I grew up on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. At the other end of the bridge was the wider portion of the world. It was the escape from parochial suburban concerns and into a life infinitely richer. 

New York city was not just the gateway to the larger world, it was the larger world. 

One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother taking me at age three, maybe four, into Manhattan to see the Christmas display windows at Macy’s department store. I remember being frightened by the subway and being returned like Odysseus from the underworld up to the snowy Seventh Avenue. 

It was only a few years after the war and the city was still the one described by E. B. White in Here is New York, published a year after I was born. It was the city of yellow cabs, of subway roar under the sidewalk grates, Con Edison steam pouring out of street vents. The Third Avenue El blocked the sky and the Horn and Hardart automat flipped out sandwiches and soup. Barges carrying freight cars crossed the Hudson from Weehawken and Hoboken; Penn Station and Madison Square Garden — the old one — were still standing. The GWB was still only one level. Skyscrapers were still mostly stone, brick and steel. The Empire State Building was still the tallest in the world. 

When you are young and the world is that new, every encounter with it imprints and becomes the ur-version of your Weltanchaung. Everything you later learn is first compared with these initial impressions. 

And so, two great geographical “gods” I grew up with were the Hudson River — every other river until I crossed the Mississippi failed to earn the name — and New York City. A city wasn’t a city unless it had sun-blocking canyons of impossibly tall offices, apartments and hotels. If it didn’t have a subway or a ring of bridges and ferries. Or the wharfs with their ocean liners and longshoremen. 

As I grew up, the city remained the touchstone not merely of urban-ness, but of civilization itself. It was where I went to find bookstores. There was Little Italy, Chinatown, Harlem and Spanish Harlem. I saw Puerto Ricans and Arabs, Norwegians and Hindus. The idea of a mixed population seemed absolutely normal. 

As White wrote, “The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.”

And all that makes a kind of poetry: “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal [combustion] engines.”

That music includes the sound of jackhammers, car horns, squealing bus brakes, street-corner arguments, police whistles, sirens, and on special occasions, marching bands. 

Through high school, and later when I returned home from college, I would take the Public Service bus to the bridge and walk across it from Jersey to Manhattan, looking down on the way to the little red lighthouse. Up past Cabrini Boulevard to the 175th Street IND subway station where a 15-cent token would take me anywhere in the city: Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Modern Art, the Sheridan Square Paperback Corner, the Hayden Planetarium. 

The city became so much a part of my world-view that it took traveling halfway around the world to break me open. That is the importance of travel. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” wrote Mark Twain. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

The Mississippi River was more river than the Hudson, and the Columbia was a drained a greater area. The St. Lawrence was a wider gouge on the continent. And once I left the New World and stood on the banks of the Rhine in Dusseldorf, I marveled at night over the racing current and the moon reflected in the waves — so big a river and so rapid a flow. This was the Rhine of the Lorelei and the Valkyries. Robert Schumann wrote his Rhenish Symphony in Dusseldorf. 

And so it was with cities. Philadelphia and Chicago were smaller imitations of New York, but so many others created their urban civilizations on other patterns. I would have to come to terms with Los Angeles, with Seattle, with Miami. 

I had avoided LA for many years — decades, really — with the unearned disapproval of an East Coast snob. It wasn’t really a city at all. What did Dorothy Parker call it? “Seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.” 

LA was the city where the people who pass you on the freeway are always better looking than the people you pass. The city where all the women are beautiful and all the men wear shades to protect their eyes from the shine of their own smiles. 

My tune has changed. After many trips to Southern California, I have come to love LA, with all its traffic and sunshine. 

Los Angeles is genuinely cosmopolitan; I feel there as I must likely have felt in Amsterdam in the 17th century or Venice in the 16th century. I cannot remain awake and self-satisfied at the same time.

St. Louis

Of course, when something is cosmopolitan, that means it includes a great deal we might feel uncomfortable about.  

Mystery writer Walter Mosley wrote, ”It’s a land on the surface of dreams. And then there’s a kind of slimy underlayer. The contrast of beauty and possibility and that ugliness and corruption is very powerful.”

You ride up over Sepulveda Pass on the 405 and spread out before you is all of the San Fernando Valley, one vast Vaseline smear of suburbia and middle-class values — and you know that this is the world capital of porno films.

From Simi Valley to Costa Mesa, you find every food, every culture, ever language, every social class, every fast-food joint. There is high culture at the LA County Museum of Art and history at the La Brea Tar Pits; there is outdoor dining at the Farmers Market on West Third Street and Fairfax; there are the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills, pecking at the ground like so many chickens. 

When my late wife and I first began to travel, we avoided cities. As long-time Easterners, we were besotted by the empty West and its long horizons and open skies. Driving down carless roads that measured straight for 20 miles or more at a stretch, wiggling in the distance through the lens of desert heat, it was the isolation that fascinated us. Cities only slowed things down and gummed them up with stoplights and bumper-to-bumper glue. 

It was only later that the cities opened up their gifts to us. Since then, I have come to love several cities, and cherish their idiosyncrasies and talents. 

First among these is Paris. I have been back many times. It is so different from New York, so compact, so comfortable. You can walk almost anywhere, and with only a miserly few skyscrapers, it is a human-scale place. In New York, restaurants can seat hundreds at a time; in Paris, a typical restaurant has maybe a half-dozen tables and only two workers: the waiter and the cook. 

Tourists think of Paris as the Eiffel Tower or the streetside artists of Montmartre, but we never went there. Instead, we walked the streets near where we were staying and got to know the butcher, the florist, the baker. A morning visit to the patisserie for a pastry, a stop at the bookstore to pick up a Pleiades edition of Victor Hugo, a duck-in to a small neighborhood church that has been there for only, say, 400 years. 

Cape Town

The most beautiful city I have ever seen, based on its setting and geography, is Cape Town, South Africa. It sits in a bowl surrounded by peaks, including Table Mountain, which is a long, flat cliff over which a fog often drapes, like a tablecloth. The streets are wide and sunny, and the houses clean in the sunlight and often brightly colored. I was there near the end of the apartheid era, and while the Afrikaners to the north held fast to their racist ideology, in British-heritage Cape Town, I saw black and white Africans comfortably together on the beaches, despite its being technically illegal. 

Chicago (left) and Johannesburg

Back north in the former Transvaal, the city of Johannesburg, or “Jo-berg,” was more familiarly urban. In fact, if you didn’t know where you were, you could easily confuse the city with, say, Chicago. If you thought of Africa as elephants and zebras, the high-rise congestion of Jo-berg could come as quite a surprise. 

Durban

I have a special warm spot for the city of Durban, on the Indian Ocean, with its thick tropical humidity and dense pack of various humanity.

Seattle

I lived for a while in Seattle, and came to love it for its weather. What elsewhere might be called rain is hardly noticed in Seattle, unless it’s a downpour. Most days, it seems, the air just hangs with a slowly-dropping mizzle. The city is built on hills, and you are always going up or down, and until the recent and ugly development of a self-regarding amour propre, Seattle was a kind of forgotten city. That was the city I came to love. Now, it is overrun with Starbucks and hipsters. It used to be cool; now it knows it is cool, which is never cool. 

New Orleans

New Orleans is a city I used to despise. I thought of it as infested with cockroaches and humidity. But as I’ve gotten older and have begun to decay myself, I find a bit of deterioration admirable. Now, it is one of my favorite cities. How can you not love a place where the restaurants feature 60-year-old waiters in formal dress? 

San Francisco

There are other cities I hold dear: London; Oslo; Vancouver; Miami; Mobile, Ala.,; Halifax, Nova Scotia; San Francisco; St. Louis; Tijuana — yes, if you leave the tourist center, it is a wonderful city. 

Las Vegas

And there are places I have never come to love. I really dislike Las Vegas, for instance. It gives me the creeps. I see those retiree women sitting at the slots, their eyes turned into lifeless ball bearings in the soulless, windowless casinos with their dead, ringing bings. The horror; the horror. 

Atlanta seems like nothing but traffic; Dallas like endless freeway flyovers; Houston like a fungus that grows to eat up a wedge of southeastern Texas. Once you enter the city limits, it seems as if you can never get out. Houston covers more ground than Rhode Island, and paints it with minimalls, Comfort Inns and tire dealerships. 

Phoenix

I have been avoiding mentioning Phoenix. That is because my feelings are ambivalent. I have always called the city “Cleveland in the desert.” It has little actual character and the roads are as regular as jail bars. I lived there for a quarter century and came to love many things about it, and made many friends, who I now miss since I left. But the city itself has little to recommend it, outside of being in the middle of a desert paradise. Of course, you have to drive at least 60 miles in any direction to even get out of the city into the desert, and the remoteness of the desert only increases as the city expands. 

Yet, even in Phoenix, I get the feeling of civilization — both good and bad. Civilization is defined by cities. Before cities, life was villages and farms. After the growth of Sumer and Ur, and the creation of writing and the spread of trade and political power, it became possible for the cooperation and interaction that cities allow. 

And, even if an urbanite doesn’t leave his city, he will encounter those who have come from elsewhere. He will be forced to give up his “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” City life tends to make one cosmopolitan and therefore, tolerant. Maybe not universally, but largely. 

It explains, in part, the vast political gulf we face, not so simply between red and blue states, but between urban and rural. As cities grow, the nation gets bluer. If we encounter what is “other” and discover it is not, we give up fear and dampen hatred. Cities work because everyone has to put up with everyone else. It is what makes New York such a model. 

“The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity,” wrote White. “The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. If the people were to depart even briefly from the peace of cosmopolitan intercourse, the town would blow up higher than a kite.”

But it doesn’t. Not normally. In fact, the diversity of the city is more than merely tolerated, it is enjoyed: Who would want to live in a city where you could not get a good mu-shu pork or a good osso buco; not find a movie theater showing the latest Iranian film; not be able to buy a kofia and dashiki; not hear a Baroque opera? 

Asheville

I have learned to widen my definition of what counts as a city. Even the Asheville, N.C., I now occupy has, in its tiny compass, an urban feel. The downtown is old and brick, and pedestrians walk up and down its hills. The stores and restaurants are busy and it is hard to find a parking spot. It is a concentrate of urban-ness. I can eat Ethiopian injera or find a well-used copy of Livy. It is a blue city in a red state. And thank the deities in the stars for that. It still echoes the New York that is buried in my deep heart’s core.

Click on any image to enlarge

Reidsville is a small town in north-central North Carolina halfway between the city of Greensboro and the Virginia border. It was once the home of the American Tobacco Company and at the north end of downtown is a huge factory complex with a smokestack that still says “Lucky Strike” on its shaft. 

Like so many Southern towns, there is a main street where the shops are found, and a parallel street where the old factories and warehouses are located, with the railroad tracks running alongside. This pattern is repeated throughout Dixie, but is especially common in the Piedmont, which was once the industrial heart of the Southern states. 

The downtown in Reidsville is not as vibrant as it used to be. There are many empty storefronts and some of those have been filled with “antique” emporia and consignment shops. I don’t want to imply it is a dying town; in fact, it seems quite happy and busy, even though its heyday ended with the closing of the tobacco plant. 

There were also textile mills and other factories and their old buildings, now repurposed or abandoned, line the back street and railroad tracks. I find such relics irresistible. 

As I explained in the previous blog entry, I am compelled to make things — the compulsion is itself a relic of the old Protestant work ethic; I feel guilty if I am not producing something. So, as a retired writer, I still pump out blog entries, and as a former photographer, I am still driven to make images. These usually group in series; which I call “projects.” For years, I made serial images of gardens, always meant to be seen not singly, but as a cohesive group, rather like a book. I hope each image can stand on its own, but it is not designed solely for that purpose. 

In the entry previous to this one, I presented bits of a series of fruit and vegetable images, and a recent bunch of “tree nudes” — winter trees with their branches and bark naked to the weather. 

I also spent a day driving the industrial streets of Reidsville, looking for the past poking through the present. Along SE Market Street, alongside the rails, there are the shells of old warehouses and factories, textured with brick and sometimes closed off with tornado fencing. 

I have been fascinated by such places since I was a boy, loving the less visited side-streets in New York, looking at old apartment buildings and second-story residences above storefronts. There is something about the edge of decay that is beautiful. A fresh new building just seems unripe; one that has been settling for decades, even a century, has gained character.

This is something like the Japanese esthetic concept of wabi-sabi, or an appreciation of the imperfection and impermanence of things, and why a Japanese potter will often crack or warp a vessel before firing it, finding the result more beautiful than bland regularity. 

In the past, when I made photographs of old buildings, I made them in black and white, which seemed a way to emphasize form and texture, and was then the accepted presentation of “art” photography — color not making it into most museums because of its perceived impermanence (consider your old snapshots, turned magenta and faded. A museum didn’t want to pay good money for an artwork that would go south in only a few years). 

Black and white was what all the photographers I admired used (with a few exceptions). And if I looked at one of Walker Evans photographs for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, I found beyond the images of poverty, a way of making beauty out of decaying architecture. 

One of the few classic artworks I actually own is Evans picture of the Rock Hill Cafe in Alabama. It is beautiful and I love it. 

But as I get older and as technology has improved and my perceptions have changed, I find myself making color photographs more often, and often the color is the point. So, I might see an old welding shop in Reidsville and see it in monochrome.

Or I could present an old rusted doorway in B&W

I saw, though, a range of subtle color that just delighted my eye. 

Interestingly, Evans himself took up color and in the 1960s made a series of color photographs of old buildings. His materials were not as good as we have now and the color never completely satisfied him. 

Walker Evans 1960

There have been some truly impressive color photographs made by such artists as William Eggleston, Eliot Porter or Ernst Haas. They forced me to reconsider the esthetics of color.

To say nothing of the melancholy and beautiful streets of Edward Hopper. 

So, I drive through the streets of Reidsville on a December morning and see so many absolutely beautiful wrecks. Because it is cold, and because I am old and my hams have gone weak, I aimed my camera through the opened side-window of my car and made my series. 

There were times I parked and got out of the car, but mostly, I made the window-height camera a part of the esthetic — or I’m just lazy. 

I drove down Market Street and up the other side of the tracks, then crossed back by Harrison, Gilmer, Settle and Williams streets. There was beauty everywhere. 

The question of whether what I have made is art no longer interests me. There was a time I wanted to be an artist, but now my emphasis in not at all on how I am seen or judged by others, but rather the direct fact of making stuff. It matters little what it is called. 

The photographs are my way of engaging with the world, reminding myself to see it and see it whole, not just the sunsets and mountainscapes, but the sagging doorways, too, and the cracks in pavement. The way the clouds gray-up and dull the shadows till they flatten completely. The roundness of an orange, the spatter of mud on my tires, the layers of paint on my back porch. 

I now consider this engagement far more important than the artifacts that results, however much fun it is to share them. 

I have talked with my brother about this, who is an artist — a real one, with sales and exhibitions — and he rather laughed. “What do you think an artist is? A vocation? Something you go to trade school for, like plumbing or accountancy?” 

The urge, the need to make things, he said, the fact that you do it makes you an artist, whether you think of yourself that way or not. Being an artist is not so lofty a title; it is simply something one does. 

And so, I drive up and down streets looking at the world that amazes me, and I find color and shape and texture; shadow and highlight; past and present; banality and transcendence.

Click on any image to enlarge

I don’t know if it is just me, or my generation — a cohort of Baby Boomers who once felt, or more precisely, knew they could change the world for the better (sigh). 

Or perhaps it is some random mutation of the Protestant work ethic. I think of stately plump Buck Mulligan telling Stephen Dedalus, “You have the cursed Jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way.” Only, in my case, it is a dour Lutheranism, a faith I have never believed in nor practiced, yet discover somehow in my Scandinavian blood, where it lingers and makes me feel that if I am not working, not producing, I am not making quitrent on my existence. 

It is not simply a compulsion to work, but a crippling sense of guilt if I do not. The joke is that I am fully aware in my rational mind that there is no reason to feel this way. I am 71 and no one will threaten me with a cat-o-nine-tails if I don’t pull my oar till I drop dead. I worked steadily during my working years, and even after I retired, I managed to pump out more than 500 essays on this blog in just a few years. 

When I was employed, even on my vacations I managed to squeeze out travel stories for my newspaper. I was writing all the time, and making the photographs to accompany those stories. “Your business is producing; your business is producing,” a tiny Stalinist voice is grinding in my subconscious. 

So, even now, five years on from my paycheck, when I go visiting out of town, I am compelled to spend at least a portion of my time on one project or another. Several of these projects have been displayed on this blog over the years. One such project was to photograph nothing but circles; another to photograph ceilings and floors; another to document every house on a given street. 

Well, I am just back from visiting my brother- and sister-in-law. I drive three hours from Asheville to Reidsville, N.C., several times a year to spend a few days with them. He is an artist of some reputation; she keeps him in line. And this time I managed to work on three different ongoing art projects. 

The first I’ll mention is a series of images of fruits and vegetables in bowls. A bit of the round rim usually crosses and edge of the frame. I love the organic and geometric shapes interacting. 

I am also responding to a famous sumi-e Zen painting by the 13th century Chinese artist Mu-Chi, in which he lines up six persimmons and cleverly evades the monotony of an even number of fruits by making three groups, of one persimmon, of two, and of three. I have always loved this painting.

There is no way I can ever match it. But I have my own interest in the roundness, the ripeness and the color of fruits and vegetables. 

There is a one-off I made this trip. Looking out the window in my bedroom and seeing the branches through the Venetian blinds, I was reminded of a three-part Japanese shoji screen. 

The second project is a continuation of a lifelong fascination with the complex, ungovernable patterns of tree branches in the winter. I always think of them as a metaphor of the tangle of axons and dendrites in the human brain. The macro mimics the micro. 

It is a series I have called “tree nudes,” and I feel toward the rough bark, the curves in the tree trunks, the graceful dance of the end-twigs in a breeze as a similar kind of sensuousness you find in a classic nude painting or photograph. 

I made my first tree nudes at least 50 years ago and my solander boxes are filled with old silver prints I made from that point until I gave up chemical photography and took up digital. Now my hard drive is silting up with jpeg tree nudes. 

I used always to photograph in black and white and tree nudes are a perfect subject. The trees are usually rather color-drained in the winter and their silhouettes are perfect for a monochrome. But I have also discovered the magnificently subtle colors that can be found in a completely grey image. Grey is never just neutral; it always hints at something on the color wheel. 

In my senescence I have discovered color. I never thought to think in chroma, perhaps because color film, whether Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Fujichrome, or Agfacolor, was always such a poor conveyer of color. A Kodachrome image looks jammed with Kodachrome colors, not the colors of the world. And transparencies never printed out well enough to make a satisfyingly crisp picture. Even Cibachrome looks always like a Cibachrome. 

But, for some reason, my own sensitivity to color has rejuvenated and I find myself seeking out images that work best in color, and I like the look of digital color, which I can control so much better, thanks to Photoshop, than I used to be able to control the color of a transparency or a print from color negative film. 

Almost all my art has been unmanipulated. I am not a fan of solarization, double exposures or all those godawful “filters” that Photoshop provides. But I did make one experiment this trip. 

The tree nudes were inspired, perhaps, when I was a teenager visiting the Museum of Modern Art in Manahattan — I lived just across the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey — and I came to love the great Jackson Pollock hanging there. The business of the paint drips was the first neuronal metaphor I was aware of. 

So while in Reidsville, I made three photographs of some vines out the front door. Here’s one of them as an example:

I then edited the three images, lightening them up, and layering them one atop the other. The result is my simulacrum of a Pollock, only with the lines and shapes of nature. 

I made a second version in which I tinted one of the images yellow, a second one cyan, and the third magenta, so they might make a color version of the monster I had created. 

Finally, I had my third project this trip. I sought out the older parts of Reidsville and made a series of images of post-industrial Piedmont. For those images, I will wait for the next posting. 

Click on any image to enlarge

In October my ex-wife and I decided to take a drive from Asheville, N.C., to Sullivan, Maine, to visit our old college friends, Sandro and Mu. This is Part 5 and the conclusion of that trip. 

We left Sullivan on Friday, Oct. 25, and made it easily to Portsmouth, N.H. On the way north we took a desultory route with side trips and excursions. On the way south, the plan was to stay on the interstates and make time. I generally despise interstate driving. One such road looks very much like all the rest and you share the way with gargantuan trucks and impatient drivers who believe that no matter what speed you are driving, it is never enough, so, get the hell out of my way. 

There was one stop on the way, however, that took us off the four-lane. 

Oct. 26

We had tried to visit Walden Pond on our way up to Maine, but it was so clogged with traffic and visitors, there was no possibility of parking. “We can see it on the way home,” Anne said. 

When I was a young man, my attention was split between books and what we nostalgically used to call nature. I had a life list of birds and could identify any tree or wildflower by popular and scientific names. I was a hiker and once attempted, with my second unofficial wife, to traverse a large chunk of the Appalachian Trail. 

The one hinge that swung both worlds was Henry David Thoreau and I read everything he wrote, including his journals, which come in at 14 volumes and each of those come in at an average of 500 pages. 

There have been four writers who have most influenced my own feeble scribblings. They weren’t so much models as they were permissions. Henry Miller gave me permission not to care too much about being literature, i.e., to lose my self-consciousness about writing; Edward Gibbon gave me permission to write long sentences; Herman Melville allowed me to hide philosophizing in cryptic jokes; and Henry Thoreau taught me to think directly in imagery and metaphor. 

  “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”

I still read Melville and Gibbon with pleasure; I cannot read Miller anymore — he was a passion of my younger shallower self — and Thoreau I can seldom tolerate. His prescription for living now feels hyperbolic and not a little selfish. 

But I still love — and I use that word advisedly — love Walden Pond. I cannot count the number of times I have visited. I came to see it first with my second unofficial wife and have been back over and over. I have walked its circumference it three times, written about it too many times, both for my newspaper and for my blog. 

We must each have our sacred spaces. Places we go to for recharging, for awe, for a recognition of the larger things, for connection or reconnection with what matters. I have maybe five or six such locations on the planet. Walden Pond is one of them. 

When I first visited, the pond was just a place outside of Concord, Mass., who only a few students of American literature ever visited, except in the summer, when it was the swimming hole for locals, most of whom probably never connected it with one of the classics of American culture. It was a place I could consider proprietary. Only us acolytes knew or cared. 

Now, it is a spot on a tour bus itinerary. Hordes of people show up at the 335-acre state park during summer months and there are multiple parking lots, a visitor center and worse — signage. 

Yet, still, under it all is the 64-acre lake, the trees, underbrush and the birds and insects that populate it. 

We arrived in early morning, it is chill and the only visitors so far are several fishermen and a kayaker. I walk past the reproduction cabin, peek into the window and continue on downhill to the water. 

It is the height of fall and there are trees of bright red and yellow. 

I don’t have time to circumambulate the lake one more time, but I did walk about a quarter of the way counterclockwise around its shore. I do not need to do anything; just stand there as if soaking up the sun’s rays, but soaking up instead the sense of connection with: nature; time; history; literature; my own past; the sky; and what is beyond the sky, pebbly with stars. 

And finally, my recognition that this is almost certainly the last time I will ever be able to stand on this sandy, watery edge. Travel has become difficult, and what travel I still have in me should aim at the many other holies that need valedictory visitations. 

So, I walk back uphill to the car and head south through Connecticut, New York and New Jersey before finding a motel in Easton, Penn. I feel the loss of leaving Sandro and Mu, and of leaving behind Walden Pond for a last time. 

Oct. 27

What a satisfying end to a horrible, horrible day.

We left Easton, Pa, in a simple rain, but in only 10 miles or so, it became a Niagara. The sky was slate and then got darker. The windshield wipers could not keep up with the downpour and I had to slow down, not that anyone else did.

We were on I-78 and about an hour in, we hit a work zone in which there was no shoulder and a concrete wall on either side of the roadway, leaving no wiggle room. The visibility was often only a couple of car-lengths in front of us. And then — And then the semis would pass (I called them “bruisers”) and kick up a wash that blinded me entirely. I tried desperately to maneuver so that the truck would pass me on a straightaway, but of course, that wasn’t always possible.

The bruiser would pass and splash and I would have to slow down to 20 mph on the interstate, knowing that the vehicles behind me weren’t going to do the same thing.

I entered a completely Zen state, if you can call it that, or “wu hsin” — “no mind.” The Zen master attempts to get the student to empty his mind so that it is not processing any words, not thinking about plans or the future, not remembering past delights or grudges, but to be wholly in this moment, very like we believe animals must be.

Well, that pretty well describes the situation. Nothing was in my mind but concentrating on keeping the car in the road, in this moment, now, with no thought even of what might be around the bend. Nothing existed in the entire universe but this Buick on this road in this precise, rolling instant.

At one time or another, the dark lour would seem to lighten and gave us hope that the weather might break, but then it darkened once more and buckets poured onto my windshield and another bruiser passed, hissing up a gusher.

We crossed the Squeaky-Hannah River and continued down I-81. The sky cleared, the sun came out and the roads dried. I still flinched every time I saw a bruiser in the rear-view mirror, but I soon got over that. Pumped up to 65 mph and cruised into Chambersburg, Pa. and went on to Winchester, Va., and got a room. I have to say, I was blasted. The intensity of the drive through the weather took every ounce of constant focus I had, both hands on the wheel, grabbing tight and eyes bulging out wide staring through the windshield and glancing back through the rear-view. The expression “holding it in the road” took on new and immediate meaning.

I plopped down on the bed in our room and tried to keep the flashback to a minimum. Anne went to sleep. I couldn’t. We rested for a couple of hours and then the magic happened.

Anne searched on her phone for a place to eat and found what she called a Popoo-Syria. At first I didn’t understand, but as soon as I did, my face must have ignited like a skyrocket. I burst a giant grin and said: “Pupusaria. It’s a pupusaria! I haven’t had a good pupusa since leaving Phoenix.” I think I may have done a little jig.

“Where is it? Is it close?” This was important. I don’t know Winchester and was afraid I would never find it. Anne gave me the address; I punched it into my Google maps and lo, it was exactly one block from our hotel.

“I’m not really hungry,” Anne said. But she came anyway. We found the joint, a little storefront hole-in-the-wall — just as it should be. I ordered a couple of pupusas and a plate of fried platano with crema. An horchata to drink. The only people there spoke Spanish. The waitress could barely put together a couple of words of English. I felt completely at home. I spoke my best laughable Spanish. “Me gusta la comida.” It fulfilled every desire I had for pupusas.

Anne had one, too, a chicken and cheese pupusa and judged it “really good.” She actually liked it.

I sat there in the booth with a great shit-eating grin on my face. “Estoy muy feliz,” I told the waitress. I sat for a moment soaking up the pleasure, nay, almost ecstasy.

Back at the motel, there is a Halloween-themed wedding party and the halls are filled with costumed guests yelling, screaming and dancing. As I pass the hotel laundry room, the door is open and inside I see a pony-size fiberglass horse. I have no idea why. 

Oct. 28

Interstate 81 runs down the Shenandoah Valley along the western edge of Virginia. It is a chute-the-chute towards home. The Blue Ridge to the east and the long, low Allegheny Mountains and Massanutten to the west. 

We stop for a leg-stretch at Valley Pike Farm Market in Weyer’s Cave, Va., and Anne looks for some gifts to take back to her friends in Augusta, Ga. 

We make our night — the last one on the road — in Radford, Va. and find a chain restaurant for dinner. Tomorrow, home. 

Oct. 29

We shift from I-81 to I-26. As we near the North Carolina state boundary line, the highway twists through the mountains again on the way down towards Asheville. I begin to see familiar landmarks. There is a nervous sense of homecoming. 

We got home about noon. Total mileage for the whole trip: 3,419.3 miles. Finally, I pull up the driveway. 

“Look, a bear.”

“Where?”

“There. No. Up in the tree.”

We pulled up the driveway and turned the car off and I spotted a bear up in the tallest oak tree in our back yard. It was a young bear; not a cub, but not fully adult either. 

It was walking out on a branch about 30 feet above the ground. 

“No, wait. Two bears.”

There were two bears in the tree. I couldn’t get a photo of them both, because the one was around the back side of the tree trunk, mostly hidden. We watched for several minutes.

The second bear turned out to be an adult; I guess the mama. There were dogs barking in the next yard, behind the screen of trees and brush. We guessed that may be why the two bears were up in the tree. Anne went inside, since it seemed nothing was happening. I waited and saw the grown-up bear begin to descend, head downwards then turning around to shimmy down behind-first. Again, it was mostly on the far side of the tree and obscured by twigs and leaves, so I couldn’t get a decent photo. Then, I didn’t see either one of them anymore. 

A little later, dogs began to bark on the other side of the back yard, so I assumed the two had ambled on towards the woods and the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

My closest friends know who that bear was. 

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In October my ex-wife and I decided to take a drive from Asheville, N.C., to Sullivan, Maine, to visit our old college friends, Sandro and Mu. This is Part 4 of that trip. 

Oct. 21

State mottos. “Virginia is for lovers.” “West Virginia: Almost Heaven.” New Jersey: “Home of  Jimmy Hoffa.” And Maine: “The way life is supposed to be.”

I need to catch up on a few things I’ve passed over so far. One of these is Mount Desert Island, or MDI as it is called here. One of the things Anne wanted to see was Bar Harbor, MDI, and Acadia National Park. 

Perhaps I am too jaded: I’ve been going there since 1978 and in the summer, it is so jammed that you can hardly move an elbow without stabbing the next guy. This was October and the crowds have drained out, although even a fall visit means traffic. 

We took the park road around the eastern lobe of the island. There are parking turnouts along the way, but as we drove, each was filled. A few places along the one-way road have a parking lane on the right, and we squeeze into one or two of those to get out and look. 

MDI is shaped on the map something like a lobster claw, with eastern and western halves, divided by a long, narrow inlet called Somes Sound. The busier half of the island is the east. The posher is the west, although if you continue on the loop road past Southwest Harbor and back up the westernmost coast, it is pretty much wilderness.

Most of the national park is in the eastern half, and the road passes Thunder Hole, Monument Cove and places so scenically perfect you can believe you have entered an idealized simulacrum of reality. 

Finally, there is the road up Cadillac Mountain. It rises above the tree line to a rocky crest and a parking lot, filled with people making photos and filled with tour busses. 

The view is stunning, and we can look out over Frenchman’s Bay and see Schoodic Mountain, which sits over Sullivan. 

That visit was earlier in the week, but on this Monday, we head west from Ellsworth to the Big Chicken Barn, which is an antique and used book store west of Ellsworth; it is the size of an aircraft hangar. You can’t really compare it to any other used bookstore. When you are at one end of the books and look south, you cannot actually see the south end of the building.

And unlike so many mini-mall used bookshops, it isn’t filled with paperback romance novels, but with the real treasure a booklover seeks: Old books printed with letterpress type on rag paper, bound in leather or buckram, all piled on unfinished shelves like so much cordwood piled in a shed waiting for winter. One could browse for months. 

The problem I had was that although there were tons of books that caught my attention, and that I sort of wanted, there were none I could justify buying and adding to the midden of books already at the house. As I have gotten older, I am divesting my home of books more than acquiring them. It’s one of the things that comes with age and retirement. 

I did finally buy Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Bound, a compilation of all the Nathan Zuckerman books Roth wrote. I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read any Roth. I am now making up for that.

We were originally planning to leave on Wednesday and head home to Asheville, but Anne is having back trouble and is flat on a heating pad today. At 1 p.m., she has an appointment with a massage therapist. So we are waiting to see if she feels better after that, and will now probably leave on Thursday. Or Friday. Or Saturday. Anyway, we expect to be back before Halloween.

While Anne is having her back rolfed, I will be driving inland to find some good photos that are NOT of the rocky coast. And — more honestly — to listen to some Mahler on the car CD player as I drive. I miss my music. In the car, Anne would rather listen to NPR to keep up with the latest Trump news. Political chaos theory.

On the way out of Sullivan, I went to a Dollar General store. First time visitor. I was astonished. Anne swears by them, but I have simply never gone into one. As I left the house, I asked Anne if there was anything I could get her. She asked for a heating pad (the one she’s using is borrowed). I doubted they would have such a thing, but I said I’d look. When I got to the store (which is just down the street) it was as if an avalanche of American culture had its moraine enclosed in a box. I wandered up and down the aisles in rapt admiration, as if I were walking through a museum. They have pretty much everything.

The manager was a young man, about 25, with a a two-day growth beard and an apron, and he asked me if I needed help finding anything. “Do you have, by any slight chance, a heating pad?” “Yes, follow me.” He walked about five aisles over and down halfway toward the storefront and pulled a box from the bottom shelf. “Twelve Ninety-five,” he said. I added it to the armful of items I was purchasing: a box of kitchen trash bags, an extension cord, a micro-fiber cloth to clean the inside of the car’s windshield, a bag of Fritos, a 50-cent minbar of Dove dark chocolate to feed the monkey on my back, and a pretty green, leaf-design reusable shopping bag to carry it all in.

The trash bags were to help us with the refuse. In Asheville, we divide ours by garbage and recycles. Two dumpsters. But here, we had to go through the trash and separate the recyclables from the regular junk and all that from the compost. Three bags; one for each. In Maine, every can and bottle has a redeemable price, five to fifteen cents. Jay and Gina save them all up, take them to the redemption center (which doesn’t look at all like a church), and donate the money to an animal rescue fund.

I drove north of town, and cut east along Route 182 from Franklin to Cherryfield, a road that took me through endless woods and lakes: Fox Lake, Tunk Lake, Long Pond. I stopped at each and enjoyed the fall color

The color reflected in the water

The reeds along the shore

Driving for me is relaxing. 

Traffic was light to the point of being almost non-existent, and the hour-and-a-half of puttering along was exactly the right length to listen to all of Mahler’s Third Symphony. 

Oct. 22

Anne and I went to a local quickie grocery for breakfast this morning. Dunbar’s has been here in Sullivan since 1881. Obviously through several changes of hand or generation. It was going to close two years ago, but two hippies bought it and turned it from a 7-Eleven kind of place into an upscale joint where they had free-trade coffee and imported wines. They also added a lunch counter and a deli section. Anne wanted to try it, and so we went. She had a bacon and egg biscuit — normal for breaking fast — but I saw the daily special: two pulled-pork tacos. Loaded with lettuce, tomato, guacamole, onion and cheese. “Hold the sour cream,” I said, proud of my abstemiousness. They were yummy, but a bit sloppy. 

I walked up to the counter to ask for a fork to shovel up the overspill and mentioned to the counterman that when a Mexican makes a taco, he always uses two tortillas for each taco, the outer one to hold together the inner one. “This is Maine,” was his terse reply. With a smile; he wasn’t being snotty.

Anne planned to hit thrift stores with Mu, which left me free to drive up the coast to Corea, which is a fishing village on Schoodic Peninsula, just south of Gouldsboro. My goal was to drive as many back roads as possible, as deep into the woods as possible, and make as many photographs as possible.

I turned off the main road onto a dirt road and drove deep into the brush, before picking up pavement about a mile or so in, The road looped around the north end of a spike in the peninsula and I saw not a single other car for at least 10 miles.

I put 65 miles on the car during this jaunt. I drove down the road at 7 mph taking in all the view. If I saw something I wanted to photography, I braked, opened the driver-side window and poked the camera out and clicked. Everything I photographed during this portion of the excursion was on the driver’s side.

Corea is a rocky cove at the southeast end of the peninsula and a lobster fishery center, with a warehouse, dozens of dories and boats and, at low tide, as I came through, docks that towered above the floating boats below, waiting for the tides to rise and level them out. 

Corea was the home of the writer Louise Dickenson Rich, who wrote a famous best-seller in the 1950s titled We Took to the Woods, which is largely about Corea. Because of the boats and the wharves, Corea is one of the most photographed spots in Maine. It is picture-skew.

I then passed through Prospect Harbor, Birch Harbor and Winter Harbor and took the Schoodic Point loop again. 

The other day, when I was there with Anne, she got cold and tired and we didn’t stay as long as I would have wanted, but today I was alone and could walk down the rocks all the way to the water.

I am old. Way too old. I can no longer gambol over the rocks like a goat. In fact, I walked so tentatively, I moved rather like a tree sloth edging out on a branch. I scouted out a path along the flattest portions of the rock, making a circuitous route down to the water that probably stretched three or four times longer than the crow-fly route. Like little Billy in Family Circus cartoons.

There were a few iffy places where I had to jump over a crevice  or hold onto an outcropping as I needed to hold my balance. But I got down there, and enjoyed the barrenness, the isolation, the chill, the wind, the spume, the overcast sky, the numbness on my cheeks. This is the way the Maine coast is supposed to be.

Anyway, when I got back to the apartment where we are staying, Anne had bought another pair of shoes at the thrift store she had gone to with Mu. That makes four pair of shoes she has purchased on this trip. Sometimes the gender stereotype matches the reality.

Oct. 23

Sandro and Mu have been feeding us each night with such treats that they entice us to stay several extra days. There is the promise of duck and of Lobster Thermidor. 

“We’re not having that tonight,” Mu said. “We’re having red cabbage and apples with mashed potatoes and sausages.” The hidden agenda being that if we had what Sandro called a “junk meal” tonight, it would add a day to our stay, because we wouldn’t want to miss the lobster tomorrow night and the duck breast on the next and therefore couldn’t leave till Friday at the earliest.

It wasn’t a “junk meal” at all. It was really delicious. Mu grew the cabbage herself in a garden plot she shares with her sister in Hancock, which offers public gardening plots. The apples we brought from West Virginia. The mashed potatoes are Sandro’s specialty, loaded with cream and butter. The sausage was chicken. Mu has decided she will no longer eat any meat from a mammal. Chicken OK. Lobster OK. Cod OK. Pork — No-no. The sausage I had was spiced with jalapeños. All washed down with Stella Artois.

It’s supposed to rain tomorrow again. I probably won’t be traveling, but plan to spend the day with Sandro. We haven’t had a really good, thorough chin-wag so far this visit. Tomorrow should be the day.

All those years ago, when I lived with them in a country house in Summerfield, N.C., Sandro and I would climb out a dormer window and sit on the roof at night, smoking cigars and discussing deep and meaningful ideas. Mu allowed no cigars indoors. 

Sandro and I became friends 50 years ago at college and shared an enthusiasm for classical music. We have been brothers since then. When I went through some hard times, he and Mu took me in till I got back on my feet. 

Once, in the extravagance of young men, we listened to all 16 of Beethoven’s string quartets in one sitting, followed by another go in which we attempted all 32 of his piano sonatas. We were blasted before we could make it to the end. 

Now, in Maine, we are old men. 

To be continued

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In October my ex-wife and I decided to take a drive from Asheville, N.C., to Sullivan, Maine, to visit our old college friends, Sandro and Mu. This is Part 3 of that trip. 

Oct. 15

Sullivan, Maine, is a small community in Hancock County along the eastern edge of Taunton Bay, about a dozen miles east of the cutoff road to Mount Desert Island, Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. It is well outside the normal haunts of seasonal tourists, and just off of U.S. 1, which continues north to the Canadian border. 

It was founded in 1789 and was originally a fishing town, but later became prosperous by mining silver and quarrying for granite. The primary use for the rock was for making curbstones for cities further south. Several abandoned quarries are still found up behind town in the woods.

The stone was loaded onto ships at Gordon’s Wharf in Sullivan and shipped out past Sullivan’s most prominent feature: a two-way rapids at the mouth of the bay which shifts direction with the changing tides. The wharf was later used for lobster boats. the town is now home to about 1200 people. 

I wrote about Sullivan in more detail in a previous post. 

My college friends Sandro and Mu moved there in 1988 to live in an old white clapboard house about 100 yards off the road behind a stretch of woods. 

The two are an amazing pair. Mu has multiple graduate degrees and Sandro was a Classics scholar who reads Latin for pleasure. I count them as my closest friends for the longest time; it is always like coming home when I go to visit. 

And I’ve been up to see them too many times to count. Before the two got married, Sandro and I drove to Maine together some 40 years ago. I believe that is when he first decided he would eventually move there. 

A few years ago, Mu’s sister, Gina, and her husband, Jay, moved to Sullivan also. They generously offer their above-the-garage apartment to visitors. 

And so, Anne and I arrived in Sullivan by late afternoon on Monday and moved into the apartment. On Tuesday, Anne crossed item number two off her wish list by visiting the L.L. Bean in Ellsworth to find a new pair of shoes. Back in Sullivan, she napped in the afternoon while I listened to music and read some Melville. 

On Wednesday, all hell broke loose. 

 Oct. 16

A “bomb cyclone” is a new, fancy word for the storm that creates a “nor’easter.” We got hit on Wednesday night. 

The wind hit 60 mph. The rain came down in Niagaras. Windows rattled. Door was blown open. Morning came, the storm continued. In the dim light of dawn, I could see out the bedroom window and watched a 60-foot pine tree catch the wind; its tip was pulled off from vertical by 20 feet. 

It finally died down about 11 a.m. on Thursday, but no power anywhere in miles around. Power went out before dawn on Thursday morning. Trees were down everywhere. Most of coastal Maine was damaged. Over all New England, nearly half a million people were left without power. 

A bomb cyclone is said to exist when the barometer drops 24 millibars in 24 hours. Over the night, it dropped 24 millibars in 11 hours. I dropped 37 millibars in 24 hours. It was a mega-nor’easter.

We were basically on hold for three days. No electricity, no water (the well-pump runs on power), pouring jugs of bought water in the toilet tank so we can flush three or four times a day. Darkness after sunset (by 5 p.m., it is already too dark to read).

That meant not only no power, no internet, no cell phone, no recharging anything, it also meant no water, no stove, no refrigerator no way to wash dishes and no way to make coffee in the morning. Jay brought up to us a couple of jerry-cans of non-potable water to flush with. Sandro brought us a bag of ice to put in the fridge so the food wouldn’t go bad. 

The only heat was a propane stove in the living room, and the pilot light went out every time the wind blew. (Relighting it required getting on the floor with a flashlight and twisting dials and pushing buttons to get it to flame up again).

All day Thursday and all day Friday there was no power. Anne was getting a smidge petulant; she suggested she’d had enough of Maine and perhaps we should begin driving home NOW. She suggested we get a hotel room. She suggested perhaps I was the anti-Christ. I suggested she think of it all as a great adventure. “This is fun. Just think of it as camping,” I say. 

This does not go over well. 

Oct. 17

When the thing died down, we tried to drive down the street to see how Sandro and Mu fared, but a tree was broken at the base and leaning into the power lines, stretching them like a rubber band and threatening to snap them. We debated whether to drive under the tangle, and did so gingerly. Trees and branches were littered everywhere. Just before we got to Sandro and Mu’s driveway, a gigantic pine tree was broken into two 8-foot chunks in the road, one half on one side, the other on the other with just enough room for a car to slip between. 

The mighty maple tree that had stood beside their house was a shattered pile in the driveway. It missed their car by a few feet. 

“We heard a boom in the night, I thought it was thunder,” Mu said. “But it must have been the tree falling.”

We then went the 12 miles into Ellsworth to see if anyone had power yet. It was eerily quiet and empty. No power anywhere. 

Oct. 18

The third day and the power was still out. But the air had cleared and the sun shone again. We left the dark apartment and drove to Schoodic Point, which is part of Acadia National Park. 

Schoodic is one of my holy-of-holies, a windswept peninsula of rocks hammered by constant waves. If the weather is right, they crash into the granite and spray a hundred feet into the air. And, after the bomb cyclone, the weather was driving the water into the shore in massive bursts. 

It was still windy and cold, which turned my hands to ice and my face to a kind of numb leather. But it was perfect: This is Schoodic the way it is supposed to be, nature with unchecked energy. Spume, thunder and we were nearly the only ones there to enjoy it. 

Oct. 19

It is Saturday and there were trucks in Sullivan with cherry pickers and flagmen working on cutting down fallen and damaged trees and re-stringing wire. By about 3 p.m., power was finally restored and Anne could take a shower and decide that Maine was beautiful, after all. 

Sandro and Mu cooked dinner. He fixed some salmon and asparagus; she made apple cobbler for dessert. We sat around their dining room table, drank wine and talked into the evening. This is what we came for. 

Back in the apartment, Anne rested on a heating pad for her aching back and I sat across the room, reading under the only light we had on, which made a kind of warm, glowing light very like the candle light we had been getting used to. It makes a difference if you do that by choice. 

Tomorrow — laundry.

To be continued

Click any image to enlarge

In October my ex-wife and I decided to take a drive from Asheville, N.C., to Sullivan, Maine, to visit our old college friends, Sandro and Mu. This is Part 2 of that trip. 

Oct. 12

The plan was to drive no more than 200 miles a day. Yesterday, we did 305; today, we did 370. We woke up this morning in somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, and are going to sleep this evening in Massachusetts. Again, not our plan. But sometimes fortune intervenes. 

The problem, once again, was finding a motel. I’ve driven all over France, where the guide books tell you that hotels are scarce and you should always plan ahead and make reservations. We never did, but always found a place to stay, and some of the cleanest, best-designed rooms I’ve ever seen. You can’t beat the Ibis hotels. 

Who ever thought that we’d come a cropper in upstate New York or western Massachusetts? 

The day began well. A fast trip to the Delaware Water Gap and a slow 15 mph drive up the National Scenic Area along the Old Mine Road on the New Jersey side. At the visitor center the ranger told us to be careful of the potholes. “Some of them are bigger than I am,” she said. The road alternated between pothole pavement and gravel, with a couple of patches of new macadam. We played pothole slalom for most of the way, weaving from one side of the road — call it a path most of the time — and back to the other. For the first nine miles or so, we saw no other car, either coming or going. 

The Gap is a place where the Delaware River has cut through the Kittatinny Mountain ridge, leaving a notch in the hills. On the Pennsylvania side, Mount Minsi rises to 1,540 feet and on the Jersey side, Mount Tammany, about 20 feet lower.

The 40-mile stretch of the river and surrounding country is now the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, and the whole area has been a tourist draw since the 19th century, when landscape painters, such as Thomas Doughty, made scenic and romantic paintings of the region. 

It is also about 4 miles from where I went to summer Boy Scout camp as a boy.   

The Delaware River is gorgeous in the morning. We stopped away from the river at an old bridge and watched a couple of fishermen tossing their lines into the tributary creek.

Bear Mountain Bridge, Hudson River

Then we hopped back on the Interstate in Port Jervis, N.Y., and drove across Orange County and into Harriman State Park and Bear Mountain. By this time, Anne was feeling hungry and bladder-bloated, so we had to find a place to satisfy both urges rather than drive up Bear Mountain. 

So, off to West Point. In the town of Hudson Highlands we found a pizza joint — a storefront with three tables and a counter to order at. We asked the man if they had a bathroom. “No, no bathroom.” But, he said, “They have bathroom two buildings up street.” I hope you can tell by my brazen attempt to capture accent that he was not born in New York.

We walked up the street and found the public library, a tremendous old wooden building white with columns in front. Inside there was no one. You could hear the echo of your own footsteps on the wooden floor. But they had the conveniences that Anne required. We walked back to the pizzeria and had a damned fine pie. New Jersey style. The way it’s supposed to be.

Each time I drive anywhere near the tri-state area, I seek out a non-chain pizza joint to achieve that satisfying foodgasm of a New York pizza, the only real pizza to anyone who has grown up with it. 

Every region has its food chauvinisms. North Carolina barbecue, Seattle alder-smoked salmon, Philadelphia cheese steaks. One of the lesser regional contenders is the soft pretzel. These are the size of calzones, with a malty, bready interior and a thin crisp brown crust coated with kosher salt. They taste like nothing else, especially when they are still warm, and the only place to get them in their true form is in eastern Pennsylvania and in a belt up through New Jersey and parts of New York. Oh, you can find them elsewhere, but they are no better than the so-called “New York style” pizza you find in Kansas or Saskatchewan. Worse: the frozen pretzels you can find in the grocery store. 

Well, Anne, who has barely left North Carolina through most of her life, had never had one of these. We stopped at a turnpike rest plaza and I bought one for the car. She took a bite of it and decided she had to have another. And another. We spent a good portion of the drive all the way to Maine looking for another pretzel, but never found one. We had left the pretzel’s home territory. 

Anyway, we drove up U.S. 218 around Storm King, a great mountain of rock that juts out into the Hudson River with a tiny two land road curving around it above the water and below the summit. This is a road my family used to take when driving up to the family bungalow in West Park and the ride on the thin ribbon of road around the mountain was the part of the trip that I loved most, but gave my poor father white knuckles.

Finally, we got to Newburgh, where we had intended to spend the night. But, I thought — like an idiot — let’s just get over the river on the bridge. So, we crossed over the Hudson to the other side and immediately came a cropper on finding a motel. “Motels are often found along the freeways,” I thought to myself, so we turned north on the Taconic State Parkway. No hotels. No nothing. Robert Moses designed this road in the 1940s and must have purposely routed it through empty terrain to make a pleasant and green drive. But it meant no hotels. We drove for a hundred miles. No hotels.

Got off the parkway and back on U.S. 9, which is a commercial road. No hotels. We drove through Hudson, N.Y., home of Frederick Edwin Church’s Olana. No hotels. Up through Kinderhook, boyhood home of Martin Van Buren. No hotels.

“Route 9 will hit the interstate soon,” I said to Anne. “There are always hotels along the exits.” No, there aren’t always. The interstate turned into the Massachusetts Turnpike. We asked the man at the toll booth if there were any motels along the pike. “Yes, he said, every exit has them after Exit 2.”

We sighed relief and drove on. Turns out, the turnpike runs for more than 30 miles before any exit. We both thought of the old song about “running forever ’neath the streets of Boston.” The MTA.

The deal was that the turnpike runs up and over the Berkshires and there were no exits until the road came back down from the hills. Then we turned off into Exit 3 in Westfield, Mass. Hooray, a single solitary motel. I went in to sign up. No room. All full.

“There’s a dog show in town and a couple of 50th anniversary school reunions and a football game, so everything is booked. You might try the next exit; there are several hotels there.”

So, back on the turnpike to Exit 4. A Miracle Mile sort of place and several motels. But this time, I am pretty well blasted. We have driven 370 miles so far today. I pulled in to a Clarion Inn. Anne stayed in the car and I went into the lobby. Eight people were in line at the desk and when I finally got to the front of the line: “No, we’re all filled up.”

I drove up and down the highway, trying to get into motels that always seemed to be on the other side of the median, making me drive up the street to make a U-turn and back to the place. Full.

“There’s a Red Roof Inn over there,” Anne said. Up the road. U-turn. Into the lot. A room. A blessed room. A holy respite. Peace at last. Second floor, up the exterior stairs with all our bags.

“I’ll go out and get something for supper,” Anne said. She walked up the road to Five Guys and got a couple of greasy burgers and a bucket o’ fries and brought them back. We ate. We watched the glum news on MSNBC.

It was getting dark when we finally pulled into the motel. Sleep will be early tonight. Tomorrow, we head for Portland.

Oct. 13

We are in Portland tonight, at a La Quinta. We are wondering what is it about New England that they try to hide their motels? We came up I-95 into South Portland and took an exit that had a “lodging” sign by the roadway. The ramp emptied into a roadway that came to a stoplight in the middle of nowhere. All around us, vacant lots and empty fields. In the distance, a few office buildings.

I tried to find signs for the airport. Motels usually cluster around airports. But when I got to the airport: Nothing. We circled the airport and found zilch. How is this possible?

Anne thought she saw a Comfort Inn near the freeway, but when we drove to where she thought she saw it: Bupkis. We drove aimlessly for a while, trying to scare up something and finally drove by the La Quinta. Drove by is the operative word. It came up on us too fast and I was in the wrong lane. So, I tried to loop around, but faced a maze of one-way streets. Finally, we got there. It is the most expensive hotel I have ever stayed at, but I wasn’t going to venture out into the jungle again to find something cheaper.

Earlier today, we drove through Concord, Mass. When I first visited Walden Pond, so many years ago, I remember we were dreading that it would turn out to be a tourist trap. We imagined fast food restaurants and miniature golf. But when we got there, there were only a few parking spots beside the road and no one at the lake except a couple of fishermen with their lines in the drink.

I’ve been back to Walden Pond maybe a half-dozen times, maybe eight. I have circumambulated it three times. Each visit back, the site is a little more built up. Still just a wide spot in the road, except for the swimming beach on the east end. Walden Pond, it turned out was the local swimming hole. The last time I was there, for the newspaper, someone had built a replica of the original cabin across the street from the pond.

Well, this time, it was the full catastrophe: Tour busses, parking lots, a new visitor center and the street choked with pedestrians crossing from their cars to the beach. I got into the line for the parking lot, but when I got up near the turn-off, I could see the cars extending like a freight train into the distance and so decided to drive off without visiting the shrine.

“Maybe it’s because it is a weekend,” Anne said. “Maybe we can come back on the way home during a weekday. Maybe it’s because it’s Columbus Day weekend.” I dunno, but it was Myrtle Beach all the way. How horrifying.

The other misadventure was Kittery. It was lunchtime and Anne was hungry, so I got off I-95 and looped into town on U.S. 1, only to find it was clogged with tourists. We found a Dunkin’ Donuts and had a sandwich and got back on Route 1 heading north. At Ogunquit, we found the highway turned into a parking lot. The road into downtown was stock still. It took us nearly an hour to get through town. We felt a teensy bit better on traveling north as we watched the parking lot headed south go on for miles and miles, much worse than we had it going north. Phew.

Anyway, as soon as we could, we got off Rt. 1 and back onto the interstate and cruised into Portland.

Tomorrow, to Augusta, Rt. 3 to Belfast and then zip the rest of the way past Ellsworth and into Sullivan.

Oct. 14

We have arrived in Sullivan, Maine. It has been a drive of 1472 miles. The fall color has been absolutely neon. I don’t remember the last fall with this much color.

It is overcast and chilly this afternoon, and although it is only 4:15 p.m., it is already getting dark. We are a touch on the pooped side, and will probably turn in early tonight.

To be continued

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This past January, my first ex-wife and I observed our 50th wedding anniversary, but also 47 years of divorce. Between that rupture and last year, we hadn’t talked or seen each other. 

But about a year ago, we reconnected and agreed to drive with each other to see our son in Austin, Texas. That trip proved so agreeable, that she suggested a longer trip. I offered that we drive to Maine to visit our college friends, Sandro and Mu, who live in Sullivan, Maine, north of Mount Desert Island. And so, we made plans. 

Anne and Vanessa Redgrape

When I was young, I thought nothing of driving six- or seven-hundred miles in a day. But my old bones cannot take such treatment anymore, and so we decided not to drive more than two hundred miles in a go. That limit was tested several times during the trip.

We figured it would take about six days to make the 1200 mile drive. 

“What do you want to do when we go?” I asked. 

“I’ve got three things: I want to eat lobster,” she said. “And I want to visit Mount Desert Island; and I’d like to see West Virginia. Is that on the way?”

“It can be.” Before Anne got here, I made an itinerary that would take us through West Virginia. Originally, I had thought to drive the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, but I rejiggered the route. It added some miles to the trip, but I wanted to show her the state; I love West Virginia, although maybe for the wrong reasons. I love the decay and the dreariness of those parts I knew best — coal country, with its tipples and meth labs, the nearly empty towns of old brick and service stations. 

And so, the departure date was set and on Wednesday, Oct. 9, we packed up Anne’s car — which she has named Evelyn Angelina Buick — and sidled onto the BRP and headed north.

Not everyone names their cars. When Anne and I were married, four decades ago, we owned a maroon Chevrolet the size of an aircraft carrier that I named Vanessa Redgrape, for a cluster of polyethylene grapes hanging from the back window. Our friend, Hank, owned a green VW beetle that he named Gigi, or G.G., for “Green Gonad.” If you don’t own a dog or cat, you can always pet your automobile. 

Evie, as Anne nicknamed the car, is a 2014 Buick Verano the vaguely silver color of pewter that Anne calls “car colored.” Half the cars on the road these days are “car colored.” 

It is a cyborg of a car. It screams at you if you drift out of lane; it beeps if you are backing into someone; it tells you your gas mileage by the second; it has a key that folds up like a switchblade; and a camera in the rear bumper so you can see front and back at the same time. It also has cruise control, which is, for me and my right foot, a miracle. 

I don’t think we could have made the trip if we were driving my own Kia Forte, which is admittedly a very well made car, but a very badly designed one, and with an engine in it with just enough power to start it moving forward on a flat surface. My legs and feet would have cramped up within a few hours of starting out. We took her car. 

Craggy Gardens

Oct. 9

Almost immediately as we started the fog closed in, and we kept driving in and out of obscurity, up and down the mountains and looping around the tight corners. About 20 miles on, at Craggy Gardens, where we stopped, we were above the mist and the view was pure Caspar David Friedrich, with the sun glaring in patches off the clouds underneath us, as bright as fluorescent lights. To the south, fog filled the valleys, but to the north it was uninterrupted whiteness, with two or three peaks poking through like islands in the sea. It was very like flying above the clouds. 

Normally, from the turnout at Craggy Gardens, you can look to the southeast, back toward the towns of Montreat and Black Mountain and see civilization: houses, warehouses, highways and fast-food chicken franchises. But with the white blanket, that was all hidden, and you could have the fresh look one imagines early settlers had on utter wilderness. 

Altapass

At Altapass, we made the obligatory stop at the orchards. It was too late in the season for many apples in the store, but Anne found a jar of preserves she wanted to take to Mu in Maine. 

We continued north and exited the BRP in Ashe County. I used to live there, many decades ago, in a house on a bluff above the South Fork of the New River. A back porch cantilevered out over the hillside drop, about 200 feet down to the water and gave a similar sense of flying. We took a side trip to Obids to see the old house. Time and the river have both flowed on. 

New River

We drove up the drive to the old house, which is now occupied by a family that, while I didn’t see any cars up on cinderblocks, managed to give that impression anyway.

Beside that, it had all changed. It used to be that the land around the house was all grass. We could see the hills on the other side of the river and Mount Jefferson to the north. But now, four decades later, trees have all grown up around the house and the view is blocked in all directions. The house was closed in, but so, I felt, was I. 

I had been feeling deeply nostalgic. But I also realized that however much I might like to travel back to the places of my younger days, I would also need to be able to travel in time as well as in space.

West Jefferson

We drove into West Jefferson for lunch and found the town busier and healthier than it was back then. Stores were open rather than storefronts with rent signs in them. When my late wife Carole and I lived there, there were two restaurants in the whole county — a breakfast cafe and a pizzeria. Now, the joint is jumpin’ with nice places. We had barbecue for lunch and moved on north, through Galax, Va., and into Hillsville, where we found a motel and, tired from the road, a Chinese buffet across the road.

Oct. 10

“Look out, there’s something in the road!”

“I see it.” A lump in the middle of our lane. I slowed, it began to move.

We got up close to it and it began to waddle across the road. It was a badger. I’d never seen one in the “wild” before.

The roads in West Virginia are notoriously bad, with patches and potholes. But things may be changing. As we drive up along U.S. 219, miles and miles have been resurfaced with rubberized macadam. It’s like magic. All road noise quiets down and the ride is perfectly smooth. As we drove along, I kept looking for more of it and was tickled every time we found another few miles of the stuff.

Driving has been fun for me, but not so much for my passenger. Western West Virginia is all Ridge and Valley Province, and the road constantly climbs up the mountains and down the far side, and to do so they are twisty. More than twisty, they are carefully banked, so that speeding downhill, it’s like the 24 hours of Le Mans. I felt like a Grand Prix driver, banking hard to the right or left as we rounded the hairpins. But it just made Anne carsick. We pulled off the road a few times so she could calm her belly.

Despite that, she loved the countryside, although I was disappointed. I had never been to this part of the state before and it turned out to be notably devoid of coal tipples. Instead, it was rolling farmland interrupted by breadloaf mountains. 

The early morning gave us more low-lying fog dropped into the hollows and coves and for about 10 miles, the ridge to our east was lined with wind turbines. They were a constant presence on the horizon. 

We spent the night at Elkins, WV, home of Davis Elkins College, which by the look of it serves as the safety school for those whose first choice was Elon College.

Elkins did not impress us. We took the concierge’s recommendation for dinner and went to Maggie CG’s. Walked a few blocks to get there. The place was cavernous and dark, and we stood at the hostess podium for about 5 minutes and not a peep from anywhere in the joint. I grabbed a couple of menus from behind the podium and we sat down. Nothing. One other couple was eating already at one table and a very large man was seated by the front door, obviously waiting for something. But nothing. Not a sound, not a person, not a waiter, not a hostess. We sat at our table for another 5 or 10 minutes and decided to leave.

Elkins, W.V.

Went across the street to Beander’s, which was clearly the college dive of Elkins and a hot spot for college students, who, by definition, tend to be loud and rowdy. No hostess again. We again grabbed menus and picked a table. Eventually a waitress came by. Menu was notably unimaginative, but the food was adequate.

Oct. 11

It’s been a long day. We drove 305 miles. Didn’t mean to. Left Elkin at 8:30 a.m. and took U.S. 219 north into Maryland, past a town called Accident. (Internet says people who live in Accident, Md., are known as “Accidentals.”) Picked up I-68 to Cumberland and U.S. 220 north to the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Bedford. Took that to I-81 at the notorious Carlisle, home of the infamous Indian boarding school. The plan was to get a hotel in Harrisburg. We stopped and discovered there were no rooms in the whole town. A giant car show had them all booked.

So, we kept going on I-81 till we got to Frackville and got a room at the Holiday Inn Express. I don’t like Holiday Inn, but after 300 miles and traffic you wouldn’t believe, we had to take what we could get.

Anne really seemed to enjoy the countryside. Lots of long low mountain ridges with barns and silos, with cows and cornfields. It looked like something out of a calendar photo. Right from Central Casting.

The Turnpike is a toll road and when we got off in Carlisle, the tariff was $12.45. A bit more than I had expected. I paid the man in dollar coins. I don’t know if he gets to see many of those.

Dinner tonight at Cracker Barrel. Again: All that was available.

Tomorrow the plan is to drive up the Delaware Water Gap and maybe get to Bear Mountain on the Hudson River.

To be continued

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I am in love with the things of this world. I love the colors, the textures, the shapes, the light and shadow, the sounds and smells, even the tastes of things around me. And I feel it is a love requited. At least, my love has paid me back with profound pleasure.

The world I love has heft. It thumps when you give it a smart fillip. You rub you fingers over its rind and it gives a little, but pushes back. The rind is pebbly, like the surface of an orange. It is physical and present. It surrounds me like an amnion and I am comfortable in its presence. 

But don’t think I am talking only about sunsets and rainbows. I love equally such things as discarded hubcaps and old, torn shirts. The feel of linen, the sound of traffic, the look of the palimpsest of graffiti on the sides of a subway car. 

You can dismiss me as a sensualist, but I maintain that the world apprehended through the senses is the utmost proof of being alive, Descartes be damned. When I mash potatoes in the pot with butter, salt and a bit of cream, I feel the resistance of the tubers, the thickness of the pulp, the stickiness of the mash on the sides of the pot. I know at such moments that I am living in a world, a world full of the things I love. 

(This issue is separate from the question of people I love. The primary importance of that goes without saying.)

There are two larger points I want to make about this. The first is that the world is largely abrasive and difficult. There are wars, famines, drug cartels, disease, deadly parasites, jealousies, greed, death and the deaths of those we love. In other words, there is plenty in the world to level us. But even in the face of all this, people find ways to discover moments of pleasure, even joy. Children and grandchildren, friendships — sometimes even spouses — are, perhaps the primary sources, but there are also quiet moments where you find an attractively colored stone or the birds in the power lines looking like minims and quavers on a music staff. 

The world gives us these things and we are offered the opportunity to observe them and find beauty, pleasure and enjoyment. Given the misery around us, such bits are essential. 

I cannot claim to have suffered much in life, although it feels as if I have, but the pleasure of things gives me great comfort. 

But more, the awareness of the physical existence of our surroundings can make us more immediately aware of being alive. So much of our daily routine is autonomic, barely observed in the passing. But a keen attention paid to the rocks, weeds, doorknobs, faucet handles, cloud patterns, colors of the cars that pass us on the road, dust on the sills, make us recognize that we are living parts of a whole. A stone set in a bezel. 

Paying attention fills our selves and enlarges us. This is more than mere pleasure, but the pleasure is central. It is the reason to pay attention in the first place. 

It also anchors us in physical reality, or at least our perception of it. If we are open to the things of this world, we are less likely to careen off into various ideological morasses and delusional idealisms. Such are the stuff of words and schema. But the solid world of apples, bottles, pork chops, gudgeons and pintles tethers us to the earth. 

There are those who get their satisfaction from ideas, doctrine or ideology, but those are pleasures of the mind, divorced from the muddy, sun-spattered physical world. Words are fine things, but they are always abstracted, like a picture of the world rather than a garden. Framed rather than expansive. 

And so, I have to laugh every time I hear of Americans as being “materialists,” when the average citizen barely pays attention to the material world, but rather to ideas about the material world — ideas such as status, acquisition or wealth. These are not material values, but, in a sense, spiritual values. If we were truly materialistic, we would never tolerate walnut-woodgrain plastic. 

No, the physical composition of their existence is simply not a high priority for most Americans. When we say Americans “worship the almighty dollar,” we aren’t saying that they value material objects over spiritual ones, but rather that they place worth on one set of spiritual values instead of another, more worthy set.

Money, after all, isn’t a physical object. It isn’t material. It is no more physical than an inch or a pound. It is a measuring item, to measure wealth.

Real wealth is the possession of useful or meaningful things. To own land, or to grow 40 acres of artichokes is to possess wealth. You can eat artichokes; you can’t eat money.

Money cannot be worn, it cannot be used to build with. It must be translated back from its symbolic existence to a material existence by spending it.

I’m not saying that money isn’t nice to have around. But that it is a mental construct, not a physical reality. (This is becoming ever clearer as we give up carrying cash and instead spend immaterial sums by the passing of a plastic card through a reader.) If we want wealth, it isn’t because sewn together, dollar bills make a nice quilt.

Even the things Americans spend their money on tend to be owned for spiritual rather than physical reasons. If we want to own a BMW or a Lexus, it isn’t because these are better cars than a Honda or a Ford — though they may be (I’m not convinced) — but because they are status symbols that let other Americans know where we rank on the totem pole.

Armani suits and Gucci bags are not something most Americans really enjoy on a physical level. They are the civilized equivalent of the eagle feathers the chief wears, or the lion-ruff anklets worn by the Zulu leader: They confer prestige and denote status.

These are spiritual values, albeit of questionable worth.

As a matter of fact, America would be a whole lot better off if it were more materialistic. The planet is bursting with stuff: It all has a texture, a feel, a smell, a taste, a sound. If we were materialistic, we would be aware of how much richness the material existence affords, and we would revel in it. We would be mad — as Walt Whitman says — for us to be in contact with it.

And what is more, the deeper we involve ourselves in the physical world, the more spiritualized we would become — that worthy spirituality. It is because we are so un-materialistic that our environment suffers so. We don’t value the physical world we live in. It doesn’t bother us that there are fewer birds singing in the morning, or that codfish are disappearing.

In part, this is a remnant of the contempus mundi that was fostered under Medieval Christianity. It is that suspicion of the physical world that the Old World monks felt would seduce them from the righteousness of prayer and ritual.

We have inherited the contempt, but without the prayer. It leaves us in a hollow place.

As an adult I have come not to trust anyone who doesn’t love the physical world.

I don’t trust such a person to make policy choices about oil drilling or lawn seeding. I cannot imagine how it is possible not to fall in love with the things of this world, but I see just that happening all the time.

(I find it amusing that Republicans and Communists are indistinguishable in their belief that the central truth of existence is economic.) 

I pick up the lump of spring earth and squeeze it in my fist to judge whether it is time to plant my potatoes. I listen for the birds globing and twisting in murmuration as they rise from the trees in the morning. I look for the light caught in the cholla spines and the twill in my gabardine. There is velvet in heavy cream and scratchiness in wool blankets.

The physical sensations make us more aware, more awake. The love of the physical world keeps us from becoming dullards. Living in a world of symbol and status dulls us. At its worst, it leads to ideology, and all ideology is a straitjacket, suitable only for a common form of madness.

It is what Carlos Williams means when he says that “So much depends on a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.” So much depends. As he wrote in Patterson: “No ideas but in things.”

Yes, I am in love with the things of this world. I lament having eventually to leave it all behind, but am grateful for the years I am alive.

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Poetry is as much about not saying something as it is about having something to say. There are words that come too easily to us, words that, once we have uttered them, we realize are either meaningless cliche, or simply do not say what we mean with any exactitude. They are commonplaces, or shorthands meant to avoid the truly difficult. 

Reams of bad poetry rhyme the thoughts we believe we share, or worse, believe we ought to share: emotions that are expected rather than actually experienced; ideas that were once current that have outworn their truths; expressions we overheard rather than discovered. 

And so, we struggle to find the real, the exact, the fresh, and instead, out on paper appears the tired, the familiar, the trite, and we scratch out the lines and try again. It is what we don’t want to write that drives us.

As T.S. Eliot write it in “Burnt Norton,” “Because one has only learnt to get the better of words/ For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/ One is no longer disposed to say it.”

Each attempt at a poem is, in Eliot’s words, “a raid on the inarticulate.”

You can see it in a page of his draft for “The Wasteland:” Lines penciled through, sharp comments scribbled in the margins, even a heckling at himself — “Perhaps be damned.” 

Allen Ginsberg liked to preach the wisdom of the first draft. “First thought, best thought,” he repeated, like a mantra. Yet the published draft of his best poem, “Howl” is a mass of rewriting and crossing-outs. One tries very hard not to waste our time by saying something that is boilerplate, that is obvious, that is inelegant or imprecise. 

Which makes a successful poem all the more powerful. 

There are two ways in which poems can be essential. The first and easiest is that it delights us. These are poems we carry with us for life the way we remember a lovely tune. They are fun to recite and we very likely have memorized at least a few lines. 

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens. “Kublai Khan” by Coleridge. “This Be the Verse,” by Philip Larkin. A whole Palgrave’s Treasury of poetry that over and over, we come back to. 

They can be light, but they can be serious also, take us along with them past everyday concerns. Some are longer, some are just ditties. Robert Herrick’s “Whenas in silks my Julia goes,/ Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.” 

The bulk of poems that give us pleasure fit into this category. 

But there are other lines that more than delight, hit deep into the most central part of our selves and smack us with a kind of revelation. The first group — that delight us — are poems that we date, but these others are the poems we are married to. They speak to us with the clarity of a gong and hammer our nerves flat, and leave us moved and our our bodies full with emotion, ready to burst like an overfull water balloon. 

You will have your own candidates, poems that whisper in your ear something that can make you weep. They are poems that feel not simply true, but personal. Those that crash into me won’t likely be the same ones that hit you. But if you love poetry you must certainly have your own list of “holy of holies.” Here are a few of mine:

There is no poem I reread more than William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” I know; I know. Wordsworth can be tedious. One thinks of Rossini’s smackdown of Richard Wagner: “He has beautiful moments, but godawful quarter-hours.” But those bits. It is like taking the red-eye to New York and you are bored and sleepy most of the way, but just as the sun rises over the eastern horizon, the plane banks and the blast of light through the window blinds you with brilliance. 

There is a reason he has the fourth most quotes in Bartletts after Shakespeare, the King James Bible and John Milton. 

The “Intimations Ode,” as it is usually known, is his poem that speaks to me most heartbreakingly. I don’t share his strained Platonism about life before birth, but the central description of how childhood comes “trailing clouds of glory.” The world is lit from within when we are young. Now that I am 71, that transparency of light is clouded over as by emotional cataracts. But I can clearly remember the brilliance. And Wordsworth’s poem is not only about the “splendor in the grass,” but also about the comfort of that remembering.

No poem speaks to me more personally, more directly, more heartbreakingly. Unless that poem is…  

Three things are central to human life: Love, loss and death. One poem has them all and tears me to shreds each time I read it. Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” 

Yes, we need food, shelter and air to live, but life gives back always those three pillars: love, loss and death. In Whitman’s poem, the speaker remembers childhood when he came to know two sea birds, a mating pair. They came back to Long Island each spring from migration, until one year, only one came back. The sense of loss is palpable, and painfully familiar. The recognition of the loss, and of the death that caused the loss, drives the speaker to poetry. 

This poem has always moved me deeply, but now that my wife of 35 years has died and left me alone, the poem is nearly unbearable. This is what I mean about a poem speaking personally. It is no theory I feel on rereading it, but the recognition of truth. 

Then, there is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” It is perhaps the most pessimistic poem in the canon. It recognizes the abject aloneness of life, and the slim but necessary comfort of sharing that aloneness. 

The speaker calls to his share-mate to look out the window at the English Channel and consider the “eternal note of sadness,” and the “ebb and flow of human misery.” He muses on the loss of any sense of divine order or providence and posits the only help is that they “be true to one another.” For the world offers nothing permanent or positive beyond that.

It is such a beautifully written thing, that the misery in it almost comes across as transcendent. The receding waves of the Channel on the beach shingle makes a hissing sound that makes the whole thing utterly palpable.

Conrad Aiken is usually thought of as a minor poet, and most of his work is known only to scholars nowadays. But one of his poems speaks to me as much alive as Wordsworth or Whitman, and that is his poem about death, “Tetelestai.” 

The title is the Greek word that the Christ spoke as his last on the cross: “It is finished.” In Aiken’s poem, he parodies the grand trumpets that blast at the death of heroes and the triumphal cortege that celebrates the heroic life, but then pleads that even a profoundly ordinary man — meaning himself — deserves the same ceremony, the same sense of importance. 

Say, he says, “two great gods, in a vault of starlight/ Play ponderingly at chess, and at the game’s end/ One of the pieces, shaken, falls to the floor/ And runs to the darkest corner; and that piece/ Forgotten there, left motionless, is I.”

Yet, he pleads, he has had the same emotions, the same drives, the same failures, as the trumpet-hailed hero. Does he not deserve to be remembered for these things? Of course he is being ironic on one level, but underneath, he is certainly sincere — Each of us, after all, is the hero of his or her own life, the center of the subjective universe. 

It is a poem of sadness, of frustration, of recollection of a life too insignificant to be grieved, yet, deserving of grief. 

The last poem I will mention here in detail was written in German by Joseph von Eichendorff in 1841. It is a poem I would not have come across in my normal reading, but it is the text set by composer Richard Strauss as the finale of his “Four Last Songs,” one of the most intensely beautiful and heart-piercing cycles of music ever written, lush, shadowed, personal. Strauss wrote it at the very end of his own life and his text choices — the Eichendorff and three poems by Herman Hesse — are each as full as a cup  brimming over. 

There are many translations — at least as many as there are recordings of the Strauss songs and printed on the CD insert — but for me, most fail be either being too literal or too conventionally “poetical.” So, I made my own translation, which for me carries the weight of the poem as I feel it in the music. I give it here:

There are other poems I could mention that move me as these five do. I love the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales; Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden;” Auden’s “September 1, 1939;” Yeats’ “Lapis Lazuli;” “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. There are others. And I continually find new ones to add to the list. 

Poetry can say with precision what we mean to say but our words fail us. Yes, it can also camouflage our fuzzy thought with pretty words, but those are the words I said a good poet fights to shake loose from. Poetry is not vague clouds of unclarified smoosh. The best is made by intense thought and concentration, and a fear of uttering cant, the commonplace, the banal. 

When the useless marble is chiseled away, the David is left for us to marvel at, and recognize as ourselves.