Salvy’s Savoy shack should have been the perfect launch pad but it was more of a lily pad, a place to contemplate the universe and lunch, not launch, on the occasional dragonfly.
I needed a launch specialist, not a philosophical frog, not a short Italian metaphysicist however sweet his song.
I needed a kick in the pants, not a treatise on art in the renaissance. I needed a good night’s sleep and maybe a good ‘talking to.’ I left the next morning with my intellect illuminated but my physical self tired and irresolute, yearning stay in Savoy while hoping to reach Ithaca by the early afternoon.
It’s not wise to start a journey moving in two – or more – directions.
The idea, as I noted earlier, was to trace the route that I might take back, on foot, so as to avoid unnecessary mistakes, unrequired climbs, unforgiving terrain and otherwise hostile territory and to somehow take note of all of that – to scrawl it all in my little black notepad – to prepare the way for my return.
I was Hansel, leaving breadcrumbs on the Interstate.
I was Hansel, leaving business cards with librarians, Rotarians, gas station attendants.
Cold calls, that’s not a metaphor or a weather forecast, that’s what I had to do, make cold calls, knock on doors, introduce myself, explain my mission and make the sale. But was anyone really buying ‘world peace’ these days or, as I was calling it, ‘community.’ And if they were why would they buy it from this vagabond, this long-hair, this ex-fake news dispenser, the stranger.
I didn’t’ have a clue. I was making it up as I went along. I was inventing this walk as I walked – or drove as I was at this point – I had no problems with that. I have always thought making it up as I went along was my particular skill.
So unlaunched I just left.
I drove back to Route 2, stopped with Salvy to pay homage to a 350 year old tree that overlooks the gorge there then headed west, through Williamstown, Williams, Billytown and the like, navigating hairpins and s-curves and steep, steeper, steep as hell grades and probably less than an hour from Salvy’s pad the road flattened some, straightened out a bit and I calmed down as well, enough at least to see if not where I was going where I was at.
To the rootless ‘where I was going’ is a place, and ‘where you are at’ difficult to place.
Where was I at? I was headed into the unknown, seeing faces in clouds. My all-knowing iPhone however assured me that I was actually someplace specific, captioned a photograph with the quaint name “Cropseyville,” a village of Grafton.
According to wherethehellamikipedia Cropseyville is a hamlet in Renssalaer County and was named for prominent citizen Valentine Cropsey.
I stopped to take a picture of one of the banners hung from telephone poles around town, banners called “Grafton Heroes.”
I parked under the banner of “Merritt E. Wagar, army, Tech Sgt, 1942-45,” which featured a tinted picture of a smirking Wagar, arms folded, one hand clutching a cigarette, posing in in movie star fashion.
A hero? Why, I wondered? Because he died? Because he served? I liked the idea of personalizing community heroes, but wondered if there were towns that I would stumble upon somewhere along my route that saw fit to give teachers, librarians, even the local press equal billing?
After Cropseyville it was Troy – “The Hill” my phone named it, the picture showing a long descent into a nondescript city.
Topography is the first hint that you are not in Kansas, or Massachusetts, anymore.
I was in the woods of Savoy in the morning, high in the Hoosacs, and in the turn of a page I was in the ugly of Albany. Why is this the capital of New York, I wondered out loud?
Do you talk to yourself when you are alone in the car? I am quite animated. Why is New York not the capital of itself, I huffed? What would Albany have become if it had been left alone, I asked an unresponsive audience?
I have learned to judge communities by comparing their Greyhound stations. Albany’s is particularly depressing.
I was trying to avoid the interstates: believing that I would not use them for the walk so just outside Albany, a few miles to the west, I found myself within the “Albany Pine Bush:” surprising that my phone would recognize and name an ecological identity. Coincidental at least, that I should come upon it.
It would be nearly 100 days of coincidences, synchronicity, magic – call it what you will – but on day two it was just a coincidence.
Still it made me smile seeing where I had come to, where I was at, what I had stumbled upon.
In the years since I first admitted out loud to the idea of “walking home” I had come to realize that home, or the hometown, is not simply comprised of people, not simply comprised of people organized into altruistic organizations, not simply the result of effective, human-scale government, and not the sum of all that divided by history and multiplied by art and music and literature. Community, I had come to realize, demands an environment as well: environment from the ground up, not just parks and recreational fields but real earth, the natural environment, native species, the water and the air and everything in between.
You cannot have community without environment: you can have the hope of community, but without a connection with the earth between, beneath and around our manmade world community cannot flourish.
We have so much of that in my hometown, in Plymouth, in the home I was leaving behind to have the pleasure of walking back to: so many rare species and wonderful vistas – much of it in the form of what is called the Atlantic Coastal Pine Barrens – and here I was on the outskirts of the famous Albany Pine Bush, a similar ecological phenomena so I had to, didn’t I, had to stop at their “Discovery Center,” just outside ugly Albany.
I felt as if I had picked up a flat stone on the shore of a familiar lake and had set it skimming across the state: where it came to rest was the Albany Pine Bush.
I wandered inside.
It was really the first of my cold calls. When she asked, as she would, “how can I help you,” I had to tell the young woman working there that day how I was driving across the country so I could walk back and how significant it was for me that on the edge of my world I had come upon an outpost of the world I was leaving behind.
I had to conveigh all of this calmly, concisely, without smiling like a madman or shedding a tear.
The smiles of strangers. There are so many and so often they are anything but welcoming. The arch of a brow, the slight tightening at the corner of the mouth, nervous movements of the hands – and words that often belie the panic that lies just underneath.
I remember now – months later – a New Mexico State Policeman who pulled over behind me as I walked along Interstate 40 and sounded his klaxon: I had been scrupulously staying to the right to give the never-ending steam of semi-trucks the opportunity to avoid running me over like a bug but, he insisted that I had wandered too close to traffic, that’s why he had pulled me over or, more accurately, pulled in behind me.
In the whine of the semis I didn’t hear him, until the klaxon, and so I practically came out of my shoes when he sounded that digital horn.
When I came down though I remained calm. I slowly turned and, with a hunch of my shoulders, bid him instruct me. I knew the drill. He motioned that I should approach his car on the inside and I slowly walked to that side as he lowered the window.
What struck me the most was this maniacal smile that he had glued to his face. I am sure that he was schooled in the proper way to approach the potentially mad. ‘Don’t stop smiling,’ he was told. Even as you interrogate the suspect keep smiling.
It must have been painful, to smile like that.
It is I think, at the very least disconcerting, when we encounter a stranger.
At this moment though the smile, to mangle a phrase, was on the other foot.
What could I do with what they showed me, what educational innovations they might have on display, what preservation techniques they might employ, what passions they might communicate except to put them in my pocket like beautiful pieces of beach glass, and hope that they might still be there tomorrow and tomorrow and that at some point, on my return, I could find a place for them on my bureau.
What would I be able to do with all of the kindnesses that people showed me as I moved across the country?
It is easy to dispose of rudeness, to dismiss indifference, even hostility: they accumulate like coffee cups and fast food bags along the periphery of our consciousness but rarely impede our way.
Kindness and consideration and good will though?
I had to find a way to do justice to charity and it struck me at that moment that no matter how open-ended my journey was, how indefinite each day, how unsure I was of what would come next that I still had to work on being in the moment, on being brave.
For as I contemplated the beauty of that preserved land, that oasis of un-development, I couldn’t help but worry about how far I had to go, how few hours of sunlight remained, how I had no pad, lily or launch or other waiting for me on this second night.