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This must be the place: Ode to the girl from the North Country, the one who loved horses

Our beloved Steph. Our beloved Steph.

I first got word about Steph Wilkins while sitting in the kitchen at an old flame’s parents’ house in the small, desolate Adirondack Mountain town of Tupper Lake, New York. 

It was the high school winter formal of 2001 and I was in 10th grade. My date that night ran track and field with Steph (who was a grade above us). The plan was to meet up with her and the rest of the friend group and their dates, all heading for the dimly-lit Tupper Lake gymnasium, now decorated with hand-cut snowflakes and long-forgotten radio hits of the emerging millennium. 

Also that night I met Steph’s date, Adam Van Nortwick, who was the best track and cross-country runner in the North Country (with school records that still stand to this day). I’d known Adam since I was in middle school, seeing as we were fiercely competitive on the track and on the trail for our respective high schools. 

He was just down the road from Tupper Lake at Saranac Lake, while I attended Northeastern Clinton an hour north. Turns out, in person and away from the starting line, he was an upstanding guy, one who I had an awful lot in common with. Kindred spirits in every way possible.

From that night onward, I had two new friends, Steph and Adam. Soon after that, I started dating a girl in Saranac Lake, teammates with Adam. Double dates and weekend get-togethers overtook the remaining days, weeks and months before we all graduated and headed in seemingly every direction for college.

Steph and Adam are, and will forever remain, pillars of not only my existence, but also how I view and want to grasp the world — with kindness, gratitude and passion for everyday life (all core values for Steph). After high school, they created this incredible life together, one filled with so many beautiful souls. Lord, that wedding of theirs back in 2007 was one for the ages.

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I was lucky enough to be part of their friend group in those early years running around Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, where we’d either be competing in track races or (mostly) wandering around the vast Adirondacks, going swimming, camping or simply sitting on the dock at Adam’s parents’ house on the lake and talking about plans for the future. 

We were teenagers then, but have remained friends ever since. It’s never been lost on myself or anyone how much of a bright light Steph was in this world. And that laugh, it was so unique and beloved. Although we hadn’t been able to cross paths in several years (even though we kept in touch), it meant the absolute world to me to finally rendezvous and catch up with her a couple years ago. 

It was the summer of 2020 and I was up in the Adirondacks, as was she, Adam and their two young kids. Adam had to head back to their home in rural Virginia, but Steph remained at the lake house, the same place where that sacred dock where we’d dream is still anchored. We hugged and talked for hours. It was like I had just seen her yesterday, which is the hallmark of a lifelong friend. 

You felt comfortable, loved and accepted, all attributes Steph radiated into the universe. We went on the boat with the kids and Adam’s parents, Sue and Miles (second parents to me as a wayward teenager). Cruising around the lake with the wind in our hair, we reconnected, all while I felt such a genuine appreciation for all of the friendships present on that boat. 

And when I received the message about the tragic car accident and Steph’s worsening condition last Wednesday morning, my heart sank and I immediately felt sick, wanting to throw up and just pace around the apartment, not really knowing what to do or say. 

In that exact moment, I was packing up my truck in Waynesville to head back to the North Country to see family. In some wild coincidence, I was going to pass right by the hospital she was in while driving through Virginia. Thus, this past Thursday afternoon, I found myself walking into the ICU at the University of Virginia medical facility Charlottesville, immediately greeted by Adam, Sue, Adam’s sister, Jeni, and Steph’s best friend, Sarah. 

All beloved faces in my corner of this planet. Hugs and tears. Lots of those. Memories rehashed. As incredibly tough as it was, I will be forever grateful to have been able to walk into Steph’s room in the ICU, to hold her hand and say goodbye to my friend, to tell her how much she meant to me, and how she’ll always hold a place in my heart of hearts. 

Steph was a beacon of light and purity in this world, someone who never met a stranger, and who you never, ever forgot, even if you met just once. I miss and love my friend very much. We all do. 

We’ll always remember her deep passion for horses, and for all creatures, truth be told. As it’s been stated before, there are those who drive around the turtle in the road, and then there’s Steph, who’d, like clockwork, pull over and make sure the turtle was placed safely to the side. That’s just the kind of person she was.

Wherever you are in this endless, cosmic universe, Steph, I know you’re out there, somewhere, probably going for a jog on the astral plane. I see you and hear you, and will continue to as long as the leaves turn colors every fall in the Adirondacks, so long as good friends gather in the name of hearty conversation and genuine connection in this all too crazy world.

Editor’s Note: Currently, there is a special Go Fund Me campaign to help raise much needed aid to help assist Adam and his young children with this new, unknown landscape they’re learning to navigate. To donate, please go to gofundme.com and search “Stephanie (Wilkins) Van Nortwick.” 

Leave a comment

3 comments

  • Stephanie was a bright light. I was blessed to Coach at Saranac Lake at this time. I knew all these very special kids in this friends group. My life is much better knowing them all. Stephanie always had a smile and something nice to say. Having seen her with Adam and there children at recent fun runs. She spoke to me as if our conversation had never stopped. She was a bright light for all who knew her.

    posted by David Tyldesley

    Thursday, 06/16/2022

  • Stephanie was a bright light. I was blessed to Coach at Saranac Lake at this time. I knew all these very special kids in this friends group. My life is much better knowing them all. Stephanie always had a smile and something nice to say. Having seen her with Adam and there children at recent fun runs. She spoke to me as if our conversation had never stopped. She was a bright light for all who knew her.

    posted by David Tyldesley

    Thursday, 06/16/2022

  • What a tribute to Steph, Adam and family. Thank you for sharing.

    posted by Jerrie Walsh

    Wednesday, 06/15/2022

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