Where in world...?

An old friend phoned the other day. He never phones. But this time he just had to know: "What are you doing living in Florence?"
He thought I was in Florence, Italy. I told him it was Florence, Massachusetts.
Here are some answers -- my occasional wanderings through Florence, MA and the surrounding Pioneer Valley.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Heat and Light, Wet and Dry

This past week has been one where lots of people have been eager to get back to routine, the most humdrum of routines if possible, especially if it includes heat and electricity. I am not terribly proud to admit that I couldn't handle the lack of heat and electricity for more than a day and a half before I escaped to Connecticut to my parents' house for those highly coveted items. I'm not quite sure what my dog Joey thought, but I get the sense he was awfully happy to visit a warm house, too.

Downed tree limbs still needing to be cleared from our local park.
(Florentina's been too freaked out by crushed cars
and downed live wires to get those more exciting photos.)
N.B.: Connecticut was actually the hardest hit state with its power outages and still has many residents waiting for the resumption of their services. But my parents were lucky, never having lost power at any time in the aftermath of our freak Halloween snowstorm.

I will admit that I kept thinking of two travelers, if not three, in the past week as the post-snowstorm drama unfolded across the region. Isabella Bird and Mildred Cable kept popping up at alternating moments this week, depending on the conditions around me. I've been looking at Isabella Bird's narrative, Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (1875) for the conference presentation made in Houston, and on my trip to Houston my airplane reading was The Gobi Desert by Mildred Cable with Francesca French (1942). The radical difference in these two environments and the objectives probably caused me to keep thinking about them together, as a way to work out what they might have in common as women travelers coming out of late Victorian backgrounds. I'm going to talk more about Mildred Cable because her narrative describes the extreme conditions here in Florence that made me a little bonkers.

Worth the trip. You'll wish you
could have been with them. 
When things got really cold, sitting around with candles lit and waiting to go to bed with four blankets and thermal underwear under flannel pajamas, my sense of guilt would arise when remembering Mildred Cable's twelve years in the Gobi Desert. That's right. Mildred Cable spent twelve years making circuits in the Gobi Desert with Francesca French and her sister, Eva French. These single women were missionaries for the China Inland Mission and are known to be the first Western women to have crossed the Gobi. Because of the number of times they crisscrossed the desert from 1923 to 1936, the narrative created is non-linear in chronological terms (a typical feature of many travel narratives). Instead the narrative is built around salient aspects of their travel route -- the people, their cultures, the religious landmarks, the local rulers who would be taken over by the Communist Chinese toward the end of the fifteen year period.
This would have been their entourage
during the warmer months. Imagine traveling
with this uncovered wagon during the cold desert winter.

The conditions endured by these three women, their animals, and their porters seem unimaginable when at their worst, and barely tolerable by softy industrialized North American standards even at some of the better oases. But reading this lovely narrative taught me the beauty of pure, clean water and a warm place to sleep. How much these two qualities were valued, as well as the hospitality of their various hosts who grew accustomed to seeing them over the years, teaches the essentials of travel. No complaints about cold noses, lack of fashionable clothes for really cold interiors, or grumblings about when the internet would come back on again.

The narrative describes an unnamed place of danger north of what was known as the Valley of Demons: "From the crest of those hills the blizzard crashes with a violence unknown elsewhere. Here many travellers have met death when the dreaded fan-shaped blizzard cloud spread from behind the summit, and the sudden violence of the wind robs man and beast of any sense of direction, while the perishing cold grips its victims in a deadly embrace" (97). Not many of us can actually be in a place empty enough to see the shape of a storm about to descend upon us, and to be able to do so in such a detached manner suggests a fortitude in meeting the hardships presented in the desert. Cable and French go on to talk about the difficulty in moving forward in these desert weather conditions. Think of that picture of a sandstorm, and add it to the worst snowstorm you've had yet. "All this drought, sterility, climatic hardship, blizzard and hurricane, combine to produce extreme difficulties in the matter of communications. No river is navigable, no railway system is available, and motor traffic, which would be the only remaining solution of rapid land transit, can only be sustained on certain defined routes, and that by dint of very effective organisation" (97). In other words, they had to rely upon their mules, and in certain storms, even they couldn't pull the wagons forward.

The China Inland Mission was famous (or infamous) for allowing women the power to become missionaries on their own, without the tie of marriage to grant them permission to work. Cable and the Frenches show that the CIM were right in recognizing women's abilities to do hard work and endure conditions unimaginable to their sisters living comfortably in Europe, and to me, running away to Connecticut in a warm car with my dog.

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