I am leaving this morning on my long walk home, from Philadelphia to New Hampshire.
Daily blogging is not a chore I choose, but I will post a couple of photos daily, on Instagram, which will also appear here, and on facebook. They are geotagged, if you’re concerned with my whereabouts. Or want to look for me on the road.
My route will take me several leagues out of my way, and out of Herbert Welsh’s way, on a northwesterly detour to the old Hudson River State Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Today this evocative ruin of a high Victorian Gothic masterpiece, built in 1873, is a haunting setting for videos of intrepid urban explorers
Around 1959, my father, Jack Statt, was here.
I try to write with precise words, and am conflicted about that plain phrase “Jack Statt was here.” Was my father an inmate? A patient, a prisoner, a guest, a case, a convict or a resident? What do you call someone who was arrested and incarcerated, in 1959, for having sex with man, or with a boy? Deviant, pervert, invert, pedophile, queer?
I called him Daddy. The rolling green lawns, stately cedars, winding paths and river views of the Hudson River State Hospital are among my deepest memories. I do not recall that I entered the building on visiting days. These were my toddler days, before I had really learned to walk.
This place was a psychiatric hospital, an insane asylum, of a common type, built on the Kirkbride Plan,. According to a marvelously titled book, The Architecture of Madness, the very structure of the building and grounds “designed to be beautiful and soothing to the patient, a special apparatus for the care of lunacy, highly improved and tastefully ornamented.”
When I was a child, I thought as a child, wandering around an edifice, a special apparatus designed to create or control powerful emotions. The Hudson River State Hospital certainly had that effect on me. Now I will see it face to face.
Lewis Mumford, born in 1895, is a hero. He died in 1990 in a little house in Amenia, New York–a home that, for no good reason–is not an historic landmark today. Traipsing through in 1915, Herbert Welsh, in The New Gentleman of the Road, praised Amenia only as “a favorite resting place for automobilists.”
Historian, sociologist, philosopher, and literary critic, Mumford is best remembered for his study of cities and urban architecture, but was, above all else, a writer.
My attraction to the writer Mumford has a history, and that story has a theme, that can best be described as “Mumfordian.”
I’m a country boy. Grew up working on the farm and in the forests, hiking and camping for fun: rural peace and bucolic quiet came to me as second nature. But in the 60s, the metropolis felt as close as the TV set and The New York Times, and I choose to live today in a mess of a big old American city. The tension between City and Country dominated Lewis Mumford’s work–as well as my life.
I discovered Mumford when I was in college–in a used bookstore, not a classroom. The City in History(1961, and still in print) is, in its author’s words, a “book that opens with a city that was, symbolically, a world: it closes with world that has become, in many practical aspects, a city.” Here was a topic that ranged wide enough to suit my imagination. The writer Mumford was, and is, too much a generalist, a polymath, to get much academic credit. He never earned a college degree, although later in life he taught at several universities–he once called himself “a professor of things in general,” a course I would have signed up for with joy.
At Amherst College in the 70s, Mumford was wholly absent from the curriculum. I knew that Amherst was never going to be a scholarly home to me–the scholarship grant that generously financed my education proved, oddly enough, a hindrance to any academic scholarship. I was drawn to this un-credentialed and un-tenured teacher, who also seemed to take seriously such country matters–in all senses– as I had learned at home, in New Hampshire.
If you have no inkling of Lewis Mumford and his many books, I suggest you watch an evocative and nostalgic film that he created in 1939, for the New York World’s Fair. It’s called “The City,” but you will see that it nevertheless spends a lot of time in “The Country.”
Mumford was an early advocate of Regionalism, and the region where he spent most if his life was, in fact, The Reaches of New York City (1939). The City he loved; and The Country, but his distaste for Suburbia was profound:
The end product is an encapsulated life, spent more and more either in a motor car or within the cabin of darkness before a television set: soon, with a little more automation of traffic, mostly in a motor car, travelling even greater distances, under remote control, so that the one-time driver may occupy himself with a television set, having lost even the freedom of steering wheel. Every part of this life, indeed, will come through official channels and be under supervision. Untouched by human hand at one end: untouched by human spirit at the other. Those who accept this existence might as well be encased in a rocket hurtling through space, so narrow are their choices, so limited and deficient their permitted responses. Here indeed we find ‘The Lonely Crowd.’
The greatest 20th-century American urbanist made pastoral Amenia, New York, his home: this is where died in 1990. Twenty-five years on, Amenia is a suburb of New York City, as is most of the range of my great walk. Must we always rhyme, as I did when I was young, the very word “suburb” with “subdued,” “dumb” and dull?” I hope not. I hope my feet, as I walk, map out a better way.
Mumford’s biographer Donald Miller describes Leedsville, New York,
…the upstate hamlet where he had been living for thirty-six years [since 1936] with his family, in a simple wooden farmhouse tow miles or so from Amenia, an old iron-making center not much larger than Emerson’s Concord. Here, in a tiny study off his book-lined living room–a monk’s cell, really–he had done most of his best work; for while he loved the variety and velocity of the city, country living suited him better. In slow-moving Leedvsville he lived a life in line with his temperament, writing in the mornings and walking, sketching and gardening in the afternoons.
No record shows that Mumford ever even considered the 90 mile stroll to or from Manhattan. Even from Poughkeepsie, whence I’ll be coming, Amenia is a long walk. I will visit Mumford’s home on my way. The simple message of Mumfordian Regionalism is also the truth of my walk: no country without the city, no city without country. Walking, you come to know that the city is both very far from, and also very near, the countryside.
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.
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.
“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.
And we dined delightfully, but most extravagantly, at Fauchère’s at a cost of $4.00, but it was well worth the expense.
This small hotel remains. The Hotel Fauchère is one of the few stopping places about which I can positively state: Herbert Welsh slept here. I also hope to sleep, and eat, here: I am willing to pay more than $4.00.
Here and all throughout this romantic enchanted region I felt like one in a sweet and pleasant dream as the memories of more than thirty years came floating back. That was prior to the time of autos. Mr. Fauchère, founder of the celebrated house that bears his name, a French Swiss, was then alive and in the meridian of his glory as chef of great skill. His table was justly famed all over the country.
If Milford, a hundred years ago, awakened in Welsh a sweet and pleasant nostalgia for the Gay Nineties and his thirties, what dreams will I dream here? Nostalgia is a longing for something, a home perhaps, in our individual lives or collective history, that may have never existed. On my walk I will be on my way home, but what is this place called “home,” and where, and when?
At the Hotel Fauchère today, guests come to stay in a place that, a hundred years ago or more, was a popular spot to reminisce about the good old days. Oil paintings from the Hudson River School, hanging on the hotel walls, remind us of the romantic longing of an earlier time for an enchanted past, earlier still. Nostalgia does for time what a hall of mirrors does for sight: endless reflection and re-reflection.
In paying my bill to the very courteous and attractive lady in charge of the desk at Fauchère’s hotel she aroused my interest extremely by telling me that she was the granddaughter of its founder. I could see the old man, as she spoke, as I remember him thirty-five years back, standing attired as a true French chef, with his white cap and apron, toward summer evening time, after the labors of the day were over, in his vegetable garden, lovingly regarding those onions, squashes, egg-plants, and the like which his skill on the morrow would transform into delectable dishes for the pleasure of his guests.
The Delaware is the longest un-dammed river in the eastern United States, and it’s pretty wild even as far downstream as Philadelphia–spring freshet washes out roads and homes in the New Hope area every year. After devastating hurricanes in 1955, the US Army Corps of Engineers proposed to build a dam at Tock’s Island. (Mislabeled as “Cock’s Island” in the center of this topographic map from Herbert Welsh’s day.)
Talk of the Tocks Island Dam went on for twenty years, in 1975 the plans were finally filed away and abandoned. “Though it had promised drought abeyance, flood mitigation, power generation, and lake-based recreation, in the end, the project was deemed too costly.”
It’s thought of as an early victory for the environmentalists, but note that the official story blames its high cost. We do not, for the most part, protect our wild rivers because they are scenic. They remain wild as long as they can’t be monetized.
Walking here in 1915, Herbert Welsh “traveled a broad, good automobile road, but not many machines passed going north or south.” The scenic charm of the Delaware Water Gap escaped him somehow. I will be traveling the full thirty miles of the Joseph MacDade Recreational Trail, where I will be paying attention to wildness that is the preservation–if only preservation by neglect–of the world.
I’ll be walking the towpath from New Hope to Frenchtown, New Jersey, to Upper Black Eddy, then to Easton.
When Herbert Welsh passed this way a hundred years ago, this was still a working canal. Built in 1832, it floated limestone, lumber, and mostly anthracite coal to the port of Philadelphia until 1931. Welsh praised the “winding, secluded, dustless canal from New Hope to Easton…” and the “smooth and even tow-path,” even if he had to share it with the mules. “A lovely walk of two days it was, and one that to those who cannot get across the sea to Holland, I heartily commend”
I heartily concur with Welsh’s sense that the canal seems somehow “European.” Perhaps it is the civilized amenity of a cheerful, if somewhat shabby, country hotel every ten miles or so, where a hot and thirsty walker can enjoy a cool glass of beer.
(While he was a steadfast pedestrian who kept a steady pace, Herbert Welsh never missed the chance to pause for a cold beer, an ice-cream cone, or a pretty girl. I admire his old-fashioned style)