A man on a small motorcycle wearing a yellow hazmat suit took me to J.D. Salinger’s house when I was 21 years old.
Two friends and I had been driving around Salinger’s mountain for a full day, and we were exhausted, irritable and hopeless. A different man, with a bagpipe on his hip and a black lab at his side, had taunted us for nearly six hours, alternately giving us clues as to which house belonged to Salinger and insulting us.
“You think you’re the first people to come looking for Mr. Salinger,” he said when we pulled alongside him in his driveway. “Go home.” The next time around the bend, “You can’t see his house from the road.” Then, “If you admire him so much, respect his desire for privacy;” followed by, “I can comfortably walk the distance between our two houses;” and, “Long drive back to Florida. Better get started now.”
Eventually, the bagpiper stopped responding to our questions about Salinger. And because we were lost, yet still committed to the hunt, we agreed to talk about other things in between bouts of goose-chasing. The black flies. The weather. The efficiency of the Cornish fire department. But never about Salinger. When we pulled up to the bagpiper’s yard for the last time, he simply pointed to the barn across the dirt road. “I raised that barn myself,” he said, then put the bagpipe reed back in his mouth and honked his way through his front door.
I had wanted to make the drive up to Cornish, New Hampshire, to see J.D. Salinger since a junior-high teacher scolded me for using curse words in my writing. The assignment was titled, “What Thanksgiving means to me,” and in the course of 250 words I managed to employ no fewer than 20 “jesus christs” and half as many “fucks.” The powers that were didn’t let me off when I explained that I wasn’t really taking the Lord’s name in vain — hence the lower case lettering — and the “fucks” were art.
I got deep into what little Salinger you can buy, and read everything but “Catcher In the Rye” several times over (everyone has read “Catcher,” and I didn’t want to be like everyone; a very un-Salingerian attitude considering his love for the soap opera “Dynasty”). His stories stuck with me through junior high, high school and college, where I added “Nine Stories” to the syllabus of a first-year English course that I co-taught as an undergraduate.
A few months before graduation, I asked two friends if they’d travel with me to Salinger’s house. There was a certain reward for us in simply discussing exciting and unlikely adventures, and I knew that if I changed my mind, or if my friends batted the idea around and then rejected it, the desire to make the trip would still stand for something.
I would like to say that a chill galloped down my spine, and that I was filled with an over-whelming nostalgia for “Raise High The Roofbeams, Carpenter” when Matt and Brian jumped on board. But my first impulse was negative: the idea of a road trip exhausted me. So much driving; uncomfortable sleeping conditions; shitting in public restrooms; hundreds of dollars spent in fast-food establishments; squabbling; road stink. I ran a quick formula in my head: the amount of time that would pass before we could actually embark (two months) multiplied by the likelihood that we would irritate each other sick during the interim (high), divided by our ability to forgive each other (low, likely to decrease with time).
I figured the trip would abort itself in vitro, and that I risked next to nothing by appearing gung ho at the outset. I dismissed the possibility that Brian and Matt expected me to do what I was about to promise, shrugged at the consequences of such carelessness and said, “Sure, I mean it. Let’s go.”
Due to this indiscretion, I had no one to blame when I found myself in the front passenger seat of a white Toyota Camry, speeding through Jacksonville, Florida, on I-95 in the dead of night; a stoned and excited person to my left, a stoned and excited person behind me, a stoned and excited person staring back at me from the rear-view mirror, all convinced that within a few days, we would be in the company of Jerome David Salinger.