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February 2012

The Accidental Touron

A former snowbird finds his place

Illustration by Mark Wilson

IN ARIZONA THEY HAVE a derogatory name for people who come and stay just for the winter months: Snowbird. If you can hang on for a full year, sweat like the locals through a summer of dust storms and 100-plus days of 100-plus-degree temperatures, most folks consider you a native. Most folks, however, came from somewhere else, and it is relatively easy to be accepted.

After two decades in the Southwest sun, I had be­come a proud Desert Rat. If some rookie asked me how I took the brutal summers, I would smile enigmatically and say that it was the best time of year. All the Snowbirds were gone.

Then, in 2004, my wife, Leslie, and I inherited a house in Lake Placid. She had been coming to the Adirondacks since she was five and had numerous friends in town, but I knew no one. We were at the point in our lives where we were thinking about a summer place in the mountains. The High Peaks were a long way from Arizona, but fate had placed them before us, and we decided to spend three months in the North Country during the summer of 2005.

My first week in town, I was trying to drive through the crowded tourist district to pick up some bagels, but traffic was blocked in both directions. Lake Placid was full of people who had come for the Fourth of July holiday, and all the vehicles I could see had license plates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Vermont, Quebec. Some of the motorists had double parked, some were reading maps with their doors half-open into traffic, some were screaming out of their car windows at the worst of the drivers. Three cars ahead of me, a truck towing a trailer tried to pull into a parking lot, but got stuck mid-turn when another car backed into the street and blocked his way. I had had enough. There was a brief opening in oncoming traffic because of the jam, and I made a screeching U-turn and headed out of town. As I pulled away, I heard a pedestrian scream, “Touron!” at me.

That night we had dinner with Kay and Ed, born and bred in the Tri-Lakes, true locals of the highest water. I told them my experience downtown and asked what a Touron was. After laughing up great chunks of half-swallowed chili, they told me it meant “tourist moron.” I asked what other names there were for people like me: Leaf Peeper, Flatlander, Tourorist. Apparently, the best you could be was a “Seasonal”—someone who came back every year for the summer and left when the air got chill.

I have traveled the world and been insulted in at least a dozen languages, but this one hurt the most. In my few short days here, the magic of the Adirondacks had already begun to invade my spirit. It wasn’t just the beauty. As a young man, I had written a play, had it produced, got an agent, and started a career as a TV writer. Life (and two children) interfered with my creative instincts, and I spent the next few decades securing a more stable existence for my family. I had taught college in the U.S. and Iran, worked in re­fugee camps in Southeast Asia and Central America, been a manager in the computer industry and, with my wife, started a tour company in Arizona that took people all over the world. Now, as I settled into the North Country, I could sense my artistic juices beginning to flow again. I loved the feeling and wanted acceptance in my new part-time home, not the label of an outsider. I wanted to fit in and stretch my wings.

Unfortunately, I have always been a man who isolates. If you saw me at a party, I’d be the one back in the shadows in the farthest corner of the room, watching the action and taking mental notes. Approach me and I would be polite but say little of interest or nothing at all. You would find me boring. At home, I spent most of my time in front of my computer surfing the net and listening to the radio, or writing poems I never shared with anyone and living entirely in my head. It would take an act of Congress to get me off my duff and out the door.

Or so it was until that horrid day in Lake Placid when I made a decision that has changed my life, a decision to seek out a new kind of relationship with the world. I went to the local visitors’ office and got a copy of The Weekender, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise’s listing of all the cultural activities in the High Peaks. I marked every concert and art opening and theater performance and went to every event I could. Because this is a small community I started to see the same people over and over. Because I wanted to change, I sucked it up and stuck out my hand and introduced myself. Because I appeared far more confident than I felt, I was invited to hike or dine with the people I met. Leslie and I left for Arizona in early fall.

Each year we came back a bit earlier and stayed a bit longer. We bought kayaks and learned to paddle. The grandkids came to visit and became friends with the neighbors’ kids. People recognized us at social events and welcomed us back. By 2010 we were spending six months here and six months in Arizona. We had be­come accepted “Seasonals.”

New friends gave me occasional grief about being a wimp regarding winter. I hadn’t spent a season in the snow since high school in Great Falls, Montana. I knew what 40 degrees below felt like and didn’t feel up to abandoning the Arizona sunshine for blizzards and black ice. Still, the mountains were feeling more and more like home and the Southwest desert more like a place to escape rather than a place to enjoy. I decided to get more involved, and took a part-time job teaching online courses for North Country Community College in Saranac Lake. That allowed me to keep in contact with my new favorite place while I was away. I boldly told my Tri-Lakes buddies that, given a proper excuse, I might just spend a winter here, just to prove I could do it.

In August 2010 the “proper excuse” came along. A week before the fall semester began at NCCC, an English professor quit. I was asked if I could stay and fill in. I took a deep breath, abandoned my sanity and said yes. I asked my neighbor how she had survived up here for so many years. She said you had to embrace the winter, seek it out, actively engage with it. Otherwise, you would become cabin bound and spend all your time cranky and alone. I stocked up on winter clothes, borrowed skis and snowshoes, and dug my daddy’s ancient arctic parka out of storage. I opened the door and walked out face-first into the snowiest and coldest Adi­rondack winter in 20 years. The Weekender was my guide to cold weather activities, as it had been to summer fun.

In the last six months I have seen seven plays, attended 15 art openings, participated in 13 literary readings and squatted with my brethren at 11 meditation group sessions. I have heard music in half a dozen venues, met with actors and directors at a film forum and been lectured by master gardeners who taught me how to create a grow room in my basement and came by to make sure I actually did it. I have learned to snowshoe and ski and answer the phone without checking to see who or what is calling. I have hiked and kayaked with people who think of me as a friend. When I go to the grocery store, folks say hello and know my name. I acquired a New York driver’s license and changed my legal residency to Lake Placid.

Recently I went to visit the historical society housed in the Lake Placid train station. In one corner was a display about the old Lake Placid Club, founded in 1895 as a summer playground for the rich and famous from the great cities of the East Coast. One plaque said that in 1920 six members of the club decided to promote the area as a destination for winter sports. On the adjacent wall was a large blue flag with a white bird in the center. It was the original Sno Bird, seeking rather than fleeing winter. I had come full circle. No longer a “Seasonal,” I am home.

Charles Watts is the author of Karma in the High Peaks (RA Press), winner of the Adirondack Center for Writing’s 2010 People’s Choice Award, and a contributor to the anthology Road Poets (RA Press).

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