Back of beyond

Adirondack is a modern coinage, applied by a state geologist in 1836 to a previously unnamed blank space on the map. But Ebenezer Emmons didn’t make it up out of whole cloth: it is a word of Iroquioan ancestry, meaning something like half-breed or resident alien. As the poet Roger Mitchell puts it, Adirondacks resembles the “Mohawk for Frenchman, Huron for Rock Clan, Iroquois for French Indian, Mohawk for Huron, all of them speakers of slightly different languages.”

Our five-day sojourn last week had an odd symmetry to it. Both coming and going we had to pilot the small Honda through torrential rains in northern Pennsylvania that at times obscured the view and required intense focus on the road ahead. On the way back, in particular, flash flooding slowed our progress to a crawl as we forded streams and rocky outwash deltas covering one or both lanes of U.S. Route 220. Finally, we were forced to abandon the highway altogether and take an alternate route because of a stream that would’ve swamped the car had we attempted to push our way through.

As a consequence, in my mind’s eye I am unable to stitch together the landscape of central Pennsylvania, where I live, and the Adirondacks, some nine hours away. It’s like trying to watch a movie with one missing reel of film.

I’ve always had a hard time adjusting to the physical and cultural geography of upstate New York as it is. Although the northeast and northwest quadrants of Pennsylvania were glaciated, the northern border roughly approximates the southern limit of the Wisconsin ice sheet. The spectacular gorges and waterfalls of the Finger Lakes region are almost without parallel in Pennsylvania, to say nothing of the granitic peaks of the Adirondacks, which predate and stand apart from the Appalachians altogether. They are mountains of the classic type, in stark contrast to the nearly endless, low ridges of the folded Appalachians that I call home. And whereas in the Adirondacks one has to climb many thousands of feet to see bare rock and twisted trees, here one can find open boulder fields and wind- and ice-shaped vegetation at the crest of nearly every ridge, no matter how puny.

Pennsylvanians tend to think of the northern portion of our state as the far north, home of the severest weather. In fact, on portions of the High Allegheny Plateau, the weather is more severe than one would encounter in much of upstate New York, outside Buffalo and the Adirondacks. At any rate, I was amused to discover that our Northern Tier Counties border what New Yorkers evidently call their Southern Tier Counties!

The socio-cultural landscape of upstate New York can also take a bit of getting used to. As many times as I have visited it, I still have a hard time with the idea that some place so close to home could be so different – in accent, in politics, even in architecture. New England-style connected houses alternate with flat-roofed Italianate dwellings; yellow is a popular color for both. Very few of the barns have forebays and earthen banks leading to a second-storey threshing floor – the classic Pennsylvania barn look. Cupolas are less common on barns and more common on houses. Farms appear, in general, a lot poorer, and the countryside shows much less evidence of suburban and exurban sprawl than most parts of Pennsylvania, where greater political fragmentation, proximity to major population centers and an aversion to zoning have enabled building booms even in counties with stagnant or declining population growth rates.

The huge Adirondack State Park and Forest Preserve, with its “forever wild” status written into the state constitution, is without parallel in the East. Restrictions on construction and various other activities extend to private lands within the designated boundaries of the region. Thus, one encounters the very un-American prospect of a heavily touristed landscape where commercial sprawl and ticky-tacky are kept to a bare minimum. If there’s an equivalent to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, I haven’t seen it.

All of this is a long way around saying that, for me, the Adirondacks remain exotic and disconnected from everything I know or have grown to expect from the familiar East. Like one of those vast mirages glimpsed by polar explorers, they hang suspended in the air, defying the ordinary warp of my mental horizon. I am already planning my next visit.

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