Kevin Dann, a Vermonter who’s walking from Montréal to Manhattan, stopped the other day at a high school in Champlain, N.Y., for what was supposed to be a series of classroom talks on the quadricentennial of Samuel de Champlain’s lake voyage. Dann, 53, started up a quad-related history slide show to one of the ninth-grade classes. Soon, however, he had the students playing kazoos, attempting yoga poses and relating rumors they’d heard on the school’s grapevine.
Such free-associating showmanship is typical of Dann’s pedagogy, says Erik Graham, who took the adjunct lecturer’s “History of the American Supernatural” course at SUNY-Plattsburgh. Graham had returned to the Northeastern Clinton Central School, from which he graduated in 2001, expressly in order to hear Dann’s raps, which clearly fascinated his adolescent audiences. “I’ve never met anyone with so well focused a childlike sense of wonder at that stage of life,” says Graham, who works as a cook at The Naked Turtle in Plattsburgh. “He’s got a very serendipitous way of living.”
Dann’s envisioned 46-day jaunt through 46 towns in the Champlain and Hudson valleys is regarded by those who know him as entirely in character. It combines historical analysis and political activism with socializing, entertaining and prophesizing.
The walk along what Dann describes as “the Corridor of Amity” is intended primarily to call attention to peacemakers who have lived in those valleys. Most of the monuments along the way commemorate war makers, he notes. And so he’s using the occasion of the “quad” to tell a different set of stories to anyone willing to listen.
Inspiration for the expedition comes from a study Dann began 20 years ago of the 1909 tercentenary celebration of Champlain’s voyage. It was apparently quite a blowout. “From Swanton to Chimney Point, from Rouses Point to Ticonderoga, every lakeshore town had a grand party 100 years ago,” Dann recounts. Burlington built a 10,000-seat grandstand on the waterfront along with a 300-foot-long artificial island made of lashed-together boat hulls. The Queen City wanted to impress President William Howard Taft, who showed up for the festivities.
Dann says he became “obsessed” with the tercentenary events “not just because they show how Vermonters thought of the colonial past but also how America thought of itself in the first decade of the 20th century.” The spectacles were actually more about American pride and glory than about the Champlain anniversary. Speakers at the 1909 gatherings gave thanks that the country was at peace — even though, as Dann points out, the United States was then engaged in “a terrible, bloody, murderous occupation of the Philippines.” The tercentenary can be seen now as an expression of “false patriotism, pugilism and empty pageantry,” he says.
On this year’s anniversary, too, considerable pride will no doubt be expressed in America’s freedoms and heroic history. The nation is, however, “engaged in two wars, a financial crisis and it’s filled with fear,” Dann observes. “Everything I had worried might be happening at the time of the quad has come true.”
Dann’s walk has no direct connection to the official quad extravaganza planned for early July — which is fine with him. The Burlington celebration has been “hijacked by Chamber of Commerce types,” he says. It’s being turned into a money-making mega-jubilee in a city that’s gone “festival-mad,” Dann says. “Festivals were meant to give people tools to live in more harmonious ways, but now they’re turning people into spectators. I mean, come on, Tony Bennett? What’s he got to do with Champlain?”
Standing in front of a cast-iron statue of the lake explorer in Champlain, N.Y., Dann explains that its depiction of a goateed grandee was actually based on a picture of an 18th-century French government minister. Only one authentic image of Champlain is extant, and it shows his face in small scale, Dann says. But he nevertheless approves of the statue because “history is 99 percent imagination.”
If that’s so, Kevin Dann must be one helluva historian. He hadn’t gotten too far into one of his monologues before he made mention of Christ and the Maya Calendar, a book the Rutgers PhD holder co-authored with Robert Powell, founder of the Choreocosmos School of Cosmic and Sacred Dance. The book plumbs the Bible’s Book of Revelation and the “apocalyptic indications” of Waldorf School guru Rudolf Steiner for insights into the end date of the Mayan calendar, which arrives in 2012. That year is apparently going to make this year’s quad-quake look like a blip on the screen.
It’s not necessarily true that the world is going to end in 2012, Dann explains. But heavy changes are sure to come down “as America fulfills a 2000-year-old prophecy.” The congruence of the financial crisis, conflicts in the Middle East, the events of 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama will bring about an epochal transformation, he predicts. And it’s going to catch a lot of people by surprise, because they’ve been diverted by digital technology from “the new forms of clairvoyance that human beings are supposed to be developing.”
Dann presents all this in an earnest, winningly ingenuous manner. He seems to regard the universe in entirely positive terms. Urging the high schoolers last week to embark on adventures of their own, he assured them: “Nature will take care of you, and people will take you in. They’ll feed you, clothe you, take care of you when you’re sick.”
Dann himself is so far having little trouble finding people who will take him in. He says he’s got an invitation to stay at Pete Seeger’s place in the Hudson Valley, for example. But Dann did get booted out of a woman’s home in St. Jean sur Richelieu last week after he showed her a copy of Christ and the Mayan Calendar. The woman got “freaked out by the Jesus Christ stuff,” Dann says.
Amity Baker, director of Social Band, a Burlington-based a cappella group, presided over a Montréal kick-off concert for Dann’s walk on May 16. “Most people think he’s completely wacky,” Baker says of Dann, who’s a member of Social Band. “But the one thing I find about him that’s so redemptive is that he genuinely loves people and wants very much to engage them. Also, he’s not scary.”
Dann, who sports a Champlain-style goatee, can actually be quite lucid — compelling, even — in his analyses of U.S. history and contemporary culture and in his explanations of why he’s walking 320 miles. “Walking is a radical democratic activity,” he says. “You cross borders when you walk. Americans are living in fear of talking to people who are not like themselves.”
Samuel de Champlain “lived outside conventions,” Dann told the ninth-graders. He clearly feels a kinship with the French explorer, whom Dann describes as “a man of great bonhomie.” Champlain “learned all the languages” of the Indian tribes he encountered, adds Dann, who’s fluent in French.
He contrasts Champlain with Henry Hudson, whose 1609 river voyage also is being celebrated this summer. “Hudson was an asshole,” Dann declares. “His men threw him overboard in 1611.” His was “a rule of fear and punishment” while Champlain “ruled out of love.”
Following the projected completion of his walk in Manhattan on July 1, Dann plans to write a book about what he did, saw and thought about en route. He has also been invited to the University of Texas at Austin this summer to complete research on another book, to be titled American Wizards. Dann’s long-range plan? To establish “a place-based Hogwarts School” somewhere in the Champlain Valley.