Saturday, February 20, 2010

Inklings of Change: Bushnell Falls, 1969

On the spring equinox of March, 1969, I snowshoed and skied into Bushnell Falls, on the slopes of Mount Marcy, with Sam Lewis and two friends of his from college: Henry, a young English professor, and Doug, who had recently graduated with Sam from Franklin and Marshall. It had been the first of a series of major snowfall winters, and we made our way along the John’s Brook Trail after the usual college kids’ late start in the gloom of another approaching storm. The accumulated snow lay seven feet deep in the pine plantation, as we judged from the height of the telephone line to the ranger cabin that we had to step over periodically as it zigzagged back and forth across the trail.
We broke trail on wooden Northland and army surplus skis with screwed on metal edges, cable bindings on hiking boots, and climbing skins. It was half a dozen years ahead of the cross-country ski boom of the mid-seventies brought on partly by those same snowy winters. My bindings kept getting screwed up. We carried one aluminum frame pack, a pack board, and two canvas rucksacks: one army surplus, the other a nice European model. We wore army surplus silk glove liners and silk union suits. John’s Brook Loj was closed, half buried, the only signs of life the fresh red squirrel tracks that led from the foundation under the eaves into the nearby spruces.

We passed the Loj after drinking tea from a thermos and eating gorp out of a plastic bag. The trail climbed. It was dusk. Deeply mounded cushions of powder blotted out everything, including sound. A party of real climbers, alpinists with ice axes and good equipment, their faces and beards frost-rimed, met us coming down from the summit of Marcy. “Bad ice and fog,” one of them said. “Don’t try to climb it now.” We wouldn’t, we said. We were only heading to the lean-to at Slant Rock. “If you can find it,” he said.

The light was gray and flat. It was almost dark when we found the rounded tumuli at Bushnell Falls, below Slant Rock, that showed where the lean-tos were buried. We chose the easiest one to reach and dug our way in through the space where the lean-to’s log sidewall met the wall of snow that closed it off. Inside, we lit candles, placed them on the shelves and spread out our equipment—a cotton duck-feather sleeping bag for me, the others had good down and nylon bags. Then we scooped a hearth out of the snow a few feet from the front of the lean-to and built a fire with dead pine branches on a base of aluminum foil. The concave snow wall, the smoke hole at the top and the air holes we dug out at the sides created a perfect draft. Within minutes the interior snow wall had glazed over and filled the lean-to with reflected heat and flickering light that kept us warm and well-lit through the night. Sam’s ski thermometer, which he had hung on a nail outside, read zero F.

Henry had a brass Svea stove and we soon had it going and camp food boiling. Henry was older by a few years, an English instructor at Franklin and Marshall, with a bushy black beard—a meditator and follower of the Beats. He had winter camped and climbed in the Sierras, in California, where he was from, and in the Cascades, and had memorized Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, one of the Ur-texts for Sam’s and my Adirondack excursions at summer camp on Lake George, and together on weekends. We were budding conservationists and wilderness advocates in the spirit of the times, had read Aldo Leopold, John McPhee, Colin Fletcher and Rachel Carson. It was Henry and Doug’s first time in the Adirondacks, and Sam and I filled them in on what we knew of the place, our experiences there, and the pending legislation, long in the works, for an Adirondack Park agency that would regulate development and wild-land use in the six-million acre protected area in New York State’s prominent northern bulge.

After dinner we shared the brandy we had decanted into aluminum bottles and read to each other from William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson,” from Wallace Stevens, and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Boozy good fellowship obtained. We decried rumors of the secret bombing of Cambodia and shared stories of draft avoidance and evasion, our own and others we had heard of—a major preoccupation of draft-age men at the time. Henry told of a reporter friend in Oakland who had been assigned a Man On the Street piece on the bombing rumors. Most of the responses were predictably non-committal or against the war—it was the sixties in the Bay Area—but the quote of an African-American veteran stood out. “Man,” he told the reporter, “Richard Nixon is a lying motherfucker and his heart pumps shit.”

Henry’s friend reported it dutifully and handed in the piece. “It’s a great quote, but we can’t use it,” the editor said, to his friend’s disappointment and our great amusement. Henry, it seemed, was fond of turning quaint turns of phrase or expressions into musical rounds, to be sung while consuming various mind-altering fungi. He handed around a bag of psilocybin mushrooms and after a couple of attempts assembled from the quote the following round, which we sang (at length) in four parts and to the tune of “Frere Jacques.”

Richard Nixon, Richard Nixon
Heart pumps shit, heart pumps shit
Lying motherfucker, lying motherfucker
Heart pumps shit, heart pumps shit.

“You had to be there,” Sam would say later, when telling the story. “And tripping.”

It was more than two years before the New York State legislature passed the APA act and Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed into law the most comprehensive and visionary land-use law of its time. It was also four months before the first Earth Day; four years before the first gas crisis, four years before Watergate and six before the last helicopters fled Saigon. Outside the lean-to more snow fell softly over all the living and the soon to be dead, whose stories and memories would merge like snowflakes into the pool of general myth, confused feeling and sentimental distortion that would come to stand for the vanished Adirondacks of the industrial frontier.

That night we slept the sleep of the clueless, the fire lighting our wilderness womb through the night. The next morning we skied down the firm, snow-cushioned bed of John’s Brook on eighteen inches of new powder, glissading over the frozen falls. Sitting on the bridge to Lower Wolfjaw in the snow muffled silence I saw myself in a distant adult future, reading by lamplight in a wilderness cabin, surrounded by books. Thus I had read of Harold Weston, the artist and activist, doing when he lived and painted in St. Hubert’s in the Twenties. It should be possible, I thought, however naively, to live that way again.

Later that morning Sam informed me that Doug and Henry were a couple and that they were helping him apply for a draft deferment on the basis of being gay. (He wasn’t.) Big choices and commitments were in the air. I was attending college in Toronto but spared the draft by a 4-F deferment based on the inflated diagnosis of a minor condition by my family’s doctor, a Korean War veteran and amputee. I had considered emigrating but here was a reason to return. There was a feeling of a new kind of thing coming into existence—right here in the Adirondacks!—something that ran counter to the general violence and confusion playing out around the country, and we could be part of it.

The vestiges of the industrial frontier had grown dim, with all its rustic imagery and technology, but the new thing hadn’t formed yet. The Northway hadn’t penetrated the high peaks. We camped in floorless canvas tents, had only recently stopped building our mattresses out of balsam tips. The accepted paradigm at DEC was that moose would never be able to coexist with deer in the Adirondacks because of a nematode the deer carried that made the moose crazy. You drove for miles without seeing another car. Whitewater rafting, a Western invention, was a decade in the future. But a common feeling existed, a flavor of experience that resided in the effects of seasonal light, sound and smell combined with echoes of the regional twang.

After lunch at the Spread Eagle Inn we stopped at Skyline Outfitters, in Keene, located in the blue and white Victorian on Route 73 that’s still there. It was run by “Ma” Schaefer, wife of the early conservationist Paul Schaefer, a neighbor of my family’s in Schenectady. (She was also the mother of long-time Johnsburg resident, Evelyn Greene.) We were looking for a new burner for Henry’s Svea and in the course of watching her dig around in the jumble of stock and hiking gadgets—good outdoor equipment was less fussy and more utilitarian then—the conversation drifted toward the snow, change, the “act,” old-timers, and such archetypes as Rondeau, whose journals we had devoured in Maitland DeSormo’s estimable self-published biography. She had known Rondeau, had camped at the hermit’s Cold River City during her summer-long hiking outings with her children. He was a drunk, she said. “Of course all those old characters are gone now,” she added, no spring chicken herself by then.

We nodded to acknowledge the passing of a reality of which we knew nothing, and turned to the door.

“Except me,” she said, solemn faced. We left her standing behind the counter on a snowy late afternoon in early spring, watching us leave.

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In the 1970s and 80s Chris Shaw worked as a ski lift operator, the caretaker of a fishing club, a whitewater guide, an innkeeper and as editor of Adirondack Life. His stories and articles have appeared in Outside, the New England Review, the New York Times and many other publications, and he has received Bread Loaf and New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships. Northern Voices, his program on NCPR in the 1990s, profiled writers of the Adirondacks and northern New York, and his book, Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, about paddling in the Usumacinta River watershed of Chiapas and Guatemala, appeared in 2000. The Washington Post called it "a magnificent achievement." Shaw recently retired from Middlebury College, where he taught writing and co-administered the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism. He and his wife Sue Kavanagh salve the wounds of exile by spending as many weeks a year as they can at their one-room cabin on a remote northern lake.

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