The book that created the buzz — and the continuing debate
By PHILIP TERRIE
The story of eastern High Peaks crowds is familiar by now: jammed and limited parking places along Route 73, eroded and deteriorating trails on Cascade and Giant, poop in the woods.
The problem? Too many people and consequently a diminution of both the fragile wilderness and the wilderness experience that brought them here in the first place.
Where have we run into this before?
In 1869, a century and a half ago, the distinguished Boston publisher Fields, Osgood released a book that it hoped would make a buck or two but for which it had only modest hopes. This was “Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks,” by a Boston clergyman, William Henry Harrison Murray. Much to the delight of publisher and author, the book struck a nerve and became an overnight bestseller. With its appealing tales about Adirondack fishing and hunting and, perhaps more important, with its detailed, easy-to-digest instructions on how to plan and execute a camping trip, Murray’s book inspired thousands of neophytes to head for the Adirondacks, where they encountered hotels and boarding houses with no available rooms, swarms of blood-sucking blackflies, a remarkably rainy summer, and widespread contempt for the newbies, forever after labeled as “Murray’s Fools.” For the rest of his life William H. H. Murray was known as “Adirondack Murray.”
Before Murray, the Adirondack wilderness had been enjoyed only by a few insiders. The peak we now know as Mount Marcy wasn’t mentioned in print until 1836 and not climbed (so far as anyone knows) until the following summer, when a state-employed geologist, Ebenezer Emmons, led the first ascent and proposed the name “Adirondacks.” A few urban dwellers read Emmons’s fascinating account of exploration and decided that the newly named Adirondacks—difficult to reach and thinly populated—might be a good locale for hunting and fishing. They found what they were looking for, and a few of them published descriptions of their adventures that in turn inspired a few others. Joel T. Headley’s classic “The Adirondack, or Life in the Woods” (1849) was a well-known sporting narrative.
But Headley’s readers remained relatively few. The America of the 1840s and ’50s wasn’t quite ready for the mass phenomenon we now know as the middle-class summer vacation. It was the combination of post-Civil War exuberance (only in the North, of course), improved steamboat travel, and Murray’s accessible, often humorous prose that made his book a blockbuster. Where sportsmen in the Headley era were paddled by their guides from the Fulton Chain to the Saranacs and rarely encountered another soul, after 1869 the appeal of the northern wilderness had been definitively announced. Spartan farm dwellings were turned into boarding houses, which soon became hotels. Where a few local men had worked as guides for Headley and his brethren (nearly all of the mid-19th century hunters and anglers were men), after Murray’s Fools were on the scene, any local man with a boat and a deer hound could demand top dollar to take rookies into the woods, keep them alive for a few weeks, and show them the good fishing holes. (Anyone interested in the whole affair of Murray and Murray’s Fools should track down the 1970 reprint of “Adventures in the Wilderness,” published by the Adirondack Museum and Syracuse University Press, with an indispensible, thoroughly researched introduction by the late Warder H. Cadbury.)
Murray wrote of “magnificent scenery which makes this wilderness to rival Switzerland” and boating and sporting expeditions “the like of which, it is safe to say, the world does not anywhere else furnish.” He waxed lyrical about the healthy air and the benefits of exercise. He claimed that time in the Adirondacks could cure dyspepsia and even tuberculosis. The Adirondacks, Murray insisted, offered miraculous redemptive powers, a natural antidote to the spiritual impoverishment and physical deterioration inevitably endured by Americans living in an increasingly urban, industrial society.
In other words, the idea of the Adirondacks as a major tourist destination was born. And with that arose the ineluctable conundrum of a spectacular landscape. When people find a place they like, a place that satisfies their spiritual longing for transcendent beauty and their physical need for healthy outdoor exercise, and then tell others about it in glowing, perhaps hyperbolized terms, will those who read these reviews show up in such numbers that the original charm is diminished, even lost altogether?
The sudden, dramatic appeal of Murray’s book was an amazing thing. Bookstores throughout the East ran out of copies as the publisher frantically ordered additional print runs. In July, just as the size of the Murray Rush was becoming apparent, Fields, Osgood issued a special Tourist’s Edition with waterproof cover and map. A reporter for the Boston Daily Advertiser declared that “Mr. Murray’s pen has brought a host of visitors into the Wilderness, such as it has never seen before.” It was, noted this anonymous writer, “a multitude which crowds the hotels and clamors for guides and threatens to turn the Wilderness into a Saratoga of fashionable costliness.” Locals with wagons charged exorbitant fees to transport tourists from the train station on the Ausable River, the end of a spur from Plattsburgh, to Saranac Lake.
Many of the sports that first summer found bugs in clouds of biblical proportions, day after day of rain, and no available guides. They crowded into the Adirondacks in July and then departed in August, some declaring that Murray was a liar. But initial disappointment did not end the Murray Rush. The following year and ever since, the Adirondacks were truly on the nation’s map. Blackflies and rain would not keep the tourists away.
Critics insisted that Murray, by luring the inexperienced, people unacquainted with the wilderness or wilderness ways, had ruined the outdoor pleasures enjoyed by earlier sportsmen, who were sure that they had the wilderness all to themselves and always would. Behind this was a sense that those who truly appreciated the wilderness were a special breed, that Murray was encouraging the wrong sort to make the trek to the Adirondacks. Thomas Bangs Thorpe, a writer of national repute, who had published an account of sporting along the Fulton Chain in the 1850s, insisted that the sportsman who really belonged in the wilderness was possessed of a “highly-cultivated mind which rejoices in the wilds of Nature” and was appalled on seeing “those temples of God’s creation profaned by people who have neither skill as sportsmen, nor sentiment or piety enough in their composition, to understand Nature’s solitudes.” It was Murray’s “fashionable twaddle,” opined Thorpe, that lured the inept and insensitive to the wilderness.
Kate Field, a well-known journalist, wrote in the New-York Tribune that “Many sportsmen are rampant because their favorite hunting and fishing grounds have been made known to the public.” Offended by this elitism, Field declared, “if several hundred men think that the life-giving principles of the North Woods was [sic] instituted for the benefit of a few guns and rods, they are sadly mistaken.” Fields’s entrance into this debate especially outraged Thorpe. One of Murray’s key points in “Adventures” was that the Adirondacks had been for too long the exclusive domain of men. He described proudly how much his wife loved her time in the wilderness and how she enthusiastically accompanied him on his annual expeditions. To Thorpe this was blasphemy: “We do not consider the wild woods a place for fashionable ladies …; they have, unfortunately, in their education, nothing that makes such places appreciated, and no capability for physical exercise …. Let the ladies keep out of the woods.”
When we see Thorpe move from a perhaps understandable but poorly expressed lament that the northern wilderness was compromised by too many people to a brazen and vulgar sexism, we should ponder the implications of any complaint about the violation of one’s personal retreat by the wrong sort. Ever since Murray’s day, the notion that wilderness of yesterday was ideal but that the wilderness of today and tomorrow is compromised, threatened, and even permanently corrupted by crowds of the unprepared and unskilled has been a constant feature of the Adirondack story. In and just after Murray’s heyday, it coincided with a wave of immigration to the United States from eastern and southern Europe and promoted WASP anxieties about the dilution of American vigor by foreign genes and cultures. In the Adirondacks it led to the establishment of huge private preserves where aristocratic chums could hunt and fish unmolested by the fumbling hoi polloi. It also led to the antisemitism that spread its insidious toxins in too many regional hotels and clubs.
The elitist claim of paradise lost is a nasty undercurrent in Adirondack history, a local manifestation of a theme nearly ubiquitous in American culture. And it shows up, in modern dress, in some of the responses to the crowds on Cascade. Read the reader comments whenever this subject surfaces on the Adirondack Almanack: You’ll see a familiar refrain about how our wilderness is being overrun by the unmannered and unskilled. You’ll encounter the same theme in comments on the weekly backcountry rescue reports from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation: These people don’t know how to take care of themselves and don’t belong in our wilderness.
All of which is not to deny that, yes, plenty of people really don’t know how to stay on a wilderness trail or how to poop in the woods. The DEC desperately needs the resources for better management of the forest preserve—improved and rerouted trails, more rangers, and public education about backcountry ethics. But from Murray’s era to our own, the assumption that yesterday was Edenic and tomorrow will introduce the end of everything we cherished has periodically poisoned efforts to make the forest preserve, owned by all the people of New York, a treasure available to and potentially valued by everyone. As New York becomes more diverse, as languages other than English are spoken in every New York county, the Adirondack wilderness needs a constituency of everyone.
A century and a half ago, Adirondack Murray began the process of democratizing New York’s wilderness. It’s a never-ending affair.