By Tom Woodman
On an August day that was sweltering even in the Adirondacks, a woman from Troy entered the waters of Schroon Lake, tears running down her cheeks, and sat in the water, escaping the heat and basking in the views of the mountains across the lake.
Attended closely by her son, and surrounded by other bathers at the Scaroon Manor Campground, she enjoyed the same magic that had made the lakeshore the setting for a glamorous resort in the twentieth century.
“I hadn’t been in the water in fifteen years,” said Cheryl Atherley. “It was amazing.”
The manor attracted big-city vacationers with lavish facilities, extravagant meals, and the biggest names in entertainment between the 1920s and 1960s. But hers was a very different experience than that of the pampered vacationers of the earlier era.
To understand how, let’s move from this scene and run the reel backward, past the moments just before her swim, when she sat on the concrete pier overlooking the bathing area, watching families enjoy the water, and farther back—decades back to when as a young woman horsing around with relatives in her native Trinidad, she took a nasty fall that ended with her left leg twisted sickeningly beneath her. An East Indian gentleman, a neighbor of her family, reset the dislocated knee, but that was just the beginning of the story.
Run the reel forward a few years to an accident outside her U.S. home in which both her legs were pinned between cars as one vehicle lurched forward instead of backing out of the driveway. Then forward again to 1986 and the final calamity, when hurrying to be on time for work she fell again. This time, the damage to the knee was so severe that doctors couldn’t restore circulation. They amputated her left leg above the knee.
Even right after the amputation, she says, she wanted to have a full, active life, experiencing new things.
“I used to run, I used to dance. It was just great,” she said of her life before the amputation. She was determined to keep that spirit alive.
In recent years she has been dreaming of camping in the Adirondacks, gradually acquiring the gear: a cook set, an air mattress, and a tent.
“I was so looking forward to it,” she said. “The serenity. The quiet. Listening to the wind in the trees. The smell of the woods.”
Cheryl’s visit to the Adirondacks was a new chapter for her. And it’s part of a new chapter for Scaroon Manor, too. After decades offering the high life as a resort with all the amenities, Scaroon Manor went out of business in 1962, as the era of grand resorts slid away.
The state bought the property in 1967. After long delays, the Department of Environmental Conservation opened a day-use area in 2006. Last year, the state completed the sixty-site campground, the only state-run campground to adopt universal design for the entire facility. The design aims to allow everyone to have a chance to connect with nature, from the able-bodied, to people with disabilities, to parents pushing strollers and seniors using walkers.
There’s little need for those blue wheelchair symbols to label one group as different from others. All campsites are accessible, as are the bathrooms and changing facilities. People in wheelchairs can safely navigate hardened walkways that are pitched at gradual slopes; so can little guys on their tricycles.
“The shower rooms are phenomenal,” Cheryl said. “I’m going to miss that shower when I go home, the dual controls and the folding seat.”
But for Cheryl, the experience of belonging was not just a question of how the place is built. Let’s run the reel forward again and see Cheryl sitting on the pier in her wheelchair, taking in the Adirondack scenery with her son Josh.
As she sits in her chair overlooking the swimming area, other campers notice her and urge her to join them in the water. They unroll the hard plastic mats that the campground uses to give wheelchairs a surface for crossing the sand. It’s a red-carpet entrance to the water (except the mats are blue).
“The people in the water were probably wondering why I wasn’t in the water,” Cheryl said. “I mentioned that I was an amputee, and they suggested rolling out the blue whatever-you-call-it. They picked me up, put me on this thing, and rolled me to the water. These weren’t employees; these were campers. This was amazing. When we got to the edge, they picked me up in the chair and got me in the water.”
Once in the water she lowered herself to the lakebed and scooted into deeper water.
“I was crying. I was in tears. My son was there, and he said, “Come on, Mom. Keep coming, keep coming. He was so happy to see me in the water. He was all smiles. That’s something I haven’t seen anywhere else.”