Ah, yes, once again, a first column, uh, “blog,” into the Great Void. After a few dozen such efforts over a number of years, I’ve come to see them as much like first dates: Say enough about yourself to be interesting, but don’t start telling third-drink stories about high school sports accomplishments, not even as analogies to life-affirming Darwinian poetry.
This blog? Well, this here blog is about those ancient mountains we call the Appalachians. These days, I see this vast chain as truly epic and know they were likely once the highest on Earth and part of a super-continent that included all of today’s land masses. Life is old here, you know, older than the trees. And the range includes so many ranges with much more focus-group-worthy names, like the Blue Ridge, the Great Smokies, the Alleghenies.
But growing up in those mountains, at least in the Eastern Kentucky part of those mountains, we learned little that could be used for any sort of personal myth-constructing background. That is because the cultural shadow of “Appalachia” has long been dark enough — and accurate enough — to discourage anyone getting above their (geological) raisin’.
I think about my installment-plan conversion to the A-team, as some of us call ourselves, fairly frequently these days. I have a son turning seven years of age this summer, which parents can tell you is prime camping and hiking age — well, at least, let us pray. And even the hint of my new freedom from the tether of civilized parenting has me pouring over topographical maps for the first time in, oh, seven years.
And it comes as, here in Maine, we’re debating preservation of a part of my mountains by creating a new national park called the Great North Woods. The land now is mostly owned by timber interests, who have let many recreational interests use the land, fairly unabated. Now, with the demise of the state’s paper-mill industry, those lands are facing a very different future and more restrictions as they become, more or less, private reserves. This will not be pretty, and it seems there’s a slight window to preserve this land before it soars into the too-expensive zone.
Now, I’ve never been a particularly huge Henry David Thoreau fan. He just didn’t connect with me, and a few years ago some were even whispering the heresy that his ideal of living alone in a cabin in the woods was not the best housing policy for those who would preserve the woods — let alone those who would encourage cluster development and commuter rail. But he is of course a primary cultural touchstone for the new national park effort, which now includes noted historian Douglas Brinkley, who stepped into the fray after writing the 2009 book called “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.”
Roosevelt famously escaped urban life in New York City to become his robust self, in part, in the Maine wilderness. There are books on that and such. He seems a significantly more interesting case history than Thoreau, at least for those of us balancing the lust for microbrew with the intoxication of being more than a day’s hike from the car.
I first met Dr. Brinkley in the frenzied context of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, having been summoned to Gonzo World Headquarters in Hunter’s kitchen/office in the mid-’90s. In those days, Brinkley was shuttling between Colorado and Georgia, where he was working with President Jimmy Carter on a book. At Hunter’s Owl Farm, he was editing the first of what became a series of letters books. I helped.
It seems to me that anybody who can toggle between those worlds of buttermilk and bourbon is not to be taken lightly. And now Doug is emerging as a de facto voice of the our national parks, and in particular of the concept that such preservation is “America’s best idea.” Those of us avoiding polio might make a case otherwise, but you get the idea.
That’s no small thing, because Douglas is what we call “high profile.” You’d likely recognize him from one of his many TV appearances, and during the early days of the BP oil spill, he virtually co-hosted the “Anderson Cooper 360” show on CNN. If that strikes you as gibberish, then ask somebody with a TV who can afford basic cable and they’ll vouch for it.
Hey, even somebody who could get Hunter to focus on decades-old letters during football season would admit a new national park faces a bit of a struggle. Maine’s largest statewide newspaper, The Portland Press Herald, has come out in favor of the new national park, and I’m all for it, but despite that impressive media consensus, it seems the Maine congressional delegation clings to its own opinion.
You already know exactly what the argument will be. And it’s like that old saying about art: When artists gather for dinner, they discuss money; when bankers gather for dinner, they discuss art. Doug knows the estimates for increased tourism, and we know that those worried about snowmobile regulation will have done their math. It’s a numbers game.
And somebody will quote Henry David a time or two.
But for me, the best thing ever written about the idea of a park comes from a less-likely source: Henry Miller. Having been exposed to a healthy dose of Miller in my formative years (tell a teenage male that a book has been banned for it’s sexual content and you insure its rabid consumption).
Miller is recalling a dream, “The Dream,” and draws the city as evil, saying that “The city grows like a cancer; I must grow like a sun.” And he gets to the idea of reincarnation and spiritual evolution (note to younger readers: worry not, there’s plenty of sex later).
“Before I shall have become quite a man again,” he tells us, “I shall probably exist as a park, a sort of natural park in which people come to rest, to while away the time. What they say or do will be of little matter, for they will bring only their fatigue, their boredom, their hopelessness. I shall be a buffer between the white louse and the red corpuscle. I shall be a ventilator for removing the poisons accumulated through the effort to perfect that which is imperfectible. I shall be law and order as it exists in nature, as is it projected in dreams… those who have had enough will come to me for reflection and meditation.”
It goes on a bit. There are references to female anatomy. Miller fans know the drill.
A note: The area around Big Sur where he worked and lived for many years is also being eyed for a new national park.
Because here’s the thing: In our world of video-camera cell phones and Twitter twits and people taking your picture without your permission in your favorite pub — IN THE FUCKING BAR FOR CHRIST’S SAKE — just because you might be illustrating your Aztec Chicken Midnight Dance, then the idea of privacy is toast. The quaint concept of actual sanctuary — of being spiritually off the record — is reserved for Buddhist meditation.
Well, oneness should not be 100 percent internal. And those of us with kids often find recreational drugs more of a commitment than our after-school events calendar allows. So we crave just a bit of wilderness, where we can perhaps dwell with our children before they resume their oh-so-connected world.
Because that world is not connected, not like The World is connected. And that is certainly not as important as the multiplier effect of the tourist dollar. But it has some value, right?
Anyway, so much for a first date, eh? This will teach me to have a third glass of wine and get started on sanctuary. Next, remind me to tell you about the time I went 2-for-3 against an all-state pitcher from Lexington.