Andy Bates and his wife have just returned to the North Country after a few years away. They have settled in to Cape Vincent for what they hope will be a permanent stay. Andy will be writing for NCPR on a regular basis, taking a look at life in the region with refreshed vision.–Dale Hobson, NCPR
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Back in May, as my wife and I headed north on I-81, with Syracuse falling farther from our rearview and Oneida Lake sprawled to our right, I turned to find my wife crying. We were on our way to Canton, to our 10-year time-warp reunion at St. Lawrence University, and I knew this time we’d never leave.
Sure, by the end of the weekend, we’d be traveling this same stretch of interstate, winding our way through New York and Pennsylvania, through slices of Maryland and West Virginia, and eventually back to Richmond, but the line had been cast, we’d taken a fresh bite, and now it seemed that even though we’d given the North Country a good chase since we last left, now it had us completely.
I left the North Country five years ago, and until then, it was the only place I’d lived that didn’t come with a curfew. Through four years in Canton as a student and another five in Saranac Lake as a reporter and editor for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and Lake Placid News, it somehow became the place by which I’ve measured all the others I’ve been, fairly or not.
Western Montana was wild and expansive and breathtaking, Iowa City was unfathomably friendly and comforting, and Richmond provided both the pleasures and pains of urban living—but none of them were home in a way the North Country had been.
I realize now that the five years I’ve been away have really been five years spent trying to get back, and for a long time I considered the pull I felt to be more a case of simple nostalgia than genuine longing. Or maybe it was a little of both. After all, when we find a home, we tend to look for it everywhere else we go.
Though the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana were striking in their steep peaks covered in snow till July, whenever I gazed at them, my mind would turn to the Adirondacks—to the way the clouds cast velvety shadows on the High Peaks in summer or reflected back lavender sunsets at dusk in the winter. Every downtown street I walked reminded me of North Country main streets, not because they were similar necessarily, but because I wanted them to be. And every river I’ve crossed has paled in comparison to the scope and beauty of the St. Lawrence and its thousand islands, which is where I now find myself settled.
But in spite of all this romanticism, I’m not necessarily interested in going back five years (even though, as I drive along Route 12 or wind my way through Canton and Potsdam and down through St. Regis Falls into the Adirondacks, it feels as if I’ve done exactly that). No, what I’m interested in is staking a full claim, in carving out my future, and the future of my family, in a place I’ve never quite been able to shake.
Maybe I’ve forgotten, slightly but not completely, how unforgiving its winters can be and how ferocious its black flies can swarm, and perhaps I’m being naive and shortsighted to strike out amid such an economic climate, to start over with so little to my name and bank account. Indeed, it’s possible that come next May, when the snow still has the tendency to swirl, and the wind whipping off the river can be as cold as the steel that colors its waves, all the nostalgia of the past five years may very well have been beaten out of me, but that’s alright.
Despite what living here can exact from you, I came back because I can’t think of any other place I’d want to be. Quite simply, I came back because I missed it, and while I know I said I wasn’t interested in going back in time earlier, I suppose I missed the person I was when I was here, too, and maybe a part of me just wants to find him again, to pick up where he left off—only a little wiser perhaps, and ready for it this time.