Every time we drive east and cross into Pennsylvania headed toward Pittsburgh I am always shocked by the hills. Funny to be shocked by something that identifies home, but when I see them I’m shocked nonetheless. I miss them while I’m away, can’t help but miss them in living in a place like Chicago, the shockingly flat midwest. In Pennsylvania, they’re everywhere. Life is hills. My backyard was a hill. My street was a hill. My school had hills. And the road to my best friend’s house was the hilliest hill of all. We couldn’t walk or bike very many places because there were too many hills. They’re rough and craggy, these Pennsylvania hills, with diagonal trees barely hanging on all over them and all manner of rocks set in piles, chipped away. Hills, strong, tree-covered, and safe from being bulldozed to build more cookie cutter American dream homes because no one wants a house built at a 70 degree angle. Not mountains, no. Hills.
The hills, they surround the highways turning them into a sort of tree-lined basin. That’s what I always feel or notice first as I drive back home, the bowl-like safety of roads cut through hills, turning the Pennsylvania turnpike, of all things, into a gorgeous channel through the pines, almost quiet, surrounded by nothing. And then sometimes, all of a sudden, you burst out from the basin, from the tree-lined tunnel, and there’s the world, the valley, other hills far away, the air grey and blue, hazy. You can see so far, you can see the world, you can almost skip the houses and just see the land. The same land George Washington tromped around on and sweated through. The land I hardly noticed as a child. It’s grand, really. The hills make you either only able to look very close or very far. No in-betweens. Your view is either blocked entirely or opened way up. Pennsylvania hills make me love America.
There’s the wilderness of the outlying towns and suburbs (yes, suburban wilderness), lives and homes built around geographical booby-traps, hairpin turns, funky intersections, avoidances, shying away from anything too steep or too tree-covered, turning it into parks instead. People build their strings of houses, towns on little rises or in the valleys, flat spots, strips of neighborhoods ribbed by hills. Suburban Pittsburghers, the ones I know best, let the hills be wild and hike through them on the weekends. But just across the bridges there are the bold hill towns of the city, the brave souls who saw the angular land they were given and said, “Build me a crooked house, I’ll make it my crooked home!” These people, the hilly city-folk, are fantastic and mysterious to me. I’d sit in the backseat of the car on the way to the theater or my grandfather’s house and see impossible staircases zip by, imagine climbing the hills in this way to houses about to topple over one on top of the other, nearly vertical brick streets, narrow and fearless. Improbable living, but living nonetheless. Someone thought it was a good idea and so it was. The hills slide down to the three rivers, converging at the city and spreading away from each other to the suburbs, to my suburb, to the bridge to Neville Island where my car once spun all the way around on ice on my way to, ironically, ice skate.
Annie Dillard wrote a book about being a child in Pittsburgh in the fifties, An American Childhood, a book I read recently and could hardly even make my way through it because it was too, too delightful. It felt like a secret book written just for me, special, gorgeous prose, the sort of prose I’d love to somehow write some day written about places I’ve been to, places I actually know, the places that have seeped into my very body, my heart. I wanted to memorize every page, check every word twice, race through and slow down, savor the heart and life of Annie Dillard, my wise Pittsburgh sister, older than me and true. The very first sentence of the book is this.
“When everything else has gone from my brain–the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family–when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe is topography: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.”
Topography. How did Annie know? It’s true, it must be, because it’s the topology of home, the hills as they lay this way and that, the curves of the land, the angles and shapes that dig into my gut and make me feel a part of the earth and what it’s all about. The dreaming memory of it. I didn’t notice it when I was a child, the land I lived on. I just lived on it, grew up, paid little attention but I didn’t need to. It got to me anyway. The earth gets into you without you even meaning it to. The dirt seeps into the soles of your feet and all of a sudden you’ve got a home and the sight of tree-covered hills makes your heart lurch for the rest of your life. I imagine that if I grew up in Chicago it might be the same, but different. I’d visit places like Pennsylvania, ride all over the wild hills, but feel more settled than ever when the world is once again flat, straight, growing things, clear. Maybe Chicago will seep into me too. Who knows?
It’s funny. I set out to write a little something about a first married Christmas and time with family and good times in Pennsylvania and all of that, but what I came up with was land. Just land, hills, that’s all I feel. I don’t know why. I don’t know why. Maybe Annie Dillard has gotten under my skin or the hills have gone to my head or Christmastime made me tender and wonky, I don’t know. It all happened, I had Christmas with Isaiah and my family in the hills in Pittsburgh and then New Years with Isaiah and his family in the hills mixed with fields in Lancaster and it was great and hard and strange and warm and Christmastime in all its nostalgia and hope and sweetness and melancholy. But what I remember now are the hills and how it felt to greet them.
It felt dang good. And also sad.
We are back in Chicago now, and I’m delighting in this land, particularly the non-land topography of our little apartment, our home full of our things. My heart is soft and weary-glad from traveling the hills for a little while, and now I’m happy to walk on flat sidewalks with right angle corners in this city full of topography that is slowly seeping in, becoming mine. I’m happy to walk up the three flights of stairs to the rooms I share with my husband who isn’t a hill at all. He’s a man, a good, good man, and he is seeping into me more than the hills ever could, I think. Our little home, the corners, the places the light from the window doesn’t reach, the furniture we’ve put in certain places. Flat roads leading to flat places with things built on top, sidewalks on sidewalks and long straight avenues, and a big lake that seems like an ocean but freshwater and blue. Good land to let in.
Goodness gracious, topography has me all tender and twisted up. A hilly start to 2016. I don’t know what it all has to do with Christmas, but Christ is born and land is good and ding dong merrily on high, go tell it on a mountain or a hill, oh little town, oh big city, oh good true men, oh little lamb, oh valley, oh pine, oh turnpike, oh Lake Michigan, oh every home I’ve ever known, Christ is born on earth and I am too. Hallelujah.