RECENT AND NOTABLE WORK
As the years went by, Joe built more cages and fences all around the house, which he filled with lions and tigers and dogs until, almost without noticing, he became just another animal living inside a cage, inside the zoo.
Then I heard it: the knock-knock-knocking of knuckles on a door. Except…the hut had no door. A few minutes later came the screechy scrape of fingernails on wood. My neck hairs bristled; my head swam. The sound, I realized, was coming from inside the coffin.
“Have you noticed how blue the lake is now?” she asked me one day. I had not. “It’s, like, Caribbean blue,” she said. The next time I went down to the lakeside I noticed what she meant. The lake of my childhood had always vacillated somewhere between a slate blue and the gray found in the seams of an old tennis ball. But suddenly it had taken on a kind of hyperclarity; it sparkled. The lake was so clean, I read online, that passing airplanes could see shipwrecks resting on the lake bottom. Thanks to climate change, the lake was approaching Caribbean temperatures, as well; it hit 80 degrees one recent July, when it would normally be in the high 50s. I remember feeling pleased by this change, but also slightly unsettled, the same way we feel on an unseasonably warm winter’s day. It was too good to be good.
I have always enjoyed hitch-hiking. I regard it as a praxis of low-key utopianism: it gives people an excuse to willingly share resources and talk with strangers for long periods of time. It also provides an excellent window onto a foreign place. If you want to travel perceptively, I’ve found, you must not be afraid to enter the private realms of strangers – their homes, their cars, their dark inner cosmologies, their furies and dreams – and lay yourself at their mercy.
The creative abyss is a snowy field. Not an abyss you tiptoe above but the one you must navigate. It is at once an infinity and a vacuum, total noise and total silence, everything and nothing. Your foot hovers; your head swims. To take even a single step into blankness is to enter a maze with boundless options and no clues.
Desire lines, also known as cow paths, pirate paths, social trails, kemonomichi (beast trails), chemins de l’âne (donkey paths), and Olifantenpad (elephant trails), can be found all over the city and all over the world, scarring pristine lawns and worming through forest undergrowth. They appear anywhere people want to walk, where no formal paths have been provided. (Sometimes they even appear despite the existence of formal paths, out of what seems to be sheer mulishness—or, perhaps, cowishness.) Some view them as evidence of pedestrians’ inability or unwillingness to do what they’re told; in the words of one academic journal, they “record collective disobedience.” Others believe that they reveal the inherent flaws in a city’s design—the places where paths ought to have been built, rather than where they were built. For this reason, desire lines infuriate some landscape architects and enrapture others. They also fascinate scholars, inspire artists, and enchant poets.
Among Appalachian Trail “thru-hikers” — that special class of backpackers dedicated (or obsessed) enough to walk the trail’s full 2,200 miles — the question of whether to carry a tent is hotly debated. Thru-hikers tend to fall into one of two factions. Some (albeit a minority) insist a tent is unnecessary because the trail is punctuated with wooden shelters, or lean-tos, every 10 miles or so. As a rule, these hikers tend to travel light, cook simply or not at all, and sleep in the lean-tos or other shelters on the trail. But other hikers pride themselves on being self-sufficient: They prefer to camp in a tent far from other people; they carry detailed maps; they would never hitchhike into town just to grab a milkshake. We do not have a precise word for these two personality types. Not yet.
The experience of driving a car has been the mythopoeic heart of America for half a century. How will its absence be felt?
Two years ago, Dr. Sandra Lee, a dermatologist in Southern California, opened an Instagram account. She viewed it as an experiment; the surface of the internet was riddled with unseen pockets of desire, weird subterranean pressures, and she was inclined to prod it, gingerly, until she found out how deep they ran....
When I was eighteen, I bought a copy of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” which remains, if my conversations with strangers are any indication, the only book anyone has ever read about the Appalachian Trail. It was summer. My friend Andy and I had driven across the country and ended up in the town of Sheridan, Wyoming, where we stayed for a week with a genial middle-aged couple, family friends of my friend. Scanning my hosts’ bookshelves, as I have a tendency to do, I was quietly horrified to discover that they were exclusively stocked with works of pop evangelicalism (Rick Warren and the like). It was a literary desert: xeric, Mosaic. Bryson’s book was the only one I’d brought, so, while Andy rode dirt bikes with a guy named Dusty, I lay on a fold-out couch in the basement, consuming it in controlled bursts, as if bolting food rations.
Every great writer, it seems, has a formative horror. For some it is a war, an illness, an abuse, an abandonment, a death. For [Robert] Coover it was an explosion. The scrabbling for meaning that followed the disaster — the rumors, the prayer vigils, the journalists picking over the wreckage — gave him a riddle he has spent his career unraveling: How are myths made, and how can they be unmade?
As someone who has hitchhiked more than a thousand miles, spanning dozens of rides, over the past six years—a lonely anachronism out on there on the roads—one of the first things I noticed when rereading On The Road recently is Sal Paradise’s utter lack of awareness about his appearance, his posture, or his stench.
As a result, Kerouac fails to capture the core irony of hitchhiking, which is that it privileges exactly the people one would not suspect to be hitchhiking: those who dress well, those who bathe, those with expensive-looking luggage. There’s a reason hobos—and their crusty, cynophile offspring, found panhandling and nodding off on St. Mark’s Place or Haight Street or Camden Road—traditionally ride the rails. Hitching is at its heart an exercise in superficiality, and necessarily so: there’s literally no time for depth; to the people blurring by on the highway, the hitchhiker is flattened into a Polaroid.
For the last few years I’ve been seeing woodsmen on my city’s streets. They wear long beards and long hair, or long beards and no hair. They favor beat-up leather boots and wool beanies and jobs involving wood. At Best Made Co., a downtown boutique, they purchase hand-painted axes and canvas portage packs. At French atelier APC, they try on pieces by Carhartt, a manufacturer of blue-collar outdoor wear, that have been recut for slimmer legs and thicker wallets. Until recently, they were able to hone their bow-hunting skills in the basement archery range of clothier/barbershop Freeman’s Sporting Club.These urban dwellers seem to be getting ready for a long camping trip that never takes place; their flannel grows tatty and their boots scuffed, but they are never stained with real dirt.