I spent much of my childhood living in a house built long ago on the side of High Tor, a mountain in southern New York state that had its moment of fame when it was featured in Maxwell Anderson's 1936 play High Tor. Anderson lived some distance down the road on the slopes of our mountain. I lived walking distance from the summit in an eclectic house, originally built in 1750 with the addition of a spacious living room sometime in the 1920s. Except for the addition of an attic dormer, the 1750 house had changed little over the years. It still had its worn wide-board floors, a front door that blew open in winter winds, and in the bedroom I shared with my sisters, the original mud adobe walls were evident where the thin layer of plaster had cracked away. I recall lying in bed and pulling ancient straw from that adobe, rolling that straw between my fingers, tasting it, and thinking this grass was green centuries ago.
The newer addition was up a flight of stairs that led to the kitchen from a small area that had once been perhaps the flat broom swept piece of ground near the back door of the old house but had since been enclosed and roofed over to make a very simple bathroom. The double Dutch door that had served as the back door for the old house was still there, but it opened to the linen closet, once perhaps the mud room. A new doorway between the hall and the bathroom had been cut to one side of the original door. A curtain hung there to separate the hall from the bathroom, and another curtain hung to cover the stair leading up to the 1920s house. If the bathroom were at any time occupied and it was necessary to pass from the one house to the other, it was possible to grab both curtains and hold them together to form a temporary privacy barrier. It seemed a satisfactory arrangement.
The living room upstairs was grand and spacious with its large fireplace, vaulted ceilings, and tall French windows that cranked out and easily served as doors for a small girl anxious to escape into the wild cool of the woods that stretched unchecked from the back of our house to the top of the mountain overlooking the Hudson River. It was possible to step from those windows and walk under the thick canopy of maples and oaks, pushing aside wild grape vines and clambering over ancient stone walls that had once served as boundaries for open pastures, always climbing up, past abandoned cisterns through vineyards to the small path that led to rocky top of High Tor. I loved making that journey, stopping at the meadow to search for wild strawberries and then spending hours at the top, watching sailboats drift on the river while freight trains, hundreds of cars long, snaked along its banks. The first part of this trek was trackless, a wandering upward through the forest. I was never afraid of getting lost; it was a small mountain with a road that ran to the left of 'my' woods. I knew I would find the path after I found the vineyard and I knew the vineyard was above me. I just wandered up, and when I found the well-worn path, its entrance marked by a huge boulder, I felt the embrace of the forest grow tighter. I always felt protected by the forest, but there on that path where wildflowers grew, I was grateful to be once again walking with others. Even if I walked alone on the path, I knew others had been there before me, walking in peace, listening as I listened to the song of forest birds .
Now, when I come upon a city sidewalk dappled with the shade from trees above, softened by the grace of bushes encroaching on its concrete heat, I feel the same peace. My body recalls the forest energy even though my logical mind understands that these bushes have been planted, these trees are tended and trimmed. The reminder of the wild is enough to settle my spirit, to revive hope, produce joy.
I am suddenly removed from the walkway, transported to a pathway, and that removal matters. To traverse a walkway is purposeful, businesslike and efficient, an organized trip from here to there. To walk on a path is to travel within and beyond, reaching one's destination certainly but at the same time, discovering and greeting the world. I realize that a city walkway cannot become a pathway unless both sides of the sidewalk are planted, allowing the walker to move through the landscape and through the self, rather than past it, but those of us who live in cities near walkways that can be perhaps easily transformed might try to make such magic happen. That through-line may just be a lifeline, a way to peace.