A Yankee Notebook

August 29, 2016


TOWN OF KEENE, NY – This is a town I first came to stay in over sixty years ago, in need of shaking off post-pubescent anxieties, grow up a little, earn a living, and hike the surrounding mountains. My prep school roommate had been a native of the village of Keene Valley, and when we came here for a weekend at his home, I was instantly smitten by the way the sides of the valley rose steeply up to a surprisingly high horizon.

Virtually penniless, I found a job to keep my car running and my body and soul together. The village was small enough that everybody knew everybody else (and his business); and as a newcomer, I stood out. My beard, guitar, and elderly Plymouth guaranteed I’d be called “The Bum”; beatniks were still a year or two in the future. I lived, those first few months, in a leanto about a mile beyond the end of the road beside Johns Brook, a magnificent mountain stream, . Life improved dramatically a couple of months later when an old-timer who cooked in a camp where I worked let me stay in a sort of gazebo that I could drive right up to. (Lest you think that a bit humble, I should mention that I once entertained Phil Everly and two Bennington coeds there.) In the fall, when the weather and the river grew a bit nippy for my daily afterwork bath, I managed to find an apartment for ten dollars a month. The roof leaked, but several sap buckets took care of that. The next year, my new bride and I moved in and started our married life in the village. I spent winters as the announcer at the Mount Van Hoevenberg bobsled run, and summers guiding and working construction jobs. A couple of years later we moved away, to better jobs, but I came back at least once a year for fifty more years, to deer camp up on Hopkins Mountain.

Hundreds of memories here, of all kinds. On the way, I passed the house (now reclaimed and much improved) where we first lived; I passed my future grave plot in the Norton Cemetery, with its view of the Porter Ledges and the Great Range beyond; and I stopped to buy a bologna sandwich (homemade bologna) at the Village Store from the third generation of owners I’ve known. Then it was off up the winding road westward to the parking lot at the beginning of the trail up Johns Brook.

My dear friend Baird was with me. When I first came to town, he and his classmate Charlie, both of them thirteen, used to visit in my digs for songs and stories. It was the beginning of the folk-singing boom – remember “Tom Dooley” and “Kumbaya”? – and all anyone needed was three chords and a memory for words. In subsequent years both boys and I survived some epic hikes among the high peaks, haunted the slopes of Hopkins Mountain in the fall, and bushwhacked to remote ponds in an eternal search for pristine brook trout.

It’s sixty years later now. Baird is 73 and a fairly new grandfather, a successfully retired home builder, a serious heavy reader and liberal; and the stoutest of friends imaginable. We’ve hiked three and a half miles up the old Phelps Trail to the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Johns Brook Lodge. I spent the summer of 1956 here as caretaker, and have come back this week with the NHPTV film crew to shoot a sort of homecoming.

There’ve been quite a few changes made to the old place, of course, in six decades; but they’re so organic that I can hardly spot them. New bunkrooms with really well built double bunks; solar power for lights and radio; an outside faucet for hikers to fill their water bottles and keep their muddy, cleated shoes from clomping across the floor inside. And cooking! The TV crew and I have been to all the Appalachian Mountain Club huts over the past few years, but have never experienced cuisine like this. Supper featured sweet-and-sour stir-fried chicken with yellow rice and string beans. Fresh pumpkin pie for dessert. And they take orders for next day’s trail sandwiches.

The main difference, though, is in the number of passersby and overnighters. In my time here, half a dozen hikers might pass on a weekday. Today there have been dozens, with more than two dozen staying here at the lodge and camp groups tenting in the woods all around us. The explosion of outdoor recreation that so many of us once hoped for has been a little more violent than most of us suspected it would be. In addition to the family groups getting in a few days before school starts, we’ve met freshman orientation hiking groups from Alfred, Clarkson, Hobart and William Smith, Colby, and RPI. Different flavor from the Ivies we’d meet in the White Mountains, but the same idea. They’ll be in class next Monday already.

The Johns Brook Valley, now part of the Forest Preserve and slowly growing toward a semblance of its primeval condition, was once scalped pretty clean by loggers. The clearing where the lodge sits was the location of the depot camp and office. Later, a squatter took over the premises, declared a hermitage, and claimed the state’s highest vegetable garden at 2300 feet of elevation. The Adirondack Mountain Club eventually acquired the premises and eased the old man out, offering to buy him a house in a village of his choice. He declined, and spent his last days with relatives.

It’s early morning now, before breakfast, and I’m sitting in an Adirondack chair (naturally) on the front porch, enjoying the view of Saddleback and Gothics, two of the peaks of the Great Range. Johns Brook bubbles quietly just out of sight behind a wall of balsams. The night stayed warm, the wind is in the southwest, and clouds are slipping across the sky. Gonna rain soon. Our drone operator is shooting the lodge from the air. The hum of the propellors has roused a sleeper, who plops herself down in the chair beside mine. “That thing’s too noisy!” she complains. “Ought to be illegal.” I offer to go get her a cup of coffee.

Photo by Willem lange