Adirondack Life’s Elizabeth Folwell on the ghosts of Blue Mountain Lake
This time at Cold River—the last time—his touch was light as pollen, no snapped twigs or bootprints on the familiar trail. It was the place Gordon returned to no matter where he was, Blue Mountain Lake or Tahawus, a tiny clearing with a cabin no bigger than a queen-size bed, notched logs standing teepee style, another shed with the necessaries of Noah John’s life. The hermit was a contrary solitary, though, a gregarious recluse who loved the campers who dropped in.
There’s a photo of Rondeau with Gordon’s wife seated in front of a shack labeled “Beauty Parlor.” Perched on a stump, she’s smiling, the woodsman plucking her eyebrows with a pair of clamshells from the lake. At least that’s how the photo is remembered; the album with these once-vivid scenes was reduced to sodden gunk after a box of old stuff got flooded in a basement thousands of miles away.
Is there a name for the ghosts of photographs? The way we can conjure up something two-dimensional from somewhere we’ve never been is like hearing the old stories third- and fourth-hand, but valuable all the same, our way of inserting ourselves into the long narrative of a particular place.
Sometimes the relics remain absolutely real, though the person behind them has diminished into a few sentences, maybe a paragraph, as the people who once kept the flicker of extremely local history alive fade beyond embers. Years ago I bought a pack basket at a yard sale, the archetypal full-belly style big enough to carry a toddler or haunch of venison. The ash splints are uniform, the work of someone who knew well how to weave tightly for the ages. The details, though, are strictly mid-20th century: the straps are cheap men’s belts affixed to the oval rim with Romex wire.
The man who made the basket lived in a sugar shack way back in the woods, the arch and buckets gone, replaced by cot, table, kerosene lantern, wood stove. He had an early-warning system for his nearest neighbors—if the lantern was still outside after dark then something was wrong. So one night that light brought people trudging through the trees, only to find an elderly man in the closing of his very last chapter. I am sure that Joe the Frenchman could have told a long story of his circumstances, how he landed outside Blue Mountain Lake in a smoky shed as he grew older and older. But the people who knew the stories, who listened as they were repeated once he was gone, well, they’re mostly gone too. The pack basket is no ghost artifact, but its maker lingers in the shadows.
I walk our road most nights, looking at houses now dark after summer’s end, and see a few that may never be bright again. On these forays, cars rarely pass and deer peer out from the forest edges around the buildings. Here’s where Kathy lived, thin as a pipe cleaner and tough as a hand-forged nail, a widow who split her own firewood with a very sharp ax and single-minded determination—all the while listening to public radio. She had been the teacher in the town’s schoolhouse, her students now all gray-haired, bald or gone. When she passed away, we all mourned her but none so much as the turkeys, deer and raccoons who saw her place as the finest restaurant in town.
Across the way Harvey lived, a storytelling charmer, exactly the kind of old-timer you’d expect from such a town. He reveled in the tall tales and wild lies that entertained no matter how many times you heard them. Gone 20 years, would the shiny objects of modern life render him tiresome? Or would he be relegated to quaint anachronism, an artifact to be trotted out for a festival to illustrate traditions?
A little farther, just an arm’s length from the cement-block building with telephone equipment (is that destined to disappear as well?) trees crowd a surprisingly ornate gravestone, erected in 1888 for Johnie, age “10 years, 1 month and 22 days.” The fact of this death is the last true fact of his life. There’s no cemetery nearby, no slumped ground marking an ancient homestead. Summer joggers and cyclists pass every day, unaware the monument is there, even less aware of the boy it honors.
Next to this spot was a parking lot—some might say junkyard—where a man known as “Yes Yes” Mitchell lived in a car. He earned that name because he started every conversation with “Yes! Yes!” whether it was a question or an answer or an observation. But that’s about as much as I know about him, a person reduced to a nickname.
I keep walking, past the spot (now a modern building) that had been a popular tavern, serving townsfolk and millionaires alike. One wealthy patron kept a team of mules and a wagon long after everyone else was driving cars to bars. But Mr. Hollingshead had only to stumble out of the place, clamber onto the seat and cluck to his team to be delivered to his grand home two miles away. Back in the woods was the “jackass barn,” where the steadfast mules lived for many years. It faces a stream, and now the rush of water is the signature sound, not hooves shuffling in sawdust.
Across the street from the former commercial complex of store (leave your money in a basket on the counter, take a gallon of milk), gin joint and living quarters, what had been proudly built as an ecumenical library for the enlightenment of summer folk in the 1890s is now a church. Beyond that is a boardinghouse, empty most of the time. Further is a three-story inn, crouched behind massive cedars. Before my time, there were dances here, barrels of beer, rooms for travelers of any stripe. Across from that is a new structure, on the footprint of what had, over time, been a hotel (William West Durant signed the guest register), a dry-goods store, a laundry, a home. Somewhere on the lake bank are heaps of broken whiskey bottles now reverting to glassy gravel.
I pass the firehouse, with its additions and improvements, once the heart and lungs of community life with pancake breakfasts, perpetually out-of-tune piano and a formidable team competing in the annual county-wide firemen’s field days. An attic purge a few years ago yielded a case of programs from the June 1939 event, with pages where spectators could keep score in races like booster hose, ladder climbing and motor pumping from draft. The ads—for Fuller’s Garage, Bernard Ross’s Esso station, Pat’s Blue Mountain Lake Restaurant and LaPrairie House—show a vibrant assortment of businesses, most of which are not just gone but passed into the compost of memories, jumbled and decayed yet part of this place all the same.
By the lake and a sweep of beach that countless photographers have claimed for their own walls, is a cottage colony dating back four generations within the same family. It was, and still is, where people return every summer, their children and grandchildren rekindling relationships bounded by lake, lawn, cabins and trees. Gradually some buildings have disappeared, including one that served sardine sandwiches for a quarter.
Eventually I reach the gas station, now a seasonal convenience store with pumps operating 24/7 but formerly a Texaco station, a white beacon to the motorists prowling these deserted roads. Back in the day, you could get political commentary, ice and worms as well as highway maps and a full tank of leaded.
If a tree falls in the forest, another tree will take its place, its leaves reaching for the light. When many trees crash down in a windstorm, natural cycles begin the long process of renewal. Can the same be said for tiny settlements that once were intact human ecosystems? There’s a tipping point or even many little teeter totters that dip downward. It’s easy to satisfy needs and wants by leaving town, whether by car or global device. The tide may be turning, though, with new businesses occupying historic spaces: the old schoolhouse has lattes and scones, the former Elbow Room, walls plastered with lipstick graffiti, is a brew pub.
Why care about somewhere that seems more story than substance? The Chinese have a myth called the red thread, a force that connects present to future, to persons unborn, events yet to unfold. It links hearts worlds apart. It’s fate, destiny and hope spun together. Here I’m following a blue thread, gathering up what I can, sniffing out faint scents, walking deserted streets, acknowledging vacant buildings and clearings, taking a highly inexact census.
The blue thread is a tangle running backwards, tying the physical world to a single community made of so many different souls representing vast bodies of knowledge. That old man whose ashes floated down on Cold River country knew where to gather buckets and buckets of wild cranberries late each fall, and he never got lost in the woods even if he was 20 miles from home. The previous owner of our house talked about nibbling “trinkle root,” from a nondescript woodland plant with tiny white flowers. It was spicy, she said, crunchy, a snack she could grab on her way home from school. Have I ever found this plant? Nope, and not for lack of trying along the trail I know she walked.
This town had people who could stuff a raccoon, fix steam engines, give a baby-bottom-smooth shave with a straight razor, sew perfect pleats with a treadle machine and had mastered many other arcane tasks of everyday life. Though there’s some evidence of all these things, that frayed blue thread won’t weave a whole cloth in the 21st century; maybe I could darn a sock with it. All the same, I keep feeling for the filaments and knots that tie us together, present to past, person to place, a place we called home then—and still do now.
Elizabeth Folwell began working for Adirondack Life in 1989. She’s the author of the book Short Carries, the first five editions of The Adirondack Book, and co-author, with Amy Godine, of Adirondack Odysseys. She has lived in Blue Mountain Lake since 1976.