The Question Concerning Technology

I bought a new phone the other day. Herbert Welsh, walking from Philadelphia to New Hampshire a hundred years ago, would have called my old phone a wonder.  But my LG Optimus S was aged and overloaded, and could do nothing but make phone calls, send and receive texts, and show me exactly where I was, anytime, anywhere, on a map.

That’s all. Back in 1915, that would have seemed a miracle.  One hot afternoon in 1915, out of cash in Middletown, New York, stranded in the “financial desert” along the road from Port Jervis to Newburg, Welsh was saved when a local merchant advised him:

“I’ll tell you what you do; ‘phone your bank in Philadelphia to wire you that money and you’ll have it within an hour” A bright and happy thought, surely, and how stupid I was not to have found that out myself. It worked like a charm, and here’s where having an expert telephonist like Dorothy Whipple came in handy. In a moment she was conversing easily with [the Philadelphia banker]…and my mind was in a moment set completely at rest. I blessed the long-distance telephone which could do such wonders.

Dorothy, like the millennial in your office, who not only knows what Meerkat does but knows what to do with it, could take full advantage of one of youth’s blessings: easy familiarity with technology.

We who are old have to figure out for ourselves, “What kind of technology do we want use?”

My walk will be not one of those stunts where you try to live like it’s 1900.  In something as fundamental as my shoes, I will be taking full advantage of Goretex, Otholite and Vibram. And I can’t imagine how I could present myself fit for dinner–after a 20-mile walk–in anything other than light-weight quick-dry nylon clothing.

But in the related technologies of communications and navigation I will be choosing restraint. Herbert Welsh relied on printed maps to find his way, and the US Mail to keep in touch–he wrote postcards to friends and letters for publication to the Philadelphia Public Ledger.

Walking in May 2015, I am choosing to bring a series of pages torn from old DeLorme Atlases, back issues of National Geographic, and my collection of USGS 7.5′ quadrangles. My antiquarian fondness for printed maps may seem quaint, but it is not unconsidered. I have earned, after all, an academic degree in geographic information systems.

172px-HeliocentricTo find my place on a map is a skill. Here is the world, where am I in it? My GPS, which can instantly create a map with me at its center, starts with me and creates a world around me. But as Copernicus’s mom, and mine, used to say, “The world doesn’t revolve around you, you know.”

I also am choosing not to blog my walk. Writing these anticipatory pages the last few months has made it clear to me that I would spend way too much mental and emotional energy in such an endeavor.  But I will take a photograph or two every day, attach them to a GPS map and post them on Instagram, so  that anyone who’s curious can follow me–and maybe even find me if I’m passing through your neighborhood.

At the heart of my walk, a conflict between solitude and sociability confronts me. I plan to spend eight hours a day alone and afoot. But I also plan to eat and sleep almost every night with people: with strangers from Couchsurfing, with friends new and old, with relatives I haven’t seen in decades–that’s a lot more companionship than I’m accustomed to.

My daughter (who used to laugh at my intellectually challenged “smart”phone) texted me (of course!) a warning when I got my promising and powerful  Moto X: “Don’t get too download happy–you probably feel like you have more space than you know what to with!”

I replied that I wasn’t filling that space fast, because “I kind of enjoy having so much empty memory.” A phrase which, as I texted it, seemed not to make much sense, but which has grown on me. Empty memory is something worth cultivating, at almost sixty years old, and a good response to the question concerning technology, too.

 

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

Screen shot 2015-02-10 at 5.13.27 PM
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.

NGC_Apr_1939_c
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.

Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946)

19110226-3-weHerbert 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.

Grey Towers Milford, PAPinchot’s home, Grey Towers, is today a National Historical Site. I plan to stop,and contemplate what conservation means a hundred years on.

(Day Nine) Milford, Pennsylvania

imagesAnd 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?

The Delaware Water Gap,  George Inness
The Delaware Water Gap, George Inness

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.