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A Florida boy travels to J.D. Salinger’s New Hampshire home

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Mike Riggs
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      Mike Riggs

      Mike Riggs is a staff writer at The Daily Caller. He has written and reported for Reason magazine and reason.com, GQ, the Awl, Decibel, Culture 11, the Philadelphia Bulletin, and the Washington City Paper, where he served as an arts and entertainment editor.

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.

  • vbspurs

    One can reveal one’s age, based on the cover one most associates with Catcher in the Rye hard/paperbacks.

    You’re a Boomer if the cover above with the red horse is what you remember. A Gen-Xer if you recall the all-red cover. And a Millenial, if you remember the all-white cover.

  • lamecherry

    I am astonished that Tucker Carlson allows posting by a contributor using the F word no matter the content as it degrades the content to being base.

    I was made to read Grapes of Wrath during the last few days of my Junior year and like all of these Steinbeck and Salinger writers who were absorbed in themselves I found males nursing on women’s breasts profane and not attention grabbing.

    Salinger disliked people and it seemed to attract people who needed to be liked by him, so that would mean they could like themselves. The true mark of a genius is that of Einstein who put up with the masses in knowing they were bleating sheep and that is all they could be. He liked people as people instead of judging them for their not being him.

    Mr. Salinger and many could have learned from the simple art of caring. If he didn’t want the attention, then don’t publish the book. The conclusion is Salinger wanted to prove he was more than humans in all the thought he was, and then wanted to use that place to punish people for not being him.

    A great many “rate me” sites are filled with such little girls torturing males in look, but don’t touch.

    I would conclude that Mike Riggs found Salinger as he was nothing in reality.

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  • leigh

    Mike, What a wonderful story! As a college punk, like so many others, I gave my 2 cents worth of Salinger analysis. Oh, how many lives he touched while refusing to be touched. Your story grab me like a Salinger; well, close. Keep it up, and don’t go reclusive! I plan to keep an eye on you. Thanks!

  • tomdoff

    Ol’ J.D. had several, secluded, ‘Dummy Retreats’, complete with animatronic copies of hisownself, scattered in the hills and mountains of New England, to dupe those eager to meet him in person. So if you ever read a supposed tale of an ‘Interview with Salinger’, pay close attention. If the account reports that J.D.’s ‘Left eyelid twitched uncontrollably’, he (the supposed interviewer) is a dupee.

  • martyk

    Excellent story. I lived in Concord, NH for 7 years. Once, I traveled to Burlington, VT to see a concert with a few friends. We were near Cornish on I-89, and I said I wanted to go look for his home, and one of my friends said that he spent 6 years at Dartmouth, and knew it was impossible to find it. We never looked, and continued on to Burlington. In hindsight, I wish we would have made the attempt.