Unfolding the Map
Well, you almost didn't get this post. I had already completed the Newport post, when I realized that I had missed William Least Heat-Moon's (LHM) mention of Philomath and Burnt Woods. But this actually works, because LHM has been going through a tough time by this point in the book, and turns a corner. I actually changed the map marker on Corvallis to red to signify that there was something to his time spent there, and now, he has a new purpose. Read on to learn what, at least in my estimation. And check the map if you want to place Philomath and Burnt Woods on your mental geography!
"The wind came in over the Coastal Range in the night and blew the sky so clean it looked distilled. As the sun cast long morning shadows, I went west into the mountains toward Philomath and Burnt Woods. Either the return of sun or a piece of cornpone etiology from a California cafe gave the feeling I'd begun the journey again."
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 4
Philomath and Burnt Woods, Oregon
This is a short post. Why? Because I f***ed up! I jumped ahead to Newport, Oregon and totally missed that LHM passed through Philomath and Burnt Woods. So I'm essentially pulling this post out of my a** after working on Newport's. However, I think there's a couple of things that are important to understand about Blue Highways and LHM's journey at this point.
LHM, by the time he gets to Corvallis, is going through a hard time. All through California and into Oregon he has been questioning himself and the purpose of his journey. When he gets to Corvallis, it rains for two days and he stays there, in a sad and morose mood. He calls his girlfriend, the "Cherokee," only to be rebuffed. It is in Corvallis, the "heart of the valley," that he seriously thinks about giving up the trip. He says in Part 6, Chapter 3:
"In darkness and rain I left the library. I began fighting the fear that I was about to lose heart utterly and head back. Oh, god, I could feel it coming. The old Navajos, praying for renewal of mental strength, chant, 'In the ways of the past, may I walk,' but my chant went the other way around."
He's questioning everything. He is trying to decide what he hopes to accomplish - why he is even making the trip at all when it seems so difficult:
"'Nothing,' Homer sings, 'is harder on mortal man than wandering.' That's why the words travel and travail have a common origin."
But, as the quote says above, he has a change of heart. He finds a purpose in the trip, and takes inspiration from Whitman's lines:
"What I needed was to continue, to have another go at reading the hieroglyphics, to examine (as Whitman says) the 'objects that call from diffusion my meanings and give them shape.'"
I find it interesting that when he resumes his journey, along the way he passes through Philomath and Burnt Woods. There is some symbolism here, yes. A philomath is a person who loves learning. We know that LHM is an academic and a writer, and as such, I would assume a lover of learning. So the symbolism I see here is that LHM, to find purpose in his trip, has to go back to that love of learning, that excitement about seeing what comes around the next bend, and putting it all into the context of the America he lives in, the life he inhabits and the sum of his knowledge of self and others.
Of course, what's around the bend but Burnt Woods. Again, I see symbolism. Burnt Woods was named after the scars of a number of forest fires that can be seen in the area. A forest fire is destructive. It kills trees, plants and animals. But it is also regenerative. In many conifer forests, a cone can only properly germinate if it is opened in the intense heat of a fire. It takes a forest fire to clear out the dead underbrush, allowing the newly germinated seeds to take root and grow. In a sense, LHM's trip is about clearing out the brush in the forest of his life, and germinating something new in his ideas, his outlook, and his life.
LHM states it best:
"I had been a man who walks into a strange dark room, turns on the light, sees himself in an unexpected mirror, and jumps back. Now it was time to get on, time to see WHAT THE HELL IS NEXT."
If you want to know more about Philomath and Burnt Woods
Next up: Newport, Oregon