A Journey into the North Country


The little 4 cylinder Plymouth whined as I climbed the hill outside of DeKalb. I checked the clock on the dashboard, 3 hours, and 54 minutes, only six minutes left, and still over 15 miles to go. Not this time. Passing the rock cut on my way into Canton, I eased up on the throttle and gave up the chase. I had been making this drive from Batavia to Potsdam for four years. In summer heat, and winter snow, I had yet to break the four hour mark, but I was determined that this would be the year. It was my final year at Clarkson, and like most of the goals I had set for myself it had little significance and a disproportional amount of importance to me.

At times I had never thought that I would make it to graduation. Not for lack of intelligence, or discipline. My pathological fear of failure guaranteed plenty of effort where my studies were concerned. No, it was the loneliness that haunted me during the long dark nights in the North Country. Six guys to every girl at school was something that I had never paid much attention to when I applied. I was looking for the school that offered the most direct path from small town Western New York to a good paying job somewhere else. At the advice and urging of parents and guidance counselors I had chosen to pursue engineering as the most certain way to find a good paying job. That in turn led me to this small private technical college on the frozen edges of New York State. They advertised a job placement rate of 89% for graduating students. Knowing the money and sacrifice that my parents were making to send me to school, I wanted a guarantee that their investment would be repaid.

Pulling into Potsdam, the streets were full of returning students. All up and down Market and Elm Streets, the doors of the Fraternity houses were open as kids carried in furniture, and milk crates full of belongings. The town baked in the late August heat, the windows of all the houses opened wide to let in what little breeze they could catch. I had spent the summer sweating on the factory floor at Graham Manufacturing, watching old men turn lathes, and roll steel in the stifling heat. After a summer of metal shavings, and weld fumes amidst the steady thump of the presses, I was ready for the peace and solitude of the country.

Renting a place outside of town would have never occurred to me. All of my engineering classes were in downtown Potsdam on the old campus. I figured we’d find a place somewhere in town within walking distance of classes, and the bars. But my roommates Dan and Chris had other plans. They always had other plans. Even after four years I still wasn’t certain how I had ever fallen in with them in the first place. We had little in common, aside from working class roots in small Upstate towns. But then again, so did half the student population. Why them? Fate I guess. Some intern in the campus housing office proceeded to pull names from a hat in 1986 and we ended up on the same end of the same floor of a dorm. Becoming friends was a matter of necessity more than choice.

My best friend Scott and I were different from them. Scott was what brought me into the apartment with them in the first place. If it hadn’t been for him I wouldn’t have put in the effort required to tolerate two guys so intent on making life difficult for everyone around them. Which may be part of why they rented us an apartment five miles outside of town in snow blasted countryside. They never did anything the easy way.

Passing through town I drove out Route 11B into the country. Past the little airport, and the salvage yard, the brown weeds along the roadside swaying in the breeze of the passing car. Old farmsteads lined the roads, the rocky soil long since abandoned to milkweeds and scrubby woods. At this latitude, only dairy farming seemed to be able to make a living. Aside from the faculty and students of the local colleges, the residents of St. Lawrence County were either employed by the state, or living in trailers collecting welfare checks.

I turned into the gravel driveway in front of the faded blue farmhouse we would be renting. The downstairs of the house was an herbal soap factory and gift shop run by a nice hippie couple. They’d been renting the apartment to college kids for several years, since she’d turned the house into an herbal soap factory & gift shop, and moved further up into the hills above Parishville to a cabin without electricity, or running water.

It was two days until classes began. The key was under the mat, and I let myself in. It was evening, and night was falling fast. The house was empty. It occurred to me as I unpacked my things, and chose a bedroom, that the one thing I hadn’t thought about was a bed to sleep in. For the previous three years of living in a dorm, that hadn’t been an issue. But here, alone in a rickety old farmhouse barren of furniture, it was on my mind now. Our Hippie landlord and her bearded, silent husband had told us we could help ourselves to what we found in the barn out back. They were odd characters, but fine landlords. She told us she only rented to guys, because girls were too much headache, and always left the place a mess. Guys were more self sufficient, and didn’t complain as much when things broke.

So I decided to rise to the standard of self sufficiency, and set off for the barn to see if I could find a bed. The barn and house sat on five acres of land. The remains of what had once been a farm. It was a weedy lot, with the fruit trees grown wild, and birches sprouting where outbuildings once stood. Warped and graying planks of wood covered the old wells on the property. The ruined foundations of the old barn were home to milkweed and burdocks.

Inside the tin roofed pole barn I found a few old straight backed cafeteria chairs stolen from one of the local colleges, and several old mattresses in various stages of decay. I picked the one that seemed the least likely to be home to any critters, and lugged it back up the steps to the apartment. Then I set about assembling the discount store computer desk I had bought with my wages from the summer job, and unpacking my clothes into an old wooden dresser that was the only piece of furniture in the room.

When night came, I was surprised to still find myself alone. I had expected at least one of my three roommates to have shown up by then. So I sat on the deck in the twilight of an August evening, watching the cars go by out on the highway, and trying to accustom myself to the thought of life in the country. It was so quiet. When I bored of sitting outside in the dark, I came inside, lay down on the mattress, and read for awhile. Growing up in Batavia I had never realized how much noise there was in our little city; the trucks passing on Oak Street, voices from up and down the block, the birds in the lilac bushes out back. But here in the country it was so still. I couldn’t relax that first night alone in the house, and it was a long time before sleep took me.

I woke at 6 am as the first of the logging trucks heading down from the hills came Jake-braking past. Below my window I could hear the snorting of the two old workhorses that our landlords kept on the property. They had wandered in from the field, and were standing in the shade beneath my window, swatting flies with their tails. I rolled over and went back to sleep, and in a few hours got up to brew coffee, and sit outside on the deck. It felt like the end of one life and the beginning of the next.

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2 thoughts on “A Journey into the North Country

  1. oh gawd this really reminds me of the sense of desolation i felt in upstate new york. those were not good times for me. *shakes of bad memories and stares at glittery rubber duck keychain*

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