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Entries in human condition (2)


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


Blue Highways: Dime Box, Texas

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapIs Dime Box, Texas the everytown that William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) wants us to consider for the human condition?  Or did he just need a break on a long trip across Texas, stopped here for a time, and decided to fill some pages writing about its inhabitants?  I'm not sure so I speculate below.  You can speculate too, and if you want to see where Dime Box is located, click on the map thumbnail conveniently located to the right.

Book Quote

"Across the Yegua River a sign pointed south to Dime Box. Over broad hills, over the green expansion spreading under cedars and live oaks, on into a valley where I found Dime Box, essentially a three street town. Vegetable gardens and flowerbeds lay to the side, behind, and in front of the houses. Perpendicular to the highway, two streets ran east and west: one of worn brick buildings facing the Southern Pacific tracks, the other a double row of false-front stores and wooden sidewalks. Disregarding a jarring new bank, Dime Box could have been an M-G-M backlot set for a Western.

"'....City people don't think anything important happens in a place like Dime Box. And usually it doesn't, unless you call conflict important. Or love or babies or dying.'"

Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 2

Downtown Dime Box, Texas. Photo by "Ms. Vicky" at the blog Mariah's Zepher. Click on photo to go to host site.Dime Box, Texas

Given the amount of text that LHM devotes to Dime Box, Texas, you might think that it is a pretty big place.  Now take a look at the Wikipedia page that I link to below.  Dime Box's entry is all of two sentences.

Now that begs a question.  Why did LHM put so much attention into Dime Box?  He stops in a diner, where nothing is going on except for the occasional small talk of some extremely bored people, and where the most exciting thing that happens occurs when an old woman stands up and farts, causing one guy to make the comment that she doesn't need any more beans.  He then visits the post office and talks to the woman at the counter, and she tells him a little about how the town got its name, its ethnic background, and states her speculation on what "city people" think of small towns like Dime Box.  I quote that above.

He then gets a haircut and devotes another section of the book to the barber who gives him a haircut.  He learns that the barber used to press clothes and gets shown the large pressing machine in the back, long unused.  He sees the tree that is in the process of uprooting the corner of the barber's building.  He declares the haircut the best he has ever gotten.

He then stops in a bar and watches men of Czech and German descent play dominoes.  A man with a Czech accent tells him about his war experience and asks him a philosophical question.  Given a choice of one of three implements that he could use to survive, which would he take - a hoe, a fishing pole and line or a gun.  LHM says he'd take the fishing pole, and the Czech says he'd take the gun.

I'm somewhat stumped about LHM's reasons for giving this much detail to this out of the way stop.  Is he making a point about how slow it can be in small towns?  I'm from a small town, so this isn't news to me, and it probably isn't news to others either, whether they come from small towns or big cities.  Is he pointing out that time has a different meaning in places like Dime Box?  Yes, we move faster and time seems to move more quickly in places where there is a lot more action.  In contrast, a small town in an out of the way corner in Texas may seem like time stands still.  It moves, if one looks carefully.  People age, homes and farms change hands, businesses die and sometimes don't come back.  The town experiences booms and busts and sometimes the busts kill it off.  I suspect this isn't news to most people either.

Or is he making a point that places like Dime Box are still here, and that life happens anywhere, even in such a small place.  The quote from the postal clerk points out that small out-of-the-way places have controversy (she states that Dime Box was embroiled in racial politics over busing like a lot of other places in the 60s and 70s), and that people are born, fall in love, have families and die in places like Dime Box just like any other place.  People get their hair cut, they sit in diners and talk, and they sit in bars and drink and play games.  They work.  They live.

Perhaps that's the point that LHM is trying to make.  We get caught up in our own lives, think of ourselves and perhaps our own joys and problems.  We insulate ourselves in our surroundings.  We live in our cities and towns and forget that in other places, people more alike to us than unlike are dealing with similar problems and facing them in similar ways and coming to similar ways of resolving them.  In that way, the most powerful banker in a penthouse suite in a skyscrapered metropolis is connected to the most humble farmer in the smallest town in the middle of the east corner of nowhere.  The tools that each uses to deal with life are different.  One has access to money and the best technology, and one may just have a pair of hands and a voice.  But the things that life throws at us are the same across the board, and we remember that when we stop in a place like Dime Box and a second generation ethnic Czech war veteran from Dime Box tells a story about connecting with Czechs from Chicago over booze and gambling while fighting a war against a fascist regime bent on world domination.  We are all connected through the similar problems that we face.

At least that's what I think that LHM is getting at.  But I might be completely wrong...and it wouldn't be the first time.

If you want to know more about Dime Box

American Profile Magazine: Dime Box
Mariah's Zepher blog post on Dime Box
Texas State Historical Association: Dime Box Dime Box Dime Box
Wikipedia: Dime Box

Next up: Austin, Texas