The Cracker Barrel: No touchstones

Columnist Craig Nagel reflects on stone no longer being used to build and why that is bad

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I recently reread a book I hadn’t seen in several decades: "The Royal Road to Romance," by Richard Halliburton.

(No, it’s not about that kind of romance. It’s a travel book, basically, filled with adventure and the kind of outrageous high spirits for which Halliburton was famous.)

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The first thing that struck me about "The Royal Road" was how gracefully it had aged. Published in 1925, the tone and pace of the book seem as fresh as tomorrow.

And the physical condition of the book, considering its age, was reassuring. The binding was quite intact, the paper somewhat yellowed but still limber, the type crisp and black, with generous spacing between the lines and around all margins.

I settled back, knowing I would enjoy the pages that were to come, knowing too that my enjoyment would not be interrupted every few pages by the typographical errors so prevalent in contemporary books.


Nor was I disappointed. Safe in the comfort of my armchair, I traveled with the author as he graduated from Princeton and booked passage on a tramp steamer to Europe, intent on exploring the continent and seeing with his own eyes the marvels he had heretofore only read about.

We landed in Hamburg and promptly purchased bicycles, after which we set out for the Swiss border, determined to climb the Matterhorn.

Victorious, we proceeded on to Lake Geneva and the castle of Chillon, where Lord Byron wrote his famous poem. Then on to France and a tour of its many chateaux.

And so we moved on, chapter after chapter, from one famous location to the next: the tiny republic of Andorra, tucked behind the Pyrenees; the fortress of Alhambra in Granada; the majestic Rock of Gibraltar; the pyramids of Egypt; on to India and later the Taj Mahal.

Whereupon it occurred to me that nearly every place of note that Richard Halliburton visited was made of rock.

Mountains, hills, castles, sculptures like the Sphinx — the great preponderance of famous places share the same material.

I closed the book and thought about our own country.

The Washington Monument. The National Cathedral. The Grand Canyon. Mount Rushmore. The Crazy Horse memorial. The Appalachians, the Smokies, the Rockies, the Sierras — all made of stone.


Now I admit to being biased since I made my living building fireplaces and other things of stone. But still, even discounting my personal love of the material, there is something significant about the fact that what most folks find worthy of visiting is often made of stone.

And I don’t think it’s accidental that this is so.

Stone, after all, is the most common and plentiful material on the planet. It is also the most enduring. Its presence reassures us, gives us a sense of solidity and patience.

The fashions and joys and fears of humans may come and go, but the stones beneath our feet abide.

Architecturally speaking, stone has fallen from favor in our time. Because it is heavy and costly to shape and to ship, we do not find it expedient.

But in our quest for saving time and money, I suspect we are dooming ourselves to one day becoming a vanished civilization.

For when the glass crumbles and the anodized aluminum finally corrodes, and the plastic signs and arches at long last biodegrade, what will be left?

Ours may be the first significant culture founded on the notion of impermanence. We build for the short haul, not the long, and we are the poorer for it, and the less serene, for we give ourselves no touchstones.


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Craig Nagel, Columnist

Opinion by Craig Nagel
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