I traveled the Southern Tier through New York State as often as I could. Route 17, now an interstate. I loved the Southern Tier, in spite of its lack of rest areas. After it became an interstate I did not use it. It probably looked much the same, but I couldn't bear the idea of its undulating ribbons of road being an interstate highway.
In the spring of ‘97 I did a show at the state fairground in Syracuse. Jan rode with me, to help Linda at her studio, while I did the show. Linda lived south of Auburn at the time, and the drive to her house from the fairground was perhaps half an hour.
Linda brought Jan to the show in time to help me pack up Sunday night, and the two of us dropped down to the Southern Tier to come home. The road goes through mile upon mile of farming country, rolling over the Allegheny foothills. The big towns are small, the small towns are hamlets. For miles and miles the road also travels through the Seneca Nation.
As we hummed along in the dusk, suddenly I realized there were no other cars on the road. I looked at Jan as I mentioned that and as I looked the side of the highway erupted in orange flames. In the center of the flames, a pile of tires, around the edges, men waving. Then flames exploded on my left. Then again on the right. Then, nothing. As we discussed what kinds of fools might be igniting tire piles, emergency lights flashed ahead. Slowing down in the growing dark, we saw New York State Highway Patrol cars and officers in the road, directing us to an exit.
We drove around a tiny town, looking for information. Nothing was open, the streets were empty. Not natural. I went back to the freeway; the entrance ramp was blocked. A man came to the window and I asked what was happening. In a pleasant voice the man began explaining the Seneca Nation was in a dispute with the State of New York. He apologized for our inconvenience, but the Nation needed to bring attention to its plight.
A trouper came to the window, and told the man to be a hundred feet away. At the passenger window, Jan was in conversation with another trouper. I had been conscious of her finding the map under the seat and thrusting it out the window. While she got directions, the trouper at my window just told me the Southern Tier was closed and we needed to find an alternate route home.
We found the route Jan’s trouper indicated and started north, up and down mountains to get to the New York Thruway and home from there. Jan got on the phone and called Tom, a trucker. What was going on? He called truckers who called truckers and the story came back to us.
As we climbed the first mountain and I listened to the story, I realized there was no one ahead of me on the road, and the lights behind were accumulating. Cresting the first range we had an “Oh, My, God” moment. The entire southbound lane of this two lane road, from the top of the range far ahead of us, down the valley and up the side we were about to descend, was headlights, behind a semi that apparently overheated at the top of the steep hill and stopped. But not off the road, as the sheer mountain rock would let the driver get no further off the road.
Jan hung up on Tom long enough to call 911 and tell a dispatcher to get someone to the top of this mountain to intervene in an accident waiting to happen. I lead my north bound caravan down the mountain and no one south bound was fool enough to try and get around the disabled truck.
One more mountain range and we cut across to the Thruway, below Buffalo, and started home again. Where did hundreds and hundreds of southbound vehicles come from, on a county road designed for farm traffic? From the Thruway, east of Buffalo, which the Seneca Nation shut down as effectively as they closed the Southern Tier.
It was Magnificent!
All we learned from the truckers that night was the Seneca Nation had a grievance with the State of New York; the State of New York responded inappropriately, in their opinion, and the Seneca Nation responded by closing two major highways.
It was a tax dispute. The Indian Nations are tax exempt. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer attempted to make the Seneca Nation pay sales taxes on goods delivered to the Nation, including heating oil and propane for cooking. When they refused, he cut off deliveries.
The story never was news. No one knew that in little homes all over the Seneca Nation people were cold, hungry, out of work. That Eliot Spitzer, probably unhappy the case was proceeding so slowly through the courts, exacted his own revenge on the Seneca Nation for not paying illegally imposed taxes.
Yes, the same Eliot Spitzer who imploded in scandal and failed to make a comeback in the recent primary election for New York City mayor.
The embargo was lifted, propane and fuel oil was delivered to homes in the Seneca Nation. The Seneca Nation prevailed, and won in court.
Jan and I were an extra three or four hours getting home. The folks on the Thruway, including friends from the show, were delayed eight to ten hours. But then, we were on the road less traveled.
The next time I went east on the Southern Tier I passed under a huge, lighted informational sign saying, and I may be paraphrasing slightly, You are Entering the Seneca Nation. Travel at your own risk for the next several hundred miles.” Same sign on the other end, when I came back. The sign remained in place for several years.
Apparently the best the Great State of New York had to offer.