“Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free.... I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe,” wrote Thoreau, among the most prominent of historical New Englanders. I have done opposite; from my childhood home on the edge of a vast wilderness in the farthest west, I went east to land long measured and worked.
The land compresses the nearer it reaches to the northeastern coast of the United States. This has partly to do with the population density, but is also a very real matter of the geography of the land, of the numerous small chains of mountains and hills which define New England. It is a folded land, and numerical distances take on new meaning; what would seem to be a small matter of a few miles can become a trek, on indirect roads through little towns which sometimes seem to run together. The square mile in New England encloses dimensions unknown in a prairie place; like a fairyland, it manages to appear bigger on the inside than from without.
Even the local ecology tends to operate on a smaller scale: walk through the forest, and here you will find yourself in a pine grove, next in a stand of maples, and just a step further, in a little dell above a creek, you are beneath a canopy of graceful hemlocks. The woods of New England sometimes feel strangely familiar to the native Northwesterner. There I met old friends in the hemlock and the cedar, and the balsam fir and spruce scent the air of the higher slopes with perfumes reminiscent of the woods of home. Though they dress themselves a little differently than their cousins in the West, the Western Hemlock and Eastern Hemlock each share the same elegant presence in the woods. The former is far more compact and structured, and its Eastern counterpart more open and free, but the spirit is the same.
I have heard a few native Connecticuters describe the tiny state as a microcosm of the continent, encompassing every variety of landscape. But I had never felt so far from the high mountains of home, with their vast, winding, wild valleys; from the high desert with its silent pines; from the rainy, fir-clad slopes with their feet in the sea. Yet perhaps there was some unexpected truth in this platitude. Though I was as far as I had ever lived from those things, I continually found the Northeast—with its woods that were somewhat like "my" woods, with its rolling mountains, and the bohemianism of Vermont and western Massachusetts—to be a strange shadow of my home, while the Midwest presented itself in such stark contrast as to have a power all its own.
It was a rich new territory to explore—both without, and within. A new place presents to us both itself and ourselves. If in the Midwest I discovered new joy in broad spaces, in clear sunlight and sudden thunderstorms, in the Northeast I discovered the unexpected surprises of places hidden from plain view, of old town centers tucked away on a river’s bend and largely unchanged from the past century, of villages which can only be found by a great deal of luck by the uninitiated, of ancient cemeteries, and moss-eaten stone walls buried beneath the trees.