Friday, September 18, 2009

Appalachian Walkabouts

If the Lizard Man were dragging his heels across the saltpans of Lake Eyre, you could expect a succession of long flats, like Chopin’s "Funeral March". If he were skipping up and down the MacDonnell escarpments, you’d have a series of arpeggios and glissandos, like Liszt’s "Hungarian Rhapsodies".
-Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines

Months ago, I collected several fragments of what should cohere into one larger story. I just couldn’t figure out how to put them all together to exceed the sum of the parts. Since the potential of the material surpasses my ability to do it justice, I'll simply submit the original notes.

In Story Line: Exploring the Literature of the Appalachian Trail, Ian Marshall reflects upon some classics of Appalachian literature while hiking the AT from Georgia to Maine. It’s a great concept and Marshall is up to the task. The opening of the book caught my attention:

As I sit in the train station in Wilmington, Delaware, backpack at my side, I am finishing Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines. Chatwin writes of his quest to learn about the Dreaming-tracks of the aboriginal peoples of Australia.

These Dreaming-tracks – the “Songlines” of Chatwin’s title – are trails walked by the “Ancestors,” who in the “Dreamtime” long ago fashioned themselves out of clay and sang the earth into existence, naming items in the landscape as they progressed on their journeys, recording their paths in songs whose melodic contours echo the geologic forms of the land.

To this day aboriginals learn the songs of their ancestors, and every so often they set out on ritual journeys called walkabouts, following in the footprints of their ancestors and recreating in song the emergence of the land.

Songlines, by Connie Rovina, Queensland

Around the same time I was reading Story Line, I found a USA Today article on hut-to-hut hiking along Oregon’s Rogue River:

As he makes his way along the narrow path hovering hundreds of feet above a rush of white water, David Chesluk recites the contents of his fanny pack, a veritable miracle of supply. "Duct tape. Aleve. Bandages. Insect repellent. Sunscreen. An extra water bottle. Antibiotics. Batteries. Windbreaker/poncho. Plastic bags. And a medical kit. I could take out your appendix, if needed," says the retired psychiatrist, only half in jest.

But what's more impressive is what Chesluk and six companions aren't packing on this four-day hike into one of America's most serene and remote wilderness areas. Absent are cook stoves and pots, sleeping bags and pads, tents and ground covers and any sustenance beyond a few energy bars. By day, they're enjoying an unburdened walk in the woods, relishing riverside lunches prepared for them while seated comfortably in roomy canvas chairs. At day's end, they're indulging in hot showers, hearty dinners and snug beds in backcountry lodges where their personal gear, floated in via raft, awaits them.

While it has long been a favorite of European travelers, hut-to-hut hiking is a rarity in America. If Mellinger Henry’s proposals had been realized, we might be enjoying that option in the Southern Appalachians today. Henry was a frequent visitor to the region during the early twentieth century; the Asheville Citizen endorsed Henry’s ideas about hiking in an editorial published October 9, 1923:

Mr. Henry tells more about the trails, the mountain scenery available to the hiker, and about the lack of lodges and inns than most of the natives have learned, excepting, of course, the men who carry on the work of the United States Forest Service. There is little hiking through these mountains, or comparatively so, judging from the popularity of this pastime in other sections of the country.

For years, the Forest Service has been marking out trails and urging the people to give aid in opening lodges for the entertainment of travelers overnight. But even yet an inexperienced hiker would soon get lost in the woods, and if he doesn’t, he wants a comfortable place when darkness falls.

When Western North Carolina, Inc, begins its work, there will be common efforts put forth in twenty-five counties, at least, to mark trails, establish inns and advertise to the whole country the attractions of the trails through the mountains of this region. And then many will come in response to this invitation, just as Mr. Henry comes and finds more than enough to repay him for the extra efforts now required in locating trails and points of interest.

Kangaroo Dreaming, by Jamie Eastwood, New South Wales

Henry was not only a hiker, but a collector of traditional mountain songs. I discovered his Folk Songs of the Southern Highlands while looking for photographs of the High Falls of the Tuckasegee. The 1939 song book includes a photo of the falls, and other mountain scenes, to supplement the many ballads and folk tunes in the work. The author explained the history of the songs and shared anecdotes about the mountaineers he had befriended to learn about the music, including John Oliver of Cade’s Cove.

Mellinger Henry died in 1946, but I can imagine talking with him about explorations of music and place. I would ask if he found songlines in the Smokies, like those described by Bruce Chatwin:

In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score. There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung. One should perhaps visualize the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every episode was readable in terms of geology.


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