There is about to be a deluge of information released on the reclusive J.D. Salinger. A major book, a feature film, and a PBS documentary are all coming within the next few weeks and months. Most intriguing to everyone is the vault. Multiple sources have stated that the entire time Salinger lived as the most private citizen of Cornish, NH he was writing, and writing, and writing. All of these documents were stored in a safe and no one is commenting on the contents, other than scholars and fans indicating that many more Salinger works are yet to be published.
A few years go I had an office on main street in Windsor, Vermont. One sunny summer day a thin man wearing glasses and an oversized baseball cap came strolling up the street looking a bit lost. I knew he wasn't from town, because town is just that small. My brother went out to greet him and see if he needed help. They both ended up in my office. My brother is a gregarious helpful man and our visitor was only more than happy to share. So in very quick fashion I learned that he was a former teacher from Ireland who was currently between jobs. He had flown from Dublin to New York City and then taken the train to Windsor, Vermont. He arrived at the very same railroad station that had greeted Maxwell Perkins, J.D. Salinger, US Presidents, and countless members of the Cornish Art Colony.
He arrived in Vermont with the single mission of visiting Salinger's house to have him sign his first edition copy of The Catcher In The Rye and thank Salinger for saving his life. Of course, his mission was laughable on many levels. But as he he carefully removed a small bag from inside his backpack, and from that smaller parcel religiously unwrapped his first edition copy of The Catcher In the Rye from layers of protective covers, I could tell he was not going home without trying. The book looked brand new, and as he re-wrapped he told us he had a plan.
At the time I did not know the exact location of Salinger's house. I knew I had driven by it on many occasions as I photographed the backroads of Cornish and Plainfield. These are the old stomping grounds of Augustus St. Gaudens, Charles Platt and many others. It is inspired soil. But our new visitor from Ireland had more than just his holy grail of a book to guide him. He also had directions to Salinger's house. Exact directions.
On a whim, my brother and I decided to act as drivers and local guides and let the Irishman navigate for us from the back seat of our Ford Explorer. We piled in and set-off without much thought. It was a bad day for working anyway. The sing song voice from the back seat began to call out directions from "the center of Windsor." We wound our way over the longest wooden covered bridge in the United States and were soon on the back roads of Cornish. Taking a left at the cemetery, passing a brown shingled house, locating a red barn on our right, these were all landmarks from the hand written directions. I knew enough local lore to understand that we could not ask anyone for help in finding the exact location. The people of Cornish ran interference for Salinger for more than half a century. But as we listened to our guide, it became clear no help would be required. We soon found ourselves parked at the bottom of J.D. Salinger's driveway, which is when I decided this might have been a bad idea.
I suddenly felt like an invader as I gazed over the amazingly manicured farm fields and took in the view of Vermont in the distance. A view that looked like an ocean full of green rolling waves made of densely wooded hills and verdant forests. I let our Irish stowaway in the backseat know that my brother and I would wait for him down the road a bit if he wanted to continue. He jumped out of the vehicle, visibly nervous and pacing. He removed the small package from his backpack along with a pen and then gathered up his courage and marched right up the driveway.
After what seemed like way too long, he returned very hot and sweaty. He had been gone for such a time that I assumed he had actually been successful. In actuality, no one was home, but Salinger's locally famous jeep had been in the driveway. So the Irishman had scrawled out a note and placed it on the hood of J.D. Salinger's jeep, in J.D. Salinger's driveway at J.D. Salinger's house. I felt like that was enough for one day. We piled in the vehicle and headed down the first hill. As we left, our guest remembered he had not weighted down his note and began to become very worried and agitated that it might blow away. He wanted to return to put it under the windshield wiper of the jeep. So with some coaxing he convinced us to retrace our drive and wait again as he walked the last hill to the house. He returned much more quickly this time, perspiring even more. I felt like the weight of being there was taking a toll on him. Most likely it was the adrenaline and the rush of experiencing something you have imagined in your mind over and over and over again. As we drove away through the golden fields, I assumed we were taking him back to the train with a great story of having actually made contact with Salinger's jeep, if not Salinger.
It turns out our friend from Ireland was a persistent man. He ended up staying in my house that week where he bemoaned the lack of late night drinking opportunities and wove tales of home that I am sure were more fiction than reality. But the traveller received shelter, the pilgrim kept trying, and he also wanted to try alone. He purchased a bicycle from a local yard sale that looked far too small for his gangly frame. He would mount his rickety stead early in the morning and ride from Windsor to the bottom of Salinger's driveway in Cornish. This is not flat country, so the very act of making the ride on a old, busted up, single speed bicycle was itself no small adventure. Over the bridge and up, and then up, and then up he would ride. And once at the bottom of Salinger's driveway, he waited.
The first day he ventured out alone he did not come back. It was getting so late we actually went looking for him and found him just after sunset chatting on the side of the road with a local Cornish resident--who would neither confirm nor deny that Salinger lived in Cornish. The next day he left even earlier and waited on the side of the dirt road all day. He never saw anyone come or go, though the jeep was not there for that third visit. The curtain began to close on the the theatrical production in the Irishman's mind. With a requirement to be back in NYC to fly home, prospects had dimmed.
In the end, he made it as far as calling Salinger's wife and actually hearing back from her. I listened to the voicemail with him and she politely let our traveller know that her husband was in no condition to meet with anyone and that she was going to have to decline his request to return to the house or to meet. She was very nice considering the persistence of the Irishman. And so it ended. And so the Irishman returned home without a meeting, or signature, but having made his own story.
I often park and walk in the farm fields that surround the Salinger home. These are Salinger's fields. The farmland and wooded lanes he called home for the majority of his life. If any of us lived in a place with the views he was able to admire on a daily basis, we might better understand that there was very little need to go out into the world. I am sure all of the upcoming documentaries and possibly Salinger's own writings might reveal more layers to his mental and emotional life and show us complexities yet understood about a literary giant. But as I walk through these grasses watching the grasshoppers scatter in front of me and listening to the frogs calling out twilight, I can't help but feel that there is less to the story and not more. It is simple. To have found a place where nature itself acted as a buffer to even the weary travelers looking for you. A place where you could walk the wooded hills and enjoy sunsets without interruption. It is hard to argue against a decision to be at peace in a landscape that is so giving.