Washington, D.C., to West Concord, Mass.

Sometimes, when you’re driving along one of the highways of the Washington-to-Boston megalopolis, you look around and it feels like there’s nothing there but paved highways.


Obviously there’s more to the Great American Megalopolis than highways. On this trip, just a few minutes from the highway, I saw the well-loved green chair and ottoman in a porch where Russell sat next to L.E.W. Smith’s Twelve Poems Reconsidered and looked out at the birds in his garden. Also just a few minutes from the highway, I saw the small garden at E’s house where she picked a squash which she cubed and cooked and mixed with pasta and ricotta cheese.

As we drove along, I thought about the welded steel sculptures made by David Smith that I had seen at the National Gallery. Eight foot high circles on bases that look like feet, with appendages welded on that look like arms, these painted sculptures feel like they’re almost animate, as if they’re going to move at any moment, like some kind of large fanciful animals.

David Smith sculptures, East Wing, National Gallery, US

Actually, maybe they’re more like representations of mid-twentieth century North American deities. Maybe highway signs, also made of brightly painted metal, are close cousins to these sculptures, pragmatic deities that are also akin to ancient Greek cairns in which the god Hermes hid to guide passers-by. Maybe this was what Frank Stella was getting at in his book Working Space. This became a confused train of thought, and I know I dozed off because when Carol said, “Should we stop here for lunch?” I snapped awake.

After lunch, Carol wanted me to read aloud. I finished a book that she had been reading aloud the last time we were driving, The Egyptian News by Scott Steedman, a children’s book with ancient Egyptian “news stories” like an investigative report into Tutankahmen’s death (“Boy King Murdered?”) and an interview with an embalmer. At a rest stop, we bought a copy of the New York Times, and I read aloud the front page news, and several other articles including the very entertaining story about Donald Trump explaining to a crowd how the graphic accompanying his social media post against Hillary Clinton was not anti-Semitic, and how he was mad at his staff for removing it from the Web. I read some chapters from the novel we’ve been reading aloud off and on during this whole trip. My voice finally gave out about thirty minutes before we arrived in West Concord, Massachusetts.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

I took a short trip to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass., today to pay a visit to the grave of my favorite Transcendentalist. The bronze plaque that marks her grave reads:

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
A Teacher of three generations of Children,
and the founder of Kindergarten in America.
Every humane cause had her sympathy,
and many her active aid.


One of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s protegees was Lucy Wheelock, the founder of Wheelock College. My mother attended Wheelock College to train as a teacher, and learned from Lucy Wheelock herself. I learned some of my teaching skills from my mother, so Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was the teacher of a teacher of one of my teachers.

While I was there, I walked over to Author’s Ridge to walk by the graves of the most famous Transcendentalists buried in Concord: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott. Tourists had piled small stones, pennies, and twigs on top of and around their gravestones.

Thirty years ago, no one piled stones or pennies on the authors’ gravestones. When this first started happening, it annoyed me, and I’d clean off the gravestones of all that litter. But now this act has become a part of New England folk culture, and you will not only see stones placed by tourists on the graves of famous people, but also stones placed by people on the graves of their family members. Now I leave the stones and twigs, although I still stop to sweep off the pennies, because the copper dissolves in New England’s slightly acidic rain and discolors the gravestones.

I wonder if this act of placing small stones arises out of some deeply-held religious memory in Western culture. These look like small cairns to me — in ancient Greek religion, Hermes, the god of travelers, dwelt in cairns — though gravestones don’t mark a physical path, they can mark a spiritual path.

My second favorite Transcendentalist is Louisa May Alcott. Her grave had no pennies (she’s worth more than a penny, I guess), but people had piled stones and twigs around her headstone with her initials — she’s in a family plot with a main gravestone, then all the family members have small stones with just their initials — and the flush stone with her full name that was installed later. Someone had left her a note, now in tatters from exposure to rain and sun, and unreadable. In the past, I’ve read other notes that people have left for her, saying how much her books have meant to them. I think about it this way: casual tourists can leave stones without any forethought; those whose lives have been changed by Alcott’s books think to leave a written memorial.

Grave of Louisa May Alcott

Above: Louisa May Alcott’s gravestone, Author’s Ridge, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Mass.

I couldn’t figure out who some graves get stones, and some don’t. Lidian Jackson Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s second wife, had stones piled on her gravestone, but Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, had none. As much as I like Lidian Jackson Emerson, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne strikes me as the more impressive of the two women. Before she was married, Sophia Peabody pursued a career as an artist, something unheard of for women in early nineteenth century America; she was an intellectual, though somewhat overshadowed by her older sister Elizabeth, and part of the Transcendentalist circle. Does Lidian fill more of an archetypal role in the common religious imagination of New England folk culture? Or is it simply that the people who would value Sophia Peabody Hawthorne as an artist, and intellectual, and a symbol of early feminist consciousness are not the type of people who leave stones on graves?

Grants to Amarillo

Before we got back on the interstate, we drove to El Malpais National Monument, parked at the visitor center, and hiked for about an hour on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. We didn’t see much of the badlands for which El Malpais is best known, but we did see a meadow and a dike that was all that was left of a failed 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps project to attempt to dam up a seasonal stream to create a reliable water source, and we did see some beautiful pinyon pine woodlands.

The badlands are actually old lava flows that crept out across the red dirt and sandstone so characteristic of this part of New Mexico. The trail was marked by cairns made up of a mixture of volcanic rock and red sandstone.


Above: Continental Divide Trail, El Malpais National Monument

In ancient Greece, cairns were inhabited by Hermes, god of travelers, and of thieves and tricksters. Hermes, it was said, got into trouble with Hera for killing her servant Argus. A trial was held, with the other gods and goddesses acting as jurors. Each god or goddess had a stone which represented their vote, and Hermes argued so skilfully in his own defense that all the gods and goddesses cast their stones at his feet, until there was a pile of stones with Hermes inside. Ever since then, Hermes resides, as it were, inside the piles of stones that are cairns, helping travelers find their way.

In New England, I always thought that there was a remote whiff of Hermes inside the cairns that I saw on mountain trails; New England is close enough to Europe that perhaps the old gods and goddesses immigrated with the white Europeans who came to North America; so every New England house I ever lived in had its household gods, our version of the Roman Laertes. But these Western cairns had nothing of the Old World gods and goddesses about them. They did, however, have a presence; I felt there was something partly alive about them; but it was more of a sense of animism than of Olympian divinities.

When we left El Malpais National Monument, I went into the small visitor center to use the bathroom. I tried to avoid the books, but a children’s book titled Eco Trackers caught my eye. Ah, that would be perfect for the ecojustice camp were going to do! That was the third book I bought on this trip; I had gotten an Agatha Christie mystery and another book yesterday in Starrlights Books in Flagstaff.

As we drove towards Albuquerque, I called my dad. “What was that restaurant that you liked so much in downtown Albuquerque?” I asked him. He couldn’t remember the name, but reminded me that is was on the main drag right across from one of the main entrances to the University of New Mexico. We drove down old Route 66, and there it was: Frontier Restaurant, Tony Hillerman’s favorite restaurant. Carol had pozole, flour tortillas, and a peach smoothie; I had breakfast.


Above: Albuquerque, N.M. (Photo courtesy Carol Steinfeld)

The food was excellent, and the restaurant was a good place for Carol to hang out and watch people while I ran across the street to the University of New Mexico bookstore — where I bought three more books.

We drove on. The red rock country of New Mexico began to flatten out, and turn into the southern end of the Great Plains. We could see dark thunderclouds all around us, and rain coming down in the distance. I was reading the Agatha Christie novel aloud to Carol, when I stopped and said, “Look! there’s standing water on that field!” Coming from drought-stricken California, where it doesn’t rain all summer anyway, that was an amazing sight.

We stopped in Adrian, Texas, at nine o’clock to see if we could get me some dinner. The cafe was closed.


Above: Adrian, Tex.

But right across the interstate, there was a gas station with a mini-mart. The kind woman at the counter — I’d guess she owned the place — sold me her last two hot dogs. “And I’m glad to sell them both to you,” she said. “So you don’t have any left over to go to waste,” I said. She chuckled and said that was it. They were pretty good hot dogs. I ate them standing by the car looking out at the darkening sky over the wide open, and very green fields, of Adrian.


Above: Adrian, Tex.