A hundred years ago, Herbert Welsh, a hearty 61-year-old Philadelphian, affluent and influential, walked to Sunapee, New Hampshire, where he kept a summer home. He would make the same trip annually until he was 78 years old, and in 1921 Welsh published The New Gentleman of the Road–tales of the highways he walked and the people he met.
I’ll be setting out on the same journey in May. I’ll walk in Welsh’s footsteps from Philadelphia, the gritty city where I now make my home, back to the fields and forests of rural New Hampshire, where I come from. At 59, I will be close to Welsh’s age; in most other respects, Welsh’s life and mine seem like photographic negatives of each other.
Welsh and I are divided by social class and privilege. He was rich and never needed to work; I was born in poverty and raised myself out if it. Welsh escaped the city for the woods of New Hampshire, which he worked to restore to nature; I was a child of that wilderness and worked in the timber industry in those forests. I grew up resentful of reformers like Welsh.
Welsh lived in the city at a time when the countryside was being abandoned. He and his fellow progressive conservationists worked tirelessly to redeem the areas of desolation they saw in the forests of the American northeast. In a twist of historical irony, the wealthy have abandoned vast tracts of the the city of Philadelphia today, areas of desolation through which I will begin my slow way home.