INTO HOT AIR
I. THE EXERCISED SEMICOLON
My buddy Will and I found each other in a place called The Writing Lab, which is located in Room 110 of a lightning-struck place called The English-Philosophy Building. The belly of the latter is cavernous. It is unspoiled by the sun, always the wrong temperature and haunted by ideas most closely associated with dead Frenchmen whose names I can’t pronounce. Two or three times I’ve been tempted to see EPB as an external manifestation of the inside of my head, patrolled as it is by self-loathing doctoral students and uppity, long-haired writers, groups that for years now have waged a running battle armed mostly with semicolons.
In fact, I was, and to some extent still am, shaped like a semicolon. I found solace—if not physical health—under the hazy, sucking hum of The Writing Lab’s fluorescent lights, where I tutored freshman rhetoric students in the employment of what Nicholson Baker once described as that most “pipe-smokingly Indo-European” of all punctuation marks. I delighted in the babble of foreign students. For hours on end I might sit with a biomedical engineer from Szechwan, struggling with how to articulate, in smooth English prose, equations for the leg-movements of a sweaty man in a rowboat. Then, tired and satisfied, I might slurp up a drink of water from the fountain across the hall and wipe my brow.
Will, on the other hand, would invariably arrive at The Writing Lab flush from 90 minutes on a treadmill. He wore not clothes but “gear,” which involved a whole lot of something called Gore-Tex and imprints of mountains on the labels. Almost 20 years my senior, he also wore a graying beard, the sort of bodily feature that, when accompanied by a woolen hat, rendered him the spitting image of Admiral Peary—who, it should be acknowledged, I’ve never actually seen, but who must have looked exactly like Will.
We were, and still are, simpatico in a number of departments, including our insistence on fiddles and banjos in the music we listen to, and it is true that Will, with a mind more wary and rigorous than my own, excelled in his teaching. But his heart was clearly searching for higher ground. At odd moments, he might blurt out, “I think I’ll drive out West next week. Do some kayaking.” Or, “I’m going to apply for a teaching job at a school on Vinalhaven.” Which would be followed by a generous pause, and then: “That’s an island in Maine, Brendan.” Although he hailed from the claustrophobic south side of Chicago and I hailed from a state whose landscape opens up like a sudden and mysterious question, Will was the one of us drawn to a life lived out of doors. I have always been more likely to agree with essayist Joseph Epstein in the assertion that nature is overrated, more likely to take comfort, as Epstein does, in W. H. Auden’s observation that “beautiful scenery seems to attract the second rate.”
So when I took a job in Bangor, Maine—a place that didn’t exist for me even on the level of a Roger Miller song—we laughed uncomfortably at the irony. Someone might have observed that it was like giving a C. F. Martin guitar to a monkey. What on earth would he do with it? Neither of us imagined that a short eight months later I would be the one inviting Will to climb Katahdin with my friends and me, inviting him to explore the deepest well of mythological Maine.
“Don’t worry. I have plenty of gear,” he assured me over the phone. “By the way, did you know that Admiral Peary was from Maine?”
I had no idea.
II. THE SPIRIT OF THE MOUNTAIN
There is a Penobscot story about Katahdin—ripe with weird sex and moral retribution—that can be found in Charles G. Leland’s collection, Algonquin Legends. Leland, who published his now-classic book in 1884, strikes me as a gentleman scholar typical of his day, the sort to couch radical notions in meandering and tidal syntax. For instance, he parried thus with New Englanders who found nothing of significance in his work: “When the last Indian shall be in his grave, those who come after us will ask in wonder why we had no curiosity as to the romance of our country, and so much as to that of every other land on earth.”
Why, indeed. Especially when there are stories such as this one concerning an Indian girl who, while gathering blueberries on Katahdin, became lonely and declared, to no one in particular, “I would that I had a husband!” So happens that this unnamed girl soon vanished into the shadows of Katahdin, only to reappear three years later in the family way. As Leland (who was translating for a Penobscot called Marie Sakis) explained: “For the Spirit of the Mountain had taken her to himself; and when she greatly desired to return to her own people, he told her to go in peace, but forbade her to tell any man who had married her.”
Which shouldn’t have been necessary anyway. Her son, after all, was born with granite eyebrows and the special power to point his finger at a moose or a woodcock, whatever looked tasty, and see it drop dead. A more astute people might have put two and two together and enjoyed the feast. Not the Penobscots. They teased and tormented the poor mother, relentlessly inquiring unto the boy’s paternity, until finally she snapped, announcing in the local idiom something akin to “No shit, Sherlock!” After which “she arose and went her way into the woods and up the mountain, and was seen on earth no more. And since that day the Indians, who should have been great, have become a little people. Truly it would have been wise and well for those of early times if they could have held their tongues.”
I recall this story for a couple of reasons. One, it is important to pay homage to what the Maine tribes already know: Spirits who are bigger than you and me dwell on Katahdin. Absent the proper respect, they can crush us like so many blackflies. Two, it is equally important we respect the power of words, giving proper thought to the ones we speak and the ones that perhaps we shouldn’t. Betrayal can come only too easily.
A case in point kicks me back four years to a drippy spring day in The Writing Lab, when Will—in an outburst that had spent an entire, shuttered-up winter building steam—proposed a trip west. Two artist friends of ours were skipping town after three years, degrees in hand, but instead of returning right away to their ranch in Montana, they were headed for Italy. The plan was for Will to drive their mammoth moving truck, and I would follow in his yipping pup of a blue pickup. We would unload the goods in their barn, snooze in their cabin, and perhaps squeeze in a little hiking, all expenses paid.
During that spring and summer, meanwhile, I wrote a column for the student-runDaily Iowan, and I confess to having cultivated an annoying habit of turning any fairly run-of-the-mill experience—a hike in Montana, a road trip with my sister down to Texas—into an excuse for a newspaper article. So when Will and I returned after a week, I sat down at my keyboard and punched in the requisite ingredients: one exotic landscape, two bits self-deprecation and a single, tearfully oblique political reference apropos of nothing. Out popped my column du jour, a story of two men and a hill. Without his permission, without even mentioning it to him, however, I used Will’s real name, and I compounded that mistake with another. I implicated him in my own dreary, out-of-doors incompetence. Truth be told, for reasons that were entirely defensive, I poked fun at him.
(At the time, I had not read Charles G. Leland or the legends he collected, or I would have known better. Having reflected on the Katahdin myth, Leland soberly attested that “the tendency of the lower class of Americans, especially in New England, to raise and emphasize the voice, to speak continually in italics and small and large capitals, with a wide display, and the constant disposition to chaff and tease, have contributed more than any other cause to destroy confidence and respect for them among the Indians.”)
So let me make amends. The truth about our trip should emphasize these facts: 1) While I had an idea that Will’s pickup was a manual transmission, I didn’t let on until three days prior to departure that I couldn’t drive such a contraption. 2) Even though we would be spending a certain amount of time in fields of wildflower, I was and am allergic to bee stings and too stubborn to carry any medication. 3) I am also allergic to pollen and dust, an unfortunate circumstance as we loaded household goods into a spring barn. I didn’t carry any medication for this, either. 4) Asthmatic and woefully out of shape, climbing even a small hill was nigh impossible. And 5) I was frightened to the brink of spontaneous urination that we might encounter a bear.
Given all this, Will’s patience was estimable; yet, I still mustered the nerve to poke fun at him for packing an Admiral Peary–like chunk of gear for the ascent—we had hiking tights, poles, the whole works—only to be passed on the trail by a young couple in shorts and sneakers, their bounding retriever barking a friendly hello.
On that hill north of Bozeman, in the spring of 1997, I sneezed bitterly and, let it be said, spoke in italics.
III. A SHOUT OF SILENCE
On Katahdin, in late July of 2001, we’re roughly two-thirds the way up Cathedral Trail, what we’re told is the most difficult of several back-breaking ascents. I don’t know about such things, but I’m only happy to agree. It feels the hardest. My body, meanwhile, is making noises at me, popping and ripping noises, noises that come off like threats. On all fours, keeping in mind this “three points on” business—where you have two of your legs and one of your hands, or one of your legs and two of your hands always gripping tenaciously to a slab of loose granite—I make a slow, huffing progress. I look up and there’s a slice of Will’s blue coat disappearing behind a rock.
For me, climbing involves less movement than it does contemplation of movement. I perch on the rock in a desperate state of inertia, wondering what in God’s name I’m doing out here. I glance across the valley overlooking Chimney Pond, my head doing a decent butterfly stroke, and I think it only appropriate that our Mr. Leland should affix to these coordinates the fall of man. Funny, then, that this lightning-struck place, haunted as it is by such horny and mischievous spirits, by such dreadful loss, should become a symbol of Maine. No one tires of telling you that Katahdin, in Penobscot, means “greatest mountain.” And the new Maine history textbook, to be published this fall by the University of Maine Press, carries the title Finding Katahdin. Author Amy Hassinger even points to the plaque on Katahdin Stream, which sports a less iambic take on Shelley’s “Ozymandias”: “Man is born to die. His works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, and wealth vanishes, but Katahdin in all its glory forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine.”
So what am I to find if I indeed find Katahdin? This is the contemplation that comes before writing: How do you wrestle a symbol onto the page? How do you unite the land of semicolons with everything you can’t possibly—and, on certain Saturdays, a full hour before lunchtime, with your body making noises, you don’t want to—understand?
“I was off the page now,” reports the Tourette’s-impaired hero in Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn, “away from the grammar of skyscrapers and pavement. I experienced it precisely as a loss of language, a great sucking-away of the word-laden walls that I needed around me, that I touched everywhere, leaned on for support, cribbed from when I ticced aloud. Those walls of language had always been in place, I understood now, audible to me until the sky in Maine deafened them with a shout of silence.”
“Are you gonna write about this?” Will asks, with some trepidation, as I finally catch up to him.
And there’s something to be said, I suppose, for responding with a good show of respect, with a good shout of silence. But for me, that’s not a choice. Why the hell else would I climb a mountain? Meanwhile, it’s a good three-quarters of a mile hard climbing to go. Will pushes on ahead, and a crowd of slate-gray clouds begins to muscle in a little too close.
Maine Times, August 2001