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    Blue Highways: A Journey into America
    by William Least Heat-Moon

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Entries in perspective (3)


Blue Highways: Lakewood, New Jersey

Unfolding the Map

Travel, people!  Go to places that you've never been and even never thought of going!  That's the overwhelming message of this post.  As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) eats in a diner and waitress tells him not to go someplace, don't listen.  I'm telling you to go wherever you want and don't let anyone persuade you not to go.  You'll thank me later.

Book Quote

"When I paid the waitress, she filled with motherly counsel.  'Look, you're a nice boy.  Go to the shore.  Go to Atlantic City.  But for godsakes don't go to no middle.  The Pineys breed like flies in there.  Live like animals.'

"I'd heard those words across the country.  It was almost an axiom that anyone who lived off a main highway was an animal that bred like a fly...."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 8

I couldn't find a real exciting picture except for these storefronts in Lakewood, New Jersey. Photo by Kevin Knipe and hosted at City Data. Click on photo to go to host page.

Lakewood, New Jersey

When I was a little kid, I guess I was typical.  Whenever my mother or father told me I couldn't do something, it just made we want to do it more.  "No, Michael, you can't jump off the roof."  "No Michael, I won't let you walk down to the ocean by yourself."  "No, Michael, you are too young to go hunting with your dad."

Each time I heard "No" or was told "You can't..." I immediately didn't hear the rest.  I didn't hear the reason why I couldn't do something, which usually (though not always) made perfect, reasonable sense.  I blocked it out as my affronted brain feverishly tried to work out a way that I could do it, and would do it.

Luckily, I grew up.  Luckily, my frontal lobes finally developed, giving me (usually) a healthy sense of caution.  While I am not always risk averse, and like a good adventure, I'm not foolhardy either.

But when faced with a situation, especially when I'm traveling, where I'm discouraged to go somewhere or try something new, I still get like that young, past self of mine:  I start trying to figure out a way that I can do it.

I've heard it a lot in my life.  "Why would you want to go there?"  Or, even better:  "Don't go there, it's (place appropriate adjective here) and not worth your time."

I usually don't take heed.  There have been very few places that I've gone that I haven't found something, or some reason, to have made it worth my while to go.

Like LHM's waitress, most people measure the worth of a place by comparing it to what they know.  If it matches somewhat, with maybe a few differences, they are happy.  It is this mentality that leads people to always choose Applebees just off the interstate regardless of what culinary delights might be just five minutes drive into downtown.  We know what we like, and we stay with it.  As I write this post, I am eagerly awaiting a global music festival in Albuquerque, Globalquerque, which starts tonight and is one of the best things about this city.  It brings the world to our little corner of the desert.  Yet most people in Albuquerque don't know about it, and many of those wouldn't go because they aren't willing to open themselves up to something new.  Their rationale is, quite possibly, "I won't like it, and so I won't try it."  That's not me.

If I had that mentality, I would have never gone to Bangladesh.  I wouldn't have had the thrill of being scared half to death by a crash and a pair of gleaming eyes in a tree as I went from a hut to the outhouse very early one morning, only to realize that it was a giant fruit bat.  I would have never experienced the countryside, in the space of two weeks, fill up with water as the monsoon unleashed its fury.

I would have never gone to El Salvador and experienced the kindness of most of the people and also the fear that pervades the capital as dangerous drug gangs roam the streets.

I would have never gone to Northern Ireland as an observer during the parading season, where Protestant Irish groups parade with huge drums, desperately holding on to a tradition based on subjugating Catholic Irish groups because it's the only tradition they have.  I would have never seen the might of the British police and military apparatus, supposedly protecting the Nationalist communities from encroachment by more radical Protestant marchers but whose intentions were not trusted by anyone.

I would have never gone to Milwaukee to do volunteer service, lived in the inner-city, lived in Texas (you can't imagine how many "why would you want to move there?" questions I got then), lived in New Orleans, or visited half of the places that I've gone to.

Yet each place I've been, even if others think I'm nuts for going, has given me something precious.  Bangladesh was my first true immersion into a developing country, and the curiosity and generosity of its people, as well as the sheer mass of people, gave me an appreciation for where I live and where I am from as well as an overwhelming admiration for those who somehow, some way eke out a living in very, very difficult circumstances.  El Salvador gave me a respect for a people who, politically, were starting to come out from under the heel of decades of paternalistic and autocratic governments as well as many memories of trying to learn how to communicate with people with less than adequate Spanish.  Northern Ireland, even in the midst of hopeless division, showed me that even the hardest cases can have deep cracks that will one day open and that where hope seems small, it might only be the tip of the iceberg.  It too had fundamentally good people who were trying to find a way out of a decades-long nightmare.  Had jobs not called, I might have made Milwaukee my home base.  I came to love Texas.  I still see New Orleans as a spiritual home.

I'm not trying to elevate myself over everyone else in this post.  I don't think of myself as superior simply because I'm open to trying new things or going places that others say I shouldn't or would never think of going themselves.  However, I believe that those who isolate themselves into certain routines, that play it safe, that always stay with what they know probably have a narrower world view than others.  There is a cartoon that I found that, while a bit over the top, captures this spirit.  It shows an obvious racist Klansman-type with home decorations consisting of various fascist symbols.  Someone hands him a ticket for an around the world trip.  It shows him meeting new people of all ethnicities and doing new things in various countries.  Finally, when he comes back, his extremist decor is replaced by mementos from his trip, and he is placing a picture of himself with some African kids in the center of his bookcase.  I believe that challenging oneself to do things, even a small thing like trying a new restaurant or tasting a new type of food, expands our horizons.  I believe that travel, especially going to places that in some ways challenge us, opens our minds and helps us appreciate not only the places we go and people we meet, but also ourselves and where we live.  It gives us perspective.

I always take inspiration from my grandmother, who was a self-described "backwoods bunny."  Yet well into her fifties and sixties she made two trips of a lifetime to Europe to visit family that she had found in Austria.  She hated to fly, but she did.  Her photos and stories of Austria inspired me to travel there too.  I waited until I was in my thirties, but I did, and once I did there was no stopping me.  I'm a better person for it.  As my wife told an audience she was speaking to recently, "I like who I am when I travel."  I'll go her one further.  I especially like who I am when I travel to places I never thought I'd go.

Musical Interlude

I had a song for this, but I couldn't find it.  Oh well.  Terri Hendrix singing "Take me places I've never been before" will do.

If you want to know more about Lakewood

Township of Lakewood
Wikipedia: Lakewood

Next up: Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey


Blue Highways: Somewhere on the North Side of Oneida Lake, New York

Unfolding the Map

As we continue through New York, we happen with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) upon Oneida Lake, the largest freshwater lake entirely within the state.  This post is about framing, or specifically how a lake helps visually frame vistas.  But it is also about something more.  Books like Blue Highways frame an author's perspective and thoughts, and now I'm using these posts to frame my experience of Blue Highways and other books for you.  Hopefully, you can use my posts to frame your own thoughts and create frames of perspective for others.  To frame Oneida Lake geographically, please see the map.

Book Quote

"The shingled cafe, Ben and Bernies, afforded a broad view of Lake Oneida....

"The Oneida shoreline was warm - too warm - for May, although maples by the highway had opened to a cooling shade.  The perpetual spring I'd been following around the country was about done.  On a map, Lake Oneida looks like a sperm whale, and my course that morning was down the spine, from the flukes to the snout.  All along the shore, old houses, big houses, were losing to the North climate, and for miles it was a place of sag and dilapidation."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 6

Sunset over Oneida Lake, New York. Notice how water, land, sky and sun work together so well in this picture. Photo by The Brit_2 and hosted at Flickr. Click on photo to go to host site.

Somewhere on the North Side of Oneida Lake

I've always heard that when one takes a picture, framing the shot is the most important thing one can do to make sure that the picture is a good one.  I've also watched videographers, and have seen television shows about how certain movies are made, and once again how shots are framed are very important.

What is framing?  In photographic terms, framing focuses the viewer's attention on an object in the photo or in the scene, and in many cases can add a sense of depth to an image.  So, why am I starting out a post centered on Oneida Lake with the concept of framing?  I think I first became aware of this component of visual arts through my interaction with lakes.

I grew up next to the Pacific Ocean.  When one looks west from my hometown, the ocean spreads flat as far as the eye can see.  On some days, the view is to the horizon and on other days, if it is foggy, the eye cannot see as far.  When looking out over the ocean, one seeks some kind of frame of reference, such as a boat or other object.  I often found my eyes seeking the coastline, especially north where Cape Mendocino juts out into the ocean many miles distant, and I often found that a pleasing sight as it gave me a sense of distance and depth that I lacked looking straight west.

I probably had my first experience with a lake when I was too young to remember.  My family used to make yearly winter trips from our home on the ocean to Lake Tahoe.  They started this before I was born, and for some reason these trips ended when I was about four years old.  I do not remember much about my couple of trips to Lake Tahoe at the time other than some disjointed images of the car ride and being in snow (which I hated at the time because I didn't like the cold).

The first time I remember seeing a lake and really appreciating it was when I was in junior high school.  I was probably in 8th grade.  I had a friend named Mike, and he lived with his mother.  His father lived in Clearlake, California and Mike asked me if I would like to go with him to see his dad for the weekend.  His dad was a pilot, and flew over to Little River Airport to pick us up.  It was my first airplane ride, and as we followed Highway 20, which I knew well, I saw the limits of my world laid out for me.  I noted the turn from Highway 20 onto U.S. 101 and followed its line down toward Ukiah - the route I knew so well from frequent trips to the orthodontist and the ophthalmologist.

Just beyond a low hill from U.S. 101, where I wouldn't have seen it from the road, lay a small lake.  I asked about it, and learned it was Lake Mendocino, a large reservoir on the east fork of the Russian River.  We were following Highway 20 again after it split off from 101 - a continuance that I wasn't aware of.  There were a series of little lakes that followed along the road.  I was told those were the Blue Lakes, and told some thought they were bottomless.  Then, a much, much larger lake, Clear Lake, came into view.  As we banked over and began our approach into Clearlake's airport, I was amazed by its size.

Since then, I have seen a number of lakes, some much bigger than Clear Lake, and have realized that everything is perspective.  And to be fair to myself, Clear Lake is the biggest body of fresh water entirely in California.  But at that time I never realized that there could be a volume of water, outside the ocean, that could be so big.

The time we spent on and around Clear Lake was fun.  Mike's dad owned a motel with a pier into the lake and we spent time fishing, and he took us out in his boat and I learned to water ski for the first time.  But what made the lake so fascinating was the view.  Mount Konocti, a volcano, rises on the south shore of Clear Lake, and small hills ring it.  The depression in which the lake lies and the flat blue water of the lake itself creates a natural frame.  I think that my unconscious view was drawn to this frame of water, earth and sky and I would spend a lot of time looking toward the lake for that reason.

I've seen this effect at other lakes as well, including in New York where LHM travels first past the Finger Lakes and then past Oneida Lake.  On a visit to a friend's parents' house at Geneva, New York, I was aware of a similar effect as I looked south down the long lake.  Hills and sky frame the lake, and if an object such as a sailboat were on the lake in the distance, the combination of elements framed the boat beautifully.

I can imagine LHM coming upon Oneida Lake for the first time.  The water appears, and the frame spreads as more water fills the field of vision and the shores spread out to the right and left.  Depending on the time day, the sun might add to the effect.  At dawn, as the sun rises, a trail of light might direct one's gaze toward where the sun is coming up if one is standing at the western end of the lake.  One might see the same effect in the evening at the eastern end of the lake.  The lake is long enough that one might not be able to see completely across its length, which in itself creates a frame for the eye.  At the same time, standing on the north shore, the length of the south shore (if it can be seen - I don't really know) would draw the eye toward natural frames that the brain would recognize, giving depth and distance a meaning.  I'm speculating, because I have never been to Oneida Lake, but that's the point of a book - to put these images in my mind that tap into my own experience.

I've always been one to really observe and see the art and beauty in the world around me.  Some of my most memorable scenes, ones that are indelibly etched into my experience, are the vistas surrounding lakes, and I believe it is because of that natural framing that occurs that my unconscious, developing mind recognized and appreciated long before my conscious mind understood why.

Musical Interlude

The lyric "In and around the lake, mountains come out of the sky and they stand there" came into my mind as I was writing this post.  To me, it almost perfectly encapsulates the effect a lake can have on one's vision.  The lyric is from the song Roundabout by Yes.  The rest of the lyrics can be seen if you go to the YouTube site for the video.

If you want to know more about Oneida Lake

New York Department of Environmental Conservation: Oneida Lake
Oneida Lake
Oneida Lake, New York
Wikipedia: Oneida Lake

Next up:  Somewhere on the Erie Canal


Blue Highways: Manton, California

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapIn a volcanic landscape at dusk, William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) drives through a wonderland that put him into a whimsical state of mind.  If you're willing to let your mind wander, to rip off Dr. Seuss, Oh The Places You'll Go!  To see where we are located, please click on the map thumbnail over to the right of this column.

Book Quote

"I took a road not marked on my map toward Manton. Nowhere was the way straight, but the land it traversed looked like an illustration from a child's book: a whimsy of rocky shapes, a fancy of spongy bushes, a figment of trees.  Two loping deer could have been unicorns, and the fisherman under a bridge a troll.  The only reality was that somebody owned the land.  At three-hundred-yard intervals, alternating signs hung from barbed wire:  NO TRESPASSING.  PRIVATE PROPERTY.

"Wonderland stopped at Manton..."

Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 11

Manton general store. Photo by David O. Harrison at City Data. Click on photo to go to site.

Manton, California

Sometimes, landscapes seem almost too mystical to believe.  LHM experiences this on a rainy, dusky evening as he drives through landscape shaped by volcanic forces.  Often, landscapes that look ordinary at certain times suddenly take on magical proportions in certain lights.

Once I was with my wife and a friend, hiking on Mount Tamalpais just north of San Francisco.  It was winter, and the huge amount of rain that had been falling at the time turned the rivers coming off the mountain into cascades down the steep slopes.  Everything was wet and looked mysteriously primeval.  Huge ferns grew by the trail and put me in the mind of pictures I had seen in books about the dinosaurs, where giant dragonflies were snapped up by dinosaur predators.  Large toadstools made me think that at some point, a gnome or leprechaun would dance out into the open, laugh at me and disappear.  The gloom under the trees, the crashing water, and the almost jungle-like quality of the scene (even though it was a forest of conifers) made it possible that I wouldn't have been surprised had I rounded a corner and found King Kong eating the bark of a cypress tree while keeping an eye out for Fay Wray, or Jessica Lange, or Naomi Watts.

The wonders of Pandora in James Cameron's Avatar touched people precisely because the world was presented as a utopia where its people, noble savages, recognized their connection to their planet and had essentially become one with it.  Those scenes, as amazing as they can be on the big screen, evoke the passion about the wonders of our world which, though under assault, still manage to surprise us, especially when viewed through a slightly different perspective.  I still remember vividly, when driving for the first time into the Yosemite Valley just after graduating from college, the jaw dropping vista that appeared as the valley opened in front of me.  I still dream of that day when I climbed Half Dome and stood upon the edge, my senses filled with the grandeur of the Valley and the Sierras beyond.  Now I read that it's wonders are under strain from budget cuts and the increasing numbers of people that visit.  However, the images in my mind still linger.

Even as a child, I was quite aware that the world we see in the daylight changes with nightfall.  Places that meant one thing to me in the daytime often took on different meanings at night.  Our barn, a place of coolness and comfort during the day became a place to be afraid of in the dark, with many corners where bad things could hide and get me.  The ocean, roaring and often blinding as it reflected sunlight during the day became docile, placid and quieter at night, and giving my soul a soothing salve.  Redwood trees, so beautifully green during the day, became tall, dark and vaguely threatening figures at night - the forest that they sheltered, so wonderfully beautiful, alive and nurturing during the day often became a place of fear at night, where one would not want to be caught else one might be eaten by a wild animal or carried away by Bigfoot.

Of course, these feelings might have simply mirrored my life, because things were very different for me personally between day and night.  I used to dread the nightfall, because at night my father would become a different person.  The masks he wore during the day came off.  On the best nights, alcohol would make him sleepy.  On the worst nights, alcohol made him more interested in me than a father should be in his son.  I learned at a very young age that as the appearance of the world changed, so too did the appearance of many of those around me.

My wife recently showed me an old series of advertisements for the London paper The Guardian.  They made some of these very points.  In one, a skinhead is seen rushing toward a businessman from many different angles, and in conjunction with other events, it appears that he will attack the businessman.  Only from the last perspective is it revealed that the skinhead saves the businessman from getting crushed by falling bricks.  I've also read a recent article in the New Yorker by Alex Ross about Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Wilde and his work were as much about appearances as anything else, and how we can be deceived by them if we don't question our perspective.

Yet, I love the change of appearance of the world when we see it at different times of day, or different eras, and if there is deception, I still allow myself to get lost in it.  I enjoy the wonder I feel when I step into what seems like a different world, where something has altered the perspective just enough to make it all seem new.  Perhaps that is why I like stories that present alternate realities, or fantasy worlds, or exotic places.  Maybe, it is why I like to travel, and to read, and to expose myself to different places both real and imaginary.  Ultimately, I am so small, the world is so big, and there is so much to discover.  When I can experience many different realities of the same place, it's even better.

LHM brings all of these thoughts to mind as he drives through a vista shaped by eons of violent volcanic action.  Violence can beget beauty, as twisted shapes and forms take on their own elegance and uniqueness.  Beauty can beget violence, as we endlessly have chronicled throughout human history.  The difference in how we view things may be dependent on something as simple as where we stand, and the time of day.

Musical Interlude

I heard this song by the Green Chili Jam Band the other day on The Childrens' Hour on KUNM.  The show's host, a young woman named Jena Ritchey who was hosting her last Childrens' Hour before heading off to college, played this song that really touched me.  The lyrics touch on all the things that make our world wonderful.  Thank you, Jena, for introducing me to this and other beautiful songs on your show, and have a wonderful time making new discoveries about our world in college.

If you want to know more about Manton

Monastery of St. John of San Francisco
Shasta Search: Manton
Visit Manton
Wikipeida: Manton

Next up: Viola, California