I think we all understand that feeling. You are somewhere you should not be, or, rather, you are on the precipice of somewhere you should not be. This is a feeling universally tied to adolescence. That first bike ride outside of your neighborhood. That first time sneaking out to drink beer in the woods or to see a lover. The open door is right there. The night and crickets are coaxing you to take that step. The rest will be easy. Once you are all in – enveloped – once you are through the portal your life really begins. That’s where you start setting your own rules.
I keep finding myself there. I’m unsure if that is a reflection of my perpetual boyishness or a product of my misguided nose for mischief. It matters not, really. It keeps happening and I like it. There is vitality in those moments. Something to remind me that I am continuously defining the rules by which I play this life game. Once in a while I need to check a door to see if it is, in fact, locked. Sometimes the bolt gives. Such was the case this past Saturday at Asgaard Farms, the once home of renowned artist, Rockwell Kent.
I was on parking lot duty for a North Country Public Radio event and my grandparents had shown up in the Saint Nicholas of time for me to leave. Rod and Dodie needed a hand carrying a folding chair and I, the ever capable and willing grandson, saw my opportunity. So I walked them into the event and out of the heat of the parking lot gig (four hours in a hot field of long grass telling people where to park their convertibles is one hell of a way to spend one’s Saturday morning. You remove the lines and tarmac from the equation and people forget how to intuitively drive/park/exist, anyway…). While walking down the shaded road my grandfather, as he is like to do, nonchalantly mentions that the cabin to my right once belonged to none other than North Country legend, Rockwell Kent. The man is just a bevy of wisdom pearls.
The day went. Music, beer, I bought a mug. Standard. I forgot about his cabin entirely. Keeping my porcelain skin in the shade was about all I was focused on. But then I left. And no one was around. And the cabin was there. I’ll just peek in a window, I thought. Then my hand was on the door latch. I pushed. Nothing. I pushed harder and…crreeeaakkkkkkk.
One look left. One look right. Nobody. You’re reading this. You know me. There really was only one decision.
So I snooped my little butt off. Yeah, this shit was very against the rules. The whole time I kept fixating on exactly what I was going to say to diffuse the situation when the cranky old groundskeeper inevitably found my trespassing ass in there. Playing dumb and apologizing profusely works well enough and trust me, I can take the tongue lashing and crinkled noses/furrowed brows like a god damn champion. Best to let them just get it out and look at the floor like a kid and just let them have the satisfaction of the scolding. Either way, I’m driving out of there that day, you know?
So I’m just ogling this place. I’m not touching shit. Just basking in the fantasy of the life here and just falling in love with his art all over again. So let’s talk about the guy.
Rockwell Kent was born in 1882 somewhere south of here. He died in Plattsburgh in 1971. He knew what Whiteface looked like before they cut ski trails and he has the painting to prove it. To say that he lived in this cabin when the area was desolate is an understatement. He was quoted as saying, ‘There is discomfort, even misery in being cold, and yet do you know I love this misery and court it?” Hell yes Rockwell. Sure he lived a bunch of other places – Maine, Ireland, Wherever – the Adirondacks were his home. He died here. He wrote books about living here. He’s one of us. And his body of work? I consider it to be of myth. No art critic words here. We’re going straight to the source.
“I don’t want petty self expression, I want the elemental, infinite thing; I want to paint the rhythm of eternity.”
Hell yes Rockwell. Have a look for yourself.
Just to put this all in perspective, there was a project commissioned for him to illustrate a special edition of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The guy was legit and I personally put him in that pantheon of classic American painters responsible for creating a mythology of this land. What fortune that his muse just happened to be my backyard.
So I’m not touching anything, right? That would be a serious no-no. Poor form at its worst. I was doing so good, really, just looking around, taking a few pictures, not going to touch any…holy heck what’s that? Peaking at me is a newspaper headline on a shelf. New York Times, May 7th, 1940 – “New Bomb Sight Claimed For Nazis.” Have I ever mentioned that breaking one rule leads to more broken rules? Yeah. I read the 78 year-old newspaper, ok? It was just forgotten on a shelf getting eaten by mice anyway. Buzz off. This was pure treasure here. Sports section headline about Dimaggio? World War II in full swing? This paper was pure 1940 Americana ossified.
And then what else but footsteps. Voices. Shit.
The worst thing you can do is hide or run or just look all petrified and dumb. No. You own your rule break. You own it like you belong there 100%. So I just kept reading that paper. And those people came in and discovered me. And I didn’t even look up to acknowledge them until one guy, a curmudgeonly dad-type addressed me directly. “Did you ask if you could come in here?” I think I just looked at him. He was judging me with those church eyes that only parents can give. He knew and I knew why he was peeved – he hadn’t the gumption or the daring to think of it first. He had begged and pleaded and had to do a workaround all day to have someone let him in the house and I just pushed open the fucking door. Oops. Their guide did – in the kindest way possible – tell me that I was not allowed to be there. So kind, in fact, that I wasn’t all that sure that she was allowed to be in there. What a scenario. A trio of treasure seekers making it to the bounty only to find another thief already there, the choicest plunder already in my pocket.
So I turned back to the newspaper as not to cause a scene while they just fumed about how their private experience had been ransacked by some guy wearing a Hawaiian shirt. I was looking for a picture that I had glanced at only briefly, an old Pabst Blue Ribbon ad. I found it, snapped a picture and bid my adieu. Walked right out of there scot free. I walked directly to my car and took off, but not before checking back in with my guys on the parking lot brigade. It gave me just a bit of guilty pleasure to hear one of them say he had to kick a group of people out of the Rockwell Kent cabin.
I drove back to town with the windows down thinking I’ll never go back in there again. Why would I? To have such an advantageous experience could not be eclipsed. But for those few moments leafing through the tools and environs of Rockwell – to swallow the time capsule of a 1940 magazine – to be breaking a rule out of the genuine curiosity of it all, to feel the wonder of stumbling upon a treasure, man, that was living.
(Side note – I took a closer look at my final picture upon returning home. This is what I found.)
A different time.