Sometimes get into the car and just drive roads unfamiliar or simply unremembered perhaps from childhood past fading farms with ruinous silos collapsing into goldenrod profusions empty of monarchs what only last year or the year before were pastures for cow painters or fields of knee-high by the Fourth of July signs everywhere along the road this one says “1968 National Highway Beauty Award” hard to see that obscured by encroaching trees as is an old cemetery tucked in among thickening shade of ash and maple close by leafy-laned driveways to second homes of successful artists from the city before all opens out unexpectedly into expansive playing fields rising up from which a new regional high school at first mistaken for correctional institution after that hand-painted banner in front of a ramshackle farmhouse with yard cars the message “Make America Grate Again” till abrupt arrival at a sagging redbrick river town “Awaiting Restoration” according to notices in the vacant storefront windows nowhere around here to get a cup of coffee nowhere to go no more history so stroll along a weedy path to river’s edge where green signs mark “NYS Permitted Discharge Point” and in the park right next to that the annual “Blessing of the Animals” going on today pit bulls and kittens goldfish in a bowl one roly-poly child with teddy bear seeking priest blessings bestowed and thoughts of heading home but which way to go how about another unfamiliar this or that road past mothballed generating station until utterly turned around maybe get on the Thruway and pull into a rest stop we all know the way home from there.
Thirty years ago, my friend Charlie and I got lost while backpacking in the northeast corner of Yosemite National Park. It was all my fault but that’s a long story, almost as long as the “shortcut” I suggested we take that got us lost in the first place. We were committed and there was no going back. Anyhoo, at one point I turn to Charlie and say: “You know, this is someplace we’re never gonna be in again.” And he says: “Or anybody else either.”
Sometimes we sit in this place, just stare out the window at mountains and forests and parking lots. This is Alaska and that’s what happens here. Elsewhere it’s another story. And another. And yet another. A less pleasant story, one that’s on its way. It draws closer and closer. It will be here soon. What ever shall we do?
Look! There. See! Our reflection in the window.
The new parking lot in Alaska is already becoming sketchy. The yellow lines laid down just last year are fading. You can barely read them anymore. Soon they’ll be gone altogether, erased by sun. Drivers then will be forced to fill in the blanks. They will park as best as they can, as best as they can remember where the lines once were, where the lines ought to be, as they are or ought to be in all the other lots within the horizon of their experience: supermarkets and mega-churches, stadiums and mortuaries. That would be the best case scenario.
It could go otherwise. It probably will. Without the lines to guide them, people will park wherever there’s an opening or an opening can be made. In short order, chaos will ensue. The pavement will fill up with vehicles parked any which way, just as a blank page is heaped with somebody’s ill-begotten words. Things will spill out onto the margins, even beyond. The whole scene will come to look like a junkyard.
My informant for this story is my wife. I was gone for the day hiking.
Catherine took the collies for their morning walk. The big collie—still licking the wounds inflicted to his self-esteem by yesterday’s mishap at the haunted well—decided he needed some alone time. So off he darted once again through the woods to the Stinky Pond. Nothing like a good mud spa to salve a collie’s injured pride. He was gone a good half hour or more. Meanwhile Catherine and the little collie continued on their peaceful stroll through the woods. Eventually they started heading home and still no sign of the big collie.
Just for a change of scenery, they decided to take a lesser-used path that runs along the side of the hill, among the broken ledges and immense dying hemlocks. Some of the biggest trees on Paradise Hill are found here. Also some of the biggest bears, who leave some of the biggest scats you’ll ever find in the woods. And if you can’t find one yourself, don’t worry, the little collie will. And wouldn’t you know it, this morning she did. A nice big, fresh, steaming pile of hell candy! Upon which the little collie promptly plopped down and started to roll. What fun! The only thing better than this would be to tangle with the bear itself.
Oh wait! This was the little collie’s lucky day! That poor bear was right over there, not more than a couple hundred feet away, fresh from its innocent crap. And the little collie was off! She charged right at the bear—barking barking barking! For its part, the bear started with a menacing look, then gave a growl, then started charging right back. The little collie—no dummy— immediately turned tail and started blazing back toward Catherine, who surely could fix this little problem.
This story might not be ending well were it not for the big collie. Out of nowhere—or more likely, the Stinky Pond—he burst from the hemlock shadows—charging, growling, barking—and heading straight for the oncoming bear! Now it was the bear’s turn to turn tail and flee. The big collie was right after it—barking barking barking. The chase concluded when the bear wisely scooted up a tree. The big collie stopped, looked up, and reckoned his job was done.
He turned around and trotted back—smiling triumphant—to Catherine and the little collie, who were awaiting the return of their stinky hero.
For the last six weeks I’ve been “weeding the woods.” That’s what my neighbor George calls my crusade against garlic mustard. Also known as Alliaria petiolata, garlic mustard is labeled by environmental authorities as an “invasive species.” Not that there’s anything wrong with invasive species—I’m one myself, maybe you are too—but garlic mustard is an exceptionally ill-behaved newcomer. It respects no bounds.
The Cooperative Extension website reports that “garlic mustard has spread throughout much of the United States over the past 150 years, becoming one of the worst invaders of forests in the American Northeast and Midwest.” It’s spread primarily by the traffic of human beings and their livestock. Left unchecked, garlic mustard will infest a forest faster than cheap housing tracts do prime ag land.
So every spring I’m out there in the woods—pulling, yanking, raking over garlic mustard wherever I spot it on our thirty acres. A fruitless task, I know, but if nothing else it allows me to say, without exaggeration, that I know every square inch of this land of ours. It’s relaxing to be outside in the fresh air on Paradise Hill, wandering up and down the steep wooded slopes, with a rake over my shoulder and a couple of collies bounding along by my side.
“You’re not going to eradicate it,” a weed expert recently admonished me. “The best you can hope for is to teach it to behave.” That’s funny. Sister Mary Dorothy used to say the same thing about me.
A chilly spring in the Catskill Mountains. Leaves on the trees reluctant to emerge. Few birds sing. A couple of collies lying on the back deck under a sluggish sun. The two-year-old says: “I miss summer.” The five-month-old says: “What’s summer?”
Each day at lunchtime, the collies and I are out walking through the woods on the warm and sunny side of our hill. Each day we hear the fire siren going off in East Jewett, signaling the arrival of noon. Precisely a minute later, we hear the siren in Hensonville going off, signaling noon’s arrival there. It would seem that noon takes a full minute to travel from the one fire house to the other, a distance of seven miles. The collies and I are situated right in the middle of it all. Thus in the silence between the sirens, our noon arrives.
In the Land of Rip Van Winkle, you spot the sign. Your journey ends here, alone. Check in at the Sleepy Dutchman Motel. Enter your room. Drop your bag beside the bed. A century of cigarette smoke slumbers in the drapes. Breathe deep the years. There is no TV, no telephone, no cell service. Take a look in the mirror. Oh how tired! Lie down. Close your eyes. One dream draws to a close, another resumes. Which one is this?
Late last fall, David Rothenberg and I spent a day on Mount Greylock. It’s the highest peak in Massachusetts and has many literary associations. For instance, Henry Thoreau climbed it in 1844 and wrote up an account. He ascended the nearly 3,500 foot mountain—in those days called “Saddle-back”—via a long valley called “the Bellows”. He described his route as “a road for the pilgrim to enter upon who would climb to the gates of heaven.” David and I—neither of us a pilgrim—drove our cars up the auto road. We arranged to rendezvous at 8:00 a.m. in the big parking lot just below the summit.
I arrived first and had the place to myself. No other cars were in the lot. A dusting of snow had fallen overnight and prettied things up. The clouds, though, were still thick and swirling, the wind bitter, so I made straight for the historic summit lodge. As it turned out, this was the last day of operation for the season. They were preparing to shut the place down for winter. The only item still being served in the restaurant was coffee—very expensive, very bad coffee. I bought a cup and took it with me back out to the parking lot to wait for David. The coffee turned out to be tepid, so without thinking I poured it out on the parking lot macadam. I immediately felt like a litterbug. Before I got too deep into gratuitous environmental guilt, David arrived.
Neither of us brought along a map or knew where we were going, but we figured we could ask somebody along the way for directions. Neither of us had any food, but that too, we reckoned, could be bummed along the way. We cast one last look back toward the big empty parking lot, still mostly obscured by swirling clouds, and plunged down a path that turned out to be the Appalachian Trail. We were heading north. At this elevation the trees—maples, birches, and spruce—were all stunted. Soon enough the clouds parted and we had an expansive vista toward the valley below. It was like standing in the middle of a Hudson River School painting. In the distance we could see the converted factory buildings that now house the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The clouds closed back upon us and we continued our descent.
At some point we took a wrong turn and lost the Appalachian Trail and wound up on some other trail that had no name. Not that we had any idea where the Appalachian Trail would have led us, other than toward Mount Katahdin way off in Maine, but at least that path had a name.
As we continued on our journey, we lost a lot of elevation. We were in tall forest now. The bare, wet trees took on a sinister quality. At any moment the ghost of Virgil might appear, but instead we came upon a substantial man sitting eating his lunch on a boulder next to the path. I can’t remember now what all he was wearing, except for the penny loafers. I had never before seen anybody wearing penny loafers on a trail. A conversation ensued between the man on the boulder and us. It went like this.
Us: Does this path go anywhere?
Him: I think so.
Us: Have you been there?
Us: Is it far?
Him: Not that far.
Us: What’s to see when you get there?
Him: Difficult to say.
Us: Well, thanks for the info!
He offered us no food and we were too embarrassed to ask for any. So we continued down the path and arrived at the place described by the man—either that or someplace just like it. We enjoyed our visit and retraced our route back up the mountain without further incident.
By the time we arrived at the parking lot, the clouds had departed and the snow had melted. The parking lot was full of shining cars and crowded with happy people out for a Sunday afternoon jaunt. As we emerged from the trail onto the parking lot, a black Jaguar pulled up close by. Three freshly-dressed holiday-makers—a man and two women—climbed out. They looked like they were looking for something pleasant to do, perhaps take a walk somewhere. They turned to us for direction.