American Sabbatical 107: 5/7/97

Cumberland Gap

5/7.. Bloomington.

Losing it. I had picked Vincennes as a site to see in hope of getting a whiff of the old French settlement there. Cahokia, Cascaskia, and Vincennes were the three isolate French towns settled in that murky colonial era before us Anglos began to write the history. They survived as self-sufficient communities, had trading relations with the Indians and Upper Canada, long before English pioneers thought about the Ohio Valley. It was George Rogers Clark’s victory at Vincennes during the French and Indian War that ended hostile incursions into Kentucky and the Ohio River settlements. Maybe there was a trace of those times here. Cahokia is buried under East St. Louis. Cascaskia drowned by the Mississippi. What about Vincennes? But when we got up in the groggy morning on the outskirts of town I was so eager to get to Bloomington that we completely neglected to tour Vincennes. Can you believe it? Drive all the way there, and not even go up and down Main Street? We are losing it.

My eagerness for Bloomington was anticipation of our final road reunion: with John Bean. John and I crossed paths in the Fall of 64, when we both enrolled at Beloit College in Wisconsin, thanks to their 11th hour admissions policy. John was and is a talented musician, and as soon as I heard his blues guitar, down the hall in the old YMCA we were housed in, I knew he was a kindred spirit. We formed an intense friendship. Smoked the ditch weed, chased the cornfed maidens, wrote poetry, told lies, all that late adolescent stuff. Bryce and Bean sandwich.

John was from Iowa City and cut a wide swath through the Beloit meadows: lank blond hair, orange leather Czechoslovakian motorcycle jacket, soulful guitar, burping Motoguzzi. But I had my sights on the Big Apple and the center of the journalistic universe, and dropped out before Christmas to head back east. Playing solo. John had been shocked. Sent me a letter warning me I was throwing away my future. I’d never amount to anything without a college education. I was so upset I hitched back to Beloit from New York in a January adventure (arrest, snowstorm, a kidnapping.. but another tale) just to say: “Hey. It’s just me doing my thing. Don’t write me off.” Somewhere in that episode I concluded that real life was a better story than college, and I wanted stories to tell.

John had done an exchange semester in Cambridge later on, where Peggy got to know him, but we hadn’t seen or spoken to him since 1966. Crossing Iowa this Fall I’d sought out an address for him, sent him a Christmas card in Indiana, and John joined the E-train as we set out from Maine this March. Now we were going to look in another of those funhouse mirrors. Maybe see who we've been, and how far we’ve come.

I wouldn’t have recognized John, if we’d bumped together on the street. Still fit and trim, but balding, bearded, and bespeckled, very much the academic he chose to be. Somehow very different from the wildly romantic character I’d mythologized. We laughed when we saw each other.

A professor in the Department of Higher Education at Indiana, John is enmeshed in that huge institution. A faculty of 1500. A gigantic University plant. A universe unto itself out here in the rolling cornlands. His current research topic is undergrad attrition. A timely moment for me to reappear (and depart quickly).

John and his wife Barbara recently built their dream house close to the campus, a writer’s study for her (she teaches creative writing at DePauw), and a gigantic painter’s studio for him. John has applied the same meticulous discipline to mastering oil painting as he did to his blues guitar in the 60s, and the house is full of painterly images from their world. Prairies, kitchen still-lifes, family interiors, each a technical tour de force. I’m struck again by how many of our old friends are practicing artists, actors, musicians.. professionally or otherwise.. and how rich their creative lives are. The misused word RECREATION comes to mind. We’ve seen repeatedly how people recreate themselves through art. John plays bluegrass fiddle with a dance band and Barbara writes short stories.. to renew themselves by stepping outside the daily drudge. We’re reminded that we must reinvent ourselves constantly or stew in our own juices. This sabbatical year has dumped us out of the soup. Now the trick is to keep from simmering back in.

John and Barbara are now trying to sell the dream house. Kids grown and gone. It’s huge, too big a drain. Be careful what you dream. The kicker is it was too well designed and built. Real plaster walls. Redwood siding. Down to the least detail this is a perfectionist’s composition. What buyer is going to notice, or care enough to pay for the perfectionism? Ain’t that a sorry commentary on American house construction?

Meanwhile we were guests in a show place. Potential buyers actually came to view it the afternoon we were in town, and Peggy and I went for a roam around Bloomington. Our first stop was at the IU Auditorium, where there are four Benton murals in the lobby. Thematically similar to the ones in Jeff City.. the industrial and social history of Indiana, in this case.. they didn’t have the same architectural impact. They’d been created for an exhibit at a world’s fair, so they weren’t designed to fill this space, and all the panels weren’t reunited. What was there still works the Benton magic, bending and recurving the viewer’s eye, nudging your wit, and honoring a common history. A university functionary saw us entranced, told us she was in charge of raising money to refurbish the murals, and invited us into her back office to see old photos of mural installation. They plan to spend beaucoup bucks in the restoration. Isn’t the world of art full of incongruities? Artists warming themselves at trash fires outside Romanesque temples to THE ARTS.

Fountain at IU

We ambled some of the campus. It would take you a week to walk it all. IU is a sprawl of multi-story edu-factories, generally unadorned rectangles, with hyper-inflected labeling: The Sub-department of Inferior-grade Minutiae. Flocks of undergrads with backwards hats (M) and shy eyes (F) mill studiously, while professors in appropriate gender costume pedagogue gracefully. He in short-sleeve buttondown oxford cloth. She in acres of drape with bangles. My attrition rate is still high, ain't it? And my PC beyond hope.

Then we went into a Borders to get waiting-for-Homer reading. We are still reading our way through the Key West potboilers by Laurence Shames, great stuff. The best contemporary regional ethnographies are disguised as provincial mysteries. (Read MAIL, just out by Mameve Medwed, a fellow Owl rider, for a glimpse of Cambridge, Mass.) We had a mystery waiting in the parking lot. A dead Owl. Somehow I’d left the lights on, and it doesn’t take long for the bird’s AA battery to go flat. “Push start,” I said. But Red refused to kick. There’s so little compression in that mill you can push it with the clutch popped and barely feel the drag. Or is it an electronic thing? I was puffing hard shoving it across the lot, and asked two large undergrads for help. They shook their heads no. Too busy eating ice cream. I’ve never refused to help push a dead car, or been refused. I was stunned. Peggy and a trio of students relieved me finally, but no go. Luckily John had jumpers, and was just a phone call away. Vrrroom.

We had a lively evening with John and Barbara, discovering parallel pasts and abstracting patterns from divergent lives, talking about the use of color and composition, enjoying ideal interior space. But the charge of such a brief re-encounter may spin your motor more after the event. Seeing the adult selves we became, we can revisit the memories of who we thought we were, and be amused, or pained, or both. Projecting the same process on historiography it’s obvious how we revisit our past every generation and rewrite it to suit today’s understanding. In this case I had to revamp my own history. I’d remembered John as a wild freespirit jumping the Indian mounds of Beloit on his Guzzi. How did he become a carefully controlled college professor in an abstruse specialty? Not an impossible leap, of course. But divergent from my old myth. As I say, I wouldn’t have recognized him. Does that cut both ways?

I’ve argued in this log that life, and friendship, is of a piece.. not unrelated sequential episodes. Now I’ve encountered a clean break in my personal history. I like this guy we’ve just visited, but I feel our relationship is completely new. Maybe our previous encounter was too brief for true knowledge. Which is to say that no subjective history can be the last word? We can’t know our own history? If so, what about the Bryce half of that Bryce and Bean sandwich? Is self-knowledge just as illusory as memory of an old friend? We carried this puzzle out of Bloomington with us.

5/8.. Kentucky.

Southern Indiana volleys you like pingpong. The backroads are charming, with their English tidiness and verdance. The old stone and brick houses stolidity perched on little rises, the more recent bungalows and ranches trig and trim. The whole picture might be a page from a Happy Homemaking Magazine. (The suburban bungalow, incidentally, was taken from an East Indian pattern, and promoted into popularity by the Ladies Home Journal early in this century... to make a “revolutionary improvement” in the lives of home-makers. No stairs to climb while keeping house.) Then you get volleyed back. Fleets of stretch semis hauling bulk cargo clog every byway, thunder past on the straight-aways. Coal. Gypsum. Ag-products. Meadows illuminated with mustard yellow weeds and new green forage are animated with kicking oil donkeys. Spewing stacks poke up behind the gentle swells. Tall conical coal tipples and loading facilities rear around the pastoral bends. The towns are scrubbed and healthy. The whole region looks affluent, and it should. Rich in resources, booming. So unlike downstate Illinois, where the factory farms look worn out, and the towns are dead. Is it the oil and mining which cushion the imperative to rip the farmland? Southern Indiana looks as robust as Iowa.

Rolling south out of Bloomington Thursday morning we found real hills and woods athwart our trail. It was pouring rain. We recrossed the quarry country we’d seen southwest of IU, and saw where man has moved mountains. The Washington Monument came out of the ground somewhere near here, and they haven’t stopped blasting yet. As elsewhere in this state the resource extraction doesn’t seem to have eviscerated the settled feeling of the place. The Satanic nature of disemboweling Mother Earth is part of our canon. Was there a time, is there a place, where we can supply the materials for our civilization without dehumanizing the landscape.. not to mention the ecology? I’d suggest we look to Indiana for answers.

Walls of rain met us at the Ohio River. We swam through Louisville without seeing the bridges or sensing more than the shadows of the skyline. The low pressure, an uneasy night, too much roadfood, and the pounding wet had us gasping. We put those Kentucky gentlemen, the Everly Brothers, on the box and sang along fortissimo. “Wake up a little Suzie, wakeup.” Stopped and ran around the Owl. Doused ourselves with caffeine. To no avail. We were pooched puppies.

It was a long slog across Kentucky. Our aim was to backtrack Boone and the traces of history up to the Cumberland Gap. The taste of Kentuk we’d had in December made us hungry for more, but it was raining too hard to enjoy the meal.

We only caught snatches of the regional conversation in passing.The South actually begins north of the Ohio. A lazy drawling of syllables starts to liquefy the flat nasality of a Midwest twang as you move downstate. Black barns and paddock fences appear. The county seats have ornate courthouses and brick storefronts around the square. By the time you’re in Kentucky you can expect grits with your eggs.

We paused briefly in Harrodsburg, in that rich licking country where the pioneers first came to hunt and stake a claim. There’s a replica stockade and blockhouse fort here. Peggy just shook her head quietly as we pulled up to the gate. The town itself looks more fascinating than the faux fort. Very much a living burg, with a grandiose courthouse and streets lined with 19th century brickwork. Too wet to wander, though, so we goaded the oxen onward.

The Bluegrass State looks less homogeneous, and a whole lot less affluent, than Indiana. There are manorial estates with miles of paddock fencing, but the middleclass settlement isn’t as brightly polished. There are more beaters on the road and parts cars in the dooryard. More lawn ornaments, of course. Class stratigraphy is reversed in Kentuk. Things get more hardcase as you move uphill.

The land rises and emboldens by increments as you go southeast. I love the rising ripples of this crumpled tapestry. The way roads start to snake and joyride overdale. Rounded hilltops break into outcrops, conical peaks stab up into the drapes of rain. Big pastures and cornfields get hemmed in by wooded slopes. The Owl starts laboring on the grades. The Owlers are nodding. Time to tuck it in for another day.

5/9.. Cumberland Gap.

Friday morning we found ourselves in Corbin, Kentucky, looking up at the Appalachian highlands. It was another raw lowery day. The deluge had quit overnight, but promised to start again given the least cause. We weren’t mentioning weather, or anything.

A retired couple from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan were intent on chatting us up in the motel lot. He was a jowly Scotch-plaid kind of guy, with wispy white hair, a crooked-tooth smile, and a shy sidelong way of looking at you.

“My wife’s from Maine,” he said. “She’s gonna want to talk to you.”

And talk she did. About Bethel, and Mainers, and winters near Tampa, and driving around in their moblehome. She was a wizened slip of a crone, but so enthusiastic about our trip and the small details of life we almost took the bait of joining them for breakfast at the Crackerbarrel across the highway. She insisted on hugging us both with her scrawny old arms, and I felt guilty about dodging breakfast with these lonely old birds on the road. Maybe not so lonely, if they make everyone feel so good. We looked at each other, and drove to the Crackerbarrel. They had driven on.

We did, too.. after a hearty chowdown of aigs, grits, and biscuits.. hold the gravy. Peggy ingested flapjacks.. with a side of cabbage.. do you sense veggy madness approaching? Up into the spitting clouds. The terrain all humped and contorted. In the roadcuts you could see the violent geology. Strata wrenched and folded, compressed and shattered. Bands of coal between sedimentary brickwork. Millions of years of slow time exposed. Openfaced quarrying in rain-veiled hollows. Choked woodlands of hickory, maple, chestnut, pignut, oaks.. clinging to the hillsides. Trucks hauling big-butted sawlogs. Coal-slurry pipelines angling down the ridges.

We stopped in a low-end super-market in a Kentucky backwater and met stringy-lean hillfolks and their overweight neighbors, all wearing exhausted looks, pushing carts full of fats and sugars. A diabetic’s nightmare. We came away with the oranges and water we’d looked for. Pulled down a gravel sideroad to take a hike, but couldn’t find a place to pull over that wasn’t full of trash paper and dead soldiers. This isn’t even the legendary mining country. It’s a long way to Harlan, long way to Hazard. Still it looks rode hard, and put away wet.

And getting wetter. The prophets had promised clearing skies and Spring balm. The mountains weren’t listening. Between showers the watershed divides would stick their heads out to watch our puny efforts, then retreat into foggy isolation. We were climbing out of the Mississippian and into the Atlantic domain. Through the Cumberland Gap. Back over the Wilderness Road.

Kentucky had been a noman’s land for generations when the colonial pioneers began plotting settlement. An intra-tribal hunting-ground with plentiful licks to draw the deer, and a wideopen place where the young bucks might lift a little hair or count coup on their tribal enemies. Rich, well-watered prairie openings, endless game, and the promise of greener woodlands called to the borderer blood in Virginia backlanders.

Daniel Boone was the prototypic colonial borderer. Born on the fringe of settled society in Pennsylvania, he and his parents had migrated down the Appalachian valleys into the Carolinas, where he grew up wild and woolly. We tend to forget that most of the movement into the Old West frontier beyond the Appalachians didn’t go directly west from the coast, but southwest from the settled fringes, then through the mountain gaps. In Albion's Seed, this fourth wave of British immigration is described as an influx of Scotch-Irish, hill country clansmen, who moved out beyond the settled strictures of the previous immigrants, and followed the valleys into virgin territory. The New England Puritans, were mostly from East Anglia. The Cavaliers, mostly from the Home Counties. And the Quakers, mostly from the West Midlands. They all brought distinct regional folkways with them. The fourth wave, were the Borderers. Their clannish propensity to violence, stoic disdain of hardship, and survivalist instincts were the perfect traits for pioneers in a hostile paradise. And the good burghers in town weren’t sad to see them go overhill.

One trait these borderers also shared was a distrust of classist politics, and the prerogatives of mercantilism. So they weren’t real enthused about a war with England over planters’ rights or traders’ taxation. It was no coincidence Boone led his first party of settlers across the Cumberland Gap in 1775. From the coastal colonial point of view, Boone and his followers were a barrier against Indian attack at their rear, and the Kentucky riflemen got necessary supplies from Virginia for that reason. Not to mention the potential land speculation which was a favorite pursuit of the likes of Jefferson, Washington, and the Virginia elite.

You don’t get the feeling Boone had the pioneer fever because of politics or real estate investment, however. He had a bad case of that perennial American itch, to go overhill and try it on. William Carlos Williams said it was the Boones who might have realized the promise of the American genius. Those outlanders who brought European consciousness into the wilderness, but were willing to learn the secrets of the land from the natives. Without Native superstition, communal Protestant dogmatism, or priest-ridden Catholicism, Boone might become a new man in the American Grain. He ended up a new American myth, the man who kept moving.

Now we were backtracking this urge to find new horizons. We expect to find an ultimate height, a great place of passage, a vantage to look back on the colonial era, perhaps, or a peak experience for our journey. The road goes into a tunnel. On the other side we are suddenly in Tennessee? Confused which way to turn, we're looking for Virginia in the fog.

We did find the southwesternmost corner of the New Dominion, and turned the last corner of this quest. We’re going to follow the Appalachian spine all the way to Maine, if we don’t get lost. The rest of Friday saw us winding through the mountain valleys while the peaks played peek-a-boo in the cloudbanks. Rain streaming off black barns with red tin roofs. Log buildings with the mortaring whitewashed so the silver-gray timbers stand out. Steaming cattle in the hollers. The far corner of Virginia has a thousand compelling images, but every time we slowed down to sketch the sky started to gush, or there was nowhere to pull over. We were suffering from drawing withdrawal, too.

The Virginia hinterlands look a lot more affluent than Kentucky. We kept wondering where the cash came from. Even the blue-collar houses down the backroads sported new paint and lawn ornaments. I was struck by one homemade pair on a cabin porch high up a hillside: an angel embracing a burst of light. We’re definitely back in the fundamentalist South, with roadside exhortations and upholler chapels in the folds. But the ag was decidedly small-scale, and we weren’t encountering any signs of logging and mining. What we were seeing was highway construction. Flyover fourlanes in the boonies. The secondaries and tertiaries might not have shoulders, but they were freshly paved. Have Virginia pols finally managed to pyramid an entire economy on road contract boondoggle? Like Newfoundland on the dole, or America on Defensive Engagement?

Well, you roll on, Buddy. Traces of pale blue breaking, and graying out again. Cumberland Mountains. Pennington Gap. Ben Hur. We laughed. Back in 71, when we got out of the Navy, I ‘d spent a couple of months hanging out with a proto-commune in Hampton, Virginia, while Peggy finished out the school year at Hampton Institute. A local architect had drawn a coterie of followers around his idealistic vision. They were planning on going back to the land, but nobody could figure out how to drive the bus. It was an old military ambulance bus, with removable tiered cots and seats. The perfect hippywagon, but geared like a truck. I became the driver. The whole crew, with their herd of Afghans, would pile aboard and I’d thump us over the curbing and endanger the local signage. Plumes of smoke. They'd bought land in Ben Hur, but discovered the bus only got one mile to the gallon. It WAS a military vehicle. Last seen the mob was crammed into a VW microbus headed west. We looked in the local phone book, but none of the names we remembered were there. We weren’t surprised.

Spring is in full regalia in these mountain valleys. Roadsides in bloom. Trees leafed out. The scenic byway we were on was called The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, and it must be lonesome. We didn’t see a pine tree for a hundred miles, just a dizzying variety of broadleafs, sun stretching. There’s a LOT of Virginia out here, folks, and it’s voluptuously verdant in May. Clear mountain streams tumbling down. We followed Wolf Creek through Narrows and into Ripplemead. Scenic from the road, up close its banks were strewn with trash and the marks of flash flooding. We didn’t see a fisherman all day.

By the time we came out of the Jefferson National Forest into the hubbub of Roanoke we were ready to unfold and let the Owl cool. But it was commencement weekend at Virginia Tech, and every motel was booked solid. Our travel agent played with a pay phone, and had us committed down the road in no time. The blustery northwesterly cleared the sky for sunset behind the Appalachians. We’re back on the morning side of America.

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