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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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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)


Blue Highways: Hunter's Maple Farm, New Hampshire

Unfolding the Map

We stop at a maple syrup farm in rural New Hampshire, just outside Melvin Village.  There William Least Heat-Moon LHM learns how a sixth generation farmer can not only keep a tradition going, but do so with the winds of modernization and progress blowing against him.  If you want to get a little sweetness on your tongue, go to the map, but don't dribble that syrupy goodness on it.

Book Quote

"'I could sell of pieces for house lots, and I wouldn't have to work anymore.  But I'd lose more than just our land.  The old families of the township are pretty well gone and dispersed, and the old homesteads keep disappearin'.  Younger people almost have to go away to find proper work.  'Tis a beautiful place, but not a good one for an intelligent young person.  I took the college preparatory course at Tilton School and went to the University of New Hampshire for two years.  But I came back.  Didn't seem like anything special returnin' home then.  Now it looks like somethin' you may not see happen again.'"

Tom Hunter - Maple syrup maker
Blue Highways:  Part 8, Chapter 12

Hunter's Sap House. Photo by "Senter Cove Guy" and posted at Winnipesaukee Forum. Click on photo to go to host page.

Hunter's Maple Farm, New Hampshire

At one time, the land on which I grew up was part of a large homestead or farm.  Our house was supposedly the house where the landowner lived.  It was built sometime in the early 20th century, and was the newer house of the owner as I remember.  Out at the western edge of our four acres - the "back forty" as my dad always called it - I could look across the neighbor's field and see the original homestead and beyond that, a former dance hall turned into a large barn. 

When I grew up, there weren't very many people that lived around us, as the land that was owned were relatively large tracts with one house on them.  But over the years, things changed.  People either subdivided their land to get extra money as real estate prices went up, and new owners built houses on those subdivided plots, or sometimes people built another house on their own property for rental or for another family member.  The net result was more people, and though the neighborhood where I grew up is still quiet, it is less quiet than when I was young.

Even we subdivided our land.  To pay off some debts, my mom sold an acre to our next door neighbors.  They promptly built a large garage on it to house some heavy equipment and a private home mechanic shop.  Every time I look out my mom's front window, I remember that acre and the football games I used to play with my friends in that field, and the flowers that grew out of the two burnt-out stumps and I get a little wisp of nostalgia.

As our country has moved from a rural, agriculture economy to a blue-collar manufacturing economy and now to a white-collar service economy, a few things have happened.  Young people, once shown the excitement of cities and the promise of more money and greater quality of life in cities, began to eschew the family farms for better jobs.  Now, as manufacturing declines, young people continue to concentrate in cities, focusing on hi-tech, business, engineering and other modern pursuits.

In Blue Highways, the quote above comes from a chapter where LHM visits a maple syrup farm in rural New Hampshire.  Given the way the world is moving, it might seem amazing that such a thing can still exist.  In fact, reading through the rest of LHM's profile of the proprietor, Tom Hunter, it becomes clear that the farm cannot exist on maple syrup alone.  The profits pay his taxes, but he and his family have other diversified businesses that bring in income, including a trailer park, an excavating business and a barge transport company.  And yet, he says that there isn't much to keep the young people on the farm or in the family business.  He says this with only a tinge of regret, and a resignation that the world works in a different way now.

In my hometown, the second wave of the movement from manufacturing and blue-collar work to a service economy was felt keenly.  When my father grew up, the place that most enterprising young men went to work was the town lumber mill, one of the biggest on the west coast.  Other people followed their fathers into the fishing industry.  Now, the lumber mill has been closed almost 15 years, the fishing industry has been decimated by regulations designed to protect against overfishing, and my town has made a lurching and sometimes painful transition to a tourist-oriented and service economy.  Young people who want to try to improve their livelihoods and lifestyles usually go away to college and then disperse across California.

I'm not a Luddite, nor am I necessarily a Romantic.  I don't think that humans should necessarily give up progress and keep society in stasis, locked in an arrested state of development so that we remain a snapshot of what has been and will always be.  And yet, I am always filled with some nostalgia when I think of what we leave behind as we rush headlong toward greater progress.  My grandmother, for instance, grew up in an area and time when automobiles were a rarity and a telephone was a luxury.  I know she looked back with some yearning on her childhood.  I know I look back with nostalgia on simpler times that I experienced - times that probably seemed very complex to my grandmother.  I wonder if in 40 years, as I contemplate the end of my time on earth, I will look back with nostalgia on when I only had to worry about my smart phone, my IPad, and the busy life I built with those things.

There are times as I write this when I wish I could go back to Fort Bragg, live in my house or in a cabin on the Noyo River, have a garden and live simply, but not leisurely because it would be hard work.  Maybe I will someday.  As I looked up Hunter's Farm online, I discovered that this maple syrup operation, in business since 1815, is still being farmed by the seventh generation of Hunters.  We CAN stay rooted, we don't all have to leave and, if I interpret what I read correctly, we can go back from whence we came or something like it if we want.

Musical Interlude

John Mellencamp wrote a song in the 80s, at a time when the family farm was under attack, caught between the efficiencies of corporate farming and government policies.  Here, in Rain on the Scarecrow, he sings about the disappearing family farms.

And here's a simple little song, Sugar Time, by someone named William Weaver with photos of a maple syrup operation.

If you want to know more about Hunter's Maple Farm

Well, there's not really much.  But take a look at this thread describing a visit to Hunter's, and this listing of maple syrup producers in New Hampshire if you want to visit Hunter's or someplace like it.

Next up: Springvale, Sanford and Kennebunk, Maine


Blue Highways: Wanchese, North Carolina

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapIf Manteo is the flash and glitz that recalls the Elizabethan era, then Wanchese is its groundling cousin, with emphasis on fishing and hard work.  At least that's how it appeared to William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) 30 years ago.  Where is Wanchese?  Click on the map to find out.

Book Quote

"In 1584, Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, the leaders of Raleigh's first colonial exploratory expedition, returned to London from Roanoke with tobacco, potatoes, and a pair of 'lustie' Indians to be trained as interpreters.  Their names were Manteo and Wanchese.  The Virgin Queen and the courtiers in their lace ruffs were fascinated by the red men.  Months later when the Indians returned to the sound, Manteo, the first man baptized by the British in America, was on his way to becoming a proper English gentleman.  But Wanchese, after seeing London, came back an enemy of 'civilized' society.  Four hundred years, the towns carrying their names, sitting at almost opposite ends of the island, still show that separation."

Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 10

Harbor at Wanchese, North Carolina

Wanchese, North Carolina

Two men, removed from their lives and taken to a far off place.  Each spends a few months there, objects of curiousity and also of English intent in the New World.  And each comes back to their home with two very different views of their hosts/captors and the world they have seen.  Manteo wants to emulate the people he spent time with, and Wanchese wants nothing to do with them and their civilization.

It's a great story because I think it approximates the human condition, at least in some part.  In every civilization are found people who embrace it and its accomplishments and its progress fully; however you also find people who are uneasy about it or even fear it.  And the truth is, most of us lie somewhere in between on that spectrum.

Think of all the great accomplishments that our own civilization has wrought.  An obvious example is today's technological achievements, particularly in communication technology.  No matter where we go, it is possible today for every man, woman and child to be connected.  Cell phones, just 15 years ago still somewhat of luxury, now are in the hands of most people.  Not only are they simply phones, but they are "smart" phones, allowing us to be even further connected by offering us access to the Internet and allowing us to send text messages and photos.  My wife will often ask me, even when we are going out to the same place together, if I have my cell phone.

It's great to have such a resource at my disposal.  It comes in handy when I have an auto emergency, or quickly need to contact someone.  I remember the days when one had to search for a pay phone, and hope that the correct change was at hand.  I remember pulling out long-distance cards in airports, calling an 800 number and then plugging in a 16 digit number plus the area code and the number I was calling.  It is now incredibly convenient to have a phone on my person where I can make a normal call.

But when my wife asks me if I have my cell phone, my eyes can't help rolling a little and a sarcastic retort comes into my head.  "Whatever did we do before we had our cell phones?"  Because there is something disturbing to me still about being so connected.  There is something a little strange to me still about always being available to someone and that to completely disconnect is not an automatic option connected with leaving the home and office anymore, but involves a conscious choice to turn off my cell phone or power down my computer.

I have no doubt that Wanchese came back and made use of the new things that he had learned about the English and their ways to try to stave off the encroachment of this new people and civilization.  But, Wanchese was also the last chief of his tribe, which disappeared into the mists of history. Manteo became the first Native American nobleman in America.  In the end, Wanchese's tribe succumbed to the forces of progress, and Manteo might have been better off embracing them.  Should we all just unquestioningly embrace change?

I know younger people do not have this inner dichotomy at all.  In fact, they embrace the chance to be connected one hundred percent of the time.  But this older guy has a little bit of Manteo inside me, that wants to embrace that which is new and which, in a way, seems better.  But I also have a bit of Wanchese in me.  I sometimes look at progress and is in some ways deeply disturbed.  Corporate greed in the name of progress has led to billions of people in hardship.  America's technological prowess and might have come at great expense to world resources and world environmental health.  I ride a bike to work instead of using a car, I recycle, and I try to be as energy efficient as possible.  But it's a choice I have, not an imperative.  I do not have to try to feed a family on a dollar a day.  I do not want to minimize what progress has done to make my life healthier and easier.  But, I am aware that even my acts of deprivation in attempts to be a good world citizen are luxurious.

As William Least Heat-Moon was writing, the same forces are at work upon the two towns.  Manteo embraces what will become the new economy geared toward tourism by playing up its Elizabethan roots.  Wanchese remains the fishing town, whose gritty working class mentality is under siege by the forces of progress.  Later in the chapter, he writes of loading crabs on a truck and watching as a man who brings in a load of crabs on his boat is turned away and ends up dumping his load back into the sea.  And a chapter later, he speaks to an older man who is deeply distrustful of the forces of progress represented by banks and corporate leaders far away who make decisions.  Where I grew up, the fishing industry was decimated, along with the lumber industry - just two casualties of progress.  People cannot make a living fishing out of my town anymore, and the harbor is strangely silent where when I was a child, a hundred fishing boats left the harbor every morning.  Our neighboring town embraced arts and its attraction to well-heeled tourists, and is thriving, while ours still tries to find its identity, caught between its working class roots and the demands of a new time.

Two minds, Wanchese and Manteo, and two different interpretations of the same experience.  Two different outcomes.  They are fascinating symbols of both our curiousity and our uneasiness with the new.  Yet for now, progress marches on.

If you want to know more about Wanchese

The Coastal Explorer: Welcome to Manteo and Wanchese
Wikipedia: Wanchese

Next up: Fort Raleigh National Historic Park, North Carolina