Seeing Clearly

by | June 2020

Urban vs. rural reality


T
en o’clock on a Friday night we rode the escalator up, out of Pennsylvania Station in New York City. We’d made the two and a half–hour drive from our home in the Adirondacks to the Amtrak station outside of Albany, then another two-plus hours into Manhattan. We’d hurried from our train, packs on our backs, my daughter clutching my arm as we wove through the crush of people, many of them hockey fans in their teams’ jerseys, amped up after a game in Madison Square Garden.

This trip was part of an early birthday celebration—Big Apple–style—for my nine-year-old. We were on our way to a friend’s apartment, our weekend base camp for excursions around the city.

On the escalator, just as the chaos of 34th Street came into view, the man standing in front of us leaned over and threw up. We moved past him and jumped over his puddle, onto the sidewalk. “Welcome to New York,” I said to my daughter as I pulled her, horrified, away from the station.     

That weekend we brunched, saw a show, counted the dogs in Central Park, shopped, gawked and walked—and walked some more. It was an incredible getaway. We took it all in—the city’s aromas, its honking horns and sirens. We explored Hudson Yards, where, when I lived in the city more than 20 years ago, it was anything but what it is now—New York’s newest luxury neighborhood. There, we climbed The Vessel, an Escher-esque beehive sculpture with stairs that circle into the sky, overlooking the Hudson River.

The next morning on the train home, I read in the newspaper that a teenager had jumped to his death from the top of The Vessel. He’d done it just after we’d left the sculpture the day before. I did not tell my daughter.

What I did tell her, as the questions came, about the people sleeping in cardboard boxes; the man pleading for money on the subway; the woman who screamed at us from across the street; and the two boys, likely my daughter’s age, slumped against the doors to Neiman Marcus—shoe-less, toes exposed through dirty socks—was that, sadly, people suffer everywhere. In the city we observed hardship in real time, life unfolding before us. In the Adirondacks, I told her, there were also people without food or shelter or who struggle with addiction or mental illness. But there, too often, it happens in the shadow of the forests and mountains. Our region’s rural remoteness and its seasons—blankets of snow, erasing the truth—can keep us from seeing reality.

There is no perfect place.

My suburban and city friends visit me in the Adirondacks and, when the weather is best—sunny and blue, the bugs barely biting—they might say something about what a great place this is to raise kids or to pass the time. They’re charmed by the clean air, our river swims, campfire-smoked sweaters and starry nights. I can sense their longing—maybe a cabin in the hills away from commutes, traffic and, right now, threats like Coronavirus.

I get it. And I love this place.

But I do dream of living among people of all cultures and religions and colors, of trips to doctors, grocery stores or sports practices that don’t involve more than an hour-long drive. 

While those “Entering the Adirondack Park” signs along the Blue Line are my comfort, I leave here when time allows so I can trust my perspective when I look out the window. There is so much beyond my little hamlet—a lesson I try to share with my children.   

On the train toward home, after I’d read about the tragedy on The Vessel, I looked at my daughter, hunched over her sketchbook. All that we had witnessed in the city and what we know of our lives in the mountains had morphed onto her page in a colorful skyscraper-meets- pointy-peak mash-up.

It was a masterpiece to tack on my wall. 


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