Saturday, August 2, 2014

Traveling the West with Thomas Wolfe

            It’s wise to remain humble.   Occasionally, here at the end of the Caravan, I begin to think that Grant Waller has accomplished something special.  I think that we have done something rare and notable.  I have seen so much.  I don’t know if I could list all the things that I have witnessed, tasted, participated in during the past year.  Being a kind of on-again-off-again writer, I especially begin to puff up with pride when I recognize that I have maintained a regular output of wordage.   On average, I have posted at least one blog each week.  If things go right, I will pass the 200,000 word marker, over 600 pages of double-spaced Times Roman.  That is a big deal for me. 
The Last Writing by Thomas Wolfe
            But like I say, it pays to remain humble.  One of the books I have carried with me the last few months of The Caravan has been Thomas Wolfe’s A Western Journal.  I learned of this book when we were in North Carolina in December.  We visited his home in Asheville. I picked up Look Homeward, Angel at a Black Mountain bookstore, began reading, and since I am a slow reader, kept reading for next two months.  I finally incorporated the book into a paper I wrote for one of the classes I took for the sabbatical.  Along the way, reading this, reading that, I discovered that Wolfe had taken a car trip in the western states and had written about this trip in a journal, and that that journal had been published posthumously.  I kind of logged that information away thinking, most likely, I would not see the book until I returned to Austin and its great libraries at The University of Texas.
            During the afternoon of April 15, we wandered around the town of Moab, recovering from a jittery, jarring day of steering a rented jeep through the dirt roads, arches, and canyons of the Utah high desert.  There we found Back of Beyond Books, which houses a very interesting collection of new and used tomes, most of them with a natural, geographical, historical, and western focus.  As an off chance I asked the clerk if she knew if the store shelved a copy of Wolfe’s A Western Journal.  I think, like a dumb tourist, I had the title slightly confused, but she found it in her in inventory list, and walked me right to it.  Beautiful day! And this 1951 second printing was only $15.
            But I didn’t say why I think it pays to be humble.  This is it:  compared to Thomas Wolfe’s word factory, I am an inefficient hand tooled primitive.  In late spring, 1938, Wolfe mailed a one million, two-hundred thousand word manuscript to his publishers.  This is one million more words that I am hoping, dreaming, to achieve!  This manuscript eventually became two 700-page novels.    I am hoping for a skinny local press publication.   I am a sheltered yappy lapdog compared to Wolfe.
            For Wolfe, assembling his huge manuscript by that deadline had been a strain.  He needed a vacation.  He made his way out west where he had not traveled before.  In Portland, Oregon, he met two newspaper men who had the crazy idea of driving a new Ford through the West to various National Parks.  For some reason, Wolfe, like the Waller Grants, thought that kind of journey sounded fun, so he joined in. 
            The three men left Portland on June 20 and pulled into Seattle on July 2.   In these few days, they traveled to Mt. Hood, Crater Lake, Mt. Shasta, Yosemite, Sequoia, Mohave Desert, Grand Canyon (south and north sides) Zion, Bryce, Great Salt Lake, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Coulee, and Mt. Rainier.  Does this list sound familiar  Thomas Wolfe scrunched his six foot six inch body into the back seat of the Ford, looked out the window for a series of four and five hundred mile days, and scribbled into a 300 page 5 ½ by 8 5/8 inch notebook.  He titled his entries:  “A Daily Log of The Great Parks Trip.”  He begins:  “Left Portland, University Club 8:15, sharp—Fair day, bright sunlight, no cloud in sky—Went South by East through farmlands of upper Willamette and around base of Mount Hood which was glowing in brilliant sun.”  By 12:45, they arrived at “Bent”  (he meant “Bend”) and he notes “200 miles in 4½ hours.”
            It was 1938, and long distance car travel was not yet the norm, so the newspaper men were also promoters, boosters of a kind.  “Look how far we can go and how fast” seems to be their message.  As Wolfe jots in his journal after the first day’s accomplishment of 404 mile:  “The gigantic unconscious humor of the situation—C ‘making every national park’ without seeing any of them’—and so on and on tomorrow.” 
            For a while I sort of fantasized that I would write some kind of parallel text to Wolfe’s or reflect upon his impressions as I recorded my own.   The idea was a desperate one or, at least, misguided.  I was on my own adventure of a very different kind, in a different era, with different goals.  More important our “Great Parks Trip” unfolded with a vastly different itinerary.   This was our order beginning in Texas:  Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, Mesa Verde, Arches, Canyonlands,  Monument Valley, Grand Canyon (South rim), Zion, Bryce, Hoover Dam, Joshua Tree, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Muir Woods, Alcatraz, Mt. Shasta, Crater Lake, Mt. Olympia, Mt Rainer, Glacier, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, and the Badlands.  Our timeline was April 3 to July 19.    
            We traveled less each day.  Visited more places.  Stayed in places longer.  And I don’t jot notes in the back seat of the truck or at the kitchen table at the end of the long day.  I do type notes into my Iphone about the beers I taste at brewpubs when I am sipping them.  After all, it is easier to remember Mount Rushmore than it is yet another amber ale.   I take snapshots, which jar my memory.  But if I ever express any verbal brilliance at first sight of something, it is fleeting and dissipates into the wispy past as we move forward.
Always Mount Shasta
            Reading Wolfe’s journal reminds me of some of my impressions.  On the second day, he records driving from Oregon to California.  They drive near Mount Shasta.  “pine lands, canyons, sweeps and rises, the naked crateric hills and the volcanic lava masses and then Mount Shasta omnipresent—Mount Shasta all the time—always Mt. Shasta.”  I just love that because that was our experience.  We didn’t take the time to drive to Mount Shasta either, but for such a long time, as we drove north (Wolfe was going south) Mount Shasta stood erect and majestic glaring down on us.  “Always Mt. Shasta.”  The same day, further south, Wolfe rolled through the long valley toward Sacramento:  “the vast fields thick with straw grass lighter than Swedes hair.”   I am pretty sure one wouldn’t write a line like that anymore.  But he caught the never-ending straw gold that falls west off the Sierra Nevada.
            Wolfe took his notes and you feel that he is working his way toward something, something expansive and large, something that reflects or duplicates the country side that he is seeing.  His evening and morning in lodge at Bryce Canyon are the jottings of a set piece:  “struck up talk with quaint old blondined wag name Florence who imitates bird calls and dark rather attractive woman, Canadian probably French, who sold curios and who had life in her—and was obviously willing to share it”; or teenagers who “wanted something that wasn’t there and didn’t know how to find it—and had some depression reflections on Americans in search of gaiety, and National Park Lodges, and Utah and frustration, etc”;  and “school-teachers—at table next—who glowered dourly at everyone and everything with stiff inflexible faces and H. says most of the tourists are women and many school teachers”; and the young workers “bragging exultantly ‘We got tears out of four of ‘em this morning.  Oh, I love to see them cry; it means business’—Then discussing hotel business again and the art of pleasing guests and squeezing tears from them.”
Falls at Yellowstone
            You can tell by these excerpts that Wolfe’s jotting takes on a kind of frantic broad scribble across the pages.  He fills each page with maybe only 50 words.   I suspect how he feels is how we have felt many, many times on this trip.  Quick, notice, this is different.  We haven’t seen this exactly before.  If you let it, the enthusiasm and the anxiety grabs you.  O, Great America, how will I ever be able to convey everything that you are.  Only surperlatives with do.  Whitman, come embody me.  In one place, I must call on the velvety sounds of Poe to limn you; in another, I need the stabbing edges of Robinson Jeffers. So much, so much, so much. 
            I try to keep it all in my mind all at the same time.  The sacred calm of a grove of Sequoias, the silent flat lines and round lines at Joshua, the frightful space pulling you down into the Grand Canyon, the uplifting space in Yosemite or Zion, the humorous carvings of Bryce, the red sculpted bone lines of Arches, the submerged anger, hidden fury of Yellowstone, the bleached moonscape of the Badlands, mirroring and mirrored waters of Crater Lake.  Each national park is singular.  Each is its note on the geographical scale.  Each harmonizes with a different part of our character. 
            Thomas Wolfe tagged along for a journey that duplicates, in the extremities, the quintessential family car trip vacation.  Keep it moving.  We travel to tick off some mental list of “things we must see.”  Seeing doesn’t take very long.  The equation develops:  hours of driving for minutes of viewing.   Most of what you see is framed in the windows of the automobile.  The Caravan of Wonder began with only lightly different goals.  Our scope was bigger:  the 48 contiguous states.  We had to keep moving, but because we gave ourselves a year, we could move at a slower pace.  Meaning, we could see slower.  Two days here; three days there.  Sit back relax a little.  Still, we could not shake the attitude of being tourists. 
            I don’t know what to do with that fact.  Do I admit it with some form of regret?  Or with some form of wise acceptance that there is no other way to travel when traveling isn’t the one and only thing one is doing.   Though it wasn’t his approach (it was his hosts’), Wolfe’s trip resembled “the vacation.”  I don’t believe that what I have been doing for almost a year now has been a vacation,  even though my beginning point and ending point are the same, and our journey had a set length of time based upon the demands/freedoms of my work life.  However, my goal was never to escape; my goal was always to dive in, immerse, encumber, enchain myself with the experience of America.  That, too, was Thomas Wolfe’s goal, but I don’t think was the goal of the two newspapermen.
            When Wolfe’s trip came to an end, the newspapermen dropped him off in Seattle.  He checked into his hotel, read some telegrams, got some cash from a bank, bought a meal at Rippes, and acquired a bottle of Scotch.  On Friday, June 31, he jotted some notes of over all impressions and focused on the road kill and “the black crows picking at some furry mangled little carcass on the hot road—rises and flaps slowing vauntingly away as the car approaches.”   In addition,  he remembers Montana and the hoboes atop the Northern Pacific in the "luminous American weather."  The hoboes “roll past across America silently regarding us—the pity, terror, strangeness, and magnificence of it all.”
At Glacier National Park
            That was 1938.  I know that I would not describe America today with that set of nouns, “pity, terror, strangeness, and magnificence.”  The landscapes we viewed were more of less the same.  What is different?  Am I that different from Thomas Wolfe?  Have the people and politics of America changed that much?   Maybe that is my assignment for the next few weeks as we end this journey.  What four or five words describe the America that I have seen in the past twelve months?   

            I have to point out here at the end of this post that the A Western Journal was the last thing that Thomas Wolfe wrote. A week later he developed pneumonia, then tuberculosis. There is a poignancy in this.  He was ready to strike out in new directions with his fiction.  He had had his two Eugene Gant novels.  He had just turned in the manuscripts for the two George Webber novels.  Maybe he was wishing to do something besides the semi-autobiographical work he had been writing.  He had always been wanting to tell the story of America, but his America was Eastern.  How would the notes in this journal transformed into a novel?   

Soundtrack.  Tangerine Dream:  "Mount Shasta."

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