Knocking Around looking for nostalgia in the Adirondacks

Sometimes you just like to reminisce, and think about times that were so much easier when you had no responsibilities, no worries, and life was just about going to school, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and summer vacations with your parents. My parents always made sure we went on a summer vacation, even when they really had no money. Regardless of the low budget, my fondest memories of my childhood are the drives up the New York State Thruway through the Catskills and into the Adirondacks, the birthplace of the American “theme parks.”

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Every so often that feeling of nostalgia hits us and we decided to turn back the clock, or at least try, and head up to Lake Placid…a place we had both been to as young children with our parents. Santa’s Workshop, Land of Makebelieve, Gaslight Village, Frontier Town, and, although not a theme park, the must–see family attraction, High Falls Gorge.

Pennants I had on my bedroom wall

And we wanted to stay at an old roadside motel or motor lodge, and try to capture the feelings we had when we were visiting with our parents and siblings.

What we found during our visit was quaint, beautiful, and awe-inspiring while, at the same time, brought a feeling of sadness. Because what made it all so special and memorable, for the most part, is gone. That’s right…a lot of what used to be there is gone.

Lake Placid is a five-hour drive up the Garden State Parkway and New York State Thruway for us which makes the area a decent road trip for a weekend getaway. With over 500 hiking trails in the area, we figured that we could get in a hike and also recapture some of the joy from our childhood.

We got up to Lake Placid on Friday evening and checked into the Carriage House Motor Inn. We had pulled into the lot of the old motel only to find that the office was closed, and the windows covered up with sheets and towels. A sign on the door said to check in across the street at the Rodeway Inn. And some human peeked out from behind one of the sheets covering one of the windows. The pool, in the middle of the parking lot, was covered, and the grass/weeds/brush around the fence was VERY overgrown.

Carriage House Motor Inn in Lake Placid

The Rodeway Inn was, quite obviously, originally some other motel as it was modeled much like a Swiss chalet. And rather than a pool outside like the other motels, there was an indoor pool shaped like a fish. The décor was definitely from the 60’s, maybe even the 50’s, and there was very little updating, in both the Rodeway Inn and the Carriage House Motor Inn. But both places were completely filled as there was a lacrosse tournament that had every hotel, motel, Airbnb, B&B, etc., filled to capacity for the weekend.

The snow is real…

Lake Placid is known for the 1932 Olympics and, of course, the 1980 Olympics and the “Miracle on Ice.” We were planning to visit the Olympic Center, but first we had to recreate the experiences we had at places like Santa’s Workshop and High Falls Gorge – the only two places remaining.

Melissa insisted we get up super early so that we could get to the two places when they opened and avoid the crowds. We checked out the “free breakfast” offered by our hosts across the street at the Rodeway Inn. Across the street, inside past the fish-shaped pool, down the stairs, through a dank hallway and into what must be used as some kind of meeting room. There were English muffins, some instant oatmeal packets, and a pancake-making contraption. I’ve seen waffle irons in the Hampton Inns we have stayed in, alongside the wet eggs, but never a pancake-making figamajig. I have to give them credit…there were no wet eggs.

We made our way to the main drag, Main Street, in Lake Placid, a five-minute drive, and ate breakfast at, where else, The Breakfast Club, Etc. It’s a rather eclectic place that appears to be a simple coffee shop when you walk in, but a walk past the booths leads to a dining room with a great panoramic view of Mirror Lake.

The Breakfast Club, Etc. has a diverse menu with some interesting offerings. Our server, Charles, was great, attentive and humorous, and the prices were very reasonable, and, again, the view was beautiful.

We went to High Falls Gorge first because it opens at 9 a.m. It’s a 22-acre privately owned nature park with carved walking trails in the wooded areas, and sturdy catwalks and bridges along the rocky crevice and over the cascading waters with breathtaking views of four waterfalls.

High Falls Gorge

High Falls Gorge is a deep crevice carved by the AuSable River over a billion years ago. The cascading waters formed natural “potholes” in the exposed layer of rock, including the Master Pothole, one of the largest in the State of New York.

We rushed to get to High Falls Gorge, a 15-20 minute ride from the center of Lake Placid, worried about parking, about crowds, about having enough space to take pictures, etc. No worries! No crowds! There were nine cars in the parking lot and at least half had to be employees. Hmmmmm

The views of the Falls, the cascading water, the layers of rock along the crevice, were just as magnificent as I remembered, and how my dad captured them in the pictures he took back in 1968. Well, the crevice was carved, and has lasted like this, for a billion years, so I am thinking not much has changed since 1968.

The Gorge

The only thing we had to deal with was the couple who decided to pose for a selfie at the first picture spot at the base of the first falls. The woman didn’t like the way her hair looked so she insisted her husband re-take the photo. And then again. And again. Oh, wait, again. LADY…the wind is blowing…there is a huge MIST from the falls…YOUR HAIR IS NOT GOING TO STAY IN THAT POSITION!!! And there was a sign that said, “Only one party at a time.” And for good reason. It’s a small space and, I’m sure, can only withstand a certain amount of weight.

Finally, Melissa being Melissa had enough. “I’m just going down there. Tough!” And she did. But, wait, the woman insisted on ANOTHER try at the picture. And she is again trying to fix her hair. The picture is taken and the couple makes their way up the narrow stairs (oh how I LOVE strangers to push up against me) and we finally get to the platform to take our own pictures. Thirty seconds. That’s all it took. And we begin our way back up the stairs and…THERE SHE IS AGAIN! She is dragging the poor guy back down the stairs to get another picture because her hair didn’t look right. I’m done!

The Gorge is listed as a 30-minute “hike” but, in reality, it is not a “hike” but a walk, a trek, along a walkway that allows for you to walk along a rocky crevice and over rushing waters with amazing vantage points to view waterfalls in a way that nature doesn’t provide for. It’s a fairly easy adventure, even for those who may not feel they are in shape for a “hike” and those who may have a fear of heights. Really…it ain’t that bad and definitely worth it.

It only took us 23 minutes to do the entire Gorge, and it would have been even less if not for the woman and her unmanageable hair.

On to Santa’s Workshop in the North Pole. That seems like it would be far away…the North Pole. But it was only a 10-minute drive from High Falls Gorge. Melissa was adamant that we hurry to get there because she wanted to beat the crowds. I wanted to stop to get some pictures along the way. But, no, Melissa wanted to beat the crowds.

So I didn’t stop to take pictures along the way. And I did rush to get to Santa’s Workshop. And for anyone who is fan and has seen National Lampoon’s Vacation, think of the view when the Griswolds finally get to the parking lot at Wally World. The only thing missing was John Candy standing in front saying, “I’m sorry, we’re closed. The moose out front should have told ya!”

Santa’s Workshop wasn’t closed, but it WAS kinda desolate. It was so very sad.

Santa’s Workshop is believed to be the longest operating theme park in the United States. It opened in 1949 and it is said that Walt Disney sent his imagineers to check out the park as inspiration for how things would be accomplished for Disneyland in California.

Melissa hadn’t been to Santa’s Workshop since she was very young and had very little recollection of the details of the place. The last time I was there was 1968 and I remember EVERY detail…like it was yesterday.

The village was still the same, with the “North Pole” still in the center of the square. Melissa didn’t recall that the pole was actually cold.

My brother David and my sister Audrey in 1968 on the left; Melissa and me in 2023 on the right

The buildings were all the same as I remembered. They had fresh paint and were all very colorful. We went into all of the buildings and there were still the candy shop, bake shop, the workshop for toys, a venue for puppet shows, and, of course, Santa’s home.

There was the home for Santa’s reindeer where Melissa got to feed Rudolph.

The rides were much smaller than I remembered. A few of the rides were not operational while we were there.

Melissa and I boarded the carousel but we were told that only kids could get on the horses so we sat on the bench seat while it rotated six times and the few parents waived to the three children riding, one of them crying. And we road the Candy Cane Express which went through the back end of the park and out of the park and then back into the station.

There were maybe 50-60 visitors in the park the entire time we were there. The performers were trying very hard to engage with the few people who were walking around. There was not even a wait to see Santa. We just waltzed right in.

Audrey, David and me with Santa in 1968; and Melissa and me with Santa in 2023

There are people who have apparently been disappointed with their visit because of the expectations. There is a distinct difference between a theme park and an amusement park. A theme park is more of a venue for entertainment including shows and characters and low impact “rides” for young children. An amusement park is for thrill seekers looking for heart-stopping rides that take you to your breathtaking limits.

I have seen Walt Disney World moving away from being a theme park to more of an amusement park because they are in competition with Universal and people want those thrills. A place about 90 minutes down the road, in Lake George, completely changed its identity as a result. Storytown USA is now Six Flags’ Great Escape. The story book wonderland is now monopolized by the same thrill rides that are so popular in the other Six Flags’ parks around the country.

Storytown USA in 1966…that’s me sliding down the shoe; the insert is Six Flags’ Great Escape today.

Santa’s Workshop has remained the same. A throwback to a very distant past. The owners are trying really hard to keep this piece of Americana…a part of the childhood for so many families…going. The cost for children over 2 years old is $39.95. That’s kind of steep. But then you have to think about the cost to operate and maintain the park. It can’t be easy. Just do the math and I just wonder how they do it. It may be a magical place but it ain’t THAT magical.

We left Santa’s Workshop a bit shattered because you expect to see things the way they were and, instead, are forced to things the way they are.  

On the way back, I finally got to stop and take pictures of the many now-abandoned roadside motor lodges in the area. And as I was taking a picture of an old roadside motel, two men approached in a car and questioned me about what I was doing. As it turns out, it was two brothers who were living in the structure alongside the property and were the sons of the owner of the motel.

Their mother owned operated the Huntington Motel and Cottages. They said that the motel was thriving in the 60’s, 70’s, and even into the 80’s, but that business began to dwindle with the diminished interest in the area theme parks and then Covid was “the final blow” that led to the closing of the motel. They just couldn’t afford to maintain the property.

Huntington Motel and Cottages…gone.

The brothers said that they wished they had the money to bring the place back to life. But there was just not enough interest. And that appeared to be a theme as we came across many roadside motels and motor lodges that were boarded up, overgrown brush all over the place, and in bad decay from the elements.

We made our way back to Lake Placid’s Main Street where we grabbed a couple of slices of ricket pizza and got overrun by lacrosse players and their families.

We then made our way to the Olympic Center and got to see some relics from the 1980 Olympic hockey team’s run to glory, including the rink itself – Herb Brooks Arena. Melissa wanted to take a picture in front of the Olympic rings but there were none…other than on the side of the building. Melissa thought it would be nice to see the three podiums used for the gold, silver, and bronze medal winners ceremony, and perhaps take a picture on one of the podiums. But they aren’t there either. You can pay to go into the museum and pay a lot of money for shirts, leggings, hats, buffs, and all kinds of other gear.

BTW, where IS Lake Placid…Lake Placid the LAKE? Mirror Lake is absolutely beautiful. But where exactly IS the LAKE that is called Lake Placid? Because what is IN the town of Lake Placid is not Lake Placid but Mirror Lake. Again…it’s absolutely beautiful. But when I go to Lake Placid I would like to SEE Lake Placid.

Mirror Lake

Sunday morning one of us had the bright idea to get up even earlier to see the sunrise. And, of course, it would be at Mirror Lake…IN the TOWN of Lake Placid. By the way, it may be the month of August, but it’s cold in the TOWN of Lake Placid around 5:49 a.m. Like 47 degrees. Alan doesn’t LIKE 47 degrees.

We were out there…and it was beautiful…but we were the only two schmucks out there sitting on the cold, wet rocks on the side of Mirror Lake…it’s just us and a duck. The duck kept us company for about 20 minutes until we didn’t see the sun above the mountains because it was VERY overcast. So no SUNRISE and no coffee shops open yet. Well…Starbucks had just opened at 6 and apparently at the ONLY open establishment were already overrun with mobile orders as the two poor baristas looked shell-shocked at 6:10 a.m.

So back to the Carriage House Motor Inn until the Downtown Diner opens for breakfast at 7 a.m. We expected to see an old-fashioned local diner. And although the counter and stools were a throwback, the rest of the place was just hodge-podge of furnishings and light fixtures, hard to determine what direction the decorator was going in.

Men’s room and ladies’ room at the Downtown Diner. Artist or comedian? LOL

The menu was simple and the server was attentive. But if you are used to a “diner” and variety and the usual “diner fare” you will be disappointed. The best part about this place is the signs on the doors to the bathrooms letting you know which is the men’s room and which is the ladies’ room.

Of course we needed to get in a hike. And with over 500 trails to venture on, what would be the best choice? Well, we really were not prepared (been down this road before, right?) and after reading a number or recommendations from others, we chose Heaven Hill Trail.

Old Orchard Loop on the Heaven Hill Trail.

There were multiple options along this trail and we decided to take the shorter Old Orchard Loop – a 1.5 mile loop – which goes through a nice wooded area, with some HUGE rocks including The Big Rock, and a field of colorful wildflowers with a mountainous backdrop.

It was actually perfect hiking distance because we were a bit sore from, believe it or not, High Falls Gorge and Santa’s Workshop…because you don’t realize how steep the hills and steps are that you are climbing in both places. Think about it, both places are carved into the sides of a mountain. So it only stands to reason that your shins and hamstrings will be sore the next day.

We needed one last meal before heading back and, got one more dose of…what shall I say…disappointment? We both like barbecue and I LOVE lobster and we found the best of both worlds along Route 86 just outside of Lake Placid in Rye Brook – Tail O’ the Pup.

Another place that has been around quite some time, built first as a cabin community in 1916 and began serving food for road-weary motorists in 1940. It was turned into the BBQ clambake in the 1980’s.

Melissa got a pulled pork sandwich and I got, what else, a lobster roll. And we both got a beer. I asked if I could get the lobster without the mayonnaise. I was told that there are no substitutions. The place had JUST opened. They say that the lobster is FRESH. If it IS fresh, then why is there mayonnaise already mixed with it? I also didn’t want the French fries. I preferred cole slaw or another accompaniment. Again…no substitution. Fine, I got the lobster WITH mayonnaise and French fries.

You know what I DIDN’T get? A receipt for the $76 it cost me. Why? Because they were out of paper. You JUST opened and you are out of paper? And you put mayonnaise on the lobster already?

Nostalgia is really a perception. Everyone has their own views on what was wonderful from their past. I will always cherish the memories of visiting places with my parents as a child. But the nostalgia rests in those memories. You can recreate pictures, but those memories can never be recreated. They are left in the past like the deserted roadside motels and theme parks that we remember so well.

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