U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Taking the Long Way Around

I’m going to bring you with me into my U.S. History survey classroom. But we’re going to take the long way around. ‘Cause that’s how I roll.

cornell copyProne to wander, I roamed far this summer, from north Texas to upstate New York and back again. Part of my journey was known to me, but most of it was new to me. I drove on highways I had never traveled, past marvels I had never seen.

True words: I cry whenever I drive across the Mississippi, so vast, grand, ancient, mighty, storied, strong, enduring – that old Witness, that old Soul. Usually when I have driven as far as Nashville I have kept heading east, to a little mountain cove in the Smoky Mountains — just a slip of a valley nestled up against the National Park. That’s where my granddad’s people are. Or where they were. They are all gone now, the ones I knew. He is too. Oh, how I miss the sound of his voice – that rich, deep, languid east Tennessee drawl, impossibly slow, turning vowels into liquid consonants and liquid consonants into swirling river sinkholes that swallow syllables whole. So “wash” turned into “warrrrsh,” and “Lora” – my name – was always just “Lorrrr.'”

But, as my matter-of-fact Nebraska yankee grandmother used to say, It’s a long road that has no turning. This time, that old river and my fresh tears far behind me, I turned at Nashville and headed north, through country that was all new to me.

I drove up through Kentucky, where the highway cuts across the ridgelines of the mountains, south to north, down one slope and up the next, over and over, so that your car is cresting the stony waves of the land all the way from the Tennessee state line to the Ohio river. And then, on the far bank, across another great American river, you see it: another great American city, Cincinnati, bluffing its way up from the waterline to the skyline. A city on a hill.

Ohio was marvelous. It was all gently rolling farmland, and under cultivation as far as the eye could see – mostly planted in corn, but sometimes in soybeans, with a field of oats here and there. Every so often you could spot a whitewashed farmhouse dwarfed by its bright red barn and feed silos, with those big barns and their silos dwarfed in turn by the vast green fields of plenty. Between Cincinnati and Columbus it is all farms and then all farms again between Columbus and Cleveland – a broad and bountiful land, a great granary. Come, ye thankful people, come…

And then there was Cleveland, another great American city, with a glorious downtown ballpark, where I took in an evening baseball game. Answer me: is there a more lovely sound than the crack of a bat sending a line-drive hit over the shortstop and out into the emerald field beyond while the great crowd of witnesses hoots and roars? Oh, take me out to the ballgame – or let me take you.cleveland

The drive from Cleveland through the northern stump of Pennsylvania was pleasant and easy in the early morning hours.

From Erie, Pennsylvania there are two main ways to get to Ithaca, New York. You can go up to Buffalo, then over east toward Rochester, then down through Seneca Falls. It’s a well-squared route, with sharp turns and straight lines from town to town. Or you can follow the meandering line of Interstate 86, past Chautauqua, past Corning, all the way to Horseheads, where you turn off to Ithaca.

I took the road that wandered, and oh! I was so glad I did. That had to be the most enjoyable stretch of freeway driving I have ever done in my life – and I have done a lot of freeway driving in my day. I am a Californian, after all. But I have never enjoyed a more scenic or more peaceful drive than that jaunt through western New York. There were times when mine was the only car on the road – I could see no one ahead of me, no one behind me.

But once I saw someone above me. I can’t remember if it was just east or just west of Corning. But as I came flying along the freeway, my cruise control set, I spied far ahead of me an Amish man just beginning to drive his horse-drawn buggy up the slope of an overpass, south to north. Up he toiled, and on I flew, and in the most serendipitous pas de deux, I saw his little buggy crossing over my lane just as I passed beneath him – him with his straw hat, me with the top pulled back and the radio on and my long, loose hair just flying in the sun. Alive, alive…

farm (1)New York was an absolute revelation. Is there any place more lovely in the summer than the Finger Lakes region? I have never seen the like. Every bend in the road revealed a new vista, and the verdant joyous liveliness of the land stunned me. Stunned me. But now and again, on the little by-roads, I saw a road sign that we don’t have in any part of California that I know, much less down here in Texas: a snowmobile crossing sign. And after the shock of realizing what that really signifies, that there are months of the year – yes, in a normal year, never mind this last horrific blizzardly year – when the whole land is buried beneath feet and feet of snow, and the best way to get around is on a motorized sled, the fierce defiant beauty of the countryside in summer garb made perfect sense. No wonder this was the burned-over district: after such winters, who would not be ready to be born again? And all around me — north south east west — was resurrection.

gorgeGod knows I needed all the life I could get, once I found myself trudging up and down the pathways of Cornell. Good Lord! To make the most of that place, you really ought to be part mountain-goat. I mean – really. Alas, I am not nearly so nimble. But I am game. So I strolled down the gorge, from the campus to the town. And then I trudged back up again. And then, let me tell you, I was done for the day.

But there were other days.

One day, I rented a kayak and troubled the waters of Lake Cayuga. I paddled past a half-submerged tree, barkless and silvered. I thought it was dead. But as I drifted closer to the tangled, spindly branches jutting up out of the water, I saw one stubborn sprig of green sprouting from that all-but-lifeless tree.   Oh, how fine a thing to be alive.

fallsOne day, I walked to the base of Taughannock Falls. It is an easy stroll, along a fairly level path – a gentle climb, a lovely hike. On the way to the waterfall, in certain spots along the trail, the air was suffused with the most marvelous scent. I really don’t know if I can describe it – it was like a cross between a citrus and some sort of pine, evergreen and also ever sweet, and fresh and new and clean, like gardens all misty wet with rain…

One day, I drove to Seneca Falls…

But I see I have gone long.   So I will save that part of the journey for next time. And then, as promised, I will bring you with me from Ithaca, New York, back to the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, and into the community college classroom where I teach, and where I learn.

6 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thank you, truly.

    For a while now it has seemed to me that my writing is as dead as that tree in the water – like the spirit, the life, has just been crushed right out of it, crushed right out of me. No fire, no quickness, no grace nor passion in the work at all. Dead words on a dead page, this cold cadaver of a dissertation. I have been a writer way, way longer than I have been a scholar, and it has been absolutely soul-crushing to lose my voice, to lose my way with words, for hundreds of pages. So I guess this post is that one green leaf at the end of the brittle branch – there’s something of my spirit and my voice that’s still there on the page, some spark of liveliness that this godawful ordeal hasn’t quite managed to extinguish.

  2. Really enjoyed your writing style. I’m from Western New York and it is an absolutely beautiful place during the summer. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Nice; I esp. like the “liquid consonants that…swallow syllables whole.”

    Much (most, actually) of the country I have never driven through. This post makes me think I should (well, I’ve thought so before, but this post reinforces the thought). I have, however, once had the experience of being the only car on the highway for a *long* stretch — it was in W. Virginia, on a road going through ‘a national forest’, I believe is the designation. Then I got out and walked into a trail or open area off the highway — no one was there. I think that’s probably the only time that’s happened to me, at least the only time in a setting where one would expect to see some other people.

  4. P.s. The other thing that just occurred to me about this post — and this is not intended as criticism, simply observation — is that it describes driving through landscapes and farmland plus a few cities. No small towns. Perhaps the tone would have changed, from basically celebratory to something more mixed, if a couple of maybe slowly-dying towns had been on the itinerary. (Not that all small towns are dying, far from it; but I wd think some are, depending on what part of the country, etc.)

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