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This must be the place: One man practicing kindness in the wilderness is worth all the temples this world pulls

The North Country. (Garret K. Woodward photo) The North Country. (Garret K. Woodward photo)

I had about an hour window of no rain before the remnants of the tropical storm would slowly, but surely, slide into the North Country. The clouds were already darkening above the Adirondack Mountains as the nose of the truck was aimed west, heading out from my parents’ farmhouse on the outskirts of Plattsburgh, New York. 

Early Friday afternoon and the destination was Ampersand Mountain, the trailhead located between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake along a lonely section of Route 3 in the heart of the Adirondacks. With an hour or so drive, I’d be parking the truck and hitting the trail right as the first raindrops began to descend upon the cold, silent earth. 

New York State Route 3 is quite possibly my most beloved stretch of road in America. Partly, because of the desolate beauty of the ancient Adirondacks that it meanders through. And partly because of the countless memories I have from innumerable treks back and forth between Plattsburgh and the Tri-Lakes region of Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, and Lake Placid. 

The people, places and things along Route 3 will forever haunt my thoughts and dreams, happily. Whenever I find myself motoring along the road, I’ll immediately become lost in thought, usually some Crosby, Stills & Nash melody echoing from the stereo, with last Friday being “Do for the Others” and its mesmerizing tone, “Loving people everywhere/But, where is she?/She is not there/A chill wind hits his face/Was that a tear I thought I saw a trace?”

As a kid, my folks, little sister and I would head up Route 3 to Saranac Lake often, either to go hiking or camping in the summer and fall, or hit downtown for the annual Winter Carnival, a fiercely loyal weeklong celebration in the middle of another frozen winter. Each February, the town comes together for the carnival to get rid of the cold weather blues. 

To kick things off for the carnival, an enormous ice castle is proudly constructed by volunteers on nearby Lake Flower. Soon, a parade takes place along Broadway Street, drinks hoisted high by the boisterous multitudes dressed in their warmest winter garb, the procession reaching its true culmination once it passes by The Waterhole — a dive bar of legendary merit and lore. 

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And it wasn’t long after I finally got my driver’s license when I was 16, that I found myself cranking over the engine of my crappy 1989 Toyota Camry and making trips each — and seemingly every — weekend to Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. Back then, I was traveling from my hometown of Rouses Point, about an hour and half give or take from my new group of friends that I’d made the summer before my junior year of high school at track camp held at St. Lawrence University. 

It was that group of cronies that sincerely shifted the trajectory of my life. This group of teenage boys and girls from Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, who were — when not training for a race — camping and hiking in their native Adirondacks, sneaking beers at cabin parties on some lake in the middle of nowhere, heading to the bright lights of affluent Lake Placid to see a movie or perhaps go ice skating on the oval in the shadow of Herb Brooks Arena where the “Miracle on Ice” occurred in 1980.

Wandering along Route 3 to Ampersand Mountain last week, visions of those long-gone days dancing across the dashboard, my eyes aimed straight ahead through the windshield, occasionally gazing to the left or right in awe of the emerging High Peaks Wilderness unfolding alongside the hard pavement. Memories of high school proms and formal dances at Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, of muddy cross-country races in the backwoods in the late fall, and cold rain and snow track meets in the early spring.

And I think of my friends from the Tri-Lakes, many of which I still keep in touch with on a regular basis, those familiar faces that are still on same page with you this many years, a rare and cherished thing as time continues to tick away as it always does. Keep moving. Don’t stop. Keep your head up. Keep chasing your dreams with a reckless abandon. Most importantly, don’t forget those who stood beside you at the starting line those many years ago.

Reaching Ampersand, fat raindrops started to hit the windshield. I emerged from the truck, zipped up the windbreaker, tightened my laces on the trail shoes, and walked across Route 3 to the trailhead. A steady drizzle hovered above my trek the entire 5.5 mile out-and-back (with 1,800 feet of elevation gain). 

The first half of the hike up is a somewhat smooth and free-flowing trot through the depths of the thick forest, only to experience that 1,800-foot elevation gain for the last 1.5 miles, not to mention the muddy trail, slippery boulders, and fallen foliage leaves covering tree roots and other things to trip one up along the way.

A strong wind from the tropical storm howled at me when I reached the bald summit. The 360-degree view of the Adirondacks and High Peaks was most obscured by dark clouds and harsh raindrops that stung the face when you turned towards the wind. In the distance, I could see the silhouettes of those peaks, as if the ripples of gigantic waves on an unforgiving ocean.

And, even in that moment of being soaked to the bone and body cold, my heart and soul were vibrant and alive, as always in these moments of sheer solitude and gratitude within the mysteries and mesmerizing state that is Mother Nature — I was standing atop the core of my absolute being, the mighty Adirondacks.

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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