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Entries in Midnight Oil (2)


Blue Highways: Pawcatuck, Connecticut

Unfolding the Map

We cross into Connecticut... the 31st state on the Blue Highways tour.  I have some connection to Connecticut - I used to go there quite a bit to see some friends but I haven't been there in several years now.  I used to go to New York City a lot, and that would bring me to Connecticut.  This post i about how I was intimidated to drive in New York City, until I actually did it.  To see where Pawcatuck sits, follow the freeway to the map.

Book Quote

"When I crossed the Pawcatuck River into Pawcatuck, Connecticut, just up the old Post Road from Wequetequock, I realized I was heading straight into New York City.  I had two choices: drive far inland to bypass it or take the New London-Orient Point ferry to Long Island and cut through the bottom edge of the Apple."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 6

Mechanic Street in Pawcatuck, Connecticut. Photo by Jennifer and Pat at their Road Trip Memories blog. Click on photo to go to host page.Pawcatuck, Connecticut

It's hard for me to believe, but there was a time when I'd have avoided New York City.

Don't get me wrong.  I understand LHM's reasons for trying to find a way that minimized his exposure to NYC.  After all, Blue Highways states very clearly at the beginning that LHM's purposes is to find the roads less traveled.  He is not, in any sense of the word, a socially anxious person.

He is unlike my parents, for example, who avoided cities if they could help it.  We lived in a rural town with a population of just over 5,000 people.  The biggest city that my parents cared to visit regularly was a town of about 50,000 two hours drive distant, and they only did that for medical reasons or perhaps to do some shopping.  Since the mall was just off the freeway, or in other words easy to get into and easy to get out of, that suited them just fine.  When we did have to go farther, to San Francisco or Oakland for example, that was occasion for anxiety.  I've already written about how horrible it was for them to take a wrong turn or get off on the wrong exit.

I was a little different.  Something in me sought out the challenges of cities.  When I left California at age 22, I went to live in Milwaukee.  Milwaukee was large, about 500,000 people, and it felt like a big city.  Driving in Milwaukee, especially on the freeways, was fun because you had to be aware at all times.  Milwaukee was one of those cities that was built first, and when freeways came around they just threw them into places where they might best fit.  Curves were sharp and one had to watch for exits as they would just sneak up on you and before you knew it, you'd have passed them.  There was even a "bridge to nowhere," that was part of a lakefront freeway that never quite happened.  The freeway crossed the bridge over the harbor area and then, abruptly, ended in the quaint neighborhood of Bay View.

Chicago was Milwaukee times ten.  Miles and miles of freeways seemingly plunked down in the middle and the outskirts of the city.  As I drove through, looking up at the tall buildings, they seemed to almost mock me in my puny car, as if I and the rest of the little ants driving in didn't belong there.  Chicago was always filled with pitfalls.  Exits that one had to watch for on both sides, construction continually happening that blocked exits and made one detour.  Traffic jams that slowed things to a crawl and made a usual half-hour trip past downtown turn into two hours or more.  Aggressive drivers that scared the hell out of the rookie Chicago driver.  Toll booths where you literally tossed coins into a basket and hoped that the little green light flashed on.  Yet I never avoided downtown Chicago.  I could have taken the I-294 loop around the city, but I loved the challenge and I loved the views and therefore I always aimed my vehicle for the heart of downtown.

I never avoided the downtowns of any other city either.  Even if it meant taking less time off my trip, I drove through downtown Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Indianapolis just to see them.  But New York City was a different animal.  I was intimidated by that city.  I had never been there, but just the reputation alone, built up by reputation passed on through books, television, movies and word-of-mouth and other sources had me convinced that one needed to be an expert to drive there.  So it was with great trepidation that I took my first driving trip from Milwaukee to New York.  It seemed simple enough.  I would cross the George Washington Bridge, take the first exit and find a friend's place on the upper West Side just a stone's throw from the bridge.  It was intimidating, but I did it.  When I parked the car, I felt like the member of an exclusive club.  Nobody I had grown up with had ever driven in New York City!

Of course, that's all I did.  And even parking the car was a problem.  The next morning when I got up I was warned that I should check on my car because it was garbage day.  I ran out to find the street empty save for my car, which was adorned with a large ticket and a big red sticker on the the window that declared how my car had impeded that day's city services.  I drove with my scarlet letter to find another parking place and cursed what seemed a huge amount for a ticket.

Being there, however, led me to be courageous enough to drive one of the freeways, at least for a look.  It was intimidating, but doable.  And I got over my fear of driving in New York City.  I must say that I didn't do much penetration of the streets where the taxi-cabs rule.  But, I learned that any city in America is drivable if one pays attention and doesn't take loud horns too seriously.

Today, I like to think I'd drive anything.  My next goal, something I've never tried, is to drive in a foreign country (not including Canada, where I've already driven).  I'd start out with an easy one, where they drive on the right like in the US.  Then, perhaps, I'd try a country like England or Ireland where the traffic moves on the left side of the road.  I must say, I'm probably too intimidated to try driving in a place like Rome, where it seems that it would take years of study to know what the unwritten rules of the road are.  I would have to say the same for India or another developing country metropolis.  There are both written and unwritten rules for driving in those places, but the rules are too convoluted for me to follow and would take being a true native to understand.

But, you never know.

Musical Interlude

I'm going to repeat this song from an earlier post.  I was driving through Chicago and this song, Midnight Oil's Dreamworld, came on WXRT, and it was the perfect song for driving at 65 down the freeway toward the city.


If you want to know more about Pawcatuck

Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce
Wikipedia: Pawcatuck

Next up: Mystic, Connecticut


Blue Highways: Maryhill, Washington

Unfolding the Map

We stop for a walk with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) in Maryhill, continuing to ponder on some large questions of life and time.  In this case, why do we bother to try to realize dreams that crumble and blow away over time?  Sounds depressing?  I don't think so.  I think it just is. Navigate over to the map to pinpoint Maryhill.

Book Quote

"Sam Hill had many plans - some shrewd, some cockamamie - and he had money to try them.  His plan for Maryhill, Washington (first called Columbus), was to find a narrow zone where coastal rains met desert sun; that belt, he believed, would be an agricultural Eden....He talked some Belgian Quakers into considering settlement, but when scouts for the group came, they saw and left.  To them, Hill's ideal zone was the fiction of a creative road engineer more adept at theory than practice when it came to agronomy and climatology.  And they were right.  The town lay in the rain shadow of the Cascades.

"Hill continued building the big and costly stone manor, often called, with some accuracy, 'Maryhill Castle.'  At one time he said it was for his wife Mary, but she apparently refused even to visit the place....

"....But Hill died....Hill's dream had passed, and now, but for the museum, monument, and the ruined rock walls, the desert slope was as vacant as ever."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 10

The Maryhill Museum in Maryhill, Washington was built originally as a mansion by Sam Hill. Photo by "Cacophony" at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host site.

Maryhill, Washington

What happens to our plans, our dreams, and when we realize them, our creations?  I have been thinking a lot about his as I have been writing these posts in this blog.  LHM's account in this chapter of Blue Highways about Sam Hill and his ideas have brought these thoughts back to me recently.

I have to frame this question by first asking: What's the point?  What's the point of creating things, especially if they will end up like Sam Hill's vision of Maryhill, Washington?  He had great plans.  Plans that were, as LHM says, "some shrewd, some cockamamie."  He put his plans into effect.  He built a large "castle" for his wife.  He hoped to build a settlement that made use of what he thought might be the perfect meeting place of aridity and humidity for an agricultural wonderland.  Instead, the settlement didn't happen.  The climate was not right for agriculture after all.  His wife didn't want to go anywhere near Maryhill.  All that is left, according to LHM, are a few buildings, a ghost town, and a facsimile of Stonehenge up the hill.  What was the point of that?

What was the point of the great civilizations whose remnants are crumbling under our feet over the millenia?  The Hittites and Babylonians.  The Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians.  The Mayans, Aztecs and Inca.  The Cahokia Mound Builders, the Chacoans and the Mesa Verdeans.  The Mongols and the early Chinese empires.  What was the point of their civilizations if now all that is left is what can be saved through archeology?

Percy Bysshe Shelley summed up the hubris of pride and of civilization in a memorable way in what is one of my favorite poems of all time, Ozymandias.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Rosalind and Helen, a modern eclogue, with other poems

I am but a bit player in these things, but I have been realizing that even my small contributions to our current civilization are but tiny blips that will burn briefly and then die.  Living in the present, it is easy for us to believe that things that we produce are timeless - our writings, our art, our music.  Yet only a fraction of the literature and art that has been produced through the millenia of human existence has survived.  How many wondrous works of art might there have been that we have missed?  How many amazing pieces of literature have been lost over time?  What lost symphonies or masterworks of song have had their notes briefly sound and then disappeared?

As I write these lines that will be saved electronically on the internet for you to read, I am conscious of a number of things that could happen.  They could be lost due to a catastrophe with the server.  I could run into dire straights and find that I cannot pay my bill to keep my account on this provider.  As we move forward in time, perhaps the provider might not survive and go out of business, taking my posts with it.  As we move forward through years, decades, centuries, how do we know that the internet will survive beyond a brief flowering?  How will we know that our civilization will survive - civilizations up to now, even those that seemed in the midst of their greatness to be guaranteed to last forever, eventually fall and die away.

So why do I, the Sam Hills, the architects of civilizations dream and create works that will eventually dissolve in the relentless march of universal time and movement?

I can only answer for myself.  I wite these posts because it pleases me.  I also write the occasional poem, make Facebook posts and dream of writing a book someday because it is my one little sound in the vast cacophony of the universe, my one word in the encyclopedia of creation, my one spark of energy to add to the immense energy of the wider cosmos.  Of course, I would love for my creations, for my small part to play in the ongoing history of humanity, to last and have some relevance.  But that is just my bit of hubris.  What I create may be relevant or not, but eventually my creations will disappear and my voice will fade.  Just like Maryhill, the great civilizations, and all our arts, literature and music will eventually follow Ozymandias and crumble forgotten into the infinite and unrelenting cosmological desert.  Other towns, civilizations, arts, literatures and musics will follow and in their turn disappear and be replaced.  And that's just fine, and just as it's meant to be.

Musical Interlude

I had a hard time picking this song.  I looked up music that might have something about Ozymandias, and though Jefferson Starship, the Sisters of Mercy, and Qntal all had songs with that name (and I am really partial to the Jefferson Starship song), I kept coming back to this song by Midnight Oil, even though it really has nothing to do with what I'm writing about.  I even went to songs about time's passage, and looked briefly at another song I like, Steely Dan's Black Friday.  But this kept popping back in my head.  So, if it's supposed to be in this post, it will be in this post.  And I think it can fit, because when all is said and done, isn't life and all our creations like a dream that will one day fade and end?  Enjoy Dreamworld!

If you want to know more about Maryhill

Maryhill Museum of Art
Maryhill State Park
Sam Hill's Stonehenge
Washington Stonehenge
Wikipedia: Maryhill

Next up: Roosevelt, Whitcomb and Paterson, Washington