Unfolding the Map
As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) rides a storm out in Wolf Point, Montana, we take time in this post to reflect on storms and their symbolism. Is LHM trying to use the storm in a symbolic fashion for Wolf Point? Maybe, maybe not. But storms are used to emphasize the turmoil within and without. Where is the location of our stormy weather? Find some shelter at the map!
"....At Wolf Point, a lightning storm struck the benchland, rain dropped in noisy assaults, and I took refuge in town.
"I had to go back to the highway for dinner at a truck stop. Something moved in there - I couldn't say what. Six people sat in the cafe, in the light and warmth, almost assured by the jukebox, and filled their stomachs; yet there was an edge to the voices, to the faces. From a thousand feet up, the prairie storm, pouring cold water on the little cafe glowing in the blackness, held us all."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 6
Wolf Point, Montana
It's amazing how darkening skies and storms feed into something primal within us.
When I was young, I was afraid of storms. Where I grew up on the Northern California coast, we would have maybe one to two big storms per year with lightning and thunder, so it wasn't an occurrence that happened often. What I really hated was the crash of thunder directly overhead. These were the thunderclaps that happened right as the lightning flashed, or a split second afterward. When I was young I didn't make the connection between the lightning and the thunder, but as I got older I began to understand that the closer the two went together, the closer the lightning was to me. I particularly remember a large thunderclap that almost made me pee my pants with fright during my high school years that was associated with a lightning strike near my house that blew the wall outlets out of a number of houses and fried my neighbor's pig where it stood in its sty.
After college, I moved to the Midwest, where in the summer a thunderstorm was almost a daily happening. Only these thunderstorms were different. The thunderstorms on the coast where I grew up were usually big, grumbling, growling affairs that seemed to go on for an hour or two. The thunderstorms in the Midwest, by contrast, were bombastic affairs that would start big, get bigger, and then be gone in the space of 20 minutes. Except with these storms, there was the tinge of another danger. Some of them might form tornadoes. Tornadoes were not an issue on the north coast of California, but in the Midwest there were often warnings posted on local television about thunderstorms that seemed likely to form tornadoes, and even tornado warnings where a tornado had been spotted. The ticker at the bottom of the screen would urge people in the path of the storm to take shelter immediately, usually a basement or an inside, windowless room. I developed a love-hate relationship with tornadoes akin to my wife's love-hate relationship with snakes. I desperately wanted to see one, but I also was desperately afraid of them as they were unknown to me.
I was also aware of the deep impact of storms in our psyches. Storms are often used in literature to indicate disturbances within systems. Storms have symbolized harbingers of impending doom, of division, of internal disturbances. After reading King Lear, where he slowly descends into madness amid the storm on the heath, his rage at the storm...
"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!...
"....Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join'd
Your high engender'd battles 'gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! 'tis foul!"
...I saw the storm as being both symbolic of the outer storm of his relationship with his family, particularly his daughters, and the inner storms of his madness. Either way, the storm is a primal element that is echoed within him. We often refer to the difficult times in our lives as stormy times. Things strike us like lightning or like a thunderbolt. People move into and out of our lives like tornadoes and hurricanes. Love and relationships are often described in meteorological terminology (listen to Thunder and Lightning by the band Chicago, or Stormy Weather by Lena Horne). Storms are very apt metaphors for hard times either imposed by outside forces or the anger and fury that we nurture within.
LHM seems to relate the storm he experiences in Wolf Point to the town itself. He writes of the people in the cafe having an edge to them. Small towns, like the one I grew up in, are unique in that people become close to one another by necessity, yet such towns also harbor horrible secrets and the pent up anger and fury masked and covered from outsiders. The storm that drenches the cafe where LHM is eating might be symbolic of hidden disturbances in the town.
It also might symbolize something more. LHM tells a disturbing story about Wolf Point. In his words...
"One November in another century, before Wolf Point had a name, the citizens complained of wolves. They got together and set out poison, and the varmints died all over the prairie, and townsmen stacked a thousand frozen carcasses into high mounds that stood all winter. When spring came, the mounds thawed and rotted. One man thought the stink drove away the remaining wolves. Whatever it was, nobody saw a wolf alive, and nobody since has seen one here. On my night in Wolf Point, Montana, I couldn't imagine man or beast contending for the place."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 6
Perhaps the massacre of the longtime denizens of the area is also symbolized in the storm. What stands out to me is the hypocrisy of the name given the crime against nature. If literature and historical experience tells us anything, it's that nature tampered with or defiled can lead to its vengeance, either slowly or quickly. Perhaps, if this story is true, Wolf Point is destined to be a stormy place, subject either to the raging elements or the awful disturbance to the natural balance occasioned by the slaughter of the wolves. I have heard, though I am not sure how heavily I believe this, that traumatic happenings at places can leave bad energy that manifests itself in subtle ways over many years. Maybe Wolf Point is still working through its bad energy, embodied in a raging storm over this small town on the benchlands of Montana.
I must say that I never really was a fan of REO Speedwagon. I kind of found them sappy (though, in the spirit of full disclosure, I did own an album of theirs). But, I always kind of liked their Ridin' the Storm Out. So here it is for you:
If you want to know more about Wolf Point
Next up: Poplar, Montana