One burning July afternoon I trespassed in the great wooded Harrman lands in upstate New York and found a private lake.
Timeless board-and-batten camps faced on the quiet water among pines and maples. One place had a boat-house, dark green, with sun flecks dancing on its walls. All the way from where I stood, behind a chainlink fence, I could hear wavelets lapping at dock pilings and gently thrumming the rusty oil drums under the sun-bleached raft.
A couple of teens-agers lounged on a sundeck over the boathouse. Travels hung from the railing. Someone hailed on the boat ramp, dreambound. At the far end of the lake a Sunfish lazed, its stripped sail luffing carelessly.
The first thing I thought or was White Lake in the Adirondacks, where we spent summers in the '30s. Except for the Sunfish, it was exactly the same. I could have told you what that boathouse smelled like inside: pitch and raw wood and paint and mildewed towels. I know that in the bottom of the sluggish, old faded-blue rowboat drawn up on the Harriman beach, there would be a dead perch crusted with sand, and on the thwart would be a tiny pile of dirt from a worm can with one leathery little rejected worm sunbaked onto the wood.
It was all gone, of course, for me and the rest of us. Only the very rich. I reflected with some bile, could bring back the past like this, keeping at bay the world's multiplying population, the American lesiure masses with their campers and motorbikes and outboards and metal rowboats and eternal shouting. This was like a set, perfectly recreated so the Harriman heirs could relive a childhood idyll.
Leisure was more leisurely then. We rented a two-story house from the Utleys, who lived in the boathouse a few yards away on a cuticle of sandy beach. Our house had a stone fireplace, knotty pine walls, stair railings made of birch limbs with the bark still on them, shellacked to a smoky yellow. Propped on the sooty mantel were large lichens with amateur landscapes drawn on their velvety whiteness.
We had no electricty. We read by kerosene lamp at night. There was no running water, but a pump in the kitchen sink and another in the yard. The outhouse stood up the hill behind the icehouse. Any time I wanted to impress my own kids with my antiquity (hence wisdom, I naively believed), I could blow their minds telling about their place.
A family named Brown lived in fairly elaborate new camp near us. The first time I saw the four Brown boys they were swimming the 100 yards from their dock to our raft and back in their annual survival test. Dick and Ted were only a little older than me; Dave was a venerable Boy Scout leader at Camp Russell down the lake, and Martin was so old you almost never saw him around.
They had a model schooner 6 feet long that they sailed from a rowabout, and their canoe. One summer they all showed up with Mohawk scalplock haircuts and breechclouts. I didn't even try to ask my parents if I could do that.
Dave had scaled Putt's Monument, a natural obelisk off in the woods where a Revolutionary soldier was supposed to have climbed while fleeing Indians. They found Putt perched up there and picked him off with arrows. I always thought he was a fool to get himself trapped that way.
Rainy days we sat in the darkened boathouse with Utley Laux, the landlord's grandson, and my sisters and told ghost stories. Or we played slapjack, all of us, shrieking with laughter, on the Browns' screened porch with seven packs of filthy dog-eared cards.
I lost track of the Brown boys. Ted was killed in the Pacific. Martin became a labor organizer. I think, and later settled in the area. I understand Dick lives in Utica. Dave was lawyer, and I knew him in another life in California, but eventually I lost him a second time.
Last summer I detoured through the Adirondacks. A perserve instinct. What was there to see? It would just be freeways and motels and fast food huts, I would just get mad.
Sure enough, the first view of the public beach at White Lake featured a seaplane and a million people in bathing suits. I remembered when even outboards were a hot issue on the lake.
At least there was no freeway here yet. But any minute now. I would come to the big new developments, the Holiday Inns, the parking lots.
Then I passed Helen Dewey's family place, which backed up to the road among the trees. I had known her in the first grade.The house hadn't even been repainted: deep green carpenter gothic with a porch around it and a boathouse below, at the water's edge. It seemed empty. I parked and gingerly walked down the bank trying not to look like a burglar.
It was uncannily the same: the handmade concrete steps, the pines and cedars and wintergreen bushes, the narrow trails in the springy, needle-packed ground interlaced with roots all polished by being constantly stepped on, the little waves licking at the sones.
A white-haired woman suddenly stood before me. Polite but cautious. I began to explain. I used to spend summers here, years ago, you see, and . . .
"But what's your name?" she said."We're all the same people here."
Well, it's Kernan. I mumbled. Her head snapped back.She stared.
"You're Michael. Your mother was Katharine Clarke, who married a Bacot. You went to the Day School with Helen."
She was Helen Dewey's mother in her 80s. She hadn't laid eyes on me since I was 8 years old.
Oh sure, the old Utley camp was still there, she said. I could see its boathouse from her dock. She took me inside her place, and the smells were the same, piney and musty. Even the shingled roof was the same, furred with moss. Chipmunks loved to jump on those roofs. You could hear them if you slept upstairs.
Gazing across the lake, I saw the huge granite boulder where we sued to catch bass, the other camps nearly hidden in the thick woods. Nothing was changed, nothing I started to stroll down the trail but stopped because I had an awful feeling I would recognize some of the roots. (If you were good you could run on those trails even at night and not trip.)
"The Browns," she said. "I don't know. They sold their camp some time ago. Haven't seen the Utleys, but I think they still own that place. Still haven't got the electricity in there . . ."
I take it all back about the Harrimans.