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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 wave (2)


Blue Highways: Elberta, Michigan

Unfolding the Map

Big sand dunes can be found at the shoreline of northeastern Lake Michigan.  I will relate my own experiences there, and my impressions of sand dunes in general.  Sounds like a rockin' time, doesn't it?  Perhaps you'll find it interesting, perhaps not, but in any event it's our first Blue Highways stop in Michigan.  To see where William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) disembarks, take some steps to the map.

Book Quote

"The sandy dunes of Michigan glowed pink in the late sun, and at the mouth of the Elberta Harbor, there was a marvelous sight: little slivers of silver jigged on their tails over the blue water.  They were alewives looking for all the world like dancing spoons.  These were the fish that had washed ashore to foul beaches in the days of high pollution.

"The Viking let loose with her horns, the crew tied up and sprinted across the dock and into cars and roared off to supper, and I wished the Viking were sailing all the way to the Atlantic."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 13

Lakeshore beach at Elberta, Michigan. Photo by mr56k and hosted at Flickriver. Click on photo to go to host site.Elberta, Michigan

Sand dunes, or rather one big sand dune, is a big memory of the times I spent in Michigan.

When I was just out of college, I joined an organization called the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.  While I was placed as a volunteer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin we had an opening retreat in Benton Harbor, Michigan so that we could meet the other volunteers in the region - some of whom would be my housemates for a year - and get into the mission of the volunteer organization.  At the end of the year, the organization hosted a final retreat in Traverse City, Michigan so that we could wind down, say goodbye to our housemates and the other volunteers, and move on into the rest of our lives.

The thing I loved about the eastern side of Lake Michigan is that, of all the other places I've visited in the U.S., it most reminded me of my oceanside hometown in Northern California.  Of course, in the summer the weather was much warmer, and the lake waves were much smaller compared to the roaring surf of the Pacific Ocean.  In other respects, however, they were very similar.  The shore along Lake Michigan has the same feel, the sun set over the lake waters, and the sand dunes blown up by the prevailing western winds were very reminiscent of the dunes in places along the Northern California coast.  I would consider living there as a substitute for the west coast of the United States.

It was while at my first retreat in Traverse City that I first visited Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which is a mere half hour away from where LHM disembarked from The Viking in Elberta.  Since he mentions sand dunes in his quote, it is a shame that he didn't visit the place.  This particular set of dunes rises 150 feet high from the lake and has an interesting story.  The Ojibwe believed that a mother bear and her cubs, fleeing from a forest fire on the west side of Lake Michigan, started swimming across the lake.  The mother bear reached the eastern shore and waited for the cubs.  The cubs however, too exhausted, drowned within sight of the shore.  The two islands in sight of the dunes, North and South Manitou Islands, are believed to be the cubs.  The mother bear, who continued to wait for the cubs, fell asleep and eventually was covered by the sands.  Under the Sleeping Bear Dunes she continues sleep and wait.

When you stand at the top of the dunes, the lake looks very far beneath you.  You start down and gravity just tugs at you.  When I scrambled down, I realized that once you get going, you start taking big leaps and bounds, covering 15 feet per step.  It's almost like being on the moon, except that the slope is about 60-75 degrees.  Of course, sand gets into your shoes, but it's so fun getting down you don't care. 

However, if you go, I must caution you that it can be dangerous to get going too fast.  Gravity, the attraction that two bodies have for each other (in this case you and Earth) and inertia, the property of bodies to remain in either a state of motion or rest, work together to make it very difficult to stop if you get going too fast.  Your loss of balance will make your moving body collide with the sand at a fast rate of speed and if you're lucky you won't be hurt.  I knew a young woman who lost control on her way down and cracked her head on a rock buried under the dune's sands.  She split her head open and had to be accompanied back up by paramedics.  So be careful when you do your moon-bounding thing on Sleeping Bear Dunes!

Coming back up, however, is a real difficulty.  Climbing a 150 foot, 60-75 degree-sloped sand dune really gets your breath going in short gasps, your leg muscles sore, and your heart pumping so hard it feels like it might burst out of your ribcage.  What took you five minutes to get down takes fifteen to get back up, if you add in the stops for rest.  At the top, you almost feel like you've run five miles in that combination of exhiliration that you made it and extreme tiredness.

To me, dunes represent the same type of wave action that governs water except on an infinitely slower pace.  A time lapse photo of the dunes of the Sahara Desert, sped up to normal time, would resemble waves of an ocean in their windswept journey.  The edges of the dunes would lap at, and sometimes inundate and then retreat from, the areas at the edge of the desert borders.  If you stand at the top of a dune, you are really on the crest of a giant sand wave that is slowly, infinitesimally, moving and cresting.  It is a beautiful contrast between the liquid wave motion of water and slow, particulate wave motion of sand or other materials.

I write "other materials" because dunes are not just waves of sand.  The beautiful white dunes of White Sands National Monument in New Mexico are composed of gypsum particles, not sand.  A dune, no matter what it is made of, can cover a lot of ground in its slow movement.  The 600 foot high Sand Mountain in Nevada, a previous subject in the Blue Highways posts, has apparently moved back and forth across the desert floor for some generations, following the whims of the prevailing winds.  It also "sings" due to the shape of its sands.  There are other singing dunes too, as this fascinating video by Stephane Douady demonstrates.

Wherever there is wind and small particles, you'll find dunes.  They have helped create some of the great rock formations that we see in the western United States.  They are also otherworldly.  Giant dunes exist on Mars, and Venus and Saturn's moon Titan also have named dune fields.  I used to see dunes as being iconic symbols of the desert, and we still tend to associate them with desert areas.  They are much more than that, however, and their achingly slow, shifting, and relentless march across all regions of the world, past and present, make them an ever-present part of external and internal landscapes.

Musical Interlude

I know some other good reasons for dunes.  "If you like making love at midnight, in the dunes on the cape," then this song is for you.   Get a little "Escape" with Rupert Holmes.  (By the way, this song has more words on Wikipedia than some Beatles songs).

If you want to know more about Elberta

Benzie County Record Patriot (newspaper)
Frankfort-Elberta Chamber of Commerce
Village of Elberta
Wikipedia: Elberta

Next up: Mount Pleasant, Michigan


Blue Highways: Maplesville, Stanton and Plantersville, Alabama

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWe make our way south with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), in the late 1970s, heading down toward Selma, Alabama to learn whether Selma had changed 10 years after Martin Luther King's death.  But, we drive through the friendly towns of Maplesville, Stanton and Plantersville where people wave to strangers.  Click on the thumbnail of the map at right to see where these towns lie on our route.  Leave a comment - are you a waver to strangers passing by in cars?

Book Quote

"By midmorning I was following route 22, as I had from the Alabama line, on my way to Selma.  The truck license plates said HEART OF DIXIE, and I was going into the middle of the heart.  West of the bouldery Coosa River, I saw an old man plowing an old field with an old horse, and once more I wasn't sure whether I was seeing the end or beginning.  Then an outbreak of waving happened - first at Maplesville, again in Stanton, again in Plantersville; from galleries and sidewalks people waved.  Where folks are friendly."

Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 3


Downtown Maplesville, Alabama. Click on image to go to photo on Flickr.

Maplesville, Stanton and Plantersville, Alabama

Waving.  Such a simple thing to do.  We wave when we want to capture someone's attention, either because we want to acknowledge them, or indicate trouble, or dismiss them.

What LHM describes in the quote, the friendly folks in the south who wave from their stoops and sidewalks, is pretty much what I've experienced while traveling in the South.  Actually, it is what I've experienced traveling in pretty much any rural area.

When driving across rural areas of the United States, I was always surprised when, on a lonely road, I might pass a pickup going the other direction and the guy driving would either wave, or simply stick up his index finger off the top of the steering wheel.  This man didn't know me and was probably quite aware that I was not from anywhere around there.  Why?  Because I wasn't driving a pickup but a sedan.  So, it always was a breath of fresh air in a car filled with the smell of Cheetos or some other cheesy comestible snack to get that brief second of acknowledgment by a stranger before they zipped past.

My father liked to wave to the train.  My family has some property in a remote valley in Northern California that had train tracks running right through the middle.  Our cabin was situated about 50 feet to the side of the tracks.  Every day in the summer, one to two small passenger trains, and then a large passenger steam engine from my hometown, heading to the next town over, would go by.  My father would stand by the tracks, usually shirtless and in shorts because it was often hot, and wave and put on a show for the tourists passing by on the train.  He waved, all the while yelling "how are you doing?"  "Look at you!"  He would point at people and shout "Bless your little heart!"  The tourists loved it.  I don't know how many family trip photo albums or Super-8 movies stored in attics and boxes my father is in, but I'm sure there are quite a few of them.  I should look it up on YouTube.  Maybe someone has uploaded one from the 1970s!

Driving through small towns, one often gets the same nice, friendly waves.  Whether they are meant as such or whether they are simply convention with no feeling behind them is not for me to say.  All I know is that the feeling of a place can be dramatically different if people are waving at you as you drive by in your car rather than staring at you from stoops or giving sullen looks.  I at least have a better feeling about a place.  As I've written before, small towns often have dark undercurrents behind them in a way that is much more malicious than cities, which hang their dirty laundry in the open for everyone to see.  Small towns can be hotbeds of dirty secrets that fester because they are insular and because people's business can't be lost in a multitude of other things like it can in a city.  In a city, darkness can hide in the open daylight.  In a small town, darkness must truly hide.  But waving puts a nice veneer on everything, and for tourists passing through, that's all that matters.

Of course, I am not suggesting that Maplesville, Stanton or Plantersville have any of these problems.  They are probably like other small towns throughout America.  In fact, Stanton is known as the site of the Battle of Ebenezer Church, a desperate stand by Confederate forces after days of retreat punctuated by skirmishes to stop Union troops from taking the manufacturing center of Selma.  Outnumbered two to one, they might have succeeded had reinforcements arrived as planned to attack the rear of the Union army.  At such a site, where much blood was spilled, a simple wave to a stranger near the now tranquil battlefield nowadays holds a lot of symbolism.

 If you want to know more about Maplesville, Stanton and Plantersville

Battle of Ebenezer Church
Battle of Ebenezer Church site photos
History of Plantersville
Wikipedia: Maplesville
Wikipedia: Plantersville

Next up: Selma, Alabama