For my Song of the Open Road, I am taking a bit of a different direction and I hope you will indulge me.
In my American Literature class, I assign students to read “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman and write their own narrative following the structure and theme of the poem. The assignment is for students to interpret the theme of a particular stanza from each of the 15 parts of the poem and write their own narratives in that theme. They must include quotes from the poem and a picture for each part as well.
In honor of National Poetry Month, I am writing my own “Song of the Open Road” following our Spring Break road trip to Big Bend National Park in Texas. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. If you are unfamiliar with the whole of Whitman’s poem, you can find it here.
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
It is has been too long since we traveled. We had our break in February cut short, so we were itching to hit the road. All week we were antsy, wanting to escape the confines of the school.
When Friday arrived, it was all we could do to not to just skip work and take off. When the bell rang at 3:15, we were out like a shot and on the road as quickly as we could manage.
At first, it was smooth sailing on the interstate, but, ultimately, we crawled through Atlanta traffic heading south. It was Spring Break, after all, so everyone is headed to the warmth we have craved for so long.
Still, we were on the road and despite the traffic in Atlanta, we were able to officially get our trip started.
You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here.
The rush to leave Atlanta is always stressful, but as we moved into Alabama, we began to settle into our pace on the road. There is something so intoxicating about being on the road, seeing the countryside, exploring the small places of our country.
We traveled south to Daphne, AL for our first night, then headed west along I-10. This was our first trip together along this portion of I-10 and the miles seemed to melt by as we passed from Alabama through Mississippi into Louisiana.
You air that serves me with breath to speak!
You objects that call from diffusion my meanings and give them shape!
You light that wraps me and all things in delicate equable showers!
You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides!
I believe you are latent with unseen existences, you are so dear to me.
While a day of driving is sublime, we are always looking to find intriguing detours along the way. We decided to cut south before getting to Lake Charles, Louisiana and visit a national wildlife refuge.
As much as we enjoy the speed of the interstate, getting off and exploring the backroads is always a delight. The Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge is about 30 minutes south of I-10, but a world away.
All it took was traipsing out on the boardwalk to immerse us in the marshlands of Southwest Louisiana. With plenty of birds and gators to enjoy, the stop allowed us to wind down from work and its burdens.
O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem.
We continued into Southwest Louisiana, going further from the interstate. As we passed by low marshes and building after building built upon stilts, we were confronted with how connected these people are to the water around them.
Most every building seemed to be 12 feet off the ground. Even the high school in Cameron, LA sat on stilts, its handicapped-accessible ramps formed switchbacks leading into the building.
Since we are not taking the shortest path, Bonnie navigated us the old-fashioned way: with a map. Maps and GPS always fail to teach the nature of a place and perhaps the most telling aspect of this particular place is the “movable bridge” in Cameron.
Just glancing at the map, you would not notice there is no bridge over the Calcasieu River. Once you arrive, you realize there is no hurrying through this part of the world. The ferry runs every 15 minutes, so we waited and felt the breeze and enjoyed the warmer weather.
It has been far too cold this spring.
The ferry deposited us on the far side of the river and we continued, following the highway which winds further south until we were right on the Gulf Coast.
I don’t think I have ever seen such a deserted stretch of beach before. While there are a couple small communities a bit further west, there was nothing but a few folks enjoying the beach here.
We stopped. Even though we are destined for a sandy place, walking out on the beach is a rare treat in our travels. We typically favor the West with its mountains and plains to the sultry breezes of the Gulf Coast.
It was getting later and the light was getting softer. As much as we would have liked to stay, we journeyed on. We passed the oil refineries on the coast, finally crossing the Sabine River into Texas.
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
Ah, Texas! The place of my youth…a place remembered and loved!
There is something inherently spiritual about Texas, at least for me. The people, the attitude, the history and the land all come together to create something more, something unseen, something ethereal.
I lived here when I was in middle school and returned often to visit my father. My senior year, before heading off to the Army, my father and I took a road trip into the Hill Country, down along the Rio Grande and into the sandy pine woods to the east.
For my father, it was business. He had properties to visit for his job. For me, it was wading through the heart of a state which had infected my soul.
I was returning now with my wife for our second trip to Texas. As we passed from the sprawl of Houston toward San Antonio, the trees began to change, getting shorter, and the sky began to open up.
San Antonio is an amazing place. We visited there in 2011 and while we would have loved to stop and have lunch on the River Walk, we are pulled west into the Hill Country.
The Hill Country is a rugged area of small towns, green rivers and a distinctly Texas feel. We looked for bluebonnets along the road, since we missed them on our previous trip.
As we approached Del Rio, we spotted our first immigration inspection station on the other side of the road… an unfortunate byproduct of being so close to the border.
Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.
Amistad National Recreation Area provided a well-needed break from our drives. We eagerly headed for one of the trails. There is something so liberating about grabbing a pack and heading out on the trail.
With the temperature just climbing above 80, the sun warmed our core. We walked through the low scrub brush and cactus of south Texas and stopped to gaze at the beauty of the reservoir in the distance.
The flowers of the prickly pear cactus reminded us that beauty can be found even in the harshest space.
It was Easter. We often end up traveling on holidays due to our breaks with school. While I have no problem spending Easter with family and going to church, it is out in nature where I feel my greatest connection to God.
Here is the efflux of the soul,
The efflux of the soul comes from within through embower’d gates, ever provoking questions,
These yearnings why are they? these thoughts in the darkness why are they?
Why are there men and women that while they are nigh me the sunlight expands my blood?
If I am honest, I find greater truth along the road than in the classroom. I am drawn through places I cannot imagine only to wonder, “How do people live here?” Or more importantly, what is life like for the people who live here?
As we cruised near the border in south Texas, I am confronted by towns that were or barely are. Places where people once carved a life out of the harshness of the world around them… or still do.
Yet, the US Border Patrol is here. We passed several agents on patrol in their white pickup trucks and had to stop at an inspection station.
“Georgia?! What brings you out here?” the agent asked, only professionally curious.
“Headed to the park,” we replied.
“Ah. Lot’s of people headed to the park.”
The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness,
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged.
It was hard. Texas speed limits on highways are often 70-75 mph. It was hard to slow down once we arrive in Big Bend National Park, not just because it felt like we were crawling, but also because we made it to our destination.
We always stop at the visitor center to speak to a ranger to ask how things are in the park. It is a rule for us. While we had done the research, we still had questions about some of the unimproved roads.
“Well, that road can get a little rough,” the ranger said.
“What does that mean? Does that mean I need a lifted Jeep to get by or will my truck do?”
“Oh! You should be fine,” she said.
I find the rangers can be a bit cautious in their advice. I understand why. Not everyone is as capable as we are in terms of spending time in the backcountry. It was mildly frustrating nonetheless.
We were off, headed down the Dagger Flat Road. Flowering plants in the desert are always beautiful and this drive did not disappoint. We took our time, enjoyed being out off the paved road and discovered the quiet.
If there is one great adjective to use to describe Big Bend, it is quiet. Once you get away from the paved roads, often you are by yourself. In some places, you can be the only one for miles.
It was blissfully quiet.
Allons! we must not stop here,
However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here,
However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here,
However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.
We settled into the Chisos Mountains Lodge for the night and it was comforting. We knew we had a reservation. We knew we did not have to fight for a spot at a campground.
The lodge was comfy and the Chisos Basin is chock full of amazing views. An early dinner allowed us to rest and then head out on the trail.
The Basin Loop trail provided great views of the Chisos Mountains as the sun crept ever downward. The mountains lit up with an almost burnt orange glow as the shadows crept around us.
We ended our hike just as the sun set through the gap known as the Window, providing a staggering wash of color throughout the basin.
Alas, we could not stay. The next morning we had to secure a campsite for the night, plus any hikes done in Big Bend should be done early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid the heat.
Allons! yet take warning!
He traveling with me needs the best blood, thews, endurance,
None may come to the trial till he or she bring courage and health,
Come not here if you have already spent the best of yourself,
Only those may come who come in sweet and determin’d bodies,
No diseas’d person, no rum-drinker or venereal taint is permitted here.
An early hike followed by a trip to Panther Junction Visitor Center to secure our backcountry campsite allowed us the time to explore the Grapevine Hills Road and hike out to Balanced Rock.
The trail wound relaxingly through a wash and then ascended a section of rock to take you up to Balanced Rock. The trail was not hard, but there were several places you need to use your hands to help ascend the trail.
The view, however, was worth the work. We enjoyed the cool of the day due to the clouds, but the lack of blue skies was a bit of a grumble.
Spring has not been warm and we are tired of overcast skies.
Still, the cooler temperatures and clouds allowed us to explore the western part of the park without being cooked by the sun. We even made a point to drive out to Terlingua Ghost Town, which isn’t a ghost town anymore.
Finally, we settled down for a quiet dinner at our campground as I read up on the journey for the next day. The dirt road we were set to take can be a bit rough.
Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve
All things revolve around the sun in Big Bend. The midday heat can be insufferable without shade. Knowing our campsite would not have much in the way of shade, we planned to spend the morning hiking into Santa Elena Canyon.
The canyon can be seen from a distance, where it looks like not much more than a notch in the rock. Up close, it is imposing. Once inside, the walls are so steep, direct sunlight rarely hits the bottom of the canyon, offering hikers a cool place on a hot day.
But it was not hot. A cold front had moved through, leaving bright, clear skies and temperatures in the middle-70s. In short, the weather was perfect.
Our destination for the night was a bit off the beaten path. We were traveling along the rugged, unimproved River Road. While not the roughest road in the park, it would be very challenging, if not impassable, to anyone in a low clearance two-wheel drive vehicle.
Our truck, on the other hand, moved through the road easily. While the trail had a few rough spots, there was nothing a quick shift into four-wheel drive would not solve.
I will not lie. I adore driving roads like this. They require thought while driving and it is great to get off the beaten path to someplace a little less explored.
Big Bend NP is not a crowded park. We were there at the tail end of the busy season, but it was still far more vacant than some of the other parks, like Yosemite and Yellowstone. While the park itself is large, it is definitely someplace you have to want to go to.
Crossing River Road brought us out into the wilderness, which was intoxicating. The wild terrain greeted us with overwhelming views throughout the hours-long journey.
We arrived at our campsite about an hour earlier than we intended, so we headed down to the bank of the Rio Grande to check out the river.
At the river, we found a sublime spot with copious shade. Bonnie had the great idea to grab our camp chairs and spend the remainder of the afternoon sitting by this verdant spot along the river.
So, we spent the afternoon reading and watching the horses cross the river downstream. You would never know there was another country on the other side of the water.
Our campsite, a few miles from the river, was nothing but glorious solitude. I doubt there was a person within 20 miles of that spot that night and certainly no one within 10 miles.
It was the most alone we have ever been. It was invigorating.
They too are on the road—they are the swift and majestic men—they are the greatest women,
Enjoyers of calms of seas and storms of seas,
Sailors of many a ship, walkers of many a mile of land,
Habituès of many distant countries, habituès of far-distant dwellings
Alas, we only stayed the one night along River Road. We continued our journey, arriving at an abandoned resort along the river. People have used hot springs to heal their bodies for hundreds of years and it is no different here.
While the ability to soak in the 105° F water sounds nice for a cool winter morning, we knew the day would be hot, plus we needed a campsite for the night and authentic Mexican food for our bellies. Thus, we did not stop for a soak.
After we grabbed a campsite, we headed to the border crossing. Yes, you can legally cross into Mexico in the park. There is a minuscule hamlet of Boquillas del Carmen is just across the river.
So, we took the ferry (a rowboat!), paid for a burro to ride into town and enjoyed homemade Mexican goat tacos.
There is not much to the town. There are only about 200 people living there. The nearest gas station is more than 150 miles away. There is one phone line and only within the past few years has the town gotten electricity.
Still, the food was good, the people were friendly and the views of the river were worth the trip.
Allons! to that which is endless as it was beginningless,
To undergo much, tramps of days, rests of nights,
To merge all in the travel they tend to, and the days and nights they tend to,
Again to merge them in the start of superior journeys,
To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it,
To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it,
To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you, however long but it stretches and waits for you
Following an amazing sunset and a less than amazing night’s sleep, we were again on the road.
We discovered a lag screw in one of the tires. While the tire had lost some air, we put air in and it held steady on to our next stop, Fort Davis National Historic Site. First, we had to cross Brewster County.
Brewster County is the largest county in Texas. At 6,192 square miles, it is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Still, there are less than 10,000 people in the entire county.
It is liberating to be out on roads so open.
Have the past struggles succeeded?
What has succeeded? yourself? your nation? Nature?
Now understand me well—it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success,
no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.
Fort Davis is just what you would expect from a Western fort: several buildings arranged around a large parade ground. Its history, however, is amazing. Home to some of the Buffalo Soldiers (all-black cavalry units), the fort was essential for maintaining the San Antonio to El Paso Road at a time when the Apache were bent on closing it.
Getting the tire repaired was a bit taxing. We wanted the Ford Quick Lane to handle that and an oil change. The nearest one was in Abilene and closed at 6 p.m., forcing us to hurry along the interstate. We made our appointment, but it did delay us by a couple of hours.
We are not fans of driving after dark but had to in order to make our hotel in Cleburne. It was after 9 when we got in, making for a very long day. Still, the hotel had a hot tub and we were able to let the jets melt off the stress.
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
We awoke to temperatures in the mid-30s and rain chased us across Texas and Louisiana.
Leaving Texas was a bit bittersweet. On the one hand, I loved our time in West Texas, but our visit was too short. Much like the taste of a snack which only makes you want more, I long to spend more time in the Lone Star State.
Our final destination for this trip was Vicksburg National Military Park. We spent the afternoon exploring the park and following the battle road as we toured the various important locations of the siege.
Vicksburg NMP marked the final National Park Service-maintained Civil War battlefield for us to visit. With this, we have now been to most of the major battlefields of the war and, while we enjoy visiting them, we are glad to have this part of our history behind us.
One final stop near Jackson, MS and we were headed home. We were on the road for 10 days and were a bit tired… Not of being on the road, mind you, but rather of the pace. With the constrained time of our spring break, we had to return home and to the classroom for the final push to the end of the school year.
But this summer we will join hands and strike out on the road once more. We shall take ourselves to places unseen and experience all this land has to offer.
Will we see you out on the road?