Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pete Nelson: Moving To Paradise

sunset from Long Island on BMLI have been thinking a lot lately about Route 28. From the moment it branches off from Route 12 at Alder Creek just southwest of the Adirondack Park, until it branches again at Blue Mountain Lake, it runs sixty-one miles through the very center of my heart. It is and will always remain the fundamental representation for me of what it is to take a journey. But it is more than that: it is an emblem for the magical transition from urban and suburban America to the higher state of wilderness, to the experience of “Freedom in the Wilds,” as artist and Adirondack lover Harold Weston called it. For as long as I can remember I have longed to be able to take that journey from civilization to the Adirondacks and not have to return.

Over the better part of five decades I and my family have relished passing the signposts along Route 28 – both literal and figurative – that marked the steady transition from normal life to wild life. The four hundred miles from my childhood home of Ohio to Route 12 from Utica were virtually as nondescript as they are now, courtesy of the planned sameness of the interstate system. From Utica north our excitement would begin to rise just as Route 12 did, ascending from the Mohawk Valley up the Laurentian Pendant that defines Adirondack Geology. The elevation increase was always stirring – now we were getting somewhere. But it was the turn on to Route 28, with the four lane highway reducing to two and with the forest closing in, that started the sacred part of the transition.

Old Forge played an interesting Jeckyl-and-Hyde role for me in this transition. On the one hand it was a violation of the forest, a last, sloppy splotch of civilization, exemplified by the vulgarity of the Enchanted Forest: a plastic, phony fantasy cut into the woods to lure tourists who apparently had no idea why they ought to be going to the Adirondacks. “Good enough to trap them here and keep them out of the woods,” I would think, rather unkindly (the adult version of me loves Old Forge, has ties there and visits often). On the other hand, Old Forge also had the allure of a mountain resort, with amenities and attractions that screamed “vacation,” things that any boy would want to enjoy, even the Enchanted Forest. What did I really know of true wilderness at that time in my life anyhow? An ideal afternoon in those days would have been canoeing, sailing or exploring the woods, followed by a trip to Indian Lake to buy comics, browse the curio section at the hardware store and get an ice cream.

Consequently my feelings about Old Forge were mixed, more than I might have wanted to admit. On the several-mile stretch of Route 28 that preceded the actual border of the park there was a proliferation of billboards for Old Forge businesses. Thanks to the famous Adirondack billboard law, entrepreneurs had to get their pitches to visitors in concentrated fashion (as an aside, Charles Weeks, one of the leading opponents of the billboard law, once owned Lost Brook Tract). These billboards were part of my transition: announcing the end of the regular world just as they announced fun ahead. There were many more of them planted along the road in the sixties and seventies than there are now. I remember most of them very well: Pied Piper, Nutty Putty Golf, various representations of Paul Bunyon. I remember most distinctly the ones for Clark’s Beach Motel, with bathing beauties in swimsuits that promised warm beaches more in keeping with the mid-Atlantic coast than the North Country.

As the miles from the border would turn to yards and then feet, the billboards would compress, becoming almost dizzying in their frequency. My body would experience a swell of physical excitement as I anticipated the coming moment.  Sure enough, all of a sudden that beautiful wooden sign would fly by us on the right, the billboards would vanish and we would enter the Adirondack Park. Oh liberation!

The rewards of entering the park proper were immediate: White Lake, looking every bit as an Adirondack Lake should, dotted with islands, the forest close in to the shorelines. The stretch from there to Old Forge would waver back and forth between habitation and the promised wilderness which was palpable in the long, open stretches approaching Thendara. Then would come the inevitable slow-down through Old Forge and the passing of civilization’s last threshold. As we rose out of Old Forge, paralleling primeval-looking ridge lines and passing near to cliffs, ponds and marshes, the scale of rock and water would begin to work its power upon us and the feel of wilderness would take over.

Eagle Bay and Inlet never disturbed my sense of deepening immersion into the Forest Preserve. Both were small and quaint, too much like our home base of Blue Mountain Lake to feel out of place. From Inlet the woods would take over more assertively and the sense of traveling through wilderness would become complete. Raquette Lake was little more than a marina but held a crucial next step in the journey: the iconic view of Blue Mountain across the lake. Finally, a true mountain in scale and a beloved one at that: Blue, our companion, our shelter, the dominating presence above the lake we adored.

The remaining thirteen miles from Raquette Lake would be unbearable: narrow twists and turns through unbroken woods, two fleeting views of the shining surface of Utowana Lake, a glimpse of the northwestern ridges rising above West Bay, the first full-on view of Blue Mountain from the top of a short climb in the road – a view that never failed to elicit whoops – and then the graceful downward turn into the hamlet of Blue Mountain Lake, revealing the full expanse of the most beautiful body of water in the Adirondacks. This reveal would bring laughter or tears, or both, so great were our emotions.   From Route 28 we would turn onto Maple Lodge Road, relishing the critical last step in the transition – when the road turned to dirt – and then we would be home, immersed, ready, an unending wilderness at our camp door.

This childhood transition never left me as I grew into adulthood. It worked its magic on my wife when I introduced her to the Adirondacks, then our three sons, all of whom share it.   I am certain it will live on through their children too. Although I am a very different person now than I was, with a very different relationship to the Adirondacks, I know the transition is alive and well inside me. I just drove the route last week and I relished each familiar touchstone as it passed by me.  Yet in a fundamental way the emotion was richer than at any time before, because of what lies ahead.  Surely I could never have guessed as a boy that the most powerful experience of this transition would await me in my fifties. But it is coming soon.

This afternoon I will be busy loading our furniture and belongings into a big storage locker and paying off utility and tax bills.   In early April we will be out of our house, set to stay in temporary housing. We will give notice at our jobs in May. At about that time renovations will begin on our future home in the Adirondacks.

Sometime this fall we will squeeze into a packed car and drive east. After many hundreds of miles we will pass through Rome and Holland Patent before merging on to Route 12.   Then will come the turn onto Route 28 and the beginning of an intimately familiar transition to paradise and a transmutation of the soul.  But this time it will be a permanent alchemy, forged in metal.  At last – following a direct line from a little boy’s dreams laid out along an Adirondack highway fifty years ago to an aging man’s journey along that self-same road – I will be coming home to the Adirondacks forever.

Photo: Sunset on West Bay, Blue Mountain Lake.  Photo by Amy Nelson

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

31 Responses

  1. Mark Obbie says:

    Beautiful. This brings up so many feelings and memories of that same drive. Congratulations on living your dream.

  2. Marco says:

    Welcome home.

  3. b19y says:

    […] From Moving to Paradise […]

  4. Erika says:

    Thank you for writing this piece, which struck a chord with me. My family moved from Manhattan to Saranac Lake when I was four years old, and the drive up Routes 73 and 86 evoked much the same response in me whenever we had left it to go away on vacation. We moved away when I was 11, but I always knew that Saranac Lake was Home. . . thankfully, the plan is that in a few years when we retire, it will be home for good – so I envy you, and congratulate you on your homecoming.

  5. Bellota says:

    Thanks for a descriptive evocation of feelings as one enters the Adirondack Park. My approach has been similar since 1961 except from Utica I’m on Route 8 to Route 9 and then further north. You have expressed the emotional impact beautifully. Good luck on the next part of your journey.

  6. Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful!

  7. Welcome home, Pete. Please continue to write of your adventures.

  8. Tim-Brunswick says:

    Nice that Pete’s moving to the Adks., but instead of being so darn critical and derogatory about the highways/roads & Villages with their various services that get him to his dream home he might be a tad grateful for the following:
    *The DPW crews and engineers that made the interstate & local highways that
    provide him with a fairly quick access to his dream
    *The Business men & women in Old Forge, Inlet, etc. that have probably
    provided him and his family with fuel, food, snacks, whatever during the years
    he’s been trekking up here.

    Maybe next time he comes up, he can strap his possessions on his back and make his way through the brush, swamps, woods and he won’t be subjected to Highway monotony such as he details…”Route 12 from Utica were virtually as nondescript as they are now, courtesy of the planned sameness of the interstate system.

    Sorry bout the sarcasm, but was it really necessary for Pete to deride the Highways and/or Towns with their services/supplies that make it possible for folks like Pete to get to the ADKs and/or live here……really!

    • roamin with broman says:

      As a highway/bridge guy I agree! Without Interstates, the trips from Ohio would take twice as long, and he undoubtedly would not have come to the ADKs nearly as often.

  9. Emily Heffner says:

    Good luck to you! That has always been a dream of ours, even just to stay for a month or two rather than just a long weekend.
    We wish you a happy time!

  10. Terry says:

    Good job with this, Pete, especially the emotional aspect of driving to and within this beautiful park we (and now you) call home!
    It never gets old for me either, and I live here, with daily drives on Routes 87, 74, 30, 28, 22, 9, 8, 28N, and lots of county roads.
    Kudos to all of those, as Tim says, who keep those roads open and safe for us!

  11. Linda Ericson says:

    I just finished reading Pete Nelson’s narrative and have tears in my eyes.
    Every summer since I was a little girl Ihave spent in the Adirondacks. My early years our family traveled from Schenectady to stay on Lake Harris where my father and uncle built a log cabin when they returned from serving in World War II. My husband and I purchased Norway Island on Tupper Lake and still spend some of the summer there. Our home was on Upper Saranac Lake until a few years ago when we moved to Colorado.
    There is just nothing in this world to compare to the feeling I get when I see the sign entering the Adirondack Park. The aroma of the earth, the color of the rocks,and the beauty of the lakes and streams just always makes me feel like I am home, like I am where I am meant to be. Thank you so much to the author for writing this narrative and to all of you for publishing it for all of us reading who have a love affair with these mountains. Best wishes for a beautiful retirement!! Linda Ericson. Carbondale,Colorado and Norway Island, Tupper Lake,NY.

  12. Teresa Rozycki says:

    Though a much more recent visitor (resident) to the area, I know and appreciate your description of the turn onto Route 28, etc. I will always remember our first visit in the winter of 1986 when we made that turn and saw the snow covered trees for miles ahead. Now that we live here, that feeling never stops. Even returning from a shopping trip to Utica elicits that feeling of “coming home.” Welcome to heaven.

  13. troutstalker says:

    Thanks for the great childhood memories of the same route that I still enjoy today.My uncle drove a passenger boat for the boys club on Raquette Lake and my parents took us there on vacation.They planted the seed in our minds and still enjoy and love the Adirondacks today.Do you remember the billboard for a reptile farm or zoo near Forestport or White Lake?I remember getting excited seeing the little pond with the water lillies in bloom next to Rt. 28 indicating we were near Racquette Lake!THANKS AGAIN!

  14. Dan Crane says:

    Congratulations Pete!

    I dream often of giving notice at my job and moving to the Adirondacks. I’m not sure when, or if, it will ever happen, but it is fun to dream about it. I might just settle for a farm in the country somewhere in central New York instead. Either way, it will feel like coming home again – I can’t wait until it happens now!

  15. Bruce says:


    My sentiments exactly.

    Ever since the first time I saw the Adirondacks as a teenager in the ’50’s, the place has always had a certain attraction. My early adult life in Oswego County gave me many opportunities to visit, although it was mostly the southern part because a cousin had a camp near Ohio where I could stay while fishing West Canada Creek. The number 1 camp use rule was go to the public spring and refill the drinking water jugs before leaving.

    We moved to North Carolina in the ’70’s, and I really didn’t get back until the last 10 years or so, when we started coming up for an annual vacation. My better half being a native North Carolinian, has been smitten with the Adirondacks ever since the first time she saw Old Forge, in spite of a very rainy day.

    As soon as we pass through Rome from the Oneida Lake region and start East on New Floyd Rd, the anticipation begins building. One of our first stops is for a Hershey’s ice cream cone at Stewart’s in Holland Patent, then on through Barneveld and looping around to the North. We always take note of passing the little restaurant with the airplane tail sticking out of the roof and the Adirondack Park sign, but don’t really feel we’re there until we cross the Moose River at McKeever.

    I too, have mixed feelings about Old Forge, but enjoy its sort of north woods charm. A necessary stop is for camp groceries at the IGA. Rte. 28 between there and Eagle Bay seems to take forever as we get closer to our destination on Sixth Lake. A quick stop at Dan’s Midstate in Eagle Bay for wine and anything we hadn’t thought of yet, then on to camp, unless we have lunch at Hard Times Cafe first.

    I don’t know if it’s Kismet or what, but it seems about the time we turn the key in the door at camp, we hear the Loons, almost as if they know we’re back.

  16. Charlie S says:

    Nice story Pete.Blue Mountain Lake has been part of my life for two-score years now and I never tire of my drives up there to visit mom and dad. I have lots of fond memories of the place and the trip along Rt 28 to Raquette lake and Old Forge bring back good memories too. Every little stretch of that road are little paradises to me and I love stopping-in at the mom and pop stores along the way. I notice more eateries are popping up along that course whose menu’s have progressive fares, and local food items.It used to not be this way.

    There is so much charm to the Adirondacks no matter where I seem to go,even in too busy Lake Placid.I love traveling by car and driving through the Adirondacks as it is always the most wonderful experience for me.Just being in that fresh air is a wholesome experience in itself.

    Thanks for sharing.

  17. adirondackjoe says:

    how’s the fishing in blue mountain lake? always wanted to try.

  18. Tony Goodwin says:

    The description of your drive brought back memories of my own annual pre-interstate drive from West Hartford, CT. There was the picnic area on Rt. 22 between Cambridge and Salem, then into Vermont on 22A and the great anticipation of the turn to the Champlain Bridge. Then it was through Port Henry and the two long cemeteries that challenged ones ability to hold ones breath on the way to Moriah Center. Then finally the then-gravel Tracy Rd. to Rt. 9 that led to Chapel Pond Pass. Cresting the pass and heading down to the valley often seems to be the single-most exhilarating moment of the whole summer.

  19. Dave Mason says:

    Welcome Pete!. I am sure you won’t regret the move. Rest assured, the return drive from a trip away still stirs the feelings you write about. It never gets old although there have been some late night drives up from Albany in snow that were not exactly joyful.

    We came to Keene Valley each summer. I recall wondering if the Northway would be open for one more exit north before we would have to go back on to Route 9. Driving up Rt 73 past Chapel Pond was what made me react the way you describe. It still does.

  20. Leo says:

    Pete, to avoid all the things you don’t like along Routes 12 and 28 why not get off Route 12 above Utica and take Route 8 to Speculator, Route 30 to Indian Lake and then Blue Mountain Lake. This will feel more remote and is only six minutes longer according to Google maps. There’s hardly anything on Route 8, including traffic. Enjoy your paradise. Leo

  21. Joe hackett says:

    Hey Pete,

    Nice read. I guess every Adk visitor had their own particular
    Sunday Rock. Mine has always been Split Rock Falls, located about 10 minutes south of Elizabethtown, where I grew up.
    There are no words to describe the feeling of driving north onbeing enveloped in familiar
    woods again, especially after having spent a few days in an urban environment.
    It isn’t just the surroundings, its the attitude, and the anticipation of getting back to familiar haunts, even if you have only been away for a short time. There,s nothing quit like driving along old Rt 9, through the pine tunnels and relaxing with the steady bumps from the old cement pavement segments.

  22. Tom Thacher says:

    Congratulations on your soon to be new life!

  23. Nathan says:

    I’m an eighteen year old senior in high school currently living in Ohio, so I completely relate to the wonderful adventure that is driving to the Adirondacks. My family and I haven’t made it there since our last trip this summer, and imagining it all in my head brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for helping me remember why I will never stop loving this place.

  24. Bob Meyer says:

    Wow Pete! Congratulations!
    I think you know that what you described [though on different roads] is exactly what I and many others have felt and experienced all our lives.
    That struggle between my music [the other life long passion in my life] and living full time in the Park continues.

  25. Lakechamplain says:

    Thanks Pete; as the wind chill on a late March day adds to our cabin fever, your piece certainly and happily causes the happy effects known as Spring Fever. I had one vacation in the Adks. as a child but remember it vividly; it’s effect on my life was that I decided to attend Plattsburgh State(today PSUC) to be near to the Adirondacks, and have spent the rest of my life here on the periphery of the park.
    It continues to amaze and sometimes sadden me that many of the people that reside here or nearby keep harping that the APA should be done away with so more people can make more money here. Most of them don’t have a clue how for so many who live outside the region have a reverence for the park, this mecca amidst millions of people that provides so much spiritual escape from their daily lives.
    Your nice description of the transition from Old Forge to the park itself sort of mirrors what many people coming from the south feel when they pass through Lake George, though the Northway of course allows most to pass on by if they want to. I live on the northeast periphery of the park, and Blue Mt., which I climbed again this summer, is about the furthest I can do comfortably on day trips. But the way you describe Rt. 28 is the way I’ve come to feel about a much shorter route, 9N from Jay to Keene, is a beautiful entranceway to the Keene Valley region, not as evocative as your annual journey from home to heaven, but a tonic for the senses that never ceases to kindle my love of the Adirondacks.

  26. Congratulations again and look forward to calling you neighbor! Safe travels. Let me know if you need any help at all.

  27. Paul says:

    Pete, What are you not moving to your Lost Brook Tract? That would be a fun commute! With good satellite internet you could probably tele-commute. Imagine having class with your students via Skype? Hope the move goes well.

  28. Amy Godine says:

    Great read, Pete. I can hear your exultation! Here’s to your great brave move!

  29. Dave Radley says:

    Thanks for stirring up my wonderful memories of our family vacations in the Adirondacks. Each summer our family headed to our favorite campgrounds at FishcreekPonds during my dads vacation. We would meet family and friends each year and what times we had.We would leave during the night for the trip north and the anticipation rivaled Christmas. I guess we all traveled the same path to wonderful times. Those times were simple but priceless.Thanks

  30. Lisa says:

    Congratulations on coming “home”. I dream of doing the same myself some day.