The local homeless were just taking up their positions when my friend dropped me at the Rochester bus station. It was before dawn and I needed coffee, but the only stuff available was out of a machine. So I had a nice cup of "1-A-3" (dark, no cream or sugar) and hid my face in a book.
We went through Syracuse and Albany, brick-and-smokestack cities that made me think of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. But the snow had a glistening crust on top, and it looked like we were traveling across a big birthday cake with candles and white icing. The sun was just coming up, but nobody on the bus was talking.
North of Albany, the country started to open up and get hillier, and the scenery changed to the kind of rolling, haystack farms you see in old French paintings. I started getting excited. I was headed for Mandy's mountain hideaway! Mandy was a friend of a friend back home, and in those days I was the kind of traveler who jumped at statements like, "Dude, if you're going to New York, you should visit my friend Mandy. She's got a cabin in the Adirondacks."
We went through Saratoga, famous for its springs. I saw the Lincoln Baths building and the Saratoga Spa Park. I saw people cross-country skiing through the woods along the road and all over golf courses. Then we started uphill, and the woods got deeper and closer to the road. The Adirondacks were beginning to rise to our left, and when the view opened to the right, I could see mountains that I knew from checking the map were in Vermont. Vermont! I sure was a long way from Tennessee. A sign said this was voted "America's Most Scenic Highway" in 1966 and 1967.
I was sitting at the station in Plattsburgh when Mandy came in -- "wild and woodsy," just as described to me. She was short and stocky -- not fat at all but thick and muscular, obviously a person accustomed to working and walking -- and she was wearing unlaced duck boots, thermals visible through torn jeans, a down vest over a long-sleeved plaid shirt, and one of those caps with the earflaps. She stuck out a wool-gloved hand for a firm shake, and a moment later we were on the road to her cabin. Two souls of the road had found each other.
That was at about 7:30 p.m., and a conversation had begun that would last until past 2 o'clock in the morning. She said it had been 26 below zero the previous night at her place. She told me her land had been in her family for three generations. "Before that it was out of the family for three years, but before that it was in the family too." Her 160-year-old cabin, the original pioneer building on the property, had been expanded "about 100 years back."
I asked Mandy what she did for a living, and over the next 48 hours or so occupations would pop out of her mouth like clowns from a circus car. Among them -- and these are just the ones I can remember -- were river guide, back-country cook, gourmet chef at a private camp, horseshoer, registered nurse, taxidermist, writer, musician, candy maker, and BTI technician. That last one describes a treatment used against black flies, which are murderous in the north woods in June and July.
Finally, we pulled onto a small road, drove past a couple of houses in the dimly lit woods, then turned left onto a plowed road that was just exactly wide enough for her truck. I could make out the side of a cabin in the glow of the headlights.
A Malamute named Jack hopped on the end of a chain and put his paws all over me. A yellow Lab named Reggae, age 11, was much mellower but clearly glad to see mom come back. We entered a neat kitchen with a table hidden by a pile of stuff, then a cozy room with a woodstove, a stereo, a mattress to sit on, pictures all over the walls, and bookshelves. The books were mostly travel -- Ireland, Alaska, the Adirondacks, Oregon -- and religion/philosophy/spirituality of the Eastern variety. Mandy's answering machine message went, "You have reached Mandy and the Adirondack Renaissance Amazon Women's Preserve."
During that night, we had a conversation -- kept warm by the stove, cool by the beer, and mellow and rambling by the pipe -- about life in the mountains, working and wandering in Alaska, not having a TV set, traveling so long you forget where you are, listening to John Prine, following the Grateful Dead, looking for spiritual meaning in life, the problems of "owning stuff," third-time-around dÇjÖ vu, and a couple dozen other topics that completely got away from me by the next morning.
After the last candle was blown out and as I drifted off to sleep, we were still talking from neighboring rooms. I finally thought to look out at the stars. There was no moon, no electric light, no clouds, and the cold country air was perfectly clear. The Big Dipper looked like you could reach out and grab it. I saw stars that I hadn't seen since summer camp, when we used to lie in our sleeping bags and stay up all night watching for shooting stars and satellites. Mandy said that every couple of weeks she saw the Northern Lights, and sometimes they filled the whole sky. I felt the High Mountain Magic, and through the frosted window, Orion wished us good night.