So, what does a man of a certain age (let’s just say that getting to double my current age is now at best unlikely, and is likely undesirable) do once the kids are gone, the career is relatively stable, and the house projects are getting complex? Seems like there are two routes for such a man: grow a white beard and become a Civil War fanatic, or finally get more serious about some woodworking. Given a recent explosion of creativity from the spousal unit, which creativity requires not only frames for displays in art galleries but very special frames (oil pastels don’t like to be pressed against glass), I decided to get serious about some finer skills and frame-building. That means getting serious about mitered corners and rabbet joints. It meant finally getting a good router table (you cannot imagine the lengths I have gone to and what I have done without one, and I cannot imagine why that was the case). It means getting some quality router bits and angle guides, and really making sure the saw is dialed in perfectly. It means measure 5 or 6 times, cut once. There is a lot of arithmetic.
The first framing effort, suspending glass away from an oil pastel painting, looked pretty good. Until I saw it in the gallery, and saw everything that was wrong with it. The angles were a little skewed, the miters less than perfect, the staining a bit uneven – all things that would have been hidden by paint, but we went natural and in the end I didn’t love it. The second was a big piece that required plexi instead of glass, and it went better but I still didn’t have my miters quite perfect. The third was better still, and didn’t look embarrassing hung in a gallery. Getting there.
Then we had this painting sitting above the mantel, purchased from a local artist. Just love it, but it came in the most rudimentary of frames and I was sick of looking at it that way. I saw another large piece at a gallery and stole the idea for how it was framed. Knowing I was going to paint the perimeter, and given the size, I went with rabbetted joints, rather than miters, and rabbetted the inlay piece too, made out of some birch that for some reason I’ve had and never used for more than 20 years. This piece came up pretty damned close to perfect. Not quite, but it’s just about at the point that woodworking should be, where only the builder can find the flaws. And it really makes the scene look complete. (Thanks again to the spousal unit, the house actually looks like we decorated it on purpose.)
We have other things I want to be able to build, and that means I’ve spent about three weeks rearranging our tiny, highly-longitudinal basement. Someone recently asked me if I had a woodshop, and I just had to laugh. I have a lot of tools that I have to move into place every time I want to use them. I don’t really even have room for the table saw to sit in place where I would need to use it. It’s on wheels so I can spin it around and fit longer pieces of wood. A new working table, only for assembly, is drying and ready for the legs to be mounted, and a million other things have been rearranged around the basement so that I can have something like a workflow.
Maybe I should just let the whiskers grow and take a drive to Gettysburg.
I’m really dedicated to plowing through the entire works of Shakespeare.
Finally learning piano.
Life, man. Life.
Yeah, it’s that last one. No worries (well, a few here and there). Mostly took the summer off from doing things to my house (which is usually how I spend my summers) to have a dedicated summer of fun, and for the most part, that’s what happened. We went places we’d been meaning to go since moving to this idyllic little corner of the Keystone state. We bought more kayaks than are strictly called for. We ran the living hell out of our air conditioning. We built a garden in the back that is freaking adorable, and kept most of the flowers alive through a dry summer. We visited people, people visited us. We ran screaming from a theater for Blobfest. Art was made, and the frames to put it in. I found some great new cycling routes and got better at riding in heat than I’ve ever been, but still had to beg off most of August for other things and now most of September for work.
And so this, which goes back a long way in terms of sort of chronicling my musings and family life, has taken a serious back burner position, and even my daily dalliance with history has suffered from less frequent attention. It’s just how it is. If I’ve got something pithy to say, I generally say it on the Twitter. That’s all about the pith.
Second year in a row of giving into certain realities with regard to vacation – where we want to be is a long way from here, weather in the Adirondacks is often cruel, we are old and may have spent enough of our lives being wet – and renting a lakeside cottage in the Fulton Chain of Lakes, rather than tenting. Since last year, we’ve had a plan to drive up with an empty kayak rack and go back home with at least one new boat from MountainMan in Old Forge, and to get rid of the monstrously heavy tandem kayak we bought when the kids were little. Just as that plan was being executed, a friend said he’d be selling his super light carbon kayak, which sounded even better to me than some of the boats we’d been researching. With a small side trip to the foothills, we could pick it up on our way north. Long, stiff, and light – I nearly threw it up into the rack. So we went to camp with that and our old faithful tandem canoe, which also isn’t getting any lighter but which we’ve had for 27 years.
Upside of a really efficient touring kayak: it’s really efficient. Downside: the inexperienced kayaker (such as someone who has previously used a wide-open tandem) will quickly become experienced. That means wet. The cockpit is super-tight, so getting in and out requires some special skills, skills that I’m still developing. It’s also super-narrow, which it turns out meant it’s not a good fit for my wife. But once in it . . . paddling is almost zero effort, and control is amazing. So we figured we’d executed the plan for this year: buy one boat, get rid of another, hold onto the two canoes.
Of course, we needed some additional gear, so we ended up at MountainMan anyway, and there got to look over one of the boats we had been planning on looking over. Then we got to sit in it. Then we got to test paddle it. Then we bought another boat, one that much better suits the better half and is still light and quite fast.
For those keeping track, that means we drove up with a wide-ass canoe, and were going back home with that and two more boats. That was asking a lot of my roof rack. Luckily, in one of those weird developments that I never saw coming, we’re now those people whose adult children come to join in on part of the vacation, along with their significant others. That’s delightful, by the way. We had a fire, we paddled together, we watched movies together. But most importantly, one of the daughters conveniently had a kayak rack on her car. So, another side trip on the way home, a borrow of some real estate from my mother to store the canoe for a few weeks, a transfer of one of the new kayaks, and off we went.
So that was this year’s plan – go on vacation, come back with a new boat. By any measure, we overachieved our goal. Along the way, elder daughter became excited/interested in paddling the Adirondack Canoe Classic, and we were probably lucky that the deadline for this year’s event had already passed. By no coincidence, this is an event that has been a goal of mine since the ’80s, and which I’ve never really been in a position to train for or participate in; it’s also one I’ve always had an inkling that I’d love to do with one of my daughters, both of whom have been on the water their entire lives. And now one of them wants to do it. But the level of preparation – make no mistake, this is a serious distance. 90 miles in three days, with 5.25 miles of carry. You carry all your gear (or have a support vehicle meet you at the landings, but it’s all on you). On one of the vacation days, I did a nice eight mile trip (and was only nearly tossed from the boat twice) – so if I could just do four times that distance for three days in a row, I figure I’m all set. I’m scouting training locations now, because that’s a scary commitment.
By the way, first time in years I’ve gotten ready for and gone on vacation without having the old Go-Go’s song “Vacation” get stuck in my head . . . oh, there it is. All is right with the world then.
(This also appears on my history website, Hoxsie.org.)
After years of good intentions but poor execution, of being somewhat nearby but never quite in the right area, I finally made it to the land of my ancestors last week. It’s a little tucked-away corner of the north central Adirondacks, far from any roads in the 1860s and not terribly close to any now. But at that time, the earliest tourists traveled by water routes from one end of the Adirondacks to the other, following routes set out by Seneca Ray Stoddard, Rev. Murray and other early advocates of wilderness adventure in upstate New York. (Remember that Verplanck Colvin wasn’t engaged to make a map of the region until 1872.) And as they paddled (or were paddled) down the Raquette River and came to the carries around the upper and lower Raquette Falls, their boats and gear were carried around the falls on an oxcart driven by my great great great grandfather, Philander Johnson, and they were fed pancakes and something that was acknowledged as trout when in season by my great great great grandmother, “Mother” Johnson.
It’s not entirely clear when they arrived there, though it’s likely it was any time between 1860 and 1865. It’s not entirely clear why they left Newcomb, where they had been tenant farming for a few years, and where their son William remained for a period of time. It’s not at all clear why they and the related families that they moved around with for a couple of decades didn’t move south even just a few dozen miles to a part of the world with shorter winters and soil that could grow something. Together, Johnsons, Pecks, Grahams and some others moved from northern Vermont to Crown Point, then into inland Essex County, making a stop in Newcomb before heading into deep wilderness to seek their fortune where there was none likely to be found.
I’m not quite sure when logging started in that particular neck of the woods, whether it had begun when they got there or whether they were entirely reliant on the little bit of tourism that was starting to build. It seems unlikely they could have made a go of it without a nearby lumber camp to serve, and it seems reasonable they may have gone there to feed the lumberjacks and found a profitable niche providing food and lodging to the big city swells.
Today, the closest paved road (well-packed dirt, anyway) is Coreys Road, which takes you to the head of the Raquette Falls trail (marked as the horse trail). It’s about 4.2 miles of pretty easy hiking (though with an amount of up and down) to reach the clearing where Mother Johnson’s stood. Today, there are two structures there – a nice modernish cabin built in 1975, occupied in the season by a ranger with the Department of Environmental Conservation, and an old, hand-hewn barn that could date back to Mother Johnson’s time. If not, at the very least it is known to have been there in 1890, so not long after.
We hiked in on a day with perfect overcast weather that later brightened up. When we got to the clearing, we met the ranger on the site, Gary Valentine, who has been there a dozen years and knew nearly as much about Mother Johnson as I did . . . which is really no surprise as none of this information has come down from family stories. It was only recently that I became certain that Mother (whose name was Lucy Kimball Johnson) was in fact William Johnson’s mother. Mr. Valentine gave us the grand tour of the new cabin on the site, and let us inspect the barn, marveling at the pinned construction with hand-hewn beams, speculating that it certainly could have been put up by Philander. In fact, he thought it likely, since the first thing new settlers had to build was a barn, not a house, as they would have to care for their livestock in order to survive. We can’t be certain, but it certainly makes sense.
We also talked about whether Mother Johnson was buried at Raquette Falls or somewhere else. The author Christine Jerome, in An Adirondack Passage, held that Mother Johnson had asked to be buried at Long Lake. That’s certainly possible, as it was the closest thing to a town nearby, but it’s also questionable as neither she nor any of the other Johnsons lived there. Her daughter Sylvia lived down the river at Hiawatha Lodge; son William had lived in Long Lake once, but had lived much longer at Coreys, and was by the time of her death likely near Westport, back east by Lake Champlain. There is a headstone at Long Lake that originally said “Old Mrs. Johnson,” then was turned upside down and re-inscribed “Mother Johnson.” But an article on her granddaughter Jennie Morehouse, in 1938, said that both Lucy and Philander were buried at the falls, as was Sylvia’s husband, Clark Farmer. In any event, there is no sign of any graves near the falls. There is a grave in the clearing where her lodge stood, but that is that of George Morgan, for whom a later Raquette Falls Lodge was built.
It was remarkable to sit beside the falls and think of how long people had been coming to that place in the midst of the wilderness, how the early Adirondack guides (including Lucy’s son William and then grandsons Charles and George) would have beached their boats above the upper falls and then hiked in to hail Philander with his ox cart, who would have carried the vessels around the falls while the “sports” enjoyed a meal and often slept over for the night. Likely those guides had to bring some of the supplies the Johnsons needed, such as milled flour, but it would appear that “Uncle” kept the guests in something like trout and “mountain lamb.” Even that early, there were hunting and fishing seasons to maintain the populations up. If, in fact, logging was already underway in that area, deer may have been hard to come by whether in season or not. Perhaps they had ice, but probably not. It was a hard, remote life.
Think of what it took to even build a cabin in those woods. The land had to be cleared – at the time Seneca Ray Stoddard took the photo above, it looks like logging may have already occurred as the standing timber is intermittent. If the Johnsons arrived with the logging operations, then a logging crew may have made their lives much easier. If not, “Uncle” had a lot of work to do, along with whoever else from the families may have gone there with them. Once the timber was felled, it had to be shaped into beams using an adze – evidence of that handiwork remains in the old barn on the site.
An enhanced version of a stereograph of Mother Johnson’s at Raquette Falls, taken by famous Adirondack photographer Seneca Ray Stoddard.
This photograph of Mother Johnson’s, held by the New York Public Library, is undated. A guess of the 1870s can’t be too far wrong, as the house is complete and fairly spacious, with what appears to be a fairly lavish extension to the left of what was likely the original cabin on the right.
The construction itself tells a story of progress even in the woods. Besides the barn, which can’t be seen in this view, it seems likely that the first structure built would have been what is now the lower story of the cabin, on the right. It appears to be of squared log construction, and may originally have had a peaked roof but not one as high as the one in this picture. To the left is a little windowed structure with a stovepipe sticking out . . . this could have been a separate smokehouse (possibly a sugaring shack, but given the forest it seems less likely). That structure was sided with rough boards, meaning there was at least a planing mill somewhere near. By the time the spacious second story was added to the original cabin, better wood was available, as it is sided with dimensional boards and the windows are handsomely trimmed. It’s impossible to say whether the windows were assembled nearby from glass imported from elsewhere in the state, or if the sashes were brought in as finished pieces, but those are double-hung touches of civilization, in contrast with the multi-paned fixed window at the end of what we’ll call the smokehouse.
Hand-hewn beam inside the barn at Raquette Falls. This dates to at least 1890.
As business expanded, and more and more swells from the city needed a place to stay on their passage up the river, the Johnsons must have decided to simply add on to their cabin. When the upper story wasn’t enough, they must have added on that extension to the left, which likely had spacious common space down below and a bunkroom up above. Someone had the wherewithal to make some pretty nice-looking wooden shingles, and it appears that another stove was in use in that part of the house.
The stovepipe shows that at some point the oxen carried a stove in to the cabin . . . but from where? The first railroad into any part of the Adirondacks, built by Durant, only reached North Creek in 1871, a long, long way from Raquette Falls. The Fulton Chain railway, famous as one of the most popular routes, wasn’t completed until 1892. Saranac Lake, down the Raquette River to the north, was reached by the Delaware and Hudson in 1887, and the New York Central in 1892. So clearly, someone hauled that stove the hard way, a long way. The windows appear to be glass, which raises the question of where the glass came from, and whether the windows were crafted somewhere locally with glass from one of New York’s far-off cities, or if they were brought in as completed sashes. The logistics are daunting today, and seem impossible in the 1870s. But there they were.
Standing under the little shingled roof next to the center post is the ample frame of a woman who must be Mother Johnson. To the left, her right, are two men or boys in the shadows. They could be guides, they could be hired hands. Immediately next to Mother Johnson could be a dog. To the right, there are three men. Any of these could be Philander, or they could just be other Adirondack guides or the swells they catered to.
On the way out, we were treated to a ride down the river, an unexpected bonus that made me desperate to get back there with my own boats and paddle the beautiful, slow winding path of the Raquette below the falls. Our guide explained how it had been perfect for logging operations – in the early days, nearly all timber was moved by river, and some rivers were friendlier to it (and the loggers) than others. Today, it is a slow, lovely bit of water with sandy banks surrounded by grassy plains. There are several inviting campsites and lean-tos that are beckoning for a future visit.
The wind has been howling around here lately, just howling, which has made for some trying bike rides. Last week happened to be a week when I had to bike commute all week, and so while the breeze was pleasant for its sweat-wicking qualities, it was a beast to fight on some of the rides home. And then I had a charity ride through the hills of beautiful northern Chester County, mostly in the same hills I normally ride anyway, but I went out on Friday just to get a few more hilly miles in the legs before Sunday’s event, and the wind was just a whirling beast that never seemed to give me a push. Thought for sure it would have settled down some by yesterday morning, but when we lined up for the 32-mile route, there was blazing sun, increasing heat, and a strong wind that seemed to be a headwind in every direction. At one point late in the ride, I was making a long, clear descent to a bridge, and as I sailed down the hill the landscape opened up and I could see that there was an amazing wind tunnel going across my path. I had to brake back my descent and barely kept upright as the wind swept across the road and showed me who was boss; if I hadn’t pulled back I’d have gone down. The rest of the ride, it was just a constant presence, particularly in the ears, as it was hard to hear anything and after a while I wondered if the noise would ever stop.
And then . . . coming down West Seven Stars Road, in a little stretch where the farm fields are banked up just a couple of feet above the road, I achieved something I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced before: a moment of perfect wind. That is to say, no wind, because I was entirely within the wind. As I flew down that little tunneled section of road, tucked in just low enough that there were no cross-currents, I must have been going along at exactly the same speed, in exactly the same direction, as the wind. All the grasses to my sides were flailing wildly. Birds were being pushed back as they tried to come up the road. And yet, I could feel nothing. And I could hear nothing. It was absolutely silent, still, perfect, all visual evidence to the contrary. It went on for what felt like an oddly long time though it could only have been 20 seconds, 25 seconds at most, long enough for me to realize I was experiencing a singularity. I could see the effect of the wind, yet I couldn’t feel it, couldn’t hear it. I sailed through the covered bridge and on the other side the world was back to normal and the wind was back to howling. But for just a few moments, I was part of the wind.
(If that “Arrested Development” reference means nothing to you, just let it go.)
When we moved, our house was what they call move-in ready. We had to do absolutely nothing to move in (other than desperately try to squish all our belongings into a much tinier house). But of course what “move-in ready” really means is that it’s painted in some nice neutral colors that you will come to hate and become desperate to do something about. And, in our case, that it had fresh carpeting all up the stairs and in the upstairs bedrooms. Problem: we hate carpeting. It’s really never clean, it’s terrible for people with allergies, and this was that shade of oatmeal beige that got dirty just by existing. I tore it out of two of the bedrooms before we had even moved, but it remained on the stairs. I hate carpeting on stairs even more – it always feels like I’m going to trip. I like to connect with a tread. So, eventually, the stair carpet had to go.
Of course, that left the question of what was under the carpet. In our old house, removal of several layers of dense enamel paint had revealed absolutely gorgeous maple stairs that were worth the roughly two years it took me to actually finish the job. In this house, I found what I have found everywhere in this house: old pine. So the decision was whether to rehab soft, splintery old pine, or do a full replacement. Thought I’d try the rehab first. This is what was under the carpet:
So, the good news was that they weren’t heavily painted. The bad news was that they were painted just enough, and rough and splintery enough, that getting down to bare wood and whacking it with a thick coat of polyurethane wasn’t going to work. The answer would have to be paint.
First, I would have to remove approximately four million staples. Whoever put in this brand new carpet that I despised, I would highly recommend for a carpeting job. They did it beautifully. Even trying hard, it was a massive chore to get that carpet off the stairs. And every single one of those staples had to be pulled out by hand. Even by the time I was ready to paint, I was still finding some hidden staples.
So, there was the issue of figuring out paint. I found a couple of rather elegant paint patterns that I liked, including something with a set of highlighting stripes that I thought would make some plain old pine stairs look quite nice. What I wasn’t sure of was whether it would be possible to create nice smooth stripes on such rough old wood. Even with significant sanding (oh, and there was sanding), you can only get this stuff so smooth.
Yeah. Not so smooth. But we decided to go for it anyway, and figured if we hated it in the end, we could just start all over and replace the stairs entirely. So, final sanding and then two solid coats of Kilz high-hiding primer:
You’ll note the weirdness of the lack of balusters and banister on the right. What was there was a horrible piece of cheap pine, poorly arranged, that took the place of where railing setup would normally be. We liked the openness and didn’t want to enclose the space, but we had to have a nicer piece of wood. We thought about several fancier treatments, including using some live-edge wood that would have been an interesting effect, but in the end decided to make it simple.
To make the stripe, first I painted the color I wanted the stripes to be on the treads and risers. Then, I had to bring the tape down over that color, and I would then paint the darker color everywhere the tape wasn’t. The cardboard is a template for laying the tape because this was, of course tricky. The house was built in 1900. The stairs are not the same width at the top as at the bottom. If I put the stripes a uniform distance from the left or right walls, they would have ended up looking very funky. So I had to pick a spot at the top of the stairs and run down from that, keeping the space between the stripes exactly the same but letting the outside margins drift.
I used Frog tape, which many blogs said would work better than the traditional 3M blue painter’s tape, particularly on a less than smooth surface; those folks turned out to be right. It was a bit tricky getting it tucked into the corners perfectly where the treads met the risers, and wrapping it around the bullnose nicely while still maintaining something like a straight line, but it worked out pretty well.
Then, and this was absolutely key, I painted over the edges of the tape in the color of the stripe. That would prevent the darker color from leaking under the tape, because if there was to be any leakage, the lighter color would have already done it. So: paint the color you want to protect, tape over it, then paint the edges of the tape the same color. It’s brilliant.
Then comes the main color, the dark blue. Here you can see it applied to most of the risers and the sides of the treads – that was so we could still go up and down stairs while a portion of it dried. I used porch and floor paint from True Value that dries pretty quickly and pretty hard, but it still preferred to rest for a couple of days before getting really challenged. I waited to do the treads until Lee was going to be out of the house for the weekend and I could try to just walk up the edges while they dried. Here you can see I was also deciding whether to paint the railing and the not-a-baluster board the same color.
Then, of course, came the problem. That cheesy piece of wood wasn’t ever really set in place right, and didn’t have a proper support underneath, so when it was time to replace it, I had to cobble together a new support column.
There was much checking of angles, let me assure you. I’m terrible with angles.
Then came the moment when I could take off all the tape. My history with the blue tape is that inevitably I would snag a strip of paint at some point and undo some of my work, and then have to go back and touch up. That did not happen with the Frog tape. There was absolutely minimal leakage – just in a couple of spots where I hadn’t been able to get the tape tight enough as it came through a corner – and the lines were razor sharp. I ended up doing just the slightest amount of retouching, all of it in the corners. The rest of it was amazing. Here’s how it came out:
Nice, is it not? The iPhone and the ambient light aren’t really capturing the color here. Trust me, it came out pretty sweet.
The music is amazing these days, and right now I’m listening to a mix of power pop from local talent, old melancholy wisdom, and some straight up rocking:
From local tunesmith Cliff Hillis, his new single (released on 45 rpm vinyl). This is the kind of music I wasn’t sure anyone wrote anymore.
Even catchier is his “The Buddha’s Belly” – “Everybody wants to rub the Buddha’s belly / But no one is scratching the Buddha’s back.”
And then there’s this bit of dreamy sweetness whose video seems to feature half the people in my town: “Dashboard.”
With or without “Those Meddling Kids,” John Faye is terrific. “Church and State” is edgy pop.
Then there’s the slightly darker “Meddling Kids.”
“Into Philadelphia.” The catchiness is insane.
Loving the new Peter Wolf album from top to bottom, and this is one of the reasons why.
And I never get tired of watching this backstage rehearsal of “Tragedy.”
The new Veruca Salt album, “Ghost Notes,” is simply incredible. This is not a reunion album. This is possibly their best material ever. “Eyes On You” is urgent, forceful, plaintive . . . things you don’t hear in popular music these days.
“Laughing in the Sugar Bowl” is quite simply how you make a rock song. Get in, rock like mad, get out. Loud fast fun all the way through.