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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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Entries in Walt Whitman (2)


Blue Highways: Philomath and Burnt Woods, Oregon

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!

Book Quote

"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

Welcome sign in Philomath, Oregon. Photo from the Oregon MacPioneers Users Group. Click on photo to go to host page.

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."

Musical Interlude

I can't think of a better song for this post than Alanis Morissette's You Learn.  Because we do.

If you want to know more about Philomath and Burnt Woods

Benton County Historical Society and Museum
Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon
Philomath Chamber of Commerce: About Philomath
Wikipedia: Burnt Woods
Wikipedia: Philomath

Next up: Newport, Oregon


Blue Highways: Whitesburg, Bulls Gap and Chuckey, Tennessee

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapMore bang for your click today, as we'll go through three places, but unfortunately, they pass in the blink of an eye.  His goal is Jonesboro (Jonesborough in Google Maps), our next post.  I'm sure I'll have something to say about these two places.  To locate them, click the map thumbnail.

Book Quote

"Snow plastered the highway markers, so I watched the compass and guessed.  The road to Jonesboro via Whitesburg and Chuckey wound about hillocks of snowy trees and houses puffing chimney smoke.  It was like riding through a Currier and Ives monochrome.  Meadowlarks, fluffing full, crouching on fenceposts, held their song for the sun.  A crooked sign:  ICE COLD WATERMELON.

"The highway was once a stage route of inns, but the buildings that had withstood the Civil War weren't surviving the economics of this century.  East of Bulls Gap, surveyor's pennants snapped in the wind.  Another blue road about to join the times.  Taverns and creaky Gen. Mdse. stores (two gas pumps and mongrel on the porch) were going for frontage-road minisupers.  The rill running back and forth under the highway, of course, would have to be straightened to conform to the angles and gradients of the engineers.

"Highway as analog:  social engineers draw blueprints to straighten treacherous and inefficient switchbacks of men with old, curvy notions; taboo engineers lay out federally approved culverts to drain the overflow of passions; mind engineers bulldoze ups and downs to make men level-headed.  Whitman:  'O public road, you express me better than I can express myself.'"

Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 18


Abandoned train station in Chuckey, Tennessee

Whitesburg, Bulls Gap and Chuckey, Tennessee

Whitesburg, Bulls Gap and Chuckey are but blips on the map and were probably seen as a flash as LHM drove through them.  What information I could find on them will be at the bottom of the page.

What draws me to these passages is the nature of the road that LHM is trying to convey.  Scenery that looks like Currier and Ives monochromes is one thing.  But the road serves as a gathering place.  Along the road, homes and businesses establish themselves, like cells along arteries in the human body.  Where homes and businesses congregate, towns and cities are established.  The road is a vital link between humanity and economy, and therefore the road itself becomes a metaphor at once for the similarity of human activity and interest, and the sameness of our motivations even in our differences.

LHM lifts a passage from Walt Whitman's Song of the Open Road.  In the poem, Whitman extols the road and all of its characteristics, from the physical to the metaphysical.  In this one passage, Whitman praises the public road as a means of common use:

Here the profound lesson of reception, neither preference nor denial;
The black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas'd, the illiterate person, are not denied;
The birth, the hasting after the physician, the beggar's tramp, the drunkard's stagger, the laughing party of mechanics,
The escaped youth, the rich person's carriage, the fop, the eloping couple,
The early market-man, the hearse, the moving of furniture into the town, the return back from the town,
They pass - I also pass - anything passes - none can be interdicted;
None but are accepted - none but are dear to me.

In some ways, the road is truly the great equalizer.  It is the most public of our public works.  We argue over taxes for unemployment, government social programs and military funding, but nobody argues about the need for government to maintain the highways.  We all use them.  We all feel the joy of riding over smooth roads, and the jarring jolts of roads not well maintained.

However, how we use the roads has changed since Whitman's time.  Use of the road was at a slower pace.  You were only as fast as your fastest horse, and your horse would tire after a while.  In traveling the roads, one had to meet people.  One had had a bit more time to notice the variations in scenery and terrain.  One couldn't avoid talking to people on the roads.  There was more time to peruse businesses.  There was more need sometimes to depend on the kindness of strangers.  The road was not only a economic necessity, but a communal experience.

Now, cars fly by at 75 miles per hour on the interstates, and 55-65 mph on LHM's blue highways.  One can pass hours in an untiring car, limited only by the amount of fuel it can hold and the miles per gallon it achieves, without ever talking to another person.  In our self-contained, air conditioned cocoons, we can zip through towns and barely register them.  We need pay no attention to the businesses that make the livelihoods of local folks.  We may even get annoyed if we have to talk to anyone at all.

Progress smoothes out the rough roads, straightens the turns, fills in the dips and levels the rises, making sure that variation doesn't slow us down and makes us, as LHM says, "level-headed."  Any turns still left are gripped with hi-tech tires that allow us to get around them faster so that we can get where we are going quicker.  Stereo systems and GPS units and DVD players turn our attention from outward to inward.  The road is faster, more economical, and less communal.

I am just stating fact, not making a judgment.  This progress has fueled our economic progress.  We are a huge nation, which ordinarily might be an impediment to development and was to ours for almost a century and a half.  Our economic power, the biggest the world has ever seen, was built partly on the basis of our ability to move goods and ourselves over our highways and roads from place to place cheaply and efficiently.

And yet, in this progress, might we miss the big picture?  In zipping from place to place in our insular states, might we miss things that would be good for us to see, hear and experience?  Might we benefit from a slower pace?  Perhaps we don't want to go back to horses and carriages, but maybe we should take a blue highway or two, slow down, and let the road express us more sanely than we allow ourselves to be expressed normally.  As Whitman writes in Song of the Open Road:

Allons!  the road is before us!
It is safe - I have tried it - my own feet have tried it well.

If you want to know more about Whitesburg, Bulls Gap and Chuckey

Bulls Gap Railroad Museum
Civil War Battle of Bulls Gap
Wikipedia: Bulls Gap
Wikipedia: Chuckey
Wikipedia: Whitesburg

Next up:  Jonesboro (Jonesborough), Tennessee