A Writer’s Pilgrimage

This week I journeyed out for a pilgrimage that has been over 25 years in the making and covered 1300 miles. There’s quite a backstory, so here goes:

Beginnings

Somewhere around twenty-five years ago, I was a troubled young man sitting in the “hole”, a solitary confinement metal cell that measured about 7′ x 5′ x 8′ with a 4′ fluorescent light that stayed on twenty-four hours a day. I had been in there for a few months maybe, having attracted the wrath of the prison’s punitive system for fighting. Fighting was the biggest symptom of my problems as a youth, of course, which led to me serving five years in prison starting as a teen and into my adulthood.

Warrior first“, 21 years old in the penitentiary 1996

While in that terrible place, the prison inside the prison, I grabbed a random book from the library cart that came to our cells once a week. That book was The Return of the Ragpicker by Og Mandino.

That book had a profound effect on me.

Although it took years to germinate and bear fruit, it’s effect was powerful enough to have me on a 1300 mile journey–a full twenty-five years later–specifically seeking something from it’s pages.

The book was set in the beautiful countryside of New Hampshire, with the story starting right at the end of fall as winter was preparing to settle in. The scenery that Og so eloquently painted with his words took my mind from the horrible place that I was in to the most beautiful place I could imagine.

It awakened in me the more subconscious attachments I had with New England. Having heard stories of how great it was when I lived there with my mother as a child. Those stories were something of a dream since her choice to move back to her hometown in Ohio led to the bleak and tragic life that we ended up living there. In my mind as a kid, New England was the place where our dreams could have came true, almost came true, if we hadn’t left…

Growing up I was just fascinated by the region. It was featured in some of my favorite TV shows, like This Old House and The Yankee Workshop. The big old houses, the quaint towns where life seemed simple; I would watch those shows and imagine having an old house there, with a wood shop and a writing studio. 

It all ties in to my lifelong dream of being a writer. So many great writers came from or lived in New England during their best work, Mr. Mandino being my all-time favorite among them. It always seemed a place that just inspired words to come forth. A place to retreat and create. 

And though I am not a fan of the horror genre, Stephen King was a huge inspiration to me as well. As one of the most successful writers to ever live, nearly all of his writings and subsequent movies were set in New England and vividly featured the region throughout. I was drawn in to it every time and would often watch his movies just to catch a glimpse of that beautiful place. 

You have to imagine that these “dreams” and visions were at a time when the reality of my own life was colored by despair. My upbringing and family life was ransacked by the drug and alcohol addiction and the violence that surrounded me growing up. The lack of drive and absence of creativity in my environment (that seemed to occupy only my mind) left me feeling pretty lost and longing for a different way of life. 

A hidden place

As part of my journey to the “secret” location described by Og in his book, I rode a vintage train through the White Mountain notch region. Og’s explanations of the landscape, with endless rolling hills and mountain views painted with the beautiful colors of the changing seasons all became real as I rode through the same mountains of New Hampshire that he wrote about. 

That same scenery that my mind escaped to all those years ago, was now unfolded right before my eyes, and it was every bit as beautiful as I had imagined. To top it off, I was heading to the magical place where Simon Potter reappeared in Og’s life after 15 years away, just outside of the town of Langville, NH.

Simon was a ragpicker, a mysterious old man that never aged and had a knack for disappearing after things had been set in order. He would show up in someone’s life when they were seemingly at the end of their rope and in despair, and guide them to a better way. He first appeared in Mandino’s The Greatest Salesman in the World, and made his second appearance in the sequel Return of Ragpicker (which I read first). 

Sitting at the literal bottom of despair in the inhumane solitary confinement of a prison, the concept of a Simon Potter was something I wished for in my life. Someone who cared, who offered guidance.

I guess most people get that from their parents or family members, something that just wasn’t available to me. But there is no doubt that if someone had stepped up to a young me all those years ago, things likely would have turned out quite different and better for my life. 

It caused me to want to be that person for other people. To solve my own problems, find my way to a happy, “normal” life and then use that experience to be the one who steps up for the less fortunate. Too many just look down on people and never truly understand the blindness and confusion that poverty and tragic culture creates in those people. So many answers that seem so simple to average folks are just not conceivable to people from the broken parts of our society.

Too many people judge and not enough people care, and I believe that is why eventually we will fracture our society as a whole. I believe we are seeing it happen now. 

It took me 20 years of intense, hard work and literally struggling to climb out of poverty for me to make any headway on my own. I had no inheritance, no guidance and no financial advice. There was no one to co-sign loans for me, or teach me about how to build credit and have nice things. I made so many incredibly costly mistakes and in many ways damaged my life forever along the way. 

But here I am, twenty-five years later, making the pilgrimage largely paid for by my income from writing. I have one successful book out, and I get paid “OK” as a writer of articles for businesses on the internet. I am not rich but I am starting to do the things I dreamed about doing. I am writing, getting paid, and walking in the footsteps of the giants before me. 

The Old Stones

According the the Langville Historical Society, the structure was built in 1817 by the town for the purpose of “pounding” cattle, a practice that is no longer in use. 

After plane rides, hundreds of miles of driving and train rides, I set eyes upon the supposedly fictional place. There it was, in front of me, just how Og had described it nestled in some woods off of Blueberry Road. The fallen stones partially covered by dead oaks and leaves, the walls still nearly four feet high in some places.

Even the entrance was there, just as he described, where the townspeople would lead the animals in and stack some stones to prevent them from leaving. 

How strange to be standing there, inside of an old structure placed together over 200 years ago in some quiet, tiny hidden town in the mountains of New Hampshire. It was very surreal, to see the moss covered stones where Og undoubtedly sat and wrote; where I also now have sat and wrote (part of which would become this short story). 

It’s mid-October and fall is definitely underway here, with the wind loudly swooshing through the trees like a gentle but stern warning of the winter months soon to come. I sat still and listened to it as it blew the orange and golden leaves to the ground all around me. 

What a beautiful day to make this pilgrimage! It was sunny and clear and although fall in New Hampshire, if I wasn’t so acclimated to my Florida home’s weather I would have been comfortable in a T-shirt like the locals. 

The few locals who rode by eyed me with deep suspicion, which I tried to disarm with a friendly wave. It’s very easy to see why Og wanted to protect this place. It is a town of people who like their simple, rugged life up here in the mountains and they don’t want any “flatlanders” coming up here and messing it up. 

The area is presumably much busier than when Og sat there and wrote almost 30 years ago, but the road next to the pound is still not paved and the area is still quite hidden in the edge of the woods. It would be easy to miss for anyone who wasn’t really looking for it.

Sitting there, I almost expected old Simon to appear. I imagined hearing a voice from behind me and turning around to find an old man standing there by the wall. He never did, of course, but it would have been a great time for him to show up! I could use some of his advice right now…

I did imagine Mr. Mandino’s presence there as I touched the stones, and I tried to absorb the hundreds of years of history that these stones have seen in this spot. It’s been a truly inspiring journey. I feel like I completed a circle; like some task I started decades ago has been finished and I can now begin the process of looking back at what I learned during the process. 

The moss covered stones around the entrance to the pound, just as Og had described them 30 years before

Who is Simon?

Simon may not have shown up in the form that Og described him, but perhaps he was there after all. If I go on to do the things that I desire to do, and gain enough success to be able to offer some guidance for those who are navigating deep adversity, perhaps that is Simon living in me. 

I do understand that Mr. Mandino was somewhat of a religious man and that the story of Simon Potter was very Christian at it’s core. I am not any of those things but I can still embrace the meaning and message of the book. Finding the simplest of guidance during the most complex adversities, and then passing that wisdom on to others, this is what we should be called to do. 

It’s nice to come to New England as a writer–though not a very good one in comparison to Og and others. It’s nice to see that some of my dreams have came true. They came true despite the obstacles, the people who didn’t believe in me or my visions, the naysayers who said I should work menial jobs and conform to accept my lot in life. None of that stopped me, nor will it stop me going forward. They came true because I never gave up. Because I believed in goofy things like finding inspiration under the palm trees of Florida, or in the mountains of New England.

Of course, I am still struggling to make it happen. I don’t have an abundance of money, and much of what I get paid to write about is still not what I really want to write about.

But, we start out writing about what we know and unfortunately that topic for me is violence. That opened doors for me to begin exploring other topics, and this article is an expression of that. Not many writers make a living wage from their writing, so I am already successful in some very low-percentile ways. 

What happened this week was a synchronicity of deep events that developed over many lives, many miles and many decades.  In the next day or so I’ll leave the mountains and head to the Northeast coastline, which I will follow up to Maine for my last few days. Then back home to Florida, the other place that I am in love with.

Note: Don’t bother looking up Langville, NH. It doesn’t exist. From Og Mandino himself:

“Please waste none of your precious time searching any New Hampshire map for the town of Langville, the setting for this book, because you will seek in vain. Out of respect for the proud, stubborn, and hard-working Yankee townspeople who have a tough enough time tolerating “summer folks,” much less “curiosity seekers,” I have altered the descriptions of all easily identifiable landmarks as well as changed the name of that lovely green and granite hamlet that is the locale of my story.”

I found it, Og. After 25 years, I found it. I quietly visited, paid homage, and didn’t leave a trace. 
 

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4 Comments

  1. That was fantastic, Varg. Thank you for sharing it. I just read it after a 14 hour dispiriting work day at the day job, where I don’t get paid to do what I like to do (write!). This made me happy – happy for you, happy momentarily imagining myself getting after a similar catharsis — and reminded me to keep writing. Something I really hope you also do. I will read it!

  2. This is an amazing, humbling, inspiring, moving story. As you say, you are quite improbably a writer, but that is exactly what gives you your unique voice. Looking forward to reading more.

  3. Having lived in New England for 8 years I am unfamiliar with this writer… plan to pick up copy of his book and see if it bears resemblance to Laconia /Wolfeboro area.
    Great recommendation… hood to do a class with you again at some point and discuss books while enjoying a Cohiba !

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