1990s photograph courtesy of the author
Missing North Creek for what it is—and what it isn’t
When I was a kid, my understanding of North Creek was mostly shaped by what it wasn’t. While lakes abound across the Adirondacks, my town had apparently forgotten to acquire one. (I probably complained about this geographical oversight while sitting a hundred yards from the Hudson River.) There was no movie theater. My hometown isn’t even a town, if we’re being pedantic; it’s one of a series of hamlets that make up the town of Johnsburg, a place worthy of scientific inquiry thanks to the fact that, despite its immense size and relatively unpeopled state, everyone still lives close enough to keep tabs on everyone else’s business. (At the same time, everyone’s closest neighbor in the summer is a swarm of blackflies, and in the winter their favorite neighbors are the ones with the snowplows.) For me, the woods were outside, as well as that aforementioned body of water, and it only took 15 minutes of walking to stumble across a mountain to hike up or ski down, but it was hard to notice these things when you spent nearly all your time inside your room, surrounded by novels checked out from the public library. I had a predilection for fantasy novels about young women who explored forests and spent much of their lives outside, but I was too distracted to notice the irony.
The library was my favorite place in town; it conveniently opened when I was in elementary school, a handful of shelves in the back of the town hall. Its expansion, to my self-centered young mind, seemed to keep pace with my reading ambitions, the number of books and rooms increasing just as I feared I had read every single book inside. When a large window was installed in the new addition, I remember thinking it was beautiful. No matter where I’ve lived since, I’ve always immediately picked up a library card. Libraries are central to my idea of home.
Years later, I learned how much work went into making that library exist, and how much resistance to change prevented it in the beginning. It seemed a tidy metaphor for any place where people often profess to never want change, but happily adopt any alterations that make the place better—after a trial period in which the additions prove themselves—as long as everyone agrees to remember, with a healthy dose of nostalgia, the litany of things that are no longer there. It wasn’t just me; a lot of people in North Creek understood the town by what it wasn’t, either by what it used to be, or, for the most idealistic—those people who make libraries and new trails exist—what it still could be.
Now that I no longer live in North Creek, it would be presumptuous to say that I have gained any special understanding of the town. But I recognize what approaching home feels like in a way I didn’t appreciate before. It isn’t one of those towns where you stumble upon it on the way to your destination. Come toward it from the south, and you’ll pass by the new Stewart’s—so luminously bright that it feels like a beacon—and the Ski Bowl, and still not reach a Main Street until you hit Indian Lake. The town marks the eastern terminus of Route 28N, but the highway bisects town in such a way that it is possible to reach the end of the road without ever going down Main Street. You can take advantage of all of North Creek’s athletic delights—rafting, skiing, hiking, biking, sledding, and my favorite as a child, trudging to top-secret blueberry patches—and still bypass the town proper. Only the train, forever in a state between used-to-be-there and could-be-even-better, forces people to pass by the town’s restaurants and shops. One must reach North Creek with intention, taking a turn where so many do not, and maybe that’s part of what makes the people who end up here feel special.
As for what’s inside North Creek, the next best thing to being an expert is knowing who to consult. (This might be true of other towns in the Adirondacks, but I can’t claim insight into these other places, and leave it to the reader to nod along to this part if appropriate.) I’m no expert on North Creek, but one thing you learn is that anyone who has steeped in the place long enough becomes one. There are specializations in the field of North Creek studies. There are the people experts, the ones you find if you loiter around Stewart’s or the grocery store for longer than five minutes—the ones who know who is having a baby, and who is in town for the first time in years, and how many out-of-state license plates were on Main Street this morning. There are the outdoor experts, the ones who know if the trails are too muddy or buggy and can name all the birds and trees one might see there. And there are the historians, the experts in what used to be there, who can point at a building and recite the last five people who occupied it. (The experts in what used to be there sometimes overlap with the people experts.) I grew up in a family of these local academics, and although I do not share their expertise, I recognize their authority and the years of listening and living that went into creating such a crowd-sourced knowledge bank.
I know that most people who come to North Creek are drawn to the nature it contains, Gore Mountain and the Hudson, but to me the town’s singular pull has always been those experts, as one can find taller mountains to climb and inviting lakes to swim or canoe elsewhere in the Adirondacks. North Creek is the only place where I can get a grown-up grilled cheese at Café Sarah, it’s the only place where I’ve checked out 90 percent of the books in the children’s section of the library, it’s the only place where I can walk into Stewart’s and grab coffee and the latest gossip, where I can stand on the bridge and cheer on my family as they compete in the White Water Derby.
It’s because of those people that I miss North Creek terribly right now; I only spent a single day back home in 2020 because of the pandemic. But now is a perfect time to go to North Creek, to take that turn off of Route 28 onto Main Street, and stay long enough to feed the blackflies in thanks for their hospitality. After so much time away, I don’t think I could even get annoyed by them.
Jaime Fuller, web editor for Lapham’s Quarterly, has written for the Washington Post and New York magazine.