Indians (II) : Walking the Trail

There is at least one American path, heading from East to West, leading neither into the possibility of the future, nor the morning of the world and of humanity. In the 1830s, we the people of the United States removed tens of thousands of Native Americans from their homes in the southeast and sent them marching west to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Thousands died, along what is now known as the Trail of Tears.

Jerry Ellis, a Alabaman writer of Cherokee heritage, walked back to Alabama from Oklahoma and wrote Walking the TrialWalkingTheTrail in 1991.  It’s a exemplary walking book, mixing memoir and desire, the political and the personal, historical epic and sore feet. Ellis rambles some, but he stays on his path. He meets a representative sample of Americans on the way, some who know more about the trials and tribulations of his ancestors than Ellis; some who live next to the Trail and have never heard of it.

A fascinating digression: Ellis falls in love. Looking for a place to sleep, he wanders, with trepidation, into a Christian hippie commune in Missouri. “Zion’s Order” is one of those pure products of America that thrive under wide horizons and religious freedom. Venda is a young woman who was born and raised within the compound.

Jerry meets Venda, and they fall in love, in a stumbling unconsummated romance–a story too real for fiction. Like Ellis’s writing and walking, his love affair somehow melds deep meaning and random events.  Its sudden starts, twists and stops seem less literary than literal: I believed in this strange assignation, because it seemed absurd.

Following this walk and such stories, I found myself humming the songs of The Old, Weird America, that invisible republic that Greil Marcus and Harry Smith repopulated, largely with the ghosts of black folk and criminals. But there are also Native spirits in the air–after all, Smith, “As a schoolboy, swirling in the irregular orbits of his parents’ religion, their fantasies, their poverty and delusions of grandeur, … discovered the local Indian tribes.”

That was years before Smith ever walked the Mississippi Delta, listening for America. Jerry Ellis meets some strange folks, as he crosses Arkansas, Missouri, the odd corner of Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee, making his way home. He hears strange tales–not the least strange, as he tells more of it: the forgotten concentration camps, ethnic cleansing and genocide of his native land. The tales of my land include incest and insanity; but nothing is too weird for America.

I’ll be scouting for evidence of Native America as I walk in May. Not just because  Hebert Welsh, whose footsteps I’m walking in, was an Indian rights advocate. But because it’s “as if the earth under our feet / were / an excrement of some sky” in the words of William Carlos Williams, and it is a Native Sky.

(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.

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.

(Days Six through Eight) The Delaware Water Gap

USGSDelawareWaterGap1924Detail
Detail of the USGS 24,000 Series Topographic Map, Bushkill (1924)

The Delaware is indeed wild–no dams, a long tidal reach, and reckless eddies. The stretch of the river from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania northeast to Port Jervis, New York, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, has been designated part of the  “National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.”

The Delaware is the longest un-dammed river in the eastern United States, and it’s pretty wild even as far downstream as Philadelphia–spring freshet washes out roads and homes in the New Hope area every year. After devastating hurricanes in 1955, the US Army Corps of Engineers proposed to build a dam at Tock’s Island. (Mislabeled as “Cock’s Island” in the center of this topographic map from Herbert Welsh’s day.)

Talk of the Tocks Island Dam went on for twenty years, in 1975 the plans were finally filed away and abandoned. “Though it had promised drought abeyance, flood mitigation, power generation, and lake-based recreation, in the end, the project was deemed too costly.”

It’s thought of as an early victory for the environmentalists, but note that the official story blames its high cost.  We do not, for the most part, protect our wild rivers because they are scenic.  They remain wild as long as they can’t be monetized.

Walking here in 1915, Herbert Welsh “traveled a broad, good automobile road, but not many machines passed going north or south.” The scenic charm of the Delaware Water Gap escaped him somehow. I will be traveling the full thirty miles of the Joseph MacDade Recreational Trail, where I will be paying attention to wildness that is the preservation–if only preservation by neglect–of the world.

 

(Day One) Bryn Athyn

(Days Two through Five) The Delaware Canal 

Walking the Woods and Water

Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) wrote three volumes that chronicled his 1933 walk across the spine of Europe to Istanbul: Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and the Water (1986), and the posthumous The Broken Road (2013). I have read the first two, and when I have read the third– in my literary preparation for my walk–I will write about the lot.

Inspired by9781857889536 “Paddy” Fermor, much as I have been by Herbert Welsh, young British journalist Nick Hunt walked the same route from Holland, up the Rhein River, across the Alps, and down the Donau to the Black Sea and Istanbul in 2011. Hunt walked and wrote Walking the Woods and the Water (2014) to see what had been lost since 1933, and what remained.

An astonishing change in Europe in those 78 years is that post-WWII Communism came, and then went.  Hunt sees that the rise and fall of the “Iron Curtain” was, in fact, a brief intermission, hardly an act or even a scene, in the drama of European history. The eastern legs of his journey are the most fascinating, witnessing the survival of folkways that were ancient on Paddy’s day, the ruins of “socialist utopias,” and return of Ottoman Islam to Europe.

Like many who walk long distances (I have experienced this as well as studied it), Hunt sometimes wanders into  a realm of hallucination, where he wonders if he’s entered real danger or just, for once, a real life.

Perhaps all adventures are like this: flirting with the wilderness but knowing that we can’t truly enter it, wanting to lose ourselves in imaginary realms like we once did in childhood stories, in the part-remembered,part-confabulated landscapes of Paddy’s books, but being afraid to go too far in , so far we might not comeback. 

Walking the Woods and the Water  is a wonderful read, a model of both a walking book and a walking-in-another’s-footsteps book

In answer to the question, “Why walk?,” Hunt cites Fermor, whose simple three-part goal should inspire all who walk and write:

“A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!”

 

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 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.