Unfolding the Map
Continuing 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?
"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
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
Next up: Tomahawk, White Lake, Elizabethtown and Lumberton, North Carolina