Article by Frieda Toth
Looking back, it was ludicrous.
I took a motor scooter on a solo trip through the Adirondacks, re-creating the trip of the beautiful and adventurous Bond girl in Ian Fleming’s lesser-known thriller The Spy Who Loved Me. I primitive tented by the river, I befriended a bunch of Harley riders, and had a marvelous time, and the ridiculous thing is: What took me so long?
I didn’t know that James Bond visited the Adirondacks when I first picked up The Spy Who Loved Me as a teenager. I will never forget the experience of realizing that Ian Fleming had been in my little town, indeed, had been on a road I walked or biked every day. Imagine, if you can, picking up a James Bond thriller, expecting to be whisked away to a shimmering city, only to realize Bond was in the chip shop you visit once a week. I was instantly closer to James Bond than I had ever been before.
Fleming famously wrote only things he knew well, which is one reason it is such a thrill to visit the sites named in Bond books and movies. I have made a point of visiting Bond sites and have climbed the falls of Dunn’s River (Dr. No), had a hot spring bath (Diamonds Are Forever) taken a walking tour of Bond sites in London. It was the cumulative effect of going on Bond tours, some good, some not so, that made me realize I had a gold mine of James Bond information right outside my door. I live, you see, in Glens Falls, New York, which is Spy Who Loved Me country.
If you haven’t yet read this Bond book, I invite you to do so. It’s quirky, and the only 007 book narrated by the Bond girl. The plot centers on her, Vivienne Michel, who, trying to get over a bad love affair, takes a trip by Vespa from Montreal heading down the east coast of North America. She only gets as far as Lake George, New York, when she meets up with gangsters who would have done her in if not for the timely appearance of James Bond.
Bond fans across the world tend not to know what any resident of Northern New York does about The Spy Who Loved Me: that Route 9, Storytown, Gaslight Village, the Minne Ha Ha, and even West Street (where Jed can “work off his urges”) are authentic places, places that Ian Fleming likely saw for himself before writing about them.
The Spy Who Loved Me is Fleming’s least popular Bond book, so I can be forgiven for not exploring my hometown just because a Bond book took place here. Yet, after a while, it needled me:
Could Viv have really made that trip? And if she could, did that mean Ian had? She specifically said she traveled on Route 9 between the American/Canadian border and Glens Falls. Could I?
By the time I decided to recreate Viv’s trip down Route 9, I had become fairly successful as an Ian Fleming scholar and had a good side gig giving talks on Fleming. COVID happened and my talks dried up. This reduced my income for research, but it made sense: groups of people in small rooms are not a good idea. A time when it was a bad idea to be in close quarters became the perfect time for a motor scooter trip, which is solo, and mostly outside.
The first problem was to get the Vespa, and while I wish this part of the story were more interesting, this problem was solved as quickly as easily as mentioning to a friend I wanted to do this trip. As it happens, her father owned two motor scooters and would be glad to lend me one, the one that looked more accurate for the time period.
And what a thing of beauty it was! A 2008 Honda Metropolitan, white with vivid blue trim, squooshy black seat with about a gallon of storage under it, and, in lieu of saddlebags, a matching blue vintage milk crate on the back. It may not have been strictly period, but when, on the trail, people asked me how old “my” scooter was, I knew my friend had made the right choice for me.
It is wonderful how, when people learned about my crazy idea for a trip, they rushed to support me. My followers on Twitter (007intheAdirondacks, @3Octaves) suggested I begin a GoFundMe as soon as I started speculating I might make the trip, and in the end, it was mostly my Twitter followers who made it possible. You may wonder what the cost might be—how much money could it take, if the scooter was free, to drive down a country road? The costs included camping equipment, hotel stays, and entry to any tourist venue that looked interesting and was around when Viv would have made her trip. There are a surprising number of attractions not only still in existence, but still owned by the same families, as in 1960, when Viv would have been here, and when Fleming was doing the research.
When I say, “drive down a country road,” I mean that literally. While Route 9 was formerly the main route between the Canadian border and New York City, its use has been mainly superseded by highways. In fact, the Adirondack Northway, whose construction had only begun in the 1960s, runs parallel to Route 9 for many miles. Because Route 9 traffic has mainly gone to the Northway, parts of Route 9 look very close to the way they did in the 1960s, with very little traffic, plenty of trees, and the terrible shoulders Viv complained about. As someone who has traveled to many Bond sites in North America, the Caribbean, and Europe, I can say with confidence that Route 9 is the best-preserved literary Bond site in the world. Ian Fleming would be happy about that because he loved to call anything he liked “the best in the world.”
Picking the time for the trip was relatively simple. Viv says her misadventures happened in October, but as a lifelong resident of the Adirondacks, the atmosphere she describes is unmistakably that of an Adirondack August. The storms, the warm sunshine, the busy tourist traps, and “honkey-tonk” are all Northern New York summer, which makes sense because Ian Fleming visited the area to go to the horse racing track in Saratoga for many years, and horse racing is an August occurrence. It was a relief to know that Viv described Adirondack August, because my child goes to summer camp at that time, and would therefore neither need care nor miss me while I was gone.
Alas, 2021 was the summer of rain in northern New York. July 2021 had so much rain I didn’t dare make hotel reservations. I didn’t know, even as I collected money, whether I’d have to put the trip off a year, either because of bad weather or because of changing COVID restrictions. I got ahold of the scooter and practiced on it between rainstorms and still didn’t know if the trip would happen. Another obstacle was the fact that I was starting from Viv’s ending point: instead of motoring down the route, I had to drive up, turn around, and come back. I tried to get the scooter shipped to the border without me, and then to rent a truck to drive the scooter up (and drop off the truck) but neither of these solutions ended up being viable. So, I realized I would have to drive the scooter round trip, taking notes and pictures each way.
It stopped raining just about when I dropped my daughter off at camp. At that time I did a recon by car. You may wonder why I would do reconnaissance in a place I have lived most of my life, but although I know the Adirondacks well, I had never traversed them by scooter or motorcycle, and I took a car recon to make sure things were safe for the trip. I needed to know where every gas station was because while the scooter got one hundred miles to the gallon, its gas tank was only three-quarters of a gallon. I needed to see, ahead of time, where traffic would likely be heavy and hostile to a scooter driver. And, most importantly, I needed to find several places to rest my head on the trip. The Adirondacks tourist season in year two of COVID was quite a bit busier than it had been in 1960, and there are far fewer cabins. I wanted, if possible, to stay at places that had been open when Viv would have made her trip, and such places rarely have websites. It would be necessary to visit them in person to make a reservation. I had, online, found a place to stay, right on Route 9, halfway to Canada, for the recon, so I planned to take pictures, find out where gas stations and eateries were, and generally make sure the route was safe for me by motor scooter, one week ahead of the planned trip.
My drive to Canada from Glens Falls, about one hundred seventy-five miles, was pretty uneventful apart from my noting the one high traffic area (Schroon Lake) and every place to get gas, and every library where I could charge my phone. I took photos just in case the next trip, the real one, had bad weather, but really the recon north was an uneventful time.
Ah, but the trip back! The idea was to follow Route 9 and find motor courts for the real trip, and at first, it seemed easy. I pulled my little green Mitsubishi Mirage, which always attracts attention, into the circular gravel driveway of the Shamrock Inn (founded 1934) and immediately felt at home.
A lovely woman owns the Shamrock. She was delighted by my plan; had room on the next Friday night (but not Saturday), took all my information just in case, and wished me well. At that point, I thought finding motor hotels would be easy. However, every one of the next few motels whose lot I pulled into was full on the following Saturday night. Finally, tired and discouraged, I got lunch, still wanting only to eat at period, or at least independently owned, establishments. In Elizabethtown, about halfway between the Canadian border and Glens Falls, I found a restaurant and hotel called, interestingly “Halfway House.”
On the porch was a man on his cell phone whom I took to be the owner. “No, we don’t have anything. We don’t have anything until October,” he said, “You should have called earlier.” Then a pause. “Steve. My name is Steve. You can try again next week but I don’t think we’ll have anything.”
I went into the restaurant, and soon enough the owner came to take my order. “What can I get you?” He said. Channeling my best Sir Roger Moore, I said, “Information, Steve. I need a place to stay next Saturday.”
“We got a hotel right here.”
“Yes, but I just heard you tell somebody you are full. That’s OK, though, you are in the business. You must know someone who’s got some room. I don’t mind tenting—” (now I was winging it) “—I just need a place to sleep.”
Steve said he had a friend with a primitive (no electricity and no water) campground, and when I said that was fine, he said, “Well, why don’t you just pitch your tent behind the hotel? I have a nice clearing down by the river.”
I was so grateful. I brought out my Pan copy of Spy Who Loved Me the one with the map of the Adirondacks on the cover and explained about my scooter trip, and it turned out that Steve’s wife also drove a Honda scooter and was delighted to help me with my journey.
It was at that moment that I realized I had just committed myself to pack a tent into a scooter with only a milk crate for storage. I thanked Steve and his wife and happily if nervously, headed home, telling my hosts I would see them on Saturday afternoon.
The next week has a cheerful frenzy of packing and repacking. As precious as my space was, I still made room to pack green tomatoes (firm for travel) and zucchini from my garden as host gifts. I packed granola bars and fruit (Viv survived on egg and bacon sandwiches, coffee, and fruit, she said, but then, granola bars had not yet been invented). I packed a couple of tiny paperbacks. I found quick-drying clothing which I could rinse out nightly and good sturdy motorcycle gloves. I realized with relief that the bulkiest thing on the trip, my leather jacket, would be on my back. Then I remembered I had to find a tent small enough to pack.
There are not a lot of times I am grateful to be short, but this was one of them. Thanks to my sponsors, I could buy a child’s play tent, about five feet long. I am just five foot three, so, lying diagonally, I would fit just fine, and the tent would fit in the milk crate. I added a plastic table cloth to be a rain fly, just in case, and I was amused that my tent for my James Bond trip was covered in dinosaurs and unicorns.
The morning of the trip, I was on the road by 6:30 to be beyond the traffic of Lake George early in the morning. I was excited and terrified at the same time. Excited because this felt like such a wonderful adventure, terrified because, well, I’d never actually driven a motorcycle or scooter over ten minutes at a time, and I was about to drive a borrowed one for hundreds of miles.
Oh, I have a motorcycle licence, have had one for years. But after I took the weekend course in motorcycle safety on a borrowed purple Kawasaki I just never got around to buying a bike. I’m a homeowner and a parent and there always seemed to be a better use for the money. That the nice man who lent me his scooter knew this about me and let me have the Honda anyway will always make me very grateful, but that morning the enormity of his generosity left me trembling. “This thing is worth six thousand dollars. Don’t crash. Don’t crash,” I muttered as I took off.
It was surprisingly cold, even at thirty-five miles per hour, and I soon stopped to put on my favorite jumper (I bought it in Liverpool at a charity shop, so it is a jumper, and not, as Americans say, a “sweater”) under my leather jacket.
I soon felt exhilarated. The trip was marvelous! No wind through my hair, wearing a helmet, but the fresh air rushing at me made me feel like a happy German shepherd with my nose out the window. Motorcyclists going the opposite way gave me the international motorcycle sign of brotherhood as if I were one of the big boys. Since it was August, the beautiful Adirondack maples were vivid green instead of red “like shrapnel bursts” but the summer flowers were at their most beautiful and everybody of water shimmered as the sun became more intense.
I got past the busy Route 9 of Lake George and to the tranquil Route 9 of Pottersville. I visited Natural Stone Bridge and caves, where the staff were ecstatic to realize their business was on the cover of a Bond book, pictured on a map of the Adirondacks. I went to Frontier Town, a now-abandoned theme park where my late husband (who introduced me to Bond) had worked as a Sheriff when a teen, and I gave the current owner my husband’s old badge. I stopped whenever I wanted to but still got to my motel in Peru by three in the afternoon, so I stashed the bulk of my stuff there, gave my host some garden tomatoes, and continued to Canada, taking pictures all the way.
I burn easily and knew that even if I felt cool, from the wind of the ride, I was at risk, so I put sunscreen on my face every time I stopped. I neglected to remember my ankles were also in the sun, and they got burned. It was OK. I stopped at a dollar store and bought lightweight socks to protect my ankles for the rest of the trip.
When I got to the Canadian border, that was as far as I could go, because it was not yet open during the COVID crisis, and anyway, you can’t cross the border on Route 9 anymore as this is another place the traffic has been diverted to highways. I could not go all the way to Montreal. But I still felt triumphant! I had made it—one way. Viv’s trip was actually on the way BACK. So I rode back to my motel, stopping at an ancient and wonderful hot dog stand in Plattsburgh, where the service was marvelous and the food tasty.
It was when I got to my motel that I felt the trip was real. There I was in a 1934 cabin, with my scooter parked just outside the door, just like Viv would do. The sun was setting by then and I was too tired for sightseeing. I slept like a dead woman. I got up to find the owner had made banana muffins, and we had a few, still warm while drinking hot, fresh coffee on her patio. This lovely woman gave me some muffins for the road, took my picture in front of the cabin, and implored me to call her if I got into any trouble. As excited as I was about my trip, I was sorry to leave her and hope I can go back someday.
Soon I was cruising at thirty-five miles per hour, and I saw every Route 9 attraction it was likely Viv would have seen, and one or two not around in 1960. I enjoyed Ausable Chasm (“the Grand Canyon of the East”) and Ausable Marsh, which Viv would have seen, and was delighted with the Sculpture Garden and the Underground Railroad Museum, not around in 1960.
Viv says that she doesn’t describe her trip down Route 9 because she is not writing a travelogue, but I think the real reason Fleming didn’t describe things in detail is that, other than maybe during WWII, he himself did not venture on Route 9 anywhere north of Lake George. Why am I so certain of this? It is because the Adirondacks are replete with the one thing Ian Fleming could not resist describing: Birds. Magnificent birds. Slow-moving immense herons, darting sparrows, regal hawks, flocks of gobbling wild turkeys, squawking gulls, all with personalities and plumage and all easily seen even from a moving motor scooter. In the book, Viv mentions chipmunks and deer, but the non-avian wildlife I saw were many more: and snakes, porcupines, possums, and woodchucks in addition to the deer and chipmunks. The Fleming who spent pages describing a scorpion fight would surely have mentioned the grandeur of a Great Blue Heron if he had ever seen one.
Many of the sights here are much the same as they were fifty years ago: vegetable stands, little bundles of camp wood, small motels—fewer motels are open than used to be, though many sturdy little sets of cabins still stand, too wholesome looking to appear haunted, just reminding us of what used to be. Because so much traffic has been diverted to the Northway, Route 9 is frozen in time, a bizarro time of almost but not quite the same.
After a while, like Viv, I came to really drive the scooter, rather than to ride it, and before long it was time to pitch my little tent behind Halfway House. It wasn’t “behind the hotel” as in a few feet from the back door. The owner had cut a winding trail behind the main structure that went perhaps a quarter-mile before it came to a clearing by the Boquet River. The Boquet is a good fly-fishing river, not very deep although there are places you can swim. I was grateful for that because the August sun beat down on me and I was glad to play in the river before going to sleep. I checked in with my hosts and gave them zucchini from my garden but we interacted little after that.
I went into town, such as it was, for a snack at a Stewart’s, which is a chain of convenience shops, and there I saw a group of beautiful Harley-Davidson motorcycles parked. I parked the little Honda with them, feeling pleased with my joke. When the Harley riders emerged from the shop, I sang out, “I fit right in!” and the leader said, “You DO fit in! You are on two wheels,” and offered to pose for a picture.
I loved my little tent and my tent site. Viv didn’t mention tenting but with her adventurous spirit. I am sure she would have loved the field, full of bumblebees, and the river, with minnows that happily nibbled at my toes when I went wading. After the sunset, the planet Venus rose above my tent and I took one of the happiest photos I ever have: a planet just above my play tent.
It was good that I packed the tablecloth to be a rain fly. Just as I zipped myself in for the night, clouds gathered, followed by soft steady rain, but I was dry and content.
I was content until I slept. You see, all those hours on the road, when they were so unfamiliar to me, did a number on my brain. As I slept, my hands trembled from the grips of the scooter, and in my dreams, the road came at me and at me and at me and no other dreams would come. I woke up uneasy. I read by the camp light for a while, and then, having cleared my brain could sleep blissfully.
It was cloudy and cold when I got up from tenting, and very foggy, bad for driving. I broke camp as quickly as I could, splashed around in the river, which was too cold to be pleasurable when the air was chilly, and dressed in layers for the trip from to my expected stop, Schroon Lake. There I hoped to get a good breakfast, my first real meal on the trip. It was terribly, horribly cold as I drove the Honda in the cold fog. I cannot imagine that Viv could have done this trip in October when my teeth were chattering in my three layers in the middle of August.
It turns out on the morning I was in Schroon Lake, a Sunday morning in a very religious town, the diners were not open for breakfast, so I didn’t get breakfast until many miles later, in Pottersville. That turned out to be OK, though, because Pottersville has the Black Bear, a 1950s era establishment that would certainly have been attractive to Viv. The décor has not changed, I think, since it opened, which made the place very attractive to me, and a good hearty breakfast was all the better for my having to wait for it.
I continued south to Lake George, where the plan was to stay at Wiawaka, a vacation home for women. This is partially a joke because the whole plot of Spy Who Loved Me is that Viv gets accosted by baddies in the motel she is watching over for the owners. (Bond shows up and saves her.) If Viv had stayed at Wiawaka, none of her misadventures would have happened. Wiawaka was founded in 1903, by the way, and would certainly have been available in 1960.
Wiawaka was also where the Joey King movie Radium Girls, wherein I was an extra, was filmed and I got to go down memory lane there; my room was in the building that had been used as the costume shop for the film. The James Bond connection is that Radium Girls is about the lawsuit women filed after discovering that glow-in-the-dark watch dials caused deadly cancer in those that painted the watch dials. James Bond wore such a watch.
It was using Wiawaka as my home base that I got to take pictures of so many things Viv mentioned. She liked the steamboats, Fort William Henry, and the view of the lake. She disliked Gaslight Village and Storytown, USA (“a babyland nightmare”), and seemed amused by Animal Land. It helped to be a native of the area at this time, for Animal Land and Gaslight Village are long gone, with no markers. Fort William Henry (“the stockade fort”) and the steamboats are thriving, and I spent many happy hours touring the fort and seeing the glory of Lake George from the deck of a ship called Lac du St. Sacrement.
Viv hated the kitsch of Lake George Village (“dreadful” “honkytonk” “Big Chief hamburgers” “Minne Ha Ha Candyfloss”) and I tried to see that part of the area through her eyes, and, admittedly, Lake George has some parts that are dreadful, ruined by commercialism and re-ruined with each generation’s pop culture. We certainly do not have Minne Ha Ha Candyfloss, though, because Americans call the treat Cotton Candy.
I set out very early in the morning after my stay at Wiawaka, for Route 9 is dangerously busy, to get a look at what one of my Twitter followers has called “the Holy Grail of Spy Who Loved Me” and by this I mean, naturally, the site of Dreamy Waters.
There’s one red herring in the book, and it is unfortunately on the first page. I refer to where Viv says she is staying ten miles west of Lake George, which would put you, well, nowhere. There is no community “ten miles west” of Lake George, and no such community existed in the 1960s. The nearest that fits that phrase is Lake Luzerne, but this little town is not west but southwest, and not at all on the road Viv travels, Route 9. I can only think that Fleming got his compass points confused when he got to Jamaica to write, for there is nothing else in the book that puts Viv west of Lake George. Indeed, on the second and third page, and every subsequent time Viv geographically places Dreamy Pines, it is south, not west, of Lake George. Lake Luzerne is not mentioned even once, but Lake George and Glens Falls are each mentioned over a dozen times, Albany and Troy several times, Mechanicville and Stillwater one time each, but Lake Luzerne is never brought up, and none of the attractions described by any character is located in other than Lake George, Glens Falls, or Troy. Spy Who Loved Me is firmly in the area between Lake George and Glens Falls.
In the text, Viv first talks about a “secondary road” between Lake George and Glens Falls. Later, she says it was at “Storytown, USA” that she turns off Route 9 and onto a side road that leads to the secondary road. In other words, Dreamy Pines is neither on Route 9 nor on the secondary road, but on the side road that leads to the alternate route between the two small towns.
It’s important to keep in mind that Spy Who Loved Me is a work of fiction. There is no James Bond, but there are spies, there is no Viv, but there are adventurous, beautiful women. There is no Dreamy Pines, but there are many motels in the Adirondacks, some of them by little lakes. None of my research, which includes driving the area, biking the area, scootering the area, examining maps, advertisements and City Directories, rereading the words of Fleming and of his friend Ivar Bryce (who lived nearby), and talking to old-timers in the area, has definitively turned up one location that was Dreamy Pines. It rather seems to be a conglomeration of location (near Storytown) architecture (typical vacation cabins) and imagination. The text puts Dreamy Pines roughly on Round Pond Road, near Storytown, but Ivar Bryce says Dreamy Pines was between Cambridge, New York, and Glens Falls, and it’s possible that he means a hotel that fits the physical description of cabins in a circle, an uncommon configuration. While the locals are not unanimous, the plurality says that the site of Viv’s misadventures is Round Pond, which is, like the illustration in early editions of the book, a small lake located to the left of the road if you travel the road described.
Avoiding aggressive summer drivers by being up at sunrise, I set out on my now beloved borrowed scooter toward the old Storytown, USA, to turn off onto the side road. I can’t avoid saying it: This was a thrill. There I was, on a scooter like darling Viv, taking the turn that took me off Route 9 and through the woods, on the side road that winded until it satisfyingly deposited me in front of a small lake with a few cabins still there from long ago. I took pictures, then went back to Wiawaka, where a wonderful group of adventurous women were waiting for me to join them for breakfast.
Could Viv have made this trip? Absolutely. In fact, I would say, having done this trip by car and scooter, that the scooter is the most enjoyable way to do this. Could it have taken her the two weeks in the book? Maybe, but it would be a stretch. There just isn’t that much to do unless you pack real hiking equipment, which Viv does not mention. Did Ian Fleming make this trip as research? I would say no. He mentions mostly just Lake George attractions by name, and he falls down hard in describing specific Adirondack animals and terrain. Going by what he chose to describe, and describe well, Ian probably made a good run around Glens Falls and Lake George but didn’t go far north of Lake George village in consciously doing research. Fleming might have gone down Route 9 from Canada in his WWII days, but at that time he would not be taking notes.
So why didn’t some researcher do this trip sooner?
After all, the most tenuous connection to James Bond garners visitors. I have recently been on a Bond tour where the guide said, pretty much, “Here at this patch of weeds used to stand a building where they filmed fifteen seconds of Thunderball,” and everyone nodded referentially and took photos. With Spy Who Loved Me, you can do so much more, such as drive the exact roads Viv would have taken and sip Maxwell House coffee in an authentic Adirondack cabin.
One difference is that most James Bond experts are English. They would not realize that so many Spy Who Loved Me sites are real, or that the area rivals any site in the world for beauty, and it is a burden to make any research trip, but particularly to go from England to remote northern New York State, without expecting payback in terms of insight. Briefly, they don’t know what they were missing. But also it is notable that the book was never made into a movie, and movie sites resonate deeply and differently from book sites. Baker Street and Platform 9 3/4 are powerful tourist attractions that reference books, but would they attract as much attention without their movies? I think not.
Then again, why didn’t I do this before? Certainly, the reasons other scholars didn’t recreate this trip didn’t apply to me. For me, the reason I didn’t explore these sites before is an inverse of why other scholars did not: while other scholars may not even know the reality of the Spy Who Loved Me sites, for me they are so real as to be mundane. I’m a half block away from Route 9 as I type this. I passed a half dozen quaint Adirondack cabins as I drove around town doing errands this afternoon. There was, I figured, nothing for me to see. I was wrong about that. There was a lot to see when I endeavored to see it from Viv’s point of view, and moreover, a lot to share.
Living the trip that Vivienne Michel took brought her to life for me, and brought me closer to the thought processes of Ian Fleming. What I still hope for this trip, though, is that people who hear about it, who have stories of Ian Fleming, will share them with me.