Steve Nelson: Broad Vista on the Passage of Time

A special place, such as the Castle Rock outcropping that looks out on Blue Mountain Lake in New York’s Adirondacks, can provide an anchor point that connects multiple generations of a family. (Steve Nelson photograph)

A special place, such as the Castle Rock outcropping that looks out on Blue Mountain Lake in New York’s Adirondacks, can provide an anchor point that connects multiple generations of a family. (Steve Nelson photograph)

My morning read of The New York Times produced a surprisingly emotional moment several weeks ago. Accompanying an article about the preservation of a beautiful tract of land in the Adirondacks was a picture of Blue Mountain Lake, a spectacular gem in the heart of the Adirondack Park.

The photo was striking, but my powerful response was because I instantly recognized the vantage point from which the photo was taken: Castle Rock, an outcropping rising several hundred feet above the lake’s northwestern shore. Over my shoulder was a photo on the refrigerator door taken from the identical spot just weeks before, with my granddaughter Quinn in the foreground.

Seven decades of family photo albums hold pictures of each of my children at a variety of ages, both of my siblings, their partners and children, all of the family dogs since 1960 or so, my wife, me, my parents — I could go on — all taken from the same precise point in nearly every season. Several years ago, my brother and I sat on that spot as the sun dropped beneath a distant ridge and shared the best bottle of wine either of us had ever tasted (a 1989 Chateau Montrose, for wine aficionados). We slept on the hard rock under a brilliant night sky — the Milky Way thick enough to stir with a spoon.

Many families have a place that settles deeply into their hearts and histories. This is ours. In 1954, my family happened upon Blue Mountain Lake on a vacation drive. We stayed in a rental cottage and a love affair began. With only a very few exceptions, I have returned every year since — from Ohio, Michigan and now Vermont and New York City.

Around 1960 my father and I decided to scratch a six-year itch by bushwhacking to the top of an appealing outcropping of granite near the lake that we had often viewed with curiosity from our canoe. We suspected it had a lovely view, if only we could get there. The hike was modest, but the sense of adventure was immense. The view was indeed breathtaking in that special way that combines the majesty of enough elevation with the intimacy of not too much elevation. As we reached the summit, we believed we were the first humans to set foot on the massive stone block. On a rational level we knew better, of course, but that myth held until several years later when we encountered a local fellow on the peak who told us of an old, overgrown trail that approached the summit from another direction.

In the years thereafter, the trail was redeveloped and Castle Rock has become a popular destination for local hikers and vacationers looking for an easy thrill. The payoff is quite wonderful for a very small investment of time and energy.

It takes a permanent sense of place to fully realize the passage of time. In an era of rapid-fire change, reshaping of communities, uncertainty, family fragility and a society that resists growing of roots, we have too few anchor points from which to consider the trajectory of our own lives — the past and the future. For me, Blue Mountain Lake and Castle Rock are the constants that allow this kind of reflection.

I vividly remember, in 1954 or 1955, when my sister and I discovered a treasure trove of historic photos with inscriptions in the attic of the modest rental cottage. We were fascinated by the turn-of-the-century life in the Adirondacks; a railroad that served magnificent grand hotels, long since burned to the ground and reclaimed by forest; loggers in wool pants with huge crosscut saws; wealthy city folks in cedar guide boats wearing formal attire. It was as distant to us as the American Revolution or medieval times. We spent hours with the photos, listening to a pile of Paul Whiteman Orchestra 78s on an old hand crank Victrola. We were mesmerized.

As I approach the 60th anniversary of my first visit to Blue Mountain Lake, I realize that to a young girl or boy arriving for a first summer visit in 2014, I would be eyewitness to what would seem ancient times. If I told that child I had first visited Blue Mountain Lake in 1954 it would be as if a stranger had, in 1954, told my sister and me of his first visit in 1894. The picture of our 1954 Chevy in the family photo album would be to that child what the monochromatic photos of the long-defunct railway were to me as a child. This realization doesn’t make me feel old. It makes me feel deeply connected.

This connection is what aroused such strong feelings when I looked at the Times photo and the picture on my refrigerator. I thought how pleased my father would have been to know that his great granddaughter (they never met) had climbed the vertical face of Castle Rock and triumphantly looked out from the summit.

I hope that someday my granddaughter’s grandchild might stand on that very spot and feel the connection stretching back through the generations to that long ago time when Raymond Nelson and his young son “discovered” this heavenly place.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.