Recent­ly I was look­ing for this pic­ture of an art­ful­ly rust­ed steam engine that I took dur­ing a cross-country trip in 2009.

not restorable

Por­tion of the Engines for the Wake Robin.

Rather than dig through the many thou­sands of pho­tographs on the back-up serv­er, I searched through the series of blog entries titled It’s a Big Dam Coun­try that I wrote while on that road trip. When I began that trip I was run­ning very hard, and very fast, and very much away. I was run­ning from myself and my itch­ing demons. I was run­ning on pro­fes­sion­al advice. I was mak­ing no progress while stand­ing in the mid­dle of the smok­ing crater that I had made of my life. My ther­a­pist — against all the rules of ther­a­py — actu­al­ly sug­gest­ed that I go ahead and run for a while, to see what it felt like to move again. So I did. I packed up my lit­tle blue car with a hand­ful of road snacks, my spe­cial pil­low, and every scrap of cam­era gear that I owned, then set out on the finest fool’s errand I could con­jure: To attend the grad­u­a­tion par­ty of my old­est niece two weeks hence in the city of Pitts­burgh and along the way to take as many pic­tures of as many dams as I could find.
I left a home on a rainy day in May and head­ed east. I found my first few dams in the flat­ness of east­ern Wash­ing­ton along the Colum­bia riv­er and it’s trib­u­taries. Dams with evoca­tive names like Low­er Mon­u­men­tal Dam and Priest’s Rapids Dam. The next day I met up with the Clear­wa­ter riv­er in Ida­ho. A fast riv­er with no dams; it was good com­pa­ny for the bet­ter part of a day. After that it was into the moun­tains of Ida­ho and on to Mon­tana  where I picked up the head­wa­ters of the Mis­souri River.
East­ern Mon­tana and South Dako­ta is big emp­ty coun­try, miles and miles of space with no one around. I was run­ning from myself in mid­dle of a land­scape that fre­quent­ly seemed to have no up, down, east, or west, just vast­ness. The kind of vast­ness that left a two-story brick school-house from the late 19th cen­tu­ry in the mid­dle of a grass­land with no sign of human use oth­er than a derelict fence to keep the cat­tle off the road.


Derelict School House in North Dakota

I nav­i­gat­ed from dam to dam trav­el­ing on old­er start high­ways and local roads that fol­lowed the rivers. Rivers and roads are dif­fer­ent crea­tures. Rivers can only go down hill. Roads go where ever we make them go. At the begin­ning of the human use of this ter­ri­to­ry get­ting from one place to anoth­er was done almost exclu­sive­ly by fol­low­ing rivers. Roads, and lat­er rail­roads, ran with the same ref­er­ence to the geog­ra­phy and geol­o­gy. Trav­el­ing on these roads you are in the ter­ri­to­ry as you pass through it. Each fea­ture of the ter­rain fol­lowed log­i­cal­ly from the last, a riv­er, a val­ley, a gap in the hills, the next valley.
Increas­ing­ly though, we build roads that are not relat­ed to the nat­ur­al paths that we used to fol­low. Now our inter­states route us straight from one place to anoth­er with­out the need to wor­ry about the geog­ra­phy and geol­o­gy of the ter­rain. We bull­doze, blast, and scrape our way direct­ly from point A to point B. When we trav­el on these roads, there is no sense of going through any­where. Some­times there is not even a sense of direc­tion. What cross-country trav­el­er has not, in the mid­dle of the wide open spaces, got­ten turned around on an inter­change only to dis­cov­er two hours lat­er, when you have arrived back in the same town that you left this morn­ing, that you have been going in the wrong direc­tion? There hav­ing been no dis­tin­guish­able fea­tures for the last 100 or so miles to show that you were trav­el­ing in the wrong direc­tion. No small towns to rec­og­nize. No his­tor­i­cal mark­ers. No large signed gate to a remote ranch. Noth­ing. Trav­el­ing on these new roads gives us only fea­ture­less expanse of time that we must sit through to get from here to there. It is the same expe­ri­ence as fly­ing from coast to coast see­ing only a vague­ly brown car­pet below. There is no need to acknowl­edge the twenty-five hun­dred miles of coun­try under­neath you.
The three thou­sand miles that I drove between Seat­tle and Pitts­burgh fol­lowed the rivers as close­ly as it could. Going from one dam to the next on the coun­try’s two and four lane undi­vid­ed roads, I found myself trav­el­ing through places instead of just by them. It suit­ed the pur­pose of the dri­ve. To find myself by los­ing myself in the larg­er (very much larg­er) ter­ri­to­ry of the coun­try and it’s moun­tains, rivers, lakes and the huge­ly un-human scaled dams.
By not bull­doz­ing my way along the inter­state from Point A to Point B, I was able to find won­der­ful things like this dinosaur mount­ed cow­boy in Lem­mon, SD.

I wonder if it clanks when it walks?

Junk Dinosaur

As well as dis­cov­er­ing what I now regard as the Amer­i­can cap­i­tal of What The Fuck­i­tude: Dana, Indi­ana. A place that con­tains not only the worst pub­lic mur­al I have ever seen and a cross-dressing giraffe, but also the Ernie Pyle muse­um and this sign.

weird sign

Close Clear­ance?

Close Clear­ance?
Make of that what you will.
Aside from the absurd, and there was plen­ty of absurd, there was also the sub­lime­ly beau­ti­ful. Both nat­ur­al beau­ty like a qui­et stretch of the Clear­wa­ter Riv­er and man-made trea­sures like the trac­ery on the steeple of an aban­doned church that I found in the mid­dle of a plowed field in North Dako­ta. And there were moments of unan­tic­i­pat­ed joy, like dis­cov­er­ing a field in a coun­ty park ded­i­cat­ed sole­ly to kite flying.


A Tra­di­tion­al Belfry

How­ev­er, it was the dams that I was look­ing for. A dam is spe­cif­ic sub­species of human struc­ture. It does­n’t con­tain us like a house or a church or an office build­ing. It does­n’t car­ry us from place to place like a road or a bridge. A dam exists explic­it­ly to inter­fere with the nat­ur­al order. Dams con­tain and con­trol rivers. The sheer bulk of a dam — the amount of con­crete, earth, and steel, that it takes to con­trol a riv­er makes the pow­er of the rivers evi­dent. Dams suc­ceed, and don’t suc­ceed, like any human endeav­or but always the riv­er is try­ing to undo the damn and to go on its way along its nat­ur­al course. As metaphor seek­ing humans how can we not see the riv­er and the dam as rep­re­sent­ing our­selves? How can we not com­pare con­stant flow of water to the con­stant change in our lives, to the pas­sage of time, to the flow of thought and emo­tion? How can we not see that our own attempts to con­trol the flow of these things is the equiv­a­lent of build­ing dams on rivers? As attempt­ing to insure that we have water when it’s need­ed and to guar­an­tee that the water will not rise to cov­er us when there is too much?
Dams are mas­sive on an unimag­in­able scale. So big that you can­not place the human fig­ure for per­spec­tive. You need the rivers and the cre­at­ed lakes to give scale to the dams. From a dis­tance dams are majes­tic and over­whelm­ing. While they are awe-inspiring from a mile away, they are not actu­al­ly inter­est­ing until you start to get close to the leviathan. It’s only when you can see the indi­vid­ual parts that make up the struc­ture that you can relate them to a human scale. The scale comes into focus when you look at this lock gate and under­stand that the turn­buck­le is the size of a man’s torso.


Lock Gate at Pike Island Locks

Or when you real­ize that there is room for thou­sands of swal­lows to have nest­ed on the under­side of the road­way that tops the dam. While you stand on the dam’s wing and those thou­sands gyre and wheel above your head in the twi­light you gain some sense of how much room a dam takes up.

gyre and gimble

Thou­sands of Swal­lows Fly in the Evening.

So there I was on the road in a fast lit­tle two-seater, the pas­sen­ger seat occu­pied by my cam­era gear. I was utter­ly alone with myself and grate­ful for the soli­tude. I was chas­ing down dams, tak­ing pic­tures, and writ­ing trav­el notes every evening, just as I had planned for the first part of my jour­ney. The sec­ond goal had been to reach Pitts­burgh, PA in time for my niece’s grad­u­a­tion par­ty. Which  I did with 24 hours to spare. I spent a cou­ple of days with fam­i­ly there and then at the invi­ta­tion of my youngest sis­ter went on to Louisville, KY for anoth­er fam­i­ly vis­it. Those times that I spent with oth­er peo­ple, when I stopped to see fam­i­ly or friends, seemed to pick them­selves out of the trip and float above it. Like islands in the mid­dle of those rivers I was trailing.
The mean­der­ing bit of the jour­ney that con­nect­ed the islands of Pitts­burgh and Louisville, my jour­ney down the Ohio Riv­er Val­ley, brought a dif­fer­ent sense of what going through the ter­ri­to­ry could mean.

territorial view

A Barge Comes Around a Turn in the Ohio RIver

The Ohio riv­er is one of the three rivers of my youth: the oth­er two being the Alleghe­ny and the Monon­ga­hela, which meet at Pitts­burgh to form the Ohio.   I had nev­er seen the Ohio riv­er out­side of Alleghe­ny coun­ty. To have lived so close to a thing like that and nev­er to have fol­lowed it from its birth place at Fort Pitt to its even­tu­al death and dis­so­lu­tion at the Mis­sis­sip­pi in Cairo, IL — what does that say? Though in my defense I have gone upstream on both the Alleghe­ny and the Monon­ga­hela and seen many of the oth­er rivers in west­ern and cen­tral PA. But I had nev­er fol­lowed the Ohio out of that water­shed and down to its end.
The Ohio Riv­er Val­ley is not an open expanse like much of the West. It is close­ly wood­ed and the vis­tas are not unlim­it­ed. You are nev­er far from the next town and the evi­dence of mankind is every­where, even in what seem to be the loneli­est places in the val­ley. You can not imag­ine your­self as the only per­son in the world here. And yet — there are sim­i­lar­i­ties. The small roads of the East, like those of the West, fol­low the ways of the ter­ri­to­ry. The real world lives close on either side of the road. From the very real pos­si­bil­i­ty that there are deer wait­ing to ambush you around the next bend, to the oppor­tu­ni­ty for an ice cream cone at the gas sta­tion with the old Sin­clair run­ning dinosaur still paint­ed on its side. The Ohio Riv­er Val­ley land­scape was entire­ly famil­iar and I was entire­ly at ease in it. There were moments of pure hap­pi­ness here. Like the wrong turn that led me to the dis­cov­ery of this lit­tle car fer­ry in Sis­tersville, West Virginia.

little boat

Pilot House on the Sis­tersville Ferry.

You dri­ve down the ramp at the edge of the riv­er and flash your head­lights three times. The fer­ry comes across the riv­er and for $4 you get a ride to the oth­er side and a chat with the big cig­ar chew­ing fel­low who runs it. I drove off of the fer­ry on the Ohio side and head­ed out on the Ohio Riv­er Scenic Byway across Ohio and into Indi­ana before turn­ing south into Ken­tucky and to my sis­ter’s home in Louisville. From Louisville I con­tin­ued to fol­low the Ohio Riv­er along the south­ern Indi­ana and Illi­nois bor­ders until it met the Mis­sis­sip­pi at Cairo IL. Cairo was the sad­dest part of my jour­ney and the one part that I did not pho­to­graph. It was a town of desert­ed streets, sub­stan­tial build­ings with board­ed up win­dows, and sus­pi­cious eyed young men on street cor­ners. The fact that it had once been pros­per­ous and live­ly was evi­dent every where. The fact that it was now aban­doned was also evi­dent. I could not bring myself to pho­to­graph a haunt­ed town while it’s equal­ly haunt­ed res­i­dents watched. I have sense had the same reac­tion in dying west­ern agri­cul­tur­al towns. The act of pho­tograph­ing the slow decay while the few remain­ing res­i­dents walk from the din­er to the post office past the closed hard­ware store and movie the­ater is just too much of a betray­al of their humanity.
From Cairo I began my return trip — fol­low­ing the Mis­sis­sip­pi north. Parts of the return trip were a bat­tle between my desire to head home as quick­ly as pos­si­ble using the inter­states and my desire to leave the inter­states far behind. In the mid­dle of Iowa the inter­state was win­ning until some­where around Sar­gen­t’s Bluff where I had the motorists’ equiv­a­lent of a flash­back freak-out and took the first turn north off of I‑29. It did­n’t work out imme­di­ate­ly as I spend sev­er­al hours nego­ti­at­ing con­struc­tion detours but I was back on the small roads and back in the good head space. The return tip held its share of the sub­lime­ly weird and the beau­ti­ful. From the stat­ue of Lou the fish pro­claim­ing Madi­son, MN the lute­fisk cap­i­tal of Amer­i­ca to a late in the day pic­nic lunch in next to the Yel­low­stone riv­er in Mon­tana in the com­pa­ny of 20 or so goldfinch­es and a pock­et gopher. At Yel­low­stone the next day’s weath­er fore­cast showed snow bar­rel­ing down from Cana­da toward west­ern Mon­tana and I made a mad dash for home.
In all I was on the road for 25 days. I drove 6804 miles, saw 19 dams, took 3133 pic­tures, and spent $376.86 on road food. It was a lone­ly trip; I craved being alone at that point. I need­ed to hear myself think, no mat­ter how unpleas­ant those thoughts might be. I was trav­el­ing down the rivers and stop­ping at the dams and mak­ing a path through the crap in my head. All that vast­ness rather than mak­ing me feel small made me feel much larg­er. See­ing the ter­ri­to­ry, geog­ra­phy, and geol­o­gy that I was trav­el­ing through made it clear to me that I had sim­i­lar vast­ness in me. There were so many roads of so many sorts: the nar­row straight two lane roads that run par­al­lel to the wide corn fields in Iowa, the gen­tly curv­ing roads along­side the Mis­souri Riv­er, and the hap­pi­ly twist­ing roads that led through Hoosier Nation­al For­est as it wove up and down the hills of South Indi­ana. Each road with its own mood and reflect­ing its ter­rain but always lead­ing some­where with real coun­try on both sides. Old roads, fol­low­ing old paths.
We have a ten­den­cy, when life gets hard and con­fus­ing to want to call in the civ­il engi­neers. To have them build dams to con­trol the rivers car­ry­ing us away or bull­doze through the rough places and build straight, smooth roads that take us from where we are to the place of com­fort where we want to be. But dams don’t stand for­ev­er and dammed rivers lose their vital­i­ty. And those new roads take us from place to place with­out let­ting us learn any­thing about the ter­ri­to­ry in between. Per­haps we need to let the rivers have their heads and occa­sion­al­ly rearrange the ter­ri­to­ry a bit. Per­haps those old roads, the ones that fol­low those wild rivers, are the ones that take us through the places that we need to go.
In some ways the trip was a total fail­ure I came home hold­ing the same poi­so­nous things in my head and my heart that I had run from. The road did­n’t blow them out of my head. Instead it blew them back in, along with the fresh air that I would even­tu­al­ly use to under­stand them. Now, sev­en years lat­er, I look back and under­stand that the point of the jour­ney was to run and in run­ning to learn that the only way to escape what you’re run­ning from is to run through it. The ter­ri­to­ry between where we are now and where we will be next is the ter­ri­to­ry that we must under­stand. And the old road is the road we must take if we want to learn that territory.


Going Through