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Blue Highways: Mystic, Connecticut

Unfolding the Map

If you are feeling a presence that you can't quite explain, something mysterious and unknown, yet full of meaning, it may mean that you have entered a mystical place, or what you think might be mystical.  We'll find out in this post if Mystic is mystical.  To find this place where the name might mean everything, do some divining at the map.

Book Quote

"I headed toward New London, through Mystic, where they used to build the clipper ships."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 6

Downtown Mystic, Connecticut. Photo by boboroshi and posted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Mystic, Connecticut

I like movies, and my first introduction to Mystic, Connecticut was through the movie Mystic Pizza.  Before that movie came out, I had not been aware of the place.

The word "mystic" has always been, for me, one of those words that almost completely describes what it touches, and yet doesn't describe it at all.  Mystic is a mysterious word (notice that it has the same root, "myst," as mysterious), that conveys a lot of below-the-surface meaning.  It is a word that I have been drawn to every time I read it in print or hear it in conversation.  I think that it probably has that effect on many people.

The title Mystic Pizza therefore caught my eye.  I didn't quite know what to expect, but it turned out to be a coming-of-age film about three young women.  Julia Roberts had her first notable role in it, as did Annabeth Gish and Lili Taylor.  It was a nice movie, and I enjoyed it.  I later learned that my wife did a play as a young girl with Annabeth Gish (who is about her age) in Iowa, and we have recently seen Ms. Gish's parents at events in Albuquerque, where we and they now live.

This tale feels somewhat disjointed, but there's a point here somewhere.  On a trip to visit friends in Connecticut in the mid-1990s, I decided, on the basis of the name of the town and the fact that I had seen Mystic Pizza, to drive down to Mystic and see what all of the fuss was about.  Mystic, as I remember it, was a pretty little town trading on its historical shipbuilding heritage.  I bummed about, looking at things, and of course eating at Mystic Pizza.  Perhaps I thought that the beautiful young starlets would still be hanging about, ready to serve me a plate of hot, steaming pizza slices.  Of course, they were long gone.  But the town was still there, and its name was still an attraction, though it didn't seem any more mystical to me than anywhere else.

But what is a mystic, and how might this moniker fit to Mystic, Connecticut?  After all, mysticism and mystics are very specific things.  Mysticism is the attempt to reach different states of awareness awareness, and sometimes a union with the Divine or a Supreme Being.  In this sense, a mystic is a person who practices mysticism.  All major religions that have existed have had elements of mysticism in them.  Anything that brings one to different states of consciousness, or anyplace beyond what we normally see and hear, is mysticism.  Simple prayer is a form of mysticism, as the goal is to somehow come in contact with a deity or deities.  Meditation can be another form of mysticism in certain faiths.  In my imagination, this definition of mysticism conflated itself with the naming of Mystic, Connecticut.  New England was one of the flashpoints of religious confrontation in the New World as it was being settled, as various forms of Christianity, including forms of mysticism based on Christianity, battled among themselves and also with the harsh environment and the native traditions. I just assumed that Mystic, Connecticut reflected that history.  I also made assumptions based on the literature and history of the times, where people who might have been practicing mysticism were denounced as witches and either driven away or often killed.

Well, it turns out that Mystic, Connecticut sits at the mouth of the Mystic River, and is named for the river.

That still didn't disabuse me of my notions.  In fact, it made my imagination wander even farther.  The Mystic River sounds even more fantastic, more magical, more mysterious, than Mystic, Connecticut.  Certainly, all that history and religion came together to lead to the name of the river.  I tried to imagine how the name of the river came about.  Perhaps settlers, newly arrived to the area, saw the Mystic River heading into the dark forests and hills of Connecticut, areas where mystery reigned, shadows concealed unknown terrors and perhaps wonders and realities that only the imagination could conjure.  If you've ever read Washington Irving or Nathaniel Hawthorne, you know that the areas beyond the settlers' front doorstep were unknown and sometimes terrifying.  Thunder could easily be giants bowling, men could fall asleep for 100 years, and the Devil, bad spirits and witches roamed the dark forests.

Alas, however, I was was to be disappointed.  The Mystic River was a derivation of the Wampanoag Indian word for, quite simply, "big river."  The only mysticism attached to the river and to Mystic, Connecticut was the imagination that I attached to them.

Despite my disappointment at learning the truth, I have to admit that places where our minds wander are often influenced by place and by the labels we attach to them.  Would Mystic Pizza,  Mystic, Connecticut and the Mystic River have captured my imagination if they were entitled Big River Pizza, Big River, Connecticut and Big River River?  Probably not.  In that sense, I got my money's worth out of Mystic even before I saw it and if the reality didn't match my imagination, well, that happens in life.

On the other hand, often the name of a place belies the mystical and amazing experiences there.  For the incredible natural wonder that it is, the name "Grand Canyon" seems to be a little under-descriptive for a place that inspires such awe and wonder that it can almost put one in another level of consciousness.  The near religious experience I had hearing the call to prayer for the first time in Istanbul (was Constantinople) was not something I prepared for in going to a country called Turkey.  Romantic encounters that send one to unimagined heights of love and pleasure often occur with people whose names are simply Fred, Mary, Joe, or Karen.  Names are only identifiers, and the true mysticism of a place or person will come through despite how they are called.  I may have found that Mystic did not live up to my vivid imagination, but I know Mystic is mystical to many.  It certainly is a lovely town with a wonderful seaport museum.  Every place and everyone has the potential to be mystical to someone, and that is what makes our universe special.  You never know when something or someone will bring you to a higher level of awareness, and make you feel like you've touched the Divine.

Musical Interlude

If one song captures the mystic for me, it's Van Morrison's Into the Mystic.  It is one of those songs that feels like it just came out perfect from the beginning, and that it was conceived somewhere on a higher plane.  Simple, but multiply layered and beautiful.

If you want to know more about Mystic

Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce
Mystic Aquarium
Mystic Country
Mystic Seaport
Old Mistick Village
Wikipedia: Mystic

Next up:  New London, Connecticut


Blue Highways: Pattison State Park, Wisconsin

Unfolding the Map

Have the signs ever seemed against you?  Have you missed the signs, or sometimes just ignored them completely?  Has it come back to bite you, or have you been okay or even better off by not heeding the warnings?  William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) just walks away from the signs at Pattison State Park, but I'll reflect on warnings, signs and labels, both the good and the bad, before we move on.  If you want a sign of where we are, read the map!

Book Quote

"It was dark when I turned south, and I couldn't find a place for the night.  Pattison State Park drove me away with a board full of regulations."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 11

Big Manitou Falls, in Pattison State Park, Wisconsin. Photo by Bobak Ha'Eri and is hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Pattison State Park, Wisconsin

Like many people, I've often had a checkered relationship with rules and regulations.  Now, let me clarify when I mention this history.  Of course, there are the rules and regulations that all of us break every day with no ramifications.  Some of them are simply silly, like the warning on mattresses that seems to promise dire consequences if the tag is removed (though my understanding is that it will void the warranty).  When I read that tag as a kid, I thought that even touching it would bring the strong arm of the law down on me.  Scenario:  "Hey Kowalksi, let him go." "But he's murdered 17 teenagers, cut off their heads and made them into stew."  "Yeah, I know, but we've been called to arrest a kid who tore the tag off his mattress."  "It's your lucky day, punk.  We've got worse scum to clean up.  Lock and load, and let's go."

To be fair, there are some warning tags and signs that just aren't needed.  And some warnings that you should heed are in fine print or spoken really fast or understated.  I'm thinking of drug commercials, where a wonder drug that makes everything great can have side effects, all spoken by the announcer in a commercial in a soothing voice, such as barking like a dog, foaming at the mouth, incontinence and uncontrollable flatulence.

Many of us have, at some point, pirated CDs or DVDs, or enjoyed a pirated copy of some movie or album. Many of us run software that we haven't paid for or obtained lawfully.  Despite it being against the law where I live, I sometimes drive and talk on my cell phone though as I read more about horrible accidents caused by this activity I don't do that much any more (and I never text while driving).  When I was in high school, like many of my friends I smoked pot, though I do not partake now.

Sometimes, a regulation or rule is broken unintentionally.  Usually these are straightforward mistakes and the result of misunderstanding or lack of attention.  Not noticing a "Keep off the Grass" sign, for instance or missing a speed sign and getting pulled over for going too fast.

Sometimes, when the rule is broken unintentionally but someone in authority treats us as if we did it on purpose, or worthy of suspicion, that can result in anger and resentment.  The latest incident like that in my life, for instance, was at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.  My wife likes to take pictures of me posing like museum statues.  There was a statue installation on some steps at the Getty of a woman reclining.  She wanted me to go near the statue where I would recline in an imitation of the work and she would snap my picture with her phone.  There were no signs at the steps, and I climbed up to the statue.  All of a sudden, a security person with an imperious voice told me to get down.  I came down, but was dumbfounded.  Where was the sign?  I could see none.  I asked him.  He just said it wasn't allowed.  I suggested, irritated, that they put a sign up.  He said that there was a sign.  Yes, there was a sign, on the side steps which I hadn't traversed yet and which could not be seen from down below where one could get the best view of the artwork.  I had a few choice words about incompetence that day, irritated as I was for being treated like a troublemaker when for all intents and purposes I had not known I was in transgression.

These are minor occurrences, however.  When rules and regulations, especially on signs and notices, are put up, it is usually for two purposes.  First, they are for our (the public's) protection.  Many times, we can get hurt.  It's that simple.  Second, they are for the protection of the object behind the sign.  By allowing us access to touch things, or walk on things, or go inside them, or whatever we do, there is a risk that there will be damage or destruction.  In essence, the rules, regulations and signage indicate there is something that someone feels is worth protecting.  Third, and especially in the case of privately owned areas, the signs protect the proprietors.  If we get hurt, we can sue.  In our society, where sometimes our only recourse to being hurt or wronged is through litigation, nobody is truly safe from a lawsuit but a sign listing restrictions and rules goes a long way toward protecting owners and operators.

In parks like Pattison State Park, signs are there for all of those reasons.  I just finished reading a fascinating account of deaths in the Grand Canyon.  You may think this book would be morbid and dull reading, but in reality it is like watching a car wreck.  I couldn't keep my eyes away from it.  I turned page after page to read about how the next person died, and then how the next person died.  Would you believe that there's been quite a few deaths blamed on the young male urge to piss off a cliff?  These are the kind of weird deaths that kept me interested.

Some of the deaths were simply due to not heeding warnings, rules and regulations.  What kinds of warnings?  Warnings against hiking down and back out in one day, for instance, without adequate water or protecting oneself from the heat or cold.  Or perhaps going off the main and well marked trails in order to find a short cut to the river and getting lost in the labyrinth of side canyons.  Or trying boat through rapids without any experience or swim across the Colorado River despite it's extremely cold temperatures.  Or hiking side canyons during monsoon season when flash floods are known to happen with little warning.

Sometimes ignorance, willful or unintentional, can mean the difference between life and death.  When I was younger, I was more willing to flout the rules and take risks.  Perhaps the unfinished development of my frontal lobes when I was a teen and in my early 20s led me to take more risks than I do now.  As I am older, I am more likely to obey rules, heed warnings and be more of a law abiding citizen.

There is no doubt that rules and regulations can be a hassle and take some of the fun out of things, as LHM seems to suggest in his quote, where the sign board with rules and regulations in Pattison State Park drove him to seek someplace simpler and less constrained.  For its part, Pattison State Park has two large waterfalls - Big Manitou Falls and Little Manitou Falls.  Big Manitou Falls is the highest waterfall in Wisconsin, at 165 feet.  As I am writing this, we are not too too far past tragedies surrounding waterfalls in the United States.  At Niagara Falls in August of 2011, a 19 year old Japanese woman ignored warning signs and climbed a safety rail.  She slipped, fell into the river just above Horseshoe Falls and was swept to her death.  In July, 2011 at Yosemite Park's Vernal Fall, three people climbed over a safety railing, slipped and plunged over the edge.  They didn't survive.  It stands to reason that people, wanting better views or better photos, get too close to something which is dangerous.  Sometimes it works out and they get that wonderful shot.  Sometimes, it doesn't and in the worst case scenario, they die.  If they'd respected the rules and regulations and had not taken the risk, they would probably still be alive.

The book Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon puts it this way.  Wilderness areas and parks are two edged swords.  Governments can put them completely off limits to preserve safety.  That would not go over well.  In the U.S., park visitation rises every year, even as budgets fall.  Parks can sign themselves to death, but that is not cost effective.  So, the rules and regulations are posted at the entrance, and then you are free to ignore them or respect them as you wish.  Respecting them gives you better odds of living longer.  If you feel hemmed in, you can move on down the road.

I will say, though, that a warning label on people would be extremely helpful to all of us!

Musical Interlude

This old song, Signs by the Five Man Electrical Band, is a protest against all the rules, regulations, restrictions, warnings and signage in our society.  I imagine the members of the band, all probably in their 60s at least, obey signs more than they did then.  (The song was also covered by the band Tesla).

If you want to know more about Pattison State Park

America's State Parks: Pattison State Park
Big Manitou Falls (in Pattison State Park)
Little Manitou Falls (in Pattison State Park) Big Manitou Falls Pattison State Park Pattison State Park
Wisconsin State Park System: Pattison State Park
Wikipedia: Big Manitou Falls
Wikipedia: Pattison State Park

Next up:  Moose Junction, Dairyland and Cozy Corner, Wisconsin