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The International Writers Magazine: I won't let you go from here...

Call Some Place Paradise, Kiss it Goodbye
Eric D. Lehman on why he won't tell you where he has been lately

There is a secret town that my girlfriend and later wife Amy and I found after two intense days. We had climbed a large mountain, seen frozen waterfalls, and fallen in love. The town itself was full of charming antique shops, pottery studios, and outdoor sculptures.

A huge monument stood on the edges of town, and a small elevator zoomed us to the small room at the top. From there, we could see the whole of the wide valley, the small friendly houses scattered around the urban center, the fields and meadows beyond, and the cup of the mountains enfolding all. A small college hid on the outskirts, and we talked of someday teaching there, of living in one of the brightly-colored Victorian houses. We would sit on the porch and read each other’s poetry, satisfied in the autumn of our busy lives that we had done the things we set out to do.

"Why keep the name of that town a secret?" One of my creative writing students asked me. The reason, I told her, is that this town isn’t sharable at all. I will persuade you to visit, and you will be disappointed. It is special to me for a complex set of personal and associative reasons. To others it may seem boring, or trite, or even ugly. Another writer who lived in that town for years believes it to be the most twisted place on earth, full of corruption and evil. Once, I was extolling the beauties of Florence, Italy to a colleague, and she laughed bitterly. "It’s rotten to the core," she told me. Who is accurate? Both, and neither.

Another of these favorite places appeared to Amy and I over a year later, after we had a fight. Like most fights, it was over something outrageously stupid, a difference of opinion that we had blown into monstrous proportions. We had woken up to a driving rain, and had cooked oatmeal and Turkish coffee in the tent. After taking down the sopping tent in the rain, we drove miserably through traffic down a long coastal road past fishing villages and sleepy tourist towns to a dock where we had fried fish for lunch. We boarded a ferry and after leaving the harbor, the captain announced that it might be a rough trip. It was the roughest we’d ever experienced, with six-foot swells and one enormous wave that whacked us and nearly sent the small boat tumbling end over end. I put my brine-soaked head between my legs and fought my nausea, wondering if all this was worth it.

We finally reached the island, and I collapsed on the dock. When I arose, I followed the steady Amy into perfection: small clapboard houses, flower gardens, and sailboats. Thousands of monarch butterflies landed on every flower, resting before heading south for the winter. Gulls and cormorants ranged around the rocky coast. There were no cars, no locks on doors, and no macadam roads. We stayed in an upscale hostel, with shared baths but a private room, from which we could see the harbor and the green hump of a steep grassy island on the far side. The next day after blueberry pancakes we hiked around the borders of the island, finding dozens of artists with easels en plein air, painting the island’s mystical landscapes. Amy picked raspberries and blackberries, and we scrambled over volcanic rock, shot through with limestone, and dotted with patches of orange lichen. We found an outcrop that we had seen in a famous painting, and sat on it and wrote, while the waves crashed far below.

That evening after naps in our breezy room with its simple rocking chair, we ate dinner at the island inn: chilled blueberry soup, pineapple salmon, corn on the cob, mussels, crème brule, lobster, and glasses of "Perfect Stranger" wine. By the time we finished, the sky was dark, and without streetlamps or flashlights we made our way back on the road in absolute darkness, with the only light emanating from the thick Milky Way outlined in a billion stars overhead. On the ferry the next day, the sea was glassy and full of seals. It was a place, not to live, but to summer in, to live slowly and purely, to create and to absorb, to make of life something better, and to keep a perfect secret.

This place felt like mine, because I found it, without any help from travel guides or travel writers. I looked at a map and said "I want to go there." Later, I discovered that other writers had already realized the singular nature of that place. But it still feels like mine, because my experience predated that knowledge. In fact, that fact made me question the very nature of my work, the usefulness of travel writing as inspiration and guide. Maybe, instead of listening to what I have to say, you should head out and find your own. Maybe that is the true purpose of travel writing, to encourage rather than direct, to point in all directions, instead of just one.

I want to not tell you about one last place, a place I don’t want to write about, for fear of ruining it, for fear of drawing more people there. It is a place you all should see, though I don’t want you to. It is a place that would die if more people came there, if my stories brought the hordes, or maybe even one more person. It is a secret valley that first appeared to me when I was sick and tired. I had just completed three days of difficult hiking though cold rain and hot sun. My stomach had rebelled against dehydration and I didn’t eat all day. After a long downhill slope from a long cliff, my friend Ryan and I reached the river. One of the many waterfalls that made up the thousand-yard cascade was on our left, with two young girls bathing in the pool at the base, like mountain nymphs greeting us at the entrance to a hidden godhome. The waiting mountain hut welcomed us and enfolded us in piney arms, as Ryan and I spent a restful day on the rocks of the waterfall, talking with a beautiful hut girl known only as "five-star," and recovering our strength and balance.

After that I tried to return every year to this hut and the magical landscape that surrounded it. The long view from the hut’s porch down a glacial notch toward breadloaf mountains seemed to etch green onto my soul. Once, in early May I hiked down that notch, finding bear tracks and swollen rivers full with spring thaw. Jack-in-the-pulpits peeked their ministerial heads into the bright world. Moose shouldered through the forest, leaving evidence of their enormous passages. Two friends who mean a lot to me, Chris and Alison, hiked with me over the unknown ridges to the east another year, through mossy-floored forests and over a wide pass, away from this secret home, which by that time I had acknowledged as one of my favorite spots on earth. But even with this awareness, I had not lost that sacred feeling of hope and purity that made it so.

Once in a while, my heart becomes full of the world’s many problems and I retreat to that forest to renew my strength. I wander the hills and dales, my walking stick grasped firmly in a sturdy hand, at last finding the rushing river that spills down from the high places in a seemingly endless cascade. Near the base of this river by a friendly mountain hut, the view opens once again to fairy-tale mountaintops at the end of a long carved canyon. My muscles ache with the exertions of tramping these steep mountains, but the hut crew blesses me with a hot cup of soup and a mug of tea. I sit on a boulder in the center of the river, just above the slippery lip of the largest fall. The roar of the river drowns thoughts and carries away feelings, until I am empty as a hollowed cave, smooth like polished granite, and clean: born of water and sound.

©
Eric D Lehman February 2008
elehman@bridgeport.edu

Eric teaches Creative Writing at Bridport Conn.

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