The Grand Teton with Heidegger and Hegel

When is a climb dependent on a priori reasoning? When you carry a backpack full of philosophy books and leave your warm shell at home.  By Cameron M. Burns

My first trip to the Grand Teton in May 1986 was a lesson in mountain preparedness.

Somehow we’d managed to score one of the American Alpine Club’s huts for a long weekend, and five of us zoomed up to Wyoming in two cars: the Bach brothers in their hot red MG, and Jeff O’Defey, Ethan Putterman, and I in Jeff’s sedan, a Sanford and Son–style Ford his dad had offered up, a vehicle with a ridiculous name like the Painful Yoga Position SL or some such (BTW: SL stands for “Short Legs” with all American-made sedans).

We unloaded into the bright and clean wooden cabin and immediately had a lively discussion about particulate matter and methane emissions—Ethan had had baked beans for breakfast.

The plan was to do an acclimatization hike the next day (a Saturday), then climb the regular route (an easy scramble) the following day. We fixed a gourmet-style dinner of Vienna sausages in hot dog rolls and corn chips and called it a night. In the morning, we loaded our packs and set off up the Garnet Canyon trail. After a couple of hours, we stopped for a break. Benny, Kirk, Jeff, and I pulled out water bottles and ate a snack.

Curiously, Ethan—whose 6-foot 4-inch frame earned him the nickname “The Big E” throughout our college careers—sat with his pack on his lap and took in no nutrients or moisture. We eyed him suspiciously.

After 20 minutes, we started up again, plodding methodically up the canyon, taking in the scenery and enjoying a new experience. Although we all lived in the ~5,000-foot high Pretend Left-wingers Ultra Conservative Republic (Boulder) at the time, we thought we needed to acclimatize.

We also wanted to travel across Wyoming to experience the kind of multi-culturalism that we couldn’t experience at home in Boulder—you know, black people, native Americans, Asians, etc. (As Benny, a denizen of Reno often points out, the gay cowboys building electric cars he’s met in Reno are way more Boulder than Boulder. Oops, sorry, Reno, for that slur.)

About two miles up the trail it started to rain and a cold wind blew in from the west. We were in minimalist clothing, but we had sweaters and rain jackets. We opened packs and pulled them out. The Big E just watched and shivered slightly.

“Ethan, aren’t you going to put something warmer on?” I asked.

“Uh, no,” he said.

“Why not?”


“Whatcha got in that pack then?” Jeff asked.

Jeff’s observation was spot on. Ethan looked at his overstuffed academically oriented and notably square backpack, gave us a weak smile, then unzipped the main compartment. He pulled out a book. It was Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. He pulled out another book: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract. Then Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right.

A floodgate, it seemed, had been opened.

Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. 

Phenomenology of Mind. 

Science of Logic.

Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men. 

The Principle of Reason. 

Identity and Difference. 

Discourse On Thinking. 

The Confessions. 

The German Constitution. 


A veritable library of philosophy books the rest of us had never heard of were pulled out and shared among Ethan’s small shivering audience.

“You don’t have a shell?” I asked.

“Um, no.”

Jeff and I looked in his pack, just to make sure. Besides additional philosophy books, there were some pens and a notebook. But certainly nothing that anyone in a Tetons snowstorm would consider useful unless you thought a bonfire built with classic intellectuals’ masterworks might keep you going.

We held a quick meeting.

It was June, and down on the plains it was already scorching hot. Up in the canyon, though, it was blizzarding.

images-1Jeff recently (e.g., nearly 30 years later) recalled via email: “So we sent him back to the cabin with instructions to put the beer in the river to get it cold. And at the end of the day, as we drove across the bridge and looked down, there was Ethan, reading on the bank, beer cans slowly floating away downstream….” (I’d forgotten about the kayaking beer cans. Thanks, Jeff.)

After another dinner choking down as many Vienna sausages as we could without raising bile, we played a nasty game where we threw the sausages as hard as we could at the window screens (I recommend everyone try this because it’s quite strange; huck a Vienna sausage as hard as you can at an insect screen and the sausage will—no kidding—go right through it. It might say a bit about the amount of fiber in Viennese cuisine).

We settled in for another night of the unexpected and delightful noises and smells and vibrations generated by five 20-year-old men while they slumber.

In the morning, Benny, Kirk, Jeff, and I left the Big E lying in bed with his very thoughtful, several-hundred-year-old male friends (“Wait, does The Social Contract really have a centerfold?”) and hoofed it up Garnet Canyon again.

We reached the Lower Saddle, where Benny, Kirk, and Jeff all got altitude sickness—or something along those lines. (Thoughts of sausages and insects, I suspect.)

I continued on by myself.


The standard route up the Grand is called the Owen-Spaulding. There’s a section on it called “The Belly Roll,” which is a straightforward traverse across a ledge with a bit of a drop to the Black Ice Couloir below. The Belly Roll, of course, was coated with ice, so I finger-jammed the inch-wide gap between the rock and the ice and shimmied across—and nearly lost my cookies.

Up on the summit I swore I wouldn’t downclimb that. Nope, I was going to wait for whoever was next up and beg a rappel from them.

Miraculously, a few minutes after I reached the “apex” of Wyoming (a curious term climbing-writers often use (like I just did) to prove their cleverness), there was a light clanking sound and two climbers, armed with enough gear to solo girdle traverse the Great Trango Tower and Everest simultaneously, panted their way to the top of the east ridge, where I was waiting for them.

We swapped loud yodels, as Wyoming climbers do, and agreed to swap my knowledge of the standard descent with use of their rope via a crack-cleaning Dulfer-Sitz.

We got down, shook hands, and I ran down the trail, thoughts of vulnerable sausages dancing through my head.

About 10 pm I met Benny and Jeff hiking up the trail to find me. They congratulated me and shepherded me down with their headlamps.

And, as is suggested in Monty Python and The Holy Grail, “there was much rejoicing.”

The funny thing about that trip is how much I learned about preparedness. Clearly, I wasn’t prepared for the weather, climbing conditions, and descent issues on the mountain, and the rest of the crew weren’t prepared for altitude sickness.

And, if Wikipedia is anything to go by, the Owen-Spaulding is, apparently, an aid route. I didn’t even know how to erect a portaledge at that tender age. (That’ll likely get changed 5 minutes after this article is posted.)

UnknownEthan, on the other hand, was ready all along. He had his books and his thoughts, and could’ve spent several years on the banks of Cottonwood Creek, reading and allowing dozens of cans of Mill-gag-me’s Beast to return to their natural habitat in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Next time I go into the mountains, I’m going prepared—with an armload of books.

Ethan says he has a few I can borrow.

Although he is now in therapy because the above story is completely true, Cam Burns enjoyed every moment of that long (and lost) weekend.

Land in the Sky: Historic Home


The Robert Frost House Museum in Vermont used to be a poet’s house. A sign at the gate says: “Open”. So I walk through the gate and head up to the house. Another sign says: “Come In.” I go in through a door. A lady with officious blue eyes is sitting behind the information desk. She is busy providing information to a young family—a couple with two little girls—about the dangers of ticks in the area. “Don’t even sit on the park benches around here,” she warns the innocents. “The ticks have learned that people like to sit on benches. So the ticks hide there and wait for you! And they will bite! It’s best that you don’t even go outside. Stay inside, where it’s safe.” One of the little girls looks like she’s about to cry. The parents exchange a look. The woman behind the information desk continues her homily concerning the great outdoors. I wait my turn. When she is done with the young family, they thank her and flee to their car. Now it’s my turn.

I step up to the desk. “Welcome to the historic home of Robert Frost,” she says without spirit. “How much to get in?” I ask. “Six dollars,” she says. I hand it over. She hands me a one-page museum guide and points to a door. Over the door hangs a sign that says: “Start Here”. So I do. I walk through the door into something called “The Robert Frost Room.” The walls are lined with display panels full of informative words and pictures. The only piece of furniture in the room is an old couch that once belonged to Robert Frost. A sign on the couch says not to sit on it. So I don’t.

Instead, I start reading the writing on the walls. It’s all about Robert Frost and his time in here in Vermont. It turns out that Robert Frost had several historic homes in New England. A couple of them were in New Hampshire and two in Vermont. The other historic Robert Frost home in Vermont is only a couple miles from this one. I wonder where, exactly. I enjoy visiting historic homes of writers and would like to see that one too. The pamphlet does not say. On the wall is an old picture of Robert Frost. He’s in his middle years. He’s sitting in a wooden chair in front of a big tree and he’s wearing suspenders. He looks like a poet caught between writing poems. The wall explains that this photo was taken right outside in the yard. It says: “You used to be able to look out that nearby window and see that very tree but it’s gone now.” I look out the window to see for myself. Nothing but a tangle of shrubbery. I move on to the next room.

This one is called “The Stopping by Woods Room”. The pamphlet tells why: “This is the historic spot where Frost wrote one of his most famous poems, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’” I take a solemn look around the room. The pamphlet continues: “The entire room is devoted to this poem—the story of how it was written, a facsimile of the handwritten manuscript, a controversial comma, a presentation of meter and rhyme, what the critics said about the poem, and what Frost said about it.” I learn that he wrote the poem at the dining room table on a hot June morning in 1922. That particular table is not here anymore. There is a facsimile of it, and it’s for sale. I can’t afford it. What would I write on it anyway? I skip the informational panels in this room. I already know everything I need to know about this famous poem by Robert Frost. I probably know too much. I wish I could leave it all here for somebody else.

I exit The Stopping by Woods Room through another door. I find myself back where I started. There’s the lady at the information desk. She’s working on a crossword puzzle and does not look up. I ask her where the other historic Robert Frost home around here is. She looks up from her crossword puzzle and shakes her head with gusto: “No! It’s private.” So I ask her if this historic Robert Frost home that we’re in right here right now is haunted. I always ask that of docents when I visit historic homes. She looks at me sternly and says, “No! Not that I’m aware of.” She goes back to her crossword puzzle. I don’t have any more questions.

I leave the historic home of Robert Frost by the same door I entered. Outside, lying against a stone wall, is some brand new signage, not yet installed on the grounds. I have to tilt my head to read it. It’s a health alert. Something to do with ticks.

Southwest Festival of the Written Word

Fayhee and Sojourner to Headline Written Word festival in New Mexico This Fall.

If you have been looking for a semi-literate excuse to visit New Mexico’s astounding Gila Country, here it is. Mountain Gazette alumni M. John Fayhee and Mary Sojourner will be presenters at the Southwest Festival of the Written Word at Western New Mexico University in Silver City this fall.
35081_1397627173412_2129881_nFayhee, author of, among many others, Smoke Signals, used to be MG’s
editor and was the man responsible for bringing the magazine back to life in the 1990s after it had long been out of print. He was also a contributing editor at Backpacker magazine for more than a decade. His presentation is titled “Outdoor Writing: Evolution, Ethics, Exposure and Extreme Exaggeration.” It will take place Friday, Oct. 3 from 3:30-4:40 p.m.
Mary-Sojourner-01-500pixSojourner, author of, among others, She Bets Her Life, will present a
seminar on editing 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. on Saturday Oct. 3. In addition, Phillip Connors, author of the award-winning Fire Season, will conduct a seminar on memoir writing on Saturday Oct. 3 from 3-4 p.m.


All aspects of the SFWW are free and open to the publicFayhee says he will be available for beer consumption throughout the weekend, especially if you’re buying. Bring your hiking boots, mountain bike, appropriate hot-springs attire,
camera and venture on down to southwest New Mexico, where the weather will
be almost guaranteed perfect.

Photo: Fayhee ponders deep literary topics in New Mexico’s Gila Country, home to the Southwest Festival of the Written Word. (Courtesy M. John Fayhee)

Maybe the Best Car Driving Road in the West is in Southern Washington

The RouteI have for so many years believed that the winding mountain roads in car commercials do not exist anywhere in the United States. Maybe they used to, but there are too many people now, too much traffic. The roads I drive in the West, mostly near popular climbing areas, are never without other cars. If you are a driver who likes to push the upper limits of your car’s handling abilities, barely making it around curves without skidding, tossing your passenger around and making them wish that they too had a steering wheel to hold onto, the roads I have driven will do nothing but piss you off during the daytime. Tourists in rental cars, motorcyclists, bicyclists, buses and cars and trucks carrying climbers and backpackers like me are everywhere. If you really want to open it up on the mountain roads I know, your bliss will be interrupted within three minutes, your freedom impeded by one of us going a little slower than as fast as our tires could handle.

But there is a road that exists, not only in the artificial creations of advertising agencies who sell us BMWs and Audis, but in the forests of southern Washington State.

If you have the occasion to drive between Mount Rainier National Park and a place called Indian Heaven in southern Washington, you will find it. National Forest Road 25 between Randle, Washington, and Swift Reservoir, Washington, just east of Mount St. Helens, is 45 miles of pure driving ecstasy, a goddamn rollercoaster of a road built by an engineer who was perhaps motivated by finding the most direct route possible for a road in these parts, but I like to think maybe more so to create something that would bring joy.

I don’t get excited about driving fast, for the most part. I’ve never souped up a car or drag raced anyone. I cautiously accelerate and brake slowly wherever I go. My car has 210,000 miles on it and has a 25-year-old engine. Right now, I live in it. But I found the joy in National Forest Road 25, driving north to south. I had a car-driving experience.

For almost an hour, I was 16 years old again, behind the wheel of my first car, in love with the freedom of moving myself at a speed faster than my mother would drive, smashing on the accelerator more excited than scared of what could happen, watching the speedometer needle shoot up 20, 30 miles per hour on the short straight-aways, punching it in the last half of curves and hoping I didn’t have to hit the brakes as I came out the other side. Everything slid around in the back of the car as I flew low around the bends in the road, 20 mph faster than advised on the yellow signs with the curved arrows on them. It was as if an invisible hand was pushing and steering my car faster down the road, skating on blacktop down a tunnel of green so thick you couldn’t see the sky through it.

I ripped it wide open, seeing only a handful of other vehicles on the road the entire time. I imagined a highway engineer, laying out the route on maps, watching the asphalt poured, anticipating what it would be like to drive, and then finally getting a chance, driving this same stretch of road just like I was, smiling and laughing out loud the whole way. It’s possible that he or she or they were just doing there job, that this was the only logical course for this route between two places, but it’s just too good to believe that’s the reason.

This is the king, two lanes of speed, gravity, centripetal and centrifugal forces, a water slide and a bullet train ride with your hands are on the wheel and your own lead foot is on the gas. No Estes Park or Yosemite Valley at either end to draw thousands of tourists, no scenic pull-offs to slow you down. Pure, American driving for the love of driving. And some guy in a piece-of-shit, 4-cylinder, 2.5-liter Subaru Outback with bad tires and a million dents in it, a guy who thought it was over, that there was no joy in driving anymore, who could be in a BMW Z4 for all he knows.


Land in the Sky: Red Wings

I need new boots for an upcoming trip to the mountains of Vermont. So I make the long drive to an outdoor gear store in a fancy shopping plaza. Wikipedia says it is the third oldest shopping plaza in the region. It opened in 1959, the year after I was born. One of the original tenants in the shopping plaza was Howard Johnson’s. Today there’s a Starbucks. I tell you all this because historic shopping fun facts are more interesting than the shoddy boots they have for sale at the outdoor gear store. But I do pick up a couple other items I need: freeze-dried mac & cheese and a small propane canister for my stove.

At the checkout, the friendly young clerk looks at my items and says: “Where you headed?” I tell her nowhere. This fazes her a bit but, still smiling, she asks: “What’s your phone number?” I hate how checkout clerks in corporate-owned stores are required to ask every customer for their phone number. I tell her I have no phone. The smile on her face goes away. Then she asks: “How about a rewards card number. What’s your rewards card number?” I tell her I don’t have one of those either. Now she is utterly bewildered. For a moment, she looks at me like I’m some sort of escaped felon. Then she puts on a spare smile to get through the rest of this transaction. It makes her mouth look like a doughnut. To help her feel better, I pay with a credit card.

I head home without the boots. I resign myself to the prospect of duct-taping the old ones and making do. I’ve done that before. But then, along a quiet back road, I spot a Western wear store with a sign saying “Red Wing Shoes.” In my younger and more adventuresome years in the West, Red Wings were my mountaineering boot of choice. My buddies, far superior mountaineers than I, made fun of my footwear, but those boots made me happy. They made me look, if not climb, like Norman Clyde. I don’t know why I ever stopped wearing them.

I pull into the parking lot of the Western wear store. The place looks like an unpainted old barn. Arranged in the storefront window are several plastic geese wearing hats made of plastic fruit. I have no idea what this means. Yet it heartens me and I walk into the store. Inside smells of fresh leather. I’m greeted by an older woman, older than me anyway.

“Whatcha want, hon?” She calls me hon. I tell her I want Red Wings. “Come with me, hon. They’re right over here. What’s your size?” I tell her. She goes into the back and comes out with a box. “Here ya go, hon. There’s some seats over there. Try ‘em on. Take your time.” I do. They’re perfect. I say I’ll take them. “That’s great, hon.” She doesn’t ask me where I’m going with my new Red Wings. She doesn’t ask for my phone number. And there’s no rewards program in this offbeat bootery, except she calls everybody “hon”.

On my way out the door, she says: “Those are some mighty fine work boots, hon. Now go do them proud.”

Mountain Passages: Rants and a Thunderstorm

We get grumpy when choices are made for us by government and corporations without any outside input—particularly our input. By Alan Stark

No one sought anyone’s approval on the following traffic scam, bulletproof packaging, and advertising arrogance. There was no notice of change or alternate choice. There were no hearings or discussion of options. The scams, packaging, and ads simply appeared in our lives without warning, very much like a wart growing on the end of our collective nose without notice.


Here in Boulder, and no doubt in other cities as well, the local government runs a traffic scam with cameras hidden in cars and on poles at intersections. The unsuspecting motorist, who is slightly exceeding the speed limit or misjudges the length of a yellow light, is greeted with a substantial flash signaling she will be receiving a ticket in the mail from the city of Boulder. The ticket includes a lovely picture of the perp’s face and license plate plus a ticket for a tidy sum.

This is a scam for any number of reasons, starting with the fact that a citation for a traffic violation should come from a certified law officer, not a city government clerk. These cameras take work away from our constables. But what is particularly unfair about these cameras in vehicles is that they are located in spots where there is a ridiculously low speed limit or there is a transition from an in-town speed limit to a county speed limit. In the case of the high volume intersections, the yellow light, which used to stay on for enough time to get through the intersection is now on for a very short period. It is simply not possible to get through the intersection on the yellow anymore.

We need to tell city governments that we are not to be preyed upon as supplemental revenue source–our sales and property taxes are enough.

A thunderstorm is rolling up from the south and pelting the Flatirons to the west of Boulder with sheets of rain. The wind roars over our house. The trees branches in front of the storm fly about spastically as if controlled by a huge collective force. The power of it all is magnificent to watch. The storm makes me smile.

When we travel separately or together my best friend and I often buy each other bells, particularly small temple bells that we hang from the trees in the yard. Each of the bells has a string attached to clapper to which I have added a piece of basswood that flits around in the wind. The temple bells tinkle in the blasts of wind from the thunderstorm. It is a tiny, yet profound sound, against the roar of the wind. 


Who thought of the idea of encasing thousand of products in ballistics-proof plastic that requires a utility knife or kitchen shears to open? And why is it that the plastic sheeting is usually four of five times as large as the product? Is this to command shelf space or so we won’t stuff the product in a pocket and shoplift it?

Who voted on sealed plastic containers that don’t allow us to actually handle the product before buying it, or is that the idea behind the plastic entombment of products? And is there a nationwide insurance policy to cover those of us who have stabbed ourselves trying to get these packages open?

So plenty of things in life are frustrating and nonsensical–we adjust. But we also have a stewardship issue with this plastic. It goes directly to the dump, it’s not on the recycle list on the lid of our recycling bins. Who knows the half-life of this plastic in the dump?

Why would we buy a product packaged so we can’t steal it, packaging that doesn’t allow us to inspect the product, and goes directly to the landfill once we’ve pried it open? Let’s not—let’s stop buying stuff that we can’t handle before we buy it.

IMG_7950The winds drop off for a moment as the sky darkens. There is this pause before the storm as if this force is taking a deep breath before blowing through the flatlands and on out to Nebraska where thunderstorms go to die for lack of interest.

I stand in the maw of the garage watching the storm and thinking of my Dad. He was a meteorologist who had a chair in his garage where he would sit and watch storms. I move to get my chair. He now watches the storms from his chair in assisted living, but he still watches and marvels at the power of it all. I marvel at him.

I move my chair to the drip line from the garage roof. The leading drops of rain create huge splats on the driveway. Once, on a motorcycle north of Fairplay, I watched one of these drops from way above me arc into the faceplate on my helmet and totally obliterate my vision for several moments. Now, I can feel the mist rebounding from the drops on my bare feet. 


RedbandAt what point did any of us decide to have three or four long advertisements blasted at us at the local theater before the trailers or the movie?

No question, advertising people (a questionable use of the term) will do anything to get their product in front of the public. For years, advertisers have paid movie makers substantial fees to have their product used as props in movies. “Product placement” is bad enough, but inflicting ads on us in the theater is outrageous. We, in fact, have paid money to a theater to see advertisements. A dream come true for advertisers, people paying to see their work (yet again, another questionable use of another term).

We aren’t going to stop going to the movies, but we can stop buying products advertised in movies. We could, for example, drink rum and generic cola from here on out.

IMG_7907And now the thunderstorm gets serious with pounding rain that hits so hard on the pavement that it appears to be going up. If these sorts of storms are stationary or at least moving slowly, they create flash floods here in the High Country. Flash floods have been known to destroy stupid structures built by man. 

Alan Stark is a free-lance writer who lives in Boulder and Breckenridge with this blue-eyed person and her dog.

Photos by Doug Schnitzspahn

Land in the Sky: Following Directions

A fine summer morning in Upstate New York. I load the collie into the car. The two of us head off from our place in the Catskills to find the home of Robert M. Coates (1897-1973). It’s down the mountain and across the Hudson River in Columbia County. Few today remember Coates or his writing, but he’s one of my favorite authors. His novel Yesterday’s Burdens is a forgotten classic of 20th century American literature, and his marvelous short story “The Hour After Westerly” reads like an uncanny amalgam of “Rip Van Winkle” and Death of a Salesman.

To find Coates’s house, we follow directions provided by the man himself—in a typed letter, written in July of 1951, to his good friend and fellow author Malcolm Cowley. Coates purchased his place in the country the previous summer. In the letter, he directs Cowley—who is coming up from Connecticut—to turn west off Route 22 and head down Route 295 to East Chatham. The collie and I are coming from the south, not the East-Chathameast, so I’ll skip to the point in the letter where Coates explains how to find the way from East Chatham: “And there, at the town’s small center, you turn right, up a small grade and over a railway overpass.” There it is! We park in the town’s small center and get out to have a look around.

Late morning now, and it’s getting warm. Sunday tourist traffic buzzing through town. Nobody stops. Nearby is a wine store. Its door stands wide open, welcoming. I’m tempted to enter but for the collie. I don’t want any trouble. I try to take some pictures while he, tethered to me by a leash, tugs and barks and whines. I convince him it would be fun to walk over the railroad bridge. Alas, this is not a pedestrian-friendly walkway. We have to climb through thick weeds, some of which may be poison-ivy, just to get onto it. The collie has no idea why we’re doing this, but he’s happy to engage in anything other than standing around waiting for me to take pictures. (Even now, as I’m typing this, he is whining to go for a walk.)

Collie-and-I-in-MirrorWe cross the bridge. On the other side is a traffic mirror, secured at a peculiar angle. Our image appears in it. I find this disorienting. It’s like being in two places, or two times, at once. The collie doesn’t care about the mirror. He starts to tug and bark and whine some more. He just wants to go, go anywhere. That’s the way he is. Always. “Let’s go!” So we go. Back over the bridge to the car.

We continue our drive according to the directions and proceed back again over the bridge. “You’ll be [on] a dirt road then,” writes Coates, “with no turnoffs that I can think of to confuse you, and you follow it for about 3 miles to a sharp left at the end which puts you [on] the little main street of Old Chatham.” A sign indicates we’re traveling on the Albany Turnpike. Things have changed, somewhat, along this road since Coates wrote those words. For one thing, the surface is now paved, and has been for a long time. For another, the NY State Thruway’s “Berkshire Connector” was built in the mid-fifties and runs close by. The Albany Turnpike crosses it on an overpass but there is no exit here from the controlled-access highway. Thus Old Chatham—despite almost being pierced through the heart by a superhighway—remains to this day someplace off the beaten path, just as it was when Coates lived here. The collie and I haven’t passed another vehicle since leaving East Chatham, three miles back. Few come this way, and likely nobody has followed these particular directions to get here since Malcolm Cowley, seven years before I was born.

I look again Coates’s instructions and consider them. Remarkable how, for the most part, they still work. “Go down that street, past a small lake on your right. . . .” We do, and find the lake has vanished, but the space it once filled remains, now abundant with cattails and loosestrife. We park on the side of the road and get out.


Close by the defunct lake is a quaint Victorian cottage. In the yard, a woman of middle age, with graying hair, is working in her garden. I ask across a stone wall: “What happened to the lake?”

“It’s not there anymore,” she says.

“What happened?”

“The dam broke in 2009.”

“Why didn’t they fix the dam?”

“We talked to the town and to the DEC [the NY State Dept. of Environmental Conservation] about fixing it, and they said no. So now it’s an official designated wetland.” She says this wistfully, and shrugs.

“Too bad,” I say. “I understand it was a nice lake.”

“Yes,” she says, “it was a nice lake.”

I expect her to compliment the collie. Everybody does. He’s so good looking. But she doesn’t. She’s suffering from a memory of lost water. I thank her for the information. She swats a mosquito. The collie resumes his whining. It’s time to move on. So we do.

Old-Chatham-HouseCoates continues with his directions: “And just past the lake turn right, on a road leading out between a handsome old brick Colonial house and the Old Chatham Inn.” Both structures are still standing, and the inn—according to its Facebook page—is owned by the same family: “The restaurant/tavern has been in the Jackson Family for 70 years and the history is on the walls and in the dark wood beams that span the ceiling. There’s a hunting lodge aspect to Jackson’s, which is fitting since every October in front of the Old Chatham House a priest comes for a traditional blessing of the hounds. The scene looks little different than it would have on the same spot 150 years ago, hunting dogs barking beside mounted men and boys in tails and top hats.”

In front of the handsome redbrick house, the collie makes a deposit in the roadside weeds. He barks at a little dog barking at him. The collie tugs on his leash, wanting to go this way, then that way. He doesn’t care—any which way will do. I tell him to stop. He ignores me. He tugs and he tugs and he tugs. I try to take a picture of the center of Old Chatham. Enough! On we go.


We get back into the car and continue following the nearly timeless directions. We turn right on the road between the redbrick house and the Old Chatham House. Writes Coates: “That dirt road is ours, and we’re out about 3 miles on it.” The road is no longer dirt. It has been engineered, paved, and designated Columbia County Route 13. In 1951: “There are only three places where you might get confused.” In 2015, no confusion: it’s just smooth driving, a pretty ride in the country.

“At one point,” say the directions, “about 1 mile out, a road branches off to the Former-RRleft across a rail road track (you’ll see the white-painted warning sign a short way down it.). The road is still there, still dirt. “Ignore that,” says Coates, “and bear right, up a small grade.” But I can’t ignore that. It begs scrutiny. I pull off and drive down to where there’s some shade. I park the car and leave the collie. I don’t want any trouble. I just want to take a picture without being yanked around and whined at. I walk along the road. Gravel crunches underfoot. Gone is the railroad track and its warning sign. All that remains is a long straight green strip of recovering forest—a swath about the width of a railroad right-of-way—punctuated by teetering utility poles. In both directions the former train line is thick with the high weeds of summer. In the distance is a closed gate posted with a stop sign. Beyond that, the vanishing point. Ignore that.

I hear the collie barking. I head back to the car. He’s glad to see me. I take another look at the directions: “Again, about a mile beyond that [railroad turnoff that should be ignored], you’ll find yourself in a small community (Rayville), passing a cemetery on your left. . . .” So we drive back to the paved road and head north. The cemetery appears much sooner than expected. We stop.


Route 13 is quiet, little traffic passes this way. The collie is calmer here. We investigate the cemetery. A helpful information box by the cemetery gate provides this intelligence: “You are standing at the gate to the Friends Burial Ground at Rayville.” Some graves date back to 1782. If there’s any doubt about the presence of the past, ample official signage in this vicinity will serve to eliminate it—though other doubts, mainly metaphysical, may remain. The collie lies down in the ample shade of a venerable sugar maple. I pour water into his collapsible bowl. He takes a big drink. We return to the car and leave the cemetery behind.

Coates says to keep an eye out for “a large farmhouse.” There it is, right next to the cemetery, along with a big ole barn. From here, be on the lookoutOld-Barn,-Rayville for “an old Quaker meeting house, etc.”—on the opposite side from the cemetery. I’m not sure what is meant by that puzzling “etc.” Maybe it refers to all the idyllic elements that complete the pretty picture that is this landscape. Or maybe it’s Coates’s way of referring to what the ancient sages of China called the “ten thousand things.” I don’t know.

To resume: “Just past the meeting house, a road leads off to the right, with a group of mail boxes including our own at the corner.” This is Ford Road. The corner is still there, along with a colonial-era farmhouse that Coates neglected to mention. Gone, though, are the mailboxes, including his. All that stands on the corner now is a yield sign. “Keep left there past a house called ‘Landfall’.” How will we know this house? By a sign, of course. And there it is, the same one that Coates had in mind, that Cowley then saw, that I am now seeing. Either that or one just like it.


“And then—” says our trusty and abiding guide, “—one more intersection—about ¼ mile past ‘Landfall’, at the beginning of a rise, a road branches off to the left.” We come upon that road. It does indeed branch off to the left, and it’s called Riders Mill. To this day it remains unpaved. “Ignore that,” says Coates. We do. “And go straight on, up the rise, around a couple of quarter-turns, and a few dips and rises.” When this road, many decades ago, was brought up to uniform standards and designated an official county highway, the curves became far less pronounced, and the “dips and rises” all but erased. The capricious dirt road Coates once lived on now looks like any other paved road out here in the country.

But to continue: “And about ½ mile farther on, you’ll come down a slight grade, [and] cross a brook.” This is Green Brook. Here, according to the only report of it I know, is where the author’s ashes were scattered. Most drivers who pass along this road today don’t even know they are crossing a brook, much less a funerary ground. The woods are thick with regeneration. The undergrowth along the brook appears, to the casual investigator, all but impenetrable. Any desire to explore those regions will have to be postponed, at least until after the leaves come down in fall. For now, we continue driving.

The journey is nearly finished. According to Coates, you just cross the brook and “you’ll be at our house—red barn on your right, the house above the brook on the left.” But that’s not the way it is today. The road was realigned to run behind the red barn, which now stands on the left side, between the road and the house. The house is still up on the hill above the creek, just as Coates says. I pull into the gravel drive and park the car. The collie looks like he might start barking.


The grounds surrounding Robert Coates’s old home look trim and well-kept. The barn is in good shape, obviously not used anymore for keeping livestock. The house is beautifully maintained. All signs indicate the place has become a property owned by “weekenders.” This is their haven from the city, their country getaway. It probably looks better now than it did in Coates’s day.

He had a rough go of it here during the last few years of his life. His health was steadily deteriorating. He was drinking too much. He had trouble finishing any piece of writing. Yet he always had a certain dread of endings. Decades earlier, in an unpublished passage from Yesterday’s Burdens, he wrote: “So should every poem, every picture be regarded—as a last will and testament, bequeathing to all who will have them the possessions of the artist’s mind. Every artistic utterance, rightly considered, is a voice from the tomb.” I know how he feels. I myself have several nearly-finished book manuscripts. I can see them from where I sit typing these words. Each one is a haunted house. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. To be honest, I’m having trouble finishing even this little account.

But anyways, I leave the collie in the car—again, I want no trouble—and walk up to the door of the house. On the front porch is a chair with a well-thumbed birding guide sitting on it. The book appears to have been left out in the weather—another sign of “weekenders.” Full-timers, at least in this country, have no time for either birds or flights of fancy.

I ring the doorbell. Nobody answers. I peer through the door window and see the kitchen and living room beyond. No books in sight. But the space is nicely appointed—lots of shiny “upgrades”, as they say in the real estate business. And no sense that the place is haunted. I don’t want to linger in front of this house too long—after all, I’m sort of trespassing. I’ll have to come back another day, another weekend, when the current owners are up from the city and I can introduce myself and maybe say a little about what brought me here. Until then, I will wonder if they know anything about the history of their house, how once upon a time it was the home of a writer named Robert M. Coates.

Or is he forgotten here as well.Coates-House-ii

Postcard: Haleakala Crater

Ever been to Maui? If you have, maybe you know that you can go from camping on a beach to camping inside a 10,000-foot volcano crater from one night to the next. This is precisely what my wife and I did during our first and only trip to Hawaii a few Mays back. We pitched our tent 100 yards from these horses in Haleakala Crater and marveled at the scene—prehistoric in a most provocative way—until it got dark.


Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: The Anointment

Early morning early summer walk along a wooded road with the collie. Black-eyed vireo—the “Preacher Bird”—finally shuts up. The only sound now, distant years. The collie stops to sniff something amid the roadside weeds. I spy a single garlic mustard plant in bloom, right next to his right back paw. How’d I miss it before this? I stoop to yank it from the ground. Just as I get my hand around it, the collie lifts his back right leg. The black-eyed vireo resumes his sermon.