Why We Travel

The Landcraft unpacked and cooling in the driveway, Charlie pulls up a metal chair to the table where he has eaten breakfast for four years, sits down and looks out the window towards the trampoline that he has not jumped on in five weeks. “It feels different,” he says.

Sine nomine

We sang it on Friday at day-fall,
The lusty old tune without a name
To celebrate the singular circumincession
Of work, life, and friendship that ensign the saints
These three are one in all who are one in Him
Including a violent son-of-a-bitch
trapped inside the body of Christ
Who doesn’t look a whole lot like a saint
All clad in bright array
(Unless you mean the neckties)
But holiness is rough-hewn and sanctity supple stuff
They might not feebly struggle now, but they did
Named to us and nameless,
none are not known

We sang it again today at the procession
To end a holy triduum of holy fools
We handed you over to them today, Oliver
And got you back, more and less our boy
At the corner of Charlotte and Macon
Where hangs a paint-splattered Christ
Vandalized, or consecrated, or both
By some drunk hippie on Halloween
Who didn’t know what he was doing
Or perhaps some nameless saint like the others
who didn’t either, but who,
fearing the Lord, fear nothing else

But we never know less than when
We think we know what we are doing or saying
Like what became of you today, over the font
You didn’t know what we were doing
Or what we thought we were doing
But maybe you did—more, much more than we
Because you laughed
And didn’t stop

You, we pray, will grow into the vows we made
with all the difficult rest
For you cannot promise to God without difficulty
Or without friends, whether you like them or not

And I—
I hope to grow into the joy you have today
To grow into the expanse of your smile and
To become like you, an enfleshed alleluia
Like the ones who shook the mighty world
Who stole upon the ears of the serious
And still do

You made Henry and Charlie more than brothers
Today at the corner of Macon and Charlotte
Keep that vandal body before you always, dear boys
The king of glory passes by this way
Alleluia.

Yes, alleluia.

 

 

 

 

This is That

 

He was my first favorite author, but I didn’t even know his name.

My mother loves to tell the story: we were on a family trip to Washington, DC circa 1978. It was my first time on a train, and the first time I think I ever saw snow. We toured the city in taxicabs and buses and on foot, gawked at the monuments along The Mall.

“That’s the Hirshhorn Gallery,” I said.

“That is the Smithsonian Building.”

“That is the National Gallery of Art.”

I knew them all, precocious little tyke that I was. In mom’s version, it was because I was somehow advanced for my age. But in my version, it was simply because for a month or so prior to that trip, I had been nose-deep in a book called This is Washington, D.C. by someone I knew for years only as M. Sasek.

I was captivated by the book, and by Sasek’s eccentric, whimsical artistic style. Sasek (Šašek in Czech) was born in Prague, and he treated all of his subjects the way an outsider would, with wonder and surprise, and not a trace of world-weary cynicism. He would visit his subjects for a few weeks at a time, wander and sketch the city by day and return to his hotel room to paint into the night. He took places for what they were, received them with a sense of innocent enthusiasm, and gave them back to us as if to say, “you really have got to see this.”

I never knew a single thing about the man behind the book, but felt immediately that I loved him.

He drew like I drew, or wanted to. His human figures were stylized, comic, his architectural drawings simple and unfussy. His cars were the best: they captured the winged style of the 1950s and 1960s, when cars and buses were still works of art. His colors were bright, inviting, true. When I saw the Smithsonian Institution for the first time, it was exactly as I had seen it in This is Washington D.C. I wanted to be able to draw like Sasek, but he fired in me something else: a sense of wonder at the world—or what later academics would unimaginatively call “the built environment.” He was the first one to inspire in me a fascination, which I have never outgrown, with one of the great universal works of human art—universal as a form but unique in every single one of its instantiations—the city.

He also wrote books about whole countries (Ireland, Israel, Texas) and quasi-cities (The United Nations, Cape Kennedy) but at the heart of his work was a child-like fascination with living forms of human community that take an architectural form. He showed architecture as making certain forms of life possible, forms which could not be possible in exactly the same way in other places. Sasek communicated not just a city’s monuments but its secret life. An image of the White House is juxtaposed with one of three policemen, each of a different race, talking about the latest gossip. Another two-page spread shows the majestic, Seneca red sandstone Smithsonian Castle and multi-colored brick Arts and Industries Building alongside a dark-skinned man blowing up colorful striped balloons for kids like me.

Sasek had come from one of the world’s great cities, and that would have been enough for most people. But something in his own, mostly unknown history in Prague drove him to seek out other cities of the world, to offer them up to us as worthy of fascination, to show them to us as he found them, and invite us into them. He left us his own vision of other places: Greece, Cape Kennedy, Texas, Munich, Edinburgh, London, Rome, Historic Britain, Israel, Paris, Venice, Australia, Ireland, New York, The United Nations, Hong Kong, San Francisco.

But what Sasek never showed us was his own hometown. He never wrote This is Prague. I wonder how he would have seen his own birthplace, how he would have painted and narrated it as an insider, knowing all its dark secrets that only come from familiarity. But he didn’t tell us.

When I was in D.C. then, Sasek had given me a visual grammar, a code book to the city. He drew places for me and said, “this is X.” I had them imprinted on my brain when wandering The Mall, the National Gallery, seeing the Hope Diamond. Sasek’s “this is” became my “that is,” as I pointed out—I am sure to the annoyance of my parents and brother—the sites that Sasek had already told me I should see. I was seeing in real life what I had only seen in a book. This is Washington D.C. allowed me to be a different kind of reader, not just of a book, but of an actual place.

This became that.

The same thing happened when we visited Cape Kennedy in Florida. I had devoured Sasek’s book on it, which became the whole reason I begged my parents to take us there. This is Cape Kennedy (reissued as This is the Way to the Moon in 2009) was published in 1963, years before the Apollo missions would transform Cape Kennedy from a site of technological possibility to a near-holy site of human aspiration, a portal from one world to another.

Sasek was attentive to minute details: not just the scientific interest of the statistics of the Atlas rocket (weight—264,000 lbs.; thrust—360,000 lbs.; speed—17,400 m.p.h.) but the human ones: a boy perusing a rack of postcards, the Church of Our Saviour’s fundraising chart in the shape of a rocket, a Manhattan boy on the beach, a toy rocket in his hand, dreaming of flying to the moon.

Sasek’s cities became more than tourist destinations for me: they were sites of pilgrimage. I wanted to visit every place he had written about and painted. And when I discovered Sasek’s books on places I had already been—like This is Edinburgh—the books became like gratuitous scrapbooks of my own voyages, but better than my own photographs, because they ensured that I would remember those places to be as enchanted with magic as they really were.

I ate up every Sasek book I could find, but at some point in my childhood, the trail went cold, as it does in the dreary years of adolescence when you lose your orientation to the world. That’s what Sasek had given me: an orientation to a world that I didn’t yet know, a world in which surprises and wonders lurked in the open. But all was not lost in those wandering years. Shortly after I met Sasek, I also met another friend whose real name was also occluded by initials: J R R Tolkien.

It was only years later—not that long ago, in fact—that I learned that the M. stood for Miroslav. When my first son was born, I started looking for Sasek’s books to give to him. Fortunately, Universe Press (a division of Simon & Schuster) had begun issuing reprints in 2003. The first one I bought was This is Texas, which seemed a good place to start, since I was living in Texas at the time. I bought a reprint of This is Ireland and gave it to my niece. I gave a reissue of This is San Francisco to my brother and sister-in-law, who had lived there.

Amarillo Livestock Auction, from “This is Texas” 1967 (left) and the 2006 reprint (right)

But eventually I stopped buying the reprints. The colors in them were nowhere near as vibrant as I remembered them in the originals. When the thought struck me, I would seek out a used copy of a non-reprint Sasek, in the hopes that my boys would be able to experience an author the way I had. But they were almost impossible to find. On the extremely rare occasion that I did stumble upon a copy in a bookshop—as in the extraordinary Books of Wonder on W. 18th Street in Manhattan—it was a prohibitively expensive first edition. I didn’t want a first edition; I wanted books for my children that were already well-used, which they would not be afraid to touch and handle and love with their own hands. Over the years, I managed to pick up a few copies in decent condition, with the hopes of building a complete collection for them to draw from whenever they felt curious enough, or a need to wander without leaving home. But after a while, I stopped looking.

Then, in July of 2017, in the middle of a long road trip with my family, I was in Sandy’s Books and Bakery in Rochester, Vermont. I was supposed to be writing, but could not help myself from exploring the somewhat random collection of books on the shelves. There was much of interest—a great poetry section, a couple of books by Richard Halliburton that momentarily tempted me, a small collection of mostly obscure local authors—but nothing I couldn’t live without.

I had almost stopped looking and started writing like I was supposed to. And there, on the top shelf, in a place where it probably should not have been: a mildly battered 1966 edition of This is Cape Kennedy, a piece missing from the bottom of the spine and a piece of packaging tape holding together the top. I may have been shaking a little when I pulled it down. This was the same book I had read when I was a boy like my own sons. I may have even imagined for a moment that was the exact same copy. It wasn’t priced, and thankfully the bookseller did not realize what she had, or how much I was willing to pay at that particular moment, in that particular place, for that particular book. The cashier talked it over briefly with a manager-type, who was in the middle of steaming milk for someone else’s latte.

“Eight dollars seem fair to you?” she asked.

“Uh, yeah.”

I do not think my boys shared my giddy excitement when, later, I slyly lifted the book from the brown paper bag, as if unveiling a holy relic. It seemed as if it was just “that book” to them.

But I was not concerned. Because I know Miroslav Sasek.

Months later, I go into my ten-year-old’s room, looking for the book.

“Henry,” I say, “have you seen that Sasek book on Cape Kennedy?”

“Oh,” he says, extracting the book from in between his mattress and bed-rail.

“This one?”

Read more about Miroslav Šašek at The Sasek Foundation.

Dear Massachusetts

First of all, I am sorry.

I took you for granted. And you are not what I took you for, whatever that was. I don’t know that I had ever formed a full-bodied prejudice against you, nor an ill-will, much less outright malice. The truth is, I didn’t know you well enough to dislike you that much. It was more like a vague and hazy skepticism. Folks in my part of the world may assume that Massachusetts people feel that they are superior to the rest of us, but if they do assume that, it could be because they secretly suspect that you have a right to. Many times, this suspicion is not so much the fruit of direct interaction with natives of the Bay State, as the result of being teed off by some southbound snowbird on hogging the left lane I-95 in a heavily-laden Buick LeSabre with the fully-stocked clothes rack suspended over the back seat. “Come down here and act like they own the damn place,” I’ve heard said more than once. We don’t know where you’re going but we have a pretty good guess. We just wish you would get there in the right lane.

Turnabout, they say, is fair play. So summer of 2017 was my turn to be the over-laden jackass moving too slowly in the left lane (albeit with North Carolina plates barely visible through the arsenal of bicycles off my rear bumper) as I took a long family road trip through your state. If you had seen me coming up behind you in your rear-view mirror (which you probably wouldn’t have, since you were more than likely coming up hard on my tail), I’d forgive you for thinking the Georgia Bulldog on my front bumper had identified me as one more redneck in a bloated SUV coming up north to get the vapors over all your old buildings and drawl obnoxiously about how good the lobster is, as if we were the first people in the world to figure this out.

Maybe the suspicion is mutual, I don’t know. I may be writing this against my own better judgment, because I can already hear my friends in Georgia murmuring, “don’t say anything too nice about them, it’ll go to their head!” In fact, I was going to send this to you a few weeks ago, but after flying Delta to New Orleans ahead of the Patriots-Saints game along with a fuselage full of Bostonians not at all bashful about flashing their five Super Bowl rings to unsuspecting Louisianians, I thought twice. Maybe there was some wisdom in those voices I was beginning to hear in my own brain. I didn’t want to give New England any more cause for Yankee sass than a Patriot beat-down in the Superdome was sure to send them home with.

But.

I will not speak for my fellow Southerners, but I have to confess: I was wrong about you.

My hitherto unfounded annoyance at Massachusetts may have stemmed from plain-old, chicken-fried jealousy. But also ignorance: I thought Georgia had the prettiest beach in the country (still do) down on an island I don’t want to name because I still return to Georgia quite a bit and I don’t want to be responsible for a horde of Yankees descending on our pristine beaches and then, a few years from now, seeing a bridge built out to the formerly car-free island, and then watching helplessly as a Caesar’s Palace goes up on the beach (I know that’s a New Jersey thing, but to most Georgians that is a distinction without a difference). I didn’t realize that Massachusetts even had beaches to speak of—much less ones composed of actual sand—until one day my parents’ friend invited us for lunch at her country club in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

Manchester is as white as a loaf of Wonderbread, but on the Singing Beach, people of every color and size and shape had come to frolic at the edge of what Melville calls “the image of the ungraspable phantom of life.”

On the Singing Beach my attitude about Massachusetts—such as it was—changed, as if the tide swept out an old idea and threw ashore an entirely new one. I thought of buying a Red Sox cap to show my newfound admiration for the place. But I didn’t do it. I couldn’t do that to my kids.

Look, I know I saw some of the nicest bits of Massachusetts, and may not be getting the whole picture. I know you’ve got your problems (I’ve seen Mystic River and The Departed). I know you may not all feel that Ben Affleck has been good for the state.

But: I came to Massachusetts a skeptic. I left a fan.

I grew up attending baseball games in an very sixties circular stadium, which was torn down after thirty years of use and replaced by a beautiful new park built in the throwback style of Camden Yards and named after a mouthy television mogul, until that was abandoned after not quite twenty years for a new stadium in the burbs named for a big bank.

You still have Fenway Park.

I’ll be honest. I’m jealous.

My hometown is obsessed with reinventing itself, and has a habit of tearing down perfectly good old buildings to replace them with glistening new ones in a protected battle of architectural soullessness. I don’t want you to misunderstand me: Atlanta is a great city—a great, uniquely American city, but it is American in a different way than Boston is American.

Now bear with me a second; this is going to get a little theoretical, but I’m just trying this out.

Boston’s Americanness is historical, genetic, architectonic, memorial. Atlanta’s, by contrast, is second-hand, accidental, conceptual, amnesic. Atlanta is the embodiment of the American urge for re-invention, the lust for the new. It’s the epicenter of the idea that steady commerce can cover over a multitude of sins of the historical past, that if you just stay busy enough you won’t come to hate your neighbor who, frankly, is a bit of a jackass. Atlanta–“the city too busy to hate”–has thrived on a kind of deliberate amnesia, built its reputation in the image of the mythological phoenix, who supposedly burst into flames and then rose from its own ashes. Boston, for good or ill, is marked by monuments to its own history—living spaces like Boston Common that remain sites for the continued enactment of the American experiment. In Atlanta, one is presented with a blank slate of history: be whoever the hell you want to be, we don’t care. Just don’t go stirring up old ghosts.

In the new SunTrust Park—a spectacular example of the contemporary idea of the ballpark as multimedia-entertainment venue for all ages but mainly children whose attention spans cannot be entrusted with a full nine innings—no memory of Hank Aaron’s record-setting 1974 homerun lingers in the air. It was the most important episode in Atlanta’s sports history, possibly, but no one I know talks about it. Vin Scully called the game in 1974, and he wasn’t oblivious to the historic quality of the occasion:

“What a marvelous moment for baseball, what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.”

Hank was one of the greatest all-around players the game has ever known, but the field where The Hammer officially became the greatest home run hitter there ever was is no more. No future for the field where he was accompanied rounding third by two long-haired white boys in bell bottoms (for the great accomplishments of black men in Atlanta couldn’t come without a gesture of white qualification or approbation), where his momma hugged his neck after he crossed home plate, where Chief Noc-a-homa, descended from his tepee in left field, shook Hank’s hand. It was all terrifically bizarre, an especially Atlanta sort of weird. But you can’t imagine any of that in SunTrust Park.

I imagine, though I don’t know because I have never been, that you can sit in the grandstand at Fenway Park and almost feel the Big Green Monster reverberate with the hollering at Ted Williams’s final homerun in his final at bat. I can imagine, though I don’t know, that in the stands at Fenway, over nachos and Sam Adams, you still talk about it as if it were yesterday. John Updike, who was in the stands for Ted’s final game, talked about it in a famous essay in the New Yorker in 1960 called “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”:

“Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We Want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he refused. Gods do not answer letters.”

They may not answer letters, but in some places they still haunt the rafters. You may secretly resent all the historic sites that attract tourists like me who clog up your ferries and sidewalks during the summer months. If there’s one thing to envy y’all for, it’s the fact that you have ever-present reminders of the history you can never wholly outrun, and of the hopeful expectation that living memory can generate. The gift of a complicated historical memory is better than willful oblivion.

In Atlanta, few people remember Hank’s historic moment.

In Boston, you are still waiting for Ted to emerge from the dugout and tip his hat.

Please don’t stop.

 

 

 

Sea Stories

We hit the ground running from Rochester to Rockport, Massachusetts, where we are meeting my parents and my brother and sister-in-law and their three kids for a trip that Mom and Dad have given us for Christmas. Mom has been going to Rockport for painting workshops since the early 1980’s. My only impression of it is a watercolor she made of Motif No. 1, the iconic red lobster shack that overlooks the harbor, an image of paradoxically enduring fragility. Rockport is a special place for my mother, and it doesn’t take us an hour to figure out why. It has attracted artists like mom for years for good reason: the light is other-worldly, a particular manifestation of that maritime light that seems to bring out the essences of things.

Setting out on them high seas
Feels just like being born

By the time we drive up Yankee Division Highway onto Cape Ann, Sturgill Simpson is on the main deck, but I am starting to hear another voice from the deep, hauntingly encircling the Landcraft: Herman Melville. I recall indistinctly the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick, about how the sea holds both unfathomable mystery, terror, and solace all at once.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an underhand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feeling towards the ocean with me.”

Rereading these lines not a hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean, I am struck by how much darker they are than I remember. I’ve taught Moby-Dick several times, but in trying to read it like a professor, I missed so much: the existential urgency, the grim despair and near-suicidal impulses that only the encounter with the sea can draw down. I don’t share Ishmael’s chronic despair, necessarily, but in this spot especially, I understand what he means. An experience at the shoreline is not just a witness of something sublime and majestic; it is a confrontation–with eternity, with death, with nothingness, with oneself. The sea is, Melville writes, “the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

As I’m standing exposed to the winds at the sea’s edge, suddenly this doesn’t feel so academic anymore.

Nor do other voices that once felt so safe in the classroom. T S Eliot spent summers in Gloucester as a boy, and he titled the third of his Four Quartets after a rock formation just offshore of Rockport called The Dry Salvages. The poem is shaped by the region far more than I realized, and reading it with these very rocks just over my shoulder, it hits me the same way Melville does.

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity

The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.

Rockport is just north of Gloucester, the first seaport in the country, and long a storied terminus for countless successful fishing expeditions and almost as many failed ones. Gloucester was the final landfall for thousands of men who left looking for a big score—cod, swordfish, lobster—and never returned. In Gloucester, mom points out to me a “widow’s walk” that she painted thirty years ago, and I realize it’s not just a metaphor. Anticipation is written into the cityscape of Gloucester, in its architecture of grief, of expectation, of hope against hope. Maybe nowhere so poignantly as atop Our Lady of Good Hope, a Catholic parish built by Portuguese fisherman in 1892. In between two blue-capped spires, a statue of the Virgin Mary looks out over the harbor. In the crook of her left arm she cradles a fishing boat like her own little boy.

Closer to shore, along South Stacy Boulevard, a wind-beaten fisherman at helm looks out in a similar way. The centerpiece of a haunting memorial to the lost fishermen of Gloucester, “The Man at the Wheel” is suspiciously reminiscent of the logo for Gloucester-based Gorton’s Seafood, a stark reminder of the price really paid for fish sticks. The pedestal beneath him is inscribed with a passage from Psalm 107: “They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships,” and around him a series of bronze plaques record the names of over 5,000 fishermen who were lost at sea. The real figure is probably twice that.

It is staggering.

Later, on Old Garden Beach in Rockport, my boys play with their cousins on one of Eliot’s “losses:” a fragment of blue foam washed up on the beach, which they repurpose into a sailing vessel or boogie board. They clamber up the rocks, and to each of the mounds of granite reaching into the sea they give a name: Mount Henry, Candler Peak, Mount Marion, Port Charles, Mount Wannahockaloogie.

They do not know Melville or Eliot—or Sturgill, really—but they seem to intuitively sense what each of them—and all of us—feel. An urge to give our own names to things, a desire to secure ourselves fast to solid rock against the vast, forgetful deep. A wish to be remembered, to play at the edge of time.

 

 

 

Two Ways to Overdose on Sturgill Simpson

On the same weekend as our unexpected encounter with purple martins on the White River, my close friends from college are gathering for an annual get-together on Lake Murray in South Carolina. While I am off the grid in Vermont, they will be taking a sunset boat ride to an island in the middle of the lake where a huge colony of purple martins will come home to roost.

Chris is texting me from his Gamecocks folding chair, while the others are standing around the corn hole pitch, beer in one hand and bean bag in the other, or just watching the action. Chris tells me they’re just hanging out, listening to music. I ask him what, but I don’t need to. It’s the same soundtrack as the last time I was able to attend Lake Weekend, two years ago: Sturgill Simpson. As a gesture of long-distance camaraderie, I call up Sturgill on iTunes in Vermont. In a rare moment of cellular access, I can get one song to download.

For the next week, “Sea Stories” is the only song I can listen to on my phone. I play it hundreds of times, trying to get these lines down:

Well now you hit the ground running in Tokyo
From Kawasaki to Ebisu
Yokosuka, Yokohama, and Shinjuku
Shibuya, Ropongi, and Harajuku
Aw, from Pusan and Ko Chang, Pattaya to Phuket
From Singapore to Kuala Lumpur

By the end of the week I have almost got it, and have driven my family nuts listening to the same damn song over and over and over again.

“Noooooooooooooo!!” Henry calls from the back seat at the sound of the nautical bell that opens the tune.

We don’t make it far enough into the song for me to remind Oliver that “Dam Neck” is just a place and not a dirty word. It wouldn’t make any difference to him; he’d bleep it out anyway.

Sturgill is singing about shipping out on a US Navy frigate to Japan, but I feel his pain when he says “my life’s no longer mine.”

Over the Bent World Broods

It’s pouring rain on the day Charlie decides to sit out Suzuki violin camp. He could have picked a better day to play hooky, but there’s no staying put. Mama is not going to allow that. As we drop her and Henry off, she suggests we go for a hike. I bristle, and make that face that makes her want to punch me.

It’s not really a great day for hiking, I say, and as the words are coming out of my mouth I already regret them.

It’s no longer raining when we pull off at the Riverbend site off of VT 100, but the weeds—or “native flora”—are laden with rainwater, bowing into the overgrown trail that hasn’t been used in a while. They are over George’s head, and Oliver’s too, in places. By the time we reach the eponymous bend in the White River, we are all soaked to the skin. George, as usual, is begging to get buck naked, but he becomes distracted by a stick, and stays clothed.

According to the seventh-century theologian St. Maximus the Confessor, human beings possess two forms of will: a natural will (which inclines us to our natural ends, like eating when we are hungry), and a “gnomic” will (which makes us deliberate about means to ends). Natural wills do not hesitate, but gnomic wills do. If you pause to consider before acting in a way that you know is good, then that’s your gnomic will working. This is why, Maximus says, Jesus did not possess a gnomic will: he obeyed the will of the Father without hesitation. I don’t grasp all of this well enough to explain it to anyone, but whatever Maximus is on about, I realize one thing after the Riverbend hike to the White River.

Jesus may not have had a gnomic will, but I sure as hell do.

I’m not worried that I don’t completely understand the concept, because I don’t completely understand myself. I did not hesitate to concoct a 4000-mile road trip with four small children, but I hesitate to go on a short hike in the rain. I never said to myself, “but it might rain,” when thinking about the close-quarters marathon adventure. But when presented with a minor and not very arduous quarter-mile walk with three kids into the dense, wet brush, I hesitate, and come up with all sorts of dumb reasons why it isn’t a good idea.

It could be that I am just lazy, or irrational, or some perverse resistance to ideas that are not my own.

Like the soggy hike to the river, which is one of the best things I do in Vermont.

When we arrive to the river’s edge, there is a small sandy bank where George promptly begins beating the water with his new-found stick. On a tiny island of sand, Charlie starts construction on earthworks to dam up the flow of the river. Oliver takes to swordplay, finding long branches to poke into the sand straight up, then whacks them down with another stick. This is a perfect spot to wade in with a fly rod, but that did not make the trip. I perch on the edge of the bank a few yards up, and look.

The White River arcs away to the right behind us, beyond which a smoky mist broods over the Green Mountains. Purple martins fly in low from upstream, just above the water’s surface, foraging for flying insects. Their calls echo the sound of the river itself: bubbling, gurgling, joyful. From this particular spot, they rebound strangely from the concave hill behind them and sound as though they are calling through a pipe.

It is magical.

On the walk back to the Landcraft, we get drenched again, and I have only one regret: hesitating.

 

“Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time,” or something

It’s over 900 miles from Hull to Asheville. According to the GPS, this will take us approximately fourteen hours. Piled into the Landcraft just shy of lunchtime, we are ready for it.

The boys are urging me to drive the whole way. We won’t get in until 2:00 am, I tell them, but this hardly registers with the creatures in the back who have no sense of time. But turning south on to Nantasket Avenue, I tell myself—and Meredith—that we can totally do this. We have been on the road for five weeks, and we are ready to get home.

I set the bar too high for this trip. I planned it as if I were traveling with Meredith alone, and not with four children whose bowel movements sometimes define the itinerary. Early on, I had to temper expectations, align them more with the reality of riding with people whose interest in architectural and historical milestones does not always match my own obsessions.

And on the last day, I am true to form, setting the bar too high. One half of me is completely convinced that if we hunker down and power through, we can make it to Asheville by early morning. The other half is the rational one.

When we pull over in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for dinner, it’s clear we’re not going to make it to Asheville tonight. Not by a long shot.

It is dusk when we find a curbside parking spot that does not require a two- or more point maneuver or the use of the reverse gear that led to an almost near-miss in Tarrytown, NY. (The tire of my bike grazed his fender. No blood, no foul.)

Thanks to Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown” and Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” I expect this former epicenter of American steel production to be a hell hole of urban despair and blight, a decaying ghost town haunted by specters of soot-coated, out-of-work men of steel crushed by hardship and oblivion.

My sweet Jenny, I’m sinkin’ down
Here darlin’ in Youngstown 

King Steel is long-deposed from Bethlehem. Gigantic, sprawling brick and steel factories hulk silently by the railway lines, but the broad main avenues of town are lively with foot traffic, men and women gussied up for dinner and/or a drink. Across the Lehigh River, the Bethlehem Star—avatar of Bethlehem’s biblical namesake, its Moravian founding, and the steelworkers who built it—shines atop South Mountain. Apparently Bethlehem is going through a bit of a revival, which I might know if I were the type of person who reads Money Magazine. According to Money, Bethlehem is in the top 100 American cities to live in.

There’s something surreal about it all–a particularly American form of surreality in which life emerges amidst the dead wastes of outsourced industries. Think Detroit or the Mississippi Delta. Cars and cotton. They used to be the engines of the American economy, but when jobs went elsewhere, so did the life of those places. As with the Delta, life (of a sort) has returned to Bethlehem thanks to a strange patron.

The slot machine.

Approaching Bethlehem on East 4th Street north of I-78, it’s hard to miss what looks at first like a huge steel truss bridge suspended in mid-air. It appears to go to and from nowhere. Emblazoned on its middle, the over-sized red logo of Sands Casino. Turns out it’s a crane, not a bridge, but still serving a purpose for which it was not made.

Perhaps this is consistent with the state of our politics now, but it’s still worth thinking it odd how much small-town, rural America is increasingly becoming a series of outposts of Las Vegas.

I’m not the only one in Bethlehem setting the bar too high. People used to come to Bethlehem to pluck iron ore from the hills; now they come looking for gold.

WHERE THE WITCHES AT!?

I really wanted to love Salem.

We’ve rolled into town fresh off a children’s book about famed local architect, Samuel McIntire, which Meredith found by accident at a used bookshop in Vermont. We are eager to see some McIntires. I come prepared to love the town that produced Nathaniel Hawthorne. 

But at the corner of Essex and Washington Streets, my blossoming imaginary love affair with Salem comes crashing down faster than you can twitch your nose.

 

First, let’s back up.

Some years ago, during a meeting of the Salem Chamber of Commerce, one of the Chamber members expressed concern that tourist dollars were on the decline. How, he asked the session, are we going to bring money back into this town?

“Hawthorne used to be a big draw, you know,” one member said, “but nobody reads him anymore. Hell, nobody reads anybody anymore.”

“There’s only so much financial mileage,” another said, “you can get out of The House of the Seven Gables. It’s been good to us, but I think we need a new angle.”

[Pensive silence, punctuated by occasional Dunkin’ Donut chewing and slurps of Dunkin’ Decaf.]

“What about a new angle that’s not a new angle?” asks the newest member of the Chamber,  who campaigned on a “fresh air” theme.

“I’m not following you. What are you talking about, new guy?”

“Look. Let’s be honest. People come to Salem for one thing. Let me give you an example. I was walking through the Museum Place parking lot not half an hour ago, to this very meeting in fact, and a group of folks from New Hampshire pull up in a big van. Ford Econoline, I think. Anyway they slide the big side door open and spill out all into the parking lot. They’re looking all around going, “WHERE THE WITCHES AT!?”

“So what’s your point?”

“People want witches. So give ’em witches.”

OK, fine: none of that ever happened. But it could have. It would explain why Salem in 2017 does not at all resemble the Salem of the 1937 WPA Guide to Massachusetts.

This is one of the risks you take when you use a WPA Guide as your benchmark: often it can be a reminder of what a city once was, but is no longer.    It can function less as a travel guide than as a catalog of loss. The WPA Guide calls Salem “New England’s Treasure House.” Its description of the town foregrounds its former most famous son, Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Here are the haunting shades…of every character Hawthorne created, of his old houses impregnated with supernatural influences, and of the eerie atmosphere that still lingers in the narrow streets which the master of delicate implications frequented.”

Today, that is not the dominant impression. Salem reminds me of the City of London: a historically important center of culture and commerce bombed-out and later rebuilt during an epidemic of enthusiasm for poured concrete, a few architectural diamonds remaining in the rough. Salem today feels more like what might happen if an 80’s concrete car park married a New Urbanist outdoor mall, and held the ceremony inside one of those gigantic temporary tents set up to hawk Halloween costumes. It is not uncommon to see women (and men) dressed in Wizard of Oz-grade witch outfits milling about. It’s possible they are members of the Chamber of Commerce. I passed one on Essex Street once, and then twice, and then three times, as he went back and forth along the sidewalk as if he wasn’t sure where or who he was supposed to be.

That’s Salem today: even the witches don’t know where they’re going. They’re bloody everywhere, though. Every other shop is witch-themed, but for all that there is none of the spooky menace or eerie exoticism of the WPA Guide’s description. It’s all terrifically tepid, a brilliant example of the quintessentially American capacity to turn historical tragedy into tabloid triviality.

So at the corner of Essex and Washington, tourists are preening and posing for photos next to a bronze statue of Samantha, the adorably benign character from Bewitched. My heart sinks.

But I can imagine how that conversation went down in Chamber.

“So we need a mascot. Somebody everyone loves.”

“Are we still talking about witches?”

“Yes, keep up! We need a lovable one. What witches do we know, Herman?”

Herman scrolls through the Rolodex, turns up nothing. “Well there’s that one from that TV show. She’s just a doll!”

“Is she from Salem?”

“Well, no, I don’t think so–”

“Who cares! She’s a witch, Herman! We’re a witch town, she’s a witch, it makes perfect sense!”

An exhibit about ocean liners at the Peabody Essex Museum is a refreshing reprieve from the relentless witch-o-rama outside. It’s also an opportunity to tell my kids that I once had bunk beds from the SS United States, which still holds the record for the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic. I don’t know if my boys are impressed by this or not, but it almost feels like I did something cool once.

After we exit through the automatic doors George is obsessed with, the museum closes down behind us. We load up the Landcraft and leave Salem without seeing a single McIntire.

 

The World is Always New

It all started with John Smith.

America, yeah, but also our hare-brained international road trip with four boys and an expanding load in the cargo hold.

Jamestown was our first stop, over a month ago. We left Asheville in late June for the Outer Banks, to spend a week with Meredith’s family twenty miles or so from where the English first attempted to establish a colony in the new world. With a high-pressure charter from Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh led an expedition to North America, which landed on Roanoke Island in the summer of 1585, the same year William Shakespeare began his acting career. There were 117 of them then.

Five years later, every last one of them had disappeared.

En route to the Outer Banks, we made a slight detour north from Durham on I-85, eventually landing outside of Jamestown in the vast, faux-colonial metroplex of suburban Williamsburg, where everything there is designed to match the über-retro red-brick-and-dentil-moulding vibe of the place, and go with the non-non-conformist spirit of the age. One plus is that you can imagine  yourself as an eighteenth century-surgeon as you swagger into the colonial–themed CVS in search of tweezers to extract a twenty-first century hex-nut from your two-year-old’s nose without the use of anesthetic. Cosplay breeches optional.

Before we left Asheville, Meredith and I watched Terrence Malick’s beautiful, underrated 2005 film about the Jamestown settlement, The New World, because as parents you get to watch movies as “research” and then tell your children that it’s much more virtuous to read old books instead and that watching movies is for lazy, soft-brained miscreants who have no future and who will bring down civilization with their slothful indolence.

Meanwhile, the boys had been reading all about Smith and John Rolfe, Pocahontas and Powhatan, and the first English settlement to stick. As I navigated the Landcraft up US 13 along the Delmarva Peninsula, Meredith sat wedged between two children on the third row, reading from Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s Pocahontas.

Since then, we have driven almost 3,000 miles, and ended up in Hull, Massachusetts, the last stop on our big journey before we begin the re-entry procedure on Thursday. Hull is the northern terminus of the Nantasket Peninsula, an abortive strip of sand insinuating itself into the southern rim of Boston Harbor. It is reminiscent of the Outer Banks where we began: sound on one side, ocean on the other, and not a mile’s breadth of land in between. The culture in both places partakes of the universal flip-flops-and-cut-offs spirit of beach towns, where bad puns about venereal disease feature prominently in the names of seafood restaurants.

Hull, where we have ended up for no reason other than the price of a house big enough to accommodate my large and loud entourage, is named for the great university town in England (or, if you don’t catch that reference, see Blackadder Goes Forth, episode five: “General Hospital”). Having just come off an amazing week with my family in Rockport, Hull does not exactly radiate glamour.

But the couple who live here permanently on the ground floor of the house we’re staying in fell in love with it a few years ago and stayed. The beach is not Santa Monica, but it’s twenty minutes by ferry from the middle of Boston, and it’s a beach.

The next town over, Hingham, is home to the oldest continuously used church in America. The Old Ship Church was built by actual Puritans in 1682 but today is used by actual Unitarians, which, I am confident, would really piss off the Calvinists who built the place. But there we are. You can’t plan these things, and in the spirit of ye olde Massachusetts “transcendental metaphysics and catchpenny opportunism,” better for a church to be used as a church than a carpet warehouse.

Old Ship was built with the help of Samuel Lincoln, who came here in 1637 and promptly put down some serious roots. At an intersection near the center of town is a monument to his much more famous great-great-great-great grandson, Abraham. He is seated in a characteristically pensive pose, thinking perhaps about the unfathomably fragile contingency of history, about the weird way that without Hingham, Massachusetts, American history would look a lot different.

A few miles southeast of us is a coastal hamlet called Cohasset.  An old friend of mine, a Jesuit priest, tells me it’s one of his favorite seaside towns. He tells me that the Jesuits have a retreat house there. And it turns out to be—unsurprisingly—the swankest place in the neighborhood.

But Cohasset also turns out to have another connection. Its colonial history goes back before Plymouth, to 1614, when it was “discovered” by an English explorer with some experience in the new world.

His name: John Smith.