We are back once again at Wrighter Lake in the Endless Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, and — with one small but troubling exception — everything looks the same as last year and the year before that and that and that . . . going all the way back to when we first visited here, 40 years ago this summer.
Wrighter Lake offers a summer refuge for a city-dweller or a suburbanite. It’s a spring-fed, heart-shaped body of water about a half mile-wide at its largest point, located at almost 2,000 feet elevation roughly halfway between Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Binghamton, New York, 20 miles of mostly bad road east of Interstate 81.
It is — literally but not figuratively — a cool place. The boys and I are here this Fourth of July weekend, and we know it’s sweltering back at the office in Princeton. Here we are enjoying a warm day, not an unbearably hot day, and we are closing up the windows this evening and getting out the blankets — it’s going to be cold tonight. You can drive for hours without seeing a single air conditioning unit.
You are also out of range of conventional television reception, and your cell phone is worthless. You won’t find a convenience store within 10 miles of the lake and I don’t know where you would go to get a copy of the New York Times. The nearest movie theater is 40 miles to the north or south. As a parent of kids ages 8 and 10, I haven’t tried to go out on a Friday or Saturday night in a decade. But the last time I went out to Eddie’s in Orson, it offered a fried chicken dinner and country and western music with a live band for $5 a head. A few square dance tunes were included in every set. Fun, but not cool, in that sense.
For me what Wrighter Lake offers mostly is a benchmark in the battle against urban sprawl. As we watch sod farms turning into big box retail centers on Route 1, potato farms sprouting apartment complexes in Plainsboro, some of us look at our surroundings and wonder how much is too much. Here at home I check out the Institute Woods in Princeton Township and vow that if the woods go, I will go — can you imagine a townhouse development (call it Einstein Mews, maybe) with a sales model (starting from $995,000) located at the site of the bird watching stand?
At Wrighter Lake I will know that the urban sprawl of the Boswash corridor has gone too far when the lake has sewers, or when there is a traffic light at the corner of the road to Orson and the road to Thompson (two nearby hamlets), or when condominiums spring up on the other side of the road away from the lake.
So far nothing close to that has happened and very little else has changed since the 1960s and probably since long before that, as well. When the Symbionese Liberation Army needed a place to hide with Patty Hearst, they came to northeastern Pennsylvania.
There have been some close calls. About 20 years ago the Department of Energy proposed a plan for an energy park at a site about 10 miles away from the lake. An "energy park?" Yes, the ultimate solution to the fears of NIMBYs, the energy czars had declared, would be a cluster of up to 20 nuclear power plants and 20 fossil fuel plants, all situated in a place where there were very few neighbors and few back yards. The aptly named Ararat Township, one township over from Wrighter Lake, seemed the perfect spot. Environmentalists beat it back. Imagine if they hadn’t: What a target it would have been on September 11.
Then about 10 years ago an article appeared on the front page, no less, of the New York Times. Cheap land was still to be had in northeastern Pennsylvania, the article declared, and smart money was moving in that direction.
About that same time I went into a night spot known as the Poyntelle Hotel — hotel is too strong a word, but the place did rent rooms out by the week in the space above the bar and dance floor. There at a Saturday night square dance was a middle-aged man who looked remarkably like Jim Kilgore, owner of the Princeton Packet. "I’ll be damned," I thought. "I drive more than three hours to leave my business behind me in Princeton, New Jersey, and here in the middle of nowhere, U.S.A., I see a guy who reminds me of my biggest competitor."
I got closer and realized it was Jim Kilgore, who spends most of his summers here. We exchanged pleasantries but never ran into each other since. There’s still a lot of country up here.
This year everything seems in place. The lake is still cold, the sky is still clear (when smoke from Canada isn’t wafting overhead, you can see the Milky Way clear as an Imax projection). But there is that one small, troubling exception: Mosquitoes. Old-timers tell me that mosquitoes have occasionally pestered the lake in the past, and they attribute this year’s visitors to huge amounts of rainfall in June. I hope so, because my guess is that they have something to do with global warming. It’s a cool place, Wrighter Lake, and I want it to stay that way.