Armchair Peregrinations


February 15, 1999

Amid all the stacks of paper, manilla file folders, books, and magazines which fill the four corners of my apartment, I found, at last, the typed, photocopied travel journal I kept during my first major solo trip across the country in the spring of 1984. This 50-page manuscript, along with its sister manuscript, also exactly 50 pages from a second around-the-country trip a year later, is an extremely important record of the last great extravaganzas of my youth. How I could misplace even one part of it, I do not know. It bespeaks volumes to the disorderly state of affairs in which I live, and which must be remedied soon. Spring cleaning time is coming, and I am hoping to become inspired to toss out much of the useless dross that has accumulated.

Re-reading some of the descriptions of never-before-seen places that populate these journals, I am filled again with wonder that I ever accomplished so much, and that I had the adventuresome spirit necessary to embark on such travels. But that spring of 1984 marked a new epoch in my life, and I look back through the pages of those journals and remember a brief period of time when I was unemployed and unencumbered and full of the excitement and anticipation of doing something I'd always dreamed about doing.

The previous fall I decided I couldn't continue in what I was doing, quit the field for good, and was left with very uncertain prospects. I rented a room in Columbia for a few months, did some free-lance writing and spent all my spare time poring over maps and a travel guide to U.S.A. backroads that became the source of all the places I planned to see. I had read the first edition of William Least Heat Moon's now classic book of his solo travels across the country, "Blue Highways," and I wanted very much to do something like that. I also wanted to write about the experience, and I did.

When I arrived back in New Orleans in August of that year, I got out my typewriter and began typing the handwritten journal entries that I kept in a couple of lined-page diary books. I will share from time to me in this online journal portions of that journal, as I did Saturday with my excerpt about the John Day River. Following is the introduction I wrote to that first volume of my travel journal:

I think everyone at one time or another would like to pack up, get in the car, and just follow the setting sun with no paticular timetable, no pressing deadlines. The opportunity at long last came for me this spring and summer of 1984, and I took off with hopes high for seeing all kinds of new places and experiencing long stretches of road as I never have before. All my highest expectations were realized many times over, but it is probably only in years to come that I will fully understand the significance of this last, somewhat youthful, adventure. Traveling just increases your appetite for more of it, the excitement and novelty being such elixirs for most of us weary sojourners along the road of life. Seeing the country means taking some time to savor bits and pieces of it, not rushing through on the interstates making time. Time is precious enough and short as it is without us trying to compress it any further.

For years, after hearing people describe their travels in the country, I'd hear myself weakly responding that I'd only been as far west as Houston. I guess I always knew I'd remedy the situation one day, and now, I'm pleased to say, I have. The following pages of journal entries represent a modest attempt to capture some of the spirit and sights of the trip along the way while they were still fresh in my memory. What a wonderful journey it was!

February 13, 1999

I'm really enjoying a new rivers magazine that's been out less than a year. It has wonderful photos of rivers and streams at all seasons of the year and good articles and narrative accounts of trips on these rivers by canoe or kayak. It's been so long since I canoed Black Creek in Mississippi that I can only relive the experiences through my memories of them and by reading journal entries which describe visits to the river. To me, the flowing water of a river or creek is about the most peaceful and sublime of nature's gifts. I think that is why people buy small fountains for their homes that sound like the trickling of a small creek or buy CDs that have the sound of flowing water in the background with a soft music score. At the College of Charleston, in back of the student center, there is a small pool with a circulation of water over ledges and past lilly pads that sounds exactly like a small stream gently running over rocks and boulders. I love to listen to it and watch the turtles napping. In the midst of a busy campus and city, there's this little oasis, a true get-away-from-it-all place.

As the coming spring nears, I think more often of my trips across the country and of the many beautiful rivers I walked along or crossed in the course of those spirit-lifting travels into new lands. One of them in particular I can never forget and think about from time to time, specifically in connection with eastern Oregon, one of the last great open, empty places in the continental U.S.

The John Day River rises in the Umatilla National Forest of north central Oregon, at the convergence of several branches, including the North, South, and Middle Forks of the river which are stunningly beautiful streams in their own right. Up near the source waters in the Blue Mountains are towering and majestic Ponderosa Pines. After the main river is formed from its tributaries, it widens significantly and flows through basalt canyonlands with vertical cliffs up to 500 feet high, and then makes its way through sagebrush rangeland to the Columbia River. It is the longest free-flowing river in the Columbia's basin, undammed for its entire length. For 246 miles it is protected as a Wild and Scenic River and 327 miles are designated as an Oregon Scenic Waterway.

Much of the fascinating history of eastern Oregon is associated with the John Day, and Arthur Campbell has chronicled it mile by mile in this book "John Day River: Drift and Historical Guide." I remember staying in the little town of John Day and driving east one morning along the river and seeing a valley of incomparable beauty and the snow-capped peak of Strawberry Mountain in the distance. Here follows an excerpt from my travel journal, dated August 6, 1984 and written in Ontario, Oregon. It describes my first real acquaintance with this area of the country and my obervations about the John Day River:

Yesterday was a day of contrasts, of otherworldly scenery and vistas, constantly changing and new for me. Eastern Oregon was the Old West and a New World.

Deschutes River State Park is near the site where Oregon Trail emigrants first saw the wide Columbia River and got a glimpse of the end of their westward journey. A brisk wind was blowing as I stood on the banks of the river where it flows into the Columbia. To the north was the Columbia River Gorge and to the south and east the hills, plains, and rock outcroppings that characterize the dry eastern part of Oregon in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains.

On a remote stretch of highway, open space and wheat fields stretched out endlessly to the horizon. The land was gently rolling, then the road entered a drier, rockier area with high hills. Down again into canyons and on to the valley of the John Day River. At John Porres Park on the river, the John Day is in the last stretch of its 284-mile journey to the Columbia from its source waters high in the Blue Mountains. Here was perfect stillness by the river, slowing flowing through quite barren ranchland. There is an exquisite beauty to these hills and conyons, so silent and mysterious.

I just had to make a short side trip through the town of Fossil. Like other towns distantly interspersed on the highway, it is an outcropping of life, a sheltering habitat of green for humans who have settled in this great, open desert-like land. From Fossil it is about 100 miles to the nearest larger city or town. The place has a look of almost defiant independence, as did Condon and Wasco, two other tiny hamlets I passed through.

At the junction of two highways, I at last came to my goal for this day's traveling -- the road skirting the upper John Day River and leading to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Again, hills and rock slides, but this time a winding road following every turn and bend in the John Day for more than 100 miles. The desert everywhere ended abruptly at the river, which was a long ribbon of oasis -- cottonwoods, willows and lush reeds along its banks. The road would wind up low hills and to slight overlooks where the formerly narrow river widened and was separated by sand and gravel bars. The stretch from Kimberly to near the town of John Day has fantasic rock formations, sedimentary layers of green and beige with basalt columns rising up in defiance of ceaseless erosion by the elements. There are occasional torrential rains and thunderstorms here, but the average annual rainfall is about 12 inches. Some of the most valuable fossil remains of plants and animals from as long ago as 40 million years have been found in these layers of rock. At Fornee Fossil Beds, I walked a short trail among sagebruch to an overview of the John Day River valley and the jagged rocks which protruded above the smoother hills. Silence but for the wind blowing strong. In ways I felt like I was at the top of a mountain on the moon or some other alien landscape. There was the slighly unreal sensation of being toally alone, apart from the rest of the world. I can just begin to appreciate what it must have been like for the Oregon settlers who traversed this land over the wagon ruts of earlier, perhaps luckier, expeditions. Water is a profoundly precious commodity. Nearly all the creeks which led to the John Day were nothing more than shallow, dry rock and gravel beds, with only the faintest hint of the water which last coursed down these streambeds.

Despite the strange new beauty of eastern Oregon, I began to wear down a bit after leaving a last scenic section of mountains and Ponderosa pine to enter this time a true desert with high hills in the distance. This wore on for many miles in 92 degree heat until I came at last to Ontario. One observer of those who endured the hardships of this area in pioneer times posed the question: Why would anyone leave the comforts of a settled life back East to strike out with family and every earthly possession capable of being transported on a trail which crossed mountains, deserts and Indian territory, and which offered the prospect of starvation, disease, a pitiless sun and no water? The answer, he concluded, will probably never be know. I think those determined early settlers who came across the country on the Oregon Trail were powerfully inner-motivated to discover a new life and have the chance to "follow the setting sun," but their reasons must contain many other hidden truths.

Links:
American Rivers article on the John Day
Great Outdoor Recreation Pages
Riverside Schoolhouse B&B

February 8, 1999

There are few natural features of the landscape more symbolic of life than a perennial spring in the desert. In my Wyoming Atlas and Gazeteer, springs are represented by a little circle and curving "s". Whenever I'm looking at the map and peering over the names of towns and streams and gulches and mountains, I occasionally see that marker of a spring. They are improbable, but in the arrid lands they do exist, flowing up from underground conduits, possibly just a trickle, possibly much more. They may form a tiny branch or creek that meanders down a bare mountain for miles until it merges almost invisibly with a larger stream. I saw this once on a hillside coming out of Cody, headed toward Thermopolis in Wyoming.

Life-giving, these springs sustained wearied and parched travelers and explorers in the last century. They must have been wonderful sights to behold when discovered serendipitously by desperately thirsty pioneers.

In far west Texas, high up in the Guadalupe Mountains in the national park of that name, is a trail that winds up from the Frijole Ranch, through rocky and dry desert terrain, past scrub brush and cacti. Halfway up you can see across to the panarama of the plains below. It seems impossible that there actually could be an oasis waiting for you at the end of the trail. It's there, though, and suddenly, in a green grove of oaks and maples, you behold Smith Spring, a little vision of paradise. Verdant green in a dusty of blanket of earth.

Here is how I described the scene in my journal, written in Carlsbad, N.M. on Oct. 6, 1987. I had gotten up very early that morning, quite excited about the prospect of seeing Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Started the day with the "road breakfast": scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns, biscuits and coffee a little after 6 am at the Cattleman's Restaurant in downtown Pecos, Texas. Drove out of town in early morning blackness as the sun gradually rose behind me...[At the park] I hiked to the oasis in a small canyon known as Smith Spring. Pure water percolates out of rock into a small pool surrounded by ferns and a small forest of oaks and maples. Asbolutely stunning and exquisitely beaufitul little bit of paradise on earth. Sublime are the sweeping vistas out over Texas plains which immediately come into view around the first bends in the trail. Stillness and a gentle descent back down toward Frijole Ranch. The air is cool with the wind pushing it on, but bright, warm desert sun keeps things comfortable.

How can I describe it further? The afterglow of the experiences I had that day in Guadalupe Mountains National Park remain with me all these years later. The photographs I took and the journal entry I wrote record the visit for some posterity out there, but I haven't needed those physical reminders to keep that magical place alive in my memory.

February 5, 1999

I'm home from work today and looking out the window on one of those crystal clear winter days where the sun is so brilliant and warm and the sky is the proverbial bluebird blue -- I mean _real_ blue. The trees are still quite bare, but this is the time of year when I begin to look for, and think I notice, the first faint appearance of buds opening in the branches of the trees. In a matter of weeks, I'm guessing, because it's been such a mild winter, these same trees will be flush with an an impressionist painter's kind of beige overlay of new leaves just starting out from their protective coverings. Each day the beige trees will become a little bit more green, imperceptible at first, and then that wonderful time when the green is fully apparent and you know that spring has arrived -- even if it's late February.

I remember how years ago spring was the departure time for my first trips across the country. My 1984 travel journal records that momentous April morning when I headed across Lake Pontchartrain toward Mississippi and the first of many miles of open road. Those trips were literally new beginnings for me, just like the new seasons in which they began.

I went backward into the season that year because I was traveling north toward Missouri. The woods were fully green in lower Mississippi and Louisiana, but as I edged north, the season seem to get younger until by the time I was in Missouri and Nebraska, the cottonwoods were still stuck in the winter just past.

One of the most memorable experiences of that first trip was a discovery that you can't make unless you are off the interstates and into the countryside and on less busy highways. These lead to the small towns and county seats that are the unique cultural signposts of the countryside you are passing through. And there is no more fitting symbol of the county seat than its often noble and grand courthouse building, usually in the center of town, in the middle of the town square, or else situated in some other prominent location where its bold and imposing architecture is visible to one and all.

Crossing the Missouri River from St. Joseph into Kansas in that memorable spring of 1984, I started leaving behind the deciduous eastern forests and entering the mixed woodlands and grassland areas that would take me toward the high plains. Driving along an open stretch of road, I noticed in the distance the tower of the courthouse in the small town of Troy. A modest-sized little village, it spared no expense some years ago, evidently, to build a fitting structure to accomodate the business of the county and to let the residents know that the town was there to stay and a power to be reckoned with in its own right. Not having traveled much before, I was fascinated by the great brick and stone structures I saw in coming days in all the county seat towns and small cities. Often built in the Romanesque or Richardsonian styles of architecture, common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these public buildings became, as someone described them, "the physical, tangible links to community and state heritages...Marriages, trials, elections, parades, festivals, campaign rallies and community celebrations are just some of the events links to courthouse squares."

As I traveled more often across many states in the years to come, I always remembered those first impressions of county courthouses, and made a point to photograph and observe the architectural jewels that were to be found in so many small towns. Whether it was Colorado or Texas, Indiana or Georgia or North Carolina, I photographed those buildings and put them in albums along with other pictures from the trips.

According to the Texas Historical Commission, Texas has more historic courthouses than any other state, more than 225 that are at least 50 years old and about 80 that were built before the turn of the century, according to their most interesting county courthouse home page on the Web. For a look at some examples of the fine architecture embodied in these courthouses, take a look at the Web sites linked below.


Historic Courthouses of Texas
Indiana County Courthouses

February 2, 1999

This is one of those journal entries written late at night, too late, in fact, when I know in my rational brain I should be in bed. But it's so quiet, not a sound from traffic or neighbors or anything at all to distract me. Of course, I have to be at work at 8:30, but fortunately, I can function quite well as long as I get five hours of sleep.

Today it rained the entire day, so that colored my mood somewhat this evening. It just feels different all day when there's not a trace of blue, or sun or any semblance of clearing in the dark, rain-laden skies. If I had to go through weeks of this, I would be a most unhappy person. But it will be clearing tomorrow, so I can look forward to some sunshine on this second day of February.

That great psychological winter barrier -- the month of January -- has been crossed. In Charleston, the first couple of weeks in February begin to noticeably hint at spring, although it's subtle. For me, the main way of telling the difference is when I notice for the first time that certain mildness and faint earthiness in the air that portend a landscape stirring from its winter slumber. We may have had a mild December, but that was the season just tricking us. I knew winter was coming. Now, although the trees are fully bare and the grass is brown, in just six weeks hence a rather remarkable transformation will begin.

*****

The main subject of what I was going to write about tonight is this: aging and states of mind. I never really think of myself as old, older or aging. I can't stand the term "middle age" because it basically means nothing. I sense in my mind and spirit now a kind of timeless state of being, a continuous evolution of the person who started out on the journey of adulthood with such a mixture of trepidation and excitement. Fear of the unknown. Reveling in the freedom to truly enjoy youth. But chronological, physical youth I recall as that state of mind where the future seemed as expansive as my dreams or inhibitions would allow it to be, where I'd look in the mirror and see an unlined face and dark hair. A youth. Now I look in the mirror and see a slightly lined face, and much more gray hair, but I don't think of myself as that much older than when I was in my twenties. The physical limitations of age are what I notice, not any diminution of mental powers or lessening of the thirst for new knowledge.

I've looked at pictures of people considerably older than myself, and when I tried to penetrate that mask of physical aging and read what is written in their facial expressions, I can see very briefly, and imagine quite realistically, that person in their youth. In an instant, I imagine that person when she was much younger. But it is only in my imagination.

Conversely, the other day, I looked hard at a picture of myself as a 17-year-old teenager, a junior in high school, standing erect in my Sunday sports coat and tie and looking placidly into the camera. I have a very faint smile on my lips, a slight trace of amusement showing from the corners of my mouth. As I looked at that picture intently, I really didn't see myself. It was as if it was someone else. But I couldn't see an old man in that face. Not even remotely.


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