Unfolding the Map
We attempt an impossible task with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) by once again trying to scale a mountain, Mount Lassen, only to roll back down again. If it seems pointless, it may be, or it may be a way to reach a deeper understanding of ourselves. Either way, it's straight out of Greek mythology. To see where this sleeping giant rumbles away in slumber, click on the thumbnail of the map at right.
"When I got to state 36....I took the road across Lassen Peak, a sharp ascent that disappeared in clouds. Halfway up, snowflakes the size of nickels dropped out of the cold. Cedar Breaks. Then a sign saying the road was closed for winter. I inched the van back and forth until turned around, all the while cursing a sign not at the bottom of the mountain. Arriving again at the foot of Lassen, I started around it.
"Rain fell as I moved toward the valley, but on a ridge road between deep volcanic canyons, the showers stopped and a rainbow arched the highway canyon to canyon. The slopes were strewn with shattered 'thunder eggs' ejected from Lassen, a volcano last violently active only sixty years before."
Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 11
Mount Lassen, California
Sometimes, reading Blue Highways, it seems as if LHM's attempt to drive over mountains becomes Sisyphean. Sisyphus was a character in Greek mythology, a king who because of his trickery, deceitfulness, and hubris was punished by Zeus with an impossible task. Sisyphus must roll a boulder up a mountain. However, as soon as he gets near the top of the mountain, the boulder gets away from him and rolls back down to the bottom and he must start all over again. Accordingly, a task or an objective becomes Sisyphean if it seems pointless or impossible to complete. If we imagine that Ghost Dancing is LHM's boulder that he continually tries to get over mountains, the analogy is appropriate. How many times has LHM tried to cross a mountain only to be defeated or, even if he makes it, to have such a harrowing journey that it almost leaves him with scars? He mentions one, the Cedar Breaks, but there were others in the Appalachians where he wonders if he is going to make it. Mount Lassen is only the latest in a string of mountainous defeats that LHM endures.
We all take on impossible tasks. We all do pointless things. Our goals sometimes do not match up with reality. Yet one of the amazing things about people is that we still attempt things that we may know aren't feasible. It may be in personal relationships, where we get into those situations where we try to help someone who won't be helped. It might be the tasks we take on at work or goals we set for ourselves that turn out too high. Sometimes, people accept an assignment even though they know that they will not succeed. War movies often show this dynamic in its most stark life-and-death terms - the mission that cannot succeed but must be undertaken anyway.
Even though there may not be overt deceitfulness or trickery about us, perhaps there is some. Perhaps we trick ourselves into believing that we can change that person, or accomplish that those goals. Perhaps in those war movies some of the characters trick themselves into believing that they can accomplish anything. In some ways, the awful tragic truth is that we can't accomplish everything we want. The odds are too high, the deck stacked too much in favor of the opposite conclusion.
Camus wrote a work on Sisyphus, which I've never read but heard about, which uses the myth to reflect on the absurdity of life. LHM is certainly on that theme in this chapter as he reflects on "humbug." If life is one big mountain that is pointless, there isn't much hope in any meaning whatsoever. I'm not sure that I agree with Camus on this point, because I think that we create meaning - if something is meaningful to us, it orders the universe away from absurdity and pointlessness.
If we don't take on impossible tasks on occasion, we don't stretch our inner and outer frontiers. We don't get out of our little cocoons. It is important to take risks once in a while. We may get hurt. We may even (in the case of the war movies) die in our attempts to reach the goal. But often, the rewards of attempting impossible things pay off in ways other than we expect. We may not reach the top or cross the mountain. Instead, we learn our limits and with that knowledge, we know how far we can push ourselves and what is realistic for us. We become better able to serve and help others within those limits we've discovered. We may even create the conditions that can change lives, or even change the world. I'm convinced that there are ripple effects to our actions that affect others and eventually come around to effect us. I am used to saying, when someone feels like they owe me for doing something nice for them, "don't worry, what goes around comes around." Often it does.
So, LHM's labors lead at first anger and frustration as he is not able to complete the task of crossing the mountain. He is angry about having to take an alternate route. Eventually will come self-reflection and the idea that doing things a new way, taking another path, isn't such a bad thing after all. That will lead self-actualization, a process of realization that allows for true growth.
Unlike Sisyphus, who is stuck for eternity obsessively pushing the boulder up the mountain toward , we don't have to be stuck in that ever occurring cycle. If we learn something from our experience, we can break free of the need to go over the mountain and instead, feel just fine about navigating around it.
I just this song again on the radio. I originally heard Guy Clark sing it in concert, but had forgotten about it. Sometimes, getting where we want not only involves taking on the impossible, but also making a leap of faith. I think that The Cape really captures the spirit of adventure that we have when we are young and would be wise to maintain a connection with even when we're older.
If you want to know more about Mount Lassen
Next up: Manton, California