix of Britons and enslaved Africans was a bit like that found along Virginia’s rivers. But that was where the similarities ended. Bridgetown was nothing like any place in Virginia graced as it was with in-town homes of wealthy planters, an English-style church, well-built and fully manned military instillations, and large a Spanish and Portuguese descended Jewish community of merchants. An upcoming blog entry will deal a bit more with Washington and the Jews of Barbados. But even though Washington was something of a city kid by Virginia standards having lived most of his life at the doorstep of the small city of Fredericksburg, Bridgetown was something new.

The countryside was different as well. Sugar production led to a very different form of African enslavement and called into being very different cycles of labor. And Virginia was big: really quite big. That size—especially on its western edge—had already defined a significant part of the lives of the Brothers W and would soon offer even more. Even where Virginia settlement was dense it was never particularly crowded. By contrast, Barbados was a tiny island packed tight with actually fairly small sugar plantations and the distinctive stone windmills used to grind the valuable juice out of the cane. Washington noted that “scarcely any part” of the island “is deprived of a beautiful prospect both of sea & land.” (Toner, 58). He was correct, and his observation is of course still true today—but the many views only emphasize the tiny scale of the island.


St Philip’s Church in the early 19c. The church I think is later than GW’s visit, but the landscape is more or less the same. I doubt GW got this far from Bridgetown though.

But the young Washington was thrilled at what he saw on this grand adventure. On his trips into the countryside he was “perfectly enraptured with the beautiful prospects” which presented themselves to he and Lawrence and he marveled at the “fields of cane, corn, fruit-trees &c. in a delightful green”(Toner, 42). Washington took note of landscape and vegetation on these country forays. He commented on soil quality, the scale of sugar production, and agricultural practices. This was more than a mere curiosity. Sugar was a far more lucrative crop than was Virginia’s tobacco—partly accounting for why comparatively small island holdings could yield profits enough to even allow some planters to live well back in England. By way of context, a large Barbados plantation would be about 400 acres–that was the size that Washington said were the largest plantations. Henry Drax though owned 705 acres at the end of the seventeenth-century. His was one of the largest holdings on the island and one that allowed him to live back in England. On the other hand, John Dottin’s Mount Edge was 166 acres in 1759—a far more typical holding for a nice plantation. Plots of 10 acres though were not uncommon though. Compare that with the close to 1000 acres Washington inherited when his father died (himself owning l close to 10,000) of the 18,000 acres Washington took control of when he married Martha. Washington was just then making his first money though land surveying—an enterprise that rested on the availability of ever more new lands. To a Virginian, Barbados’s planters and their agricultural system working a tiny patch of land in the middle of nowhere seemed to hold the key to a sort of magical alchemy for making a fortune. At the same time though, Washington seemed astounded that so many planters were in debt or even lived poorly–a foreshadowing of his own unease with debt.

Washington also brought some book learning to his descriptions. He referenced Griffith Hughes’s 1750 The Natural History of Barbados and matched his own descriptions of plants to those of Reverend Hughes. When and where Washington saw the book is unclear. A copy did not end up in his library, but there may have been one at the Fairfaxes’. It is also possible that he had a copy (or bought a copy) on the island itself. However he laid his hands on Hughes’s work, it is one of the earliest examples we have of Washington employing reading in this fashion.


A folio of Hughes from the Barbados Museum. Washington was interested in nature enough to have even come home with a small bit of coral.

The brothers settled into a simple one-story rented house which sat on a rise of land a short distance east of Bridgetown. For the cost of 15 Pounds a month paid to an officer of the garrison, they had the run of the place—but they had to pay for their own liquor and laundry. The home was close to the stone coral fort at Needham’s point and close to the garrison’s parade ground. It also afforded a superb view of Carlisle Bay with its ships riding at anchor. This home is now restored to an eighteenth-century appearance and serves as a museum dedicated to the Washingtons’ time on the island. The home is larger than it was then and has had a second story added to it, but the feel is there. The area around it is completely changed as well. The commanding view is blocked by trees and a new building cut directly into the limestone hillside. The garrison has changed considerably too. What began as useful flat near Needham’s Point grew in the nineteenth-century into an expansive military complex ringing a large turf race course. Today it all is the home of schools, government buildings, the Barbados Historical Society and museum, and the Barbados Defense Forces who, by the way, have a legal monopoly on the wearing of camouflage on the island. Colonial Williamsburg conducted excavations at the home in 1999 and 2001. These mainly concentrated on the steep ravine to the east of the home—a logical place for centuries’ worth of trash to accumulate. Virginia students still return here to do some digging in the ravine to this day. The artifact assemblages though cover a large swath of time, and apart from some very familiar 1740s and 50s white salt glazed stoneware plate, nothing has emerged dating with any precision to the years of the Washington visit—nor is anything much likely to. Nevertheless, the lower parts of the house—and especially its cellar with its hewn stone and wooden beams—are good links to the eighteenth century.

While the purpose of the trip was largely medical, the Washingtons did a considerable amount of socializing with the local gentry. Their main contact on the island was Gedney Clarke, a player in the local commerce and governance as well as being Lawrence’s wife Anne’s stepmother’s brother (head spinning as that connection seems to us, eighteenth-century English families were pretty used to these extended networks of kin by blood or marriage).

Barbados Girl.jpg

Agostino Brunias’s “The Barbadoes Mulato Girl’ circa 1765. This depiction of Barbadian women captures very much the sort of enslaved people Washington would have seen.

Clarke had a thriving trade with William Fairfax and sent not only sugar and rum to the Potomac, but also procured enslaved people and goods for the Fairfaxes and other members of their extended commercial family—including both Lawrence and George. Clarke opened society’s doors, and with his aid Washington toured fortifications, dined with several prominent families (sometimes with their daughters deliberately placed front and center), attended the theatre, went to church, and rode into the countryside when he could. It is not clear just how far northward Washington actually ventured. His descriptions best match the rising hills of the south, and nowhere did he mentioning the rather astounding natural features of the north. He did nevertheless refer to people who at least had land there even if Washington never made it that far above the Bridgetown area.

Washington clearly was matching what he saw on the island against what he knew at home. “The ladys generally are very agreeable” he wrote, but also felt that they were prone to “affect the Negro style” perhaps in speech and manner—something the young Virginian saw as a liability compared to the women he knew back home. (Toner, 61). This racially inflected haughtiness was no doubt one of the reasons that he did not return home with a Barbadian bride or a prospect in mind. He noted the level of militia service and how men were apportioned in some detail, and he also discussed the island’s defenses noting that “they have large Intrenchments cast up wherever its possible for an enemy to land.” (Toner, 62). I find it very interesting that Washington paired concerns about race and fortifications in his journal—something that I will be discussing in the upcoming book’s Barbados chapter.

Clarke—or rather, someone in the Clarke household—was responsible for the most enduring outcome of the Barbados trip—George’s bout with small pox. The Washingtons knew that someone either at the Clarke plantation house or the in-town house had the disease, but they risked a dinner visit nonetheless. Once the illness had passed Washington could record in the diary that on November 17th, he “was strongly attacked with the small pox.” (Toner, 53). As these things went, it was on the mild side and obviously could have gone far worse. But that would have meant nothing to a young man sweating out a renowned deadly fever far from home and attended by caring, though ultimately unfamiliar people.


Sugar cane was generally ground to produce cane juice which could be boiled to make sugar. English Barbadian planters used either wind, oxen, or horses to move the grinders. The windmill was so common a sight little images of them adorn over a century of maps. Today only one wind mill still functions–Morgan Lewis on the north eastern side of the island. Image from the George Grantham Bain collection.

He spent most of November in bed—the diary is understandably silent. By December 12th he was recovered enough to visit the Clarkes in Bridgetown and thank them for their care and visits during his illness. The consequences of Washington’s smallpox are difficult to pin down. There are those who like to say that that fevered island month inoculated George against the disease, and thus ensured that he would not die of it before, or even during the Revolution. That line of reasoning’s implications are clear: a small amount well-timed body fluid contact preserved Our Washington and in so doing secured the fate of the Republic. There are a lot of “ifs” in that charming premise, but one can understand how such a view could take root. The other often-cited consequence was that the fever rendered Washington incapable fathering children. This outcome is the opposite of the former outcome. In the former, Washington is saved to be the Father of the Country, whereas in the later he is denied the ability to be a father. And of course there is a relationship between the two outcomes. The challenge here is the uncertain relationship between small pox and male sterility. The simplest version of this relationship is that there is none—small pox does not cause sterility. The fever itself though can do permanent damage and other opportunistic illnesses can do their horrid work while a body’s defenses are down. The answer though is that we cannot say with any real certainty that the lack of direct line little Washingtons was because of that poorly timed dinner at the Clarkes’s.

As this rather long entry shows, I have quite a bit to say about Washington and Barbados—here I just spun out a few of the themes I am working with. And I have not even touched yet on Washington memory on the island long after the famed visit. A few important take aways though are the value of the Barbados Diary as an early and quite revealing Washington foray into the world of words. Another is the chance to see the Virginian mind (some may say gaze) examining a place similar enough to grant purchase, but alien enough to captivate. Still another is what we see of the island itself. The Barbados trip is usually a quick moment in most Washington literature. I am glad I am giving it a bit more page space than is usual.

The Zombies Were Out

Today was a terrible pedestrian day on the bike path. It is normal for people to be walking slowly on the Mount Vernon trail bike path–especially at the little parks along the way. It is easy to call out “on your left” and slide past. No biggie–you just unclip and slow down when you get to the traffic areas and see the crowds getting thick. There are often a few people not keeping their kids on the safe side of the path and the occasional dog on too long a leash who want to jump out under your tire. But with some care and conversation it is easy for everyone to share the space. But there are also people who are so in their own heads that they are real hazards to themselves and others. Today there were at least three people who were just walking towards the path and starting to cross without even looking up or either way–like they were just walking across their bedroom! One can spot them up ahead before it is too late and in my mind I am just thinking–he is gonna stop…isn’t he?


It is a sort of a road–don’t you think? Pic from the

But they don’t. In one case it was some guy who seemed to be talking to people the other side of the path, in another it was just some older guy looking at his shoes with his wife behind him was looking at hers. There also was a guy who just wanted to walk on the path but felt no need to look to see if anyone was there already. Amazing. When that happens I  just holler “heads up” as loud as I can and hope I can scare the crap out of them so they will not get slammed into next time. You have to yell loudly because so many people have earbuds furthering their isolation and even at low speeds sudden stops can be very bad. Do these people walk onto roads that way? The Mount Vernon Trail is a paved path with a broken yellow line down the middle–it is pretty darn official looking and no one can imagine that that it is something other than what it is. But once it gets warm there are these somnambulists who just zombie their way into potential harm. Use brains, don’t eat them! Here is the thing Zombie Man–when I slam into you it is really going to hurt. Let’s work together to keep that from happening. My job is to be super alert to what walkers are doing along the path, your job is to look both ways before you cross. Ok?

Then at the end of the day, I stopped to check something on my phone. I was on the dark nighttime street next to the Starbucks in Alexandria. There was a tourist guy who wanted to ask me about my LEDs and that is fine. The problem was that he came up behind me with the five other people he was with and sort tapped my shoulder from behind. Jeepers! I told him in no uncertain terms that approaching people from behind on dark streets is not a good idea at all. Spring is in the air and people are being weird.

Mount Vernon’s Rev War Weekend

This weekend is Mount Vernon’s “Revolutionary War Weekend.” This is a new event MV is putting on for the visiting public and the visible glee of about 700 Rev War reeneactors from all over the land. I took a pleasant walk over the grounds in the company of several thousand visitors and caught the tail end of the afternoon skirmish of what I called the Battle that Thankfully Never Happened, or HMS Savage Day. Reenactments need not a battle site to be visually compelling and educationally engaging for the general public, and I would be lying if I said that I did not feel just a little bit homesick walking quietly amidst the wall tents and the cook fires. I never dabbled though in Rev War eventing. When I was more active it was a much smaller hobby dominated by older men in glasses. In those days it was rare to see three men in a company in the same uniform—and they would usually be highlanders in full kit! One of the main appeals of Civil War reenacting—particularly in portraying United States soldiers as I invariably did—was the very real possibility of massing together lots of men attired in almost identical kits.


That’s me on the lower left in this iconic Claude Levet print with (clockwise from me) Paul Carter, “Reservetta” painted by Ron Tunstall on Mike Thompson’s blanket (an admittedly singular object if ever there was one), Mike Thompson (with frying pan), Mark McNierney, and Hugh Cadzow. The camp hats that Paul and I have were knitted by his grandmother–half the company had one by her hand. Fabulous uniforms being put to no good purpose.

I know that is an odd thing to care about, but anyone who served time in the Pretend Army knows that I mean. It was the plainness of the ten-a-penny United States soldier in a regular issue sack coat and trousers that was worth emulating, and then using the tiniest of details to be distinctive and express individuality. The angle of a hat, a camp hat at night, or the carefree cuffing of trousers—these are what soldiers did to say “I am me” and that much is clear in so much war time photography. The more flamboyant the uniform, the more it was disparaged by others with this mindset. Be plain or go home!

To me, the Rev War hobby always suffered a bit from a lack of the repeatable. A mix and match company made up of two guys in kilts, three with buff facing, two with yellow and bastion lace, one loyalist in green, two Hessians in mitres, one grenadier with a bearskin, and three light infantry—oh, and maybe a jaeger too—was a sight that made me cringe. So, I was sort of pleased by what I saw at Mount Vernon today. For one thing, this was a major event. It was nothing for there to be a few thousand men at a Civil War event, but Rev War has always had a hard time reaching anything close to that scale.


Another Claude Levet classic of me. This one made the cover of Camp Chase Gazette–the reenacting equivalent of Time Magazine.

The going count of 700 participants is impressive and the afternoon’s showing had a few hundred in evidence. Best of all though, there were a few groupings that had good numbers. There was one company of British Light Infantry who really looked great. Their coats were non-synthetic in color and tightly cut. They were mostly young guys so they were appropriately skinny and one of their number was black—adding a nice hint of the war’s underlying racial politics. It helped that one or two of the gents had faces that could have been drawn by Hogarth—the 18c equivalent of all of that Civil War photography. They were not as many as one might hope, but enough to convey scale, and they cut a good form (no pictures from me though since it was Saturday–maybe tomorrow).

I am not called back to the ranks—it is hard to imagine what that would take. But, Mount Vernon’s event was, so far, a really big hit for both participants and spectators.

A Maddening Experience to Which all Historians Can Relate,

Here Told in Narrative Form and Entitled The Hunt, or, a Tale of Relentless Page Turning in Order to Find That Which Should Have Been Made Clearer at the Outset, or, To Every Quotation There is a Citation Which to Locate I Must Turn, Turn, Turn.

Dedicated to the irritating writers everywhere who feel a need to cleverly reinvent to their own purposes and in their own fashion the perfectly fine system of citations outlined in that Good Book from Chicago.

Zounds, says I, Indeed, a more helpful quotation on this topic I have not yet seen. Let me stray from my reading and peruse the origin of the handy tidbit so as to read more of it from its place of origin. I see it is listed here as endnote two. Two? I muse—that seems odd as it appears on page 50—surely mine good literary host has included citations before this one in 50 hearty pages of writing? Lo—he has! But he has chosen to begin the numbering of each chapter’s citations anew chapter by chapter! What purpose does this lunacy serve? No matter, all I needs do is look at the top of the page to see what chapter I am amidst and then turn as needed. But what is this? No indication at all on the page to show in which chapter we the poor readers are marooned! I must turn back to the start of the chapter to know its designation. But I know not where it began, for it is the index that is my native guide though this texta incognita—or was the author so arrogant as to think that we readers would actually slog though his prose to find what we want? Each page must be carefully turned back lest I miss the one place where the chapter name in listed. At last, here it is, and written in Roman Numerals—what a kindness Tullius Maximus Iackuss has offered to those of his readers who, by some miracle, hail from antient Rome. There it is, Chapter XIV. Now all I needs do is turn turn turn to locate the vicinity of the book where the notes are hidden—what a lucky hap for me that I have nine fingers on one hand so that I can keep my increasing number of places. At last, I arrive at the citation—and what do I see? GHY: 20: 7. What on earth is that supposed to be? Ah! It is an abbreviated indication of some larger collection, and in goes another place marking finger and begins again the turning turning turning, this time back to locate the start of the series of citations to find my goal. But what is this? Our author has chosen to divide his list of abbreviations into three separate subgroups aligned along category lines that he, and only he, could find meaningful. To your beleaguered correspondent’s chagrin, each of three different alphabetical lists must be consulted before the arcane reference is finally spied in the third of the three lists. At last I have the citation—it of course, is for something singular and housed only in an archive across the sea in England!

With a heavy heart, I move to write down the reference, but find that my fingers are twisted in knots and bound up within the execrable monograph to such an extent that it takes the aid of a comrade to extricate the poor curious digits.

The lesson is clear dear friends, and please let my sad experience be a warning to all who venture into the game of citation production. For the love of all that is holy and good in this weary world, create citations that will help and not hinder

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