5:30am and I’m slipping down Stillwater Reservoir in my 50s Duratech, staring at the GPS. If I took a picture you’d never know. You’d think I’m in some Outer Limits episode. Alien kidnappers snatched me off to some water only world where the atmosphere is a very thin, damp, white pea soup. For all the movement the boat’s going nowhere, for there’s no where to go on an endless, flat sea. I’ll eventually run out of gas, float in the emptiness until I die of starvation. Or maybe some ravenous alien fish will leap out of the water, flip the boat and take me down to the depths where he can have his way with me… a now former yummy Ken morsel dangled from an aluminum boat “hook.”
I have to traverse 7 miles down “The Flow,” as it is often called, and: fog aside for a moment, I’m more than half afraid the Johnson 25 will conk out, or hit a rock, when I veer off the pre-programmed path on my hand-held Garmin. Rain could complicate the problem. Lighting could leave me like the next Chef Prudomhume culinary masterpiece: burned outside, raw on the inside.
Nothing between me and being stranded except this very light 14ft skimming across the early morning calm. At least the waves aren’t bouncing me around like a wayward aluminum ping pong ball, as the wind tries to flip the Duratech… yet. That misadventure awaits me on the return journey when I head home to the town with roads connected to nowhere: Beaver River.
Drifting up to the dock I relax, I have reached my destination without getting stranded, soaked or eaten.
Stillwater is not your average, placid, Adirondack lake. The water is raised and lowered according to the needs of the state, and: flooded at the turn of the previous century, Stillwater is more like the river it once was when logging crews floated trees down the Flow than like a lake. Rivers can be so much more unpredictable. But, unlike the Cumberland near my place in Tennessee: where props can fall victim to underwater refrigerators and an occasional dead cow, on Stillwater boats are threatened when the level of the reservoir is dropped too close to the old extremely convoluted riverbed. Stillwater isn’t very deep: even when the water is high. And knowing exactly how low it is in relation to what you might hit is always a guess.
Out in a boat under adverse conditions a prop can quickly become no more than twisted metal, or simply end up at the bottom of The Flow where the logger’s logs used to go… a hundred and thirteen years ago when this was but a meandering river.
Every trip is an adventure, and something always goes wrong: hopefully minor.
Sliding backwards in time for a moment: I’m back on the Reservoir. I look down at the GPS. The Duratech is way off course because I was straining to see, and avoid, any boats that may veer my way in the fog, someone fishing or an unlucky loon who may not get out of the way fast enough. “Unlucky” for both of us.
Some folks probably think I have it easy.
Can I blame them? No, not if all they know is I’m boating in the splendor of the Dacks.
How can one not feel blessed to live where in the fall the leaves leave rainbows looking like poor multicolored cousins? And, to be honest, there’s not a season I don’t love up here. I swear my father’s love for where he grew up inspired him to give me daily inoculations long before I left the womb. Seems I was born with a perpetual passion for the Central Adirondacks. Tis home: no matter where I’ve lived over the years. But because your living in an enchanting forest: a land where it seems like invisible leprechauns might leap from moss covered logs to moss covered rocks, it may seem “easy:” from the outside, to the casual observer.
I was chatting with Ginger Thompson; wife of one of the infamous Thompson brothers: Rusty. “Rusty” because his father: Stan, left him out in the rain when he was born so he will always have that reddish tinge… Nah, I’m joking: about both “reddish tinge” and the “infamy.” The other day I saw Ginger walking back to their house: about 200-300 feet down a dirt road from Norridgewock: a business started by the the Thompson family many generations ago.
They’re all “dirt roads” here.
“You’re going to wear a path in the dirt road, you walk back and forth so many times.”
“I know. I never go anywhere.”
I do, for well over 20 years I’ve performed in a different state every month, a different city or town every week or two. That too has a few downsides. Maybe more than “a few?”
A few days later we spoke of how hard it is to scratch out a living here. Perhaps a recent conversation with Chip Kiefer, who owns Souvenir Village in Old Forge, expressed it best. As we were talking about my most recent business model for a company I’d like to start in the Central Adirondacks I used one of my fav phrases: “I know I’d have to find some way to make a living in the off times because, at least when I lived here, ‘there are times an asteroid could head down Main Street and hit nothing.'”
“It’s still like that,” Chip said, “maybe a little less than it used to be.”
I’ll bet a lot of tourists who visit the Dacks for the day think the business folk “have it easy.” Nothing could be further from a true perspective.
Back to Ginger, for she has to get back to working in the small store, wait on tables, helping in the kitchen, clean cabins or any of the multitude of jobs she does so well: part of making that living here being able to do “a multitude of jobs.” And she’s patiently waiting for me to continue her story as she reads this very sentence I just typed, right now.
Aren’t you, Ginger?
We talked about both the hotel and the store in Stillwater. They’re for sale. In the hotel you can dine while looking out on Stillwater Reservoir. The mood is casual, the beer and wine selection not bad for where you are. That’s always a big qualifier up here because we are so off the less than well beaten path, so seasonal, that bringing in product to sell can be pricey and problematic: especially if it’s exotic. Double or triple that difficult factor for Beaver River. There’s 7 miles of water to the dock at Grassy Point that serves Beaver River, or if you a barge over to the opposite shore where there is over six miles down on two barrow, bumpy, dirt roads… and both can be blocked by falling trees and rough to impossible conditions.
One of the many reasons the Thompsons have been able to squeeze out a living here is everything becomes a business opportunity. They run, essentially, a transportation company with a barge, the Riverboat that gives tours and water taxis. Then there’s the bar, the restaurant, a small store, inverter/solar panel installation, cabins to rent, a gas pump, boat launching, propane sales and a repair/construction company.
Not to mention the elf sweater making sweat shop in the cellar that supplies the store above.
Yes, I’m joking again. Just thinking of Ginger, Mark, Rusty or Scott with a whip or ruler keeping the elves in line was too hard an image to resist.
“Get to work! We’ll have cold snowmobilers wanting to buy sweaters in a month!” as the whip snaps.
Even with all that, minus the fictional elves of course…
“It’s so hard up here. I mean, someone looking to buy the hotel or the store over in Stillwater really needs to come in with money to live off of because it takes a while to pay off any loan, or even see profit. Meanwhile you have to pay staff, lights, heat: all before you make a cent. You always need to ask before you buy, ‘Will I make enough to survive?'”
And surviving is both weather and season dependent.
I remember Rusty telling me last year that one truck they own is over a thousand dollars in insurance a year. And that’s just one of many very crucial vehicles: not to mention all the other facets of their multi-faceted business. What you can skip… well, let’s just say as a business owner myself since 84: I understand.
Winters never seem to end, yet the increasingly unpredictable snow conditions for the highly crucial snowmobile business hurt. The main trail here sometimes becomes part annoying kiddie roller coaster, part paint can shaker because the path is shared with a railroad. Once again: I understand why that’s something they’d really like to change, especially since winter has become far more lucrative than summer over the years: so the track situation makes making due even more difficult. Complicating that is the fact that the many months of sometimes up to six feet worth of snow with an occasional week filled -20 to at least -40 degrees are disappearing. The days filled with melt and mud, or too little snow, are increasing. So you have fewer weeks of decent snowmobiling sandwiched between seemingly endless days of running a business with few to absolutely no customers.
Summers also vary: also according to shifting weather patterns, gas prices, the economy, unemployment nationwide and many other reasons.
Fall is blessed with some leaf seekers, but hordes of hunters no longer line both sides of the roads, and no longer bring in the big bucks for local businesses as they pursed that big buck.
Between these times there are long spans of nothingness: not quite snow season but past Columbus Day can drip into nothingness up until January… but still you often need to be here. Spring mud conditions can make quicksand seem like an easy to avoid pot hole in a well paved road, keeping the customers away: especially when all you have is dirt roads.
You have to be careful about cabin fever. As my family found out with my father, endless boredom while staying in the same place can be a killer and twist the mind.
Before Memorial Day it’s often a very, very slow build to mostly a mellow rush, returning visitors greeted by mini-vampires: more mosquitoes and black flies than tourists or maybe even air.
But, from the outside, I’m sure to some it looks easy.
I can’t count the number of folks who thought I had it “easy” when I started traveling and entertaining kids. I mean, after all, I was touring the east coast ten months a year entertaining very appreciative audiences of the young and teachers. After I would play guitar while looking over Florida scrub brush at the crystal blue green Panama City Beach surf, or watch a morning moose tromp through a campground in New Hampshire: occasionally collapsing a tent, or bumping into a motorhome over and over again. Did you know if you camp on a regular path of a porcupine that they are so blind they also bump into your tent, trailer, motorhome or tour bus over and over again? All the porcupine knows is something that wasn’t down their usual path to a drink of water in a pond, or lake, is in their way. By the way: while “bumping” they make loud bleeps and bloops that sound a lot like very confused and frustrated aliens.
It’s been mostly a joy and a great learning experience, but it’s not “easy.” Road life is hard: I suspect even for some pampered stars who just do the big stage. For me, since I’m mostly a tiny stage performer, I’m been my own agent, set builder and fixer, tour bus driver, bookkeeper and roady: sometimes under hideous, even impossible, conditions.
You never know what the next nasty adventure might be: performing in high winds with an 8 foot canvas stage backdrop, or a broken down tour bus that’s blocking a bridge…
…or out in the thunder and the rain with no chance for amplification and a thousand kids: mostly too old for your program: even though you told the director who your target audience was.
How about being under the back of an old truck: trying to lower a rusted in spare with a lowering rod; forced through holes in a bent bumper, under and behind the spare. It’s 110 degrees on the side of a rural interstate. Or maybe you’re trying to change a tire in the driveway of an unoccupied camp because you didn’t want get hit on a sharp corner. Once again you’re under your next truck, tugging at another rusted in spare, and the truck tries to fall off the jack. You begin to wonder if the camp owner is going to come home to skeleton legs sticking out from under a fallen 98 Nissan truck.
Then there are the crazy people who work where you’re supposed to perform: like the grandmother who didn’t know a show was booked for her daughter’s school and, as you are hauling in to where the teachers told you to set up, grandma starts screaming curses as she grabs props before you can haul them out. She starts throwing them out the door… including a $200 mirror box which has, well, a mirror in it.
When her daughter apologized she said, “Mother gets upset.”
All I could think of was Psycho, “Mother! Mother!”
I have survived this and so more…
Ah, but the rich have it made, right?
Not really. I’m reminded of a lady who was a member of a church I used to be a member of. Never quite happy with much of anything, she angrily used her massive yearly donations to try to force the minister, and the board, to serve her demands for how everything in the church should be run… as if the minister, the Sunday school teachers, the parishioners were her personal marionettes with strings made out of greenbacks. She insisted a volunteer pianist of 30 years had to be fired because she didn’t play at the level of a pro-concert pianist.
Isn’t a church, after whomever, or whatever, we worship, for all the people who attend: especially those who volunteer? She was the one who insisted the church have a volunteer committee with her at the head, deciding who was good enough to volunteer at the church. Once again insisting she’d pull all the money she gave to the church if she didn’t get her way.
If the basis for her behavior was worship-based I think we know what color her God was: green.
Add to this mess a son who had drug problems, a husband who had other sexual interests: to be polite, and you had one very unhappy woman very intent on making anyone who wouldn’t get out of her way, or bow to her demands, almost as miserable as she was.
Yes, I’m sure the Romney, Bush and Cheney families have had their own problems too, if only one tenth of the gossip is somewhat true: the biggest being having so much money you’re clueless as to how other folks live, or think.
We think possessions and money make life better: but all to often they make it more complicated and frustrating. And money certainly can provide plenty of unpleasant “entertainment” observing out of control control freaks who believe they’re far more “entitled” than any supposed welfare queen, or king.
What about the poor supposedly “sitting around sucking up government checks,” living off the supposed “fat” of the welfare life? Well, first off the Cadillac welfare queen is an overblown cliche’ used for political purposes. There are plenty of folks attempting to swim, trying to find work, or who work but have only been able to find jobs that don’t pay anything close to a living wage.
But let’s go to the few who may actually just “sit around and suck up welfare checks.” Have you ever sat around for long periods of time and done nothing, been totally unproductive, just watch the boob tube? Even the last one gets old, you get on your own nerves, not to mention anyone who may be around you. Cabin fever is a serious, dangerous, thing and there’s only so much you can go out and do on “the dole.” Frustration, when bored, with find any reason to escape. Think it any coincidence that there’s a high incidence of suicide and murder among those who do little but sit around?
On the outside it may look easy, but my own father: retired, died in part to cabin fever… sitting around and doing nothing because winter had locked him in. He kept making mistakes and finally he made a big one that eventually killed him.
Politics… can you imagine living your life in a dunking booth where your political life could end at any moment, you’re personal life is constantly skewered in public? Sometimes “skewered” for what you ever did, or didn’t say.
You know, like Al Gore “claimed” he “invented the internet?
Or maybe they’ll take a recording of something you did say, then edit it to make it sound like you meant something damaging you didn’t intend to say? Trying to swim in a political landscape where outright fabrications can live on as “truth,” and can drown your career, makes it easier to understand why we get so many sociopaths and narcissists in office, and why it’s so hard to keep the good ones.
I have come to a conclusion when thinking of life in general…
No one “has it easy.”
Inspection is a column that has been written by Ken Carman for over 30 years. Inspection is dedicated to looking at odd angles, under all the rocks and into the unseen cracks and crevasses that constitute the issues and philosophical constructs of our day: places few think, or even dare, to venture.
Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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