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Entries in Johnny Cash (2)


Blue Highways: Ohio River Towns

Unfolding the Map

As we pass by the river towns of Ohio, it is pretty clear that William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) is ready to get home.  His pace of travel leads me to think about the stages of our journeys and put together an admittedly non-scientific, not really well-thought-out framework of journey stages.  It'll have to serve as a starting point for something more developed later.  At right is the state seal of Ohio from Wikimedia Commons.

Book Quote

"The old riverbank towns - Franklin Furnace, New Boston, Portsmouth, Friendship, Manchester, Utopia - now found the Ohio more a menace than a means of livelihood, and they had shifted northward to string out along the highway like kinks in a hawser.  I had no mind for stopping.  God's speed, people once wished the traveler."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 4

Marker for Utopia, Ohio. Photo by GBauer8946 and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.Ohio River Towns

There are times on a journey when one is caught up in the travel.  One looks forward to each new stop along the way, and even seeing the places in between where one doesn't stop.  There is a natural rhythm and flow in journeys at that time.

In fact, I see journeys as having definite stages.

1.  Pre-journey:  This stage involves the preparation and planning.  It is filled with much anticipation, some worry, and some guesswork.  Or, perhaps not.  A very organized person might look forward to the journey while perhaps worrying a little about the details and trying to troubleshoot any possible problems.  Will I forget anything, will I hit some obstacles or roadblocks along the way, will I see everything I want to see?  Of course, there are those who don't plan much - they have a destination and otherwise let some element of chance determine what will happen.  For me, I like a combination.  I like to be relatively prepared but I want to be able to have some flexibility to deviate from the course.  LHM doesn't really allow us into his preparation for his journey.  We know that he was having some life troubles and doubts, and suddenly he is on the road.  I'm certain that he did some planning, but he also seems to have given himself some latitude to improvise on his way.

2.  The start:  Not much to say about this stage.  One gets in the car, or gets to the airport. Of course, with my wife and I, there is usually a trip around the block and then we realize that we left the back door unlocked or forgot something essential.  When it's a car trip, we have had a myriad of reasons why we have started anywhere from a half hour to two hours behind schedule.  Once, just as we were preparing to leave on-time for a driving to trip to California, a large stray dog fleeing a hot air balloon ran into our driveway and vomited in fear, and then took a dump in our parking place.  We corraled the dog and then waited for Animal Control until we could start our trip. But once the trip is started, and you're finally on the road or in the air, you can sit back and breathe a sigh of some relief.

3.  Settling into the journey:  The first few hours are usually a mix of cautious relief and anticipation.  Traveling alone, I find that I'm taking in my surroundings, happy to be where I am, but at the same time I'm somewhat hyper-aware of things.  For instance, in a car I'm getting used to the car and road noise and what it might mean.  In a plane, I'm looking out the window or at my fellow passengers.  I'm basically adjusting to the new environment that I find myself in.  I also get used to the routines and the demands of traveling on my body.  When will I get hungry and need to stop for food and drink?  How long can I sit in a position before I need to get up and move around?  Eventually, these questions will resolve themselves into a set pattern that I can get used to.  A subset of this stage might be a sort of resistance to the process.  In wanting to get a few more miles, I might push the gas gauge a little farther toward empty than I should, or get a bit tired but still drive to the next town.  When I'm traveling by car with my wife, we usually go through a routine of listening to NPR until we lose reception, and then we settle into a mix of reading to each other and watching the scenery.

4.  Journey zen: After the settling in comes acceptance that one is on the journey.  It is a stage that some will not reach, but which I strive to.  It is only when one reaches this stage that one is able to accept what the journey will give them, and recognize opportunity even in the face of adversity.  To be able to reach this stage usually takes a combination of travel experience and a willingness to cede control to the universe.  I remember once talking at a conference with a Baptist pastor who had traveled extensively, and arrived at the conference a day late because of air travel difficulties.  I asked him if he was annoyed.  "Not really," he replied.  "I can't do anything to change it so it doesn't pay to get angry.  I just caught up on reading that I hadn't been able to get to, and met some interesting people who were in the same situation as me."  I think that LHM truly reached journey zen  after a rainy day in Corvallis, Oregon when he truly seemed to leave his troubles at home behind.  I can only really count a handful of times, on all my journeys, where I've achieved this kind of state.

5.  The return: At this point, we are in this stage with LHM.  At some point on the journey, one knows it is time for the journey to end, as all must.  Notice in LHM's quote that this is the first time that he has reeled off such a long string of towns with little to say about them, and that he had" no mind for stopping."  This is a man who wants to get home.  Of course, sometimes journeys end too soon.  But on most, we just know that the journey has played itself out and that we're ready to end it.

6.  The post-journey: This point of the journey is often an adjustment and acceptance in itself.  I often feel like a journey has been an effort, and that upon returning I could use a vacation to recover.  It is about settling back into routines, work, and home life.  It is about reflection on the journey just ended, what we've taken away from it, and what we have learned.  The interesting thing about Blue Highways is that even though LHM doesn't appear to allow us to share in this stage with him, he actually does.  He wrote Blue Highways after his return, which allows his thoughts and reflections in the aftermath of his journey to influence his writing.

I have one more thing to write about these stages.  They are not static, and there is no boundary line between them.  We slip back and forth, in and out of them.  Like many things in life, they are unpredictable, and we may not even experience some of them.  They happen when and if they should.

Musical Interlude

I hadn't planned to use Johnny Cash again so soon, but I liked his version of this song, Banks of the Ohio.  It's one of those nice gory murder ballads.  If you'd like another version, try Bill Monroe and Doc Watson, Joan Baez, or even Olivia Newton-John.  My favorite version, by Mason Brown and Chipper Thompson, is not on YouTube.

If you want to know more about the Ohio River towns

City of Portsmouth
Forgotten Ohio: Utopia
Ohio History Central: Manchester
Portsmouth Area Chamber of Commerce
Portsmouth Convention and Visitors Bureau
Portsmouth Daily Times (newspaper)
Roadside America: Utopia
Shawnee State University
Village of New Boston
Wikipedia: Franklin Furnace
Wikipedia: Friendship
Wikipedia: Manchester
Wikipedia: New Boston
Wikipedia: Portsmouth
Wikipedia: Utopia

Next up: Cincinnati, Ohio


Blue Highways: Ironton, Ohio

Unfolding the Map

We have traveled far, and are now in the last chapter of Blue Highways.  We pass through Gallia County, which provides some nice contrasts of nature and progress, and then through Ironton, which once served as an engine of progress for the United States in its production of pig iron.  To see where Ironton sits, please see the map.

Book Quote

"'Inquire Locally,' the road should have been marked.  Of the thirteen thousand miles of highway I'd driven in the last months, Ohio 218 through Gallia County set a standard to measure bad road by with pavement so rough I looked forward to sections where the blacktop was gone completely.  Along the shoulders lay stripped cars, presumably from drivers who had given up.  Yet the sunny county was a fine piece of washed grasses, gleams in hounds' eyes, constructions of spiders, rocks broken and rounded - all those things and fully more.

"At Ironton I took the river road down a stretch of power lines, rail lines, water lines, and telephone lines (the birds sleep across the water on the wooded Kentucky bluffs, they say)...."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 4

Aerial photo of downtown Ironton, Ohio. Photo hosted at City Data. Click on photo to go to host page.

Ironton, Ohio

The interesting thing about Blue Highways, as we head into this last chapter of the book, are the contrasts that LHM writes about that you might miss if you don't pay attention.  I know that as I read the book, I sometimes get too caught up in where he's going, and I miss a few interesting things that are whizzing by the van in my anticipation of what town is next, or what person he might begin talking to.

It's those moments where I really get into the text that I realize that these juxtapositions are all over the place in the book for us to compare with each other.  In the text above, it is easy to just glance past a theme that permeates many parts of the book.  LHM makes a subtle contrast between broken down and intrusive human-made features of the landscape - the rough road, the abandoned vehicles, power lines, rail lines, water lines and telephone lines - and the sunny county, the fine and washed grasses, gleams in hounds eyes, spider webs, and rocks.  The human made stuff is presented as obstacles.  The road is horrible, the cars have an air of futility.

Signs of progress, such as the lines that provide power, transportation, water and telephone, are intrusive.  I love how LHM writes that the birds don't even use the power lines, preferring the natural trees and bluffs across the river.

I probably come across sometimes as anti-modern in these posts as I decry some of the harmful effects of technology and progress.  I'm not.  I'm as fascinated by progress as anyone.  I'm sitting here typing this on a four year old laptop that is woefully out of date.  It was the height of progress when I bought it, but now it is too bulky, a dinosaur compared to the sleek MacBook Pro that my wife is cursing at right beside me (she's attempting to figure out WordPress and having a devil of a time).  I'd love a new computer.  I have a smart phone in my pocket and am waiting to get the newest Samsung Galaxy III.  We have a Sony 19 inch TV that we got probably 10 years ago from a friend, and I dream of getting an LED or LCD flat panel screen TV sometime.  I regularly surf the web on an iPad provided by my job.

I read with gusto the latest scientific accomplishments, from the micro to the macro, from the human body to the depths of the universe.  I watch science fiction avidly, and am never happier than when immersing myself into Star Trek, Firefly or Battlestar Galactica.  I dream of what the world might be 50, 100, 1000 or even 10,000 years in the future.

Yet I'm no Pollyanna.  I see serious problems with progress.  It has made life better for billions of people, but it has also created just as many hazards as benefits.  Because of progress, the world is becoming seriously overpopulated.  The world is beginning to feel the adverse effects of climate change brought on by industrialization and modernization and I understand that the effects will only get worse.  Millions of deaths and casualties are possible at the touch of a button.  Groups that fear progress, or feel left out of the benefits, have grown terrorism from a global nuisance to a global problem.  Antibiotics have cured untold millions, but have also helped evolve "super bugs" which are harder to cure.

And some progress just hasn't happened like we were promised.  Cars do not run on water, they are still running modified versions of the original internal combustion engine, a concept essentially unchanged since its inception over 100 years ago.  Nor are there any feasible flying cars.  We haven't colonized the moon, or Mars, and in fact haven't sent any person beyond earth orbit since the last Apollo mission in the 1970s.  We could be snuffed out in an instant by a well-aimed asteroid.  And for all our signals to the cosmos, there has been nary a peep back - not even a hiccough. 

We are still at the mercy of floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural phenomena.  People still pick up guns and kill each other in shopping malls, theaters, schools and battlefields.  We are just as likely to go to war as we ever were.  Poverty still exists, even in the richest nations on earth.  People still die of starvation.  In the midst of health care crises, we still argue over whether the government should provide basic health care to everyone.  We still expect much, and are yet unwilling to pay for it.  We are still willing to take and exploit, but not willing to give back much.

To me progress is all it promises, and it is nothing of what it promises.  Which is why I probably identify so much with what LHM writes on a deep level.  I can appreciate the seemingly simple, intuitively complex beauty of nature just as he does.  Despite my love and appreciation of progress, I can still get lost in the beauty of trees, grass, the gleam in my dog's eye, and birds in the branches.  If I get caught up in the modern world, it flashes by like scenery in the windows of LHM's van.  But when I take time to notice, and take in the world as it is, without the flash of progress, I often find peace.

Musical Interlude

The topic of progress dovetails nicely with Ironton, which at one time supplied the pig iron used to build industrial America.  That seamlessly fits with Johnny Cash and The Legend of John Henry's Hammer.  Below is the live recording from his famous Folsom Prison concert.

If you want to know more about Ironton

City of Ironton
Ironton Rally on the River
Ironton Tribune (newspaper)
Ohio University Southern
Wikipedia: Ironton

Next up:  The Ohio River Towns (Franklin Furnace, New Boston, Portsmouth, Friendship, Manchester, Utopia)