The original idea behind Arterial America (www.arterialamerica.com) was simple enough: get from New Orleans to Chicago. As a music historian—I graduated with a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Texas last May—the pathway between those two cities is of enormous significance: it’s the distance between Louis Armstrong and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, or between Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. But as this project shifted from idle thought to actual plan, it became clear that the way north has historically consisted of many routes, exceeding the bounds of a “Blues Trail” or even of an African American “Great Migration.” They go back to before Columbus, when American Indians followed what we now call the “Natchez Trace” across the states of Mississippi and Tennessee. That same trail was followed by boatmen from before the time of Mark Twain, hoofing it back to their hometowns after floating a raft full of goods to the port of New Orleans, returning with what coin remained in their pockets after the temptations of the Crescent City. The way north consists, too, of railways and roadways, and, of course, boats.
This multitude of means and routes are at odds with most travel accounts from the region, which are almost exclusively both boat-centric and southbound: from Twain’s own Life on the Mississippi (1883) to Harlan Hubbard’s Shantyboat (1953) to Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory: An American Voyage (1981) to journalists Michael Porath and Vaughan O’Brien’s Internet-published reports on their Lake Itasca-to-the-Gulf canoe trip in 2005. The water may run to the sea, but life flows upward as well, a fact I am reminded of as a native of Illinois every winter when the barges that bring the corn to the port of New Orleans return with the salt for the roads. My own ancestors arrived in America at that same port—not Ellis Island—before taking a steamboat to Alton, IL, disembarking, and finally settling very near where I type these words. So, north it would have to be. The next question is, “How?” There’s a certain romantic appeal in walking the entire distance, the attraction of an American “Way of St. James” style pilgrimage. But the diversity of routes suggests similarly mixed modes of transport. And so, the plan is to walk from New Orleans to Memphis, following the back roads and bits of the Trace and Highway 61, catch a towboat from Memphis to St. Louis, and finally hop a train from St. Louis to Chicago. As far as the walking goes, don’t make it an endurance test. Amble, and—like my hometown hero, the wandering poet Vachel Lindsay—don’t turn down a ride in inclement weather. Prepare to sleep outside, but hope for the kindness of strangers and be willing to work for a bed and a meal. As a student, I worked the river with a marine salvage company out of St. Louis, so getting myself onboard a northbound towboat is mostly a matter of asking favors from old friends. Well, that and a Transportation Security Administration ID card. The train. Well, that’s a hard one to call. My heart tells me to head for the layup yards on the Illinois side of the river. But my head tells me that, aside from the danger, determining the jump-off point on a freight ride is difficult; there’s a reason William T. Vollmann titled his book on the subject Riding Toward Everywhere. And, in any case, the freights don’t generally go into the city these days, stopping instead in Morton, IL. Amtrak may be the only option.
In addition, I’m a huge fan of classic travel writing, both British and American. From close study of books like Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana (1937), it has become apparent to me that as a genre the best travel writing is often an aggregate of other forms: the diary, the epistolary novel, art criticism, political reportage, etc. In Byron’s case, it took him several years to construct the collage that is The Road to Oxiana. But with a little bit of advance study/preparation and the advantages bestowed by blogs and social media, such composite texts can now be constructed in real-time, before the reader’s eyes. Furthermore, I should note that my interests are not only literary, but also encompass audio recordings and the capturing of visual images. When I consider the mixture of music criticism and travel memoir that makes up Alan Lomax’s The Land Where Blues Began (1993) and then look at the massive archive of his lifelong sound/image collecting housed by the Association for Cultural Equity (www.culturalequity.org), the appeal of making such material available immediately is very clear. This is not to downplay the significance of Lomax’s contributions, but merely to point out that for a very long time most of the results of his labors were difficult for the public to access. With a lightweight digital audio recorder, a camera, and an Internet connection, that particular problem is moot.
At the same time, I cannot travel the routes that I’m traveling and expect to find the “last of the Mississippi bluesmen.” Rather, what’s important at the outset is to keep my ears and eyes open to contemporary life. That includes not only musical performance, but also everyday sounds, everyday activities. The sounds of the natural world. Images of “the movement of people working,” to cop Phill Niblock’s title for his own work on the subject. With web-based service like SoundCloud and Vimeo, this is much easier than it used to be.
In the long run, and with the benefit of hindsight and editing, I’d love to see Arterial America become a book, a commercially released recording, or a film—or some combination of the three. But for now, the primary goal is to pack up, hit the road, and find what I can find. On my own, this trip would be personally meaningful: from idle thought to actualization. But with your help, I’ll have the means to report back, to let you travel along with me. I hope you’re up for it. Thanks!
Risks and challenges
Well, the number one obstacle is the issue of what I call “stepping off.” “Stepping off” is what you have to do when you’re about to embark on something that your rational mind warns you is too fraught with unforeseen dangers. Every time I start to plan out a trip somewhere, there’s a tiny voice that tells me that I should back out. It continues right up to the point where I’m already on my way, no turning back. (Budgetary concerns aside, there’s a reason why most travel remains firmly within the realm of fantasy.) Willfully ignoring that voice is thrilling, if a little scary. That said, I’ve never backed out of a trip before, and have come to value those moments when things go “wrong” almost more than any other aspect of travel—a quality I find parallels to in the work of many travel writers I admire. With a community of supporters behind me, monetarily and otherwise, one simply HAS to go on, to “step off.”
Beyond that existential hurdle, when I was discussing with my brother what more quotidian problems I might confront, he phrased the issue in a way I like: “At what mile?” Considered seriously, a trip like this involves not only “potential” but very real confrontations with pretty much every level of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, including the task of finding food and shelter on a daily basis, encounters with unfriendly dogs and local police, the loneliness of the road, the maintenance of self-confidence when travel becomes difficult, and anxieties over the fullness of that well of creativity and that problem solving toolbox both necessary in order to write daily dispatches, make connections with strangers, and deal with all the preceding issues I’ve listed. At the same time, no matter what mile these crises occur at—and they will occur—I feel confident that my travel-seasoned attitude toward those moments when things go “wrong” will hold me in good stead.
Ultimately, though, one of the best parts of this project is that results are immediate: once I “step off,” what I’ve promised to supporters will be available instantaneously, thanks to the benefits of modern technology. One crucial aspect of those technological advances is that they allow for networks of association that were not previously possible; it’s great to know that there are people out there following me online, but I hope that some of those same followers can put me in touch with friends and family who happen to live along the route. Travelers used to carry letters of introduction, but now we can rely on mutual friends connected through social media. And hey, besides, the rough parts always make the best stories…Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)