American Sabbatical 61: 12/10/96

Columbus and the Serpent

12/10-12... and through the woods.

The weather system which had been chasing us across the midlands was puffing balmy gusts and spittle across the parking lot outside Frankfort on Wednesday morning. True to our pledge against road food, I shopped for breakfast-makings in a local market while Peggy played with Puter. It felt good to be back on do-it-yourself feedings, and grocery prices. Chowed and righteous we took flight though Frankfort, another one-industry state capital. (Bourbon warehouses and banks dominate the government skyline.. that’s one industry in Kentucky, isn’t it?)

Peggy navigated us cross-lots toward Cin-Cin, for to sense the hillscapes, and even in December beige the Bluegrass State can woo you. All we were lacking was an Everly Brothers tape to mood us in. Instead we did a chorus of Stephen Foster.. My old Kentucky Home.. as we skedadled up and around the bends. I still dream of THE AMERICAN ROAD tape, with a signature tune for every environ. Back in eastern Oklahoma we spun Woody Guthrie, telling dustbowl tales and singing "Way down yonder in the Indian Nation.. in the Oklahoma hills where I was born", in Kaintuk we made do with Bela Fleck’s hillbilly banjo, yeehawing us through the hollers.

Sure is purty country, Ma. Mixed woodlots and pasturage on overlapping slopes. Ungulates and undulations. Tidy parcels, surrounded with horse-country fencing, backed on tumbled-trailer ruins. Half the barns are painted black, and the vertical boarding has gaps you can see daylight through. Tobacco barns? We didn’t see any other signs of Kentucky leaf, but Burleigh must grow up somewhere round here. These black barns would be hot enough in summer to cure whatever you put in them, and half the paddock fences are black, too. The rest are mansion-white, and we wondered if there was some class comment going down.

Cedars are reclaiming some of the old pastures, but there were plenty of beef still on the munch, and horses frisking, in the high sixties and thin sunshine. It was with some regret we intersected with the highroad to Ohio, and we promised to roam the Kentucky hills again. You can see why Boone and the boys thought this ground worth fighting over.

We made an end run around Hog Town on the river, although Cincinnati has undoubtedly improved its odor since the days of Mrs. Trollop. With the sky shut down and the Ohio greasy-gray, the storied beauty of this crossing didn’t match up to any of the travelers’ reports of the 1820’s, either. We caught side-eyed views of the urb's core towers through notches in the hills, over somber waves of gain. Then we sneaked out past the exurban limits.

Your intrepid reporters were determined to visit at least one mound site in the Midwest, if it was the last historic thing they did this outing, and the great Serpent Mound was only 50 miles off their route to Columbus. We aimed the Owl eastward to Peebles.

Southern Ohio flattens fast as you leave the hill-and-gully margins of the great river valley. You quickly run out onto the fat lands of plenty which made 19th century farmers drop their crowbars and migrate from New England. Ohio oozes agricultural affluence. You can smell it. I’ll bet a mouthful of Ohio dirt even tastes like groceries. But the gentle dips and rises of the farmers’ dream are interrupted here and there by watercourses, and the topography gets more abrupt. It's in one of these lumpier landscapes that the Serpent Mound was “discovered”.

A sinuous dirt mound, 5 feet high, and 15 feet wide, the Serpent Mound runs along a ridgetop for 1500 feet or so, making the image of a huge snake.. if you could see it all from any vantage, which you can’t, even from the contemporary steel and oak tower built to overlook it. Unless the makers were levitating, this serpent was for the gods’ eyes only. Fact is, almost nothing is known about the makers, or their intentions. Nearby grave mounds have yielded artifacts which connect the site with “Hopewell” and other prehistoric peoples, but that only defines the lack of knowledge. So what is this big squiggle on a hill about?

Serpent from the tower

It was, for us, totally without charge. Unlike at Cahokia or The Little Bighorn, there was no lingering presence, no voices on the wind, on this ridgetop. The humid forerunners of a storm fluttered our clothes as we climbed the tower and walked around the site, but the only voices were catbirds in the buckeyes below. Here was a complete mystery, as unresolvable as flamingos in a dooryard, or painted stones beside a driveway. For all its monumental concept, this earth serpent is very human-scale in execution. A few of the boys could conjure up a snake like this in a couple of weeks, even without a dozer.

The big snake uncoils widdershins from east to west, ending its undulations in a hollow triangle (where the back of a head would be), followed by an open oval (a swallowed egg?), then a solid triangular apex (nose). I can imagine ritual birthings and swallowings in the oval, succeeded by a processional walk uphill along the spine, spiraling clockwise into the sunrise. Here is a dandy emblem for our homing in. We, too, spiraled out counter-clockwise, weaving westward, back and forth across the country, trying to swallow the essence of the land. But it‘s more than we can take in one gulp. So we are climbing back uphill. America is still a mystery. Maybe all we can do to recognize a place is to honor it by making symbolic gestures, hinting at its essence. Sanctification by symbolic mimicry.


Ritual Landscaping
Driving from Serpent Mound to Columbus I kept feeling the big snake in the landforms. The turns in the road, the roll of the hills, was one grand earth-serpent, with the egg of fertility in its mouth. The Ohio-snake. And the storm finally caught us, with intermittent downpours and sideswipe winds.

But “Why Columbus?”, you ask. Well, how can you discover America without a Columbus? We also have friends there who offered us refuge from Midwestern angst, coming or going. Jim and Carol have been fellow-travelers on the E-train for the last 3 1/2 months, so I've see them looking over my shoulder as I write. They are also long-time patrons and dear friends, so I better be careful.

Jim and Carol transplanted from Portland in 1995, returning to her hometown, where he’s gone into a family business. They’ve moved into a large brick house in Bexley, an older close-in suburb to Columbus, and replaced its Midwest cutsie decor with stunning Maine art, and good taste. Jim says he gets lost in the sameness of Bexley, trying to find the house, but once inside there’s no question who lives here. The art we hang up reflects us, and the art we live with defines home. Peggy’s aunt Margaret always carried a few symbolic objects which she used to make anywhere home. On the road we’ve carried some tokens to mark our personal space, and the Owl’s dash has turned into our home base. Jim and Carol are serious collectors of contemporary art, and visiting their new home in Bexley is an adventure in esthetic self-definition. It’s also a warm and welcoming place in an onrushing storm.

Our hosts, and their son Jeffrey, took us on an auto tour of Bexley, downtown Columbus, and a resurrected area called Short North, where we shopped in a covered market and supped in a Mex-ish restaurant. After Piggot's light shows, Bexley was remarkably ungussied with seasonal twinkles and cutouts, although the lawns on one street all had pyramids of light making a corridor of Christmas “trees”. Our thesis: “the lower the brow, the more the ornamentation,” seems to hold in central Ohio. Industrial decorations were more elaborate on corporate edifices, and the state house actually had a live chorus ornamenting the air. Columbus' annual lighting ceremony was in full warble as we cruised by, and it made downtown echo with festivity. We also admired the bronze statue in front of city hall of a businessman mayor clutching his briefcase. Jim said that the supporting pillar is covered with quotations to the effect, “all the average American needs for perfect happiness is an opportunity for hard work.”

Columbus is booming, we were told, with casual labor starting at $7.50/hr, and lots of perfect happiness. On a rainy Wednesday night in December this crossroads of the Midwest seemed vibrant with seasonal cheer, and we enjoyed a spicy meal with good company. Jim and Carol and Jeff were just back from scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, and planning another diving trip to the Cayman Islands, and tropical waters sounded pretty good to us, with the weatherman threatening a northeaster for the coast of home.

It was raining hard by the time we put rubber to the road on Thursday. The visibility was virtually nil on the interstate, with big rigs spuming by and the skyfaucets open. Owl-dancing among behemoths in a blow makes you swallow hard and hang on. The world squeezes down to a blur between wiperswipes, and the melodies in your head. We have been so wide-eyed in the western panorama, so turned outward to take it in, that this compression in humidity is stifling. East is so wet!

Ohio begins to bulge and wrinkle as you approach its eastern margin, although we could only imagine the landscape beyond the drench. Crossing the Ohio again at Wheeling, West VA, we caught glimpses of rectilinear boxes bulking up into triple-deckers, climbing the steep hills of the river city. Thoughts of Polish and Italian families, or Irish and French Canadians, in other Eastern burgs made me realize we were wading into familiar turf. And names like Monongahela and Allegheny brought up floods of memory out of colonial history and the first Old West. Washington made his name in these woods, along with Bartram and Mike Fink. Maybe you have to go EAST to immerse yourself in American history. It certainly gushes up in your face, this way.

Then we came over an Appalachian ridge into a respite of mild overcast, and the orderly farms of central Pennsylvania. Determined not to retrace old steps, we angled across the state through Altoona. Kits, cats, sacks, and wives, how many were going to Altoona, as Pogo put it. We were, and did, and plunged into a white fog along Bald Eagle Creek. Only rare moments of clarity revealed the long glaciated mountains, whose gentle curves and scooped valleys seem so old and amiable after the jagged youth of the West. Then down into the Susquehanna Valley and the rain again. The local forecasts were for heavy downpours and flooding by morning. Should we run all night to home, before the big wet? Or hole up and sleep, and not risk the night ice on the tops? Crossing into New York State at Binghamton we began to lose our ambition. By Oneonta we were beat. Let it rain. Goodnight.

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