You Go, There You Are
was recently reading an essay by G.K. Chesterton in which
he refers to his home in Londonís Battersea neighborhood as
the ďmost beautiful of human localities.Ē Itís a pretty sweeping
statement, and it got me wondering: If pressed, what would
I identify as the most beautiful of human localities?
Iím not the best-traveled nor the most adventurous guy I know,
not by a long shot, so Iím working with a comparatively limited
range of options. All those National Geographic images
I recall from my youth (no, not those images. Iím not that
old. I grew up with access to real porn) suggest that there
are some pretty stunning views available from base camps on
various peaks around the world. But Iím ruling out any location
with significant threat of limb loss to frostbite. And also
shark bite. My own life aquatic may involve a snorkel, but
it more likely involves a blender and it definitely doesnít
involve a protective cage.
Given that Chesterton said ďhuman localitiesĒ and selected
his own block, though, Iím going to guess that he, too, meant
not so much places that weíve got possible, fleeting and treacherous
access to, but places in which we could conceivably liveóhuman
habitats. Places that are not actively trying to kill us.
Which, for most of us, rules out the Anza-Borrego state park
in Southern California. As part of the Colorado Desert, the
Anza-Borrego is . . . well, itís a desert. Some of you Outward
Bound types or hardcore survivalists or SETI-obsessed leaders
of charismatic cults may have the skills, the savvy and/or
sufficient problems with serotonin levels to go off the grid
and rough it in just such a sere climate, but a couple of
days living out of the back of a Chevy Blazer was plenty pioneering
for me. It was undeniably, however, one of the most visually
striking landscapes Iíve ever seen.
What at first seemed an undifferentiated palette of tan slowly
revealed itself to be a dramatic wealth of subtle coloróevery
instance of which, in context, seemed a minor detonation.
What at first appeared blasted and lifeless revealed itself
by nightfall to have been patient, merely dormant. Sitting
on a rock promontory under a sky absolutely bristling with
starsóthe Milky Way, for once, a dense but individuated cluster
of clear pinpoints, rather than the accustomed gluey bluróI
listened as the desert hopped, slithered and skittered with
life. The fact that the eerie, hazy glow of distant Los Angeles
could be seen over a facing outcropping just heightened the
sense of the vistaís, well, its importance.
As they say, it was a nice place to visit.
But ultimately the place belongs to the roadrunners and the
bighorn sheep and whatever that freaky little lizard that
ran around my head every time I tried to sleep was.
So, the desert is out.
A considerably more hospitable option, and almost tooth-achingly
sweet in its stereotypical prettiness, is a little place in
New England Iíve got access to via my family. Take Grandma
Moses, Norman Rockwell and Robert Frost, equip them with gear
from Eastern Mountain Sports and North Face, jam íem all together
in a town named after one of the founding fathers, and youíre
almost there. OK, now hang a Revere bell in the church steeple.
Now, youíre there.
In late summer and early fall, itís about the most aesthetically
pleasing place Iíve ever been. If Iím really stressed, itís
an easy out for me to meditate on the idea of kayaking in
the early morning (by which I mean mostly drifting and nearly
noonish) on the pond out behind the church, where Iíll likely
see a heronóor some other awkward waterfowl I will still call
But, though the issue never comes up in Chestertonís essay,
thereís the guilt factor to cope with. Granted, itís true
that flat-water kayaking in a Kiwi is hardly a Krakauer-worthy
adventure, but itís active by my lights. Yet, the area is
so populated with robust, high-tech fleece-vest wearers that
it can make me feel positively Usher-ish (Roderick, that is)
in my frailty. I mean, in a long weekend Iím good for one
prolonged kayak sprint, and then itís wine and leisurely walks
in the woodsóand, you know, lint brushing my velvet smoking
jacket and sighing, stuff like that.
So, until I can learn to convincingly butch it up a bit, thatís
vacation, not habitation.
So, what about my current and actual habitation, then? Iíve
chosen it in some way, even if passively, circumstantially.
How does it stack up? If I free associate, and try to come
up with beauty somehow attached to the physical realities
of specific familiar locations I find it readily enough:
My stoop, where I spent a summer pleasantly arguing art theory
light-years beyond me with impassioned neighbors. Beautiful.
The bedroom full-length mirror, bearing my daughterís sticky
handprints noticed in her absence. Beautiful. Farther out:
The steps in spectacular Grand Central Station, which carried
an eager friend to receive me. Beautiful. The vintage-clothing
store used over and over as a landmark en route to a loved
oneís house. Beautiful. The Boston gravesite of e.e. cummings
visited on a near-perfect fall day with favorite people. Beautiful.
And so on, and so on.
With little effortóand mild surpriseóI find these thoughts
constantly and everywhere. Theyíre both local and far-flung,
but all are immediate, all are present. All these places bearing
traces of the people whom I love, Iíve assembled into an expansive
So, upon further reflection, if youíll hold my hand and promise
to tolerate my heavy sighs and complaints about the effects
of moisture on velvet, Iíll head with you up the slopes. Or
descend with you in the cage into that most beautiful of human
localities, wherever it may be.