Thursday, December 18, 2014

Out of Clay


How loyal should Jews be to themselves, as opposed to others? As Hanukkah begins, this question lingers. After all, this in a revisionist if understandably less popular view celebrates the triumph of Hebrew tradition over assimilation. Refusal to give in to the Greeks and their lax practices and morals, at least as we get the version in Maccabees (not a canonical book of the Tanakh, but Catholics accept it for its hint of purgatorial affirmation, as an aside, in turn ironically reflecting Greek influence on the rabbinical conception of an afterlife with its hopes or fears). So, when Jews commemorate the victory of those who refused trayf on pain of death, and who then inflicted death on those they hunted down who had given in to the pagan ways and their uncircumcised fashion, do they realize the tension inherent in it? Does this undermine its family fun and, now, "co-exist" bumper sticker and postage stamp equivalent that leads us to all to wish "happy holidays" alongside the newest inclusion, equality with Eid al-Fitr? (I have yet to meet anyone who lights Kwanzaa candles, invented in 1966 by a black studies professor, within sight of where I teach.)

Michael S. Roth, reviewing in the New York Times Alan Wolfe's At Home in Exile, sums up that professor's approval of universalism against particularism, the two strains in Jewish identity which have bedeviled it for centuries, and maybe always. "Mr. Wolfe looks at Diasporic Jewry not as an endangered species threatened by aliyah (emigration to Israel) and assimilation, but as a vital and creative force that is also good for Israel. The 'best thing Jews can do to further the survival of the Jewish state,' he writes, 'is to remain outside Israel and keep the tradition of Diasporic universalism as vibrant as possible.' American Jews in particular, he optimistically concludes, 'retain a commitment to social justice in ways that resemble a biblical commandment,' adding, 'Religious or secular, universalism is part of who they are.'" So, Wolfe favors this separation as the way that, somehow, Jews will flourish, apart from the State of Israel and those Zionists who resurrected Maccabee heroes.

On the other hand, as David Remnick's "Israel's One-State Reality" (to me it feels too one-sided as it reasons that Palestinians will be satisfied with restoration of the West Bank; consider their militant dissatisfaction now in Gaza) in a recent New Yorker examines, the discontent in Israel appears to tilt the balance away from Wolfe's expectations of diasporic prosperity balanced with homeland security.

Near the end, Remnick observes a reaction common to those of us who, as in my city, see all around us the presence of Israelis who have moved away from their forebears' Zionist allegiance. They may still call themselves Israeli citizens, but their decision to emigrate proves they have taken a tangible, personal way away from the land of the particular, Eretz Israel, into the diaspora Wolfe welcomes.

"Many Israeli friends have remarked on the élite in the country—doctors, artists, engineers, businesspeople; call it two hundred thousand people—who provide Israel with its economic and cultural vibrancy. That élite is no less patriotic than the rest, but if its members begin to see a narrowing horizon for their children, if they sense their businesses shrinking, if they sense an Israel deeply diminished in the eyes of Europe and the United States, they will head elsewhere, or their children will. Not all at once, and not everyone, but there is no denying that one cost of occupation is isolation." Wolfe's observations certainly can be proven all around us, even if opponents claim pro-Israeli media dominate journalism. Anytime the New York or Los Angeles Times reports on this conflict, "the other side" protests its bias. Sympathy for Israel is weak from my observations of the wider media (if, yes, often outside the U.S. mainstream). On the L.A. Times' back pages, I read how a few left France for Israel instead to make aliyah, so discouraging was France towards any other support than that given Arabs nowadays. Any who stand with Israel, as the slogan goes, get relegated to the ranks of racists, hypocrites, right-wing fanatics, sometimes in caricatured stereotypes. The presence of Godwin's Law rapidly slips into pull quotes, cartoons of a crooked cross replacing the Mogen David, Facebook comments lambasting Israelis as tycoons and jackbooted stormtroopers. The inevitable elision of anti-Jewish attitudes under the guise of anti-Israel anger occurs, even if progressives take pains to deny this. I wonder, if ISIS had not burst into the news this same summer, if the global support for the Palestinian uprising under Hamas would have grown even more strident.

Anger at least online and in headlines came and it went quickly, if far more intensely than the previous reaction to the insurgency in 2010. This year's skew, with a flood of those charged images uploaded during Operation Cast Lead, in my FB feed tallied 99+% for Palestine and -1% for Israel, but that may reflect my own friends and the loyalties of those outside Judaism. Yet I hasten to add that nearly all of my Jewish friends who weighed in on the situation have posted against Israeli policy and U.S. connivance too; I suspect these are the types of collaborators and Hellenized fifth columnists those doughty Maccabees would have revenged themselves upon, I reckon. Nobody I know who is Jewish was happy with the results. Likewise, the BDS campaign in Europe and among the American left, mainstream Protestantism, liberal Catholics, and academia (these categories risk redundancy) gains momentum and becomes as unquestioned as was the global movement boycotting South Africa and Rhodesia for anti-apartheid regimes a few decades ago. Israel=apartheid is now an equivalence so common as to appear without comment in most of the press, in print, and on placards.

Peter Beinart in the New York Times Book Review also covered Wolfe's book and that by Joseph Berger on the Hasidim, The Pious Ones. Beinart challenges Wolfe's enthusiasm for universalism. "In 1970, 17 percent of American Jews married gentiles. Today, among non-­Orthodox Jews, it’s 71 percent." If Wolfe's love of Jews loving the Other continues to manifest itself such, not many Jews will survive to be embraced. According to a recent Pew Report, as Beinart cites, now among non-Orthodox, "43 percent of the children of intermarried parents identify as Jews. And even among those who do, only 17 percent marry Jews ­themselves." Universalism beckons, logically, to make Jews part of the wider community, but at the cost, inevitably, of their own assimilation to the norm.

Meanwhile, we will continue the haimish rituals that remind us of particularism among the universe. Candles lit, a song recalled "I have a little dreidel/ I made it out of clay" as my wife fries up oil for sufganiyot and latkes (the red squiggle under the latter as well as the former term shows not all particulars become universal in Netspeak), and our son, alone this year, will join us as he has all his life, even if his amount of presents diminished as he matures. Sons, parents, families: made of clay, the same that ha-adamah, the red-earth, vivified into Adam in an even older story. Our other son will be in Israel as soon as he gets out of college on his winter break. He signed onto Birthright as a recipient of the largess largely due to a particular billionaire who has made his stash in dubious casino deals, and who donates heavily to GOP causes tying him to evangelicals eager for Armageddon (triggered by the conversion of the Jews, or their saving remnant who survive another holocaust). An ethical debate: what I equate to a century and more of benefiting from Carnegie's libraries and Ford's foundation, Huntington's library and Stanford's university: how much does the 99% take from the 1%? Those who exploit weakness in particular, but who partially reform, if in the name of a higher cause meant for the universal good? I am sure son #2 will return next month with his own perspective on the issues I raise this damp (for once, so it's a miracle!) Hanukkah night.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"Former owner was a lit professor"

I found this title phrase annotated in a search for a book title that had understandably gotten botched, as I received in the mail today an edition published a year earlier (same publisher, but 1946 rather than '47!), one of many of the Divine Comedy. I've been researching various translations and naturally, the proliferation two-thirds of a century ago led to confusion then and now. The seller erred, I am sure, unintentionally, but now I am going back to try to find the right translation, one of so many. The reason for their abundance, now more than ever, may puzzle those who in a secularizing era still find fascination with Dante. My take on this examines why this draw to the other world in his poem also keeps lagging in the thick darkness of fiery and icy hell, rather than climbing back into the diurnal light of Mount Purgatory and then the eternal radiance, for most readers. But that will emerge, at least in my consideration, a few months from now. I am letting the piece sit, and sifting a few more versions and treatments, but the bulk of it is on the shelf, like wine or cheese, and I hope from aging it mellows, grows richer, and tastier.

Speaking of shelf, full already with books, including many attempts to render Dante's epic into modern terms, why add more? I already have to exile titles to the garage, and that years ago approaches the capacity my study and related bookshelves already have reached. I purchase, however, only a few books a year now. I get some to review, but even then, I reckon e-books will slowly diminish the physical stack, as they have in my music reviews, which I have to compile now with more research before the fact, often with MP3 song files and not even a P.R. blurb to help me. Takes the fun out of an advance promo CD, too, once music is soon streamed anyway by means of Spotify or the like, whereas at least books keep their appeal in physical form. But that plays into the problem here: don't I want fewer rather than more bulky bound books?

Why do I still gather some books, for keeps? Some merit purchase as references. Many are not in the public library system for checkout, being often academic or reference texts. I live far from any research library and lack access to scholarly resources. I lack, however, the bibliomaniac's impulse. While looking at my Irish on one side, medieval on the other, demarcations in my crowded room cheer me, or overwhelm me by their stolid acquisition, they are tools for me rather than fetishes. 

So, I ponder that epitaph in that abandoned copy of Dante. Mine too will someday be consigned to a posterity where I figure few if any will care for them. I wonder their fate, and I fear as I wrote in my previous entry that Ray Bradbury's prediction of "Little Sister"'s distractions rather than Big Brother's surveillance may mean the truer reduction of culture and learning to big-screen total immersion. For all her drippy chiding, Rebecca Solnit in this month's Harper's reminded me that we went from a fear of big screens in 1984, Orwell or Mac versions 1.0 to a love of small screens, distractions for all. As I try to find her piece (subscribers only, another indication of how not all information wants to be free, nor should it as I don't get paid for any reviews I type, and I don't begrudge the Bradbury or Solnit who makes a living as a writer) "Poison Apples," holiday traffic slows to 1984 modem speeds, aha.

Theoretically, despite the pauses timing me out as I entered that search term, as Andrew O'Hagan (born but seven years after me) counters "In Defense of Technology," we can remember the 70s, and for me much of the 60s, like lonely Eleanor Rigby. Whereas our connections now rest a click away:

"Communication was usually a stab in the dark: You might find someone to talk to about your favorite book, but more likely you wouldn’t, unless you moved to New York or took to wearing a sandwich board." Like him, I have no idea where my copy of The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" is in vinyl, but I have the digital version of it available in seconds. On the other hand, quite a few of my CDs never made it to digital, just as some LPs never made it to shiny disc, and in turn, unless every book makes as Mark E. Smith longed "the biggest library yet," not even Google and their damned spotty book previews will stop some of us holdouts from scrounging online for what neither libraries nor digital content providers can provide, or will bother to provide, a reliable copy in page, on hand.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Big Brother, Little Sister

Lately, some European artists protest as if only those who were born into or who affirm a particular identity can claim entitlement to act as, speak for, or depict that identity's experience. The somewhat forced diction of my first sentence indicates the similarly awkward expression of this reductive claim. Sharing on FB an article I found from the imploding New Republic (another story that fits in neatly), Exhibit B: Really Useful Knowledge and Europe's Art Censorship, my friend mentioned Ray Bradbury's novel as part of the warning about closing off alternatives, refusing controversy, and socially dumbing down our sensitivities.

Lots to discuss; a few excerpts to spark reflection. Ross Douthat, the resident conservative columnist at the New York Times (not imploding, but as a Sunday-only home subscriber, I note it's going to cost $9 weekly for that and digital access; my dad exploded, my wife recalls, when he saw we paid $3.50 for the treasured old-school paper--it sure was thick not that long ago--less than two decades ago.), discussed the impact of "vertically integrated media" as in the takeover of The New Republic by a Silicon Valley VC:
So when we talk about what’s being lost in the transition from old to new, print to digital, it’s this larger, humanistic realm that needs attention. It isn’t just policy writing that’s thriving online; it’s anything that’s immediate, analytical, data-driven — from election coverage to pop culture obsessiveness to rigorous analysis of baseball’s trade market.

Like most readers, I devour this material. Like most journalists, I write some of it. I’m grateful that the outlets that produce it all exist.

But among publications old and new and reinvented, it’s also hard not to notice that John Oliver videos — or, more broadly, the array of food and sports and gadget sites that surround Klein’s enterprise at Vox Media — aren’t just paying for the policy analysis. They’re actively displacing other kinds of cultural coverage and interaction, in which the glibness of the everyday is challenged by ideas and forms older than a start-up, more subtle than a TV recap, more rigorous than a comedian’s monologue.
That last snippet caught my attention. A few days after it did, Obama regaled The Colbert Report crowd, surely his demographic as any show on Comedy Central by default, with his ten-minute entertainment, pumping Obamacare while keeping his voters clapping. This made my wife and probably millions of fellow Dems happy, but shades of Nixon on Laugh-In saying "sock it to me," this left me disturbed. This capitulation, which others such as my son and his friends at dinner just applauded as a wonderful demonstration of how Our President handles the media and the message, to what the hipper and I guess alas younger folks "want" unsettles me even as it appears inevitable.

In turn, Tiffany Jones in concluding her article on "Exhibit B" cautions against what happens when "we" as in the same cohort Obama and Colbert and (at least most of) Silicon Valley appeals to make demands as to what "they" want to see as art, and what they want art to stand for, past or present:
The premise of art is that one can think up and convincingly construct for others, across time and place, a different life, another experience which becomes real to the reader or viewer because it has been written, painted, performednot because the audience has been there, seen it, or done it themselves. Just think of all your favorite productions, books, or paintings and how they differ from your personal experience but seduce you into believing in them.

At their core, these calls for censorship dictate that only certain groups or people can create art because only they have the experience. Underlying these protests, then, is the idea that we, the audience, are not capably of empathy, and that the purpose of art is not is not to create and convince people of other worlds but to reflect the reality as the self-selecting chosen ones see it. It is an exclusive and divisive outlook, and it is one that ultimately negates the basis of art.
Fahrenheit 451 as read by Tim Robbins, as reviewed by Dave Itzkoff, revealed a subtlety I admit I was surprised to find in that author. I met him when I was in college and he spoke; he seemed very eager to promote literacy and love of the written word at our literary festival, but he also seemed to like himself a lot. Still, he signed my paperback of The Martian Chronicles (it was out on t.v. as a miniseries in the days we watched such on networks en masse, before DVR, DVD or even VCR).

Itzkoff wonders if Robbins is "phoning in" his reading of the book, and whether such a delivery of what remains a paean to the printed word should rather be preserved as Bradbury intended it. He goes on to consider the power of the moral, as the printed word did not capitulate to censorship (as perhaps art is in "Exhibit B" under pressure of P.C. dogma and a growing refusal to challenge certain religious oppositions to explicit or daring content, as well as the burgeoning industry bent on coddling us all against anything deemed disturbing, graphic, unsettling, or merely confronting our congeries of what we bundled up and thrust about as "identity" against presumably all who are less enlightened than us). Itzkoff concludes his review of Robbins' audiobook with a rousing recall to take up books, again:
But Bradbury knew, 60 years ago, that more seductive, less effective forms of information conveyance were coming to tempt even the most diligent and dedicated acolytes of the printed word, and that it was not a distant stretch from dismissing books as quaint and obsolete to banning them outright. As Captain Beatty explains to Montag, recounting how audiences’ attentions drifted from books to television, cartoons, “super-super sports” and “three-dimensional sex magazines”: “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.”

To the end of his life, Bradbury seemed surprised that he had to keep explaining that the novel was not about the dangers of government censorship or authoritarian rule; as he told his biographer Sam Weller, “ ‘Fahrenheit 451’ is less about Big Brother and more about Little Sister.” By this he seemed to mean all the small discouragements and impediments that take us away from our intellectual pursuits, whether peer pressure, encroaching technology or apathy. Fortunately, a few thousand years ago, we gave ourselves a sustainable and still reliable mechanism to provide shelter from these distractions, as well as the option to use it or not. It is a choice as simple, and as significant, as the decision to light up a mind or to extinguish it.
As for me, I close this brief scan of how the media play into our pleasures by considering the BBC series Black Mirror, as Layne and I binge-watched in three sittings its six parables to date about the pressure technology poses to break our cherished identity and control over our privacy and intimacy in the name of ethics; about a pair of contestants for an American Idol type of contest eerily extrapolated in a manner only half-explained, the better for it to grip you; about how memories can be recorded for instant recall; about the way that a loved one's words and voice, and then presence, might be resurrected and recreated; about how a pursuit for justice might well mingle with a fun day's excursion; and about how nihilistic, entertaining alternative candidate, as a cartoon, might be manipulated by shadowy powers that be. None end happily, but that is no spoiler, only true to life.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Tine agus báisteach

Bím ag báisteach inniu. Níl nuacht go hiondúil ann, go fírinne. Ach, ní raibh beagnach aon bháisteach ó mhí Fheabra i gCalifoirnea Thuas anseo.

Ar feadh an tseachtaine seo caite, chuir muid stoirm beag. Bhí sé an priomh-boglach ó an geimreadh seo caite. Mar sin féin, bhí aimsir níos mó i ndiadh, mar ní raibh sneachta go leor ina sléibhte, ó cheart. 

Féach mé go raibh an ghrian ag dul amach ó na scamaill os cionn. Tá mé ag lorg amach an fhuinneog cé mé ag scríobh seo anois. Téann clúim bán ag dul. 

Bhí an tine mór Dé Luain seo caite ann, fós. Chaith dóitéan ina lár i gCathair na hÁingeal. Tógann árásan teach is gránna ann ag imeall an gcrosbóthar ina bóithre móra. 

Bhí ionad ag luisniú go gairid. Níl fhíos ag aon duine an chúis go fóill. Ach, is fuath an chuid is mó de duinn ar an áit chomh dún Iodáilis saor, gan amhras. 

Fire and rain.

It's raining today. This is not news normally, truthfully. But, there's been nearly no rain since the month of February in Southern California here.

During the past week, we got a little storm. It was the first moisture since the last winter. Nevertheless, the weather was warmer following, so there's not much snow in the mountains, certainly.

I see that the sun is coming out from the clouds above. I am looking out of the window as I write this now. White puffs going by.

There was a great fire the past Monday, too. A blaze flared in the center of Los Angeles. There is being built a very ugly apartment block at the crossroads next to freeways.

The site flamed suddenly. Nobody knows the cause yet. But, there's a great share of hatred for the place like a cheap Italian fortress, without a doubt. Grianghraf/Photo: L.A. Times

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tucumcari Tonite

Our drive across the Sooner State took forever. Oklahoma, once the few hills of a fading Ozarks are passed, sure is flat and boring. Tolls amassed, big-box dullness, dry brown. A shift in mores, not seen in men's rooms by me since Las Vegas NM and its smeared local ads over the stalls. At the appropriately named Phillips 66 (which when I was a kid was in California but now seems to have retreated to its home state) on the Cherokee Turnpike in weather, it was just over freezing. So cold there was ice on the brush to scrape off the gook from the windows. The bathroom in the vast store blaring C+W and featuring rows of work gloves: dirty. In Weatherford, the same chain's bathroom was dirtier, in a boomtown (name of a café, tellingly) which we tried after filling up to escape and could not, caught at day's end in an endless traffic jam, interstate construction, detours, and a car crash tying up an intersection without, being a boomtown, any red light. We should have stopped at Pilot truck stops; they were uniformly immaculate, with cherry-scented hard soap foam for grease and oil that others frequenting the men's room surely needed to scrub away. At least sunsets westward were pink, as this photo across from our own hotel shows along that long 66 way home.

On the way west, battered billboards scatter, reminding travellers this was once Route 66. Big Texas Steakhouse near Adrian (halfway between Chicago and L.A., therefore the equivalent of California's Harris Ranch between L.A. and S.F.) promised a free steak of 72 oz. I suppose there is a catch. It reminded me of one of the few episodes of The Simpsons I have seen, when a patron eats such a slab and then keels over dead. Then, nagging roadside signs, some blown apart by the wind, for Cherokee Trading Post urged us to stop for trinkets. I think there were two such posts, as billboards repeated, refusing to end. Whatever once-marquee acts from C+W or R+R beckoned for the Choctaw Casino had been left behind as their peers had playing in Deadwood casinos, but ahead, once you find yourself in New Mexico wondering if respite from the horizon is near, Clines Corner will pummel your eyes with yellow signs on each side of the highway, even after you pass, cajoling you back to it.

Between Amarillo and Western New Mexico, the only place still around to sleep if not eat must be Shamrock. We resisted the dubious lure of the other roadside attractions, and the spray-painted detritus in a muddy cow pasture that was Cadillac Ranch looked unlikely to appeal to anyone but Japanese post-teens such as we saw in McDonalds in Amarillo, on a day just above freezing after a storm that brought polar chills. Brittan was a tilting water tower and a giant concrete cross. Many off-ramps once thriving now were empty, at least of any reason to pull off. After nightfall, we found Big Vern's Roadhouse. A big game was on, the locals sat, a girl in gym shorts in the 34-degree weather at dusk. I liked the frosted goblet-full of Pecan Ale. While my proclivities kept me away from seared cattle, I watched in peripheral vision a white-mustached man in black cowboy hat lingering over his. It must have tasted delicious, for he never moved from his chair. He had been there when we arrived and when we left. Fish in such an establishment is like a burger at a taqueria, but I try to stay faithful. (Even if at Crystal Bridges, my soup had ham traces; my soup here had beef bits. Sometimes there is, as we found over all the livestock-producing states, no alternative on a menu.)

The lights of the $1.2 million spent with a government grant to restore the Art Deco postwar glory of Shamrock's U-Drop-Inn across the street from Big Vern's showed what the ride west was once like in such small towns. Shamrock hosts a March 17th parade, and the Lone Star State's tallest water tower.

We could see it from the Best Western motel window. Not much to note, except it too was under repairs. My breakfast there had Raisin Bran, as well as a place to drop yogurt "Lid's for Life's." (sic)

Next stop, after a pit stop at the stateline tourist info center where the voluble staff member had to ask each person making a pit stop their zip code for her records, was a Route 66 mecca for enthusiasts. It has a six-mile stretch of the old road, a rarity, but it was the saddest place we'd seen for 5000 miles. An old man drowsed outside an adobe house in the sun; we saw other oldsters totter along a sidewalk. The Rock Island depot has part of the city's name falling off of it, Main Street is abandoned, and the Route 66 part valiantly tries at night with neon to keep the few who venture off the interstate comforted by nostalgia. We stayed at one such lodging, Hotel Safari, a camel perched sign-high to memorialize the expedition of such beasts through there as a frontier Army Corps. But the logo font was replaced with stark generic lettering, diminishing the small print's exotic effect. Layne splurged for the double room named after early rockabilly star Wanda Jackson. Her signed CDs and that of an Elvis impersonator of perhaps Southeast Asian or Filipino origin (and his autographed two-tone shoes) were in cases. But we could not get the room, uncarpeted if nicely designed in faux-Fifties style and accessories, to warm up much. Outside was just above freezing at night. We ate at a modest roadhouse a few blocks away, where the locals did, and turned in soon after, weary from travelling.

Tucumcari Historical Museum commemorates, in the manner more of Holly Springs than of the Ozarks, another local endeavor to amass whatever the past preserved from neglect or obscurity. Herman Moncus grew up there, in what from photos proved a thriving small town within my lifetime, and his Elk Drug Store had a display of artifacts from his collection, which sure grew big. A 1903 schoolhouse now holds it, 100,000 items. (That museum in Holly Springs MS we had seen a few days earlier claimed only 40,000, but its dustier rival had lots of fossils and rocks, which took up far less room than dresses and hatboxes from the heyday of haberdashery and gracious Southern living.)

Layne and I looked at a large doctor's ledger from the 1940s, in elegant fountain pen longhand without any errors or blots. It listed if patients had been treated or if a few had "expired." One had, from "chest and head wounds." Dead or alive they all had affirmed a religion, too, and among the Christians all of some sort, we finally found a Jewish surname, albeit passing through from or to Los Angeles. Goldenberg's store was early featured in Tucumcari, and as in many frontier towns such as Deadwood, commerce appeared in its history so patiently documented here to have supported other Jewish families. I wondered if Herman too was M.O.T., although no clues existed as to his affiliation.

Failing to enter the city's much-advertised Route 66 Museum, I found it closed without explanation or hours posted at the convention center on the western edge. No sign on the door, even though it was supposed to be open. I was not sure if it had even debuted last June as planned, or if it had lasted out the hot high season. But I had overheard the woman at the state tourist stop tell visitors it and another at Santa Rosa were places to see on the way to Albuquerque. Maybe she and I relied on the same ads. Murals strive to enliven the sun-bleached walls of the city, whose slogan "Tucumcari Tonite" enticed riders on Santa Fe Trailways, which I imagine has gone the way of Greyhound depots in such places.

If you stop for gas at Newkirk, be advised it's a house, a garage, and a station, by the rail tracks, the Rock Island Line whose demise helped weaken Tucumcari as its livelihood. The men's bathroom had no toilet paper, and its condom machine was padlocked. Layne reported the woman's bathroom had toilet paper, and that was padlocked. It was very windy. We took one of the few surviving bits of the frontage road, which we drove slowly, and Layne wondered about her mother making a journey from back East to Los Angeles in 1930. My family must have at one time at least passed this way too. I lived in Claremont just off Route 66, and we live now near enough to 66 now to walk to it in five minutes. Traces of it remain on historical markers, but nearly all has been obliterated by interstates.

As to Cuervo, nothing remains but sand and ruins, a desert(ed) Ozymandias. There are still off-ramps but as with Montoya, this segment leaves nothing for the traveler but buttes and dirt. Somehow, the elevation sustains even if it feels one goes downhill more than uphill. Santa Rosa has three giant billboards, one for the Blue Lake formation fabled in its center, and we found there a few dramatic hills, but no trace of its competing Route 66 Museum. The town had evidence of businesses, but Saturday there might as well have been a Puritan Sunday. We saw nobody. A white metal garage had a placard for "Angry Wife Brewery", but it was deserted. No museum sign. Google Maps took us to the closed City Hall; at least Guadalupe County Courthouse stands dignified in sandstone splendor.

So, into Albuquerque we roamed. The wind was too much for Sandia Peak Tramway, so we had to turn back at the gate after passing miles, overlooking the valleys, of beige or muddy subdivisions. I despised these, as they proliferated maddeningly. In sleek form-fitting black gear, helmeted trim bicyclists sped along paths, past identical houses, if clustered in New Mexican-style compounds. The city slops as if up a vast stony bowl. We were perched where a side slants up east, under steep mountains. Reminding me of Palm Springs tram, a similarly baked if less storied setting. We saw there the next day Hank's house. Rachel kindly returned to show us Breaking Bad filming locations.

The night before, we ate at a crowded brewpub in the Nob Hill section across from the UNM campus. BYB brands are made onsite and we loved their Cherry Stout, the berry, apple, and pear ciders, a spry Monk's Ale (made by real Benedictines who thrive without any angry wives in Georgia O'Keefe Ghost Ranch terrain but no longer give brewery tours; their Dubbel and Triple were ok, but nothing special), and smooth BYB porter. We got there as the crowd surged. For a while, people peeked in as we ate, but as I finished, I looked up again. Everyone had been seated. The veggie burger and fries were tasty, but what I really liked despite the crowd were arguably the best beers of my whole trip.

Our last motel, named after the peak, showed it from an upstairs balcony, if barely. Snow tipped it the first dawn after a cold snap swept in. The weather was again at or just above freezing early on. It was also on the remnant of Route 66, Central Avenue, bisecting the city, and still preserving some of the neon, from motor courts and along Nob Hill, restored to retro glory (if selling out to lots of "edgy" retail and brewski hipster chains, which should be an oxymoron even in a college neighborhood). Overall, the North Valley, perhaps due to its proximity to Intel, looked to be bursting; this pattern I'd seen in Salt Lake City's basin, Boise, the Dakota cities, and the Front Range. But, the South Valley looked more humble, although vulnerable for the brewpubs, lofts, and hirsute denizens to descend on their bikes, which you saw all around upscale streets. We had by the way fine beer at Marble, even if we tallied easily twice or near-thrice the age of nearly everyone else in its crowded brewery room.

The Indian owner of the motel hovered about Layne; the morning news as I ate my yogurt and Raisin Bran had now had shifted from Kim to Bill Cosby's "no comment" to rape allegations.The room was modest but nicely furnished, with tin frames in Spanish style and attractive colors. Across the street, we lucked out, for El Charrito was a typical giant portion example of local cuisine. For the first time I ate chile rellenos, and the plate was filling to say the least on a night near freezing. The next day, we headed off to return our black Prius with 5200 miles on her or him. The Sunport is a nice airport to wander, small enough to get a few laps in and still be aware of your flight. Even if the Breaking Bad magnets I saw on arrival had by my departure all sold out (the clerk said this happens all the time), I found a suitably old-style NM one in postcard design, and now, it sits on my magnet wall of honor at work. Next to it in my cubicle, Fort Mandan, Tucumcari, Badlands, Big Ole, and the Ozark cabin remind me of the places I have seen and the adventures Layne and I had, for nearly the past month.

Photo credit: You can see the Hotel Safari silhouetted to the left of Blue Swallow Motel, Tucumcari

Monday, December 8, 2014

South Central Rain

We drove on through darkness, very dark, along an interstate into Kentucky. Two symbols of the New South, side by side, illuminated by headlights as Layne tried to keep straight on a road full of the usual construction, amidst impatient (people don't drive nicely down here) trucks and cars all around us. An abandoned barn and farm. A sign for Allison's Adult Superstore, open from 6 a.m. to midnight. I wondered, drowsily if briefly, who stopped there so early, and who had to work there, and what they sold.

Figuring Louisville brought us that much more west than would have Cincinnati, we opted for it. We got a dim sense of Louisville when we went a few blocks to find a short strip of neon. Walking down streets full of construction sites, we passed two city plaques noting the slave markets which had met around Market Street. Most of the sturdy buildings, true to urban fashions we'd seen, remained dilapidated, but gentrification encroached.

A few hipper restaurants, near the convention center, beckoned, and Layne chose Doc Crowe's. Jammed with lots of kids from the university, that sports powerhouse with pro-sized stadiums. I supposed a big game had happened, as we saw Stanford shirts here and there. A giant, restored distillery, it had dozens of bourbon types and loads of oysters. We contented ourselves with fried food. I had a Founder's stout, same brand as I enjoyed in Grand Rapids. Nothing overwhelming, but a popular place. The table next to us had a slew of conventioneers, well-fed and well-earning types, all white men chuckling except for one suited Japanese fellow who appeared to be sampling Southern fare for the first time. I thought of the Babbitt radio dramatization we'd been enjoying, as if updated.

We could not find a cheap room downtown, settling for a not-bargain Econo Lodge. It was central. At least it had (despite the warning in the lobby) free parking. But it was dismal. Even the breakfast was skimpier than in other such motels. All I could scrounge up was oatmeal in a packet and Raisin Bran. Around us, the workers waited for their 9 a.m. shift, and construction was happening as we tried to check out, the elevator full of laundry carts and the corridors full of hammering and hewing. We got out of there nearly as fast as we had Ann's Motel in Wall SD; these two were the low points so far.

Backtracking a bit, as the presence of Bardstown Road in Louisville led me to believe the next destination was just outside that small town and adjacent, we drove instead a lovely hour or so back into the Bluegrass State's heartland. I wanted to see, as we were not far anyhow, the Abbey of Gethsemani. When I was in junior high, the two books I read that left a lifetime impression on me were Tolkien's trilogy and Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain. I credit my medievalist path in college and grad school to these influences. Merton made famous the monastery he entered at 27 and lived, more or less, at until his death nearly 27 years ago to the day, if far from the Kentucky knobs, the wooded hills on the two-thousand acres the order of Trappists have farmed since 1848.

Leaving another interstate, we entered lovely terrain. Fall still glowed. A sign for Boston ahead meant only a settlement overlooking fields and railroad tracks. The sun shone. Little country roads kept diverting us, and a large set of factories in the middle of grass proved to be Jim Beam's distillery #5. I have no idea how blue bluegrass is, but the meadows and tidy farms and small houses we kept viewing kept us attentive. The route took us into New Haven, whose sign welcomed us to the "gateway" to the Abbey. A large Catholic church attested in that village to the presence around there.

We got sidetracked on Google in a field, near the Merton Retreat Center, but a few hundred yards in the other direction, a sign pointing us at a crossroads fork to "Trappist" on Monks Road said it all. The road curves into the verdant knolls, and Layne understandably asked if the prominent if still indefinite figure on the statue crowning a hill was of Merton. I think it's St. Joseph. Michael Mott's The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, which I am re-reading now, states early on for Merton the worst sin was idolatry. I admire his sticking it out at a place where, once the honeymoon wore off for a very recent convert, tested him. He broke silence to praise it, as Mott avers. Many of his seventy books are sold in the gift shop. The ancillary Merton line of souvenirs and tributes echo his predicament. An extrovert and wit who chose a cloister, he wanted to be left alone, he rankled at the community he praised, he courted a worldwide audience despite the Order's aim of anonymity. I found out recently from our dear friend Bob, son of a Free Methodist minister who spoke at our wedding, that the reverend had met Merton way back when he lived in Kentucky. I confess I am delighted to be two degrees of separation (as I am from Pope John Paul #2 and President #44) away.

Merton strove to live apart on the property, yet he, knowing his unreadiness, first asked to be made Novice Master. He chafed against the discipline imposed on him by an abbot, but he realized his vow of stability had to keep him there. He found his calling, but a complicated one and not a sinecure. After his autobiography with no promotion soared to the bestseller list in 1949, he brought necessary income to the struggling monastery, as well as so many applicants they had to live in a circus tent. Postwar trauma had already been attracting postulants and novices looking for renewal. Merton's book made him the most famous monk of modern times, even as he longed early on to be a hermit.

He got his wish, finally, but we had probably no permission to venture so far into the enclosure, and we had to content ourselves with examining the informative display outside the gift shop. A video showed us more, and I heard many East Coast and what regional and blue-collar accents as some monks in voiceover (one looked very Jewish and may have been once) explained their venerable routine. One reasoned bluntly, contrary to the naysayers like my dad who scoffed at a bunch of unproductive men getting room and board for nothing but praying all day, that such a demanding life (up in the middle of the night, hard work, scant food, and a regimen devoted to "ora et labora" first), that the monastic vocation required one to serve others, or else, what was this life good for, anyhow?

On a humdrum errand for the monastery, Merton found himself transformed. "In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers." A plaque marks this 1958 epiphany, which moved Merton towards pursuing social justice. (Walnut St has been renamed for Muhammad Ali!)

Merton hated the "Cheese Factory" and its grubbing for greenbacks, but of course, if not for the royalties from his books, popular from the 1950s ever since, would the Abbey have survived? Its boom came and went. As the placards tell, vocations have dropped now. The 40 or so monks number about the same as when Merton entered a few days after Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941. Most heads are grey and or bald, and as with other foundations I've read about, the future of Catholic monasticism appears to wane. Although as a letter posted from a retreat-goer with a Jewish surname suggests, many find the chance to share Benedictine hospitality appealing. Intriguingly, rather early in the postwar era, Merton popularized Zen presciently. Catholic institutions have been sold to other faiths more and more. Many monks rationalize that this decline speaks to a pattern only God knows.

Peter Owen Jones' BBC series Around the World in 80 Faiths featured a visit to the monastery of Subiaco in Italy, where St. Benedict prayed in a cave. A few tottering residents remain in that storied setting, amid medieval frescoes. New Age retreats buy out Jesuit seminaries. Burning Man creates its own annual ritual. Outside these walls, yoga may beckon more than Sunday obligations. Meanwhile, cheese is sold and fruitcake assembled, both by hand, and you can order both (we liked the garlic and chives cheese and the bourbon fudge) online at Gethsemani Farms. Layne also bought a Nicaraguan vase; the shop sells products made by Cistercian communities and far-flung fair-trade cooperatives.

I wonder, if Merton had use of the Net, what his vocation would be like? Could he have kept his solitude, so longed for? Layne contrasted the despair of prisoners in Canon City and Jackson compared with the contentment of the monks in cells nearly as spartan. We entered the guests' glassed-off portion to look down on the stark white chapel. We spent a few minutes standing there. Time stopped. I thought about Merton and all who had prayed below. It was absolutely silent.

I wish we had more time to walk around, even if the day was very blustery. But we had to make it back around south and head east as planned. We found ourselves, at Google's prompt, on a pretty road. Suddenly we passed a sign of Lincoln's first school, then another for his boyhood home at Knob Creek (closed for construction). The center of the modest town of Hodgenville has its own memorial at a roundabout, in a fittingly humble setting. You can watch more about Lincoln's birthplace here.

We edged back to the interstate, leaving Kentucky soon behind but wanting to go back to see more. We stopped at a K-Mart in Franklin, the same as any, but as it did not have sunglasses for Layne, we went to a mall across the street, as anywhere. Yet the people at Sunglass Hut helped, directing her to the kiosk selling a pair at a fifth of the price they did. On a sunny day, after avoiding most of Nashville, we headed west across some of the Volunteer State. We passed the site for Shiloh but already, the day lengthened. So, we stayed at an Air B'n'B find, a restored collection of Southern rural buildings and a two-story cotton gin, the rebirth of the roadside settlement where Alamo and Bells and two big highways merge. Dr. John Freeman has spent his retirement in this labor of love. We stayed in a moonshiner's cabin, diligently moved and rebuilt. We lit a fire and smelled the smoke.

I walked the 30-odd acres and learned about the different structures. You can too at this site for Green Frog. The sunset over the pines was brilliantly hued, and I tried to take pictures on my phone which inevitably fail to do it justice. That night, I tried to shut out the rumbling traffic and imagine life once. Next morning, we walked about the place more, and visited the gin as it was being worked on by an older man who told us of how he and his smaller sister tried to pick hundreds of pounds of cotton (one big bag filled can tote 200 lbs.) in an hour. That gin was amazingly designed, ingeniously so. What I figured vaguely was a contraption the size of a crate was an intricate, immense construction.

The tribute to a vanished way of life, with hardships perhaps outnumbered or balanced by such memories, stands as a reminder of what we today never know. Talking to the man who made his retirement a time spent caring for the cotton gin, he connected me with hardship, but also with a rooted sense of belonging on a farm, committed to a task. My Angeleno commute, my keyboard tasks, my mindset tired of "outrage" this and to-do task that, such trivia: one advantage of a monastery or rural surroundings is that they force you (or can or did) to listen. The highways never stopped whirring, but I tried there to hear the sense of life and how to live it (I had to fit in R.E.M. somehow), if not in a way I could ever do. As the Badlands showed, you have to go a very long time to hear the wind on the prairie, or look out over a clear vista to thirty miles away. As Layne did some work back in the cabin, I lingered to take photos, some on my stomach in the long grass, as I strove to find perspectives before the clouds let loose, and taking in the feel of the place. A woman leaving the front lot urged me to come back when the cafe was open, as the sandwiches were worth the visit.

The weather threatened rain, and by the time we headed south again, it hit. Layne and I reckoned we could dip into the Magnolia State, and she found a worthwhile byway taking us past to me oddly placed subdivisions, each on "wooded lots" if often cleared of such, an acre per lonely house, unlovely and awkward, which speckled the space we passed as red dirt took over and pines and scrubland receded. We were on the Cotton Trail in Tennessee, and all around, it dusted white as if snow had fallen. We took a weird off-ramp that failed to get us on the interstate but did take us on a mile that dazzled with beauty. Half cotton fields, half leaves golden or scarlet falling in the drizzle. 

Entering Holly Springs, you pass from the interstate (and another is coming, I-269, a north-south one bringing more subdivisions, Wal-Mart Superstores, maybe fracking) and endless construction maddening at the state border and thereabouts, worsened by rain and closed-off exits and ramps into a calmer South. Rust College, one of the first black institutions founded in Reconstruction, stands. Across, the brick and stone ruins of a state industrial academy loom. In the center, as if Santa Fe's adobe had been converted into humbler lumber structures two centuries later, a square of stores and a wooden awning and boardwalk remind one of what it might have been like, when the war came to the middle of the town, part of the strategies that drew in Shiloh and Corinth, into hatred and bloodshed.

A few blocks away, at a converted girls' school, the crammed three stories of 40,000 artifacts collected from the families who have lived there long make the Marshall County Historical Museum a must-see. Our guide, as we were surrounded by uniforms from wars then and since, and swords and buttons, bullets and badges, spoils and plaques, noted how the South had the unfair disadvantage of rifles taking a lot longer to load, half a minute, compared to the rapidly firing rounds of Union men, who hunched down in trenches while the rebels charged, much more exposed. I thought of how this must have been horrifying; at Corinth, the battle raged at the depot's rail tracks at point-blank range.

A more peaceful setting surrounded Holly Springs, even if one sensed decay. We scrutinized a taxidermy panorama, a must-see for its less accomplished examples.The museum documented the Coca-Cola bottler, the maker of novelty candy, the factories once supporting the town, but I had no sense that they continued today--despite the region's demands for sugary sweets. Segregation was apparent in the photos of long gone senior classes of the local high schools. Not until 1970 were two black students at the white school; the other one, named after Rust, was all black. The square seemed about half and half, from the people we saw scurrying about. Stars and Stripes still flew on small sticks, as Veterans' Day had been celebrated at the memorial stone with the names of the dead from wars since the Civil one. We left the town as rain fell, and soon got sucked into the rush hour snarl of the southeast section of Memphis, which looked forlorn. At night, not much to report, and we forced ourselves on until we could go no further, at another if better Econo Lodge in Brinkley, Arkansas. Signs indicated both a Lewis + Clark site not far south, and a Trail of Tears one for the natives forced out of their southern homelands by settlement in the wake of millions of Lewises and Clarkses, plantations and slaves, cotton pickers and red-dirt farmers, candy makers and now all pop guzzlers.

Layne's eagerness to try the Southern icon Waffle House, whose yellow logo I liked, faded soon after ordering from the limited (especially for non-meat eaters) menu. Our waitress was nice, however, named after one of the three cardinal virtues, and we tipped her well. The other patrons were loutish: one wore a red Chadron NE polka band t-shirt (despite the freezing temperature, as a polar storm plagued the region), and he and his young pals jeered at a family coming in. Our polka boy cued up on the jukebox some teen-pop songstress and CCR's "Down on the Corner." These preceded "There's a Special Lady at the Waffle House," which earned by its annoying presence whatever tip we left the staff who had to hear this ode to their employer. Corporate, sepia-toned enlarged photos of WH's postwar pair of owners and subsequently dutifully smiling contemporary staff surrounded the diner. A whiteboard encouraged patrons to add their own snapshots taken there to a display; few had. My portion was tiny, as if a kid's meal. The waitress had to invent a grilled cheese option, the hashbrowns lacked the onions I paid 40 cents for, and I was still hungry when I finished a few scant minutes later.

The clientele next room to us was also loutish, hanging out next to our car in the cold, and we left soon after we awoke. News was still lingering about the election, but Ebola had receded; Kim's derriere was unmentioned. We faced chilly weather as we crossed Arkansas, but the day brightened. We admired the Ozarks and their red, brown, and golden colors mingled in hues I lack adjectives for. Even from the comparative sameness of the interstate, the vistas rewarded. I can only imagine what back roads and panoramic outlooks reveal. We headed up to the northwest corner to visit the Wal-Mart funded museum of American art in the corporation's hometown of Bentonville. The entire region, from Fayetteville on, had all the sameness of, say, Irvine or any post-1970s suburban sprawl. Lingering fields lay fallow, for they were planted with real estate signs, one for a development called "The Farms." Whatever small-town ambiance as in Holly Springs the towns once had was gone, but at least the dogwoods and creek over which the museum is built do cling to a dignity of their own.

Crystal Bridges had fine colonial and 19-c. paintings, too. Karl Bodmer's Mandan bleak death scene, an eerie circle of human skulls overlooking a solemn vista, captivated me (if neither Layne nor anybody else at least on the Net, as I cannot find an image of it). I missed my meddlesome cat Gary, as I contemplated Thomas Eakin's "Portrait of Professor Benjamin Rand," the scientist stroking his black cat as it kept his place in an open book on his desk. The next century had an impressive if not astonishing selection. I liked a painter, co-founder of Synchromism, whom I had first seen in Chicago. I'd never heard of him but he lived in Santa Monica a century ago, Stanton Macdonald-Wright. His paintings hint at Buddhism and he mingles Cubism with a bold overlay of bright shapes.

Downstairs, a "State of the Art" installation featured a hundred supposedly cutting-edge artists. My attention failed to be halted by 98 of them, but Dan Witz' mural "Vision of Disorder: Frieze Triptych" in hyper-realistic detail of a moshpit caught my attention, and many other viewers. Layne was also not wowed, regarding the Crystal Bridge holdings as lacking substance. I concurred as I sat nearest the mural, but stuck in front of a display of half a dozen floor fans stacked up the wall, each blowing so to keep levitated a giant sombrero. Louis CK has an episode (can't find it all on YouTube as I tried when teaching an art course last summer) where he is stuck in a post-modern art gallery. I can relate.

All the same, an end room featuring Jawshing Arthur Liou's "Kora" moved me. He undertook a pilgrimage to the holy site of Mount Kailash in Tibet after his young daughter's death. Thirteen minutes, it gave me time for action as contemplation and Layne a seat to catch up on e-mails on her phone. The invitation to integrate duty and reflection, in ways inevitably dissimilar in substance if not entirely in form to monks who mingle "ora et labora," prayer and work, at Gethsemani, includes us. As our journey went on, thanks to Kindle, I began Robin Kirkpatrick's recent translation, musing (as Merton had), if and how one might find meaning in the Commedia, in another century full of doubt.

We headed to a Country Inn in the identical faceless suburb of Rogers. Compared to Brinkley and Louisville, it was palatial. Checking in we were frustrated by a computer being down, but the room was comfortable, and even if we had to settle for takeout pizza and beer (a local, Core Octoberfest Lager; licensing laws prevented the kind of takeout pairings we are used to), we were so tired and it was so cold outside we were content. The next morning, all eyes in the breakfast room turned to the weather segment. It was 28 in Fayetteville, but the polar storm luckily had drifted off. I had yogurt, fruit, granola, and oatmeal, for once not having to eat the Raisin Bran from its twirling dispenser.

A pause at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History taught us a lot about the region. "Aux Ark" comes from a French tendency to chop off the first syllable of a tribe's name, so "of the Arkansas" warped into the name we all know. The museum was not piled high or haphazard, yet this detracted from its impact for us after Holly Springs. But clean and orderly, it appealed doubtless to those less enchanted by clutter. A group of schoolchildren visited in a room as a woman in pioneer dress let them try out a toy gun to shoot bears. We were the only other visitors, as usual. The sufferings of ordinary people, black and white, both poor, were made deftly evident in a short video and display about the Civil War. Armies and bushwackers (I think of ISIS headlines) forced many to join them or be killed, and many families in this remote area found their farms burned and their possessions looted. The war swept across this contested territory along the Missouri border, and no celebration of the terror it unleashed was found on display. We watched a 1940 video about a fryer chicken contest, attracting tens of thousands to what was once a land of berry farms, egg ranches, and poultry production, albeit I bet pre-Tyson, whose big rigs we often found in front of us, and who accounted indirectly for the  museum's captions, and many of the local signs and businesses in Rogers, as translated into Spanish.

The video chortled that "the only journey of the chickens was to the frying pan," more or less. We watched as eggs hatched, chicks were sexed and sorted, and as fried chicken dinners resulted. A WPA mural of Springdale celebrated this agricultural heyday, but as with the region where we live in Southern California, only vintage postcards and histories preserve the vanished farmland or orchard.

Outside, a few cabins and structures were moved onto the lot. One was an outhouse, moon for women, star for men. Another was a cabin, each wall with its own door, but we could not enter, as it was all boarded up. A third was the original house from a century ago and more. The guide who showed us around pointed to the library, full of hardbacks from the 1940s, and observed "that was when people read books." A radio and comfy chairs stood for pre-WiFi, pre-TV, and pre-Wal-Mart. That company is ubiquitous, as you'd expect. Institutes for Workplace Management pop up next to chain motels, and whatever lure this corner of the Razorback State held, it must lurk in football now.

Siloam Springs was the last town before Oklahoma. It reminded me of Hot Springs SD, if more girt by the usual logos. According to the State Tourism website, "Food choices range from chain restaurants to sandwich shops to coffee shops to home cooked meals." A municipal page, with only one image of the city center's faded turn-of-century resort heritage, warns: "Tornados, straight-line winds, train derailments, natural disasters and civil unrest are all possible in Siloam Springs."

Photo: chapel + cemetery of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani's gallery via its website

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Birthplace of America




Continuing our foray into curious museums and arcane legends, a chance opening of the AAA guide's first page for Minnesota A-Z revealed Alexandria's Runestone Museum. As with the "Welsh Indian" Prince Madog and the Mandan tribe lore raised in my previous entry (and note how this Kensington MN website from the site of its discovery manages to tie the Norse to the Mandan), so with the Kensington Runestone on display. You can click on these two links to read the assertions; while most scholars appear to dismiss the claims of a medieval inscription of runes dug up by a settler in a 1898 field, a few mavericks--as well as local proponents, which as with a few Welsh holdouts for Madoc understandably--still champion the slab as evidence of pre-Columbian, post-Vinland, Norse exploration. This led to the bold slogan "Birthplace of America" and the hoisting of 28-feet-tall Big Ole (even if Vikings per se by 1362 were passé) at the 1964 World's Fair for the state's claim to fame.

We wandered the museum, with a modest but of course insistent argument on a brief video about the veracity of the runestone (and I wonder why not subject it to sophisticated dating techniques to gauge the rate of erosion to estimate the date of its carving?), as well as a diligently assembled selection of artifacts from native to Scandinavian to contemporary, in a small city where a Grumman plant ensured some prosperity, and where, from the main street with its 3-M plant, better times appeared to have continued than in similar locations of this size and placement across the Midwest. There was an inspirational story about a boy who called "Information Please" and who as a man learned of the operator who dispensed him folksy advice. One display you won't find at any grand Art Institute. 

The elderly woman at the entrance kept talking (I even found out she was 3/4 Norwegian and 1/4 German), and we made our polite exit. The weather worsened as we listened to Dos Passos, and found his colleague's home town not far away. Adjoining Sauk Centre's Chamber of Commerce, the humble and forlorn Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center Museum seemed unchanged, or unvisited, since around 1974. But we lingered there, as the evidence from his map, notes, and research on his later novel Cass Timberlane documented Lewis' devotion to careful storytelling. We wondered if anyone still reads Main Street, Babbitt, or Elmer Gantry (let alone Dodsworth and Arrowsmith; Cass and her many other companions after the rise of Lewis attest to his slow decline, even as he kept producing a book a year or so). We left a few dollars in the kitty, and I hoped people remember Lewis and keep his stories alive. I listened to his best novels on audio not long ago; soon Layne and I would listen to Barbara Caruso's nearly twenty hours of Main Street, after we'd finish USA and then Babbitt.

Driving up "America's Original Main Street," it looks as if any other small town of a century ago. Handsome trees, even if bare by now so far north. Elegant houses among dignified smaller ones. The Main Street theatre had been subdivided into a multiplex; a corner once holding a cafe geared at the tourist trade was closed for good, or bad. We filled up for gas (if not at Sinclair, with its dinosaur logo), and headed back to the inevitable interstate which had bypassed this and so many main streets.

Down we went, as I glimpsed the modern (as of the 1950s) spire of St. John's Abbey to the right over a ridge of trees. We were in J.F. Powers' territory in St. Cloud a few miles to the left. I thought of his clerical fiction set around the imaginary dioceses of Ostergothenberg and Great Plains, and how Powers struggled to fit in, after the Church had changed so much in his lifetime, and in mine, too. I was delighted to find him represented on the famous Minnesota authors' poster at the Lewis center. It had a priest, Fr. Urban, in front of a golf tee, with a flag in front of his cassocked self, standing proud.

Lots of traffic as dusk drifted from the gloomy day, and we stayed at the Hyatt Regency downtown. Layne had always wanted to visit half of the Twin Cities, and she'd gotten a deal to get us out of the room by the interstate. The one we got in Minneapolis was enormous, as if half of our home. But, as in pricier places, ironically it did not cater to budget travelers: no microwave, no way to boil water.

We had a bite at Brit's, a theme pub a few steps (if cold ones for us) from the hotel. A woman ordered a Corona Light at the next table, but I opted for a St. Paul-made Summit IPA, with a rich floral scent. Around us, the city seemed prosperous, and I think the convention coming in was for urologists. Men and a few women, all dressed like doctors might be off-duty but still spiffy, chatted and huddled. We walked down Nicollet Mall, made famous by Mary Tyler Moore even if we failed to spot her statue. The news room of the local network affiliate had a window so we could peer in from the street. Being in its hometown, Target served as our stock-up for food. The store filled with women in Muslim garb, as this city draws many from Somalia (and many from the Hmong). So passed another ordinary night.

The next day, after a pleasant detour to the front of the Walker, passing many fit and wholesome young people walking about the city, we opted for the exhibits at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts. A handsome interior, it showed off its material in a spacious setting. However, some awful contemporary art detracted from a fine mix from earlier periods. Not much stood out, but I admired Rodin's sculpture of "The Cathedral." Its folded hands symbolized the transition from the sacred to the secular, if you ask me, as the site where we pursue our inner search. We had a hard time figuring our way out, but a walk through Stevens Park brought us back to the downtown center smoothly, if past what one might call sketchier denizens of the streets. We went then to the Skyways over the Mall, subject of Replacements fame for Layne, and shopped for some souvenirs, and popcorn balls at Candyland (three branches alone in the vicinity) to take to a Johnston Center couple a few hours on.

First, we ate a fine meal at Sea Change, in the Tyrone Guthrie Theater by the Mississippi River. The Summit Stout complemented a fish dinner. Green glass-enclosed space, which by day or before plays must have been packed, now almost empty. We tried to see the sight of a stone bridge from the fifth story of the theater, but we were thwarted by a no-nonsense security guard (if suited rather than uniformed) who told us when Layne pleaded that we had sixty seconds. We glanced around, then left.

The Mill Museum next door looked intriguing. "City of Carbohydrates!" boasted a retro poster, on the imposing, atmospheric site of Gold Medal flour. I wondered where they made that brand now. We stopped to see the couple, who lamented losses in the purple state that night and nationally, that night.

Stuck in traffic, it being a city or two, it took us a long while to get through the next day. No fun museum, for despite attempts, nothing around the stretch between St. Paul and Chicago seemed open. The day dawned drearily, more rain, and a caffeine stop by Layne found us in the pretty small town (#15 of America's Top 20, a municipal site crows) of Menomonie. We visited by chance a Christian-themed coffeehouse in an old church basement. The sign said donations for java and rolls were requested, but promised if one could not afford the price, an honor system prevailed. Posters in the corridors showed the missionary work the church supported in Asia. A student from the UW campus pored over her books in a corner. Another woman greeted us as we exited the warm, cozy hideaway.

My AAA guidebook detailed the attractions of Baraboo's Circus Museum (recommended by our Minneapolis hosts) but again, off-season was on. The waterparks of the heavily promoted Wisconsin Dells had long closed after summer. Even the vegetarian restaurant with lots of ratings on Yelp was shut up. So, lunch was at Moosejaw, a giant pizzeria. At least the waitress and bartender were genial. I sampled the Wisconsin Dells stout made there but decided on their Hazel's Nutty Brown Ale, an intense flavor and aroma. One went a long way, but the blend was hearty and satisfying, even if the two older couples who came in, accents as heavy as everyone else at the place (except a brooding man with a mustache, walrus white, who told the waitress he hailed from Indiana), asked for Bud Light in bottles. Despite their gaucherie, the bartender generously offered them samples of draughts.

We left Lake Dalton and determined to hit Milwaukee, or its edge, next. We did, but in the dark, nothing of the state could be enjoyed. We stopped for gas in Warrens, attracted by billboards for cranberries. They colored many bogs, but no stores were open to sell any. At the frigid gas station, women inside in hunting gear matched the men, separately, who pulled in to fill up. I did too, but the clerk at the register came out, after I'd gone to the bathroom inside. She asked if I had paid first.

Layne saw cranberries in moonshine at that register. Inquiring about this as a purchase, she was told that the woman had no idea what it'd be used for, and besides, she did not like cranberries. So, no go.

Cheese stores gave us a last chance in the dark but stuck on endless interstate traffic at rush hour along Lake Michigan, passing an enormous Amazon warehouse under construction before the border, we crossed from America's Dairyland into the Land of Lincoln, with tolls to pay to boot. We finally made it to suburban Glencoe, north of Chicago, where our hosts gave us a room for the next two nights. We were happy to have a house to stay in, and overlooking a golf course, it certainly was no Jamestown ND or Wall SD. The next morning, a driving tour around the city showed us its architectural diversity, from the remnants of 1893's White City to Soldier Field to Grant's Park, Loyola to Hyde Park, the site of Cabrini Green to the sight of Sears Tower, the U. of C. to Michigan Ave. where we disembarked into the immense Art Institute of Chicago. Even in mid-week, early November, it was crammed with fellow visitors. No idea what it was like during any sunny summer.

There, the Seurat park on Sunday afternoon and the Hopper Nighthawks halted many (American Gothic was on loan, as well as the Mary Cassatt) but I admired the flickering white Breton headdresses and flickering candles of the late 19c. scene in Gaston La Touche's "Pardon in Brittany"

Lunch down the street at The Gage reminded me of a truly urban atmosphere. Most people dining looked as if executives, and the feel of London or Manhattan in a less touristed venue permeated it. The two women next to us talked of Ireland, including Adare which we knew, but their accents seemed to waver. At first I pegged them as emigrants, but as I eavesdropped, they seemed Yanks. I had a great fish platter and a noteworthy Temperance Smuttytown Cherry Stout, a superb brew.

Back at the museum, Layne and I noticed the odd juxtaposition of a linear, defined and even defiant depiction: Louis Anquetin's "An Elegant Woman at the Élysée-Montmartre (Élégante à l’Élysée-Montmartre)" Odd is how the background women are drawn as if by Toulouse-Lautrec imitation.

News of Kim Kardashian's Photoshopped rear already threatened to overtake the election news, as a male gaze at John Singer Sargent's "Study of a Girl" reminded me. I wondered if S-S's comely lass was as much a scandal over a century ago as the image that, for a few tiresome days, dominated FB. Speaking of photos, Layne's necessity to work on the phone slowed us down but at least we perched at a photography special exhibit about urbanism in New York, Chicago, and L.A. I wish, however, the academic po-mo blather was replaced by helpful contexts and descriptions non-curators might write. This occludes what it purports to interpret. If less highbrow mediation was present, and simpler text appended, an educated but dare I say "average" (not to mention international) audience would benefit.

Such was the case when the next day we left Chicago--finally, being waylaid by Google Maps and interstate construction to turn off into the less salubrious South Side with chanting crowd at the stoplight, plastic drums playing for a handout we were in no mood to dispense, and more tolls--into the Hoosier State. The night before, we saw a local play about Newton's battle with Robert Hooke, "Isaac's Eye"; I was impressed that different actors could chalk letters on a board in the same capitals. Newton's affectless genius, the mystery of the woman whom he may have had a connection with (apropos I recall that I read that Newton somehow apparently is one of the very few who can be said to have died a virgin), and the experiment that leads to the play's title made for a memorable plotline.

So, the following morning, I was reflecting, no pun intended, on the powers of the mind to figure out so much in the universe, visible and otherwise to our perceptions, and my comparative weakness in calculating, say, how to get from Chicago via GPS to Grand Rapids without all those damned tolls. We passed South Bend, which looked from the turnpike another set of retail malls and apartments, although surely Notre Dame graced the woods south a mile or two. In Elkhart, we visited the Midwest Museum of American Art. This converted 1920s bank building again showed the one-time splendor that a book like Babbitt sent up so well. The newspaper edifice confidently calls itself the Truth. Now, across from a 1920s music hall theatre seating two thousand, a collection with local art and a Grandma Moses, a Grant Wood, a Norman Rockwell, and a fine Reg Marsh (whose drawings enriched USA and who I since learned married the daughter of the neighbors in Long Island of a young Tom Merton, and who befriended him as a student at Columbia) made for a worthwhile hour. So did the Western art, the landscapes, and the whimsical pottery made by the local Overbeck sisters.

The city now bustles with making RV's, one of the few auto industries not yet offshored. The brewpub at Iechyd Da ("good health" in Welsh and I felt I deserved a free pint for knowing that before walking in) was nearly full despite fplks being still on some time clock somewhere. All those Winnebago workers, maybe. As we parked, the sky filled with shrieks of crows, a true murder. I'd never heard them so loud, or seen so many flocks rear up over the trees. I had a chocolate-infused stout, and Layne confessed the pretzel was the best she'd ever had. A hearty place I'd happily revisit.

But we headed for more abstemious territory. Layne wanted to head out of Elkhart to Shipshawana. There is one of the largest Amish settlements, and this was news to me. We soon entered roads where buggies clopped along, even if the S+S Sales parking lot had Amish in vans and pickups loading up too. Inside, as if an "Amish Costco," lots of foodstuffs, emphasis on the "City of Carbohydrates." Cash only, and I heard the German dialect from the moment I entered the bathroom to find three lads chattering. Teen boys wore grey knit caps, and young and older women modest garb. Older men, naturally, had beards. This was the first time I'd encountered this culture, although a student recently, I recall, from my online course had tried to visit the Amish in Pennsylvania for her field trip project. She was refused a chance to attend a service, so she reported on a museum. There was a similar one too near the store, Menno-Hof, and in the dusk as we passed it and farms, I again wondered at how the Amish regarded us interlopers, and how they worked out who drove and who did not. Distinctions rivalling Satmar and Breslov, while the outsiders see Hasidim as clad the same, and acting the same.

At the border, chilly, we filled up and passed at dark into the Wolverine State. Eventually we found our next hosts, emigres from au courant liberal Silverlake, now working for art foundations in the lively city of Grand Rapids. It sponsors the juried and popular competition Artprize annually, and its Grand Rapids Art Museum affirms its prominence as a creative center. One defying the expectation that only progressives fund the arts. Food and drink abound, old furniture factories turn lofts, and the bottle of Founder's Bourbon infused stout made me wonder what the tap version must be like, for it leapt out with flavor, as well as a small sip alas of their IPA. Our two nights spent in a Victorian 1880 manse (at least to us) in the Heritage Hill district, the fact our hosts could walk to work, and their splendid dwelling reminded us of what real estate can be outside the stratospheric West Coast cities.

So did a drive to nearby--as in a few minutes--farmland where we sampled a flight of dry ciders at Sietsema Orchards. Amazing that outside of Ada, such vistas await, even if they are encroached upon by gated subdivisions and giant homes behind the strands of birch surrounding the countryside, once you get past the endless enormity of the Amway headquarters. For, money supports Grand Rapids, and the arts, and where it comes from, admittedly, leads to compromises to further the creative class. To me, that old conundrum bedevilling Carnegie libraries or the Huntington, and I doubt if any recipients turn down a Ford Foundation grant based on Henry's antisemitism or ties to the Nazi regime. I wish we lived in a nation more supportive of the fine and liberal arts, but as we'd find in Bentonville AR, we face compromise when an unethical patron constructs a palatial shrine to the more refined treasures often less privileged creators produce, as we patronize a billionaire's largess.

On recommendation, as a grant had been applied for to our host's attention, we learned about our next destination on our serendipitous journey. It was around freezing, so we needed to keep moving south. Outside Jackson, we found its five eerie tiers intact to visit within that prison, which when founded in the 1930s was the nation's largest, meant to be a productive, self-sustaining, and profitable farm on the "Austin" system and not a "Pennsylvania"-style incarceration bent on self-examination in solitary cells. The cells were single at Jackson, but the work allowed men few chances for true privacy. We were the only ones there. An electric hum nagged far above from wires along the distant ceiling.

Cell Block 7 stands as asbestos prevents it from affordably being torn down within a functioning enclosure full of identical cellblocks that dwarf the capacity to comprehend. From a window ajar facing them, we peeked down at prisoners walking or marching across the grounds. A staff member pointed to a stain five tiers below, where one inmate had either jumped or had been pushed. The blood never came out of the linoleum. One graffito on a postboard in a cell said it all: "I hate you."

We left to traverse Ohio, stopping only for gas at Beaverdam. I do not count a state visit unless our feet touch the ground and commerce has been conducted, by the way. The Buckeye State passed without much to distinguish it, but as we neared Dayton and crossed at pale red sunset the long iron bridge over the wide Ohio River at Cincinnati, the hills started and fall color returned, a tawny hue that would accompany us as we began the LA Radio Theater dramatization of Babbitt and took that Midwestern tale all the way through Arkansas. Even into Oklahoma, we kept pace with autumn's hue.

Photo: This big statue has since been moved across the street, his back to the lake, but here is Big Ole in the 1960s on the main drag of Alexandria, Minnesota. Is Runestone Museum visible on the right?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

High Plains Drifter


 
It took a long time for the outskirts of exurban Colorado Springs to fade, only to have what was once a small town of Falcon rise on its northern edges as vast subdivisions. These, as we headed east, multiplied but also morphed. Around areas as diverse as Rapid City, Bismarck, Fargo, South Bend, Elkhart, Dayton, Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Little Rock, Tulsa, Amarillo, Albuquerque (whew) they rose as typical stucco crammed into highway-adjacent pens. But in the forests near Ada, Michigan, home of Amway, or the way into Holly Springs, Mississippi, the many "wooded lots on one acre" showed with lawns and McMansions behind trees fronting the highways or byways, pricier.

In far less populated areas (at least until the Colorado Front Range keeps expanding), we found flatness in land but twangs in accents. First in the exotically named hamlet of Simla.where at the Hen House we lunched. I had to learn that the veggie option contains my hated foe, lettuce. The humble place commemorates the hill station made famous by Kipling in India. The town's founder's daughter in the 1880s had read a book set there. Despite its miniscule population, it's won many state high school championships. We passed motor courts and humble church fronts, and I could not tell if either were open for business off-season, in the somnolent setting. Hunting and fishing seemed popular, if not at the moment. We would passed hunters arrayed for action soon. The chatter of the three men behind us at our late meal, three o'clock, made me wonder if they were done for the day; they spoke of many other places I'd seen on the excellent Colorado State map, of concrete poured, of construction in progress on those roads, of schools and houses remodeled. I tried when leaving to usher a persistent fly outside, but the waitress assured me he and his ilk liked the sunbathing. We were over six thousand feet, but felt none of the altitude. Odd to be so high up in a flat landscape.

Luckily, informed with a AAA guide, I was corrected after thinking that a more southerly route from Colorado up through Kansas and Nebraska at Burlington might be at this time of year open. To my regret, the carousel at the Kit Carson County Fairgrounds was closed, and nothing else in the whole eastern half of the Centennial State appealed. Instead, we moved up through the woebegone Limon (prison, as Layne had watched on Lockup and/or Lockdown) through the blip that is Last Chance on a very straight county road. The terrain was flat by Rockies comparison, sure, but not as much as I figured. Only in the Dakotas did it start to assume the Midwestern eidetic image I'd always assumed.

It dipped over small hills, down into little gullies, and the clouds separated. Past Sterling, with another giant prison south of the interstate, we veered into Nebraska. The wind picked up. Recalling an account by William T. Vollmann in his travelogue of life with what used to be called hobos, Riding Toward Everywhere, I thought a visit to North Platte, with the biggest yard in the country might be fun, and to give Layne a chance to get some footage from atop Union Pacific's Golden Spike Tower.

The same old sprawl of the less nostalgic type of neon, the retail chains, the bright glare of lights, the cars and trucks clogged the streets, and despite the city's relative smallness, it can be a jolt to enter such after hundreds of miles of few Simlas amid empty lanes. We were off the main drag, for once, and away from the interstate, in perhaps the only accommodation so situated. The avuncular, affable man with a great white mustache, shades of the Old West, and a marked accent compared to the lack of such we have, signed us in at America's Best Value Inn. He recalled his years at Camp Pendleton, when, as often, we were asked our hometown and why we happened to be passing through where we wound up, or where we'd intended. We petted his black cat (Halloween neared). I missed again Gary.

A flyswatter was on the wall of the room, over the calendar, and inspirational paragraphs out of the time Dos Passos and Sinclair Lewis thrived were taped nearby. The room was clean and the night cold. In the morning, we ate our instant oatmeal after making respectively our coffee and tea in the boiler. Layne had been apprehended, or at least the mechanism resembling to TSA x-rays a suspect device, at LAX. This attested to her determination to have her caffeine, abetted by that in any hotel.

Next morning, Layne went into a bank. I sat in the car, studying the AAA map. An older man walked by the Prius' open door, wishing me "howdy." I replied, surprised. Students stationed or coming from the Midwest had remarked on how this civility is common other than in California. This was my first random instance, and as I recall in retrospect, the last spontaneous greeting outside of a commercial transaction. As the Golden Spike would not open for a few minutes, we walked around the old downtown, under towering grain elevators, past a barber shop, a dilapidated theater, a closed attempt at a hotel and cafe with a dot.com address still in the faded window, a few straggly shops, and the abandoned depot which once saw off thousands who came in briefly and then departed from the USO station in WWII, soldiers and sailors filled with donuts and coffee by North Platte's local ladies.  We learned that story at the museum at the foot of the seven-story tower over the rail yard, in turn overlooking cornfields. We looked down as a tractor cut into the corn, readying a Halloween maze.

Off to the grasslands. Prompted by guidebooks promising a scenic byway, we angled up stark roads--grandly called the Glenn Miller Memorial Highway--into the least populated stretches of our entire journey. The first long haul took us over more dips and rises, over rivers with French or simple declamatory names. Every half hour, a settlement survived; barns and collapsed dwellings proved the loss of people. I noted on the map how tiny Tryon, which we passed through, had a courthouse and seemed the only real town in a county; the next one over, the likely even smaller Arthur, had only one town and no other. Who worked there, who lived there, and how did they rotate any jury duty? Was it a safe place to wrangle a government-paid sinecure no matter what, or a bad one during a downturn?

Descending into the relatively large small town of Mullen, with a golf course, we turned left to join State Highway 2. This traversed the center of Nebraska, into its panhandle. I suppose in spring it must be lush, for the photos showed green and mauve fields to the horizon. Now, it was grey but still handsome prairie. Grazing land here and there, but often no sign of humans save the asphalt. Spaced out along the stretch, again out of Google Maps range, accompanied often by the sight of a river, this may have been the longest span I'd covered in years without logos, no apparent commerce roadside, and outposts of human life delayed over many miles. Cattle surely outnumbered ambulant citizens.

After Whitman, sandhills grew more dramatic with ups and downs. Dos Passos' tale as dramatized by David Drummond continued, and we passed Hyannis, Ashby, Ellsworth as little specks, apparently stops once for the Burlington Railroad. As Union Pacific has its crucial fueling center in North Platte, so that smaller line has Alliance. You can see its motto on its municipal website: "Building the Best Hometown in America" [TM] Yelp guided us to eat at Newberry's in what was once part of the corner store of that name, which once you could find in many such small towns. The rail and the presence of rivers, rich fields for potatoes and sunflowers, and the giant lots for homesteaders kept it prosperous.

This from the city website, early on in its history: "One of the areas {sic} worst problems was created with the need for teachers. The school board soon discovered any young female was quickly married. For a time, school boards even publicized in Eastern newspapers for young women of plain and homely countenance to come West and teach. But even the less beautiful married quickly. Frustrated school boards then hit upon another solution. Contracts often included a clause preventing a teacher from marrying for two years. For its time, a restrictive but necessary clause." Thus the town thrived.

We wandered after our sandwiches (a not-homely if young waitress chatted with us about California as the locals, who all naturally knew each other, passed the warm afternoon by, when Cornhusker gear was commonly worn) around its tidy downtown: courthouse, bank, storefronts. We did not go to the Carnegie Library turned art museum, as we had to head by day's end over into South Dakota.

The first of three places we'd visit where healing waters would be claimed, the waitress told us about the indoor water slide and baths at historic Hot Springs. We stayed south of another picturesque place trying to hold on, at least off-season. Gateway to the site of the first road-trip in the nation, most likely, the center had scads of sandstone buildings across from a pretty river which fed the springs. But many facades harbored nothing but glass and space. Where we stopped at an ATM, surly local kids kicked their way down the road, in shirtsleeves despite the chillier weather (a phenomenon we'd regard with awe as we drifted across the plains down into Minnesota and Illinois and Wisconsin). They seemed already tipsy, before nightfall, but maybe Halloween's imminence was to blame.

Sonny's Shur-Rite Market, the first stop for such entering the town from the south, challenged us. Fresh fare for non-beef eaters in this expanse narrows options immediately. The local cans Crow's Peak IPA, pleased us, but Layne had to draw on her secondhand prison cooking skills to heat the frozen spinach, pasta, and canned tuna she'd meant to cook in the microwave of our cabin, a bunkhouse on a real working quarterhorse ranch off Highway 71 (the same one we'd traveled on way down in Colorado before we shifted into the Cornhusker State). For, the wonderful dwelling for all its charm lacked that amenity. Layne had to use the boiler to improvise a meal, that hungry as we were we scarfed down. The ranch had been built up over twenty-two years by John, an engineer from Chicago who bought a decaying homestead and then designed his own house, buildings imitating those in a Western movie, and the bunkhouse, full of cowboy memorabilia arranged practically (horseshoes for hooks) and cleverly (a pinup cowgirl poster on the underside of a bunk). John had lived in a trailer on the property, a quarter-mile from the highway, and we relished its neighing quiet.

No fault to it, as after all it was a real and not a dud or dude ranch, with pastures and manure outside the back window, but the flies inside overwhelmed me. I spent a time reminiscent of "I killed seven with one blow" from "The Brave Little Tailor" tale. But by day two, I'd eradicated the insect menace.

We were joshed by our host--"daylight's burning up"--when we emerged after road trip weariness nearing noon by the time we aimed to set out. Our plans to visit the town center, however, narrowed as nothing there seemed open. We were delayed more by a stint on the benches in the pink-painted laundromat, one of two next to each other in the town. That may be why it was for sale, reduced from $275 to $219k. The wi-fi password, when I asked the (grand?)daughter of the woman I guessed the laundromat's seller, was "salvation." Tracts nestled in the racks, along with a few ragged magazines. I did Duolingo to catch up on French as I try to do daily, the past year-plus since I visited Quebec.

In South Dakota, given the off-season, Wind Cave National Park was closed for tours. Anyway, Layne wisely refused any theoretical crawl into slime and wet deep below. Entry by the gravel road (John recommended it but we lacked his high pickups with four-wheel drive) through Custer State Park would slow us down too much by sunset, given the shift to shorter days and northern latitudes.

We stayed on the scenic loop, and kept to a slow pace, for more than one reason, but at least the inclines balanced declines, and the speed limit was doubly appropriate. No entry fee (nobody there) cheered me anyhow, as did bison, close-up enough for satisfaction, believe me, on nearly barren byways. Prairie dogs, discerned once you stared at dirt that camouflaged them next to their burrows, scurried. Bighorn sheep were rumored, but not seen. We enjoyed the roads, but anxiety as Layne demurred from my advice to gas up in Hot Springs grew, for the bar lowered to one on the dash.

We paid fifty cents more per gallon than we would have by the time we hit Keystone. Eerie, as if a plague had struck. Imagine a whole block and two of souvenir shops and hotels totally devoid of a people presence. But the pump still took our cards in zombieland, and we had to fill up, dutifully.  All the same, we liked the pigtail turns that were arranged to frame Mount Rushmore ahead. These distinguish Iron Mountain Road as engineered under the urging of Senator Peter Norbeck. At an outlook named after him, you can admire the view, and we were content with it, for the light near dusk did not allow a true definition of the state's license plate slogan, "Big Faces, Great Spaces." All we could discern was Washington's nose and some of his profile; the other three stayed in shadow.

The stirring end-of-1941 prose on the marker for the Mount fit Dos Passos' patriotic register, from a war earlier. You can read here how the waymark has praised the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum. Despite my weariness at the state of our nation, where the predictions of Republicans less amenable to environmental protection or true populism than principled Norbeck drowned the previous week's Ebola scares, I was moved by the rhetoric, perhaps more than by the loss of such eloquence now than the content. I prefer my hillsides left intact; the sad news when I got home revealed no less than three new homes on my street to be constructed, tripling the amount when we moved in 22 years ago.

We drove back down intending to find the Needles Highway portion and its narrow passages through rock faces, but suddenly the road ended without warning. I found out a few days later, browsing the Rapid City paper, that this blockade had frustrated other drivers who refused to turn back. Apparently the published date of November as the time the road is shut off was not followed, for it was still, if barely, October, and already, the unannounced barrier had caused hard feelings and scofflaws locally.

There was still light enough to make out the tiny head of Crazy Horse in the distance. It is the visible start of a monument intended to commemorate the other side, literally and symbolically, of Rushmore. Funded by the Lakota (not Sioux, which I learned on this trip garbles "little serpents" from their Ojibway enemies; the tribes naturally prefer to be known as Lakota, Dakota--both mean "allies"--or Oglala et al.), a few miles south from Rushmore, that memorial, already with light shows and concerts, will dwarf the four presidents. I have mixed feelings. I understand the indigenous spirit and sympathize with its assertion. The fact the State Park's named after Custer may or not be a posthumous tribute. But the reason the General's presence predates his demise takes the blame for the tribal resentment. Custer and his men occupied the uncharted Black Hills when gold was discovered there in 1874. This mightily angered the Lakota who held this ground as sacred. The resulting rush into the region by whites worsened tensions. However, if land is sacred (new Grand Canyon subdivisions on or next to Hualapai and Navajo tribal lands come to mind on ground held to be "where life begins"), it baffles me how exploitation of such for raw alteration is construed as appropriate. It comes down to control and power. The Feds bankrolled Mt. Rushmore and that's an imposition. The Lakota then rally for a counter-monument to their warrior to redress their local loss.

Yet given the massive design vs. how little has been dynamited and shaped so far, I may never see this. If I did not know Crazy Horse's head was evident, I might never have noticed it. And who's to say it's any different than Rushmore, that shrine familiar to all of us? By the way, if you've seen that represented, you've seen a much larger view than that afforded the driver by or roadside gawker up.

Speaking of pop cultural trends, the next day we had to leave the horses behind. We took the faster highway into the boomtown of Rapid City (before which we passed three giant white plaster busts of Kennedy, Lincoln and one other dead prez), and in which there's a Mobil station with an adjoining taxidermy display, where I wished we'd have fueled up. We did in Sturgis, the site of the mass motorcycle rally, near Deadwood. Tellingly, throughout much of this heartland, so full of riggers, bikers, truckers, and rebels I reckon, you see stickers on gas pumps warning of video surveillance and the dire penalties exacted on those who pump and don't pay. Some welcome. The wide highways to and from Deadwood attest to its popularity, and probably all those bikers in summer. The town itself we circled, not stopping. But I wondered, as our friend Broderick had told us of the view from high up over the canyon where the frontier slumbered at Mount Moriah cemetery. There was one sign of Jewish presence once, Goldberg's storefront, but its wooden buildings, preserved now, bore evidence of their current purpose, as gambling flourishes. After the recent election, it expanded in Deadwood.

We wanted to see, getting out of town well before another sunset, the national park at another Western site of lore, the Badlands. So, off we retraced our time on the interstate, going in the right direction, east. I was happy to leave the big rigs and frackers behind after getting tangled in traffic in the numbing bland strip malls and apartments of Rapid City, which as with so many cities no matter how venerable appeared on the highway as if built yesterday, with all the visual appeal that carries.

Taking Highway 44 down to it, through the barely-there Caputa and Farmingdale, reminiscent of Dust Bowl vignettes, we came into the Badlands from the south. Pine Ridge sounded bleak, and its own tribal center was closed. I tried the radio station mentioned in a guidebook as broadcasting in Lakota. All I got was static, and a faint sound of heavy metal bleeding in. We climbed around a scenic lookout, on a wooden platform, where you can see a table mountain 30 miles south on the reservation. John at the ranch had told us of an even better vantage point on Sheep's Mountain, but the gravel road prevented our bravery. Then we visited the interpretative center. There we learned that homesteading is tough in this moonlike, silent, beige or striped, raw and scraped clean landscape, accounting for the failure of the 160-acre plots supplanting the loss of native lands. That is, 20-30 acres per animal is needed for grazing livestock per year. Alliance's pioneers proved clever, as they moved it up to 640 acres. Which may account for the gloom surrounding Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee, and the ad I saw in South Dakota one night from the Lakota, urging teens not to consider suicide. But, consider the pride rebounding around Crazy Horse. Like slavery (even amid the festivity of Thanksgiving as Mark Twain's autobiography acerbically remarks), tribal ghosts haunt our national conscience, the reverse or negative side of patriotic emanations indelibly inscribed upon Rushmore.

Our last stop, after miles of marveling at the stillness, broken only by people like us driving across the whispering plains, reminded us of the contrasts too between the solitude of the Dakotas and the sparse presence we added to. It shows also how far one must go to retreat from the interstate hum. When we pulled into the earnestly advertised (once, many more billboards promising ice water enticed the first wayfarers along the pre-interstate in pre-air conditioned times of the Depression)
Wall Drug, we found the giant store, far larger than the original pharmacy, nearly empty. It was almost closing time. A young woman, a native American, took our order. My fish and chips totalled over ten dollars for a skimpy meal, as Layne and I had our curiosity fulfilled. Ice water is still free, but in tiny Dixie cups. We left a tip for the forlorn teenager sweeping up the enormous dining hall, and watched the short-shirtsleeve with tie no-nonsense manager scowl over his staff, which had a Southeast Asian man as another counter worker. An elderly man, another sort of native from his name tag, chatted with us as we bought a 3-D bookmark of a unicorn and a tiger for our two sons.

Nothing really appealed for us, but Layne also fell for some overpriced chokecherry jelly as a souvenir for a client; the clerk told us how his wife made the same preserves. We waited out our time but it all closed early and we headed down a cold street past fake Western fronts, past a bar or two with the inevitable football games, to the market. The interstate roared, and a pizza place (even the smallest burbs have one) sat next to a Dairy Queen. Two young men, one obese in overalls with a goatish beard, face, and gait, the other skinny and feral, bought a suitcase of something Coors and cheap, along with chewing tobacco. Then, we stocked up on a few more instant oatmeals, yogurt, pineapple, foraging for nourishment among carbs or starches. The sky turned rosy over grain towers.

On the way back, passing a small ranger station's display that revealed what to us looked like weeds and brush harbored protected grasslands, we passed Ann's Motel. It looked nicer than the chains nearer the interstate. But proprietor and her husband were at the 5 p.m. Mass at St. Patrick's, a notably ugly, squat edifice ca. 1972 in style. So, we circled Wall's streets, arousing a glance from a man unlocking the volunteer firefighter's building as we clutched our plastic bags and peered beyond the houses to the east, abutting directly on a wall, for there rose the Badlands themselves, pink dusk.

The elderly woman and her stoic husband arrived nearly fifteen minutes late. Apparently the priest got carried away with his sermon, or else gossip kept the couple at parish doors. We were about to leave, but I reasoned to Layne no other accommodation would be any better; all others abutted the noisy interstate. I still heard it, but at least a few blocks away, once our smoke-redolent room was exchanged for the one next door. No great improvement as banging kept happening behind my side of the bed from the stairwell entrance opening and closing. No breakfast either, no place to drop off the key even, but we hit north soon, and promptly left Wall's little grid and 800-odd inhabitants behind. 

Heading north, we entered the Cheyenne reservation which takes you into the north-central section of South Dakota and up into its companion state above. But you'd never know, except for small handwritten signs here and there with the names of two rival women for tribal secretary on the side of very empty county and state roads. These took us past the usual crossroads, and abandoned farms. Few seemed to stay, and their land must have expanded decades ago for grazing. At Faith, we stopped for gas. The woman told Layne to pay after filling up--the only place other than Pigeon Point or is it Piedras Blancas on the 1 north of Davenport that I think this has happened, or was it Cambria?

Four old men played cards in a side room. I waited for the bathroom along with a multi-generational family, looking as if fresh from church. We were the only whites around. The station also sold pizza on the side, if not at 9 a.m. when the time zone changed on Sunday morning, further confused by the fact that zone bisects the Dakotas along the Missouri River, down the center of the rival or companion states. The bathroom as all I entered since Canon City's prison museum was very clean. A neatly lettered sign warned us males to put up the seat, keep it tidy, and use paper towels provided. "If you make a mess, and you're married, I feel sorry for your wife," concluded the reproving message.

The air was getting colder, not that it was that warm since we'd been in Las Vegas, NM, the last real place we'd had average (for us) fall weather (and a dirty bathroom). Veering north steadily but detouring at right angles onto other roads, so as to line up with the destination a ways past Bismarck. Mullen, Flasher (all of its named roadsigns had bullet holes through one of the vowels), and McIntosh. Pride in teams, modest centers with small houses, surrounded by prairie, sometimes fields.

Mandan stretched out prettily over bridges, iron fenced spreads, and an older section of the town. It sprung up the other side of the wide river from the capital of the Peace Garden State, apparently another railroad center. More interstates and national highways, until we sauntered back and finally over the Missouri which had brought explorers in 1804 from Jefferson's Corps of Discovery. Lewis and Clark and their thirty-odd corpsmen, recruited for various trades and skills, left St. Louis and up the river found few to stop their progress as they towed or rowed their boats and 60 tons of supplies against the current. The ranger who showed us around the reconstructed fort near the river's bank, Jeff, reasoned most of the Arikara or Mandan were off hunting, rather than waiting for lookey-loos.

Finally, as winter set in, the Corps landed at the native settlement to build the fort named after the tribe, Fort Mandan. From here, they headed west to seek the Northwest Passage and a way to the Pacific, as Jefferson directed. We found at the interpretative center all about the expedition. It took the men a half-hour to pump up an air-powered rifle, showing the tedium for everyday essentials. The men had Sacagawea, a captured Shoshone, to interpret between that language further west and Mandan, which in turn her husband, trader Touissant Charbonneau, could handle along with French.

The Mandan, situated ideally at the center of the continent, traded with everyone else, and any lore about them harboring "blond" natives two-plus centuries ago may be attributed, our guide suggested after my inquiry, to the fact they had so many other tribes moving through, as well as French contact to at least the 1730s. One marvels at this Corps' train of communication into English, and how the tribes (the whites and their companions finally met some near Wyoming, showing again the vast territory and the comparatively few people populating it then, or at least those on the trail) managed to interpret the less-threatening figure of a mother with an infant she suckled, along with the white men they likely had no names for to translate yet. Or maybe so; the 1796-7 map of adventurer John Evans, given to Clark by Jefferson, prepared the way for Lewis and Clark's foray, as Evans had pursued rumors of the Mandan as "Welsh Indians." This fanciful claim about the legendary medieval voyage of Prince Madoc in 1170 persists among a few inventive Celts today, as I wrote about in 2009 on this blog. (I happen to be revisiting this as I write, reviewing Gruff Rhys' media project about a "interpretative concert tour" retracing the steps of Evans, his distant forebear, in American Interior.)

Back in 2007, I liked if did not love Brian Hall's novel "I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company" about the Lewis and Clark's expedition's four main protagonists, told from each of their points of view. Their determination, and as we learned from the specimens displayed and the helpful captions at the center, the Enlightenment-era angle on the expedition--the Bible was taken as a legal measure to enforce oaths and obedience, and no missionary or chaplain accompanied the men and their formidable array of carefully chosen supplies and equipment--showed Jefferson's influence. I tried on a buffalo gown. We saw the fort and learned of the lives of the men so dug in for a 1804 winter. This photo shows at its gate Layne and I ready for bear, and a blunderbuss, as day lengthened. asserting our venerable 2nd Amendment right to bear arms if not against armed bears. At the foot of the lovely river (which had obliterated the original fort in its meanderings long ago), we admired the giant one-ton statue of Seaman, Lewis' beloved Newfoundland companion. He is said to have remained loyal at the grave of Lewis, who as Hall's novel dramatizes, met a sad end in 1809.

After, we headed into Bismarck. Once more Layne's refusal to get gas (at Washburn when I suggested) turned us into a downhill, luckily, ride into that boomtown. It went on forever, echoes of Williston's fracking frenzy and housing shortages. Around us where we finally fueled up, dirty trucks and spattered truckers showed the current types of expeditions North Dakota's known for, and why we kept traveling until Jamestown, further east, so as to find a relatively rare hotel room at Days Inn.

There, closed in by welcome corridor from the cold, we settled in after a meal at Buffalo City Diner in the historic core of Jamestown, a district similar in size and feel to North Platte. We tried the Fargo Oktoberfest brew, I had walleye in batter, a local specialty, and the game played on the big screen in a large space converted from a bank. By the time we left around 8 p.m., the hip coffeehouse across the street had closed. Not much else to report, and in the morning, election projections replacing Ebola scares, we left behind the Dakotas at Fargo itself for the Land of 10,000 Lakes, over another big river.