This magic mountain
“The Valley of the Last Hope,” said Stephen Chalmers about Saranac Lake in his article “Watching the Hourglass” (1907). In its golden age, this village boasted a reputation as America’s Pioneer Health Resort, “the place to be if you have TB.” It had a culture, too, of a unique and tragic kind, which has disappeared with the widespread use of antibiotics that came with the end of World War II. Back in the day, if you couldn’t get to sleep at night, you could open your window to listen for and count the truckloads of occupied coffins sneaking away in the dark to avoid demoralizing the yet-to-die.
Introspection thrives in such an environment and Thomas Mann exploited that theme in his novel The Magic Mountain, a literary analogue of the Saranac Lake tuberculosis colony. His story has a true setting, Davos, a health spa in the Swiss Alps. Hans Castrop, the main fictional character, is a young German engineer who cures there for seven years in a TB sanatorium.
In real life, Robert Louis Stevenson had exiled in Davos for two consecutive winters, 1880-82. It was from that experience that Swiss Notes became magazine material when it made it to print in 1884. That same year a brand new American version of a ‘magic mountain’ had begun its career from a humble start. The Adirondack Cottage Sanatorium, led by its founder, Dr. E.L. Trudeau, had placed their first patients into brand new curing huts on the side of Mt. Pisgah, about a half mile northeast of the hamlet called Saranac Lake.
It was here, in 1887, five years after leaving Davos, that RLS came for his final magic mountain experience before going west to follow the sun. The author had been in the U.S. for less than a month but his plans to go to Colorado Springs had been ruined by another bout with illness. It had flared up at sea, aboard the steamer S.S. Ludgate Hill, two days out from N.Y.C. Saranac Lake was to be a sudden detour and strange new name to the members of the Stevenson expedition.
Back then, the village was still in stage one of its transformation into a health industry. The amenities and distractions that the ‘lungers’ enjoyed along the Riviera or way up in the Alps had yet to arrive in Chalmers’ “Valley of the Last Hope.” The timing of Stevenson’s time here, when the town still had a wild aspect, was to his liking. Not long after settling into Baker’s did Louis begin to feel the effect of “Juventus,” Adirondack style, a rejuvenation of vitality that was in the very air he was breathing. Soon the displaced writer was exploring this strange new yet familiar setting.
To Edmund Gosse, Stevenson’s friend, fellow writer, and future British Representative of the Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake, RLS described his new environment as “Highland, all but the dear hue of peat–and of many hills–Highland also, but for the lack of heather,” plus a “Scottish river” running beneath his new home at Baker’s, “a first-rate place.”
“He is now more like the hardy mountaineer,” wrote Stevenson’s wife to a friend, “taking long walks on the hill tops in all seasons and weather, hoping to pass for a mighty hunter or sly trapper.”
When RLS had been at Davos, walking had been a mandatory therapeutic activity that seemed designed to make walking feel like just that. From Swiss Notes: “To these (footpaths) the health seeker is rigidly confined. There are for him no cross cuts over the field, no following of streams, no rambles in the woods. His walks are cut and dry.”
In Saranac Lake, this pretend hunter/trapper, certified health seeker enjoyed a private wilderness domain — and it was Indian Summertime — hundreds of acres of woodland and fields and rock ledges and glacial droppings of boulders everywhere, the erratics of geology. A river ran through it, too, and from its east bank, Stevenson’s walks became a naturalist’s dream as he followed streams toward their sources across a shoulder of Mt. Baker to Moody Pond. Louis would get some skating in there, too, once Old Man Winter showed up for his shift.
Back then the tree line of the forest was farther up toward Baker Mountain. All that wonderful space belonged to his landlord, Andrew Baker, whose father, Col. Milote Baker, had purchased the eastern half of a real estate tract known to surveyors as Lot No. 11. That was in 1852, the same year the colonel had built his famous tavern on the Saranac River which was the western boundary of his property. Here, between river and pond, RLS found what he wanted most next to good health: solitude!
To find solitude during this second major turning point in Stevenson’s career was something desirable and to be able to achieve it in a pristine wilderness setting was good, too. Across the Atlantic, back in the Old World, his super-stardom was still a future event that he wouldn’t live to see. But it was already happening here in the U.S.A., in the fall of 1887. That made for a very reclusive, hardly seen RLS, in the frontier town of Saranac Lake.
“I had some experience of American appreciation,” wrote Louis to William Archer in England. “I liked a little of it but there is too much; a little of that would go a long way to spoil a man; and I like myself better in the woods.”
And to the woods he went where fans and reporters could not invade the space of the creator of ‘Jekyll & Hyde’. What a far cry from Davos where Stevenson had complained that “the walks are besieged by single people walking rapidly…by sudden troupes of German boys learning to yodel … it may try your nerves to have someone always in front whom you are visibly overtaking, and someone always behind who is audibly overtaking you, to say nothing of a score or so who brush past you in the opposite direction.”
Nothing like that at this magic mountain; Bertha Baker was ten years of age when her family shared their home with the poet behind The Swing. She later used the experience for a school essay in which the writer’s outings present a contrast to his previous alpine excursions at Davos:
“He did like to skate, and perhaps a score of times during the winter he would cross the hills east of the cottage to Moody Pond, nestled among the pine-clad hills. Walking over the fields, with a stick in his hand and skates thrown over his shoulders, he looked and seemed his happiest.”
But the cold. An Adirondack winter is harsher than its Swiss counterpart. Freezing, frigid air from Siberia gets even colder when it migrates over the North Pole to creep down unimpeded into the lower forty-eight. References to the weather were a periodic feature in the many letters the tenant at Baker’s composed in the light of his landlord’s fireplace:
“We have it jolly cold now and no mistake” … “We have chopped in and out from frost to thaw, from snow to rain” … “When the thermometer stays all day below minus 10 degrees, it is really cold … pleasure in life is all delete. There is no red spot left, fires do not radiate, you burn your hands all the time on what seem to be cold stones.”
Into one tortured sentence, Louis squeezes out the good, bad, and ugly about our seemingly endless Adirondack winters:
“A bleak, blackguard, beggarly climate, of which I can say no good except that it suits me well and some others of the same or similar persuasions whom (by all rights) it ought to kill.”
So there you have it, the kind of misery that might have supported Stevenson’s decision to live out his days in the eternal summer of the South Seas, “where the golden apples grow.” But that brutal winter of 1887-88 had provided the desired effect and RLS confessed to the fact in a letter to his friend and mentor, Sidney Colvin, another future British Representative of the Stevenson Society. In February, Louis wrote Sidney that he was “wonderfully better; this harsh, gray, glum, doleful climate has done me good.”
Specific attributes of this first American magic mountain for the open-air treatment of TB included its elevation of 1,600 feet above sea level, more agreeable than Davos at 5,015 feet. The Adirondack chain is over a billion years old and in its prime it would have dwarfed the Alps and rivaled the Himalayas. Erosion had ground them down to stumps by the time Stevenson came to Saranac, so the author had not that walled-in feeling that “prison-like effect on the imagination” he knew in Davos. These mountains are essentially a huge chunk of battered granite, most of which is obscured by a relatively thin layer of soil, which with the latitude limits the presence of moisture in the atmosphere. That’s at least a partial explanation for the exceptional ‘Juventus’ Louis found in these parts. It was the clean, dry air that arrested the spread of the disease destroying the lungs of the lungers, the disease caused by that “scum” that Dr. Trudeau kept in his laboratory.