I am leaving this morning on my long walk home, from Philadelphia to New Hampshire.
Daily blogging is not a chore I choose, but I will post a couple of photos daily, on Instagram, which will also appear here, and on facebook. They are geotagged, if you’re concerned with my whereabouts. Or want to look for me on the road.
A cryptic clue in Saturday’s puzzle in theFinancial 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.
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.
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.”
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.
“I’ve always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail.”
That’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 Authority (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 recreational 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.”
The 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.
When 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 monastery. 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.
Hebert 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.
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.
As I walk, I will make my way eastward–against the all-American admonition to “Go West–” and upstream–against the flow of the Delaware, Hudson, Housatonic, Connecticut, and Merrimack Rivers. And also against the flow of my life, which has always been to leave the tragedy, as well as the pastoral romance, of my childhood in New Hampshire and New York State behind.
The long walk home is something like a fractured mirror of the course of my life: my mother’s family origins in the Massachusetts highlands, my earliest memories in New York’s Hudson Valley; my schoolboy years in the hills and forests of New Hampshire, college and work in Amherst, Massachusetts; my present life along the Delaware.
I will walk out my front door in prosperous Center City Philadelphia and through the wildest place I will encounter all the way to New Hampshire: the city streets of Germantown, the old suburb where Welsh lived. Now a wasteland, only a few blocks from Welsh’s home or mine, North Philadelphia is largely abandoned today. These urban badlands are as desolate in 2015 as the clearcut New Hampshire mountains or the poisoned Pennsylvania coalfields were in 1915.
Leaving the city, I will follow Welsh’s trail step by step, by canal towpath and rural boards, up the Delaware River to New York State.
When I started spending time in the splendid Pennsylvania forests a couple of years ago, the aptly-named Endless Mountains raised some curious questions. Having grown up working and playing in the New Hampshire woods, I had some idea how the White Mountain National Forest had been in fact saved from industrial despoliation only in the early 20th century. What had happened in Pennsylvania?
I picked up a copy of Nature Next Door: Cities and Trees in the American Northeastbecause author Ellen Stroud, an environmental historian at Bryn Mawr College, promised to explain. And she used New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and Pennsylvania as case histories of forest restoration and preservation–places where I had often hiked and camped.
It’s an excellent historical analysis. You could sum it up on Twitter–“20th-century city people created the northeastern forest wilderness”–but it’s much richer that sounds. Stroud provides both intriguing details and fascinating theories. She introduces some great characters, too.
Herbert Welsh (1851-1941) is truly a character. He strides into the narrative on the first page of Nature Next Door, because Stroud knows it’s a good story. A sixty-year-old wealthy Philadelphian who starts walking to Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, every summer in 1915. Stroud writes that in travelling on foot Welsh “experienced the region as a single connected place.” The urban and the rural, the wild and the domestic, the used and the abused: Stroud sees it all connected.
The connection between the city and country inspired me, a year later, to retrace Welsh’s steps and perhaps to reconnect the city where I now live with the land where I grew up. This is the book that inspired the walk.