Journey through the Adirondacks

This weekend I had the honor of being the convocation speaker at the opening of Clarkson University's 2015-16 academic year.  I drove there on Saturday.  If you plan a similar trip I advise bringing a powerful car, extra fuel, survival gear and defensive weaponry.

The road to Potsdam runs through the heart of New York’s Adirondack forest, which has become a place of ruins.  The Adirondacks were once the playground where all New Yorkers went to vacation. The camps were filled with kids and parents, and the resorts were booming with couples and groups of all sorts.  Not any more.

That said, with the humans subtracted it remains a place of wild and rugged beauty.  It's home to some of the northernmost rattlesnake dens in North America.  

Nowadays, though, it's largely forgotten as New Yorkers go to Aspen – or even farther - and the opportunities closer to home are abandoned.  First the resorts closed, and the great complexes like Grossinger’s were reclaimed by the woods.  The campgrounds were closer to woods to begin with and they disappeared even faster.

Then went the people who served them.  Whole communities depended on the tourist trade, and as it dried up, so went the means of support.  Anyone who could moved away.  Realtors put signs on the properties that were paid for, but there were not too many buyers.  Banks foreclosed the properties that had debt, and they had even less luck with remarketing.

Some of the houses people abandoned were pretty grand.  You wonder who they were, why they left, and where they went . . .

Today you drive wooded country roads, seemingly devoid of houses.  But when you look close, you see they are in there, surrounded by trees.  Some standing, others fallen down.  It is impressive, how quickly nature reclaims its own.

Then there are the roads themselves – the ones with pavement last longer.  Dirt roads can vanish as fast as the camps they led to.  Can you see the road in here?

It should come as no surprise that abandonment has even touched the road maintenance, and infrastructure like dams and bridges . . . And the 2011 hurricane and flooding did its part, too . . .

You need to be careful up north.  Infrastructure has gone to seed, and what looked at a distance like a friendly gas station is now abandoned broken by man, and it's home to wolves and were-bears.  God help you if you step too close to those doors late at night.  A fellow across the street says the flag hangs there as bait, and I saw for myself how true that was.  The screaming was unearthly.

There are places up there that make books like The Shining seem like kiddie stories.  And you don't hear much about them because those who learn the truth never emerge.  Your best advice - enter the country with a full tank of gas and a shotgun. Don't step out of the vehicle at night.  

When you see those heavy grates welded over storm drains . . . that is not to keep you out.  It's to keep THEM in.

Then, as you get father north, you come into farm country.  Abandonment there too a different form.  Half the farmers left, and abandoned or sold their holdings.  The houses and many of the barns were left to their fate, and the land was worked by those who remained. 

Closer to New York city these abandoned houses would be filled with the homeless, and with crack dealers.  Up here, they are just empty.  Mostly.  And the ones that are not . . . you will surely wish they were if you make the mistake of walking inside.

In the northern towns there is a pattern of struggle, then abandonment.  The working men and women who once populated this part of New York are leaving, to be replaced by transient college students at Clarkson, SUNY Potsdam, St Lawrence and a few other schools.  Health care is big up here too, thanks to an older core population and rising health care costs. 

Places like the 3 Bears Gluten Free Bakery are thriving, but you know times are tough when the tavern next door goes bust.

And for the rest . . .

In some places abandoned storefronts would signal crime and danger.  Here the people are mostly gone.  Yet they still manage to leave their mark . . .

The strong smell of urine is the first thing that hits you as you approach then Potsdam Court.  Then you see where the odor is concentrated – the collection box.  Clearly the people of northern New York have brought more than money to show their regard for the state court.

Then there is whimsy.  A block up from the court, the Patron Saint of the Bathroom stands before his legions.

Potsdam is actually known far and wide for having a whole house lot devoted to the Art of the Urinal

Most people don't think of New York as rural, but this is some of the most rural and wild country in the Eastern United States.  And it's empty.  You know it's remote when the accoutrements of modern highways slip away.  First the road widens a bit, and there are no guard rails.  Then there are no houses.  Finally there are no telephone poles.  And of course there are no other cars.  Run off the road up there and you'll be waiting a long time for rescue.

I left Clarkson in Potsdam and headed home Sunday night about 9.  Once I cleared Potsdam, it was 150 miles through the mountains to the honky-tonk of Lake George.  In that whole distance I passed 16 moving cars.  Think about that.  Can you imagine driving from Boston to New Haven and seeng less than 20 other motorists?  It gives pause for thought . . .

Until next time . . . 

All words and images (c) 2015 John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and the forthcoming Switched On. He's served on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.  

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.


Maria Ostrowski said…
Just came home from vacation that included driving through upstate NY and the Adirondacks region. I was astonished at how abandoned everything was. Reading this post has given me great insight and I appreciate it! Your photos and words together are powerful! Thanks for sharing!
Unknown said…
Stumbled across your post and found your experience very interesting. We live in Michigan but my husband is from that area. We went back for the first time in 15 years when we went to a wedding last year. The family lives near the Canadian border (Massena, Norwood, Norfolk). It is a beautiful mountainous area. At the same time, you are right that it is not always an easy place to make a living or to get around. Our family takes the ferry to Burlington, VT for some of their medical care. The winters can be intense. My husband has always been quick to point out that "Northern" and "Upstate" NY are not the same. Sounds like you experienced that as well.

Our niece starts school at Clarkston University this Fall. (Hoping she had the opportunity to hear your talk.) Thanks for the post and the pictures/memories it brought back to my mind.

Best to you and your family.
Cynthia said…
Not going there any time soon. Probably never, thanks to your travelogue.
Anonymous said…
One man is responsible for all of the urinals and toilets. In town, they are called "Toilet Gardens." He bought many different lots and set up toilet gardens for revenge. Dunkin Donuts wanted to buy a chunk of land from this man, and the town denied it. The man was upset because he could have made a lot of money from the sale. He wants to make the town look ugly to get back at them.
Anonymous said…
It is also a college town, with 4 colleges in the area. There are actually a lot of things to do in this town because of the daily college events that are open to the public as well as the students. Also, SUNY Potsdam is home to Crane School of Music. The town has access to all dance, theatrical, and musical performances as well as sporting and other events. Potsdam would certainly be a ghost town without the colleges, but it is quite bustling and lively because of all of the college students and activities. Newer restaurants don't seem to last long because there are a quite a few local favorites that attract most of the business. The two bars on main street get a ton of business during the week, but on the weekends especially. I'm not sure about the other businesses in the area, but the restaurants and bars seem to be thriving.
Unknown said…
Dear person whom has wrote this. You should delete this because only 3/4th of this article is true.

1. No you don't need a shot gun to go through there.
2. Its not as dangerous as you make it out to be.
3. I live at the base of the Adirondacks, and it's home to 250,000 people.
4. Summer the population with tourism increases to a couple million.
5. There are hiking trails from the northern ADK to the southern and are wildly used.
6. Why did you make it seem like it's Alaska? Its not.
7. You seemed to make it out to be this rough as badlands of death and dispare. Its not dude. Yes people go missing once are year and hikers do, but it is there fault from inexperience.
8. Articles like yours are what drives people away.
9. I'd advise you sticky to city writing. As you know nothing really about the Adirondacks. I did not see one reference for your facts in this article.

A pissed off hiker and civilian of the Adirondack mountains.
Unknown said…
I have to say, I found this really interesting. I used to live in Norwood (it's about 6 miles north of Potsdam) and I thought it was one of the most amazing places I have ever lived! I never felt that it was dangerous or that it was abandoned. To be honest, the most dangerous part of living there would be hitting a deer with your car if you weren't paying attention. I also don't think this was very fair because you didn't spend very much time in the North Country. Had you stayed longer, I'm sure that you would have fallen in love with it! I promise it's nowhere near as scary as you tried to make it out to be!

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