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Finding My Way Back to Shangri-La

A cottage in the Allegheny Mountains held clues to a family drama that took me decades to understand.

Vintage souvenir postcard, Pennsylvania Souvenir Views series, ca 1945

I was told as a child never to enter Shangri-La. My mother, who laid this prohibition on my brother and me, was not worried that we would go off in search of a Himalayan valley. Rather, she feared we would explore the long-abandoned cottage down the road, which had over its front door a decayed sign announcing it was “Shangri-La.” It wasn’t until I was in middle school and was assigned to read James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon that I discovered that the name had a literary pedigree. Hilton’s Shangri-La is a mountain fastness, ruled by a 250-year-old Catholic monk as High Lama. It is a place immune to the strife of the world, where human aging slows to the pace of a stalactite. For me, “Shangri-La” has kept the mixture of melancholy and danger it had when I was six or seven.

My older brother Rob and I, of course, transgressed our mother’s edict—and more than once. She had heightened the spell of the forbidden by saying Shangri-La was full of snakes. She was not wrong. Shangri-La was embedded in a couple of acres of dense foliage, some of it wild Pennsylvania plants—jewelweed and goldenseal—along with planted shrubs that had run riot through the tenantless years. The roof had not fallen in and, oddly, many of the windows still had glass. Kids would normally have demolished such a place, but the local youth had treated the ruin with a degree of respect. No one had thought to pummel it with rocks or riddle it with bullets. No one had set on fire. 

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Entry through the half-hinged side door was easy. The floor sagged ominously underfoot but could hold an intrepid child or two. On my first venture, I found a large snake sunning itself in what must have been the dining room. Remnants of broken crockery lay along one wall. The snake—I have no idea what kind but it was many times larger than the snakes I was used to—made no effort to escape the intruders in its domain. It turned lazily and looked at us, which was enough for me to credit the wisdom of leaving further exploration of Shangri-La for another day. 

I should say another summer day, because Shangri-La was in the Allegheny Mountains. During the school year, I lived with my parents in a fast-developing suburb of Pittsburgh. There, instead of abandoned houses, my more adventuresome friends and I explored construction sites as the post-war boom filled in what had been farms and pastures. Year by year, the woods and farms dwindled—and the school buses filled up. In the summers, however, Rob and I were sent for long stretches to live with our great aunt in her summer haunt near Ligonier. 

There was a mystery to this exile, but at the time it seemed just a part of the natural order of things. 

Ligonier proper was—and perhaps still is—a pleasant county town. It stands where George Washington retreated after losing a battle in the French and Indian War, and from where he surrendered to the French forces. Today it draws vacationers and tourists, and in the 1930s it was far enough from Pittsburgh to count as a rural refuge. 

My Great Aunt Alice’s late husband, Jim Bell, was among those who sought such refuge. He built his modest cottage in a hamlet, Buttermilk Falls, about five miles from Ligonier. I would have guessed a lot further than that, but Google Maps doesn’t lie. In childhood, the distance seemed far greater. The cottage was on the edge of wilderness. The town was civilization.

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Like his Shangri-La neighbors, Jim Bell gave his cottage a name to wear above the front door: “Bellsport,” or Bells-Port. When I say a “modest cottage,” I may be saying too little or too much. It was certainly modest in not having running water at first or any form of heat except an open fireplace. By the time I was old enough to know better, it had gained cold running water. The trudge to the pump at the edge of the woods was over. It seemed to have some kind of septic system, though I was sternly warned away from the drainage ditch by the side of the gravel road. Bellsport had electricity, perhaps courtesy of FDR’s rural electrification campaign. And we had a telephone—albeit on a party-line shared with half a dozen neighbors. 

Yet Jim Bell had industriously cleared the land and tamed his ten or fifteen acres of forest. He’d laid out flower beds, a badminton court, and a graceful patio. The Pittsburgh gentry who had tried to colonize the area had disappeared by the time I came along, and our neighbors were all country people. Outsiders sometimes called them hillbillies, but they were hardworking, gainfully employed folks: farmers, mechanics, proprietors of small shops. They spoke a dialect that I can imitate but in which I’m not fluent. I am grateful for that time all those years ago when I was readily absorbed into the fluid life of the children thereabout.

But this isn’t a nostalgic story. It has more to do with finding a way out of the wilderness of childhood and yet learning to prize some fragments of a past beyond anything I can recall. 

As I write this, I have beside me a pair of binoculars. Through rough play, they have lost any ability to focus, though I suppose they could be repaired. Great Aunt Alice gave them to me when I was very young. They belonged to her late husband Jim, who died six years before I was born. “Uncle Jim”—I knew no other name for him—had stripped them from the body of a dead German soldier in France during the Great War, so they were technically war booty. 

At least that’s what Aunt Alice told me. Uncle Jim had scratched “Day & Night” into both barrels, but the print and the ampersand look too fine and too uniform to be a soldier’s handiwork, and I have some doubts about that battlefield trophy story. Aunt Alice also said that Uncle Jim was a medic, which may be true. I have his World War I diary, which proceeds from his arrival at Fort Lee, Virginia, on Thursday, October 4, 1917, through his Atlantic crossing in May 1918, his stationing in Halinghen (not far from Calais), his participation in the second battle of the Somme, August–September 1918, and almost to the Armistice on November 11. The last entry is November 6. The diary shows he did indeed spend part of his time on an ambulance crew and working in an infirmary, for which he was prepared by his two years of training before the war at Pittsburgh College of Pharmacy. 

Private Bell’s diary has little if any historical value. The entries are mostly dates, places, and assignments. As he had no children, I am perhaps the only person in the last hundred years or so to take an interest. But my interest is keen. Uncle Jim was a towering presence in my childhood. 

I cannot remember a time when he was not spoken of as a magnificent man. Handsome, charming, astonishingly successful at everything to which he turned his hand. Generous to his friends and to those down on their luck. Civic-minded and a natural leader in the Pittsburgh community. Beloved by all and his death by heart attack at age 52 left a gap never to be filled. His widow, my great aunt Alice, enshrined him, but she was far from alone. He had friends far and wide who fanned the flames. If Uncle Jim had any detractors, I never knew them. And it was largely due to the reverence in which he was held that my brother and I were ensconced for long summer vacations at Bellsport. 

Looking through those permanently out-of-focus binoculars, I have some idea of the family dynamic that produced this exile in Shangri-La-adjacent desuetude. My mother, Isabel, was thirteen in March 1933 when FDR called a bank holiday and ruined her formerly prosperous father. He had owned coal mines in Western Pennsylvania but had foolishly mortgaged them in a dispute with his brother, who shared in the profits but did none of the work. All at once he was literally homeless. The sheriff presided over the family’s removal from their ample main street house. Her father, humiliated and jobless at the outset of the Great Depression, did his best to help out, but his wife divorced him and for all practical purposes he ceased to exist—swallowed in that decade’s faceless misery.

Under these dire circumstances, Uncle Jim stepped in. As Isabel’s mother’s sister’s husband, he was the only solid and reliable man in sight. Prospering as a Pittsburgh pharmacist and real-estate investor, he was able to keep his sister-in-law, Amelia, and her two daughters out of dire poverty, and in time he paid for my mother to attend secretarial school. It was not exactly what she wanted, but her options were thin. Uncle Jim was a surrogate father, whose magnanimity deepened the scorn she had for her actual father. That scorn ran exceptionally deep. When she lay dying of cancer in the late 1990s, she continued to blame him for blighting her life. 

My father, Walter, married into this simmering unhappiness in 1949. He was a mining engineer and patent attorney with a successful corporate career. He spent World War II in Naval Intelligence, and it is a measure of his character that I learned of his war service only by going through his papers after he died. Perhaps it explained his interest in codes and mathematical puzzles. He was a quiet, disciplined man with a great sense of responsibility and no trace of flamboyance. When he died, he left no war trophies, scrapbooks, or love letters. He offered my mother imperishable stability and constant affection, but he never could be Uncle Jim.

Neither Great-Aunt Alice nor my mother could forgive him for that. Throughout my childhood, Aunt Alice lavished my brother and me with gifts, the price of which was for us to be the children that she and Jim never had. That price was paid weekly through the school year on Sunday afternoons in her sweltering apartment above Bell’s Drugs, and for longer stretches during the summers when we were sent to Ligonier. I don’t want to overstate this. We didn’t spend whole summers at Ligonier. There were also vacations with both my parents to Atlantic City and Gettysburg and eventually across the country. But somehow the time spent in Ligonier remains the north pole of my childhood memories. 

What happened there? Adventures, of course. The Ligonier kids were wilder, the woods were deeper and darker. Instead of a municipal swimming pool, we had the rapids on Loyalhanna Creek (“the crik”). Instead of housing developments we had the mountains of smoldering slag illegally dumped in the countryside long ago by some reckless steel mill. Hunting dogs and guns abounded. Fireworks were easily had and dangerously deployed. The farmer’s daughter over the hill performed a striptease—so Rob said. I wasn’t invited. One of my playmates was a tall, agile, and very effeminate boy who played with dolls but was treated like anyone else, which would hardly have been the case back in the suburb. Daredevil kids shimmied up towering trees and skipped across a gas pipeline over a vertiginous ravine. Danger was everywhere and adults were scant. 

But everything also seemed to be touched by a slant light of antiquity. Bellsport itself was furnished with the relics of yesteryear. Antique dressers and tables. Depression glass plates. The 19th-century Seth Thomas pendulum clock on the mantel seemed to tick away ancient hours. There was no TV, and the old radio was suited mainly to picking up echoes of the 1930s.  

Even outside the house almost everything seemed to belong to an era before my own. I don’t think I was alone in registering this displacement. My mother pretty much loathed Bellsport. To her it was drudgery and inconvenience. Modern appliances stayed in Pittsburgh. We weren’t exactly camping, but we were thrown back on the hard times she had escaped. 

Why exactly were we there? Aunt Alice wanted it. Like Jim, she was a pharmacist. They had met in pharmacy school and scrambled together to achieve something. Jim, the son of a blacksmith, had worked his way to relative affluence, and Bellsport was the trophy. As his widow, Alice wasn’t going to relinquish it. She did her best to keep it as close as possible to how he left it. 

Ligonier was the past seeping into the present in a slightly scary way. It was also where my father was eclipsed by the magical Jim Bell. Aunt Alice never failed to remind my mother how deficient her husband was in taking life by the reins of excitement. Ligonier for my mother was a lesson in humility inflicted by her domineering aunt. For me it was something else: a gap, an interruption, a growing awareness that something was missing. Was it my father, back in Pittsburgh, or Uncle Jim who was long dead but all around me?

Lost Horizons, published in 1937, seems to set a limit on how long ago Shangri-La could have been built, through I suppose the name could have been an afterthought. I was told it was put up by two sisters from Pittsburgh. By the late 1950s when I ventured into it, the house seemed more profoundly dislocated in time. How long had it stood empty? I saw it as a kind of fossil—and fossil plants abounded in the area. My father had taught me the geologic time table, and I knew we were in the Carboniferous period. Shangri-La was right at home with tree ferns and giant dragonflies.

In Lost Horizons, a British diplomat, Robert Conway, fleeing a rebellion in India, survives a plane crash and finds refuge in the hidden Tibetan sanctuary. Invited to stay permanently, he foolishly declines. Later, having reentered the world of war and bloodshed, he repents his decision and seeks his way back—though Hilton leaves Conway’s success in doubt. Can you really go back to Shangri-La?

The Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania don’t much resemble Tibet, but the sisters who named their cottage after the lamasery had a better point than they may have realized. They constructed the very image of unattainable peace devoured by time. And they gave a local habitation to the spirit of Jim Bell, after he left Bellsport for good. 

That was my Shangri-La, or part of it. From the distance of age—I’m now 70—every childhood can be fit to a story of Shangri-La and, of course, the loss of such innocence and contentment. Do we spend our adult years like Robert Conway, desperately trying to find our way back to the lost Shangri-La of childhood? Some surely do, but that’s not my story. My Shangri-La was broken and a little frightening from the start, and part of a larger puzzle. Children grow up as little strangers in a play written and performed by adults who either can’t or won’t explain what is going on. We piece it together as best we can. At some point we deduce that sex is part of what the adults aren’t able to tell us, but sex turns out to be a false lead, or at least one that fails to make sense of the larger picture. 

In recent years, I have had several occasions to be in the vicinity of Ligonier and I hunted up my childhood haunt. When my great aunt was dying in the 1970s and, as sometimes happens, became resentful of those who were taking care of her, she suddenly gave Bellsport and all its contents to her hairdresser. It was a spiteful gesture. Plainly my mother didn’t want it, but she did want to retrieve a few family heirlooms. I hadn’t been back since. 

The gravel road had been paved. The woods had been mostly cut down and replaced with trailer homes. Bellsport had had its name removed and looked winterized. The EPA had overseen the reclamation of the slag dump, and Loyalhanna Creek was fenced off as a protected waterway. But, most of all, every trace of Shangri-La was gone. 

I have Uncle Jim’s photo album, which records his courtship of Alice, his war service, what look like equestrian feats, seashore visits, and an ample supply of family and friends. I have pictures of his first store and his staff. I had, at one time, the little book of English verse that he used to memorize classic poems in between filling prescriptions. He wore it out, and I wore it out further in my forties trying to replicate his feat. I have his hand-written verses to his mother and to Alice. I have a photo of my mother in the drug store holding his beloved dog. I have testimonials to him and his record of his involvement in President Hoover’s 1932 effort to remove the 43,000 protesters in Washington that made up the “Bonus Army.” I know he served on the World War II draft board.

I probably have enough to conjure a formal biography of Jim Bell, but I really have only the sketchiest idea of who he really was. Was he proud? Vain? Grateful? Did he have a sense of humor? He clearly gave a lot of himself to others, but for everything he left behind, he left little indication of the inner man. Though he died in 1947, six years before I was born, he played an oddly significant role in my life. He was, though no fault of his own, a hindrance in my family. He was an inescapable presence, but an elusive one.

He was a submerged reef in my childhood, or perhaps the glacier, long since vanished, that shaped the contour of the land on which I crawled, toddled, walked, skipped, and ran through those early years. He wasn’t a ghost. He didn’t haunt me. He was rather the guy who everyone loved and to whom everyone else was compared. At an early age, I understood that I missed out big-time in getting born too late to know him. Aunt Alice inflated him in my eyes as a man who met life on his own terms. But did he really? He strikes me as more like Robert Conway, striving for something out of reach, and perhaps expiring in the effort. What did he see through those binoculars? Shangri-La?