Ralph Gardner: Einstein in the Adirondacks
My wife proposed calling it a staycation. But that wasn’t strictly accurate because we traveled a couple of hours north – even longer if you include the wrong turn we took, or rather the right turn we didn’t take – and the trip included an overnight.
We were on our way to Indian Lake in the Adirondacks to retrieve a first edition of the Wizard of Oz that Jack and Taff Fitterer, admired book restorers, were repairing for me.
And while the trip was celebratory — our younger daughter was along having just completed her informal masters degree in cooking as a chef for the last three years at the restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns — I preferred to think of it as more purposeful than your average vacation.
When I’ve headed north over the years the destination has typically been Vermont or Maine. The Adirondacks, one of America’s great remaining wildernesses, and almost in our backyard, has remained unconscionably neglected.
The last time I visited was a couple of days after our wedding in the Eighties when my wife and I and our dog Stinko retreated to Covewood Lodge, a camp on Big Moose Lake for a little rest and relaxation.
We didn’t see any moose, big or small, or any other humans for that matter since the camp was about to close for the season. If the silence was disturbed it was only by loons calling to each other across the lake.
That also didn’t qualify as a staycation. Or a honeymoon either. Since we were fortunate to be heading to Kenya on safari several months later. It felt more like a breather.
My only other experience in that part of the world was when I attended Lone Pine Camp, overlooking Osgood Pond in Paul Smiths, as a twelve year old.
All I’m saying is that as we exited the Northway and headed west it felt like someplace I was visiting for the first time, with few preconceptions and fresh, almost but not quite childlike eyes.
This wasn’t my first foray to the rugged north in recent weeks, even if my other visit was somewhat less ambitious. We decided to visit the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls between Christmas and New Year.
For those who haven’t been, the Hyde, started by Charlotte Hyde, the daughter of a paper and pulp magnate, in her mansion turned museum, contains impressive works stretching from Rembrandt and Reubens to Childe Hassam and Picasso.
The only thing that can improve a museum trip is an excellent, restorative lunch, such as the one we had at the Heidelberg, a nearby German restaurant whose pretzel pork schnitzel came highly recommended.
We found the culinary options more limited in the Adirondacks, especially since the lodge where we were spending the night was closed for a special event. A “Dinner with Teddy Roosevelt” starring TR reprisor Joe Wiegand.
As much as I respect the former President – especially as a trustbuster and conservationist; he created several national parks and the U.S. Forest Service – I hadn’t traveled to the Adirondacks to see a show, at least one that wasn’t staged by nature.
The landscape, indeed, provided more than enough entertainment, especially since the mountains looked magical after a storm that left every tree and twig covered in snow and ice.
Add to that the region’s countless lakes and the Hudson River, which is narrower but more savage than it is further south – as is the entire landscape – and the journey felt more ambitious than the odometer indicated.
We made it to the Fitterers’ home and workshop around noon the next day where my beautifully repaired Wizard of Oz constituted one of the artisans’ lesser marvels; even though the formerly rickety volume now felt as sturdy, the spine as solid, the pages as strong and durable as a new book’s.
Which is saying something since ancient children’s book, if they’re lucky to survive at all, are typically excessively loved and defaced with materials such as crayon.
“Crayon doesn’t come out,” Taff stated flatly.
Fortunately, my book hadn’t been turned into a canvas. However, the cloth covering the book’s spine was ripped in half. But by the time Taff, a talented painter as well as a book restorer, had completed her work it was impossible to tell where the tear had been.
Jack is responsible for repairing the leatherbound volumes or creating new ones as well as slipcases and marbleized papers. His current commissions included a monumental family bible and an illustrated history of Albany County, as well as an extremely rare copy of Einstein’s theory of relativity, written for the average reader. “We found one other one online,” Jack told me.
Another book he was working on was a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. A paperback original in significantly worse shape than my Wizard of Oz but, believe it or not, probably worth more. A dealer had sent it to the Fitterers to have the cover removed and the guts of the book bound in leather.
There was something about the wildness of the surrounding landscape and the civility of the Fitterers workshop, filled with bookmaking tools and equipment, that seemed to compliment each other.
Both felt refuges of peace and solitude; the Fitterers seemed to be restoring not just books but also a civilized, conscientious way of being in an increasingly gruff world.
Our journey had taken us only a couple of hours north but it felt a lot further and more rewarding than that.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com