Road Trip 2021: The Indian Mounds

You may have heard of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The ones that are still standing for us modern humans to see include the Great Wall of China, Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán, Petra in Jordon, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, Machu Picchu in Peru, the Colosseum in Rome, and the Taj Mahal in India. The list does not include the Indian mounds near Columbus, Ohio.

In our travels around the world Embry and I actually have seen every one of these spectacular places. They are in fact extraordinary and something to marvel at. We will remember them for as long as we live. But this road trip (Embry’s idea) was to drive to Columbus in search of Indian mounds created by what is called the Hopewell Culture (named for the person who owned the farm where the first mound was discovered in the late Nineteenth Century). The Hopewell Culture includes a number of pre Columbian, Native American civilizations that existed from around 500 BCE to 500 CE, flourishing for about a thousand years in the eastern forests from  Lake Ontario all the way to Florida. The Native Americans that lived in this area did not leave behind giant structures like Machu Picchu or the Great Wall but rather mounds of dirt or earthworks where they buried their dead and honored the sacred. Many of these earthworks are called effigy mounds and are shaped like animals. Effigy mounds were not burial mounds but had spiritual and mystical significance, which no one understands since we do not have any written history or written language from that period.  Most of the mounds have not survived today due mainly to us modern humans destroying them to make room for agriculture and modern settlements, but for some reason the area around Columbus is one of the few places where many of these mounds still exist.

Well, I will have to admit that I was a skeptic about the value of a road trip to see Indian mounds. The Hopewell culture extended through Middle Tennessee where I grew up, and I remember as a child playing on mounds of various sizes in the woods and forests near Nashville. We knew they were Indian mounds because bits and pieces of pottery were always around along with occasional arrowheads. We thought nothing of playing on these sacred places, and my guess is that few remain today as Nashville has expanded. Besides, how interesting could a grass covered mound of dirt be anyway? I suggested to Embry that if she really wanted to see what an Indian mound looked like, all she had to do was to visit virtually any golf course and marvel at the berms around greens and bunkers.

Wrong again. I was correct about the visual impact. We are not talking about oohing and awing over the Great Wall of China. A mound of grass covered dirt is, well, a mound of dirt. We visited a half dozen mounds of various sizes–some over a hundred feet tall– about 40 miles south of Columbus spread out in different locations, mostly in rural and forgotten places. The most famous was the Serpentine effigy, a mound in the shape of a giant serpent, over a football field long and soon to be designated a World Heritage landmark. There was nothing dramatic about viewing the Serpentine earthwork or the other mounds, but still the experience was something special and, yes, there was something sacred about these places.

Human beings lived here over two thousand years ago. The pottery, carvings, and metal work that has come out of the excavated mounds indicates they were sophisticated for their time and that there was a lot of trading happening throughout the eastern part of what is now the United States. We do not know what happened to these people or why centuries before Europeans arrived, the building of mounds stopped. But standing near these sacred places awakens the soul to how connected we are to others who preceded us and how our time as “modern” humans has been so short-lived. We are just a blip on the screen of history of a small, blue planet about four-and-a-half billion years old.

What will happen next, I wonder. What will happen to our civilization? Will those who follow us in some distant future, perhaps many centuries into a post-apocalyptic world, plow over the mounds we have created for our civilization? What will be left? Will we even be remembered some two or three thousand years from now? And what will we be remembered for?  These are the lingering questions that I will associate with the Road Trip 2021, to see the great mounds of the Hopewell Culture .







Road Trip 2021: The American Immigrant Story

A few years ago I blogged about the Sayderi family  (not their real name), refugees from Afghanistan and Iran, who had moved into our daughter’s family’s basement. The mother and father were probably in their 30s with two daughters age two and five at that time. After two years in the DC area, they had bolted for Columbus, OH, where they settled into an apartment supposedly in a less costly and more attractive neighborhood with better schools. We had kept up with them mainly through weekly Zoom sessions when Embry tutored the oldest daughter, now almost 10, in reading. The big news was that the mother, now in her late 30s, was expecting another child, but other than that we really had no idea as to how well they were doing. Going to see the Indian mounds in the Columbus area would give us a chance to find out and to catchup.

What to expect? Keep in mind that the Sayderi family arrived in the U.S. four years ago with hardly more than the clothes they wore. They were refugees who had been living in Turkey for five years and somehow ended up here as part of a United Nations resettlement program. Neither husband nor wife spoke more than a few words of English, and the husband had been denied any formal education in Afghanistan because when he was of school age, the Taliban controlled the country. Also because he was blind in one eye, he had been denied the chance for his dream job—becoming a truck driver.

Picture yourself in a similar situation: living for years in refugee camps in a foreign land where there was little chance for work and where you were not welcomed, then suddenly uprooted and landing in another foreign country, flat broke, where you knew no one, could not speak the language, and had a medical disability that kept you from working. How would you manage in such a situation?

Between the supportive services provided by Lutheran Social Services and funded by the U.S. government, help from our daughter’s family, our neighborhood church, and us, they were able to settle in, learn some English, get help to restore the husband’s eyesight, get driver’s licenses, buy a car, get the husband a truck driver’s job as a long hauler, and eventually move into their own apartment. Great success story, right?

So it would seem. But still, you never know. What they had had achieved seemed to us like accomplishing the impossible but not without stress, and not without taking an emotional toll. Would Columbus really be any better? The support network in Washington, which enabled them to make such strides, would probably not be available in Columbus. How would they manage?

As we drove into their sprawling apartment complex in what appeared to be a middle class neighborhood, I noted that at least with regard to housing and neighborhood, they probably were better off. We were met with smiling faces and embraces. The two girls now wore headscarves and at age five and nine seemed more grown up. Everyone’s English was a little better. The girls were totally fluent, and the parents were still struggling a bit but getting their points across.

The wife had prepared a huge, delicious mid-day feast of chicken, lamb, and rice, along with fruits and vegetables, which Embry and I enjoyed sitting at a small, elevated table next to the kitchen with the two girls. Our hosts were seated on pillows on beautiful carpets on the floor in the living room beside us. A huge flat screen, smart TV was mounted on the wall behind them. There was not a single additional piece of furniture in the apartment as far as I could tell, except for a bunk bed in the girl’s bedroom, which the girls said they never used. They slept on the floor in their parent’s bedroom. I recalled how much effort by people in our church went into furnishing their apartment in Washington and chuckled. Having western style furniture was not what they were used to or wanted.

When I commented that I was very impressed with how nice their apartment was, the husband said they were moving in one month. Beaming, he pulled out his smart phone and showed me a photo of a  3,100 square foot house with cathedral ceilings listed for $419,000.

“Moving. Bought house. Close in two weeks. Leaving!” he exclaimed.

When I showed my disbelief, the oldest daughter piped in, “Daddy bought us a house and we are moving in three weeks. We are going to Houston.”

His smiling wife elaborated in broken English that he had put down over $100,000, which he had received from fellow long-haul drivers and had his credit approved for the mortgage. She went on to say that she had checked out the schools and they were good. The reason for choosing Houston was that is where his Afghan best friend now lives and where there is a large community of refugees from Afghanistan. As a long hauler you can live anywhere.

This news was followed after lunch by a short ride to a nearby shopping center where a huge 18-wheeler truck was parked carrying parts of a tower crane on the flatbed trailer.

“My truck,” he said proudly, “Own. Own truck.” On his tee shirt were the words “United States of America.”

We were invited to hop in the cab and check out the small “apartment “behind the front seats—bed, refrigerator, hot plate, and storage area along with a mounted computer on the dashboard for logging times on the road and rest stops. Then when we got off, he hopped in and started up the engine. He had two days to deliver the tower crane to Richmond where he would drop off the cargo and await another pickup call from the dispatcher. He would be gone two or three weeks before returning home for a short visit, then off again.

“Is this a great country or what?” I muttered under my breath as I marveled, bordering on disbelief, at what the family has accomplished. By any measure,  their story is one to warrant being  on  poster child placards celebrating the American Immigrant: home owner, independent business man, and a decent income, with one foot surely pointed in the direction of arriving  in the middle class. And all this in only four years.

But at the same time, I realized the sacrifices they are making and the stress in their life. Embry asked me later if I noticed the tears in his eyes when he waved goodbye to his wife and daughters.


Next post: the Indian Mounds.





Road Trip 2021: First Leg—The “Other America”

With covid on the wane and the country starting to get back to normal, Embry determined it was time for a road trip. It sounded like a good idea to me since like everyone else who has been confined to a minimum security prison for the past 15 months, I was desperate to get out of Dodge. I was somewhat surprised, however, at her destination: Columbus, Ohio. Of all the exotic places we could be going, why would anyone choose Columbus?

“Indian mounds,” she replied. There are lots of Indian mounds near Columbus, plus that is where the Haydaries now live.”

The Haydaries are the immigrant family from Afghanistan that our church had adopted a few years ago and who had left the Washington area for greener pastures and cheaper housing. I sort of got that. But Indian mounds? I had seen Indian mounds in Nashville when I was growing up. No big deal, plus if you have seen one mound, you have seen them all. If you want to see what an Indian mound looks like, I suggested  to Embry that she should go to virtually any golf course and check out the berms around the greens.

Well, if you know Embry, you know that when she gets a bee in her bonnet about something, there is no arguing. She had been studying Indian civilizations online and was eager to see the real thing. She told me she had already booked three nights at a luxury B&B and had identified the location of a bunch of Indian mounds. Plus, we could visit old friends living in the mountains of West Virginia and Maryland on the way over and on the way back home. How could I say no?

We spent the first day driving to Cheat Mountain WVA; and after a great visit with our old friends from graduate school days in Chapel Hill, we headed out the next morning to Columbus. For some bizarre reason our GPS took us as close as it could get to a straight line. We traveled a grand total of six miles on interstate highways, drove very little on national or state highways, and most of the time until we reached the Ohio border drove on West Virginia county “highways” and county “roads.” The difference between a West Virginia county highway and a county road is that the former has two lanes and is paved. The latter has one or one-and-a-half lanes and may be paved, gravel or mud.

The estimated time on the GPS for the 200-mile trip was about four hours. With only one short stop we made it in six-and-a-half. At one point along the way on one of the most isolated stretches on a county “road,” in just over an hour of driving mostly on one-lane, partially paved roads, we gained only five minutes toward our destination.

Ironically, this was the part of America we had missed on our 2016 road trip to California and back. The distances were just too far to spend much time meandering through the hinterlands. We saw some of this backwoods country on our Western trip but not as much as we saw on this single day in West Virginia. It was an eye opener. Amidst backdrop of misty, green mountains, gurgling brooks, and meadows covered with yellow and white wildflowers, around most bends in the bumpy road were mobile homes in disrepair and aging houses that looked like a strong windstorm might do them in. Many had several abandoned cars and pickup trucks in the front yard partially covered by weeds.

In the 1960s Michael Harrington wrote a book called The Other America, which described the prevailing poverty in the United States at the time. There was a chapter on Appalachian poverty, which had a great influence on me. The rural, White, poverty he described is probably greater now than it was in the 1960s given the demise of the coal mining industry.

As we bumped along it was not long before we saw our first Trump sign, followed in a mile or two by a house with a confederate flag, then in another mile a “Trump is MY president” flag, then a large flag with an AK 47 on it. These images were repeated the entire two  hours we inched along on these desolate backroads winding through spectacularly beautiful fields and meadows, tall mountains on all sides and through deep woods.

The drive in Ohio was initially on main roads surrounded by vast farms with nice homes, but the next day when we set out to visit the Indian mounds, after a while we began to see more modest homes though not in as dire shape as we saw in West Virginia and with no sign of any Trump signs. That all changed, however, when we got on the Ohio backroads and into the hill country. When I noted to Embry that I was quite impressed that some homes had both “Trump is MY president” signs and Biden signs, suggesting to me the elusive tolerance and dialogue that seems to be so lacking today is actually happening in rural Ohio, she laughed, “Did you read the Biden signs? They all say, “Fuck Biden!”

So what is wrong with this picture? Here you have people without much money or hope for decent work, who would benefit from what Biden is proposing—increasing the minimum wage, free community college, free preschool, affordable childcare, stronger labor unions, more jobs for people without college educations, affordable housing and more affordable healthcare. Yet the people who would benefit the most from Biden’s legislative agenda see Democrats and Biden as the enemy. The person that they love, admire and will follow to the ends of the Earth was born with a silver spoon in his foul mouth with  a billionaire for a father, who while he was president championed one of the biggest tax cuts for billionaires in the nation’s history. He did nothing for them, nothing.

What is going on?

What came to mind immediately was that we live in a bubble. I know I do. Embry and I have traveled all over the planet, visiting some 75 countries, and yet we found ourselves on these two days driving through the backwoods and farm lands of West Virginia and Ohio in a strange land that could have been in another country or perhaps on another planet. We “Coastal Elites,” as we are sometimes called, do not understand why we are hated by people whom we have not tried to harm and whom in principle we would like to help. Yet they are also people we do not understand. There is  a culture war going on in our country, and it is far from over. Surely there are many factors—race, immigration, perceived downward mobility, perhaps jealousy. Many have suggested it has to do with lack of respect, “feeling dissed by elite snobs who look down their noses on those less fortunate.” Who knows? But surely, what I do know is that while many of us with advanced degrees, good professional jobs and financial security don’t get it, there is something going on here that is important, and we have got to figure it out and do something about it. The future of our country depends on it.

I think back on the experience Embry and I had living on Clay Street in 1970 and the book, Hard Living on Clay Street, that came out of it. We were so fortunate to get to know these people, who became our friends. They were strong, proud people but fighting lots of demons and dealt a hand of cards  that did not provide a whole lot of options. I know that feeling dissed was a factor for many we knew on Clay Street then as it is now for a whole lot of people in the White working class. The main difference is that with Donald Trump, they have a “leader,” who provides a voice for their frustration, anger, and pain, even though in my view  he is a fraud and con artist. I do not think there any easy answers for healing social class divisions in our country and realize that in some ways they are as insidious as racial prejudice. That does not mean we should turn our backs on it and give up. We must do better.


Next Installment: Leg two—the Indian mounds, the luxury B&B and the Haydaries.









Everyday Stories: What’s It’s Like To Go Deaf

Thanks to hearing aids, I am able to get by. I have had a fairly serious hearing problem since the mid 1990s and got my first set of hearing aids in 1997 at age 55. My father had similar issues, so I suppose it could be genetic. Over the past several months my hearing had gotten worse and then a few weeks ago much worse.  For most of covid-time, my healthcare provider was taking only emergency cases, and the audiology department was shut down. When a  few weeks ago things began to open up as more people got vaccinated, I called for an appointment, only to learn that due to the covid backlog it would be three weeks before I could get the wax cleaned out of my ears by an ENT doctor, another two weeks before I could see an audiologist for a hearing test, and only then could I  schedule yet a third appointment to get the hearing aids adjusted. That all totaled up to about six weeks.

Well, ok, I thought, my hearing is pretty bad, but I guess I can manage for a little longer with my failing hearing aids, so I booked the first two appointments.

Then my hearing aids went out completely.


The next day I attended a noon memorial service for a dear friend followed by a reception. I sort of got the gist of the service; but at the reception, it was hopeless. I spoke briefly to his widow, nodding when she talked, trying to read her lips, grabbed a sandwich and a lemonade and bolted. I had to get out of there. There was no way I could understand what anyone was saying.

So this is what being deaf feels like, I thought. I know that plenty of deaf people survive and in fact thrive and excel, but when not being able to hear a word someone is saying happens to you, it is a not a happy situation.

So what to do? I first emailed the healthcare provider, telling them about my situation and requesting an emergency appointment, only to be informed that this did not constitute an emergency and that I would have to wait patiently in line. No exceptions.

Wrong answer. I will not go into the details, but I immediately went to Plan B, which involved emailing a “Howell Outrage Manifesto” to the healthcare system authorities. I did not exactly threaten that if my hearing predicament was not considered an emergency, I would take action to bring the entire healthcare system to its knees, the executives thrown in jail, and the whole system humiliated when my op ed piece about it appeared in the Washington Post. But I hinted as much. Before the end of the day, I had the necessary emergency appointments lined up. The next morning at 8:00 AM the ENT doctor came in early to clean out my ears, then I was handed over to the audiologists, who gave me a hearing test and fixed the hearing aids. All done in about two hours. Mission accomplished.

Now not only can I hear again, but I can also hear better than I have for years. It turned out that the real culprit was wax buildup, one of the worst the ENT doctor said she had seen in years. It had been three years since I had had the wax cleaned out of my ears. That is supposed to happen every six months. I stand guilty as charged.

 There is so much we take for granted—like hearing or seeing or simply being able to walk, and yet we often do not appreciate how important these things are until we lose them. Just think of all the “little things” that covid has forced us to give up like eating indoors at restaurants, in person work and school, hugging friends, and actually seeing people’s faces. These activities, which we assumed were just a normal part of life, when taken away became very big things.

My new appreciation of being able to hear again caused me to think back about what it was like having polio, which I came down with at age 10, and how grateful I had been when little by little over the next few years I could start to do the kinds of things other kids could do like go to school, toss a baseball, or just hang out. It often takes an experience like this to make you appreciate how fortunate you are when life returns to normal.

But what does my experience in persuading the healthcare folks to make an exception for me say about what happens to others who do not have an Outrage Act ready in their back pocket for use when needed or do not understand how to get the attention of people who can correct a stupid rule or dumb protocol? How many just get squelched?  Would poor folks or immigrants or people of color or “really old people” or those with limited education be so lucky? Life is not fair nor has it ever been. So much depends on circumstance and the luck of the draw. This incident reminded me of how grateful I am (yet again) for the hand I have been dealt.