Syracuse and points north (in search of Archimedes)

Near Labor Day weekend of 1986, it was time to take Erin up to Syracuse to start her college year. Linda, Caitlin and I decided to make the best of it by dashing off afterwards for a week’s camping in the Adirondacks. 

Erin had been ecstatic for three months since getting her first choice of colleges, and also her first choice in dorms – a high-rise set on a massive, bare concrete platform, like a square rocket ready for takeoff. Her room, a “split double,” gave her privacy and a roommate, a remarkable combination.

The roomie, however, was obviously not on Erin’s wavelength. A mid-Jersey nouveau, she was nice enough, but her designer plastic shelving, her cutesy-naughty posters of dressed-up animals doing drugs, and her welter of amenities all shouted “culture-clash.”

She had every known form of music-reproduction mechanism of the time – including compact disc! – color TV, an iron, a scale, a telephone and an answering machine. Interesting to compare the apples and oranges of wealth, though: Her near Armageddon of musical technology was given maybe 15 pieces of music to play. By contrast, Erin’s bottom-of-the-line Panasonic could ingest 64 albums. Who was the rich one?

The roomie made friends with a more congenial sort and a trade followed, leaving Erin with a new, lower-key roomie. Looked good. Then we were off to the woods.

We had a mildly pleasant first night by a lake, but the sites were small and stuffy, so we decided to coast around during the second day looking for the ideal spot. This was Labor Day, and we reasoned that the majority of the summer crowd would be powering up their RV’s and moving on, which turned out to be the case.

But we hit a snag at the first campground we tried, Lake Durant. We couldn’t just go in and look around without paying a day fee, and the state campground offered only assigned sites. I like to choose my own, based on whim and the way the trees lean. The lady in the little log hut announced the pluses and minuses of every available site, then suggested No. 46 – though she said we were free to change if we found something more mystically attuned. 

No. 46 was nice enough, but, ah, No. 49! – a large, roundish site pinched in by trees near the lake, with two tiny trails, on either side of a gnarled pine, that led to a teeny-weeny beach, exactly right for our budding two-year-old (Cait’s birthday was coming up the day we returned home). 

And there we stayed for the next four days, as the place turned slowly more primitive, the guard box no longer manned, the flush toilets closed down, replaced by unisex one-holers, and the running water shut off. When I wanted a cup of tea, I bounded down to the lake and dipped up a pot of its tannish liquid. 

When Erin and Morgan had been young, every campground from here to the Great Smokeys was filled with macho fathers bellowing at their teenage sons, blaring radio, and that primal offense to the forest, the Coleman lamp: 300 watts of eye-searing brilliance that shines through any known tent fabric and disorients you on the way to the john.

A decade later, the Coleman lamps seemed to have become victims of a mercy killing. Those who wanted to lead the life primitive with all the accoutrements of civilization now stayed inside their RVs in their bathrobes, and the tenters dispensed with artificial illumination altogether, turning in when the chipmunks got tired of begging, rising with the birds. The only loud sound we heard was the splitting of firewood. 

Caitlin was a true nature child, entranced by the red squirrels and the pinecones. Ten times a day she pounded down to her mini-shore and asked me to ferry her out to the big Lookout Rock, where we watched for boats and leaned down to diddle the lily pads. In less than a week, her vocabulary and precision in the use of language doubled, her independence and certainty in dealing with the world quadrupled.

The second day, we visited the Adirondack Museum, a fascinating complex run privately on a scale I’ve never seen in a Pennsylvania local-history museum. Some 13 buildings – ranging from two-room cabins to massive ’50s exhibit halls of Permastone – recorded more than anyone could ever absorb about an isolated, dirt-poor community that exported nearly all its wealth in the form of minerals.

One of the largest halls exhibited over 50 boats. Boats in the mountains? Lake and river travel, we learned, was the major means of transportation until about 1920, and a “guideboat” was developed locally with numerous variants, many of them achingly beautiful. A guideboat is something like a canoe, but of much stouter construction, which can be carried overland by the guide using a neck yoke. It was the favored way for ladies to get to church on Sunday, riding on little caned seats. 

By way of contrast, a topographical map showed how the rich were hauled up to the isolated resorts near Blue Mountain, where the museum is located. The Vanderbilts and other public-be-damned magnates trundled their portly bodies into rosewood-paneled private railroad cars that deposited them for their first feed at a terminus on Raquette Lake.

From there they could take a gourmandizing tour of lakefront eateries or hop a steamer that powered up a narrow inlet and dumped them onto the world’s shortest railway, a 3/4-mile open-carriage run past an unnavigable water stretch (with a trainman walking behind to trample sparks before they could fry the forest). Finally, another steamer scooted them across Blue Mountain Lake. (The exhibit was run by magnets that dragged miniature trains and boats hither and yon for illustration. Delightfully silly.)

We left camp a day early, because the weather had turned dank, then bounced off to the Shaker Museum located in a nest of Chathams – Chatham, Old Chatham, Chatham Center, East Chatham and North Chatham. (Apparently the settlers thereabouts were nomenclaturally limited.) 

I had always pictured Shakers as monklike figures sitting in silent contemplation, sanding dowels. The museum was an eye-opener. There was plenty of that simple, perfected furniture, but also a love of machinery that was pure Industrial Revolution: a Rube Goldberg apple peeler, and the first commercially successful washing machine – a sarcophagus-sized wooden tub with huge movable baffles. 

An interesting note on the furniture: Nearly all the chairs had vertical members that lean backwards, as though the seating was an unconscious reflection of the sitter’s world view, tipped away from table, sexuality, and society. 

Our last taste of rural New York was a German restaurant in the Catskills. Eating such food must bring on instant Weltschmerz. The salad bar featured heaps of vegetables, all pickled, marinated or tortured in some fashion – piles of grayish matter with gelatinous seeds, not bad but odd and aggressive, forcing you to suck in your cheeks. 

As a main dish I ordered Bavarian beef rouladen, twin cylinders of dried-out meat wrapped around onions and green pepper, with the aspect of a bowel movement and the taste of vinegar-impregnated roofing paper. The gravy, humus-brown, was pretty good, and the home-made noodles – knotty as the intestines of small mammals – quite wonderful.

One of my favorite trips of all time – though we never did find Archimedes.

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