Crossing the Border

by Joe Connelly | 50th Anniversary 2019

Bringing Out the Dead author Joe Connelly on finding home

n early May of 2001,
my wife and I packed up our 10th-floor apartment in Manhattan, loaded the kids in the car with our closest belongings, and headed north for a new life in the Adirondacks. We’d bought the house just two months before, the first one we looked at, in a town we’d never been to, North Creek, New York. It was a small ranch on a pine-filled acre. Covered in snow, it looked like a postcard from Bavaria. The house sat atop a hill and beneath its windows bubbled the clear and new Hudson, the same river we’d watched freighters cross below our apartment. Our future home was as foreign a place as I could imagine, like moving to Thailand, or the Himalayas, and just a four-hour drive upriver.

I was born in New York City, and until that May I’d spent most of my life there, much of it as a paramedic in midtown Manhattan. I wrote a book about my experiences, called Bringing Out the Dead, detailing those endless night shifts on the ambulance. I wanted to save in words the lives I couldn’t save in life, the souls I kept deepest inside. I hoped the book had purged those ghosts, and with the money I made I quit my job and dedicated myself to starting a new book.

But the new stories I was writing felt superficial to me, a fiction without focus, as if I’d emptied myself in the first book, leaving no one behind to write another. Every morning I lifted my young son into the A Train for the 80-block ride to school, holding his hand tightly through the buffeting ride, a crowded ship in a rocking sea. As a paramedic I’d charged into nightclubs pulsing with gunfire, crawled under subways, climbed through burning stairways, but I’d never felt fear the way I did carrying him up Broadway, the waves of faceless people. The city I called my home had become anonymous to me, as unknown as I’d become to myself.

Most of what I knew of the Adirondack Park came from what I read—six million acres of land with its own set of rules, where the public land, the forest, was given rights equal or even greater than the private. I liked the idea that the wilderness would be preserved for generations, and that my kids would grow up in a place that had more trees than residents. I was most interested in how someone lived there. I wanted to be part of the experiment. The house we bought was at the end of the village, our front door within walking distance of store and church and school. Outside my back door, however, just across the road, spread the Siamese Ponds Wilderness. I could walk south nearly 20 miles without meeting another road or house or yard.

In those first few years I went to the woods as much as I could, my boys on my back, then by my side. We climbed high peaks and low, hiked to distant lakes clear and cold. I read books about the park, learned the history of its founders and guides. I discovered that the boundaries between public and private weren’t the only borders in the park. There were borders within the public too, lines much harder to see: between wilderness and wild forest, between primitive and intensive use. But the only borders that mattered to me were the ones to the right and left of the marked trail I was on. I must have hiked 100 miles, but I still felt like a tourist, checking off all the must-see sites while careful not to venture down dark quarters and back alleys.

For 10 years I lived half a block from Central Park in Manhattan. It was my backyard, my escape from the heat of the street. Most of the trees there had been cultured since birth, hand-picked to provide grace and shade. In the protected Adirondack wilderness, the trees felt anything but protecting. Everywhere I looked was a fight for air and light, a congested tumult both uninviting and at the same time daring me to get lost. This great stand of public space, largest in the lower 48, seemed determined to be the most private.

Somehow, in that time, I managed to finish my second book, about a man who loses his sense of self, in a home he can no longer call his own. The character in the novel is a thief who steals back his identity. For myself it wasn’t so easy, and took a long time, and happened not through quiet walks in the public lands, as I imagined, but in the village below my house, the private land, which soon became the most public space I’ve ever known.

The day we moved in, the snow had melted from the postcard picture, leaving a tired and beaten frame in its place, one in need of a hundred repairs. Then came the rain and mud, and when the sun finally did return, the first warm and bright day of May, the flies moved in. I’d read about blackflies, knew they would be a nuisance, but nothing prepared me for their rage. They choked the air, assaulting my skin, my breathing, my will to live. I’d brought my sons here to learn in nature’s classroom, but after 15 minutes they retreated inside and refused to go out again, their faces and necks dripping with blood.

In those first weeks the only people I met were the guy in the hardware store, who refused to sell me certain things, telling me they were too expensive, and the guy from the water department, who told me not to drink it. Gradually I met more people, all of them generous in describing the problems I was facing: the dilapidated house that I paid too much for; the old sedan that would never make it through the winter. Even those people I met most briefly would wave to me afterwards and become visibly upset if I didn’t wave back. I worked to remember their faces, and the types of truck they drove, which all looked the same to me. Eventually I just waved to everyone.

On September 11, 2001, just four months after I moved to North Creek, I watched helplessly as the Towers fell, one and then the other. My friends and former coworkers were down there. I wanted to be with them, but by that time my paramedic license had expired, and they weren’t letting anyone below 14th Street. I did the next best thing I could think of and drove to the local ambulance squad and filled out an application.

By early the following year I had my paramedic license back and was going on every call I could, middle of the night and break of day. I soon learned that riding an ambulance in a small town, an hour from the hospital, was very different from working in a big city, where an emergency room is less than 15 minutes away. The care is the same, there’s just more of it. I had time to see how one treatment worked and to try a different one if it didn’t. More than that, though, I got to know my patients in a way I couldn’t in the city. Some calls I worked feverishly, forcing air into someone who couldn’t breathe or delivering a life-giving jolt to a heart that just stopped, but most of the cases didn’t require lifesaving skills or expensive machines. My primary role was to tell them they didn’t have to be afraid. I held their hands. I asked them questions about their lives. I listened. I’ve learned more about this place in the back of an ambulance than I have anywhere else.

There’s an honesty when someone opens their door to you in their moment of greatest need. I cross that threshold into a private and personal space that few see. In my years with Johnsburg EMS I’ve been into nearly every house in town. I’ve knelt on their floors and crawled into their beds. I’ve seen them drunk and bloodied, broken and desperate. I’ve watched them die. I’ve echoed their grief. I once went to the aid of a woman who’d overdosed on pills, an apparent suicide attempt. On her nightstand was my second novel, Crumbtown, lying half open. It was the most honest book review I’ve ever received.

When I first started with the ambulance squad I was amazed at how often my driver was related in some way to my patient. What a coincidence, I thought. Now I’m never surprised. It’s a great resource when your driver knows important information about the person you’re caring for. The most difficult thing is getting them not to talk about it. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, HIPAA, demands that all patient information from the call be kept private. All squad members have to take a HIPAA course and pass it, but I’ve found that for some, the practice of the policy is beyond their abilities. We are all too connected. The people in town I buy my groceries or gas from, the pickup drivers I now wave to as they pass, are often mothers or husbands or sons of someone I cared for. There’s a thread that runs through us all, tugging us forward and back, knocking us over, then picking us up.

I’ve been here for 18 years, but it feels like more. My boys are in college. My daughter, an Adirondack native, is in the seventh grade. I go in the woods now almost every day, sometimes with my daughter, but usually just my dog and me. We cross under the bypass into the town lands of the Ski Bowl. Some days we just roam around the bowl, but often we’ll take the Shafer trail into the intensive use area around Gore, then up through the reservoir into the Wilderness Area. I’m no longer a tourist here, and though we usually stick to the trail, I’m no longer intimidated by its borders.

I hike to escape the demands of my days below, to climb out of them, the infinite economics of managing jobs and family and keeping an old Jeep going. Most days I can’t escape, no matter how fast I go, and my hike becomes just another workout in an incredibly scenic gym. But every once in a while I reach a place I can stop. I might be just a few hundred yards above town, or four miles deep in the Siamese Ponds. My breathing slows, my senses return. I can see and feel around me the long fight to survive, the fallen oaks and ailing beeches, the ruptures of lightning and the strangle of flood. It’s life and life giving, public and private, alone and together, and I am alive with it.    

Joe Connelly is the author of the novels Bringing Out the Dead—made into a film directed by Martin Scorsese—and Crumbtown and a frequent contributor to Adirondack Life. He lives in North Creek.

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