He has been credited with establishing the “carry-in, carry-out” policy in the Adirondacks and with introducing cross-country skiing to that pristine land. I had only known Almy Coggeshall during the last year of his life and learned much about him from what was written and spoken at the time of his death in January.
He had long been known by wilderness lovers, hikers, skiers, poetry lovers, photographers and those who shared his serious concerns for the environment, particularly the Adirondacks. So I was a Johnny-come-lately to this man and his passions, and will only record here the few episodes of social interchange he and I enjoyed, but I think they illustrate how Almy lived until he died.
Out walking one day, I met Almy walking briskly in the other direction carrying his signature ski pole as a walking stick. We exchanged names, had a brief conversation and continued on our ways. He was small of stature, but impressed me with his curiosity, intelligence and zest for life. I had also noticed his penchant for eclectic garb — a jaunty scarf knotted at his throat, a bright bow tie, an authentic sailor shirt with large white collar in back, blue tie in front.
I had dinner with the Coggeshalls one evening in the Van Curler Dining Room at Glen Eddy. His beloved wife, Anne, was losing her battle with cancer at the time, but her eyes still sparkled and she shared Almy’s interest in other people and issues of the day. She and Almy were co-authors of “Twenty-Five Ski Tours” in New York, just one of many projects they shared. She died in October 2008.
Almy has recited some of his favorite poems at the Annual Poetry Gala held at the Central Branch of the Schenectady County Public Library and organized by my friend Linda Witkowski. (This year’s gala is at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 19.) I missed last year’s event but heard that Almy had recited “Boots” by Rudyard Kipling. I asked him one day in the lunch room if he would recite it for me and he did, right off the top of his head. I’m told that he could call up many poems and limericks. He carried them around in his head.
Knowing his fondness for Kipling, I loaned him a small book of essays by Arthur Gordon that included a funny story about Gordon’s timorous visit to Kipling late in his life. Noting his nervousness, Kipling invited Gordon to see his backyard pond where he kept his “navy” — a “six-foot skiff with hand-cranked paddle wheels.” They boarded the boat, but Gordon was so nervous in the company of the Great Man that he cranked too hard and the paddle wheel broke, leaving the two men “marooned in the middle of a fishpond.” They were rescued by a gardener with a long rake.
After Anne died, Almy invited various people to eat dinner with him. June and Bud Osborne and I had the honor one evening. I asked Almy about his schooling and his subsequent career — “drawing him out,” my mother would call it — and I lived to regret it. Complying with my request, he treated us to an exhaustive monologue on the origin of plastics and the discovery of the many applications in this field. I vowed to reciprocate in kind if I had an opportunity.
At lunch one day, Almy drew me out on the subject of vertigo, which was plaguing me at the time. He told me that he’d had some experience with the malady and I asked him to describe what it felt like to him. He told me that it felt like he was on a wet slate roof trying to get his balance with the world spinning around him. That pretty much matched my worst episodes of vertigo.
Almy and I lived at opposite ends of the complex, but that evening I found a note on my doorstep and a hand-drawn picture of a girl on a slanting roof, arms and legs akimbo while spinning in space. He drew and wrote in pencil, his writing was labored by then, and the note showed some signs of erasures, but I deeply appreciated the laugh he gave me.
I treasure his words and the drawing. He closed by saying, “When you feel better, give me a call so we can do dinner sometime soon.”
In December, Almy went to the hospital one night, having suffered a possible heart attack. His good friend Dusty Rhoades kept us posted as to his condition and it wasn’t long before Almy was back among us. I dropped off some Christmas cookies on his doorstep and again he wrote a note and took the long walk to drop it off on my doorstep. Referring to the cookies, he wrote, “the best testimony I can give to the quality of the cookies is that they were mostly gone by sundown.” This note was in ink, and his handwriting seemed much stronger.
Almy had frequently sent well-reasoned letters to the editor, and had them published in this paper, and I had nudged him to send his thoughts to the Sunday Opinion section. He was active in the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks and he told me he was busy cataloging his collection of published books, articles, photos, clippings and other archival material for the Adirondack Research Library on St. David’s Lane, but that he planned to “have something for Art Clayman, opinion page editor, in the near future.”
That note was written on Christmas Day, 2008. He died one week later on New Year’s Day, and I wonder, “Who could possibly replace him?”
Ruth Peterson lives in Niskayuna. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.