I thought others might also enjoy the article I am linking to below.
After all our attempts of the previous weeks, we finally did get to see some decent autumn colors. During a walk to Clopper Lake, we came upon a stand of trees beside the lake where the color was at it peak, or close to it. The light was just right for pictures like this.
We also made a trip to the Catoctin Mountain Park, up north near the town of Thurmont in Maryland, on Saturday. The place was packed with people by the time we got there. We had to park along the main road just outside the park in order to try to get to the visitor center and the trails. (The line of cars parked along this road was even longer by the time we left the park that afternoon.) The trails were also packed with hordes of people, some of whom had come in large groups. That was surprising to see during these times of COVID-19.
Because of the conditions on the ground, we decided to drive into the park instead of taking one of the trails at the visitor center, but still had difficulty finding a place to park within the park itself. The parking lots in there were also full, and there were also a limited number of such lots. The added frustration was that you had to drive away from the road to enter these lots, and then you would find that there was not even one parking spot available! We tried most of the lots. It was frustrating to have to drive through the colorful roads where the colors had just peaked and not have a place to pull over to take pictures. The pictures taken directly from the car (I would stop on the road itself if there was no traffic behind me) were pathetic. Fortunately, we had some luck towards the western end of the park.
The colors of autumn last only a short time. We will be seeing a lot more brown tree trunks by the end of the week. When looking back at the pictures I have taken recently, I am also reminded that it was still green all around us when I started looking for the autumnal colors just earlier this month. Changes happen quickly during this time of year, and before we know it we will be experiencing the full force of winter.
I saw an interesting episode of American Experience recently. It was called The Gilded Age. This episode is set during the late 19th century. This was the period of time when the USA was being transformed from an agrarian society to an industrial one. This was the period of time when “capitalism” began to be favored in government, and wealth inequality, and power inequality, came into place in a systematic way. It is a fascinating story. It has only gotten worse since then, and one wonders how much further this phenomenon can persist until all hell breaks loose. This is a good episode to watch if you want to understand our history, and where it is we come from as a country. These days, one could be led to believe that the maintenance and furtherance of the capitalist creed is the primary goal and functional requirement of the US government apparatus, and that one should accept this as gospel truth if you were a true citizen of the USA. Know that this is not what the founding fathers were thinking of, or necessarily had in mind, and that such thought process is only a more recent invention being pushed forward by the people in power in order to try to maintain the status quo. Meanwhile, the inequalities only continue to get worse with time.
I have been working on this particular blog for a long time now. I have taken long breaks in the process of completing it. I am trying to be as thorough as possible in the background information I am providing, and the source of my information is a documentary video that is not short. I am taking this effort primarily so that I can feel good about what I am doing, even if not many people end up reading the blog itself.
I also gave some additional thought to the reason why I wanted to put a blog on this subject out there. My first thought was that Freedom Summer was a topic that any American knowledgeable about American History would be aware of, even if they did not know all the details. But then I realized that this was probably not the case. First of all, history is not a strong suit for most of us in the general public. We also forget easily, especially if it is a topic that one would not be particularly proud of talking about. Also, since this happened well before the youth among us were born, I suspect that many of them may not even be aware of what happened. I would point them to this video because it is good to be aware of the soul of the country that you call your own.
So, even if it is only a few people who read this, and further follow up, I want to do my little part in providing the opportunity to learn something about this particular episode in American history. Some might even find the circumstances of what was happening in 1964 unbelievable in the context of our lives today. Others may not be that surprised considering the nonsense that is going on in our country today. For those who already know about this part of our history, here is an opportunity to actually delve into the details.
What I am providing here is a link to a PBS episode in the series American Experience. I am able to watch this episode through my browser on my computer. I am hoping that readers will have the ability to view this video in this simple manner even if they cannot find a way to view it through some more traditional means on their television sets.
This episode of American Experience is simply called Freedom Summer. I hope that this link works for everybody.
As I mentioned before, this episode takes you back to the year 1964. This was before the Voting Rights Act was passed. This was the time of the Civil Rights movement, when Jim Crow laws were still being used to subjugate Blacks. The problems were especially bad in the south, and Mississippi might have been considered among the worst of these states. Less than 7% of Blacks there were registered to vote at that time. (In comparison, the numbers ranged between 50 to 60% in other southern states.) The suppression of the black vote was a deliberate effort to ensure that the Whites would not lose their positions of power in localities with majority Black populations. The Whites managed to do this by coming up with a literacy test that the Blacks had to pass in order to be registered to vote, a test that was deliberately rigged to be unfair. The test included questions that most people would not know the answers to – including interpretation of sections of the state constitution. Registrars controlled the process of registration, including the taking of the test. The about 800 White registrars had total power over the process. The process of registration was made even more difficult – even including direct intimidation while taking the voting test, and also public posting of names of those who had taken the test in the newspapers so that they would face a backlash in their businesses and from their employers.
As an aside, when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed (shortly after Freedom Summer and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), there was a section, called Section 5, that addressed the voting suppression efforts of the South, in that it required seven states, states with histories of voter suppression, to get pre-clearance from the federal authorities before making any changes to voting rules. This was to ensure that the changes would not discriminate against protected minorities. This regulation was, unfortunately, undone by the Supreme Court in 2013. Unfortunately, voter suppression efforts exist even today, and seem to be getting worse with each election cycle.
The Students Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was a group of Black students who were trying to register Black people to vote. Seeing that they were not making much progress on their own, they decided to get help from outside Mississippi by opening up the state to the rest of the country. They called it the Mississippi Summer Project. They invited young people from all over the country to volunteer to teach in Freedom Schools all over the state during the summer. These volunteers would be embedded in the different black communities, stay in their homes while they were there, and would live just like they did. They would learn what their lives were like. They would teach subjects like Black Literature, Black culture Black History, etc.., topics that were not taught in the regular schools. They would implement community center programs that involved the older people. They would be active in voter registration.
It was mostly White kids, both male and female, who signed up for Freedom Summer. They signed up from all over the country. The SNCC conducted an orientation program in Oxford, Ohio, for the potential volunteers. The kids who wanted to volunteer might have been idealists at heart, but they had no clue what they were getting themselves into. They had no idea about the life circumstances of the Black people of Mississippi. They had no idea about their problems. Even the idea of getting directions from the Black SNCC leaders during the orientation program was something they had to get used to. But, they learnt, and they rose to the occasion. Freedom Summer worked, and if you see the video, you can see some of these folks talk today about the experiences of their youth. This would have been a life-changing experience for them. It was an experience that turned many of them into heroes.
At that time, the White people of Mississippi actually thought that they were a superior race. Maybe some of them still do. The pure hate that you see in some people’s eyes in the video is shocking. (Let me assure you that we are all capable of such hate.) When the Whites learnt about Freedom Summer happening, they were concerned, and even prepared militarily for what might happen. They knew the details of what was being planned. There were police cars waiting in some cases when buses carrying the volunteers crossed the border into Mississippi.
At this point, I will stop talking about what happened in 1964, except to mention the names of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. They were volunteers who went into Mississippi ahead of the rest of the group because of a church burning incident in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They disappeared. James was the only Black person among the three. You have to watch the show to find out what happened to them. The other volunteers still followed James, Michael and Andrew into Mississippi in spite of not knowing what had happened to them – and fearing the worst. Consider how brave their actions were. There were over 700 volunteers who participated.
When thinking about the volunteers of Freedom Summer, I was reminded of the experiences of Peace Corps volunteers who go off to other countries to serve. The bonds that they form, and their experiences in foreign lands, stay with them for life. These kids learn true empathy for other people. These kind of impacts must be much more intense for the youth of Freedom Summer – even if they did not actually leave the country.
There is a lot of interesting stuff in the presentation. You will, in all likelihood, also learn a lot of new things. The documentary (obviously based on real life) is much more engaging, moving, and powerful than any fictional movie that you will find out there today. I am thankful that the voices of some of the older folks who experienced those days have been saved for all time in this film. Listen particularly to the voice of Fannie Lou Hamer (towards the end of the documentary). Watch how Lyndon B. Johnson and the Democratic Party, with their corrupt politics, screwed the Blacks of Mississippi. Listen to the moving last words of the documentary. We should not forget.
Once again, this is the link to the video.
It is a time of introspection for me, a time for me to once again confront the possible limitations of my own humanity. This time, my internal conversation is about my latent biases.
I think that those of us who happen to be privileged in some way or the other cannot help but have our own biases. Regardless of whether our parents tried to inculcate the right set of values in us, regardless of whether we were taught that all human beings are the same regardless of our race or background, or creed, people can end up feeling not just different, but maybe even superior. I am probably guilty of that even if my first reaction is to try to deny it.
At this time, my thinking is mainly focused on racism against blacks in America. I want to spend some time thinking about my learning process in this regard. As a young person growing up in India, I was not very knowledgeable about the experience of the African American people. I knew about slavery, and I had read Roots by Alex Haley as a youngster before I came to the United States. I also knew about the civil war and events associated with it. That was probably the extent of my exposure. I remember seeing movies from the USIS that talked about America, but the plight of the former slaves was not one of the topics that was touched upon. Lets admit it, the USIS was mainly peddling in propaganda that only presented the country in a positive light.
Before I came to the United States, I did not know much about the Civil Rights movement. I did not know anything about Jim Crow, or the events of the South in those days, in places like Birmingham, Durham, Selma, etc… I had not heard of the Freedom Riders. My real education on this topic started when I came here in 1980 for my higher studies. I would like to believe that I did not have any inherent biases against people of other races that I interacted with when I arrived as a graduate student. I encountered people from all over the world in the university, and we were all going through the same experiences in the same set of circumstances. But I am not sure now if I am remembering things correctly.
My regular trips from the university where I studied to New York City opened up my eyes a little bit to the black inner-city experience of that time. It was not a very happy introduction. You have to first remember that those times were, in general, especially bad for NYC as a whole. The city was still recovering from near-bankruptcy in the 1970s, and the infrastructure was in real bad shape. Times Square was still a red-light district. There were a lot of homeless people in the city, and they seemed to be mainly black. There were people hanging out in street corners who seemed to be looking for trouble. You had to be careful wherever you went because the city could be a dangerous place. There was graffiti and rubbish everywhere. The place was dirty. I remember being attacked by a bunch of kids one evening on a street near Columbia University. I remember the smelly and graffiti-covered subway cars that I traveled on. Often, there were homeless people sleeping on the cars. But I was young, and I found NYC to be a fascinating place. I used to love to travel on the subway system. I tried to experience every subway line there was, and every destination. I even bought a book about the subway (I think I still have it), and also resolved to cover all of the many lines of the subway system within a 24 hour period. Thank goodness I never attempted that in real life. On a different occasion, I remember being stopped by a plainclothes agent of the law (I was not sure he was an official policeman) for inspection at the Pelham Bay Park station, a terminus, because there had been some incident at some previous station on the line. The person wanted to make sure I was not involved in a crime. He let me go after a few minutes. I loved to wander around Central Park. New York City was my backyard, and I really experienced a lot of what it had to offer to a young person living on a shoestring budget.
One of the things you noticed about New York City was that there are a lot of people who were not well off who actually lived there. This was in spite of the fact that the place was very expensive. In my mind, the white man would commute every weekday morning to the downtown area from his suburban home – for his high paying job some big financial company, in one of the massive skyscrapers that dominated downtown. He would arrive in the morning for his work, and then disappear back to his comfortable suburb as soon as he was done in the evening. Such people were actually scared of the real city, and did not seem to want to have anything to do with it. The downtown areas used to become empty shells in the evening, abandoned by the better-off. The other rich who could afford it would live in the expensive apartment buildings around Central Park. The rest of the people who lived in the city were spread out over the five boroughs, depending on the levels of income, and depending on whether they were able to find a rent-stabilized apartment in a reasonably good neighborhood. Many people lived in high-rise apartment complexes in NYC. The poorer you were, the further away you were from downtown. Some of the apartment complexes in the outer boroughs of NYC looked like remains from a battle-zone. Many seemed to have been abandoned. In some cases, all that was left was what looked like a shell. Some of the buildings had fences around them to prevent them from being using for nefarious activities, like drug dealing. Most of the people who seemed to hang around these spaces seemed to be black. And you could ask yourself why things turned out that way for the blacks who occupied these spaces, and you could reach different conclusions based on your biases, and based on how much real studying you bothered to do about the history of the black people in the USA. That was the way it was in the 1980s for me.
We now live in Montgomery County in Maryland. It is a diverse community overall, and we would like to believe that we are enlightened, but I wonder. In spite of all its affluence, there are pockets of poverty, and places where people need help. People who are well off do not generally wander to these places. I have tried to tell myself that I am one of the enlightened people who understands where people come from, but how can I be so sure. I try to keep up with all aspects of American History these days, not just from the perspective of the White Man, so that I know what I am talking about. I have educated myself about the time of Jim Crow. I have educated myself about the Civil Rights Movement. I learned about the experiences of people of those times who spoke up, people like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. I have listened to the speeches of MLK. We have watched shows like 13th, and When They See Us by younger film makers like Ava DuVernay. I learned about the workings of police forces all over the country. I learned about the Southern Democrats, and about the Freedom Riders, Birmingham, Selma. I learned about Rosa Parks, and discrimination, and lynching. I learned about the biases and the racism in the system. The white people actually thought they were superior human beings in those days, and, even though they may not admit it, many probably still have a few subconscious biases about this even to today.
And we now arrive at this moment in the history of this country, and the horrible incidents of today. I tell others that in order to understand the situation properly and achieve empathy, you have to study the history that brought us to this point. But now I am not convinced that even this is sufficient. Something more basic has to change. So I continue to try to educate myself about myself even more. Teresa and I watched the videos of Jane Elliot. We realize that there are insidious ways in which we can develop our biases, and it is not just about color. It is not simply a matter of empathy. It is not just a matter of knowing the true story. There is something more basic within oneself that is not good that is just waiting to come out. I realize that I have developed my own biases without really thinking about it. I really need to act with more thought and purpose in each and every moment going forward.
Today, we listen to the many, many, voices, some of them young, providing perspectives on the lives of the black people, especially in the inner cities. Social and news media are, thankfully, providing the outlets for people to speak. And I have hope. There is a significant push back from the black community every time some kind of police-on-black atrocity takes place, and it has become more and more effective. The voices are being heard, and they are voices that speak with a clarity of vision. They speak with reason. And I become a little hopeful that the push back will trigger some real change.
The first major backlash I remember from police on black violence in recent times was after the beating of Rodney King in 1991. The only reason why people knew about the incident was because somebody had made a video recording of it. Similar backlash, and accompanying violence, happened big time most recently in Ferguson, MO, when Michael Brown was murdered by a cop. Many other incidents have happened in the time between Rodney King and Michael Brown. The police officer got off without any punishment in Ferguson, just as has happened countless times in the past every time blacks have been killed by cops. Unfortunately, the focus of the press and others in these situations in the past seemed to be on the violent aftermaths. So, it is a legitimate question to wonder if things could go in a different direction this time.
I do think it is possible! One of the differences is that the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis was so blatant that it is not just the blacks in the community who are outraged and are actively responding. And the response to the murder is happening not just in Minneapolis. It is happening not just in the USA. It is happening everywhere! The press has picked up on the important narrative of racism, injustice, and police violence. The white people in the country are actually joining the marches in large numbers. And the youth of all backgrounds are involved. And it is also multi-generational. And the police have responded in many places with their entire arsenal of military-grade hardware and shown their true colors by using these against the citizens. And every single thing that happens out there is being video-recorded. Every mindless violent act of an out-of-control police officer gets shown to the whole world. I think every reasonable person who sees the official violence has to be angry. And , for a change, social and television media has been very good at amplifying the positive messages coming from the protestors. I hope for something concrete to happen before the momentum fades away.
But a reactive response to the moment is not sufficient. We need fundamental change in our mindset as a society. A band-aid simply will not cut it. It is going to take much more hard work by every single one of us to get a better understanding of our our biases and our racism, and to effect real change. It is not easy.
I want to conclude with a few links that caught my attention.
This is a interview on CNN.
Here is a blog about the murals that are coming up in Minneapolis in the aftermath of the shooting.
The George Floyd Murals of Minneapolis: A Demand for Justice, Hope and a Better Humanity
There are moments of humanity in the middle of the violence. Here is a nice story.
We shall overcome.
I recently saw a Netflix show called the Greatest Events of WWII in Color.
This great ten-part series is highly recommended for anybody interested in history and not that familiar with the details of WWII. (As an aside, the show’s impact had little to do with addition of color to the footage.) The series focuses on certain key events and elements of WWII. The stories are clearly told, and in what I thought was a balanced manner. You learn about the lead up to the particular events, the battlefield strategies employed therein, about how the event played out in reality, the end results, and, finally, the overall impact of the event on the direction of WWII itself, and on history. I learnt a lot of new things.
I emerged from the experience of viewing these episodes convinced that very, very, few people are really completely “good”, or noble. Evil lurks in the human heart, perhaps closer to the surface in some more than in others. All it takes is the right set of circumstances to bring out the worst in a person. Some of us, even if we are not active participants, become complicit just from our capability to justify harsh cruelty done to others in our name, for what is claimed to be the greater good.
The last two episodes of this series were the most impactful on me. They had to do with the genocide in the concentration camps in Europe, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the genocide, the killing of human beings became an effort of industrial scale, with the goal of speeding up the process of systematically murdering people. The goal was to find the most efficient way to do this. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki attempted to legitimize the process of mass murder on an even grander scale. It was, in a sense, a response to an already brutal war with a even greater level of brutality. There appears to be no limit to which we can push each other in this regard.
There were many atrocities committed in WWII. The conventional bombing of cities on a large scale, in a deliberate attempt to massacre civilians in large numbers and achieve a psychological advantage in the conflict, was something that both sides were guilty of. The fire-bombing of Dresden was particularly horrific.
And it is not as if we remember the horrors of previous wars and strive not to repeat them. We will never learn that war is hell.
I had just started making my way back after riding into Washington DC from Pennyfield Lock. I was stopped in my tracks by this wreath of beautiful roses next to the Potomac river in the Georgetown Waterfront Park. The first line on the white ribbon that lay diagonally across the wreath read “Remember, Heal and Reconcile”. The second line read “400th Year Commemoration 2019”. I could not figure out what it was all about until today. And I spent a lot of time this morning trying to get a better grip on this story and really get into it. You can read an article about it here. I found this audio clip related to this story also interesting.
Just to give you a high level background, 20 or so slaves arrived from Africa for the first time on an English ship at Jamestown in August 1619. This notable event was a part of the beginnings of a complete moral disaster that has its impacts even today. Unfortunately, there are people who still wish to rewrite this piece of history even today.
I also saw this.In light of the shenanigans going on in government today, and especially at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it was somewhat ironic to see this on the plaque below the sculpture.And this was posted in the same neighborhood next to the river.Yuk!
Lest somebody thinks that I am a grouch, I really did enjoy the morning and did have a good ride. Here are some other pictures from the park.
And here is a picture of Swains Lock taken in the early morn.Life goes on!
It is the darnedest thing! I have had this particular blog in the back of my mind for quite a few days. I keep thinking about it every day, but I cannot get myself into the proper state of mind to write it. There are so many distractions. I am just going to have to force myself to eject the words out of the brain in free form when I have a little bit of free time, and then read it all back later to see if it makes sense.
It had to do with my bike ride last Wednesday. It was another one of those rides that required some extra motivation on my part to get it going. I am finding it hard to maintain a regular schedule. I am too good at finding excuses. It had rained the previous day. The trail was going to be messy. Perhaps I should stay home. That was my excuse this time.
But I found a way. I decided that I would ride on the paved trails in Virginia so that I could avoid the mud and potholes of the C&O canal. In order to do this, I would park the car on Canal Road at the Chain bridge, on the outskirts of Washington, DC, and then head south on my bike on the towpath into Georgetown. I would then cross the Potomac river into Virginia on the Key Bridge. I was then going to ride south on the Mt. Vernon Trail. I did not know how far I would ride on this trail, but I knew that if I rode to the end, it would end up being a somewhat tougher ride than usual.
Things went according to plan as I rode into Virginia somewhat early in the morning. As I crossed the Key Bridge, I could see and feel the rush hour traffic headed into Washington, DC. This was was the scene on the Roslyn side of the bridge.I got on to the Mt. Vernon trail at this point and started pedaling away beside the river, passing Roosevelt Island early in this section. There was a very short stop for pictures at Gravelly Point Park. There was already a steady stream of planes headed into National Airport.The airport was busy. Both runways were in use.
The Mt. Vernon trail passes under the Woodrow Wilson bridge just beyond the town of Alexandria. This bridge carries Interstate 495, the Capital Beltway, over the Potomac river. The approach ramps of the bridge pass over Jones Point Park. The Mt. Vernon trail snakes its way between the massive piers of the bridge at this point. There is a lot of open space under the bridge and people of all ages hang out there – fishing by the river, playing basketball, biking around, etc… It seems to be a meeting place for groups of mothers with babies.
Most often I bike right through Jones Point Park without stopping. But this time, an unexpected thought crossed my mind just as I was headed out of the park. At that point of the ride I was thinking to myself that I really did not care about the distance I covered that day. So why not take some time to get off the trail and explore some of the smaller, less well-defined, paths that I had seen in the past while riding through the park. It was a sudden decision. It also turned out to be a great decision!
Riding along a smaller trail, I ended up at a spot where I began to see boundary markers beside the trail, with signs on these markers for the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. These markers were lined up in straight lines, with the black line on their tops indicating the actual boundary line between two jurisdictions.There was also a lighthouse beside the river, and a few wayside exhibits around it.
It turned out that I was at the tip of the area of land that originally defined the southern limit of Washington, DC! These newer boundary markers were meant to mark the historical boundaries of the District of Columbia. The history is very interesting, and you can read more about it here. Essentially, the District of Columbia was originally conceived of as a diamond shaped area of land with sides of 10 miles each, with a total area of 100 square miles. The land for DC was going to be obtained from both Virginia and Maryland. In the end, the land that Virginia was going to give up in this regard was taken back. (This covered about 31 square miles.) This was called a “retrocession”.
Another interesting fact is that when the original area for DC was being mapped out, boundary markers were set into the ground at one mile intervals along the sides. Most of these boundary markers still exist, including the one at the southern tip, the place I was at!
Unfortunately, I did not think about the significance and existence of the original boundary markers while I was in the park. It was only later that I read that the original southern boundary marker for Washington, DC, was actually embedded in the seawall in front of the lighthouse. It is something that I will stop to investigate further the next time I am in the area. It is located on the right side of this picture of the lighthouse, under a cover of plastic. It is next to the wayside exhibit and in front of the steps, below the level of the ground.I took pictures of a couple of the wayside exhibits that provided some historical information. (You can click on the pictures to open them up in bigger size.)I continued my bike ride past Jones Point Park. At this point, I was within reachable distance of Mt. Vernon and the end of the Mt. Vernon Trail. The temptation of complete the trail was too much to overcome. So, I biked to the end. It was not the optimal decision.
The ride began to take its toll on the way back. Basically, I was retracing my path. The ride was beginning to feel somewhat more mechanical at this point as I endeavored to keep a steady pace. It became more about the challenge of the ride. I was even beginning to pick up speed as a matter of course. My mindset for the ride had shifted. This is typically what happens to me when I bike long distances. It is more relaxed in the beginning, and then, bit by bit, it becomes more intense.
I began to tire without even being too aware of it. I was also running out of water. I stopped at Fletchers Cove, about a mile short of Chain Bridge, the place where I had parked the car. My thigh muscles cramped up immediately when I got off the bike. I had pushed myself too hard.
I was able to buy a bottle of Gatorade at the concession stand at Fletchers Cove. More than half the bottle went down the throat immediately. After a few minutes, I was able to get back on the bike and continue riding to the car. I had no further issues. Because of the long stop at Fletchers Cove, I had also managed to alter my mindset, and I was able to ride at a more relaxed pace.
In the end, I had ridden over 44 miles. I have ridden longer distances than this in the past, but under different circumstances. I was probably also in better shape when I did longer distances!
That is my story for the day, and I am sticking to it!
We are preparing for a visit to Peru next month. During this trip we will be traveling to the interior and visiting the heartland of the old Inca civilization, including the ancient city of Cusco. We are looking forward to this visit.
I have been doing some reading in anticipation of this trip. The first book that I read was ‘Turn Right at Machu Pichu”, by Mark Adams. This book, first published in 2011, weaves two different story lines. The first is Mark’s experience of traveling the region, following in the paths of earlier explorers, including trekking the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Mark interweaves this narrative with an account of the history of the region, some of it very brutal, mostly centered around the time of the Spanish conquests of the area. He talks about the “discovery” of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham III, a somewhat self-serving American explorer in search of fame, in 1911. But Machu Picchu was never really “lost”, especially to the people who are from the region! In any case, the stories are interesting, even if the details of the book are difficult to remember just a few weeks after reading it. My memory is not what it used to be.
The other book I read more recently was “The Old Patagonian Express”, by Paul Theroux. This book was first published in 1979. It is an account of Paul’s travel from Boston, Massachusetts, to Esquel in Patagonia, mostly by train. The travels took the author through Peru, and specifically Cusco and Machu Picchu. I have a copy of the book that I had bought in June of 1985, when I was about to graduate with my doctorate degree. It was time to open the book once again.
The spirit of the somewhat arduous trip taken by Paul Theroux (it took a few months to complete) is something that I can appreciate. It is an undertaking that seems to have been driven mainly by the author’s sense of curiosity and adventure, and his need to leave his zone of comfort in the process. It is about the thrill and the romance of travel. You do it because you want to see, experience, and learn about new things, new places, new people, etc.. You are not looking for the familiar place or face. You do not have a complete plan in place to handle the situations that you will encounter. And it is more significant than that – you willingly open yourself to the unexpected and let yourself become more vulnerable. And in all of this, you manage to learn something more about yourself.
One has to remember that Paul Theroux’s book was written in the 1970s. I now find that his attitude towards the kind of people that he encountered, especially the locals, seems to be somewhat condescending, or maybe it is just a general sense of superiority. I wonder if it is actually a sign of the times that Paul Theroux lived and traveled in, or if it is a somewhat generic attitude taken by folks who are out on voyages of discovery, including most of the explorers of times past – especially those from Europe and North America. They always thought that they were better off than the others, and that they knew what was good for others. Perhaps they were really better off from a materialistic point of view, but did they necessarily know what was good for others?
Paul talks a lot about the poverty he encountered in Peru, especially among the natives. The power structures in place in government in those days did not seem to be geared towards improving the lives of the common man. Perhaps it is all true. My problem, reading Paul’s work at this time in my life, is the feeling I have that he does not seem to have gone beyond the superficial in trying to understand the lives of people. He does not seem to have had the conversations that someone who is undertaking this kind of effort should be having. Maybe he did not have enough time. Maybe he did not think his book was meant to be read by somebody of Inca ancestry. In my mind, he comes off as being quite opinionated in this regard. He might have thought that he was be brutally honest, but I think the problem is that he did not make the attempt to have a more complete perspective. He really did not complete his homework. Perhaps, this is a general problem with the attitudes of too many explorers.
Anyway, here we are, more than 40 years after the time of Paul Theroux’s travels to South America, and we are on our way to South America once again (we went to Ecuador two years ago). I wonder how the country of Peru has changed since the 1970s. We are not adventurers like Paul Theroux. We are going in an organized tour group, and everything is going to be taken care of for us. We will probably be shielded in some way from the locals. Paul Theroux had also traveled through Ecuador, and he talks about the poverty in that country, but our exposure to those circumstances a couple of years ago in the tour group in Ecuador was minimal. It could be that the situation has changed since the 1970s, but it could also be that we were just shown what would be tolerated by “tourists” like us – things that were unlikely to cause us distress, or show the country in a poor light.
It seems like the town of Cusco was geared somewhat towards tourism even in the 1970s. It is in all likelihood even more so today. You only have to see all the information on the Internet in this regard to sense that this is the case. You would also be led to believe that people are generally much better off in Cusco today than 40 years ago, but how can one be sure without having the complete experience?
As I said before, since we will be arriving in Peru as tourists in a tour group, almost everything that we do will be according to a plan and a schedule. But the explorer in me feels that perhaps some of the more remarkable and memorable moments of the trip could happen outside of the script. One just has to be open to the possibilities.
One final note about the trains that Paul Theroux took many years ago. Even in those days, there was no way to do the entire trip from Massachusetts to Patagonia solely by train. Looking at the available train services today, this situation has gotten even worse. Passenger train services are available in much fewer places today. Common folk have to depend more on the buses than they used to do in times past. In a few places, the trains have been saved by running services over short distances just for the tourists. But this is not the real thing! The romance of the railroad is not what it used to be.
Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two (yes they do)
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I’m feeling blue, now how bout you?
Muscle Shoals is not a major tourist destination. It lies on the southern shore of the Tennessee river in the northwestern part of Alabama, on the other side of the river from the town of Florence, AL. These days, the name seems to refer to the area covering the towns of Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoals itself.
While many people who consider themselves rock-and-roll aficionados may know nothing about this place, other than it being a reference in a Lynyrd Skynyrd song, people who are really in the know understand that this was the place where a lot of rock-and-roll music of the 1960s and 70s got created. Musicians from all over the country, and the world, came to the studios of Muscle Shoals to record their albums. Musicians like Rod Stewart, Paul Simon, Jimmy Buffet, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Percy Sledge, Etta James, The Commodores, The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers, and many others, worked here.
Wandering around the area of Muscle Shoals you will not have a clue as to the role this place had in the creation of the contemporary music of that time. Some of the place, especially around Sheffield and Tuscumbia, looks run down and dilapidated. The town of Muscle Shoals is lightly populated, with low rise and spread out shopping centers and commercial buildings dominating the skyline, and it is clear that the history of the place has not had a very significant impact on its prosperity.
The original recording studio that started it all is called Fame Studios. It is still in use, and is owned by a family that has been in the business for over fifty years. The building that hosts the facility is small and nondescript, and you may even miss it if you were not paying attention, in spite of the fact that is is right beside the main road. The inside of the building shows its age. It is simple, and the decor is from a time that has long passed. The walls are covered with pictures and mementos of the musicians who have worked in that space since the 1960s.The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was a spinoff from the Fame studio and it was started by the Swampers. It operated in the location indicated in the picture below from 1969 to 1979. The building is now a museum, and it sits all by itself in an open space beside Jackson Highway. There is nothing else of note there beside this unremarkable building. One would even miss the small building had the name of the place had not been painted on it. The parking lot is small and unpaved, and an unmarked entrance from a side street (rather than the main road) leads you to the facility.We came by another place of note called the Cypress Moon studio unexpectedly, next to a park beside the river. Apparently this facility used to house the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio after 1979, but this lasted only a few years. Cypress Moon Studios are a film and music production company today. Concerts are held periodically in the historic studios.Driving along Jackson Avenue, you pass buildings that are falling apart that have names on them indicating that they were recording studios some time in the past. It is hard to say if the place ever thrived due to the presence of the music business, but today most of it looks rundown.
Unfortunately, we had no time to spend wandering within any of these facilities. The museum would have been interesting.
There is something interesting about how life goes on in Muscle Shoals even though its best days have probably passed it by. While the place is open to tourism, it is also very low key at this time, and there seems to have been no attempt yet to try to exploit the situation with a lot of advertising and promotion on a large scale. Expectations seem to be moderate. Life goes on, and the pilgrimage goes on!
We spent a couple of hours (literally speaking) in downtown Huntsville, AL. I think that is sufficient time to see this particular area of town and get a good feel for it. The downtown area is small. The place reminds me of other small places with downtown areas that are recovering from hard times. The buildings are old, and perhaps historical. The central area in Huntsville is dominated by the Madison County Courthouse, a building whose design leads me to believe that it was probably a product of the 1970s, a time when public buildings seem to have been designed to be primarily utilitarian and functional, and not very noteworthy from an artistic perspective when seen from the outside. The buildings around the courthouse in Huntsville house small mom and pop boutique stores and restaurants, and lawyers’ offices. Old people lounge around in the benches watching the tourists. Young people with laid-back attitudes serve you in the restaurant whose outdoor tables are painted in psychedelic colors. I have seen this kind of a scene in other small towns with rundown downtown areas. Perhaps these young people with their seemingly simple lives and a straightforward attitude will bring a rebirth to these towns.
The Harrison Brothers Hardware Store lies to the south of the courthouse.It is a historical facility that still functions as a store today, and in some sections of the store you can see shelves and tables stacked up the way they used to be in past times. But the thing that got me was the historical cash register which is still being used! The metal work on this piece of hardware is something to be seen from close up.The only other thing I will mention here about Huntsville is the statue outside the courthouse. It is a memorial to the civil war, and it is a memorial to the confederates, the side that lost the war.Statues like this started coming up all over the south in the early 1900s, well after the civil war was over. From what I understand, they were built primarily by a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Unfortunately, these statues have now become an uncomfortable reminder of our still ongoing issues with race, one of the major issues of this country that the civil war sought to address. Statues of confederate leaders are being torn down from many public places today, mostly in the north, because they are symbolic of our ongoing societal problems. It will probably be a while before such a movement takes hold in the southern swathe of this nation.
Huntsville is also called The Rocket City, and it is the place where the American space program got its beginning. If you are visiting the city and have time to spare, there are things to be seen in this regard. We did not have the time.