Going Nowhere

brick street

Can going nowhere be a journey?

The pandemic certainly had many of us going nowhere. I canceled vacations that had been planned in 2020 and this year. The term “staycation” predates the pandemic but it is that idea of staying where you are or only traveling nearby. Travel can be wonderful. It can also be stressful.

It would seem counterintuitive to say that in this time of having more ways to connect than ever before that we often feel the need to disconnect or “unplug.”

Pico Iyer is a British-born writer known for his travel writing. At one point in his life, he decided to go to Kyoto and live in a monastery in order to learn about Zen Buddhism, the city and Japanese culture. The culture he wanted to explore was an older Japan of changing seasons and silent temples. And there, he formed a relationship with a Japanese woman. This experience led to him writing  The Lady and the Monk.

He has written other books about his travels into other cultures. Video Night in Kathmandu and The Global Soul are two of them. From the subtitle of The Global Soul – “Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home” – you get a sense of the feeling that some people have these days of not really having one “home” in any traditional sense.

So, it might not be surprising that someone who so often travels might decide at some point to go nowhere.

All this background is to introduce the book I listened to recently by Iyer about stillness. In it, he writes about others who have found stillness and remaining someplace as being a journey. From Marcel Proust to Blaise Pascal to Phillipe Starck and more recently Leonard Cohen, he writes about people who make the choice to spend years sitting still and going nowhere. “Nowhere” becomes a kind of destination.

There are elements of the contemplative life found in the book, though that is not what it is really about. Iyer has known the 14th Dalai Lama since he was in his late teens when he accompanied his father to Dharamshala, India. But Iyer does not have a formal meditation practice. He does practice regular solitude. He will visit a remote place to practice solitude too.

In The Art of Stillness, Iyer looks at old and new “wanderer-monks” and his own travel experiences. One of his conclusions is that advances in technology are making us more likely to retreat.

He does not promote or reject attaching a  religious commitment to this practice of stillness. Many people have meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other practices without a religious or even formalized spiritual element. All of these things call back to ancient practices.

I have written here about a good number of things that seem to fall into this non-category, such as forest bathing, Internet sabbaths, and lots of meditation and spending time in nature.

I will go in the woods near my home this week. Maybe I’ll read there a bit. Maybe I’ll draw. Maybe I’ll just bathe and observe. All good.


More about Pico Iyer’s journeys at picoiyerjourneys.com

Haunted Woods

the falls and pool
Rocky Pool Bash-Bish Falls by John Frederick Kensett, 1865

Robert Frost wrote that “the woods are lovely, dark and deep” but he was seeing them as peaceful and inviting. But the dark and deep woods can also be a bit scary.

There’s a waterfall in Massachusetts that is supposed to be haunted. The legend is that a young Mohican woman named Bash Bish was accused of adultery. Her punishment was to be lashed into a canoe and pushed over the top of Massachusetts’ highest waterfall. She fell Though the pool at the bottom of the falls is relatively small, her body was never found.

You can now add more than two dozen other possible ghost as people have died at the waterfall primarily from misguided cliff jumps and falls. Hikers have reported seeing the figure of a girl watching them from behind the mists of the falls. The place is now called Bash Bish (a very odd name) and it is part of a state park.

I read about Bash Bish online and the story reminded me of a local “haunted woods” tale from my own state of New Jersey.

Ghost Lake Trail
View from the trail of Ghost Lake

The legend of Jenny Jump is now also part of a state forest.  Jenny Jump State Forest is a very pretty 4,464 acres located in Warren County along the rolling terrain of Jenny Jump Mountain Range.

The legend is that the Minsi tribe of the Lenni Lenape ambushed a young girl named Jenny and her father along the mountain’s edge. To save his daughter’s purity, her father yelled to her, “Jump, Jenny, Jump!”

Visitors have added to the legend with reports of spirits rising from the frequent fog over what is now called Ghost Lake.

To further add to the legend are rumors that the manmade lake lies atop a sacred Native American burial ground. There’s also a small cave near the lake, now called the Fairy Hole, which is believed to be on sacred ground. Don’t plan a cave visit because it is not open to the public but back in 1918 it was surveyed by archaeologists who found Native American artifacts in it. Further creepiness comes from the lake-accessible road for cars being named Shades of Death Road. The road isn’t a death trap and is used for car-top boat launches.

Besides recreational walks, hikes, boating, biking, etc., one reason you might visit Jenny Jump at night is that it is one of the few “dark-sky” locations left in New Jersey. You can do a nighttime visit to the Greenwood Observatory for special programs.

Researching the Jenny Jump legend, I found a much less spooky version of the origin on the Atlas Obscura website.  This version centers on a Jenny Lee. On her wedding day, Jenny was taking a morning walk in those woods and ran into Arthur Moreland. He wanted Jenny for himself, but her fiancé was Dr. Frank Landis. Moreland once again pressed her to marry him and the frightened Jenny backed up to the edge of a cliff and threatened to jump, saying “Death would be preferable to dishonor. If you come one step nearer….” Moreland came closer and Jenny jumped.

The supposed end to this version is that Jenny survived the jump, though badly injured, and was taken home and cared for by her fiancé Dr. Landis.

I don’t know that any of these three stories have any truth to them, but all that is kind of irrelevant to legends. Don’t get me started about the Jersey Devil.

 

Route 66

I think the odds that I will do a Route 66 road trip are getting rather slim. It’s not just that I’m getting up there in years, but the road hasn’t aged well.

Route 66 is one highway that even Americans who live nowhere near it still know about it. I have read that it is also one of the few American highways that non-Americans know.

It was originally commissioned in 1926. This 2,448-mile road from Chicago to Santa Monica was a big deal into the 1950s. But it lost some fame because of the newer Interstate Highway System. Still, it remains a road in our imagination, especially in the romantic notion of getting out on the highway and just driving and exploring.

U.S. Route 66 or U.S. Highway 66 or US 66 or just Route 66, is also known as the Will Rogers Highway, the Main Street of America or the Mother Road. It was one of the original highways in the U.S. Highway System. There are eight Route 66 states: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the migrants feed from tributaries onto Route 66 on their way to California.

I am pretty sure my interest in Route 66 began in Fall 1960 when the Route 66 American television drama premiered on CBS. It ran until March 20, 1964, for a total of 116 episodes.  Route 66 had its setting change from week to week, with each episode being shot on location.

The show followed two young men on the road in a Chevrolet Corvette convertible. That car was a big part of my attraction to the show. I had to look up the show to remember the characters and actors. Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) was a recent college graduate searching for – something. His traveling partner was Buz Murdock (George Maharis). That character left midway through the third season and then Tod met a recently discharged Vietnam veteran named Lincoln Case, played by Glenn Corbett, who decided to follow Tod on his travels and stayed with him until the final episode.

The theme to the show was a hit on the radio, but a more popular record was “Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” which was composed in 1946 by American songwriter Bobby Troup. The twelve-bar blues arrangement and lyrics that follow the path of Route 66 was recorded by many other artists from Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby with the Andrews Sisters in 1946 to the rock versions I grew up with by Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones.

Why did it become America’s most famous road?

Route 66 had a pretty active midcentury “motel culture” so it really was a great road for a road trip. It was replaced by other roads including Interstate 40 that spans the continent and at times follows Route 66. US 66 was officially removed from the United States Highway System in 1985 because it had been replaced in its entirety by segments of the Interstate Highway System.

historic rt 66There are portions of the road (through Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, and Arizona) that are designated a National Scenic Byway under the name “Historic Route 66.” Other states have adopted bypassed sections of 66 into their state road networks, so you might see signs for a State Route 66.

Route 66 Association is the generic name of the non-profit associations established for preservation, restoration and promotion of the historic Route 66. These associations exist in all 8 Route 66 states.

“Route 66 has been in the shadows twice as long as it was in the spotlight, but there’s still this energy around it.” In the video, Phil Edwards does the road trip that I may never do along what Steinbeck called “the mother road, the road of flight.”

The pilot episode of the Route 66 TV show. It opens with the Nelson Riddle “Route 66 Theme” instrumental which was only the fourth television theme to make Billboard magazine’s top 30. It followed Ray Anthony’s “Dragnet Theme” (1953) and his version of Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn Theme” (1959) and Mancini’s “Mr. Lucky Theme” (1960).

The soundtrack for this post is the Rolling Stones getting their kicks on Route 66.

The Blue Roads

“Life doesn’t happen along interstates. It’s against the law.”
– William Least Heat-Moon

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
–  Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or, The Whale

I wrote in a preface or companion post to this article about the Red Road in Oglala Lakota holy man Black Elk’s vision and philosophy and how it connects to the “blue highways” of William Heat-Moon’s travel book.

This post is about modern day road visions. Blue Highways is the story of the author’s 13,000-mile journey and the people he meets along the way.

The Red Road may be the “right path” but he chooses the smaller roads and highways marked in blue on his paper road atlas. He avoids cities and interstates. He tries to avoid fast food and the usual interstate experiences. He seeks out towns because they have odd names and wants to find very localized American culture.

I read the book years ago when it was first released. It was on the NY Times’ best seller list for 42 weeks in 1982-83. The term “blue highways” became a way to describe a journey of introspection and discovery.

I mentally shelve this book next to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. They are two books that I really loved reading and both are on-the-road, travel and spirituality texts. Pirsig is more spiritual and philosophical. Heat-Moon is more travel.

But both are modern epics and hero’s journeys to me. I read Zen upon publication in 1974, when I was a junior in college and it certainly made me want to take that journey (though in my VW Beetle rather than on a motorcycle).

This summer motorcycle trip of a father and his son took on other meanings when I was older and had my own two sons. But both books ponder big questions, as Black Elk did, of personal philosophy and how to live.

Pirsig’s route was a pretty straight shot from Minnesota to California. Westward Ho! Like Black Elk’s Red Road, Heat-Moon’s route is a loop. He does not drive across America, but he encircles it, mostly staying at the edges of the map.

map
There is an informative and interactive map of the trip at littourati.squarespace.com

I was particularly interested (as many of us would be) about his observations in my part of the country. That would be when he passes over the Verrazano-Narrows bridge in New York City to Staten Island, and then into Paradelle-country: Lakewood, New Jersey, Lakehurst Naval Air Station, somewhere on the Wading River in the Pine Barrens, Weekstown, Egg Harbor City, Millville, Bridgeton, Othello (“‘In Cumberland County we have a settlement of people called ‘tri-bloods,’ people that trace their history – or legend – back to a Moorish – Algerian, specifically – princess who came ashore after a shipwreck in the first years of the nation. The Indians took her in, and from the subsequent mixing of blood – later with a small infusion from the Negro – there developed a group composed of three races. The ‘Delaware Moors,’ they’re called…'”), Greenwich, Hancock’s Bridge and Salem, New Jersey.

Sadly, I have not been to most of those places myself. I really must plan a summer journey along that path for myself. No doubt, most of the places he passed through have changed a lot since he passed through tem.

I would also place on that mental bookshelf with those two books another one that I read much earlier in my youth that made me want to wander the roads of America. That book is John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

It’s not Steinbeck’s best book, but by the time I was in high school I had read almost all of his fiction and so I picked up this travel with his dog in search of America book. It is listed as non-fiction, but more recently I have read that some of it is fiction. Not all the people and experiences actually happened to Steinbeck on the road. I’m okay with that mix of fiction and fact. I think most fiction is that blend, though we hope that most non-fiction is not.

In 1960, Steinbeck started his trip because he thought he had lost touch with the country. I think he was looking for inspiration for his fiction, but found a book in the process. Like Heat-Moon, he traveled in a truck, a three-quarter-ton pickup truck he named Rocinante. (that is an allusion to Don Quixote’s horse. Heat-Moon names his truck Ghost Dancing, a more suitably American Indian name.) Pirsig’s trip is with a son. Heat-Moon is alone. Steinbeck was accompanied by a French poodle named Charley.

Robert Pirsig did take a Zen-like trip by motorcycle with his si, Chris, but most of the book is fiction. As far as I know, Heat-Moon did make the trip he describes, but as far as the accuracy of the dialogue with people and the many details he includes, I’ll assume some poetic license and post-trip research.

William Least Heat-Moon is the pen name of William Trogdon. He is an American travel writer of English, Irish and Osage Nation ancestry. His pen name came from his father saying, “I call myself Heat Moon, your elder brother is Little Heat Moon. You, coming last, therefore, are Least.”

He was born in Kansas City, Missouri and Heat-Moon attended the University of Missouri where he earned bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees in English, as well as a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism. He also served as a professor of English at the university.

In the book and in his interactions with people he meets, he does come off as a professor. He assumes the role of just a sort of bum on the road

Heat-Moon’s journey of self-discovery (as we would say is one of its themes, if I was teaching the book) begins because of personal loss. He really starts his inward look by looking outward. He recognizes those who have made such journeys before, from ancient heroes real and fictional to Walt Whitman and Black Elk.

At the end of the book, when William crosses the Ohio River, drives through cornfields in Indiana and heads home, he seems to have more knowledge of himself through learning more about others.

I haven’t read William Least Heat-Moon’s book Writing BLUE HIGHWAYS: The Story of How a Book Happened and I don’t know anyone who has read it. I’m not sure if it will reveal some fiction in the facts, or if it will add more meaning to the book itself. It shouldn’t take a book to explain a book.

I Won’t Be Hiking the Wonder Trail

Maps like these in classrooms inspired the urge to wander in me as a 1960s kid.

I won’t be hiking the “Wonder Trail,” as Steve Hely did, but I did read about it.

I once upon a time made elaborate plans to hike the Appalachian Trail. I did the research, bought maps, joined a hiking club and started doing sections of it near my home for practice. On one of those hikes, I blew out a knee and blew up my plans.

But I still love to walk, though I wouldn’t classify the walks as hikes. And I like to armchair hike through books. Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods is one I read and watched in its film version recently and wrote about here. Bryson planned on doing the Appalachian Trail too.  When I read Into the Wild, I identified with Chris’ wanderlust, but it didn’t make me want to reach for my backpack and hiking boots and head off to Alaska.

The Wonder Trail is the story of a trip from Los Angeles to the bottom of South America. It is travel writing, history, and comic memoir. The comic element is the least surprising since Hely was a writer for 30 Rock, the Late Show with David Letterman and the animated comedy American Dad.

The book is in 102 easily-digested short chapters. He makes his way to Oaxaca, Mayan ruins, Inca ruins like Machu Picchu, jungles, and beaches of Central America, the Panama Canal, the Galápagos Islands, the Atacama Desert of Chile, all the way to Patagonia.

Hely presents lots of places to get lost.

“If someday I am forced to become a fugitive, hide out someplace where no one knows my name, no one will ask too many questions, and no one will think to look for me, a little house up on the hilly shore of Lake Ati- tlán might be the spot. Although of course now I’ve given that away. And while I know I can trust you, Reader, I can’t trust everybody, so maybe I’ve just blown it. Or maybe this is part of my game. I’m just trying to throw you off my trail. Lake Atitlán is exactly where I’ll be. Except I won’t be. Don’t look for me there.”

This is not a book to read if you are planning to walk the path that Steve walked. Is he a real travel writer? Well, this is his second travel book. The first was The Ridiculous Race, another comic travel tale that started when Steve and her Harvard Lampoon buddy Vali Chandrasekaran challenged each other to a race around the globe in opposite directions.

It reminds me of the old Around the World in 80 Days. – the Jules Verne novel or one of the movie version. (I saw the 1956 film as a kid and it was more comic than the book and also not a handbook for world travelers.)

I suppose a reader or reviewer might find The Wonder Traildisappointing” if they are looking for a travel guide. As an armchair traveler, I was looking for escape.

 

Hely’s website is, unsurprisingly, stevehely.com

On the Road Film Festival

I’m planning a road trip for next month and a vacation for June and in my notebook I found a list of travel films that I have learned lessons from watching. Queue them all up and you have a good on-the-road film festival and prep session while you look at maps and guides and make reservations.

 

road oz

The Wizard of Oz – Pick your travel companions with care. Don’t be concerned with food or lodgings. Do be concerned with witches and flying monkeys. No matter how good the trip, it should also be good to be back home again.

 

National Lampoon’s Vacation – A road trip with family, as child or parent, will present many lessons. As with life and school, you will fail at some.

 

Before Sunrise – You should take a serendipitous journey alone. You should meet a beautiful/handsome person along the way. If you go back there at sunset or midnight, don’t expect things to be as good as they were before.

 

 

Up – Take that trip you and your spouse have been talking about for years now before it’s too late.

 

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – Take a trip with your Dad. Or son, depending on your age and point of view. (What film could be the Mom or daughter version?)

 

 

Broken Flowers – Go on one cross-country search for old girl/boyfriends in search of answers. (Not connected to any 12-step program)

 

 

The Darjeeling Limited – Go to an exotic place filled with things that you have never seen and smells that tell you that you’re not in Kansas anymore.

 

 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles – Be nice to fellow travelers. You never know.
The Lord of the Rings – Undertake an adventure trip full of possible peril. Once. After that, there is no need for you to do it again. You have nothing to prove. Your home is quite comfortable and there are so many books unread and films unseen.

 

 

Lost In Translation – Be prepared to be a stranger in a strange land. Try to have Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson around just in case.

 

I’m sure you have other films to add to the festival list. How about if you make a comment and give us a film and a short reason for its inclusion.