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.
Three days before we left, visiting Salinger mutated suddenly into a sensitive hybrid of business and pleasure. At the trip’s end, I learned, there would be a job waiting for me in Washington, D.C., which meant we’d have to stop on our way up so that I could find an apartment. It was a reminder for me that this trip would probably be the last of its kind. Matt and Brian would soon move to other parts of the world, we’d all commit ourselves to work, to new friends and new pursuits.
After a quick tour of some of Northwest D.C.’s most economically depressed neighborhoods, I settled on a spacious one bedroom that my girlfriend despises almost as much as she despises me for choosing it, inked the lease, put down a few hundred bucks to hold the place until I could come up with money for a security deposit and resumed the drive to New Hampshire.
The rest of the pilgrimage was spent smoking pot, listening to good tunes, and playing a game we created called the Salinger Hypothetical, which one of us would start when the others were feeling like the trip was a waste of time.
Working off the trivia we knew about Salinger — the pee-drinking, the refusal to evacuate his home during a massive fire, the regular visits to Friendly’s for ice cream, the obsession with young women, the interest in homeopathic medicine — we psyched ourselves out by creating even stranger Salingers. Every sentence began with, “What if Salinger” and ended in an absurd theory: What if Salinger hasn’t cut his fingernails in 50 years? What if Salinger’s home is staffed by Southeast Asian slave labor? What if Salinger answers the door in a dress? What if Salinger has been dead for years, and his wife too, and no one knows because he’s a recluse? What if Salinger answers the door in a Marilyn Monroe wig? What if Salinger is a huge pothead? What if Salinger answers the door naked? What if Salinger doesn’t remember having been a famous writer?
We played the game through Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York. We stopped at Milford Reservoir in Connecticut, waded out to a large rock, and played the game while sunning ourselves. We played the game in Massachusetts while wandering high and buzzed through Roxbury, and while waiting in line for tickets to “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull,” which made us wonder if Salinger would answer the door with a bullwhip in hand. We played the game high and terrified while waiting in line for a state trooper checkpoint in Vermont, only to be waved through when the troopers saw a car packed to bulging with migrant workers. We probably played the game several times an hour every hour for the three days it took us to drive to New Hampshire.
But there was one hypothetical none of us asked: What if we can’t find Salinger?
‘Maybe the bagpiper is right’
We flagged down the man on the small motorcycle wearing the yellow hazmat suit because we thought, for just a second, that he was Salinger. The game had conditioned us to think of Salinger as a spry, delusional — and yes, dangerous — dandy; not an 89-year-old hermit. The three of us were covered in black-fly bites, visibly tense, wet and muddied from sliding into a creek bed to get high, and we must have inspired some sympathy. “Do you promise not to bother him?” The man asked us. We nodded. “Follow me.”
The motorcycle was surprisingly quick. The man took us around some familiar curves and down roads we’d seen 20 times that day. But then he made a sharp right at a fork that we must’ve missed earlier, and pulled over. “Last house on the right,” he said as we idled beside him. “There’s a barn across the road. Can’t miss it.”
Bagpipe man was right: We couldn’t see Salinger’s house from the road, and the distance there was walkable, assuming one had an hour or so to kill. From the row of trees that surrounded Salinger’s house, you could look down a grassy slope and see nothing but trees for miles. The mailbox out front had a lock on it, unlike the other homes on the mountain, and the entrance to the driveway was plastered with signs that read “NO TRESPASSING” and “NO LOITERING.”
From the road, we spotted a SUV with a Cornish Fire Department bumper sticker — had Salinger or his wife put it on the car after the fire in the late ’90s that almost destroyed the house? And was that an herb garden near the front door? The tension was so palpable that Brian and Matt broke out the weed and we smoked another joint to steady our nerves.
“Are you going to knock?” Matt asked me after we’d had a few hits.
It was my trip, after all. I tried walking up the driveway a few times, got close to the front door twice. But both times, I turned around. I’d read everything that had ever been written about finding Salinger, including Ron Rosenbaum’s Esquire story and message board anecdotes in which fans detailed the lengths to which they’d gone to enter Salinger’s home disguised as handymen. I even heard a story second-hand about a group of students our age who had banged on the door while yelling that they’d just been in a car accident. No one had answered them.
“Maybe the bagpiper is right” I suggested to the guys. “We’ve found the place, maybe we should just leave him alone.”
The guys shrugged. “Your trip,” Brian said.
We stared at the barn. Walked up and down the driveway a few times. Took pictures. Scribbled an adulatory note to Salinger and wedged it in the gap between his mailboxes. And then we left.
So close …
I still don’t know if I was scared of being rejected, or if I wanted to prolong the meeting in order to prolong my youth. Both of these theories crossed my mind as the Friendly’s in Lebanon where Matt and Brian and I stopped for dinner before heading back to Florida. While the guys compared notes and drew conclusions from the herb garden and the bumper sticker, I sipped quietly on a cup of coffee. Our waitress overheard their conversation and intervened.
“You were right there,” she told us.
“Right at Mr. Salinger’s house. With the barn across the road? On the hill? That’s Mr. Salinger’s house,” she said, beaming. “Most people can’t find it.”
“How do you know that?” I asked. And internally, Why the fuck weren’t you playing the bagpipes earlier?
“I used to babysit Margaret,” she said, “and Mr. Salinger sometimes comes here for ice cream.”
“So close,” she said, a sympathetic frown on her face.
“So close,” I parroted back to her in a hollow voice.
That night, after convincing one another that Salinger would be there waiting for us when we finally worked up the courage to knock, we left for Florida and our new, more adult lives. The bagpipe man was right. It was a long trip.
A version of this story also appeared in GQ.