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Entries in California (36)


Blue Highways: Tulelake, California

Unfolding the Map

We stop for groceries in Tulelake, California with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM).  That leads me to expound on how I hate shopping. I actually write about that.  It's kind of pathetic, but I also write about tule fog and Japanese internment camps.  It's about all you can do when all LHM does is stop for groceries.  Try the map to see where this last stop in California is located.  Oh, and don't forget to turn on the Led Zeppelin while you read!

Book Quote

"I never found Lookout. In dry and dusty Tulelake, I bought groceries..."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 1

Tulelake Public Library. Photo at the website of the Siskiyou County Library. Click on photo to go to site.

Tulelake, California

I hate shopping - it really doesn't matter what kind.  There are degrees to my shopping hate, however.  Grocery shopping is probably lower on my list of shopping hates than others.  At the top - clothes shopping.  I do it rarely.  If I have to shop for clothes, I make sure I know exactly what I want.  I walk into the mall/department store, go right to a rack that looks like it has something close to what I want, and pick something out.  If I have to try it on, I just want to make sure it fits.  Then, I choose between the two or three items that I have, discard the rest, pay, and get out.  It might me a half hour at most.

I can't go into a store or mall, like many people do, and spend an entire afternoon or day there.  I can't allow myself to try on dozens of items, even stuff that I know I won't get, because it looks interesting or good.  I may go an entire year without shopping for clothes, or longer.  If my mom or wife gets me something that I can make work, I'll wear it until it has worn out.

Grocery shopping is a little different.  At least with groceries, I usually have a list, and I can check the items off the list one by one and see a physical manifestation of my internal misery or boredom counting down.  At least, with grocery shopping, I can see an endpoint to the process.  What constantly rankles me in grocery shopping is when I'm at a store where I'm unfamiliar with where the items are located, or when the store rearranges its offerings.  That adds time.  I actually take time on my first two or three trips through the store to mentally catalog where items are located so that when I come back, I can cut my time at the store down.  I also work out the best routes through the store so that I minimize having to go back to look for something.  I'd rather not grocery shop, but when I must I can live with it.

I've never understood how people can spend so much time in stores and like it!  For me, being in a store is akin to being in a dental office.  I'd just rather be somewhere else, no matter how nice the people helping me are being, no matter how much my comfort is being attended to.

Shopping aside, you may wonder what the name Tulelake actually means.  LHM provides no clue because, probably like I might feel, he simply gets his groceries and gets out of town.  Somehow he missed Lookout, California even though he drove right past it, but there has been a lot on his mind.

The name Tulelake comes from "tule" (pronounced "too-lee") which is a derivative of the Spanish "tulare," and it means a type of grass that grows in the water along the shoreline of a body of water such as a pond or a lake.  California's Tulare County was named after this particular grass, and in fact, Tulare Lake in Central California near Fresno was once the largest freshwater lake in the United States west of the Great Lakes.  I say "was" because a century of irrigation and diverting river flow dried up the lake, which occasionally comes back during periods of high rains and or a lot of runoff out of the Sierras.

I always heard of what they called "tule fog," which is considered a real road hazard down near Fresno.  This thick fog blankets the Central Valley and has been known to cause multiple car pileups on I-5.  In a way, though, I have always missed the fog that I grew up with.  The fog I am familiar with was not the tule fog but rather ocean fog that would settle in over my town often in the early evenings.  Sometimes that fog was so thick you could barely see 100 feet.  I've heard that tule fog is like that, very thick.  Fog has always given me a strange, if cold, sense of comfort.  I've felt enveloped in a protective cocoon when I'm in fog.  I don't get much fog where I live now, in Albuquerque.

One other thing about Tulelake that LHM missed.  It was the site of a POW camp during World War II for Italian and German prisoners of war, and it was the location of a controversial "relocation" camp for Japanese internees.  It was extremely notorious because it was used specifically to segregate Japanese internees who refused to swear loyalty to the United States or who had aroused the suspicions of the US government.  These internees were later sent to other permanent camps in Wyoming and Utah.  Most of the internees were threatened with deportation, but a civil rights attorney who took their cases managed to regain most internees' citizenships.  Notable people interned in the Tulelake War Relocation Center were Pat Morita of Happy Days and Karate Kid fame, and George Takei of Star Trek fame along with other notable artists, musicians, politicians, and athletes.

The forced internment of thousands of American citizens on the basis of their ethnicity and race is unfortunately not new nor isolated.  Every time we are in conflict, we face similar circumstances, whether we are referring to slavery, concentration camps at Andersonville in the Civil War, to mistreatment of prisoners in every conflict up through the so-called War on Terror.  I wish that American values had stopped slavery from happening long before it was abolished, that immigrants over the course of our history were treated better and as potential contributors, not detriments, to the United States, and that we didn't take the easy way out of profiling certain groups within our country as automatic enemies during times of conflict.  I often wish the US lived up to its own lofty ideals.  But, in previous posts, I also wrote that mistakes and flaws, and the realization of them, make people better and stronger and willing to correct them.  I want to believe that the US collectively has learned from past mistakes and used them to become a better nation.  I hope I will continue to be proved right as the US moves through its historical highs and lows.

I don't think that there is a way to tie grocery shopping, tule fog and Japanese internment together in a neat little, inspirational or deep package.  So I won't, and just leave these scattered bits of recollection and reflection as they are.

Musical Interlude

I've been looking for a good place to play this song, and since this is the last Blue Highways post about California, I'll put it here.  Whenever I hear this song, I get a wistfulness about my home state.  It has problems, big problems, and my hometown seems more dangerous with a couple of high profile murders recently.  But it's where I grew up.  When one is young, one dreams a lot...and this song captures my dreamy wisftfulness.  Besides, I like songs in minor keys.  So enjoy Led Zeppelin's live version of Going to California.


If you want to know more about Tulelake

Lava Beds National Monument
Tulelake Chamber of Commerce
Tule Lake Committee
Wikipedia: Tulelake

Next up:  Klamath Falls, Oregon


Blue Highways: Bieber, California

Unfolding the Map

You're not going to find any Justin Bieber jokes in this post.  Nope, we're going to concentrate on volcanoes, because that's what William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) writes about in his quote.  Volcanoes, as you'll learn, are another fascination of mine.  So check out the map, or, if you want to see a 3D rendering of Shasta, go to the Google Earth file!

Book Quote

"North of Bieber, on a whim, I followed the road to Lookout.  In the high valley lay marshes filled with yellow-headed blackbirds, pintails, cinnamon teals, willets, Canada geese.  The highway rose again into another volcanic region.  Mount Shasta, sixty miles west, isolated by its hugeness, haloed in clouds, looked like a Hokusai woodcut of Mount Fuji.  Perhaps it is the immensity of space around Shasta or the abundance of high peaks in the West that diminishes a mountain of such size and perfection in the American imagination, but in almost any other country, a volcano so big and well-made as Shasta would be a national object of reverence - as in fact it once was to the first men who lived under it."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 1

Is this America's Mount Fuji? Mount Shasta. Photo on Jim Liatti's blog. Click on photo to go to site. I couldn't find a decent picture of Bieber.

Bieber, California

Volcanoes.  When I was growing up in northern California, I never realized how close they were to me.  Volcanoes were something that I'd see in the news every so often.  A South American volcano might blow its top, sending ash and steam high in the sky.  Occasionally, footage on TV would show hot, viscous lava oozing from a vent in a Hawaiian volcano.

The fact was that I was living almost in the shadows of volcanoes right in my back yard, and nobody told me.  Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta were both within a 2-3 hour driving distance from my home.  However, because my family never drove further north or east than we had to, I never learned that these were dormant volcanoes.  I thought of them as snow capped peaks somewhere to the east.

This was too bad, because in many ways I was fascinated with volcanoes, in the way that a little boy is always fascinated with things that are hot and fiery and explode.  I was also fascinated with war because of the explosions, air disasters, atomic weapons and other things or events that carried a loud, destructive bang.  The caveat:  they had to be at a distance because, and this applies even now, I don't like loud bangs and this was worse when I was a child.  As long as I could see them on TV where the volume was muted, or read about them in a book, I loved explosions.

So I read avidly about volcanoes around the world.  I learned that the volcano on Krakatoa erupted in what was perhaps the loudest and largest explosion in recorded history, obliterating a good portion of the island, sending a shock wave thousands of miles, and generated a powerful tsunami.  I thrilled reading about the people mummified alive in the volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii.  I watched with fascination as footage on TV and in educational films showed a new island being born off the coast of Iceland.  And of course, I was riveted to the television during high school, watching over and over the footage from Mount St. Helens when it blew its side out in a massive explosion that killed a number of people, sent steam and ash into the atmosphere, caused hot boiling mud to cascade down canyons and rivers, and rained ash upon Portland, Oregon and other cities over a wide area.

Years later, in Albuquerque on a vacation, I realized that the conical projections on the mesa west of the city, and which can be easily seen from where I now live, were in fact the remnants of small, dead volcanoes.  They formed between 150,000 and 100,000 years ago along a fissure in the earth's crust.  As we traveled on that vacation in the state's Jemez Mountains, we chanced upon the Valles Caldera, a huge collapsed-in crater of an extinct supervolcano that measures about 12 miles in diameter.  This volcano erupted last about 50,000 years ago.  South of Albuquerque, near Socorro, the El Malpais lava flows are so recent that the first humans in the area may have seen them still smoking.  Today, the lava flows look like someone took black soft-serve ice cream and dumped it along the freeway where it congealed and hardened.

I was in San Salvador, El Salvador for a month in January 2008, and the city lived under the looming presence of a volcano.  At one point during my trip, I stood on the slopes of the volcano in a coffee growing area and saw steam rising out of vents right by the trail.  I never thought I'd stand on an actual working volcano, but there it was.

Volcanoes are apt metaphors for life.  Our world was forged, almost as if it were a pot, through spinning forces that shaped it into a sphere.  The middle of the sphere is molten, and early on that molten material spewed out and hardened into the earth's crust, which today still is shaped by forces deep within the core.  The world may seem calm, placid and serene, but as the occasional earthquake erupting volcano remind us, deep within the earth is a raging maelstrom that largely supports life but occasionally brings death upon us.

It is telling that the largest known mountain in the solar system, Olympus Mons on Mars, is a volcano.  A thirteen mile high volcano on what appears to be a placid planet surface.

We often speak of people similarly, particularly when it comes to emotions.  Anger can be volcanic.  I tend to be placid on the surface even as emotional storms rage within.  If, like in volcanic activity, pressure builds up inside I may erupt in anger, an outburst that spews the ash and lava of my inner turmoil but which allows me to subside, pressure relieved.  Love has often been described as volcanic in nature, erupting in heat and flame and subsiding again, lying dormant before raging to life again.  Everything in the universe seems to have the face that is shown outwardly and conceals the raging inferno within.  Volcanoes, seen in this way, just give us a glimmer of the truth of what's inside, whether it's the full face of our planet or a human volcano ready to rage, love or both.

Musical Interlude

How can you have a post about volcanoes if you don't have Jimmy Buffett singing Volcano in the background?  You can't!

If you want to know more about Bieber

Big Balley News for Adin, Bieber, Lookout and Nubieber Bieber
Wikipedia: Bieber
YouTube tour of Bieber by Tommy "Kayak" Cox

Next up: Tulelake, California


Blue Highways: Fall River Mills and McArthur, California

Unfolding the Map

A little change today, Littourati!  I usually put the current map in this space in the post.  But I thought it might make more sense to put the map on one of the sidebars.  At any time, you can get to the current map by clicking on the thumbnail at the top of the left sidebar.  Today's post is about mistakes as William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) writes about the importance of error as a gateway to personal exploration, all set in the forgotten (by LHM, at least) towns of Fall River Mills and McArthur.  Remember, to see where they are, explore the map!

Book Quote

"If a man can keep alert and imaginative, an error is a possibility, a chance at something new: to him, wandering and wondering are part of the same process, and he is most mistaken, most in error, whenever he quits exploring.

"...I had driven through Fall River Mills and McArthur, and I couldn't remember a thing about them.  If I were going off on some blue highway of the mind, I should have pulled over."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 1

Fall River Mills, California. Photo by Roy Latham and hosted at City Data. Click on photo to go to site.

Fall River Mills and McArthur, California

I wrote in my last post that I was going to continue on a certain theme, but given the subject of the quote above, I'm also going to examine a couple of other things as well.  My original intent was to write about the speed at which we can take life.  My point was that, and it won't come as a surprise to most of you, if you careen headlong through life at a fast pace, you can't fully experience life and the things that give it meaning.  In essence, this is my struggle at this point in my own life, and I'm really trying to slow down and give myself the opportunity to enjoy things that I would otherwise have missed.  I feel like I've missed many things.  Like LHM, who drives through Fall River Mills and McArthur and doesn't remember them, I have taken part in various events and happenings and find myself struggling to remember what they were.  Sometimes, I might forget at the end of the week what I had done at the beginning of the week.  That is no way to appreciate life - instead, it only serves to leave one at the end of one's life with no satisfying memories to take with them as they go.

But, LHM puts out a very interesting thesis in his passage that I quote above.  He posits that only through error does humanity give itself a chance to grow.  To repeat, it is our mistakes that make us capable of becoming better people.

Think about that for a moment.  All the mistakes you have made - and I am addressing this to you, all of you Littourati who happen to be reading this - have been opportunities for self-awareness and growth.  Those mistakes include the little mistake that you made in balancing your checkbook or the small error in judgment that caused someone to be angry with you.  They also include the deep, dark mistakes that have made you ashamed, and that may have left some of you questioning at times whether you are, in fact, a good person.

There's are a couple of caveats here, of course.  The first caveat is that once the mistake has been made, you have to be willing to learn from it and act either correct the error or at least make sure it doesn't happen again.  If you balanced your checkbook wrong, then instead of saying "screw it" and living with the anomaly, you figure out what you did wrong and learn ways to avoid doing it again.  If you made an error in judgment, you gain awareness, say "I'm sorry" to the person to whom you must apologize, and recognize how to avoid such situations in the future.  If it is one of those deep dark mistakes, you must explore it, reveal to yourself what lay behind your actions and why you made the bad choice you did, and use it as a springboard to make your amends in whatever way is best.

The second caveat is that you have to recognize that errors are a part of life, that we all make them, that life would be unbalanced without them, and that you have to give yourself some slack because you're the only person capable of doing so consistently.

As a political scientist, I have been trained in the scientific method, a major component of which is being aware of and understanding error.  In science, error is a bad thing, and I'm going against my training when I suggest that errors can be positive.  There are two types of error: those introduced by the experimentor and those that are randomly occurring.  The first type of error is the one that you try to avoid.  The second type of error is deemed to be ever present and you cannot completely erase it.  A scientist tries to minimize the random errors and compensate for those that occur.  An arbitrary number that scientists often use is 95%.  If error can be reduced to plus or minus 5%, meaning that you will get the same result 95 times out of every 100 tests, then you have made your point - there is an excellent probability that you are right.  For example, let's say I theorize that daily head scratching leads to hair loss.  If I test that theory, and find that in at least 95% of cases that daily head scratching correlated with increased hair loss, then I can claim that I have discovered a probable cause of hair loss and recommend that people stop scratching their heads.  If, however, I show that hair loss is only associated with daily head scratching 60% of the time, then I have a much weaker theory. 

The errors that the scientist can control if he or she is careful are those errors that might be associated with the testing.  Using the example of the silly experiment above, perhaps people have a chemical on their fingernails that is what actually leads to the hair loss.  Or perhaps the experiment used people with a baldness gene that would have lost their hair anyway.  These are errors that come about because the scientist hasn't sufficiently thought through his or her theory or experiment.

My training has been all about ways to minimize error.  It's true that randomly occurring errors can be controlled.  We all know that there are effects of our choices and decisions that can't be anticipated.  However, we are going to make errors that had we though a little more, we might have predicted and avoided.  But does that mean errors are completely bad?  There is something to error, to mistakes, that has value.  Imagine a life without error.  It would be pretty boring.  Most of our media would have nothing to report on.  Reality TV wouldn't exist.  Tragedy and comedy would cease to lose their meaning, if they existed at all.  Without error, we would not need to try anything, because whatever we tried would succeed instantly, the first time.  It sounds great, but where's the probability for growth?

A child learns to succeed through trial and error.  We continue that process throughout our lives, discarding efforts that lead nowhere and using them to learn and create other efforts that will succeed.  The success of the human race has been built on maximizing our learning through error.  Nature uses trial and error through the evolutionary process - or if you will, in the Abrahamic traditions God cast out Adam and Eve from Eden because of their errors and we have been making mistakes and redeeming ourselves since.

Personally, I have committed many errors.  I've learned from them all, even if it has been painful to do so.  In the process, I like to think that I become a better person.  I have seen some who steadfastly refuse to learn from their errors - they may even refuse to admit they make them - and so continue making the same errors throughout life.  Such people sow discord and cause pain for families, friends, and relationships in a constantly destructive pattern.  I hope that I am not one of those people.  I believe that I possess the character and the will to admit mistakes and correct them as much as possible.  Those that I don't correct, I also will be doomed to repeat throughout my life.

As LHM observes, to explore is to allow oneself the opportunity to both make mistakes, and to correct them.  It is the ongoing cycle of life, yet another circle to add to the myriads of circles that make up our existences, and I believe it is the reason why we are here.  I can think of no better way to bow out, at the end of my life somewhere in the future, than being able to say to myself and others:  "I made mistakes, I explored why I made them, I corrected them, and I learned about myself."

Musical Interlude

I'm going to out myself.  I've never been a real Elvis Costello fan.  I guess I was never introduced to him when other people were discovering him.  I knew a couple of songs, like Alison, which didn't grab me too much.  But in searching around my collection, I ran across this song by Elvis Costello and the Attractions called Brilliant Mistake.  This YouTube version makes the key sound transposed up one from the original, but it's the lyrics that count.  Enjoy!


If you want to know more about Fall River Mills and McArthur

Fall River Valley Chamber of Commerce
Mountain Echo (Newspaper) McArthur
Wikipedia: Fall River Mills
Wikipedia: McArthur

Next up: Bieber, California


Blue Highways: Pit River Gorge, California

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapIt's been a long trip.  We've traveled through 154 places and we're at least halfway through the trip, maybe a little more.  It might be time to stop for a moment and enjoy the view.  The canyon of the Pit River might be a good place to put it all in perspective and give us some impetus for the rest of the journey.  Click on the map thumbnail at right to see where you might find the Pit River Gorge, and enjoy a little rest!

Book Quote

"Highway 89 wound among the volcanic dumpings from Lassen that blasted Hat Creek valley about three hundred times between 1914 and 1917.  Scrub covered the ash, cinders, and lava as the wasteland renewed itself; yet even still it looked terribly crippled.  Off the valley floor, California 299 climbed to ride the rim of the Pit River gorge.  I ate a sandwich at the edge of a deep rift that opened like jaws to expose rocks so far below they were several hundred million years older than the ones I sat on.  From the high edge I looked down on the glossy backs of swallows as they glided a thousand feet, closed their wings like folded fans, and plummeted into the abyss.  It was a wild, mad, silent, spectacular descent of green iridescence that left me woozy."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 1

Photo by ohoulihan on Panoramio. Click on photo to go to ohoulihan's Panoramio photos.

Pit River Gorge, California

The first time my wife and I decided to take a drive down the Pacific Coast of California on State Highway 1, she would shout out "Vue Panoramique" every time we came to a sign that read "Vista."  We'd pull over, and we would get out and look at the view, snap a couple of pictures, and move on.

After a while, I found myself getting a little annoyed.  Did we have to stop at every single vista?  I was thinking ahead toward where I wanted to go, and that we had to be there by a certain time, and that every pullout off the road was making us that much later than we ought to be.

At times, that little story has been the metaphor of my life.  I've been in such a rush to get to the endpoint that I don't stop to appreciate the many panoramas that life offers on the way.  On a journey, if one is on a schedule, one can often be given a break for not stopping to look at a beautiful vista, or pulling over to examine some curiosity.  I understand that.

But what is the endpoint of life?  What are we rushing headlong toward?  There's the perspective that we need.  The final point of our lives is death, plain and simple.  It is the point where we leave this world and, depending on your belief, we either cease to exist or we move on.  Either way, this life offers us many beautiful things, many gorgeous vistas, many odd curiosities, for us to see and appreciate.  I don't know how many times, however, in my headlong rush to get someplace else, I have passed them by.  My mom always tells me that I don't take time to "stop and smell the roses."  That's one of her favorite sayings, and sometimes it annoys me.  But she's right.  I don't take enough time to stop and appreciate the beauty in life.

To be certain, there are cheats and frauds. There are places that don't add up to the advertising.  A favorite movie scene of mine is in the film Rat Race, where the character played by Jon Lovitz is trying to get to Silver City, New Mexico to win a contest and his children and wife want to stop at the Barbie Museum.  It turns out that this nice Jewish family has been lured in by the signs into the Klaus Barbie Museum, celebrating the life of the Nazi known as The Butcher of Lyon.  Greek mythology gave us the Lotus Eaters, who entrap people by offering a flower that when ingested causes them apathy and robs them of months, years and even lifetimes.  We run into these traps from time to time with varying degrees of seriousness and we take away from them varying degrees of pain.

But as we grow older, most of us learn how to avoid the charlatans, and to appreciate the best that life has to offer, I believe.  Sure, there will be some that are always rushing headlong toward the end.  There will be others who always get sidetracked into places where they shouldn't be.  But all of us, at some point, will pull over and enjoy the view from time to time.  Like LHM, we'll sit on the edge of a beautiful vista, eat a sandwich, and watch the birds swoop down into the canyon or off the ocean bluffs in amazing acrobatic feats.  We can think awhile, put our trip into the perspective of our lives, and our lives in the perspective of everything.

The faster that we move in life, in my experience, the faster our lives seem to pass by.  I'll explore this theme in the next post, but here's a preview: when I'm doing more, I appreciate less.  I have gone through periods where I've done so much, I can't remember a couple of days later what event I've attended or what movie I've seen.  There's something not quite right and a little sad about that.  It's almost as if I haven't participated in those events at all.

I'm trying hard to slow down.  Given that the speed of my life is measured out through the passage of time and space, I don't need to try to make it faster.  I need to enjoy what the next second, the next minute brings me.  As I round the corners on my life's journey, or as the waypoints I see ahead get larger as they get closer, I want to try to make sure I learn about them if they are interesting, experience them as well as I can, and leave them when it is right.

The next time you are traveling, and you see a historical marker, or an oddity, or a curiosity, or even better, a vista, stop for a moment and enjoy it.  You'll get to your destination eventually; what's a few minutes to savor the mysteries the world has to offer us.  After all, as far as we know, we're only on our life's trip once and when it's over, it truly is over.  So take time to enjoy the "Vue Panoramique" that life offers.

Musical Interlude

My sister introduced me to this Colin Hay song a few years ago.  I'd only known of him because of the Australian band Men at Work, but I learned from her that he had a whole repertoire of solo, acoustic work.  This song, Beautiful World, captures in many ways the theme of this post.  I can picture LHM on the edge of the canyon with this song.  I wanted to get a video with a vista, but I ran across this one and I must say, I enjoy the doodles that accompany it.  See, I took to the time to enjoy a curiosity!  Enjoy life and this world and what they have to offer because this is as good as it gets.

If you want to know more about the Pit River

California Creeks: Pit River
Pit River Tribe Online
Pit River Watershed Alliance
Wikipedia: Pit River
Wikipedia: Pit River Tribe

Next up: Fall River Mills and McArthur, 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