Why We Moved to the Adirondacks, and What They Are

by | Lay of the Land

A little info about the Adirondacks and their history, and a note--literally--about why we wanted to move here.

Blog or Blog Post?

I told Adam, my husband, “I want to write a blog.” I meant blog post, but I knew he would correct me if I said, I want to write a blog.

I meant, I want to try for a couple hours to write something that will begin to convey why we live in the Adirondacks now, and what the Adirondacks are, and what we aim to do there. That’s really more of a blog than a blog post. The what of it, the why of it. All that I’ve found and will find there. Here, I mean, or would mean, except I’m writing this in Florida. Florida was my secret backup plan. I grew up in Atlanta but spent lots of my childhood and young adulthood in Florida the way Adam grew up in the Finger Lakes but spent lots of his childhood in the Adirondacks. I could write a whole blog about Florida, too. But that’s not why we’re here in Florida. We were here for a family wedding, and I don’t need a secret backup plan now. We live in the Adirondacks now, officially. 

Path through the meadow across the street. Raises the question, why wouldn’t we live here?

What Are They?

The Adirondacks are a mountain range in upstate New York. They are rare, if not unique, among mountain ranges because they fan out into a nearly circular dome, as a group, instead of sprawling out in a ragged line. We don’t live in the mountains; we live on two acres nestled among small farms, many of them Amish, near the banks of Lake Champlain, close to the Essex-Charlotte ferry crossing to Vermont. But we do live in the park. We live in a park! The Adirondack Park, where most of the mountains are, is a nearly 6.1 million acre state forest preserve, of which about half is privately owned (highly rare in a park) but all of whose use is regulated by the Adirondack Park Agency. It’s an experiment, to mix private and public land like that, and protect all of it, protect the water. Over 10,000 lakes, the largest being Lake Champlain if that counts, 30,000 miles of rivers and streams, the largest trail system in the nation. 

And very cold winters. Most people I’ve talked to there love (or at least appreciate) the winter for one reason or another—one reason being snow and the activities possible in it, and another being the sense of contrast, I guess. Some people don’t love the winter but see it as a small price to pay for the many other attractions of the area. They joke about it. The joke is, the four seasons are preparing for winter, winter, recovering from winter, and Fourth of July. Or the two seasons are winter and July. The population nearly triples when it’s not winter, because it’s glorious. The eagles soar over the mountaintops, the loons dive into the lakes and ponds. The goldenrod and wild carrot. 

We got about a month of that before we came down south for a visit, and that month of summer in the Adirondacks was everything it promised to be, though I wish I’d gotten to swim in a river. When we get back in a couple days, it’ll be time to prepare for winter. 

Not winter yet.

The Dismal Wilderness, or the Habitation of Winter

The word Adirondack is a Mohawk word that means tree eater—an insult the Mohawk used for the French-allied Algonquins, who didn’t farm and who were said to survive the long barren winter by eating bark. Early colonists found the Adirondacks region to be impenetrable, and represented it as a big blank spot on a 1771 map. Fifteen years later, Thomas Pownhall wrote that Native Americans called the region “The Dismal Wilderness, or the Habitation of Winter.” Be right back, writing a book of poems with that title. But, while poetic, that description belies the fact of growing civilization since the last ice age, and points instead to the eventual decimation of the indigenous populations there due to smallpox and measles upon the Europeans arrival in the 1600s. The region would then be bloodied by the wars over the beaver trade and would later be a major backdrop of the Revolutionary War. Then, about the time that the enchanting forestscapes inspired James Fenimore Cooper to write The Last of the Mohicans and give narrative shape to the mythos of the American wilderness, the region attracted notice for its abundant resources and was duly deforested and overhunted, which led to watershed deterioration and flooding through the 19th century, until the State of New York took action in 1894 and made it a park, much of which has been deemed since that time as “Forever Wild.”

It’s a whole thing, an ongoing conflict between so-called “granola munchers” who want even more of the park to be forever wild, and sometimes donate to the state accordingly, and their neighbors and Facebook group adversaries who call them granola munchers and accuse them of self-interest: they save on property tax by donating a portion of their land, while also ensuring that nobody develops the property; the county’s tax revenue decreases, and the public schools and infrastructure suffer. It’s a conflict that, from what I can tell, maps unevenly onto nationwide debates about taxes and private property. People want to live off-grid, or at least away from encroaching development, for pretty different reasons, I guess.

Hiking Ausable Chasm, which is privately owned and has a roadside attraction vibe, but which could definitely have been a setting for The Last of the Mohicans.

Why We Live Here: A Longish Short Answer

I probably give a sorta-to-very different answer to everyone who asks why we moved, not because I’m dissembling, but because so much pointed to it. So many strands of my life and my hopes for my family, my life’s work, and my children’s future seem possible to weave together elegantly in this place. So it depends on what’s most salient at the moment, which story I tell about how we got there. 

We wrote the most coherent version of the story in the letter we wrote in support of our offer to buy what is now our house. Here’s most of that:

As soon as we saw the listing for your beautiful home, after almost six months of searching in the area, we began to rejoice. The pictures inspired us in so many ways: as artists ourselves, as avid cooks and aspiring gardeners, as parents of small children who love to run around in wide open yards. 

While our home search in Essex County began in earnest in January, our family’s Adirondacks story began over fifty years ago, when Adam’s parents fell in love just outside the park in Plattsburgh. Their teaching careers took them to Auburn, NY, to raise their family, but they returned every summer with Adam and his two older brothers to go camping near the High Peaks at Rollins Ponds. When Adam and Amy got engaged, it was an easy and exciting decision to get married in Lake Placid. Since the day six years ago, when we signed our marriage license in Tupper Lake, we’ve been looking forward to the right time to leave our beloved Atlanta and move back to Adam’s upstate NY roots.

That intention has deepened over the last few years, as we’ve considered the kind of environment where we hope to raise our two children (Grace and Cleo, ages 4 and 16 months, the happiest little hikers-to-be), and where we hope to continue our careers as teachers and artists. We zeroed in on the Essex/Westport area late last year when we read The Dirty Life, Kristin Kimball’s memoir about running Essex Farm. In January, Amy (an Atlanta native) tested her winter mettle while house-hunting on a -22° morning and found that she loved the snow and couldn’t wait to try cross-country skiing and ice fishing. (Adam grew up skiing at Whiteface, like his dad before him.) 

We’ve already found the perfect preschool in the Lakeside School, which Amy and Cleo visited in March, and where both girls have been accepted for the fall. We’ve also heard wonderful things about the small public schools in the area. But, after numerous unsuccessful house-hunting trips to the area, we’d all but given up hope on finding a home in time—until we saw yours. It’s gorgeous, and the amount of care and meticulous upkeep you’ve put into it is easily evident. 

Needless to say, our hope for moving has been rejuvenated by this opportunity. We are excited by the idea of living closer to our family in central NY and friends in northern Vermont, and we hope fervently to spend the coming years contributing to the vibrant local community and watching our children grow up in this fine home. 

Adam wrote the first draft, and then I took a turn. I remember that he said, “Don’t mention your mystic vision.” I said I wouldn’t. That’s a whole different letter.