An essay about Solitude: The love of woods and rural America
The addiction started early on even though I didn’t know it at the time. I never realized how much those little drives with my father on Sunday afternoons would shape the way I lived in the future. When the obsession officially started I cannot really recall. It may have been my first backpacking trip with my friend Jason Helmbold. It was my first summer living on my own and Jason whom I had met through biking, asked me if I wanted to go on a 3 day backpacking trip in the Adirondacks. I happily agreed, though I had no gear besides boots, he provided me with all the necessary goods, sleeping bag, pack and a list of stuff I needed. Granted I did not have a tent or any of the high class goodies I now own, I still went out and bought meager rations of the foodstuffs, water pills, and collapsible bladders that I would need for the trip.
This trip was way before I had even realized I was in love with the woods and specifically the solitude that these woods provided, this trip was a year prior to the first time I would see mountains that topped the tree line, and canyons that were painted red and orange, this was the first time I would hike since I was a kid.
Looking back now, it was not the memories of trip that made a lasting memory, yet it was the concept that under my own power I could live on my own for days if not weeks in a place that contained little or no sign of man- this was G-d’s land- could G-d really be denied when everything was natural, and void of man. No I did not think this way at the time, but over time this idea has revoltionized my outdoors philosophy. It has thrust me from weekend warrior to someone compared to a crack addict- I have been bitten by the bug and the poison is coinstantly spreading.
Come to think of it my first backpacking trip was a disaster- it was my first time sleeping out in the woods- I had no tent and no sleeping pad- it was so damned humid, every rustling of a branch had me clutching the nearest rock waiting for the inevitable bear to come pouncing on me at any moment. Sleep never came- the water tasted like shit after popping my iodine pills into my bladder, whatever happen to cool sweet mountain water like all the movies. The bugs were a terrible nuisance. Tuna without mayonnaise was inedible and surviving off barely edible dry cliff bars is not recommended. Jason and I only ended up staying for two days one night, but it was the de-virginizing of my tree hugger sense, and it must not be forgotten in the saga of how I became an outdoors addict.
This thrust me into a world of wanting to be outside in the middle of nowhere with nothing for miles. Whether it is in my car on a double track dirt road in Nevada searching for old mining towns of the gold rush era, or riding my bike through red rock canyons in southwest Utah, or hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) in New Hampshire, I yearn for solitude and survival depending on you alone. Instead of riding my bike at skate parks and in down town rust belt cities, I yearned for the woods. Even things as little as taking the back roads instead of the interstate became regular tradition. I am always going to higher extremes in my ways but the summer of 2001 was definitely the beginning of it all.
I must say the true beginning was much before that really, since my father really instilled in me the love though I did not realize at the time. I remember waking up at 10am on Sunday mornings to smells of fresh H&H bagels with lox and philly cream chease. I remember the light jazz playing on weather station while my father decided what coats or type of clothing we should wear. I remember the tradition my old man saying “so Hesh do you want to take a ride” this always meant we would go somewhere upstate and wander around some woods or lakes. It ranged we usually went to Harriman State Park, or Fahnstock, or FDR, or maybe even cross country skiing in the Palisades. Little trips, day trips that I immensely enjoyed. My father always had something interesting to say about everything especially in the woods. Always saying which trees where which, or which animal prints belonged to which animals. It always seemed like he knew everything. Even when my brother was in high school and he stopped coming along is still loads of fun, I always knew we would go out to eat some Chinese food in Teanack after our little jaunts, or some deli on the lower east side.
Through my love of the woods and the independence and solitude it provides, I slowly became more of a loner. Not an anti-social Timothy Mcvey type, but more of just being content when I am by myself type. Driving down back roads with not a care in the world, with some light fiddle based bluegrass drowning out the hum of the tires on the withered blacktop that encases rural America. Skiing on virgin white snow that covers the lakes of Upstate NY every winter. Walking solo down abandoned right of ways (railroad tracks) that cut a swath across farmland and allow one to view the backs of peoples houses, with their clothes hanging out drying, their rusted old cars awaiting their saviors as they rest atop cinder blocks surrounded by old stoves and rusting bear cans, old men riding their John Deere lawn mowers around their 3 acre backyards, while their children shoot subsonic .22 rifle shots at makeshift target ranges consisting of ball jars and wine bottles.
The ultimate in solitude for most would be perched on a cliff 14,000 feet above sea level overlooking vast mountain ranges with nothing man made for hundreds of miles. For me this would be heavenly even masturbatory, but there is another sort of solitude I seek as well. The solitude of knowing that even though you are in your car in Noonan, North Dakota and you can see a mobile station and small local hardware store in sight, you are still 500 miles from the nearest city with over 50,000 people. My fascination with rural America has also developed from my fathers ways, my father used to love to take the scenic route and loved the small Victorian towns that dotted the Hudson Valley in Putnam and Westchester counties. He loved the ornate design of the Victorian Ante Bellum era- “you know they don’t make things like they used to” a common line amongst our older generations, and he is absolutely right. Even fuel pumps at gas stations used to be ornate, nowadays things have become more about quickness then about feeling. There used to be a gas station attendant who could tell you the where the best steak in town was and where you could camp out for free, by the way in rural America this still exists though it is quickly dying with invention of completely self serve gas stations, I have seen them in portions of Texas. Though my father never traveled far, he has never been past Detroit, he was definitely a wanderer, I tend to stereotype people who most stay around the large cities, but for a large city dweller he was still a lover of small rural towns, the towns that still contained a small square where kids congregate, and the local dairy queen is the most popular attraction on warm summer nights, these sort of towns exist even in states as large as New York.
I remember my first time in what I would call “real rural America”, I was on my first summer road trip with my friend Yosef Franklin- a little yeshiva kid who is an extremely avid hiker having grown up in an ultra-orthodox family of hiking types. His father a rather skinny chasidish looking man blows away all stereotypes when he opens his mind to you. He has a PhD in wildlife biology from the University of Montana at Missoula (one of my dream places to live). When he was in his young twenties, in the Hippy era he hitchhiked to Montana and bought a plot of land and built a cabin on it with his bear hands. A quite interesting character may I say- he found the Lord in the woods shall we say and is now very frum with a large family of little frummies. I was friends with his son in high school, because he was a great mountain biker, I never knew he was such an avid hiker until I started getting into hiking. It took a little convincing of his mother to let their son travel to the west when he was just 16 years old, I was 19, but after his dad decided that its only right for kids to have adventures like he had his did they give the OK. So we packed up my Volvo wagon at his fathers farm in the Catskills. Yes his father is a commercial farmer and shochet.
One of the greatest feelings in life is packing up a car and setting out on a month long road trip. That sense of setting off on your own and the freedom and independence is phenomenal. There is always the music that accompanies the beginning of the trip- there is always the discarded bottles of mountain dew piling up in the front seat as you push for the west, and try and bypass as much of the Midwest as possible. Those feelings of puling up in truck stops in Iowa with a foreign luxury car packed to the brim with bikes on the roof and enough camping gear to fill a small outdoors store always garners curious looks from the other drivers. The thought of that first night sleeping outside on the side of your car on I-80 in the dry nights of Nebraska and cooking oatmeal on the hood of your car with curious travelers always pausing to gaze upon the oddity of this. And once your there, the west I mean oh that is the greatest feeling of all, you have made it to the vast open plains and just beyond these the Rockies that cut a sluice across the midsection of the country. I always argue with myself of what is really considered the west in my book. Usually the feeling of openness hits around Lincoln, Nebraska. This is at about the point when traveling to Colorado when I exit the interstate and seek a haven on the back roads. This also where the landscape opens up and becomes more extreme. The rolling hills of Iowa and Eastern Nebraska all of the sudden become this massive expanse of flatness. This flatness extends from Texas all the into Canada. It is a hard feeling to describe but being able to drive on a road for 100 miles without one turn is exhilarating, knowing that any rise in the topography of a mere 25 feet will bring someone 360 degree views of miles of flat corn fields and blowing grasslands. Pssing by freight trains that stretch for miles and being able to see the whole length of them. This is what I call big sky country (commonly used when referring to Montana) because everything is visible the lack of trees or any sort of manmade obstructions allow for the sky to be fully opened up. The only obstructions in fact in most of the great plains are what some have referred to as the “skyscrapers of the west”, grain elevators- another fascination of mine- invented in Buffalo by the way.