As we rounded the final curve of the steep path to the Hudson River, two adjectives leapt to life: “little” and “great.”
There was the little red lighthouse, which really is little, just 40 feet tall, tucked beneath the great gray bridge, which looms with great dignity to a height of 604 feet.
They are the structures that each found their place in Hildegarde Swift’s wonderful children’s book, “The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.”
While planning a trip with my husband to New York City, I’d had a passing thought that wouldn’t let go: I wanted to see the little red lighthouse under the George Washington Bridge.
He had no idea what I was talking about.
I was stunned. Didn’t everyone know this book? Hadn’t everyone listened as Captain Kangaroo read it aloud on the old TV show? Isn’t this how we learned that we all have a purpose in life?
Apparently not. But for me, it’s a book that I loved upon first hearing, and grew to love more deeply when I read it to our kids. The idea of seeing the lighthouse in person — of making a literary pilgrimage — seemed right.
(Quick book synopsis: The little red lighthouse long warned ships of a rocky shoal. But when a great gray bridge is built with a light beaming from its heights, the lighthouse thinks it is no longer needed.
Then a storm blows in, and the bridge calls to the lighthouse to shine, explaining that its light warns “the ships of the air.” The keeper finally arrives to turn on the beam, and the lighthouse knows that it still is needed. As the bridge says, “Each to his own place, little brother.”)
My pilgrimages are few: I’ve been to the log cabin near Lake Pepin on the site of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House in the Big Woods,” and to the “By the Shores of Silver Lake” site near De Smet, S.D. But there are no more big woods dwarfing the cabin, and the prairie now has highways.
Still, squinting does wonders, and I could, for a moment, imagine Laura balancing on tree stumps. Now on the banks of the Hudson, I imagined how small the lighthouse felt beneath the bridge’s towering girders.
The places in our heads
Lots of people make literary pilgrimages, inspired by a scene, a character or a story that takes on a reality. Readers were only too willing to share their experiences of treading upon places that had existed in their minds.
Brett Laidlaw, who lives on 20 rustic acres near Ridgeland, Wis., recalled visiting a similarly contemplative place, inspired by Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” He was “filled with fervent anticipation,” only to find it “a pretty ordinary little stream, not much different than little Purgatory Creek in Eden Prairie that was important in my growing up. So ordinary was Tinker Creek that I can recall little specific about it now.
“But maybe that’s entirely appropriate, in a way, that the lessons, revelations and inspiration we find in nature don’t necessarily arise from grandeur or spectacle, but from the very perennial ordinariness of it,” he said.
Mary Yee of Edina said she has “followed the trails lit by Willa Cather,” including Quebec City after reading “Shadows on the Rock,” Santa Fe from “Death Comes for the Archbishop” and Mesa Verde National Park from “The Professor’s House.”
Walter Eisner of St. Paul was a boy in Luverne, Minn., when he read Frederick Manfred’s “The Manly-Hearted Woman” After a passage about how Indians killed needed buffalo by running them over a cliff of the nearby Blue Mounds, “I rode my bike out there to climb to the top and walk along the edge to see what the buffalo and Indians saw.”
George Metezsky of Plymouth must have cut a romantic figure at Thoor Ballylee, a castle where William Butler Yeats set many poems. There, Metezsky “sat on the ramparts and read selections from Yeats’ “The Tower,” which the ancient structure inspired.
Kirk Livingston of Minneapolis took his family to Scotland’s highlands, propelled by author George MacDonald and his images of “rawboned hills and burns that quickly fill with water and a generally harsh but beautiful high country,” he said. “Our expectations we exceedingly realized: The entire place is just as haunting and dramatic as MacDonald painted it.”
Sometimes, pilgrimages surprise.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective, Sherlock Holmes, caught the imagination of Mary Jane Smetanka of Minneapolis. As she wrote: “When I was 16, I lugged my thick ‘Complete Sherlock Holmes’ along on a family trip to England and dragged everyone to 221B Baker Street, only to find the address did not exist and there was a dowdy branch bank there.”
Closer to home, several readers have driven to Mankato, setting of Maud Hart Lovelace’s beloved Betsy-Tacy books. When Ann Treacy of St. Paul first visited as a youngster, “you just had to know where they were — but the descriptions were so complete in the books that it wasn’t tough to figure it out.”
Maureen Vance of Minneapolis leapt at the chance to walk Stanage Edge in the United Kingdom, a setting in one of her favorite books, Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre.”
“I wouldn’t say there was a single part of the hike that made me think, ‘Yes! This is exactly like the book,’ ” Vance said. “Rather, the experience of stomping around the muddy English countryside on a cool day made Jane’s experience in the story much more visceral.”
The books in our heads
My pilgrimage to the little red lighthouse was not unique. Several groups milled about, some with youngsters, though most without.
Its actual name is the Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse, named for a snag of rock jutting from shore. In 1948, it was shut down and the Coast Guard prepared to auction it off.
But an outcry arose from fans of Swift’s book, written in 1942. Readers still were touched by illustrator Lynd Ward’s poignant depictions of the bereft little beacon. The lighthouse was saved and given to New York City’s Parks Department.
Now it’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Each year, at a festival in September, it’s opened for “walk up/walk down” visits.
It wasn’t open during my pilgrimage, which is just as well. The book isn’t so much about what the lighthouse saw as how it felt overlooked. And indeed, even on a Saturday, the George Washington Bridge, crossed by thousands of cars, shook and rumbled with importance.
The bridge is needed.
The lighthouse? If not for the book, it likely would be rubble. Instead, it’s a destination for people fortunate enough to have book in their heads that still beckons.
The little red lighthouse is still needed, too.