Facing What Haunts You

My fascination with ghost stories is directly connected to my fascination with our personal pasts; so many of us are haunted by one thing or another, things that we don’t realize affect our choices in life many years later.

For me, RubyOtt—our childhood Adirondack summer camp—is one of those things.

Our family owned the camp from 1979-1986. 1985 was our last summer there; Dad quietly sold it after Mom passed away. It was a wonderful place to summer. Safe places to bike (often for miles), a stream to swim and play in, rocks everywhere (I was fascinated with geology), books to read, stories and poems to write, a General Store where we could buy penny candy. And then there were the trips we took: to Howe Caverns, to Lake Placid, to all of upstate New York’s bounty of summer attractions. Over the years, it haunted me that I’d never gotten to formally say goodbye.

In 2005, I did some deep research and located the current owners; I wrote them a letter and sent them some photos of what the place had looked like. It resulted in a surprise phone call from the couple. They were both teachers, like my parents, so I felt happy about that. The woman was very nice, and said I was welcome to stop in and see the property any time.

A couple of times I vowed to make a weekend trip and stay in nearby Little Falls. Life got in the way, and I never went.

Recently, however, I was up at Howe Caverns, putting the finishing touches on plans for our wedding weekend. The wedding location, theme (Journey to the Center of the Earth) the idea of people sending us rocks as wedding wishes, and the theme of the rehearsal dinner barbecue were all connected to RubyOtt. Although I had always known that, it didn’t fully hit me until I was standing out in the Howe Caverns Motel parking lot late one night after getting back from a wonderful dinner with friends in Albany. The sky was so dark and clear I could see every constellation, just as it had always been every night up there on the property. I suddenly thought, why not go driving and just find it already? According to MapQuest, I was only an hour and a half away. It wasn’t like I had to be back at work the next day. I could get home in early evening instead of early afternoon.

Easier said than done. MapQuest could supply me with directions to the area (not very clear), but not directions to the actual camp (there’s now an address, but MapQuest doesn’t know it). I’d have to rely on actual maps and a little bit of memory to find it.

It took me three hours and lots of wrong turns, but eventually, I got up to the area. From that point, it was a lot of relying on landmarks. Since 27 years had gone by and there is that little thing called persistence of memory, I wasn’t sure how well that was going to work out.

It turned out not much had changed—and my memory was pretty good. I recognized the barn that had the antlers on it. The cemetery was exactly as I’d remembered it, and I was shocked to find I even remembered the locations of certain stones and what they looked like. The Knapps’ rabbit barn (it no longer belongs to them) and home was also exactly the way I remembered it, down to the paint color and its location on the road. The smooth pavement on the roads was the same, too. In many ways, it was like I’d never left; in fact, the turn onto Radley Road was so automatic I did it without thinking.

The cabin and property were a different story. The cabin was, in my opinion, poor condition. There were changes that were the result of human work: the old slaughtering table was gone, the giant pine tree and crab apple tree had been felled years ago, the road to the spring had been neglected by choice, the garden had been removed, our beloved “Chipmunk Crossing” sign was missing. Even the land itself had changed: the little hill in front of the house was almost flat now. The two rocks I used to play on that had once been on the “shore” of the stream were now way out in the middle. The portion of a clearing where we’d once had our swing set had been absorbed into the fern-laden woods and looked as though it had never been clear at all.

It’s been theorized that when our emotions are high, we will store highly specific images in special places in our brains—meaning that, perhaps, those images are not affected by persistence of memory. It struck me that I had had a very emotional connection to the place, and I really hadn’t needed to see it again. The way I remembered it was better, and that is the way I will keep it. Not every haunting is bad. Not every haunting needs to come to an end. In fact, my memories of the old place are nothing but peaceful and happy.

Below are photos and video of my visit to RubyOtt, complete with “then and now” comparison shots.

Video: I left Howe Caverns and traveled Route 10 to pick up I-90.

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Route 10.

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Scenic views along Route 10. My Mom used to take tons of photos like this and it annoyed me. Now, though, I get it.

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I-90 West, heading toward Buffalo.

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Familiar exit sign!

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Historic Little Falls.

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I should have made a right, toward Dolgeville. Kids from the towns of Stratford/Salisbury Center (our camp’s location) went school in Dolgeville.

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Instead, I made a wrong turn and went into Little Falls.

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In downtown Little Falls.

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On Route 167, heading toward Dolgeville.

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This was a welcome sight, because even though I was on Route 29A, I still wasn’t sure I was on the right track.

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It wasn’t until later, after another wrong turn, I realized my parents didn’t come this way to the camp. We came from the other direction on 29A, down from Utica. Which explains why I wasn’t recognizing any landmarks along this route.

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These signs are at the bridge we used to come over to come into town. Again, we came from the other direction. But I remembered the bridge, so I went over it—unaware the General Store I was looking for as a landmark on the other side (I remembered a “T” configuration, with the General Store the first sight we saw in town, directly ahead of us) was behind me. I went for about 10 miles before I figured that out and turned around.

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Here I am now going the CORRECT way over the bridge, the way I remembered. To the right, you can see the roof of the General Store. As soon as I saw this sight, I knew I was back on track.

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Heading over Canada Creek. This is the same creek that runs on the RubyOtt property.

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The General Store, where we used to buy penny candy. The stone stairs and landscaping are new—back then, it was a wooden porch with wooden steps and that was it. There was also a door on the left that has been removed. The interior has changed as well. The left door went to the store, and a counter, which held boxes of penny candy behind glass, was directly in front of you. I also remember the whole interior of the store being white, and very airy and bright. Behind the counter was the store, which really only carried some basics. There was a wall to the right which separated the store from a diner/bar that was next door. The door you see now went into the diner/bar.
Now the entire place is one giant room, and where the diner/bar was still has the same interior dark paneling, but it’s filled with stuff and I couldn’t tell if it was accessible or not. There were also a couple of card tables with fans. I swear, though, the lady who worked behind the counter was the same one. She was older, of course, but I recognized her immediately.

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My car behind the gas pumps. I remember there being gas in them back then. There were a bunch of people hanging out there, so I didn’t want to be there for long or take a close-up photo of the pumps, but it looks like now at least one of them sells kerosene. I couldn’t really tell in such a hurry. They were covered with hand-written signs.

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This barn, on the right, used to be covered with deer antlers. It was a sure sign we were home for the summer.

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The cemetery. Still the way I remembered, down to the dirt road. When we biked all the way to the General Store, we’d stop here to eat our penny candy and take a rest.

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This is the area, to the left, where we hung out.

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I distinctly remember this bush, although I don’t know why, because almost 27 years has gone by. It was probably there, but much smaller? All I know is the second I saw it I recognized it. I seem to remember sitting near it once. Who knows.

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The front gates.

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A view from the cemetery gates down the hill back toward the General Store. The antler barn would be on the left; that’s its roof you’re seeing.

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My car in the cemetery.

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The road, heading toward the camp.

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The turn onto the camp’s road, which is really just the driveway to the camp. The reason it’s an official road is because it’s rumored that at one time, many years ago, there was a bridge at the end which went over the stream and connected it with another road (it was a big “U,” basically). I remember someone telling us there was a flood and it washed the bridge away. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that when we were kids, we ventured all the way to the end of the road—a mile past the camp at least—and deep in the woods, we found bridge pilings and twisted metal. It’s also interesting to note that if you look on Google Earth, there is, indeed, the impression of a road on the other side of the stream. The impression does look like it connects to a present-day paved road.

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The camp today. It looks run-down. Kinda glad my Dad, who poured his life into keeping that place up in the summers, isn’t here to see it.

AdirondackCamp29 RubyOtt Comparison 1982 - 2012

Left, the camp when we owned it in 1982. At right, the camp today. Look closely. There are a few differences. The first thing I noticed other than the boarded-up window and the modern door was that the chimney is now on the other side of the roof. That chimney went to a porcelain wood stove when we owned it. Now, I suspect there’s a modern one inside. I don’t know. I did not look in the windows. Taking photos of anything you could see on Google Earth or an MLS listing is one thing; taking photos of someone else’s private space is another. I never went closer to the house than this.

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These two rocks were at the “shore line” 27 years ago. My imagination ran wild up there—well, there wasn’t much else to do but let your imagination do whatever. The rock on the left was my pet lemon shark Crackers. The one on the right was my pet Great White shark Cream Cheese. I used to straddle them and pretend I was riding under the ocean. If you knew me in grade school, then now you know where the inspiration for those stupid Underwater University stories I wrote came from. Well, from there and Battle of the Planets.

AdirondackCamp30A Cream Cheese Comparison

Here, you can clearly see the change in the shore line. The photo at the left was taken in 1982. My brother Chuck, left, stands on boulders that clearly abut the shore (see all the grasses to the left?). My sister, Missie, is standing on Crackers. I’m standing on Cream Cheese. The photo at right is what they look like today.

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There used to be a bench between those two trees at the right. To the left of the trees, in the stream, is Frog Rock—the big one that has the moss on it. Below that is a deep swimming area. We used to put a rusty old metal wash bucket behind Frog Rock, get in it, and ride down the rapids into the swimming area. Yes, our parents had no problem with half naked children doing dangerous shit in rusty wash buckets. Or riding bikes without helmets. And shocker. I’m alive to tell you about it.

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The “white” part of the retaining wall is new – that wasn’t there when we owned the place. The part that’s covered with moss is the one that we climbed down to get to the swimming area. It was pure concrete and a straight drop, but there were enough boulders at the bottom you could leap down without killing yourself.

AdirondackCamp33A Retaining Wall Comparison

At left, the retaining wall as it looked in Fall of 1980. The picture at the right, which I took in 2012, shows the extension that was put on sometime in the past 27 years, which means that section of land was eroding pretty rapidly. Retaining walls, even up there, are not cheap. Chances are if it had not been extended, a significant portion of the property would have collapsed. I bet if I go back in another 30 years I’ll find retaining walls bolstering the rest of the property’s stream-frontage, given the alarming amount of erosion I spotted.

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A close-up of the trees where the bench used to be.

AdirondackCamp33C Bench Comparison

The photo at left was taken in the summer of 1982. It’s of Missie, me, and Chuck on the bench that’s no longer there (notice also you can see the shore line and how close Crackers and Cream Cheese were to land—unbelievable how much the property has eroded in that spot). At right, the close-up of the bench trees I took in 2012.

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The boulders at the base of the retaining wall. That pool, to the left, looks much deeper than it used to be—we used to stick our hands in and catch crayfish there. Looks too deep to do that now.

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The rapids we used to ride in the wash bucket. They look about as dangerous as they did back then.

AdirondackCamp35A Frog Rock Comparison

At left, the rapids we used to ride in 1982. Notice the pipe—that’s the old water pipe Dad ran up to the house so we’d have water in the sink and shower. At right, the rapids today.

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The flat rock to the right we called “Whale Rock.” It’s where my sister Missie used to lay out to get tan. And we called it that because the rock looked like the back of a whale, not to make fun of her. Just in case you’re wondering. At one time, I had a map I made in marker of every rock in the stream and what it was called. It’s long gone. I wish I had it today.

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My car, parked where the road ends, in 2012. The road used to go all the way past the house.

AdirondackCamp37A Garden Area Comparison

At left, the road to the camp in Fall of 1980. You can clearly see the road extends beyond where it does now, and also, the garden (which was over a septic field and used to yield giant asparagus). In the photo at the right, taken in 2012, my car is parked on the road about next to the garden (notice the location of the telephone pole).

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A view out the windshield of my car in 2012.

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At left, a long shot of the property in 1982. At right, a long shot of the property in 2012.

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This is what’s left of the “parking area” we saw in the previous 1982 photo. Also, our swing set used to be in a clearing that is someplace under those ferns now.

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The “shore” now – the same spot on the property where we always gained access to the lower part of the stream (though now it’s several feet back from where it used to be due to erosion; this is where we used to be able to get to Cream Cheese and Crackers). I decided to take a rock from the stream for our wedding rock collection. I chose the gray one toward the top left.

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The rock with the camp in the background.

AdirondackCamp40A Front of House Comparison

At left, the camp in 1982. At right, a similar view of the camp today.

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A view of the road that used to continue up to the spring; now, clearly, it’s unused.

AdirondackCamp41A Spring Road Comparison

At left, Missie, me, and Chuck walking down the road carrying water from the spring back to the camp in 1982. At right, that same road today.

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Leaving RubyOtt in 2012.

AdirondackCamp41C Leaving Comparison

At left, leaving RubyOtt in Fall, 1980. At right, leaving RubyOtt in Summer, 2012.

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Okay! It was time for something fun and familiar. I stopped at the Stewart’s in Dolgeville to grab a yummy Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Malt with Extra Colored Sprinkles.

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The Stewart’s in Dolgeville.

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