It’s funny, when I left the house the other day in search of a roadside god or some other strange thing, the last place I expected to find myself was standing on a hilltop just before dusk, shivering in the thinnest sweater I own and a light scarf I’d dug out of the back of the truck against the mid-November wind, a battered leather bag with my travel notebook and pens in it slung over my shoulder, looking down at the gravestones of Louisa May Alcott, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and others.
When I left the house, I had some road snacks, my writing bag, and a vague idea of heading somewhere northeast-ish, since I rarely go that direction. It was one of those rare November days where the sky is a bright, cloudless blue instead of overcast or raining, though the wind was still sharp-edged and cold. Good driving weather. I figured I could get a good two or three hours of questing in before dark and, if I was lucky, maybe find Something Interesting.
The thing about eastern Massachusetts is that it’s Old. Sure, maybe it’s not old compared to other countries, but for the US, it’s one of the oldest places we have. Other people read about the Revolutionary War, the Pilgrims, the Salem Witch Trials and all that, but we trip over the damned stuff all the time. I regularly drive down roads that famous people once rode horses down, yelling that the “British Are Coming!”, and pass signs proclaiming that some historical event happened or historical figure stopped for lunch there. Those roads were also, in many cases, decided on by what direction someone’s damned cows decided to take regularly and everything else just sort of built up around them. They’re twisting, winding, and heavily congested with traffic, because we pack a LOT of residents, commuters, and tourists into a small area of real estate. There’s so much going on that it’s hard to hear the small, quiet things in all of that. Which is why I typically head out towards the western parts of the state most of the time, away from it.
Still, something said to go that way, so I did.
I drove for a couple of hours, past yellowing post-harvest farmstand fields, through downtowns with their eclectic mix of old and new architecture and industry, meandering around with no purpose other than to see what I might see. I admired monuments and memories, and mused on the differences and similarities between small gods and genius loci. I smiled at kids horsing around while walking home from school, and glowered at people who decided that they were going to take their half of the road from the middle, and the rest of us would just have to get out of their way. I passed through several towns, yet another nameless driver on the roads.
I found nothing. My thoughts turned inward, twisting in on themselves, and I started to wonder what the fuck I was doing out here, wandering aimlessly like one more lost cow, with delusions of making a living writing about…what? Half-imagined feelings and things I saw from the corner of my eye that were probably just trees or abandoned old restaurant mascots, or a dog? There was a stack of dishes so deep on the counter at home that it was going to take days to dig through, because I’m trying to maintain two households and failing at both, and what the hell was I doing?
I decided that it was time to go back and deal with the mountain of dishes. Besides, it was getting late and the sun would be setting soon. I turned onto a minor highway with a route number I knew would eventually lead me home. I worked on trying to soothe my brain, but it was settling in for a good sulk, and to be honest, at the time I was having a hard time trying to come up with reasons that it was being unreasonable. On a whim, I turned into an old cemetery that looked interesting, because I find them soothing and I needed to stretch my legs anyway.
It was probably one of the most beautiful old cemeteries I’ve seen, laid out in a way that spoke of deliberate planning to be both walkable and integrated with the land’s contours in a way most usually aren’t. There were the remnants of old cobblestone paths, and benches to sit on, and massive old trees. It was breathtakingly, heartachingly lovely, and I forgot about being unhappy in the face of its beauty and peacefulness.
I’d been wandering around for about 10 minutes or so when I came across the back of a sign near one of the entrances. Figuring it would probably tell me the name of the cemetery and exactly which town I was in, so I could come back when I had more time to poke around, I walked around it to see what it said.
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The name rang a bell, but I couldn’t remember where I knew it from. Maybe it sounded familiar because of the ghost story? That didn’t feel right. Then I noticed another sign nearby. It was a state park sign, with a piece of paper under the glass, proclaiming “Graves of Interest” and a list of names.
Oh. Right. That’s why I recognized the name, and now I knew exactly where I was. I checked the map, and made my way up to the top of the hill opposite the entrance, smiling with amusement. No, more like giggling.
And so it was that I found myself on top of a hill, shivering in the chill that comes when the sun sets in New England this late in the year, looking at the graves of literary giants who, in their own ways, had forged paths of writing that also left the proverbial beaten path, on the day I came very close to giving up on writing. Message received.
I may not have found what I thought I was looking for, but a small god of lost writers found me just the same, and I’m very glad that it did.