by Eric D. Lehman
Header Image: © Roger H. Goun, Pemigewasset Sunset, NH
Almost two decades ago, I became something of a hermit. After the woman I followed to Connecticut broke up with me, I ended up alone in this mysterious and hallowed New England, with a new job teaching and a new purpose, exploration. I drove to distant trailheads, to hike up into the bluffs alone, to consume a sandwich or cook noodles, drink Gatorade or tea, and stare out across the endless woodlands. The trees closed me in and comforted me. The wind spoke to me of other times and other people, of its long years of loneliness in the atmosphere, which made mine seem shallow and selfish and foolish.
For the first few years I lingered close to my makeshift apartment in Connecticut, steadily tramping nearly every rockstrewn trail. I would make long so-called adventures out of empty days, driving north on I-95 to Old Saybrook, where I would putter through North Cove Outfitters and fill in the holes in my camping and fishing gear. I would drive into the woods, going to the Devil’s Hopyard or Rocky Neck State Park and tramping happily into the dales and hollows. I would find a quiet spot amongst the glacial erratics and witch hazel and eat a hearty lunch. Sated, I would ramble back, scaring deer and turkeys out of hiding. I would drive to the Niantic Book Barn and browse the shelves, filling a canvas bag to the brim with tiny worlds. I would run my hands along the dusty tomes, smelling the musty mildewed air with glorious satisfaction. Then I’d drive home in the fading half-light to my hobbit-hole and page through my finds, listening to old jazz or Mozart, feeling satisfaction with the adventure, but often feeling as if something intangible was perhaps missing. But all this was sufficient for me, and I realized how lucky I was to have this sort of free time to fill however I pleased.
After a while, I dreamed further afield, staring at the map like a lover. I chose Vermont, heading up Route I-91 into the fabled Green Mountains on a cold day in March. I had come to Vermont in autumn with my Ex, camping at a youth hostel outside of Bennington, visiting Robert Frost’s grave, leaf-peeping and growing apart. And then we had come again, eating ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s, climbing into the rocky hills, taking photos by waterfalls, and trying to put back together the broken seashells of time. But we had failed and now here I was on my own, rewriting the map of memory.
This time I stopped by a fabulous, snowy canyon and hiked down along a rushing river, tromping deep footprints in the icy powder. Then I found the quaint town of Woodstock, where I checked into a motel. Deciding to treat myself to a grand and outrageous feast, I tramped to a nearby inn, where I ordered buffalo-wing appetizers and a fine steak dinner. But something went wrong and I began to feel sick, leaving money on the table, stumbling back out into the night. Food poisoning. I spent a horrifying night retching and moaning, staring helplessly out the window of my motel room at the dark maple river and round white ridges.
The next day I continued motoring through the Green Mountains, eating the blandest food I could find at a general store, popping pills of all sorts to quiet my aching guts. I stopped along the way, walking tenderly around a waterfall, down the Robert Frost Trail, and into the Magic Hat Brewery. I had afternoon tea in Burlington and then drove out onto the islands of Lake Champlain. The sun began to set and luckily I stumbled upon a visitor center, set up for tourists from Canada. They found a motel for me and I spent another night with my intestines twisting in knots. It seemed that when I stopped moving, my body would rebel, telling me that all this was folly, that I should be recovering at home, not increasing my problems with road-food and uncomfortable accommodations.
My car, a Chevy Cavalier without winter tires or four-wheel drive, had behaved well so far, but on Route 105 across the very top of Vermont, it slid across the icy road and down into a farmer’s field. In the silent and empty landscape, I struggled with the thought that I was trapped. But after a long steady effort, the car jerked up the embankment and I wound over a mountain road, crossing the Cold Hollow Mountains. I took a narrow, dangerous winter road to the idyllic village of Craftsbury, where I walked around the common, taking photographs of the white, clapboard churches and meeting-halls of the old hill-town. I found another Victorian inn, where I became the only customer for a late lunch, the innkeeper cooking and serving me himself. But I foolishly ordered a cheesy fondue and a rich chocolate dessert, and as soon as I stumbled back to my car, my guts clenched and rolled. I had planned on spending the night in St. Johnsbury, but instead I turned the wheel homeward. I inched my way down Interstate 91, stopping frequently to visit the dirty lavatories at gas stations and rest areas. Reaching the relative safety of my apartment, I tumbled into bed, spending three days recovering from this ordeal, pondering the risks of traveling without friends and cursing the demons that attack our dreams, turning them into reality.
Retreating a little, I drove back and forth on the Connecticut roads, past the houses of possible connections. On the way to work some days I would pass by the place in Stratford where once a month I had eaten grand Saturday night feasts with a book club of other professors. But the woman who invited me to join the group kicked me out, saying I was too immature, though there was something else in her rejection, some spite or malice that lay rooted underneath which I never dug up. The other members seemed sympathetic, but it was her house. So, people I thought might have been friends let me fade out of their lives, and I let it happen, too. When I was subtly discouraged to teach at their school I was relieved, having plenty of work and plenty of other friends, or so I told myself.
I drove past the houses of other acquaintances and colleagues, none of whom I had really made a connection with, and yet regretted not trying harder, not calling them more often. I realized would rather hermit myself away. I had had enough of compromises, had enough of sad drunken parties and phone conversations that went nowhere. My only real friends were old friends, the ones from childhood, from high school, from college. But one by one, they, too, dropped away, through marriage or geography, leaving me with fewer and fewer connections, fewer people to travel with, fewer holidays to spend amongst the living. Sometimes I would drive past the apartment of the one high school friend who had joined me in Connecticut, living with me briefly after my Ex and I broke up, giving me solace in mad, Bohemian companionship. But we had fallen out a little, over money, over living space, and then after a time in a small room near Yale, he had moved back to Colorado. I never saw him again.
Occasionally, I tried to find a group of people whom I could bond with, who would provide some support to my solitary journeys through the wilds. I had always wanted to try out a Zen monastery, having done my share of college ascetic dreaming, thinking of simple rooms and hard work, wondering if the structured, green-tea meditation could win me peace or some such thing. I found a weekend Zen retreat, except it wasn’t in any isolated mountain hideaway, it was in the middle of Cambridge, and as I drove through the Harvard and MIT car-honking backstreets, I wondered how they achieved serenity. I found a place to park on that sunny Friday afternoon and wandered into this gigantic, rambling Victorian house that I never established the borders of. The Zen monks, or reasonable facsimile thereof, greeted me warmly and instructed me on the activities. We ate dinner and meditated, and silence ruled. Car noises drifted in, but no one spoke much, and certainly not above a whisper. And I loved it, and felt the silent warmth of caring community there amongst these students, hippies, and old stillness seekers.
But problems of a more tactical nature began immediately. I was used to meditating against a wall, with my back supported and assisted and here had to sit for hours in that dratted lotus-position, and of course my back began to ache. I slept fitfully Friday night, popping ibuprofen, and then was awakened early for an early meditation. After that we had a precipitous breakfast, which was much too large and bland for my sensitive early-morning stomach and I couldn’t finish it. But everyone finished their bowls and sat waiting for me until humiliatingly the woman next to me silently finished my soup for me. I had an interview with a visiting monk, who was not some tonsured old Japanese man but instead a woman in her early thirties who sat straight and strong, but gave me a horribly easy koan that I knew the answer to but pretended not to, though I’m not sure why, except maybe I had stared into her eyes and seen no enlightenment there.
It didn’t matter really, because my lower back really began to spasm and pound. Finally, during one of the breaks, I wrote a note to the kindly leaders and left. On the way home I stopped at Plymouth Rock, having never seen this iconic place, and was terribly disappointed to find a small piece of rock that had been chipped away over the centuries, and had even been moved from its original location. I laughed cynically and popped more Advil, then drove home. I arrived late Saturday night, after winding across Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut on the back roads, inflicting torture on my back, no doubt. All I gained from that excursion was a sciatic nerve problem that plagues me to this day. They were nice people there at the Zen Center, but they were not my people. Did I have people, I wondered? Perhaps I was meant to be a hermit, to travel these gray New England Highways like a sad shadow, with my only friends the wind and the trees…
I dated women here and there, but none stuck. In fact, not one made it past the first delicate month. Maybe I was too picky, or maybe they could sense my hermit-nature, or maybe I am just not a likable fellow. But they usually ended it, though often I wasn’t sorry. There was a former model who was now a security guard of some sort, thin as a stick insect with thick dark curling pillows of hair and blue eyes. She smoked too much, and you could tell, but man she was gorgeous. We drove up from her remote bungalow in eastern Connecticut and up Route 2 to Hartford, then straight up 91 to the carnival atmosphere of Yankee Candle in Massachusetts, having a glorious time. It was one of my most successful dates ever, ending with romantic kissing in her foyer before I drove back the long way through a dark, cold February night. But I scared her off, I guess, with my visible loneliness. Maybe pointing out where my Ex lived was a mistake. Then there was the former ice skater, four foot eight in her stocking feet, who was adorable and sweet and once again not ready to absorb my detachment. I may have screwed that one up on the day we drove up 395 to Worcester to visit her parents, after a wild drunk the night before. I was in rotten shape, and trying to be honest, I told her the reason, but the truth obviously did not sit well. There were single dates with both a drug addict and a drug dealer, both gorgeous, fragile girls that one would never suspect. I went on two dates with a suicidal Sylvia Plath type who had deep blue eyes that looked like they held the history of pain. There was no emotional connection there, she told me. I wondered if one could love a void, and wondered which of us was in worse shape. She lied to me anyway; she was still in love with her ex-boyfriend and possibly still living with him, his name was on the apartment door that she never let me past. That began a trend; during an affair with a smashing red-head who looked like a movie star, she told me that she had a seven year old boy and was actually still living with another man. I lingered anyway, lonely and incapable of tearing myself away from her gorgeous face. But finally I did, and at last I was comfortably single again.
There were others…two girls that I became friends with and then tried to date. After one date a piece, we knew it wouldn’t fly, and then it was all awkward silences and gradual withdrawals and I had lost not just casual dates, but growing friendships as well. A local girl, stuck in her upbringing, told me after a couple dates that I wasn’t her type, not that she was really mine. I did dump a few myself, like the real estate agent who picked me up and then proceeded to unload her mountain of monetary problems on my lap; I saw myself bailing her out for a long, long time and ended the affair rather quickly, but not before a horrible date where neither of us talked, sipping beers uncomfortably in a Mexican restaurant. Or the nurse I met in tai-chi class whose huge Doberman would jump all over us, but she wouldn’t put the dog out or close the door, so I had my excuse to stop calling. Or the soul-eyed young artist who I could have possibly loved, but left for Kansas four weeks after our relationship began, and then it was all shortening letters and fading connections.
Of course, long periods of ascetic aloneness can bring strength, especially in the purity of the wilderness. I tried to draw some sort of spiritual health from my adventures and so increased their scope and challenges. One chilly May I drove up into the White Mountains of New Hampshire for six days of solitary monklike contemplation, planning on camping and hiking, fishing and writing. The first night a driving snow fell and I stayed in a motel, reading and cursing my luck. Steeling myself against the cold and the drizzling rain of the lower altitudes, I spent the next day slowly wheeling along the Kancamangus Highway, stopping at icy overlooks and cooking lunch on picnic tables. After a long search for a campground open on this early date near a trout-heavy river, I found one in the town of Glen. Apart from a group of firefighters who were blowing off steam at the other end of the huge sprawling camp, I was the only lodger. After cooking dinner, I settled in for a frigid night, not bothering with a fire out of pure laziness, though in the middle of the icy mountain night I regretted this omission many times.
A wretched rainy day woke me up in the bitter tent. Shivering, I cooked myself oatmeal for breakfast, which tasted good, but didn’t warm me up, and the rain kept up and prevented me from fishing. So, I drove around in Glen, then down to North Conway, where I wound my car up to Cathedral Ledge, an open cliff with a long drop and a panoramic view. I lay down on the rock in this magnificent space and took out The Dharma Bums. But after only ten minutes, hail began to fall: tiny hail, but hail nonetheless. The pellets bounced off my jacket and hat, skittering across the boulders. Defeated again, I abandoned that and went and bought a postcard to send to a girl I had started dating, driving several miles to the post office. Getting back I got caught in a bizarre, purposeless traffic jam on the country highway. Then, lunch, which I consumed in a warm tavern, perched on a stool at the bar. But even that warmth didn’t really reach my bones. All day in the car I had been trying to warm myself, but only the surface heated.
Back to the campsite. Can I fish? No, still cold and rainy, so I boiled myself a decent cup of tea under a pavilion, but then a mighty arctic wind from Canada swept across the empty campground. In May! Frustration. What to do? I came across an easy trail in my hiking book and drove twenty miles into Crawford Notch, then hiked about a mile before giving up. The sun was setting and I was tired and still chilled, knowing I had a harder hike tomorrow, packing in food and gear to a mountain hut. So, back down into the valley, calves aching, and back to Glen.
After about an hour of aimless searching I found the Fox Trot Brewery and fell asleep for a while in the parking lot, leaning my seat back, eyes tired from the wind. I finally slumped in, feeling that I failed by not making my own dinner at the campsite. Lobster ravioli, very civilized. Back at camp, depressed by a day of false starts, I washed up and decided I better get rid of the logs in my trunk before packing my tent tomorrow. With no hope of lighting a fire, my past attempts mostly failures, I set the logs up, making a little building, stuffing newspaper underneath. Then, a match and it began to burn. And burn. And the big logs leapt up and suddenly a real honest-to-god fire was bubbling and scorching, and I sat ten feet away in perfect warmth that seeped into my bones. I took out The Dharma Bums and finished it by the fire, with the everflowing cold river burbling by my campsite. Then, as the flames began to die, I looked for new logs, throwing on driftwood and soggy branches. But as I frantically tried to keep my blaze going, crescent moon rising over my tent, I stopped. Letting it smolder and die, I decided that all things die and though we can’t always fish in the river, it will always be there, cold and merry. And as long as we can build our own fires and be warm, we might not just survive, but enjoy it.
The next day I packed my backpack solid, drove to Zealand trailhead, and proceeded into the forest, down a trail I had been on with my old friend Ryan years ago. We had spent a day recovering from a brutal hike at Zealand Falls Hut, cementing our friendship. But he was not here with me now, living in Pennsylvania with his wife, cocooning in togetherness and connection. I was out here, disconnected and dissolute, free and lonely. I tramped in to the hut, the weight of two days of food humbling me. Another group trundled in several hours after me, and we exchanged pleasantries. But they set up their gear in the opposite bunkroom and I wasn’t sorry. In the middle of the night, I woke and instead of going to the wood-slatted bathroom, I stepped out into the cold and blowing night. The stars peeked from the racing clouds, dark regiments of trees surrounded me, and the sound of the rushing Zealand Falls drowned all thought.
The next morning I cooked oatmeal on the gas stove and reshuffled my backpack for a day hike. The sun shone brightly and the patches of snow had melted. I took the trail down towards Thoreau Falls, pack light and tight on my back, happily entering the human-free valley. The miles swept away, and my eyes stayed fixed on the surrounding mountains. Mistake. After a short while, glancing down, I noticed tracks on the dirt trail. I thought very little of this phenomenon until a huge pile of dung brought me up short. I examined the tracks…they were bear, heading in the direction from which I had come. The bear was somewhere in the woods behind me and the dung was fresh, made in the last hour. Fear immediately grabbed my throat. I had no gun, not even a can of bear-spray. And what to do? I trudged onwards to the waterfall, obsessively scanning the wet, leafless woods, gripping my fragile wooden walking stick. After a nervous lunch at the brimming, rushing falls, I headed slowly back, finding myself at the pile of dung again. A hundred yards past this spot was a trail that led deeper into the valley, and then back up to the views of Zeacliff. I hemmed and hawed, then plunged down the steep, muddy path to the stream. I discovered instead an angry Spring nightmare. There was no way to cross at the usual ford, but I poked around along the edge, hoping for a bridge of rocks, or perhaps a fallen tree. Instead, I found another steaming pile of dung. I fled back up the long way to the hut, cursing. At least I was able to tell the story to the other lodgers when they came down from Zealand Mountain, drinking tea and smoking cigars long into the night.
In the morning the crazy weather gods had dumped snow into the mountain valley again. I waited for my new acquaintances and we all hiked out together, stamping and hopping through the new drifts. At the trailhead I ran to my car and pulled out an oversized bottle of expensive Belgian beer and shared it, even though it was barely noon. And then, we said goodbyes and they promised to send me the pictures they had taken the night before. I drove away down the gravelly spring road, knowing that I would never see that happy family of nature-lovers again, I wondered how much I had attached myself to them out of fear, out of the pangs I had felt the day before, out of need. And what use were these connections, when they were cut so soon? I steeled myself against my terror and decided to build my own fires from then on, to be more self-reliant.
And so I stayed by myself, hermitting into my little hobbit-hole apartment, sitting on my brown lazy-boy taken from my long-dead landlord, and watching film after rented film. Or I’d read, and keep reading, sipping cup after cup of black china tea and cruising through novels the way I cruised around New England. I’d lose myself in the little novel-world, which seemed so much bigger than my own apartment existence, surrounded by pictures from the journeys I’d taken, of old friends long gone. I covered up in blankets on cold winter days and read of hot places, of mad adventures, of wrong and insane friendships. My eyes would get tired and I’d take a short nap, not through any real tiredness, but for eye-rest, and it worked. I’d wake up and get another cup of tea and read more, more, more. Because really, that was all I had. The strange thing was that I was starting not to mind.
One May day I drove to Mount Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts, for a three day hike. The plan was to stay at Bascom Lodge at the top for two nights. I drove up I-91 and west along the Mass Turnpike, a road I had taken once before, to Tanglewood, to hear the Boston Sympony Orchestra play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I had gone on a balmy summer day with my Ex, the one who had brought me to lonely old New England in the first place. This was after we had broken up, and I think about that sad denouement now with baffled head-scratching bewilderment…how we had traveled around New England as if we still were lovers, still a couple, for what? We even drove to Thoreau’s Walden Pond one weekend, visited the houses and graves of Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott, and spent a weird lookaway night in the separate beds of a motel room. Were we friends? Or just unable to let go of the long years of connection, wanting to hold on to the anti-loneliness we had brought each other for so long. At any rate, she was long gone, finding solace in someone else, and I was on this spring road to Mount Greylock, looking forward to testing my resolve against a mountain trail, looking for my other, truer friends, the moon and the rain.
I checked in at the Visitor center and the uphill trail immediately began to feel tough, hurting my hips and calves. I took the road for a mile and then headed back into a poison-ivy choked trail into the woods. Halfway up the mountain on Saddle Ball I broke for lunch, boiling hot water for instant soup and crackers. Refreshed, I rambled along a ridge for several miles, then took another breather, lying down on some green cool grass for ten minutes before legging it up the main peak. At the top, I checked in with the lodge-croo and plopped into an empty bunkroom, feeling lonelier than ever but enjoying it, staring out the huge window into the sunsetting sky.
At dinner I chatted with a couple; she hailed from a village in Germany and he was a math teacher in Eastern Massachusetts, so we had very little in common. We attempted to include a fifty-year-old thru-hiker, but she didn’t really talk. Hiking the entire Appalachian Trail can really hermitize a person, and I wondered if I was on that same windy road… A scout leader appeared and regaled us with tales of bear encounters and getting picked up hitchhiking in Idaho by two desperadoes. I went to sleep in the empty, echoing bunkroom with thoughts of wide open spaces and brave alert cowboys challenging tired group-mind notions of society…
After a good night’s sleep I lessened my load and hiked to Mount Fitch, where I read W.H. Hudson’s Far Away and Long Ago at an overlook above Ragged Mountain and the town of Adams. Then I took a steep trail down to Robinson’s point, where the sound of waterfalls drifted up from the Hopper through the silence. I cooked noodles and trudged back up the summit, feeling the sun burn me, sticking to shade when possible. A hang-gliding party was going on, huge families of station wagons unloading their wings for a jump off the steep east side of the peak. I watched these maniacs waiting for wind gusts and swooping overhead on the updrafts for a while and then headed inside for a shower and nap, zoned by the sun. The rest of the night I spent alone in front of the fire, reading and writing, without unnecessary spoken human connection.
The next day I refused breakfast with the others, tromping down the mountain, nearly wrecking my knees on that long winding macadam snake. Near the bottom, a horde of newly-hatched black flies crowded and tortured me while I practically ran down the road, pack jouncing on my back. I jumped into my car and headed to the nearest diner, where I wolfed down a hearty brunch and then drove south into Connecticut, stopping once to sit by a perfect fly-fishing stream and then continuing on, reveling in my solitude.
After all, solitude is humankind’s natural state, need for others is weakness, and great thinkers and writers are always alone, always singular and strong. I no longer needed to share the world; I wanted the cold satisfaction of personal experience, which the disconnection of modern life made easy enough to obtain. Each day became a page in my own fable, another perfect story to put on my pure, single-perspective shelf. I told myself that fable at least once a day, as my choices narrowed and my patience for compromise dwindled. A ghost doesn’t need a kindred spirit, or a true fellow heart.
Even today, many years later in a different life, I will be driving a foggy web of back roads, watching sunset god-rays come out of the powdery, cloudy sky, and in the rear view mirror I will see, with a sudden shock of fear and recognition, that lonely old ghost of New England, doomed to travel the in-between spaces, doomed to find friendship only with high mountains and hard stones, lost to family and home and society, a specter of the graying American dusk.
Eric D. Lehman is a travel and history writer, with reviews, essays, and stories in dozens of magazines and journals. He is also an award-winning author of many books, including Afoot in Connecticut, The Foundation of Summer, A History of Connecticut Wine, Insiders’ Guide to Connecticut, A History of Connecticut Food, Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P.T. Barnum, and the Dawn of American Celebrity, Homegrown Terror: Benedict Arnold and the Burning of New London. In his spare time, he pursues Henry Miller scholarship and teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport, where he directs the school literary magazine, Groundswell, and the faculty essay series, The Commons. He lives in Hamden with his wife, poet Amy Nawrocki, and his two cats.