Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Over Rivers and Mountains

While trapped in the car on Friday, making my slow way across MA and NY, I had a lot of time to think about how I ended up in Boston.  Most days, Boston (okay, Somerville) is a great place to live.  We have lots of stuff there, and all that stuff is easy to get to.  We have some really good friends who we love.  But every now and then, I leave the city.  And as soon as I get out past the 95 corridor, there is a switch that goes off in my head, and I am able to see all the things that I am missing by living in the city.  Mostly, I am missing rivers (seriously people, the Charles is cool, but if you can see both banks at the same time, it is a stream) and mountains (the Fells in Winchester?  Hills, if that). 

I am spending this week at home, in Northern New York.  I grew up in the Thousand Islands region of the state which, for those of you unfamiliar with anything past White Plains (shame on you), is waaaaay up near the top of the state.  The town where I grew up is about 90 miles north of Syracuse, off the last exit on 81N that is still on the American mainland.  It borders the St. Lawrence River, one of the longest and largest rivers in the world, and also the only river in the world besides the Nile that runs north.  It is filled with water from the Great Lakes; the end of Lake Ontario is about 30 miles upriver from us, and then the river continues north into Canada.  Now that you can locate it on a map, here's a picture:

Up close, it looks like this:

If you are wondering, yes, Thousand Islands Dressing IS just like the place where I grew up; the dressing was invented there.  There are about 15 different stories about it, but the most common one goes like this: one weekend a train was heading up from NYC (more on that later), and the chef on the train realized that he had no salad dressing in his kitchen.  So, he mixed a bunch of condiments that they did have together, and called in Thousand Islands Dressing.  Personally, I think the stuff is nasty.  
So, now you are thinking, "You live in the middle of no where, why would anyone want to take a train there from NYC, which is way cooler?"  Well, we have more than just a river here.  We also have thousands of islands!  And those are pretty freaking cool themselves.  And about a hundred and fifty (give or take, I am not a historian) years ago, it was very common for the wealthy people of NYC to own islands, and to spend their weekends and summers on those islands.  In truth, not much has changed.  Lots of people still own islands, and many of them do not live in or around NNY full time.  

Some of the islands are huge, and have huge houses on them, like this:
Ha ha, yes that is actually a castle.  Boldt Castle.  The man who built it, George Boldt, at one point owned the Waldorf Astoria in NYC, strengthening the link between the to ends of NY state.  Then, before the castle could be completed (the outside is done, but the inside was uncompleted) his wife either died or left him for someone else, depending on which version of the story you believe. 

Other islands are very small, like this one:

Seriously, I went past this house / island every summer for years.  I have never seen it flood, although it must happen in the spring when the river is high from all the melting snow.  It cracks me up.  The people who live there basically tie their boat to their front door.  Oh, because that is the other thing that you sort of have to have to live here, and not even just on an island: a boat.  

I grew up being on boats, all the time.  I was on a boat before I rode in a car.  This is not the exaggeration you think it is, because the hospital where I was born is only a few blocks from where we lived at the time, and in the 70's it wasn't like they made you use car seats or any of that.  So, my parents just walked me home.  Then, since I was born in the spring, put me on a boat.  (Okay, maybe not that quickly, but something like that.)  

Being home reminds me of about a million stories (those are for other posts) from my childhood through college years.  Some of them, many of them, involve the River.  Jumping off rock cliffs with my cousins and brother.  Taking boats out after dark and hitting shoals because we were looking for buoys to either side but not directly in front of the boat (then blaming a bent prop on someone else and totally getting away with it).  Lots and lots of nighttime swimming!  But also just lazy days on the river, driving in and out of the tiny nooks between islands on the American and Canada sides of the river.  It is hard to grow up here and not have the River, and water in general, become a part of who you are.  

My childhood until I was 15 was spent here, in the Thousand Islands.  At the beginning of my sophomore years of high school, I decided that I needed to get out of here, and I went to boarding school.  Yes, it sounds wicked snobby, right?  Well, let me explain: I went to a tiny, tiny boarding school in Lake Placid, NY.  If you have not been there, Lake Placid is smack in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains.  They had the winter Olympics there twice (1932, and 1980--when the US hockey team beat Russia and it was a BIG DEAL; I have even had a chance to skate on the hockey rink where that game was played!).   The town, and the lake it is on (which is actually Mirror Lake) look like this:
See those mountains in the background?  Those are the little ones.  Whiteface and a bunch of others are on the other side of the lake.  During high school, there would be days when classes would be cancelled and they would put all of use (well, there were maybe 125 of us) onto buses then leave us (and a lunch) at the bottom of a mountain with a teacher to lead us.  And we would spend the day hiking.  There was an Outing Club, and they went hiking and rock climbing year round.  Looking back, I wish I had done that, but I spent my fall playing soccer, and the rest of the year I spent (surprise!!) running around Mirror Lake and snowboarding at Whiteface.  Obviously, this was not a hard life. 

While I was in LP I fell in love with the mountains.  I have to admit that I could be pretty whiny about some of it.  I was, after all, a 16 year old girl with better things to do, like seeing what the boys on the hockey team were up to; you know, important stuff!  But, without realizing it, the mountains became almost as important a piece of existence to me as the river was.  So when I went back to the flat land of NY for college, in Geneva, I missed them.  I had, of course, the Finger Lakes right out my front door.  By joining the crew team I even found a way to spend hours a day on the water all through college.  And so I gave up the mountains to be back near the water.

After college, I moved back to the mountains, a little farther east than LP, in Vermont.  For you geographicaly disinclined, VT is the Green Mountains.  Although, I prefer them in the fall when they are red, yellow, and orange.  This time, I just lived in them; I didn't really make an effort to get out hiking, although I did a LOT of snowboarding (which I love--it is mountains and water together!!  Yes, the water is frozen, but that is actually how I prefer it, so it makes me extraordinarily happy).   If you have never been to VT, no picture I find on Bing Images is going to do it justice.  Then again, the other pictures have not exactly been amazing representations, so I will try (extra points to the first person who identifies the mountain in the picture): 
Again, none of these pictures really do justice to the places I am trying to explain to you, and they certainly can't capture what those places have meant to me.  Like the Thousand Islands, Vermont is full of memories and stories. New Year's Eve parties in Montpelier filling our friend's car with Christmas lights.  Lazy trips to Cold Hollow Cider Mill to buy an unreasonable amount of cider donuts.  Late nights in Burlington, wandering down Church Street.  About a million different local beers and cheeses.  None of those things are in this picture, just like none of my memories of being in a boat or of being a silly teenage girl in LP are in the earlier pictures.  

By this point, I am sure that you are thinking, "These are nice pictures, Kirsten, but why are you telling us all this?"  That's a good question.  I guess my drive across two states, making my slow way home, brought back a lot of memories for me.  This trip coincides with Matt and I moving--we are just going across town, but the process has made us have a couple of conversations about where we actually want to end up.  So as I drove along the bottom of the mountains and up towards the river, I started thinking about where I have been, about the places I have called home.  So, I started thinking about rivers and mountains.  I started thinking about my journey across New York and down through VT to finally end up in Somerville, where we have neither rivers nor mountains.  (Again, the Charles and the Fells do not count.)  And I started thinking about where I want to be, and what "home" means to me, what I want my home with Matt to be 

This is not going to be one of those posts that ends with me making some big life decision, don't worry.  For one thing, because choosing between rivers and mountains would be like choosing between different parts of my life, different versions of myself.  Who can do that?  But also because I am not ready to choose.  For now, Somerville is perfect for us.  And when the city gets to be too much, we can always go home--one of our homes.  We have family here in NY, along the River.  We have friends who are as close as family throughout VT, in the mountains.  So, I can put a decision off for a while.  

But that doesn't mean I don't miss home, sometimes painfully so.  On those days, I can run along the Charles, or hike in the Fells, up in Winchester, and think to myself, "You call this a river/mountain?  Seriously, people?  Let me tell you about my home, let me tell you what it should REALLY be like..." 


  1. So, a couple of years ago, when my dad bought the land, he told Kevin and my brother that we needed to divide and conquer. We knew we were going to be getting our wood from this land. So, one of us should own the really good chainsaw, one the trailer, and one the log splitter. Maybe this is how your life will be for a little while. I'll own the moutains, your mom the river, and you the city. That way you get it all.

    Admittedly, my dad bought all the stuff and we all just use his. Oh well.

  2. I've just been waiting for someone to say "so go live near Lake Champlain and then you can have water AND mountains." And then I could say "Oh yeah! Let's totally do that!!"

    But in the meantime, I am more than happy to come live in your backyard on the weekends.


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