By BEN SHATTUCK
“We will remember within what walls we lie, and understand that this level life too has its summit, and why from the mountain-top the deepest valleys have a tinge of blue: that there is elevation in every hour, as no part of the earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from, and we have only to stand on the summit of our hour to command an uninterrupted horizon.”
—Henry David Thoreau, July 1842
The idea to follow Henry David Thoreau’s walks came plainly while I was standing in the shower at dawn one May morning, listening to the water drill my skull and lap my ears, wondering what I could do to stop the dreams of my past girlfriend. This was some time ago, when I couldn’t find a way out of the doubt, fear, shame, sadness, and pain that had arranged a constellation of grief around me. In this last dream, the one that got me into the shower at sunrise, she was in labor. Her husband—my dream had rendered him with dark hair in a cowlick, wearing a red shirt rolled to the elbows—stood bedside, holding her hand while she took deep breaths. I stood against the wall, touching a white handkerchief that I wanted to offer them. She looked up at her husband. He closed his hands over hers, something I must have seen in a movie. Though I wanted to leave the room, I stayed, because my legs weren’t working just then. I kept touching the handkerchief. The baby came. There were three of us in the room, and then there were four.
In the shower, between the scenes of the birth, came to me images of a young, bearded man standing on the beach, wind whipping at his coattails and teasing his hair, the ocean pounding itself in front of him. He was smiling. Plainly happy. I saw him crouch to pick up a bone of driftwood. I saw him writing in his journal under lantern light in a lighthouse, and then wading through dune grass, walking stick clocking with each step. It was Henry, pictured from Cape Cod, the book which I’d been reading every night for the last week and which was on my bedside table.
I stepped from the shower. Out the window, the tide, set higher than usual by some phase of the moon, drowned the marsh grass. The blush of sunrise candied the water pink. If you live by a salt marsh long enough, you start to feel the water has character. You see the rhythm of the day because the very floor of the landscape is dropping or rising. High tides like that feel favorable, as does anything overfull—waterfall, blooming peony, snow-bent tree limb, spilt silken milkweed seeds.
I dressed quickly in my bathing suit and a sweater, made a cup of coffee, emptied my backpack on the kitchen table and filled it with a loaf of bread, a brick of cheddar cheese, three apples, a bag of carrots, a journal, a rain jacket, and my copy of Cape Cod.
During the hour drive from my home to the Cape, I fantasized that I’d replicate the peace and higher perspective Henry had documented in that seam of land and sea, on the far eastern edge of America. “The sea-shore is a neutral ground,” he wrote. “A most advantageous point from which to contemplate this world.” I didn’t expect sublime perspective, hoped only for a respite from my nightmares, for the waves and wind and weather to reshape the masses of my subconscious as it did the dunes of Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown. To give relief. Isn’t this always the hope, heading out for a long walk? That in your aloneness the landscape will change you? That your mind will be renewed, calmed?
I crossed the Bourne Bridge driving so fast that my coffee mug tumbled from the cup holder when I sped into the infamous roundabout.
Nauset Beach, Cape Cod. Midmorning. Thirty-five miles to Provincetown.
When Henry started this walk at age thirty-two (1849), he wore a broad-brimmed hat designed with a miniature shelf to hold the flowers he found. He dressed in an earthen-toned three-piece suit, and always carried his “spyglass” for bird-watching. His knapsack was rigged with a compartment for his books (one for pressing flowers), his sewing materials, his fishing line, and a handful of fishing hooks. He walked with an umbrella tilted over his shoulder to keep the sand and wind off his neck, and with a special walking stick doubling as a ruler he used to measure plants. He took a goose-quill pen with which he wrote in luxurious horizontal flourishes—his y’s look wind-blown, the crosses of his t’s like distant hills. He packed salt for seasoning, sugar and tea, and a “junk of heavy cake” with plums. He was a sinewy, exercised country saunterer, handsomely dressed and carrying with him all the items for misadventure, like a flowery battleship.
Whereas I, standing on the Nauset dunes and staring out to the open palm of the Atlantic, looked as if I just disembarked a red-eye and had a deep misunderstanding of the current season. The cold May wind seized my legs, exposed beneath the bathing suit I’d worn, but I was sweating from the waist up, under two shirts, a sweater, a rain jacket, and a winter hat. Henry wore special boots that he slathered with paraffin; my running shoes were held together at the front with duct tape. The deep sand tore away the duct tape in the first mile before filleting the soles halfway off the shoes entirely, so I tied my shoes to my backpack, which meant that in the next couple of days, the dozens of miles of sand would knead blisters between my toes, on the uppermost part of the arch, and, weirdly, on the very top of both my big toes. But the worst was the sun. I hadn’t packed any sunscreen, so, because summer in New England comes like a gunshot after winter, my calves went from ice-white to red by the time I stumbled up to a stranger’s house in Wellfleet that night, knocking on the door and hoping for a place to sleep, because, as it turned out, I’d also forgotten a sleeping bag in my rush to escape my own bed.
The beach is “a vast morgue,” Henry wrote, “where famished dogs may range in packs, and crows come daily to glean the pittance which the tide leaves them.”
You usually come to the seashore to spend the day with broad wings of sand flanking your sides and the fan of ocean in front—you plant an umbrella and dash into the water a few times. Beaches aren’t known or loved for hiking, because, I soon realized, it is a monotonous, unchanging landscape. On my left, for miles, a hundred feet of red sand and clay peeking into a salt-killed rim of bayberry, huckleberry, and the odd scrub pine wherein song sparrows trilled the famous first notes of that Beethoven symphony. To my right, the flat sea, profound at first but unremarkable thereafter. And so my eyes fell to the ground, to the “vast morgue,” to see what items the ocean had returned to shore. Beaches do have a tang of fate. The smooth stones, the ringed stones, the tired driftwood, the dead loon—crook-necked and constellated in white dots on black feathers—seem put there for a reason. The Legos, cow femur, wooden chair, three pennies whose Lincolns had worn to blurry portraits, nickel reduced to the size and thinness of a dime, Red Sox hat, Patriot’s hat, fish vertebrae, and giant bullet shell whose tip had filigreed to metal lacework.
I must have walked miles before I saw another person. He was a bird-watcher, had his telescope set up in the middle of the beach. We talked dead loons, northern gannets, and what shorebirds were migrating. Even with the long pauses of strangers meeting, I was happy for the distraction, as it momentarily halted the conveyor belt of sadness that the dream was still moving through me.
When I left the birder, I sat in the sand and, to distract myself, took out my journal, wrote synonyms for the wind: cloud-river, weather’s yeast, season trader, colonial fuel. It was a word game I’d assigned my freshman college students one day years earlier, when I’d finished the lesson plan but still had fifteen minutes before the end of the period. “Look out the window,” I said, “and write the longest list of synonyms you can for anything out there.” Sitting at my desk ten minutes later, listening to them read their lists aloud, I was unexpectedly moved, entranced, maybe. This renaming of nature, these many words for an oak tree or the clouds or the sky or the Iowa River, it sounded like prayers, like worship. I think everyone in the classroom felt it, because we all entered the silence you feel in a church or movie theater. The spell was broken when a boy started his list with “worm shit.”
“Dirt?” I said.
Hurricane muscle, summer’s respite, crying scapegoat.
My only goal that first day on Cape Cod was to find the house where Henry slept, which was near a pond in Wellfleet, ten miles from my starting point, and to ask whomever was in it to take my picture beside it. Then I’d go off to sleep in the woods or on the beach. I actually preferred an uncomfortable bed in those days, as it could ward off nightmares. If I woke from a bad dream, I sometimes took my blanket to the living room couch and tried to sleep there.
The Wellfleet section of Cape Cod is a joy. After many pages of natural histories, the reader encounters a person: an eighty-eight-year-old unnamed oysterman, whom Henry meets when he’s knocking on doors, asking for lodging.
“I am a poor good-for-nothing critter,” the oysterman says by way of introduction. “I am all broken down this year.” He then brags that he was fourteen years old during the American Revolution, that he heard cannon fire echoing across Massachusetts Bay, from Concord.
I couldn’t find the oysterman’s house, because I couldn’t match any of the vistas in Cape Cod. The “plains” that Henry saw when he was there have been drowned by forests of evergreens, home to seemingly a thousand wild turkeys. Walking through the pines around Wellfleet’s seven outer ponds, my footfalls silent under carpets of ochre and shed needles, I quickly got lost.
I sat down at one pond’s edge to watch alewives nibble at the surface of clear water, wondering how cold it would get that night, hoping I’d manage without a sleeping bag, when a couple appeared on a dirt road circling the pond. The man was elderly, walking with a bum knee, and the woman—his daughter, maybe—walked patiently beside him.
I took the cheddar block from my backpack, cut cubes, and ate them from the side of my knife. I flicked cheese shavings to the alewives, which darted to the surface. Listening to the wind shushing through the pines, sitting with the alewives and watching the reflection of clouds glaze the pond as colorfully as if it were on pottery, I imagined my experience wasn’t far from Henry’s. What a poetically cruel compound, alewives.
When the couple reached me, I wrapped up the cheese block, stood, smiled, waved.
“Are you local?” I asked.
They said they were, and so I asked if they knew where Henry David Thoreau stayed when he was here. “Back in 1849,” I said.
They didn’t know.
“Maybe you could point me to any old houses around here?” I asked. If I could find a house with a roof that, as Henry wrote, looked like an “oversized hat,” I might be able to match other features of the house.
The woman pointed me down a road, said there was an older house that way.
I thanked them, then continued, quickly getting lost again, and found myself walking toward a grassy clearing in which was a handsome old house. A woman, knee-deep in a flower garden—tulips, daffodils—watched me. Beside her were orange halves, stuck face-up on a bird feeder to welcome Baltimore orioles, something my mom also did in the spring.
“Hello!” I called.
She smiled. Waved.
“I’m looking for the house where Thoreau stayed,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” she called. “It’s just right there.” She pointed her trowel across the pond, to a white house warmed yellow in the low sun.
Just then, her husband, with a pair of oars balanced over his shoulder, emerged from behind a nearby shed.
“I’m going fishing,” he said to her.
“This young man is looking for the Thoreau house,” she said.
“Right there,” he said. Then, without my prompting, he said, “If you want to see it, I can row you there.”
Minutes later we were out on the pond, in a fishing dory he described as “a boat made by people in Vermont who don’t know how to make boats.” We cut through one cloud-glazed pond, through a channel and into another, over shoots of young lily pads still underwater and reaching for the surface. Schools of the alewives scattered at the bow. The only sounds were the slow creak of his oars sighing on the oarlocks, and the slush of water on wood. He landed the dory ashore, below the house, and told me to take my time, and that he’d be fishing.
“Holler when you want to be picked up,” he said, and then slid away from the shore.
I peered inside the windows of the house. Low ceilings, low doors. Beautiful in the way mostly anything wooden and built before the Industrial Revolution is. Placed well on the land, with its many boxy pieces atop a granite foundation. But I felt no connection, no insight, no power given. Years earlier, when I was a Civil War re-enactor, I got to think quite a lot about inhabiting the past—about when the past is easy to access and feel; when it’s hard. Camping on the manicured lawns between the monuments at Gettysburg makes you feel very far from the past, but camping on a rarely visited battlefield in Virginia, for instance, can give you a chilling, ghostly feeling. You feel something like static in the air. An actual blanket of fear when you stare at a line of a couple thousand re-enactors across the field. When the cannons fire, when you see the smoke clouds drift across the field, you nearly want to duck. Facing a line of Confederate soldiers, I understood only then how absurdly cruel it was to line up and wait for a stranger to murder you if he had good aim, or for you to do the same. I look at portraits of Civil War soldiers now and become enraged: at the Southern politicians who enacted a secession, who defended slavery and then let young men squat on a field to be shot at. The past is a verb, I found that summer: its feeling comes through enacting, not visiting a monument. To understand the sun is only to walk outside, not to describe its shape and color. In part, this too was why I was walking.
I looked out at the pond, saw my host casting his line, slowly reeling. I sat on the lawn of the vacated house, taking notes, then ambled down to the pond’s edge, waved. He stowed the rod, and then eased his oars back into the water.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” he said when the dory’s bow touched the mucky rim. I shrugged, said I thought so.
“Where were you going to sleep tonight?” he asked as he rowed us away.
“Maybe on the beach?”
“On the beach? You’ll freeze. Getting down to forty tonight. You can stay with us.”
The sky had turned brittle and cold with the clouds closing out the blue. I thanked him, said I could pay him for the night.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. I felt my anxiety loosen and float away.
Some time ago, I wrote an essay about napping outside—how I would, for instance, come upon a carpet of moss in the forest or a cradle of rocks on a summit, and then feel inexplicably tired, lie down, and instantly fall asleep. How, also, I’d once awoken in a blizzard on a mountainside; another time awoke in a graveyard with two men standing over me, asking if I was “just practicing”; and another time awoke under a rock outcropping to the sound of gunshots (rabbit hunters). Talking to friends and family while I was writing the essay, I saw with sharp clarity that the only reason I felt comfortable sleeping alone in the wilderness was because of my privileges as a white man. I felt a freedom in the wilderness that is not given to everyone. I was safe in a way that is unequally bestowed, and this was again obvious during my walks. The fact that I didn’t care where I slept those nights—or that I wasn’t required to care where I slept—likely had little to do with how polite or ingratiating I thought I could be.
My host took us around the pond casually, pointing to where the pond had changed over the course of his life.
When we landed back at the house, by way of thanks, I dug three holes and planted three rosebushes sitting in pots beneath their windows.
“The winds howled around the house,” Henry wrote of his overnight in the oysterman’s house, just across the pond from where I was then spending the night. The wind made the “fire-boards as well as the casements rattle well into the night.”
I heard no wind, lying in an antique bed. My legs were still burning from the sun that day, and I felt my heartbeat in my toes, but I was warm and brightly happy in a way that comes with unexpected luck. I’d finished here, in the home of these kind strangers, who served fried scallops for dinner and told stories about ice-fishing on the ponds in winter. I had a clear feeling that I was supposed to end up here. The unmistakably significant sensation of fate.
“The kids and I would skate around the pond, setting the lines,” my hostess had said at dinner, “and then come back into the house to watch with binoculars, see if the lines moved. We rolled dice to pick who was the unlucky one to go back out and reel in the fish.”
There are families like theirs still, huddled in a seaside house in the middle of winter, in our century, playing games to decide who will skate out for dinner. I was too tired to dream that night, and so was spared the small measure of humiliation, the feeling that during my days I carried inside an anxious and sad second person who only awoke at night. “I’m not dreaming anymore,” I told a friend that year. “More like my subconscious is just pile-driving me when I sleep.”
I was sad to leave Wellfleet the next morning, with the sun filtering through the pines, illuminating the garden and the new orange halves my hostess had arranged for the orioles. I sat outside with coffee, watching the birds peck at the oranges. For breakfast, back in 1849, Henry ate eels, beans, doughnuts, and tea. I had cinnamon toast and cheesy eggs, then left, promising to write them when and if I got to Provincetown, still twenty miles or more north.
The cliffs near Truro are composed of terra-cotta-red clay, which trickled down to the beach in chunks, leaving rusty lines in the pale sand. I picked up a wedge as big as a slice of wedding cake, smelled it, and had the sudden urge to bite it. The chunk dissolved, milk-chocolate-like, when I massaged it on the roof of my mouth with my tongue.
Is it possible to go to a beach today and not consider climate change?, I thought, while trying to suck out bits of Cape Cod that had gotten stuck between my teeth. The Cape’s arm withers west every year, shedding its sand and clay. At the same time, pausing to consider the shifting blues furling out under the morning sun, I wondered if we’ll ever stop loving the sea—this weapon we’ve created out of climate change. As in, when it finally rolls in, will there be a few of us staring out to the horizon still, admiring the vast beauty that just ruined us?
“At length,” Henry wrote in another essay, “as we plodded along the dusty roads, our thoughts became as dusty as they; all thought indeed stopped, thinking broke down, or proceeded only passively in a sort of rhythmical cadence of the confused material of thought.” By midmorning, walking had smoothed my mind some, snipped away the rattling thoughts.
I opened my notebook to note that I’d found the house and that I felt no transcendent experience, but did love the windows; that my hosts came from a pocket of my imagined Cape Codders. I noted the baritone rumble of waves dropping themselves on the beach, the gulls pinwheeling overhead. There in the south was charcoal cloudbank, and the sound of thunder rode up on the wind. A whale’s mouth broke the water then, a sight which landed in my brain where fire does—shaking out ordered thought. The black wedge—the mouth—dwarfed a seagull nearby. It rose higher and then sped forward, turned, sped back. The tail rose. The whale could have been fifty feet long, I saw then, as the gull took a few wingbeats to make it from mouth to tail.
I found an apple in my pack, divided it into quarters, and watched the whale plow the sea.
Shellacked in rain, like rubies nestled in enormous sienna carpets of sod, wild cranberries appeared over a hill outside Provincetown. I’d made it in two days. The rain sounds like oil sizzling in a pan, I wrote in my journal. I untied the shoes from my backpack, slipped them onto my blistered feet.
Evening settled in by the time I walked onto the town’s streets. I ducked into the first pub I saw, sliding my walking stick—a piece of driftwood that I still have—into an umbrella stand. The pub was low-ceilinged, candlelit, crowded with people fogging up the windows. There was one seat left at the bar, beside an elderly woman dressed in black-and-white striped scarves, with a bob of frizzy blonde hair and thick-rimmed glasses.
“What do you put on the table?” she said, scowling, when I sat down. She clutched a glass of vodka.
“What do I put on the table?”
“You heard me,” she said. She slapped the bar.
She was alone. Her lipstick was printed over the rim of her glass. I wondered if she’d been saving this seat for someone, or if this was the night she’d designed for herself.
“I guess I put it all on the table,” I said, because if I’ve learned anything from books, it’s that you talk with a stranger at a bar if you want a more interesting night—especially if the stranger is dressed in zebra print.
“Did you hear that?” she yelled to the bartender, who smiled politely and slipped me a menu. She laughed, and coughed the rattling cough of a longtime smoker.
“Good answer,” she said. “I’m Dora.” She held out her hand, tipped with long, red fingernails.
She didn’t ask why I was wearing a wet bathing suit, or where I had come from. Instead, she demanded I guess her age. I guessed lower than her seventy-one, and she waved at the bartender. “He said sixty!”
“Good guess,” the bartender said to me.
I ordered shrimp, which was the last time I’d speak while I was sitting at the bar. Without my asking, she then explained without pause that she owned five restaurants, that money is important for a happy life, that she had been good friends with Providence’s mayor-turned-felon Buddy Cianci and he’d come into her restaurants, that she’d been coming to Provincetown since the seventies and everyone here (at this, she swept her hand over her head to gesture around the room) knew her, that she loved New York City, and that last spring she’d had a really nice day buying neckties with Matt Lauer.
She then became quiet, took a gulp of vodka, and motioned for another.
“You’re probably too young to have any regrets,” she said.
I didn’t feel like explaining that I was on a walk to escape nightmares about a breakup, so I asked if she had regrets.
“I wouldn’t marry my first husband,” she said. “And I wouldn’t marry my second husband. Maybe not my third. They all cheated. Cheated, cheated, cheated. My first husband, he was a long-distance swimmer. He used to swim out in the sea. Way, way out. I’d sit on the beach, watch him, hope he wouldn’t come back. You know there are sharks out here?”
The bartender put a plate of shrimp in front of me. I ate while Dora talked about men, about there being good ones and bad ones, and they were just that way when they were born and there was nothing you could do about it.
She said we should go, asked for the bill, and told the bartender to include my dinner.
“No, it’s okay,” I said to the bartender, partly because I didn’t want her to pay, but mostly because I was still hungry from the walk and hadn’t eaten much.
“Oh, quiet,” she said, waving her hand in my face. “Just be a gentleman and walk me home.”
The bartender put down the bill, which came to sixty-four dollars. Dora set out her credit card, and then left a one-hundred-dollar tip.
“Ready?” she said.
She slipped off the stool, grabbed my shoulder to steady herself. I saw then how small she was. Five feet, maybe less.
“Let’s go!” she said.
Her scarf fell to the ground as she swerved toward the door.
I was exhausted and hungry, but seeing her about to tilt into a passing waiter, I didn’t see how I could stay. I shoveled a few bites of shrimp into my mouth and waved at the bartender, who mouthed to me, Good luck.
I found her outside, swaying beside a puddle.
A warm, humid night had settled in behind the passing rain.
“Did you walk?” I asked.
“Did you?” she replied. I nodded.
“Then we’ll walk,” she said.
She hooked her arm around my elbow, and we started down the street. I wondered how far I’d need to take her. I wanted to get out of my wet clothes, to find a motel where I could finish writing down my notes from the day. Above us, the trees dripped rain into the puddles along the sidewalk. When a gust of wind came, rain shook from the leaves and fell on us. She stopped, turned to me.
“We’ve met before,” she said. “Who are you?”
I told her my name again. “We haven’t met before,” I said.
“That’s not what I meant,” she said. She leaned in, lowering her voice to a hoarse whisper. She touched my shoulder, then stood right in front of me, toe to toe. Her head, down by my chest, tilted up, as if she were about to kiss me.
“I mean, where did you come from?” she asked. She pushed her glasses up to the top of her blonde frizz.
I smiled, told her I was on a walk.
She shook her head. “That’s not what I meant,” she said, sadly.
“Where do you live?” I asked, stepping back.
She turned around. “There.” She pointed to the house directly beside the bar.
We walked back across the street.
“I have an extra bed,” she said, standing at the door. “You can stay if you want.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Come in, then,” she said.
Just then the door swung open and a man filled it.
“You’re back,” his voice boomed.
“Quiet,” she said. “This is my new husband.” She tugged on my arm. “He’s staying with us tonight.”
“Excuse me?” he said. He was angry. He was a tall, broad man who looked younger than Dora by a decade. I felt immediately scared of him.
He looked at me. He noted, I’m sure, my appearance in a way that Dora had not: the torn duct-tape on my shoes, the bathing suit, the raincoat, the long driftwood walking stick.
“Come in,” he said to Dora, putting his arm over her shoulder and starting to close the door.
She batted away his arm.
“My new husband is staying with us tonight as my guest.”
He smiled, sighed, turned to me.
“No, that’s fine,” I said, smiling.
“No!” she said, grabbing my wrist. “I offered you a bed in my home, and you are staying here.”
The man then said to me, “It’s very nice of you to drop her off. I’m sorry she’s made you do that. We don’t have any rooms for you to sleep in. Good night.”
He yanked her hand from my wrist and pulled her inside, and as he shut the doors, she yelled my name. Yelled it like I was far away.
I kept walking into town. I wouldn’t be able to sleep now, shaken by the man, by Dora’s drunkenness, by the image of her watching her ex-husband swim in the distance and hoping that he would drown. The streetlights reflected in the puddles.
Downtown, music thumped from a bar’s open door. I shuffled toward it. A man at the door waved me in. My backpack still on, I moved through a dark hallway, toward the music, right onto the dance floor, into a swaying crowd. Over my head, lasers pulsed in a cloudbank made by fog machines. Red. Blue. Green. The ceiling was black, outer space overhead. Something like the sound of a tornado warning overtook the music, followed by halting then tattooing drums. Bodies pressed against each other. Pressed in like this, I was warm for the first time since I arrived in town. Time sidewinds on a walk—and I felt like I’d left the Wellfleet Ponds weeks ago, though it had just been that morning.
I’m not sure Henry would like all the noise in Provincetown. The cars, the crowds, the music in the streets—this is a man who wrote the line “Why isn’t there a poem for a cricket?” and is sometimes noted as a misanthrope. But with the dance music, and all the people swaying their bodies, I wondered if there was some place in him that would have liked to have been out on the dance floor, fluttering his hands up and into the red lasers, entranced. Happy to have ended his journey at one big party.
That night I knocked on the doors of five B&Bs. The first three were filled. The fourth one was also filled, I think, because the person just waved at me through the window to go away. I slept that night in a B&B that would have been called a boardinghouse at one time: in a room without a bathroom, which could be covered crosswise in three steps and lengthwise in five. With its one window, one chair, and bedside table, it reminded me of the famous van Gogh room in Saint-Rémy’s asylum.
I draped my damp clothes on the chair and the table, and was cold most of the night, because the heat wasn’t on and I couldn’t find a thermostat. I wished I’d brought a change of clothes, or that Dora’s fourth husband had been more like her—either happily drunk or trusting of strangers.
The next morning, at a café in downtown Provincetown, an artist named Maggie pushed The New York Times across the table, and we struck up a conversation about the weather. She liked the idea of the Thoreau walk when I told her about it, then asked if I was hungry, and invited me back to her house for smoked salmon and bagels. She first showed me the patch of marijuana that she and her wife were growing in the back garden, where I spent some time sipping a second cup of coffee and watching the leaves of her pot plants wave in the wind and under the sunshine. After breakfast, we together made a cardboard sign reading Nauset, where my car was hopefully still parked. Maggie painted pink tulips around the lettering.
“People would be crazy to not give you a ride with that kind of sign,” she said.
I easily found a ride back to Nauset. The driver and I made small talk. Not a single remarkable or memorable thing happened in the thirty minutes it took to cover the distance I’d just walked.
A week of black, amnesiac sleep followed my homecoming. Exactly what I wanted—to be obliterated by the insistent presence of the sea, as the sea had done to Cape Cod.
After a week of dreamless nights following my Cape walk, the nightmares returned. When they woke me, usually around 2:00 a.m., I’d go to the kitchen—the other place, besides the bedroom, where someone living alone spends most of his time. I’d made a habit of boiling water just for something to do. I’d watch the jittering blue-flower flame under the pot, kill it when the pot whistled, and then listen to the heat crackle up through the metal.
I Googled “dream hypnosis.” Found someone local named Leah. Her website advertised that she’d helped over fifteen hundred people in her practice, treating anxiety, insomnia, smoking, procrastination, PTSD, relationship issues, fatigue, and all types of phobias. I made an appointment for her first available opening.
I arrived at Leah’s office in the early morning. She had breezy confidence, a sharp nose, and pale blue eyes. She smiled as she listened to me explain that I wanted to stop dreaming.
“Bad dreams?” she said softly, like song. “We can solve that in one session. Do you want to pay now or later?”
I paid her right then, soothed by her confidence. The five therapists that I had seen in the two years before had all told me, in the first session, that they would need to sit with me for a few months before “we” made any progress.
I sat in a leather recliner. She dimmed the lights. A water fountain shaped like a rocky landscape gurgled in the corner.
“Close your eyes,” she said. “Are you comfortable?”
I nodded, then I heard what sounded like her snapping all her fingers on her thumbs, like some drumming flutter, just above my face.
“You are falling,” she said.
She said that I was dropping somewhere, deeper and deeper, and then asked me to try to open my eyes.
“I can’t,” I said, astonished. I raised my eyebrows to lift my eyelids. Nothing.
“Good. Now go to a time and place in your past where you feel at home. Where is home? Where is a safe place?”
I was still trying to open my eyelids, amazed that this was real, that with a few hand flutters she had blinded me. I wondered how small the muscles of an eyelid were—a fingernail-width? How much could an eyelid weigh?
“Tell me where you are,” she said, sounding a bit impatient.
I was not hypnotized, I didn’t think—conscious and only aware that she’d crippled my eyelids with her voice. I was aware of her body close to mine, could hear her breath and the sound of her chair creaking as she shifted.
I tried to think what “a safe place” meant. Where was most home. I understood what she was saying, but at the time—feeling her stare at me, the closeness of her body, the electric whir of the motor pumping water down the fake stones of the fountain—my mind was desolate.
“Tell me where you are,” she said again. My face blushed, and I shut my eyes tighter, embarrassed but determined. A minute passed. More.
“Tell me where you are,” she said.
I thought of my actual home, of the smell of the wood beams, of the eel spears that my dad collected and nailed to the walls, of the fireplace where my brother and I used to shoot up fireworks, of our dachshund lying in the irises outside the kitchen window and then how when he died we’d buried him right there, under those irises. I thought of the room where I used to do my homework after school, of seeing a sparrow fly into the room one warm spring day when all the doors and windows were open. Most of my homelike memories, I thought then, were associated with birds, which made me think of all the times I used to bird-watch with Mom after school. Like the time I was ten or eleven and walking with her in the salt marshes. The swallows preparing to migrate, a flocking liquid current of over the bayberry. Approaching the marsh, I heard the wheezing, rhythmic sounds of two tundra swans. Whistling swans, they’re also called. They had just lifted from the water and were shooting toward us. We knelt as the swans hovered closer—so close that, as I remember it, I saw their muscles moving in their chests. The sound of them—that musical gasp timed with the wingbeats—closed in, and then exploded right overhead.
“I’m in the marsh,” I told Leah. “With two swans right over my head.”
“Good,” she said. “When you have bad dreams, ask your mind to take you back there.”
Mount Katahdin: This Ground Is Not Prepared for You
June. I’d been feeling like my head was underwater for about a month. I fell over once because the floor was tilting, and had random fevers through the days. My elbows and shoulder hurt. At first, I thought it was because of my sleeplessness, but I went to the doctor anyway. She took blood, and called later to say it was Lyme disease and to prescribe Doxycycline—the antibiotics that make your skin burn under the sun and pillage your gut. Weeks into taking the antibiotics, I was napping two or three times a day, staying awake and sweating at night, and never really going outside anymore, except at night, when I didn’t want to lie awake in bed or I’d already boiled water. In the following weeks I’d start confusing my left and right hands. My arms would tingle. I’d stand in the kitchen, wondering what it was I had come in there to get. I shuffled around one morning with coffee trying to remember the capital of Northern Ireland. I had hours of fatigue and forgetfulness and sleeplessness that would eventually lead to three and a half months of antibiotics.
“I never saw the tick bite,” I told my friend Ben, a traveling musician who was visiting me on his way to Maine. “I’m just more of a vampire now. I have an excuse for looking like I never sleep.”
I laughed. Ben didn’t.
“You actually don’t look so good,” he said. “You’re really pale. Should you go to the doctor again?”
“I have ancient corkscrew bacteria living in my eyes and joints,” I said. “So, yeah, I don’t feel so good.”
I asked him about Mount Katahdin, the tallest peak in Maine and the one that, in September of 1846, Henry attempted to summit—three years before walking along Cape Cod. Ben had climbed most mountains north of Boston. I wanted another walk, to see if it would lead to another laser show, if I would meet another Dora. I figured I’d hike it slowly, keep taking the antibiotics, drink water, and everything would be fine. Later, another friend said that I come from a culture of people who pretend everything is okay when it isn’t.
“Well,” Ben said, “I’m not going to say you shouldn’t hike right now, but you shouldn’t. But if you do, you have to make a parking reservation at the base of the mountain.”
I made an Airbnb reservation in Millinocket, the gateway town to Katahdin.
“Good luck,” Ben said. “Just bring a phone in case you need an airlift.” This time he laughed and I didn’t.
For the next few days I reread Henry’s Maine essays. “I stand in awe of my body,” he wrote in one section. “This matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one—that my body might—but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! This of our life in nature—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?”
His body had also turned against itself. It started on January 1, 1842, when his older brother, John Thoreau, cut himself with a razor and developed tetanus and so lockjaw, dying ten days later. Henry then developed psychosomatic lockjaw, which turned so bad that his family thought he’d also die. I realized later that that was the same year Henry took the first of his famous walks—when he stepped out his front door in Concord and ambled all the way to Wachusett Mountain, forty miles or so west. I wondered if he was walking for loss. If he wanted to sleep somewhere else for a few nights, listen to the slush of autumn crickets and meet only strangers and be a little hungry for the next meal and be lulled into reverie by the simple fact that all he had to do that day was keep walking.
Henry took over a month to get to the base of Mount Katahdin; I took a day. Mosquitos stuck by the hundreds to my windshield. I’d taken the back roads, because they were prettier, intersected towns with general stores still in business. Near Bangor I stopped for a snapping turtle crossing the road. When it didn’t move, I parked in the center of the road, put on my blinkers, and, with a stick I snapped from a tree, poked at it, because helping animals cross roads is plainly lucky. In the ten minutes it took to get the turtle across the road, the mosquitos had managed to bite my nostril and eyelid.
“I’m calling about your stay tonight,” my Airbnb host, Jim, said over the phone, while I was still driving north. Jim had double-booked—would I mind staying in another house?
“No problem,” I said.
“You’ll love it,” he said.
At sunset, I met Jim in Millinocket at the new address he texted. It was a pretty, small cottage in what looked like the first and more hopeful attempt at suburbia. Houses lined up side by side, but with more wildness in their lawns.
Jim was a head taller than me, with a gray goatee and blue, catlike eyes. He smiled as he listened to me talk about the drive up, about the snapping turtle. He was missing a finger, and, since this past winter when I lost the tip of my middle finger, I liked anyone who also had a bit of his hand missing.
“I just bought this house from the bank,” Jim said, walking into the house with me. “The guy who owned it died a couple months ago.”
I don’t mind staying in a house that has recently been vacated by mortality, but I wouldn’t go around looking for it. I appreciated Jim’s honesty anyway. I felt confident that I didn’t want to be someone who’d get scared away by a death. And plus, if I saw a ghost, I could finally believe that there was more to the world than what was in front of me.
We walked into the bedroom, in which wasn’t a bed but a hospital gurney. Writing this, I looked up gurney to make sure it was the right word—that the object wasn’t a hospital cot. It was, indeed, a gurney, wheels and all.
“You’re the first one to sleep here!” he said excitedly. “Just had the carpets redone,” he said, pointing to the floor.
I stood in the room filled with weak sunlight, considering how much I cared about sleeping in a bed a man had likely died in, or at least had been nearly dead in.
“Going up the mountain tomorrow?” he asked.
“Trying,” I said.
“It’s easy,” he said. “But you need to wake up early. Here.” He opened the drawer to the bedside table and pulled out a digital clock. He plugged it into the wall, asked what time I was hoping to start the hike. He set the clock, checking it against his wristwatch.
We shook hands. He said thanks for being so flexible. I said not to worry about it.
After Jim left, I sat on the gurney, pressed the firm mattress, lifted my feet and laid down to test it. A ridgeline cut through the center of the mattress, and so my spine. When I turned to find a more comfortable position, the sheets crackled, and so I realized that there was a plastic covering on the mattress, the kind for bedwetting trouble. When I hesitantly smelled the covers, they gave off the aroma of laundry detergent.
For their own bed the night before they hiked Katahdin, Henry and his companions cut cedar twigs from the forest. As one of them “lopped off the smallest twigs of the flat-leaved cedar, the arbor-vitae of the gardens, we gathered them up, and returned with them to the boat, until it was loaded. Our bed was made with as much care and skill as a roof is shingled; beginning at the foot, and laying the twig end of the cedar upward, we advanced to the head, a course at a time, thus successfully covering the stub-ends, and producing a soft and level bed.”
Mine was neither soft nor level—the gurney, which had an electric controller that could lift the upper half to sitting position, was stuck at an angle sloped just a few degrees up. I went looking for dinner.
Henry ate fish he caught in a nearby stream: “These jewels,” he wrote of the fish, “should have swam away in that Aboljacknagesic water for so long, so many dark ages;—these bright fluviatile flowers, seen of Indians only, made beautiful, the Lord only knows why, to swim there!” He drank a cup of water, which he called “condensed cloud.”
Everything on the menu of the restaurant I went to—a mile out of town, pocketed in a cluster of towering evergreens—was meat-filled. At the time I was in one of my vegetarian phases, prompted by a hard note of guilt after spending the day with my neighbors’ piglets.
“Spaghetti, please,” I told the waitress, “without the meatballs.”
“Sausage instead?” she asked.
“No, thanks,” I said. And because I was afraid of drinking alcohol with all the antibiotics, I ordered a water.
“Pasta with just sauce,” she said. “And water?”
I nodded. She shook her head like I’d done something wrong. I should have just gone to the market, but I’d wanted to get out of the dead man’s house. With nobody to talk with, I watched the same baseball game playing on three side-by-side televisions over the bar.
The pasta came, covered in watery tomato sauce that tasted like iodine.
“Supper was eaten off a large log,” Henry wrote, “which some freshet had thrown up. This night we had a dish of arbor-vitae or cedar tea, which the lumberer sometimes uses when other herbs fail.” He then relaxed beside a blazing fire. “I dream of trout-fishing,” he wrote.
I returned to my house and prepared for bed. Took a shower in the dead man’s shower, used one of the dead man’s towels, brushed my teeth in front of the mirror and thought how I was the first one to be looking at himself in the mirror since the dead man. I suppose that’s a neat little summary of passing life: that at some point your reflection is replaced by another’s. That where you stood at your sink to brush your teeth is now the place where another stands. Your empty seat, taken.
Lying in the gurney with my eyes closed, anxious I wasn’t falling asleep because I’d have to wake up before dawn and drive to the mountain and hike up and back down in one day while on two daily doses of antibiotics that made my stomach cramp, I fell into a light sleep in which I dreamed of a person staring at me from the doorway of the bedroom.
A piercing shriek came hours later. I sprung up in the gurney, my heart punching my ribs, sure that it was the scream of death or the dead. The alarm clock blinked. Jim had mis-set it. I punched at it, couldn’t find the button to shut it off, so tore it from the wall and threw it on the floor. I panted.
I spent most of the night sitting on the couch in the living room—which was more comfortable than the gurney. I heard a train whistle, which seemed to underline the silent wilderness spread for a hundred miles in every direction.
The next day, before noon, I was above the tree line, wind blowing in from Canada, distant mountains powder-blue in atmosphere. The hike had been easier than I thought, coming up the same side of the mountain Henry had taken. A well-worn path reminded me that I was walking to a tourist destination and not, as I might have wanted to believe, into the wilderness. Steps helped me up harder parts. Vibrant markers kept me on the trail. Wooden planks kept my feet dry over the wet areas. And then there were the tourists themselves: the tinny sound of music from a phone strapped to the arm of a guy with two hiking poles; a couple, mid-fight, on the side of the path, the woman sitting down and the man hovering over her while he threw up his arms, and she told him to just keep walking; the group of high schoolers wearing rain jackets on this overcast but not rainy day, and who together made the sound of a hundred plastic bags. At one point on his own walk, Henry was “startled” to see a footprint beside a stream they’d passed on the way up—disbelieving that there could be another traveler in such deep wilderness. (It turned out to be his own footprint, left hours earlier.)
The clouds parted and the sun hatched through. I sat down and wrote in my notebook, Would love to have the thoughts of the firs traded for my own. Snow / ice / sun.
“It was vast,” Henry wrote of the mountain’s summit.
Titanic, and such as man never inhabits, some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends. He is more alone than you can imagine. There is less substantial thought and fair understanding in him than in the plains where men inhabit. … [Nature] seems to say sternly, Why came ye here before your time? This ground is not prepared for you. … Why seek me where I have not called thee, and then complain because you find me but stepmother? Should thou freeze or starve, or shudder thy life away, here is no shrine, nor altar, nor any access to my ear.
“Seriously?” a guy standing beside me on the summit said, looking at his phone. “No service?”
Have we given up trying to keep the business of our lives away from the mountains? I thought. Is firing up FaceTime—as two others were then doing beside me—just a fine thing to do?
If you’ve hiked to a summit in the past decade, you know that after taking a selfie, the next thing people do is eat. And so, out came the tinfoil-wrapped sandwiches, the Ziploc bags of dried fruit, the matchbox-sized raisin packs, the apples, and quantities of trail mix nobody eats on a normal day. Which is why I wanted to thank the guy who sat down beside me and brought out—amazingly—a whole avocado and a red soda, just for the originality of it.
After he sliced open the avocado, he said to his friend, speaking of the soda, “The raspberry flavor comes from a gland. It’s all natural.”
“It’s a chemical,” the friend said. “That’s why it says ‘artificial flavoring.’”
“No,” he said, scooping out chunks of avocado with a white plastic spoon. “It comes from a beaver’s butthole. All natural.”
He was in his mid-twenties, with long, black banana curls that danced in the wind roaring over the summit. He wore the same type of thick-rimmed glasses as Dora, and had not a scrap of hiking gear—only khaki shorts and a torn flannel shirt.
The wind gathered away from me the end of their beaver-and-flavor conversation. He then stood, foot up on a rock and knee bent.
“That’s the thing about being an adult,” he said. “You realize you have control over things like ball sweat. You don’t have to wait for your mom to take you to the mall to buy you Under Armour. You can just buy it yourself.”
I suddenly felt very tired. I walked down to the other side of the summit, to a place overlooking the famous Knife’s Edge, on the northern side. I swallowed my second antibiotic pill of the day, then found a flat rock to rest on. I breathed in the stone’s gunpowder scent. The wind pushed away the mosquitos. The sun warmed my skin. Sleep was coming, led by the little electrical pops behind my eyes.
Then I heard her, the teen who would eventually drive me from the summit as the rainstorm drove Henry from it.
“I’m. Not. Having. Fun!” she screamed.
I sat up, startled from the edge of sleep. She was a hundred feet away, sitting on a boulder. Both her parents were standing over her, leaning in. They didn’t see me, because I was mostly hidden behind a stone.
“The summit is right up there, honey,” the father said. “The end is close.”
“You’re lying!” she screamed. Actually screamed.
The father and mother looked at each other. The girl folded her arms, put her head down. For a moment, they looked peaceful, almost like one of those old Renaissance paintings: a family gathered in silent prayer on a mountainside. A divine moment. Awaiting grace. The only sound, at the time, was the rocks cutting the north wind.
“Do you want your sandwich now?” the father asked.
She only shrieked then. Metallic in texture and from her throat.
“Just go,” the mother said to the father. “Go.”
He turned, walked away, toward the mountaintop. The mother did, too, after sitting for some time with the daughter.
“Stay here,” the mother eventually said to her. “We’ll be down in fifteen minutes.”
Before the mother was a hundred feet away, the girl ran after them.
This was the moment—not suburban developments or roads—that felt to be the widest chasm between my own experience and Henry’s: here was a family, ambling safely up Maine’s highest peak, their greatest worry being whether one member is having fun and if a sandwich would help that fun. It felt then that nothing was untouched by people.
“I was deep within the hostile ranks of clouds,” Henry wrote about his time here, “and all objects were obscured by them. Now the wind would blow me out a yard of clear sunlight, wherein I stood.”
I hiked up the summit for one last look. The family was up there, all eating their sandwiches. The girl looked happy, ripping her sandwich into many pieces and swaying as—I saw her headphones then—she listened to music. The parents stared separately into the distance, to the bluish mountains and the expanse of lakes in a valley made by a glacier tens of thousands of years ago. They looked a little stunned, a little tired, maybe pensive, struck by the immensity of the wilderness seen over their daughter’s head bobbing to music only she could hear.
“Perhaps,” Henry wrote when he descended, “I most fully realized that this was primeval, untamed, and forever untamable Nature, or whatever else men call it, while coming down this part of the mountain.” Beyond the horizon of his wilderness was the automobile, roadways that cut into the deepest part of the country, Internet and phones that would make travel to the mountain in a day easy, heating and air conditioning, caretakers making paths, and the thousands of people stepping on that path every year. Maybe he couldn’t imagine the numbers of us, the billions tending and misusing and witnessing the same earth he walked on, the way that by our numbers we created a wave to breach into the farthest reaches of landscape. What wave of progress or technology is beyond my horizon?, I thought, starting down from the summit. Will this all be ruined?
On my way down, I passed the guy with banana curls climbing over boulders. I thought of asking him about the beaver. It might not be the same sort of wildness that Henry experienced on Katahdin, but a berry flavor in the asshole of a semiaquatic, tree-eating, river-stopping giant rodent is a mystery of the American wilderness that I wanted to believe in just then.
I’d never visited Walden, so on a blistering day in August, a couple months after Katahdin, I drove up to see the most famous pond in America. The cabin is smaller than you’d expect. It takes some imagination to believe that this was once remote—there between the parking lot and the road. I sat in a replica rocking chair beside the replica woodstove. I admit I was likely hollow-eyed, staring at nothing or at the floor—such were the days with antibiotics and Lyme disease, which had only worsened. I had a beard then, too, and long hair, because I’d given up shaving or getting haircuts under the dulling effects bad health has on grooming. Still, I was surprised when a woman and her little son walked through the door, stopped, and she said, “Oh, look, there he is.”
I’ve always dressed traditionally, I suppose. Most of my pants are black cotton; my shirts button-downs. I wear boots or clogs.
“Ask him a question,” she said to the boy, pushing him forward.
I briefly considered if I should try to drum up a line about growing beans or civil disobedience for the little boy, who was now walking hesitantly across the creaking wooden floor of the tiny cabin, but my mind was tired.
I held up a hand. “No,” I said, smiling.
I stood, patted down my pants nervously. I skirted past the boy, strode out of the cabin, toward the pond where Henry had gone skinny-dipping. Maybe my leaving was in character, I thought, turning back to see the woman give me a look like, What the hell?
The pond was cerulean cellophane. The trees around the rim swayed in the midsummer wind. I sat in the sand, watching a string of tree swallows picking on the surface, drinking, and then trying to snatch up a white feather which was boating across and which would be good building material for a nest. To my side, an elderly man in a bathing suit was using a walker to make his way toward the water. He was alone. He moved slowly and, it looked, painfully, taking a few seconds to pause after each step. He’d then lift his walker, move it half a foot forward, and step.
There are some things you know you’ll never see again, like a man shuffling into a pond with a walker, the waterline inching up to his tight grip on the top handles. He then fell back, into the lap of pond water. It was as close to watching somebody fly as I’ll likely see. He stretched flat, arms winged out. His toes surfaced. Above him, the swallows swooped. His arm lifted overhead, and he back-paddled toward the center of the pond, moving many times swifter than he had when gravity was holding him, leaving the walker there. I thought of the words husk, shed, clip, unshackled.
I took off my shirt, my shoes, my socks, and my pants. Down to my briefs, which I supposed in some countries constituted a bathing suit. I walked into the water, past the man’s walker. Little khaki-colored fish, the size of the alewives I’d seen in Wellfleet, were weaving around the walker’s legs.
I swam out to where the bottom was ten or fifteen feet below. Admired how clear the pond was. Held my breath, then let it all out. I sunk. Air bubbles licked up my face. I opened my eyes to see blurry shafts of sunlight skewering the water. My lungs burned, but I felt good, because the deeper I went, the less my Lyme-pinched joints hurt. The bottom then came up to my feet. I stood there, my ears pressured, my joints relieved, in the pond where Henry went every morning. How quiet it was down there. I wish I could have seen the future that would, in fact, come, with the water pressed in all around me. That the Lyme would eventually fade away and I wouldn’t be left with the decades-long effects I feared. That I would stop feeling bitterly alone and scared of my dreams, mostly by gathering lengths of time. That within a year after sinking into the pond, I would be the happiest I’d been in a very long time.
I swam up to the surface, my lungs burning, water in my eyes.
Wachusett Mountain: The Stars Were Given for a Consolation
Mid-October. I was lying on the grassy slopes of Wachusett Mountain, a few hours into the MDMA I’d taken for this occasion, looking up at a channel of stars running between the torn edges of overarching oaks. This would be my last walk. I’d taken the drugs because I wanted to feel the same transcendence in nature that Henry felt, and which I hadn’t really experienced yet in the walking. My body felt warm, maybe because of the MDMA, but also it was seventy degrees—the last summer days in fall. The katydids chirped in the trees in their one-two, in-out rhythm. Two ravens played in the updrafts, performing beneath the tapestry of yellow clouds.
I’d started the hike that morning, in a forest. The stone walls running between the trees were a reminder that the forest was new, that the stones were placed in farm fields. All day wind shook rain from the trees. And the clouds—a roiling mess overhead, sometimes breaking up for sunlight in a way that reminded me of Henry’s Katahdin chapter—enshrouded the ski lifts that I found myself walking under. Scattered at my feet were slicks of torn mushrooms. If spring is the season for the eyes (“The earth laughs in flowers,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson), and summer is for touch (sun), then fall is mostly for the nose: the bass-note scent of the ground. To walk through a forest in New England’s autumn is to put your nose to Nature’s neck.
Henry walked from his home in Concord all the way to the summit, which I didn’t do, because I didn’t want to trudge through suburbia. I would have heard the hoarse rush of traffic, and not, as he described in his essay “A Walk to Wachusett,” “the murmuring of water, and the slumberous breathing of crickets through the night.”
At least I expected the parking lot at the summit. Still, it was a sadly distant experience from Henry’s: “When we reached [the summit],” he wrote, “we felt a sense of remoteness, as if we had travelled into distant regions, to Arabia Petrea, or the farthest east.” On the summit, he found blueberries, raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries, yellow lilies, and a “fine wiry grass.” I found a pond stocked with pet-store goldfish, which I would have been more disheartened to see had it not been for their iridescent beauty in the black water. A man walked from his car to the pond, holding a bag of potato chips. He saw the fish, tossed a chip into the pond. “It was a place where gods might wander,” Henry wrote on this summit. “So solemn and solitary, and removed from all contagion with the plain.” The man then tipped the bag and shook it over the pond water. Crumbs fluttered to the awaiting goldfish.
Sunset cast the sky in pink clouds extending all the way to New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock, there in the north. The wind came from the southwest, whistling through the metalwork of the weather station near the parking lot. That’s when I’d pinched out the small Ziploc bag of pills from my coat pocket, took one. I sat on the lookout platform of the weather station, and within the hour had a notion that the pink clouds were in my joints—loose and warm and soothed for the second time that summer. The sunset, I reasoned, was also in my body.
A man with a white beard that ended down at his binoculars set up a spotting scope not far away. Feeling outrageously happy, I asked him what exactly he was looking for.
“Counting hawks,” he said.
He had green eyes and sharp cheekbones, and wore a moss-green woolen cap.
“Been a lot of sharp-shinneds this year,” I said.
He rocked back and forth, “Lot of sharp-shinneds,” he said.
He explained his work: estimating the numbers of migrating birds of prey in any given “kettle”—a towering column of birds soaring on an updraft. The updrafts are made by hot air, rising from parking lots or, before we paved the wilderness, stretches of stone or lakes. The hawks are lifted, he said, and then, at the top, soar down to the next one, like taking an elevator to the top floor, riding down to the next building on a slide, and then riding up again. Hawks can make the whole migration this way, all the way to Mexico.
When he said he was also counting butterflies for the state, I reasoned that I’d come across Henry David Thoreau reincarnated.
“I counted twenty-three monarchs today,” he said. “Big year. But not like ten years ago. A hundred in a day.” His white beard jittered in the wind. He squinted, lifted his binoculars, rested them again. Scratched at his soft green hat.
“Dragonflies, too,” he said. “I’ve been counting those.”
We looked out to landscape spread like the ocean in front of us.
“How ample and roomy is nature,” Henry wrote from this same vantage.
A man with a gray and tremendous mustache appeared to the bird-watcher’s side. He leaned forward and said to me, “He counts everything. I’m new to this.”
He reached over and introduced himself. “Dan,” he said. “From Michigan.”
“That’s a long way away,” I said.
“I live here now. With my girlfriend.” Dan said he and his girlfriend knew each other from high school, when his family lived here before moving to the Midwest. “We were in band class together.”
As the bird-watcher wandered off to the other side of the platform to do more hawk-watching, Dan told me about the wonders of the Upper Peninsula. The MDMA was making it hard to concentrate, but the general notion I got was that he missed it.
“This place,” Dan said, pointing to the ground, to the mountain we shared then, “I come here every day. I’m addicted to it. Sometimes I say to myself, ‘I don’t have time for this,’ but I always come.”
He then described the drive from his house to the mountain in detail. I don’t think I responded, but do remember thinking how kind his eyes looked, downturned, topped with feral gray eyebrows. I asked if he was Polish—to which he looked confused and then carried on about his preferred route to Wachusett, and how different it was from the Upper Peninsula in elevation and forest type. He was plainly homesick. Here he was, looking out at the slosh of pink clouds, and all he could talk about was Detroit, as it used to be.
I told him he’d love Massachusetts. To give it time. I then told him I had to leave, and wandered off the observatory, paused and turned and waved goodbye to him and the bird-watcher, and meandered from the summit to the top of the chairlift. The metal chair—a big four-seater—creaked in the wind. I walked up the ramp.
Sitting on the chair, I watched a porcupine amble from a tree’s foot, part the grass with its brambly body, and eat a yellow flower. I then heard barking, turned to see a man pulling a brown-and-black blotted mutt by a leash. The dog, smelling the porcupine, reared up. Behind the man, two boys came running down from the summit, and circled in front of the dog. The boys must have been ten or eleven, each holding a stick, their boots and socks and shins mud-splattered.
“Careful,” I called to the man. “There’s a porcupine here.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he yelled at the dog, yanking him back. The boys kept running, pounding up the ramp.
“Where?” one of them asked me.
I pointed down the hill. They crept forward and sat on the wooden boards beside the chair.
The three of us watched the porcupine graze. One of the boys sat with both legs drawn up to his chest, arms hugging his dirty shins. The other sat cross-legged, enraptured.
“I’ve never have seen a porky-pine,” one of the boys nearly whispered.
The dog let out a long howl. The father dug his heels into the ground. The boys knew it was bad if the dog got to the porcupine, and so were also, I think, interested by the possibility of disaster, by the fact that something violent and painful might happen any moment. And so there was tension: the dog pulling on the leash; the porcupine softly licking up the stem of a flower, easy in its armor. And between those two animals, the boys, wanting, perhaps, for the dog to break away from their father. Waiting to see what would happen when the dog’s face punched the porcupine.
The sound of the chair’s crooked metal arms squeaking on the metal cable seemed to illustrate tension.
“Let’s go!” the father yelled to the boys.
One boy left immediately, rushing toward the father, who was already pulling the dog down the slope. The other boy stayed by the chairlift for a moment. He said to himself, again—for who else could he be talking to?—“I’ve never seen a porky-pine.”
He might think about this night from time to time in his life, of the porcupine eating flowers—an animal of a rarity that casts the landscape in possibility, that really anything could come out of the woods.
The boy then stood to run after his father and brother and dog.
There’s a heart inside that animal, my mind told me, watching the porcupine amble down the slope, back to the edge of the forest. Maybe the size of a chestnut. There’s a heart at the center of all animals. Everything is soft underneath.
After sunset, I watched the stars. The warm air shook the leaves overhead. I’d taken off my shoes and put my legs inside my sleeping bag. The uneven ground is an old bed that I love. Within a sleeping bag—which swaddles one like a baby—I think there is no cozier place to spend time between sunset and sunrise. The dreams had been visiting me less by that early fall, maybe once or twice a week, and by then, they seemed not to matter much.
The stars overhead, the ones between the channel of silhouetted oak canopies, must be a constellation, I thought. Unlike Henry, I didn’t know the names of any constellations save the Big Dipper. I had my phone, though, with a constellation app on it.
I first saw the Southern Cross, through the earth, because I was holding my phone face-up. I tipped on my back. Replicated digital stars washed through the screen as I lifted it overhead.
A swan bled onto the screen. Cygnus, the screen read. “The Swan.”
What to do with something so fateful that “coincidence” doesn’t seem like a fair term? What to do with Leah’s prediction that only under the Swan I’d feel at home?
The heart of the Swan, the star called Deneb, is one of the largest stars, I read on the phone’s screen. Two hundred times larger than our sun.
Before sleeping on Wachusett Mountain, Henry also looked up at the stars, and also found comfort: “[I]t was a satisfaction to know that they were our fellow-travelers still, as high and out of our reach as our own destiny. Truly the stars were given for a consolation to man. We should not know but our life were fated to be always groveling, but it is permitted to behold them, and surely they are deserving of a fair destiny. We see laws which never fail, of whose failure we never conceive; and their lamps burn all the night, too, as well as all day—so rich and lavish is that nature which can afford this superfluity of light.”
Henry walked to Wachusett, sat up on the summit and looked at the stars as if they were “given for consolation” six months after his brother died. Was he doing the same thing I was doing? Walking to husk the dead skin of grief? Looking up at the stars to feel the comfort of one’s own smallness in the world, to displace bulging selfhood, to force loss or confusion microscopic in perspective, under the shadow of such urgent beauty as the night sky?
I spread myself on the snowless hill, on the highest point in our state, and heard in my drug-slippery head, “I’ve never seen a porky-pine.” It came like chant. I wondered then if the porcupine was asleep, and what dreams she may be having. And if the boy was asleep. And his family dog. And my parents. And Maggie. And Dora. And the goldfish. And the couple in Wellfleet. What weird worlds they were all inhabiting, in their dreams—tortured or hopeful or anxious or in love, but all completely alone. And then I saw it: that a large portion of the world just then was simply held in their imaginations. Billions of animals suspended in hallucinations, in some place between memory and thought. These hours named sleep, this necessary dark territory which only one can enter, is a more startling spell than I can describe.
Home: Treading Old Lessons
October passed. The sunlight was put away by late November. The birds left the landscape. The leaves changed, then crisped, then blew away and collected around the foot of my house. The buffleheads arrived. A fox made a den in a cedar copse at the end of a spit of land. Storms came and went. The gulls stayed, flying over the salt marsh. The first snow fell wet. I did house chores. I built a fire every night. Ate dinner with my parents.
Here is Henry David Thoreau on the meaning of walking, from the conclusion of his Wachusett essay: “There is, however, this consolation to the most way-worn traveler, upon the dustiest road, that the path his feet describe is so perfectly symbolic of human life—now climbing the hills, now descending into the vales. From the summits he beholds the heavens and the horizon, from the vales he looks up to the heights again. He is treading his old lesson still, and though he may be very weary and travel-worn, it is yet sincere experience.”
And here is mine, from the final pages of the notebook I took to Wachusett Mountain: If we can’t be sure of divinity, we can be sure by the divine feeling of being held in a web of love.
I surely wrote that when the drugs were cresting, right after I saw the constellation of a swan overhead and was sure that the stars were speaking to me. I’m embarrassed by the hyperbole of it, but the more I look at the phrase, now, the more evidence I see in it. Like, you walk through a pine forest at dusk and a couple takes you, feeds you dinner, rows you across the pond, makes you a cup of coffee in the morning, and wishes you well on the rest of your way. You walk, rain-soaked, into a bar, and an enigmatic millionaire buys you dinner. A man in Millinocket tries to set an alarm clock for you. A novice hawk-watcher on Wachusett Mountain opens up about his homesickness for the Midwest, about his newfound love in the second half of his life. If it happens enough, if you risk being alone or uncomfortable or cold or lost enough times, suddenly you may feel that we’re all in this together. Henry went on his walks to find the veins connecting him to nature; I went to shed my dreams. Instead of shedding, I’d added more to life. More people and more landscape and more stars. How lucky it felt, like the high tide came into my life.
“So rich and lavish is that nature which can afford this superfluity of light,” I think now, whenever I look up in the blue sky and am reminded of the stars behind that blue veil. Only when the sun has gone down, when the darkness comes like a swipe of death over the day, do the stars show themselves. Only in darkness, seen.
Ben Shattuck is the director of the Cuttyhunk Island Writers’ Residency and a former Teaching-Writing Fellow of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the recipient of a PEN America Best Debut Short Story Award and a 2019 Pushcart Prize. His writing can be found in the Harvard Review, the Paris Review Daily, Crazyhorse, Salon.com, Lit Hub, The New Republic, Kinfolk, and other publications.