Unfolding the Map
William Least-Heat Moon ponders, briefly, giving up his journey after a harrowing drive through the Clinch Mountains and a cold night in Morristown. Luckily, he didn't quit, and we have more locations to scout. Click on the map thumbnail to see where Morristown is located.
"I might as well admit that the next morning in smoky Morristown I was asking myself what in damnation I thought he was doing. One week on the road - a week of clouds, rain, cold. And now it was snowing. Thirty-four degrees inside the Ghost, ice covering the windshield, my left shoulder aching from the knot I'd slept in. 'It is waking that kills us,' Sir Thomas Browne said three centuries ago. Without desire, acting only on will, I emerged from the chrysalis of my sleeping bag and poured a basin of cold water. I thought to wash myself to life.
"Outside, the spiritless people were clenched like cold fists. A pall of snow lay on the city, and black starlings huddled around the ashy chimney tops. Clearing the windows, I wondered why I had ever come away to this place and began thinking about turning back. Could I?"
Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 18
Quitting. Nobody likes it. But we often reach points where we think it might be the best thing to do. When I decided to run a marathon, I trained for months. By the time the marathon came about, I was really in the best shape of my life. I was in my late 30s, and a 15 mile run was no problem at all. 26.2 miles, however, proved to be my undoing. I was cocky and fast out of the gate. I finished the first half of the marathon faster than I had ever gone before, and had peeled my shirt off to run in the humid New Orleans weather. By 20 miles, I was on a sub-3 hour pace. But I hadn't counted on the weather getting colder, so having my shirt would have helped. I started developing cramps, and by mile 24 I was limping along and halfway delirious. I couldn't make the last two miles. I quit.
On the bright side, quitting was probably the best thing I could have done. When I stopped, I was shivering (probably because I had lost enough body heat to be slightly hypothermic) and I collapsed in a friend's car and passed out. But on the other side, I didn't finish a marathon that I had expected to finish. I couldn't keep a pace at mile 24 that seemed so easy only 4 miles previously. I kicked myself over and over again and labeled myself a failure. My friends finished...why couldn't I?
So when LHM writes about quitting after a really hard drive and a hard night in the cold, I can understand him. I feel every leaden movement he makes as he gets up in the 34 degree chill inside Ghost Dancing (his van, in case you forgot) and wills himself to wash. I feel his lethargy toward forward movement as he asks himself if he shouldn't just aim the car on the freeway for a nice day's ride back home.
But even if it were for the best, he would have regretted it. If one sets a goal, then one usually means to keep it. Not keeping it implies a sort of failure, even if it were for the best of reasons. The goal is left unattained, the grail is still out there.
I was afraid that my PhD studies would turn out in failure. After all, I had the examples of lots of previous failures to overcome. My father felt himself a failure for not rising above a certain level of management at the lumber mill, my uncle never attained his PhD in Political Science. After I quit the marathon, I began to see my PhD pursuit in marathon terms, and wondered if I would ever attain it. I was terrified by the example that my uncle set, in that he became a shadow of himself, the ever-present graduate student teaching classes until UC Berkeley wouldn't admit him any more. He wasted away, never attaining his goal and never living up to the expectations of the people that supported him.
I got my PhD, and now I face a different situation. I am having trouble landing a job in my field. However, I this time, I am trying not to turn my situation into a marathon-like metaphor. I am trying to look at it as one race among many, and if I don't attain the goal in this race, I can join another race where I might finish and perhaps even win.
How does this relate to LHM's stay in Morristown? We all have our Morristowns, just like we have our Clinch Mountain hell-rides. Our Morristowns are smokey and cold places where we ask ourself why we do what we do, and whether we should continue doing it. We have Morristowns in relationships, Morristowns in our professional lives, and Morristowns will dot our path as we progress through our lives. We may decide to drag ourselves up and continue on our chosen roads, or we may quit and go home. Both of these can entail hurt and hardship, as well as regrets, but there are also rewards for each choice. LHM decides to continue on, and Blue Highways was the result.
But sometimes, and I'm trying to keep in this in mind, our Morristowns might also lead us onto a completely new path. After all, if we are taking stock of our situations, we might be inclined to be more open to new possibilities. I hope that my Morristowns in my relationships will reforge themselves into something new, healthy and supportive. I hope that my Morristowns in my professional life will lead me to a fulfilling career, and I hope that any other Morristowns I encounter will either push me onward toward my goals, or point me toward better ones. Such is the underestimated value of Morristowns, and thank God for them.
If you want to know more about Morristown
Next up: Whitesburg, Bulls Gap and Chuckey, Tennessee