It’s nice to see the great Red Oak of White Hill getting some press – it was mentioned in today’s Times blog. The tree – which they’re calling the “Robin Hood Oak” – fell in that storm that sent a tornado through Brooklyn in 2010 – was the most magnificent tree I have seen growing in city limits, and the most majestic red oak I’ve seen anywhere. Unfortunately no picture I have ever seen does the tree justice. It was not a terribly tall tree, and about six or seven feet up the bole was not amazing – probably about four feet in diameter – but the base of the tree was billowed out into a gnarly mess which was all age and grandeur. It amazed me when I was a child, but returning to it when older and having seen a lot more of the world’s trees, I was still impressed.
The tree was on our way to Forest Park, one of the great forests of the city and a playground of my youth. I rode my bike through the park as training for this Mississippi River trip. I have always regretted that I didn’t photograph and celebrate the tree properly while it was here – a well-staged photo or two would have made the tree famous in the city, as there were angles from which the tree seemed impossibly massive, dwarfing cars. My father always said that the hill above it was called “White Hill” because of the oak, which he claimed was a white oak. It was, in fact, a red oak, and I presume White Hill got its name some other way. But the tree certainly had been there before there were many named places in the area. My guess would be that it was a second-growth tree – there were farms all along Jamaica Avenue by the 17th century, and this oak was at the foot of the hill on superb ploughland – but it is quite likely that this tree grew at the very edge of a farmer’s field, perhaps right at the fenceline, before the city was even there.
I noted with pain that the city had failed to put a red oak in the same spot when the street was replanted. But they’ve rectified that now, planting a red oak found growing nearby in the old hole. Whether it is a direct descendant of the big tree – well, of course it could be, but it just as well might not be. The claim that there are no other red oaks nearby is absurd – the park is two hundred feet away and is almost a continuous stand of red oak – and blue jays can move acorns quite a distance. But all the red oaks in the area are probably cousins who have been interbreeding in the same area since time immemorial. And now a new one has a chance.
Wednesday had been appointed as the departure date from Lexington: Catherine would be starting Easter break, and she could then drive me down to the Gulf and leave me there with my bike. But Catherine got off work and the truck was not yet ready. I had come up with an alternative plan: we would drive her car to Port Royal, Kentucky – home of the author Wendell Berry – poke around there for the afternoon, and then double back to Lexington. We would leave for the Gulf tomorrow, as soon as the truck was ready.
I had spent the rest of the morning and afternoon reading John Muir. I read of the various disasters he had encountered on his trip – pretty much the ones you might expect to find if you decided to walk a thousand miles in America with no money – and mine own seemed pleasantly civilized. Yes, it was true that I was in physical pain, and yes, it was true that the longer my truck was in the shop the likelier it was that it would never run again, and I would not be returning to Catskill life for many months – but still it wasn’t quite like Muir’s situation:
After five days of this graveyard life [sleeping at St. Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah] I saw that even with living on three or four cents a day my last twenty-five cents would soon be spent, and after trying again and again unsuccessfully to find some employment began to think that I must strike farther out into the country, but still within reach of town, until I came to some grain or rice field that had not yet been harvested, trusting that I could live indefinitely on toasted or raw corn, or rice.
By this time I was becoming faint, and in making the journey to the town was alarmed to find myself growing staggery and giddy. The ground ahead seemed to be rising up in front of me, and the little streams in the ditches on both sides of the road seemed to be flowing up hill. Then I realized I was becoming dangerously hungry and became more than ever anxious to receive that money package.
To my delight this fifth or sixth morning, when I inquired if the money package had come, the clerk replied that it had, but that he could not deliver it without my being identified….
And so on. Sleeping in the graveyard he says he “rested fairly well, though somewhat disturbed by large prickly-footed beetles creeping across my hands and face, and by a lot of hungry stinging mosquitoes.” I was staying with a friend, eating pancakes with maple syrup and fruit in the morning, and seeing new things every day. Still by the time Catherine got out of work, I was feeling antsy and ready to go. Sitting around reading had done nothing good for my back; and neither had the chiropractor. If anything, it felt worse, though I couldn’t tell if it felt worse only because nothing amplifies physical pain more than having leisure enough to think about it, which I had. So I had all the more reason to get out and go.
We knew nothing about Port Royal and had done no planning, trusting that the Lord of Wayfarers loves a conformable spontaneity. The only map we had was in my truck in the shop, and so, somewhat predictably, we got a bit lost. The roads near Frankfort – where we got off the highway – are confusing due to the difficult nature of the terrain. Frankfort is down among some limestone gorges, and some roads labeled “north” are going west or south, and some labeled “south” are going east or north, and so forth. We took a road and determined it was not the one we had hoped to take, but it was going in the proper general direction – north – and that was good enough.
Between Lexington and Frankfort it had been unusually beautiful country, ablossom with spring. Redbuds seemed to be everywhere along the roads, their purple colors adding something to the spring landscape which we do not have in the green and white of northern springs. North of Frankfort we hit some small working farms, mostly cattle grazing on rolling hills, and the trees not so old or pretty. We didn’t really know where we were going, so we stopped off at a little general store with a gas pump. By the time I left that store I had my first real regret of the trip – I wished I had had the guts to take a photo of the folks I had seen inside, because I could hardly believe how perfect the scene was. Our image of a tiny one-room grocery store in farmland Kentucky – the stereotypical image – that was this place. It was not bigger than a small New York bodega, and a lot less lit: just a small, dark room, with some Cheetos and chips on racks, and some bad bread and batteries and a roll or two of toilet paper and refrigerators of drinks and beer and a rack of candy under the counter and so forth – same stuff in all these little stores. There was a television on – also de rigeur – but what was so amazing were the people: three ancient codgers in overalls and plaid shirts and baseball caps sitting all facing the t.v. An old woman was behind the counter. When they spoke with each other they kept their eyes up on the t.v. in the corner. One had his cane in hand just the way you envisioned.
I asked if they had a map.
The woman said, “No, sorry. Where ya goin?”
“I’m looking for Port Royal. I’m a huge Wendell Berry fan.”
All three of the old men broke eye contact with the t.v. to point out the door. They all spoke at once: “Thattaway!” “Just down the road.” “The road you on.” One made it through the clatter: “Just keep down the road. There’s a right turn, you’ll see it. New Castle!”
Another declared: “Must be a good twenty mile.” The others agreed. I wanted to stay, but we had already gotten lost and evening was starting to fall. I wanted at least the chance to meet Wendell Berry himself. I thanked them and left them to their t.v.
When I had first pulled into the transmission place in Lexington, I will confess that I felt a thrill of Providential Comfort, the sense we have from time to time that our decisions are being guided by a benevolent Power, and may be settled into with confidence. Whether this is truly an inkling of divine planning or just a lazy creature’s joy in useful coincidences I will not venture to say. But it is a form of human experience. Just a few doors down from the the transmission place was a chiropractor, and it seemed to me that everything had been arranged beforehand.
For a week I had had serious back trouble. It started the last week at the sugar shack, where I had been moving some barrels of syrup. I hadn’t felt anything at the time, but the next day – my last day of work – my back was quite sore. And what was worse, I had done something bad to my nervous system: my entire right leg was tingly and numb, as if I had slept on it wrong, and I had strange sharp pains along its length as well. But massaging the numb parts made no difference. I had experienced this before with my arms, so I felt that I knew what this was. It wasn’t a circulatory problem: it was a pinched nerve in my back. The nerve was no longer sending good data to the brain.
In every other instance, a few days of proper exercise had fixed the problem. Normal motion restored normal position to the vertebrae, the odd numbness went away, and occasionally some muscle soreness lingered but I could tell I was fine.
But this had not happened in this instance. Perhaps it was that I was getting older, and my back just wasn’t healing itself as quickly. I figured this was something you just had to suffer through – after all, professional athletes my age (38) often sat out baseball or basketball games for “back spasms,” which seemed to indicate that this was something that physical fitness and modern medicine could not entirely prevent. Stretching and normal activity would be restorative, but I had to wait.
But really things had only gotten worse. My mother shot me all kinds of accusing looks when I came through New York City – “You can go to my doctor he’s very good, I’ll pay don’t worry,” or “I know a sports massage therapist I can call, if you want me to” – but I stuck by patience and gentle stretching as the cure. Then I set off on the long drive; and this seemed to exacerbate the problem. I won’t say that I couldn’t walk – that would be a bit of an exaggeration – but I couldn’t change my spine’s position without real wincing. Going from a sitting to a standing position – or dismounting off a bike – would send a little jolt of pain through my body strong enough to briefly dissolve the muscle tension in my body. At least once getting off my bike I thought I would pass out.
So I had never been to a chiropractor, but I felt maybe it was time. Everyone had always told me I would have back trouble – I was tall, not terribly muscular, and I did all kinds of physical labor and gardening. My mother had had back trouble as well. So perhaps I should get used to chiropractic care.
So to the chiropractor I went. I explained the situation and he said he could take me in an hour. I checked on the truck – made it clear I’d love to have it by the afternoon if possible – and then came back and sat in the doctor’s waiting room for awhile. I was reading John Muir’s A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf – a beautiful early birthday present – and reading its descriptions of the grand oak forests of Kentucky made me reach for a book on the waiting-room table, The Spirit of Appalachian Kentucky, by Dean Hill. I enjoyed the book so much – it was a photography book – that I think I had looked at every page, and looked with desire, filling up all the time until the chiropractor came out.
“Sorry to make you wait,” he said.
“No it’s really no problem. I’m grateful you could take me on such short notice. I’ve been looking through this Spirit of Appalachian Kentucky book it’s great.”
“Oh that thing… yeah my friend Dean prints those books, I guess he sells them online I don’t know.”
I was charmed by this – things seemed smaller here. The chiropractor knew the author of the books in his waiting room. He knew the transmission guys as well, and had good things to say about them. He seemed to be of Asian descent and did not have a strong accent, but he seemed at home. And in general he radiated pleasantness. I liked just being in the same room with him.
He brought me in and I laid down on his table. He moved my body around in various ways, grunting thoughtfully to himself as he went. At one point he lifted up my leg and told me to try to keep it upright while he tried to push it down. I could resist with my right leg but not my left. He then did something I found highly unusual, which I cannot explain in any above-the-board way: he placed two fingers above my left ear, leaving them there for about a minute. He then lifted my left leg and then pushed it down, telling me to resist. This time I could. He said that a core muscle going from the spine to the left leg had been “blown out,” and that likely some of the back’s misalignment had come from trying to overcompensate for this injury. He said that up above the ear was the acupuncture point for that muscle, and he had “reset” it.
It made no sense to me, but it did feel stronger after he had touched that spot. He could have been conning me – after all he was the person who provided the force trying to bring my leg down, and so he could simply have applied less pressure – but it certainly seemed real. I have no way of explaining acupuncture at all, and this was my nearest experience of it.
He then gave his diagnosis. He said my back was basically fine. It needed an adjustment, but there was no serious problem. I was getting to an age where the disks in my back were probably getting a bit dried out, and I would probably need to start thinking about caring for my back more. He recommended some stretches, and he noted that pelvic thrusts and bouncing on the spine were both very good for getting fluid into it. Pelvic thrusts especially for the lower back. It made me think, as all of us do think sometimes, I suppose, when you know you have too little, that more sex really was the answer. But he said I was generally fine and the fact that I was not overweight would be of great help in keeping good spinal health.
He then said he would do an adjustment on my back. He rolled me to my side, grabbed my leg, and pushed me around a bit, though it didn’t feel terribly effective. He then said I wouldn’t necessarily feel an immediate change – things were locked up and sore – but “within 24 to 72 hours” there should be notable improvement. He charged me only $30 and I was out the door, hobbling as ever, but I felt I had taken some kind of step toward getting my house in order.
That changed soon enough.
I had been to Lexington once before, when in high school. The university is home to something called the “Tournament of Champions,” which is something like the World Series of Poker for high school debate geeks. Nevertheless I really did not know what to expect from Lexington. I remember liking a song in high school (“Pineapple Head,” by Crowded House, a song I really don’t think too much of anymore) but being scandalized by its lyrics, “Don’t remember if she was my friend – it was a long time ago.” I felt, with all the passion of youth, that somehow everything was eternal, that everything needed to be remembered, but more than anything else love and friendship endured in all but the ignoblest of hearts. How could friendship end in oblivion? – But now there are enough years behind me that I know that good things indeed face oblivion, at least in human hearts.
I’m not sure I’ve forgotten any of my friends yet, but I certainly had forgotten Lexington, Kentucky. I had spent a few days there when I was an impressionable eighteen-year-old, and it’s true that I remember a few things – I remember we went to the racetrack and bet on some horses, and I remember we went to a Waffle House, the first time I had ever seen a Waffle House, and I remember that a pretty girl told me that I was unlike any other Regis boy she had ever met – “you have longer hair,” she said. But I didn’t remember the town or the university at all.
There was some reason for that. I headed downtown first. When I asked people about downtown Lexington it seemed no one had anything in particular to say about it – no “oh yeah go to this bookshop or this main square or this one cool street.” I wanted to pick up a Louisiana guidebook of some sort, so I figured I’d go to the main bookshop in town – doesn’t every university town in America have such a bookshop? – but I couldn’t find anything. There weren’t any memorable shops at all, in fact, nor any buildings that made me reach for my camera. There was a large modernish square, which was trying, and it sort of looked good, but no one was there. In fact no one was downtown on foot at all, except me.
I walked around the courthouse, and was a bit surprised to find it graced by two statues – John Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan, both confederate generals. Kentucky at first had attempted to maintain neutrality, but ended up on the Union side early in the war. I had taken that historical fact probably a bit too seriously: Kentucky was south of the Mason-Dixon line, had been a slave state, and even today it feels like part of the South, in innumerable particulars. The accents are quite enough; they are stronger than most accents of the Eastern seaboard South today. The Kentucky writer Wendell Berry, whom I greatly admire, nevertheless shows distinct sympathies with the Confederacy. I am of one mind with Grant on the “Lost Cause,” and I will quote from his memoirs: “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
But I knew I would have much more time and cause to reflect on the Civil War as I came north from the Gulf.
I decided to walk toward the University, and had to ask a couple of construction workers working on a job – just about the only people around to ask – where the campus was.
“Yer gowna try to walk theah?”
“The university can’t be that far from downtown, can it?”
“I dunno, it’s gotta be a couple mahl.”
Well, that might explain why there were no students around the downtown at all. And why the downtown seemed to have no collegiate character. I grabbed lunch at an Irish-pubby kind of place that could have been in midtown Manhattan and in the end got picked up and driven to the university by Catherine. And immediately I began to forget downtown Lexington all over again.
Catherine and I drove to the post office first thing. It was tax day, and the post office was visited by a steady stream of improvident procrastinators, as well as myself. She had no access to a copy machine, so we used my camera to take images of the pages of her tax return. I admired the accents of the ladies in the post office (“Oh mah you desahded to brayeev the lahns on tax-dayee!”), and then we walked around the university.
The university’s grounds, like the town itself, are not apt to excite architectural enthusiasms. But they are pleasant enough, a mixture of nice old and not-so-nice modern, jammed onto campus without too much order or harmony, but still well-kept and set amongst green lawns and ornamental trees and shrubs.
Those trees became the subject of my enthusiasms, in fact. The campus must boast one of the best collection of flowering trees in America, and I had arrived just about at the peak moment. Redbuds were everywhere – as I was later to discover, they are all over the entire state, in fact – and in full bloom. The dogwoods were just before their moment of full expansion, when they are most exquisite and delicate. Crabapples were in full bloom and leafing out too. Amelanchiers were still blooming, along with spice viburnums and phlox subulata. The magnolias were past peak but still colorful. It was still cold – it had snowed that morning – but the snow had all melted and the trees were unharmed. And I had just come from the cold north the day before, and the newness of the spring, as it does every year, overwhelmed my spirit and senses.
Early in the evening we met a friend from Rusticatio Virginiana, Andreas, one of the country’s great Latin speakers. We had dinner at a New-Orleans themed eatery on the outskirts, conversing the while about Kentucky and Christianity and gossiping about people we knew – entirely in Latin. One of the glories of the University of Kentucky – this might surprise some people – is its Latin program, thanks in large part to the efforts of Dr. Terence Tunberg, one of the eminences of the world of classical philology. The University of Kentucky is one of the few universities in the world which still offers courses taught entirely in Latin. His work had encouraged a man like Andreas – a sophisticated man of the world who had moved from Sydney to California – to relocate to Kentucky for the Latin community there.
As I got up from dinner Andreas looked at me. In English he said, “Are you all right?” I had barely been able to get up out of my seat, and he could see my legs quiver and my body buckle as I almost fell when trying to stand. The pain in my back was so bad that I was almost unable to move after any time in a chair. ”Are you really going to be able to bike 2,500 miles starting in a few days?”
I figured, while waiting for my truck to get fixed, maybe I had better try to confront the other great disaster of the trip so far: my physical health. I could barely move without pain, and I was supposed to be heading off on a massive physical challenge. Like all the people coming into the post office, I’d put it off just about as long as I could put it off. But I figured I could start on it tomorrow.
I pulled into the transmission place. A young man with gentle eyes and a baseball cap covering a curly mullet was behind the counter: I liked him immediately. I told him the honest story: I was coming down from the Catskills in New York; had lost the clutch on the truck; it had 265,000 miles on it; I figured though that with working four-wheel drive the truck was still worth almost $2000; I was trying to get down to the Gulf, and I needed some help, first deciding if a repair was worth it, and then doing what would be expensive work – taking out the whole transmission to fix the clutch – well. I had tried to make it to the Smokies this morning and couldn’t get into first gear.
“Oh that’s beautiful up there. Smokies? Man.”
Just like that I felt I had a way in with this guy – or perhaps he did with me. ”I tell you, you’ve got something special here in this part of the world. I’ve been to the Smokies once – and I tell you, I saw more flowers there in one day than I see through the whole year in the Catskills.”
“Oh, the Catskills? I hear that’s real nice.”
“Oh, it’s beautiful, no doubt – I love it – but just the dogwoods and redbuds alone here are amazing. And man, it’s cold up there now.”
“You know one place I go with my girlfriend, you might have some time, is Red River Gorge. It’s just beautiful in there.”
I will note that two other people recommended “the Gorge” to me while in Lexington, and pictures of it confirmed an interesting thought I had while driving in Kentucky, that much of the landscape looked like the American West – but just covered with vegetation. The underlying rock is similar, which is not true along the East Coast.
We followed this conversation with observations about Ford Rangers: how good they were, the problems they have, how many miles I had, how many miles he had on one. It all ended well: he promised to have “his guy” look at the truck, make a determination as to whether or not it was worth putting money into, and he’d call.
I walked out and for the first time got my bike gear together. I put the seat and front wheel on (I had taken it apart for transport), re-attached the brakes, put a pannier on the back and filled it with the necessary gear. They took the truck and I put my bike wheels to the road for the first time on this trip.
I went to a bike shop, where I picked up several tools I wanted to have with me: a pedal wrench, a hex wrench, extra tubes, a pump, etc. I had these tools in a bag somewhere in my life, but I hadn’t been able to find them. Maybe they perished in the divorce. I left off buying replacements because I thought I’d find them at my mom’s house when I passed through New York City, but they never turned up.
So now one more thing was done. I doubled back to the transmission place. I knew I was being an annoying New Yorker – I knew they said they’d call – but I wanted to make it clear that I was stranded and I needed that truck.
The man I had spoken with was not there. There were other men passing in and out, but they all wore the nervous silence of men who won’t and can’t speak for the business, because they had things to do and they knew they had better leave the talking to the boss.
“Hi I left a ’95 Ford Ranger here about an hour ago, I wanted to see if anyone had a chance to look at it.”
“Eez thet Jawun?” said a voice from the little office next door. ”Jawun from NEWyork?”
I poked my head in. ”Yes.”
“Hi,” he said, though it sounded like “ha.” ”Ah’m Troy. Thet’s mah name but it ain’t what they call me. They call me El Patron. You know what thet means?”
“The godfather?” My Italian always gets in the way of my Spanish.
He got up and hobbled over to the counter, where he took a seat. He was probably around fifty, with gray thinning hair and glasses, and despite a noticeable gimp, he seemed quite fit.
“Besides having truck trouble,” I said, “I’ve thrown my back out.” – More on this particular disaster later. – ” So it’s been quite a start to the trip. Looks like you’ve got some back trouble yourself.”
“Oh, it ain’t mah back,” he said. He lifted the leg of his trousers: he had a prosthetic leg. ”Ah’m lucky to be here, ah’ll tell you what. Had a motorsickle that busted me up pretty good.” He took a seat and rearranged the one paper on the desk. ”So Jowun we got your truck we’re gettin’ a look at it. It won’t be lawung. Ah em running hawurd.”
He was seated behind the counter now, and the description “running hard” did not seem immediately apposite. But he had a nice smile and I liked him.
“So yer coming down from NEWyork? What do you do theah?”
“I’m a maple syrup farmer.”
He stopped so dramatically that all his men noticed and stopped too. “Buhwoy,” he said, “Ah mate a lot of people in mah lahf, undertakers and cops and pretty much everybody, but ah nayver mate a maple seerup farmer before. How the hail do you farm maple seerup?”
And I went into a description of the process – tapping the trees, setting up lines, boiling it all down, how you can drink the sap but it’s virtually water. ”Nayver. I nayver met anyone who did that,” he kept saying.
“I don’t think you have the maples for it around here,” I said.
“Well we got some water maples that you can’t keep out of your yard as weeds,” one other worker noted.
“But I don’t think you’ll be getting any sugar out of them,” I said.
“Thet’s fowur shuwir,” they all agreed.
“Way-il Jawun the maple seerup farmer, Ah think we’ll have that truck looked at real soon and we’ll get you back on the road. Won’t we Danny? Yays Ah think we weell.”
I felt pretty good about the situation. And so I headed off to take a look around Lexington and get some lunch. I still had a few hours before Catherine would be done with work. I had just gotten downtown when I got a call. ”Jawun? Yays we got a look at the truck. We thank it’s fahn it jes needs a new clutch. So way’ll jes go right ahayd.”
Lexington, Kentucky gaped out its windows on the 15th of April at the half-inch of snow which had fallen in the night. The crab-apple blossoms and cars had lost their colors in the white and gray.
I sighed. I had brought the winter down with me. Yesterday the girls were all walking around in short shorts, and now it was bitterly cold: gray and windy and cold. I stared out, listening to the car-wheels hiss on the wet roads, and lost some of my nerve: my host, Catherine, was getting ready to go to work, and the plan was that I would head down immediately to the Smokies and then return to Kentucky after camping overnight in the mountains. (She would be driving me down to the Gulf, leaving me there, and taking my truck back north.) But in rough weather there was no joy in botanizing; indeed in the mountains the roads might be closed; and I had left all my cold-weather gear back home. I was heading for the Gulf, where the night-time lows were in the 60s, and I would be following the good weather north. What’s more, I had looked online upon my arrival in Kentucky and found that tomorrow would be the first day of the “Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage” in the Smokies, which must be the most significant wildflower event in the United States: 146 guided hikes, some led by eminent men and women of science, over four days, in what is probably the single most biodiverse temperate part of the world. This was a fabulous opportunity: but maybe if I was going to be staying longer in the Smokies, I wouldn’t need to push to see them today. I could wait until the snow melted and the Kentucky April had returned.
I wasn’t certain what to do. I had wanted to hit the Smokies quickly, then on the trip south hit Port Royal, Kentucky to see Wendell Berry, then Mammoth Cave, and Oxford, Mississippi, then a little prep-time in New Orleans; and thus leisurely to Venice, where the biking would begin. But perhaps I should skip all the other sights and just see the Smokies, after waiting a day in Kentucky; it was a five-hour drive to the mountains from Lexington, and then I’d have to drive five hours back the next day; it was cold; it was gray; I had gotten in only five hours ago and not spent many of those hours sleeping.
But whatever, I said to myself, I should go; if it’s great in the Smokies, then I’ll just double back and we’ll spend the time in the mountains. I knew I would not have many opportunities to see the Smokies in spring: life does not give us that many free days in April. I had such an opportunity right now, on the 15th of April 2014, and I would take it. So I threw my bag in the truck, cleared the snow off the mirrors and windows, and hopped in.
I turned the ignition, but then found I could not get the truck into reverse. The gears just ground and ground. I shut off the ignition and started it in reverse. The truck jumped as the gear finally caught, but I backed up just fine; but then I could only barely thrust the stick into first. ”That happened last night too,” I said. ”The clutch is going.”
I drove the truck down the block, then stopped at a light. I mulled in the gray gloom. ”This is not going to fix itself,” I said. ”And it’s not a cheap fix. A new clutch will be at least a thousand bucks. And that’s presuming I can find a decent mechanic here.”
The left-turn light went green. The stick absolutely would not go into first. I pushed it with all my might. Nothing. I cut the ignition and restarted it in first, as the cars behind me honked in impatience: the good people of Lexington were going to work, and they had to make this left turn and I was holding them up. When I had gotten it restarted I roared through the intersection, and down the road which ducked into a tunnel.
“Fuck,” I said, as I heard the echo of my motor in the hollow tunnel. “I’m not going to make it.”
When I got out of the tunnel I got into the next left-turn lane to turn back. There was no sense driving the truck. I could always start the truck in first, but at some point the truck would not allow me to get from first to second, and I would be stuck in a vehicle that couldn’t go more than fifteen miles an hour. The truck was going to get fixed in Lexington or get scrapped here.
I had thought about this moment for a long time. The truck had 265,000 miles on it. It couldn’t last much longer, and in fact putting another thousand dollars into it – even if I could be guaranteed good work by a good mechanic – was hardly the obvious decision. And I had about four thousand dollars for the next two months on the road; spending a quarter of the reserve before I even started would perhaps make the trip impossible. I didn’t have a job waiting for me when I got back either; my money simply had to last. And perhaps now the money I had would need to be used to buy another four-wheel drive vehicle, because without such a vehicle I couldn’t live on Wildcat Mountain. But perhaps that was the solution – perhaps I was living in the wrong place, living my Thoreau life though I was no Thoreau. Thoreau was “the bachelor of science and nature” – I loved people, I loved love, I thought that in the end an unshared joy was unworthy of me. Perhaps I had stuck myself into a corner of the world where I couldn’t get what I wanted in life, and now I was being forced out of it. I didn’t know. I could hop on the Greyhound, and get down to Louisiana; or we could rent a car; but then what would I do when I got back? Move back to New York City?
And then I looked up, and found I was driving past Tony’s, a mechanic’s shop. I didn’t back up – I didn’t have extra gear shifts to spend – I just pulled right over and walked back to see Tony. I found him, and I felt he was honest – perhaps because I was honest at him first. I explained the whole situation, and I felt in him that human desire to help a stranger who has many, many miles to go before he sleeps in his own bed again. ”I have a transmission guy who does stuff for me, let me send you to him.” He gave me an address. It was just a few blocks from Catherine’s place. It wasn’t even nine-thirty and I was on my way there.
John Muir, at the age of 29, not having much in his daily life to hold him back, set off from Indianapolis southward to see what he called the “hot gardens of the sun.” He walked through Kentucky, over the Smoky Mountains into Georgia, and down to the west coast of Florida, where he got a boat to Cuba. He hoped to make it to South America and up the Amazon, but in the end he decided to go to California, where, of course, he found some things to detain his interest. Before departure he had a few hours in Chicago, which he spent in a desperate botanizing:
I did not find many plants in her tumultuous streets; only a few grassy plants of wheat, and two or three species of weeds, — amaranth, purslane, carpet-weed, etc. — the weeds, I suppose, for man to walk upon, the wheat to feed him. I saw some green algae, but no mosses. Some of the latter I expected to see on wet walls, and in seams on the pavements. But I suppose that the manufacturers’ smoke and the terrible noise are too great for the hardiest of them. I wish I knew where I was going. Doomed to be ‘carried of the spirit into the wilderness,’ I suppose. I wish I could be more moderate in my desires, but I cannot, and so there is no rest.
After a few days not spinning my wheels in New York City – I was making attempts at buying gear for the trip, and failing as I typically do in anything related to shopping – I finally left New York around noon on Monday the 14th of April. I came to the conclusion that if there is any way to protect a laptop from rain, the global industrial system has not yet come up with such a product or gotten one such item to New York City. “That?” said the clerk. “Waterproof? I wouldn’t leave it out in the rain, if that’s what you mean.” “I expect to be outside with a laptop for most of the next two months. It will rain.” “Umm… well you could try… if the computer doesn’t work anymore just bring it back and say you don’t know what happened to it. You said it’s a new computer, right?” I determined that a t-shirt and three plastic shopping bags would probably work just as well. My conclusions were similar about all the other gear items on my list. I could improvise much more effectively than I could shop. I swear I have no idea how people manage to live in New York City without heaping up tons of money. There’s nothing in the place to spend money on.
Across Staten Island and New Jersey the first signs of spring were evident: daffodils yellow on lawns, American plums (Prunus americana) blooming white in thickets, spicebushes (Lindera benzoin) greenish in the lowlands. Along I-70 in Maryland I crossed the Alleghanies and – to me astonishingly – I entered the Mississippi River’s watershed – in Maryland!
And here for the first time the landscape underwent a visible alteration. Washington had always presumed that the Potomac would become the great river of commerce for the United States, piercing deeply into the center of the eastern seaboard as it does, drawing near to the waters of the Ohio, from which it is all downhill to New Orleans. But the landscape frustrated these hopes: a craggy, narrow, wrinkled range of hills intervenes between the Potomac and the Monongahela, and despite the short distances all forms of transport across this corridor could never compete with the Erie Canal. I stopped for dinner in Morgantown, West Virginia, which felt like a piccolo Pittsburgh: it was prosperous but cramped, and it was impossible to mistake the dusky gloom of such a setting: there didn’t even seem to be enough room for the city, and buildings had been crammed onto hillsides and roads narrowly skirted slopes. I got lost above town, and could neither turn around nor safely turn off the road, as the cross-streets dropped so steeply down the hillside I could not see their pavement – they simply dropped out of sight.
Morgantown is a college town, and it was a warm spring evening. Young people, faces popping up from behind their phones, walked around me as I stopped on the sidewalk to gape at the opening dogwoods. I continued on my way, threading through the hills along utterly empty highways. The West Virginia interstates might be the prettiest of the East; — they are surely the easiest to drive late into the night. Their courses would make no sense to a Roman: up hill and then back down, around every corner, never straight, it is actually a bit of a challenge to steer (an old truck, anyway) the curves at the speed limit. As a result there was no monotony, and I drove late into the night. It was a full moon and the night of an eclipse, which I looked forward to; but almost at the very hour the eclipse was to begin, I drove into rain.
My thoughts were not happy as I rode. I thought about loneliness, I think, most of all; and I suspected that an experience of loneliness was one of the purposes of this trip. I was alone, but I didn’t really feel lonely at my cabin: there I was surrounded by the same trees, the same plants, the same deer and turkeys and mountains every day, and they were a pleasure and a consolation, and companions too. But yet I was alone, and my body and soul unhappy with it somewhere down beneath: and so I had taken myself from my home, made myself an outsider, and the plan was to keep moving to keep it that way. I was going to drink fully of the cup: and if I hated it, then I would know that I needed to change my life at home, for such was what I had.
I pulled into Lexington, Kentucky, where I was staying with a friend, at 3 a.m. Just as I turned in to the driveway I found it surprisingly hard to pull into second gear. It was a presage of the next day’s disaster.
I’ve been reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi – which is superb – and I have been amazed by the sparkling little gems of prose which Twain culled from Parkman. I provide a sample, La Salle’s entering the Gulf of Mexico:
And now they neared their journey’s end. On the 6th of April, the river divided itself into three broad channels. La Salle followed that of the west, and D’Autray that of the east; while Tonty took the middle passage. As he drifted down the turbid current, between the low and marshy shores, the brackish water turned to brine, and the breeze grew fresh with the salt of the sea. Then the broad bosom of the great Gulf opened on his sight, tossing its restless billows, limitless, voiceless, lonely as when born of chaos, without a sail, without a sign of life.
The writing is so superb I thought I needed to take a further look at Parkman. Not only is the word-choice superior – “now they neared” – but the juxtaposition here of man’s little dated efforts with the vast personless forces and infinite time-distances of nature is excellent and characteristic. Even a glance at the Wikipedia page makes it clear that he was a fascinating man:
As a young boy, “Frank” Parkman was found to be of poor health, and was sent to live with his maternal grandfather, who owned a 3,000-acre (12 km²) tract of wilderness in nearby Medford, Massachusetts, in the hopes that a more rustic lifestyle would make him more sturdy. In the four years he stayed there, Parkman developed his love of the forests, which would animate his historical research. Indeed, he would later summarize his books as “the history of the American forest.” He learned how to sleep and hunt, and could survive in the wilderness like a true pioneer. He later even learned to ride bareback, a skill that would come in handy when he found himself living with the Sioux.
I want to see an account of his actual travels.