(Essay in progress, 2013)
Those who read history are blessed or cursed with double vision. We see the present as normal people do, but we also glimpse, in ghostly overlay, the shades of the sepia past. Unscarred landscapes, settlements and villages, canoes and bateaux and paddleboats and levees drift and drape over the present landscape. Sometimes we can see, and sometimes hear, people moving over the land, exploring, setting cornerstones, living out their lives in the populated past.
And sometimes, when we keep our eyes open to the doubling and stop to read the small signage of the world, those distant dead, animated by our notice, can reach out from the past into the present, tap us on the shoulder, and lead us back into their lives.
That’s what Harriet did.
I blew out my legs and knees, and lungs, too, one day last summer climbing a bluff above a river town in Iowa. I’d chosen the area for its serenity, but for me as for most people, the ideal of quiet is nearly always tempered by the necessity of availability. So, after arriving and settling in and admiring the wide curve of the Mississippi, the town of Lansing on its edge, the bluffs towering above, the eagles higher still (or perhaps they were turkey vultures), I dutifully flipped open my cell phone only to discover an unanticipated connection with my historical predecessors. I was, as they had been, completely out of touch with anyone outside my immediate vision. No signal, and no backup. The shell of the last pay phone still stood down by the ball field, but only ragged wires remained.
There’s only one place to go for good information in a small town, and that is the public library, where the sympathetic ladies had a single suggestion. They recommended that I climb to the city park, Mount Hosmer Park, up near the turkey vultures, in order to…what? To be closer to the cell phone satellite? To establish line of sight with my home phone in distant Minnesota? Someone, at some time, they thought, had gotten a signal up there. I should try.
It was a warm afternoon, with a high blue sky. I had a water bottle, was lightly dressed, and needed the exercise.
It took one hour and fifteen minutes of constant climbing to reach the top of Mount Hosmer on a closely curving paved road, pitched like a stairclimber. On my left, boulders and overgrown woods reaching toward the sky. On my right, an alpine slope to certain impalement on the town’s steeples. The warm afternoon turned into a hot afternoon, or perhaps I was growing closer to the sun’s corona. No one drove by; I would have dropped on my knees and begged. I couldn’t call for help; my cell phonewouldn’t work. If I’d turned around, I was afraid I would just start rolling and that would be it.
When the narrow road finally flattened and opened out into a wide park with tall trees and hummingbirds, I rested, panting, on a stone wall, looking down on the town and the distant roof of the public library. Two tiny figures came out the back door and got into a car, after tipping their heads back and shading their eyes and pointing upward in my direction. I waved.
I could see Minnesota, I thought. And a wide sweep of Wisconsin and the place where more rivers joined the labyrinthine Mississippi and its broad braid of wetlands and water and woods. A turkey vulture flew by, below me. The cell phone didn’t work.
I walked through the park, which was deserted. A car appeared, which I resented for a minute, and it drove right back down. There was a veteran’s memorial and a playground. There were picnic benches. And there was a small blue metal sign, put up by the Iowa sesquicentennial commission a few years earlier, long enough for the bolts to rust a bit. I stopped to read it, and here is what the sign said, and this is how people who love history end up getting lost in their research.
The sign said “Mount Hosmer City Park was named after Harriet Hosmer , a noted sculptress, who won a foot race to the summit during a steamboat layover in 1851.”