Not long before the world went into lockdown, I traded the city for the country. For almost 40 years, I lived on busy Philadelphia streets, awakened at times by sirens and horns. For all those years, I reveled in the messiness and color of urban life and prowled many corners of the city. I raised children and saw grandchildren born there. I knew how City Hall worked. I was part of a Jewish community of life-long friends. I ate my way through the Italian Market and Chinatown and the Reading Terminal thousands of times and walked cobblestone streets amidst narrow rowhouses in a city known for its neighborhoods.
Then, in the fall of 2019, Pete and I moved to North River, New York, a hamlet of about 300 near the headwaters of the Hudson River in the Adirondack Park. Now, I wake up to see the sun illuminating the mountain tops across Thirteenth Lake, a pristine lake a short walk from my house. In the autumn, when the trees are brilliant with orange, yellow and burgundy, the rounded summits seem to glow. Often, I leave my house and walk down the dirt road to the Old Farm Trailhead. From there, it’s a mile or so to the top of Balm of Gilead Mountain, or farther down to Botheration Pond or the Sacandaga River. Walking the same trail in in the same patch of woods is a way of coming to know a new place. At first the forest seems undifferentiated layers of brown and green. Then the life of it comes into focus. I note how muddy the trail has become with summer rains, vivid orange mushrooms popping up on soggy logs everywhere, tiny yellow lilies in the spring, find flecks of garnet in the rocks, watching the streams gradually freeze and become covered with snow.
It’s been long enough ago now that folks have stopped asking me if I still feel like I am on vacation. But I was no stranger to the Adirondacks. I had been returning to the mountains year after year, in every season, to ski, hike, camp, sit by a lake, or prowl through towns that seem suspended in an earlier time. For years, the long drive from Philadelphia dissolved when I passed the road sign announcing, “Entering Adirondack Park,” I felt something inside let go. I couldn’t wait to breathe the forest air and feel the soft earth under my feet.
When our work life drew to a close in Philadelphia, and facing that third age misleadingly called “retirement,” Pete and I imagined a different life. We imagined one where trees and trails and a lake were our more constant companions, where we might amuse ourselves with chopping wood or snowshoeing to the nearest neighbor. But would it be possible to hold onto that feeling of transcendent awe at the beauty of the Adirondacks if we actually lived there? Or would it soon become old, and would we become bored and lonely and miss the vibrant chaos of urban life? We would never know if we didn’t try.
Less than six months after we moved to the North Country, the pandemic hit the earth like a meteor. Suddenly, I was simultaneously assimilating into both a new community and a world that seemed to be falling off a precipice. Suddenly, a community of people I barely knew that were now my lifeline to staying sane. I was no longer facing a transition from city to country, but, along with the rest of the planet, contemplating a realignment of human life. Suddenly, my former life in Philadelphia seemed inaccessible and almost threatening. While this would eventually change with the arc of the pandemic, my gratitude for being able to live much of my life outdoors has not.
Instead of dinner parties for socializing, I was going on long hikes in the woods and skiing with neighbors on the cross-country trails that pass my front door. At the top of a mountain, in the bracing crisp cold air of the wilderness, life seemed once again almost normal. One neighbor invited us to get involved with the local farmers market, another with a community art center. The colors of a new life here began to fill in.
And despite being in a place which at first seemed remote, I have met many fascinating people–river guides and skiers, teachers, artists, builders, healers, and scientists; a whole host of them who, like me, came here later in life. And I have met folks who have the Adirondacks in their blood. There is Judy, whose family owned the lodge up the hill in the 1960s and who, since then, has been fashioning jewelry from the garnets that lie in the earth here. I met a young woman, Sam, who, like her father and grandparents before her, grew up in North River, a stone’s throw from where loggers used to drive lumber down a roiling Hudson River. Sam once said to me that, after having gone away for an MFA in writing, she realized her sense of self had been formed more than anything by coming from the Adirondacks, more than gender and all those other categories we define ourselves by.
I think about what Sam said often. I realize I do not know, in my bones, what it means to be formed by the Adirondacks. But I have embraced my world up here. Beyond exploring the natural wonders around me, I have buried myself in Adirondack lore—reading about the loggers, trappers, iconoclasts, the lavish great camps and the still tenuous balance of conservation and daily life. After two years, I can only say that I am neither a city person nor a country person, but both and all.
A group of the North River women started walking together three mornings a week, through fall and the bitter cold of winter. I can now, with a touch of smugness, brag about 5-degree weather and foot-deep snow being just about right for a walk and, dare I say, look a little disdainfully at my Philly friends who complain about the cold. “You really like the cold, now don’t, you?” say a few of them, with, I imagine, a bit of grudging admiration. I’m not quite a mountain woman, but starting to fit in.
Philadelphia’s neighborhoods are still familiar; when I go back, I move easily into their rhythm. I will never tire of discovering new cities, especially the ones with winding, narrow streets lined with beckoning stores and bistros and art in every corner. And I look forward to returning home.
When my now five-year old grandson comes to visit our “cabin” in the Adirondacks, he always asks the same two questions, “why is this house all wood?” and “why did you move here?”. To the first question, I point outside and say, look, there are a lot of trees here to make houses from. To the second question, I am still figuring out the answer, but what I say to a five-year old feels true, “we wanted to live among those trees.” Perhaps he would understand that the mountains still fill me with inexpressible awe, that I consider my lake a tranquil paradise and that home is the place to which I retreat and feel most at peace.
10 Replies to “There’s No Place Like…Home”
Sharon, this is beautiful! You inspire me to write about relocating to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and the meaning of the water here. Thank you, my friend.
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Thanks Katie, your move inspired me! I’d love to read that when you write it.
This post is wonderful. The Adirondacks are one of my most favorite places in the world. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for reading and commenting! There will be more about the Adirondacks (after I return from Mexico!)
This is beautiful Sharon. You capture the essence of what draws you to these mountains, and the transition of the retirement (what I call the third half). My admiration is not at all grudging. My own transition has parallel lines but looks quite different. It’s wonderful to read about the places your journey leads you. Thanks for sharing it.
Thanks for taking the time to read. I’ve enjoyed hearing about your transition to Oregon. Write on!
Sharon, thank you for sharing your thoughts on living life in north river!! Most enjoyable to read about this naturally beautiful place we call home. I love the part where you mentioned living and feeling gratitude for being able to live much of your life outdoors. I feel the same way!
Thank you Jill for that. Coming from someone who’s been in the Dacks for a long time, it means a lot!
Sharon, this brought me so much joy and some happy tears this morning. I could feel home coming through my computer screen. Like Sam, the Adirondacks feel so deeply rooted in who I am. I long for its comfort, familiarity, and warmth (even in the dead of winter). Thank you for bringing a smile to my face today!
Kelly, deeply appreciate your comment and pleased that this touched you.❤️