‘Drinking Gourd’ a beacon to follow on way home

John Pepin

“Where the great big river meets the little river, follow the drinking gourd.” — Traditional

With the dizzying blur of holiday rush around my head, I stepped out into the cold snow off the edge of the frozen steps. Icy winds wrapped tightly around me, trying to find their way down through the threads of my wool jacket and flannel to the bones beneath my skin.

However, I pressed on, looking for silence, sense and reflection.

Often, when things get too loud, hard to understand or cluttered, the sights, sounds and feel of the natural world have a way of talking softly to me, deep inside, bringing comfort and helping me sort things through to find quiet moments of recharge and resolve.

On this night, I had a dragging case of holiday humbug bringing me down as I trudged through the snow, which covered my boots up past the bottom of my blue jeans. The night is so black in December, it often seems so much later than it really is.

This wasn’t a typical walk for me. I wasn’t out in a great natural setting, necessarily. This was more of a desperation move to get out, get anywhere, get a walk around the neighborhood.

The night didn’t offer up much to hear other than the persistent howl of the wind and the sporadic passing of cars, which moved by in a rumble, quickly on their way. The gulls, whose loud yacking is often heard at night, all the way up from the lakeshore, was gone.

From one yard, the tinkling of wind chimes came to my ears from beyond a garden fence, the sound edging its way in between spaces in the wind.

The dark trees stretched their long boney fingers out toward the sky, where the big dipper was tipping low again. I had seen it from the window of an airplane a week or so ago.

Seeing the constellation reminded me how the dipper is called “the plow” in England and how a peg-legged sailor during the Civil War instructed slaves how to traverse the Underground Railroad to freedom.

He did it by teaching them a song called “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which meant follow the big dipper, with its front edge pointing to the north star.

Not far down the block, I came upon a sign posted at the front of a big house, which was decked out in pretty, blue holiday lights, with at least two wreaths hanging near the overhanging eaves of the roof.

The sign, written in three languages, read “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

I followed the sidewalk, down a steep hill toward the lake, where you could see out past a fence, over the water a long way. Any chance the wind had of reaching my bones seemed slight now, with the movement of my walk I was warm all over.

After a couple turns, I was the closest I had been to the lakeshore. Here, the mighty roar of crashing waves joined the scream of the winds. Together, they drowned the sound of silence.

As I headed on, I noticed the holiday lights adorning most every home. Some decorators preferred white lights only, some red or blue only, not as many Santa or reindeer figurines as I might have expected.

I found myself in front of one house I’d seen several times on my lakeshore drives. At night, the holiday lights hung in a fruit tree in the backyard made a colorful, whirling display. The showpiece attraction, though smaller, was on the house itself.

Red, green, orange and blue lights marked out a peace sign.

As is generally the case when I walk, the spirit moving inside me brings a song to my heart and mind — a selection made on the big cosmic jukebox. I am often humored, dumbstruck or fascinated with the tunes that pop from nowhere into my mind in these moments.

Tonight, the song selected went way back to 1854 and the pen of Stephen Foster. I was familiar with modern versions by Mavis Staples and Bob Dylan.

The melody first coursed through my body, followed by the lyric.

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears

While we all sup sorrow with the poor

There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears

Oh, hard times come again no more

Tis the song, the sigh of the weary

Hard times, hard times, come again no more

Many days you have lingered around my cabin door

Oh, hard times come again no more

Foster, who had written many well-known tunes, is said to have written his melody No. 28, more often known as “Hard Times (Come Again No More), after reading “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens.

The song continued as I pushed through the snow back up the big hill.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay

There are frail forms fainting at the door

Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say

Oh, hard times come again no more

‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary

Hard times, hard times, come again no more

Many days you have lingered around my cabin door

Oh, hard times come again no more

There’s a pale drooping maiden who foils her life away

With a worn-out heart, whose better days are o’er

Though her voice it would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day

Oh, hard times, come again no more.

A decade after Foster wrote his “Hard Times,” the famous songwriter died an alcoholic at age 37. In his last days, he is said to have sung the song often.

An article in The Guardian said, “The attending nurses at the Bellevue Hospital opened his worn leather wallet to discover his fortune: 38 cents and a scrap of paper that read ‘Dear friends and gentle hearts.'”

Stepping past a tall stone wall, I wondered what Foster would think to know that more than 160 years after he wrote his song, people would still remember.

Kicking the snow off my boot heels on the concrete steps, I looked out of the wind and took a big deep breath of cold air and held it. Letting it out, I sensed the boa constrictor of holiday stress I’d felt earlier had loosened its death grip. I felt a little better now.

Inside the door, I looked for the wooden peg to hang up my coat. The soft lights burned warmly, illuminating the room, welcoming my shadow back home.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the DNR on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.