"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Epiphany Of Travel - When A Walmart Greeter Visits The Tower Of London

Jackson Billips was first in line for hiring at the new Walmart recently opened at the crossroads of three West Virginia hollers.  It was long anticipated by the residents of Bowlder, Upton, and Little Marvel who had relied on the company store since as far back as anyone could remember.  

Nothing much had changed in the hollers since the Wellington mine opened, and most families still lived in tarpaper shacks, bought sacks of cornmeal and flour, a rasher of bacon when there were a few pennies left in the cookie jar, and wore hand-me-downs from three generations. 

Walmart was not going to rescue them from the life of the hollers by any means, but the fatback and corn flour would be cheaper than at '456' as the mining store was locally known, and when Bangladeshi-made frocks were on sale, they were affordable on the layaway plan.  

No, the benefit of the new Walmart store would be employment - a chance to get out of the pit, clean up, and make some decent money.  The mining company had fought Walmart for years, since it could not afford to lose the hundred or so employees that the store had promised to hire, but in the end gave up their resistance and drew from Rider, another community not far from the mine. 

Jackson knew that being first in line did not guarantee him a job, but felt that by the time the last person in the queue, now winding two times around the block, got to the front, all positions would be filled.  

He dressed up as best he could - clean shirt and overalls, shined boots, and his grandfather's New York suspenders.  He practiced his diction and his demeanor.  He had listened to the banker, the pharmacist, and the doctor and tried to lose the worst of his Appalachian drawl.  He shaved, washed his hair, and made his way to the offices of the new store at four in the morning. 

The recruiter must have seen something honest and sincere about him, but because he had no sales experience and was a bit older than the rest of the applicants, he was hired as a greeter.  All that he needed to know was product placement, courtesy, and customer service.  

He did well and thanked God for giving him a reprieve - an above ground job in a well-lit, air conditioned, magnificently displayed place of employment.  The pay was low, lower in fact than wages in the mine, but the working conditions alone compensated for the difference.  He was happy, proud, and satisfied, 

After five years Walmart decided to run a lottery, the first prize of which was an all-expense paid trip to London.  The cost to Walmart was not what it seemed - the winner would go as part of a quid-pro-quo deal with the last of the independent airlines serving the area, the London hotel was little more than a youth hostel, and the expenses were barely enough to cover three nights of fish-and-chips - but to the lottery players it seemed like a bonanza.  Thanks to God, Jackson won and packed his wife and himself off to England. 

Now, for all the holler's penury and harsh living, it was not completely isolated from the mainstream.  Thanks to a television tower on the top of Harper's Ridge and pro-bono wiring by the Chamber of Commerce, there was reception from Wheeling and families who were able to afford the second-hand black and white televisions sold at Brady's Discount Home, opened their homes on Friday nights to friends and extended family.  There Jackson had had a glimpse of where he was going.  The only channel with decent reception was PBS, and he and his co-workers watched reruns of Upstairs, Downstairs, and Downton Abbey. 


The carriages, the splendor, the elegance and sophistication were all things he could never have imagined, never even thought possible. High school history had only brief mention of the redcoats, Lexington and Concord, the Boston Tea Party and King George; but nothing like this.  Nothing of the palatial luxury of the British well-to-do. 

No grubby hotel, no stale fish and chips, no indifferent crowds at Trafalgar Square, no airless Underground cars could possibly have dispelled the very idea of England.  England! What a marvelous place; and his ancestors came from there, ironically from the collieries of Wales in 1850, but still to be able to trace one's lineage back to kings, queens, and courtiers was indeed special. He appreciated London.  

The Tower of London where Clarence and the princes had been put to death and had seen executions, torture, and chains was not far from Buckingham Palace and the sense and the reality of his ancestral past became clear.  He didn't have to know Shakespeare, Dickens or the legacy of the Tudors to understand. 

Jackson was Mark Twain's innocent abroad without Clemens' satirical irony.  Everything after the dark limitations of Little Marvel was bright and clear.  The palace, the tower, London Bridge, East London, and the Thames were only intimations of what had come before; but they were enough.  The world in one short visit to London was decipherable.  No places could have been as different as Little Marvel and London, but no places more similar.  

Bob Fleck had been found murdered behind the woodshed of the old Parker place, victim of some incestuous rivalry. Billy and Hank Carter were killed at Khe Sanh like their father had been at Iwo Jima and their grandfather at Ypres; and like the Yorks and Lancasters who died in the thousands during the War of the Roses and the Hundred Years War. The mine owners lived in million dollar homes on top of the Blue Ridge while overseers managed the mines, the pits, and the labor. 

Tourism is big business, and Paris, Rome, and London welcome millions of visitors each year.  The Eiffel Tower, the Tower of Pisa are, despite their familiarity, perennial favorites.  Why, exactly?  The Eiffel Tower, other than an iconic image of Paris, is no more than a Victorian, early-Industrial Age construction, surprising and remarkable at the time, but only an architectural curiosity now.

The  leaning Tower of Pisa even less remarkable as a structure and insignificant as a historical moment with no particular iconic value is on most Italian tours. 

Why, then, do we configure our vacations around monuments, places of interest and historical significance about which we know and care little?   Why do we not spend our valuable leave time on more intimate and modest expeditions.  Was a trip up the Eiffel Tower worth more than a week on the Chesapeake or in the Shenandoah?  What is the relative value of a random trip to Vienna?  How relevant is it to our lives?

Travel, particularly solitary travel, for some has always been a spiritual journey.  Paul Theroux in his The Tao of Travel has reprinted the thoughts of many explorers who have found enlightenment or at least something profound in their voyages.


You go away for a long time and return a different person –you never come all the way back.

Travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be all alone and unencumbered…..It is hard to see clearly or to think straight in the company of other people.  What is required is the lucidity of loneliness to capture that vision which, however banal, seems in your private mood to be special and worthy of interest.
Travel which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion, just the opposite.  Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or foreign culture.  It is simply not possible (as romantics think) to lose yourself in an exotic place.  Much more likely is an experience of intense nostalgia, a harking back to an earlier stage of your life….What makes the whole experience vivid and sometimes thrilling is the juxtaposition of the present and the past.

Jackson  Billips was one of these unique travelers.  Perhaps because of the stark difference between Little Marvel holler and London; or more likely because he like Shelley, Matthiessen, and Conrad were born that way, native visionaries.  It only took a reluctant Matthiessen a few weeks in the Himalayas to 'see' them; a minute for Shelley to 'see' Mt. Blanc as the fog dissipated.

Shelley wrote:

Power dwells apart in its tranquility
Remote, serene, and inaccessible:
And this, the naked countenance of earth,
On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains
Teach the adverting mind...

 Image result for images poet shelley

 Vladimir Nabokov agreed:

To a greater or lesser extent there goes on in every person a struggle between two forces: the longing for privacy and the urge to go places: introversion, that is, interest directed within oneself toward one’s own inner live of vigorous thought and fancy; and extroversion, interest directed outward, toward the external world of people and tangible values 

Authors Stavans and Ellison talk about how travel has become commonplace and mundane, far from the voyages of discovery of travelers past:

For the most fortunate among us, our travels are now routine, devoted mainly to entertainment and personal enrichment. We have turned travel into something ordinary, deprived it of allegorical grandeur. We have made it a business: the business of being on the move. Whatever impels us to travel, it is no longer the oracle, the pilgrimage or the gods. It is the compulsion to be elsewhere, anywhere but here.

So Jackson Billips was a true visionary, a mensch, an innately privileged man without ever knowing it, one of a kind, fortunate to be a Walmart greeter and win the travel lottery, but a genius, and the best innocent abroad.  


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