Unfolding the Map
As we wind our way through the mountains of West Virginia, past the tiny towns in the small river valleys, William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) has a sense of going back in time. How often have we all felt that sense, in one way or another, and how often have we brushed aside the thrill and the melancholy of it all as we charge ahead into the future. I have, but then again, I've also allowed myself to bathe in it, soak it in, and breathe it. It's easy to commune with the past and its ghosts, if you are willing to let yourself. Go to the map to learn where to find Valleyfork, Wallback and Left Hand. And look at the lovely monarch butterfly to the right, West Virginia's state butterfly.
"State 4 followed the Elk River, an occluded green thickness that might have been split pea puree. The Elk provided a narrow bench, the only level land, and on it people had built homes, although the river lay between them and the road and necessitated hundreds of little handmade bridges - many of them suspension footbridges, the emblem of Appalachia. From rock ledges broken open by the highway cut, where seeps dripped, hung five-gallon galvanized buckets to collect the spring water.
"Again came the feeling I'd had all morning, that somehow I'd made a turn in time rather than in space and driven into the thirties. The only things that showed a later decade were the pickup trucks: clean and new, unlike the rattling, broken automobiles.
"West Virginia 36, a quirk of a road, went into even more remote land, the highway so narrow my right tires repeately dropped off the pavement. Towns: Valleyfork, Wallback, and Left Hand (a school, church, post office, and large hole once the Exxon station)."
Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 3
I'm in a melancholy mood as I write this post, Littourati. I'm listening to melancholy music, and LHM's quote also has the feeling of melancholia about it. I've always found the past to be melancholy anyway - times gone by that sit in our memories and resurface in the present, like shadows in a mist, and then disappear again have a tinge of sadness and wistfulness associated with them.
In the book Shoeless Joe (made into the movie Field of Dreams), a farmer by the name of Ray is filled with melancholy over the lost opportunities of his life. Ray hears a call to build a baseball field, which he does. Then he hears another call, one commanding him to "ease his pain." By a process of investigation, he comes to believe that he must ease the pain of the reclusive writer JD Salinger. After contacting and kidnapping (sort of) Salinger and attending a Boston Red Sox game with him, Ray sees the name of "Moonlight Graham" on an apparently malfunctioning Red Sox scoreboard. He and Salinger track down Graham to his hometown of Chisolm, Minnesota, only to find that he died some years before after a lifetime as a physician. Graham had played in one game in the major leagues, but only got 2 innings in the field and never got an at-bat. That night in Chisolm, Ray can't sleep and gets up to go for a walk, leaving the sleeping Salinger in the hotel. As he wanders outside into a cold, foggy night, he sees a figure carrying a bag moving slowly in an empty street of a Chisolm of yesteryear. He follows him and discovers the halting figure is Moonlight Graham, returning late at night from a house call, who invites Ray home. Graham tells Ray his story, and reveals that despite a full and fulfilling life, that he always missed baseball and his regret over missing that one chance at bat.
I won't spoil the rest of the novel, which is wonderful, as is the movie adaptation. I bring the novel up because it almost makes real the feeling of turning a corner, and finding oneself in the past, or a different era, and the delicious melancholy that accompanies those feelings. We've all experienced such feelings, I imagine, even if we might not have recognized it.
The strongest moment I can think of where I experienced such a feeling was in Istanbul, Turkey. I was walking through a market bazaar when one of the five daily Islamic call to prayers began. I suddenly felt like I was in a different time, which in itself was strange because the call was being sent through speakers at the nearby Blue Mosque. Yet I was transfixed in a moment that, even though I noted that I was in the present, seemed like it could have been from any time in the past 1000 years. I've felt this in other places also. At Ephesus, again in Turkey, there were plenty of tourists milling around, but when I went around the corner of a ruin and into an area where I was alone for a few minutes, I could almost feel the Greek and Roman ghosts brushing softly past me. In a really interesting twist, as I marveled at the engineering in the latrines, I could imagine Roman men, almost as if they were really there, sitting on those toilet seats conducting lofty conversations in politics, business, philosophy and science while taking care of far more earthy needs. While people milled around in the base of the ancient Ephesian theater, I went to the top of the seats and while the wind softly blew and I looked out over the fields that once were the Aegean Sea, now two miles distant, I could feel the Greek and Roman patrons sit next to me, watching a tragedy by Sophocles or a comedy by Aristophanes on the stage below.
In Chaco Canyon, I felt the shoulders and feet of many generations of ancestral pueblo forebears bringing stone after stone to build the great complexes and kivas that served as the center of their religious rites. In Rome, I could see the crowd roaring in the Colosseum as gladiators fought for freedom, money and the adulation of crowd and emperor, and I saw chariots racing around the Circus Maximus, even though all that was left was a flat oval. I've also, in my mind's ear, heard the angelic voice of Hildegard von Bingen rising in a lovely and challenging counterpoint to the monks choirs in the 12th century monastery where she entered holy orders near Odernheim, Germany.
But the feeling of walking into a different era is not just confined to the spectacular places of history, but wherever one makes a connection with the past. I've felt it on the site of the former lumber mill in the Irmulco Valley, which hosted a surrounding town of workers in the early 1900s, but which is only marked by some crumbling brick foundations today. I've even felt it on trails in the redwood forest, when a shiver goes up my spine as I realize that people have trod the same paths for generations. And always, along with the thrill of being one the past in a connection through time, is the melancholy when I realize that one day I too will be one of those ghosts, or simply a faded memory, that lightly tugs at the sleeve or thoughts of a wandering passerby as he or she stops in a moment of reverie, and then moves on.
I wrote above that I was melancholy, and I'm going to share the playlist that I've entitled Melancholia with you. It features a variety of music styles and artists, and for 2½ hours you can wallow in some sweet sadness.
If you want to know more about Valleyfork, Wallback and Left Hand
Next up: Spencer, West Virginia