I had plans to get away for the weekend, but the weather forecast was for snow showers turning to flurries. I wondered what that meant. I had a train ticket to New York City leaving from Saratoga Springs at 9:30 a.m. the next day, and I was preparing myself mentally for the drive. Generally, it takes about two and a third hours from my house to the Saratoga Amtrak station. But I'd skidded and slid on greasy, slick roads several times this day and realized I'd better tack on a few extra minutes to the morning trip, just in case that forecast was going to slow me down.
I heard the snow plow go by my house at 4:30 a.m., so I guessed I'd have a good chance of getting down Keese Mills Road to state Route 30, where the state snow plows are almost always way ahead of our town plows. Plus, I figured the further downhill I drove, the less likely there would be slick and slushy roads.
On the road
I was on the road by 6:20 a.m. And like I thought, Keese Mills Road was nicely plowed and sanded, which was a great omen. But when I got to the corner of Route 30, I was startled to see no plow had gone by. When I made the turn onto Route 86, again, no plows had gone by. So the road to Saranac Lake was slow and slippery. Even after reaching town, I saw no bare road, just the tracks from other early morning drivers.
Between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, the road became totally clear. My heart raced, and my foot pushed down on the accelerator, taking me from 30 to 50 miles per hour. Then immediately after turning onto Old Military Road, more slush and dangerous conditions welcomed me, so I slowed way down all over again. Leaving Lake Placid, the road was bare, and I felt euphoric. I'd made it through the threatening conditions and was heading toward the clear sailing of folks who lived downhill and south of me. I was wrong.
Driving south, past Adirondack Loj, past North Country School, heading down into the Cascades, the road became almost impassable. There was about four plus inches of unplowed snow, and no tracks to follow whatsoever. It was still early, not even 7:15 a.m., and the day was still unfolding wildly before me.
Where were the snow plows? I hugged the center line as long as no one was coming the other way. My wheel was pulled and tugged to the precipitous right edges of the narrow lakeside highway. Then the car was pulled toward the left and center by the ridges of slush under the wheels. I was driving slowly, no more than 30 MPH at times, wanting to just vanish instead of push ahead. I was gripping the steering wheel with all my might. I tried remembering if I'd ever heard of someone falling into the water here as a result of slippery roads. I tried to stop thinking about how long I would have to get out of my car before it sank into the Cascade Lakes. Remember the seatbelt, I thought. And get the door open before the car submerges. Hmm. I drove on.
Downhill takes time
As I slowly continued downhill, the road was still extremely slick. And it was a long downhill to Keene where a cup of coffee could be found. I drove as slowly as I knew how. The slush was master of the morning. Cars and trucks were headed uphill, into that scary section of narrow highway where I'd just been, and I wondered why they were driving so fast.
By the time I reached the bottom of the hill at Keene, I understood. The roads were completely bare and fresh, and my fingers unclenched themselves from the steering wheel as I pulled into the bakery for my coffee and scone. Now it really was clear sailing the rest of the way. I reached the interstate by 7:50, and made it to Saratoga with my ticket in my hand by 9:15. The train pulled out of the station at 9:40, and I was on my way.
Already this little trip had worked its magic on me. I'd wanted a break in the routine, something different from the ordinariness of my winter days. I'd heard birdsongs at the train station, birds unlike the familiars of my forest life. I'd seen treetops filled with squirrel nests, and as the train clickety-clacked along, I saw all sorts of natural exhibits, all for the cost of the train ticket. Alongside the Hudson River, I counted at least five bald eagles, up close, standing on ice in the river, flying in pairs overhead. Ducks swam in the water. And signs of snow on the ground vanished the further south we found ourselves.
I had made myself comfortable in the train when I got on. I took out the newspapers I'd brought to read, the chicken salad sandwich I'd bought in Keene, my book of Sudoku puzzles, and my cell phone. I was leaving my world where cell phones do not work, and entering the "real world" where everyone is attached to their smart phones, iPads, iPods, Kindles, laptops and Bluetooth. But my own phone hadn't been used in so long, the battery was dead. I just laughed, pulled out the charger, and plugged it in . train travel is mighty convenient, I say.
I looked over at a young lady who was watching a Spiderman movie on her laptop. Behind me was a young man, speaking rapid Spanish into his phone, and an older woman in front of me was peeling an orange. A family of travelers was up ahead -?mom, dad, and kids - all with their electronic devices up and running. I got up, went to the cafe car, and got myself a cup of coffee.
When I got back to my seat, I stared out the window at the amazing views. We crossed the frozen Mohawk River, and then rode the rest of the way alongside the majestic Hudson. The river was not frozen over, but had a lot of broken up ice flowing and churning alongside the riverbanks. Still there were tugboats and big supply ships moving up and down this major American thoroughfare, with hawks and seagulls floating overhead.
I was finally free of the grip of Adirondack winter. I was heading to the city, and all was right with the world. I know the mountains will welcome me home, and I will be happy to be welcomed back. But for now, it's time for some Thai food, some tall buildings, and some visions of how much humanity fills the big world outside the windows of my quiet Adirondack home.
Randy Lewis lives in Paul Smiths, and is the author of "Actively Adirondack: Reflections of Mountain Life in the 21st Century," Adirondack Center for Writing's People's Choice Award for Best Book 2007.