As I write this Dispatch Amy and I are in Ohio dropping off our youngest son Adam at the Columbus College of Art and Design. All three of our boys are in college now: Alex is just about to finish, Zach is in the middle and now Adam has left home.
Amy and I are not the kind of people who spend much time dwelling in the past, but today I find myself reminiscing. It is a tremendous day of change for Adam but it is also a day of transition for us. We are basically empty-nesters now. Our future plans lie directly in front of us, no longer distant and vague. At some point in the next few years we will move to the Adirondacks permanently. Lost Brook Tract will be much closer to us and much more a part of our lives. I am thinking about that but I am also thinking about the years and stories that have brought us to this day. As I write tonight past, present and future seem to have blended together, illuminating both our long journey as parents and the way forward.
I find myself remembering the details of our family life together as I have not in some time; I mark the inexorable forward march of time with bittersweet emotions. I miss our kids, I miss them as young boys and I miss them most acutely as young boys in the woods. I think of them in the Adirondack wilderness especially, not only because our adventures there were the best of times, but also because the everlasting feel of these forests is a permanent comfort, a touchstone by which I can always feel their presence in me.
I have meant for some time to write on the subject of children in the back country. My initial conception of this project was along the lines of an essay, spurred by the disheartening protectiveness that seems to have flooded the parental landscape over the last two decades. “You take your children into the wilderness? What if something were to happen?” I have been asked these questions dozens of times, usually with incredulity if not condemnation. I have even had one Good Samaritan tell me it was “abusive” to take my kids into the wilderness when they were “not old enough.” These are dispositions I would dearly like to repudiate. My three boys have each been in the Adirondack back country in every season since before they could walk and there is no other history that I would possibly want to have made for them.
In the end however I just want to tell family stories and leave the over-arching themes to themselves. Together we have had so many wonderful times and bracing adventures. Alex, Zach and Adam bear the imprint of every one of them; this I know, whether that imprint is obvious or not. Their confidence and craft in the back country is an explicit imprint upon each of them. Their integrity, noted by many who know them, complex and varied in expression, bears many less obvious yet unmistakable Adirondack influences.
I fondly recall an exploration into Indian Pass in the summer of 2001, when Adam was eight, Zach nine and Alex eleven. This was during the same trip that we had our infamous encounter with Tractor, the massive black bear of High Peaks lore about whom I have already written. Near the end of an eleven-day backpacking trek we decided to try something difficult just for the fun of it. We set out from our base camp not far from the Preston Ponds and made our way up the trail toward Indian Pass with the goal of pushing as far into the pass as possible along the floor. For years we had been fascinated by stories telling of the impassibility of the base of that cleft: of the unexplored layers of talus cave, hundreds of feet deep, of massive boulders slicked with water and moss, of permanent glacial ice in the deeper crevices. We came with rope and climbing gear and pushed into the pass, leaving the trail right where it crosses Indian Pass Brook.
The conditions were as advertised, otherworldly in scale and presenting one challenge after another. We lowered ourselves with ropes down damp, green boulder walls the size of movie screens, ducked between dark gray arches with water dripping down upon is, stepped across openings harboring blue ice hardened for millennia, scraped ourselves on the dank, cold rock. It took hours to make our way even a half-mile in.
After some time we came to a little bit of a woodsy opening with relatively flat ground. Wallface lofted directly over us, looking like it could tumble down directly upon us at any moment. From our vantage point the McIntyre range on the other side looked nearly as steep. The feeling of being all the way down in it was imposing and claustrophobic. Rising from the center of the opening was a massive pile of boulders, stacked one upon another, rising at least a hundred feet from the floor of the pass. It looked climbable if a little tricky and I felt myself drawn to try. Part of it was that I love climbing things but part of it also was a desire to liberate ourselves from the feeling of being pressed in by that much towering rock.
We started up, finding the going easier than I had thought. In little time we had made our way above the surrounding trees and the awe-inspiring breadth of Indian Pass opened to us as I had never before seen it. The view from Summit Rock is not bad but the scale of the pass when viewed from a seat right in the middle is entirely different.
We continued up the narrowing pile and reached a point when one final boulder remained, perched like a cherry on top of a sundae made of stone. Three sides were vertical but the fourth side led left to the top along a 45-degree incline. To the right was a steep falloff of perhaps a hundred feet. The rock was clean and dry, the weather perfect, boosting my confidence that the grip would be sure. I gave it a try, climbing hand over foot to the top with relative ease. It was doable but it was a gut check. The kids were going to have to summon their courage. The view on top was amazing, like being suspended on a perch smack dab in the center of Wallface’s tallest cliff.
I descended the incline and put it to the boys. It is doable, you can do it, you should do it, the view is awesome, you have to focus and use your climbing skills because if you slip, slide down to the right and fall off you’re a goner. It was a sufficiently dramatic demonstration. I saw each of them steel himself in his own private way.
I positioned myself at the beginning of the pitch, a little to the right. I tested my footholds and left handhold, my right arm ready to move like lightning if needed. I was ready to spot them. Alex went first, hardly hesitating. “Wow, this is cool!” he announced from the top. Zach took a little longer. He needed to think about it, be reassured a little. Zach has always been the most sensitive and deliberative of the three. But then he went for it and moved up without any slowdown. He crawled over the edge to the flat apex. “He’s done it,” I thought to myself. “No one can ever take that back.” Adam went last. He had a little internal struggle too, being the youngest. But it was merely a moment before he charged up. Adam is athletic and brave and his nature shone through too.
Amy followed up, then the dog, whose nice soft golden retriever haunches got an assist from my palm. The boys were beaming with excitement and pride. We sat on this rock in the middle of Indian Pass for a long time. I could not have imagined a more beautiful and dramatic place. Yes, I thought, no one can ever take this back, not from any of these children. What will they ever face that will be so hard that this day, this accomplishment, will not strengthen their resolve and feed their strength?
There are so many more stories to relate for future Dispatches: canoes and garbage bags, cemeteries and ghost towns, Christmas turkey, Ere’s pizza, Wallface, lightning strikes, The Lion Sleeps, Long Island, rafting on Henderson, MacNaughton, Redfield and the Dix Range. In the meantime our sons have been to Lost Brook Tract, though not as much as we have. Alex was there once (Kuma’s View being the result) and Zach and Adam twice, once on our initial visit in the winter and a second time for a few days during our first summer visit. They have not seen much of the land yet. They have their own process of discovery ahead, their own coming-to-terms with this wild, primeval place.
Amy and I have eclectic, odd, risk-taking lives. We are not likely to have a huge amount of money or a sprawling country estate for our kids to inherit. We will not have many valuable items to our name, artifacts to be passed on like the Bundy time clock my father rebuilt many years ago which now sits in our dining room. But we have planted the feel and smell and deep love of the Adirondacks in them, run it through their blood by shared experiences and adventures, by exaltation and suffering, by the rhythm of the wilderness. Now we have Lost Brook Tract, theirs to have for all time. It will be our best legacy. That is enough.
Photo: Wallface and Indian Pass from Iroquois