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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 healing (3)


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: Fifield, Wisconsin

Unfolding the Map

This post will be my second personal "letter to the daughter I will never have" in this series involving William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) and a teenage runaway hitchhiker traveling with him to Green Bay.  I'll touch on issues of abuse, based on the quote from Blue Highways.  The ribbons at right represent awareness of child abuse (blue) and sexual abuse (teal).  Fifield can be found by a quick trip to the map.

Book Quote

"At Fifield we went east toward Minocqua...'Can you tell me why you took off?'

"'Angus lost his ass in a taco franchise and things got really bad at home  I mean, you know.  The business got worse, and me and Kevin started catching hell worse.'

"'Who's Angus and Keven?'

"'Black Angus is my dad.  Kevin's my brother.  Anyway, like Angus was losing it.  I mean, he'd always find an excuse to beat up on us like maybe a low grade or using a buttertub lid for a Frisbee in the house, so he'd punch us because he was losing his ass...Anyway, the night his partners and him gave up the franchise, Black Angus's face started twitching like it does when he's tense.  Mom told us to look like we were studying even if we weren't.  God.  Two days later he was trying to parallel park, and Kevin didn't tell him he was getting close to a pole, and Angus dented the fender.  Right there in the shopping center, he starts yelling and slapping Kevin.  Kevin didn't say anything then, but he ran off that night.  He's in New York now, but I'm the only one that knows where.  He's into Hare Krishna."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 12

Fifield, Wisconsin. Photo by Billertl and hosted at Wikipedia. Click on photo to go to host page.

Fifield, Wisconsin

This post will be a continuance of a letter that I am composing to the daughter I wanted to have but, because of life's circumstances and my own inaction, will not.  The catalyst is LHM's rider in Part 7 of Blue Highways, a young girl named Stacie who is running away from home.  If you want to see the first part of my letter, please see my Blue Highways: West of Minong post

Letter to the Daughter
I Will Never Have
(Part 2)

You may wonder why before I made reference to things in my life that I didn't explain more clearly.  Well, it's because I had a hard childhood.  Had you existed, I would have done everything in my power to protect you from any sort of harm so that you could grow up with an unmarred, positive, strong and secure sense of self.  That sense is what I, even at my age, am still trying to develop.

There are lots of broken people in the world.  I am one of them, and it is that brokenness that has also possibly been a reason I was never able to get my act together so that you exist in my life.  The thing I've learned about brokenness is that it hardly ever just spontaneously materializes.  Of course, there are some people who have troubles that get the best of them without any prior exposure.  However, most of the people who are broken were harmed or marred by someone, who was probably harmed or marred by someone before that.  Much of the brokenness can be traced in a remarkably tight and strong chain back through generations.

My story is no different.  Born as the result of an affair, given up for adoption at birth, put into a happy home only to be taken from it when another child was born, put into another home where I was raised and where my adoptive father was an alcoholic and a pedophile.  He taught me many lessons, including that adults did bad things too.  When an adult, the person who says he's your father, tells you that you can't tell your mother what he is doing to you, you know that there is something wrong even if you are only 5 years old.  When you can't tell anyone what is happening to you, and you have a deep, dark secret that can't be shared, you reside in your own special kind of hell.

It's not worth dwelling upon except for the fact that it, and the other family dynamics that swirled like a horrible emotional maelstrom, shaped much of the rest of my life.  I became the fixer, the mediator.  I became very dependent on displays of affection directed at me.  Inside, I felt like I was the worst person in the world.  I felt undeserving of love.  Outside, I lapped up displays of affection whether they were real or not, even though inside I waited for the eventual disappointment and the loneliness.

Thankfully, I didn't get involved in bodily harmful addictions, such as drinking or drugs, to ease my pain.  I didn't become a malicious person, though I've done my share of manipulating.  I did develop a "rescuer" mentality, which meant that I tried to fix other broken people's lives.  It never worked.  Broken people cannot be fixed unless they are willing to be fixed and I was like any other of those people.  I understood what being broken was, but I was unwilling to let people rescue me just as others were unwilling to let me rescue them.

I have gotten into trouble time and time again because of this.  There are broken people who have become malicious, abusive emotional bullies who prey upon broken people who are rescuer types.  They give rescuers false affection, play to their needs, and when the rescuers are hooked into their stories or emotionally invested, the abusers begin to belittle, manipulate and play emotional games in efforts to control them.  Abuse happens to both children and adults, and it takes the same form.  It starts with candy, and ends with bile.

You'd think that adults are better able to guard themselves, but we can't, because often situations or relationships take us back to our childhood desires and fears, and we play out harmful situations over and over again.  I've been there...even recently.  The key to breaking the pattern and therefore breaking the unbroken chains that seem unbreakable is knowing oneself, knowing how one responds to those "triggers," and ultimately being kind and gentle to oneself.  That is what I'm learning to do.

I don't know whether having a child would have helped me earlier in life.  Perhaps I would have discovered what I needed earlier and gotten helpful guidance.  Maybe being childless was something that needed to happen so that I could work on mending myself.

Regardless, I know that if I'd had you, I would have protected you.  You would have never had reason to fear from me.  There would have been no emotional mind-games played upon you.  I would not have manipulated you, or gotten disappointed if you didn't meet some kind of "ideal" that I would have expected of you.  Ultimately, I would have hoped that you would have someday been proud of me and what I came through, and how well I parented you.  I would have reveled in the knowledge that you knew you could talk to me about anything - that there would have been no deep, dark secrets eating away at us and our relationship.  Above all, I would have felt accomplishment in raising a balanced and happy child into adulthood.

Musical Interlude

For a long while, I have been in love with the waifish voice and lovely simple poetry of Suzanne Vega.  I especially resonated with this song, Luka, about an abused child.

If you want to know more about Fifield

Price County: Town of Fifield
Town of Fifield
Wikipedia: Fifield

Next up: Minocqua, Wisconsin


Blue Highways: Umatilla, Oregon

Unfolding the Map

For the first time since we started traveling with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), we go back into a state that we've already visited.  Okay, so a technicality might be when we passed through the Navajo and Hopi reservations from Arizona and back into Arizona, but the reservations aren't really carved out as separate states.  In my mind, then, this is a first and I attach to it some symbolic qualities of a new beginning in William Least Heat-Moon's journey, especially since he had been so emotionally low in Oregon before.  Where does Umatilla fit in the geography of the journey, take a look at the map!

Book Quote

"Across the Columbia at Umatilla, Oregon, and up the great bend of river into country where sage grew taller than men."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 10

From McNary Dam Overlook in Umatilla, Oregon. Interstate 82 bridges over the Columbia River in foreground, and Mount Adams in the background. Photo at the Columbia River-A Photographic Journey site. Click on photo to go to host page.

Umatilla, Oregon

Here is a first for LHM's journey in Blue Highways.  In the nearly 200 places that we've visited so far, he has never doubled back into a state after leaving it.  He may have meandered, and he may have wandered, but he has pretty much kept himself moving straight through states, seeing some of what they have, and then moving on without a backward glance.

So why does he dip down into Oregon again, crossing the border at Umatilla (pronounced yoo-ma-till-a - I live in a Southwest border state and my inclination is to pronounce it ooh-ma-tee-ya)) and then going up the south and east side of the Columbia River?

A simple answer is that it's where the road has taken him.  If you look at the map of the area, the road he has been driving upon in Washington, state route 14, ends at Interstate 82 across the river from Umatilla.  He evidently decided to cross the river on the interstate, and then pick up the Columbia River Highway (US 730) to continue his drive along a blue highway.

He also has tended, whenever possible, to avoid interstates.  An alternative route might have taken him up Interstate 82 to Kennewick, where he could have then taken US 395 across the river and then started making his way east on US 12 from there.  But he chose not to.  Instead, he dips back into Oregon.

I don't put a lot of stock into this, but just go with me for a minute here as I look at some possible symbolism of this return to Oregon.  It may be a bunch of crap, but all of my posts are my own interpretations of what I'm reading so far, so I can go out on a limb once in a while, like I have a few times in my posts.

Symbolically, it seems as if Oregon was a difficult state for LHM.  Really, beginning in California, he had some despair and began questioning why he undertook this journey.  He began to perceive life and our travels in it as an unending circle that just keeps bringing us back to the same point.  He didn't really see the utility of that, especially since that same point always seemed to be a low point.  As he moved up through Oregon, these feelings became more intense.  In Corvallis, Oregon he reached his nadir.  Sitting in Ghost Dancing, while it rained for days, he called his wife and she didn't want to talk to him.  At that point, he decides he wants to see "what the hell is next."  He continues to the coast of Oregon where Lewis and Clark reached the end point of their westward journey, and that association with the explorers seems to enliven him.  After touching the coast, he turns east and at Portland, he heads into Washington.  In Washington, he briefly flirts with a woman who fires his imagination.  Then he meets some hang-gliding folk who discuss the thrill of the unknown and the risks involved.  As we read, and travel with him, we can see his writing change as well - he gets back into the trip again and seems more excited to see what else might come his way.

Here's my stretch with the symbolism.  His dip back into Oregon seems to be a return to the same state where he once languished in turmoil and low spirits.  Except that now, he isn't languishing anymore.  It's therefore a return to a former area of weakness but now with strength and a groundedness that lets him move through and not get stuck.  It is a repudiation of negativity that put him in the blues before.  And, as we'll see, he stays forward looking, moving without pause on to Wallula and to points beyond as he heads back into the state of Washington.

I do counseling because I've dealt my whole life with being stuck in places that aren't necessarily the best places for me to be.  These are self-critical, self-pitying and ultimately soul-sucking places that want me to stay there.  I've learned that when I leave those places they don't just disappear, just like Oregon was not going to fall off the map once LHM left it.  Instead, my hard places sit there and wait for me, seemingly knowing that I'll come back by roundabout routes.  If I'm not paying attention, often I end up back in them.  Then I get stuck again.  But lately, I've been doing something different.  I've been visiting those places but in a different frame of mind and with a different reference point.  Sometimes, it's hard.  But other times, with a new vision and outlook, I can remake those places into something much nicer.  It becomes me deciding when, how and even if I will visit, not fate or life dictating to me where I go.

Another very important and real symbol - by "real" I mean not my imagination - in the passage above is LHM's mention of sage.  Sage has symbolized a number of positive concepts throughout history.  On this page, I learned that sage stands for or was thought to contribute to the following:

increased mental capacity
life creation
curative powers
spiritual cleansing
banishing of evil spirits

In addition, sage is at the heart of a Christian legend that relates how Mary and Jesus escaped from the soldiers of Herod after Jesus' birth.  They asked a rose bush to open its petals and shelter them, but the rose bush refused and told them to go to the clove plant.  The clove also refused and referred them to the sage.  The sage blossomed abundantly and sheltered them, and the soldiers passed them by.  Since that time, the rose has been cursed with thorns, the clove with flowers that don't smell very good, and the sage has been blessed by curative powers.

Since LHM drives into an area abundant with sage, it doesn't seem to be a stretch that he is driving through a cleansing place, a healing place, and a place where the bad and even evil of the past can be banished.  And maybe this is all a coincidence and means nothing.  Sure, LHM could have decided to take the interstate and avoid going back into Oregon again.  But he didn't, so you can draw your own conclusions.

So, that's my little foray into symbolic territory.  Perhaps I've overthought this, but that's the beauty of symbolism.  It doesn't have to be something that one plans out.  LHM probably never even thought of this - he was just looking for a blue highway rather than the interstate.  It was up to me to make whatever symbolic allusions that I perceived.  But, I can take these flights of fancy because I am an unique reader and I can interpret as much as I want and I can allow my thoughts to go whither they wish.  That's the beauty of reading, Littourati!

Musical Interlude

Once again, I had a song come to mind for this post.  I'm not sure why it this song wanted to come forward, but it did.  The title is appropriate to the post, and so enjoy Get Back by The Beatles in their famous last rooftop concert at their Apple Studio in London.

If you want to know more about Umatilla

Center for Columbia River History: Umatilla
City of Umatilla
Wikipedia: McNary Dam
Wikipedia: Umatilla

Next up: Wallula, Washington