Beginnings…

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.

(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.

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, First Part: The Undammed Delaware

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.

The Route, Second Part

The Route, Third Part

The Road to New Hampshire Started Next Door

STRNATWhen 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 Northeast because 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.

(Day One) Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania

 

In Bryn Athyn stancathedral_randy-300x150ds the astonishing Swedenborgian Cathedral. Herbert Welsh (whose feet in ancient time–1915–I will be following on my walk to New Hampshire) felt himself “deeply moved by the ancient spirit of Gothic architecture springing into life, freely, unexpectedly in the countryside near Philadelphia, the very existence of which is almost unknown even to the most cultured portions of our people.”

The cathedral, the Swedenborgians, and the town of Bryn Athyn, remain surprisingly hidden even now. When Welsh walked through, the General Church of the New Jerusalem was only 25 years old, and its cathedral was uncompleted. It’s an worth a visit.

Today Bryn Athyn is a town where, according to a recent piece in the real estate pages of The Inquirer: “More than 90 percent of its residents are members of the General Church of the New Jerusalem – or the New Church – as were their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Their town was founded in the 19th century as an enclave for followers to live among people who shared their Christian values.”

Himself a spiritual if not a religious man, Welsh was on the way to his summer home in Sunapee, and stopped here for lunch on the first day of his long walk. I hope to spend the night.