(Days Ten through Twelve, An Alternative) The Desert of the Imagination

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Herbert Welsh’s 1920 route, overlaid on the roughly contemporary (1939) National Geographic Society map of the “Reaches of New York City.” Click the map to explore.

A cryptic clue in Saturday’s puzzle in the Financial 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.

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The Reaches of New York City (1939) Click to buy a reproduction.

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.

USGS Port Jervis Quadrangle (1906), USGS Goshen Quadrangle (1908) , USGS Schunemunk Quadrangle (1902)

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.”

2Q==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.

(Days Ten through Twelve) The Appalachian Trail

“I’ve always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail.”

CCCThat’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 AuthTVAority (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 39WorldsFairrecreational 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.”

WalkingSpringThe 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.