Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Clearing: Hadley, 1969

After skiing into Bushnell Falls that March of ’69, our intention was always to move to the Adirondacks as permanently and as soon as we could. Keene and the high peaks were the grail. Soon, however, my college friend, the actress Ellen Parker, told me that her parents, Joe and Sophie, who had been looking for a place in the Adirondacks to start a restaurant, had bought a local bar along the Sacandaga River in Hadley and might need some help.

Joe Parker was a sculptor and painter, and Sophie, who was French, a chef. I had been to their house in Dobb’s Ferry and been treated to the best food and wine of my college-kid life, in an atmosphere of garlic and red wine and art conversation with a French accent.
Joe soon arranged for us to occupy a clearing amid plantation pines on Niagara-Mohawk land across the road from the restaurant—the first Chez Sophie, now a Saratoga institution. In return we hired out as part-time slaves in the remodeling and start-up of the new restaurant, the first “bistro” of any authentic type in the Adirondacks, and to other restaurants, bars and contractors in the area. Gail Stern, Sam Lewis, Pete Groff and I erected a fanciful geodesic structure of interlocking plywood and two-by-four tetrahedrons in the clearing beside the river, on the principles of Buckminster Fuller, and covered it with plastic.

That was the beginning of three or four years of seasonal—May to October—occupation. We slept there, swam and fished in the river, entertained visitors. At various times we grew vegetables or kept bees, but other than that there was little attempt to maintain a “commune.” It was more like a loose affiliation and seasonal outdoor headquarters for our various widespread friends in Montreal, California, Albany and Schenectady. We had no electrical power so no ability or inclination to have loud parties. We nevertheless became known within weeks as the Hadley hippies, for our hair, jug band, nude bathing, and politics (rather bland, really).

The restaurant grew. The menu changed each evening depending on the availability of fresh ingredients. Gail worked with Sophie in the kitchen, I stood by as kitchen help, dishwasher or bus boy—though I was quickly dismissed as being too dreamy for any duty in the front room. Joe, with his cheery round face and moustache, tended bar. He had studied with Fernand Leger in Paris, where he met Sophie, and his paintings and welded rod sculptures were displayed around the room. At the end of the shift we would go out front into the restaurant where Sophie served us tournedos, Cornish hens, or roast chicken. Sometimes late customers hung around after closing and the conversation expanded, carried along on wine and summer ease, turning often to Nixon and Vietnam or to the young men and the woman who helped the hosts and what they thought they were doing living in nature without power or running water, abandoning suburban life and the duties of middle-class adulthood.

In my own case the choice had to do with memories of childhood summers combined with a romantic identification with the wilderness writings of the Beats, Thoreau, various fishing and nature writers and Noah John Rondeau. I thought that if I could deepen my experience in nature and place I could do in the Adirondacks what other writers were beginning to do in the Pacific Northwest and Montana. What I didn’t know was that it entailed as devoted a commitment of energy and time to craft as it did to fishing, hiking and hunting. I had always written and believed I could accomplish publishable adult work in ecstatic outbursts of creativity—as Kerouac supposedly had with On the Road.

I was also the one among us most committed to the idea of place and “going back” to some prewar wilderness Arcadia. With Sam Lewis I entertained fantasies of logging as the poet Gary Snyder had, growing up in the Pacific Northwest among the old labor anarchists of the twenties and thirties who had found a home in the logging industry. There Snyder had learned the value of work, of living on and with the land within a deeply western vein of frontier self-reliance. But he belonged to perhaps the last American generation to have access to an experience of that sort so unmediated by modernity.

I was hopeless as a roughneck, anyway, at least at first. And it’s safe to say the Snyder-Woody Guthrie-Bulgakov brand of anarchism didn’t translate to the Adirondacks, no matter how many philosopher-woodsmen I met who worked in the woods in one capacity or another or how many of them adopted points of view and ways of life consistent with the deepest American vein. Some eventually came to recognize how an idea like the Adirondack Park Agency Act could protect their freedom to live in a way that most closely replicated and continued that of the mythical Northwoods. But not many.

In those days we viewed reality primarily through the prisms of our cleverness, history and politics. That summer we heard little support for the proposed agency among the old-timers we had coffee with in the morning in Lake Luzerne and beers with in the evening, but whom we idealized and emulated nevertheless. You could always talk about fish, animals, water levels, stumpage prices, weather or land. Late afternoons when the Conklingville Dam shut off we’d wade out on the bare rocks of the pre-rafting Sacandaga and cast flies for the plentiful smallmouth. For trout we drove up the Stony Creek Road to Wolf Creek, with its Hudson-fattened browns, or Stony Creek itself. In August we made our annual trek to Mount Colden via the trap dike. The days seemed to justify themselves beyond all other considerations.

The war went on, along with the violence in the cities and on campuses. When Woodstock happened that summer it already seemed far away, as if some vital link to anything “down below” had been severed, for me at least.

By September the imperatives of place had asserted their hold, and the only choices seemed to be whether or not to move farther north, deeper into the woods, in to wildness and the soon to be protected reality of unmediated experience.


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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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