Warning: the following post contains a very sad story. I would say it’s definitely Old Yeller sad but not quite The Champ sad. I’m on a “write about the Adirondacks” kick. I really can’t say how long this might go on. This might be it. We’ll see.
I have a nice backyard. It is about a quarter of an acre, is completely fenced in, has some lovely trees, a small garden, and a large deck where the kids zoom around on their ride-on toys and occasionally fall off, wail loudly, and then do the whole thing over again. I enjoy my yard.
Compared to my mom’s backyard growing up, however, our backyard is a big fat disappointment. Our front yard too, for that matter.
My grandmother’s house is set on a hill, and in the winter, you can see the lake from the living room picture window when the leaves on the trees no longer impede the view. Their house was built right next to my great-grandparents’ home, formerly a white colonial with a barn where they once kept chickens. The yard behind both houses was endless and sprawling, flat until it reached another steep hill. My mom used to ski down that hill in the winter. From atop of Charley hill, you get a panoramic view of the lake.
The yard was complete with a rambling stream and what my mom always referred to as her frog pond. She recalls running down the hill, watching out for adders in the tall grasses, playing for hours by the pond as her Shetland sheepdog enjoyed the wide open space. Their home basically backed up to an Adirondack wonderland, a country paradise, complete with deer, a variety of chirping birds, and other wild visitors like skunks, raccoons, and wild bobcats that were always set to attack.
I’m kidding about the wild bobcats. I do know that a common form of Schroon Lake recreation was to go to the dump to watch the black bears forage for food.
In the late 1950s, construction of the Northway, an extension of I-87, began. Crews blasted their way through the north, dynamiting rocks and creating a freeway that would lead from Albany up to Canada, the only freeway in the Adirondack Mountains.
They bulldozed their way through my mom’s backyard in the 1960s.
When I was little, I used to pour over compilations of Peanuts comics. Perhaps you remember the ones where Snoopy believed a freeway was going to bulldoze right through his doghouse? He was really quite panicked about the whole thing. (As you would be too, if you had a doghouse you enjoyed perching upon more than anything else in the world.) Reading those strips, I could only think of my mom and her family, sitting at night in their living room, listening to the explosions going off behind them. I'm sure it brought back unwanted memories of the war for my grandpa. Teddy the Sheltie would shake and forever be afraid of thunder afterwards. The stream and the frog pond would dry up. They would become completely cut off from Charley Hill.
The funny thing is, after the Northway was built, my grandparents rarely used it. There is an exit to it in walking distance from their house. Instead, they took the winding back roads to Glens Falls or North Creek or Ticonderoga. I did not drive on the Northway until I was an adult, taking it over the shorter jaunt through the mountains because of inclement weather conditions.
I’ve never known that backyard without the Northway behind it. I used to lie on a cot in my uncle’s old bedroom, silent beneath the slanted ceiling of my grandparents’ cape cod home, and listen to the cars swish by on the Northway. I imagined they weren’t cars, but waves from the lake.
The Adirondack Park is so large. What were the chances the Northway would have to come right through my mom’s backyard, the home of people who had lived, breathed, and worked in these woods their entire lives? And whose parents and parents’ parents had done the same?
Alas, the Northway is now taken for granted. It was originally supposed to be built parallel to route 9. I don’t know why that plan failed. I do know that the “forever wild” clause in the state’s constitution was amended so that road could be built. “Forever wild- unless something comes up.”
Most people build their homes off of roads. Rarely are roads ripped through private lands. Such is the beauty of eminent domain, which I realize is at times necessary (or is it?), but it doesn’t make me hate it any less. I doubt that people who drive through the Northway give any thought to what was lost in its making. Instead, they demand more from it: cell towers that will enable them to gab instead of enjoying the scenic vista as they drive by.
Wow. I sound like an environmentalist wack-a-doo. Oh well, I guess I’m entitled to that one day a year. I’m totally thinking of starting a Facebook cause against eminent domain, however. You in?
And y’know what? When that kid walked into Alaska and injured himself and died and then when a whole BOOK and a subsequent movie were written about him, I didn’t hear one person call out for cell phone towers in the Alaskan wilderness! You may say, but Holly, I don’t think there were cell phones back then. To which I say, oh.
Honestly, I can’t imagine my childhood memories of Schroon Lake being greatly improved by the absence of that road. I still had a fantastic time playing in the backyard with neighboring children, creating crowns out of wild black-eyed-susans, learning to swim in the lake, hiking up Mt. Severence (a glorified hill, actually), and visiting with my grandfather, who I believed was the kindest and funniest man on the planet. I remember how dark it was at night, so dark you couldn’t even see the Northway and wouldn’t know it was there except for the occasional beam of headlights and the sound of a car on its way to who knows where. I remember that the crickets were louder there than anyone where else I’ve ever been.
I’m not opposed to the cell towers. Who cares. People live there, and deserve cell phone access like the rest of us. Anyway, there are already electrical wires entangled in the autumn leaves. And let’s face it… many of the homes (or shacks or trailers) aren’t so pretty to look at either. Especially the ones with tires and rusty trucks and the virgin Mary in a tub in their front yards. And I certainly don’t want to kick them out. Mostly.
I just hate the Northway.
I did often try to imagine what it would be like if that fence that protects us from the zooming cars was not there and the grassy yard went on, uninterrupted. Now, I imagine how much my kids would have liked the frog pond and how fun it would have been to climb up Charley Hill. What could have been shall never be. And all you can do is shrug and remember what my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Doty, used to drill into our heads: life is not always fair.
View from Charley Hill
View from Grandma's Front Porch