Leaving the AT’s long green path, I will return to the public roads and walk up the Housatonic and Connecticut Rivers. This is the land of my ancestors. Elizabeth Wheeler, my grandmother, was born in 1900 into a fine old New England family, and married into another ancient American lineage, the Putnams. The Wheelers and Putnams have been in Rutland, Mass., since the seventeenth century. Their names mark the landscape. I will walk through Putnam County, New York. A monument to the Wheeler family stands before the Wheeler Homestead, on Wheeler Road, in Rutland.
I will walk in the “accidental wilderness” behind the Quabbin Dam, built in 1930, not long after Welsh’s walks. The city of Boston removed several small towns to build a massive dam and drinking water reservoir here. Under the Quabbin Reservoir lie abandoned towns. When I reach “home” in southern New Hampshire, I will walk through East Weare, a “ghost town” that fascinated me as a child, because its residents had been removed for the raising of a flood control dam.
I will walk to Lake Sunapee. Just this fall, the name of Herbert Welsh was used in an advertising campaign from the commercial ski area on Mount Sunapee. The landowners believe they are developing the land in the spirit of Welsh. After they published a photograph in an advertisement, his heirs complained that his legacy was being misrepresented.
I can see the logic of the heirs, but also of the capitalists. The story of Herbert Welsh, like the story of the American environment, is complex. Men like Welsh were both protectors and predators, who sometimes saved a wilderness by controlling access to it. Local lumberjacks in the timber industry, wealthy flatlanders who can afford to buy ski lift tickets, second home owners: all have property rights. Even an indigent and intelligent young person, like me, coming of age in that wilderness, might come to imagine he enjoys a legitimate claim on the land.
I will reach home. I don’t know what to expect here. When I was a child, I never ran away from home, but I often walked in that direction. I “wandered off,” as my mother came to phrase it–as young as five years old, the police found me in the next town and escorted me home. As violent as life was, the chaos at home didn’t provoke an angry reaction, just a deep Wanderlust.
But often, especially in the late afternoon in autumn, when I had wandered away after school, I found myself miles from home, and wondering: “Will I get home before dark?” Fifty years later, I recall that foreboding moment as the sun set early behind the western hills, and I was alone and afraid. Sometimes today, when I feel that I have reached the late afternoon and the Indian Summer of my life, I wonder again: “Can I make it home?”
The Route, First Part
The Route, Second Part