You have to wonder how the north country people, the real mountain people, are going to take the Olympics and all that hullabaloo and TV cable.
Most likely they'll just disappear. Melt into the underbrush like a deer, or a fox that freezes stock-still in an autumn meadow and vanishes right there befroe your eyes.
Even if you spent your childhood summers in the Adirondacks, even if you had a bachelor uncle to visit up there, it was hard enough to find the real people. But over the years you got a sense of them, their laconic humor, their secretiveness, their casual hardiness, and from then on you saw the woods the way they did.
Oh, the Olympic visitors will get a taste. Right off they'll find out that the town of Lake Placid is not on Lake Placid at all, but on Mirror Lake. And maybe if they stay at one of those rooming houses with varnished pine saplings for banisters and a moose head over the fireplace, they'll hear a little history, even: like how nobody thought about winter sports at Placid until 1904, when the Lake Placid Club guests were put to shoveling snow off the lake so they'd build an appetite for their gigantic meals. They skated till dark.
The club was built in 1891 by Melvil Dewey. He took in New York society people, the kind who more or less invented the Adirondack resort. For years the Harrimans and Vanderbilts and their friends had been coming to the great arklike hotels: Paul Smith's on Lower St. Regis Lake (500 rooms, $35 a week with meals); the Beede House in Keene Valley ($8 a week); Rainbow House at Saranac Lake; Prospect House, rising six stories above Blue Mountain Lake; and most influential of all, not a hotel but a way of life, the Adirondack League Club, which in 1890 bought 104,000 acres of wilderness for $4.75 an acre.
No doubt the League Club crowd will be hard to find during the Olympics too, but that will be because they have rented their lakeside places at sickening rates or holed up in them for a two-week house party.
The clud did build a sort of inn near Placid, at the foot of tiny Mount Jo. For me at 14, going there with my pals Franny and Dave to climb a few mountains, it was a shock.
I had grown up with some real north country people. A guide who called himself Mr. Vireo, after the songbird (he had an unsayable Swiss name), took me and my father on an overnight canoe trip across Big Moose Lake when I was 4, and he taught me how to caw like a loon. Many summers I went fishing with Utley Laux on White Lake, where we rented the Laux house, kerosene lamps and outdoor privy and all, while they lived over the boathouse. On rainy days we used to tell ghost stories down among the boats, with the smell of gasoline in the air.
And there was Nick, the uncle who ran the fox farm at Debar, and his cronies: Charlie Briggs the hermit and Harry Candee the artistic fisherman with the stomach that made a beautiful single curve from thighs to throat, and Mr. Ferris the caretaker for the rich sport who built the big lodge on Debar Pond, and clear-eyed, bustling Mrs. Gale who cooked for Nick and would proudly turn a gorgeous steak into shoeleather for us.
These people were the Adirondacks to me, unassuming and as matter-of-fact about it all as our family friend Jean Etheridge, who once casually revealed that she had been the little girl who found Grace Brown's body at Big Moose after she had drowned.The story was the basis for Dreiser's An American Tragedy.
So when I walked into the League Club's Mount Jo hangout I thought I must be in the wrong place. Long Island, maybe.
Somebody Big from New York was there with his party.They had driven in and were roughing it. Never before or since have I seen so many brand new checkered shirts with the store-creases in them.
Shirts! Even the belts were new! The backpacks still had tags on them. And the shoes! I almost spoke up when I got a load of those shiny yellow boots, because when I was 10 I wore some new boots on a 12-mile hike out of Little Moose Lake, and the blisters formed after 600 yards, and my heels were bleeding before lunchtime.
There seemed to be about four daddies and six kids. We had supper with them at the trestle table and left them polishing gear while we stole up to the loft.
They were asleep in their bedrooms when we left next morning, with the mist still rising from the hollows.
We hiked for two weeks, climbed 16 of the 46 Adirondack peaks of 4,000 feet or more, helped rescue four girls on the slide face of Mount Colden, wore out Franny's sneakers (he'd left his boots behind) climbing the Range, Haystack, Gothic, the Wolf Jaws and so on clouds so thick we could only see each other's heads, and on the last day trudged all the way in from the far side of Mount Marcy, arriving long after dark.
The New York party was still there. Their packs hadn't been used yet, though they had ventured up Mount Jo about as high as an igloo. We didn't tell them of our adventures but lounged around, tattered and smelly, while they covertly gawked.
This was very Adirondacks. You don't talk much. On our hike we had shared a lean-to with a white-haired professor who had been roaming the woods for weeks, living on Wheatena and raisins, and Franny knew who he was -- a friend of his family -- but never brought it up.
It was the same with Connie Bialas. I went to school with her, and when her father had his leg cut off by a train, I would never have heard it from her. Then I read in the paper that fer father was Val Bialas, an Olympic speed skater and captain of the skating team in 1928. He came in fifth in the '32 Olympics. The accident happened soon after.
But you couldn't explain that kind of people to someone wearing a pressed checkered shirt.
All I can say is: North country people are people who will eat maple syrup from a saucer for breakfast, will always have a little offseason venison for you if they know you well enough, will climb into one of those elegant, sleek -- and tippy -- 16-foot, 75-pound guideboats without making a ripple.
They'll tell you the story of the fisherman who went to court when he was arrested for having an undersize trout, and brought in a professor from St. Lawrence University who testified that dead fish can strink out of water, and won his case. They'll tell you that one, and the one about the guy who had a bobcat farm, breeding the varmints as fast as he could collect the bounty on their heads, but they'll never laugh with you. They don't laugh much. It's all inside.
I haven't the slightest idea what all the north country people would think of the Lake Placid Olympics. In '32, quite a few local Placid kids competed, and brought in four gold medals. In all, Placid has proudced 49 Olympic athletes; and many long-time residents are quite conscious of this.
But as for the tourists and summer soldiers, I refer you to old Albert Debar, long gone now, who would rock on his porch, gaze at his mountain, pull on his waist-long beard and talk about the black flies, the terrible scourge of the Adirondacks, which during their season from the 15th of May to the Fourth of July could drive lumberjacks clean out of the woods.
"Why," Albert said once of some other winter visitors, "why, they been here and gone, ain't never seen a black fly, not a one. Now what kinda people is that?"