Over the hills and far away: an Olympic-sized Adirondack day trip
Perhaps a 450-mile, 8+ hour round trip drive was too much for one day, even for me. Pleasant weather, or any weather conducive to driving through two mountain ranges in March, would be a roll of the dice. However, when I realized my good friend Maddie was also looking for a way to slice through the March doldrums, we decided to keep each other company and go for it. She had never been to the tiny Adirondack village that astonishingly hosted not one but two Winter Olympics, in 1932 and 1980.
My most recent visit was in January 2016 - not that long ago, right? Well as I would learn over the course of the day, a town that (understandably) clings to its historical glory is as dynamic as the landscapes surrounding it.
On the morning of March 24, 2023, we shot up I-89, then wended westward more deliberately across Vermont Routes 107, 100, and 125. As Northern New Englanders know, there is a paucity of speedy east-west routes across the region. Given the scenic gems left and right, that's not always a bad thing. We made a quick coffee stop at the Rochester Cafe & Country Store, a quintessentially Vermont establishment featuring creaky wooden floors, flannel-clad patrons, locally-made goods, and friendly help.
Grey skies brooded above, but knowing the sun might make a guest appearance later ensured the morning chill was more tolerable. Having broken through the Green Mountains into western Vermont, one's first sight of southern Lake Champlain and the brawny Adirondacks is awe-inspiring. In contrast to the surrounding hills, there is a spread of farmland in the foreground that gives the scene a storybook coziness, even in the gloom of my least favorite month.
Upon arrival in the 'Dacks, our first activity was High Falls Gorge. Something of a tourist trap, the roaring waterfalls and stalwart wooden bridges made us temporarily forget the high admission rates. We were given gripping devices to put on our feet to combat extremely icy trail conditions.
As two of the three trails were closed - this being the last week of operation before an April "reset" prior to the summer season - our walk was very brief, but still remarkably scenic. The power of water never ceases to amaze me. Its power giveth, and taketh away.
It was time to feel Olympic, so we proceeded the 10 minutes or so into downtown Lake Placid. Since it was lunchtime, we stepped into a no-nonsense establishment called "The Pickled Pig", literally right across the street from the Olympic Ice Complex. We would soon learn that the view would come with a hefty price tag (think $20-25 for a burger). Despite the sticker shock, the food was hearty and delicious.
After a swift gift shop stop, it was on to Herb Brooks Arena, the hallowed home of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice", of which nearly every American sports fan is familiar. A peewee hockey game was taking place at the time, perhaps making it more difficult to picture the miraculous happenings witnessed by several thousand here - and millions around the world - on that hallowed February day 43 years ago.
The adjacent Olympic Museum was fascinating as well. In the seven years since my last visit, it had been thoroughly revamped, and now included an extremely well-done 15ish-minute video providing some back story about the US victory over the Soviets.
While the miracle was surely the most famous event to ever take place here, the museum went well beyond hockey to showcase a magnificent collection of Olympic medals from over the decades, uniforms worn by various athletes, and tidbits of information on the triumphs that had taken place in this winter sports mecca.
Given our distance from home, it was time to move on to the Olympic jumping complex. Another site that had changed considerably since 2016, there was now a gondola leading visitors from the lower base to the foot of the jumping tower. I can distinctly remember being here nearly 30 years ago and feeling a sense of anxious vertigo as I looked up at these sky-piercing towers, made all the more intimidating by their mountainside location.
Maddie and I ascended, ensconced in a 360-degree panorama of snow-dusted leviathans that included Mount Marcy, New York's highest peak at 5,343'. As hoped, the clouds had parted and we now had a gorgeous, bluebird afternoon. Temps were only in the 30s but the late March sun warmed our faces nicely.
Despite being told there would be jumpers practicing "soon", after 30 minutes or so waiting with a group of fellow visitors we gave up and proceeded back to the car. It was now just after 3:00, but rather than beginning the 4ish-hour drive back, we made one more unplanned stop at Mount Van Hoevenberg, location of bobsled/luge/skeleton events. I had heard that an international bobsled race (free admission!) was happening today and since our return route passed right by anyway, I was hoping to catch a glimpse, even if only for a few minutes.
Not really sure what to expect, we arrived in a gravel parking lot which was so horrendously potholed that proceeding 1/10 of a mile made me cringe for my car's well-being. The base of the hill, which was comfortably similar on both my mid-90s and 2016 trips, was unrecognizable to the point of being surreal. Trying to get my bearings, a shiny black suburban pulled up in front of us. The window descended and the driver - a small, round white-bearded man - called out, "going up?". Completely flummoxed, I uttered what I hoped was a decisive "yup!". We then promptly got in the middle-row seat of a stranger's vehicle that looked like it was fit for a presidential motorcade. But the man looked like Santa so it was OK, right?
The bizarre incident had a thoroughly anticlimactic ending. He dropped us off perhaps 2/3 of the way up the hill. We watched a single bobsled go by with a metallic whoosh, and realizing we were basically out of time, started walking back down. Soon enough we were picked up by a different black Suburban to whisk us back to the parking lot. I had been hoping to check out a few more sleds as we went, but pretty much the entire track is now covered, rendering this impossible. Everything about our half-hour or so at the track was kooky and completely unexpected, e.g. how much this place had changed in 7 years, and the fact that they had $65,000 vehicles with chauffeurs for petty spectators but couldn't grade the parking lot. We had plenty of time to process the changes on our long drive home.
We took a different route back, a gloriously scenic NY Route 73 to I-87 - better known in these parts as "The Northway" - before alternating eastward and southward zigzags and crossing back into New England via Whitehall, NY. The halfway point of the return journey was Rutland, one of the Green Mountain State's largest cities (population: 15,807). It also happened to be Maddie's hometown.
At first blush, this small city had a grittiness in keeping with its blue-collar name. However, after hearing Maddie's insider's take on the place, I got a more nuanced impression. We had dinner at Roots the Restaurant, a stylish but down-to-earth downtown spot whose name was perfectly appropriate for Maddie's history here. I had a salmon-over-risotto dish that was sumptuously delicious.
Upon finishing, she gave me a quick walking tour of downtown, just as the sun sank beneath the horizon. The word that kept coming to mind was "solid". Rutland felt bigger than its population would suggest, with handsome, staunch architecture and urbane street art suggesting a city of perhaps twice its size.
The more she told me, the more parallels I drew to my own hometown of Laconia. A first-time visitor is limited by first impressions that, while valuable, cannot possibly capture the intricacies of a city or region. Rutland and Laconia's populations and central locations in their respective states are eerily identical, as are their blue-collar backgrounds and even proximity to tourist areas (Killington, Lake Winnipesaukee). The word "potential" kept coming up as well. The character of Northern New England's small cities - even if obscured by years or decades of neglect - was still visible, and with some elbow grease and polish possess distinctive, memorable senses of place.
When we had decided on Roots, Maddie accurately predicted that it wouldn't be crowded, and that basic chain restaurants would prove more popular. Sure enough, as we proceeded east on our final leg of the journey, we passed an Applebee's. It was packed.
Were Lake Placid's changes really as big and bold as they seemed to me, or was I just getting old? Places and people develop, grow, and move forward. Personally I've found that neither extreme - bitter resistance on the one hand, or simply accepting ALL change as inevitable on the other - is the best path forward. Rather, like my nuanced impressions of Rutland, discerning the best pieces of history to venerate while maintaining a willingness to evolve is the goal. It's seldom easy, but with some effort can lead to a healthy existence - and some wonderful day trips. No miracle required.