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Shaking off the Trammels of the World

From: Sewanee Review
Volume 116, Number 3, Summer 2008
pp. lxvii-lxix | 10.1353/sew.0.0052

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The Warrior’s Path describes Casey Clabough’s walking 450 miles from Frederick County, Maryland, to [End Page lxvii] Gatlinburg, Tennessee. He followed the Athowominee, this being an Iroquois word for the route taken by Indians traveling from New York down into the Cherokee country of Tennessee and North Georgia. Clabough’s German ancestors emigrated from Bavaria to Pennsylvania in the 1730s. At the end of the eighteenth century they resettled, following the path from western Maryland to the Smoky Mountains. In his book Clabough attempts to trace his ancestors’ way south. To do so he walks along roads, making his journey very different from a trek along the Appalachian Trail.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is comparatively romantic, a Thoreauvian endeavor that tests one’s mettle and proves the self. Clabough’s trip smacks more of ordeal. Strangers follow him. Fumes from highways are stifling. He is almost hit by a dump truck. In Virginia a yokel in a red pickup throws a can of Coors Light at him, smacking his backpack just below his neck. Near Kingsport, Tennessee, a driver holding a semiautomatic pistol tries to rob him. Clabough has no money, only road-weary clothes, and, after looking at him, the driver speeds off, exclaiming, “nasty motherfucker.”

In great part The Warrior’s Path provides the occasion for meditation, and the narrative slips easily between past and present. As Clabough walks forward in space, he often travels back in time, describing, for example, conflicts between settlers and Indians, the travails of indentured servants, and the customs of German settlers. Facts abound and like wild berries add zest to paragraphs: Radford Gatlin, whose name lingers in the town, was the only man out of 1,303 men in Sevier County to vote for secession; Conestoga wagons were an innovation of the Pennsylvania Dutch: “The fact that American steering systems are on the left side of the automobiles of our own time,” Clabough writes, “stems from the location of the wagon’s driver seat, which was just to the inside of the left front wheel.” He also describes ways of coping with the long walk. To keep mosquitoes away he eats garlic and rubs cross sections of cloves on his skin.

Digressions come more naturally when a walker has a destination, especially when he travels alone. “I want,” Hazlitt writes in “On Going a Journey,” “to see my vague notions float like the down of the thistle before the breeze and not to have them entitled in the briars and thorns of controversy.” Clabough seeds his pages with quotations and then lets his thoughts float. For example, in pondering history, he quotes Paul Valéry: “History is the most dangerous concoction the chemistry of the mind has produced. Its properties are well known. It sets people dreaming, intoxicates them, engenders false memories, exaggerates their reflexes, keeps old wounds open, torments their leisure, inspires them with megalomania or persecution complex, and makes nations bitter, proud, insufferable, and vain. History can justify anything you like. It teaches nothing, for it contains and gives examples of everything.”

Hazlitt also writes that the “soul of a journey was liberty, perfect liberty to think, feel, do, just as one pleases. We go on a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all consequences; to leave ourselves behind, [End Page lxviii] much more to get rid of others.” “Oh, it is great,” he continues, “to shake off the trammels of the world, and of public opinion—to lose our importunate, tormenting, everlasting personal identity.” In part Clabough loses himself in the search for his past, something common to many travelers. In pondering the past he escapes the amorphous tempestuous present. History is so fragmented and fragile that people never know much about their collective yesterdays. They know so little about the past that it is intellectually manageable and thus appealing, sometimes comforting—even accounts of butchery. Because history exists within margins on the page, it does not dislocate and confuse one so much as the pulse of the moment.

Clabough thinks a great deal about his ancestors, but I suspect he can never know them. But, oh, how alluring is the idea of...