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by Rebecca Tirrell Talbot

I dream that I am lost.  I have left a musty diner on a hilltop near Williamsport, Pennsylvania and driven east, toward my parents’ home, hoping I will soon see the moon over the Susquehanna.  Instead, my headlights flash on oaks and blacktop, firs and boulders.  There are no street signs to point the way or assurance markers to say how far it is to the next town.  The bones of my thumbs press the steering wheel.

When the forest spits me out, I face a bridge spanning a gully.  Suddenly, I am on foot.  I step onto the bridge, and my sneakers stick to it, as if I’ve stepped in gum.  Trash in the gully has caught fire and smells of sulfur; the pavement smolders.  I peel my melting sneakers off the pavement, step off the bridge, and find a map tucked under my arm.  What crazy luck!  This never happens in my dreams of being lost.  I unfold the map and easily find the bridge.  In fact, the bridge and a gray region marked “WILDERNESS” are the only two items the map depicts.

By the time I wake up, I have been doomed to cross the bridge, turn back, and retrace my steps half a dozen times.  In the feverish warm bedroom, I feel both relieved and frustrated.  I am awake and in Chicago and, therefore, not lost.  But if I had slept five more minutes, I could have found my way, I am sure of it.

#

Back when I owned a car, I traveled roads that had once been paths for deer and buffalo, and then for the Lenni Lenape, Shawnee, and Susquehannock who followed their trails, and then for the British colonists who widened the trails for their wagons, and now for PennDOT to resurface with oil and chips.  Pennsylvania roads follow the grain of the land, shoulder rivers and lakes, and ramble like grazing buffalo.  If you ask people how they learned their way around these roads before they had GPS and smart phones, they will tell you, grinning, “By getting lost.”

Before GPS became ubiquitous, drivers needed maps on roads like these, so I scattered them like a palmful of salt over my shoulder to ward off the possibility of becoming lost.  The Jeep Cherokee I sold when I moved to Chicago had been full of them.  Maps in the glove compartment, maps in seat pouches, maps people stepped on when they climbed into the back seat.  Pennsylvania maps.  New York maps.  New Jersey.  Massachusetts.  Did I use them to find my way to everyday places?  Of course not.  They were a car accessory as perplexing as jumper cables.  Instead I requested lists of turns and street names—from friends or from MapQuest—and asked for directions if I got lost.

Then one afternoon, a month after my college graduation, I was driving home from Massachusetts, where I had lived for a month.  I pulled into a gas station at an exit off the New York Thruway.  Happy and adventurous from having spent a month in a new place, I grabbed a map off the floor in the back of the Jeep, under a scratched Counting Crows CD and a copy of East of Eden.

As I unfolded it, the map filled the space from the windshield to my lap, tickling my bare legs.  My first impression was chaos, but I began to dissect lines and images.  I looked up my exit, found coordinates, and swished my fingers south and west until they touched, beside an interstate shield.  Then one finger slid away from the shield, following filaments that tangled through the Schawangunk Mountains. A local road paralleled the Thruway, so I decided to stay off the highway and use the map to find my way on local roads.

Caution to the wind. I cranked down my window, slid Films about Ghosts into the CD player, and whipped up the narrow mountain road.  A few miles from the gas station, the road curved to reveal a valley with a lake at the bottom that shot white light in all directions.  Cool air rushed through the window, and my thoughts rushed, too, making me feel like I could wander forever, like one of the peregrini, the Irish pilgrims of late antiquity who traveled without routes in mind, willingly bewildered, trusting God to lead them.

St. Brendan was one of these.  He was a sixth-century abbot, born on the marshes of Munster, Ireland, who set sail in a round oak-and-ox-hide boat called a coracle.  It would have resembled a huge walnut shell with sails, and like a walnut shell, was tossed “hither and thither” across the ocean.  In the quasi-fictional Navigatio Sancti Brendani, Brendan tells his fourteen fellow-monks, “Have no fear, for God is our helper.  He is our captain and guide and will steer us out of danger.  Just leave the sails and let Him do as He will with His servants and their boat.”

Leave the sails.  Travel hither and thither.  That was just the thing.  The journey home could have taken years, for all I cared.  At twenty-two, the best way I could express how good this felt was to snip a quote from a Mike’s Hard Lemonade six-pack when I got home.  I glued it to my scrapbook: “The more you wander, the more you wonder.”  It was the closest I could come to admitting that, having graduated without career plans, it felt right to play at getting lost.

#

I followed this rambling route home, consulting the map I kept unfolded on the passenger seat, until I parked in my parents’ driveway.  I moved back into my childhood bedroom and started hoarding part-time jobs.  Documentation intern at a pharmaceutical company.  Literature teacher at a homeschool co-op.  Stringer for Reading Pennsylvania’s city newspaper, covering township meetings.

My first night at the Reading Eagle, I shadowed Rick, a stocky veteran stringer who had a jolly laugh and griped about alimony payments.  While I typed up what had happened in Maxatawny that night, Rick slid a chair up to my desk.

He told me, “Keep a separate folder with clippings from each municipality they send you to.  Read up on what happened at the last few meetings before you go.  And buy yourself a map: one of those big fat Berks County street atlases.”

Disregarding this last piece of advice—partly because the newspaper paid $40 per meeting, but mostly because I’d lived in the vicinity since I was eleven—was a grave mistake.  Seventy-three municipalities fall under the Reading Eagle’s bailiwick, with names like Longswamp and Upper Tulpehocken and Womelsdorf.  When I forgot to print MapQuest directions from far-flung township buildings back to the Reading Eagle, I spent many late nights circling Berks County, in towns and forests I didn’t have maps for, driving until I found a road I recognized.  Some nights I remembered to bring a fully charged cell phone; other nights, in the race from day job to coffee pot to municipal building, I forgot it.

Mostly, the nights were clear and starry.  Often, a deer would lope across the road or stand on an embankment watching the Jeep drift by.  Always, terror crept up my shoulders.  What if I run out of gas before I find a familiar road?  What if I get out and walk and don’t find anyone who can give me directions?  These scenarios were not unthinkable if I wandered too deeply into 600-acre Nolde Forest or 7,000-acre French Creek State Park. Trees and boulders towered over me.  Shadows engulfed.  A pulse beat beside my temple.  Rarely have I felt so humble.

#

On nights like these, I would remember a hike I took the May after my sophomore year of college, on a visit to family friends who lived near Poestenkill, New York.  We’d visited these friends each summer and most winters since I was in middle school.  At night, when I lay in a bed that smelled of pine needles, the wind would rattle the dead leaves outside, and I would fear the hundreds of acres of dark forest that pressed all around us, as if they had power to reach into my bed and draw me into their wild center.

During the day, a trace of that fear remained.  The day that my younger sister Rachel and I hiked, the forest felt unfamiliar because white fiberglass stakes had suddenly filled the woods, like a makeshift graveyard.  Rachel and I hiked steep skinny paths and wide roads that had been cleared for four-wheelers, and she would run ahead and call out when she found a yellow blaze that marked our path.  Soon we found ourselves in the bog.  We never remembered where in the woods the bog was, exactly, so when we stumbled onto it, it always startled us, with its dead trees that reached up like pale arms of people trapped underneath. 

Rachel and I stood at the edge of the bog, stilled by its silence.  Even the finches, the happy background noise of the forest, were silent here.  Rachel pointed to the tall stakes that filled this place, too.  “It’s like they’re following us,” she whispered.  “Go home, stakes!” she said, as if we could shoo them like a toothy stray dog.

The stakes marked the search for a local teenager who had wandered off, drunk, from a friend’s graduation party.  The Times Union’s first accounts said he’d been locked out of the party after he went outside to vomit.  Police later found it more likely that he’d gone outside to sleep off his sickness in a parked car, woken to find the party over and the house locked, and walked off into the woods.  A search-and-rescue team found his body five days after he disappeared. 

I have a vivid impression of what this lost boy looked like.  He has bowl-cut brown hair, limp and very straight, his face is pale, his eyes are closed.  He wears a thin T-shirt, ripped near the collar.  In the scarce newspaper reports about his death, no such picture exists.  I created one out of the damp spring air while we walked.  His name, I’ve found out, was Christopher.  Patron saint of long-journeying travelers.

As I traveled home from township meetings, I hoped the roads would protect me, even though they were deep in hundred or thousand-acre forests.  They had names.  Some had assurance signs to say how far it was to the next town.  Such roads crowd the world.  And yet Christopher Bastian left a party at the edge of a road freckled with lake houses, wandered three-quarters of a mile from his starting point, and died face down in a bog in upstate New York in May.

#

Some say the burly St. Christopher faced the elements day after day, piggybacking travelers across rapids they were afraid to cross alone.  St. Christopher, human bridge.  Details about this third-century saint’s soggy life have washed away, but his willingness to descend into the turbid rush reminds me of the horde of early monks and nuns who also faced the elements as they scattered across the Egyptian desert in the fourth century.  Many of them, like the beautiful Amma Syncletica, shed the wealth their parents had left them.  Syncletica and her blind sister gave all their money to the poor and lived in tombs outside Alexandria.  Others, like Abba Moses, abandoned lives of crime and illegal profit.  Moses had roamed the Nile Valley with his gang of bandits.  All these hermits, whether or not they left great wealth, left the fortress-like security of ancient cities that enclosed and protected their inhabitants.  Leaving the city, they got lost on purpose.

Depending on the degree of wandering and asceticism, they found caves or built homes in cliff walls in “the neighboring desert,” “the nearer desert,” “the further desert,” “the remoter desert,” or, finally, “the terrible desert,” a rugged, mountainous region with towering crags and narrow paths that were hard to find and treacherous to climb.  Pilgrims who visited these desert hermits recounted their journey in the anonymous fourth-century narrative The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto.  They say they faced “a trackless waste,” where they “almost fainted with hunger and thirst,” “blundered into a marsh,” “sank into a swamp,” “ran aground on a desert island,” were chased by crocodiles, and then finally found their way to each hermit they had hoped to see.

The hermits they visited had come to the desert to live in the quies magna, the great quiet, a blankness in which you could hear sounds from miles away—a vultures’ squabble, approaching hooves, a conversation among travelers.  They lived lonely lives, foraging for edible plants, growing endives or date palms, welcoming anyone who came to visit them, praying for the cities on whose outskirts they lived, seeking friendship with God, and leaving their solitude only on behalf of others—to help distressed farmers, minister to the sick, or visit prisoners.

What did they hope to learn in places “lacking all the necessities of life”?  Radical humility. “One should…always be humble,” Abba John of Lycopolis told pilgrims who came to visit him, “and flee to the furthest parts of the desert if one realizes that one is becoming proud.”  It was a strategy, really: leave everything that might trick you into thinking you weren’t mortal.

Those who visited the desert fathers noted “their stillness, which they achieve through the patient practice of virtue and retain to the end of their lives,” as the author of The Historia Monachorum records.  They sang hymns, memorized psalms, prayed.  This rhythm lulled them in the wilderness.

#

What did Christopher Bastian do after he wandered from his friend’s graduation bash, the woods spinning, found himself in the bog, and realized he didn’t know the way home?  Take off running?  Find the driest log to sit on to try and get his bearings?  Did he have the wherewithal to look for the big dipper and find the North Star?

If the alcohol began to wear off as he wandered, the first thing he probably would have done is rationalize.  I know where I’m going.  This is the trail that leads to the environmental center, even though I don’t remember this clearing.  Survivalists call this “bending the map,” though the map would have been in Christopher’s memory.  Eventually, denial have would give way to reality and then a panic called “woods shock” would have begun.  When woods shock hits, people speed up, take risks like abandoning their gear or their warm, bulky layers of clothing, hoping to lighten their load, and then find themselves in real trouble as the night wears on.  Christopher may have known about woods shock; his mother told the Times-Union he loved hiking and hunting.

He may have known, then, that it is best to do something restful when this panic hits.  Create a shelter from the rain that was beginning to change into snow and sleet.  Scavenge for the driest firewood.  Then, after a quiet half hour or so, take stock of your surroundings, see what looks familiar, and choose a reference point—a hill or creek, Orion’s Belt or the moon—that can let you know how far you’ve walked or in what direction.

But he had just graduated.  Who thinks of sitting down on the driest rotten log and thinking at a time like that?

#

On many nights after I left the Reading Eagle, I would unlock the door of my parents’ house, pat the happy, sleep-befuddled family dog, click the TV off after Conan O’Brien, stare at patterns of moonlight, and feel like it would not be so great after all to wander the wild road forever.  I had embarked after college like one of the peregrini, dazzled by possibilities, steered by faith that after a little wandering, I would soon see one distinct route: the right place to live, the right kind of work to do.  I wanted adventure, sure, but I also wanted the hither-and-thither journey to create a map behind me.

As I sat on my parents’ corduroy couch, anxiety churned in my stomach.  My arms went cold.  I couldn’t stop shaking.  Could I name what I was feeling?  What emotion is “shaky”?

Did one of those spontaneous pilgrims ever find himself in a bog, shivering and despising the wilderness?  Did he ever think, forget this wandering.  Give me a map.  Let me arrive already?

The closest St. Brendan ever comes to this is to say, “Brethren, that island makes me feel uneasy.”  And no wonder he said so.  From a distance, his crew heard clanging—hammers on anvils— and the whoosh of bellows.  As they approached, they smelled fire and saw a barren, stony island with smooth slag heaps glinting in the sun.  The sixth-century voyagers thought they had floated to the edge of hell.  “I have no desire to land nor even to go near,” says Brendan, “yet the wind is taking us straight towards it!”

In this one moment when Brendan objects to the course his walnut-shell boat takes, he does so on the basis of his visceral reaction.  He trusts his own feelings and knows where he does not want to be.  But he doesn’t panic and doesn’t ask for a map.  He doesn’t even ask for a direct route or question the value of rudderless wandering.  After acknowledging his feelings, Brendan creates a moment of stillness.  “Lord Jesus,” he calls out, “deliver us from this island.”  Then, instead of leaving the sails to be directed wherever the wind blows, he commands the crew, “Up with the sails and row as fast as you can.” The coracle does not wash up on the barren shore, and soon enough the wind changes.

My parents’ living room, where I sat below paintings of large Amish families inscribed with Christ’s blessings—“Blessed Are the Pure in Heart,” “Blessed Are the Pure and Gentle”—was not, of course, anything like the smoldering island, yet being there, being an adult in a childhood house, made me feel uneasy.  I remember many quickly breathed prayers around that time.  Lord, help.  God, show me where to go. Maybe I exhaled one of these prayers as I got off the couch and paced.  More likely, I turned on the TV for Last Call with Carson Daly.

#

            I realize now that bolting out of the Pennsylvania woods, shedding my part-time jobs, and crossing the Skyway Bridge to Chicago was neither as haphazard nor as intrepid as it struck me in my early twenties.  It was to calm my trepidation that I left Pennsylvania’s varicose roads and chose a graduate school in Chicago.

Geographers had parceled this city in the 1830s, measuring townships six miles wide by six miles long and dividing each township into six squares that developers could easily sell.  It was as tidy as an Excel sheet.  I moved into an apartment on Gunnison Street in the Uptown neighborhood, parallel to a hundred other streets.

Had I come to Chicagoua, place of the wild onion, in the early 1800s, I would have found a wilderness where spiritual hermits would have been at home.  They could have built pontoon cabins on the foul-smelling bog, and visitors could have waded knee-deep out to see them.  The Bog Fathers.  The Marsh Mothers.  If they tamed nature, it would have been in small ways, to benefit others or nature itself.  One hermit might have worked the soil like Abba Or did in Egypt to feed those who visited.  Another might have disappeared into the night to feed bison and deer, like Abba Theon had given water to antelope, gazelle, and wild donkeys in the desert—creatures who “delighted him always,” says the Historia Monachorum.

But then again, even desolate Chicagoua might have been too restless for them.  “Lake winds and prairie winds keep the very air in commotion,” wrote poet Sara Jane Lippincot in 1871. “You catch the contagion of activity… and have wild dreams of beginning life again, and settling—no, circulating, whirling—in Chicago.”  Even in the winter of 1682-83, when the city was just a dream in Robert Cavelier de La Salle’s mind, the explorer wrote, “Everything invites action.  The typical man who will grow up here must be an enterprising man.  Each day as he rises he will exclaim, ‘I act, I move, I push.’”  I could help myself to all the restlessness of woods shock, and thanks to innovative city engineers, I could act, move, push, and whirl without actually sinking to my knees in a prairie swamp.

By the 1830s, when developers parceled out lots, they were also draining the wetlands to make them habitable.  Even parts of the Everglades, deemed a useless swamp, would be drained by the early twentieth century.  In Chicago, this draining didn’t really work; fresh rainfall and thaws brought fresh problems.  When author John Lewis Peyton visited Chicago in 1848, he noted that even though Chicagoans slapped planks over the mud, “under these planks, the water was standing on the surface of three-fourths of the city, and as the sewers from the houses were emptied under them, a frightful odour was emitted in summer, causing fevers and other diseases.”

But early Chicagoans were determined to keep their city, so, in a legendary move, when the sewage started the deadly cholera epidemics that Peyton was hinting at, the city’s engineers simply raised the city out of the muck.  In the 1850s, they built an above-ground sewer system, laying down pipes in the middle of Chicago’s main streets, and then building a second street above the sewer pipes, making a sewer-system sandwich.  Houses, hotels and stores whose front doors had been at street level at the original grade were now sitting in holes, as Donald L. Miller notes in Chicago: City of the Century.  Many owners paid to raise their buildings to the new grade and contracted crews to dig into the foundation, support the foundation with giant logs, and then crank thousands of jacks beneath the building to raise it slowly, turn by turn, by as much as ten feet in some cases.  And so, over the course of twenty years, Chicagoans gave themselves what seemed like solid ground.

When I came to Chicago’s solid sidewalks to hunt for an apartment, I studied a Chicago Transit Authority bus and rail map.  It gave me as much comfort as knowing that Lake Michigan was always east.  Each rail line looked like a color-coded chute you could climb into and slide down until it spit you out at your stop.

Because the geography was so simple and the maps were so clear, I felt that this was what my whole life should be like.  As long as I stayed in the city, I never needed to be lost again.  And yet I started to feel just as lost as ever in my new home above the swamp.  One night, I sat by my laptop, listening to sirens and the slap of elementary school flip-flops outside.  I was astonished that even though the sounds were so different from the spring peepers and the brown bats grinding their teeth down by my parents’ pond, I felt as lonely and confused here as I would have there.

I wrote all this down in a Word document that I deleted a few years later.  This was part of a trend.  The winter before I moved to Chicago, I had stood by my parents’ woodstove, ripping pages out of my spiral-bound journals and tossing them into the fire, guarding my stack of notebooks so no one could read anything before I lifted the stove lid and burnt it.  Then I cleared out all the maps that had been in my Jeep Cherokee, stashed them in my parents’ file cabinets, and was ready to move to Chicago’s parallel streets without maps to the places where I used to get lost.

Now—ten years later, having left Chicago and moved back again—whenever I find an old letter or that one college journal I forgot to burn, I read it, and then I wedge it back into the closet.  So what if it reveals that I was lost, and that I still wander straight toward the same confusion?

After I stash my notebook or letter back into the closet, I go for a walk around my Chicago neighborhood, aligning movement and contemplation.  Sometimes I discover sinkholes, and I stare down layers of blacktop, soil, and pipe into the swamp, swimming like the blood that beats beside my temple.  And when I dream that night, maybe in this place where I am never lost, I will sink into that familiar feeling.

 

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