Edward F. Ricketts
Volume XLV, Number 2
Between Cave and Edmonton there is a typical Kentucky countryside. Tobacco is king here and the long drying sheds, with half of the side boards swung open, are a common sight along the road. Here, too, one sees fine horses in the rich upland pastures, and any number of cattle and hogs. There is still a little oak timber on the knolls and in the valleys, some of it infested with mistletoe. Altogether, this region is typical of the Southland: crows lazily winging over their way over the woodlands, buzzards soaring high over-head, old rambling farm-houses with big stoney chimneys, an idle breeze rustling the corn, and a hot sun overhead.
South of Edmonton the land is crumpled and tumbled in ridges and valleys that form the foothills of the Cumberlands. The road tops a high hogback for several miles, and then descends into the valley of the Marrow-bone, crossing and recrossing that stream and following its course from the time it issues, as an icy cold brook, from the mountain, to a point where it is too deep to serve as a wagon road. Getting wet feet is a foregone conclusion to following such a road, but it is full recompense to lie by a campfire of fragrant cedar boughs and to hear the cry of some animal echoing in the hills.
It was at about this stage of my journey that the rains started in earnest, miserable cold drizzles that made the road wet and slick and turned walking into a nightmare. But all bad weather must end, and after three days of little progress and much hardship, the highway again became passable. From a bend in the road came the jangle of harness and the lumbering of a farm wagon; and a voice shouted, "Get on thar, Meg; you Bird, gee." The driver was only too glad to give the traveler a lift, and with a "Git up thar mules, dag gum yore hides," we were on our way to greener woods and higher mountains.
The people of the Cumberland hinterland, far from railroads and auto trails, have several outstanding characteristics. Perhaps the foremost of these, and certainly the one that the wayfarer first encounters, is a suspicious curiosity. At a roadside meeting, the question "What do you call your home?" is asked of the stranger directly after the laconic "Hawdy," and then, with an insistence that amounts almost to rudeness, your true Cumberland backwoodsman proceeds to obtain the stranger's entire history. This curiosity may be largely the result of the mountaineer's idea of personal liberty, and his fear of the "Rev'noo Off'cer." This suspicion of strangers, by the way, is pretty well inborn. As I entered a little country church one Sunday evening, I overheard a youngster telling his companion, in a hoarse whisper, "Thar goes a Rev'noo Off'cer."
Being taken for a Revenue Agent is often an amusing, but sometimes painful experience. It seems that these gentlemen are held in great dread hereabouts, and all strangers are instantly suspected. As I hiked down a mountain road one day, a horseman accosted me and asked the usual questions: my name, where I came from, my destination. Then he said, "Was you looking for something around yere?" (pointing to my cartridge belt) and when I had carefully reviewed my past history for him, he added, "Well, I figgered if you was a Government Agent, I might be able to help you; I'm the Deputy Sheriff of this county," and he revealed an enormous badge.
An open hospitality, once they are satisfied as to identiy, is also typical of these people. They invariably say to passers-by, "Y'all better come in and warm by the fire," and at the close of a visit, "Y'all needn't to hurry away." Over and above all, these mountain folk, men, women and children, like their 'baccy and their "white coffee." Some of the old, wrinkled crones smoke a pipe strong enough to choke a horse; and moonshine is more common to them than "sody pop" to us. I found this whisky to be very good, rather spicy, with a slightly rumlike taste, and clear as spring water. Down in the towns, I understand, adulteration is practiced; washing powder is added (presumably to hold the head), and, of course, water.
I made a quick trip to Knoxville, over graded roads. On the way, there were other evidences of the inspiring hospitality of this region, farmers insisted that I come in and dry my wet clothes by their fire, folk who, when I asked for biscuits, would hear of nothing but that I share the meal with them. Perhaps, south of the Mason and Dixon Line, people are really different Perhaps it's only my way of looking at it.
East of Knoxville I followed Wolf Creek Caņon, as wild a mountain glen as I have ever seen. The stream rushed down between the banks luxuriantly covered with a variety of trees and shrubs, past a little mill pond and a great grumbling mill wheel, past shacks and log cabins, into the French Broad River. The flora here is amazing: oak, pine, cedar, hemlock, mountain holly, laurel, and ivy, and others new to me. On the road I met several families en route to the Christmas celebration at the little schoolhouse. This was the last school day of the year and the teacher was giving a Christmas Tree Party. Christmas on Wolf Creek must be an interesting function.
Recent rains had left the road beyond in such shape that I anticipated lonely traveling. It was a surprise, therefore, to be overtaken, not by one car, but by three, one after the other. Misery loves company and two of the cars, I suppose, could often help the third out of the mud. One of the drivers, in a Ford truck, offered me a lift, and I was very glad to get my feeet out of the mud, if only for a few minutes. In characteristic Southern fashion, and invitation to "come stay all night" followed, but twelve miles of the worst mountain roads in North Carolina separated us from our destination, high in the Spring Creek Mountains and far from the beaten trail. We started after supper in Hot Springs; a cold wet night, black as pitch. I shall not soon forget that ride. A bad road, a Ford, night time, and over much "corn likker and Pee-ru-ny" are a bad combination, and everything went wrong that could conceivably do so. The road led up the gorge of Spring Creek ata grade that forced us to travel most of the way in low gear and to depend on the chains. Perhaps it was fortunate that the night was dark, for we couldn't see the depths to which a slip of a few feet would plunge us, although we could hear, far below, the rushings of mighty water. Surely the "God of Fools" watched over us that night. It was not long before several cross links on the skid chains had broken, and we must get out in the mud to fix them by the light of a smoky lantern. Then the fan belt came off, not once, but many times, and finally the pliers disappeared in the mud and rain. After that it was a nightmare of running in low, stopping to cool the engine and to put water in the radiator, and attempting to tighten a loose clutch with such tools as we could command. But luckily the driver was very skillful, and knew the road, and at last, long past midnight, the barns and outhouses of a farm loomed up against a cloudy sky, and we tumbled into big, soft beds.
In the morning, my host spoke of the difficulty of getting help to sow winter wheat, and after explaining that I was a stranger to farm work, I offered my services and so enjoyed the distinction, for a few days, of being a farm hand. As it turned out, rains and frosts were so severe that we were able to work only one day in the fields.
There followed several days of such work as the weather would permit; the bundling of roughing; the education of a young and exceedingly stubborn mule; the hauling and barreling of apples, hard spicy Limbertwigs, sweet Spitzenbergs, Winesaps and Black Hoovers, the finest apples grown; the shucking of corn and the sorting of tobacco. In the evening there were quiet hours before the cheery log fire, and the kindly companionship of simple people; so that, knowing I was welcome, I was loathe to leave.
When Sunday dawned fairly clear, I was eager to climb a near-by mountain in order to have a look about me. The ascent took only an hour, but was hard climbing, and en route I collected a choice assortment of spanish needles and Beggar's Lice. From the summiit the view was not what I expected, due, perhaps, to the heavy growth of timber, the increasing cloudiness, or to the haziness that is so characteristic of the ranges of the Smokies. The whole landscape melts into a bluish-brown haze, very restful, but at the same time a little discouraging to one who would gain an idea of the country. The mountains themselves bear a varied and luxuriant flora: oak, hemlock, pine and laurel, with underbrush of several types. Even the rocks are covered with mosses and ferns. Distant mountains are black with timber and stand out sharply against the sky. Down in the valley, hemlock and pine contrast with the brown, earthy tones of winter oaks and tilled soil. This region is well peopled, surprisingly so, considering the topography, and habitations of man are scattered all along the watercourses. Crows are cawing harshly in distant woods; in a neighboring caņon a cock is loudly proclaiming his superiority; the wind is never still, and brings promise of rain.
From climbing a hillside to attending a revival meeting is quite a contrast, but both were inspiring. A farmer evangelist, huge of build, powerful of voice, addressed the meeting after a "do-mi-so-do" intoner had led the rousing singing. One may very easily be carried away emotionally by such a surging, droning voice, and it is easy to see how, under such conditions, simple people are "saved" en masse, with considerable vocal manifestations. Such a meeting must be rather exciting when five or six strong-lunged mountaineers are trying to "get religion," and are shouting at the top of their voices.
It was a pleasure to be associated with such unaffected folk, but once again the road was calling. And one bitter cold day, when overhanging tree roots bore huge icicles, for all the world like big white stalactites, I shouldered my pack and headed southward over a well-made mountain road. The wind blew icy cold, and the few passers-by I met were muffled and cloaked, but the sight of morning sunlight on the snowy mountains amply repaid me for the tramp.
At Dogget Gap (about 4300 feet elevation) there is as fine a lookout as I have ever seen. Mountains, mountains everywhere, stretching for miles around; the whole surface of the earth crumpled and tumbled, as far as eye can reach. Take fifty mighty mountains, a hundred ridges clothed in oak and laurel and pine, narrow canons and icy mountain streams, cliffs and crags and towering peaks, veil it all in a thin purple haze, and you have the Smokies, the mightiest range in all eastern United States. These Carolina mountains are no playthings; they approach very nearly the great, age-wrinkled ranges of New Mexico, Arizona or Northern Mexico. There is the same deep-blue sky, the same blue haze cloaking distant ranges, the same sawtooth skyline, all in the blazing glory of a noonday sun.
Past Asheville and Hendersonville, and some exceedingly cold weather, the road led out of the mountains and towards Greenville. Before the last blue foothills of the Saludas faded into the distance, we came into a new land, a land where cotton reigns, as corn and tobacco reigned before it in Indiana and Kentucky. Here gently rolling meadow and level cornfield replaced the peak and caņon of the Blue Ridge. No longer did the big chimneyed log cabin predominate; its place was taken by ambling farmhouse and tenant's shacks, as the negro, came into his own.
The Carolinas and Georgia are, I imagine, more nearly like the Dixieland of the mid-nineteenth century, than is any other part of the country. Christmas was near at hand as I hiked towards Augusta, and the colored folk, in antiquated carriages of nearly every type, were driving into town, where brilliant toys and sticky candies were displayed. Edgefield was a scramble of color (or lack of it, if black be defined as a negation). But everyone was good natured, some showed signs of having recently communed with "spirits," perhaps the ghosts of dear departed cattle and pigs, gone to make a barbeque that would make the mouth of a statue water.
The country adjacent to the Savannah River is surely the Dixieland of the story books. Here are the moss-hung oaks, the green glistening magnolias, and the long-leaf pine giants. Where the road dips down past a swamp bordered stream are thickets where the mocking-birds hide, and in the cornfields and cottonfields, kindly old-fashioned negroes hunt Brer' Rabbit. The sandy road leads pasaat homes that were standing a hundred years ago, past dwellings that may have housed Revolutionary patriots-past a thousand memories of the old South.
Near Millen, I camped in a clump of pines that continually reminded me of George Innes' "Path Through Florida Pines." There was the same indescribable haze between the trees, the same bright streaks in a leaden sky, the same dull brown underfoot. In the morning I awoke in a white world. The night had been windless, and in the early morning light, fields, fences and houses were covered with snowy frost flowers. I traveled a happy road that morning. As soon as the sun was up, the swamps were a riot of bird song. From oaks hung gray Spanish Moss, from pines with magnolias, came lilts that made the morning cheery. There is a wealth of bird life in the swamps fringing these streams: bluejays, towhees, sparrows and woodpeckers. A marsh hawk swished out of a huge pine as I passed; cardinals flashed through the air; every thicket had its troop of mockingbirds.
A city of beauty, of rich historical interest; a city of parks and squares, Savannah is, to my mind, the finest in the South. Browsing around in the library, I came across John Muir's "Thousand-Mile Walk," and was very interested in his half-century-old description of the country I had just traversed. His suggestion regarding cemeteries proved particularly acceptable. Why shouldn't I, too, use the "han'ts" to some good advantage, when otherwise they might be out scaring good people half to death? Thereafter, whenever it was convenient, I spent the night in a "City of the Dead." There was always good shelter and level place to pitch my tent, while the danger of being molested by some prowling negro was very, very remote.
Near where I camped one night, the door of a little negro shack stood open, flooding the yard with ruddy firelight. Inside, the mammy was singing her child to sleep with "Polly-wolly-doodle all the day." The thing took me back to my own childhood, where that air had been pretty much of a favorite with me. Later, during the night, there came a terrible storm, so vibrant that the very trees seemed to shake. When I awoke, these same colored folk were singing religious tunes at the top of their voices. What a picture it made! Rain beating down on my tent, trees swaying and swishing in the wind, crashes of thunder that seemed to rock the earth, and a weird, wailing song dimly heard above the clatter of the rain.
Both men let several years pass before writing their essay of their journey. In the case of Ed Ricketts, he did his journey in 1921 between September and December (Joel Hedgpeth, 1978, The Outer Shores). Ed wrote about his "walk" or "hike" after moving from Chicago to Pacific Grove, near Monterey, California. After residing in California for 2 years (1923-1925), his article was published in 1925.
We know from Ed Ricketts' essay that Ed knew of John Muir's walk, as he had read Muir's book in a library in Savannah. However, it is my hypothesis that Ed Ricketts saw Muir's book again in the Monterey library a second time and became inspired about his own walk, and decided to write about his own wilderness, wildness, wild tramping in the southeastern United States.
Many things interest me about Ed Rickett's article, but I will discuss only a few of them at this time. First, Ed Ricketts interest in "MUSIC" is clearly evident in the essay. He alludes to his childhood of hearing a familiar type of folksong music, and now he hears it in Georgia, at an impoverished African-American Black family encampment. It is clear from a persual of modern historical researchers into the life of Ed Ricketts and also the relationship with John Steinbeck, that Ed Ricketts was fascinated with Music throuighout his entire adult life in California, while he lived in Monterey. The passages by Joel Hedgpeth, in his two volume, The Outer Shores exemplifies this theory of the importance of MUSIC to Ed Ricketts. One narrative told by Joel Hedgpeth regarding Ed Ricketts, was that Ed like to drive from Monterey to San Francisco to hear church music in choir. Another historical anecdote by Joel Hedgpeth is that Ed had a phonograph and played records of great music, most notably Bach. Some of the writings by Steinbeck also indicate and support this love of MUSIC by Ed Ricketts.
I found it interesting that the word for canyon, was used several times in the essay with the spanish-southwest spelling of "caņon" and I wondered if this is a landscape romantization or simply from his travels in the Southwest and his residency in California, from where he wrote this essay.
Another discovery from reading the essay by Ed Ricketts is that it becomes clear that he was a naturalist by virtue of his description of the flora and fauna, particularly trees and birds. He also discusses streams and mountains, so that we see that his interest in the ecology of the land precedes his later fascination with the ecology of ocean and seashore. So why did Ed abandon natural history studies of the land for very different studies in the tidepools. Many scholars, aficionados, and researchers of Ed Ricketts have developed a myth that Ed Ricketts was not interested in birds, mammals, trees, and other flora and fauna of the land and forests thereupon, but I hope to dispel this notion with additional research essays abou the "life and times" of Ed Ricketts.
Yet another interesting idea that emerges from his essay, is that Ed Ricketts compares the Appalachian Mountains to the mountains in the Southwest and in Mexico. Keep in mind, that a few years earlier, Ed Ricketts had found employmnet as a young surveyor in Arizona and New Mexico. This comparison by Ed Ricketts shows his interest in analogy of landscapes of two places or geographies that he had visited. This analytical technique is what Ed Ricketts brings with him later to California, from where he makes explorations to the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Northwest (including Canada and Alaska). I find this virtue also to be fascinating and we can clearly say that Ed Ricketts was a geographer as well as a marine biologist.
I believe it is important to have completely scribed version of Ed Ricketts' first published article because it gives us insights into his life. This article first appeared in a magazine called Travel, in 1925, now 81 years ago. There are six photographs that accompanied Ed Ricketts' article, which I hope to reproduce to attach to this web page in the future. The photographs appear to be taken by Ed Ricketts, but I cannot be certain at this time. There is no photographer name associated with the photographs in the article, which inclines me to believe that the photographs were taken by Ed Ricketts.
In addition to Joel Hedgpeth and John Steinbeck, who both wrote about Ed Ricketts' saunter through the South, Jackson Benson (1984), a biographer of John Steinbeck's life, also wrote about Ed Ricketts' sauntering, in his tome on the life of John Steinbeck: True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. On page 189-190, Benson also explains the influence of Ed Rickett's travels and philosophy on Steinbeck's writing, notably in Cannery Row.
Another current biographer of Ed Ricketts, Kathryn Rodger, has recently quoted the writings of Jackson Benson, regarding Ed Ricketts "vagabonding saunter through dixie" on page 189-190. I thought it important therefore I also provide the context for readers curious about Ed Ricketts' life, with the entire quote from Jackson Benson regarding his thinking on the topic of Ed Ricketts' journey to the South. Here is the passage, on page 189-190 of Benson's tome:
"Steinbeck uses the trip in Cannery Row to describe Doc's love of true things and contrast this love with the resistance most people have toward the true, the unusual, or the purely aesthetic. Ed got on the train in Chicago and took it to Indianapolis, where he donned a knapsack and began walking through Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Georgia. He observed and talked to many people in many places......... After his walking trip, Ed returned to his studies in the spring of 1921, ...."
I wonder how many other men and women have made a similar journey to that of Muir and Ricketts between the 1870s and 1920 respectively, and perhaps published their narrative? I suspect that many others who did this journey never published their journey in a magazine or book. However, if those two did and lived to write about it, there must have been others that did so too.
Today, there is a national Appalachian Trail, and yet both Muir and Ricketts who walked part of this trail route, did not begin on the trail. Instead, they both began in the Great Lakes region. Muir began his journey in Wisconsin, while Ricketts began his journey in Indiana.