By Vanessa Banti
Awake! Open your eyes, my friend from that small Adirondack town. Do you hear the distant sound of my car exiting the Northway? It’s me, the young city dweller! I am coming to visit.
My Subaru is stuffed with gear, and I’m listening to a liberal podcast. I’ve started driving at 4AM to snag trailhead parking. I’m coming to AirBnB, to regular BnB, to hammock, to hike, to paddle, to leaf peep, to mountain bike, (even to take Instagram photos!) and to generally hang around in your wilderness. Yes, I know, because a lot of people remind me: it’s your wilderness, and I am but a visitor.
But perhaps you don’t think that last bit is quite right. Since I’ve woken you up, my headlights strafing past your window, I think the least I owe you is an explanation.
For you have probably never claimed that the wilderness of the great Adirondack park is yours, surely. You’d remember saying something as outlandish as that. We younger people, we can be pretty quick to get self-righteous, and put words in other people’s mouths.
Perhaps you’re a first, second, or even a fifth generation resident of your Adirondack town. You have endured the brutal winters, weathered the seasonal economy, and embraced the precariousness that is married to independence; the slow pace that is married to isolation. After all you’ve gone through, after all the experience you have with this land, this space, this unique culture, surely you have a perspective that a mere visitor can never truly understand.
I understand that. In fact, I respect it a lot! It is out of this sense of respect, that I’m going to do something a little forward, pardon me! (We both know the Garden trailhead is already full anyway.) I’d like to pull up a chair, continue to interrupt your breakfast, and just maybe, maybe cause a bit of controversy as I claim in my self-righteous fashion:
Dear friend, not only does your beloved Adirondacks also belong to me, a transient city-dwelling visitor, but this beautiful land isn’t even wilderness.
It is not wild here.
I claim this land as much as you do.
I brandish my pumpkin-spice latte on the summit of Cascade Mountain (but then pack it out!) and hereby claim from Tupper Lake to the Ausable Chasm, from Tahawus to the Marcy Dam: no one “owns” or singularly creates Adirondack culture, and that thinking of the park as “rugged wilderness” will, in fact, plant the seeds of its demise.
Oh my, I can see your face at this comment. You seem to really disagree. It is kind of a bold thing to say, isn’t it?
Well, why don’t you come on a walk with me after breakfast. I hear we’re supposed to be sticking to trails less traveled, after all. I think there’s a nice short loop, just down the street. We may not reach the summit of a great peak, but maybe we’ll reach a place of understanding. That seems more challenging these days than even a really tough hike.
As we strike out onto the trail, let’s consider the history of the park. Humans have roamed these mountains since 9000 BC , and they too loved, hated, shivered in the cold and sat delighted under the warm sun. For thousands of years the land was shared by diverse groups of people speaking different languages. They had democratically controlled government before America even existed. Some historians even call them socialists!
In the 17th century, these old-timers received some visitors. It was too early for Subarus or Instagram, but the visitors brought along something that today we feel suddenly quite familiar with: deadly disease.
Between failing to socially distance and failing to convince the visitors that local lives mattered, the locals couldn’t stay on their beloved land. These same mountains that we see in the distance – those mountains that had provided everything the locals needed became last-ditch shelters from annihilation. But escaping to the mountains didn’t work for the locals. They were forced to leave, because in the century we’re referring to here, it was the new folks in town that brought all of the guns.
Between all of that conflict and scraping for survival, I’m not sure anyone thought of the park as “wilderness” in terms of our modern use of the word. Was the land abandoned? Not really. Uncultivated? Nope, can’t check that one either. In fact, after the visitors settled in, they got to cultivating the land pretty quickly! By the late 19th century everything was getting a bit wrecked. Trees were chopped down, and ore was mined.
Enter the city slickers
I heard about this one visitor, a kid named Verplanck Colvin. He was a real upstart out of Albany. He was the beneficiary of a fancy private education and recipient of a law degree (talk about an elitist!). At age 23, during one of his camping trips, he had the audacity to think critically about all of that job-creating industry that dominated the park. He wrote a pamphlet aiming to remedy the overuse of the natural resources of the region. Among other things, he suggested:
“…the creation of an Adirondack Park or timber preserve, under charge of a forest warden and deputies… The officers of the law might be supported per capita tax, upon sportsmen, artists, and tourists visiting the region; a tax which they would willingly pay if the game should be protected from unlawful slaughter, and the grand primeval forest be saved from ruthless desolation.”
Cool idea, eh? I bet that today, we wouldn’t be so sure about that government regulation, and new taxes! But at the time, a lot of folks thought this kid was onto something. I hear they named a mountain after him. Not bad for a city tourist!
And thus, the blue line was drawn. All of this damaged land became protected and “forever wild.” By the time we arrive in the 20th century, was the park left to turn back into “grand primeval forest”? Surely, by the power of a constitution, a true wilderness could be born.
Well, perhaps. Trees were still chopped down to create luxurious great camps. The Olympic venues were built, bringing visitors from around the world. Politics kept grinding onward, as politics does. The Northway was finished in the ’60s, and in 1971, the city-dwellers again decided to bless us all with their big ideas and create the (pardon my cough) controversial organization called the Adirondack Park Agency.
In 1984, yet another part-time visitor named Bill McKibben, a then writer for The New Yorker, wrote a book that he had the audacity to call The End of Nature. Imagine that! Spending so much time in these splendid woods, and then writing a book telling us all that nature itself is ending. Can you believe this guy?
My friend, I can. Mr. McKibben got a lot of people thinking. Over thirty years after he published this book, millions of people across the planet now recognize that all of the land, every acre of it, is irrevocably changing. Many of us know now that if we do not completely re-organize our societies and our cultures, there may not be any woods to walk in, pretty much anywhere. Never mind these Adirondack woods that you and I both love.
The park today
So although for the last hundred years, you can walk in a quiet Adirondack forest and see no one, you can paddle an secluded stream, listen at night and hear only the hoot of a distant owl, and look up at the Milky Way from end to end in the sky, a true wilderness where there is no human influence hasn’t been around for a long while. We may never leave the Earth enough alone to achieve one, either. Not unless some big changes happen.
Those big changes will involve all of us. Which is why I’ve come to visit, and will keep coming to visit. I love these woods just as much as you do, and cherish them too much to see them neglected and and destroyed.
It matters very little if I am a self-righteous city-dweller, a hippie, an obnoxious kid, an activist – my claim to this land is grounded in love, and recognition that it is vitally important to all of us. If we truly want to see the Adirondacks unharmed by human influence, it will take everyone – city and rural dweller alike – to make it happen.
I think we’ve arrived at the end of our walk. I’m not sure if you agree with everything that I’ve said, but that’s OK! It may take more than a few hikes for all the different types of folks that explore these woods to see eye to eye. But until then, I bet we’ll be seeing each other around. Next time I am driving through town, I will be sure to give you a wave. After all, that’s what good neighbors do.
Vanessa Banti is a millennial city-dweller who loves the Adirondacks, and hopes to live there someday as a wonderful neighbor. After hanging out in the comments section of the Almanack, she decided to write her own essay instead of commenting on others’. In her professional life, she is a librarian that works with copyright and intellectual property, and in her personal life, she is outside under the pines as often as possible.