I 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