This trip has been a series of revelations in a way that a plane trip can’t be. Something about the freedom of motorcycle travel opens up the moment the way more restricted travel doesn’t. The ability to leave makes the moments where you stay that much more special. Every moment is a choice and that’s beautiful. It’s the difference between staying with someone because they are your world and waiting out the New York winter.
“Roar, Lion, Roar
And wake the echoes of the Hudson Valley!
Fight on to victory evermore,
While the sons of Knickerbocker rally round
Shouting her name forever!
Roar, Lion, Roar
For Alma Mater on the Hudson Shore!”
~Verse two of Columbia University fight song Roar, Lion, Roar by Corey Ford, CC ‘23. Ford wrote it during his senior year. In the early 20th century Columbia was a college football powerhouse. Something Happened.
Photo of the Columbia gorge in Eastern Washington at sunset, Friday, June 25. Just to the left, a sign “Watch for Rattlesnakes.” Or listen.
I always want to make comparisons to China. The thing about the Chinese Himalayas, the thing that jumped out at me, was the water, the power of those rivers. They are the only water I’ve ever seen that would just kill you. If you got into those rivers you would die, dashed on the rocks, powered over falls, pulverized by the damn things. They looked like a loaded gun.
The rivers of the west, like the sky and storms of the American steppe, have some of that too them, a sort of restless energy. They don’t have the titanic violence of the Yangtze headwaters, but they have something of a largeness of soul about them. They engender respect. Not fear, but respect.
The rivers to the East are slow, wide and winding, like highways from the Golden Age of the automobile. They invite you in. They appear friendly. And yet in the East, the rivers have this undercurrent of menace. They run with old industrial ghosts, PCBs and mercury, like we’ve abused their hospitality.
I was raised swimming in the Eel and Trinity Rivers in the summer. They were good rivers with generous swimming holes and rapids just dangerous enough to be fun, like old-fashioned playground equipment. I missed those rivers, and it was good to see them again and meet new ones like the Kootenai River in Montana (seen above just west of the Continental Divide), a tributary of the Columbia.
Rivers and places have personalities. That’s one of the things I’ve seen on this journey. They attract people to them that reflect that personality and shape those that arrive by accident. My cousin Jimmy’s girlfriend Holly, from South Dakota near Sturgis, said she saw Helena Montana on a map, saw the water, and knew she wanted to go there. That was 11 years ago and she’s been there ever since.
The water shapes people’s imaginations, their sense of the beautiful and the possible. It shapes what they eat, what they do for fun, the way they work and travel. The fewer people there are, the harder it is to ignore.
“The thing that get’s me is that they were MOVING,” Jimmy said. “They covered all that ground and came back in two and half years. That’s moving.”
I’ve been accidentally following the much of the route that Lewis and Clark took to the West. These signs have been a constant companion along the way from South Dakota, through Montana, Washington and now Portland, where the expedition arrived at the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River. It’s going to be sad to leave them behind.
Two other things regarding Honor & Slavery. Greenberg says that Southern gentlemen were obsessed with gambling. Gambling got them going because in a culture where they’d kill you for calling someone a liar, gambling lets you do just that. You say that horse A is going to win. If it does, your word is good and everyone else is a liar. Honor, and money, to you.
When I was a financial reporter I liked to interview the money men were best the year before. These people were lucky. They’d hit it out of the park one year, but, inevitably, the next year they struggled to stay with the pack. But that’s not how they saw it. They saw their fluke success as vindication. They felt that finally reality had recognized that they were more savvy than everyone else.
It was sad, or would have been if these people weren’t in charge of billions of dollars. Instead, it was scary. A little success, backed by the wealth of a great nation, is a dangerous thing. It’s the kind of thing that could only make sense on its own terms.
Honor & Slavery supports my long held view that the South was the most modern part of the United States prior to the Civil War. Greenberg thinks his readers will be shocked by how obsessed with the world of appearances Southern Gentlemen were. Modern America, for Greenberg, is the inheritor of the Yankee tradition, the tradition of Benjamin Franklin, who couldn’t see what was to be gained from a duel, and couldn’t see the what was gained from the Southerners obsession with honor. It’s not like there was money involved, at least not usually. But my experience has been just the opposite. America, and to some extent the whole world, has become obsessed with appearances to an alarming degree, on a scale that Southern men of honor would have understood immediately.
For the Southern man of honor, his honor was an emblem of his will to shape reality regardless of underlying facts. The classic example cited by Greenberg is when a gentleman invited a neighbor to dinner, but then regretted the invitation. When his guest arrived, he came to the door and calmly told him that he wasn’t at home. The would-be guest turned around and left. To disagree, even with an obviously lie, would have been an insult and likely resulted in a duel where the reluctant host presumably would have defended his assertion to the death.
The willingness to risk death over such inanity was an important part of the man of honor’s game. By assuming the ultimate risk, he felt entitled to shape reality to his whim. And his guest, not willing to take the same risk, was obliged to accept the lie as well as the obvious threat it implied.
This brings me to the modern world. Since World War II, the United States has created a world of wealth accepted because of the appearance and reality of our national strength. But over the past decade, without a serious opponent willing to go toe to toe with us, we have come more and more to rely on the appearance rather than the fact of competence and power. In essence, like the snubbed guest, the rest of the world has been unwilling to give us the lie.
Like the Southern gentlemen Greenberg describes, we’ve built a society on debt, violent coercion and gambling. Its most rewarded members are the gamblers of the financial services industry, men, like the host, who pride themselves on being able to shape reality to their will and monetary benefit. The social benefit of finance, after all, is supposed to be “efficient allocation of capital,” essentially, the shaping of the real world through efficient management of the world of appearances.
A few weeks ago, Paul Krugman at the Times, was wondering aloud about why Germany was willing (along with many other countries) to enact misguided economic policies because they feared the market reaction:
“German deficit hawkery seems more sincere. But it still has nothing to do with fiscal realism. Instead, it’s about moralizing and posturing… Showing strength — or what is perceived as strength — is what it’s all about.”
In the fiscal crisis of the last two years Germany seems to have noticed (whether for good or ill is hard to say) what Krugman has apparently overlooked. In the modern world, like the antebellum South, appearances matter more reality. If weakness is shown, if someone is willing to challenge the reluctant host, to “give them the lie,” all hell can and will break lose. And the economies of sovereign nations can be destroyed (ours almost was) before appearances are restored.
Kinda makes you wish for the days of Hamilton and Burr, right?
The thing about motorcycles is that you have to pay attention. You’re right in it with a sort of prolonged intensity that makes any given moment of it hard to forget. The result is a ribbon of memory, that stretches along highways and back roads. It’s a memory whose value lies in transitions. There are distinct moments that are the regions you hear about, the Great Plains, The Midwest, The Appalachians, The Rockies, Big Sky Country. But most of the moments are in between and its those moments that really stick. Rising out of the Mississippi valley into the great blast of the plains-wind. The bluffs of the Missouri River. The way the Bad Lands sink out of the Great Plains, as if eaten away. The way the Black Hills rise deliberately out of the plain with a sort of inevitability to them. The first hint of the Rockies across the Wyoming steppe. The way the way everything seems to grow to monumental proportions as you cross the Montana border; the sky, the rivers, the mountains, everything. And the way people seem smaller and smaller against the setting, and yet larger and tougher to match it. The sort of general cliche these days, and no less right because of that, is people and their institutions are socially constructed. But it isn’t just society that does the building. It’s the place too.
My brother Charles and I in the yard of the corner of Brown and Church Streets in Fortuna, Calif., ca. 1987. My father refers to this photo of us as “my pirates.”
We should all aspire to be so useful.
(McFarren was my father’s best friend in the 1980s. He died of a stroke at the age of 43 in a bar in Myer’s Flat, Calif.)
“Much mischief is done by teaching a false system. The time wasted in learning it is not the only evil; by the fruitless efforts of the learner to understand it, his ardor in the pursuit of knowledge, is damped, and he insensibly receives the impression that there is little to choose between truth and falsehood. But let the light of truth pour in fresh on his mind, let him penetrate mysteries heretofore thought inscrutable, — let him see there unnumbered contrivances, planned by infinite wisdom and infinite goodness, for the convenience and happiness of man, — let him see that rains and changes of wind are not accidental, but subject to laws as fixed as those which govern the planetary motions, and that these laws are not past finding out; —zeal and animation in the pursuit of knowledge, will then take the place of listlessness and despair.”
~James Pollard Espy, Introduction to The Philosophy of Storms, 1842
(Image from Olaus Magnus, a history of the Nordic Peoples, 1555.)