2 Passages

From Jerry Ellis‘ book “Walking the Trail”

The first passage (Chapter 24, p. 162) recounts one of Elllis’ singular interactions with a nonhuman natural life as he walks the Cherokee “Trail of Tears ” backward, and the ethical importance of his behavior in this situation to represent humans to the creature in the only interaction the creature may ever know with a human.

“I turn over a couple of rocks in the creek in hopes of locating a craw fish.  It’s not until the fifth rock that I find one about the size of my thumb.  Its powerful tail propels it backward, while its pincers stand ready to take on the world.  I keep it busy with my left hand while my right one catches it between my thumb and index finger.  I lift it from the water and hold it against the sky, its hair-thin feelers dangling in the breeze.  The Cherokee would cut the meat from the tail and put it on their skin, blistered from poison ivy.  I consider using the meat for fish bait, but I don’t.  I lower the craw fish into the water and release it.  It shoots backward into deeper water to disappear into a blue-green pool.  For a few seconds, it strikes me as odd that I’m probably the first and only human being it will ever see.”

In the second passage (Chapter 29, p. 200), Ellis uses vivid imagery to express the dichotomy he experiences between “the trail time” and “the other world”.

“Ah, yes, to awake refreshed on top of the world and clothed in sky on the Ohio River is one of the greatest mornings of my life.  Then a subtle fear sets in: As much as I long for home, at times I don’t want the journey to end.  I don’t want to become just another man wearing clothes that can be washed at an all-night Laundromat.  How will I preserve these rare feelings that take me to a higher world – even to concern myself with such things already?  But it’s true.  I can already hear the teeth of the Great Machine grinding away as it opens its monstrous mouth in the shopping centers and on oil slicks washing onto beaches where seals and otters and ducks squirm in black tar.  Stuck between those giant teeth I see people dangling with Visa and MasterCards, while new cars roll forward from the throat and down the tongue onto our highways lined with gas stations, like a rash along the spinal cord of a back so bent it may at any moment break.  But don’t worry, this is just some old stuff in my head.  Everything is really just fine and dandy.  Nothing to get alarmed about.”

It took Ellis 60 days to walk the 900 miles, about the same amount of time that it took me to do the 600 across New York state.  The book reflects a genre of reconstructed travel experience, a trip envisioned and completed that had a symbolic meaning for the author.  Although the book does not discuss many details of the original “Trail of Tears” experience authoritatively (perhaps not wishing to exploit such a horrible experience), he does incorporate occasional Native American cultural tradition.  The language is simple; the chapters are refreshingly short.  The author refrains from pretension – indeed, one can almost see him blur the lines between man with a purpose and wandering bum on the street at times.  The trip is entirely a personal one, interspersed throughout with interactions with people (some possibly not entirely genuine because of the media attention).  The book overall serves to portray modern America along the trail, and reveal the author’s own personality to us.  Indeed, several stylistic elements of the book (short chapters, requisite love scenes, focus on “real” people, lack of pedantic historical slant) seem to impart a corrective frustration with earlier reading experiences.  The 250 page book took me 30 days to read, not because I am a slow reader, but rather, because of its discursive nature, the companionship was best enjoyed in shorter intervals, with time to mellow and reapproach the experience.

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