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    On the Road
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    Blue Highways: A Journey into America
    by William Least Heat-Moon

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Entries in William Least-Heat Moon (63)


Blue Highways: Jackson, Mississippi

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWe skirt the environs of Jackson with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) who thinks urban sprawl is like an aneurism.  That's a pretty cool metaphor, in my opinion.  To check out where Jackson is, and even perhaps use Google Maps to look at the urban sprawl thirty years later, click on the thumbnail of the map at the right.  Leave a comment if you've been in Jackson, or just want to say hi.

Book Quote

"Then I went back to the Trace and followed dusk around the spread of Jackson highways that had broken open like aneurisms and leaked out strawberry-syrup pancakes, magic-finger motel beds, and double-cheese pizzas."

Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 6


Downtown Jackson, Mississippi. Click on image to go to host site.

Jackson, Mississippi

I've never been to Jackson.  My experience in Mississippi is limited to traveling on I-10 from New Orleans to my wife's parents' home in Sarasota, Florida.  Basically, my experience has been passing by casinos as the interstate bypasses small Gulf cities like Gulfport, Biloxi and Pascagoula.

In one way, I am of two minds about the sprawl and spread of cities.  When I was a child, I used to love when we drove from my small town down to the Bay Area.  When we got close to San Francisco and Oakland, I was fascinated by the urban city-scapes.  The tall buildings with their shapes (the TransAmerica Pyramid was a favorite of mine).  But what I really enjoyed was the freeway over and underpasses, particualarly those "cloverleaf" formations that accompanied interchanges.  The roads wound smoothly in arcing curves, up and over, and then back down - but repeated.  On those curves cars motored along, looking like blood cells in arteries.  To me it looked so futuristic.  I remember the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco that zipped along the waterfront, the buildings so close you could almost touch them.

I still get that feeling.  When I lived in San Antonio we had opportunities to go to Houston often, and way outside the downtown, near the Galleria, at I-10s intersection with one of the loop highways, the ramps towered high above the interstate.  I don't understand anything about engineering and architecture, but I loved the look and the futuristic feel.

Of course, there is the downside of the interstate and interchanges, which LHM refers to in his quotation.  I've written about it before. In San Antonio, urban sprawl, like the "aneurism" that LHM uses as a metaphor, broke out along the loops around the city.  The inner loop was filled with the IHOPs, the Motel 6's and the Super 8's, and the Pizza Huts and every other chain store you can think of, bleeding its residents' business away from the downtown.  The outer loop had not yet developed quite as much, but will probably get there considering that San Antonio is one of the fastest growing urban areas in the country.

To build interstates through cities, it must also be realized that cities often used eminent domain, and many times displaced minority residents, to build these ramps and skyways that so enchanted me as a child.  In Milwaukee, where I lived in the 1990s, a whole swath of housing was cleared along the city's north side.  The planned freeway never happened, and that housing was never recovered.  In New Orleans, the I-10 skyway past the French Quarter was built down what was once a vibrant boulevard live oak-lined boulevard in an African-American neighborhood that was filled with small minority-owned businesses.  In it's place, the skyway looms, but the residents have painted the columns with likenesses of live oaks and each Mardi Gras, families meet and cook-out underneath the roaring skyway.

But sometimes, cities realize their mistakes and reclaim the space once occupied by their freeways.  That Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco that caught my imagination?  It was torn down, and San Francisco developed its waterfront including its ferry building.  The area is now vital, and people come to the Embarcadero for its ambience, its shopping and its food.

If Jackson was as LHM described when he went through thirty years ago, I hope that it hasn't grown too much.  I hope that instead of letting business dollars seep away to the outer sections of the city that Jackson, if it had a Southern charm, retains it in a downtown where residents like to shop, eat and visit.  I hope that if Jackson started down the path of sprawl, that it did something about it.  I'm not too hopeful given how other cities in America have been developing, but hope is always there.

If you want to know more about Jackson

Jackson City Website
Jackson Clarion-Ledger (newspaper)
Jackson Daily Photo (blog)
Jackson Free Press (alternative newspaper)
Jackson Jambalaya (blog)
Jackson, Mississippi Tourism
Official Jackson Website
Wikipedia: Jackson

Next up: Clinton, Mississippi


Blue Highways: Ofahoma, Mississippi

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWe travel with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) onto the Natchez Trace at Ofahoma, and once again lament America's obsession with getting there fast on the interstate.  To see where we pick up the Trace, click on the thumbnail of the map at right.  Leave a comment if you have been on the Trace.  I haven't, and want to drive it someday.

Book Quote

"Now new road, opening the woods again, went in among redbuds and white blossoms of dogwood, curving about under a cool evergreen cover.  For miles no powerlines or billboards.  Just tree, rock, water, bush and road.  The new Trace, like a river, followed natural contours and gave focus to the land; it so brought out the beauty that every road commissioner in the nation should drive the Trace to see that highway does not have to outrage landscape."

Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 6

Somewhere on the Natchez Trace. Click on image to go to host site.

Ofahoma, Mississippi

One of the reasons I really enjoy Blue Highways is because of William Least Heat-Moon's identification of the two-lane road as an underappreciated treasure on the American landscape.  I grew up having to traverse two-lane highways to get out of my hometown to anywhere of consequence, and while there were, and still remain, some difficulties with two-laners that one does not have to worry about with interstate highways, overall I love taking the back roads when I get a chance.

What were some of the problems, you may ask?  Well, for one, I grew up in a remote area of the Northern California coast.  The only way to get anywhere was to take State Route 20 east 35 miles until we hit the higher speed "freeway" of U.S. 101.  One could also take State Route 1 to State Route 128, but that was 75 miles of two lane roads.  State Route 20 was over twisty roads through the Coast Range, and as a child I was subject to car sickness.  It took me awhile to get over that.

Another drawback to living in a place only accessible by two lane roads was that when weather struck in the winter, the roads were susceptible to flooding and to landslides, and being narrower, that could strand everyone in town until the flooding subsided or the road was cleared.

But positives of two lane roads, our Blue Highways, surely outweighed the negatives.  Traveling on two lane roads meant that we could stop wherever we wanted.  If we spied something that we wanted to explore, we could simply pull off onto the side of the road and explore to our hearts' content.  Travel was slower, by necessity, and therefore encouraged that kind of exploration.

William Least Heat-Moon, later in this chapter, takes advantage of this aspect of two lane roads:

"Northeast of Tougaloo, I stopped to hike a trail into a black-water swamp of tupelo and bald cypress.  The sun couldn't cut through the canopy of buds and branches, and the slow water moved darkly.  In the muck pollywogs were starting to squirm.  It was spring here, and juices were getting up in the stalks; leaves, terribly folded in husks, had begun to let loose and open to the light; stuff was stirring in the rot, water bubbled with the froth of sperm and ova, and the whole bog lay rank and eggy, vaporous and thick with the scent of procreation.  Things once squeezed close, pinched shut, things waiting to become something else, something greater, were about ready."

This kind of exploration would not be possible on an interstate, and I loved this about our two lane roads at home.  Of course, with my dad driving, we didn't explore as much as I would have liked since he usually wanted to get where he was going as fast as possible, but as an adult, I remember my childhood wishes to stop and see things and I indulge that wish now.

The other great thing about two-lane non-interstate roads is that they don't bypass towns, they unashamedly and without fear head right through them.  The cost is in time, because you often have to stop at stoplights.  The advantage is seeing towns as they are meant to be seen, their good and bad sides, and being forced to slow down and look.  I believe that with the growth of interstates, Americans have truly lost touch with America.  We bypass towns on the interstates with nary a glance.  But when you take a two lane highway, you have to notice them and they must register on your conscience in some way.  In doing so, the uniqueness of places throughout America becomes more noticeable - the small cafes and stores, the feel of the town and the people within it, and the unique natural attractions in the area.

I've lamented the growth of interstates before, simply because you can't do these things.  If you see a sight along the side of the road, you can't necessarily stop on an interstate and indulge your curiosity.  Interstates are about speed and getting where you are going in the fastest time possible.  There is a shoulder on an interstate, but with cars going by at 50-85 miles per hour, it is not necessarily a safe place to be.  Exits on the interstate are few and far between, so if you pass a sight that you want to see, it might be a couple of miles before you can get off the interstate and make your way back to it, and by that time you might give up on your quest altogether.  On a two lane road, you make your own exits and you stop where you want.

Americans like to talk about freedom.  But we are remarkably hypocritical about freedom in our practice.  We allow a small group of corporations to shape our consuming habits, which certainly limits our freedom.  And in our need for speed, to get to the next destination as fast as possible, we limit our experiences and ultimately that freedom which we claim to love so much.  That is why, like William Least Heat-Moon, we should indulge our freedom on Blue Highways.

If you want to know more about Ofahoma

Sorry, Ofahoma is just a small place on the map, with little on the web.  But it is an entrance to the Natchez Trace, and the Trace is an important landmark that unfortunately, I have never been on.  Here's some information on that, and hopefully you'll go:

Explore the Natchez Trace
National Scenic Byways Program:  Natchez Trace
National Park Service:  Natchez Trace Parkway
National Park Service:  Natchez Trace Scenic Trail
Natchez Trace State Park (Tennessee)
Wikipedia: Natchez Trace

Next up: Jackson, Mississippi


Blue Highways: Philadelphia, Mississippi

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWe stop in Philadelphia.  Not the city of brotherly love, but a city in Mississippi that lies on top of a former Native American village and which has a troubled racial past.  While we reflect, take a peek at where we are by clicking on the map thumbnail located to your right.  Leave a comment if you are so inclined, or like what you see.

Book Quote

"Here, too, the old, sad history.  The town, like others in the area, was built over the site of a Choctaw village.  The Choctaw, whose land once cvered most of Mississippi, earned a name from their skill in horticulture and diplomacy; they were a sensible people whose chieftains attained position through merit.  In the early nineteenth centery, they learned from white men and began building schools and adding livestock to their farms.  Later, whites would refer to them as one of the 'five civilized tribes.'  Nevertheless, as pressure from white settlement increased, the Choctaw had to cede to the government one piece of land (in million-acre increments) after another....With the treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, held in the woods northeast of Philadelphia, the Choctaw gave up the last of the land and reluctantly agreed to leave Mississippi forever.  They walked to the arid Indian Territory where they set up their own republic modeled after the government that had just dispossessed them."

Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 6


Downtown Philadelphia, Mississippi. Click on photo to go to host site. 

Philadelphia, Mississippi

An age-old story and one that helps define our history as a nation, and in a way, defines European settlement around the globe.  Indigenous peoples face encroachment by alien peoples on their territories.  Some of the indigenous try to accommodate, with disastrous results as agreements are made and then nullified by the encroachers.  Other indigenous peoples turn to war to defend their lands, only to be brought into submission by the superior weaponry of the invaders.  This story is not an isolated one.  It is repeated in histories ranging from Latin America to Australia, Africa to North America.  It coincides politically with the rise of colonialism, and economically with mercantilism and then its successor, capitalism.  Lands outside of Europe were places to be exploited, and indigenous peoples in those lands at best were seen as unenlightened savages who could be "tamed" and "civilized" and "Christianized" in the European manner, turning them into "people of reason" (the Spanish view), or at worst they were seen as annoyances, useful in wars against other colonizing powers but otherwise impediments to expansion (the British and French view).  Either way, the indigenous peoples were less than human unless they could be made human.

I've written in this blog both about the heroism associated with the settlement and taming of the American continent (blogs on Fort Raleigh and the Star Fort), and the dark underside of the colonizing of America (Fort Raleigh).  However, the noble actions and conduct of a few do not diminish the fact that the overall effect of the European colonization of the Americas amounted to a decimation of the peoples and the cultures that were here when the European colonists first arrived.

We see the effects of that decimation to this day.  Native American tribes confined to a fraction of their traditional lands.  Some tribes, like the Oklahoma Choctaws that LHM references, or the Seminoles, on reservations that they were moved to.  In Arizona, the Navajo were removed by the U.S. Army at gunpoint away from their native lands to New Mexico around 1863, only returning to their homes five years of the few instances of the United States allowing a native tribe to return to its own lands with its traditional boundaries.

Many reservations, wholly within the United States, face problems associated with developing countries.  Poverty, as well as educational and social problems like alcoholism and drug abuse sap reservations' ability to develop and to promote traditional lifestyles.  Therefore, many Natives are still dependent on the U.S. government and its social programs.  While many reservations have had economic success by developing casinos, the benefits of these enterprises can lead to corruption.  In any event, development based on gambling, unless the revenues are channeled effectively, do not make a viable long-term growth strategy.

Yet, the vitality of Native American cultures can be seen every day.  In Albuquerque, where I live, The Gathering of Nations brings together thousands of Native Americans from tribes across the United States and Canada for North America's largest powwow in late April.  Native American culture is kept alive and fostered through music, and radio stations that celebrate Native music and creativity.  Native art is kept alive through pottery, jewelry, and painting.  Many people of European descent adopt certain Native customs, buy Native wares, and even try to live through Native tenets.  Despite the best efforts of the European colonizers and their successors, Native American culture lives on.

Philadelphia, Mississippi, LHM informs us, stands on what remains of a Choctaw village.  Many other towns and cities across the United States can probably also claim that they stand on the remains of other Native American villages and settlements.  The inference could be that Native America has been buried under European progress and manifest destiny.  But Native America is not gone but recovering from the blow it was dealt with the arrival of colonization.  The United States should consider itself fortunate that these peoples with their millenia of connection to the land we all now call home recall the best and worst of our collective history.  They are living reminders of how our founding and early history fell short of our ideals, and how we might reach them.

Postscript:  Philadelphia was the site of a notorious killing of three people in 1964.  James Chaney, a black man from Mississippi, was shot to death along with two activists from New York, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.  The killings inspired the movie Mississippi Burning.  In 2009, the town, which is 55% white, elected James Young as the first black mayor by 46 votes.  Young described his election in a town where he grew up in a neighborhood harassed by the Ku Klux Klan as "an atomic bomb of change."  Wounds always leave scars, but they can heal.

If you want to know more about Philadelphia

Neshoba County Fair - Mississippi's Giant Houseparty
The Neshoba Democrat (newspaper)
Philadelphia Community Development Partnership
Wikipedia: Choctaw
Wikipedia: Philadelphia

Next up:  Ofahoma, Mississippi


Blue Highways: Scooba, Mississippi

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWe've crossed another state line with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) and are now in Mississippi.  When I lived in Louisiana, which for quality of life ranked pretty low on the list of all the states, I often heard "Well, at least we aren't Mississippi."  However, Mississippi has some interesting places and history.  I often lamented not visiting the Mississippi Delta region to learn about the origin of the blues, or driving the Natchez Trace.  That's the beauty of traveling through this book - we can with some imagination.  Click on the thumbnail of the map to find where we are now situated, and feel free to comment and let me know how you're doing as we travel along.

Book Quote

"I missed the turnoff to Sucarnochee, Mississippi, and had to enter the state by way of Scooba on route 16, a road of trees and farmhouses.  The farmhouses weren't the kind with large, encircling porches and steeply pitched roofs and long windows you used to see, but rather new houses indistinguishable from wet-bar, walk-out basement, Turfbuilder-Plus suburban models."

Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 6


Downtown Scooba, Mississippi. Click on the picture to go to host site. 

Scooba, Mississippi

It's a great name for a town - Scooba.  I couldn't find any information on how Scooba got its name online, but I'd really like to know where the name came from.  I get mental images of Scooby Doo the cartoon dog, or perhaps some 1940s crooner singing "Scooba dooba doo...."  But I'm pretty sure that none of those apply in this case.  In fact, looking at pictures of downtown Scooba, it seems like it might be a pretty depressed place.  The downtown looks like a Wal-Mart hit it - literally.  Many small towns in the United States have suffered a long slow death due to the advent of big box stores on their outskirts, strangling and killing small businesses in America's downtowns.  That's the price of progress, nowadays.

Another price of progress, which LHM alludes to in his quote above, is the absolute lack of creativity in modern housing.  You know what I'm writing about.  In town after town, suburb after suburb, development companies build housing tracts.  In those tracts, the houses all look like they came from the same mold.  It is like a giant hand with one model of a house laid them out on curvy suburban streets, almost as if monopoly houses were put side to side.  Same color, same lines.  It's boring.

I've lived in Milwaukee from 1986 - 1995, in neighborhoods where every house was unique and had its own character.  Many of the houses had exquisite details both inside and outside, as well as leaded decorative windows.  Each had its own personality, it's own quirks, and they were interesting to live in.  That's not to say that there weren't suburban housing styles on the outskirts, but within the city, the houses were interesting.

In San Antonio, where I lived from 1995-2000, you could find the cookie cutter houses on the outskirts of town.  But in the older sections of the city, the houses were all different from one another, each with its own flavor and own way of presenting itself to the street and the world.

In New Orleans, where I lived from 2000-2004, there was a LOT of character there.  Shotgun houses (so named because their layout meant you could shoot a shotgun through the house without hitting anything) that looked small from the street until you saw that they stretched straight back, living room to bedroom to bedroom to kitchen.  Wrought ironwork fencing festooned with different motifsBalconies that overlooked the street which were great if it happened to be on a street where a Mardi Gras parade passed by.  I loved the different characters of the houses there.  It was almost as if you could give them a name and if they could talk, the stories they would tell.

Albuquerque, where I currently live, with its adobe and faux adobe housing - built to stay cool during the hot high desert summers and to take advantage of the sun's rays for heating in the colder parts of the winter.

But these pre-fab tract houses are different.  To me, they have no life, no soul.  It's part of the blanding of America.  This is not to say that the people who live in them are soulless, lifeless beings.  I understand why these houses exist.  They are cheap, and for people who are buying their first house, such dwellings are what they can afford.  To live in the areas where I like to live, where the houses are not pre-fab but have their own individuality, one must either rent or pay a lot of money.  In my neighborhood in Albuquerque, houses are very overpriced due to the quality of the area and a housing bubble that never really quite burst here.  To buy a house here, one must be willing to pay a lot of money.  Okay, it's not like California or New York money, but it's a lot of money nonetheless.

However, I refuse to live in a boring suburb.  I like being around the active city life, not out in some cul-de-sac somewhere.  I like being able to walk or ride my bike to stores and restaurants and theaters.  I enjoy being close to things to do, and not necessarily have to drive to them.

I really hope that Scooba hasn't become, like so many of our towns, dead in the center.  Cities may provide excitement, but small towns are America's soul.  Cities are like the flashy clothes we put on to excite others and ourselves.  But towns are like jeans and button down shirts - comfortable.  If they die, I'm convinced that America's connection with itself will also die.  We don't need sameness, we need unique towns with vital centers, and places to live within them that reflect how individual we all are.  We should treasure uniqueness and creativity when we run across them, whether we live in cities, small towns like Scooba, or in that crazy looking house on the corner.

If you want to know more about Scooba

East Mississippi Community College
Wikipedia: Scooba

Next up:  Philadelphia, Mississippi


Blue Highways: Uniontown & Demopolis, Alabama

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnaill for MapWe travel with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) through Uniontown and Demopolis, making for Mississippi.  I will reflect on the ironies of the names of both places.   If you would like to see where they are located, click the thumbnail of the map at right.

Book Quote

"Uniontown, Demopolis.  The Tombigbee River and blue highway 28."

Blue Highways: Chapter 3, Part 6


View of Demopolis, Alabama. Click on the picture to go to host site.

Uniontown and Demopolis, Alabama

It's ironic that there is a town named Uniontown in Alabama, since Alabama is a so called "Right to Work" state.  The name of Uniontown actually replaced the town's earlier name, Woodville, when a local planter suggested the change.  So in that case, I'm guessing that the "union" in Uniontown stands for the United States, or our union.

But it's still ironic to me.  What is a "right to work" state?  Such a state, and there are 22 states with such laws, prohibit workers' unions from negotiating contracts with employers that mandate that employees join the union and pay union dues.

The whole question of unions and their value is a complicated one.  Lately, as our country has taken a rightward course, unions are more often than not seen as problems.  Employers see them as hassles to deal with, and as being bad for business because they negotiate higher wages, benefits and other types of conditions that cost money.  As a more conservative voice is heard across America, unions have been feeling the effects.  Union membership is down, partly because of the right to work laws in so many states.  As membership is down, dues go down too, and union power in American politics has become weaker.

Not that unions haven't made their own problems.  Corruption within unions used to be widespread, and in the heydey of unions, some of their activities bordered on the criminal, if they weren't already so.  Unions had the power to not only influence but intimidate politicians.  Some politicians knew that if they wanted to be re-elected, they had to do what the unions wanted.

What complicates the history of unions for me is that unions did great things for American workers.  Union organizers, often at the risk of their lives, brought unionism into such industries as mining, autoworking, steel manufacturing and all the heavy labor industries.  Strikes were common, and many of those strikes were deadly with police and private security using force to put them down.  However, over time, those industries transformed, becoming safer, better paying and more efficient overall.  With unions watching, exploitation of workers became a relic of the past.  Unions were responsible for demanding that companies institute 8 hour workdays, health and retirement benefits, safe working conditions, and many of the things that workers today, whether supportive of unions or not, take for granted.

Arguments are made today that unions aren't needed, because we are more enlightened people.  But capitalism is not about enlightenment, it's about profit.  In the United States, where unions are restricted, there tends to be lower wages.  Companies still often employ threatening tactics to keep unions from forming, such as firing workers (often for other stated reasons) for associating with union organizers.  In foreign countries, particularly in the developing world, lack of unions or weak unions have meant that child labor, wages that don't meet subsistence needs, and extremely unsafe working conditions still exist.  In Mexican maquiladora factories, women have claimed that in some factories they will be fired if pregnant, and have been required to show their used feminine pads to prove that they aren't pregnant.  You would not see that in a factory that had been organized by an effective union.

When I was in high school, I saw unions as an impediment.  I worked at our local lumber mill in the summer for a little over a $10.00 per hour wage.  In 1982, that was a kingly wage for a high school kid.  But I didn't appreciate that, nor did I appreciate the health benefits as I was a healthy young kid.  All I knew was that I was required to join the International Woodworkers of America and that a portion of my check went to the union.  That bothered me.  Also, the union was threatening a strike that summer.  I didn't like that, because I wouldn't be able to work, and I asked my father, who was management at the mill, what would stop me from working anyway.  He forcefully told me no.  Working would make me a "scab" and possibly put me in danger.  Luckily, the strike never came.  But I didn't appreciate, as I do now, some of the contributions that unions made so that my job there was so lucrative and safe.

I'm not saying you should or should not support unions, but in the argument over whether they should exist or not, I think that if one wants to join a union, they should be able to without fear of consequences.  I also think that despite union missteps over the years, we should put their accomplishments in the proper historical context.  They helped make America what it is today.

Demopolis, on the othe hand, brings to mind classical Greece.  Another irony - it was founded as the "City of the People" by French expatriates from Haiti who were fleeing a slave rebellion there.  So, a name that implies classical democracy and freedom was founded by people who were fleeing a rebellion that freed untold numbers of slaves and made them full citizens in a new republic!  I'm not saying that Demopolis doesn't have other attributes that reflect the classical world, but I have to say I love these little ironies.

If you want to know more about Uniontown and Demopolis

Demopolis Times (newspaper)
Wikipedia: Demopolis
Wikipedia: Uniontown

Next up:  Scooba, Mississippi