Friday, May 23, 2008

Into The Woods

It’s Memorial Day. I can’t think of a better time, at the start of vacation season, to reminisce about summers past. As a child, summertime meant only one thing: going to North Adams, Massachusetts. Here’s what it was like…


I couldn’t sleep! Sitting on my aunt’s lap, I was finally on my way to North Adams. What had I gotten myself into? Here I was, in the front seat of a little green 1950 Chevy coupe, getting ready to greet the unknown. I heard my two older cousins talk about this place and I just had to see it for myself. It was a land of adventure and legend. What would it be like?


Nervous and apprehensive, I read every road sign aloud: ‘Speed Limit 40,’ ‘Do Not Pass,’ ‘Hoosac Tunnel – 15 miles.’ My aunt could not go to sleep. My uncle didn’t react to anything. He focused on getting the family up to the familiar cabin. Nothing was going to stop him. It was 1958 and superhighways were a futuristic dream. These were country roads, like Route 22, and progress was a lot slower than today’s zoom rides.


Starting at 93 Kellogg Street in Oyster Bay, on Long Island’s north shore, we began our journey at just about dusk knowing the ride would be about five hours long. We passed all sorts of exotic places: Purdys, Otis, Pittsfield and finally Adams, Williamstown and North Adams. North Adams was the big city, with bright lights, restaurants and motels and (wow) a Dairy Queen.


We toured the entire town following signs to Route 2 ‘The Mohawk Trail.’ According to legend, Route 2 was built along the precise path carved by the Mohawk Indians to travel east and west through the forests. ‘Look! There’s Pop’s Variety Store! There’s the Hairpin Turn! There’s Mount Whitlock!’ I didn’t have the slightest idea what this meant, but one thing was sure. We were close to where we were going. Little did I know the mystery trip had just begun!


We reached the top of the hill and then followed Route 2 east towards Greenfield. The road was desolate and dark. No lights, no signs, no markings. This was getting really interesting. Suddenly, my uncle veers off the main road onto a bumpy and wet unmarked path. I was the only passenger still awake. I looked up at the darkness and the tall trees passing by. Where, on earth, were we?


The muddy ruts and bumps made for punishing motoring. I held on tight. Their little Chevy was really made for four people, not five. With their black cocker spaniel mix dog, Sparky, squeezed in the back seat with my cousins, there was no room for me, so I rode my aunt’s knee the entire trip. The cold had forced us to close the little triangle vent windows a couple of hours before. The windows were a little foggy and the atmosphere was clammy.


Some clues were found indicating our path. A rustic wood sign said ‘Spruce Hill’ and then I saw signs for North Pond. Just as we passed North Pond we made a slow hard left turn and I saw a mailbox with ‘MOGUL’ painted on it. A couple of hundred feet more and the headlights hit a small brown cabin. We had made it! We were there!


The car doors opened and chilly air blew in. The forest was alive with crickets and peeper frogs and a million other sounds. The sky above was deep dark black loaded with more stars than I had ever seen. Holding a flashlight, my uncle jiggled the latch on the cabin and cracked the door open. My cousins knew to wait for awhile before the cabin aired out. After a few quick sweeps of a broom into a dustpan, my uncle built a quick fire in the wood stove. We got the cue: ‘OK. Come on in!’


The cabin was tiny and dark. There were two rooms. The back room had a bunk bed and two single beds. My cousins shared the bunk bed. My aunt and uncle used the single beds. Where was I sleeping? I had a cot that was folded out in the other room right by the wood stove. I didn’t realize it until morning, but I may have had the best seat in the house. Although I had no mattress, I was just an arm’s length from the crackling warm stove. The sound of the burning wood kept me company.


There was a sink but no running water. Electricity consisted of one bare light bulb mounted above the stove and one outlet. Telephones did not exist. The walls were fashioned out of dark brown large unfinished logs. Inside, it always smelled a little bit like burning wood. The scent was comforting and became familiar almost immediately.


Outside the cabin was truly amazing. The air was so clear and the sky was as blue as ocean water. I quickly learned the necessities of life. Water was procured from an old manual pump above a deep well across a short meadow. The bathroom was actually a wood framed outhouse. There was a toilet seat, a roll of toilet paper and a huge bucket of white lime with a metal cup. Instead of flushing a toilet, you sprinkled some of the white stuff over your business before you left.


Getting water was magical. Press down the lever two or three times and you would prime the pump. All the rusty brown crud, which had been sitting in the pipes forever, would spit out along with some air. Delicious and refreshing clear cold water followed. You could fill a metal bucket and bring it back to the cabin, hold a cup for a taste or dunk your head under it for afternoon refreshment on a hot day. What a great invention it was!


Our single modern appliance was a short white refrigerator. It had a large chrome locking handle that closed tight like a port seal on a large boat. Most of our food came from a small convenience store at the top of the dirt road just before you reached Route 2.


Our diet was quite basic: toast, eggs and cereal for breakfast; burgers and hot dogs for dinner. Corn on the cob was a treat. Once a week we would go out for dinner. We would pile into the car and head down into North Adams to our favorite restaurant: Howard Johnson’s. We’d slide into a booth with a wide Formica-topped table. I would always have the same thing: one “frankfort” and a glass of milk.


The best thing we ate was hand-picked. Savoy State Forest’s meadows were filled with endless amounts of blueberry bushes. We would bring as many wicker baskets as we could carry and pick berries for an hour or two. The tiny wild berries were tart, sweet and full of flavor unlike store-bought blueberries you are accustomed to today. The ones we didn’t eat from the palm of our hands went into pancakes and muffins that were not to be believed. The blueberry pancakes flipped on the skillet in our cabin were like no other. They weren’t the only treats we enjoyed!


If we had really behaved ourselves we would be treated to a visit to the Dairy Queen. Soft chocolate or vanilla ice cream in a cake cone created a delicious dessert. The menu item of legend was the enormous, chocolate-covered banana boat. I don’t think I ever had one, but I remember my cousin Bill had one once. Piled with ice cream and chocolate sauce all atop a banana slice, this was more dessert than we could ever imagine. It sure looked good on the posters taped to the store’s window!


A couple of summers later, my uncle traded in the green Chevy for a light blue Chevy station wagon. It had a fold-up seat in the back allowing kids to sit backwards. You could roll down the back window and feel the fresh air go by. My cousin Bill dreamed up a great invention. We had some left over kite string. We made little holes in some paper cups and tied the cups to the string. This creation would be tossed out the window as we held the end of the string. The cups would bop and bounce on the road behind the car and we would laugh our heads off.


The best moment came when we were driving through downtown North Adams. A policeman was directing traffic. As our station wagon passed him, the cups bounced over his shoes. The cop yelled “Hey you kids! Get those cups in the car!” We laughed until we cried. That moment became a legend for years to come.


Another source of wonderful fun could be found half way up the hill towards the cabin. A little shop, called Pop’s Variety Store, was the place we spent all the pocket change we could find. Our source of revenue was penny bottle deposits, money found here or there, or maybe a small allowance if we were lucky.


Two candies from Pop’s are remembered fondly. The store had dozens of round glass canisters filled with candy sticks with so many flavors it was hard to choose! Each and every one was distinctive and interesting. We would trade sample licks with anyone we could find. ‘You have to try this one!’ Another candy was the combination of heaven and butter. This area was known as maple country and beyond pedestrian delights, like pancake syrup, were little maple candies in the shape of toy men or stars or animals. Wrapped in little cellophane covered boxes, these treats were the most amazing things I had ever tasted.


A little farther up the hill was ‘The World Famous Hairpin Turn.’ It was a really tight 180 degree turn along Route 2 that had its own gift shop. In our eyes, the big attraction here was a big upright console music box. They had a couple of dozen disks, each with a different song, which played for about two minutes. The metal disks were about three feet across, with beautiful engraved decorations appropriate for its song, and little cut-outs that would control what notes would plink as it slowly turned round and round. Although it had the same timbre as a little music box, it had a great big sound. The lush harmonics it produced were charming and delightful. Built in the mid-1800s, it had been restored and maintained and ran for years and years.


At the very top of the hill was Whitcomb Summit, a scenic overlook for tourists and the site of an elk statue that made the location unique. The vista revealed the entire valley including a good look at Mount Greylock, the tallest mountain in Massachusetts.


Back we went to our cabin. There were two cabins actually. Both were owned and operated by Bob Mogul, a lifetime resident and a seasoned forest ranger. His place is still there, along with his signature mailbox, just past North Pond. Mr. Mogul’s property is right in the middle of Savoy State Forest located in Florida, Massachusetts. For decades, he served as one of many people who looked over this expansive undeveloped area.


One of the important duties of forest rangers was to keep constant watch for fires. Very tall towers topped by glass-enclosed huts would be manned by rangers watching out for disaster. This was often the point of first alert when a fire started. The fire towers were also the place where you could sneak a magnificent view of the mountains. Every fire tower had a long walk-up stairs. Even if a ranger was not there, you could climb nearly to the top and have a look. The views were absolutely amazing.


Sparky the dog had a nasty adventure at the fire tower one day. We were all on top of the tower stairs, looking around, and we saw Sparky take off after something in the woods. Suddenly, his barks turned into yelps. We quickly found him shaking his head like crazy. What had happened? Sparky had confronted a porcupine, who didn’t like being chased, and now had a nose and face filled with painful quills. We had to gently nurse out the quills and clean Sparky’s nose. It was a day we would never forget. What a mess!


Another great adventure was our occasional treks up to the summit of Spruce Hill. The trail began at an off-road pull-in. Many obvious signs would keep you on-track as you walked to the top. The trail was a delight. You would pass through many, many different types of woods and meadows featuring quite a variety of environments from swamps to swaying grass. Only at the very end of the path did the trail become steep. A few careful steps up some rocks would reveal, for the first time, a dramatic view all around for a hundred miles or more. You never had a clue as to how high up you really were until you reached the very end.


The hour-and-a-half walk was always worth it. We had some great picnics on top of Spruce Hill and Sparky was always around to enjoy the leftovers. The way back only took half that long. Going down hill, we would run half the way, falling a couple of times, down to the bottom. We would wait for the adults by the car. A quick dip into North Pond would cool us off for the rest of the afternoon.


There are actually three ponds in Savoy State Forest: North Pond, South Pond and Bog Pond. Bog Pond was the biggest and most rustic. The over-run from the pond went over a beaver dam and down into a little stream. Often, the pond was the residence of a large community of beaver. The signs of their presence were easy to see. Young trees would be gnawed free leaving little stubs that looked like oversized pencil points sticking out of the ground. The beavers were exceptional architects creating elaborate lodge homes and dams.


Often, my cousin Bill and uncle would bring Bill’s seven-foot dinghy up to the cabin and we would launch it into Bog Pond. No engines were allowed in the clear water, but you could row all you wanted. We discovered a nifty trick entirely by chance. After casting out the dingy, we smacked an oar against the water with unexpected results. The beavers misunderstood the sound as their signal of distress and the entire group ran off for cover!


If our summers in North Adams could be remembered for one thing, it would be rain. We often thought one of our neighbors might be named Noah. It would rain and rain and rain. Often, we simply didn’t care. We would walk down to North Pond, dodge the millions of red and green salamanders all over the roads and grass and hop in the water anyway. We were only bound by two rules: You didn’t swim when you had just eaten and you didn’t swim when it started to thunder.


How it could thunder! One storm was particularly legendary. A thunderstorm brewed late one evening after dusk. It was completely dark and it must have been 11 or 12 at night. The thunderclaps were strong and loud and we cowered in our beds as if we were being tossed in a little boat at sea. Suddenly, with a huge bang and flash, we suffered a direct hit to the power lines. The single light bulb above the stove flashed like a camera and our radio stopped playing and smelled atrocious.


When the morning finally broke, and the storm had passed, we assessed the damage. Light bulb pieces, now just little shards of black glass, were all over the floor. The radio was literally toasted. When we finally went home, my Dad removed and replaced all the blasted parts and the radio came back to life. If you saw what the radio looked like right after the lightning strike, you would understand what a miracle this was!


Radio was often our only link to the real world. There was only one local radio station: WMNB 1230 AM from North Adams. WMNB only broadcast during daylight hours. We only listened to the radio when it got dark around 10 or 11 at night. After dark, the world would drift into our AM radio. It was never the same twice!


The one station I remember listening to in the cabin was WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. They would always come in so strongly at night. Back in 1958, WWVA played bluegrass music all night long. We would listen to crooners sing lyrical stories about every facet of the lives of coalminers and mountain life. Nearly every song included amazing harmonies and great picking.


The main advertisers on WWVA were record companies hawking complex sets of recordings by mail. You would never hear them sell just one record. “Buy the two record set and get a third record free… and if you order now, we’ll also send you…” The music fit the location where it was being heard. We were also in the mountains, just very far away!


My most important possession was my little transistor radio. AM was the only band back then. This two transistor miracle had a little whip antenna about 6 inches long. I could just barely hear the station in North Adams. At night, it produced a weird hodge-podge of noise. My Dad cured this problem by giving me a long hank of wire, maybe 30 feet or so, which I strung up around the windows. When I attached the wire to the little whip antenna, a zillion stations came in at night. It was amazing. It was fun.


About forty years later, I visited Savoy State Forest again. This time, I brought my wife and my two daughters. Many sites were still there: Pop’s Variety Store, Hairpin Turn, Whitcomb Summit, Spruce Hill, North Pond and the Mogul’s place. I couldn’t see into the woods to see if the cabin survived. So much of it looked exactly the same.


The summers I spent in North Adams, 1958 to 1965, gave me a grand appreciation of nature and very simple living. It balanced my life at home in a small apartment in Queens. Life in the woods was so uncomplicated without all the encumbrances of city life and the responsibilities of school. Years later, I would move to the country forever. It all began in a small cabin far into the woods…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Aha! Now I know why you like PAB so much.