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« Blue Highways: Pit River Gorge, California | Main | Blue Highways: Viola, California »

Blue Highways: Somewhere on Hat Creek, California

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapLet's stop for the night with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) and in the morning, after a cold swim in a mountain creek, just get our entire purpose laid out for us by a guy with a Pekingese and a nagging wife in his RV.  Sounds really easy, doesn't it?  To see where all this happens, click on the map thumbnail at right.

Book Quote

"'A man's never out of work if he's worth a damn.  It's just sometimes he doesn't get paid.  I've gone unpaid my share and I've pulled my share of pay.  But that's got nothing to do with working.  A man's work is doing what he's supposed to do, and that's why he needs a catastrophe now and again to show him a bad turn isn't the end, because a bad stroke never stops a good man's work....Any man's true work is to get is boots on each morning.  Curiosity gets it done about as well as anything else.'"

Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 12

Photo of Hat Creek in California along Highways 44 and 89. Photo by Steve Breth at Click on photo to go to site - photo on a spinner so if it doesn't appear, refresh page until it does.Somewhere on Hat Creek, California

A campsite along a cold rushing creek that cascades down from a volcanic mountain peak is a strange place to associate with work, but here we are.  I'll set up the scene.  LHM drove for hours, and finally pulled into this campground on Hat Creek north of Lassen (I have arbitrarily chosen Hat Creek Campground, which is just off the road and right along the stream).  In the morning, he wakes and refreshes himself in the frigid mountain water.  When he comes back to Ghost Dancing, he meets Bill, a Pekingese also known as White Fong, and Mr. Watkins, Bill's owner.  In Watkins' RV is his wife, who seems to watch over Watkins every moment.  LHM and Watkins embark on a discussion and Watkins asks LHM what he does for a living.  LHM replies he doesn't work, and Watkins responds with the quote above.  LHM, in Blue Highways, says that this meeting with these people changes the the journey, which is an astounding thing to say given his whole trip up to this point.

I have tried to put this conversation in context.  It is not LHM's longest conversation with other travelers and people that he meets and recounts in the book.  So, why does it change everything?  I think it has to do with the fact that since LHM arrived in California, he was trying to decide just exactly his journey was doing.  He started on the trip partially because of woman troubles, but by this point he had lost sight of the "cycles and circles."  He was convinced all was humbug.  And, he'd spent a good portion of the night trying to get over and then around Lassen following a map that seemed to lead him down roads to nowhere.  Then he meets The Watkins.  Mr. Watkins tells him that there is purpose in disappointment, but that good men get up and do the work that they are supposed to do regardless of the circumstances.  What drives them?  Curiosity.  After all, this trip was all about what was to become LHMs work.  He would write a book, and then more.  He would explore place and meaning in all of them.  And it became his job to be curious.  He began the trip partly out of curiosity about America.  In essence, Watkins laid LHMs entire purpose in front of him.

I often wish I had someone who could do that for me.  I've wished that in a moment of revelation, someone would lay it all out for me on a silver platter, such as why I've done what I've done and how it connects with what I want to do.  For example, I'm a political scientist with a PhD.  I don't, however, work in a political science department in a university, but instead I work in a medical school.  There's nothing wrong with that, but it is not what I've been trained to do.  I wanted to be a teacher and mold young minds eager to learn about the mysteries of politics.  Now I teach a class every so often in the evenings.  I thought I wanted to be a member of a political science department, but as I began to interview and saw what I might be getting into, such as department infighting, faculty meetings and expectations that take away from teaching, I began to have second thoughts.  So now, I'm torn.  Do I want to be in academia and deal with all of the extra stuff besides teaching, or keep a job as a staff person in a medical school and teach when I want and how I want?  I'm also extremely aware that, as I am writing this post, the economy is in a recession and may get worse.  Unemployment is at 9.2% and probably closer to 16% if you count people who work part time or gave up looking for work.  A job in this economy, any job, is a precious commodity.

My wife is dealing with similar issues.  She is a journalist but her chosen field is shrinking in opportunity.  Newspapers are merging and closing.  Internet journalism is rising, but making a living off the Web is difficult.  She is the kind of person that feels that a job is part of what defines you.  While she would like to work on her own projects, as one of two full-time reporters in at her paper she holds herself to a high level of responsibility and professionalism in keeping her paper at a high quality.  If the paper looks bad, she feels like she looks bad.  Part of the cost of her responsible nature is that she has not been able to explore, as much as she'd like, other opportunities to augment her journalism skills, such as audio, video and the wealth of opportunities on the internet.  To do that, she'd have to cut down her hours, and she's afraid to do that in this economy.

I have a friend who's an orchestra conductor but who's been out of work.  Unlike my wife and I, he KNOWS what he wants to do and is supposed to be doing.  However, the orchestra that he conducted, one that he built up from scratch and which was well-regarded, fell apart in a spasm of infighting and dissolved some years ago.  Now, he's an aging musician in a world where such jobs are extremely hard to come by.  Each day he sends out applications to this orchestra or that symphony.  Each day he faces more disappointment, and it eats at him.  He's battled depression.  Yet, I admire him because not only does he get up each day and do it all over again, but he also has recently put together a proposal to create a new orchestra despite the fact that money is tight and people are not giving to the arts as much as they used to give.

For my wife and I, the prospect of having a Watkins come up to us and lay it all out for us is very tempting.  We'd learn the goal, and we could move toward reaching it.  For my other friend, who knows the goal, the fact that he had it once and lost it, and that now it seems to be floating beyond his grasp, is akin to torture.  So what's best?  I suppose, that when I think about it, I'd rather be where I am.  I have a job, and since it's a public bureaucracy I have a feeling that losing it would take a herculean effort on my part.  My wife is at more risk than I am, but at least if the worst happens to her, one if us is still employed.  And I'd hate to be in my conductor friend's position.

What do other people do in these bad spots?  They go back to school.  They learn new skills.  They find ways to survive.  People are resilient.  But that doesn't mean that facing these downturns is easy.  From somebody in Watkins' position, retired and getting harassed by his wife, such revelations have come after a lifetime of ups and downs.  In retirement, he's in a good position.  He's earned the right to say such things.  And he's mostly right.  But for many of us, especially those who are scrabbling for jobs or trying to live on too little, it's hard to focus on what you want to do for happiness with what you need to do to survive in conditions of uncertainty.  It's easy to tell someone, like my conductor friend, that "a man's never out of work if he's worth a damn" when he is scrambling to get some kind of income on a daily basis.  We should always keep trying, and perhaps we should keep always try to keep smiling, but if you look closely, during times of hardship there's a lot of fear and worry behind those pearly whites.

Musical Interlude

The Godfather of Soul puts another spin on what happens when you don't have a job.  You don't eat.  Enjoy James Brown and Marva Whitney's rendition of You've Got to Have a Job (If You Don't Work, You Can't Eat).


If you want to know more about Hat Creek

There are a lot of articles on fly fishing in Hat Creek, which is evidently one of the premier fly fishing rivers in the United States.  I'll include one of the articles here: Hat Creek
Wikipedia: Hat Creek (stream)

Next up: Pit River Gorge, California

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