Walking to Vermont

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.

cvr9781416540120_9781416540120_hrEllen 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.

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.

 

 

The Route, Third Part: Up the Connecticut

Leaving the AT’s long green path, I will return to the public roads and walk up the Housatonic and Connecticut Rivers. This is the land of my ancestors. Elizabeth Wheeler, my grandmother, was born in 1900 into a fine old New England family, and married into another ancient American lineage, the Putnams. The Wheelers and Putnams have been in Rutland, Mass., since the seventeenth century. Their names mark the landscape. I will walk through Putnam County, New York. A monument to the Wheeler family stands before the Wheeler Homestead, on Wheeler Road, in Rutland.

I will walk in the “accidental wilderness” behind the Quabbin Dam, built in 1930, not long after Welsh’s walks. The city of Boston removed several small towns to  build a massive dam and drinking water reservoir here. Under the Quabbin Reservoir lie abandoned towns. When I reach “home” in southern New Hampshire, I will walk through East Weare, a “ghost town” that fascinated me as a child, because its residents had been removed for the raising of a flood control dam.

I will walk to Lake Sunapee. Just this fall, the name of Herbert Welsh was used in an advertising campaign from the commercial ski area on Mount Sunapee. The landowners believe they are developing the land in the spirit of Welsh. After they published a photograph in an advertisement, his heirs complained that his legacy was being misrepresented.

I can see the logic of the heirs, but also of the capitalists. The story of Herbert Welsh, like the story of the American environment, is complex. Men like Welsh were both protectors and predators, who sometimes saved a wilderness by controlling access to it. Local lumberjacks in the timber industry, wealthy flatlanders who can afford to buy ski lift tickets, second home owners: all have property rights. Even an indigent and intelligent young person, like me, coming of age in that wilderness, might come to imagine he enjoys a legitimate claim on the land.

I will reach home. I don’t know what to expect here.  When I was a child, I never ran away from home, but I often walked in that direction. I “wandered off,” as my mother came to phrase it–as young as five years old, the police found me in the next town and escorted me home. As violent as life was,  the chaos at home didn’t provoke an angry reaction, just a deep Wanderlust.

But often, especially in the late afternoon in autumn, when I had wandered away after school, I found myself miles from home, and wondering: “Will I get home before dark?” Fifty years later, I recall that foreboding moment as the sun set early behind the western hills, and I was alone and afraid. Sometimes today, when I feel that I have reached the late afternoon and the Indian Summer of my life, I wonder again: “Can I make it home?”

The Route, First Part

The Route, Second Part