Thursday, 26 January 2012

Fantasia Arcadia

The ever eloquent Irish have a blessing, that has been modified to suit, by many:

May your road rise up to meet you,
and the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm on your face,
and the rain fall soft upon your tent;
And until we meet again may your god of cyclists
hold you in the hollow of her hand.

It's to be found on every second Irish Linen tea towel, the others having logos of a black toucan or a golden harp.

A second verse could add to this wish list. To include: no stop lines, no semis, no rumble strip and no rush hour, and if I'm really pushing the patience of our guardian, could I include: where gradients are gentle and the camping is free. Now that I've stretched the credulity of any omnipotent deity, I've also placed this desired world away from the Emerald Isle and set it on to planet 'Fantastical Arcadia'. Oddly though, this surrealist world does seem to exist, even in this over-hectic land. It's called the Natchez Trace.

Created in 1938 as National Scenic Byway to promote scenic, natural and historic interests, it runs for over four hundred miles from Nashville, TN to Natchez, MS. The route follows the 'Sunken Trace', the original line of an ancient thoroughfare, a collection of indigenous trails that the early settlers adopted and the nascent national governments used as a post trail. It's been fought along in the times of the belligerences, been the haunt of rogues and thieves, and is now the tag to which the Federal Government has attached a National Park.

William Least Heat Moon, in his book 'Blue Roads' extols the virtues of the Trace, and offers one pertinent piece of advice: that every civil engineer should be made to drive the Trace to see how a road can be made to fit within a landscape. A road that was conceived in an age when a 1.5 litre engine was considered adequate power for an automobile. As a consequence, the gradients are benign, rolling over the low hills with ease, sliding gracefully around the curves, flowing with consummate ease. Braking and gear changing have become an archaic activity, such that we will only use a range of three cogs for the whole eight days that we will run the Trace. It's this relaxed, casual engineering that gives this byway it's tranquil aura, coupled with an absence of semis and stop lines, rumble strips and rush hours. The first sign that we encounter as we first approach the Trace, advises ' Recreational Hauling Only', with further clarification: 'No Commercial Traffic'. Terrific!  Now we're entering a never-never land, and ticking off on that Blessed wish list.  In truth we've had nothing but utter courtesy from the semis; they’re out there doing a job and we're the recreation. Still, I don't like holding them back.

However, we're not as gracious with the other impediments. Where the British trained engineer in the UK receives a pair of compasses in his Christmas stocking to facilitate the easy construction of roundabouts, his stateside compatriot gets a tarmacadam planer, a router to rip the route, a toy to scour out holes down the edge of the highway. To add insult to this injury, he then sprays on an invisible cerebral magnetic film.  It just takes one simple glance at these gauge holes and the bike's front wheel jumps right in, and where the front goes, so the back follows. Rumble, Grumble. The Stop lines, that great US institution of democratic motoring, can be a nuisance; a rising hill, a vast open junction, visibility measured in miles, not one single item of traffic - but you'd better not roll that white line. The State Trooper's probably got his cruiser hidden half way up a pine tree. Brake, stop, foot down, push-off, curse - too high a gear. Mumble, Grumble.

Now I make that several ticks in favour of Fantasia Arcadia, but should you become blasé about this other-worldly existence, just stand on one of the over-bridges and look down on Interstate USA, or take off on an exit ramp back into the 21st century. It's a glance through a looking glass, a step beyond the pale, that emphasises all the other entities that can't exist in a National Park.  Of worm bait dispensers and Baptist Churches, of drive through pawn and pay-day loans, of the gastric belt that's the 'all you can eat $6 buffet' - seniors’ rate.  It's gas station coffee and supermarket foraging, it's a room in a motel when the snow starts to fly.  It's a chance to collect those absurdities and oddities of location and situation: The Leakey Oil Company's tanker that didn't deliver to the BP gas station; the garden centre that sells 'Glock ammo and Potted Pansies', the epistles outside a church, that preach: ‘If your life stinks, we've got a pew for you', or the shop entitled 'Birds, Butts and Bones', that then further confuses by offering 'Butt Rub'.  Enlightenment only coming further around the corner with the words: 'BBQ'.

Sadly, it’s also a return to the river of beer cans and coffee-to-go cups that flow along the public highway, that unbroken stream of litter that ignores watersheds and connects the Pacific to Atlantic.  It's these matters of fact, these sober truths that are set into stark reality when you step through the bubble, back into the park, it's their sheer absences that set our route apart.  For the Trace is a reality that you might wish to be real, an idea of a previous, earlier, more innocent world, that in truth could never have existed.  For the architects and politicians didn't have to consider the requirements of connecting humans and their communities together, or of accommodating three centuries worth of social engineering. What it does connect are some of it's founding principles, of archaeology and it's subsequent history.

From promotional literature and the numerous storyboards, you start to build up a picture of how and why the Trace came to prominence, and how it slipped back into the forest and history. Some of these snippets of gleaned information can lead you off on some intriguing flights of enquiry. One of the first descriptions that I came across, suggested that the mammoth and the mastodon had created the original Trace. Visions of one ploughing its tusks like a grubber, whilst the other has a levelling blade on its trunk, come to mind.

It takes a couple of hundred miles of further travel along the route for enlightenment to dawn. It’s there that we come on a river-cut bluff, a fifty foot high banking, a giant soil profile of wind-blown loess. The ground-down mountains of glacial tailings that have been deposited over a pavement of limestone, the remnants of an ancient sea bed. So a few tons of ancestral elephant wandering up and down this soft dust would soon create a sunken depression, and where the protein trekked, so man the hunter followed.

We are standing reading one of these hoardings, muffled up in all our clothes, the wind chill biting deep, yet the story board like to depict ‘them’ as near naked, and describe ‘them’ as ’proto-Indian’, when portraying and explaining their burial mounds, whose construction and purpose are identical to the ‘barrows’ of ‘early-man’ in European archaeology. It’s that distinction, Indian or settler; red or white that will colour the subsequent historical time-line of storyboard, further down the Trace, placing a darker shadow on our fantastical road. A history, like all histories, that’s been created and written by and for the winner. How the settlers’ priests brought enlightenment and redemption, carpentry and house-keeping skills to the indigenous people, and delighting in introducing the novel concept of ‘Hell in the hereafter’. By the fourth of these fabled embroideries, I’ve learned that Hernando de Soto ‘discovered’ the Mississippi river, whilst I have discovered that I need to find a balancing narrative. I need the other side’s account. Only the losers don’t get to record their story, they’re to busy signing away the secessions for their lands and heading out west. At least that’s the version that we would have been left with had we accepted the Park Service’s rendition.

My newly acquired history talks about the ‘Indian Removal Act’, 1883, the Cherokee ‘Trail of Tears’, the cholera in concentration camps and the literal decimation of a tribe on the trek to Oklahoma, in the coldest winter for fifty years.

As with the similarities of burial methods between the western and eastern hemispheres, so with the accounts of lands acquisition and clearance. A litany of broken promises and agreements, of incomprehensions and cruelty, of greed and land lust. The parallels are all there. Greenwood Laflore, a renegade Choctaw elder, who was in no position so to do, signs off on the secession treaty, then hangs around to establish an estate, build a mansion and plant a garden, whilst his clan are herded west. He would have recognised and had a familiar in a Duke of Sutherland, and his ‘parcel of rogues’.

The sad irony lies in the fact that the dispossessed of Strath Kildonan were themselves the catalyst for the dispossessions, the cleansing of the ‘five civilised tribes’, out of the south-east. Thus fulfilling the ad-man’s holy mantra of ’go west young man’, and clergyman’s notion of ‘Hell in the here and now’.

Light and dark; hope and despair, a story that will repeat through the Trace’s further histories.