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Travelogue

This summer, through the generosity of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee, I was able to take a long-planned sabbatical. It had been nine years since my last leave from the diocese: at the seven-year mark we were in midstream Pandemic, and the timing was off. Finally the time was ripe.

Previous sabbaticals had focused on study and travel out of the country. All good experiences, but circumstances indicated that this time something else would be required. A period of rest and renewal seemed in order: more stationary, with a less rigorous study focus. A change of scenery still seemed called for; time with family was also on the agenda.

My wife, Caroline, and I decided that we would stay in country and travel west, driving to California and the Pacific Northwest where we have family, and spending our time getting there and returning. The stationary portion of the sabbatical would be provided by four weeks in Sonoma County, California, and a similar period in the Puget Sound area. We had been to both places before, but only for brief visits.

It is fair to say that my upbringing and ministry have been Atlantic-facing. The biggest stretch I’ve made in parochial ministry has been a decade spent near the Gulf of Mexico, at some distance from Atlantic beaches. I was raised in South Carolina, educated in Ohio and New York. My ordained ministry began in New England, and then England itself. The balance of my time since graduate school has been spent in North Carolina, Louisiana, and (now) Tennessee. My undergraduate major was in European history, and my theological studies have been firmly anchored on the early church and the Mediterranean basin. For me, west of the Mississippi was exotic and largely uncharted territory.

The journey would not only be physical but also interior. Books have been an important part of previous sabbaticals: partly refreshment, partly mental stimulation, books are sources for me of renewal and new thinking. On other sabbaticals I’ve done more focused theological or pastoral study, but this time I decided to let topography and history provide the main theme. Of course, everything is fodder for the theological and pastoral project, as any preacher knows.

I could tell you about my first visit to Santa Fe; what it was like “standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona”; taking in the scope of the Grand Canyon or the monumental character of Yellowstone Park. I had never been to Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, or even Iowa before. There is no doubt my experience of the West broadened my understanding of my context, but my reading further colored the experience.

Before heading out, I read a few books to prepare. Rather than turning to broad histories of the region, I decided on a less systematic and more idiosyncratic approach. Ron Hansen’s novel The Kid (2016) tells the story of outlaw William Bonney, the eponymous “Billy the Kid.” I also read Oakley Hall’s classic novel Warlock (1958), about the gunfight at the OK Corral, the Johnson County War, and other episodes of western legend. Ballast was provided by Ian Frazier’s Great Plains (1989), a work of reportage based on several trips made by Frazier around the Plains states; then again by Empire of the Summer Moon (2011), S.C. Gwynne’s fine history of the decades-long war fought by the Commanche and the settlers over possession of the high plains.

Before departure, I’d picked up a copy of James Conaway’s The Kingdom in the Country (1993), another work of reportage told from the perspective of the dominant Federal presence in the West, through the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. Conaway also wrote Napa (2002), about the fabled California wine country, which I read while staying in next-door Sonoma County. I also took along Robert Utley’s A Life Wild and Perilous (1998), an account of the “mountain men” who trapped, traded, and explored the American West in the decades after the Lewis and Clark expedition. Utley, a Park Service historian, includes a series of shaded relief maps created by Peter Dana that were an excellent introduction to the topography of the West.

Once on the road, one book led to another. A brief mention in Conoway’s bibliography, and a chance encounter with a copy in a used bookstore in Santa Rosa, was the occasion to read Bernard DeVoto’s The Year of Decision 1846 (1942). DeVoto’s colloquial style is unusual, with a whiff of Damon Runyon, but he takes a pivotal year in the history of “the pre-Civil War, Far Western frontier” (Preface) to trace the personal experience of many of the actors, the connections between them, and the larger connection to a national narrative.

The war with Mexico, the Mormon migration, the opening of the Oregon and California trails, all find a place, along with a chilling account of the fate of the Donner party. DeVoto shows the connections between Charles Fremont, Brigham Young, Francis Parkman, and other more obscure figures who played a role in the pivotal year. He places them at a point of time between an already vanishing Jacksonian America and the emerging conflict over slavery, arguing that the truly continental nation forged in 1846 had already sealed the fate of Southern secessionists a decade and a half later. In DeVoto’s assessment of that failed rebellion, “Yesterday lost out” (498).

Caroline likes the novels of Wallace Stegner, so the name was familiar when I picked up The Sound of Mountain Water (1969), his essays on environmental, literary, and historical subjects connected to the West. One of those essays, in another hypertext connection, turned out to be on DeVoto as a western writer. The Kingdom in the Country provided entrée to Edward Abbey, the controversial advocate of ecological sabotage, by including a brief interview. I started his novel, The Brave Cowboy (1956), set in New Mexico, before we left Santa Fe. By the time we got to Washington I had also discovered journalist Timothy Egan’s The Good Rain (1990), a fine profile of places and environmental challenge in the Pacific Northwest. As we traveled, the omni-competent John McPhee’s Assembling California (1993) provided clues to the topography all around us.

I was fortunate in my choice of poets to bring along on this trip. Denise Levertov’s Evening Train (1992), thrown into the bag at the last minute, providentially contained many poems written after her move to Seattle, reflecting on the new topography and her experiences of flora and fauna: a great accompaniment to our time on Puget Sound. A highlight of the trip was finding and visiting Levertov’s grave in Seattle (just up the hill from martial artist Bruce Lee’s). The poet Robert Hass is based in Berkley, so his Summer Snow (2020) turned out to contain a number of poems on places we visited in California. I discovered his poem “Abbott’s Lagoon: October,” about Hass’s experience on the Point Reyes peninsula, the day after our visit there.

Then there were the books read just for fun. Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account (2014), a fictional retelling of the 16th-century Narvaez expedition to Florida, from the perspective of a Moroccan slave who was one of the survivors, provided counterpoint to our wanderings through the Southwest. Somehow I emerged from the 1970s without reading Watership Down (1972), Richard Adams’s novel about the heroic migration of a rabbit colony across the English countryside. Now it was my turn; again, this novel segued well with the theme of journey, set in a very different topography. A reread of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) provided goosebumps with its post-apocalyptic England. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (2013), by historian Allen Guelzo, provided a fresh take on another crucial American turning point.

My sabbatical gave me a fresh perspective. It is a commonplace but nevertheless true that you cannot fully appreciate the nature of North America until you have hit the high plains and come into range of the Rockies and the Pacific. I suppose the inverse is true for westerners, who won’t really understand our continent until they’ve visited the well-watered and settled land east of the Mississippi and seen the sun rise out of the Atlantic. As a result of this sabbatical, I have a new sense of the continental scope (in DeVoto’s sense) of American life, and in a fractured time like ours a renewed appreciation of the unifying themes provided by our topography and history.

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