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

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Entries in sign (2)


Blue Highways: Mount Pleasant, Michigan

Unfolding the Map

Sometimes we need guidance - a little helping hand to get us where we need to go.  Often we seek guidance or signs but cannot find them.  Sometimes we don't recognize or even ignore signs we perceive and guidance we receive.  William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) asks for guidance and gets it from a deaf woman in Mount Pleasant.  It will determine his next destination - the Thumb of Michigan.  To place Mount Pleasant on the mitten, put your fingers on the map.

Book Quote

"Across her T-shirt was SKI.  She leafed through Stalking the Wild Asparagus in the college bookstore.  I was in the middle of Michigan and looking for a place to go next, so I asked whether she lived in Mount Pleasant, but she didn't look up.  I tapped her arm.

"'I'm from Missouri.  Traveling.  I'd like to find a good place to visit in Michigan.'  She watched but said nothing.  'Maybe you know a nice spot.'  She just stared.  Northerners really carry taciturnity too far, I thought.

A clerk came up and said, 'She's deaf.  Probably having trouble reading your lips.'  He repeated what I'd asked.

"She said, 'Oh,' and put the book down.  Holding up her right hand as if to say 'How' in Hollywood Indian fashion, she said, 'Dumb.'

"'Dumb?' the clerk repeated.  I didn't know whether she meant me or herself.

"'Dumb Miss Ginn,' she said and wagged her right thumb.

"'Thumb of Michigan?' the clerk asked.

"The girl smiled, wagged her thumb again, and nodded.  'Berry bootful.'

''It's very beautiful,' the clerk translated.

"Looking at her SKI T-shirt, I said, 'Do you ski on the Thumb?'

"'Dumbs due plat.  By dames car water ski.'

"'Thumb's too flat to ski,' the clerk said.  'Her name's Karworski.'"

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 15

Reflections of Mount Pleasant. Photo by Tom Kimball and hoted on the website. Click on photo to go to host site.

Mount Pleasant, Michigan

Sometimes, we need a guide, and we can't find one.  We cast about, looking for the right way or the right path, and no matter what we do, we can't distinguish which way to go.  We even ask those we see around us what way might be the right way.  Sometimes they are just as lost as we are, and we are frustrated because we want the answer.  Sometimes they appear to know exactly where they are going and what they are doing, and we are frustrated because we feel we should know.

For example, my wife has been looking for a sign or a guidepost or an actual guide to give her some indication as to what path her life should take in her middle age.   It has been very hard for her.  No stroke of inspiration, no accidental dropping of words that gives her a great idea, no light shining out of the grayness of the clouds that illuminates the forest path down which she should tread.  She often feels on her own.

In a way, waiting for a sign or a guide to step forward is like waiting for lottery ticket numbers to come up with the multi-million dollar winner.  Lightning will strike very few of us, and flashes of inspiration and insight will come infrequently.  A guide will step out of the trees only once in awhile.  Mostly we are on our own and have to make our own way through the world, relying on our own senses to get us where we need to go.

That's small consolation when you're waiting for that guiding hand.  Humans have created religion to provide us with direction, and over the millenia we've prayed to a myriad of gods to provide us with what we need, and we wait.  And wait.  And wait.  We go to psychotherapy in search of the answers, and are frustrated when the therapist asks us a simple question:  "What do you think you ought to do?"  If you're like me, your first response is often just as direct:  "Aren't I paying you to tell me?"

There's a joke I heard once about a man stuck on a roof as flood waters rise about him.  He is a deeply religious man, and he begins to pray.  After a while, a man comes by in a rowboat, and asks if he needs help.  The man on the roof says "Don't worry about me, God will provide."  Later, as the water is rising higher, another boat comes by the praying man, and the rower asks him if he wants to get in.  "God will provide," says the man.  As the man continues to pray, the water rises until it is almost covering the roof.  Another boat comes by, and they really want to pull the man in but he resists, strongly saying "God will provide!"  They go away and by and by the man drowns.  As he is being conducted by St. Peter through the pearly gates, he exclaims "I don't understand.  I'm a pious man.  I pray every day.  I prayed throughout the flood knowing that God will provide.  Why didn't he save me."  St. Peter turns and says, "Well, God sent you three boats.  What else were you looking for?"

I'm learning that inspiration and guideposts must come from within as well as without.  Here's my theory.  Inspiration and guidance consist of two things: action and recognition.

Nothing will happen if the person seeking guidance doesn't take action.  This could be choosing a path or asking for help.  Robert Frost provides an example in his great poem The Road Not Taken.  He chooses the road less traveled, which has made all the difference, knowing that he may lament not taking the other road.  However, this involves action.  If we come to a crossroads, and there are no signs, we have to choose or we will remain stuck.  Who knows - the signs may be over the next hill, but we have to keep traveling down the road.

We also have to recognize signs and guidance when it is being offered.  How many times have I blown off somebody's advice, because I knew better, only to learn later that the advice was correct?  How many times have I ignored what my conscience or gut feeling was telling me, only to pay later for ignoring my instincts?  Sometimes guidance comes from people or things we don't expect.  Literature is rife with people ignoring advice or signs at their peril.  Shakespeare made the fool an important part of many plays, and his heroes that didn't pay attention to their seemingly foolish but challenging and wise words often suffered.  I think that in most cases, we instinctively know what is true and right but we don't trust ourselves enough to follow our senses and ultimately be our own guides.

In the end, signs can point us to things, but we move past them.  Guides usually are with us a short way along our journeys, but not throughout life.  They may point out a path or a place we should go, or they may accompany us a short way.  Virgil served as Dante's guide through The Inferno, but after the tour was over, Dante had to move on.  Our lives are our own, and ultimately, we are responsible for our paths.

LHM ends up on the Thumb of Michigan because he takes action and asks for some advice from a young woman.  She was his guide for a short moment in time, and he followed her advice.  Occasionally, guidance comes, sometimes even in the form of a young but friendly deaf woman in a bookstore in Mount Pleasant.  We just have to recognize the signs.

Musical Interlude

This Ace of Base song, The Sign, is probably one of the last true pop songs to which I paid some attention.  It wasn't long after this came out that I stopped listening to pop music entirely.  I know I've probably missed a few signs, but I believe I've gained in understanding by broadening my musical knowledge base.  That being said, this catchy tune is about recognizing signs and going with it.  The best line, if a little grammatically awkward, is "No one's gonna drag you up to get into the light where you belong."

If you want to know more about Mount Pleasant

Central Michigan Life (student newspaper)
Central Michigan University
City of Mount Pleasant
Downtown Mount Pleasant (blog)
Isabella County
The Morning Sun (newspaper)
Mount Pleasant Convention and Visitors Bureau
Wikipedia: Mount Pleasant

Next up: Midland, Michigan


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