Every night from March through July, as the pandemic raged beneath my seventh floor Harlem apartment, I fantasized returning to Saranac Lake. To block out the incessant wail of the sirens on Amsterdam Avenue, I covered my ears with headphones and watched YouTube videos featuring scenes of Adirondack serenity and longed to be back in the bosom of my home town, far away from dying New York City. I craved the comfort of my childhood fortress.
A fortress the child I was detested.
My family settled in Saranac Lake in 1957. I was nine and had lived in eleven different places, mostly closer to my grandparents’ home in the NY borough of Queens. The city represented stability, security. Saranac Lake, intolerably far, was encaved in granite walls that held me captive. By the time I got to junior high in 1960, I imagined myself a prisoner for life, sequestered from everything that mattered.
Terrifying things happening beyond our reach were revealed to us as staticky radio news. Communists and anti-communists, H-bombs and nuclear missiles, earthquakes and hurricanes. We were told we had nothing to fear. Hale and hardy children of the Adirondacks could live through anything.
Which was exactly what I feared. What if the whole world were destroyed, and we were all that was left? Saranac Lake was a dream world. Real life was elusive, obscured by the smothering protection of our healing woods.
Worry robbed me of sleep. I spent many teenage nights waiting for the hands on my clock to click to 2AM, when I could tune my radio to WNEW in New York City, where “everything was Grade A at the Milkman’s Matinee.” Slumber was impossible until I was sure that the vigilant denizens of my emerald city were monitoring the myriad dangers pulsating in the darkness.
I grew up, migrated to New York, traded my Adirondack safety for a heightened state of vulnerability. Which made me feel oddly safer. Freed at last.
Until the invasion of Covid-19.
In March, as our city became the epicenter of of the pandemic, we New Yorkers were ordered inside. Suddenly my apartment became a precarious tower overlooking a world irrevocably changed, unrecognizable. Homeless people building ersatz shelters on city sidewalks supplanted the usual crowds of tourists and business folk. Emboldened by the dearth of humans, rats and raccoons, even deer, coyotes, and birds of prey dominated the parks. Denizens of the city, used to collaborative problem-solving, lost our camaraderie. Deprived of my grandchildren and the freedom to visit far-flung family and friends, I increasingly longed for community. The Saranac Lake community that saved my life years ago.
In 1963, my mother nearly died in a devastating car accident at Donnelly’s Corner en route to Lake Clear. For the next two years, as she slowly convalesced, the people of Saranac Lake wrapped my family in their care. They fed us, checked in on us, assisted with childcare. I felt suffocated in kindness. Now, when Covid-19 turned my favorite NY neighbors into potential death threats, I craved that kind of fellowship. I craved home.
And so, in mid-August, as soon as safety allowed, I headed north in a rented car. Exiting the Northway, I immediately felt the mountains enfold me, and my whole body sighed relief. Autumn playfully teased in the Fall-blue sky and the occasional patch of red leaves. The city’s heat and humidity slinked into memory, and I donned a comfy sweatshirt. Heaven. Energized, I hiked to comfort favorite zones — calming brooks, mountain vistas, serene lake overlooks — and visited a few old allies, who remember my family with love.
On my last night there, I sat with a friend on her beautiful porch overlooking Lake Flower. Blinding rain pounded the roof as we talked about our plans for whatever future we have left. Then a moment of sunshine burst through the clouds, and an astonishingly giant rainbow arced over the lake and seemed to anchor itself just short of Mt. Mckenzie. Lingering longer than rainbows normally do, it brightened. Neon ribbons fluttered above us until, as magically as it had appeared, the rainbow vanished.
Suddenly, a revelation made me smile. New York’s pulse is thready at the moment, but it’s still alive and the realist place on earth. I belong there. But thank goodness for my Adirondack dream world.
It’s a world that will always have my heart as its willing captive and will always beckon me home.