Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Roamer, Wanderer, Nomad, Vagabond

My father sometimes requests that, should the unlikely combination of loneliness and health occur simultaneously late in his life, he simply be released into the wild. From some dark hidey-hole in the shrinking Connecticut backwoods, he'll range around, tramp on needles and leaves, and wear a circuit back and forth to his favorite places, emerging occasionally from the boughs to accept charity, scare children, or tell stories to willing listeners. His clothing will tatter--he'll definitely have to get a hat for the ensemble--and his beard will get appropriately bushy and twig-filled as he takes on the role of Local Color, a rarely-glimpsed town phenom thrown back from an earlier breed of vagabond, Crazy Old Man So-and-so. They'll tell stories of the old man who wanders the state land, and on certain summer nights, teenagers will imagine sprightly fiddle tunes echoing across the reservoir for decades after his demise. He will probably miss eating meat, drinking beer, hot water, and talking to people, but of course, I'll know some drop-off points, and will check in regularly (beneath the notice of the Law, not to mention well-meaning relatives), as he fulfills a final lonely dream of mapping the details of the geological and rotted-out cultural landscape of what minor folds of southern New England forest as remain.

Hey, if the old man can fantasize about doing it, I can fantasize about enabling it. I'm rooting for anyone who can buck the trend and reinvent their existence a little, on their own terms. In my dad's case, however, it's hard to imagine a good way to cross the arc from civilization and family to a solitary hut in the woods.

The Leatherman In the old neck of the woods (so to speak) where I grew up, Dad would be following some of the footsteps of at least one famous old eccentric, who camped in a number of wooded caves (less wooded than now). The Leatherman was one of those nameless drifters, special in that he managed to acquire local acclaim, forever making a clockwork circuit of southwestern Connecticut and eastern New York, covering the 365-mile loop in a dependable month, regardless of the weather. His nickname name came from his obviously home made clothing, and his caves have since been discovered, and named. One of them is a pleasant hike not far from my parents'.

The Leatherman must have suited the contemporary conception of an 1860s vagabond, must have touched something that otherwise felt lost to the urbanites and farmers of his day. Or maybe it was just the fact that he showed up so regularly that his returning presence was comforting to the locals. The Leatherman was given special dispensation to roam through the towns who'd otherwise outlawed vagrancy, and he was the frequent recipient of charity, gifts of food received on the back steps, and frequently eaten in the presence of the givers. Sometimes he bought supplies, using unknown means.

A local paper gave the Leatherman a proper name, and storywhich looks for all the world like some crappy Victorian melodrama. If you confine your reading to nineteenth century novels, you'll take home a mixed view of madness. Idiocy wasn't much loved, but there was endless intrigue in what makes a human let go of worldly associations, some bittersweet drama of betrayal or trauma. And the American stories were brimming with rugged individualists and wandering frontiersman. During a forced hospital stay, the Leatherman was pronounced "sane but emotionally afflicted," whatever the hell that means. I have to imagine there was a lot of emotional affliction seething just under the surface in those years, among that surviving generation. Even in the best of times, to be alive is to be emotionally afflicted.

The economic shakeups of the Civil War and industrialization made for lots of vagrants in the Leatherman's time, and a new means of travel got them a new name, but with an exception or two, that shit obviously got old soon enough in gentle society, to the point of public complaint about the tramp problem. (I think it took a big injection of the recently stable into the ranks to bring a measure of romance to the life of the Depression-era hobo.) The Leatherman's days must have had many less-loved wanderers and hermits floating around. The public attachment to this man, must have been tied up in what literary torment he invited. We seem more fascinated with the voluntary outcasts, with those willing to go feral by conviction or by choice. I guess the more mundane tragedies that force a body into rugged individualism don't carry the same dramatic depth as the martyr's self-imposed exile. In the case of the itinerant tramps, there was an issue of strangeness that the Leatherman had overcome. But did the mere wanderers-about-town enjoy the same kind of charity he did? Did the madmen holing up the town woods? Did the urban homeless?

And you know, there's always a temptation to look at the road ahead and just keep going. And always a good reason to turn back. The woods thing is my Dad's unlikely fantasy--I'm still working out my own pointless cubicle dreams, which involve a more urbane sort of withdrawal, a less dramatic restatement of principles. I'll let you know if I figure it out.



(Here's a bonus documentary on the leather dude. Stay away from tobacco, kids.)

10 comments:

twif said...

CT has backwoods?

actually, the state has rebounded well from being basically clearcut in the days when people actually farmed in in new england. there are, by no means, any vast unbroken stretches (granted, vast is relative in the 3rd smallest state in the union anyway), but i believe we're up to about 70% forested.

if he hangs around salisbury, he can be the crazy bear man of bear mountain.

Keifus said...

let's substitute "woods" for "backwoods" and just mentally omit "shirinking." If I'm comparing dad to the leatherman, I'm pretty sure his cave was forest-free when he used to sleep in it. (I was in the mind of those lovecraft stories, I think. That's one source of blame for this post.)

I'll mention that bear mountain idea when I see him next. He'll like it.

switters said...

Up until about 10 years ago, I could fit everything I owned into my 1989 Isuzu Trooper. I don't think I have to tell you how much I long, how much I crave that ability, like a cigarette after dinner.

I plan on eventually voluntarily withdrawing, but I don't think I'll do much wanderin.

To your dad: More power to him, I say.

Keifus said...

I was going to call the post "vagabond heart," but there was no way in hell I was going to consciously allude to a Rod Stewart album (damn that Google). Yours is a way better choice.

I've gotta think there are healthy ways to do that, and others not so much. And there's nothing wrong with ties and community either. But a lot of this crap just needs to be better conceived.

Anyway. So my wife liked the idea of the gardens-in-a-box, and ran with it a little. Now we've got a shade-producing pole bean trellis installed too, which should actually be pretty nice if/when it fills in.

LentenStuffe said...

Sit back, watch the thistles grow, maybe choke few pissybeds, feed herons swooping in over the midge-infested river and ride the old bull barebacked home ... How could any Candide worth his sweat 'n salt resist a dream like that? Like your dad. Nice.

Keifus said...

I suppose if Candide were more a human than an everyman, we'd have to note that the end of his novel was the beginning of another one, but yeah, best of all worlds, my ass.

Thanks.

Schmutzie said...

Sane but emotionally afflicted? Could you be more specific, I might have that....

Seriously, if this economy puts me down for the count bis-wize, I'm gone. The mountains are calling me, but they're on hold, knock wood.

artandsoul said...

Keifus - loved the account of your dad, and I'd be glad to contribute something at a drop off point myself.

My dad has opined something similar only more around the beaches and marshes of some of the undeveloped (and yes, there are still patches!) Florida terrain.

Just taking a small break from real life while hubby is working (someone has to pay for all this fun) but then it's back to birds, hikes, mountains, parks and wonderful food!

Keifus said...

Schmutzie: yeah, no kidding. Me too.

Art: that's some job.

artandsoul said...

Yeah, I'd have to say we rank as a very lucky twosome.

Saw a guy in Keystone, SD with a long white beard and decked out in serious panning-for-gold attire who would let you take a picture with him for $5.

You may want to let your dad know about that option :) He could maybe do a Thoreau-type deal with a little shack in the woods.