Although I have lived in the cool Blue Ridge mountans for thirty-five years now, I was raised in a place that is hot, humid and flat–Louisiana. Perhaps I ended up living here on the eastern continental divide because of an intensely wonderful travel experience I had at the tender age of nine years. In 1960, my parents had taken me and my sister on a cross-country road trip from our Miss’sipi-River delta home all the way across the Rockies to Washington state. What a string of vivid memories that westward trip has proven to be.
At the time of that journey, my father was bound for an international convention of foresters in Seattle. We took four days to drive a light blue Ford station wagon across Texas, the prairies, the Rocky Mountains, California, and up the west coast, then four days back again. This impressionable boy from Baton Rouge emerged from the long road trip with a vivid memory file that included seeing the morning snow-capped pinkness of Mt. Rainier, and an elk-horn hut in Wyoming, as well as a ride with a cowboy on his horse through a herd of cows that had blocked our mountain road.
Funny how the mind wanders sometimes. Somewhere in Colorado or Wyoming near that cowboy memory stands a wide wooden road sign that reads: Continental Divide.
And this is what I thought about yesterday while reading Paul Krugman’s “A Tale of Two Moralities,” in the New York Times.
It prompted me to share some personal experience with you. Everybody has a story to tell, and I’m going to tell you part of mine, as a roundabout way to get to a point about our Great American Divide.
In the first half of the last century, my dad’s folks had come out of the Mississippi woods, but had settled down in Baton Rouge in the thick of the petrochemical industry. Many of my young years were spent growing up in the shadow of a gargantuan Esso (now Exxon) refinery, which was said by locals to be the third largest oil refinery in the world at the time; it was three blocks from our house. I’ll never forget that acrid smell in the air, although some said it was from the Kaiser aluminum plant further up the River. Probably both.
Maybe five or so miles away, near downtown Baton Rouge stood the state Capitol, tallest bayou-state building not located in New Orleans. Huey Long had built the 34-story monolith back in the 30s. If you ever go up to the top of it, you’ll see, dominating the northward view, the huge, smoke-belching Exxon refinery, kingpin of Louisana industry.
My grandfather on mama’s side had occupied an office in the Capitol; he was a math-brain, and served as assistant Secretary of State under four Louisana governors, including the infamous Huey Long. The other grandfather demonstrated a more visceral, mechanical expertise. Hard-working Scots-Irish Miss’sippi man that he was– he had become a foreman down at the Esso refinery. My dad used to tell me that grampa had worked himself into a job where “wasn’t a valve or wheel in the whole damn plant that didn’t turn without Louis Rowland’s order.”
As far as I had been told, the unions had nothing to do with my grampa Rowland’s rise to productive authority in that super-size oil refinery. And that pertains somewhat to this Great Divide thing that I’m a gettin’ to. But hold your horses. Go watch a video somewhere if’n you don’t have time to do some personal-type historical reading.
My daddy, you see, had tried to start a forestry-supplies business back in the 60s. But it didn’t work out, and so he wound up his working life as a civil servant, in industrial development and recruitment for the State of Louisiana. (Hint about the Great Divide: Entrpreneur of State employee?) His office was in the complex of state guv’ment buildings that mushroomed ‘neath the shadow of Huey’s skyscraping Capitol.
At the time of my father’s job there, Huey was, of course, long-since dead, having been shot at the Capitol building one September night in 1935. But Huey had been a horse of different color. Some folks down there say that if he hadn’t been assasinated, he would have challenged Mr. Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in ’36. Of course, we’ll never know. Huey’s politics was raw and agrarian, and near as I can tell, even more “liberal” than President Roosevelt’s New Deal, which would have placed him on the leftward fringe of Democratic politics then or now. One of Huey’s slogans had been, “every man a king,” which might seem to have landed him in the self-reliant camp about which we hear so much today from the so-called libertarian wing of the Republicans. But since Huey’s other major plank was “sharing the wealth,” that would throw our categorization of his politics into the income-redistribution, quasi-socialist wing of the Democrats. Like I said, he was a horse of different color; there are a few of them buckin’ around in every generation.
He was, after all, you know, a Democrat. And that brings me closer to this oncoming perspective on the Great American Divide.
I was raised in a (at that time) Democratic state, in that state’s politics-obsessed capital city. That heritage had cast the prevailing political machinery largely into the mold of Huey Long, the firebrand orator who had come out of the piney woods of north Louisiana. Part of Huey’s share-the-wealth, every-man-a-king legacy is, these days, a state guarantee that students who prove to be diligent enough can get free tuition in state colleges and universities.
It was after I graduated from the state’s flagship University, in 1973, that I left Louisiana never to return, except for visits. It’s a great, proud state, but too hot and flat for me, so I ended up, after a brief Florida period, in the mountains of North Carolina. Back to the earth and all that. Ha!
Thirty-five years ago my quest for cool mountain livin’– a la that trip to the Rockies when I was nine–found its resting point here in the Appalachians. And now, after all this time, my view from the eastern Continental Divide–only a few geographical miles from our house–reveals that I landed, unbeknownst to me at the time, in the middle of a stubborn, self-sufficiency-touting, fundamentalist mountaineer culture, decidedly libertarian and mostly Republican (except for the thriving academic, typically humanistic community at nearby Appalachian State University.) So it seems that my life’s journey has taken me from one side of the Divide to the Other.
I’m just now figuring out what happened. I started out fifty-nine years ago on the left side of the Great Divide, and am now winding down on the right side.
From this perspective, I can see, as Mr. Krugman has so adroitly identified, that the two poles (polls?) of American philosophy gravitate down to this definitive question:
Am I acontributing part of a great Nation-State that is taking care of every citizen, with every citizen taking care of it?
Am a self-reliant individualist who prefers to swat the government nuisance out of my way?
Which way do you lean on the Great Divide?