(Days Thirteen through Fifteen) The Hudson River Valley

I have legal documents to prove I was born in the village of Websterin 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…

Fine NGS Interactive Map of the Hudson River Valley
Fine NGS Interactive Map of the Hudson River Valley

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.

Erickson's Ice Cream Parlor and Marina
Erickson’s Ice Cream Parlor and Marina

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.

W300px-Bear_Mtn_Bridge_crope 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.

 

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.

 

 

The Route, Second Part: The Haunted Hudson

When I start out, I will be following Herbert Welsh’s footsteps pretty carefully, traveling the public roads. But I will walk a few miles across New York, New Jersey and Connecticut on the famous Appalachian Trail.  This woods trail was only a gleam in Benton MacKaye’s eye in 1915: he didn’t propose “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” until 1921. MacKaye’s essay reveals the frankly socialist ambitions of the Trail.  I would like to recover some of the spirit of that original Appalachian Trail, “something neither urban nor rural,”  as its founder imagined it, not “ a return to the plights of our Paleolithic ancestors,” but “the strength of progress without its puniness.”

I want to explore this wilder route, which was being marked through the mountains in the very years that Welsh’s was walking a parallel way. Its founders imagined a “reconstituted wilderness,” but I will not be taking a wilderness trek. The geography of the Jersey Highlands, the Catskills, the Croton Reservoir–and throughout my walk–echoes the twinned themes of protection and predation. It is an uncanny landscape.

As I cross the Hudson River into New York State, I will be wandering the haunts of Sleepy Hollow, that strange, foreboding  land where Washington Irving perfected the American ghost story. It is also where many quaint and curious events befell my family, when my parents started their family here.

The Route, First Part

The Route, Third Part

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