Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Adirondacks: a Meditation on Travel (Writing)

images from Adirondacks State Park, NY

mists of bloom and bud
across deciduous mountainsides—
early spring watercolors

Sometimes it's hard to believe this is a state park, not a national park, it's so sprawling. It was one of the first park preserves on such a scale. Although it is inhabited—small towns, homesteads, roadside businesses and residences—and although it functions in many ways as New York City's premiere outdoors playground, the Adirondacks are big enough to absorb all that and still offer locations and times that are private, silent, sublime. Most of the best places are hidden from view themselves, requiring a hike or a boat or a back-trail to get to. If you're driving through on the paved roads, as I was doing, you're going to catch only glimpses of what's possible.

When the buds fill out into leaves, I can well imagine that this summer playground for citydwellers is in fact a much larger presence, a full Summerland, rich with shadow and mystery under the huge trees, the rounded mountains rolling off into the long horizon, each one begging to be summitted by the hardiest of rangers. I can see the full green in promise, through the low mists of the new buds, the pale rice-green shoots of young aspen boughs.

Today was a cool, hazy day, the sunlight filtered by high thin clouds, making it pale and uneasy, uncertain of its welcome. Nonetheless I stopped by a small lake near the road, and heard a hundred birds calling, a woodpecker off in the unleaved stands to the east, a small group of spring peepers near the water, the lapping of waves on shore, the fitful wind in the trees on the rounded summit to the north of this little lake.

Going Up?

This was a day of my journey I felt rushed. Everything was taking too long. I was never going to get where I wanted to go. I was going to be late, late, late. All of that was true, but the emotional inscape was worse than the actual travel allotted. In fact, looking at the maps of New England is deceptive. It looks like only thirty miles on the map, not a long drive: but the map doesn't tell you that in New England, there are no straight-line roads, everything is much twistier and more time-consuming than the map allows.

Every little town will put up a stoplight for no other reason than that they want one as a status symbol to lord it over the smaller town down the road, and thus will make you wait a long time at a red light for no reason with absolutely no cross-traffic occurring. Every mountain range must be wound through rather than crossed. (Although in Western Pennsylvania on the highway route they did build some long tunnels through the mountain hearts, a birth-canal-memory ride that leaves one feeling compressed, almost claustrophobic, until one is released into flight through fresh air, a missile leaving its tube.) Routes that seemed obvious on the map are not well-marked on the ground, and one can take many wrong turns, and go in circles for awhile before finding the right road. More than once in New England, I noted how a roadsign would clearly mark a turn, a place of interest, about a mile before you get there—but there would be no sign at the actual turn, the actual place of interest; or it would be so small or so hidden by foliage that you would easily miss it, if you didn't already know it was there. I backtracked and got lost almost every day on this roadtrip through New England, precisely because the signs aren't obvious.

Driving 30 miles can take an hour in New England, whereas in Nevada, land of the loneliest open roads, it can take a mere 18 minutes. I've driven many thousands of miles out West, and I ran up against expectations built on past experience. The distances traveled in New England, compared to those out West, are small; but the time it takes to travel them is comparably long. On this day of my journey I first began to realize that all my plans were going to take much longer than I knew, and I was going to have to change the trip plans to accommodate them. That was a lesson that left me irritable and wraith-driven. Add to that the constant cold, rainy mid-spring weather, which prevented me from camping out as much as I had planned for. When I finally got to Maine, I felt a week late already, although it was really only two or three behind my original plans. And along the way, I did encounter some very good people. There were bright moments amongst the worry about losing time.

I had spent the night at Robert H. Treman State Park, just outside Ithaca. I lingered a bit in departing the Finger Lakes region. It's a part of upstate New York I like very much, and feel connected to by my summer spent living there. It's a place that seems to want me to linger, and not leave so quickly. So when I got to the Adirondacks it was already mid-day, early afternoon. I plunged into the woods knowing I wouldn't get through them before dark. In fact I ended up at a hotel in Lake George, which turned out to be a balm, a surprise, and a blessing.

I know I'm breaking with linear narrative in writing about the Adirondacks before I write about Ithaca, or Cornell. Sometimes forcing oneself to write in strict linear narrative, in experiential order, can create a logjam, and the only way to break through it is to break with linear narrative, and write about whatever comes forward at that moment.

Writing is modular, anyway. You can always take a block and reinsert it back in narrative order at some other time. The best travel writing, in my opinion, from Matsuo Basho to Peter Matthiesen, is similarly modular: a sequence of self-contained set-pieces that, together, add up to a larger narrative, an overall map of the journey. But each day's experience can be written as its own complete essay, poem, or haibun.

When I travel, events happen day after day, in experiential sequence. But they don't all come forward in the same order to be written about. As I go through photographs from a roadtrip, today one group, one day's worth of images, might speak to me, and call out to be examined and contemplated. Sometimes you have to skip around, to keep your interest alive. Nothing is more deadly to the intuition, or more chilling to the beginner's mind aspect of writing, than being forced and shackled into a fixed order. Skipping around frees up the mental muscles, just as rotating an exercise routine keeps the body from getting stale, getting locked into a pattern of expectations that can become habitual rather than flexible.

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