…sometimes begins with a trip home.
Let me clarify. I live in Central New York, but for eight of the worst years of my life, I lived in (and around) Potsdam, NY. For those that don’t know, (which I feel includes most of you), Potsdam is a college town in Northern New York, (or The North Country, as we call it), which is far closer to Canada than it is to just about anyplace you’ve ever heard of.
I graduated from SUNY Potsdam, technically in 1983, a year after I should have. The beginning, middle, and end of my first marriage all happened there, in the years between the wedding in 1980 to the dark day in 1983 when I was awoken to the news that it was all over. Following that came several years that I don’t really remember that well.
But I still have two very dear friends who live in the area, and for that reason, as well as some that are less tangible, I like to get back up there now and again.
It had actually been 14 years since the last time Kim and I made it North, and for this visit, we got an Air BnB, hoped the weather app was wrong (it predicted constant rain for the entire time we were planning on being up there), and hopped into the Toyota.
As is always the case, in spite of the fact that those last years up there held a lot of pain and desperation, I started to feel better as soon as we arrived. Perhaps this picture might give you some idea why. Scenes like this one are commonplace in the North Country. If you listen carefully you can hear the breeze, playing through the leaves of the trees. So much green!
This picture was taken in a place called Ives Park. I probably knew that’s what the park was called when I lived there, but we mainly just referred to it as “by the river.” It’s right in the heart of the village. When I was in college (and after), if I was in this park I was usually moving. Playing frisbee, or just milling around. Now that I’m a tad older I found myself just enjoying sitting on a bench with my queen, watching the geese swim past us. At one point a dog walked down the canoe launch near the water and the geese gave him a good talking to. He was just chasing a tennis ball, but they wanted him to know he wasn’t welcome that close to their turf.
I generally take a tour of the places I lived while I was up there. There were several. But this time I got a little surprise.
When I got married in 1980 our first place was a two-room handyman’s shed on a farm several miles outside of the village. It was way too small for two people to live comfortably but in those early days, we didn’t mind too much. There were, as I said, only two rooms. The front room was a combination of our living room and kitchen, while the back room was both bedroom and bathroom. The toilet was literally arms-length from the bed. We called it “The Toolshed.”
So when I decided to find it this past weekend to take a picture for my daughter to see, we headed out of town on Route 11B. My first impression was the same that I had when we went to check the place out to decide if we were going to live there. It’s way further out of town than I remember it being. That first exploratory ride ended with us turning back thinking we’d missed it. The truth was we hadn’t gone far enough.
When we saw it we realized it was too small, but the price was ridiculous (our rent was $80 a month… not a typo… eight-zero), and after we got used to it, the drive didn’t seem as long.
I assumed I’d have no trouble finding it this time either, but again I was taken aback by how far I had to drive to reach it. But I remembered that the farm had two silos, one of which was quite tall, and had been built just before we moved in. It was these that I spotted in the distance and realized I was close.
But when I got there so much had changed that I became unsure if it was even the right farm. It was very run down, yet at the same time, there were several new buildings that had been constructed after I left Potsdam. I drove by, thinking maybe I was experiencing that first-drive feeling that it was still further.
Eventually, I recognized things that I remembered being past our “house” and I turned around. This time when I saw the silos I slowed way down, and that’s when I saw the Toolshed. Only it was no longer a handyman’s hut or even a real toolshed for that matter. No, my first non-dormitory home in the North Country was now…
A CHICKEN COOP!
Sadly, the only real difference in appearance from when we lived there was that the paint was mostly gone. The trace of white along the top was its original color.
The small window in the front was our view of the road, while the one behind the door which now appears to have cardboard covering it, was where the light came in to wake us in the morning.
The current residents, however, cared little for my nostalgia.
A young Amish girl was walking near the coop and I called to her to tell her I wanted to take a picture of it because I used to live there. She looked at me like I had escaped from the Ogdensburg Psychiatric Center, (“You lived in our chicken coop?” you could almost hear her thinking.) But she was very pleasant to the crazy man, and I got my picture.
Afterward Kim and I agreed that it was a little odd for an Amish family to have let the farm go to the extent it has, but my theory was that there was probably an owner between my landlord, Bobby Regan (who after doing a little research I was sad to learn had passed away last July) and the Amish family, and it was probably this mysterious middle person who had been responsible both for the new buildings and for the overall decline of the farm.
This was either the highlight or lowlight of the trip for me, depending upon how one looks at things. For some reason, I desperately needed to see it again, but once I had I felt a little sad. Probably it was the decline in the farm’s fortunes that upset me. Maybe it was a brief and mild rekindling of the dark memory of that relationship. Whatever it was, it took scenes like this Episcopal Church, viewable from Ive’s Park, to bring me back around. This church is very old, though I could see that even this had undergone some new construction, visible to the left of the picture.
Ultimately it was the people that were the true highlight. I pointed out to Kim that people in the North Country aren’t content to say hello as you pass them in a store or on the street. They want to know how you’re doing. Lots of people ask that question on a daily basis no matter where you live. “Hey, how are you today?” But they are hoping you don’t answer. In Potsdam, they not only hope you answer, they expect you to! So seeing my buddy Bill, and my best friend, best man, best brother Ryan, made the trip complete. We stopped at Ryan’s cottage on Lake Ontario on the ride home, and it was there that I encountered these brightly colored fellows. This was the last picture I snapped on our trip.
The drive home on Memorial Day was melancholy, as, like Hemingway, I always get a little sad when I leave a place, (though he was far more likely to mourn leaving Venice or Paris than Potsdam, NY.) But it was good to get home, to see my kid, to sleep in the bed to which my back is accustom, and to get back to work on my book.
However, you can make bank on the fact that it will not be fourteen years before I head that way again.