Friday, November 14, 2014


It took me a while to remember why his name was familiar when a new friend my daughter’s age reached out recently to have coffee.

It wasn’t because he is the accomplished lead singer for the highly regarded group The Old Ceremony, although that should have been enough.  I often start writing each morning to the group’s song Wither on the Vine, Pt. 2.

I remember now when I first saw his name, not on a CD cover, but tucked into a remarkable photo essay about Durham that he authored for Design Sponge which I quickly forwarded to my community marketing team a few months before I retired from that field five years ago.

It makes sense that Django Haskins and I share a sense of rootedness and a passion for sense of place,  particularly in Durham.

As activities go, researchers cite music as a form of fantasy but for me at least it is at its most appealing when it reflects authenticity.

This explains my preference for the “roots” genre as we call it today and why even what researches find is the least authentic of the performing arts, touring Broadway musicals, that Once resonated so much more than others when I saw it on tour.

Authenticity is not only a spectrum, but there is even a spectrum  within activities that fall on the least authentic end.

But during incessant performance touring, a form of “extreme” tourism, Haskins began to pick up on what gave those rare places a “there” there, a “realness,” unlike the majority of others places where it was impossible to tell where you are.

A few years ago, my daughter and only offspring surprised me when she suggested we travel up through Stanley, Idaho, a remote area high in the mountains of my native state, on our annual pilgrimage to a family lake-side rendezvous in the Northern Rockies.

As she and my grandsons lay sleeping a few doors down, I arose early and was driving west looking for coffee.  Stanley is more than 6200’ above sea level and even in August the early morning temperature was barely 40 degrees.

The town’s population of around 60 had swelled just before our arrival with nearly 500 Forest Service firefighters working in shifts to battle the Halstead blaze lighting the pre-dawn sky over the ridge behind Stanley.

I had to settle for service station coffee when the song So Far Away came on the satellite radio station I was listening to.

Released as a b-side single just before my daughter was born, it became a favorite anthem for us during long stretches between visits as she was growing up.

Carole King, the anthem’s singer-songwriter had retreated to the Robinson Bar Ranch, the cut-off to which we would pass that morning on our way to Challis, a couple of years after I took the place-marketing post in Anchorage, my second of three.

After thirty years there and just before I retired, she moved just a hundred miles south into the town of Ketchum near Sun Valley which has an airport for private and charter jets.

On drives to and from her ranch, King would climb up out of the thirty-mile long valley of ranchland lying between the Sawtooth and White Cloud ranges.

Just before crossing over the 9,000’ Galena Pass she would have passed by an overlook dedicated to Senator Frank Church and his wife Bethine.

Bethine was the daughter of the former Governor of Idaho who also became a federal judge, named Chase Clark, who in 1917 with his wife had homesteaded the Robinson Bar Ranch.

It was across the broad Snake River plain from where my grandparents and great-grandparents had earlier homesteaded ranches along the Tetons and where both my father and I and my two sisters were born.

Judge Clark, who had spent much of his life in Idaho Falls, 50 miles below our ranch, died just a few months after I graduated from high school there in 1966.

But he, Senator Church and my great-grandfather Messersmith were an inspiration for me growing up, confirming that there was more to being Idahoan than being Republican like most of family were.

Carol King started writing hits such as Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow in 1960, when I was a rising 7th Grader, preparing to transcend the rivalry between my native Ashton Huskies and the Challis Vikings by starring on the junior varsity football team for the Greenacres Cubs.

Ok, subbing, on the practice squad but I lettered.

As an aside, the lead singer for the Shirelles thought the song was too country but the group’s 1961 version (with strings added) became the first #1 hit by an all-girl group, followed the next year by Soldier Boy and Baby It’s You.

It is a wonder I ever made it out of puberty, which didn’t start for most boys until the age I was back then.

At the time of her first hit as a songwriter, King was still a New York City teenager.  By my early 20s she released Tapestry, singing her own songs, one of the biggest selling albums of all time.

Just after I turned 30, she sought refuge and found her rootedness in my native Idaho, where its “there” there is most prominent.

In all, she has written far more than 400 songs which have been recorded by an astounding 1,000 artists.

So far away

Doesn’t anyone stay in one place anymore

A subsequent sequence also had special meaning for me because my chosen career was spent encouraging people to travel to particular places.

One more song about moving along the highway

Can’t say anything of much that’s new

As noted in his incredible essay, “The Geography of Somewhere,” Dr. Scott Russell Sanders explains that for many who travel, it is just a “far flung form of shopping,” merely another form of attention deficit consumption where any “there” there is immaterial.

But for the overwhelming proportion of travelers, researchers have learned that even those drawn to this and other forms of fantasy, places with a realness, an authenticity are preferable.

Community destination marketing organizations are supposed to be the guardian of sense of place but the great majority of places and their DMO executives have misplaced their bets instead on fantasy.

What these places and executives now have in common is a sense of rootlessness.

Worthy community marketing instead appeals to rootedness in travelers including those in search of places worthy of love as new residents or for relocating businesses. 

In his essay, Sanders uses the term “civic” to describe this place-based approach to tourism because the vast majority of travelers are in pursuit not for escape but paradoxically, to reinforce their rootedness and bring back a sense of home.

It is why a propensity for “rootedness” and not just a lust for travel should be a core competency sought for communities looking for someone to forge visitor-centric economic and cultural development.

Tony Knowles, a local restaurateur and friend in Anchorage who served on the Assembly and became Mayor and then Governor, would often kid me that he “trusted me to be that community’s tourism guy because I didn’t like to travel.”

Coincidentally, Tony had served in Vietnam with the 82nd Airborne which is based in North Carolina, where I would go next and where I remain.

What he also sensed while kidding me is that I was rooted, a job characteristic that helped me help the three communities I served during my career leapfrog those places that surrendered to fantasy instead.

It was in the early 1980s that I first read Dr. Wallace Stegner’s incredible essay coining the term sense of place.  It made me value my rootedness in a field where that was rare at the time and even more rare now.

He also turned my attention to Wendell Berry, one of his former institute fellows before retiring from Stanford, whom he mentions in the essay.

Berry is often compared to Thoreau in his uncanny grasp of and ability to eloquently capture the essence of place.

Stegner, Berry and Sanders should be required study for aspiring DMO execs as a means to get their heads around the more noble aspects of tourism.

Writing recently about rootedness, author, entrepreneur and road warrior Courtney Martin wrote in an essay on On Being that “Ultimately, life is made up of great conversations.  Whom do you want to have them with?  Some strangers, to be sure, but mostly with old friends, neighbors and family.”

Her essay reminded me of some wisdom on rootedness and perspective on travel written by Wendell Berry:

“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”

As long as my adopted home is worthy of love from people such as Django Haskins, there is hope for its sense of place.

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