Unfolding the Map
In a volcanic landscape at dusk, William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) drives through a wonderland that put him into a whimsical state of mind. If you're willing to let your mind wander, to rip off Dr. Seuss, Oh The Places You'll Go! To see where we are located, please click on the map thumbnail over to the right of this column.
"I took a road not marked on my map toward Manton. Nowhere was the way straight, but the land it traversed looked like an illustration from a child's book: a whimsy of rocky shapes, a fancy of spongy bushes, a figment of trees. Two loping deer could have been unicorns, and the fisherman under a bridge a troll. The only reality was that somebody owned the land. At three-hundred-yard intervals, alternating signs hung from barbed wire: NO TRESPASSING. PRIVATE PROPERTY.
"Wonderland stopped at Manton..."
Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 11
Sometimes, landscapes seem almost too mystical to believe. LHM experiences this on a rainy, dusky evening as he drives through landscape shaped by volcanic forces. Often, landscapes that look ordinary at certain times suddenly take on magical proportions in certain lights.
Once I was with my wife and a friend, hiking on Mount Tamalpais just north of San Francisco. It was winter, and the huge amount of rain that had been falling at the time turned the rivers coming off the mountain into cascades down the steep slopes. Everything was wet and looked mysteriously primeval. Huge ferns grew by the trail and put me in the mind of pictures I had seen in books about the dinosaurs, where giant dragonflies were snapped up by dinosaur predators. Large toadstools made me think that at some point, a gnome or leprechaun would dance out into the open, laugh at me and disappear. The gloom under the trees, the crashing water, and the almost jungle-like quality of the scene (even though it was a forest of conifers) made it possible that I wouldn't have been surprised had I rounded a corner and found King Kong eating the bark of a cypress tree while keeping an eye out for Fay Wray, or Jessica Lange, or Naomi Watts.
The wonders of Pandora in James Cameron's Avatar touched people precisely because the world was presented as a utopia where its people, noble savages, recognized their connection to their planet and had essentially become one with it. Those scenes, as amazing as they can be on the big screen, evoke the passion about the wonders of our world which, though under assault, still manage to surprise us, especially when viewed through a slightly different perspective. I still remember vividly, when driving for the first time into the Yosemite Valley just after graduating from college, the jaw dropping vista that appeared as the valley opened in front of me. I still dream of that day when I climbed Half Dome and stood upon the edge, my senses filled with the grandeur of the Valley and the Sierras beyond. Now I read that it's wonders are under strain from budget cuts and the increasing numbers of people that visit. However, the images in my mind still linger.
Even as a child, I was quite aware that the world we see in the daylight changes with nightfall. Places that meant one thing to me in the daytime often took on different meanings at night. Our barn, a place of coolness and comfort during the day became a place to be afraid of in the dark, with many corners where bad things could hide and get me. The ocean, roaring and often blinding as it reflected sunlight during the day became docile, placid and quieter at night, and giving my soul a soothing salve. Redwood trees, so beautifully green during the day, became tall, dark and vaguely threatening figures at night - the forest that they sheltered, so wonderfully beautiful, alive and nurturing during the day often became a place of fear at night, where one would not want to be caught else one might be eaten by a wild animal or carried away by Bigfoot.
Of course, these feelings might have simply mirrored my life, because things were very different for me personally between day and night. I used to dread the nightfall, because at night my father would become a different person. The masks he wore during the day came off. On the best nights, alcohol would make him sleepy. On the worst nights, alcohol made him more interested in me than a father should be in his son. I learned at a very young age that as the appearance of the world changed, so too did the appearance of many of those around me.
My wife recently showed me an old series of advertisements for the London paper The Guardian. They made some of these very points. In one, a skinhead is seen rushing toward a businessman from many different angles, and in conjunction with other events, it appears that he will attack the businessman. Only from the last perspective is it revealed that the skinhead saves the businessman from getting crushed by falling bricks. I've also read a recent article in the New Yorker by Alex Ross about Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde and his work were as much about appearances as anything else, and how we can be deceived by them if we don't question our perspective.
Yet, I love the change of appearance of the world when we see it at different times of day, or different eras, and if there is deception, I still allow myself to get lost in it. I enjoy the wonder I feel when I step into what seems like a different world, where something has altered the perspective just enough to make it all seem new. Perhaps that is why I like stories that present alternate realities, or fantasy worlds, or exotic places. Maybe, it is why I like to travel, and to read, and to expose myself to different places both real and imaginary. Ultimately, I am so small, the world is so big, and there is so much to discover. When I can experience many different realities of the same place, it's even better.
LHM brings all of these thoughts to mind as he drives through a vista shaped by eons of violent volcanic action. Violence can beget beauty, as twisted shapes and forms take on their own elegance and uniqueness. Beauty can beget violence, as we endlessly have chronicled throughout human history. The difference in how we view things may be dependent on something as simple as where we stand, and the time of day.
I heard this song by the Green Chili Jam Band the other day on The Childrens' Hour on KUNM. The show's host, a young woman named Jena Ritchey who was hosting her last Childrens' Hour before heading off to college, played this song that really touched me. The lyrics touch on all the things that make our world wonderful. Thank you, Jena, for introducing me to this and other beautiful songs on your show, and have a wonderful time making new discoveries about our world in college.
If you want to know more about Manton
Next up: Viola, California