Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On Summer Hiatus - Will Return on August 30th

I am taking a long-awaited, desperately needed, and well-deserved break to rest the synapses and recharge my batteries. I will return with a new posting on Sunday, August 30th - “A Day Trip for Grouper.” In the meantime, check out the "from the mountain" section in the left-hand sidebar for occasional updates while I am away. Enjoy your summer and you will be hearing from me again in late August.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Place to Linger

I will not deny that I am a city person. I guess I always have been. Most of my life has been spent in one big city or another, and I always tend to gravitate toward civilization. I cannot explain this attraction to cities, and I can think of any number of good reasons why I should drop everything and strike out to the hinterlands where I might find the peace and tranquility of rural life that one cannot really enjoy in an urban environment. Many years ago I had one all too brief encounter with country living. It had a big impact on me and to this day it is perhaps the pretense I use to explain my frequent escapes from the city. What I cannot figure out, however, is why I always seem to come back to this hectic way of life.

My parents, on the one hand, were not city people by nature as they both grew up in the farmlands of southwestern Michigan and moved to the city lured only by better offers of employment - Dad worked as an engineer for Montgomery Ward - and other opportunities. I, on the other hand, come by my affinity for the city honestly. I was born on Chicago's South Side, not far from the stock yards and Midway Field. Perhaps it was there, among neighborhoods peopled with Lithuanians, Poles, Serbs and other nationalities and ethnic groups, who came to this country after the war, that my earliest impressions and memories took shape; where urban life struck its first deep and resonant chord. It is lucky for me, then, that my parents' rural roots and values run deep and as a family we frequently headed for my grandparents' Michigan farm for holidays and summer visits and, I suspect, for my parents' much needed spiritual renewal.

Through these visits I became familiar with an environment and lifestyle much different from the one I knew in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and the other cities and towns I would grow up in. Edward Abbey, pondering his adopted home in the Arizona desert, once remarked that "every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary." That Michigan farm, with its weather-beaten house, barn and outbuildings, its pastures and fields of alfalfa, asparagus and corn, muted my recollections of the city and soon came to represent what I thought life could and should be. We would always return to the city, but those early childhood memories of the farm and the Michigan countryside proved durable and deeply ingrained. They are as alive today as they were over fifty years ago.

"If you don't want to live in a city," Frank Lloyd Wright once wrote, " pick a spot ten miles beyond its outermost limits - and then go fifty files further." He was right. Only 120 miles separate Chicago's South Side and my grandparents’ Michigan farmstead. The urban sprawl of Chicago and its environs, including Gary's oil refineries and steel mills, even in those days, was gradually encroaching on the farmlands of northern Indiana. It seemed that with each passing year we had to travel a little further to escape the city. I recall my parents' hope that the rural landscape of their youth would be spared this fate and would remain free from the contagions of the city; the Michigan farmstead was somehow beyond the pale.

When I first started visiting the Michigan farmstead and the nearby town of Paw Paw, small Midwestern towns were still vital economic centers, providing for the needs of the local residents and farmers as well as serving as a market for the local harvests. Thorstein Veblen claimed back in 1923 that the country town was one of the great American institutions, even the cornerstone of American society in that it played an important role in shaping public sentiment and giving character to American culture. Yet even in the mid-1950s one could see that their vitality and economic viability were greatly diminished.

Others from my parents' generation were also leaving their small towns and farms to seek better opportunities and jobs in the cities. Yet I sense that these choices were made more out of necessity than as a conscious escape from provincial attitudes. From time to time, my parents, along with the others, tried to return to the values of their youth that somehow managed to survive the changing times. Through our frequent visits to the Michigan farmstead, I came to believe that my parents had not left these rural landscapes for the concrete and noise of the cities; they were in some small way trying to figure out how they could escape back to the farm and their rural past. By returning, they in some small way validated their values which they hoped would somehow survive with their children. Their nostalgia was infectious and I have yet to find a cure. I have never looked for one either.

Paw Paw is not a unique town. There are many others like it throughout the United States. Despite its rather unique name, Paw Paw has not yet entered the pantheon of similar small towns whose people and lifestyles are celebrated, even immortalized in American literature - places like Sinclair Lewis' Sauk Center, Minnesota; Willa Cather's Red Cloud, Nebraska; Mark Twain's Hannibal, Missouri; Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River, Illinois; or Sherwood Anderson's Clyde, Ohio.

Located between Kalamazoo and Lake Michigan, it is the center of a well-established, but less well-known wine producing area. There are two family-owned wineries in town where grapes and fruit grown on nearby farms and in orchards throughout the surrounding countryside are transformed into wines and sherries which are then distributed throughout the upper Midwest. When Jerry Ford, from nearby Grand Rapids, moved into the White House in the summer of 1974, he took some Michigan wines with him. For the most part, however, their fame is limited to the Midwest.

Paw Paw also serves the nearby family farms. Machinery is brought to town for parts and repairs. The local corn crop was trucked to the farmers co-op in town, just across South Michigan Street from the wineries, where it was ground into feed for cows, pigs and chicken. At dawn each morning, trucks from the dairy in Kalamazoo traveled the country roads picking up the milk produced that morning and the previous evening.

Many of these institutions and practices have grown obsolete, or are dwindling and vanishing altogether. The wineries are still small and family-owned although they have expanded their output somewhat, and tour buses stop from time to time to disgorge tourists into the tasting rooms before heading back out to Interstate 94 on their way to Chicago or Detroit. Most of the vineyards and orchards are still there although many of them are now owned by corporations and syndicates. Those that remain in private hands are small and non-competitive on the open market. Every year their numbers grow fewer as families are compelled to sell them to the corporations or lose them to the banks. Others are left fallow or converted to other crops.

The family farms are also quickly disappearing as land is sold and subdivided for suburban tracts as Kalamazoo moves in from the East. Farm machinery has either been sold or is left to rust in the fields or beside the dilapidated barns that now punctuate the shrinking rural landscape. There are fewer cows, pigs and chickens. The co-op in town was torn down a few years ago and a McDonalds was built in its place. The tour buses stop there too. Paw Paw is still there - probably always will be - yet I wonder whether its character is somewhat diminished by these changes.

Only in more recent years have I come to recognize and understand these changes. As a young boy on short visits I was only interested in my own little world on the Michigan farmstead, playing in the fields and in the barn. I fondly recall the Saturday morning drives into the co-op with my grandfather, stopping by the A&W stand for a root beer float on the way back to the farm. The changes that were to come to Paw Paw, to its basic values and its way of life, were of little concern to me then.

After my time living on the Michigan farmstead and attending Acorn School (see December 2008 columns), I returned to a city life which continued as it had before - back under the bright lights and the hum of civilization. My visits to my grandparents' farm became more infrequent as I grew older, and each time I returned I noticed more changes, more intrusions into the peace and tranquility. Rural life was no longer simple and quixotic as my childhood perceptions led me to believe. By 1966, Acorn School was gone and today that patch of ground is neglected and overgrown. Many of the neighboring fields have since been sold and subdivided and suburban-style tract housing is beginning to sprout up here and there. I imagine a house will someday stand where we use to study and play, thinking that all of this would never change.

I discovered that Paw Paw, and other small towns like it, suffers from many of the same problems found in larger towns and cities; they are not secure from violent crime, child abuse and drugs, problems we commonly associate with urban life. Small towns and rural areas do, however, differ from cities in that their economic viability suffers to a greater degree from governmental indifference or outright neglect; the ground swells created by a string of recessions and their attendant economic slowdowns and budget cuts, the development of agribusiness, or the increasing foreign takeover of American agriculture, reach the small towns and family farms long before similar effects are experienced in the cities where they guarantee the attention of the national media. Farm families were defaulting on their loans bills and selling their farms long before white collar workers and government bureaucrats began to receive their pink slips. Perhaps, if we had paid more attention to the disappearance of the American dream in the small towns, this country may have avoided the predicament in which it now finds itself.

Like Abbey's desert solitaire, I still carry in my heart and mind those childhood images of the rural landscape of southwestern Michigan. Though I have continued to live in an urban environment, I still think fondly of the Michigan farmstead of my youth. "This Midwest. A dissonance of parts and people, we are a consonance of towns," writes William Gass in his In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. "Our outlook never really urban, never rural either, we enlarge and linger at the same time, as Alice both changed and remained in her story." Today my escapes to the countryside are an attempt to grasp these fleeting images. Perhaps someday I will find them and hold them tightly until those bright city lights, that abiding hum, fade away. And I will linger there forever.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

One Step Over the Line - Part 2

Last week I wrote about the problems and inconvenience one encounters when the US-Canadian border runs through the middle of a populated area, in that instance the border separating Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Québec. This week I want to focus on the border where it occurs in an unpopulated and generally wilderness area; "the nearly invisible boundary . . . through lush hills that blurred the line no matter how aggressively it was chainsawed and weed-whacked," writes Jim Lynch in Border Songs. "From there, as thin as a rumour, the line cut through lakes and swamps and forest and fields." So I traveled to the far northern tip of New Hampshire, where, upon first blush, one side of the line does not look all that different from the other side . . . until you look (and listen) a little closer.

U.S. Route 3 begins in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not far from the campus of Harvard University, and continues north through that state before running the entire length of New Hampshire where it is also known as the Daniel Webster Highway. After passing through Franconia Notch, in the White Mountains, it becomes the principle highway serving Coös County and the Great North Woods. Once it reaches Lancaster, it parallels the Connecticut River and Vermont border until it reaches West Stewartstown, just across the river from Canaan, Vermont in the general vicinity of the 45th parallel. This latitude was designated by the Treaty of Paris of 1783, at the end of the American Revolution, as the boundary of British North America - later Canada - and the United States between the St. Lawrence River, in update New York, and the Connecticut River. Unfortunately, neither the British nor the Americans could agree exactly where the parallel ran; there were discrepancies as much as 13 miles in one direction or the other, depending who one talked to. The matter was finally put to the King of the Netherlands who settled the dispute (sort of) by splitting the difference between the conflicting claims. In 1842, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which ultimately defined the boundary, placed the 45th parallel along a line surveyed prior to the Revolution, in 1771-1774. But discrepancies remained, and still exist today.

The international boundary departs from the 45th parallel when it intersects Hall Stream, at Beecher Falls, Vermont, near its confluence with the Connecticut River. From there the border runs northward along the middle of Hall Stream, the northwesternmost headwater of the Connecticut River, until it intersects the height of land separating the watersheds of the Atlantic Ocean (the Connecticut River flows 360 miles south to its debouchment into Long Island Sound) and St. Lawrence River, to the north, as defined by the Treaty of Paris. This stretch of the border was also disputed by Britain and the United States which led to the establishment of the short-lived Republic of Indian Stream.

While the United States recognized Hall Stream and the height of land as the official border established by treaty, Great Britain claimed all territory – 282 square miles - west of the Connecticut River and above the 45th parallel. The few hardy settler families who lived in this disputed territory found themselves taxed and otherwise harassed by both the British and American authorities and chose to take their destiny into their own hands. On July 9, 1832, the independent minded "Streamers" established the Republic of Indian Stream with its own constitution and bill of rights, legislature, courts, army, and currency. Over the next three years they lived in relative peace and quiet interrupted only by an occasional incident to remind all concerned that the dispute between Britain and the United States remained unresolved. Finally, in 1835, the republic’s legislature voted to throw its lot with the United States through annexation. The area was occupied by the New Hampshire militia, and in January 1836 Great Britain relinquished its claim and U.S. jurisdiction was recognized a few months later. The territory of the former Indian Stream Republic became the town of Pittsburg in 1840, the largest township in the United States. As with the dispute over the exact location of the 45th parallel, this territorial dispute between Great Britain and the United States was also formally resolved by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842.

U.S. Route 3's original northern terminus was Colebrook, New Hampshire until 1926, but the highway was extended a few miles north to West Stewartstown, in 1928, and to the village of Pittsburg in 1937. From West Stewartstown, the highway and river turn in an generally northeastern direction, and arriving in Pittsburg, the river, now wholly in New Hampshire, flows through unbroken forests and past Lake Francis and the four Connecticut Lakes forming the primary headwaters of the Connecticut River. This is the Great North Woods in the truest sense. I am reminded of a scene in the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate when Eugenie Rose Cheney (Janet Leigh) tells Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) that she once spent a summer at a camp on Lake Francis. Marco, who was originally from New Hampshire, responded: "That’s pretty far north." You can’t go much farther north before you find yourself speaking French.

Since 1940, the highway has run all the way to the international border at the northern tip of the state, its only official port of entry to and from Canada. Prior to that an unimproved gravel road built by Canadian customs (although on American soil) ran the last 12 miles from Second Connecticut Lake. Over 8,500 people, including U.S. and Canadian politicians and bands from both countries, attended the dedication of a new U.S. customs house after it was erected at the border in September 1939. The Boston Post described it as the "most sightly port of entry east of Chicago." It was closed during the winter, however, when the gravel road was covered by several feet of snow and impassable until the spring thaw. This really was the end of the road, in more ways than one. Even today, with a well-paved highway all the way to the border, it is an unforgiving place to those who do not come prepared for the wilderness conditions and unpredictable weather.

About three miles south of the border there is a small wooden cross along the edge of the highway. Here, on May 10, 1940, the body of an unidentified Native American man was found. According to records in Chartierville, a small Québec village a few miles beyond the border, the man used an alias when he stayed at a hotel in that town and registered with the Canadian authorities on February 22, 1940. He set off for Pittsburg, New Hampshire ill-prepared for the minus zero temperatures and deep snow and more than likely died of exposure many miles from his destination. His body was later buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in West Stewartstown and the cross, which has long been cared for by the U.S. customs agents stationed up the road, is often festooned with flowers and coins left by curious travelers. It is one of the few evidences of mankind along the final dozen miles of U.S. Route 3. Other than the paved highway this area has not changed much in the past 70 years. Just hills, forest, and water; certainly a lonely place to die without a name.

A couple of miles farther up the road, and just short of the border, one comes to Third Connecticut Lake. I first discovered this special place some 15 years ago, and I return here every chance I get during all seasons. It is a place I like to go to be alone. I have watched massive thunderstorms approach from the west over the height of land marking the border beyond the far shore of the lake. I have been there when an early January blizzard created whiteout conditions. Usually the only sounds I hear there are the haunting cries of a loon family carried along on a wilderness zephyr. Standing at the lake’s edge one can look north to the ridge saddle where U.S. Route 3 ends at the border, a solitary light marking the location of the customs station.

The northern terminus of U.S. Route 3 is perhaps one of the loneliest and isolated border crossings . . . at least on the American side. There are twin boundary monuments – even here there is an 18-inch discrepancy - a no man’s land - as to where the actual border is located. The granite for these and similar border pylons was mined west of here, in Beebe, Québec. In 1902, the International Boundary Commission chose granite to replace cast iron monuments from New York to Maine. The first monuments, beginning in 1843, were made of cast iron and there have been 18 different styles over the years. Stainless steel border monuments remain in use from Minnesota to Washington State and the Pacific Ocean, this due to the fact that the Americans prefer concrete (mined in Canada) while the Canadians prefer metal (manufactured in the USA). An American and Canadian flag fly nearby and an inspection station, one for each country, is situated on either side of the line. As a result of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has now installed a gate across the road which it can close at its discretion even though the border remains open 24/7. Otherwise, the border is marked only by the width and state of repair of the macadam roadway and by a 30-foot wide clear-cut swath through the surrounding woodland following the path of the border . . . the end of the Great North Woods and the American wilderness.

The Pittsburg customs station is a place to park to pick up a cell-phone tower down in the valley in Canada since there is no cell-phone service to speak of among the isolated hills and hallows on the U.S. side of the line. Here, too, hikers are free to wander the clear-cut swath to the top of a nearby hill, and in doing so they cross back and forth across the border a dozen times or more. The only physical evidence of the international boundary is the occasional metallic benchmarks anchored to rock ledges along the trail. Near the top of the hill known as Mount Prospect (elevation 2550 feet) the trail heads off into the woods on the American side, and from there it is just a short distance to Fourth Connecticut Lake, actually just a small pond, and the true head of the Connecticut River, the longest river in New England. "The Connecticut is not a majestic river," writes Walter Hard in his 1947 book about the river, part of "The Rivers of America" series. "It is, rather, a friendly stream, which invites intimacy and elicits affection." It’s why I find myself coming back here time and time again.

On the Canadian side, Québec Route 253 descends straight as an arrow down the long northern face of Magnetic Hill to Chartierville a few kilometers in the distance. A patchwork of dairy farms, cultivated fields and rolling hills stretch out to the horizon. "Geographically, culturally, economically, the difference between the two countries here on the New Hampshire-Québec line are astounding," Howard Frank Mosher writes in North Country: A Personal Journey (1997). "I don’t know this yet [he was just beginning his trip along the border when he passed through Pittsburg and wrote this], but in no place along the entire border, from Maine to the Pacific, will the contrast between the Canadian and the U.S. sides of the line be so abrupt and noticeable." Once over the line, there is no way to ignore the fact that you are in a new place. The Canadian customs agent greets you in French and all signs are posted in that language. Arriving in Chartierville, just a few kilometers over the border, you are hard pressed to find anyone who can speak a word of English. In fact, it is difficult to meet anyone who has been beyond that height of land to the south and the foreign country that lies beyond. Why go there? On the other side of the ridge in nothing but wilderness for miles. Montréal, Canada’s second largest city, and the largest French-speaking city after Paris, is less than two hours away to the west.

The border following the 45th parallel is an arbitrary line running west to east across the map. Here, however, on the rooftop of New Hampshire, the border follows a natural fault line between the Atlantic Ocean, to the south, and the St. Lawrence River, to the north, which also separates American wilderness from cultivated Canadian farmland. One may have the impression that this is a forgotten border . . . out of sight and out of mind. Not true. The woods are full of movement and other sensory devices tied to computers. Helicopters and aircraft patrol the skies as do unmanned drones. This border can be quickly sealed off, if it becomes necessary to do so. I try not to think too hard about this. I come up to this area to appreciate its isolation, its solitude, its end-of-the-road atmospherics. I walk down to the edge of Third Connecticut Lake. There is a freshening breeze as white clouds scud from Canada across the ridge into the United States and back into Canada, free as the wind guiding them on their journey. I listen to the loons ululating across the lake. There is no need to go any farther. I have arrived.

NEXT WEEK: A Place to Linger