Vermont was the crumple zone in the collision between the Adirondacks to the west and the long-since-retreated continent of Proto-Eurasia to the east. Its bedrock was once the continental shelf under the ancient ocean geologists have named Iapetus. As my friend Put and I headed west from Montpelier last week on Interstate 89, we followed the Winooski River, which actually predated the Green Mountains and, as they rose in response to the continental collision, cut its way down through them. Old-time Vermonters, faced with an annual horse-drawn trip from east and west to legislative sessions, found its water gap the most attractive location for their capital. Beats climbing over Appalachian or Lincoln Gap.
After Richmond, the Green Mountains subside into the flat Champlain Valley, once the bottom of the Champlain Sea before the land rose in response to the relief of the weight of continental ice sheets. But suddenly — it’s most noticeable if you cross the lake on the new Crown Point bridge — the gray-black mass of the Adirondack Dome rises in successive waves to its highest point at Mount Marcy.
It’s different, this neck of the woods, from both the Green Mountains and the Whites. Protected in its wildest sections by the “Forever Wild” clause of the New York Constitution, it feels older, even though it was once logged pretty clean. One old-timer remarked that if a crow were to fly across the Adirondacks at the turn of the century, he’d have to pack a lunch. That all began to change around 1900, when canal and mill operators in central New York complained about a lack of water in late summers. Unimpeded spring runoff had depleted the upland supply earlier each year. Now I can walk among 100-year-old trees and begin to see an underbrush-free forest floor. And it seems that every few minutes, if not continually, I can hear the sound of running water.
I first came here in 1952 on a visit with my school roommate, a native of the village of Keene Valley, nestling deep between Spread Eagle and the Brothers, which rise on both sides. It was love at first sight, and I came back whenever I could. In 1958, in remission from higher education and aimless, I finally moved to Keene Valley to look for work and a place to...shall we say...regroup. To my immense good fortune, I got fired in 45 minutes from a job for which I wasn’t qualified, but within a minute got hired by an old guide/carpenter/storyteller who needed “a man” to help him and some other guides at a mysterious place called “the Lakes” at the Ausable Club. One of the other guides, regarding me one day with bundles of shingles on my back, said, “Well, he’s a comical-lookin’ gink, but he looks like he might do.” It was to the scene of those early adventures that I was able to return this week, but as a guest this time.
The Ausable Club in St. Huberts was formed in 1886, when a group of locals and summer folks became concerned about a recent purchase of incomparably beautiful land by a timber company. They chipped in for shares, and formed a corporation, the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, that a year later bought 25,000 acres outright. Later additions made it 45,000. In recent years conveyances to the State of New York, which guarantees forever-wild status, have reduced its holdings to about 7,000 acres. But those 7,000 acres — the Club buildings, golf course, road to the lakes, and the lakes and headwaters — are the jewels in the crown. On Thursday morning we drove the three miles to the lower lake — our hostess, a member, had a key to the gate — where that beautiful summer of over sixty years ago came flooding back. In the boathouse, packed with as much treasure as King Tut’s tomb, I found the three guide boats I rowed that summer, and renewed our acquaintance with a handshake of the familiar nine-foot-long spruce oars. I remembered swimming the lake alone once, 2 1/2 miles, on a dare, with a small boat tied to me for safety, sending the boathouse watchman into fears of recurring delirium tremens — a ghost boat! — till he saw the head in the water. I’ve been colder than that maybe once or twice in my life, and hope never again to be.
Evenings after supper, the six of us sat around the fireplace and chatted till drowsiness or convention took over (or Thursday evening, till the Patriots game came on, when I retired). From a choice of about a dozen bedrooms I had opted for an upstairs screened porch, where Kiki and I huddled under five layers of blankets like bugs in a rug. The waxing moon shone through the hemlock tops like a great searchlight moving across the sky, though it was too dark to see if the night was cold enough for my breath to fog. From off to the west and down the hill came faintly the rushing sound of the infant East Branch of the Ausable River. The net effect was paradisiacal: I could hardly believe that sixty years of chances and opportunities (some missed, some grasped) had led from being “a man” hired to haul shingles, dig holes, and split firewood to these perfect two days in the woods and mountains with old friends, surrounded by ancient memories, nestled in a warm bed with a Hudson’s Bay blanket on top, and breathing again that mixture of leaf mold and balsam fronds. It’s where the second half of my life pretty much began, and it’s where it’ll end. But there’s no hurry for that. As Mr. Frost once observed, Earth’s the right place for love.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.