Heading south to Utica on Route 28 there’s a highway sign advising travelers that they are “Leaving Adirondack Park.” No three words have caused anyone as much pain and suffering as those three words have cause me over the past five decades.
Everyone has a home, but it’s not always where one lives. My family’s roots to the Adirondacks or “The Woods,” as we called it, predated the Great Depression. It’s where my grandparents honeymooned, and where with my great-grandpa purchased a sprawling lakeside camp, fully furnished, for $3,000. So this is my existential excuse for feeling more at home in the Adirondacks than in whatever community I was more permanently hanging my hat.
Now I am finally in the process of making my “home” my home. And doing it, as is my sorry habit, the hard way. By fixing up an old house.
The sad thing is that I know better. At 56, I am too old, I have the focus of a hummingbird and, as a professional journalist with no other discernable skill set, I can’t even pick up a hammer three times out of five.
I know all this. But we’ve all done things for love that we know we shouldn’t.
Having found enough land in Jay on the east branch of the Ausable River for ourselves, our dogs and handful of beef cattle that we raise, Beth and I briefly considered building a log home on a hillside overlooking an expanse of hills and peaks. But we’ve all had it drilled into our heads that the last thing the Park needs is another house, and, as luck would have it, the old farmhouse that once went with the expanse of pasture and pines was coming onto the market.
According to the deed, the house dates to 1850, though not in a good way. There are no fancy architectural elements plastered with leaves of ivy. Instead, about a decade before Old Mountain Phelps cut the first trail up Mt. Marcy, a farmer in the East Branch valley decided to build him a house. Which he did by nailing together an assembly of hand-hewn boards and beams under the architectural guidelines that nothing was to, A. match, or, B. fit.
There are a minimum of windows because at the time all glass has to be floated up the river and lakes from Albany and loaded onto wagons whose rides wouldn’t have reminded settlers of a Lincoln Town Car. Any surviving glass would not have been cheap.
Still, it has to be acknowledged that at 166 years of age, this house is still going strong, while many more modern structures, in these advanced days of jigs and miter saws, are falling to pieces.
Sure, there are some things that will have to be tinkered with, such as the kitchen floor, which is a full foot lower in the northwest corner than it is in the southeast. If nothing else it would make baking a headache, because you would have a pint of milk on one side of the measuring glass and a cup on the other.
This slant is due to a foundation with a thickness and composition that is normally associated with Revolutionary War-era forts. When the house was expanded at some point, the carpenters cantilevered an addition over the foundation, not knowing or caring that in another century that the woodwork would settle, while the stonework wouldn’t budge if you set off a keg of dynamite under it.
But we have noticed something; the people of Jay who have helped us along the way with this project all seem to be rooting for our success. We have Brian, a good local contractor, and a series of subcontractors who I am sure will remain fast friends long after the job is done. (If they’ll have us, considering that they are having to work through the dead of winter.)
We have made acquaintances in libraries, post offices, tax offices and of course the incomparable Ward Lumber. Yes, the scenery is nice, but the people are even nicer. And by spring, I’ll never have to wrestle with that “Leaving Adirondack Park” sign again.