Sunday, March 1, 2009

There's Something About Mountains

There’s something about mountains. They are majestic and strong as they stand tall against a blue, cloudless sky in spring and summer and yet, they are also serene and ethereal as their peaks fade in and out of the grey mists of fall and winter. One of my strongest memories from childhood was a summer vacation I took with my parents to Kings Mountain National Park in my home state of South Carolina, and then on to the Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Seeing mountains for the first time was a revelation to me. It changed my perception of the world. As a child I lived in what’s called the Lowcountry of South Carolina. It’s the swampy coastal plain of the state where the brown, sluggish Savannah River forms the natural and political barrier to Georgia in the west and southwest and where the foamy embrace of the Atlantic Ocean meets the land to the east and southeast. Most horizons in the Lowcountry are obscured by the low lay of the land and boxed in by a thick covering of oaks, scrub, and pines.

There is a lot to love about the Lowcountry but to see mountains floating on clouds and wide sweeping vistas from their heights was, and still is, exciting to me. As a little boy I was entranced by my trip to the Smoky Mountains. My horizons were broadened and changed. Even though some of the mountains I glimpsed were north and east of where I lived on the coastal plain, they still stood for something romantic and exciting in my young mind. They stood for the frontier. They stood for the West. One of my favorite television shows as a boy was Daniel Boone, still being shown on a local channel in afternoon reruns. Daniel Boone was set on the Trans-Appalachian frontier. But like Gunsmoke or Bonanza, two other television programs of my youth, its stories had some of the same elements as they had. It had frontiersmen, indians, and mountains. And in reality and myth, Boone trod these southern mountains when they were both wild and unexplored. On our family vacation we also visited Cherokee, North Carolina where the eastern band of the Cherokee nation is located. My brother and I had our picture taken with a Cherokee “chief” (dressed not in Cherokee style but in the imitation of some western chief). Daniel Boone had dealt with the Cherokee and other Native American tribes in his time. Here was the homeland of the Cherokee. At the time, because of my association of Daniel Boone and the Cherokee with other western television series, I thought of the Smokey Mountains as the start of the West. And the connection of mountains and the West was strong in my mind. And from it would spring an attraction to see and learn more about the West.

From time to time in my life I have found the West calling to me like a siren. I wanted to see, to learn, and to explore its treasures. I felt it calling when I attended Clemson University and could see the blue hazy peaks of the Southern Appalachians from the window of my 6th floor dorm room. It felt it calling when I took a history course on the American West and began to have a new understanding of frontiers and the West. I explored the question of where the West began. I concluded it began where the Atlantic Ocean touched the shores of the New World and where the first visitors from the Old World met the strangeness of North America. I then began to understand the overlapping of subsequent frontiers that led from the eastern shores to the western ocean. This was exciting. It meant that even my part of the Lowcountry had been a part of the frontier and the Old West for some time during South Carolina’s colonial period. This led me to a Masters in history at Winthrop University with a focus on South Carolina’s colonial period. My thesis dealt with how the British colonial governor of South Carolina, James Glen, dealt with the Cherokee during his appointment.

My understanding and appreciation for the frontier and the West changed as I learned more about it and then finally got to visit areas of the Southwest and Far West. I felt it calling when my wife and I took our honeymoon in Arizona and Utah. Now, I was far beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Here was the West of red deserts and yarning canyon lands. Here was the West of vistas that stretched my mind and heart. Here was the West of the Navajo and the Hopi. A new sense of wonder and enchantment was kindled in me. I felt the West calling again when my youngest brother and I took a trip west to see parts of west Texas and southern New Mexico. We hiked into the majestic desert islands of the Guadalupe Mountains, were amazed by the glaring expanse of White Sands, and knew by the feel of the heat and the play of the light and shadows that Big Ben National Park was in the “true” West. I was in love now with mountains, deserts, and canyons, as well as the world of Native Americans. I felt it calling in the books of Tony Hillerman. These works were set in the Four Corners’ world of the Navajo and touched by a sense of the western world’s nature and ethos. I am sad he has passed away and I wish he could open that world again with one more story set in that timeless desert place.

I felt it calling when I read Out West by Dayton Duncan and his trip to retrace the route of Lewis and Clark. This was my Kerouac before I read On the Road. When I did read Kerouac’s classic, it also kindled in me the same lust Out West did to wander and see what was beyond my low, flat, confining Lowcountry horizons. I wanted to see the Plains, the Rockies, and the Pacific Northwest that Dayton Duncan had described. I was drawn into the Lewis and Clark story and with maps folded out on my kitchen table I imagined and drew out my own journey west following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. I too wanted to cross the country like Kerouac. I too wanted to stand at Lemhi Pass like Duncan and Lewis and Clark before him. Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage and then Ken Burns documentary on the Lewis and Clark expedition soon followed and did nothing but heighten my desire to go West.

I felt it calling again in San Antonio, with the damp feel of the River Walk, the fiery taste of chilies, and the cooling tartness of Grande Margaritas. Here was the Alamo that had held the cool courage of Travis, Bowie, and Crocket. I felt it calling me as I went on trips to San Diego and San Francisco. These cities sat at the end of the trail on the golden shores of the Pacific Ocean. These beautiful metropolises were exciting. They were western and they still felt imbued by frontier culture. And yet, I had flown to both and I realized that I had missed the journey overland. I missed seeing the changes in the land and the changes in the horizons. I began to realize I had to take the ultimate road trip West (as well as other smaller journeys). I had to go West by car exploring the changes in horizons as I moved along just as Lewis and Clark noted those changes. In planning and making these western journeys I wanted to take the time to explore the history and culture of the American West. I wanted to also explore the connections between the West, the frontier, and my homeland of the South (especially South Carolina).

So, I have created this website for that purpose. As I take trips, read, and explore these journeys and connections I will update this site and try to add my own insights, understanding, and pictures of where I have gone, what I have seen, and what I know. I am ready for this journey, both real and imaginary. Ahead of me are the mountains of my youth. And for me there’s always something about mountains.

Andy Thomas

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