Bigfoot and the Age of Unreason

You see it everywhere.  Often on a yard sign or bumper sticker.  Sometimes accompanied by the words “I Believe.”  Yesterday I saw it again while driving.

I’m not talking about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, flying saucers, pothead pixies, or various religious deities.  Rather, a different supernatural entity that takes the form of a furry biped.  A creature not unlike the Himalayan Yeti, or “Abominable Snowman.”  I’m talkin’ ‘bout Bigfoot.  Sometimes known as Sasquatch.  Scientific name: Hoaxus maximus.

At one time I was mildly amused at how certain adults clung to a grainy 59-second video—filmed in California in 1967, significantly when LSD was still legal—to substantiate their claims that Bigfoot is real.  “Let’s all play make-believe.  It’s easier and more fun than the truth.”

These days, I no longer see the cuteness or humor.

Since the 2016 nomination and election of an even more terrifying biped (scientific name: Dumbshiticus politicus), whose singular pre-election political credential was that he led a movement attempting to disprove the citizenship of a sitting president—even after that president was, beyond reason, compelled to produce his birth certificate—there’s been one idiotic claim after another.  And enough idiots to believe in those (always unsubstantiated) claims to cause serious alarm to the rest of us forced to reside in the Kingdom of Lilliput (America).

I truly believe (maybe I should use a different word) that these Bigfoot cultists actually think a creature like this exists.  Just go to the Wikipedia article.  Wikipedia is a wonderful tool.  But the entry for Bigfoot has 90 paragraphs devoted to him.  There are 249 footnotes

Remember, unlike World Book or Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia.  It is “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln once wrote in a very different time.  Citizens of our republic contribute to it.  And there’s obviously been a helluva lot of contribution to Bigfoot. 

(The Wikipedia article for the Gettysburg Address has half the footnotes of Bigfoot.)

***

Some of you probably know that there once was an historical epoch known as the Age of Enlightenment, or Age of Reason.  According to the aforesaid free encyclopedia, it was “an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries with global influences and effects.”

During this Age, knowledge was pursued “by means of reason and the evidence of the senses, and ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.”

Francis Bacon, John Locke, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were just a few of the leading lights casting light.  Another was scientist Sir Isaac Newton.  Newton must have had foreknowledge of what was comin’ down, because his Third Law of Motion states that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Satirist Jonathan Swift, the Kurt Vonnegut Jr. of his day (oil painting by Charles Jervas)

Longitudes predicts the 21st century will be the opposite reaction to the Age of Reason.  Think about it.  We kicked off this century, this new millennium, with a “truther” movement claiming that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job.

Ten years later Lilliput entertained itself with a “birther” movement claiming that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. and therefore shouldn’t be president.

Since then we’ve entertained ourselves with one fiction and conspiracy theory after another.  Manmade climate change is a hoax.  COVID-19 is a hoax.  Joe Biden’s election victory is a hoax.  The January 6 U.S. Capitol attack was “legitimate political discourse” (Republican National Committee, February 2022).  The Sandy Hook massacre was orchestrated by the government to enact stricter gun legislation.  (I’m not religious, but God help anyone who believes this last claim.)

But Bigfoot is real.

Why do so many people exercise freedom of choice by believing in unscientific, unsubstantiated, and preposterous claims?

The late James Randi, a professional debunker of psychics and faith healers, famously exposed the fraud of supposed mentalist Uri Geller on a 1973 program of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  Geller was humiliated when his “mind” was suddenly, for the first time, unable to bend spoons.  The result?  Instead of the public showering Randi with praise and gratitude, he was the recipient of an avalanche of hate mail. (Few of us like being shown we were fools.)

James Randi with Johnny Carson

Psychologists undoubtedly have detailed analyses for the phenomenon of masses of people who choose the lie over the fact.  I’m not a psychologist, so I’ll just say: there are many idiots living among us.

People, there is no such creature as Bigfoot.  There’s also no Santa Claus or Luke Skywalker, and the town of Mayberry is fictional (ask journalist Ted Koppel, who tried to visit one time).  And—though this may shock and offend—there was no giant boat that held two of every species on earth.

***

Maybe I’ve got it wrong, though.  Those of us who still believe in reason and enlightenment—in progress, knowledge through education, book-learning, the scientific method, the five senses, solid and verifiable facts and the search for truth (of course, truth is ever-evasive; the idea is to pursue it)—still need a place to escape to in the face of monstrous tragedy (or monstrous idiocy).  And self-annihilation is not an option.

The Rolling Stones sang “We all need someone we can dream on.”

But like I tell my five-year-old granddaughter, Avi, while it’s fun to pretend, there really are no such things as ghosts, haunted houses, and people on horseback without heads.  And she gets it.  (Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are on hold.)  Sadly, there are way too many adults these days…adults, but who have the minds of children…who can’t differentiate between fantasy and reality.

And as long as society believes in things like Hoaxus maximus, there will always be a Dumbshiticus politicus lurking in the shadows.

Dumbshiticus politicus, exhorting his mob toward “legitimate political discourse”

The Military-Industrial-Media Complex

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist…The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocation, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 17, 1961

Every so often Eisenhower’s warning of a growing American military-industrial complex—where armed forces, commerce, and politics are closely linked—flashes on my personal radar.  It did so again September 4 while watching CBS News Sunday Morning

The title of the segment was “HIMARS: How it’s changing Ukraine’s fight against Russia.”  I’ve been out of touch for a few months, so I was curious to learn about Ukraine’s success or failure against its invader neighbor to the east.

Indeed, I got a report card.  But it played second fiddle to the larger story concerning defense contractor Lockheed Martin’s lucrative development of high-mobility rocket systems (HIMARS), which Ukraine is now successfully deploying against Russia.

On Sunday morning…America’s most popular church day, and for many a day of repose…I digested with my scrambled eggs one dazzling image after another of ground explosions, army tanks, death missiles, fireworks, bombs bursting in air, and sober army generals and Pentagon officials glowingly discussing the success of HIMARS.

HIMARS is being developed, per CBS national security correspondent David Martin, in a “Lockheed Martin plant in rural Arkansas, a seemingly minor outpost in America’s vast military-industrial complex…”

Chief weapons buyer for the Pentagon, Dr. William LaPlante, explained how Lockheed—with the federal government looking over its shoulder—plans to “dramatically increase production” of the high-mobility rockets.

“Can you double production?” asked an earnest Martin of Lockheed COO Frank St. John, as if on the verge of drooling.  “Absolutely,” St. John responded, struggling to suppress a smile.

Martin also dangled a juicy morsel in front of retired army Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges.  Martin noted that the 16 HIMARS rockets which the U.S. has thus far given Ukraine “doesn’t sound like a lot.”  Hodges not surprisingly replied “It’s nowhere near what I think Ukraine can use.”

In 2020 Lockheed Martin received almost 90 percent of its total revenue, totaling 53.2 billion dollars, from defense contracts.  Notably, this was before the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The U.S. is by far the world’s largest weapons exporter, mailing out 9,372 million dollars-worth in 2020.

Watching this broadcast, it struck me that America is now in one of its periodic lulls between wars, yet despite this, conflicts are occurring in other countries, and America, as it usually does, has a significant role to play.  And there’s a lot of green to be made in fulfilling this role.

Longitudes won’t weigh in on Eisenhower’s words of warning about “misplaced power” and the “power of money.”

And it won’t take a stance on how involved the U.S. should be in helping Ukraine win its war against an imperial aggressor.  For once, I’m in the majority: in support of Ukraine’s David-like fight against Goliath Russia.

What struck me was the cold, clinical manner in which Martin and CBS conducted its segment.  Numbers were tossed around, statistics were dispassionately run down, and as I already mentioned, the viewer received an entire war-video game’s worth of destructive images.

The intended takeaway is that America’s military-industrial complex is, even without our own war, doing wonderful work defending freedom around the globe.  And, in fact, there’s room for expansion.  (Sixteen HIMARS weapons just aren’t enough.)  Maybe—this time, anyway—it is a good thing.  But for me, the players in this broadcast seemed a bit too cozy.

Flow chart of “follow-the-money” game (courtesy Transcend Media Service). Note the flow between defense contractors, media, voters, and elected officials.

Since the blaspheme of the Vietnam War, we’ve had multiple jarring examples of how crony capitalism conducts itself in a nefarious fashion.  And the 1990 Gulf War and 2003 Iraq War are sterling examples of how the corporate media is a not-insignificant conduit between military, commerce, and politics.

General Electric is a large weapons manufacturer that consistently lands in the rankings of top arms-producing and military service companies. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in 2019, General Electric ranked 12th in the United States and 21st in the world out of these companies. GE is a major manufacturer of aircraft parts and missiles that were used extensively in the Gulf War and in Iraq. And, until 2013, GE either directly owned or had shares in the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).

Transcend Media Service: Solutions-Oriented Peace Journalism, May 17, 2021

Getting back to that CBS News Sunday Morning broadcast, it would have been nice to have former army General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s prophetic words at least alluded to, for balance purposes. 

But I guess providing such balance wasn’t part of Martin’s assignment.

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey: Final Thoughts

This last Appalachian Trail post coincides with me finishing the transfer of my trail journal from a dog-eared, narrow-rule, chub notebook to an electronic file.  But unlike when I fashioned a book from my 2013 to 2018 section hikes, I won’t be formally publishing this time around.  Instead, I’m offering my journal to anyone who would like a free copy.  The journal covers all 165 days and nights I was on the A.T.

There’s quite a bit here.  In addition to my usual misanthropic observations, I talk about where I hiked, where I slept, people I met, wildlife encounters, fear, anger, loneliness, joy…even songs that I whistled.  And there are lots of photos!

If you would like a free PDF, just give me your email, either in the comments section here or in an email sent to: pkurtz58@gmail.com.

Anyway, here are my final thoughts to wrap up this series:

The Appalachian Trail has become a human highway.  This is undoubtedly due to the prevalence of recent hiking books and movies, iPhone technology, and to significant improvements in backpacking gear.  These days it’s not only “cool” to do a thru-hike, it’s easier than ever (or as easy as a long-distance hike can possibly be).  The days of a solo backpacker spending multiple days and nights alone with his or her thoughts, and calling home from a phone booth located god knows where are long gone.

I’d go into detail on why thru-hiking has exploded and why it is now so easy, but I already touched on this here and there.  My journal also covers this ground.

Audie Murphy plane crash site, Brushy Mtn., Virginia

The Appalachian Trail is becoming increasingly commercialized.  This first became apparent to me when I visited my local outfitter to purchase a few items.  When Emily and Luke learned I planned to do a thru-hike, they gave me a substantial discount (the tribe thing).  Then at the start of my hike I learned about “slackpacking,” where hostels are able to double their profits by offering shuttle services with day packs to hikers who temporarily trade in their full backpacks to make their hike easier.

At the end of my hike I learned about “food drops” in the once-austere Hundred-Mile Wilderness, and the popularity of one-stop shops like Shaws Hostel, which (some argue) are placing profit over quality, integrity, and ethics.

In between I experienced well-publicized speed contests on the trail, A.T.-related blogs and YouTube channels chock full of advertisements, and even a news channel specifically for A.T. hikers.

The Appalachian Trail reminds me of today’s sterilized Nashville country music scene.  As Waylon Jennings sang long ago, “I don’t think Hank (Williams Sr.) done it this way.”

People on the Appalachian Trail are the same as people off the Appalachian Trail.  I met hundreds of backpackers during my five-and-a-half months out there.  The vast majority were friendly and helpful.  They encompassed the mass of humanity: young, old, male, female, wealthy, middle-class, poor, homeless, highly educated, lesser-educated, urban, rural, liberal, conservative, white-collar, blue-collar, heterosexual, homosexual, religious, non-religious, American, non-American, extroverted, introverted, fat, and skinny. 

The one exception to this was a noticeable absence of “people of color.”  It’s evident to me that there is a socio-cultural element that is determining who backpacks and who doesn’t.

Abandoned barn near Hampton, Tennessee

The Appalachian Trail has a tendency to get under a person’s skin.  I’m not sure why this is.  One of my favorite hikers last year was a 74-year-old man from Honolulu, Hawaii named “Bruiser.”  He was on his third thru-hike of the trail. 

I asked Bruiser why one thru-hike wasn’t enough, and he said he liked doing them to stay in shape.  I then asked why he didn’t just work out in a gym back in beautiful Hawaii, and he said the fast food and snack machines there would be too tempting to overcome.  I then asked why he didn’t do other trails, like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide Trail, and he said his skin was sensitive and there wasn’t enough shade out west.

I don’t know if Bruiser was being entirely truthful with me.  My impression was that, like me, he couldn’t really verbalize why the Appalachian Trail had gotten under his skin.

There won’t be another thru-hike for me, but there are one or two special places on the A.T. that I’d like to return to, if only for just a night or two.  If you read my journal, you’ll know where they are.

***

Thanks for following me on my trek, and again, if you’d like a free copy of Call Me Omoo, please comment or email me (pkurtz58@gmail.com).

Soon, I’ll be exchanging my tent for six months of beachcombing in Venice, Florida.  My hedonism agenda includes tennis-playing, sea kayaking, snorkeling, kitesurfing lessons, and collecting sharks’ teeth.  I want to eat a lot of fresh fish and catch up on my reading.  While I’ll miss being detached from the bullshit of 21st-century society – at least, superficially – a change of venue is in order. And I have absolutely no regrets being retired.

Perfect timing: I just received an unsolicited text from a recruiter about applying for a position. My response? “Thanks, but I quit the rat race and would prefer not to.”  Like certain sad copy clerks whose lives contain walls, I still have the power of self-determination.

Sunrise at Jo-Mary Lake, Maine

English Language Minor Crimes

The English language may be on life support. I’m sure this isn’t news. Whether it’s tied to an overall decline in formal education, I don’t know. I’ve already written about America’s abysmal standardized test scores and low international rankings, so I won’t cover the same ground.

I’m rankled by mangled English more than most probably because in college I majored in journalism and minored in English, therefore these minor crimes really stick in my craw. While hiking and sheltering with other hikers this past year, my craw was filled to the brim. (What’s a “craw”? A jaw?) As a way to let off steam, I’m listing some of the most egregious linguistic violations I’ve encountered.

This pedagogue ain’t perfect and has his own stumbling blocks. (The word “ain’t” here was deliberate.) One of my biggest blasphemes is intermixing subject and object pronouns.  Example: one doesn’t say “The teacher accused she and I of bad English.”  “She” and “I” are subject pronouns but are mistakenly being used here as object pronouns.  The correct sentence is “The teacher accused her and me of bad English.”

However, you should say “She and I use bad English,” because in this sentence the she and I are used as subject pronouns.

A good trick is to chop off part of the sentence.  Would you say “The teacher accused she” or “The teacher accused I”?  I would prefer not to.

Here then are longitudes’ top English language pet peeves:

  • Happy Belated Birthday.  I see this all the time on Facebook.  Everyone seems guilty except I me. Not many take time to ponder this convoluted phrase, because thinking has taken a back seat to blindly following lemmings, and not just in political circles. Here, the adjective “belated” is modifying the noun “birthday.”  Taken literally, this implies that the person’s day of birth has changed; a phenomenon that generally only happens with Hollywood celebrities. Listen up, Facebook: the sentiment is belated, not the person’s day of birth.  It should be Belated Happy Birthday. (You’re welcome.)
  • The word “literally.”  Literally is an adverb and should be used when something occurs that has both a figurative and literal meaning.  Example: “I literally bumped into John yesterday.”  This means that you not only saw John, but that you physically walked or ran into him. 

However, numerous millennials (and some older fucks) say “literally” when the literal doesn’t apply (“I literally died when I saw her”) or when there is only one meaning (“I literally fell asleep during lunch”).  Since correctly choosing the word “literally” involves thinking, it’s probably best to avoid this word completely. But if you feel compelled to provoke astonishment in your listener—try substituting “actually” or “believe-it-or-not.”  I realize they don’t sound as impressive, but saying “literally” ad nauseam impresses no one and makes you sound like a dumbass.

  • The word “like.”  This word, when spoken in the middle of a sentence multiple times and out of context, indicates substandard vocabulary or verbal laziness.  Most people use it to stall, as a substitute for “uh” or “um.”  Others are fast talkers and invoke “like” as one would shove coal into a furnace. Either way, it’s like, a bad habit.

When I was a disc jockey in a previous lifetime, long pauses while in front of the microphone were referred to as “bad air,” and the program manager frowned on them.  However, outside of the radio booth long pauses are an indicator of a thoughtful person who takes his or her time to choose the right words.  Former President Obama, although not perfect, was very good at this.  I encourage it.

  • The word “so” used at the beginning of a sentence.  I’ve written about this before. Some think this trend began in Silicon Valley, or with Facebook nerd Mark Zuckerburger.  “So” is used either as a coordinating conjunctive to refer backwards or forwards to something, or as an adverb.  But “so” is now regularly used at the beginning of a sentence when responding to a question.  Example: “What is Facebook’s privacy policy, Mr. Zuckerman?”  Response: “So our latest and greatest privacy policy is (blah blah blah).”

Are you really keen to emulate Mark Zuckinstein’s poor command of English? I would prefer not to.

  • Waiters and waitresses who use the pronoun “we.”  Example: “Would we like some dessert this evening?”  How the fuck did this shit get started!  “Who invited you to eat with us, Ashley?  Yes, pull up a seat, we’ll all have some dessert together.”

I don’t know why it is so difficult to use the word “you,” or the Southern colloquialism “y’all” or Yankee colloquialism “you guys.”  “We” is not only the wrong pronoun, it also sounds condescending as hell, as if the patron is a child. Do waiters and waitresses think the pronoun “you” is impolite?  DON’T FOLLOW LEMMINGS!

Other minor English crimes include pronunciation violations (here in the Ohio Valley they say “warsh” instead of “wash”) and America’s peculiar penchant for raping geographic names derived from Europe.  (“Versailles” should not be pronounced “Ver-SAILS,” you good people of southeastern Indiana.) 

I think the most comical mispronunciation example I’ve heard is in and around the small, Amish-Mennonite community of Berlin, Ohio.  People here literally actually pronounce their town’s name “BER-lin,” with the emphasis on the first syllable.  I’m guessing the awkward pronunciation is an attempt to distance the town from 1940s Germany, similar to 19th-century Irish immigrants who dropped “Mc” and “Mac” from their surnames to escape discrimination by hiding the fact they once scoured bogs for potatoes. But I say: folks, stand your ground, and fuck the lemmings.

I feel better now.  As I said, like President Obama, I’m not perfect, so if I’ve violated anything here, I’ll accept the traffic citation.

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey: Chapter Ten

One of the first northbound views of cloud-crowned Mount Katahdin, Maine

What do we do given life?
We move around

Solitude, reach for light
Reach or slide
We move around

—Stephen Stills, “Move Around”

[On August 1 I summited Mount Katahdin in Maine to complete my 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail backpack trip.  Coincidentally, it was exactly a year to the day since my wife “rescued” me from thrombophlebitis near Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, after which I was sidelined for nine months.  This entry effectively finishes my A.T. travelogue.  I’ll probably offer some sort of denouement later, a clean green ribbon to wrap up the whole series.]

The so-called “Hundred-Mile Wilderness” which extends from Monson, Maine to Abol Bridge at the foot of Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park presented a few surprises.

First, it is not truly a wilderness as defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964.  It is not federal land that restricts habitation and motorized vehicle activity.  There are private cabins, gravel logging roads, and even an active sawmill whose racket can be heard from the trail.

Second, it is more rigorous than I was led to believe.  There are two significant mountain ranges: the Chairback and Whitecap ranges, plus several individual, smaller mountains.  There is also much twisting, turning, and root, rock, and boulder negotiation, especially during the first 50 miles. 

Third, there were far more hikers than I envisioned.  I expected thru-hikers and sectioners.  But I also encountered day hikers.  Even a family picnicking on a sand beach at Nahmakanta Lake.

For someone hoping for peace and solitude on relatively easy trail, this was all a bit disconcerting.

Hundred-Mile Wilderness caution near Monson, Maine

The good news is that I maintained my daily hiking average of 15 miles, arriving at Abol Bridge in my predicted six-and-a-half days’ time.  I had more than enough food to sustain me the entire way (supplemented by wild blueberries and huckleberries for vitamin C).

A large number of veteran backpackers evidently didn’t feel confident about preserving a requisite quantity of food in their packs, since many relied on food “drops” by hostelries at one or more gravel roads.  This surprised me.  One of the appeals of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, in my opinion, is the challenge of shunning outside support and relying on your own preparedness.

I’m assuming there were the ubiquitous slackpackers using vehicles to haul their gear, since I met several northbound (NOBO) hikers with small packs headed in the opposite direction.

There were a few highlights.  I was reunited atop Little Boardman Mountain with old friends Hums and Checklist, a young married couple from southern Indiana whom I’d met just before the New Hampshire-Maine state line.  We later found great overnight spots at Antlers Campsite on Jo-Mary Lake, replete with swimming, blueberry picking, and the eerie sound of a distant loon.  Thru-hikers Chef Decker, Pi (from Germany), and a southbound (SOBO) section hiker named Solo completed the Antlers group.

Hums (left) and Checklist (right) atop Little Boardman Mountain

Our tents flooded that night from a torrential rain.  Wet gear, especially wet boots and socks, is one of the banes of backpacking, but we had fun for at least a few hours.

For the second time I bumped into Warren Doyle, the dean of Appalachian Trail hikers, who has thru-hiked more than any other hiker (nine thru- and nine section hikes) and runs a school for aspiring A.T. backpackers. (He’s also controversial with some people, promoting athletics on the trail and violating regulations that he dislikes.) Doyle and a sweet woman aptly named Sweet Potato were at a gravel road and treating poor Pi, who had either tripped or fainted, then fallen, consequently restructuring her nose and left eye.

Another highlight was having Little Beaver Pond to myself for my final night in the Wilderness.  This pond was a quiet surprise.  It’s a concealed sub-lake that spills into the eastern tip of larger Rainbow Lake.

There is no sign for Little Beaver on the A.T.  There is a sign for Big Beaver, but considering Big Beaver is 0.7 miles down a side trail, few hikers bother to walk it.  But just a tenth of a mile down this blue-blazed side trail is a tiny sign with an arrow that reads “Little Beaver.”

Little Beaver Pond tentsite and wild blueberries

I pitched my tent in a small oval of dry pine needles, the pond 100 yards below.  Surrounded by blueberry bushes, I devoted an hour to plucking ripe berries until my baggie was heavy.  These I gorged on later for dessert, then again for breakfast next morning.  In between I watched the sun set over the towering pines that rose over the shore of Little Beaver, while stoking a modest fire, smoking my “peace pipe,” and pondering the immensity of Mother Nature.

It’s a cliché, but out here your ego dissolves and you can feel your insignificance.  This is good.  It’s something one doesn’t often feel elsewhere, and it’s one reason why so many of us, ever since John Muir, flee to the mountains.

Rejuvenated by Little Beaver, I burned almost 18 miles next day to exit the Wilderness at Abol Bridge and reach base camp at The Birches campsite for my Katahdin climb.

Bulldozer, Heat, and me at Abol Bridge. Bulldozer was awaiting his family and summited Katahdin later.

The Birches is set aside for distance hikers intending to hike Baxter Peak, tallest point on Katahdin.  It’s located about a quarter-mile from family-friendly Katahdin Stream Campground.  This separation ensures the Griswold family won’t be disturbed by the sight of dirtbag backpackers getting wasted or peeing in the woods.  But for us hikers, it means a long slog to the stream just to fill our water bottles.

Only 12 hikers are permitted to camp at The Birches on any given night.  On the night of July 31, I was sixth out of seven hikers to sign up.  The others were Checklist, Hums, Heat, Chef Decker, Trash, and Wet Willy.  (The last-named was a really fun fellow, but he had two blown knees and had no business being with us.)

Around suppertime, Ranger Pete Sweeney dropped by to collect our registration cards and ten-dollar camping fee.  He also gathered us around the fire ring like a benevolent schoolteacher to discuss the sacredness of the mountain to native peoples…and to discourage us from celebrating too raucously at the peak.

I didn’t sleep much that night due to my excitement.  I’d come 2,185 miles and now had only five miles left.  So many times I’d wondered if I’d ever finish this Sisyphean venture, and it was hard to fathom the end was looming.

We rose from our sleeping bags with the first rays of sunlight (except Wet Willy), packed our gear, then hiked to the ranger station to trade in our heavy packs for lighter day packs.  I felt somewhat guilty about this, since I’d thus far prided myself on hauling my home on my back the whole way.  My justification was that a heavy pack up Katahdin could be extremely dangerous, plus there was no camping at the summit that required a full pack.  Also, with this short, five-mile “slackpack,” there would be no unnecessary burning of fossil fuels.

So I pulled out my Gregory day pack and filled it with peanut butter, tortillas, Clif bars, and my water flask.  Going suddenly from 40 pounds to five pounds felt like heaven, especially with all the adrenaline pumping through me.  I whisked through Katahdin Stream Campground, offered a knowing nod to Chef Decker (whose family was joining her for her final climb), and began my 5.2-mile ascent up the legendary mountain.

Cauliflower fungus (Sparassis crispa)

Katahdin is not easy.  The climb starts with a glide on gently sloping soil, then steeper dancing on rocks, then gymnastics on extremely vertical walls of boulders.  Some of the smoother boulder sections have rebar to assist climbers, this man-made addition courtesy of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club.

But I had time and adrenaline on my side.  Each day throughout my hike I had one song that I would whistle or hum to help my frame of mind.  Today I gustily sang out loud about a dozen of my favorite tunes—from Burt Bacharach to The Byrds—not even caring if anyone else heard me. 

About a mile from the summit begins The Tableland, a sea of rocks where the A.T. (here known as “Hunt Trail”) is delineated by stone cairns.  This is cloud country, and the wind and chill increase dramatically.  Suddenly, I see a group of hikers gathered near what looks like an oversized wooden sawhorse.

“Omoo!”  “Omoo!” they shout.  Heat, Hums, and Checklist have already arrived.  There are hugs and congratulations all ‘round. We collectively soak in this magical moment.  

As William Clark wrote in his journal when the Corps of Discovery first laid eyes on the Pacific Ocean in 1805: O! the joy.

We spent about an hour at the summit, taking pictures and responding—with as much humility as we could muster—to the day hikers’ many questions.  Hiking compatriots Lobo (a biology teacher from Richmond, Virginia), Zippy Morocco (a Triple Crowner from Missoula, Montana), Rabbit, Trash, and Chef Decker arrived later. Cell reception was no problem at 5,300 feet, so I called Lynn to let her know I was okay, and I’d soon be home to take care of the moles tearing up our lawn.

A bobcat posing in clouds with alma mater, Ohio University

Although I could have hung around the peak all day, I knew the climb down would be equally treacherous and cumbersome, plus I planned to thumb a ride into the town of Millinocket, so I reluctantly descended.  A few hikers were still ascending.  The last one I saw was Wet Willie.  (It turned out he did reach the peak, despite the admonitions of his partner, Trash.  However, on the descent he fell, gashing his head and breaking his glasses.  He didn’t reach the hostel in Millinocket until well after dark.)

All of the August 1 summiters reunited at the Millinocket hostel, except Heat and Lobo, who were elsewhere with their families.  We shared three large pizzas at Angelo’s (their white pizza was exceptional) and also, of course, shared our thoughts about the trail.  Next day I joined Checklist and Hums on a shuttle/bus trip to Bangor.  They flew home to Indiana, but I stayed over another night to decompress and celebrate with Maine lobster roll.  (TIP: if you visit Maine and want fresh lobster, it helps if you’re near the coast.)

***

Since my start at Springer Mountain, Georgia on May 2, 2021, I spent over 160 nights on the Appalachian Trail, most of them in a one-person tent.  About once a week I got either a motel room or stayed in a hostel to shower, eat, buy provisions, and clean my clothes.  The animals I encountered included one bear, four beavers, two porcupines, two foxes, one rattlesnake, one copperhead (whose head I stepped on), one water snake, several black snakes, one bald eagle, one Northern goshawk, several grouse, and dozens of whitetail deer, red squirrels, chipmunks, orange newts, and toads.  I hiked around multiple piles of moose scat but never saw one.

I met hundreds of distance backpackers and liked almost all of them.  They ranged in age from 19-year-old Cole, whom I encountered north of Buena Vista, Virginia, to intrepid 80-year-olds.  Women hikers were just as prevalent as men.  A few hikers were transgender.  Many backpackers like me walked solo, while others found security in a trail family (“tramily”).

Only one backpacker my entire hike recognized my trail name, asking “Isn’t that a book by Herman Melville?” when we identified ourselves.  It was in southern Virginia at exactly the one-quarter mark.  He was about 30 years old, a former thru-hiker now doing a SOBO section.  His name was Deep Roots.

Sunrise at Jo-Mary Lake

I met a number of eccentrics and heard about others.  They ran the gamut from the motor-mouth ex-boxer at Niday Shelter to a man named Leafblower, who hiked with a large…what else?…leaf blower, and always rented an extra hostel bed for his machine. 

My emotions also ran the gamut.  Hiking alone, I often mulled over my past: vacations I took as a child, old friends.  I constantly thought about my loved ones, especially my deceased parents.  I’m not religious—in fact I’m agnostic—but I could sense my parents’ spirits being with me.  Once, while alone atop Mount Washington in early morning, the grey clouds broke briefly to reveal a layer of blue sky with higher, wispy, white clouds.  This serendipitous event coincided with my thinking of Mom and Dad.

But despite my sentimental moments and occasional bouts of loneliness, only once did I get choked up.  It was on top of Katahdin while talking to my wife.  I told her that hiking this trail was the hardest thing I’d ever done, physically and mentally.  It was harder than leaving home, than any job, than any marathon race.  Raising a family was difficult, but she helped me with that.  This thing, however, was all on me.  I told her there were times of discouragement when I wondered if my hike would ever end.

Now…it was finally over. And I really felt it.

For my next adventure I’m planning a solo canoe trip on the Charley and Yukon Rivers in north Alaska.  After all…we move around.

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter Nine

Yesterday morning I arrived in Monson, Maine. Monson is a small lakeside town of about 600 people in the center of the state, and a major hub for Appalachian Trail hikers. To give an idea of Monson culture, the lone gas station sells bumper stickers that read “Kids Who Hunt, Trap, and Fish Don’t Mug Little Old Ladies.”

I estimate one more week to complete my solo thru-hike odyssey.

Between Monson and Mount Katahdin (highest point in Maine, northern endpoint of the A.T., and centerpiece of Baxter State Park) lies what is known as the Hundred-Mile Wilderness. This is a spectacular area of scenic wonders almost completely void of any semblance of civilization.

Omoo at NH-ME line, middle of one of the most difficult segments of the whole trail

It is also one of the more challenging sections for A.T. hikers, featuring both mountains and rugged terrain. Hiking the austere Wilderness requires a stockpile of a recommended 10-days’ rations.

So I’m taking both a “zero” (no miles) and “near-o” (minimal miles) day in Monson to rest and prepare. My oasis is Lakeshore House, located on the northeastern tip of Lake Hebron. Upon arrival I indulged in a hot shower followed by a “Famished Farmer” sandwich at the only grocery and deli in town. I’m now spoiling myself with cappuccino crunch ice cream before it’s back to ever-monotonous trail food.

The vast majority of hikers, mainly younger, stay just down the road at Shaw’s, which is run by ex-hikers Hippie Chick and Poet. (Crunchy granola, anyone?) Lakeshore seems to be the quieter, more low-key alternative, which suits this old guy fine.

Hiking friends Ice Cream and Memories at Grafton Notch. From Germany, they’re spending part of their honeymoon on the A.T.

So far there are only five of us at Lakeshore: me, Silver Bullet, Dozer, Boston, and Double Vision. Not surprisingly, all of us have either silvery hair or bald spots.

When Vision walked through the bunkhouse door, my jaw dropped. We last saw each other over a year ago on a cold, rainy night at a shelter in North Carolina. Vision is now trying to complete a series of section hikes, and the Wilderness is his last stretch. But he’s not doing well. At Carlo Col he suffered second-degree burns after spilling boiling water on his leg. Now, in the heat of mid-July, at age 67, he’s on the verge of heat exhaustion. Like me, he’s spending two nights here. He’s also debating going home. With age comes wisdom. (Often.)

Trail at Poplar Ridge, near where hiker Inchworm stepped off to go to bathroom, got lost, and disappeared for over two years

Despite its hardships, particularly the rocky, rooty section around the NH-ME line, Maine is my favorite A.T. state. For one, Maine-ers don’t believe in asphalt or billboards, a welcome alternative to my home state of Ohio. The A.T. here is referred to as a “Green Tunnel.”

Bald eagle soaring over East Carry Pond, where four of us took an afternoon dip

Although I’ve yet to see one, moose thrive in Maine. Water abounds in the form of lily-padded ponds, lakes, and wild rivers. The mountain vistas offer stunning 360-degree views. And although a relatively rural, under-populated state, the residents have their own unique style (and accent). Living “off the grid” raises few eyebrows in Maine.

As Katahdin approaches, I’m feeling a mix of excitement and anxiety. My journey started May 2 of last year. Sometimes it feels like a shotgun marriage between me and the A.T. Will we ever divorce?

West branch of Piscataquis River, which requires fording. My new Crocs came in handy.

Other times, usually in early morning light when I feel strong and confident, hearing the sticks and crumbled rock crunching under my boots, I feel a deep satisfaction. I’m accomplishing a significant feat, and doing it my own way: wooden walking stick, paper guide/map, full backpack the entire distance, completely solo but nonetheless making trail friends…and lifetime memories.

And lest I forget, this project began with a cause in mind: raising money and awareness for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  Thanks again to those of you who have helped. (R.I.P. Biff, Ben, and Peter.)

Monday, July 25 begins my final launch. As hikers often remark before parting ways (most totally unaware it’s the title of an old song written by television cowgirl Dale Evans):

“Happy Trails”

– Omoo

Sunset at Pierce Pond

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter Eight

Sunset at Lakes of the Clouds Hut in the White Mountains

[UPDATE: I’ve reached Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire, about 37 miles shy of the Maine state line.  I left the trail there to fly home for a family wedding get-together.  On July 6 I’ll be flying back to resume my hike for the coup de grâce in Maine.]

The White Mountains of New Hampshire periodically pop up in news stories.  Sadly, the stories often have to do with death.

The Whites are the most rugged mountain range in the state.  They extend from Kinsman Notch, New Hampshire into western Maine and include the Presidential Range, a series of 4,000-foot-plus peaks named after U.S. presidents.  The granddaddy is Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet the second tallest peak in the Appalachians after Clingman’s Dome.

The Lookout is a once-private cabin in Vermont I had to myself one night

Mount Washington is notable for having some of the most unpredictable weather in the world.  For 62 years it held the record for the highest wind velocity: a phenomenal 231 miles per hour, recorded on April 12, 1934. Frigid temperatures are common even in summer.

Last Saturday—two days after I trod the same path—53-year-old Xi Chen of Andover, Massachusetts succumbed to hypothermia.  It was on Mount Clay, just north of Washington.  Chen was an experienced hiker who had already summited 19 mountains over 4,000 feet.  Chen’s wife said “he’s not a quitter—that probably got him into trouble this time.”

Porcupine near Lyme, New Hampshire

This is something I’ve noticed with many A.T. thru-hikers: a propensity to continue no matter what.  Last year I met Gravy, who had a torn ankle ligament but was adamant he would go all the way.  When I last saw him in Tennessee, he had just hiked back-to-back 21-mile days on his bad ankle.  This year I met Runner, whose hike was curtailed in 2021 due to contracting Lyme Disease, a horrible disease caused by infected tick bites. Runner is now back on trail, ticks be damned.  There have been many others who, despite health setbacks, insist on doing the whole thing.

I don’t know if this is a distinctly American trait (“Never give up!”) or distinctly Appalachian Trail.  I’m inclined to think the latter.  Surmounting serious health issues to “go all the way” seems to be ingrained in the A.T. subculture. And the thinking is, if you can go all the way in one haul, you’re that much more special.

Boulder slide on Mount Pierce, especially dangerous when slick after a rainfall

I see comments on hiking social media sites all the time like “Don’t give up!” “You can do it!” “Just one foot in front of the other!” These people mean well, but they’re unknowingly creating pressures that could have unintended consequences.

As a marathon runner, I see a similar tendency. At first we ran for exercise and enjoyment. Then for speed and medals. Then came ultra-marathons and triathlons. Now it’s running through Death Valley. The bar is always being raised.

The “Croo” at Madison Springs Hut in the Whites. They gave me free shelter and leftover lasagna in exchange for washing dishes.

A.T. hiking wasn’t always like this.  Benton MacKaye, the forester who in 1921 conceived the idea of a long trail through the Appalachian Mountains, saw the A.T. as a way for city dwellers to temporarily escape urban sprawl.  The first thru-hike (covering the entire length, Georgia to Maine) wasn’t until 1948.  Most hikers in the early days were content to traverse pieces of the trail, to take in nature and temporarily escape industrialization.

But in recent years, thanks to cellphones, several popular hiking books and movies, and improvements in backpacking gear technology, thru-hiking has mushroomed into an industry.  For many it’s an athletic endeavor, and nature appreciation has taken a back seat. Trail congestion is now a real problem. I’ve hiked from Georgia to (almost) Maine, and I’ve yet to overnight in a shelter, or tent-camp near a shelter, where there wasn’t at least one other person.  What’s the point of escaping one “sprawl” only to find another?

Branch of the Pemigewasset River, New Hampshire

Completing a thru-hike of any of the Triple Crown trails (A.T., PCT, or CDT), or other long trail, is an epic achievement and something to be proud of (even if the majority of thru-hikers these days frequently use a vehicle to transport their backpacks to make their hike easier—a practice known as “slackpacking”).  But as impressive as a thru-hike is, it doesn’t qualify one for sainthood.

If you’re thinking of doing a thru-hike, make sure your heart is really in it and you’re not doing it merely because it’s cool or fashionable.  Make sure you do the necessary homework. And if you begin one, nobody will think less of you if you choose to quit.  (Nobody worthwhile, anyway.)  Too many people have died trying not to be a “quitter.”

Words of wisdom, south slope of Mt. Washington

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter Seven

Little Rock Pond, Vermont

Arrived in Killington, Vermont yesterday for a two-day R&R at beautiful The Inn at Long Trail. (The Long Trail stretches the length of Vermont, ending at the Canadian border, and shares the A.T. over its southern half.)

It’s good timing. Not only am I nearly halfway (for this year) to my climax at Mount Katahdin, but I depleted all my resources: trail food, clean clothes, cell charge, boots, and calories. Yesterday I took care of the first three; today I bought new Merrell boots, and I’m stuffing my pie-hole with an Italian sub, chips, and Powerade as I write this.

When your bones protrude enough to interlock with the tree roots under your tent floor, it’s time to build some fat.

Skin and bones hiker smiles while finding sanctuary at The Inn

I’ve always loved Vermont’s Green Mountains from a distance. Inside, on trail, they are more menacing, but the dense red spruce/balsam fir forests make for a stimulating olfactory experience…Killington Peak, the second-highest summit in the Greens (4,229 feet) is the best-smelling mountain I’ve yet hiked.

The ski resort town of K-ton is also impressive. They just had a Memorial Day trifecta event of golf, bicycling, and skiing (still happening!) at one resort, and unlike what might occur in my home state of Ohio, golf was the least popular event! (I love Vermont.)

The Inn might be my favorite R&R spot this entire thru-hike. It’s a time-tested rustic ski lodge, with ski superstars like Mikaela Schiffrin and Petra Vlhova dropping in during the World Cup, but which I have to myself, now, with a lull between ski season and the bubble of distance hikers. The Irish Pub and draughts of Guinness downstairs might have something to do with my enthusiasm.

The trail itself has been a joy compared to WV, MD, and (much of) Rocksylvania. Lotsa quiet mountain ponds, vistas, and wildlife. My last day in Massachusetts presented a porcupine, and first day in Vermont graced me with four fat beavers lazily swimming across their watery estate.

Two other highlights include the surprise I had on top of Black Mountain in upstate New York. Gazing out over distant peaks, my knees almost buckled when, swiveling my head left, I caught the distant skyline of New York City. Surreal is the word. Hard to imagine the riot of activity, noise, smells, and powerful deal-making in that tiny, smoky sliver of spires in the distance. I could almost see my uncle pouring vodkas through the window of his Upper East Side apartment. Yet here so solitary and peaceful.

The other highlight was my side-jaunt via thumb to Pittsfield, Massachusetts to visit and tour Arrowhead, where Herman Melville wrote America’s greatest novel, MobyDick. (Some of you know that Omoo, a Polynesian word for “rover,” was used as a title by Melville for his second semi-autobiographical book.) From his upstairs study he could view double-humped Mount Greylock, largest peak in MA, which supposedly seeped into his conception of the white whale. The view seeped into me, too.

Arrowhead, one-time home of author Herman Melville

Nice trail friends, too. Two include L.A., a veteran hiker who is actually from Nantucket and suffered heat exhaustion around Greylock, and with whom I shared burgers ‘n’ brews with in Bennington; and Golden, a UMass-Amherst kinesiology student on her first solo thru hike (Long Trail) and on whom I actually bestowed a trail name, based on her golden hair and personality.

Golden on Bromley ski slope, which the A.T. crosses

Well, it’s Guinness time, after which I have one more comfortable sleep before newly commencing my roving…hopefully with a bit more cushioning around my bones. As always, thanks for joining me, trail and non-trail friends.

Till next time…

Omoo (and his mute hickory trail companion, Queequeg)

Murray, owner and bartender at The Inn

Return to the Appalachian Trail

White Mountains, New Hampshire, where I section-hiked in 2016. I’ll soon be returning.

He loves nature in spite of what it did to him.

Forrest Tucker

Where the hell did I stash those rolling papers?

Omoo

Last August 1 at Wind Gap, Pennsylvania my Appalachian Trail thru-hike was sabotaged after three months.  Thrombophlebitis in my right leg was the culprit.  (You can read or re-read about my trials and tribulations here.)

According to Dr. Kuhn at the Vein Center, there are still “old clots” (whatever that means) but nothing serious, and since my knotty calf veins are now just faint shadows, I certainly look prettier.  What I didn’t expect was another, more serious health scare, and it happened only a month before my scheduled A.T. re-launch at the gap this coming May 1.

I won’t go into the details.  It’s a long-term issue that I don’t think will affect my hike.  However, things will be different, mainly diet.  No more Snickers bars for sugar, packaged Idahoan potatoes for carbs, or McDonalds for fats.  I’m not sure how I will eat healthy and still maintain a decent weight, but I’m going to try.

Here’s the good news:

  • With “only” 911.4 miles remaining, I’m not rushed.  I have a whopping five months to reach Mt. Katahdin in Maine before bad weather hits, and assuming I maintain last year’s pace, I should get there in 65 days
  • The June/July temperatures should be more forgiving in New England
  • The smaller states will get scratched off much quicker, a great psychological boost
  • More towns in which to find a healthy meal…at least until Maine and its ominous 100-Mile Wilderness

I expect the first few days will be rough.  I’m hitting maybe the rockiest section of the rockiest state on the entire Appalachian Trail, a section called Wolf Rocks.  All those foot callouses I carefully and painstakingly developed last year are gone, so there will be blisters.  Due to recently being sick, I haven’t been able to train like I wanted, so there will be soreness and fatigue.

I’m also testing out a new water container.  It’s a two-liter bag made of thermoplastic polyurethane—looks like a colostomy bag—and it will hang on carabiners attached to my pack.  It replaces last year’s bulky, hard-plastic Nalgene bottle that I had to secure with bungee cords.  I also bought some gaiters to limit the amount of wet socks I’ll have to air-dry on my pack.

Northern Great Smoky Mountains

My tent reading material is another skinny, lightweight book: John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  (Did I just say mice?)

Again, biggest challenge will be food.  Our daughter Holly is almost a vegan, so she’s helping me choose the healthiest breakfast bars and dinner fare.  One evening repast will be green lentils and red quinoa…healthy, packable, short boiling time, boring flavor.  My lunch fare won’t change: trusty peanut butter on tortillas!

As I did last year, I will try to update my blog, but no guarantees.  Those who know me know I hate writing on cellphones, and I can only do it during sporadic town breaks, when I’m pressed for time with eating, buying groceries, doing laundry, phoning loved ones, and airing out wet gear.

Nonetheless, I do appreciate connecting with you good folks who have to deal with that crippled “other” society (the not-so-real world).  So I’ll do my best to keep one toe on the grid.

Even if I don’t update longitudes, I plan to continue my evening diary dribblings, and once this damn thing is finally history I’ll send a PDF of my entire journal to anyone still willing to indulge in my narcissism.

Okay, Lonewolf (A.T. thru 1997, PCT thru 2001).  Okay, Queequeg (Pequod, 1851).  Ready for a road trip to Stroudsburg, PA?  Flutie you noisy sonofabitch, Omoo is headed your way…with a large colostomy bag and a few less varicosed veins.

New England shelter journals may never be the same.

The last photo from last year’s hike. I was on a mushroom photo kick. And I was cursing the rocks.

Thomas Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty

This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

John F. Kennedy, during a 1962 Nobel Prize dinner

The title above is a biography by John B. Boles that I just finished. Normally I’d do a book review, but the subject himself is so fascinating I’d rather just riff on Jefferson than critique the book. Buckle your seat belts.

Suffice to say, Boles’s book is a good one-volume treatment of Jefferson.  It’s easy to read and well-sourced.  Fairly comprehensive. Maybe a bit too adulatory, but at least honest.

Before discussing Jefferson, I have to say I was somewhat surprised by what I learned about several other “Founders,” or sub-Founders.  Although popular today because of that Broadway play, I had no idea that Federalist and Jefferson nemesis Alexander Hamilton was such an outright bastard.  His poisonous lies and relentless invective make Trump look like a Cub Scout.  (Okay, maybe not.)

I also had no idea that the man who killed Hamilton in a duel, Aaron Burr (Jefferson’s first-term vice-president), was such a self-centered, scheming treasonist.

And I especially didn’t know that Jefferson hated fellow Virginian Patrick Henry.  Although a great orator (“Give me Liberty or give me Death!”), Henry evidently didn’t read books and wasn’t very smart.  He actually proposed imposing a dictatorship when the American Revolution began going badly.  For years, Jefferson ridiculed him mercilessly at the dinner table.

Aaron Burr (left) and Alexander Hamilton (right)

But back to the dinner topic at hand…there are some things most of us know, or should know, about Thomas Jefferson.  He was the third American president and a Founding Father chosen to author the United States Declaration of Independence, the iconic written diatribe against King George III detailing why American colonists chose to break from England to form their own country, and which was signed by 55 other congressional delegates from the 13 colonies.

More than any other Founder, Jefferson exalted the ideas of democracy and individual conscience. Along with fellow Democrat-Republican and protégé James Madison, he conceived the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and which separates religion from all levels of government. (Government-imposed religion was an absolute given in the Old Country.) He modeled it after the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which he’d also authored three years earlier as Governor of that colony.

As for his own religion, although considering himself a Christian, Jefferson was a deist who felt the Christian faith had become corrupted by disciples after Jesus’s death. Jefferson was a leading light of the Age of Enlightenment, an admirer of philosophers John Locke and Thomas Paine (Common Sense, The Age of Reason).  Throughout his life he was fascinated by science and adhered to reason and rationality over superstition.  He considered Jesus the most moral philosopher the world has known, but did not believe in his divinity.  He created his own Jefferson Bible by excising everything supernatural from the New Testament.  (Printings of his bible are available at a bookstore near you.)

Jefferson lived at a plantation he called Monticello, which he carved out of a mountain outside Charlottesville, Virginia using slave labor. He developed it over a period of 40 years.  (Monticello is pictured on the U.S. nickel, the flip side of Jefferson’s profile.)  Here, he established a 1,000-foot-long terraced vegetable garden that grew 330 varieties of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruits.  As a politician he championed the small farmer, was a pioneer of sustainable agriculture, and was one of the country’s great epicures.

As president, Jefferson doubled the size of America by overseeing the purchase of the western Louisiana territory from Napoleon Bonaparte of France.  It cost the U.S. all of four cents an acre.  He then organized a successful exploration of the unknown lands by his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, exponentially increasing America’s knowledge of Western geography, archaeology, flora, fauna, and Indian tribes.

Meriwether Lewis

After the Library of Congress was burnt by invading British during the War of 1812, Jefferson sold his personal collection of 6,487 volumes to restart the library.  They replaced the collection that Jefferson had earlier recommended the library acquire.

Just before his death in 1826, Jefferson conceived, founded, was principal architect for, and chose the curriculum and faculty for one of America’s most respected public universities, the University of Virginia.  He was “convinced that the people (white males) are the sole depositories of their own liberty, & that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree.” (I tried to gain entrance to UVA in 1977 but was rejected.  In 2005 I visited Monticello, and revisited the campus while our daughter was touring colleges.  Everyone at both places politely referred to him as “Mister Jefferson,” as if he was still alive.)

Along with designing the university, Jefferson also oversaw the layout for the nation’s new capitol grounds at Washington D.C., and his neoclassical architectural designs set the precedent for future U.S. federal structures.

Jefferson was probably the most intelligent and worldly of all the Founding Fathers. (Benjamin Franklin is up there, too.)  Although ambitious, his patience, even-temperedness, humility, and knowledge were renowned amongst his political peers, including George Washington, who made him Secretary of State and often consulted him.  Like so many in the 18th and 19th centuries, he experienced profound death and tragedy, losing his wife Martha at a young age, along with children and grandchildren.

Jefferson lived 83 years, dying the same day as his onetime rival but beloved friend, second President John Adams. It was 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He wrote his own epitaph.  It was simple and reflected his humble public persona, stipulating what he was most proud of: Author of the Declaration of Independence (and) of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.  Of his being president for two terms and his presidential accomplishments…nothing.

Monticello

As exceptional a human being as Jefferson was, his enlightenment was tempered by his place and time.  Even during his lifetime rumors swirled of a slave concubine (in today’s parlance, “sex toy”) known as “Black Sal” or “Dusky Sally.”

For 200 years historians have grappled with whether slaveholder Jefferson fathered children with a quadroon “servant” named Sally Hemings.  A DNA study in 1998 concluded there was a high probability he was the father of at least one of Hemings’s six children.  However, that study also said Jefferson “can neither be definitely excluded nor solely implicated…”

Presently, most Jefferson scholars and historians, including the Thomas Jefferson Foundation—through combining the DNA findings with written evidence—conclude he did father children by her (not surprisingly, Hemings descendants do as well). Biographer Boles goes further to suggest their “relationship” was “founded on shared tenderness and love” and that “the sexual attraction between Jefferson and Hemings was likely mutual…” 

I find Boles’s suggestion of romantic love between master and slave plausible, but unnerving, and it’s one of the few criticisms I have of his book [in addition to some qualified language such as “Jefferson rarely (sold slaves),” “he made an effort (not to separate mothers from their children),” he “(only sold his slaves) out of economic necessity,” and “Jefferson’s theoretical opposition to (whipping)”].

It was in Paris between 1787 and 1789 while Jefferson was American minister to France that their (probable) intimacies probably began.  Hemings was a teenager who was acting as companion to Jefferson’s younger daughter, Maria.  By several contemporary accounts, Hemings was extremely beautiful, with “very light skin; long, straight black hair.”

Slavery had been illegal in France since Louis X in 1315. Was Hemings technically free while on French soil despite being owned by an American? If so, did Jefferson think this mitigated a middle-aged widower like himself having sex with a young, uneducated, recent ex-slave? Did love blossom either before or after she agreed to return to the states with him? Can love even exist between a master and servant/slave, or is it always rape?

Soap opera aside, bottom line is Jefferson owned people. Any additional moral crimes stem from that original sin.

Sally Hemings was born in 1773. Her white father, John Wayles, was Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. She died in 1835 and there are no photos or drawings of her. This is a detail from a Monticello “Farm Book,” displaying her four children: Harriet, Madison, Eston, and Beverley. Notably, all were named after friends or relatives of Jefferson (Madison after James Madison).

In his meager defense, Jefferson successfully banned American importation of Africans. And despite unenlightened views on racial equality/inequality, he opposed slavery throughout his life and, at least at the start of his political career, tried to abolish it through state and federal legislation.  Of course, his efforts were fruitless, primarily due to violently intransigent southern politicians who, two generations later, would finally have their apocalypse. Of the roughly 200 slaves owned by Jefferson during his life, he freed only two.  He freed five more in his will.  Three more left Monticello with Jefferson’s consent.  All except two were domestic help and part of the Hemings family.

As I expected, while Boles justifiably devotes extensive print to slavery and Jefferson’s immersion in it, his coverage of Jefferson’s American Indian policies and affairs, including their removal, is woefully inadequate. So I’ll offer a few paragraphs on that subject.

Jefferson the amateur anthropologist admired Indians and believed they were superior to blacks physically, intellectually, and culturally, and also that they might eventually become ingratiated into white agrarian society as equals.  But even here there was a great hypocrisy.  He stipulated to Meriwether Lewis that the Corps of Discovery restrain from any acts of hostility toward Indians they might encounter…but he also hungered for the land they inhabited. 

In an 1803 letter to William Henry Harrison, who was then the territorial governor of Indiana, President Jefferson outlined a devious policy of using government trading posts to drive Indians into debt so they would more easily “lop (the debts) off by a cession of lands.”

And when a patronizing Jefferson addressed a delegation of Shawnee and other Indian tribes in 1809, hoping to win them over from the British, he threatened that “the tribe which shall begin an unprovoked war against us, we will extirpate (exterminate) from the earth or drive to such a distance as they shall never again be able to strike us.”

Then, as now, enlightenment only goes so far.

Indian Head nickel and Jefferson nickel: opposing views of Liberty

Originally, I ended my post with the pithy statement above. Then I thought, who am I? Thomas Jefferson deserves better. After rereading the Introduction in Boles’s book, I landed on this excellent paragraph, which perfectly summarizes how I feel. Anyway…thanks for taking time to read all of this. Peace.

We should not expect (Jefferson) to have embraced the values of a cosmopolitan, progressive person of the twenty-first century. How could he have possibly done so? Instead, we should try to understand the constraints—legal, financial, personal, intellectual—under which he lived. To understand certainly does not mean to approve or even forgive; rather, it means to comprehend why Jefferson made the kinds of decisions he made and saw the world as he did. He was a gentle, well-educated, idealistic man who sought—by his lights—to do right. Yet at times he acted in ways we now find abhorrent. Appreciating how this can be so is the task of the Jefferson scholar, the student of history, and perhaps every American citizen.