Road Trip IX, Days 23-26: The Appalachian Ocean

Consider this post a small gravel-chunk in the stretch of road that constitutes the travelogue of Road Trip IX. The Mate and I just spent four days and nights in Appalachian Trail country—northern Georgia, western North Carolina—and I want to capture my musings on these mountains before we arrive back in Tarheel Territory the Piedmont and give ourselves over to a week of screaming at the TV, eating BBQ and fried chicken, raising our arms for luck on free throws catching up with old friends over the ACC basketball tournament.

Amicalola Falls State Park, Georgia…near the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

Fellow native east coasters, I must confess to you: since moving to Washington in 1990, I’ve become a horrible Western Chauvinist. One of those people who comments that the tallest mountain in the east—Mt. Mitchell, 6,683—comes up to less than halfway up our Mt. Rainier (14,110).

Shame on me.

Height doesn’t matter.

Four days of hiking and riding around the Appalachians has reminded me of this simple truth: you can’t compare them to western mountains.

Western mountains are formidable ranges, awesome volcanoes, places of raw wilderness and dazzling danger. But the Appalachians are a sea.

Sometimes a sea of fog.

There are two reasons for this contrast, two interconnected reasons. The great age of the Appalachians has subjected them to forces of erosion and plate-stretching that have created mountains in the shape of waves.

Waves at sunrise (taken through the window of Amicalola Lodge)

A wave is a crest and a trough. In the Appalachians, the myriad valleys and hollers are as much a part of the mountains as the peaks…because people can live there. They’ve been living there for millennia. Even European settlers have been there for over 250 years!

Waves at sunset

Of course people live high up in the Rockies and the Cascades, here and there. But the very steepness and height of those ranges rendered them inhospitable to permanent settlement back when Europeans first got there. That’s why they have no equivalent culture, identity, or musical heritage to Appalachia. (Sorry–John Denver doesn’t count.)

Here’s where I ought to have some pictures of good ol’ Appalachians doing good ol’ Appalachian things like playing bluegrass or drinking ‘shine. But since I wasn’t thinking about a blog post when we were hiking and biking and driving through, all I have is pictures of The Mate with some friends.

“Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” anyone?

So thanks, Appalachians, for slapping me upside the head with this reminder. If they’re lucky, all those gorgeous western mountains will look like you in a few million (billion?) years. 

Till then–stay warm!

Thanks. You too.

Why Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior Makes Me Wish I Were Back in the Classroom

First, a bit of irony: after dutifully writing and scheduling five posts so I could go away to Greece for two weeks without my blog curling up and dying, I come back home only to fall off my own schedule.

Turns out, jet lag + travel germs + 3 days in a row of staying up late to rehearse or perform music while having to get up next morning at 4 to bake = sore throat-drippy-nose-splitting-headache bad idea. If I had blogged in the past couple of days, it would have sounded like this: WHIIIIIIIIINE.

But I’m back! and excited to talk about a book I just finished, one that makes me wish wish wish I could have my old job back, teaching high school English.

First of all, it’s Barbara Kingsolver–one of my top ten current (as in, still writing) novelists. I taught The Bean Trees for years–practically memorized it–and used to love pointing interested students toward its sequel, Pigs in Heaven. (Couldn’t get that one past our school board; tad too much sex involved.) And I don’t know anyone who read The Poisonwood Bible who wasn’t blown away. (That one would have eaten up a whole semester.)

(Courtesy faber.co.uk)

(Courtesy faber.co.uk)

Without giving anything away, here are five reasons why you should go read Flight Behavior:

1. Through her characters, Kingsolver addresses the polarity of our country–essentially, the red/blue split, with emphasis on the income gap, religion, science, and community rootedness. But she does this so intimately, it is only after reading that one feels elucidated. “Oh, THAT’s why those people feel that way!”

In one hilarious-but-poignant scene, the protagonist, Dellarobia Turnbow, is confronted by a self-righteous outsider who wants her to sign a pledge to reduce her carbon footprint. As he reads aloud the steps she could take to be a better global citizen, both characters are struck by the pamphlet’s assumptions about opportunity.

“Okay,” he said…”Skipping  ahead to Everyday Necessities. Try your best to buy reused. Use Craigslist.”

“What is that?” she asked, though she had a pretty good idea.

“Craigslist,” he said. “On the Internet.”

“I don’t have a computer.”

Mr. Akins moved quickly to cover his bases. “Or find your local reuse stores.”

Find them,” she said.

Since Dellarobia can afford to shop nowhere else for her family…well, you get the idea. Kingsolver keeps her touch subtle.

2. Kingsolver also plays delicately with the reader’s expectations. Here we have a heroine who is beautiful, impulsive, feeling trapped in her marriage, and, in the very opening paragraph, “[knows] her own recklessness and marvell[s]…at how one hard little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of a long disgrace.” When a tall, dark, handsome stranger appears…what else can happen? Ah, what, indeed?

3. The prose is gorgeous. Just re-read #2, above.

4. If you like writers like Virginia Woolf or Ian McEwan who can NAIL never-spoken aspects of the human psyche in single, crushingly simple sentences…parts of this book will make you gasp in appreciation.

5. Finally–not really, I could go on, but 5 seems like a good place to stop–Flight Behavior functions as a call to action. Without pointing fingers, the novel reminds us that, just because we choose not to think about it, our responsibility towards our planet does not dissipate. As the visiting scientist, Ovid Byron, rants to a hapless TV reporter:

“What scientists disagree on now, Tina, is how to express our shock.The glaciers that keep Asia’s waterways in business are going right away. Maybe one of your interns could Google that for you. The Arctic is genuinely collapsing. Scientists used to call these things the canary in the mine. What they say now is, The canary is dead.”

If I had this book and thirty kids in a classroom, here’s what I’d ask them to do:

1. Find a scene in this book which you think perfectly illustrates the way prejudices form. Explain why. Then, explain how the scene relates to your own prejudices about people. Whom are you most sympathetic to in this scene, and why?

2. Some of the characters–evil mother-in-law, charismatic Southern preacher, out-of-touch scientist, slutty best friend–could easily be stereotypes. Choose two or three of these characters from the book and explain how the author keeps them from being cliches.

3. One of Kingsolver’s most powerful techniques is the long paragraph ended with a very short, simple sentence. Find one of these and explain how that technique increases the reader’s emotional reaction.

4. Think of a person you wish you could force to read this book, someone who might not want to. (It could be someone known to you personally, or not.) Why do you think this book might make them uncomfortable? Given what this book shows about the uselessness of being judgmental, how would you go about trying to interest that person in this book?

Again–I could go on. But I’m no longer drawing a paycheck for this sort of thing…sigh. And besides, it’s time for my next dose of decongestant.

(Courtesy David Govoni, Flikr Creative Commons)

(Courtesy David Govoni, Flikr Creative Commons)

But I have an idea. YOU go read the book and then check back in with me, OK? And if you already have, PLEASE weigh in. What was your own reaction? What discussion questions would you ask?