Like the Iroquois Indians once did, I see the Adirondacks as my mountains and
I can’t lean down to feel my strength on the row of treadmills at the gym at home,
Sometimes I’m conscious of the fact that the higher the altitude in the
The elevation makes you tough. The effort of hiking leaves its mark, physical
evidence, on your body. Veins grow on your wrists, your arms tremble, and your calves
pulse as you shove your feet into your tan hiking boots. It’s a full body experience,
grabbing onto rocks and trees to thrust you forward. My family’s cottage in upstate New
York isn’t winterized, so waking up you feel the chill; every gust of wind makes it into
your bed. It’s these very human feelings—like aching muscles and cold—that you can’t
escape in the mountains. Instead, you must face them. Hunger, too, is common.
Sometimes you expect to be home and eating lasagna for dinner, hours before you
actually make it back. There’s no one to call for food, nowhere to get it. You wouldn’t
know where to tell them to bring take-out, anyway: over by the huge rockslide next to the
river on the face of Calvin?
I’ve learned to embrace these very human feelings. They make me feel alive.
Every July, when my whole family moves back to the Adirondacks, I feel more aware of
myself than anywhere else. While a numbness settles around the hum of a television, I
feel a sobering consciousness listening to the sound of moths flick against the bedside
light. You can’t even be angry, when they swarm around your face as you read at night.
You’re just happy they’re there, one of the many cherished Adirondack constants.
I like lying in bed on top of my sheets, my feet dangling off the edge. There’s
always mud on my feet and elbows. I rub my toes together and feel the hardened mud
chip off. I used to think that mud was healing, that the stuff could soften my skin and
close my pores. It may or may not be true, but the lolling around and soft kicks of my
heels are restoring. It’s healthy that some days I just wait for the mud to fall off. I accept
its dirtiness with patience. I don’t have this relaxed attitude mid-November.
At home, I have an app on my phone that measures my distance and pace. In the
Adirondacks, without service, I rely on the knowledge that the lake road is six miles, the
dam means halfway, and the thunder bridge is one mile from home. I’ve never measured
the distance, but Bill the bus driver told me these were his estimations. Still, I don’t need
numbers or facts to convince me how far it is. It doesn’t even matter. The lake road is the
one place I don’t time my run and then divide it by the miles. I just run, and it’s liberating
to bolt down trails without hearing a voice in my ear discouraging or encouraging me.
The Adirondacks are better than that. They encourage you simply to be your best: they
provide mossy spots for stretching and soft dirt paths on which to run.
The Iroquois lived here first. I know this not only from the names of the
mountains, Upper Wolf Jaw, Lower Wolf Jaw, and Algonquin, but from the family visits
to Fort Ticonderoga and the pamphlets there on the French and Indian War. The Iroquois
were forced to move west in the 1800s, but at the top of peaks, which bear their names, I
know we think of them. We may even be like them.
I believe the Iroquois were more peaceful than is commonly assumed. They have
been caricatured as revengeful barbarians, but Americans only knew them during a time
when they were forced to defend their home. Displaced, they lost their game, plants, and
trails. Their culture could never be recreated with the same authenticity. Conquest forced
them to surrender their identity. Many people in the Adirondacks today would understand
the Iroquois desperation to defend their place in these mountains. I can picture my
Grandmommy Aurelia taking up arms to protect the lakes and rivers she swims in every
morning; heated swimming pools would never satisfy her. I can imagine Ellie, my best
friend, use fire to fight for her mountains and trails, the summits are the sites of our
picnics and Christmas card photos. And Robbie, my cousin, would throw stones at
anyone who laid a hand on our small town of Keene Valley, the parking lot of Noon
Mark Diner, where he had his first car accident, and the inn where we have dinners on
special occasions. We all need something to fight for, and in the Adirondacks we’ve
found it, a physical manifestation of family, community, and natural beauty. My
summers there have given me an understanding and appreciation of small towns and
family businesses. I recognize my role as a guest in the town but a native of the
New York state has declared 3,125 square miles in the Adirondacks “Forever
Wild." But if anything were to threaten this protection of wildlife and tradition, I’m sure
we, too, would go wild. Aggressively and relentlessly, we would fight as the Iroquois
once fought, because everything is sweeter in the Adirondacks, even the bug bites and the
fifteen-mile drive for a soft drink. These things make us appreciate the unbitten parts of
our bodies; give us a release from everyday. Grandma Reelie first experienced the power
of Adirondack summers when she was five, fly fishing in the Upper Lake and sleeping in
the same cottage, named Chicora after a small Indian tribe, where I sleep now. It
probably took her a few years to understand exactly how the mountains provide a
consciousness of nature and our own selves. But she did, and now we both anticipate the
physical and mental strength the month of July provide us. My grandmother is athletic,
sturdy, with hair down to her hips. Her long braids remind me of the Iroquois in the
pictures at Fort Ticonderoga. Thanks to her persistence, manually shoving all of her kids
in her Volvo from Baltimore to New York every July 1st, they too fell in love. Her
children come back and now they bring my cousins and me, where the strong currents,
heavy oars, and flash storms molded tough kids of us all.
I hope that in some way, we honored the Iroquois by celebrating and cherishing
their home. We kept it authentic. Their mountains are still there. The lake has the same
clarity, pools of fish, and water level, except for that one summer the boulder fell in; I
heard that a bear pushed it in. I’m thankful for this place of serenity and strength, family
and community, and beautiful mountains. It’s rare to find a place so loved.