Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Road To . . . .

[For those following the blog, you will notice that I have skipped ahead in time and place.  Previous bog posts have reported only up to the beginning of September with Waller Grant entering Canada.  This post is more immediate, reflecting recent reading, experiences, and observations.]

September 30 we departed Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park—just in time, it turns out, because the Republicans closed down the government a day later.  After three nights near Portland, Maine, we moseyed over to Tree Farm Campground at the edge of Springfield, Vermont.  Our primary goal in Vermont was simply to “see the leaves.”  Of course, we have other goals, like tour Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory and visit the Vermont Country Store, but mostly we are “here for the leaves.”  And the leaves are spectacular.  They are everything that everyone has ever said about them.  Maybe I will try to add my two hundred words to the pile at some point, but here in October, as weather begins its turn toward chill, and as our leaders in Washington play with our futures and court all sort of unknown disasters, I want to meditate on my own private change of seasons.

Changing Seasons at The Fort at No. 4

From the earliest stages of planning Waller Grant’s Caravan of Wonder, I had planned that there would be books.  You may have noticed that in other posts I have referenced several books we have picked up along the way, something on Cahokia, something on Detroit, for instance.   What you don’t know is that there are a couple that I haven’t yet written about as the reading of them has been sporadic and undisciplined.  The Spoon River Anthology and Winesburg, Ohio are two in particular.  Currently I am reading Evangeline  and The House of Seven Gables
One problem with my education is that from undergraduate to graduate school and even often during almost thirty years in the classroom, I was always more interested in the non-required reading.  For instance, one summer, I read all of Hemingway’s novels published up to that time—except For Whom the Bell Tolls, which had been assigned in a graduate class.  Therefore, when I was browsing the free book shelf at Tree Farm Campground—“You can take one, but please leave one also”—and saw The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I abandoned my reading plan and snatched up McCarthy. 
Admittedly, except for the title, it is a strange book to read on this trip.  One version of the Caravan is that we have the story of a happy family—husband, wife, and two sons—journeying freely across America.  An extended vacation.  Plenty of food, drink, entertainment.  A lovely, beautiful, sweet world.  McCarthy’s The Road is a terrifying tale of a desperate family—father and son—struggling merely to find enough food and water and shelter to stay alive for just one more day.  Hardly comparable, are they?
But let’s let our minds wander at bit.  For me, reading The Road has called up all sorts of archetypal associations.  First, I kept feeling the pull of Abraham and Isaac, which in my reading is story of a crazy man’s delusions finally corrected.  The very idea of sacrificing one’s son is a crazy, criminal notion.  But then so are impregnating handmaids, stoning homosexuals and prostitutes, and stealing one’s general’s wife.  I also thought about Telemachus and Odysseus, except this time they get to take the journey together.  Third, I couldn’t help seeing a bit of Huck and Jim, a boy experiencing fatherly love while witnessing the horrors of human nature unleashed. 
The road, the path is a metaphor deeply ingrained in the human mind.  Anyone who listens to closely to language notices, I would think, how we humans think in metaphors.  Lakoff and Johnson, authors of the classic Metaphors We Live By, and Mark Turner, co-author with Lakoff of More Cool than Reason:  A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor and author of The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities, advance that we think the way we do because we live in a body with certain features and because we learned to blend two or more ideas on top of one another.  For instance, the future is always ahead of us.  This is a metaphor, not literal fact.  Time and space blend because we live in a body with eyes in front.  The past is behind us.  Life is a path, a road.  Life is a journey.  “I shall be telling this with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence:/ Two roads diverged in a wood,  and I, / I took took the one less travelled by / And that has made all the difference" (Robert Frost).
Back to The Road.  One of the features of this book, having avoided all the spoilers, is its suspence.  I was always worried what was going to happen to the two characters.  Because I had read All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian, and because I had seen the movie No Place for Old Men, I did not trust that McCarthy would protect his characters, and thus me, from harm.  Anything could happen.  This is the thing about a true journey through space and time—anything can happen.  A second feature of the novel is the father’s love of his son.  Protecting his son from harm was a primal decision that became a spiritual force in their lives.  Third, the world they inhabit is so bleak.  It is a world where the last remaining Coca-Cola, that wonderful symbol of the pleasures of insidious capitalism, becomes the kindest gift, an unimagined luxury. Everything that we conceive of as beautiful has been destroyed—art, books, architecture, forests, fresh food.  All that remains is being cannibalized, figuratively and literally, merely for the dreadful experience of living one more day.
In many ways, the caravan is the exact opposite of this.  We have crying fights over denying Captain Crunch his second soda for the day or his third scoop of ice cream.  I have said on a few occasions, “I just need to go a couple of days without drinking another craft beer.”  We are experiencing so many wonders, so much beauty from Winslow Homer at the Portland Museum of Art to the startling blues of Lake Huron to shine of Lake Glimmerglass to the natural rock sculpture in the Bay of Fundy to the juice of apples on our chins in a pick-your-own apple orchard in Vermont  There have been days when the boys and I have told Knightsmama,  “We just want to stay in the trailer and chill." There are too many beauties, too many one of a kind experiences. 
Autumn Birches (Approaching Storm) by Albert Bierstadt

What The Road has brought home to me is just how precious and fragile everything is.   And how much we take for granted.  We middle-class Americans have startling wonderful lives and it won’t be all that difficult to screw it all up with government showdowns and shutdowns.  Already the National Parks are closed.  On our trip that would include:  the Pea Ridge Battlefield, Arch in St. Louis, the Lincoln home in Springfield, Illinois, Cayahoga National Park, Niagara Falls, Seneca Falls, and Acadia National Park.  If the shutdown continues, our trips to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D. C.  will be greatly affected.  Say what you will, but these parks contribute to the local economies.  So begins the cascade of effects.  Waller Grant and thousands of others don’t visit these historic sites.  Ice cream, craft beers, hamburgers, lobsters, and apples are not purchased in local stores.  People lose jobs.  Businesses close, Taxes are not collected.  Roads are not repaired.  Even more people don’t visit.  Each town becomes some version of Detroit or Cairo.  And of course, citizens learn that their history is unimportant.
Throughout The Road, the son keeps asking his father, “We’re the good guys, right?” And he says, “We have the fire, right?” the fire being that spark of “humanity,” which also goes by names like love, mercy, compassion, hope.  For me, one of the great purposes for this journey through the United States is a pilgrimage—a father taking his sons—to the landmarks where Americans have expressed their ‘Humanity,” their love for their fellow citizens, their mercy, compassion, and hope.  Everything they fought for:  Washington, John Adams, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Whitman, Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Roosevelts,  Fitzgerald and Faulkner, Martin Luther King, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Marvin Gaye, Ben and Jerry, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy.  This random list that far exceeds the goals of Huey Long, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Ted Cruz, these crazy men who want time and human progress to stop and for their own personal power to accumulate. 
One of the great scenes in The Road occurs when the boy convinces the father to be kind to an old man, like them, wandering the road.  Speaking of archetypes—it’s the classic stranger on the road moment.  He is old, frail, still potentially dangerous, and possess a dark wisdom:
How long have you been on the road?
I was always on the road.  You can’t stay in one place.
How do you live?
I just keep going.  I knew this was coming.
You knew it was coming?
Yeah.  This or something like it.  I always believed in it.
Did you try to get ready for it?
No.  What would you do?  . . . .
Do you wish you would die?
No.  But I might wish I had died.  When you’re alive you’ve always got that ahead of you.
Or you might wish you’d never been born.
Well.  Beggars can’t be choosers.
A little later he says, “There is no God and we are his prophets.”  (168-170)
            Yesterday, Waller Grant visited The Fort at No. 4 just over the Connecticut River in Charlestown, New Hampshire.  It is a reconstruction of a fort build on the edge of the Massachusetts frontier in 1740. [It is run by a non-profit, so it was open.]  It is an interesting question to ask if the founders of the fort were the “good guys.” Nonetheless, these sons and daughters of wealthy coastal settlers moved onto land that their families claimed were theirs and set up homes and farms.  Fairly often they were attacked and what they had built, like mills and gardens, were destroyed.  Dr. J. and Captain Crunch learned how to throw arrows with an atlatl.  Knightsmama and I talked with a woman who volunteers her time to demonstrate and lecture about how people in the 1700s wove and created cloth. It took her over a year to make the linens for a quarter-sized bed she uses in lectures. The harshness of life on the frontier reminded me of The Road, except that nature was alive and able to provide food.
Apples and such from Wellborn Farm

But what I mostly thought about how much our lives differ from theirs, just 250 years later—RV caravans, pick-yourself-apple-orchards, Ben and Jerry’s, The Vermont Country Store—layers of comforts and stuff.  This thought then prompted the realization that it is all so fragile, so easily destroyed.  It all rests on our confidence that we are building something good and useful.  And then there are the fools in Washington and in many state capitals who wish to hand it all over to the cannibals and barbarians.  I am not saying that the Democrats are totally right and the Tea Partiers are totally wrong.  I am saying we all have to choose to be the good guys, the fire carriers, those who are prophets of mercy, not punishment, those who will feed the stranger on the road, not shoot him.  I am 60, almost an old man, and I am saying there is a god of love and we should be his prophets.

Soundtrack.  Talking Heads:  "Road to Nowhere."

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