Amy Wilentz, a Nation contributing editor, is the author of Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti (Simon & Schuster), published this month, and The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, among other books. She teaches in the literary journalism program at the University of California, Irvine.
As summer winds down, retreats and vacations come to an end (no more toasted marshmallows) and regular life begins again, with everyday chores like buying new shoes for children and paying long-ignored bills and getting files back in order--the whole workaday schedule.
Usually the end of summer has its own bittersweet cyclical comforts, but this year I've been feeling more than the ordinary stress of returning to tall stacks of unread mail and to the zip and chaos of subways and traffic lights and elevators and buses. I realized the other day that much of my extra angst is about September 11, and starting up life again in New York (otherwise known as Targettown).
I'd been up in the Adirondacks, where we try to spend a week every summer, and attempting to figure out which was reality, this--the lake spread out before me, distant pines, a couple of ducks diving, a canoe gliding by, the gas station that sells sub sandwiches, the ice-cream shop with the "Pies Today" sign, the campfires and the cold nights--or New York City; in the same state, the two places seem to exist on such separate planes.
As a New Yorker, I've joined in the general quest for stress relief (we did this pre-9/11, too, but the answer was usually Prozac or yoga or a Manhattan, not an inflatable lifeboat or a lifetime supply of instant milk and potassium iodide), to little avail. Still haven't got the ten gas masks, one set for home and one for school and work...
The latest step I've taken in the quest for inner peace--while "ongoing police investigations" in my city cause traffic jams and mini-panics and nightmares for overactive imaginations--is to sit back with a few issues of Adirondack Life. Eight times a year it hides a happily provincial interior behind a handsome, sophisticated cover, and provides a perfect escape from real troubles but is not escapist in its intentions: Life doesn't feel compelled to paper over the troubles of the region it's covering, it just doesn't happen to be covering Manhattan or Iraq, and its own ground zero is the Adirondack Park, not Ground Zero. Like many regional magazines, it contains puffery. The October cover story, "Hunting Wild Elk," is little more than a paean to the resplendent Elk Lake--hence no final beauty shot of an actual wild elk, but plenty of pictures of canoes and swimming platforms and autumn foliage. (Indeed, an issue of Adirondack Life without a single image of a canoe would be like an issue of Rolling Stone--at least, the old Rolling Stone--with no reference, even glancing, to the Beatles.) Even when puffing, though, Adirondack Life is not as touristy as some regionals, and it feels less provincial, less like the local section of a small newspaper. (Yankee and Hudson Valley magazines come to mind.)
It's a more important magazine, closer to the heart of the country, or what's good about it, than most others of its type. For me, and many others, the Adirondacks are a throwback to what American life was or could have been--at some idealized moment of pioneering and small camp settlements, of fur trading and logging and fishing, all on a small scale; a paradigm of man and nature together in the East among pines and hills and lakes. Though there is nothing left of the wild in Manhattan and only about a square block of it remaining on Long Island, in the Adirondacks there are places where you can imagine the continent before the advent of the white man, and how rich, promising, altogether stupendous and just plain big it must have seemed to the settlers. You can see how the sheer sweep of the land was predictive of the future of the nation.
Over and over Adirondack Life captures that sweep, as well as the idiosyncrasies of the citizens of what is self-consciously called the "North Country" but might as well be called America. In another October article, called "First Estate," Lynn Woods presents the utopia of Brandreth Park, a huge piece of land bought in 1851 by Dr. Benjamin Brandreth with proceeds from the fortune he made as the maker of Life-Addition and Vegetable Universal pills and remedies. (Along with quackery, Dr. Brandreth could boast of a gift for Bible-thumping advertising.) After he lost the then 24,038-acre park in 1873 for failing to pay taxes, his wife bought it back from the state for $5,091 at public auction. The 12,500 remaining acres of Dr. Brandreth's park are still held by ninety of his descendants--offshoots of his thirteen children--and their families. Paulina Brandreth, a granddaughter, was a fabled Adirondack iconoclast who dressed as a man and who in photographs barely differs from her wilderness guide, Reuben Cary, except for her beardlessness. Boozers, cross-dressers, big-gamesmen, Presidents, madwomen and steely-eyed, bear-shooting great aunts--all the material is here.
Today, that flinty, eccentric spirit remains at Brandreth Park, which is like a dream of Adirondack perfection. No motorboats allowed here, no noise pollution except for the generator that powers Brandreth's water pump, the main road rerouted so that headlights won't play across the pristine face of the lake. The architecture is utilitarian, not twig-bedecked and touristy.
It would be splendid to visit the Brandreths of old; to drive down a dirt road to a wooden camp and live off the lake with the help of a Reuben or Paulina. The best way to get a sense of what that visit would provide is to read Adirondack Life. You won't learn only about quacks and scenic lakes, though. You'll also read Bill McKibben on how the changing global environment is affecting the Adirondacks, and Amy Godine on the summer at Saratoga.
I tried to get other magazines up in the North Country, but the best periodical I could find other than Adirondack Life was a consumer shopper on trucks for purchase at public auction (call Mrs. Brandreth...). There was, however, no shortage of Adirondack Life. No sense of timeliness or, worse yet, "news," mars the unchanging, eternal stasis here. At Hoss's Country Corner in Long Lake you can buy about two years' worth of back issues.
One more thing: I failed to mention the photographs, which alone can soothe the terror-tried breast. Barns in the snow. Mist coming off a pond in early morning. Purple ice cracking at sunset. Green grasses in the blue Cedar River. Another world.
Now back to the 111th Street newsstand.