I had an interesting conversation with my brother recently in camp. It began innocently enough, with an observation he made about the difficulties the Saranac Lake Elks Club was apparently having recruiting new members for their lodge.
He said “You could probably get grandfathered in for membership because of Dad. RJ (my son) could never be a member here though, because he’s never lived here.”
Though I know he meant nothing by it, the comment made me stop in my tracks.
“RJ’s never lived here! He just graduated from Paul Smith’s College! He just proposed to his PSC graduated girlfriend at the VIC! He’s never lived here!!? For Christ Sakes Ray! He’s lived here for the past three years!”
My brother paused, then replied, “Hmmm…You may be right. I never thought about that.”
The conversation ended there, for the moment, but it has stuck in my mind. It was not the first time I have encountered this perspective on my frequent trips back to my Saranac Lake home town.
A year or so ago, I signed up to attend a local writer’s club conference. It was going to be held in Lake Placid at a downtown coffee shop, after business hours. I had never attended such an event before, and very much looked forward to it. I had made reservations for an overnight stay in Saranac Lake, driving up that afternoon from my family’s residence in Watertown.
The conference itself proved interesting and fun. A mixed group of local writers, sitting around a conference table, sharing experiences, each having the opportunity to read aloud some of their work.
As the conference neared its conclusion, one of the conference leaders announced a local writing contest that was upcoming. It sounded interesting. I inquired as to the details.
“Those writers submitting must be “Adirondack.”
This gave me pause. So I asked: “What constitutes “Adirondack?”
The woman replied firmly, without hesitation: “Current residency within the Blue Line.”
Taken aback a bit, I protested. “But I grew up here! I graduated from Saranac Lake High School! I spent two summers living and working out of the DEC Ranger Cabin at Lake Colden! My father lies buried here! My son is a student at Paul Smith’s College! My brother and his family still live in Saranac Lake! I spend a good part of every summer here! You mean to tell me- I don’t qualify!? Simply because I moved away, I surrendered my membership? My hometown? My upbringing? My identity? You mean to tell me I’m not Adirondack!? When did that happen? And by what authority?!”
Her response was quite firm. “Your brother qualifies. You do not. However, if you wish, we will grandfather you in. If you wish to submit a story, you may do so under your brother’s name and using his address.”
At that point, I was just downright mad.
“That Saranac Lake Free Library you hold your meetings at? My mother worked as a librarian there while I was growing up. Those conference rooms you meet in? One of my first paid jobs in high school was cleaning and vacuuming them after library hours. I used to shovel that library sidewalk in the morning before school. I’m not Adirondack but my younger brother is?! What gives you the right to define what is or is not “Adirondack?”
I did not wait for an answer. I stormed out of the conference. And no, I never submitted a story to that contest.
I am not the only one who has encountered this attitude on trips back home. Others have shared with me similar experiences. I could tell several more similar stories of my own.
I share this perspective to bring to light an unfortunate attitude that exists in the region, not with everyone, but it’s fairly evident & prevalent among those with the good fortune to make their home within the Blue Line in today’s moment.
“I live here now. I am Adirondack. Everyone else is either a visitor or a tourist. They don’t qualify. They simply are not.”
For those who have this outlook, I share these thoughts:
Like so many others, I grew up in these mountains we all love. I’ve lived on both ends of the Northville Placid Trail, Northville twice. I grew up in Saranac Lake, made my home there until after I graduated college and entered the Army. Nearly all of my important “firsts” in life, I experienced in and around these mountains, forests, trails and lakes. I spent three summers working on a DEC trail crew. I daresay a good number of the ladders and stringer bridges, even high peaks privies, that today’s hikers use, I helped to build, on trails blazed by those who came long before all of us.
Like so many folks out there, life and its circumstance took me from the mountains. We may no longer reside within these mountains we love, but they still define us. Our souls never left.
These mountains were here for 400 million years before humans arrived. Once we are gone, they will most likely be here 400 million more. We as humans don’t determine what does or does not constitute “Adirondack”. These mountains touch each of us in very unique and deeply personal ways on our life journeys, individual and shared. They are time’s constant. We are but falling leaves from a tree on earth’s clock. We simply pass through them, fortunate to have experienced the magic they hold.
Current residency or life circumstance is irrelevant. For those who’ve had their lives touched in a significant way by these mountains, that touch is indelible. We as humans do not define what is or is not “Adirondack.” These Adirondack mountains hold that authority. These mountains we love. These Adirondacks. We do not define them. They define us.
Map courtesy of the Adirondack Park Agency