A visit to Aunt Ree’s house in Newburgh, New York, always guaranteed something intriguing. She had no children of her own, so she passed along to her nieces and nephews her lifetime collection of secrets, like how a slingshot could discourage squirrels from raiding the birdfeeder. But the summer I turned sixteen, she placed a mystery in my hands.
“Take a look at this passage and tell me what you think,” Aunt Ree said, passing me the first of two handwritten books. That signature twinkle never left her eyes as she awaited my reaction.
Friday April 22d.
At 10½ OC this day put to Sea and discharged the Pilot by whom wrote to my friends in Philadª but the vessel experiencing a headwind and same time a cross sea commenced pitching about which instantaneously produced a change in the Spirits of the Passengers who all of a sudden from jocular mirth and hilarity fell into deep meditation however in a short time the most of them with their woebegone countenances as if drawn by magnetism rolled to the leeward side of the Ship and commenced O! Reader to cast up their accounts …
Before I could ask why the writer hardly used any punctuation, she told me, “Now go back a couple of pages to the beginning.”
Wednesday April 20th 1831.
This day having bid my friends who came to see me off good bye …
“1831! Who wrote this, Aunt Ree? Where did you get it?”
“Nobody knows who wrote it. I rescued it during your grandmother’s attic clean-out in the early ’50’s. She’d even tried to toss newspapers from Revolutionary War days!”
I turned to the front cover where “DIARY NO 1” was stamped in gold. Cover boards the warm color of doeskin hung onto the stitching by a few stubborn threads, but most of the spine had crumbled away. The faintly lined pages had survived in surprisingly good shape.
“Where was the writer going?” I couldn’t pull my eyes from the meticulous script.
“He traveled throughout Western Europe, recording a slice of history—from royalty to Roman ruins, from the wonders of the industrial revolution to the heartbreaking poverty of the Scots and Irish. But if you want to read it, you’ll have to handle it carefully. It’s falling apart.”
I looked at my hands. Flecks from the spine proved her point. “It’d be a shame to let such a treasure disintegrate. Has anyone made a copy of this?”
“Do you know how to type? If you’d volunteer, the job is all yours.” And as simply as that, Ree Whitehill entrusted that two-volume travel diary to me, a naïve high school student.
Promising to transcribe it, I took the diary home to Pittsburgh. I read it cover to cover—the tale of a young American’s five-month tour of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Holland, Germany, Belgium and France. In Edinburgh, the diarist saw Charles X, the deposed king of France. While in Cheltenham he heard a concert by Paganini, who “performed some of the most beautiful and difficult pieces upon a Violin which had but one string.” Along the coast of Scotland, the writer lamented, “What struck me most and really made my callous heart melt were the miserable objects from Ireland begging their way along into England. Some were actually without clothing enough to cover their nakedness altho a wind was blowing which made me shiver though wrapped up tightly in my cloak.” And in Belgium, he passed “over the field of Tirlemont where the Belgians were defeated but a few weeks previous and which still bore the marks of a severe but short action.” In spite of struggling with unfamiliar towns and antiquated expressions, I was fascinated by this account witnessing the very history I’d studied.
But one question irritated me like an itch I couldn’t scratch: who was the author? He hadn’t recorded his name on the flyleaf, although there was a heraldic bookplate pasted inside each front cover.
I started the transcription using my mom’s Smith-Corona typewriter. After slaving through only a few pages, I realized the size of the task greatly exceeded my woeful typing speed. The diary was consigned to the bottom of my dresser drawer, rarely exposed to daylight. Great for preservation, right? However, in daydreams of what-would-I-save-if-the-house-caught-fire, the diary was always at the top of the list.
Some seeds lie dormant for decades, even centuries, then suddenly burst to life, given the right combination of opportunity and nourishment. After a thirty-year career typing computer code, I restarted from the diary’s page one with the aid of free time, Word, and three times the typing speed. A dormant seed began to sprout.
As the diarist’s story emerged on my computer screen, I detoured to the internet for answers to endless questions. What was the “Belgian question” that he heard debated by Premier Lord Grey and the Duke of Wellington in the British Parliament? What caused the uproar in Paris where he “saw a numerous Mob with Clubs &c proceed down the Boulevard singing the Marseillaise Hymn and breaking the Lamps?” Who was “the one for whom almost any sacrifice would cheerfully have been made”—the one he hoped was waiting for him at home? And, of course, who was the diarist? The more snippets of answers I found, the more my motivation evolved from simple curiosity to driving quest. I prayed this wouldn’t be like working a used 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle until 3 a.m., only to discover pivotal pieces missing.
One clue to the diarist’s identity was almost too indistinct to be of use. The heraldic bookplates emblazoned with “BAKER” narrowed the search to a few thousand individuals, assuming “BAKER” indicated his family name, not the name of the bookshop where the diarist purchased the blank volumes. There were no Bakers in my family’s history. Genealogical research usually starts with a current name and traces it back through time. To identify my diarist, I reversed the process. I hunted for a nineteenth century name using sketchy clues buried in hundreds of pages of handwritten text, and then tried to follow it forward to the present. Until I learned otherwise, I called the diarist “Hugh,” which means “bright in mind and spirit.” His lively spirit had captivated me. For good measure, he shared the name with a contemporary of his, Hugh Whitehill, my great-great-grandfather.
Hugh’s unhurried script was a pleasure to read. It was more of a challenge to decipher his meanings, since the only periods were at the end of a day’s entry, semi-colons were rare, and commas virtually nonexistent. As I typed, I added punctuation to make it easier to follow.
My initial intention was merely to preserve the account so it could easily be shared. But I quickly realized that reiterating his words would not be enough. He bequeathed me a piece of his spirit in those pages, enticing me to follow his trail. I couldn’t pass up the chance to time-travel using the words of someone from the nineteenth century as my guide, sightseeing with the dual vision of past and present.
What was it about this diarist that hooked me? Maybe it was his daredevil streak, risking every climb, even when “holding myself entirely up by the small heather which grew around from the gravel soil & which, if had given way, must inevitable let me to the bottom about 100 feet.” Perhaps it was his gallantry aiding a young lady aboard an overcrowded steamer on the Thames, who was “about fainting when I caught her in my arms and upon her becoming sensible, I informed her that at least I could save one in case the Steamer should go down.”
Whatever tipped me over the edge, I spent three months abroad following in his footsteps and years chasing down clues to his identity, while spending money with an abandon so counter to my Scottish heritage. I tackled the writing of this book—learning the ropes as I went, finding out that my guestimate of two years to completion fell short by six years.
I’d spent all my adult years caring for children, caring for husbands, caring for aging parents. I asked myself, “What do I want to do with the rest of my life, now that the dog has died and thirty years of a desk job have put savings into fair shape?” Enduring the ravages of cancer taught me that if I waited too long, I might miss the chance to live my dreams. It was already too late to share any answers from this diary quest with Aunt Ree. She passed away in 2004. The day to nurture my own aspirations and fulfill a teenager’s promise was long overdue.
From those seeds of words pressed on yellowing pages, the adventure of a lifetime took root, growing into a hybrid of his story and history, my story and a mystery. Have you been watching me, Hugh, slyly smiling and wondering if I’d manage to discover you along the way?
* * *
DIARY No. 1
Wednesday April 20th 1831.
This day having bid my friends who came to see me off good bye, at half past 12 OC left Chestnut St. Wharf in the Steamboat Newcastle to meet the Ship Monongahela, Capt. Dixey,(a vessel of about 6 hundred Tons) one of the Packets for Liverpool in which had taken my passage for 30£. At 4½ Oclock went on board the Ship, the Steamer having run alongside, and saw my baggage conveyed to my room, after which came upon deck. Finding a boat ready for Newcastle to convey Stores aboard, entered & in the course of 10 minutes was there, where I again saw my brother Charles and Harry Boller, as well as several other acquaintances. And having supped with them, at 8½ OC went to the wharf where the boat was awaiting, and after having bade them a last Adieu, off the boat started again for the Ship. At 9 the Anchors were weighed, whereupon she immediately commenced progressing towards the Bay with the Tide.
April 14, 2007. At the still hour of 5:30 a.m., I gave up trying to sleep. The million shards of panic rattling inside my head were making too much noise. What was I irretrievably forgetting? Where had I packed my passport? That giant grapefruit I’d neglected to eat probably wouldn’t be so good when I finally got home. My husband Danny surely wouldn’t see it in the fruit drawer he never opens. Why was an uneaten grapefruit bothering me? Did I get all the computer files I’d need loaded onto Artemus, my two-pound ASUS R2H ultramobile PC that held all my research, travel plans, and Hugh’s transcribed diary? Artemus would be my modern-day version of Hugh’s travel journal and my link to home via email. What would I do if its digital heart stopped ticking or someone stole it?
After forty years of daydreaming, eight months of research and twenty-five lists, would a handful of reservations, one suitcase and two totes meet my every need for three months in nine foreign countries? As Hugh described it, his departure seemed so benign and dispassionate, though he faced risks to life and limb traveling in 1831. And I was obsessing about creature comforts, conveniences, and computers. It was time to focus on the byproduct of packing light: easy decisions about what to wear.
As typical, my son Birch was the picture of calm and cool. He was more than ready to unwind from the rigors of the busiest season in the accounting year and enjoy a respite from being joined at the wrist to a laptop. In addition to Birch’s aid as a driver, porter, protector, and companion, he would serve as a stand-in for Hugh. Just as Hugh gave me his impressions of 1831, Birch would provide the young male perspective on current times. When I’d asked Birch if he could accompany me, he jumped at the chance, except he had to fly back after two months. Due to work, Danny would only be able to join me for a week in London. I was stuck facing the last month alone, armed with a minimal knowledge of Spanish and Russian while passing through countries where Dutch, German, Flemish, and French were spoken.
After off=roading around a construction barricade, bumping through Miami’s pot-holed parking lots on the create-your-own-detour plan, we found the port and what looked like a skyscraper behind the terminal building. Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas was massive—a gross weight of 138,000 tons—quite a contrast to Hugh’s Ship Monongahela of 509 tons. The only similarity—both ships were nearly new at the times of our respective voyages.
As Birch and I waited more than an hour in a series of check-in lines, I couldn’t escape the sense of walking through a dream. What in the world did this fifty-seven-year-old think she was doing? My DNA was a tangled mass of Dad’s “what the hell!” optimism and Mom’s Girl Scout leader preparedness which demanded planning for every contingency. One of Dad’s early exploits involved an impromptu trip with a few friends, driving from New York to California in the mid 1930’s. They borrowed my grandfather’s car, but didn’t inform him of the fact until they phoned him… from Chicago. Mom, on the other hand, had all meals planned and activities scheduled at least a week in advance, in writing, in triplicate. Well, at least it felt like triplicate, if you tried to get her to deviate from the plan. I ended up with an uneasy mix of the courage of an optimist to take a flyer, tempered by niggling doubts about the sufficiency of my planning and worries about wasted grapefruit.
At last our final line started to move. Time to mark the dreaming and planning phases complete, squash the butterflies and surrender to serendipity.
* * *
Friday April 22d 1831.
At 10½ OC this day put to Sea and discharged the Pilot by whom wrote to my friends in Philadelphia, but the vessel experiencing a headwind and same time a cross sea, commenced pitching about which instantaneously produced a change in the Spirits of the Passengers, who all of a sudden from jocular mirth and hilarity fell into deep meditation. However, in a short time the most of them with their woebegone countenances as if drawn by magnetism rolled to the leeward side of the Ship and commenced, O! reader, to cast up their accounts as though with the determination of excommunicating everything from their stomachs. But poor creatures alas; they found it was of no avail. For although they had cleared themselves pretty generally of what Animal and vegetable matter was secreted in their systems, yet the delightful sensation of retching still remained and many, rest assured, vowed this day that if again on Land nothing short of death would induce them to try a voyage by sea. And well might they, Poor devils! For really they looked the very picture of distress and would have afforded a scene worthy for Painter, not that it could easily be depicted, but that it would give an idea of the lights and shades of colouring matter, for truly there were indelible impressions on the deck and sides of the Ship that would challenge even a Titian to describe. The Writer was one of the Sufferers; think not therefore that the above account is unfeelingly drawn.
April 16, 2007. Our ship’s rocking increased markedly during the morning. Before lunch the captain announced that the port of Bermuda had closed and we were continuing directly across the Atlantic. Seeing Bermuda would have to wait for another trip. We were experiencing winds of 55+ mph and, with twenty-foot seas tossing our 1,020 foot ship around, there was no way to enter the port safely even if it hadn’t closed. Good news: the captain arranged an alternate stop… on the other side of the Atlantic in the Azores.
Birch and I headed topside to see what gale-force winds felt like. Considering the addition of our forward speed to the headwind, it was more like a Category 1 hurricane, the kind that blows over unanchored TV reporters. We climbed outside stairs to the exposed deck twelve. Lifting each foot to the next step was an effort, since the wind pressed any dangling appendage firmly into the riser. Near the top I froze. As my voice was no match for the howling wind, I pantomimed to Birch, “Hold onto your glasses and retreat.” I couldn’t suppress my overactive imagination, envisioning my precious six-footer getting picked up by the wind and sailing overboard. My curiosity had blown away, replaced by the stronger urge for son-and-self-preservation.
As the day progressed, we saw more and more folks with “woebegone countenances,” as Hugh put it, and noticed staff stationed on landings with cleaning supplies at the ready. No impressions were going to be indelible on this ship! By 3 p.m. the wind abated somewhat, but waves still boomed against the hull like cannon shots, sending sheets of spray crashing away. Water sloshing in the barricaded swimming pools put on its own show. With each pitch of the ship, all the water moved in a single wave, slammed the pool wall and sent a plume two stories up into the air. By evening, the wind had shifted so that we were running with it instead of against it, but wave crests were nearly parallel to our course. The resulting rocking motion made it easy to climb steps, as long as you timed your ascent to the drops of the ship and waited out the rises.
It’s no wonder Hugh counted himself among the seasick on his third day. With no computer-controlled stabilizers and battling a “cross sea,” meaning the waves were crisscrossing from multiple directions, his ship’s unpredictable motion was more akin to a bucking bronco than a rocking chair.
“Birch, did fate have a hand in cooking up this mini trial of our seaworthiness, on precisely the third day of our voyage? Perhaps to make us join Hugh’s fellow Sufferers?”
“Coincidence? I think not,” he replied.
Although the Ship Monongahela and the Navigator of the Seas differed by several orders of magnitude, the ocean, with waves rewoven from the same ancient threads and churned by the same temperamental winds, presented us with the very view Hugh must have had. This thirteen-day cruise to England was proving to be a closer equivalent to Hugh’s forty-day voyage than I had thought possible.
* * *
April 19, 2007. Every time I strolled along the rail and scanned the featureless horizon where hazy skies blurred seamlessly into the somber parade of waves, I got an eerie feeling in the pit of my stomach. It wasn’t seasickness. Although I had a solid mass under my feet, that mass was completely untethered from any reassuringly hard earth. There was no dry land for hundreds of miles, for days of cruising in any compass direction. Of course, there was land a couple miles away… straight down and very wet. I felt vulnerable in a way that no amount of prior planning could overcome.
We had a tailwind now, offset by the forward speed of the ship. The hurricane effect was gone. I’d become comfortable with the constant rocking of the ship from side to side, having learned the art of rhythmically weaving down passageways without bumping into walls or fellow passengers. Visualize a kind of country line dance with imaginary music.
When I returned to the cabin, a note taped to the door informed me that my credit card for shipboard charges had been declined. A thirty-minute chain of phone calls later, I learned someone had rung up two $1.00 charges in an attempt to activate an account with “Yahoo! Wallet” for online purchases. My card had been cancelled via a fraud detection program. Was there some perverse reason in the twisted mind of fate why, just as I was tracking down the identity of an anonymous traveler, some yahoo was trying to steal my identity?
* * *
April 25, 2007. On this final night aboard, I headed down to Two Poets Pub, feeling enough confidence in our impending arrival to pass Ian Miller, an Irish folk singer, a request for “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” I enjoyed his rendition even more than Gordon Lightfoot’s. Two weeks of rough seas had enhanced my appreciation of the lyrics.
April 26, 2007. At long last we planted our feet on terra firma in England.I was impatient to retrace Hugh’s journey, though uncertain of what I might find. Was there still a trail of breadcrumbs or had they been consumed by those wild geese I was chasing?
Following three decades of working with computers, Judy Whitehill Witt turned all her attention to playing with words. Her poetry has been published or will shortly appear in The Quotable, thenewpoet.com, Virginia Writers Club Virtual Anthology, and Atlanta Review. She’s now querying agents for Twice upon a Trip: His Story in History, My Story and a Mystery, the book from which the above excerpt was drawn. From her home in Glen Allen, Virginia, she blogs about writing, travel, and genealogy at www.judywittbooks.com and is on Twitter as @WriterJudyWitt.