Land in the Sky: Please Hold On

Norbeach$lombard-street-1922-photoOn Facebook I posted a historical photo of a famous San Francisco landmark: Lombard Street on Russian Hill. They say it is the “crookedest street in the world.” A friend saw this photo and asked if I had ever been down Vermont Street. It’s over on Potrero Hill. Yes, I have been down that street. You could say Vermont is the second most crookedest street in the world. To be honest, the world has plenty of streets way more crooked than either of these. I’ve been on some of them. One is in Lower Manhattan. Another in Wichita. There are others. Okay, enough digressing. What I want to say is that all this talk of San Francisco got me to missing the place.

Suddenly I am in the Diamond Lane on the Freeway of Memory—otherwise known as Google Street View. Once again I’m hiking around the city of San Francisco just like I used to when I lived there. Except now I’m in the Catskill Mountains of New York, sitting in front of a computer screen and putting the squeeze on a mouse. Instead of the step-by-step joy of a good walk in fresh air coming in off the Pacific, I’m enduring a migraine-inducing click-by-click lurch-along between noisy still images of once-familiar places. It’s like dying and having to walk all the way to hell. But hey, it’s Memorial Day weekend in the Northeast and it’s snowing outside. I’ll take what small happiness can be found on the internet.

Anyhoo, after clicking my way up and down Lombard a few times on Street View and then flying across town and getting my fill of Vermont—without, I might add, having to suffer the inconvenience of riding the 19 Polk—I get the urge to check out the corner of Geary where my wife and I used to live. Again, no Muni ride required—namely, the 33 Stanyan—but these whimsical excursions on Google Street View can be disorienting. So please hold on.

Okay. Here I am, in front of our old apartment building on Geary. Well, not really because I’m still in the Catskills in New York and a late May snowstorm is still howling outside. But that’s not the only weird thing going on. At the bottom of the Street View picture of our old place is the date the image was captured: April 11, 2011. My wife’s birthday. On that particular birthday I was away in northern Alabama. My father lay dying there in a hospital. Harrowing thunderstorms were erupting all across the region. Those were dark and sad and terrifying days of awe in Alabama. Yet back in San Francisco all was clear and warm and bright.

I zoom in via Street View on our fourth-floor apartment as it appeared for an instant on April 11, 2011. I’m surprised at how much in our old home is visible through the windows. I can see our house plants. I can make out some of our paintings on the wall. And then right in one of the bay windows is the blurred but instantly recognizable image of my wife. She is sitting in the same chair she sits in every morning, the one where she enjoys her coffee as the traffic on Geary below slips along into a new day. It’s her birthday. I’m far away. My father is alive. Thunderstorms rage across northern Alabama. The sun shines on San Francisco.

But we don’t live in San Francisco anymore. It’s the evening of May 25, 2013. We live in the Catskill Mountains in a house I helped my father build many years ago. It’s Memorial Day weekend. Snow is falling across the higher peaks. My father is buried in Minneapolis. An image of San Francisco flickers on the computer screen.

“Hey!” I call to my wife in the next room, “come here and look at this!” Now I hear the sound of footsteps approaching.

Land in the Sky: The End of Broadway

Broadway is a famous street that begins at a famous address in lower Manhattan: One Broadway. George Washington’s headquarters once stood there. The End of Broadway is more obscure. It lies thirty-three miles to the north in Westchester County. You could say that Broadway begins in the Battery and ends in a story by Washington Irving. Not everybody will agree. We decided to investigate the matter for ourselves and drove to Sleepy Hollow.

Upon arrival we discovered the End of Broadway is a tricky intersection with a traffic light and nowhere to park. We drove up a side street and found a vast parking lot spread out around a memorial hospital like a macadam roadkill. The building itself looked like a multistoried mausoleum with windows. A sign with an arrow said, “Emergency Room.” The parking was free so we left the car here and walked back to the tricky intersection.

There is little to recommend the End of Broadway as a tourist destination. Some steeply sloping woods on one side of the road, some vintage suburban houses on the other. Strolling beside a narrow two-lane highway with a ceaseless flow of vehicles is hardly a picturesque ideal. Instead of a sidewalk there is a gap in the stratigraphic record. Traffic signals hang from a wire above the intersection—along with a sign. This one said, “Wait for Green Light.” We waited for it. When the light changed, we crossed the street. Now we were really at the End of Broadway.

I looked over in the direction of the last house to see what the last number on Broadway might be. There wasn’t any. I did see a faded yellow ribbon tied around an oak tree in the yard. That could mean something. For instance, Broadway begins with the Number One and ends in a lemniscate. Or maybe it was one of those miscellaneous koans that Zen masters tease the unenlightened with. Reflecting on all this only thickened the obscurity. Cardinals thrashing about in the boughs of the tree only deepened the doubt. Things here were signs but not the ones expected.

The End of Broadway only holds so much interest for tourists. We started walking south toward its beginning. It wasn’t long before we came upon a darkly named side street with a gateless gate. It consisted of a couple of stone pillars each topped with a formidable lamp. Affixed to one of the pillars was a large convex mirror. It afforded a curious view of the whole scene. The End of Broadway was now closer than it appeared.

On the other side of the gateless gate was Sleepy Hollow Manor, a vintage suburban development of Tudor homes nestled in a park-like setting. We proceeded along Hemlock Drive. Not a soul in sight. Shadows cast by bare trees maundered on empty lawns and streets. Lawn furniture looked forlorn. Along the edge of one driveway stood a basketball backboard. The net on the hoop was red, white, and blue. I took a black-and-white photo of it.

Soon another sign appeared, a stern one. It said, “No Parking Anytime on the Streets in the Manors.” End of Broadway tourists are not welcome here. Around the next bend could be an even less congenial sign saying, “No Sauntering Anytime on the Streets in the Manors.” To pass through a gateless gate on foot during the middle of the day in the middle of the week when all decent people are at work, is to join the ranks of the suspicious. Any minute now the Sleepy Hollow police might descend upon us. We turned around and took our sauntering with us, back to the End of Broadway.

At the tricky intersection we waited once again for the green light. Close by was a shadowy callbox mounted on a utility pole. We had not noticed it before. A sign provided instructions in two languages. The English version went like this: “1) Press & Hold Button to Talk; 2) Begin Speaking After the Beep; 3) Release Button, Listen for Response.” That button had not been pressed in years. We looked at it and considered the options. We settled for an image captured with a cellphone. Then the light changed and we took our leave of the End of Broadway.


Land in the Sky: Old Croton Aqueduct

On a pleasant day in May, a couple friends and I hiked a segment of the Old Croton Aqueduct, from Croton Gorge to Sleepy Hollow. The trail in many places is obscure. Often we found ourselves wandering lost in the unpeopled but well-manicured wilderness of John Cheever Country. Or bushwhacking through unruly patches of poison ivy. Or desperately climbing over rusty chain-link fences into historic graveyards. Motivation quickly flagged. Then, toward evening, we arrived at the Bridge View Tavern in Sleepy Hollow, where a couple rounds of IPA and a little talk about the novels of J.G. Ballard restored all the motivation anybody needed—to walk down the hill to Tarrytown Station and catch the train home.

Land in the Sky: For the Birds

On a fine spring day up in the spruce-fir forest of a Catskill High Peak, I enjoyed watching and listening to a couple of gray jays. They were having a great time up there just singing their songs and flitting from bough to bough for the sheer joy of it. The official field guide, which is kinda like the police blotter for the avian world, describes this bird so: “Locally common in northern coniferous woods, becomes more tame at lumber camps.” Wild ideas are like that too: Locally common, becoming more tame at lumber camps. Especially lumber camps with healthy endowments.

Land in the Sky: Rustic Cabin

A long time ago I lived in a rustic cabin located well “off the grid” in some faraway California woods. It was a sweet spot on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Different forest types converged there and mixed things up ecologically. Ponderosa pine, black oak, white fir, incense cedar, and douglas-fir casually mingled with blue oak, ghost pine, golden-cup oak, and impenetrable manzanita. I list all these names just so you will have a chance to say them out loud for yourself. Wildlife too: mule-deer, juncos, black bears, pileated woodpeckers, coyotes, flickers, and mountain lions. In a nearby meadow stood a seldom-used Zen meditation hall. On the rare occasions when people were in there, I could tell because things around the meadow got quieter.

Next to the cabin was a large outcrop of stone with several bedrock mortars in it. Here Nisenan women used to grind acorns into flour to make bread. That was a long time ago. Nobody uses the bedrock mortars anymore or eats much acorn bread. Even so, I tried to keep things tidy by sweeping off twigs and leaves that fell on the rock just in case somebody might want to give it a try. As for my own groceries, I got them at a big supermarket called Lucky. It was down in town, about an hour’s drive away. Often I would eat my dinner outside on the grinding rock. The climate in northern California is conducive to that sort of thing.

The cabin was built by a poet back in the seventies. Another poet—this one a friend of the poet who had built the cabin—was going to build his own cabin close by. But something happened in this poet’s life and instead of building a cabin he disappeared into the surrounding forest. He was never seen again. He left a note suggesting suicide. No body was ever found. Either the poet actually did commit suicide and chose a really good place to hide it, or he disappeared into myth. Some suggest he simply ran off to Mexico. In any case, my rent checks went to the poet who built the cabin. He now lived on the other side of the country, in Manhattan. Funny thing is, I never met this poet landlord of mine, yet I lived in his cabin which still had a lot of his stuff in it, including a big framed picture of Walt Whitman. I didn’t have much stuff myself in those days, so I was happy to have the company.

When you live in a rustic cabin like that, it’s hard not to spend a lot of time thinking about the uses and disadvantages of poetry for life. It’s also pretty hard not to think about ghosts. So that’s how I spent my days: reading lots of poetry and brooding on ghosts. When night came around, I would light up a kerosene lamp and place it outside the door on a little table. I pondered how this faint and unlikely flickering must have appeared to those who drift through the manzanita after dark. No one ever knocked on the door.


(Photo by David Robertson)

Land in the Sky: Peaks and Valleys

I remember once hearing a Dharma talk at the Zendo of the Outside Lands. The room was crowded with familiar faces. The Zen Master went through all the formalities that precede giving a Dharma talk—a dignified entrance, bowing, offering of incense, more bowing, a careful arranging of the zafu, more bowing, then finally sitting down just so. I’m leaving out many details—including more bowing—but you get the picture. At last the Dharma talk was ready to begin.

The Zen Master said: “The course of any human life is just a naming of the peaks and valleys.” That was it. Dharma talk over. He got up, performed the formalities in reverse, and made a dignified exit. I looked around at the faces in the room to see what was to be made of this. All I saw were peaks and valleys. They had names.

Land in the Sky: The Big Man

Nowhere is boundless and we were in the middle of it. Chilly morning in the Catskills. Vague trail up a remote peak. Thwarted expectations of solitude: a fresh set of footprints already in the snow. Could be anybody, maybe the landowner.

Time passes in elevation gain. Soon enough we meet somebody coming down the snowy trail. He is alone and a big man. Not the landowner. He has no gun. He wears microspikes on his boots. We have microspikes in our packs. Microspikes provide traction on ice.

“Hi,” we say, “do we need microspikes?”

He shrugs. “I’m disabled,” he says. “One more fall and I’m a goner. I’m wearing microspikes to play it safe. I live in Saugerties. I walk very slow. I have joint problems and high blood pressure. Nobody will hike with me. And I have neuropathy here.” He points to his feet. “I can’t feel a thing. Have a nice day.”

He shuffles off down the trail. His walk sounds like a bartender chipping ice.

We decide to play it safe. We pull the microspikes from our packs and put them on. We’re close enough now that we probably need them.

Land in the Sky: Perpetual Joyous Care

A few weeks ago the musician David Rothenberg and I went for a hike in Rochester Hollow. It’s in the Catskills, where anything can happen but seldom does. Rochester Hollow was once the demesne of a wealthy man. He’s no longer around. Now the place is a patch of Forest Preserve favored by cross country skiers. When we arrived at the trailhead the snow was crusty and the ski conditions crappy. We put on microspikes and started walking up the trail.

We followed some hardened footprints in old snow. They were the trace fossils of somebody else’s walk in the woods. Even though a breach in time stood between us and them, we enjoyed their company, these people who made the footprints. They showed us the way. Eventually we came upon a huge snowball they had rolled and left in the middle of the trail. It was rock hard and looked like an abandoned love affair or something dropped by a glacier. We studied it and became the geologists of bygone fun. Then we were ready to move on. That’s when we observed the footprints had come to an end. The fun was over. Maybe rolling that snowball had tired them out. From this point, we were on our own.

It was lonelier now but we kept walking. It felt like a long time. Then we arrived at one of those inexplicable Catskills curiosities you often find tucked away at the end of a spooky hollow. Sometimes it’s a forty-foot golden Buddha shining in the sun, sometimes it’s an abandoned summer camp with the ghosts of a hundred years of campfire songs drifting among the bare trees. Today it was just another one of those monuments to the nature writer John Burroughs.

In this part of the state, memorials to John Burroughs are more abundant than employment opportunities. From the looks of it—half buried today in snow—this one had seen better days. A few generations of hunters’ potshots had taken their toll. The busted up words on the stone were teetering on the edge of meaning. It was language poised to become a homicide victim, a simple expression of grief shot up into an experimental poem:

          beloved naturalist, author American

          reforested by his neighbors

          direction of

          perpetual joyous care

We walked back to the car in silence.

Land in the Sky: A Blue Chair

Today is the day I climb Vly Mountain. It’s one of the lesser-visited peaks in the Catskill Mountains of New York. I have not been up it before. I have a route in mind. The guidebook says: “This route is rarely used. It is a longer route. Few people ever use this route.” So I choose this route. I wonder why it’s so unpopular. Maybe I feel bad for it. Maybe I have a soft spot for unpopular routes. Maybe this is just a pity-hike.

I arrive at the trailhead at the end of a lonesome dirt road. A hoot-owl calls from the boughs of a dark pine. He could be warning somebody about something. Or he could just be hooting because that’s what hoot-owls do. I’m a human being, so I start walking up the unpopular route. The venerable trees—sugar maple, beech, oak—look too tired from a long winter to muster any interest in putting out leaves. None of this helps the route with its popularity problem.

The unpopular route gains elevation quickly. The ground is bare for the first mile. Then I run into the snowpack. It’s deep. But the temperature last night was below freezing so the snow is still hard. I’m able to walk on top of it. The snow gets deeper and deeper but I’m still walking on top of it. I’m feeling pretty good despite the steep unpopularity and the slovenly clearcut I pass. After while, I take a break. I look off into the woods. Something unexpected. A blue chair in the middle of nowhere!

I make my way over to it. The blue chair is surrounded by white snow. It too looks like it’s had a rough winter and is only now coming out of it. Behind the blue chair is a makeshift table installed between a couple of tired trees. Somebody has gone to a lot of trouble to give a touch of hominess to this unpopular route. A jar of strawberry jam would look really good on that table. I wish I had one. All I’ve got is a notebook. I sit down in the blue chair and write these words in the notebook.

I don’t know how popular this story is going to be. Nothing much has happened on this hike. Except I found a blue chair in the wilderness. When I finish writing this, I will get up from the blue chair and continue my hike. I will resume my journey, via an unpopular route, to the summit of a lesser-visited peak in the Catskill Mountains.