Holy jumping Jesus Christ!… or so the cheer goes. Why and how that profane cheer sticks in my head, like all my stories, is a long one.
The year was 1979, and my Bratty Big Sister had just graduated from N.D., and was preparing to head off to college. She would be just the third person ever from the 20 Prospect clan to attend college, and that list includes aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, great grand parents, etc. We weren’t exactly college material, what with the long family history of fleeing just about every respectable empire in Central Europe for work in the mines and factories of the new world. But it was the post war years, and the American dream was still alive in the hearts of working class schleps everywhere. Two parents with no more than a high school education, and an hourly wage could plan to send their children to college to advance themselves into the great, golden, middle class of Buicks and Ranch homes in Levittown. Oh, those were the waning days of our great post war economy. In Western New York the dark clouds of depression were already looming by then. Industrial decline, white flight, and crumbling infrastructure were beginning to seem like more than just a short anomaly. Soon they would become the norm, but in 1979, hope still glowed in the distance, and Bratty Big Sis packed up her bags and left Batavia for college.
Her school of choice was Paul Smith’s College, a little two year institution in the north woods of the Adirondack mountains, where she had decided to pursue a degree in Travel and Tourism. (This was back when 2 year Associate Degrees were still worth something.) Paul Smith was one of the original hoteliers of the age of the Adirondack Great Camps, and his legacy and name had been passed on to a little hovel of buildings on the shores of Lower St. Regis Lake, about 20 miles North of the village of Saranac Lake. I will never understand how she came to choose such a place. Perhaps she had an unknown affinity for lumberjacks, as Forestry Majors accounted for about 70% of the student population. Or maybe she read about the 10 to 1 male to female ratio and liked those odds. Regardless, her choice would come to have a big influence on me, although I didn’t know it at the time.
Prior to her Senior year of high school, my Bratty Big Sis had been the bane of my existence. She was my constant tormentor as a child, perhaps because she never really forgave my parents for having me. She had enjoyed the glory of being the baby in the family for a good 7 years before I came along and spoiled her fun. Lord knows she spent the next 10 years exacting her revenge. But for some odd reason, perhaps because I had finally reached an age and size at which I could pin her to the couch and slap her in the forehead, a truce had been declared. In fact, by the time she left for school that Fall I had actually come to miss her. (Please don’t tell her that). So when parent’s weekend rolled around, and my folks went off to visit her, I was disappointed to have to stay behind.
I would not have to wait much longer for my first visit to the North Country however. For just a few weeks later in the fall, we received one of those phone calls in the middle of the night that makes every parent’s blood turn cold. She had been in a car accident coming home from the bars in Saranac Lake, and was in intensive care with internal bleeding, and multiple injuries. Mom and Dad were dressed within minutes, and in the car on their way to Plattsburgh, where the State Police had said she was being transferred for emergency surgery. It was a long night for all of us, as we sat by the phone waiting for the call that we hoped would never come. By morning, the State Police had called back to tell us that she had been rushed into surgery right there in Saranac Lake, as they weren’t sure she’d make it to Plattsburgh. Unfortunately, in the age before cell phones, we had no way to catch my folks and tell them to head to Saranac Lake General Hospital instead. The State Police called the hospital in Plattsburgh, and put out a notice to stop their car if spotted, but it was no use. Mom and Dad arrived in Plattsburgh only to be told that their daughter was not registered as a patient. I can’t imagine their horror at fearing the worse. By the time they got the news, and back tracked that hour and a half to Saranac Lake, she was out of surgery and in the intensive care unit.
Over the coming days, she would stabilize, and the story would be pieced together. She had been out at the bars in Saranac Lake that night, and was riding home with three classmates in a Ford Bronco. Coming around a bend in the road, the headlights shone on a vehicle parked on the shoulder of the road facing them, and the driver mistook it for an oncoming car and swerved. He lost control, and the Bronco rolled, and flipped over. The two boys in the back were thrown clear from the vehicle, and emerged with only scratches, but the front passenger side hit the guardrail and crumpled, and when the car flipped the roof disintegrated. The driver was able to crawl out of the vehicle, but she was trapped inside, screaming, and crying. Luckily she had no memory of the crash, her last memory being talking and laughing in the car before the crash. They had to cut her out of the vehicle with the jaws of life. Hard to believe, but the 18 year old driver of the Bronco was not drunk, and passed a blood test. God bless him, but he was far more responsible than I would someday be at the same age.
Mom and Dad spent days up there at her bedside, and returned home again to pack up, and tie up loose ends before returning. When they did they brought me along to see her. She was quite a mess, with skin grafts to replace the skin lost on the roadway, a cast on her broken leg, and the biggest, nastiest looking scar I ever saw. (Like Madeline, she showed it proudly.) I don’t think I ever loved her more than I did at that moment, and I thanked God profusely that she hadn’t been taken from us like so many other kids were in those days. One of my classmates at St. Joe’s had already lost two college age siblings in separate car accidents in the previous few years. I don’t have the statistics to back it up, but it seemed like the leading cause of death for teens in Upstate New York was car accidents.
As beat up as she was physically, I never saw her in better spirits. She truly seemed to glow with warmth and humor. Maybe it was all those years of being the 2nd youngest, or the scare of a near death experience, but she absolutely reveled in the attention that she received from friends, family, and classmates. She recovered amazingly well, and quickly, but for those long weeks when she was in the hospital, our lives dragged by slowly. To break up the monotony, Dad and Mom would take a few hours each day to take me out sightseeing through the Adirondacks. In those days before the Lake Placid Olympics the North Country was a flurry of activity as people prepared to host the world.
Of course, those 1980 Olympics would be memorable for other reasons as well, but for me it was my first time in the north woods. I fell in love with the Adirondacks during those visits to see her at college, and when she graduated I missed them terribly. The Adirondacks were such a romantic place. In addition to the mysterious, boreal wilderness they also had a ruined history of better times. All throughout the mountains were the foundations, and ruins of burned down estates and great camps from the days of the Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers. The whole history of Adirondack Park is one interesting piece of late 18th century Americana. As the forests were felled, and the landscape scarred by the timber industry, it was the rich industrialists of the Gilded Age that stepped up to champion conservation. While their motives may have been partly personal, they were altruistic as well, and the legacy that they left behind has paid dividends for generations. A unique blend of public and private, the land inside “Blue Line” has been a fascinating case study of trying to balance the public good, with personal and economic freedom. While they haven’t always gotten it right, they haven’t quit trying to find that balance.
The Adirondacks were among the first of the wilderness regions to find a life as a tourist haven, after the extractive industries had moved on. And they have been among the first as well, to struggle with life post tourist industry. While they are still under as much development pressure as any beautiful place within a few hours drive of a major urban center, their economy has waxed and waned several times through the years. The result is an odd mixture of public dole, tourism, hard scrabble farms, and small service businesses. What they don’t have is any sort of corporate work for graduates of the great meritocracy. If it did, I never would have left. For it was those early experiences in the North Country that led me to apply to Clarkson University, and ultimately choose to spend 4 years of my life in the frozen isolation of St. Lawrence county.
The more I think about it, the more obvious it becomes that the thing I love most about the U.P. and Northern Wisconsin is the way it reminds me of the best parts of the North Country of New York State. The north woods of Michigan and Wisconsin, are as much the hostages of downstate interests as the Adirondacks are. And the rural poor of Burnett County, and Gogebic County, scrape by in just the same way that the residents of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties do. So it didn’t surprise me when I read that rabble rousing folks in the U.P. had talked of succession, and forming the 51st State of “Superior” with adjacent counties in Wisconsin. Of course, they stand as much likelihood of success of breaking free of big money corporate control, as do Upstate New Yorkers. Still, I hope that the independent spirit, and hardiness of the North Country never dies, and becomes absorbed into the great teeming mass of bland, Wonderbread America, like so many other regions of the country have. While they may not have the history of literature, or romantic ideology of the Old South, there is a culture there that is every bit as unique, and rooted in place as there is in Dixie. Like the Northern Lights, those spirits flicker even on the coldest, and darkest of winter evenings, giving hope when it is seemingly lost. Long may they shine.
So it makes sense that I would find the woods of the Upper Midwest to be as appealing to me as the Adirondacks. Like I do every year, I will spend my first few weeks after our vacation day dreaming of a way to move North and make a living in those dark, and mysterious woods. Eventually, summer will turn to fall, and the hustle of life will distract me into forgetting those dreams for another year. I’ll put my nose back to the corporate grindstone, and jet off to Europe and Asia again, losing myself in the great globalization of corporate life. If I am lucky, I’ll teach a few more classes, write another article or two, and add to that Curriculum Vitae that I am slowly building, in the hope that one day I can walk away from suburban corporate life, and find some little college in the wilderness, that is looking for a professor. Who knows, maybe Paul Smith’s is in need of a Business School teacher with a passion for Human Scaled Economy, Social Capital, Community Building, and Corporate Ethics. Stranger things have happened.