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Wherever You Go, There You Are


I 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 a heron.

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 portable locality.

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.

óJohn Rodat

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