From the West to us with weddings, wonder

Published 9:43 am Wednesday, June 3, 2015

by John Railey

I started writing this column at a wedding on the south slope of Mount Hood, Oregon last weekend, inhaling cool mountain air as I stared up through the clouds at Hood, all 11,000-plus feet of it.

I finished my writing here on the East Coast, once I got home and finally got comfortable again, paddling in North Carolina water and touching my bare feet to the dirt of the Piedmont if not the sands of my beloved Outer Banks.

I reckon I had to finish the column here because I needed to try to connect the wild dots that compose our country. Weddings are pretty good at that, like the Mount Hood one of two very special Portland architects, my niece Juliette and her man Geoff. They both grew up in Virginia, but never met until they were both working in Portland, a delightfully funky town.

Western North Carolina’s own Thomas Wolfe, no doubt influenced by Walt Whitman a long generation before, covered such unexpected connections well in “Look Homeward, Angel” when he wrote:

“A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.

Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.

The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung. Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time.”

His literary descendant, Jack Kerouac, also nailed that wonder in his iconic novel “On the Road,” as well as in other books.

The dream endures, the wonder and wanderlust remain. To fly this land from one coast to another, in a few hours, OK, several hours, is to behold the full majesty of a baby country still trying to grow up.

As only an occasional flyer, I love the conversations you can strike up in airport bars with Americans from all over. The wonder even bubbles, every once in a while, from the daily, hard-core business flyers, such as the moments when they find common ground through the back-and-forth of sports and politics, or when they play the do-you-know game and realize they count mutual acquaintances and even friends.

For a few moments in such settings, you tend to forget the conventional wisdom that our country is more divided than ever. You want to dream, even for just a minute or two, of something better.

Weddings, at least good ones, nurture that connectivity, drawing Americans to places and people they might never get to see and meet otherwise. On the day of the wedding, my wife and I drove a rental car up from Portland on an interstate that cut through the awesome Columbia Gorge and paralleled the mighty Columbia River. We lunched at Hood River, a fine little town almost as charming as our Boone.

Sitting at dinner at the wedding, I realized that if my father had been killed in World War II or if there had been a hiccup of fate among just one ancestor of anybody in that dining room, none of us would be there.

But there we were.

So as the time approached my turn to give a toast, I scribbled some notes on my wedding bulletin about Thomas Wolfe and destiny, with thoughts of saying something about that. Two of my loved ones said save that for a column and keep the toast simple. Fortunately, I took their advice and saluted the gentleness, humility, smarts and courage of Juliette and Geoff. Tonight, I said, we’re in the clouds in a good way, but this couple will take us to the moon.

I guess it was the best I could do. I hope it was enough. I owed a lot to the bride and groom.

They’d restored my sense of wonder in America, at least for a little while.

JOHN RAILEY, who grew up in Courtland, is the editorial page of the Winston-Salem Journal, which first published this column. He can be emailed at