One of the other guests slipped upstairs and returned bearing a framed newspaper clipping from 1977, the year I was born. It described the bicycle journey of our host, Scott Rosenberg, then eighteen years old, and a friend, from Rockland County, New York, to Cocoa Beach, Florida, while subsisting on a couple hundred bucks and the kindness of strangers. Were such characters magnetized to one another? They'd met the previous day, I soon learned, at a beach five or six miles north of us, where Scott had arrived by kayak and Conant by canoe, from opposite directions. Scott had made a mental note to keep an eye trained out his window thereafter, realizing that he could have a surprising source of entertainment to beckon ashore for his birthday guests. He said that he viewed his hospitality to the southbound paddler as a form of "paying it forward," from one adventurous spirit to another.
My son, barely verbal, was not then capable of appreciating the novelty at hand, so we soon bid the traveler good luck and returned to the slippery rocks and sea glass on the river's shore, while my mind, alight with childhood memories of Treasure Island and Where the Wild Things Are, started composing a bedtime story for future use, about the sudden arrival of a bearded giant from a distant land, with a grip that could kill and a belly laugh as disarming as St. Nick's.
That evening, after Ian had gone to sleep, I sent an email to a friend in Manhattan. "So we're down at the water this morning," it began. "And our neighbor Scott, the guy whose house is right there on the other side of the stone wall, waved me over and invited me in...where he was feeding breakfast to a man who looked like Santa Claus crossed with a lobster, in overalls." The note went on to mention the coincidence of Scott's own bicycle journey. The subject line was "river town," implying archly that such whimsy was par for the course. If only I'd known how true that would prove to be.
* * *
Moving "upriver," as I liked to say, I had consoled myself with the notion that I wasn't settling into a normative middle age so much as reconnecting with my youthful escapism, at the dawn of parenthood. (Rivers, Thoreau wrote, "are the constant lure, when they flow by our doors, to distant enterprise and adventure.") The Hudson at Piermont is two and a half miles wide—the Tappan Zee, a Dutch word for sea. On foggy mornings, and during snowstorms, the distant eastern shore vanishes, and it's possible, if you have a yearning cast of mind, to imagine that you've been marooned—not simply in a bedroom community, but on the edge of something vast and ultimately unknowable, keeping time less according to commuter bus schedules than to the magical permanence of tides. At the closing meeting for our house, one of the sellers—a professional riverboat captain—mentioned that the Hudson, though regarded by millions primarily as a transit obstacle, was, in fact, "as wild as the Serengeti." It was exactly what I wanted to hear. Not for me Kerouac's dreamscape of the open road, which had forever seemed proscribed, the dominion of crossing guards and police cruisers, whereas setting oneself afloat felt otherworldly and limitless.
By any reasonable definition, Piermont is now a prosperous suburb of New York City. Yet, like many river towns, the most ancient of human settlements, it is the sort of place that regards as newcomers all whose surnames can't be found on street signs, while retaining a feeling of being left behind, not simply by the descending current but by the march of history. The name is an amalgam of two defining geographic features: "pier," for the mile-long spur, jutting out toward the channel, that was built for Erie-bound freight trains that stopped arriving in 1861; and "mont," for the minor mountain—a glorified hill, really—that tumbles down to the river. At the summit are the graffitied remains of a nuclear missile base, a relic of the Cold War now obscured by forest. And at the base, across the street from Scott's house, sits a boulder bearing a plaque that identifies the anchorage out yonder as the site of a seventeen-gun salute, in 1783, from Sir Guy Carleton to George Washington: Britain's first formal recognition of American sovereignty. When my family arrived, the crumbling Dutch Sandstone looming above the boulder was owned by an octogenarian who wore a tricorne.
I've mentioned the hurricane, and the fish in the Brooklyn basement. Discovering it—still moist, and cold—was actually a momentary thrill, in that it seemed to lend some primal grandeur to our bourgeois misery. We'd been renting a place a couple of blocks from the docking station for the 'Queen Mary 2,' the world's last great ocean liner, which had felt to me like a link to a past when people who wanted to travel great distances to exotic places took to what Ishmael, in the incantatory opening of Moby Dick, called "the watery part of the world." Here, in an overwhelming surge, that world had come right to my (useless) door. I remember, in the storm's aftermath, commiserating with an artist friend in the neighborhood about our respective experiences and watching his eyes excite at my mention of the fish, which seemed to complement his attempt to paddle a raft through his studio when the harbor breached. He talked about staging an exhibit—nature reclaiming the Bloombergian city!—like the opening scene of an environmental thriller, and asked me to send him a picture. I never did. Nor did I tell him why: because I'd already concluded that the fish, which was toothless and small enough to hold in one's palm, had traveled no farther than from the koi pond next door.
In my day job as a journalist, I've seen more than enough stunts, and had Dick Conant's peculiar voyage come to my attention by way of a press release, touting yet another attempt at some kind of arbitrary "record" in a postmodern world lacking authentic frontiers, I might have dismissed or ignored it, as emblematic of the koi pond, not the Serengeti. But I googled him that night, after emailing my friend, and was further intrigued by the scant digital traces that he seemed to have left. There was a short article from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, in 2002, about a "weather watcher" for Montana State University, headlined "Richard Conant keeps an eye on Mother Nature." It revealed little other than that its subject was "one man in a 107-year lineage of official Bozeman weather readers," and that he observed the mercury "with a physician's care"; the accompanying photograph showed a large man with his back turned to the camera. The denim overalls, however, looked familiar.
This excerpt ends on page 20 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong.