Archive for June, 2013|Monthly archive page

The Great Plains and a Once Great Cow Town

In Travels With Myself on June 30, 2013 at 12:20 am

I know that in New England they are called corduroy roads: they were originally made from logs sunk into the road bed to provide a solid surface and help prevent washouts. They were, of course extremely bumpy and noisy. I remember, as a child, traveling with my parents through upstate New York when many of the highways were what I would call “wide-wale” roads: great slabs of pavement separated by tar strips that allowed the road to expand and contract with the weather. The roads produced a jarring bump and a loud clop-clop-clop for miles, and sometimes it seemed, hours on end. After I got off I35 this morning and US50 took off finally on its own, the road was at first a wide-wale road. Apparently techniques have improved, though, because there was only a small bumping and almost no noise at all. The rhythm of the road was definitely there, though, and I was happy when it changed to the more rumbling texture of aging asphalt.
From there, Kansas opened up like a picture-book laid flat across the landscape. A green and golden carpet spread out as far as the eye could see on both sides of the gray strip of road as it ran its course through hay fields, already dotted with the great rolls of the first cutting, wrapped in clear plastic and waiting for the next step of the process. Among the hay fields were smaller plantings of corn, and great rusty pumps bobbing up and down, massive grain elevators like long-forgotten pieces of a great fortress wall, and the occasional herd of cattle, farmhouse or agribusiness. I found myself drawn in by the unbelievable vastness of it all, and by the water color plein-aire sky, growing from pale pastel to a deep blue roof above, wispy strands and powder puffs of clouds painted against it. To ride these roads is to know what is meant by the “great dome of the sky.” I could imagine watching as the great storms that sweep the plains might rise at the horizon and advance inexorably toward me. The few stands of trees gave testimony to the power and frequency of those storms. They all leaned toward the east, already bending away from the wind that would surely come again, the ground beneath them littered with broken branches and the gray bones of their kin who had not been able, finally, to bend any more.
It is easy to imagine, also, the six million buffalo that once stretched as far as the plains themselves, and the great civilizations that lived and prospered on the land before the coming of the Europeans; easy to imagine that great expansion, as US50 paralleled the route of the Santa Fe trail. Easy, then, to see how this vast prairie, with its isolated towns and more isolated farms and ranches could fire the imagination of rugged individualists, adventurers, and the scoundrels who would want to lose themselves far away from the reach of civilizing forces that inevitably found their own way west.
In Missouri, I had seen at least four instances where some devout farmer with a hillock had constructed his own personal Golgotha, one tall straight cross rising from the hill while two smaller crosses shrank back to either side in that classic iconic image. In Kansas, the road would go for long stretches with nothing but simple fences between the road and the fields, then as a town or some farms drew into view, long, incredibly straight lines of poles would come round the corner from somewhere, their cross pieces crucifying only power lines and telephone wires; then disappear again just as suddenly. In a town called Spearville, I say a town, though I never actually saw one, there is the largest wind farm I have ever seen. It stretches out easily ten miles or more in every direction. If you have never seen one of these windmills, it is hard to imagine how big they are and how gracefully the long, almost delicate blades swing slowly around, giving the whole apparatus the appearance of a great white water bird, stretching its wings and dipping its bill to drink. The sign at the town’s edge proclaims that Spearville is home to windmills and Bengal Lancers, which I can only assume to be the name of their high school football team.
I was amazed by the absence of people. The fields were almost without exception empty. There was no one working them, no tractors running about or great combines lumbering along. Instead, there were only the enormous irrigation rigs, standing on great narrow wheels and impossibly small legs, crawling ever so slowly across the prairie like bizarre sidewinding silverfish. And the absence of people didn’t stop at the edge of the fields. Even the towns all seemed deserted, nobody out in the heat of the day, nobody doing business, only the cars and the ubiquitous semis that seemed to be always passing through to somewhere else.
I grew up in the 1950s, watching fictionalized television versions of Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the truly fictional characters of Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, Paladin, Davy Crockett (a particular favorite just for the name) and too many others to list here. I love the great American romance with the cowboy, the gunfighter, and the lawmen who had helped to tame the west. So when US50 passed through Dodge City, I had to stop and make my first shameless tourist stop. I went to Boot Hill and Dodge’s Front Street museum. It was wonderful. But even here I was surprised by the absence of crowds. Here it was, a Saturday afternoon in late June, and I practically had the whole of Dodge City to myself. Even along Front Street and Wyatt Earp Boulevard, the parking lots were nearly empty, shops still closed, some empty of more than people. The whole of Kansas seemed to have gone indoors and pulled the shades.
Then I remembered. I was there because I had vowed to eschew the interstates, and because US50 had brought me right to town. Only one interstate runs through Kansas; I35 slices off the southeast corner of the state; and the closest major highway to Dodge is US40 which cuts across the middle 100 miles to the north. Where the Santa Fe trail once provided the surest and best known route to the west, where wagon trains and cattle herds once plodded their way across a thousand miles of wilderness, all that is left are some brown signs announcing the occasional historical marker and a small museum in a mostly ignored tourist town, while most of those heading west zip through the state at 75 miles an hour, an hour and a quarter away.

Random Observations and a confession?

In Travels With Myself on June 29, 2013 at 2:08 am

First, some random observations without judgment. I spoke too soon about the ubiquity and constancy of public radio. From the middle of Illinois to the middle of Missouri I had a very hard time finding good, clear NPR broadcasts. On the other hand, I had no trouble finding as many as a half dozen protestant Christian stations in that same frequency band. The State of Missouri runs rumble strips down the middle of its major two-lane roads, but not along the edge; and they mark their county highways with letters rather than numbers. In Illinois, they sell a full range of liquor at gas station convenience stores. The opposite of these things must be noticeable to those who travel from here to New England, also.
The route through Missouri and into Kansas has been surprisingly not so different from Connecticut. I could have easily been driving from Willimantic to Middletown on Connecticut’s Route 66, or across 190 from Union to Enfield. There is, for me, a sense of the connectedness of places that I didn’t find in Illinois or Indiana. The roads are busy enough with small towns and cities, with signage and road markers, that I always felt that I was getting somewhere and that the road connected that somewhere to wherever I was at the moment. Towns didn’t pop up suddenly out of cornfields, but approached a little at a time. Also, the roads sometimes ran fairly straight, but often wove gently through the countryside, rising and dipping as they went, and so were, in some way, less tedious, less wearying.
But while there was more to look at, the seeming familiarity of the scenery gave me time to think. Some of my readers may wonder why I am not talking more about the attractions along the way, why I have not stopped at historical sites or famous landmarks; why I’m not posting a lot of photographs. In the interest of full disclosure, I will try to explain.
I have come to the realization that I do not see myself as a tourist, but as a traveler, a sojourner. This trip is not about collecting souvenirs or counting the places I’ve been. I’m not out here to see what has been seen, and probably much better appreciated and described, by so many others. I am here just to immerse myself in the traveling; to pass through, not to stay. I am a mongrel mutt as a tour guide, I’m afraid. “The Gateway Arch has stood for more than 40 years as America’s tallest monu . . . Look, a man selling hats! . . . and a squirrel!” My only hope is that I am enough of a raconteur to make my observations interesting.
One thing I must confess I am not is a picture-taker. I simply never remember to take my camera with me, or even to take it out of my pocket when I do have it. It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and there are certainly many instances when a picture has generated a great many thousands of words. But I have to say that for the most part I disagree with the sentiment. When I look at a photograph, and that is all I am to know about what you have seen, then all I can really know is what your eyes saw and you chose to point your camera at; and I know what the camera saw. But give me just a few well-chosen words, and I may not necessarily see what your eyes saw; but I can begin to understand what your heart saw. In these entries I hope to offer snapshots of the heart, to show you my journey, not just the journey. I hope that will be enough.
And what of those artists who can create pictures that do, indeed speak volumes? I don’t take anything away from the profound and moving beauty of their art; but often when you look at the all the words they have inspired, you realize that the thousand words they’re worth are the words of the viewer, not the photographer. This is, of course, how it should be with art. It begins a thousand conversations, but too often they are cast in the voice of the observer, not the artist.
On the other hand, I expect to reach Colorado tomorrow or early the next day. Even I may find it impossible to resist taking out my camera for the Rocky Mountains. Even for me there may be times when words won’t be adequate.
One last observation: it is getting harder to avoid highways and interstates. We Connecticut Yankees have two interstates running north to south through the state and two running east to west (I know, I95 is technically N-S, but it doesn’t run that way in Connecticut); but there are lots of other choices to get where one is going directly enough so that even a stranger with a map can figure it out. But out here there are dozens of interstates and state highways; and few logical straight routes in between them. As I approach the mountains, especially after my West Virginia experience, it will probably be prudent to stick to the nice wide, safe interstates and avoid those little red lines with the “scenic route” dots running along beside them. I just hope they have lots of places to pull off and take pictures.

Disaster Narrowly Averted and an Hour Regained

In Travels With Myself on June 28, 2013 at 12:21 pm

As I drove across Indiana and Illinois, the scenery lept back and forth from corn fields and dairy farms to town centers and vast malls and industrial parks. I actually passed two separate Walmart warehouse/distribution centers today, one in eastern Indiana and the other in eastern Illinois. In Seymour, Indiana, all those elements converge. Corn fields give way to small shopping centers that give way to industrial parks that give way to the town center and then return to malls, industrial parks and cornfields. Seymour is the home of a large medical center, the third largest egg farm in the country, John Mellencamp, one of the first train robberies, and the guy who designed the battle-bot that Sheldon and the guys used in an episode of Big Bang Theory. I, however, will remember Seymour because it is the home of Denny’s Auto Repair and Towing – and Robert and Tony.
I had left Versaille State Park less than an hour before. Route 50 is a pretty good road for the most part after it leaves Ohio. This is probably because it cuts across the Midwest in between the major cities, like Evansville and Indianapolis, and well south of Chicago, Peoria and Springfield. There’s a lot of industry along the route and a lot of population. As a result, I was making good time and enjoying the ride. As I came up into Seymour, though, I noticed that the van seemed to be riding a little roughly, even though the road surface was pretty even. As I passed through town, however, the ride got rougher and I suddenly heard a loud clunking noise which got louder when I braked. I had just cleared all the malls and businesses, so I pulled over and looked around to see if I could find the problem. I was convinced that the sound had come from the front right wheel. I couldn’t find anything, though, so I turned around and drove slowly and nervously back into town to Denny’s.
Robert (as I know from his shirt) checked out the front end, but didn’t see anything, either, so he asked to take it around the block. He got about 10 yards from the garage when he turned around and came back. A man of few words, he got out of the van and said, “Your rear wheel’s about to fall off.” Somewhere along the road, the left rear wheel had discarded three lug nuts and sheared off two of the lugs. The rest were loosening rapidly. To my angels I said a small, quiet, and very sincere “thank you.” To Robert I said, “Holy Shit!” Then, after a moment, “Well, that could have been a whole lot worse!” He agreed.
I spent the next hour or so pacing around while Robert located the necessary parts, Tony made a run for the lug nuts, and then Robert set about calmly to put everything back together. As Tony and I took care of the bill, which was not bad at all, he proved to be something of a town booster. When I said that Seymour was a surprising town, that it looked really small on the map, but seemed to have a lot going on, he proceeded to list what he could remember of what he considered to be some of the more interesting tourist attractions, which is how I learned all that stuff about train robbers and robots and eggs and John Mellencamp.
Feeling very fortunate, I got back on the road and pointed Taliesin west once again. With occasional stops to rest or eat, to answer nature’s call, or to buy a new road map (they’re becoming easier to find), I crossed into Illinois, crossed my first time zone (thus recovering the hour I’d lost having the car repaired), and finally crossed the Mississippi into St. Louis, Missouri.
“Wow,” I thought as I drove over the MLK Bridge and the Mississippi passed beneath me. “I’m really doing this!”
There are markers that make things more real, I think. The near-disaster with the wheel, and the quick, friendly and efficient way Robert and Tony took care of it (The place was busy when I got there, but nobody seemed to be in too big a hurry to not to take the time to be friendly and helpful. ) will be a marker for me because it was a challenge faced and overcome. The Mississippi is a marker because it feels like I have finally broken free of that pull of gravity I talked about in my first entry. There are still plenty of things (and special people) to draw me home again. I’m not going to drift off into the cosmos, but I can flatter myself to imagine that this is something of what the astronauts must have felt when they first realized that they were actually leaving Earth and heading for the moon.
So I have told the story of the wheel and taken pictures of the Gateway Arch and the Mississippi waterfront because that is what we have to do with marker events – mark them. And I am realizing as I write this that it isn’t the size of the adventure that matters, it’s the importance of having one of whatever size works for you.

Just Passing Through

In Travels With Myself on June 27, 2013 at 11:27 am

I picked up US 50 in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where it’s a wide, fast highway carrying people through Clarksburg and on through the Allegheny foothills and the farms toward Parkersburg and the Ohio Border. Once it leaves Clarksburg, the road reverts to a two-lane road that drifts between the hills and fields, occasionally opening up to four lanes and a divider strip. Side roads came running straight at it, without traffic lights or on-ramps or anything but a sign giving drivers a quarter-mile warning of the intersection. Wilhelm Run, Morgan Run, Cabin Run, Cunningham’s Run, Bear Run, Brunnell’s Run, Lost Run: the names of roads that ran past in rapid succession, carrying forward the names of creeks or washes that marked the land of farmers long gone. The roads themselves are runs, little creeks that feed the small streaming roads like US 50 that eventually pour into the rushing rivers of the interstates.
I had gotten an early start and by 8:00 had stopped for breakfast at the Omelette Shoppe, which I had spotted from the highway just outside of Parkersburg and which I turned back to find. A sign out front welcomed race fans: “Want Bacon? Get All You Want Here.” At the Omelette Shoppe, they serve large omelettes drowned in white gravy, along with hand-made sausage patties, and shredded-potato hashbrowns, and your choice of white, wheat or rye toast. I ordered the rye, but when it came I couldn’t tell the difference. You can also get biscuits with that same gravy poured over them. And your coffee cup never goes empty. The lady who brought my food and refreshed my coffee called me darlin’, but was entirely uninterested in conversation. US 50 cuts across Ohio all the way to Cincinnati, but the feeling is different once you get past Athens, where it separates from Ohio 32 and again becomes a simple 2-lane road through farms and small towns. Most people stay on the better highway, so these rural roads are in need of maintenance and repair, patched and battered. Just after US 50 takes off on its own, a sign warns of “rough road.” The sign is old and weather-beaten, and makes no promise that conditions are likely to change in 10 miles, or 15, or ever. When people talk about the nation’s infrastructure needs, they usually think about bridges falling and highways crumbling, but the damage is deeper than that. Roads like Route 50, or the more famous Route 66, are disappearing in our rush to get away from where we are and beyond the spaces between us and our destinations. If we took better care of them, maybe more people would slow down and enjoy the ride. Or maybe it needs to work the other way around.
There is plenty to look at along Route 50, well-kept farms and small, clean towns; distant hills clothed in lush greenery; and all the particulars of rural American life: the Baptist or Lutheran churches; the classic town halls and firehouses; the red brick high schools with football fields. I passed a billboards proclaiming that life begins at conception; mounted directly below one advertising guns bought and sold. But in spite of all that, there are, compared to Connecticut, very few landmarks. There are places where the road goes straight ahead to the vanishing point, with no hills or turns to interrupt the view. I imagine that for those who have lived there long enough, familiarity teaches landmarks that those just passing through cannot see. I suddenly found myself longing for a co-pilot, someone who could look for the things I had to ignore because my attention was on the road itself and keeping the van between the center line and the gullies; someone who could look for the opportunities to stop, or turn aside to explore and discover. My one reliable companion has been public radio. There is hardly a stretch of more than a few miles anywhere that does not get a signal somewhere at the low end of the frequencies, where the familiar NPR programming can be found. But even this can be a distraction once you start seeing that road disappearing in the distance.
Every once in a while, I would stop and walk through a Dollar General store or grab a coffee at a gas station. I was looking for a map of Ohio. In New York and Pennsylvania and West Virginia state maps were available free for the asking; but I was nearly to Cincinnati before I found one in Ohio – and the station attendant had to walk into a back room to find an old one up on a shelf somewhere. He seemed surprised. A clerk at another station/convenience store had joked that it was either because Ohio was a shy state, or that so many people wanted the maps that no one could keep them on the shelves, while there were still plenty of Kentucky maps to be had. I finally found a rack with plenty of Ohio maps after I crossed into Indiana, where I bought the last Indiana map in the place. This is probably another consequence of staying off the highways. These days, no one expects the tourists to take the secondary routes, so there isn’t any effort to keep visitor centers there either; or even to be worry about a map.
After Cincinnati, where 50 is called the Cincinnati Byway and wraps around the southern edge of the city, so close to the road barriers and retaining walls that you can’t see the buildings looming above you, and so close to the Ohio River that you can wave to Kentucky as you go by, I began to think about settling down for the night. The radio had been warning of an approaching storm front bringing thunderstorms, likely hail, and possible tornados. I will write about the storm, if it proves as dramatic as the predictions, tomorrow.

Chapter 3 — Scary Tales of Mountains and Malls

In Travels With Myself on June 26, 2013 at 1:07 am

I believe I said in my first post that getting off the interstate reminds us what roads are really like. Well that can certainly be said about Route 119 from the Pennsylvania border to Grafton, West Virginia; and I assume even further south. I say assume because I have no intention of finding out.
Route 119 is a narrow (by which I mean just barely wide enough for cars to pass each other going in opposite directions), winding (think ribbon candy) road. Along one side (I may be wrong, but I think it was always my side) there are a great many very long drops from which vehicles are separated only by a very short guard rail. For some reason, West Virginia thinks that it is a good idea in that situation to bank the curves toward the precipice and separate the road from the guard rail with a six-inch gutter a tad wider than an automobile tire. The state also considers it prudent to put off repairs to the road except to pack in a lot of macadam patches that bounce the vehicle from side to side.
Now, if you have the nerve for it, imagine that you are most accustomed to driving relatively flat, fairly wide roads in Eastern Connecticut, but have, because of a crazy idea about staying off highways, chosen to drive an extended length, extra-tall Ford Econoline RV along this road. Let me just say that I drove very slowly and looked for every opportunity to pull over onto the rare wide patch between mountainsides to breathe, check my vital signs and let the long lines of locals who had queued up behind me pass as they wished.
I wonder why it is that so much of what is beautiful and awe-inspiring is also so frightening – or is that just me? (I know . . . this is the real meaning of “awful.”)
That said, I am glad of the experience. So much of this first leg of the trip, which will take me to Utah by the 4th of July, is about encountering the country as it is. There are mountains as well as flat places; there are open spaces and places where everything is so close you feel claustrophobic driving through. I never fooled myself into thinking that it would all just be a drive from Putnam to Woodstock, only very much longer.
From here I turn west on U.S. Route 50, which should take me directly across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado, all the way to Utah. If I can continue to average a state a day, then I will be in Enterprise for the 4th.
I did drive through a considerable portion of Pennsylvania, also, of course. And one stop deserves mention. In Uniontown, I pulled off of 119 to take a break just before pushing ahead into West Virginia. The place I chose was a good sized mall with a large Walgreen-style pharmacy/superstore at one end. I went into the mall entrance and the place looked like a movie set for a post-apocalyptic fantasy. Benches sat empty in neat rows; a lot of random stuff stood shrouded in drop cloths, both in the hallways and behind the glass doors of abandoned stores; a sort of nondescript restaurant called Moe’s was open, but had few customers; and an open counter coffee shop called Joe’s stood in the middle of the mall a short distance away, apparently set up for business, but completely unoccupied. In a corner was an arcade with flashing pinball machines and glowing video game consoles, but not a single gamer in sight.
Curious, I approached an old man sitting by the one open store front, a dental office, and asked him what this place is. He told me that the mall had never done very well there and, except for the pharmacy, stores had abandoned it one by one, until it was essentially closed. Rather than completely close it, however, someone suggested turning it into a large open indoor flea market and antiques mall. The flea market only operates from Friday to Sunday, however, and the place just sits the rest of the week, with barely a pulse, waiting for vibrant, teeming life to return and resurrect it, like a rust belt Brigadoon.

The Long and Winding Road

In Travels With Myself on June 25, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Yesterday was an interesting ride through New York State. As I made my way from Oneonta to Ithaca, there was no direct route, no single path between the two, though they lie along roughly the same latitude and not terribly far apart. Instead there is a patch work of roads that run east and west, north and south, across the state. Even the interstates seem to give Ithaca a wide berth.
As you drive through all that dairy and corn country (Cincinnatus, NY, Home of the World Famous Corn Fest!), as you wind through the hills that lie between the Catskills and the Allegheny, towns pop up suddenly as you round a corner or come down over a hill, then disappear just as quickly behind you. There’s been very little traffic so far and most of it seeming to be in no particular hurry to get somewhere. Even Ithaca, which is a decent-sized city, though it’s a college town where college is out for the summer, appeared very quickly as I came in on route 79. There were no suburbs, no edge-of-town malls or car dealerships, just a sign that welcomed me to Ithaca and then the downtown.
Ithaca was late-June quiet. Streets were almost deserted at 11:00 in the morning. There’s some improvement going on, the creation of what looks like a walking mall along one of the main streets, but the city itself looks settled, comfortable with itself. It shops speak of the students who are there for eight months of the year and the professors who stay year round. The street I walked down was occupied by cafés with sidewalk seating. Viva Taqueria, which promises healthy Mexican food is just up the street from the Bangkok Thai Bistro and Sushi Bar; and across the street is the Autumn Leaves Used Book Store, where I spent $40.00 on books and then went upstairs to the Owl Café, which serves iced coffee with coffee ice cubes (an idea I will suggest to Victoria Station Café in Putnam). There are head shops and eclectic little stores of all kinds, like the Ithaca Hemp Store, and even the chains are places like A Thousand Villages, with not a Gap or American Eagle or Abercrombie and Fitch in sight.
After Ithaca I decided that I would start heading south as well as west, with the idea of making it into Pennsylvania before I stopped for the night. This was actually a fairly simple plan, as it involved only three major routes, but I still managed a wrong turn and ended up briefly passing through Canisteo, which I learned is the site of the world famous living sign, though I saw no sign, no signs indicating where the sign might be and no explanation of what caused it to be living. But as it is a world famous site, then I am ready to admit that it is probably just my deplorable lack of sophistication about such sites that is at fault. I did, however, take note of the location of the October corn maze (not, apparently, world famous) as I left town to get back on my way to Pennsylvania.
As I had noted before, on crossing from Connecticut to New York, state borders seem to signal changes in attitude or style, not just sovereignties. Rural Pennsylvania along route 446/46 and down onto 6 and 66 is all about the Alleghenies. Little general-store-and-a-church towns interrupt only momentarily the drive through foothills and forests. For nearly a hundred miles from Bullis mills to Clarion it was farms and forests and mountains and little villages. I finally stopped just outside Clarion at the grandly named Rustic Acres RV Resort and Campground, mostly a collection of permanently parked RVs with tiny yards and uneven decks around them. I think I was the only transient camper in the place, and even the seasonal camps were mostly empty on a Monday night. The owner is a man named Quinn, who is probably older than he looks, though I would guess him to be in his 70s or 80s. As I registered, he told me how he had worked for a large electronics firm until they sent the jobs to Asia, then for another company until he couldn’t stand it anymore; how he retired from that job, then bought a campground in North Carolina, then sold it to retire again; and how he subsequently came up to Pennsylvania with his wife, who was attending a church conference, stayed at the Rustic Acres, discovered that the place was for sale and decided to buy it. He told his wife what he wanted to do and she replied, “Do whatever you want, I have to get ready for my conference.” Now he says he’s about ready to retire again, and if I’m at all interested, he can assure me that running a campground is pretty easy. I was neither convinced nor tempted.

Escape Velocity

In Travels With Myself on June 24, 2013 at 1:18 pm

As I type this, it is about 7:30 in the morning and I am sitting in a park along Rte. 26 near Willet, NY, on the shore of Whitney Point Lake. I have been amazed at the lack of simple roadside rest stops or picnic areas. I seem to recall seeing them fairly frequently when I travelled with my parents as a kid. On the other hand, New York State has the occasional park, even in the most isolated and rural areas. These are lovely, well-maintained parks, with swimming, boating, large picnic areas and shelters like the one I’m in now that have electric outlets. And the parks are free to all, no admission or use fees.
So far, my journey seems to be about breaking away, getting far enough along so that I am clearly on the road and on my own. There is a certain kind of gravity that pulls us home and tries to keep us there. I found myself thinking about having to get far enough away before I stopped, so that I could overcome my own amazement that I am finally doing this, so that I could overcome my own inertia. I started out by getting onto Rte 44 in Putnam and just staying on the same rte. all the way to Poughkeepsie, NY, and a little beyond. I didn’t even stop for gas or a fresh cup of coffee (I made a stop in Putnam at Victoria Station Café for a large coffee and a blueberry scone) until I had crossed over into NY.
Travel writers always focus on the extraordinary or unusual. Many of my friends have helped me think about this trip by telling me about amazing places they have visited. But I have been struck so far by how interesting the ordinary is. As I crossed CT from the familiar areas of places like Putnam, Mansfield and Manchester; then continued into less familiar places like East Hartford, Avon, and up into the hills of Wilton – places I have been to only infrequently; and finally began to pass through the small towns and farms and even medium-sized cities of NY; the landscape changed more rapidly and dramatically than I had expected. I had always thought of CT as somewhat uniform in nature – the CT Yankee and the wealthy sophisticate or celebrity. But the towns and cities rolled by, some small and cluttered, like a house needing a good cleaning after a long week; some clean and quiet, taking a Sunday nap. The farm towns and rural cities leapt suddenly from commercial streets and shopping malls to dairy farms and lush woods.
I found it interesting to see how the character of things changed, also, as I crossed from one state to the next. CT is busy, even in its rural areas. But away from the cities, NY is so far relaxed, laid back in ways I hadn’t expected. Perhaps it was just that it was Sunday and people were taking the day at home; but if that’s the case, then they haven’t wakened yet at nearly 8:00 o’clock on Monday morning, at least not along rtes 23 and 26 west of Oneonta.
I stayed the night in a Walmart parking lot in Oneonta, along with a variety of other anonymous travelers: several semis; a pick-up and a rental truck moving people somewhere; some cars with their passengers propped up in the front seats, trying to sleep; and my American Cruiser. I did manage to sleep, despite the cramped quarters (the “double bed” was apparently intended to sleep two people under 5’5” tall), the warmth of the night, and the strangeness of bedding down in a parking lot.
I have decided to call the Cruiser Taliesin. There are actually two Taliesins who are the same man. The historical Taliesin was a great bard and poet of Ireland. The legendary Taliesin was bard to the court of King Arthur. Now I shall travel and write with Taliesin as my transportation and my muse.
I’m glad to be staying off the highways. I think that when we travel the interstates we get where we’re going faster, but we lose a certain sense of scale and distance. As I drive the smaller routes, the slower roads, I am becoming more and more aware of how far I am going and how very much farther I have to go. It will be interesting to see, on the returning part of the trip, whether or at what point, the distances might shrink again as home gets closer rather than farther away; and what will happen when I once again get into the grip of gravity. Will I et the re-entry just right or burn up in the atmosphere of home and crash-land back in Putnam.

The Path Has No Regrets

In No Particular Path on June 17, 2013 at 1:53 pm

I like to think that I have no regrets about my life. And perhaps that’s true. And perhaps regret is the wrong word to use for the way we respond to the past. Guilt, regret and blame are all judgments about the past that allow us to believe that if we or someone else had simply behaved differently at some particular point, made a single specific different choice, then things would be better than they are. Self-congratulation is the same response when we are happy with who we are or what we have and tell ourselves that it is because we chose well at some specific point that has made all the difference.

We judge our lives, and in the process select certain specific choices for special consideration. There’s nothing wrong with this. We cannot live our lives amorally. A moral code is important to being human. Without a personal sense of right and wrong, good and bad, we couldn’t self-actualize, couldn’t prioritize, couldn’t participate effectively in the social contracts our interactions with others require of us. But guilt, regret, judgment and responsibility are not all the same thing, and it is possible to evaluate, and judge, and take responsibility for our choices, without guilt or regret.

The best we can say is that had things been different, had we chosen differently, then the present would be different – but we cannot know whether better or worse.

I know that in my life I have hurt and been hurt. I have loved and been loved. I have chosen well, in ways that nurtured and cherished and were healthful and positive; and I have chosen badly, in ways that were harmful and destructive to myself and others, that sought to meet my needs without consideration of the consequences for myself or others. I have given and received. I have made human choices and human mistakes.

I cannot even say that I always meant well, that I have always tried to be kind or patient or gentle or even honest or authentic. I believe that I never intended to do harm, but cannot say I did everything I could to prevent it.

We all have needs –social, spiritual, emotional, psychological, physical, material – and we seek to have those needs met. Sometimes we try to meet them in life-affirming, healthful, nurturing, responsible ways, and sometimes we seek to meet them in self-destructive, harmful ways. Sometimes we meet them through our own, separate, individual ways; sometimes we seek the help of others. Relationships are always about the meeting of needs. In healthy relationships, people help each other meet their needs in healthy ways; there is an ongoing discussion, even negotiation, about the meeting of needs and both the possibilities and the limits of the relationship in getting those needs met. There are compromises, and sacrifices, and disappointments, and disagreements; and there are cooperation, and acceptance, and allowances.
In the end, of course, we can do nothing about the past except regret it or embrace it. About the present we can do nothing except live it. About the future we can do nothing except fear it or be open to it.

I am who I am today, with all my fears and sadness, with all my moments of courage and all my joys and all my passion for life, because my choices (as so many wiser than I have said before) have led me to this place at this time. I don’t regret anything in my life, despite the mistakes, despite the sorrows, despite the hurts; and I don’t claim any special gift of wisdom or brilliance or personal superiority despite the proud moments, the achievements and triumphs, even despite the love.

My hope for the past is that I can keep it in my human heart and let it inform my soul; my hope for the present is that I will see my choices clearly enough to make them in healthful, nurturing and peaceable ways; my hope for the future is that life will bring me opportunities to make those choices and that I will not run from them, or judge them, but will face them with a heart and soul that know the value of the past, and the challenge and possibility of the present.

The path itself has no regrets. The stones do not desire to be flowers; the hills do not wish to be valleys. The sun does not regret the storm and the cloud feels no guilt for its shadow. Falling is movement, as is standing up again. The present is fleeting and this moment contains all the truth of our lives.

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