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    On the Road
    by Jack Kerouac
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    Blue Highways: A Journey into America
    by William Least Heat-Moon

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Entries in emotion (2)


Blue Highways: Mount Tom, Vermont

Unfolding the Map

In this post, as William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) spends a day on Mount Tom outside of Woodstock, Vermont, he seems a little distracted.  We'll reflect a little on the healing prospects of nature, and the double-edged sword of protecting oneself.  To find Mount Tom, let the map be your guide.

Book Quote

"I spent the day on Mount Tom.  Had I owned a ghost shirt, I'd have danced madly all over that mountain.  Instead, I tried to keep from looking inward, tried to reach outward, but, as Black Elk says, certain things among the shadows of a man's life do not have to be remembered - they remember themselves."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 9

Trail on Mount Tom near Woodstock, Vermont. Photo by "ikur" and hosted at Panoramio. Click on photo to go to host page.

Mount Tom, Vermont

If you ask me, LHM did this all backwards.  But first, a little back story that I didn't provide in the quote.  If you're joining for the first time as we follow Blue Highways, one of the reasons LHM took off on a trip around America is that his marriage fell apart.  At various points along the trip, he tried to talk with his estranged wife, who he named "The Cherokee."  In the passage preceding this quote, he wakes in Woodstock, Vermont from difficult dreams involving remarriage with her.  He spends the day on Mount Tom to clear his head and soothe his emotions, but by the end of the day when he is back in Woodstock he calls and has a frustrating talk with her which only serves to get him angry.

In my experience, nature is best experienced from a stable platform.  By that, I mean that if one is in an emotionally unstable state, the healing value of nature, of being in a calming, soothing environment like that of Mount Tom is hindered or muted.  It's not that nature wouldn't be able to calm and heal someone in that state, it's just that the healing forces of nature would have to work harder and would probably need to be applied repeatedly to have an effect.  A simple day outing would not suffice.

I think of myself when I have entered nature in an emotionally unstable state.  A few years ago, my wife and I went for an outing in the Tent Rocks, a geologically fascinating area near our home in New Mexico.  At the time, our marriage was troubled with many issues, and my mind was focused on those things.  We walked the trails of the Tent Rocks, through the hoodoos and fantastic geological formations created through volcanism, erosion and time.  I saw them, but I didn't really see them.  I was too preoccupied, my mind racing with potentials and possibilities and pitfalls.  Therefore, while being in the wilderness in an amazing place took me superficially from my everyday surroundings where all of my troubles and difficulties were stacking up, I didn't really absorb the Tent Rocks.  I saw but did not see.  I need to go back to see the Tent Rocks now that I am in a more stable emotional place.

It's not that LHM didn't try to calm his emotions.  He states that he tried to focus outward, rather than inward, but to paraphrase him, a man's shadows will manage to make themselves known.  In my experience again, those shadows seem to come when one is ungoing emotional unrest.  LHM makes reference his quote above to the ghost shirt, which to Native Americans were a protective garment.  The ghost shirts were adopted by many Native tribes in the late 1800s and were initially worn to protect the wearer from the certain doom, notably earthquakes, that were believed to be the punishment for the white invaders in North America.  However, some Natives believed that the ghost shirts would protect the wearer from the white man's bullets.  They didn't, as was proved at the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890.  It is believed that the idea of the ghost shirts were adopted from Mormon temple garments that are supposed to protect the wearer from evil.  However, throughout history there have been many beliefs that the wearing of garments, or even the shedding of clothes, offered one protection.  One of the most interesting cases I've read is about General Butt Naked, in Liberia, who led his troops into battle while nude believing that it protected him from bullets.  He hasn't been proved wrong yet, as he is still alive!  Although I think that his butt-naked battle days are over. 

However, the ghost shirts and other forms of protection are all focused on dangers from without.  How do you protect from the turmoil within?  If you are surrounded by a cloak of protection, such as a ghost shirt, a protective bubble ala Green Lantern, a safe room, or a Romulan or Klingon cloaking device, it doesn't actually mean that you are able to vanquish the doubt, madness or rebellion that can brew within the individual or individuals within the protective device.

Here we get back to LHM.  From my lofty perch thirty years in the future, I might have advised him to get his compulsive act of calling his ex-wife over with before he went up to Mount Tom.  He could have had his despairing, angry moment where he yelled and hit the telephone booth door.  After, a drive up to Mount Tom and it's clean air and forests would have helped calm him.  The views from the top of the mountain could have given him perspective.  Perhaps Black Elk's wisdom, "I did not know then how much was ended," would have come with less desolation and more inner peace.

But then again, I have been known to act exactly as LHM did.  Lucky for me, I have had access to good people who provide me that perspective, and the slightest bit of wisdom to know that should I need healing energy, calm and perspective, that I can always reach out to Nature.  In a week, I will be doing just that.  I will go camping for a weekend in New Mexico's Pecos Wilderness.  I will hike on mountain trails, take in the vistas, and observe wildlife going about its business in the moment.  I will watch my dog joyfully leap into the car, not caring for a moment where she's going but just happy to be going somewhere, and then her joy at being outside for an entire weekend.  For a few days, I will heal, and then come back to civilization, work, and relationships, put up some protective cloaks and live, taking the buffets to my psyche and soul that life brings, until I realize I need rejuvenation and peace again.

Musical Interlude

For the musical interlude, I am posting Protection.  Written by Bruce Springsteen for Donna Summer, who recently passed away, both of them recorded their own versions of the song, as well as a duet that has never been heard.  This version is a fan remix, putting these legendary musicians' voices together.


At the risk of giving in to my own hubris, I once wrote a sonnet that sort of fits LHM's situation in this chapter.  Here's what LHM writes about his phone call to The Cherokee:

"By evening, my judgment had given way, and I called home.  I was talking fast, talking, talking, trying to find where we stood, how our chances were.  She talked.  No matter how we tried, our words - confounded - ran athwart and, as usual, we ended up at cross-purposes.  Neither of us knew where to go from there.  Nothing to do but hang up.  When I put the receiver down and heard the line ding dead, I tried to excuse the failure by thinking that nothing ever works out over a telephone."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 9

I wrote this sonnet after a similar experience with a girlfriend a long time ago, in the late 1980s.  It has similar themes to LHM's quote, including dancing, nature, a dead telephone line, and loss.  I humbly offer it to you here:

Autumn Thoughts
by Michael L. Hess

A click, and then the lifeless droning hum,
As I replaced the phone upon its hook;
I walked outside, into the setting sun,
And sat upon the porch to think and look.

A cavalcade of brightly colored leaves
Ran helter-skelter down the somber street,
Driven by a soft, yet forceful, breeze
That pushed them onward to an unknown fate.

How I wished that I could join them there,
And also dance away my lonely grief;
Until, with growing pain, I was aware
That life is but the wind, and I, a leaf.

I thought of love and loss, and thus entranced,
I ran into the street to join the dance.

If you want to know more about Mount Tom

Climbing Mount Tom
Hiking around Woodstock
Mount Tom
Mount Tom and the Pogue Trail

Next up:  Quechee Gorge, Vermont


Blue Highways: Corvallis, Oregon

Unfolding the Map

It's raining, it's pouring.  And our driver and guide is feeling downright depressed as he waits out the rain in Corvallis, Oregon.  Let's explore the symbolism of rain to the human condition, shall we, as we drink a few beers in Ghost Dancing with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM).  Here's the map to locate Corvallis on our journey.

Book Quote(s)

"In western Oregon it can rain a hundred and thirty inches a year, making weather so dismal that even a seadog like Sir Francis Drake complained about it four centuries ago when he sailed here on the Golden Hind in search of the Northwest Passage.  Those two days I wandered around Corvallis more dispirited than edified by the blue-road perception.  I walked and walked.  'Nothing,' Homer sings, 'is harder on mortal man than wandering.'  That's why the words travel and travail have a common origin.

"....Another etymology:  Corvallis, a Latin combination meaning 'in the heart of the valley.'  For me, it was more a valley of the heart.  No wonder Pascal believed man's inability to stay quietly in his room is the cause of his unhappiness."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 3

Downtown Corvallis, Oregon. Photo by Paul Bausch on his On Focus blog. Click on photo to go to host page. 

Corvallis, Oregon

Rain.  One man's surplus is another man's headache, and I have definitely noticed it this year with the lack of rain that has plagued New Mexico.  Here, we get an average of ten inches of rainfall per year in this desert climate, but as I write here in mid-September, we've only received one inch.  Contrast that with LHM's situation, where he is holed up in Corvallis with a case of blues, and where he is still trying to understand what his trip means to him.  While there, it rained constantly on him for two days straight, and he makes the point in this chapter that on average it rains 130 inches per year in that part of Oregon.

When I lived in Northern California, I wasn't a big fan of the rain.  Our springs and summers were generally beautiful.  Around May, the wildflowers started coming out, and the rivers still ran higher because of continued runoff from the winter rains.  The air was cool and crisp in the mornings while the sun shone over the bright blue ocean.  It might warm up a bit in the afternoon, but warming up generally meant temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit (15.6 - 20.6 C).  A hot day in the summer might get to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (23.9 C).  Lows might get into the 50s Fahrenheit at night (10 - 15 C).  Life in those types of temperatures on the coast usually felt pretty good.

Winters were another story.  Temperatures were usually in the 50s Fahrenheit during the day, and cold because of the humidity in the air due to the ocean.  At night, temperatures would drop into the 30s Fahrenheit (-1.1 - 3.9 C).  The sky was often gray, and it rained a lot.  When it didn't rain, it was foggy - a thick gray fog that was hard to drive in.  And the rain.  It would just keep coming, and coming.  My town was only accessible by two-lane highways running through mountains and along rivers.  Often, landslides caused by rain turning the hillsides unstable, or floods caused by swollen rivers, would close the roads in and out of my town and we would be cut off, at least by road, from the outside world for a while until the waters receded or the roads could be cleared.  Even after I moved away and came back for holidays, my wife and I spent a couple of trying times wondering if we'd be able to get to our plane to get back to our jobs as the rain pounded and roads were impassable.

As I write this now, my house is under a beautiful canopy of clear blue skies.  Sometimes the sunlight here, all 310 days a year on average, can seem oppressive in itself, especially when one is nine inches of rain behind schedule in a desert climate.  When it rains here, rather than run inside, I often take a moment to stand out in it and let the drops patter down on my bare head, soak my t-shirt a little, and wet my skin.  In the Pacific Northwest, it was easy to take the rain for granted.  In the dry Southwest, one sees the rain for the precious resource it actually is.  In Northern California, the rain was often a hindrance and an annoyance.  In New Mexico right now, even a few drops is a cause for dancing and celebration.

We often associate the rain with sadness, as if by personifying the world to match our own mood, we can imagine that as we hurt, the skies cry with us.  Writers of music have often made reference to the weather to describe feeling lonely, down, depressed and sad:

Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky
stormy weather
since my man and I ain't together
keeps raining all the time

Stormy Weather by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler


I can't stand the rain
against my window
bringing back sweet memories. 
Hey window pane
do you remember
how sweet it used to be.

I Can't Stand the Rain by Don Bryant, Bernard Miller and Ann Peebles

Rain is very symbolic and is an easy way to express signs that our inward lives are stormy, tumultuous, and often sad.  But reality is much more complex than that.

For example, when the rains don't come and the crops fail, humans often sang to the skies to relieve their suffering and misery, and performed dances thought to attract the rains.  It has been known throughout history, predating our scientific age and the facts about weather patterns, that the real reason the rains didn't come were because the gods were angry.  It was also true that when we faced terribly inclement weather such as tropical storms, hurricanes, floods and the like, it was also because the gods were angry.  Even today, at times of need, we hedge our bets and appeal to the supernatural.  In New Orleans, during hurricane season, the chants of voodoo practitioners to their spirits might race Judeo-Christian prayers in a metaphysical attempt to send the hurricanes in other directions and blunt their strength.  Obviously, that failed with Katrina.

Of course, there are songs about fair weather and how nice days reflect our moods as well:

Blue skies, shining on me
nothing but blue skies
do I see. 
Bluebirds, singing their song
nothing but bluebirds
all day long.

Blue Skies by Irving Berlin

The wonderful and problematic thing about humans is that we, unlike other species, have the capability to look into the past and worry about the future.  Therefore, we can always be blue about what went wrong, or worried about what might go wrong later.  How long will the blue skies last?  In fact, we know that blue skies will most likely end, and we'll be back to stormy weather and rainy days for awhile in our lives.  We know that we'll be just like LHM, sitting Corvallis, the heart of the valley, heartsick and in an emotional valley because our woman doesn't seem to love or want us anymore, and we don't really know where we are going to go or what we are going to do.  But, for most us, just as we wait out the rain, we can wait out our own blues.  Eventually, the rain will end, a sliver of sunlight will poke through the clouds signaling better days ahead, and we'll enjoy a springtime until the rain comes again.

Musical Interlude

I quoted this song above...but I figure that LHM might have been thinking about it as he sat in Corvallis.  I Can't Stand the Rain was recorded originally by Ann Peebles, and I first heard an amazing rendition by Angeline Ball in the movie The Commitments.  The song really evokes how nature and our emotions often seem to work in concert.

If you want to know more about Corvallis

The Alchemist (alternative newspaper)
Corvallis Gazette-Times (newspaper)
Corvallis Tidbits (community newspaper)
Essential Links: Corvallis
Oregon State University
Visit Corvallis and Benton County
Wikipedia: Corvallis

Next up: Philomath and Burnt Woods, Oregon