There is a secret town that my girlfriend and later wife Amy and I found after two intense days. We had climbed a large mountain, seen frozen waterfalls, and fallen in love. The town itself was full of charming antique shops, pottery studios, and outdoor sculptures.
A huge monument stood on the
edges of town, and a small elevator zoomed us to the small room at the top. From
there, we could see the whole of the wide valley, the small friendly houses
scattered around the urban center, the fields and meadows beyond, and the cup of
the mountains enfolding all. A small college hid on the outskirts, and we talked
of someday teaching there, of living in one of the brightly-colored Victorian
houses. We would sit on the porch and read each other’s poetry, satisfied in the
autumn of our busy lives that we had done the things we set out to
"Why keep the name of that town a secret?" One of my creative writing
students asked me. The reason, I told her, is that this town isn’t sharable at
all. I will persuade you to visit, and you will be disappointed. It is special
to me for a complex set of personal and associative reasons. To others it may
seem boring, or trite, or even ugly. Another writer who lived in that town for
years believes it to be the most twisted place on earth, full of corruption and
evil. Once, I was extolling the beauties of Florence, Italy to a colleague, and
she laughed bitterly. "It’s rotten to the core," she told me. Who is accurate?
Both, and neither.
Another of these favorite places appeared to Amy and I
over a year later, after we had a fight. Like most fights, it was over something
outrageously stupid, a difference of opinion that we had blown into monstrous
proportions. We had woken up to a driving rain, and had cooked oatmeal and
Turkish coffee in the tent. After taking down the sopping tent in the rain, we
drove miserably through traffic down a long coastal road past fishing villages
and sleepy tourist towns to a dock where we had fried fish for lunch. We boarded
a ferry and after leaving the harbor, the captain announced that it might be a
rough trip. It was the roughest we’d ever experienced, with six-foot swells and
one enormous wave that whacked us and nearly sent the small boat tumbling end
over end. I put my brine-soaked head between my legs and fought my nausea,
wondering if all this was worth it.
We finally reached the island, and I
collapsed on the dock. When I arose, I followed the steady Amy into perfection:
small clapboard houses, flower gardens, and sailboats. Thousands of monarch
butterflies landed on every flower, resting before heading south for the winter.
Gulls and cormorants ranged around the rocky coast. There were no cars, no locks
on doors, and no macadam roads. We stayed in an upscale hostel, with shared
baths but a private room, from which we could see the harbor and the green hump
of a steep grassy island on the far side. The next day after blueberry pancakes
we hiked around the borders of the island, finding dozens of artists with easels
en plein air, painting the island’s mystical landscapes. Amy picked raspberries
and blackberries, and we scrambled over volcanic rock, shot through with
limestone, and dotted with patches of orange lichen. We found an outcrop that we
had seen in a famous painting, and sat on it and wrote, while the waves crashed
That evening after naps in our breezy room with its simple
rocking chair, we ate dinner at the island inn: chilled blueberry soup,
pineapple salmon, corn on the cob, mussels, crème brule, lobster, and glasses of
"Perfect Stranger" wine. By the time we finished, the sky was dark, and without
streetlamps or flashlights we made our way back on the road in absolute
darkness, with the only light emanating from the thick Milky Way outlined in a
billion stars overhead. On the ferry the next day, the sea was glassy and full
of seals. It was a place, not to live, but to summer in, to live slowly and
purely, to create and to absorb, to make of life something better, and to keep a
This place felt like mine, because I found it, without
any help from travel guides or travel writers. I looked at a map and said "I
want to go there." Later, I discovered that other writers had already realized
the singular nature of that place. But it still feels like mine, because my
experience predated that knowledge. In fact, that fact made me question the very
nature of my work, the usefulness of travel writing as inspiration and guide.
Maybe, instead of listening to what I have to say, you should head out and find
your own. Maybe that is the true purpose of travel writing, to encourage rather
than direct, to point in all directions, instead of just one.
I want to
not tell you about one last place, a place I don’t want to write about, for fear
of ruining it, for fear of drawing more people there. It is a place you all
should see, though I don’t want you to. It is a place that would die if more
people came there, if my stories brought the hordes, or maybe even one more
person. It is a secret valley that first appeared to me when I was sick and
tired. I had just completed three days of difficult hiking though cold rain and
hot sun. My stomach had rebelled against dehydration and I didn’t eat all day.
After a long downhill slope from a long cliff, my friend Ryan and I reached the
river. One of the many waterfalls that made up the thousand-yard cascade was on
our left, with two young girls bathing in the pool at the base, like mountain
nymphs greeting us at the entrance to a hidden godhome. The waiting mountain hut
welcomed us and enfolded us in piney arms, as Ryan and I spent a restful day on
the rocks of the waterfall, talking with a beautiful hut girl known only as
"five-star," and recovering our strength and balance.
After that I tried
to return every year to this cabin and the magical landscape that surrounded it.
The long view from the hut’s porch down a glacial notch toward breadloaf
mountains seemed to etch green onto my soul. Once, in early May I hiked down
that notch, finding bear tracks and swollen rivers full with spring thaw.
Jack-in-the-pulpits peeked their ministerial heads into the bright world. Moose
shouldered through the forest, leaving evidence of their enormous passages. Two
friends who mean a lot to me, Chris and Alison, hiked with me over the unknown
ridges to the east another year, through mossy-floored forests and over a wide
pass, away from this secret home, which by that time I had acknowledged as one
of my favorite spots on earth. But even with this awareness, I had not lost that
sacred feeling of hope and purity that made it so.
Once in a while, my
heart becomes full of the world’s many problems and I retreat to that forest to
renew my strength. I wander the hills and dales, my walking stick grasped firmly
in a sturdy hand, at last finding the rushing river that spills down from the
high places in a seemingly endless cascade. Near the base of this river by a
friendly mountain hut, the view opens once again to fairy-tale mountaintops at
the end of a long carved canyon. My muscles ache with the exertions of tramping
these steep mountains, but the hut crew blesses me with a hot cup of soup and a
mug of tea. I sit on a boulder in the center of the river, just above the
slippery lip of the largest fall. The roar of the river drowns thoughts and
carries away feelings, until I am empty as a hollowed cave, smooth like polished
granite, and clean: born of water and sound.
First published on Hackwriters in February 2008.