The Road to Summer

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I love this view.

Not so much for what it shows us now but for what it represents.

I’ve never walked down this particular path but I know that there lies, under the snow, a dirt road.

And that road leads to summer.

Roads like this exist all over the North Country. In the winter, they are never plowed, no one ventures there.

But at the end of all the roads, you can still see that glimpse of what’s to come. That blue at the end of the path? That’s lake and sky . . . and the promise of summer

Come May, maybe Memorial Day, after the snow is long gone and the mud has dried out, those dirt roads will beckon under canopies of new green. That blue sky and lake at the end will draw family members back to “camp.”

I’ve never seen the specific camp at the end of this path but I have a very good idea what it looks like. Small, with a couple of added-on rooms that were probably poorly planned and done by workers lacking skill. There’s probably indoor plumbing and running water but that, too, is a recent addition.

There won’t be heat in this building because it’s never needed—the small house is used only in summer. The rooms are small and probably dark but no one spends any time inside anyway. A large screened-in porch provides a transition to outside and maybe a spot for sleeping during really hot nights.

The yard is where the action is. In the yard you’ll find picnic tables and Adirondack chairs, quite possibly a hammock. And a jumble of summer toys—kayaks, canoes, water skis. A fire pit, for sure, and a big grill for cooking.

On winter days, when it’s really quiet, I can walk past the end of this dirt road and hear the sounds of summer. The buzz of the jet skis, the hollering of kids as they splash in the lake, the calls of “how do you want your burger done?”

We don’t have a long dirt driveway at our house and our house, now, is a year-round home, with all the mod cons.

But we strive to preserve the feeling of “camp” and days when family and friends gather, the days are long and mellow, the music lifts us, the food and drink sustain us. We look to the days when our short asphalt driveway transforms into the essence of a long dirt road—that leads to summer.

. . . At Home

sangers w viewHas your blog developed the way you thought it would?

When I started writing, I intended the emphasis to be on “loving hands” but, now, almost 18 months later, I’m amazed at how often I focus on the “at home” part of my title.

By sharing some information and impressions with you, I’ve realized that I have more affection for my home region than I ever knew!

People hear “New York” and they think “Big Apple,” Empire State Building, Broadway. My New York, the “North Country,” couldn’t be more different.

My home is in upstate New York, about 60 miles south of Montreal, Quebec, and 45 miles east of Lake Placid, where the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympic Games were held. The nearby town is Plattsburgh, represented by the back dot in the map. I have to drive due south for over 5 hours to get to New York City, which is at the bottom right here!

New York

I live on a lake that forms the boundary between upstate New York and Vermont; Lake Champlain is 120 miles long and runs north into the Richilieu River and the St. Lawrence.465px-Champlainmap.svg

The lake is in a valley between the mellow, old Adirondack Mountains of New York and the Green Mountains of Vermont, which are part of the Appalachian Chain.

Our combination of water and mountains, rural farmlands and small towns, makes this part of New York feel much more like New England than like the New York that pops into most minds.

This is a land of sugar maples, oaks, birches, and pine trees, which give us our fall colors, the fragrant litter of pine needles in the sun, and the “tock, tock” of acorns on the roof.

This is a world where French-Canadian roots run deep and the map is littered with place names like Point au Roche and the Boquet River (although the latter, strangely, is pronounced “Bow-ket.” I’m told the old-timers called it the Bow-qwet.) One’s friends have names like Benoit Lafave and Andre Delorme and, when they swear, they say “Sacré bleu!” or, even better, “Jeezum crow!”

Similarly, one can never forget the Native American inhabitants, the Ganienkeh, the Awkwesasne, the Abenaki. Words from their languages name mountains, rivers, and towns. Even “Adirondack” is supposedly a Mohawk word used to insult the Algonquins. The word translates as “bark eater” or “eater of trees,” and was an insult to suggest the Algonquins were not very good hunters!

The history of European settlement of this region is very old, by American standards. Samuel de Champlain reached the Champlain Valley in 1609. The region was under French rule, then British rule, and then played a role in the outcome of the Revolutionary War.

My people came here in the late 1700s and carved a farm from the rocky soil on a big hill overlooking the lake. They fought in the American Revolution and watched from the hill as the Battle of Plattsburgh, in the War of 1812, unfolded in the valley below. The photo at the top of the post shows my family, when we were still living on the farm, with that valley and Lake Champlain behind us.

War and national defense have always figured prominently here. When I was a kid, Plattsburgh was home to a Strategic Air Command base of the US Air Force. Fighter bombers and huge cargo planes were so commonly above our heads that we simply no longer heard the infernal noise they made.

I moved away from this area when I was in my early 20s, to go to grad school and to teach college elsewhere.

But I never really left. The lake and the mountains and my family always drew me back. Every summer of my adult life has been spent here, on Lake Champlain, at “camp.”

And now “camp” is home.

It was odd to come back here full time, after so many years. I’m forever meeting people who worked with my father or had my mother as a teacher in first grade. My favorite story came from a woman who lives down the road. When she heard my name, she told me that her father and my grandfather shared tractor tires during the Great Depression. Tires were expensive! So, even though the farms were about 12 miles apart, they alternated the tires between the two tractors and made do.

I love that story. I love feeling connected to a place, knowing the short cuts to get anywhere, recognizing names, and being able to say, “that’s where I lived,” “I learned to ski there,” “I think we went to high school together.”

I’m honestly not sure how much of this I would ever have pondered, if I wasn’t writing to you. Writing about where I live, telling you about it, makes me appreciate it more.

Thank you for that.


What makes your home special? Have you written about it? Can you leave me a link to your post?

It’s Official . . .

yellow glass E&JIt’s official. Summer is over.

What? Does that not come as a news flash to you?

I know we’ve all been talking about fall and, really, the signs are everywhere here in upstate New York. Even the calendar says, unequivocally, that autumn began three weeks ago.

But emotionally, for me, summer ended a couple of days ago, when my mother and her husband (E & J) closed camp and left for Florida. Like all the other snowbirds, they trade winter for an endless summer.

I wrote earlier about “opening camp,” and how it looms large in North Country culture. “Closing camp” is equally fraught with meaning.

E & J spend the summers here, in a seasonal “camp” just 250 steps down the road from us.

Just yesterday (or so it seems!), I went down to E & J’s little cottage and threw open the doors and windows, to allow spring to blow through and chase out the winter chill. My husband turned the water back on and mowed the lawn. The rhododendrons out front burst into bloom, to say, “Welcome back!”

E & J arrived and summer had begun.

Summer means garage sales, just my mom and me, driving the familiar back roads and yakking. Summer means the four of us, gathering at water’s edge in the evening for cocktails and a campfire, with my husband’s guitar providing a well-loved soundtrack. Summer means endless hands of pinochle, played with idiosyncratic rules and varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Summer at camp has meant so much to us over the years. My husband and I were married during a summer at camp, almost 25 years ago. My mother and her husband were married during a summer at camp, 3 years ago. Small children have learned to build s’mores and sing along during summers at camp. Crafts have been taken up, explored, and abandoned at camp. Family members and friends have gathered and partaken in the camp rituals of concerts on the seawall, bike rides to the soft ice cream stand, and day trips to Lake Placid.

The summers at camp are almost a cliché. But not quite, because they’re ours and they never lose their originality or become commonplace when we’re lucky enough to live them.

E & J are somewhere on the road right now, heading to the year-round summer they prefer, in Florida.

During winter, they trade wild heron and osprey flying against a twilight sky for a heron who shows up at their house daily, for hot-dog handouts. They trade Saturday evening campfires and wine in big yellow plastic goblets for Saturday morning coffee hour at the clubhouse. They trade kayaking into the long grass at the end of the bay for barefoot walks on the beach in January.

My husband and I are firmly ensconced, now that summer is over, in our autumn home, heading for winter.

We trade the bonhomie of family time for the cozy solitude of couple time. We trade a view of rippling waves and heeling sailboats for wind-sculpted snow drifts. We trade the grill for the slow cooker, the campfire for the fireplace, summer for winter.

We’ve made very different decisions for the part of the year that is Not Summer At Camp. We’re happy, all of us, with our choices and the trade offs.

But there’s one thing we agree on—we wouldn’t trade next summer, together at camp, for anything! Summer has ended. Long live summer!

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How about you? Is there a moment when you know that summer is officially over?

Recipe For A Perfect Summer Day

pretty campI spent a lot of the day yesterday stewing. I thought about the things I should be doing and didn’t want to do any of them—I didn’t want to blog. I didn’t want to quilt. I didn’t want to iron linens or list them on Etsy. I didn’t want to thread the damn heddles on the loom. I didn’t want to follow Weight Watchers.

It was a thick and heavy stew.

Then it dawned on me—stewing in the summer doesn’t make sense. Stews are for winter and, even then, they taste good only occasionally. They have too much stuff in them. They weigh a person down.

I wanted a different concoction for summer. Something lighter, easier. I had just the recipe but hadn’t made it for far too long.

I needed to dig out my old favorite recipe for “camp,” and make a big batch.

I started with sunshine and a stiff breeze to blow the bugs away. These ingredients have been scarce this summer but I was able to find them when I needed them.

I added a book, a real book. A kind of heavy book, both physically and intellectually, because even a summer meal needs some nutritional value.

I stirred in a chaise lounge, in the sun, near the peonies, and a fleece blanket to tame the breeze.

I napped while it all simmered.

I finished the recipe with a smoky campfire, and seasoned it with some homemade music and a little bourbon.

It was a wonderful, restorative meal. And today I’m having leftovers. I’ll add a garage sale or two, just to spice things up, and go out for a deep-fried lunch, with family and a beer, two ingredients guaranteed to make leftovers better the second time around.

But the basic ingredients will stay the same. Because the recipe for “camp” is a classic and it never gets old. Something so good can’t be bad for me, right?

What are you cooking up today? I’d be happy to share my recipe.

Going Up to Camp, Where Summer Is

2007 sunsets-27“We finally got up to camp this weekend.”

This is the phrase on the lips of people all over the North Country right now.

When you hear a phrase like that it might bring to mind a sleepover camp, where kids go to hike and learn rustic skills. Or you might think of a camping trip, with tents and Coleman stoves.

If you lived in upstate New York, though, a reference to “going to camp” would mean something quite different, and everyone would understand that difference.

Where I come from, “camp” is a home away from home, a sometimes-smelly place, filled with castoff furnishings, that is beloved beyond measure. Camp is where memories flourish, nature beckons, and daily life is put on hold, in place of something far better.

Camp is heaven.

Upstate New York is full of camps. Someday I’ll tell you about the so-called Great Camps of the Adirondacks—the luxury “cottages” built by the wealthy to escape the city while retaining all the luxuries of home.

But, here, it seems one needn’t be wealthy to go up to camp. Camp might be a ramshackle one-room shack in the woods. It might be a bigger space, with a bunkroom for the kids. It might be a place where one room got added to another, higgledy-piggledy, to make a rambling home that can’t hide its humble roots.

Camp is likely to have been in the family for generations. It’s likely to be a modest dwelling. It might be on a lake or stream or in the mountains or in the middle of nowhere.

Regardless, camp is a way of life. Camps are almost always seasonal dwellings. Not winterized, they only come alive when nature and people come back to life after a long winter’s nap.

“Opening camp” is a big deal, an event to be anticipated, year after year. Folks who haven’t seen their camps in six months or more drive down dirt roads, and hope to find the place as they left it, without damage from a fallen limb or red squirrels or flooding.

Windows are thrown wide open, a pot of coffee is started, old sheets are pulled off the furniture. Adirondack chairs are dragged to the water’s edge. Ahhhhh . . . it’s summer! The rest can wait.

Camp is where the chairs are big and secondhand and the right shape for curling up with a book.

Camp is where the décor consists of canoe paddles, oil lanterns, marine charts, and piles of beach glass and smooth pebbles.

Camp is where the smell of closed-off rooms, redolent with hints of mildew and old copies of National Geographic, is known as a good smell, the best smell, a smell that evokes the transition of winter to spring and the beginning of something new, yet old.

Camp is full of tradition and memories. Guitars are played here. Children learn old songs, and then grow up and teach those songs to their children. They sing of green alligators, long-neck geese, and rocking ones soul in the bosom of Abraham.

Generations of family and friends gather at camp. The older folks talk and talk, and enjoy adult beverages. The younger folks get wet, throw balls for dogs, take a turn in a small boat.

Camp is the essence of summer. The picnic on the 4th of July, where there’s always too much beer, and music, and the same great friends gather, no matter what.

The special weeks when family members and friends visit from the cities, to ride bikes, toast marshmallows, grill simple food and eat too much. And talk and talk.

The days that start with the squawk of the Great Blue Heron and end with the crackling of a campfire.

As it happens, we now live year round at camp. This camp is habitable in all weather and is a special place in every season. And, yet, it is in its glory when the weather warms and the lake laps in pellucid waves against our seawall; when we open our doors and windows and lives to summer.

Camp is an attitude, a state of mind, a place apart.

Where, to paraphrase the words of E.B. White, every day is a happy day, and every night is peaceful.

Welcome to camp.

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