Armchair Peregrinations


July 28, 1998

When I was a child growing up in New Orleans, we did our best to turn our backyard into the closest thing we could imagine the great outdoors to be. It would have been a very confining space except for the fact that none of the neighbors' yards were fenced so we could roam freely. In back of our yard were a cluster of that very New Orleans tree, the hackberry, and it was these trees that we used for climbing and building structures at the base of -- huts, storefronts and the like for our Old West town. The hackberry is just about as undistinguished a tree as its name, but it has a special place in my memory for its constituting the only semblance of woods we had in our neighborhood. Its leaves are small and serrated like an elm's, but its bark is truly distinct. It has rough little round and oblong protuberances covering the surface of the tree, and I often liked to pull them off. So it was a kind of grizzled and rough tree, but I thought it was a grand specimen because I didn't know about the noble oaks, sycamores, elms, and tulip trees that existed elsewhere in our environs.

When we moved to the true suburbs on the West Bank of New Orleans from our modest neighborhood in Jefferson Parish (near the waterworks, for those who might know landmarks for orientation), I was transported to my vision of wilderness -- dark, green, humid, flat, semi-tropical woodlands which seemed to cover acres. Before the trees were cleared for several more streets in back of us, we had our run of these woods. They were filled with birdsong. We cut saplings with our knives to use as spears as we made our way in and around vines and deeper into our imagined wilderness.

It didn't last long, for only a year or so later our woods were gone and the new streets and houses were sprouting with dismaying speed.. How depressing it was to lose this small slice of forest. We had nice live oaks all down our street and there were a lot of trees left in the subdivision, thankfully, so it was still quite a green area.

But I wasn't able to know and enjoy woods again until years later when I moved to South Carolina and was free to explore the backroads around Columbia as often as I wanted. The big city of New Orleans was claustrophobic to me because it was so endless and flat and seemingly the same. So I had to dream of the country and trees, streams and ponds, and farms that I glimpsed on our drives to and from South Carolina on vacation. I always tried to imagine what it would have been like to grow up on the country, and since I wished I could have done so, I idealized and romanticized rural places. This fantasy place in the country was where I could escape the headache-inducing traffic of the city and the endless grids of streets and houses.

When, in the early 70s, I had a chance to visit, along with other friends, a farm out in the country not far from Columbia in the community of Blythewood, I was ecstatic. I walked down to the creek at the back of the property, and watched the flowing stream. I wandered around what seemed like every square inch of the property, just savoring the romoteness of it, the stillness that lay over the land, and the freshness in the air. This was my dream of what the country was like, and I remember walking back to the main house in a kind of happy daze, wanting to stay there and not leave. I still remember the experience vividly all these years later.

July 26, 1998

I stepped outside for a moment this evening and the humidity and heat still in the air enveloped me, hot and oppressive. I could hear the crickets and other night sounds. It is always nice to hear these sounds of life in the night. In winter, it's just the distant sounds of traffic.

In Columbia years ago I lived in an apartment surrounded by woods and set apart from the city because of its proximity to an army base, railroad tracks and a stream that ran through the area. It was wonderful to listen to the crickets, frogs and other creatures keep up a veritable cacaphony of sound, intense, deep, steady and rhythmic. As I listened on many occasions, the night seemed to pulse and the woods to be some kind of living, breathing organism, which in a sense it was. I knew that outside my window, the hickories and oaks were resting, but life was everywhere making itself heard and present around them.

July 25, 1998

Sometimes I come into the room and look at the computer screen and there's an article or home page for the New York Times or Reuters, or Salon or a landscape photographer's gallery, or a reference librarians' links to useful Web sites, and I just stare in wonder like it's still something new and amazing this Internet and World Wide Web that allows me to view such a vast wealth of information, writing, photography, literature, journalism, journal writing, e-mail correspondence. I never had a computer before about two years ago when I got this one and now I can't recall how I did without one. It has changed totally how I spend my leisure hours because now there's an unending menu of sites to visit. Just keeping up with favorites visited daily is job enough. In years past, I'd finish dinner and lie down in bed to read a book or watch a little television. Now I try to read the book after I've read the latest news on the Web, skimmed headlines or magazine articles and checked e-mail, mostly from listservs. I just can't believe it sometimes.

The question I must keep asking is whether I'm merely feeding my insatiable curiosity to know a little about a multitude of things, or whether I want to step back, limit my Internet use and go back to a slower, less information-saturated life. We're only talking about a couple of years back. Or is there any going back? How am I going to put all this information together meaningfully? Or can I? What am I accomplishing by restlessly moving from Web site to Web site in search of the most up-to-date story or the next article about search engines? No, I enjoy it too much to back off substantially. I've thought about it, but there's always that new and fascinating site or piece of writing around the next corner. A lot of my Web discoveries are serendipitous. They fall into my lap and I feel pleased and momentarily satisfied. And there's always more. Is there a moral to all this? I know what you're thinking. It's probably obvious.

We former journalists will always have printers' ink in our blood. It's never gone, even though it's been years since I smelled the wonderful smell of the press pumping out papers with my articles in them or watched as the papers were loaded onto trucks for delivery. Journalists, I truly believe, are not like others who pursue the things of the mind. They always want to know more, to get that next interview, ask those questions and write about it coherently for others to read. Specialize in one kind of writing? Write lengthy tomes? It's not for most newspaperpeople. They're content with a dollop of enlightenment here, another smidgen there. In other words, we journalists (and I always will consider myself one) like to know a little bit about just about anything under the sun, be it politics and public affairs, the environment, science, social welfare, education, or any other field we happen to be writing about. That's why I find the Web so absorbing and necessary. It's every generalist's, every broadly educated person's dream come true.

At times like now I find myself asking why I can't just follow something that interests me through to its logical conclusion. Read a book straight through for hours on end. Find some metaphysical topic and learn everything I can about it. Become an expert in some field. But no, the lure of the new and unexpected, a surprise morsel of knowledge, always sidetracks me, and I'm off again jumping all around the Net, learning one thing briefly, then another. Maybe I just don't want to learn too much about any one thing. That might be scary and cause me to have to really think about it.

July 22, 1998

This morning driving to work over the James Island Connector, which crosses a huge expanse of marsh and tidal creeks at the mouth of the Ashley River heading into downtown Charleston, I was preoccupied with the usual thoughts of what a rush I was in to get to work, what I'd be doing at work, and various other sundry cares and concerns. Then I looked down below to the marsh and was just startled momentarily at how beautiful it was. So green and sharply delineated in the clear, morning light before the heat of day and haze made their way into the sky above the city. It was fine day all day as far as the sky was concerned, although hot. I just realize, thinking about that experience, how easily it is to overlook those scenes of everyday, but extraordinary beauty.

One of the hazards of being bound to one location in place and time is that a certain familiarity and closeness with the place sets in and somewhat circumscribes your perspective. I often have to look hard and deeply at my surroundings to really notice them, whereas when I am less confined to a place and am, for example, traveling across new and never-before-seen landscapes, the experiences can be quite mind altering and exhilarating. One's senses are in a heightened state to begin with, since everything you see around you is new, and therefore you become constantly alert to to this newness and those details in the world around you that ordinarily you would not have noticed had you driven the same road a hundred times before.

This is the kind of mood of optimism and wonder at the world that travel inspires. I think that's why I do it, in addition to the other more pressing reasons that have included need for escape, the inevitability of following this type of wandering path through life at certain times in one's journey, and just plain having nowhere else to go except west, north or anywhere else but where you presently are. This latter situation has been true for me on quite a few occasions in the past, I'm not proud to say.

So, during one of those trips west, I had any number of revealing encounters with myself, one of which stands out above the rest. On one day during the course of that trip, I definitely had what Maslow called a "peak experience", but I must qualify the term and define it after my own interpretation. I think of it not as some kind of mystical or extrasensory experience, but as rooted in the solid earth of everyday -- experiences infused with glimses of how extraordinary life can be when experienced fully or at least with appreciative eyes and an open mind about the world and its "ordinary" wonders.

On this particular spring day 10 or so years ago as I was crossing Nebraska from the east, heading up into the Sandhills toward Valentine and the Niobrara River, I began to be aware, gradually, of how I good I was feeling at that particulary moment when the skies were perfect, the land empty and rolling with miles of grassy hills and small pothole lakes. When I reached the Niobrara a couple of hours later, there was a steady wind, fleecy clouds and a crystal clear light that illuminated every feature of this landscape. I walked along the river, wide and flat and shallow at this point on its journey to the Missouri, and I remember holding my arms out wide and closing my eyes, breathing deeply and just standing still there for some time while the prairie wind rushed by my face. I don't think I can describe the experience in much more detail except to say that it was one of the few times I can remember feeling totally at home on this earth and at one with this small corner of the universe. I was not worried about what I was going to do next. I was just aware of "being" at that moment and at that time. And that was all that was important.

July 17, 1998

It is late at night and I'm tired, but I want to record some thoughts I've been mulling over lately. They deal with the subject of memory. I've been thinking a lot about that word and all that it means. It is freighted with so many layers and contexts of meaning. It seems that now when I am thinking about my past, I can remember only what I consciously try to piece together from some fragment of the past that enters my mind. It occurs to me that to really recall an event or time in my past, I have to conjure up the smells, the tastes, the physical settings as concretely as I can. But they remain fragments and are easily lost. But, if I start to write about them, as I am here, more fragments of memories come up from I don't know where, and I'm able to begin recreating the memory in a way that I feel confident is an accurate picture of the event or time out of which the memory arose. Writing about it is, in a sense, reliving it. Then, if I choose to do so, I begin the process of trying to recall emotional states of that time past, or view them somewhat analytically for meaning to me in the present. Without this process that you gradually build upon, the memories remain static, set pieces of plain nostalgia. I want to try to understand why I remember what I do.

Years ago, when I was around 9 or 10, we spent our summer vacations in Sumter. It was here that longing for escape from the seemingly interminable school year was realized, and I could go swimming in a mill pond just outside of town. I remember how the water smelled. It was a fresh and earthy smell. The waters that backed up behind the dam had come from blackwater streams and swamps, darkened by tannin from tree leaves that had fallen into the water. There was a stationary plaform just beyond the shallow section of the pond, a hundred yards from the grassy edge. Here my brother and I, swimmers since an early age, would swim out and dive into the deep, cool waters. I wouldn't go too far down because the deeper I dived, the colder and darker the water became, and there seemed to us no bottom to it at all.

After a morning swimming at Second Mill, we'd head home, my brother, father and I, and come in to a kitchen table filled with the most delicious Southern food: fried bream, rice and gravy, biscuits, black-eye peas, freshly-sliced tomatoes, poll beans with fatback, and iced tea. I'd eat until I couldn't possibly hold any more. That was the tradition of those days of summer vacation. Swim at the pond, maybe go fishing later in the afternoon. Just have fun doing things we could never do at home in New Orleans. That is why those memories are so deeply etched in my mind. Each new school year, filled with worries and anxieties, I'd return in my memories to the summer just past. By that time in September, and more so in later years, those vacations assumed the rosiest of glows. They became golden ages in my young life. I'd daydream about the jukebox on the dance stand by the shore of the pond and hear the old Fats Domino tunes, "Blueberry Hill" and "Walkin to New Orleans." I'd wish I was back there because it seemed to me, several months later, a very long time ago.

Now, in 1998, the pond is still there, the cypress trees beautiful around the perimeter of the pond and back toward where the feeder creek begins to back up behind the dam. But a four-lane highway crosses right next to where we used to go swimming, and the beach is closed to the public. People still fish along the banks, but it's a different place. When I drive across the pond, I often find myself looking to the side to where the shallow water began and we used to wade as children out toward the diving platform. I look from my car window at the dark water, and it still looks clean and fresh and inviting, and I wonder what it would feel like now to dive down into its depths and come up, stroking hard to clear the surface and hauling myself up onto a now non-existent platform, breathless from the exertion but exhilarated and happy.

July 5, 1998

We're venturing out to Folly Beach this afternnon, even though it's the Fourth of July weekend. My sister and brother-in-law and their children are here from Seattle, and we want to get in as much time on the beach as possible. Late Friday afternoon and early evening we were there from about 7-8:30, a perfect time to sit and feel cool breezes off the ocean minus the heat of a few hours earlier. The children played in the sandbar pools and waded in the ocean. I just sat in my lounge chair taking it all in. The beach is a calming place; just listening to the ocean wears off the rough edges of civilization, and I feel ready to go back to the inland real world, albeit reluctantly. It's a magical place for children who revel in the salt air and water, retrieve seashells and fragments, look for marine creatures of any sort, and just generally have a good time running up and down the beach and heading in and out of the water.

We've come to this beach for so long it's as if there really isn't any other spot along the ocean where we'd like to be. I'm content with being utterly familiar with every beach house and section of dunes and sea oats; I know where the yellow dune flowers will appear and can anticiapte the flowering of the cacti that grow along the path to the beach. I like knowing where to look to see the best sunset views, and I like knowing that this old beach town with its castaway-looking bungalows and cottages is enduring and hopefully will never yield to the big condos and cheesy beach mansion atmosphere further up the coast.

Each time I leave my apartment for the beach, I turn onto the four-lane traffic madness of Folly Road, but less than half a mile down the road, a bridge crosses James Island Creek, a perfectly serene little waterway that winds among marsh and provides a perfect setting for the boats and docks and live oaks that line the bank. As I cross the bridge each time in all that traffic, I can look to either side and see a marsh landscape frozen in time, the same as I always remember from so many years ago. Seeing the marsh so near home, and the fact that it's a harbinger of the ocean up ahead, makes the remaining six orseven miles of highway tolerable. It's like a psychological barrier is crossed as soon as I see that creek. I know that in a few minutes the traffic will thin, and on either side of the road the marshes and tidal creeks will stretch out for miles in the distance. I'll soon spot Morris Island Lighthouse beyond the far northern end of Folly Island, beckoning me to the ocean and standing firm since 1870 to remind all comers of where they are in space and time.

July 1, 1998

To continue my thoughts from the other night, I am looking now at a photograph on the wall just above the scene of the creek in Oregon. It is of another special place, across the country deep in the piney woods of southern Mississippi. My faithful old yellow Sentra that carried me across thousands of miles of high plains, deserts and mountains on trips west, is in the lower right hand of the photo, parked on the shoulder of a narrow county road, the kind with sandy shoulders that come right up to the asphalt. It is a partly clear, but more on the cloudy-side, type of day. It is not light enough to really illumine the scene. In other words, not the best lighting conditions, but the composition and the memories are what I wanted out of the shot, not some crystal clear landscape. Dominating the picture is a massive white oak tree just coming out in spring leaf, that stage where the bare branches are cloaked in puffs of green from a distance and up close there are small, miniature oak leaves forming. It's a huge tree that's seen a lot of springs in Mississippi. At its base, slightly in the background, is an old barn with rusted tin roof.

That particular day, and I'm certain it was an early Saturday afternoon in late March or early April, I had just completed a weekend ritual of mine when I lived in Hattiesburg. It's a college town, but no big burg, so it's easy to get out in the country real quick, minutes at the latest. To get away from the relative hustle and bustle of the small city, I would get on the Interstate for a few miles, then turn off on backroads heading to Purvis where I'd invariably make my way to Ward's Hot Dogs and get a chili cheese dog, fries and a frosted mug of root beer. This was invariably my order, most Saturday afternoons when I made this trip. I'd finish with a small, soft vanilla cone in hand as I headed out the door to my car. Then it would be a short drive back out into the country, and I mean real, "blue highways" country, just the kind I love. No cars, narrow, winding roads and plenty of woods and farmland interspersed with those big oak trees along every stretch of road.

I'd soon be bumping down a sand track to the banks of Black Creek, one of the first National Wild and Scenic rivers in the Southeast, and a magnificent creek to float a canoe down, which I did on a number of occasions, oftentimes finishing up right at the landing I'd pull up to on those Saturday drives. I'd get out of the car near the river. It was utterly quiet except for the wind in the trees. I'd walk awhile down the trail that wound along the creek on bluffs 20 or 30 feet above the water. Looking down, I could observe the water level and imagine myself gliding down the stream between the sandbars, making my way over and between barely submerged trees and branches that had fallen in the river. It's called a creek, but it's one of those waterways, about 75 miles long, that for a good part of its length is really a small river. I remember trying to trace its course one weekend way upstream to its source. I kept stopping at bridges over a progressively smaller and narrower stream until it was only a few feet wide at one point.

After this short walk, I'd head back to town, generally passing the scene by the side of the road described earlier. I'd have crossed the bridge over Little Black Creek after stopping to watch its tea-colored waters flow fast over the sand in this little stream that is just about as pciture-perfect as you can find. It is one of Black Creek's major tributaries, and I'd always stop my canoe at its mouth where it joined the Black.

This little venture out in the country would take a couple of hours and I'd come back to Hattiesburg refreshed and renewed. The pressures and anxieties of the week just past, and there were always plenty of them at that time, were temporarily gone, and I was in a clearer, better frame of mind.

Here is my journal entry from Sept. 13, 1986, describing one of my visits to Black Creek:

"Relaxed this afternoon in the shade of a sandbar beside Black Creek. The stream flowed by as moving leaves on the surface marked its passage. The water level was the lowest I've yet seen for the creek, and will get lower as the dry month of October approaches. Occasional breezes stirred the leaves overhead, cicadas droned in the trees, and yellow butterflies skipped and darted above the surface of the water. I could have fallen asleep had I perhaps been lying on a sleeping bag or thick blanket. Passed a very pleasant hour in thought. Didn't even open the book I had brought along to read."


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