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Entries in William Least-Heat Moon (63)


Blue Highways: Wallace, North Carolina

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapContinuing south with William Least Heat-Moon, we traverse through North Carolina to the town of Wallace where a bunch of young boys tell him what can be done in town.  Click on the map to see where Wallace is located, and leave a comment...did you grow up in a small town, and what did you do for fun?

Book Quote

"In a parking lot, six boys squatted about a Harley-Davidson and talked as they passed a can of beer.  But for the outward trappings, they might have been Bedouins around the evening campfire.  I asked one wearing a BORN TO RAISE HELL T-shirt what there was to do on Friday night. 'Here?'  Everybody laughed.  'You got yourself a choice.  You can watch the electric buglight at DQ.  That's one.  Or you can hustle up a sixpack and cruise the strip.  That's two.  And three is your left hand, a boy's best friend.

'Maybe there's a tent revival or something like that.'

'Hey!  How do you revive the dead?'"

Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 13

Town clock in Wallace, North Carolina

Wallace, North Carolina

As I was growing up, the place where I lived was full of wonder.  I must admit I grew up in one of the most beautiful areas possible to grow up - a small town on the coast of Northern California.  Drive a mile west from my house and I was at the ocean, where depending on the time of day I could watch tide ebb and flow, fishing boats sail by, the sun set, or the moon softly lay a silver path to the horizon.  I could see a squall roar in from the northwest, or watch the sun glint off gentle whitecaps.

Drive a half hour east, and I would be in the middle of redwood forest.  Though logged for timber, at that age, it seemed like the forest went on forever in an unbroken expanse.  In the mornings, the trees made their own fog that allowed water to collect on their leaves and drip into the soft, moist loam made of dead leaves that accumulated under their huge trunks.  During the day, sunlight filtered through the green leaves above, and dappled the forest floor with diffuse light.  Occasionally, one would see evidence of wildlife, or even the wildlife itself.

It was truly magical for a young boy, but as the young boy became an adolescent these beauties became gradually lost upon me.  I was more interested in things in the town.  And to tell you the truth, in a small town in Northern California, there wasn't much to do.  Girls were always of interest, and alcohol helped get the girls.  But almost like India, or England, my town had social strata or castes in the form of cliques among young people.  You were separated from other young people by your high school class.  Within your high school class, you were separated from others by whether you belonged to the highest grouping known as the "jocks" or whether you were a loser, or a burnout, or something else.  The one thing we all had in common was alcohol and drugs.  Okay, and being a guy, guys had the guy's best friend in common.  That was our left (or right) hand, utilized often by adolescent males especially when one was not very successful with the girls.  And I wasn't very successful with the girls, so draw your own conclusions.

In other words, I can relate with the guys in Wallace, North Carolina that LHM happens upon.  My town, when I grew up, had maybe three stoplights.  The number of stoplights has doubled today, but I'm sure that the malaise that existed for young people probably still exists.  Like the kids in Wallace, we used to cruise the strip, which I began to think was really silly because what was there to see?  Just other kids cruising too, and we always saw them in school.

Sometimes, a party would be thrown when some kid's poor, unsuspecting parents went out of town.  Sometimes, the party would happen whether that kid wanted a party or not.  Usually, the house would end up trashed...things would be broken or alcohol spilled into carpets.  The stale smell of day old marijuana smoke that settled on the carpet and drapes would permeate the nostrils of the parents as they came back from their trip and opened the door.  Often the smoke mingled with the more acrid and pungent odor of vomit left by some kid who drank too much, still strong despite the kid's frantic attempts to clean the house before the parents came home.  These parties could be massive affairs, with about a hundred kids descending on the house, along with some people in their twenties who had nothing better to do and no lives to speak of.

When house parties weren't available, we might take a drive to the gravel pits, or out somewhere in the woods, to find a spot and drink and party.  Yes, drinking and driving happened a lot among the youth of my town, and that meant that more than one of us died at the wheel.

This was part of a broader undercurrent of problems.  The behavior of kids often mirrors the behavior of their parents.  My town was a working class, blue collar town full of working men and women.  It was like most American towns, probably a lot like Wallace.  Many of the men, and a lot of the women, concealed by their industrious day work dark secrets at home such as alcoholism, depression, anger, and various forms of domestic violence and abuse.  I don't want to paint my whole town that way, but there was a dark undercurrent there.  Many old friends that I've spoken to in later years confirm that they or people they knew had difficult lives and difficult obstacles to overcome.  The behaviors that we participated in was partly a reflection of our home lives, and partly a function of there not being enough for young people to do in our small town.

I'm sure that my experience as a young person in a small town is echoed all over the United States.  It is not an isolated experience.  If the answer of the young men in Wallace to LHM's query about something to do there is any indication, such conditions transcend time and space.  And lest anyone think it is a failing of small towns, I think that a large contributor to the adolescent malaise that leads to such behavior is simply the adolescent mind itself, trying to break out of the conventions imposed by family and society, or trying to escape from difficult situations in the family, and not knowing where to go.

If you want to know more about Wallace

Duplin County, North Carolina
Town of Wallace
Wallace Enterprise (newspaper)
Wallace Restaurants
Wikipedia: Duplin County
Wikipedia: Wallace

Next up: Tomahawk, White Lake, Elizabethtown and Lumberton, North Carolina


Blue Highways: New Bern, North Carolina

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWe ride a ferry with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) to New Bern, a place where an invention by a pharmacist has repercussions for all of our health, dental hygiene, and Super Bowl entertainment during time-outs.  Click on the map to orient yourselves, and leave a comment if you'd like - you're always welcome to do so.

Book Quote

"I didn't want to drive the route I'd come the day before, so I headed toward the free ferry across the Pamlico River above where it enters the sound. Two hours later, the ferry, with a loud reversing of props, banged into the slip; three of us drove aboard, and we left in an uproar of engines, water, diesel exhaust, and birds. Laughing gulls materialized from the air to hang above the prop wash and shriek their maniacal laugh (Whitman thought it nearly human) as they dropped like stones from twenty feet into the cold salt scuds; some entered beak first, some with wings akilter, but all followed the first to see an edible morsel, real or imagined.

"New Bern, on the Neuse River, was well-preserved antebellum Georgian railroads deveoped in North Carolina, New Bern lost its importance as a port city, and "progress"came slower, the old ways remained longer....As a result, New Bern is an architecturally interesting city where the Old South still shows on the streets rather than in a museum."

Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 13

Postcard of New Bern, North Carolina

New Bern, North Carolina

Your fun fact about New Bern for today.  New Bern is the place where Pepsi Cola was created.  Why is this important to me?  First of all, I work on the campus of the University of New Mexico, which evidently has granted some kind of franchise rights to Pepsi.  If you go to a place on campus that sells food, or if you go to any of the campus stores, all you can get is Pepsi.

Second, because of this, I probably drink a Pepsi a day.  Besides black tea sodas are the only way I get any caffeine.  My wife thinks I am a communist or at least un-American because I never developed a taste for coffee.  However, sodas are bad enough.  The last time I had blood work done, my blood sugar was a little high.  I need to cut down on the sugar, but having that can of Pepsi seems to keep me going in the afternoon.

Third, I don't even really like Pepsi all that much.  If I drink a soda, I prefer a regular Coke.  But when Pepsi is all you can get, you take Pepsi.  So I drink Pepsi, and my blood sugar rises.  Thanks, Caleb Bradham.  Pepsi was created by Mr. Bradham in New Bern at his pharmacy and fountain in 1898.  Originally known simply as "Brad's Drink," it was renamed Pepsi Cola possibly because of the pepsin and kola nut in the original recipe.  Either that or it was supposed to give one pep, as Bradham sought to create an invigorating drink that would aid in digestion.  You have to love the first celebrity endorsement by race car pioneer Barney Oldfield, who enthusiastically pitched Pepsi as "a bully drink...refreshing, invigorating, a fine bracer before a race."  Can't you just see someone saying that?  It's a long way from where we've come in advertising, where a "bully drink" ad evolves over time into a 1980s commercial Michael Jackson meeting a pint-sized imitator on an inner-city street (he also filmed another Pepsi commercial in 1984 where his hair caught on fire which injured him badly) and the more current commercial where Coke and Pepsi deliverymen fight in a diner.

Just writing this makes me think that I'm going to quit soda altogether for awhile.

As for LHM's quote above, I really like his description of the ferry ride across the Pamlico River.  I absolutely love river ferries.  I hadn't really thought about them before I lived in New Orleans.  My wife and I would occasionally have the opportunity to ride the ferry across from downtown New Orleans to the Algiers neighborhood across the Mississippi.  On the ferry, one gets a new perspective of the city.  On the ferry, I felt the power of the river as the ferry strained against the current.  The air was always cooler down on the river, and the buildings of downtown took on a new significance as the ferry pulled away from the dock.  Occasionally, a ship or barge passed by - the oceangoing ships rising stories above us as their powerful engines propelled them upstream or gliding silently as they rode the current downstream, or barges low on the water but taking forever to pass by, their pilot boats emitting a steady engine noise as they passed by.  We'd pass by debris floating on the water, brought from who knows where and going to places unknown.  And of course, there were the gulls, their cries still audible above the engine's low rumble. 

Ferry rides always brought me into reflective moments, broken only as the engines revved the ferry into place at the dock, and we walked to our car to wait for the signal to debark.  On misty nights, when the ferry would cross the river to where we waited, you could see nothing except faint lights growing brighter and brighter until, almost like a ghost, the ferry would, almost quietly and daintily, slip into place and lower its gate.  The boathand opening the barrier, his hoodie pulled up over his head, seemed otherworldly, like Charon himself beckoning with a sweep of his hand our souls' passage into another world.

If you want to know more about New Bern

Atlanta Journal-Constitution article on New Bern
City of New Bern (alternative newspaper)
New Bern Convention and Visitors Bureau
New Bern Sun Journal (newspaper)
Our New Bern (blog)
Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens
Wikipedia: New Bern

Next up: Wallace, North Carolina


Blue Highways: Bath, North Carolina

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapIn Bath, we take a trip back to learn about an early to mid-20th century author and her contributions to American literature, stage and screen.  Click on the map to see the place that all of this is associated with.  Comments welcome!

Book Quote

"It was in Bath, the oldest town in North Carolina, that Edna Ferber went on board the James Adams Floating Palace Theater in 1925 to see a showboat performance - the only one she ever saw."

Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 13

Street signs in Bath, North Carolina

Bath, North Carolina

Why does William Least Heat-Moon mention Edna Ferber in the quote from Blue Highways?  He makes it a point to write that the only showboat performance she ever saw was on the James Adams Floating Theater in Bath, North Carolina.

Well, those of you who are fans of American literature and/or American musicals might know that Edna Ferber wrote the novel Show Boat, upon which the Broadway musical Show Boat is based.  That visit to the James Adams was very important to the development of the novel.  Three separate movies of Show Boat were made, in 1929, 1936 and 1951, with the 1936 film ranked by the American Film Institute as 24th out of America's best musicals.  But Edna Ferber's influence stretches farther than that.  Without Show Boat, we would never have heard the showstopping performance of Paul Robeson on the song Ol' Man River.  Robeson was African-American, a giant of American culture whose voice and presence on stage and screen transcended the wrong and unjust policies of discrimination prevalent at the time.  Unfortunately, he was persecuted in his life as well, labeled a communist (eventually exonerated), and died in seclusion.

But even beyond Show Boat, Edna Ferber wrote a novel, Giant, that was made into a panoramic movie of the 50s starring such iconic actors as Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and the ultimately tragic James Dean.

To say that Edna Ferber saw one performance on a showboat in Bath, North Carolina is almost like saying that Jack Nicklaus watched a round of golf on TV before going out and winning The Masters.  It is like saying that George Gershwin spent a night in a Harlem juke joint before writing the music for Porgy and Bess.  Or, for the more modern, it is like saying that Steve Jobs looked at a CD player once before creating the Ipod.

Edna Ferber herself was a distinguished woman of American letters.  She won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel So Big, which itself was made into a movie, but her lasting influence on America was through her novels Show Boat and Giant.  She had a knack for writing strong female characters at a time when discrimination against women was pretty common and routine.  She also made room in her novels for other ethnic minorities who, as written by her, routinely faced discrimination.  She appeared to especially have a soft spot for the underdogs, the people who weren't beautiful or who had flaws and therefore a life stacked against them.

She was also a member of the Algonquin Round Table, made famous by its host, the acid-tongued Dorothy Parker, and could hold her own against the strong personages assembled there.  When Noel Coward, a multi-talented person of letters and stage and who had a quick and acerbic wit, remarked upon her clothing by saying that she almost looked like a man, Ferber replied back "so do you."

I often wish I had a quick wit like that.  While I can pull out a few one-liners, and occasionally get a zing in on a friend or two, I'm usually just one step too slow.

I've never seen Show Boat, but I have seen the clip of Paul Robeson's performance of Ol' Man River.  The song was written by Jerome Kern, and is about as meaningful a song about America's life artery as any that has ever been written.  In the voice of Paul Robeson, however, it is a majestic tribute to one of the most distinguishing and distinguished features of America.  I couldn't stand next to the Mississippi River as it rolled past New Orleans when I lived there without hearing that song in my head and picturing first the slaves and later the predominantly poor African American dockworkers upon whose backs a significant portion of my country's wealth was built.

I have read the book and seen the movie Giant, and living in Texas gave me a perspective on that novel that I wouldn't have had otherwise.  Set just as America was becoming prosperous after the war, it shows the human side of our progress, a love triangle pitting the old ranching community against the new riches of oil.  Giant captures Texas, and the United States, at a point where significant decisions about our country's priorities were being made, and Ferber boils it down to two men and the woman between them.

Bath is the oldest town in North Carolina, and as such deserves to be recognized.  But it made a very important contribution to our culture by providing an opportunity for one author to seat herself at a performance on a showboat anchored there.

Ferber, who never married nor was known to have any relationship, once wrote "Being an old maid is like death by drowning, a really delightful experience after you cease to struggle."  She also said "A woman can look moral and exciting...if she also looks as if it was quite a struggle."  She certainly gave us all types of wonderful characters representing all walks of American life, both in her own life and her many works.

If you want to know more about Bath

Beaufort County: Bath
A Brief History of Bath
NC Historic Sites: Bath
NC Historic Sites: Bath and Edna Ferber
Wikipedia: Bath

Next up: New Bern, North Carolina


Blue Highways: Swanquarter, North Carolina

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapGoing through North Carolina, we pass through Swanquarter (Swan Quarter) with William Least Heat-Moon.  This time, I look at the mythology and symbolism of swans, which is pretty surprisingly extensive, and come to the conclusion that I would like to be considered a swan.  Where is Swanquarter?  Click the map to see, and leave a comment if you are inclined!

Book Quote

"...then down along Lake Mattamuskeet (drained in the thirties for farming but once again full of water and wildlife), to Swanquarter ..."

Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 13

Fishing boats at Swan Quarter, North Carolina

Swanquarter (Swan Quarter), North Carolina

Given the name of the place, I thought I'd look around to see what I could learn about swans and their place in our collective human history.  The town of Swan Quarter was probably named so because swans stopped in the wetlands area about the town (though there is some sentiment that a man named Swann lived in the area long ago, thus giving the town its name).  However, the images that swans evoke in our conscience makes it an intriguing name to explore.

Swans are most associated with beauty and love.  Stories like The Ugly Duckling and the reputation for mating for life that swans are associated with are images indelibly etched in our conscience.  I remember watching the Disney movie The Ugly Duckling and being incredibly moved by the story (damn you Disney!).  Partially this is because I identified with the poor little ugly duckling (being given up for adoption, having a terrible self-image, craving love and affection - the usual stuff that gets dealt with in therapy for 40 or so years).  But it's a fantasy that transcends all of us - who doesn't want to be the swan?  These fantasies can be as little as wishing we would find out that we are really the heirs to a great fortune, to getting our hair cut or made over, to dressing up for proms and weddings and quinceneras and trying to look really fine.  I think that in many ways we all want to be the swan.  Watch this video and just see if it doesn't move you, if it doesn't touch some part of you.

Swans are also associated with more erotic and salacious parts of our nature.  Leda and the Swan recounts the tale of the conception of Helen of Troy.  Leda, Queen of Sparta, captured the attentions of Zeus, King of the Gods, and he seduced her in the form of a swan.

Because of their graceful nature, swans are also associated with holiness and purity.  Norse legend has it that two swans drank from a well whose waters were so pure that the swans and all their descendants are white.  The guise of swans also, in Irish legend, served to keep people safe.  In The Wooing of Etain, an underworld king turns himself and the most beautiful woman in Ireland into swans to escape the armies of the Irish king, and in The Children of Lir, a woman transforms her children into swans for 900 years.

But lest we associate all good with swans, they are also symbols of death.  In Finnish mythology, a swan swims in the river of the underworld, and Finnish legend says that anyone who kills a swan will die themselves.

But the most interesting view of the swan to me is in Hinduism.  Hindus see the swan as a symbol of being a part of the world but not attached to it.  In other words, the person who is most like the swan, whose feathers are in the water but not wet, is a saint.  This appeals to me on some levels, and yet doesn't on others.  In my view, which has been shaped by my family, friends and even my religious beliefs, one should be engaged in the world, especially if one wants to make it better.  To me, this means being attached to things in the world in some way.  So in this way, I have trouble being like the swan, because I want to be attached to the world.  Not necessarily to things, but I want to be attached to people and to outcomes I want to see happen.  But I will say those people that have a certain air of detachment about them, that do not let minor troubles and the issues of others make them crazy and still manage to do good for friends, neighbors and the world in general, those are people I respect and try to emulate.

William Least Heat-Moon passes through Swan Quarter on a trip of discovery and reflection.  In that sense, he is trying to engage and attach with things and people that he encounters.  Perhaps his journey was an attempt to put things in perspective after a difficult period, and in that way recapture the engaged detachment that Hindus attribute to swans - to be a part of the world and not get too attached to it.

On a more base and purely vain level, though, I still want to be a graceful, handsome swan.  I try to aspire to the Hindu, but as one who for many years considered himself akin to the Ugly Duckling...give me the swan any day.

If you want to know more about Swanquarter (Swan Quarter)

A History of Swan Quarter, North Carolina
Coastal North Carolina Cruising Guide: SwanQuarter
Nature Conservancy: Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge and Gull Rock
Town of Swan Quarter
US Fish and Wildlife Services: Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service: Swan Quarter
Wikipedia: Swan Quarter

Next up: Bath, North Carolina


Blue Highways: Engelhard, North Carolina

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapA disjointed post today, as I try to think up things that Engelhard, North Carolina brings to mind.  I actually just got back from a play about Moby Dick, Captain Ahab and the crew of the Pequod, so the sea and seafood is on my mind.  To learn about Engelhard and its connection to seafood, click on the thumbnail at right.

Book Quote

"Along highway 264, skirting the sound, grew stands of loblolly and slash pine, as well as water oaks, bayberry, and laurel.  Away from the open waters, the day was warm, and in pocosins drained by small canals and natural sloughs, mud turtles, their black shells the color of the water, crawled up to the warmth on half-submerged logs.

"The road passed through the fishing town of Engelhard..."

Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 13


Boats in Engelhard, North Carolina

Engelhard, North Carolina

Reading this passage, I had to look up a few words.  Not having grown up on the East Coast, I didn't know what loblolly or slash pine was, nor did I know what water oaks or bayberry looked like.  Finally, I wasn't sure what a pocosin is.  So this was an education in itself.

Loblolly pines and slash pines are relatively long-needled pines.  They sort of look like the bull pines I grew up with in my area of California.  Water oaks are a type of oak tree, of course, but with leaves that I wouldn't have recognized as oak leaves.  Bayberry has pretty purple berries that it appears can be eaten.

A pocosin is something I've never experienced.  It's a type of marshy wetland, and in some areas is referred to rather colorfully as a "dismal."  The marshy area is caused by seepage from creeks or sloughs that drain the area, and the soils are nutrient poor.  However, they are a good habitat for the loblolly pine.

I didn't grow up around many marshes or swamps, so I'm not really all that familiar with that type of wetland.  The closest thing to a swamp that I knew of was man-made.  Pudding Creek was dammed by the lumber company in my town so that they could float logs there.  By the time I was around, it wasn't a log retaining pond anymore, but the dam caused marsh grasses to grow up around the edges of the creek and give it that swamp-like attributes.  And the best part?  Unlike Louisiana swamps, there were no snakes nor alligators.

Of course when I lived in New Orleans, we were surrounded by swamps.  My two main experiences with them was driving over the Atchafalaya Swamp on the elevated Interstate 10, and taking an airboat tour.  Which is to say, not much at all.  But New Orleans' precarious position meant that we were all aware of the swamps that surrounded us.  After Katrina, the importance of and the plight of the wetlands of coastal Louisiana were driven home to most Louisianans, if not a good portion of the country.

William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) doesn't stop or give any description of Engelhard, but doing a little web research reveals that it may be an unincorporated community, but it seems to have some life to it.  I am curious about the Engelhard Seafood Festival, which may not have existed when LHM drove through.  It appears to be a pretty large event, and I think that I would really like it because, growing up in a coastal town, I love seafood.  My mother's father and her two brothers were fishermen, and so we often had fresh fish on the plate.  To this day, if I am in a coastal area, I never fail to get fish.  But since I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and far from any coast, I don't get it as often as I would like.  Sure, I order mussels or clams here.  But, please don't tell my mom, but I've picked up a little of her snobbishness about fish.  She always had to have it practically wiggling out of the boat, and will turn up her nose at fish unless she knows that it is really fresh.  Unlike her, I will eat flash-frozen fish, but usually the farther I am from the coast the less likely I am to eat seafood.  So all of this is a long way of saying that Engelhard's Fish Festival sounds mighty fine to me.

As you can guess, I am finding it hard to come up with a consistent topic for this particular stop, so you are getting a bit of disconnected and disjointed thoughts.  But, sometimes reading does that to us.  Do you ever read a passage and find yourself reading it again and again because something else is on your mind and you aren't really paying attention?  Or do you find that a certain passage just isn't taking you to a very deep place?  Reading is supposed to take us out of our reality, and put us someplace else, even if the someplace else does not correspond to the linearity most of us like.  There's nothing wrong with that, and sometimes we even learn something.  I now know what loblolly and slash pines are, I know what a water oak is, and am tempted to try bayberries if I ever get a chance.  And I can now throw the word "pocosin" into a sentence and sound really smart.  I'm also really hungry for some seafood.

If you want to know more about Engelhard

Engelhard Facebook Page
Engelhard Seafood Festival
Granville Grant in Engelhard
Hotel Engelhard
NC Folk blog post about Engelhard
Northeast Fisheries Sciences Center: Community Profile on Engelhard
Wikipedia: Engelhard

Next up:  Swanquarter, North Carolina