The Route, First Part: The Undammed Delaware

As I walk, I will make my way eastward–against the all-American admonition to “Go West–” and upstream–against the flow of the Delaware, Hudson, Housatonic, Connecticut, and Merrimack Rivers. And also against the flow of my life, which has always been to leave the tragedy, as well as the pastoral romance, of my childhood in New Hampshire and New York State behind.

The long walk home is something like a fractured mirror of the course of my life: my mother’s family origins in the Massachusetts highlands, my earliest memories in New York’s Hudson Valley; my schoolboy years in the hills and forests of New Hampshire, college and work in Amherst, Massachusetts; my present life along the Delaware.

I will walk out my front door in prosperous Center City Philadelphia and through the wildest place I will encounter all the way to New Hampshire: the city streets of Germantown, the old suburb where Welsh lived. Now a wasteland, only a few blocks from Welsh’s home or mine, North Philadelphia is largely abandoned today. These urban badlands are as desolate in 2015 as the clearcut New Hampshire mountains or the poisoned Pennsylvania coalfields were in 1915.

Leaving the city, I will follow Welsh’s trail step by step, by canal towpath and rural boards, up the Delaware River to New York State.

The Route, Second Part

The Route, Third Part

The Route, Second Part: The Haunted Hudson

When I start out, I will be following Herbert Welsh’s footsteps pretty carefully, traveling the public roads. But I will walk a few miles across New York, New Jersey and Connecticut on the famous Appalachian Trail.  This woods trail was only a gleam in Benton MacKaye’s eye in 1915: he didn’t propose “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” until 1921. MacKaye’s essay reveals the frankly socialist ambitions of the Trail.  I would like to recover some of the spirit of that original Appalachian Trail, “something neither urban nor rural,”  as its founder imagined it, not “ a return to the plights of our Paleolithic ancestors,” but “the strength of progress without its puniness.”

I want to explore this wilder route, which was being marked through the mountains in the very years that Welsh’s was walking a parallel way. Its founders imagined a “reconstituted wilderness,” but I will not be taking a wilderness trek. The geography of the Jersey Highlands, the Catskills, the Croton Reservoir–and throughout my walk–echoes the twinned themes of protection and predation. It is an uncanny landscape.

As I cross the Hudson River into New York State, I will be wandering the haunts of Sleepy Hollow, that strange, foreboding  land where Washington Irving perfected the American ghost story. It is also where many quaint and curious events befell my family, when my parents started their family here.

The Route, First Part

The Route, Third Part

The Route, Third Part: Up the Connecticut

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

The Road to New Hampshire Started Next Door

STRNATWhen I started spending time in the splendid Pennsylvania forests a couple of years ago, the aptly-named Endless Mountains raised some curious questions. Having grown up working and playing in the New Hampshire woods, I had some idea how the White Mountain National Forest had been in fact saved from industrial despoliation only in the early 20th century. What had happened in Pennsylvania?

I picked up a copy of Nature Next Door: Cities and Trees in the American Northeast because author Ellen Stroud, an environmental historian at Bryn Mawr College, promised to explain. And she used New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and Pennsylvania as case histories of forest restoration and preservation–places where I had often hiked and camped.

It’s an excellent historical analysis. You could sum it up on Twitter–“20th-century city people created the northeastern forest wilderness”–but it’s much richer that sounds. Stroud provides both intriguing details and fascinating theories. She introduces some great characters, too.

Herbert Welsh (1851-1941) is truly a character. He strides into the narrative on the first page of Nature Next Door, because Stroud knows it’s a good story. A sixty-year-old wealthy Philadelphian who starts walking to Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, every summer in 1915. Stroud writes that in travelling on foot Welsh “experienced the region as a single connected place.” The urban and the rural, the wild and the domestic, the used and the abused: Stroud sees it all connected.

The connection between the city and country inspired me, a year later, to retrace Welsh’s steps and perhaps to reconnect the city where I now live with the land where I grew up. This is the book that inspired the walk.

(Day One) Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania

 

In Bryn Athyn stancathedral_randy-300x150ds the astonishing Swedenborgian Cathedral. Herbert Welsh (whose feet in ancient time–1915–I will be following on my walk to New Hampshire) felt himself “deeply moved by the ancient spirit of Gothic architecture springing into life, freely, unexpectedly in the countryside near Philadelphia, the very existence of which is almost unknown even to the most cultured portions of our people.”

The cathedral, the Swedenborgians, and the town of Bryn Athyn, remain surprisingly hidden even now. When Welsh walked through, the General Church of the New Jerusalem was only 25 years old, and its cathedral was uncompleted. It’s an worth a visit.

Today Bryn Athyn is a town where, according to a recent piece in the real estate pages of The Inquirer: “More than 90 percent of its residents are members of the General Church of the New Jerusalem – or the New Church – as were their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Their town was founded in the 19th century as an enclave for followers to live among people who shared their Christian values.”

Himself a spiritual if not a religious man, Welsh was on the way to his summer home in Sunapee, and stopped here for lunch on the first day of his long walk. I hope to spend the night.