personal essay

"Crossing the Millennia in the Upper Delaware Valley"
by Joseph Freda
The Literary Gazette

We scrambled up the dark mountainside as best we could. I jittered the flashlight ahead so I could grab the next bare sapling, then swung the beam around so Elise could catch a rock outcrop with her boot. The ascent from the railroad tracks was steep, the night still. Cold, but not too cold. No moon, but a skyful of stars and the occasional light from a house across the river. We panted as we climbed. Our frozen breath hung in clouds.

It was the last hour of the twentieth century, and we wanted front-row seats for the turning of the millennium.

Along the banks of the Delaware River, above the property that was my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ farm, is a cliff with a sheltered shelf eroded into it—a rockshelter, bearing all the details of the shelters the Lenni Lenape Indians used: a flat, well-drained floor cut ten or twelve feet into the cliff, an overhanging ledge roof for protection, a raised stone hearth toward the back. The rockshelter sits high enough from the river to keep its inhabitants above floodwaters and spring ice. It overlooks a quiet backwater and an alluvial floodplain for seasonal horticulture.

I found myself drawn to this place during the last few years. I would hike up there on rainy days in the summer or on bright autumn afternoons with the smell of mulch in the air. I imagined the Lenape hunting parties, and before them, the prehistoric Woodland Period Indians, using this site for shelter. In the winter months small bands of hunters would have used the rockshelter as they roamed in search of game. I began to picture a couple of hunters, perhaps a lone individual, tucked into this rockshelter on a cold winter night. As Mechakhokque (the month when cold makes the trees crack, or December) of 999 A.D. turned into Anixi Gischuch (the month in which the ground squirrels begin to run, or January) of 1000 A.D., what would those people have been experiencing?

I wanted to find out. I wanted to be that man on the cliff face looking into the night sky. I wanted a chance to connect, in some mysterious way, with the people who walked this river valley so long before us.

The Lenâpé English Dictionary published by The Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1888 shows that the Indians had descriptions for many of the same things that are important to current residents of the river valley. Titpikat meant a cold night. Wulapan, a fine morning. Good bottom land—wulamike—was valued for planting corn, beans, and squash. Mochomsunga, or ancestors, were honored; achwangun dowagan—a lasting peace—was hoped for.

The Lenape even had a phrase for “a thousand years”: kittapuchki gachtin.
Early in the afternoon on December 31, I hiked some firewood up to the rockshelter. The shelter itself was dry and the ascent free of ice. After I came back down, I left a cluster of rocks by the railroad track to mark my trail. That evening, Elise and I had dinner with friends and watched on television the festivities from around the world. The displays in Paris and London showed the grandeur of human celebration. As the camera returned again and again to the mob in Times Square, though, I kept picturing the utter stillness of the cliff above the river.

Around eleven o’clock, we left the warmth and camaraderie of our friends’ home and began to attune to the quieter frequency of the night. We walked down the railroad tracks from Callicoon, got to my rock cluster and began climbing. The U.S. Geological Survey map shows the rockshelter at a 900-foot elevation, a hundred feet above the railroad. The map also shows the 20-foot elevation lines so tightly packed that they almost merge into one solid bar. This is a steep slope. Its rise over run almost exactly equals the incline of our old farmhouse’s third-floor staircase, and of course, the cliffside has no stairs. The saplings and jutting rocks provided the leverage we needed to climb.

Up at the rockshelter I spread out a rug and built a small fire. It cast mysterious, flickering shadows on the stone walls. I could easily imagine an Indian hunting party doing the same thing a thousand years ago, and getting about the same view: the river valley stretching north and south, the river itself a dark blotter soaking up the little available light, the ridgeline of the mountain in Pennsylvania scribing a hard edge against the deep, deep blue of the night sky. And when we looked up to the slab ceiling of the shelter, we even found cave-paintings and petroglyphs, although of a late-twentieth-century vintage. There, in silver spray paint, was written the signposts of our age: “Rage,” “Josh Sucks,” “Jenny ’99.”

Toward lawitpikat—midnight—the fire died down enough that we could see the stars and finer geographic features of the valley: the lower meadow of my grandparents’ farm, a little starlight reflecting in the bennekill of the river, the dark stands of trees. We uncorked a bottle of champagne and I read the following passage from “The Lenapes” by Robert Grumet:

“Many Lenapes believed that the souls of the dead traveled to a beautiful place along the starry path that is now called the Milky Way. Each star was believed to be the footprint of a ghostly traveler. Arriving in their paradise in the sky or beyond the horizon, the dead remained happily and eternally joined with their ancestors.”

We toasted the footprints of the Lenape, raised sparkling bubbles to those who had traveled the path before us. We made the usual toasts for a good year and good health and good work. With the stone wall of the rockshelter behind us and the stars out in front, it was easy to feel history quite literally at our backs and to look out upon a cosmic future. The poignancy and sweetness of this moment silenced us. Our silence matched that of the landscape. The landscape’s silence matched that of the sky.

I kept an eye on the luminous dial of my watch. As the glowing hands came into alignment, fireworks started going off up and down the valley. An especially huge display went up just behind the mountain in Pennsylvania, causing green and red lightning to flicker above the ridgeline. Upriver in Callicoon, salvo after salvo of fireworks shot up, and from our vantage we could see their entire progress from launch to explosion to drifting sparks. The residents of the Upper Delaware Valley joined with humankind around the world by proclaiming our existence with bright flashes and loud bangs. We were earthly travelers putting our footprints into the sky.

The Lenape word taquiechen meant “to be joined together.” That is certainly what we felt out on the cliff face as we crossed into the next kittapuchki gachtin. We felt the bond to our neighbors in the river valley, the connection to people of diverse cultures around the world, and the spiritual link through time to those early humans who left their stories in the stone of this valley.

Had a lone hunter been in the rockshelter for the last turning of the millennium, I like to think that he felt some of this connection, and that he knew people would follow in his footsteps, and that he offered a wulapensowagan—a blessing—upon us all.

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