(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.

To a Mountain in Tibet

The illusion that speed saves time is shattered, in the end, by death. When someone near me dies, I’m reminded that none of us has world enough, or time.

9780061768279When 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 monasteimgres-1ry.  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.

 

 

A Philosophy of Walking

Philosophy_of_Walking_300_CMYK-8cee85e10187dd95025726a613451c53

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.

 

The New Gentleman of the Road

NewGentlemanHebert Welsh wrote many books, advocating fairness for Native Americans, civic reform in Philadelphia, and condemning the shameful use of torture by the American military in the Spanish-American War. The one that I’m following is The New Gentleman of the Road.  Published in 1921, it was first written as a turn-of-the-century proto-blog, in a series of “letters” to the Philadelphia papers.

SixthLetterDetail

Here is the sixth letter from his 1921 journey. Note that it’s the record of day in May, not  published until October. Timeliness isn’t what it used to be.

Welsh’s prose style is of its time, too: Our hero has stopped at the Joan of Arc Hotel in the Delaware Water Gap.

A French lady welcomed us with a friendly charm that was in itself a benediction. This became more pronounced when I ventured to address her in her own tongue with an inquiry as to whether something to eat could be had promptly and whether a bottle of beer of the prohibition variety, strictly legal, and devoid of alcohol, might also be expected.

On earlier walks, Welsh could enjoy a full-strength glass. But in May 1920, despite Mademoiselle’s  assurances:

I made several further inquiries about the beer, to each of which our hostess replied with a diminished smile and a tone of lessening confidence.  Its sparkle and foam never appeared. I feel quite sure now that they never had any existence.

The synecdoche of  that “sparkle and foam” is rather lovely, if a little fusty. A reader of The New Gentleman of the Road will come across countless such classical figures of speech, but not much introspection. He doesn’t, for instance, ever ask or answer the obvious question: Why walk? But I will venture to address that mystery on my way.

 

 

Walking the Woods and Water

Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) wrote three volumes that chronicled his 1933 walk across the spine of Europe to Istanbul: Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and the Water (1986), and the posthumous The Broken Road (2013). I have read the first two, and when I have read the third– in my literary preparation for my walk–I will write about the lot.

Inspired by9781857889536 “Paddy” Fermor, much as I have been by Herbert Welsh, young British journalist Nick Hunt walked the same route from Holland, up the Rhein River, across the Alps, and down the Donau to the Black Sea and Istanbul in 2011. Hunt walked and wrote Walking the Woods and the Water (2014) to see what had been lost since 1933, and what remained.

An astonishing change in Europe in those 78 years is that post-WWII Communism came, and then went.  Hunt sees that the rise and fall of the “Iron Curtain” was, in fact, a brief intermission, hardly an act or even a scene, in the drama of European history. The eastern legs of his journey are the most fascinating, witnessing the survival of folkways that were ancient on Paddy’s day, the ruins of “socialist utopias,” and return of Ottoman Islam to Europe.

Like many who walk long distances (I have experienced this as well as studied it), Hunt sometimes wanders into  a realm of hallucination, where he wonders if he’s entered real danger or just, for once, a real life.

Perhaps all adventures are like this: flirting with the wilderness but knowing that we can’t truly enter it, wanting to lose ourselves in imaginary realms like we once did in childhood stories, in the part-remembered,part-confabulated landscapes of Paddy’s books, but being afraid to go too far in , so far we might not comeback. 

Walking the Woods and the Water  is a wonderful read, a model of both a walking book and a walking-in-another’s-footsteps book

In answer to the question, “Why walk?,” Hunt cites Fermor, whose simple three-part goal should inspire all who walk and write:

“A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!”