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« Blue Highways: Quincy, California | Main | Blue Highways: Beckwourth Pass, California »

Blue Highways: Portola, California

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWe continue our exploration into examining selves, going through doors, and seeing the wholeness of life rather than the little pieces that get us lost in the details.  William Least Heat-Moon finds an answer: Humbug (Creek).  I'm a little more positive.  Click on the map thumbnail at right to see where Portola, California and the area of Humbug Creek is located.

Book Quote

"Missourians sometimes speak of a place called Hacklebarney: a non-existent town you try to get to that is forever just around the next curve or just over the next hill, a town you believe in but never get to.  Maybe that's enlightenment - always a little ahead of perception.

"Hindus represent their god of destruction, Shiva, by the yoni-lingam symbols of regeneration to suggest the cyclical movement of coming into and going from being that never ceases.  Even if a man resists belief in the fixity of things, even if he discredits the scope of human understanding, even if he sees a hint of metaphysics between 'cosmic' and 'comic'...he still longs to arrive at a place of clarity.

"Just outside Portola, I crossed Humbug Creek.  I didn't believe it.  Nothing that apropros happens in real life."

Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 11

Portola, California under Smith Peak. Photo by Leslye Layne Russell at the website. Click on photo to go to site. Portola, California

I recently bought, at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, a small piece of art from a Huichol Indian artist.  It is a beautiful piece of yarn art.  The yarn is pressed into beeswax pasted on a board backing.  The artists who create these colorful pieces of work usually are fueled in their visions by peyote, a powerful hallucinogen used by the Huichol and other native tribes to open the doors to the spirit world.

While there were large pieces that showed elaborate scenes with people, animals and plants, and natural features, I was drawn to a circular pattern with points like a star.  The son of the artist explained that the interior represented the person or being that brought the Huichol fire - kind of like the Huichol Prometheus.  Around the center was a pattern representing the doorway between the spirit world and our reality.  A starlike pattern represented the fire, and how it touches all of us in the cosmos, and then outside the circle, a night sky pattern representing the cosmos.

My newest piece of art work - Huichol Indian yarn art. Photo by Michael L. Hess.At almost the same time, I am spending this week teaching ecologism as a political ideology to my political science class at a local community college.  While ecologism can run the spectrum from environmentalism which preaches stewardship and conservation to radical ecology which denies human exceptionalism in the natural world, relegating us to mere parts of the whole, the whole concept keeps bringing me back to the idea of a circular existence.  Therefore, I find it interesting that the universe has synched up, as it were, to bring me to this point in LHM's book where he considered the same questions as he sought clarity.

LHM appears to have gotten his answer on the road.  He finds Humbug Creek and remarks how it is rare to find something so apropos in real life.  I don't really think that LHM thinks it's all humbug.  I think he comes to the conclusion that he is thinking too much.  He quotes a Yiddish proverb: "Man thinks and God laughs."

It is curiously near to my way of thinking at the present time.  47 years after I was put on this earth, roughly 29 years after I graduated high school and 25 years after college, and now three years after getting a PhD, I am beginning to think I think too much, also.  I have spent time in the scientific realm, only to find that no matter what theory I'm putting out there, with no matter how much data I have accumulated, it is simply going counter to someone else's theory that has just as much data to support it.  In addition, my theory will be debunked by yet another theory, with data to support it as well.

In my personal life, all my data and theories have really ended up not serving me well, especially when I don't think of the whole rather than the parts.  My wife and I are learning again how to communicate with one another.  We had approached the parts without seeing the whole of our relationship and putting it in a larger context.  My life's issues and her life's issues have crashed together in a way that has been, shall we say, difficult in some contexts even as it has been nourishing in others.  In many ways that we relate, we aren't even aware of the dynamics of that whole, especially when we are focused on one part or another.

To that end, I'm trying to get back into my creative side.  This side does not try to dissect and understand.  Instead, it tries to experience and feel.  It's been a difficult process because it's not exactly how I was trained in life or in education.  I've been trained to put things outside of me and examine them, observe them and report on them, all very dispassionately.  Experiencing and feeling, especially in a world that does not value feeling and considers it a little dangerous, as been a rocky road for me so far.

But it is a doorway.  Much as LHM drives through Portola, which conjures up images for me of a doorway, to reach Humbug Creek, I am trying to walk through a doorway to learn a new way of viewing the world that will only enhance my old way.  Perhaps without a more whole view of myself and the world, it will always be humbug until I put it all together.  Perhaps this exploration is my own version of getting fire handed to me, a fire that will bring vision in the dark, that will provide a spark to my creativity, and ultimately allow me to fully see what I need to understand.

Musical Interlude

I'm going to include this video - even though the sound is not very good - of Greg Brown, with guitarist Bo Ramsey, singing Hacklebarney.  Greg Brown is a unique voice in America, and I was first introduced to him by my wife, who often heard him in Iowa and on A Prairie Home Companion.  He is married to another unique American singer, Iris Dement.  Of course, Hacklebarney is in the quote above - a fictional town always around the next corner.  It represents the goal we attempt to reach but never quite get there, or the understanding we seek that seems to just elude us.  We shouldn't stop trying, though.

If you want to know more about Portola

City of Portola Hiking near Portola
Plumas County News (newspaper)
Western Pacific Railroad Museum
Wikipedia: Portola

Next up:  Quincy, California

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