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    On the Road
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Entries in comfort (2)


Blue Highways: New Harmony, Indiana

Unfolding the Map

Making rapid progress to the end of Blue Highways, we stop for a while in New Harmony, Indiana with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM).  What is apparent to all of us, I think, is that a journey into the unknown, one where we don't know the road, might be a journey where we learn the most about the world and about ourselves.  To think that one of our first stops on this Littourati journey was just 10 miles north at Grayville, Indiana.  The circle is almost complete.  I find the Indiana state flag, at right, to be almost symbolic of this completion.  If you want to see where this little result of the attempt to create Utopia in middle America lies, please consult the map.

Book Quote

"Not far from a burial ground of unmarked graves that the old Harmonists share with a millennium of Indians, the mystical Rappites in 1820 planted a circular privet-hedge labyrinth, 'symbolic' (a sign said) 'of the Harmonist concept of the devious and difficult approach to a state of true harmony.'  After the Rappites, the hedges disappeared, but a generation ago, citizens replanted the maze, its contours strikingly like the Hopi map of emergence.  I walked through it to stretch from the long highway.  Even though I avoided the shortcut holes broken in the hedges, I still went down the rungs and curves without a single wrong turn.  The 'right' way was worn so deeply in the earth as to be unmistakable.  But without the errors, wrong turns, and blind alleys, without the doubling back and misdirection and fumbling and chance discoveries, there was not one bit of joy in walking the labyrinth.  And worse, knowing the way made traveling it perfectly meaningless."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 4

Downtown New Harmony, Indiana. Photo by Timothy K. Hamilton and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host site.

New Harmony, Indiana

What is the point to know the way?

I'm sure that anyone reading this can point out a number of reasons why its important to know the way, and can reel off at least five.  Here's mine.  You don't get lost.  You save time.  There's comfort in the familiar.  You'll never have any surprises.  It's safe.  These are good reasons, but I have some good questions about them.

Yes, in knowing the way one doesn't get lost.  For instance, I knew backwards and forwards the roads around my hometown.  I knew how to get here and there.  When I lived in Milwaukee, I had all the best routes to this place and that in my head.  Same for San Antonio and New Orleans.  But what happened?  Once those routes were new.  I paid attention to what was going on around me, because I had to be aware.  Then, one day, I stopped paying attention.  I missed details in the surety of my route.  I ceased to notice little changes, so focused was I on getting from Point A to Point B.  I would never take an alternate route, and therefore I ceased to be surprised, to see new things, and I denied myself new experiences and a chance to grow.

Sure, in knowing the way one saves time.  It's not efficient to be driving or wandering about on streets that you don't know.  After all, if the goal is Point B, why visit Point C, D and E in the interim?  You have places to go, things to do, people to see.  But what happens when you take your time and explore?  You see things, meet people and experience things that you might have never allowed yourself to experience.  In all my life's journey, I have never seen much of a correlation between saving time and growing personally.

Of course, there will always be comfort in the familiar when one knows the way.  But my analogy here relates to bed sores.  When you look at a soft, downy bed, what do you think of?  Comfort!  That "aaahhhh"ness of pushing your head against a soft pillow, the warmth of the blankets surrounding you, that dozing feeling.  But what happens if you spend two or three straight weeks in bed?  That familiar feeling becomes your bane.  Without movement and change you develop bed sores, which are painful and difficult to treat.  Your comfort has suddenly become your curse.  We can always come back to the familiar, but we need change and new things to stimulate us and stave off an existential putrefaction.

Do you never want to be surprised?  Sure, there are bad surprises, and knowing the way will often mitigate the potential to be surprised.  The man with the machete hiding in the back seat of a car is not the kind of surprise any of us could want.  But how often does that happen?  Most often, surprises are the harbingers of change in our lives, and with change comes self-reflection and opportunity.  I've been surprised lately by many things.  A close relative's illness, a house that it appears I will buy, a nomination for an outstanding teacher award, and organizational shake-ups at my office.  Each has it's share of headaches and even heartbreak.  I hate to see my family member have to deal with a serious health issue.  The house has some maintenance issues that will cost money, as well as a major sewage issue that must be solved before I buy it.  To get the outstanding teacher award, I must write a teaching philosophy, track down letters of support, and find the class evaluations I filed away.  The change at my office has left me feeling unsure about my role.  But each change is a window of opportunity.  My relative's illness means that my family will have to change and may or may not provide a new avenue to dealing with our dysfunction.  Owning a house, after a lifetime of renting, will challenge me in ways I've never been challenged before and will be a new rite of passage in my life.  Just being nominated for the outstanding teacher award has given me new confidence in myself - imagine what I'll feel like if I win the award!  The change in my office will allow me to create my role, and maybe even expand it and my influence.  It may offer me a way toward further promotion and advancement.  It's all in how I choose to frame the surprises and the consequences that come with them.

Which brings me to the last reason for knowing the way that I want to question.  It's safe knowing the way.  Being safe is fine.  We all want safety and security.  But safety and security, while prolonging well-being and maybe even life, can become a prison.  People can hide behind safety and security and never allow themselves to see beyond the walls and disarm their personal defenses.  And what good is that?  I've been there, and I've decided that to experience and see things different than what I know, to open myself to other viewpoints and opinions, is the best way for me to grow.  It's earned me a reputation of being eclectic, maybe even a little weird in my tastes, but I like it.

New Harmony symbolizes the end of a journey of Utopians, who thought that they could tame nature and their own shortcomings, and in the strength of togetherness create harmony, unity and a sense of unchanging peace in the middle of a wilderness.  However, to grow we often need disharmony and disunity to provide us with challenges.  As the two utopian experiments at New Harmony prove, drastic and catastrophic change often messes up the best of plans and desires.  The people creating utopias at New Harmony planned their way, they had their philosophy, they created what they thought was safety, and they still couldn't overcome rapid moving challenges.  Had they gone in with flexibility, knowing that there isn't one way but many, and it's when we try to force things to conform to us rather than allowing ourselves to experience and adapt that we get in trouble, they might have survived.  LHM learned that his trip had meaning precisely because it wasn't planned, it wasn't familiar, it wasn't safe, and it sometimes wasn't comfortable.  He even got lost a few times, and found himself afraid, but he traversed the labyrinth of his journey, survived, learned and grew.  May we all allow ourselves, at least once in a while, the opportunities to get lost, make time, be uncomfortable, be surprised, and take risks.

Musical Interlude

I've used this song before, but I had to use it again here.  Youngblood Brass Band, featuring Ike Willis, with Something.

If you want to know more about New Harmony

Historic New Harmony
Indiana State Museum: Historic New Harmony
MaxKade: Historic New Harmony
Posey County News (news site)
Robert Owen and New Harmony
Town of New Harmony
Wikipedia: New Harmony

Next up: The End of the Blue Highways


Blue Highways: Salem, New Jersey

Unfolding the Map

What is in a place name, especially those that evoke other places?  I am of the opinion that place names often help us keep alive those other places that we came from or identify with.  As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) swings through Salem, New Jersey we'll see how this little town inspired the names of possibly three other Salems in the United States.  To see the source of this inspiration, please be inspired to visit the map.  The red oak leaf, at right, comes from New Jersey's official state tree.

Book Quote

"Salem, a colonial town to the west, was abundant with old buildings and homes that would be museums most anywhere else in the country, but here they were just more declining houses, even though many stood when the men of Salem sent beef to Valley Forge to help save Washington's troops from starvation.  The town is the birthplace of Zadock Street, a restless fellow who left New Jersey in 1803 to make his way into the new western territory.  As he went, he and his sons founded towns in Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa, and named them all Salem; in Ohio, his Salem sprouted North Salem, West Salem, South Salem, Lower Salem, and Salem Center.  Americans can be thankful that Zadock Street was not born in Freidberger or Quonochontaug."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 12

Downtown Salem, New Jersey. Photo by Tim Kiser, and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Salem, New Jersey

I've had a couple of posts about town and city names, and LHM has succeeded in piquing my interest in a little mystery.  Why would a man named Zadock Street, of Salem, New Jersey spread out west with his sons and name all the towns they founded Salem?  What is it about the name Salem that was so important to these men?

First things first.  How many towns and cities and places are named Salem.  One source, Wikipedia, lists 25.  Another source, on Yahoo, lists 32.  Clearly people had reasons for naming towns Salem.  From what I've gathered online, Salem is a derivation of shalom and salaam, the Hebrew and Arabic words for peace.  Salem was mentioned as a place in the Old Testament, and became part of the name of Jerusalem, founded by King David of the kingdom of Israel.  Jerusalem means "foundation of peace."

Therefore, we can see that the most likely spread of the name Salem came with the spread of religion throughout the country.  Indeed, one source who uses the same quote by LHM above, looks into the story of the towns named Salem and of Zadock Street and wonders if LHM's story is true.  The writer points out that Zadock was one of King David's priests, thus cementing the connection between Zadock Street and religion.  The writer looks at the founding of Salems in Ohio, Indiana and Iowa that LHM says were established by Zadock Street and his sons and finds the evidence less than compelling.  Those Salems were founded by Quakers, the writer claims.  The writer says that there is no evidence that Zadock Street had anything to do with their founding, and there is no compelling evidence that Zadock Street or his sons were Quakers.

Thankfully, the internet can sometimes help clear up mysteries.  Wikipedia's entry states that one of the founders of Salem, Ohio was Zadock Street and an historic home in the city was owned by John Street, Zadock's son, and was the northernmost Ohio stop on the Underground Railroad.  The city of Salem in Indiana appears to have nothing to do with Zadock Street, but there are two other areas called Salem in the state, both census-designated places, that may have had something to do with Zadock Street.  And while I could not associate Salem, Iowa with Zadock Street or his sons, the town was founded by Quakers and was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

What accounts for so many towns named Salem, then?  In the case of the Zadock Street and his sons, it may have been that religion plays a part in their propagation of the Salem name, but I think that there is a greater likelihood that the connection to their original home of Salem, New Jersey played a bigger part.  In a sense, we all have that attachment to home.  I cannot see the name Fort Bragg, even if the name is attached to Fort Bragg, North Carolina rather than my hometown of Fort Bragg, California, without getting pictures and images in my mind of all of the scenes I used to inhabit as a child.  The United States, as a country that was settled primarily by immigrants, would have been an alien place.  Names that evoked the familiar would have been important to people, comforting them with memories of places known in the midst of all the unknowns.

I did a post awhile back where I examined why there were so many towns, throughout the Southwest, called a variant of El Dorado.  In that case, Spanish conquistadors looking for gold, the proverbial El Dorado, left that name all over the region.  That was a case of wishful thinking.  However, in many cases it seems that people named towns and cities after that which gave them comfort and something that evoked memories of the places from whence they came.  I surmise that if you closely into town names, they've either been named for someone, or after something left behind.

Place names are a very simple part of a complex process.  No matter how adventurous or how exploratory we are, or how much we push the boundaries of our experience, we seem to need that touchstone to what we were and where we've been.  Two of the most poignant examples of this comes from our explorations into space.  The first example occurred when astronauts first left the safety of our atmosphere and went into space.  The poetic descriptions of the seeming fragility of our world when viewed from space indicated just how much "home" means to us when we look back at it.  As Alfred Worden wrote:

Quietly, like a night bird, floating, soaring, wingless
We glide from shore to shore, curving and falling
but not quite touching;
Earth: a distant memory seen in an instant of repose,
crescent shaped, ethereal, beautiful,
I wonder which part is home, but I know it doesn't matter . . .
the bond is there in my mind and memory;
Earth: a small, bubbly balloon hanging delicately
in the nothingness of space.

The other example came from even farther out in space, when the Voyager probe, close to leaving our solar system, trained its cameras back on Earth which hung like a small speck of dust in the vastness of space.  Carl Sagan said: 

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Carl Sagan: Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future

A sense of home, of belonging and of origin, is important.  It is an indelible part of our identity and it provides us with comfort.  As such, it is natural that we take a piece of that which is important with us, and make it a part of any place we go.

Musical Interlude

I couldn't have picked a better song to illustrate my point than Joe Diffie's Home.  This was a nice discovery, since country music is not a genre that I dip into regularly, but I'm often surprised when I do.

If you want to know more about Salem

Discover Salem County: Salem Salem County News
Salem County Chamber of Commerce
Salem, New Jersey
Visit Salem County
Wikipedia: Salem

Next up: Leipsic, Delaware