The Last Radical Act Left in Woodstock

In my first months in Woodstock, I decided that I’d found the last radical act left in this famous but graying bastion of the Sixties, namely, walking. I arrived in November fresh from a long stay in the Adirondacks, where I’d finished the Adirondack Forty-Sixers in a surge of hiking that got me into my best shape in ages. Not wanting to become a winter potato, I took a walk almost every day. The problem was that I rarely made it out of the house before dark. As a writer, I had the luxury (or curse) of sitting at the computer all day in my bathrobe and long johns, writing (or deleting) until I’d worn out my brain by five or six in the evening. Then I’d pull on my jeans, lace up my boots, zip up my fleece, grab my hat and gloves, find my flashlight, and head out my cottage door to explore the village lanes and woodsy cul-de-sacs of my new home terrain.

In 1996 I’d left midtown Manhattan for a log cabin at the edge of the wilderness in Phoenicia. I could climb up the steep slope of hemlocks behind my cabin and keep going to the summit of Panther Mountain without seeing a soul, passing only a hunter’s shack on the way. I had the perfect setup: a wood stove and a front porch perched like a tree fort above my stream. Never again, I promised myself, would I be so confined by civilization that I couldn’t step outside my front door to pee.

So much for promises. Eight years later I felt just as lucky to find a village rental. By then, I’d tired of the country driving that ate up my days. I happily traded the wood stove for a wall thermostat. And Woodstock was that rare community designed for walking. I celebrated my first morning by doing something I hadn’t done since 1996 in midtown: I walked out to breakfast. How civilized not to hop in the car every time I needed groceries or a cappuccino fix. As an environmentalist, I was the proud owner of a Honda Insight, a hybrid that averaged fifty-three miles per gallon. But in the village, I discovered an alternative better than hybrids, namely, not driving at all.

For my evening exercise, I developed several routes around side streets and cul-de-sacs. To walk in the village at night is to be a voyeur who can see into the brightly lit homes of people going about ordinary lives, such as a woman at a kitchen counter or a man seated with a newspaper in front of a TV. I stood out under the stars, wrapped in warm clothes, enjoying the nighttime expansiveness, yet I felt surprisingly touched by these scenes of domestic warmth and belonging. I remembered John Cheever’s stories about outsiders who longed to fit into the suburbs. But I’d grown up in the suburbs and vowed never to move back. I was proud of not having mowed a lawn since pre-Ronald Reagan. Walking past ranch houses indulged my nostalgia for my suburban upbringing without forcing me to enter the door.

But I also wanted exercise. I didn’t want to lose what I’d gained by conquering the Adirondack Forty Sixers. Leaving the flats, I rounded the bend at the base of Ohayo Mountain Road and ascended the long steep straightaway that gave me the StairMaster experience. My heartbeat sped up. I pulled off my hat and gloves to stay cool. I waved my flashlight wildly at cars charging down this roadway that wasn’t built for pedestrians. Forget about sidewalks. In places I had inches between the pavement and hedges. Yet the cars always saw me and swerved wide. I tried not to think about Stephen King, a walker like many writers, who’d been hit by a drunk on a country highway in broad daylight, landing him in the hospital for months. But I wasn’t Stephen King. I didn’t have his talent, his success, or his fame. Why should I have his accident?

In time I realized that I never saw anyone else out on foot. Even the Lefties drove by. I decided that I was committing the last radical act left in the age of petroleum man: walking. Flashlight in hand, I returned down Ohayo Mountain Road, self-righteous and charged up on endorphins. I may have missed the famous Sixties protests, but I was out here marching night after night. Doing my part to slow global warming. I studied the gaudy constellation of mountainside lights across the valley on Overlook and amused myself by coming up with an insulting names like the Big Zipper.

In the spring I discovered Plochmann Lane. It became my favorite, an idyllic road that began among ranch houses, continued through forest where driveways led to hidden houses, and finished beside meadows with wonderful views of Overlook Mountain. The perfect route, providing a blend of exercise and pastoral scenery. It also disabused me of my fantasy of being the only walker in town. I met people strolling with friends or dogs. Occasionally, my friends, who happened to be driving by, stopped to stay hello. Through I met a woman who lived on Plochmann Lane. We dated for a few months, taking walks of our own.

By spring I also recognized the people who walked by my cottage on Pine Grove Street. There was the waiter from New World Home Cooking who gently tugged his tiny dog on a leash from shrub to shrub. The racewalker swinging her elbows like weapons; she turned out to be a writer I’d met in my earlier life in Manhattan. The mailman was an inveterate walker, a lanky fellow in blue mailman shorts pushing his cart down the street. But the one who intrigued me was Michael Perkins, a tall thin man with stooped shoulders who looked frail with his walking stick yet floated along on his feet. Years earlier, he’d written a glowing review of my first poetry chapbook for the Woodstock Times, for which I remained eternally grateful. But I couldn’t say I knew him well. He worked at the library. He lived on the other side of Ohayo Mountain. Now I realized that he was walking to and from work. He was commuting on foot, more than three miles each way. He truly was the alternative to petroleum man.

One evening we met with a third fellow to drink red wine, sample fine cheeses, and read Hart Crane aloud. A difficult poet from the 1920’s, famous for writing an epic inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge as well as for jumping off a ship to kill himself at age thirty-two, Crane was a figure generally ignored today. But we were fans. We knew that Crane had stayed for two months on Plochmann Lane in the 1920’s, where he’d enjoyed a festive Thanksgiving with John Dos Passos and painters from the arts colony. In fact, Michael shared a short play with us that he’d written about this gathering. Like Crane, Michael had grown up in Ohio but moved to Manhattan as a young man to make his way in the world of literature. As a young poet, Michael had paid homage to Crane by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge while reciting long passages of “The Bridge” from memory. That impressed me. I’d never memorized more than a handful of sonnets, much less one of the most challenging long poems in American literature.

And Michael had done more, a lot more. In honor of Herman Melville, he’d once walked from Red Hook on the other side of the Hudson to Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s house in the Berkshires. To celebrate Woodstock’s bicentennial he’d walked from our town to Woodstock, Connecticut in 1986, a four-day journey on roads. Though I’d met countless hikers in the Catskills and the Adirondacks, I’d never met anyone like Michael, a man who really had taken his own path in life. “Who is this guy?” I thought. “And how do I get to walk with him?”