Photograph courtesy of the author
Looking back at my Saranac Lake childhood
Saranac Lake, with a population of just over 5,000 people, is the largest village in the Adirondack Park. This still surprises me even though I’ve known it for at least half my life. The park, a mix of public and private land, is big, famously so. It’s bigger than Yosemite, the Everglades, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone combined. If the park were a state it would be about the size of Vermont, where the largest city is home to more than 40,000 people. So a town of 5,000 in the middle of millions of acres of wild forest, even if it is the biggest, is still, well, small.
That’s how I’ve always imagined it. Not only small, but also remote. It’s nearly an hour drive just to get to the Northway, the closest major interstate. The Amtrak station in Westport is a 40-minute drive (service currently suspended north of Albany due to COVID). Montreal is two and a half hours away. There’s a Trailways bus that departs from Fusion Market on Lake Flower Avenue to points south, including New York City, but it’s a long and exhausting ride. One thing we can count on is winter: just about every year, Saranac Lake is the coldest spot in the nation, appearing on morning newscasts across the country.
When I was born in Saranac Lake, in 1979, the population was closer to 7,000. Things have changed since then, but not much. There are half a dozen or so new houses on the road I grew up on and where my parents still live. In recent years a pair of loons has taken up residence on nearby Moody Pond. The trail up Mount Baker, more or less in our backyard, is significantly wider than it was 20 years ago. Like much of the Adirondacks, it has been “discovered.”
The trees in our front yard are perhaps more precise markers of change. A tulip tree given to my parents when my brother was born in 1975 is now at least 60 feet tall and flowered for the first time several years ago. Three birch trees planted when my grandfather died in 1998—he had come to live with us during his final years—are now mature and arched slightly from the prevailing winds. There are also a couple of hemlocks, crabapple trees and a Japanese maple that we’ve planted over the years. The lawn has become a forest.
My grandfather’s wife, Eve, was a first-generation Saranac Laker. Her father had come to Saranac Lake in the early 1900s, like so many others, after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. The Weinstocks—Eve was one of seven sisters—ran a small general store out of the first floor of the three-story apartment building where they lived near Lake Flower. For the Weinstocks, Saranac Lake was a kind of refuge both from the pogroms they had fled in Eastern Europe and from a disease for which there was no cure.
It was a good place to grow up, then and now. We had extraordinary freedom and in summer spent countless hours riding our bikes around the neighborhood or tromping through the woods unencumbered, it seemed, by anything other than the falling darkness. In winter we skied at Mount Pisgah, a two-run hill with a T-bar that is probably one of the last of its kind in the country. There were always reminders that we lived at the edge of a vast and untamed wilderness. Once, there was a bear at our bus stop.
But there were other, less tangible, dangers. There were limits, I suppose, to what a small town could offer, and as I got older, Saranac Lake was a place I wanted to escape from. Even if it is sometimes referred to as the “little city of the Adirondacks,” I was after the real thing. (This may have been in part because I was the youngest of three and watched longingly as my brother and sister went off to college far from home.) I remember refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in high school and drawing the ire of my homeroom teacher—he told me it would come back to haunt me—and being sent to the principal’s office. I had to defend myself and explain that you can choose not to say the pledge and that no one can make you stand for something you don’t believe in. Back then the school mascot was still the Saranac Lake “Redskins” and few seemed to question why it would be offensive. Football was king. (The name was changed to “Red Storm” in 2001.) At a certain point, and no doubt unfairly, I began to equate small-town life with small-mindedness. In the end I did leave high school half a semester early in order to enroll in an outdoor education program at a two-year school in Colorado. The campus was in Leadville, an old mining town with 2,600 people.
I now live less than two hours away from Saranac Lake, on the other side of Lake Champlain, with a view of the Adirondacks that I find truly awesome: the rugged, wild beauty of the region revealed in a way that’s hard to see when you’re in the middle of it. Sometimes you have to get away to appreciate where you’re from.
Adam Federman is a reporting fellow with Type Investigations and the author of Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Nation, and Slate and Politico magazines.