Land in the Sky: Meadows

Mount-HoodOn my bookshelf is a copy of Joseph T. Hazard’s Snow Sentinels of the Pacific Northwest. It’s an old book—published in 1932— about the eight great snow-peaks of the Cascade Range and the Olympics. I acquired this volume more than twenty years ago in a used book shop in Ellensburg, Washington. Back then, I was living in the West. If I wasn’t trying to climb one of those mountains out there, then I was reading about them.

Now I live in the Northeast, where we have lovely, blue-green and hay-scented mountains but no snow-peaks. I spend my days cutting down trees and hauling brush. I am trying to restore an old meadow nearly lost to the dark woods. Too many old fields and pastures around here have vanished along with the farms they once surrounded. For some reason, I am compelled to keep one or two of these intervals open to the sun. It’s hard work. I don’t even have any farm animals, but the worm-eager robins seem pleased with my efforts.

At night I read. Reading helps to preserve another kind of meadow, this one inside the head. Sometimes, though, I get nostalgic for those glistening Elysian firns of the Pacific Northwest. Or maybe I just miss my youth, which is yet another kind of meadow being lost to dark woods. In any case, that’s when I pull down Snow Sentinels and flip it open to find passages like this: “We arrive at the summer snowfields. The air is clear, the sun bright, and to the reaches of dimming distance the floating maelstrom of snow summits is stilled to a white silence.”

Land in the Sky: Flowers in the Sky

Mountains-of-the-MoonWe were out west and our directions were faulty. We had been seeking a mountain but somehow arrived at an old graveyard. Instead of a trailhead it was tombstones. The ground between the glancing markers was strewn with pine needles and fretted with morning sunlight. A weather-beaten sign nailed to an old tree delivered two gray words: “Pioneer Cemetery.” No birds were singing, yet in the middle of this small enclosure was a solitary wildflower with small blue blossoms: forget-me-not, or as the plant is more commonly known in these parts, stickseed. The burial ground was serene and inviting. Had we been looking for a campsite, this might have been the place. Ah, but the day was still young and our minds were set on a mountain, so we continued on our way. The peak, as it turned out, was not far off. The sky was clear. Soon we were making our ascent. But that unexpected graveyard and its lone wildflower remained in my thoughts, right to the top of the mountain and beyond.

To judge from the records, a kind of “dark learning” is to be obtained by those who scale mountains. For reasons never to be fathomed, lofty summits serve as portals, if not to the “other world” then perchance to another style of awareness. Maybe it’s the thin air, or the proximity to sky, or the mere physical exertion that relaxes the tension of consciousness—it’s difficult to say with any certainty. “You have but a short time left to live,” says Aurelius, “so live as on a mountain.” Whatever the case, the religious landscapes of the world appear serrated into wondrous heights. Mount Olympus, according to Homer, is “neither shaken by winds, nor ever wet with rain, nor does snow fall upon it, but the air is outspread clear and cloudless.” The Bible has its share of “power peaks,” including Ararat, Horeb, and Tabor, while in China Taoism claims its Five Sacred Mountains, and Vulture Peak in India is revered as one of the Buddha’s favorite resorts, where he delivered some of his most rarefied teachings.

Nowhere do mountains assume greater spiritual significance than in Japan, where adherents of Shugendo—a hybrid of Shinto, Taoism, Buddhism, with a little shamanism thrown in—regard mountains as ritual loci of power, veritable landscape mandalas, to be entered as much with the body as with the mind. Along similar lines, Ichiro Hori in his Folk Religion in Japan explains that the word for mountain—yama—is commonly employed in rural districts to refer to funerary rites. For example, the coffin is called yama-oke (“mountain box”); selecting the burial site is yama-gime (“choosing the mountain”); and digging the grave isyama-shigoto (“mountain work”). A hint is to be gleaned here as to the true nature of all mountaineering, similar to Socrates’ famous definition of philosophy as the “practice of death.”

Make no mistake, mountaineering in whatever form is risky. For the true adept, nothing material is ever gained from the arduous ascent, though all could be lost in the slip of a moment. Edward Whymper, the nineteenth-century Englishman who led the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn, concludes his classic Scrambles Amongst the Alps with these sobering words: “Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste, look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end.” The hard-won insight behind these words is almost palpable: half of Whymper’s climbing party perished on the descent, the result of a minor misstep.

The most elevated graveyard on earth is Mount Everest. A couple hundred bodies—each a mountaineering fatality—are believed to lie scattered across the upper reaches of its frozen slopes. The practice of climbers around there is to let the dead bury the dead. It is a tradition arising from necessity: to attempt recovery of bodies at such unforgiving heights is extremely dangerous. Among the oldest of these cloud-shrouded corpses are those of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. At the time of their deaths in 1924 they were very near the summit. They may have made it to the top, thus becoming the first human beings to set foot upon the world’s highest point. If so they beat out Sir Edmund Hillary by nearly three decades, but no one knows for sure. The tale perished with them—a reminder that the climber is not the master but the minister of the peak.

Those who climb mountains seem motivated by a venerable wisdom: What is gained with great difficulty is more valuable than what is acquired without effort. Or so one would think after perusing the literature. I’m not talking about those bestsellers that dish up harrowing accounts of doomed expeditions on Danali or K-2. No, I am referring to the fugitive writings of ordinary folks who, when they get a little time off from the workaday, spend it upon the more companionable mountains and then write down a few words about their experiences. Such accounts are usually deposited in containers and left on the summits, as a kind of votive offering. Mount Shasta in California provides a case in point.

Shasta is a big peak by anybody’s standards—a glacier-clad volcano rising 14,179 feet above sea level. To climb it is arduous but not technically difficult. Lots of people have made it to the top. I’m one of them. But truth be told, each of these ordinary human beings was seeking something extraordinary. The summit register confirms this.

Actually, “register” is a highfalutin’ term for the tattered spiral notebook I found crammed into a dented coffee can stashed in the uppermost rocks. Over time, weather takes its toll on the legibility of all such mountain documents—words suffer from exposure. This book was in worse shape than some of the exhausted climbers who stagger up to sign their names in it: all meaning was perched on a narrow ledge of coherence, about to tumble off. Even so, it was still possible to make out various entries in the Shasta register. Most of them were commonplace exclamations concerning the weather (“Glorious day!”), God (“Thank the Lord for getting me up here!”), and ego (“I’m on top of the world!”). But one or two entries did rise above the ordinary, in terms of ability to pique a reader’s interest. At the bottom of the can, a brittle slip of paper preserved this fragment of a tale: “. . . end this way. I never thought I’d be writing about [. . .] for strangers to read, but . . . .” And then there was this text, surviving in its entirety save for the author’s name: “Beautiful climb, perfect weather, hope to God I make it down. My sex change operation is at 9:00 sharp. Just think: Maybe I can be the first person to re-climb Shasta as another person.” Ah, but who among us ever remains the same from one climb to the next, whether it be up a mountain or out of bed in the morning?

To gain some purchase on this question, consider the seventeenth century alchemist Thomas Vaughan, whose Lumen de Lumine, or A New Magical Light can be recommended as one of the great handbooks of mountaineering. At one point, after referring in cryptic fashion to a wondrous plant found only on the highest peaks of a shadowy range called the Mountains of the Moon, Vaughan writes: “Much indeed might be spoken concerning these mountains, if it were lawful to publish their mysteries; but one thing I shall not forbear to tell you. They are very dangerous places after night, for they are haunted with fires and other strange apparitions, occasioned—as I am told by the Magi—by certain spirits which dabble lasciviously with the sperm of the world and imprint their imaginations in it, producing many times fantastic and monstrous generations.”

For my part, I never climb a mountain without the hope that I will discover on its summit one of Vaughan’s rare and winsome moon-flowers. That I have yet to succeed does nothing to diminish my expectation. As for the psychological dangers he speaks of—those lasciviously dabbling spirits—they do exist and should be given heed, but one man’s peril proves another’s boon.

The philosopher William James loved to climb mountains. He was particularly fond of the Adirondacks. On a July night in 1898, while camping out with friends just below the summit of Mount Marcy, he had a run-in with a gang of mountain spirits. The story is recounted in a letter James wrote to his wife. Here’s what happened.

After a delightfully strenuous day of clambering up and over the highest mountains in New York State, James not only was physically spent, but his mind was furiously at work on a series of lectures he had agreed to present at Edinburgh. Unable to sleep, he arose and ventured forth, alone into the night woods. “All fermented within me,” he reports, “till it became a regular Walpurgisnacht. I spent a good deal of it in the woods, where the streaming moonlight lit up things in a magical checkered play, and it seemed as if the gods of all the nature-mythologies were holding an indescribable meeting in my breast with the moral gods of the inner life . . . .” A colloquy of gods was being held in his heart!

The ordinarily eloquent James suddenly was at a loss for words as he tried to explain to his wife what had come over him. Like a desperate climber on a difficult and unfamiliar pitch of rock, he started grasping for anything that might provide a hold: “The intense significance of some sort, of the whole scene, if one could only tell the significance; the intense inhuman remoteness of its inner life, and yet the intense appeal of it; its everlasting freshness and its immemorial antiquity and decay . . . .” Having arrived at the limits of linguistic ability, James concludes: “It was one of the happiest lonesome nights of my existence, and I understand now what a poet is.”

The lectures he eventually delivered in Edinburgh were profoundly influenced by his encounter with those gods in the mountain dark. Later the talks were published under the title The Varieties of Religious Experience. The book was immediately recognized as a classic. James was now at the top of his profession, but it came at great cost: the gods had opened his mind to the poetic nature of reality, but the grueling traverse across that rugged Adirondack range had worked irreparable damage upon his health. His remaining years were marked by visionary intensity but drastically diminished physical vitality. There would be no more trips into his beloved mountains. When he died in 1910, an autopsy revealed the fatal lesions on his heart.

*          *          *

Hellroaring is the unsurpassed peak in its range, but you will not find its name on any map. Some say this omission was a mapmaker’s error, while others claim it a stratagem on the part of locals to keep out unwanted visitors. Another piece of information not on the map: Hellroaring has had more than its share of climbing fatalities, giving rise to a considerable body of tragic lore, which hovers ominously over the mountain like a lenticular cloud. What you will find on the map, however, is Hellroaring’s elevation—10,751 feet—and a labyrinth of contour lines that translate into a rocky finger of fate pointing skyward. There’s no mistaking this peak once you’ve laid aside the map and are actually on the ground. So, if your heart is really set on climbing Hellroaring, you can find your way there, despite the obstacles.

We were up there just a few weeks ago. A sunny summer day, the eleventh of July. From our base camp, it took most of the morning to reach the top of the peak. It was ourselves alone and endless distant ridges. The air was calm. Pincushion clumps of alpine phlox were abloom in blue abundance, saturating the summit air with a fragrance sweeter than any breath of Persephone. Butterflies were everywhere, feeding on the nectar.

The summit register for Hellroaring is housed in a mountain-box more lavish than most: cast aluminum and embossed with the name of the mountaineering club that placed it here in 1961. The top of the box is hinged and held shut by two large thumb-nuts. When I bent down to raise the lid, a resting butterfly took wing. Inside the box was the usual oddball assortment of mementos left by climbers: business cards, empty pens, a set of keys, an old pair of sunglasses. And of course, there was the register itself—in this case, an ornate leather-bound journal. Its entries possessed an eloquence all but lost in contemporary alpine literature. Hellroaring’s register was packed with the gnomic utterances of several generations of mountain sages: “Don’t mess with what lies deep in the other.” “Foolish people imagine what they imagine is someplace else.” “Only a few among us have learned to love stones.” Given this mountain’s unfortunate climbing history, many of these entries can be assumed last words.

My attention was diverted from the book when I noticed a Ziploc bag lying at the bottom of the box. I reached for it and opened it. Inside was a photograph. Climbers often leave them on summits, and almost always these are pictures of people—yearbook mugshots, wedding photos, family reunions, that kind of thing. But the photo I found that day on top of Hellroaring was unique in my mountain experience: it was of a grave marker, located who knows where, bearing a simple inscription:

          Heather Smallidge

          June 27, 1977 – Sept. 8, 1999

          She May Have Died Here

          But She Lived Here Too . . . .

The back of the photo was blank. No words upon which to anchor a narrative. The question, if not the ghost, arises: Who was Heather Smallidge, and what happened to her? Tales too go the way of all flesh—and this one was lost in mountain air.

Only later do we learn the story—or at least a story. We happen upon it on the way home. We stop for breakfast in a log cabin tourist lodge at the edge of the mountains. A young waitress shows us to our table. As we are sitting, we spot a small memorial plaque hanging on the wall. It bears the name of Heather Smallidge. Surprised, we ask our young waitress if she has any details. Yes, she does. She has them all, and delivers them in a tone of malicious joy.

“Oh yeah,” she says, “her—the snooty college girl from back east. She worked here a couple summers. They say she was a poet and crazy about wildflowers, especially ones that grow on tops of mountains. She called them her ‘flowers in the sky.’ I’ve never seen them myself. She must have had her head in the clouds. People around here used to call her ‘Sky Pilot.’ Yeah, she loved her poetry and her flowers and—oh yeah, she loved the bartender too.” She jerks a thumb toward the barroom door.

“They were going to be married, you know, and have kids and a whole life together. That never happened. One day the girl just didn’t show up for work. People knew she had gone off the day before looking for her flowers in the sky. Nobody knew where exactly. Talk about stupid! It was three or four days before they found her body up on Hellroaring Peak. Looked like she slipped and fell, but that’s not what killed her. They say she bled to death. If you know the spot you can still see the bloodstains on the rocks. Imagine the suffering!”

“How horrible!” we say. “Did you know her well?”

“Oh no,” the young waitress replies, now yawning. “I never met her.” Once again she jerks her thumb toward the barroom door: “My fiancé told me the story.”

As I resumed my perusal of Hellroaring’s summit register, an index card dropped out from between the pages. The card showed no signs of weathering, and indeed looked brand new. It contained a short message, written in a neat hand. It was dated—July 11th. Today! Had somebody already been here before us? Funny, we saw no one on the way up, nor any signs that any had been here in a long, long time. With only the date and no year to go by, this card could just as well have been placed in the register one hour ago, or one year ago, or even ten years ago. Maybe it had always been here—no telling. Anyhow, the card read: “Most extraordinary, right now, just me and ten thousand butterflies.”

Yes, the butterflies, those innumerable small triumphs of transformation, faithful pollinators of the alpine phlox. Phlox—the word literally means “flame”—and the gaslight blue of its petals must be drawn from the same dark lamps that lit the way for Orpheus. That such a flower should abide up here on this deadly summit, so close to heaven, confirms that most enduring of all mountaineering maxims: “The way up is the way down.”

Death among the ancient Greeks was personified as a beautiful youth. Because the immortal gods are by their very nature “without death,” they hated this boy and banned him from Mount Olympus, a place he dearly loved for the wild beauty of its flowers. Thus he was forced to wander in the mortal realm, a lonely journey that continues to this day. In old paintings and motifs he can often be seen holding an inverted torch, its flame extinguished, or, as I like to envision it, the flame having fallen to the ground and shattered into innumerable slivers, now transfigured into the petals of certain flowers that grow only in those high and hard to reach places, closest to the heart of that outcast youth.

 

(Originally printed in the November – December 2003 issue of Quest magazine.)

Land in the Sky: When Circumstances Are Right

Tiny-Ivory-ChestMy study is cluttered. And dusty. A room jammed with all the junk that goes with being O’Grady. Books. Manuscripts. Bankers Boxes full of yellowing letters from old friends. Yes, letters. They date from the days when friends would write letters to each other. I can’t remember the last time I received an actual letter in the mail. It’s just as well. I have enough stuff. “I am myself and my circumstances” says the philosopher. And “circumstances” is just a fancy word for stuff. Especially the older you get. I need to get rid of some stuff.

On top of one of my bookcases is a big ole Jeffrey pine cone—a gentle reminder of the East Side of the Sierra Nevada. On my desk is a granite rock long ago plucked from Walden Pond. I used to have two rocks from Walden Pond. Then one day in the nineties I took one with me to the top of Mount Shasta in California. It’s a 14,179 foot sleeping volcano with glaciers on it. Right near the top of the mountain is a boiling, sulfurous hot spring. I tossed the Walden Pond rock in there. I must have had my reasons. I just can’t remember them anymore.

Maybe the weirdest item among my stuff is the bones of the writer Mary Austin. Well, not really her bones, just a few fragments of her cremated remains. I gleaned them many years ago from a mountaintop in New Mexico, where they lay scattered among the baloney sandwich ruins of a half century of hiker picnics. Yes, mountaintops can be weird places, at least for me.

Mary Austin died in Santa Fe in 1934. She is remembered today mostly for her first book, The Land of Little Rain. It’s a pretty good book. She was a pretty good writer. Literary scholars have written things about her. I’ve written a few myself, including the story of how her remains wound up on the summit of an obscure peak outside of Santa Fe and then were forgotten. That story would be funny if it weren’t so sad. It was published in a little-known literary journal. I forget which one.

Anyway, I had thought I was done writing about Mary Austin, but here I go again. Coming across somebody’s cremated remains forgotten among your stuff is a powerful prompt. I tried to resist it because maybe I write too much about graveyards and how file boxes look like coffins.

Speaking of coffins, the few bits of Mary Austin’s remains in my possession have been kept respectfully in a tiny ivory chest. A friend gave it to me when she discovered what exactly I had been keeping in a vintage Catskill Mountain Game Farm ashtray on one of my bookshelves. She was a poet and not impressed with my literalism. So for the last couple decades that’s where my portion of Mary Austin’s remains have resided, in that tiny ivory chest.

I had forgotten all about the remains till I came across the tiny ivory chest yesterday when I was tidying up my study. It was inside a handsome carved wooden box, where I had placed it some years ago because, honestly, who wants to be looking at a little coffin all the time? As soon as I saw it, though, I remembered the promise I had made to myself to one day return what’s left of Mary Austin to that obscure mountaintop outside of Santa Fe and give her a proper burial. Which is more than she received from the hired cowboys who dumped her ashes there in 1939 when the mortuary that had been storing them went out of business.

Yes, when the circumstances are right, I will go to New Mexico and get rid of some stuff.

Land in the Sky: Scrambles Amongst the Cascades

Scrambles-Amongst-the-CascadesThe other evening, on the way home from happy hour down at Pandora’s Tavern, I drove past the Story Crematorium. You know the place, where they incinerate all the tales that come into writers’ heads but never get written down. It’s a full-service creativity mortuary—they also put the torch to unfinished manuscripts, if that’s what you need.

I have my share of them. One in particular has haunted me for more than twenty years. Probably because it’s in plain sight, right next to where I shelve my mountaineering books. The manuscript is several hundred pages long and I keep it in a wood-grain storage carton. They call it a Bankers Box but it looks more like a little coffin for bright ideas. For me, it also holds a morbid fascination. I sometimes lift the coffin lid and take a peek inside. The pages lie there exactly as they were interred, perfectly preserved, like the body of a saint: Incorruptible. What else should I expect? It’s not like the book is going to finish writing itself.

“What’s the book about?” Well, I’m happy to tell you. I only wish I was as happy to sit down and actually finish writing it. But anyway, in the late 1980s I got this idea to climb all the volcanoes in the Cascade Range—from Lassen Peak in Northern California to Mount Baker in the State of Washington—then write a book recounting my heroic adventures in solo mountaineering. That might sound impressive, but it’s really not. Even though I’ve climbed a lot of peaks over the years, when it comes right down to it I am not much of a mountaineer. Everything I know about climbing comes from reading Edward Whymper. And I’m even less of a writer than a mountaineer, to judge from my output. I’m just a guy who likes to climb mountains by himself—even the occasional one I don’t belong on—and scribble a few notes.

So on August 1, 1992, I loaded up my aging Corolla wagon with my thrift store climbing gear and headed north for the mountains. I spent the next six weeks driving from one Cascade volcano to the next, staggering my way to the top of each one. Many had glaciers and permanent snowfields. I trekked across them oblivious to hazards of serac and crevasse. I carried a single ice screw with me as a kind of talisman to ward off danger. I had no idea how to use it. I picked it up cheap at a consignment shop just before I set out on my adventures. I still have it. I’ve never used it—and still don’t know how—but it looks good sitting there on the mantel. A few of the Cascade summits required some technical climbing. I wasn’t expecting that. I wound up accidentally free-soloing them. Altitude sickness can be a problem on the higher peaks. In the summit register on Mount Shasta somebody wrote: “Long way to come to feel like shit.” Sometimes that’s how I feel when I look at my unfinished manuscript.

By the third week in September of 1992, I had climbed all these Cascade volcanoes: Lassen, Shasta, McLaughlin, Mazama (really a volcano turned inside out and now a lake called Crater, which I circumambulated instead of diving into), Thielsen, Three Sisters, Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Jefferson, Hood, Adams, St. Helens, Glacier, and Baker. The astute reader will notice one name missing from this list: Rainier. That’s because on the day I stopped in at the Park Service office to obtain a climbing permit, the rangers took one look at my outfit—old-style climbing tweeds, deerstalker hat, Redwing work-boots, and rickety alpenstock—and told me to take a hike, elsewhere. Oh well. So a few years later I got myself a pair of Koflach boots, some Gore-Tex, and a real ice-axe, and went back to Rainier with a couple buddies and we bagged it.

If I ever decide to exhume that manuscript and finish writing the book about that long ago summer I spent heroically climbing the Cascade volcanoes all by myself, I might have to edit my buddies out of it. The more likely conclusion is someday I’ll be dropping off my little Bankers Box of a coffin at the Story Crematorium.

Land in the Sky: Work of a Lifetime

Cicada-Fail

At Poets’ Walk Park along the Hudson River. Watched a magicicada nymph, fresh-emerged from seventeen years underground, climbing up the trunk of a big old tulip-tree. A really good climber. Going at it free solo. Looking for a place to hunker down and molt. Climbing and climbing. Climbing and climbing. It seemed to take forever. The work of a lifetime. And then it was over.

Land in the Sky: Periodically, Cicadas

Tumbledown-BarnIt is full-on spring in the year 2013. The clouds overhead are dark and threatening more rain. We are walking along an old dirt road through some spooky Hudson Valley woods, looking for signs of the celebrated bugs known as periodical cicadas. I prefer their scientific name—magicicada—because I have a magical worldview. Others mistakenly call them “locusts”; those people are positivists. Anyhoo, any day now these bugs will be crawling out from underground. They’ve been down there for seventeen years, feeding off the roots of trees and glimpses of Eurydice. I was thirty-eight years old when they ducked out of sight in 1996. Even though I’m now of a certain age, it’s a pretty good wager that I’m going to outlive this particular generation of magicicadas. On the other hand, when it comes to my prevailing over their offspring, all bets are off.

As we continue on our way through the spooky woods, we come upon a big old tumbledown of a barn. It appears to have been built in the Quonset-cinderblock style popular back during the Second World War. That would be around the time the great-great-grandparents of the current crop of magicicadas were out doing their courtship and mating up in the trees. The barn is showing its age. The only thing holding it up now is graffiti. Vandals recently tried to burn the place down and failed. They did not realize just how fire-resistant graffiti is. Encouraged by the colorful, incombustible doodles on the walls, we stroll past some very stern warning signs posted by the State of New York to keep out. Those won’t stop us. We’re here to check things out. After all, these woods are public lands and we are mortal beings. If not in this lifetime, then when? In any case, this is supposed to be a nature preserve, if only nature would cooperate. Onward. We head into the barn and give things a pretty good look—there must be ten thousand of them or more—then move on.

After walking a while, we emerge from the spooky woods into a far-reaching field of tall green grass. This time of year that means ticks. Lots and lots of ticks. We throw caution to the wind, but there is no wind so it just falls to the ground. We traipse across the chancy field toward some even spookier-looking woods on the other side. Who cares about a little Lyme disease when there might be seventeen-year cicadas waiting over there! Besides, I really miss these magicicadas. We have a lot to catch up on. I knew their parents and grandparents. I suppose technically I also knew their great-grandparents, but in the spring of 1962 I had other things on my mind—for instance, a rocking-horse by the name of “Pat-Pat”—so I did not get to know the Kennedy generation of magicicadas. Besides, I don’t think my parents would have let me out to play with them. I was only four years old.

Time passes. They sky has grown darker. It begins to rain. We are deep into the spookiest woods of all. No magicicadas have emerged around here yet, but we do happen upon a forgotten graveyard. The plots—dozens and dozens of them—are spread out among the forest trees. The graves are deeply sunken and filled with leaves and detritus. At the head of each is a brass plaque with the names and dates of the buried one. Only a few of the plaques are visible. Most lie beneath several generations of forest duff. The few that remain visible indicate long lives—the people buried here lived well into their seventies and eighties. It also appears that no fresh interments have occurred since the mid-1950s. That’s when a nearby old folks home closed its doors and was converted to a college dormitory. About the same time the burial ground started becoming forgotten. Now heavy rain is falling. Water is pooling in the sunken graves. It is time to go.

We retrace our route, pick up our caution where we left it in the grass, brush off the ticks, and head elsewhere. With any luck, it will be in the direction of magicicadas.

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.