Illustration by Kristina Swarner
Finding hope on a tiny piece of the Adirondacks
Down a half-mile dirt road sits our 1.1 acre of semi-tamed wilderness. Thirteen years ago, before the chainsaw and wood splitter began their work, our lot on Little Clear Pond was a poplar and pine jungle of scraggly trees. When my husband, David, drove me to see it for the first time, my apprehension was obvious. The mosquitoes instantly swarmed our car. I didn’t want to get out.
“Really?” I questioned, as I looked out the car’s windshield.
“Yes, really,” David replied.
My husband was desperate to own a piece of land. Living in a neighborhood inside the village of Lake Placid had begun to feel too urban for him—a sentiment our non-Adirondack family and friends just couldn’t understand. “You already live in the wilderness!” his mother declared on more than one occasion.
David and I had both willfully transplanted ourselves to the Adirondacks—he from Rochester, New York, and I from the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC. Our choice to live five and 10 hours away from “home” was already something our families saw as remote. Why did we now need to own a piece of land down a half-mile dirt road with no neighbors?
We decided to buy that slice of wilderness near the shore of Little Clear Pond when I was three months pregnant with our first child. We thought maybe, someday, far in the future, we could build a home there. Or maybe just a seasonal camp. Or maybe it would simply serve to supply the firewood for our wood stove. The little acre seemed full of possibility. As my belly grew in size over the course of that fall and winter, so did our dreams of what this lot could become.
During our first summer of land ownership, David built an outhouse. With our newborn son in tow, and some visiting Maryland family, we held a ceremonial groundbreaking for the salvaged-lumber latrine. We all laughed and clinked bottles of beer while we debated recreating one of those Volkswagen Beetle commercials to see how many people we could fit inside the already weathered-looking outhouse. Our family and friends were beginning to see why we had fallen in love with this place. With burnt-orange sunset views across the pond and the nightly calls of loons, they had fallen in love with it as well.
Over the next three years, David spent every spare moment at Little Clear Pond clearing scrappy trees, splitting firewood, and laboriously turning our little acre of wild into a space for campfires, campouts and toddler explorations. He built a picnic table and a small storage shed. We bought a giant canoe to explore the shoreline and had picnics on an island covered in wild blueberries every August. After learning to walk, our son toddled his chubby legs into the shallow water from a tiny sandy cove. We called it his Adirondack baptism.
Little Clear Pond is a protected fish hatchery for landlocked salmon, so there is no fishing, public camping or motorboat access, making it one of the quietest places I’ve ever been in the Adirondacks. In this quiet, we found our escape from the noise of our public-school careers and from the structure of our in-town everyday lives. By the time our son turned three years old, he was affectionately calling our little acre in the woods “The Property.” The simple name stuck.
“Are we going out to The Property this weekend?”
“Let’s bring those old Adirondack chairs out to The Property.”
Eventually, David decided he wanted to build something more substantial on the land. He had been researching various options for off-grid structures and seasonal camp designs for a few years. We decided that a two-story barn would provide us with the versatility of both seasonal living and seasonal storage. So, in the late spring of 2010, when I was newly pregnant with our second child, we broke ground on another part of our Adirondack dream.
David worked long hours that summer, digging and pouring the foundation. Milling lumber from our own trees. Framing. Siding. Roofing. Friends, family and strangers all helped. We threw framing parties and roofing parties. And as my belly grew with our second baby, so did our barn. I would often bring our son to The Property to ride his pedal-less Strider bike and we’d cook dinner on the grill we now permanently stored there. It was a summer filled with long days of gritty labor and satisfying moments of admiring all that could be accomplished in a day’s work.
By November of 2010, the barn was almost complete. I was eight months pregnant when the barn doors were finally installed. Winter was coming. We stood beneath the now leafless trees on Veterans Day and reflected on the months of backbreaking work. This had truly been a labor of love.
“We need to have a cross-country ski party out here after the baby is born,” said David.
I laughed. “I’m not sure I’ll be up to skiing, but yes, we need to have a party. There is so much to celebrate,” I said.
At the hospital three weeks later, we learned that our baby would be stillborn. I would give birth to a daughter we named June, but we would never learn why she died.
In the weeks following June’s death, David and I drove to The Property a number of times to check on the barn. The snow had arrived early that winter and David needed to make sure the barn could withstand the weight. He was worried the barn was not strong enough. We could be sure of very little in the darkness of grief that December, so if nothing else, he needed to make sure that all we had built on Little Clear Pond could survive.
On these barn checking trips, I would stay in the car. I couldn’t leave. I would turn up the heat, letting the vents blast me with warmth. The barn had come to represent a time in our lives I desperately wanted to return to, but knew I never could. I couldn’t walk through its doors and see the rough-cut reminders of a life that no longer existed.
After the snow melted, David continued to work at The Property. He painted the barn’s exterior and built stairs. He split more firewood and cleared more brush. When I began visiting again, I walked the trails along the shore and stacked firewood. On those worn narrow paths and in those neat piles, I found predictability and order, both of which I desperately needed. My daughter’s death remained a mystery. And grief doesn’t like the unknown. Grief needs the familiar. The therapeutic familiarity that existed at Little Clear Pond became an antidote for my grief. I could see it in the way our son consistently collected dried sticks for campfires, his tiny piles mirroring my own larger ones. And I could hear it in the reliable nightly chorus of spring peepers. By the summer of 2011, I was pregnant again. I was a different person now, but slowly and tentatively, I let our Adirondack dream sprout new growth.
When David turned 40, in May 2012, we threw a giant party at the barn. It would become the first of many. As a family, we had emerged from an 18-month social hibernation and there was a lot to celebrate: the late arrival of blackflies, David’s birthday, the barn’s completion, and the healthy birth of our second daughter. Friends and family came from far and wide to stand beneath budding trees and admire all that could be accomplished not in a day’s work, but in the cumulative collection of weeks, months and years. In the heartbreak and the joy. In the survival. This was all much more than a labor of love. This was the barn that hope built.