It had been a season of sun and sweat: clearing trees, hauling brush, piling it high to let it all dry. Then waiting for the right time. Months passed. A prolonged autumn arrived and departed. Days grew shorter. Finally, a December afternoon, moist and calm. It took only a bit of newspaper and a single match. For a few minutes then, a furious glory. Followed by a long night of slow smoldering. Dawn broke. And all was ash.
I found my solitary way to the summit of a trail-less Catskill peak. It was hunting season, so the collie stayed home.
Though trail-less, the mountain is not without its occasional caller, each one finding his or her own way. They leave their traces—upturned leaves and duff, footprints in the mud, a scrap of paper. The lines they lay down on these forested slopes are entwined with the fading lines of previous visitors, long gone, whose vestiges themselves are entwined with those of others more timeworn still. And so they ensue, these mountain passages.
On the summit was a metal canister fastened to a tree. Inside the canister was a register of sorts. My hands were cold and the pencil was dull. I didn’t know what to write. What’s new? What’s old? Who you with? Who reads this stuff anyway.
A map came up on my Facebook news feed: “A coast-to-coast picture of America’s cacophony of sounds”. It was drawn up by the National Park Service to chart the summer soundscape of the nation. I gazed upon this map for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Then I re-posted it. With a click of the mouse, body and mind dropped away. And then the collie barked. He barked and he barked and he barked. He did not appreciate the mess left on the floor.
The Hudson Valley Art Trail begins or ends at my front door. Some days it feels like living inside a Thomas Cole picture. Other days it’s like an action painting done by an artist suffering from salmonella. Today, though, it was a Frederic Church kind of day because I had an appointment at his house—called “Olana”—to talk with some high school students about the sublime, how important it was to mid-nineteenth century American artists and writers. It’s important to me too, but in a different way. Anyhoo, it was too far to walk to Olana and still be on time for my appointment, so I drove. Besides, the Art Trail is paved the whole way.
It wasn’t long into this journey before I spotted one of those dreaded blaze-orange highway signs: “Reduced Speed, Work Zone Ahead, Fines Doubled”. Things slowed down drastically from there. Soon I came upon a road crew re-paving a forlorn stretch of the Art Trail. A little late in the season, it seemed to me, as this end-of-October morning was blustery and cold. Thick and noisome vapors were rising from freshly laid tar, enveloping the workers and their equipment—not to mention all innocent passersby—in an appalling mephitis. The scene brought to mind a line from D.H. Lawrence: “Darkening the day-time torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto’s gloom.” It sure smelled like it.
For the next several miles I was outside any pretty picture of the Hudson River School. Instead it was more like a dreadful creep through a failed installation piece, some monstrous cross between a drunken night ride on the Jersey Turnpike and a Robert Smithson glue pour. Close to the road was a fetid-looking lake with dead trees. A deer carcass lay in the breakdown lane. An old man was inexplicably riding his wobbly bike against traffic. What was going on around here? Then a billboard came into view—an ad for something called WatchTVEverywhere. com. I wanted to stop and take a picture of it but I had to keep my eye on the road, I mean, the Art Trail. After what seemed an eternity, I came out the other side of Pluto’s gloom. It was like making it to the end of Plato’s Republic.
And there was Olana, on the far side of the Hudson River, shining gloriously atop its venerable hill in golden morning light! By that point, I was having a little trouble breathing, but it would pass. In any case, I was ready to talk about the sublime.
David Rothenberg and I were strolling along a path on the shore of Walden Pond discussing how tired we have grown of literary allusions. As we passed a small cove on the northwest side of the pond, we spotted in the clear, shallow waters what appeared to be a smart phone attached to a selfie stick. How did it get there? How long had it been submerged? Would the phone still work? Let’s find out!
So I extended my arm into the pond and retrieved the curious item. We pressed the button to turn it on. For some reason—perhaps pertaining to the laws governing fiction—it fired up. Should we call somebody? Neither of us had any urgent business to conduct with anybody else at the moment, so we took a picture of ourselves instead, using the selfie stick to hold the phone under the pure waters of Walden Pond.
After posting our selfie to Facebook, we put the phone back where we found it and continued on our not so solitary way, discussing other things.
I persuaded a couple of friends to follow me on a bushwhack that began in deep obscurity, perhaps somewhere behind Pandora’s Tavern, and led to still deeper obscurity. We plunged into the wild woolly-wags and started up a mountain, only to get beech-whipped and bush-hobbled for mile upon bloody mile, till at last we stumbled upon a vague path that led to a tenebrous prospect, somewhere high above a dusky, slow-moving river. There we encountered other wanderers, bewildered as we, gathered upon a ledge, discussing the options. Arising from the crepuscular woods below came a riddlesome sound, perhaps the snoring of Rip Van Winkle or the growling of Cerberus. Or both. Nobody could explain it. So we kept walking. And found a way home before dark.
In the waiting room at the dentist’s office. Nobody here but me. The walls are thin. I can hear the unwelcome sounds of the dentist at work. It’s like a muffled tree full of angry cicadas. I look around for something to read. All I find are news magazines, thinner than ever, and an Omaha Steaks catalog. I should have brought a book. I spot a pamphlet for the local rail trail. I pick it up and read.
On the cover it says, “Four miles of paved adventure through time and nature!” I open the pamphlet and learn that the rail trail is a “passage of varied terrain and experiences that you will not soon forget.” Somewhere along the way, the rail trail visitor enters “a deep canopy of trees.” Each rock cut is “a reminder that this was once a major thoroughfare for moving goods and materials on rails.” Eventually the rail trail visitor arrives at a bridge that spans a considerable river. Nobody knows what’s on the other side. The pamphlet doesn’t say.
Meanwhile, here in the waiting room things have gone painfully quiet. Save for the faint and faraway groaning on the other side of the wall, the stillness of the waiting room is undisturbed. Then a door opens, and a voice on the other side says “Next.”
My friend Dennis dropped by this afternoon to help me clean up a mess. I had gotten myself into some more tree trouble. These dying hemlocks just never fall the right way when I cut them down, especially when they’re near a power line or the house. I wish they didn’t do that. I wish they weren’t all dying.
This particular hemlock, when I managed to get it to fall, got all hung up in some nearby ash trees, which are also dying. There was nothing I could do about it. The hemlock just stood there like a shady Antaeus. Dennis said he’d come over and take care of it. When he pulled up in his truck, the collie barked in greeting. He barked and he barked and he barked. He barked in joy.
Dennis knew better than to let me “help” clean up this mess. He knew what he was doing. So I handed over the chainsaw and he said: “Okay, where’s this tree?” I showed him and he went to work. Dennis is a guy who “smokes with two hands” but wields a chainsaw with just one. He had that hemlock down quicker than it took me to get it all hung up in the first place. No structures were damaged in the operation. The collie continued to bark with joy.
As Dennis climbed into his truck to go home, I said thanks and it was good to see him. He said: “Now come up with a better dummy idea the next time you want to see an old bastard.” I told him that would be easy. Dennis drove off as the collie barked goodbye. I looked around at all the dying hemlocks and ashes still standing—trees I grew up with—for my next dummy idea.
Wandering the Lethean gorges of our local Walmart, I encounter a mother with two small boys. Exclaims one of the youngsters: “Wow! This is a really nice Walmart. Way nicer than ours!” All at once I find myself teetering, unroped and alone, on the grand traverse between Melancholy and Joy. It could go either way.
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.