This Thanksgiving unfolded for me in traditional and typical fashion, promising that the standard playbook would be executed all the way through: take the family to my in-laws, help cook a massive meal for twenty, monitor my Mother for too much wine or too much stimulation (Mom is 92 and can overload either way), overeat, get teary looking at my wife and drive seventy miles home while fighting indigestion and narcolepsy.
By early afternoon all was going to form. How could I possibly have known that an earth-shaking revelation was about to completely overwhelm me? How could I be prepared for the sheer jubilation, the exaltation this imminent moment was going to bring, this profound thunderclap completely sweeping away all the usual familial mediocrity?
But then it happened. The setting was innocent enough: I was in the snowy yard with my brother-in-law Dan, exercising Henderson with a stick, talking about our favorite mutual subject, the Adirondacks. Amy and I were planning to be at Lost Brook Tract just after Christmas and Dan, who had considered coming along and doing some skiing was telling me that his winter visit would have to wait until the following year. “We’re all coming next winter, he said. We’ll come up to your land for a couple days but we’ll get a place for a week. Shay’s a little worried about snowshoeing up there.”
There it was.
I could not have been more staggered if Plato himself had stepped down from the Acropolis and whispered the secret of life in my ear. Stunned with excitement and with the awful responsibility of the revelation, I struggled for breath enough to speak. “Shay…” I managed to say. “Shay is going… …winter…”
Most of you will have no idea what my fuss is about. But some of you might remember Shay, my sister-in-law. She was the centerpiece of a Dispatch written more than a year ago. At the time Dan and Shay were planning a first visit to Lost Brook Tract and in that Dispatch I shared the story of my plans to construct a Taj-Mahal-level privy for her. Shay was not the world’s most experienced or enthusiastic back country camper and she certainly did not want to amplify her authentic wilderness experience with the equally authentic experience of crouching over a hole. The story of Shay’s Privy remains one of my favorite memories.
In that Dispatch I wrote the following about Shay:
She may not be an avid hiker and camper but she has chutzpah. Shay typically tends to doubt herself more than anyone else does, denying that she can or will do something. But more often than not she eventually does it anyhow. Summiting a High Peak was a “No” until she did Giant. Winter camping has always been an unequivocal “No,” accompanied by a whiff of tone that suggests she thinks Amy and I are disturbed.
Now you get it. Less than two years ago there was not a wisp of a chance that Shay would ever entertain such a crazy thing. She was fully prepared to freeze over due to winter camping just as soon as Hell froze over first. I mean there was outright hostility to the thought. Every once in a while I’d bring it up in a joking way and receive for my trouble the kind of nod or turn of the head, perhaps accompanied by a sneer, that has condemned greater men than me throughout history. Or, if I offered my confidence that Shay would someday do it with any sort of knowing air, I would be put down good and hard: “There is no way, Peter; no way I will EVER go winter camping.”
(One of the advantages – if you want to call it that – to having a malleable name like Pete, which has so many variations, is that the employ of the formal version, Peter with that damned “r” on the end, is extremely effective in making a point. When I was a kid I had all manner of nicknames and never really heard my formal name except on special occasions, such as “Peter, did you set fire to those newspapers in your clubhouse?” or “Peter, why is the car missing a hub cap?”… that sort of thing… but I digress…)
Yet my knowing air, an obnoxious combination of confidence and a constant desire to win, was evinced for a reason: I was quite sure I’d have my satisfaction with Shay sooner or later. That’s because Shay has evolved.
I’ve seen this evolution a hundred times if I’ve seen it once. I’ve decided to give it a name: The Shay Effect.
Lest you think me egotistical about this, let me assure you that I take no credit for it whatsoever. To the contrary, other than living in the lucky circumstance of being the guy who introduced Amy’s family to the Adirondacks I have nothing to do with this glorious outcome. The credit goes to only two sources. One is Shay herself, who no longer surprises me with her character, her strength and her nobility (no kidding; I may tease her but the woman has it, simple as that).
The other, of course, is the Adirondacks itself. There’s something magical about this place that works on people, that causes them to evolve from civilized members of society to enthused denizens of the wild. This evolution leads to a state of craving, a need to be in the woods, in the mountains, on the water. Everyone reading this knows the Shay Effect.
I’m not saying that the Adirondacks are unique in this magic. I know places with just as much spiritual power: the canyon regions of Utah, the Olympics, Yosemite. But I do think that the Adirondack region has stronger magic than most wild places I’ve even seen. My evidence for that claim, besides my own experience, is the Shay Effect I have seen in so many others. I cannot count the number of people who I at one time experienced as newbies in the park and who now have the bug, that permanent yearning to be deep in the Blue Ridge wilderness or on Schroon Lake or atop a High Peak.
In a few hours Amy and I will be going to Dan and Shay’s home near Milwaukee, Wisconsin for a quick meal before a long, cold weekend of performing in Christmas parades. We’ll pull in the driveway and there will be Dan’s van with his ADK sticker. We’ll enter the house where their son Jonah has a mural in his bedroom that Amy painted for him. It is an Adirondack camping scene taking up two whole walls. Jonah is collecting patches for each mountain climbed (his Grandma Jo is making a custom one for Burton’s Peak); he’s somewhere around a dozen and counting. There might be a quiz going on: what is the third highest peak in the Adirondacks, something like that. I’ll make a reference to Colvin or the ghost town and everyone will know what I’m talking about. This makes me smile all over.
Dan has the Shay Effect big time. Last summer we did the Great Range with Jonah. Here was Dan partway through the trip giving directions and advice to some hikers we had encountered. He’s an Adirondacker now, there’s no going back.
While we were on the Great Range Shay wasn’t doing anything special. She was just camping with her young daughter Sofie in as pure a wilderness as the East offers, on Lost Brook Tract, miles from anywhere, then bushwhacking out with Amy. One of the things that I love about the Shay Effect is how quickly people forget that the things they do without trouble seem daunting to most and well-nigh unthinkable to the neophyte versions of themselves they once were. Shay goes into the wilderness and does her thing, no big deal.
My son Zach, who grew up going to the Adirondacks, just wrote an essay about his own personal experience of the Shay Effect which he read to me for comments a few hours ago. I was delighted and astonished that he had written simultaneously about essentially the same thing I was writing. How wonderful are these congruencies? Once again the Adirondacks pull different people to the same spiritual commonalities. Zach’s essay is for admission to Paul Smiths College: he wants to live here, study here, be here, and nowhere else.
Meanwhile Shay, who knows that temperatures at Lost Brook Tract can be thirty below zero on any given winter night, has been reading the Adirondack Almanack lately. She read the recent post that offered different definitions of winter camping, then wrote me a short email.
“I like the Boy Scouts’ definition,” she said.
Photo: Lost Brook Tract in Winter