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, 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.)
We 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.
“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.
Coates 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 left 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 lookout 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.