“Herbert Welsh walked from Philadelphia to Sunapee,” I said, and paused, briefly, not long enough for Amy to ask the question I wanted to ask, “Is that even possible?”
Not impossible, but highly unlikely, which brings me to the title, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012), a novel by Rachel Joyce. Walking books are legion; novels somewhat more rare. Fiction favors the picaro, the rascal whose adventures–often connected only by the travels of the anti-hero, who lives an entertaining story. It’s fun to read because he’s a rogue (he’s usually male), not because he’s on foot.
Harold Fry is no rogue. Mid sixties, dully married, 45 years a drudge and just retired, Fry gets a note from an old friend. Queenie lives 600 miles away, and is dying. On the way to the box to mail Queenie his condolences, Fry decides to just keep walking:
Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living.
Fry is no pilgrim either. He arrives slowly at the idea of a potential religious, or spiritual, connotation of walking to save a soul. A shopgirl he meets between Wessex and The Borders reveals it to him. He meets people like that, and hears a lot of stories on his walk; these picaresque episodes are fun to read. The mystery–who is Queenie, and why must Harold see her?–is less fascinating. My response went from Who cares? to Oh, now I get it rather too quickly.
But along the way (pun intended) I really enjoyed all the stories: the sadly closeted elderly gay man, the Eastern European woman who nurses Fry to health, the fanatic who follows him. Fry is like “The Man of the Crowd,” or, at any rate, Fry’s tale puts the reader in the position of the nameless narrator of that Edgar Allan Poe story, observing a tumultuous sea of human variety.
That “mood of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs,” is common to all walk books, even this unlikely one. But The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is anomaly among walks, because no pilgrim actually made the pilgrimage. I will return to the question of pilgrimage on my way.
I have legal documents to prove I was born in the village of Webster, in southeastern Massachusetts, in 1956, and that I enrolled the second grade in the New Boston, New Hampshire, Central School in the fall of 1963. The complex migrations of the intervening years–the Statt family Völkerwanderung–are as mysterious to me today as any second century migration is to European historians. The witnesses are all dead: father and mother, aunts and uncles, brother and sister. And I only am escaped to tell…
We spent my first few years here. The Hudson River Valley is the setting of my earliest memories; the familiar landscape of many of my dreams. The houses we rented that short decade dotted the map of Putnam County, New York: Mahopac, Croton Falls, Lake Carmel, Peekskill. Low-ceilinged stone cottages; overhanging cedars and oaks; a faint smell of damp clay from a muddy stream–a kill— leading to a wide slow-flowing river. The scent of mud in the leafy woods would be familiar enough for me to smell “home” here right away. I haven’t been this way for fifty years; in the third week of May I’ll be walking through, moving at a pace that will try my sense of smell.
Elizabeth Wheeler, my mother’s mother, lived on Lake Mahopac, in a apartment above Erickson’s Ice Cream Parlor and Marina, and we spent a lot of time there, eating, swimming and playing in boats. When my father was away, Grandma drove us–my mom, my brother, my sister and me–to Bear Mountain, Sterling Forest, Boscobel or the Croton Falls Reservoir for outings. At this time, my father was frequently incarcerated and institutionalized, in punishment for dark sexual crimes, which I didn’t understand then, of course, but even today I’m not sure what he did or with whom. My sister Sarah was born here in 1959 and died within six months; the cause was obscure. For my parents, it was no picnic.
We did eat a lot of picnic lunches in the parks in those days. Crossing the Bear Mountain Bridge–a bridge built in 1924: in 1920 Herbert Welsh had to cross the on a “ferry that carried us over the lordly river…Let it be noted by the indolent among my readers that this was the only occasion in our long journey when we trusted to any artificial means of transportation.”–crossing the handsome Bear Mountain Bridge, my brother John and I, in the back seat of Grandma’s Valiant, sang the first song I ever learned by heart:
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
To see what he could see.
And all that he could see,
And all that he could see,
Was the other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
Was all that he could see.
As a child I was pretty sure that the mountain that befuddled the bear must be Bear Mountain. This children’s song worried me to the bone. It spoke to a deep disappointment that I was feeling already, having lost my little sister, and wondering where Daddy was. Four years old, I was aware our family was somehow amiss. All that I could hear, was a lyric that warned things might stay that way. The bear spoke to me of darkness, silence, and solitude: the dusky woods, the somber Hudson, and me, alone. That hopeless loneliness still haunts me, the fear that maybe I won’t find a pot of gold, or blue birds flying, on the other side of the mountain.
I think of this time and place as my Unheimliche Heimat(1995), a phrase I borrow from W.G. Sebald’s 1995 book of essays about postwar Austrian literature. “Strange homeland” works as a translation, but misses the pun on “un-homely home,” and also Sigmund Freud’s well-known translation of “unheimlich” as “uncanny,” Freud says the uncanny is “that class of the terrifying that leads us back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”
The English theater director Katie Mitchell, speaking in the film Patience: After Sebald, has said, “the most uncanny place is one’s own home.” I will see what I can see.
Really, the only question to ask of a book about a walk is: Would I want to go for a walk with this writer?
When my friend and neighbor Paul K. St. Amour first recommended The Old Ways to me, we were bicycling, unsteadily, home from a bar. Paul’s the kind of cyclist with whom a drunken conversation about modernism is always enlightening. “Have you read Robert MacFarlane?” he asked: “He’s kind of the dean of the new British school of literary geography.” Or maybe it was literate geography.
Either way,The Old Ways is a delight, and I’m grateful for the tip. MacFarlane gets around. He walks in England, Scotland, Palestine, Nepal, Spain–and even manages a “wonder-voyage” by sea in the Outer Hebrides: “The boat we sailed down the sea roads was a century-old cockle-shell.” He’s a graceful writer and a polymathic companion, familiar with geography, history, theology, philology and old sea vessels.
MacFarlane’s old ways are often not on any map, sometimes not even across land. To walk the way MacFarlane does is to stay awake, alert and alive to the passing land- or seascape. I welcome his rare awareness of the old ways, the paths that people of, or in, the past–the old ones–have travelled before us. These are the”ghostly roads,” that the Anglo-Welsh poet-pedestrian Edward Thomas (1878-1917) described.
MacFarlane borrows heavily from Thomas, who, in his turn, was influenced by a great English wanderer and Bible salesman with the fitting name of George Henry Borrow (1803-1881). To walk is to borrow, as it is to write. A path is only a path because someone has already walked it; there’s no shame in repetition. In fact, “footstepping” a walker from a century before–as I will be following Herbert Welsh–is one of the delights of walking, and of writing, come to think of it. As he appraises the life and work of Thomas and his Modernism, MacFarlane might be said to be writing about literature, but I think he wants us to consider the old Ways of Seeing, too, in the simple but profound sense that John Berger had in mind, that “the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.”
The way that George Borrow, and Edward Thomas, and Robert MacFarlane, and even I see the world is informed by all the walkers who preceded us on this path, as well as the time of walking or writing. For instance:
Thomas sensed early that one of modernity’s most distinctive tensions would be between mobility and displacement on the one hand, and dwelling and belonging on the other–with the former becoming ubiquitous and the latter becoming lost (if ever it had been possible) and reconfigured as nostalgia. He experienced that tension between roaming and homing even as it was first forming.
Across the Atlantic in Thomas’s time, Herbert Welsh was feeling that tension, too, in response to the same world, and the same wars. But British walking literature differs from American in its ways of seeing nostalgia. (And also in the way that the usual American complaints about sore feet and bad weather are summarily dismissed by a Brit, like McFarlane, as “The travelers usual mix of excitement, incompetence, ennui, adventure and epiphany.”)
To us Europeans, the wilderness is associated with origins: an immemorial fault,permanently open, an obscure starting point. It’s the ancestral place to which we may want to return, which sometimes comes up at us, but is our definitive past. For Thoreau the American,the wilderness is located in the West, before him. It is the possibility of the future. The wilderness is not the night of European memory, but the morning of the world and of humanity.
The British tradition is walking as recovery; and the American tradition is of walking as dis-covery: that striding forwards into the oncoming crisis of the world. For the Romantic tradition, the British Romantic tradition, it is to strip away the accretions of civilization, the hawking and hammering of time lived in cities, and return to some original state. In the American tradition, we travel to liberate ourselves, to discover new ways of being.
What distinguishes the British style of walking narrative from the American is visible to the naked eye. Look at the films they inspire.
MacFarlane’s British publisher was inspired by The Old Ways to sponsor a contest–“take your own walk–” that drew scores of video submissions. Here’s the winner.
The most popular recent American walking bestseller, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, (more on Strayed later) inspired Hollywood to tale of a young woman who walked “From lost to found on the Pacific Coast Trail.”
Of these three, whom would you choose as a long walk’s companion?
A cryptic clue in Saturday’s puzzle in theFinancial Times: “2D: Dry ditch (6)” The six-letter solution is “desert,” of course. A classic “double definition?” Almost but not quite, because, in this case, the rains have both left–or ditched–the desert, and left it without water–dry. The two definitions: arid and abandoned, are the same, really.
This is the way Herbert Welsh went. I call it the Desert of the Imagination, because I can’t think of anything to say about this particular suburban wasteland, and I will be parting from Welsh and Dorothy Whipple, to meet them again on the Hudson River,
I admit that I learned, as I scribbled on this fascinating National Geographic map of “The Reaches of New York City” (1939), that I might yet see the Baptist Meeting House 1792, the William Bull and Sarah Wells House, the Clinton Home, or Washington’s Headquarters. These are the sites highlighted on this masterpiece of Modernist cartography: which appears to have been drawn with a compass, tracing a couple of hundred mile radius around the city. Within a couple of leagues, the New York World’s Fair was taking place in Flushing Meadows that same year–that dream of the Modernist project. When Welsh was walking from the Delaware to the Hudson River in the Twenties, Benton MacKaye and Lewis Mumford (whom we will meet later, along the Housatonic) were founding the Regional Planning Association of America (1923-1933), to promote their Modernist vision of a great city that was dependent on, and responsible for, the country surrounding it.
Their short-lived organization might have displayed this map in its office, to illustrate its purposes. The Appalachian Trial is one of the few monuments of the RPAA.
And “thinking regionally,” I see that almost every step of my walk, or Herbert Welsh’s, can be traced on this map. It’s not just the walk: It seems I have lived my whole life in “The Reaches of New York City” (1939). Poor as we were, my mother insisted that we read the New York Times every day–even if it arrived a day late in New Boston, New Hampshire in the 60s. When my older brother needed a suit, we went to Manhattan, to Brooks Brothers, to buy it. (My clothing came from the Fat Boy’s Shop, despite the fact that I was named, if misspelled, after a rival New York clothier–Paul Stewart Statt.)
I’ll be taking the low road, the Appalachian Trail, a few miles south of here. It seems less deserted, if not less traveled by, thanks to the work of the Regional Planning Association of America. Along the high road, which is now more or less I-84, Welsh described these three days as “30 miles of desert land–financially speaking–that lay between me [in Port Jervis] and General Washington’s headquarters on the Hudson, Newburg.” No bank would cash his check. Today a “financial desert” more commonly describes some inner city, or immigrant suburb,where poor people, who have no bank accounts, are forced to pay outrageous fees to cash a check; as a “food desert” is a place where the poor can’t buy fresh fruits and vegetables, even if they have the funds.
This is only a metaphorical desert, but these early 20th-century maps illustrate the the emptiness of the land. Explore the old maps of Port Jervis, Goshen and Schunemunk; they mark only a few houses, and have a dun and dusty look.
Welsh’s route seems a wasteland in other ways. Places to stop were few and shabby: like Hackett’s Hotel in Goshen–“a poor apology for a hotel, surely,–untidy, out at elbows, and when we saw the condition of the bedrooms assigned to us, depressing in the extreme.”
Welsh tried to enjoy a church supper in Slate Hill, but “a window, wide open just back of me, let in an abundance of cool air upon me when I was overheated. I think cold or rheumatism, or ‘malicious animal magnetism’ must have attacked a muscle or tendon in my left leg.” Then one of his “Trot-Moc” moccasins disappeared. Dorothy Whipple nursed him back to health, but the shoe was lost forever.
When first I contemplated walking to New Hampshire, and writing a book about it, I wondered, “Has somebody already done that ?” This is the curse of baby boomer authors.
Ellen Stroud mentioned a book called Walking to Vermont in Nature Next Door. She wrote that “When New York Times journalist Christopher Wren ushered in his retirement with a walk from Times Square to his summer home in Post Mills, Vermont…he had far more company on his walk [than Herbert Welsh], since he spent most of his four hundred miles on the Appalachian Trail…But Wren had it right: hiking from Times Square to the Green Mountain Forest is not so strange. The cities and forests of the Northeast are all of a piece.”
Stroud’s conclusion is profoundly simple: the unity of town and country. Between the woods and the megalopolis, the connections–of ownership and stewardship, watershed and foodshed, protectors and predators–are stronger than the distinctions. And at a plodding pace, Wren, like Herbert Welsh a hundred years ago, was able to connect the city, the suburb, and the land.
As curious a text as The New Gentleman of the Road is, I prefer Welsh’s prose to Wren’s. Of course, Wren tells more exciting stories: he was a foreign correspondent for 29 years, in Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, Ottawa and Johannesburg at the UN, and reported from the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East, China and Southeast Asia, Africa, South America and Canada. The trouble with Walking to Vermont is Wren’s apparent resolve to include an anecdote from every outpost, even if it has nothing to do with his walk. His story wanders, and not in an enlightening or entertaining way.
Like every long-distance pedestrian I have read, Wren dropped several pounds and felt fitter and younger when he got where he was going. (Welsh himself published an affidavit from his physician in his book.) He draws no other moral from his story. All well and good. But when Colin Thubron observes that walking, like poetry, makes nothing happen–his wry conclusion seems more hard-won than Wren’s.
I note that Wren’s route is not exactly mine, and hope my passing thoughts are less, well, pedestrian, too.
“I’ve always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail.”
That’s a not an uncommon response when I tell people that I’m walking from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire. I smile politely, but have to explain that my intention on this journey is comfort: to sleep every night in a warm bed in a friend’s home, to couch-surf, to stop at an old inn, to splurge $39.99 at a Motel 6, or–only as a last resort–to camp out.
I do plan to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail, but only in a state better know for its New Jersey Turnpike than its through-hikes. Historically, both the Trail (proposed in 1921, completed 1938) and the Turnpike (1938) were pure products of America at mid-century. America built big in Thirties, with a self-conscious sense of utilitarian purpose that seems uniquely modernist. Like the Civilian Conservation Corps (1933), the Tennessee Valley Authority (1933), or the 1939 World’s Fair, these were creations of nation that expressed a particularly technological and communitarian faith in the future.
It’s also true that when Herbert Welsh was walking to New Hampshire a hundred years ago, there was no such trail. The words of Benton MacKaye, who first proposed “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” in 1921, are worth reading today. MacKaye had in mind a “Whole New Approach to the Problem of Living,” a larger goal than a footpath. The “outdoor community life” he advocated would harness an “enormous undeveloped power-the spare time of our population.”
MacKaye doesn’t propose a trail just to extol the health benefits of walking. No, he opens with a paean to the camp, which is almost unsettling now, after Auschwitz and Guantánamo.
Something has been going on these past few strenuous years which, in the din of war and general upheaval, has been somewhat lost from the public mind. It is the slow quiet development of the recreational camp. It is something neither urban nor rural. It escapes the hecticness of the one, and the loneliness of the other. And it escapes also the common curse of both – the high powered tension of the economic scramble. All communities face an “economic” problem, but in different ways. The camp faces it through cooperation and mutual helpfulness, the others through competition and mutual fleecing.
Like Herbert Welsh, MacKaye believed that “Forestry must replace timber devastation'” and that in the service of protection of the American woods, the camps could not only provide recreation, education, and recuperation, but also, with the connecting Trail, “should put new zest in the labor movement”
To connect the city and the country seemed important to MacKaye, not to escape one for the other. This was the utopian of all modernist architecture. MacKaye wrote, “We want the strength of progress without its puniness. We want its conveniences without its fopperies.”
The first person to go all the way from Georgia to Maine on the Trail walked in 1948, having come marching home from action in the Pacific in the Second World War. Earl Shaffer, not much given to reflection, offered a sole reason why he did it: “Why not walk the army out of my system, mentally and physically?” The de-mobbed soldier seems prosaic in his sentiments, yet poetic in their expression. His charming account of Walking With Spring(1981) features a few lines of verse at the head of each chapter.
Out on the blue horizon
Under an an ariel sky,
With aspect always sylvan
The days go strolling by.
He also noted, in passing, that the Trail in the state of Connecticut still followed many public roads, through farms, lawns and villages, “a sort of backyard wilderness.”
“Backyard wilderness” is an apt description of the Wallkill River Valley where I will be hiking. I will follow the New York-New Jersey border for a dozen leagues, mainly through swamps and rolling hills. The Trail is here only because many of its founders–city folks from New Jersey– wanted their state included in the wilderness. (Not every map of the Appalachian Mountains even includes the Garden State.) But it’s also a fitting place to meditate on wildness and civilization. The landscape is dotted with old mills and oil refineries among the Native relics and restored Colonial farmhouses. Today the Wallkill Valley is a bedroom community–it’s that close to New York City. I assume nobody walks to work.
When British traveller and storyteller Colin Thubron lost his 97-year-old mother in 2006, he went for a long walk. To a Mountain in Tibet is the story of that walk, to isolated Mount Kailas, the source of four great rivers of Asia and almost as many religions.The ritual pilgrim practice involves walking around the mountain–clockwise for Buddhists, counterclockwise for Hindus–not to, or up the mountain. “Its slopes are sacrosanct,” Thubron notes, “and it has never been climbed.”
Thubron is not a believer, but the romance of that massif enthralls him, and he makes the circuit.
This is a breathtaking book, haunted by death. As Thubron walks, he remembers. Struggling to breathe in the thin mountain air, he recalls his mother’s breathlessness at the end. Musing on Buddhism and Hinduism or Himalayan botany raises memories of his father, who served with the British Raj in India. The sheer pyramidal faces of Kailas remind him of his sister’s untimely death, aged 21, in an accident in the French Alps.
Many walkers and writers try to meld memoir and travelogue; few do it well, because the way memory works on foot is not altogether as straightforward as prose. Thubron, also a novelist, dances gracefully bewteen now and then–from an exegesis of the Tibetan Book of the Dead to a memory of his mother’s grief at the loss of her daughter, to her hospital bed, to describing a vertiginous high-altitude monastery. The narrative structure is more like a vernacular temple than an architectural drawing. It’s a pleasure to explore, if you read slowly.
Maybe the apparently formless scaffolding of To a Mountain in Tibet just reflects the dizzying effects of altitude sickness; but it also feels like the way my mind works on a long walk. Thubron walks and writes with integrity and honesty, and maybe that’s why he never reaches any conclusions.
You cannot walk out your grief, or absolve yourself of your survival, or bring anyone back. You are left with the desire only that things not be as they are. So you choose somewhere meaningful on the earth’s surface, as if planning a secular pilgrimage. Yet the meaning is not your own.
I am undertaking a secular pilgrimage myself, revisiting some of the haunted lands where my sister Sarah Elizabeth Statt (1959-60), my grandmother Elizabeth Wheeler (1900-1967), my mother Mary Putnam (1926-1999), and my brother John Charles Statt (1953-2007), were born and died.
In the last year, my ex-wife and my mother’s sister both died, in New Hampshire. I rented a car, filled a thermos with coffee, and jumped onto Interstate 95. New Hampshire is less than six hours away, that way. But I was responding to death. Is a fore- and afternoon on the road an adequate show of respect? It seems too fast, just as the life that has brought me from New Hampshire to Philadelphia seems too fast–even though it has taken almost 60 years.
I don’t believe I need to hike a magic mountain to remember. But walking can be an act of mourning, too, moving slowly where I might hurry–that helps.
Frédéric Gros teaches philosophy in France. The practice of philosophy does not require an advanced degree and an appointment at a respected university, as Gros has. The first words–first sentence, first paragraph–of A Philosophy of Walking are “Walking is not a sport.”
Logically, you might take issue with that. For instance, in the early 20th century, when Herbert Welsh was advocating foot travel as the way to health, it had been only a few years since the heyday of Pedestrianism, according to the subtitle of a recent book, “When Watching People Walk was America’s Favorite Sport.”
Gros means something like what I might have in mind if I wrote “Philosophy is not an academic discipline.” The thinkers on Gros’s mind include Kant and Nietzsche, yes, but also poets–Nerval and Rimbaud–pilgrims and politicians such as Ghandi, and all-around free spirits such as Thoreau and Rouseau.
Like those walkers and writers, Gros’s work here is rangy and loose-limbed. He meanders, slowly, and repeats himself–three qualities that also describe the pedestrian pace he prefers. It’s not a sustained argument for a particular point of view; this is une philosophie, not la philosophie.
Like Twitter and facebook, Gros favors the style of the aperçu–the quick quip of illumination: “Presence is something that takes time.” “The secret of monotony is that it constitutes a remedy for boredom.” “You have to walk a long way to relearn self-love.” “The illusion of speed is the belief that it saves time.” These aren’t steps in a proof; there is no Q.E.D. at the end. Right at the start, Gros observes what every walker knows.
When you walk for a long time, there comes a moment when you no longer know how many hours have passed, or how many more will be needed to get there; you feel on your shoulders the weight of the bare necessities, you tell yourself that’s quite enough–that really nothing more is needed to keep body and soul together–and you feel you could carry on like this days, for centuries.
And as I will be walking across a century, I will need that.
Herbert Welsh and Dorothy Whipple missed the chance to visit Gifford Pinchot when they passed through Milford, Pennsylvania. Pinchot was the first head of the National Forest Service, and considered a founder of the American conservation movement; Welsh helped found the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and is almost forgotten.
Alas! that on this visit there was no time to show my young protegee the many interesting and beautiful spots about Milford, the many exquisite cascades formed by streams that filter through the forests and hills to empty into the Delaware. Also there is the famous turreted chateau of the Pinchot family, now the home of Gifford Pinchot, who is noted for his interest and achievements in the line of political reform, but especially at this time for his advocacy of a forest policy for Pennsylvania and the country at large that will turn the balance from a consumption of timber that dangerously exceeds production to the reverse of that alarming state of affairs.
Pinchot’s kind of conservation was less “wild,” less philosophically radical, than that espoused by John Muir (1838-1914). Pinchot favored bringing the wilderness under the aegis of the federal government and working with the timber and mining companies, the “extraction industries.” Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt were allies. For the most part, Pinchot’s vision has prevailed over Muir’s.
I am haunted by the kind of deep conundrums these early 20th-century conservationists faced. Preserve, protect, or neglect? Use it, or abuse it? Should wilderness be useful? Scenic? Sublime? Many wild acres between Pennsylvania and New Hampshire have been protected only by neglect–not preserved because the land is beautiful, but beautiful because it had been forgotten.
Pinchot’s legacy in the Keystone State is secure: as governor when the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board was created after Prohibition ended in 1923, he stated that the purpose of the Board was to “discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible.” In that, he succeeded. Less successfully his compatriot Welsh wanted to end the use of torture by the American military and solve “The Indian Problem” in the West.
But while walkers can see some things that are lost to other tourists, there are other advantages which they must forego if they are ever to reach their journey’s end, and these pleasures were of that order.
Pinchot’s home, Grey Towers, is today a National Historical Site. I plan to stop,and contemplate what conservation means a hundred years on.