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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 passage (2)


Blue Highways: Franklin, West Virginia

Unfolding the Map

The New Year has begun, and William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) finds the power in a circle - the circle of his trip, the circle of life.  I will explore and reflect upon how our passages in seeming straight lines are really circles, and how this New Year is yet another segment on the circle of our own journeys through life.  To see where Franklin is located, please see the map

Book Quote

"After a small meal in the Ghost, I marked on a map the wandering circle of my journey.  From the heartland out and around.  A blue circle gone beyond itself.  'Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle,' Black Elk says.  'Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were.  The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.'

"Then I saw a design.  There on the map, crudely, was the labyrinth of migration the old Hopis once cut in their desert stone.  For me, the migration had been to places and moments of glimpsed clarity.  Splendid gifts all."

Blue Highways: Chapter 10, Part 2

The Potomoc River in Franklin, West Virginia. Photo by Doctor Flowers and hosted at City-Data. Click on photo to go to host site.

Franklin, West Virginia

As we start this new year, with its promise of new beginnings and fresh starts, it is easy to look back at the trajectory that our lives have taken and reflect upon them.  In my previous Blue Highways post I did some of that reflection by examining the past year.  As one gets older, it becomes more commonplace to reflect on longer periods of time in the past.  As a child and young adult, my capacity for reflection beyond what I had experienced a day, or maybe a week at most, in the past was fairly limited.  As I have just reached the completion of my 49th circuit around the sun, I find that I am spending more time in reflection deeper into my past.

One of the themes of Blue Highways has been that of circles.  A person's journey through life has been described in the book as a series of setting out on journeys, and then circling back to the origin.  Nothing, it seems, ever is a simple trip from point to point.  Most of the time we set out somewhere, we return, giving our lives a circularity that we rarely notice.  We go to work, and then return.  We set out on shopping trips, and then come back home.  My sense is that if we mapped people's short and long journey's the result would resemble the drawings I did as a young person with Spirograph plastic wheels.

Circles so dominate our existence that we barely even think about it.  We live on a spherical planet that is essentially a series of circles increasing from infinitely small to the maximum diameter of our planet and then decreasing back to infinite smallness.  That planet rotates, meaning that we essentially make a complete circle once every 24 hours.  That sphere travels in a roughly circular orbit, with other spheres, around a spherical sun. The sun itself travels with other stars on the outer arm of a spiral galaxy in a circular path around the galaxy's center.  The universe itself may be spherical, originating in time and space at the center in a titanic explosion and expanding outward like a big bubble.

If we look at our journey through time, over the course of our lives, then once again we have a circle.  LHM quotes Black Elk, but Black Elk was not the first to notice this circularity.  The seasons, following a cycle determined by the circular travel of the earth around the sun, prescribe a rotation through time as fall changes to winter, winter goes to spring, and then spring turns to summer, and summer goes back to fall.  Life moves in a circle as well, with the smallest creatures serving as food for larger creatures, and so on up the food chain, until death makes even the largest creatures food for smaller creatures, and even some of the smallest living beings.  Water moves in a circular pattern as well, from oceans to rivers, streams and lakes and back to oceans - with some taking a side trip through our bodies before it is purified back through the ecosystem into the circle again.

Some of our earliest religious symbols were circles.  Life itself follows a circular pattern.  It is easy to see life as being a line from birth to death, but long before Black Elk spoke about life's circularity the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible warned people that "from dust we came and to dust we shall return."

If our life indeed prescribes a circle then it stands to reason that my past year is just one little stretch along the rim.  When I think about how my life might fit this model, I realize that all of the little circles of life that I have taken have still moved me forward.  My little circles to and from work and back home have worked toward moving me forward in my career, as well as helping me save resources that may lead to the purchase of a house in 2013.  My trips to and from the classes I have taught have given me a greater understanding of my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, and will ensure better classes for my students in the future.  My writing in Littourati, while moving in a seemingly linear fashion through On the Road and Blue Highways, has taken me on a circular path between the past and the present, over and over, especially in my more reflective posts.

As LHM looks at the map of his journey, and you can also look at the whole map here, he realizes that his journey is not only circular but also resembles the circular maze of migration that is part of the Hopi mythology.  The Hopi believe that starting in the First World, and into the current Fourth World, the clans of humanity have continually set out, come back together, and then disbanded again over and over in a repeating pattern.  The sequence and cycle of togetherness and harmony followed by separation and discord seems to encompass most of our experience of life.  These past holidays, I noted how U.S. families, no matter how difficult their relations with each other, keep coming back together at certain times of the year and usually always around the Christmas holidays.  Sometimes these gatherings can be harmonious, at other times they can be full of dysfunction and pain.  Yet something keeps drawing us through that particular circle year after year.

I celebrate the circles in life, but realize that these circles will bring me forward through joy, and occasionally backwards through pain, melancholy and remembrance of things that I wish would stay in the past.  Yet I can't help but move forward.  When people have wished me a happy new year in the past few days, I thank them but am very aware that some of it will be happy, some of it will be sad, but all of it will move me forward on my own circular life journey.  And that is as it should be.

Musical Interlude

Rodney Crowell's song Dancin' Circles Round the Sun, encapsulates the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epictetus who argued that we should not worry about the things that we can't control.  When people try to exercise too much control over life, things get out of balance, and as we all know a circle out of balance, such as a wheel, can cause a bumpy ride.


If you want to know more about Franklin

Guide to Pendleton County
Wikipedia: Franklin

Next up: Judy Gap, Seneca Rocks and Elkins, West Virginia


Blue Highways: Quechee Gorge, Vermont

Unfolding the Map

Stand on the edge of the rift in the earth.  Feel the wind racing up the sides of the gorge and blowing on your face.  If you dare, look down to the bottom, 165 feet below.  While William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) crosses the bridge over the gorge and moves on into New Hampshire, we'll stop for a moment and think a little about the symbolism of gorges and things that disappear into the earth.  To learn where you might make friends in low places, make a descent to the map.

Book Quote

"....The road crossed Quechee Gorge, an unexpected hundred-sixty-five-foot-deep sluice cut through stony flanks of the mountain; a couple clutched the bridge railing as they uneasily peered down into the gloom."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 10

In the Quechee Gorge downstream of the Quechee Gorge Bridge looking back. Photo by "AustinMN" and hosted at Panoramio. Click on photo to go to host page.

Quechee Gorge, Vermont

As you may have gathered in previous posts, I love mountains.  Thrusting out of the earth with craggy and intensely defined features as in most young mountains, or gently rising in tree covered glory, like many older mountains, I've always found them to be metaphors and reminders.  They are metaphors of barriers in our lives, and at the same time of the heights we can reach.  They remind us of how small we are in a large world and, to a greater extent, in our universe.  They also have metaphorically served as gateways to heaven - a great number of the gods that our human cultures have created have either lived on top of mountains, or going up a mountain was the way to reach them.  Think of the Greek gods that live on Mount Olympus, or Moses climbing the mountain to receive the commandments of God.   There is a continuing trope in literature and comics about the man scrambling up the side of the mountain to find truth.  I recently watched the first movie in the latest series of Batman movies, Batman Begins, and Bruce Wayne has to scale a mountain to reach the monastery where his training will begin and the unveiling of his mission in life will occur.

But this post is about gorges, the exact opposites of mountains.  In fact, gorges can be thought of as hills or mountains in reverse.  They sink into the earth, sometimes thousands of feet, so that one standing on the edge of a gorge might get a sense of vertigo.  To ascend a mountain takes effort, desire and hard work.  To descend a gorge is deceptively easy and, in some cases might be totally unexpected if one falls off the rim!

Whereas mountains are metaphors for our goals, and as barriers calling forth our best efforts to overcome, gorges seem, to me at least, to have much darker meanings.  I've been trying to think of literature that I've read where paths that sink into the earth have had a positive connotation.  It is down in the earth where some of our deepest, darkest fears and horrors have lurked, at least in our cultural sensibilities.  If mountains reach toward heaven and take us closer to God or the gods, gorges, caves and other places that take us into the earth take us toward places that we fear - the deepest recesses of our minds and psyches, Hell, and ultimately death.  Think of Dante descending into the Inferno, Frodo swallowed up in the Mines of Moria, or Orpheus heading into Hades.  Where the earth cracks, darkness is usually present.

This might be overdoing it a bit for a gorge like Quechee.  After all, the pictures I've seen of the Quechee Gorge show a beautiful river carving a slice in the rocks amid trees.  But there are deeper gorges, which but for the intrepid drive of humans might be inaccessible today.  The Hells Canyon on the Snake River, the deepest gorge on Earth, has a wonderful story attached to it about how it was created, combining mountains and gorges and their meanings.  The Grand Canyon was, for all intents and purposes not fully explored until relatively recently in human history.  And talk about barriers - if mountains are frustrating at times until one finds a pass through them, gorges can often be impassable.  I related in a previous post how the Spanish explorers, upon finding the Grand Canyon, almost found the boundary of their explorations and had to make herculean efforts to cross it.  Of all the gorges in the world, the Grand Canyon is still the gorge where the most people die each year (mostly due to human ignorance, ineptitude or the unnecessary taking of risks).

The lowest point on Earth lies in a gorge under the ocean.  The Mariana Trench is a place of fascination to scientific explorers, and a place where, for the rest of us, creatures live that appear to be drawn from our most horrible dreams.  The deepest gorge in our solar system lies in a place that we haven't even visited yet - Mars.  The Valles Marineris puts the Grand Canyon to shame, with a depth of up to four miles and a length that is much longer.  It is interesting that Mars, a future goal of exploration by humans, has all of the metaphors discussed here in gigantic scale - the deepest gorge and the highest mountain (Olympus Mons) yet discovered in the solar system.  It seems to embody, in one planet, our hopes as a species, the barriers and obstacles that await us, the heights that we can reach and the depths in which our fears reside.

It's taken me a while to like gorges.  As I mentioned above, I was always drawn to mountains.  Frankly, I get vertigo looking from great heights straight downward.  On a recent visit to the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico, which on approach is barely noticeable until one is right on top of it, I could barely look down from the bridge to the river more than 600 feet below.  Yet standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, which is immensely bigger, I had a false sense security rather than seeing the danger, as if what I was looking at was somehow less imposing because it didn't seem real.  It was beautiful, almost as if I was looking at a painting of the Grand Canyon rather than real life.  Some years ago, when I happened upon the New River Gorge in West Virginia, however, I was stunned by the beauty of the place and the thoughts that it brought to my head.  I even composed a piece of poetry standing at a viewing spot near its edge.  I now appreciate them for what they are, a part of the same geology that heaves up the mountains and in a way, their own metaphors for challenge and growth.

If gorges can be gateways to those things we fear, they are also passages to unknown places and discoveries that are wonderful and fulfilling.  When we look at mountains, we look at them as challenges to conquer.  We don't necessarily climb mountains to find out who or what is there, we climb the mountain because it is a mountain.  But for me, when I see a valley or a gorge or some other place slipping down beneath the earth, I wonder what or who is down there and what they might be doing.  I speculate on what sights might be seen there or wonders that might be uncovered.  I think about what the perspective might be from the bottom - whether it will be quieter or more calm below than up on top.  I've often heard that standing at great heights, people often feel drawn toward the edge and even over.  Perhaps this feeling that I have is the more benign version of that strange urge - in this case, an urge to climb down and discover.

I think about LHM's couple, standing on the edge and peering uneasily into the mist shrouded depths of the Quechee Gorge, and I understand the uneasy fascination of the deep places.  Life is not only about walking on the plains, but climbing to the high places and descending, at times, to the low places.  Whether climbing up, or slipping down, one is still assured of discovery, learning and growth.

Musical Interlude

I'm nothing if not tenacious.  In search for songs about gorges, I stumbled across this little thing called Scenic Gorges by Boats.  It's an interesting song, sort of catchy in a funny punk kind of way.  Not only that, but I figured out how to embed it from Grooveshark.  Enjoy!

Scenic Gorges by Boats on Grooveshark

If you want to know more about Quechee Gorge Quechee Gorge
Quechee Gorge Village
Quechee Gorge Visitor Center
Wikipedia: Quechee

Next up: Hanover, New Hampshire