Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Jackson, Mississippi

On the outskirts of Jackson, Mississippi, there is shade at a campground under pine trees and, for Mississippi this time of year, weather that is lovely.

The weather was wonderful, the travel pleasant and uncluttered along U.S. 82 and 167 for the past two days, too. The countryside is Arkansan, Texan, Cajun, and Mississippian as the roads wind over the state lines. Towns we pass through are named for all these: El Dorado, Stamps, Magnolia, Homer, Bernice, Plain Dealing, Bayou Chanute, and Clinton. Whole sub cultures pass by in a drive through Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and across the river into Mississippi. I crossed the Mississippi River at Vicksburg. I have seen the Red River, the Pecos, and the Rio Grande now adding to my life list of rivers that I had only read about or heard of in song.

Jackson is in a rural southwestern part of the state, although there is a lot of rural in Mississippi. It was founded in 1821 as a trading post for furs headed down river to New Orleans. What recommended it as a place to live at all was that it was on a high bluff along the river. Founded by a French trader, it originally was known as LeFleur's Bluff. Later, the state moved the capital from the Natchez area to escape mosquitoes, the atrocious climate, and the so-called “Federalist” politicians that controlled it.

After some surveying around the area on commission of the state assembly, the Lattimore brothers found the bluff by following the Pearl River south and west. They reported to the Assembly that this was an area of healthful climate, abundant timber, and navigable waters, which was close to the then very important Natchez Trail. Apparently this was enough for the lawmakers. In November of 1821, they voted to move the central government to the site and to name it in honor of Major General Andrew Jackson, who had spent time in the state after the Battle of New Orleans which was a result of the War of 1812. I say it was a result because the battle, in which the British were decidedly thrashed, was fought after England had sued for peace and the war was over. There was no e-mail or cell phones to pass the word in those days and it was far enough from Washington that, until riders reached them some time after it was over, the surrender was not known. General Jackson later did an important and seminal turn as the first “western” President of the United States. Thus, it was au revoir Lefleur and hello to the "city" named in his honor. The Assembly appropriated the munificent sum of $3,200 to build a state house, awarded the contract, and got a thirty-foot square, two story brick building in return.

The importance of the capital’s proximity to the Natchez Trail, also known as “The Trace,” and its place in history cannot be understated. It was the main overland north and south thoroughfare for travel and commerce long before there was a southern or a western United States. It extended nearly 450 miles from near Nashville Tennessee to Natchez Mississippi. It was originally a footpath, used by native peoples as early as 1000 BC and then used heavily by the Native Americans, Spanish explorers, traders, the early settlers, Post riders, and boatman. Farmers would build flat bottom boats to ride the current down the Mississippi River to markets well beyond their reach otherwise and then sell everything including the lumber from the boats and walk home, sometimes more than a hundred miles. It seems inconceivable that this would be a profitable way to move goods to market, but the southern river markets were the only one’s there were for the farmers of the virgin land upriver and the river was the only way to move it efficiently. They had lots of time to get home once done. They needed to be there for spring planting, otherwise, time didn't much matter.

Meriwether Lewis had led the epic journey of the famed Corps of Discovery that had traversed the continent in 1802 from St. Louis to the mouth of the Colombia River and returned in 1804, died on the Trace. At the time he was the Governor of the Louisiana Territories. Unlike his partner, Captain Clarke, Colonel Lewis had political ambitions. The President had rewarded him for his astonishing journey with the patronage job he now held. While returning from Washington, at a place called Grinder’s Stand, an Inn and Tavern on the Trace, one of three things happened: He was murdered, committed suicide, or died of a raging fever from an underlying illness contracted on his earlier trip. Each version has had credence over the years . Historians are now reasonably convinced he was murdered, but remain divided as to why. He is buried there still.

There has been an attempt to restore the old Trace route. It will never be a foot trail like the Appalachian Trail. A road follows the approximate route much like the Blue Ridge Parkway. The evidence of the heavy early use includes places along the way where wide grooves in the hills more than 20 feet deep are found. Thousands of moccasins and horses hooves made them in the red clay soil.

Mississippi adopted four state Constitutions. The second, in 1832, moved the capital. They built what was for them, capacious quarters at Jackson. In 1961, after having survived a checkered career as offices and several attempts to burn it down, the capital became a museum and remains a lovely well cared for place more Greek than southern. The Governor's Mansion built at about the same time has had a different fate. When they built a new one, befitting one new governor or another, it became the seat of municipal government for the City of Jackson. It was built for $8,000 and 140 years later still serves the same purpose. There are no better deals in real estate than that.

The Union General Sherman marched through here three times. The local literature does not make clear why it took him twice as long to ravage the capital of this small rural place as it did for him to burn down most of Atlanta. There are many such anomalies about the War Between the States, as it is known here. The locals profess not to know why he didn't burn down the government buildings, or are at least vague about it. There may have been a Masonic Lodge in one of them, or a church, or something else he respected is how one story goes. The fact that they were likely being used as temporary hospitals sounds more likely.

Jackson was home to some 8,000 souls in 1900 and in 1990 had more than 395,000. Not a large metropolis by some standards, but a substantial place with teaching hospitals, a college, "two regional Malls", whatever that odious term may mean, and commerce mostly as a "distribution center," as the Chamber of Commerce calls it. I think, in English, it means that lots of trucks and boats move things through here to Dallas to the west and Atlanta to the east and New Orleans to the South. It is a very pleasant place, taken altogether, unless it is July or August at five o'clock, the sun is still high, you lack bug repellant, and all you have is lemonade to get you through the night.

In the shade of the pine trees, far back from the highway, on the out skirts of this peaceful place, I spent three days in the company of an extraordinary man and had a series of conversations which reminded me of the Dialogues of Plato. His name was Buddy. He was a legend in this campground. He pulled his forty-foot motor home in here one day, began to pay his rent on the very last day of the month, and always says he’ll be here just one more. He said that the first month and he said it the day after I met him.

"Boots," his tiny dog of many breeds, at eight months has had two life threatening pulmonary operations since Buddy got him as a pup. The veterinarian suggested he take the dog back. Buddy thought that was like giving a sick child back to the hospital. He was convinced the “breeder” would merely have disposed of the then six-week-old Boots. He kept him and paid for the expensive surgeries that allow Boots to breathe almost normally now. That is why Buddy stays here. He is nursing his dog and friend Boots back to health. The fact that Boots is alive is a testament to his spirit. Maybe that is why they are so close. They are much alike these two. No one stops here for 24 hours without meeting the pair. No one refers to them singularly, they are “Buddy ‘n Boots” since they are always together. When you see Buddy, you see Boots. Neither would be without the other, a fact that may be literally true.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Man of the Milennium

Pennsylvania was now behind us on a hot and humid day that was far too early for the season. I had the beginning of a head cold which seemed a perfect rationalization to get off the Interstate, take refuge in an air-conditioned motel, and catch up with mail and personal hygiene before going on to Michigan. When it hit 96 at midday I was sure I had made the right decision. Ordinarily I would have avoided the Interstate which follows the Ohio Turnpike here but didn’t because of my attempt to reach a campground on Lake Eire early. There were alternate routes to avoid it as the road joined at the Pennsylvania State line, but the head cold lessened my interest in circuitous routes, so listening to CDs while on cruise control seemed easier while taking decongestants.
Interstate 80 was continued through Pennsylvania some years ago to give the traveler a more northern route that was closer to a straight line into the New York Metropolitan area. It replaced the much maligned (at least by me) Pennsylvania Turnpike as the route of choice for most trucks, buses, and vacationers. It is free, fast, and a lot less scary.
The Ohio Turnpike was designated as I-80 from the time of its construction. In fact, since Interstate highways were funded at 80 per cent by the federal government under President Eisenhower---the last great public works project of the century--- it may be how it got built at all. It has been having cosmetic surgery done for as long as I can remember. You get the feeling that the state wants to make a good impression. I have only been on it sporadically and mostly years before traveling from Maryland to Chicago. My brother, who used it extensively to return to East since his college days, will testify that it has been this way for as long as he can remember. It is not a big deal in the larger worldview, but an interesting and annoying circumstance. A “Lane Closed, Reduce Speed” sign followed by miles of orange cones blocking seemingly spotless pavement are not a favorite sight for most drivers when it requires them to lower speeds and Ohio has strict enforcement. Often, one work crew in a ten-mile stretch will be found in the midst of this either drinking coffee or driving a pickup truck in the closed lane with the lights flashing.
I had enough of all that for the day in Huron County at the Huron River just east of Sandusky. When I exited, I saw a sign for the "Birthplace of the Man of the Millennium, Thomas A. Edison." I had no idea, having grown up near Edison, New Jersey that he had been born here. Further, I didn’t remember that anyone named him the Man of the Millennium. Maybe they had and I missed it. I recalled vaguely at the time of the infamous “Y2K” moment that there were historians arguing for Jefferson, Gandhi and others. To my knowledge it had never gotten beyond that. Perhaps the town where he was born had a special election. It seemed presumptuous, as brilliant as he was, to declare Thomas Alva Edison the Man of the Millennium.
Thus, a heat wave, a campground too far, and a decision that I wanted to tend to my head cold rather than continue on to the home of the beloved Toledo Mud Hens baseball team that led me, later that afternoon to a town that looked like a place I would see in Connecticut. Milan Ohio (which the locals pronounce “My-lan”) is a charming town with a rich history. By the accident of his father's occupation and the political allegiances of his forefathers, it was the place where one of the greatest inventors of all time was born.
White missionaries, the Monrovians, lived among the Indians in a village known as Petquotting here as early as 1787. This became Milan after they left for reasons lost to local history, in 1804. Milan is in the Firelands, the western most tract of a parcel of land known as the Connecticut Western Reserve. The name is apt since it was land given to Connecticut families burned out of their homes and driven west during the Revolutionary War.
This birthplace of Edison also has a remarkable and unlikely place in the history of the Great Lakes as a port. The Huron River was navigable to Lake Erie in the early 1800’s to within three miles of Milan. A few daring entrepreneurs decided that they would build a canal from the town to the river and thus gain access to the Lake. By 1839 the first ship from the Great Lakes entered the canal, and this once quiet inland village where one of the first settlers, Ebenezer Merry, had built a flower and sawmill in 1816 now became a hub of commerce for the then western United States. Warehouses were built nearly overnight to store 300,000 bushels of grain. Hundreds of wagons from 150 miles away lined the roads daily to transship the grain from the inland farms through Milan to cities North and East. More ships were needed to move the grain than entered the canal, so Milan began building them. By 1847 more than 75 schooners had been built and were under sail. In 1847, more than 917,800 bushels of were shipped from this port, making it the second largest in the world after the Ukrainian city of Odessa.
Milan was content and on it's way to becoming a port city of huge importance until the railroad. Milan fought the introduction of rail transportation for obvious economic reasons. However, rails, not canals, were the future, and it lost. By 1869, Milan's canal and warehouses were being abandoned to become part of the village's history. One warehouse still stands near the canal basin in mournful testimony to the thirty years of plenty.
Even without the presence of the Edison family, this would still be a remarkable village. This meteoric burst of commerce made many rich, and left as quickly as it came, and yet a lovely town, with homes representative of those boom times remains. It is part of Ohio history and a proud chapter in the history of Huron County. Yet millions pass, at 70 miles an hour within 7 miles of its bucolic village green and have no idea it is there, what it was, or what it has become. In much the same way that planes fly at 500 miles and hour over rich, diverse, and interesting, places, those who travel the "I" roads do so in the same hermetically sealed existence. They go fast, eat plastic food, and never know of Ebenezer Merry, or see the place where Edison was born. We learn to travel quickly and efficiently, but because we do, we know little of what we pass. As Charles Kuralt, the “On the Road” journalist of CBS News once famously said, “You can travel the interstate highway system from one coast to the other and never see a thing.”
On the village green, there is a bandstand shell, a monument to the Civil War soldiers of Milan, and a statue of a young Mr. Edison reading at his mother's knee. The town hall that was built in 1864 faces it on the east side. It has, I was assured, the same façade as it had then. There are shops and buildings that are not "faux" replicas, but lovingly cared for originals. There are period lampposts which border the square, each donated in memory of a citizen now gone, some prominent and some not. On the south side, the Milan Inn stands as a museum, looking as if it would open for dinner, with vases and linen on the tables in the first floor dining room. The second floor looks ready for guests as well. All the rooms that faced the square had welcoming candles in the windows in the Amish tradition. I was assured by one of the women who worked in City Hall having a late lunch here on the green that it still was used for "occasions,” although it did not open regularly. It needed a coat of paint, but otherwise looked as it did in the 1800's.
Down the street is the old canal basin and near it the small house where Edison was born. He did not live here long, his great- grandfather John Edison was an inventor too, and had lived in New Jersey during colonial times. Some 160 years later, the tract of land that John had farmed back then became Edison New Jersey and was where Thomas worked and made his home. John Edison was a Loyalist during the Revolution, and like most that stayed true to King George, soon found himself in Nova Scotia, after having his property confiscated under tenuous legal circumstances and sentenced to execution. His prominent relatives got him safely to Canada but the family fortunes fluctuated after that. Edison's grandfather, a Canadian by birth, served in the British Navy in the War of 1812. Edison’s father married the daughter of one of General Washington's officers. He left Canada after an unsuccessful attempt to free that country from British rule and finally settled in Milan where he made roof shingles and Thomas eventually joined five siblings when born on February 11, 1847. Seven years later they were gone and the house passed on to other owners until one of his sisters bought it and lived there for a time. Edison inherited it in 1906. He never lived there. On a visit in 1926, however, the father of the electric light was shocked and embarrassed to find that his property was one of the few left in Milan still lit by gas and candles.
This place is full of history. It was for a few years one of the great ports of the world. It was the birthplace of the man who invented the telephone, the phonograph, a way to record votes electronically, wireless telegraphy, the electric pen used in mimeograph machines, the motion picture camera, the miner's lamp, the nickel iron-alkaline storage battery, and vulcanized rubber among other things. Yet it sits, largely unnoticed near the roaring Interstate, quaint for its history, lovely in its present state, but forgotten in history larger than Huron County and Ohio.
The centerpiece of the town is without doubt the village green. It has that imposing monument to those who fought in the Civil War. At its base are the names of all the battles they fought in as part of various Ohio Regiments and an obelisk that rises above to which is affixed the "Roll Call of the Dead.” Unusual for such remembrances is that there is also a "Roll Call of the Living.” Bert, the fellow who was cutting the lawn, explained that this honored the men who returned to Milan and in many cases became its leading citizens. There were small plaques in the grass at the base that honored those who had served in World War One and Two. I asked Bert why there was none for Korea or Vietnam. He looked into the distance and said there had been some talk about that but the American Legion—which provided the other two—and whose local Post was in one of the buildings facing the square, had donated the ones that were there. He did not elaborate. I hoped that the Charles Evans American Legion Post just takes its' time to deliberate such things. I hoped that, but doubted it provided a plausible explanation.

A soft breeze was blowing in the shade on the village green. I had enjoyed a wonderful day discovering this place and talking to friendly and helpful people. I had enjoyed this day simply because it was on the way, and I, for all the wrong reasons and all the right results, took the time, once off the highway, to find it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


Altitude did not a challenge him. Girth and attitude were another matter.
He wore a soiled grey hooded sweatshirt, typical campground outerwear for a misty cool spring evening. Untypically, it had a number of patches sewed to it, the one which covered the better portion of the back was the Seal of the the U.S. Navy. The others were of various organizations that former service members might join with a numerical bias toward the American Legion. Curiously, he wore a row of four military medals on the left breast of this grubby garment where they would be on a uniform. He appeared an odd fellow before he opened his mouth and when he did he became one.
He was, he said, from Port Angeles Washington at the top of the Olympia Peninsula now, but originally a Minnesotan. He and “the wife”—visible at the campsite near the fire, her ample anatomy pressing down on the fibers of her canvas camp chair like humidity on a southern mid-summer day—were headed there, Duluth to be specific, the next morning. The smell of Minnesotan brandy had preceded him as he moved slowly in my direction. My initial impression was of a man who had enjoyed a “beer and a bop,” in the argot of his home place before, and perhaps during and then again after dinner.
His wife’s voice preceded him. Her sonorous high-pitched whine assured me that the cute scruffy little dog with the squeaky bark now approaching at a leisurely pace was “very friendly.” Her words cut through this otherwise quiet evening like a foghorn. He presented himself in my campsite to fetch “McGee.”
The man bent laboriously when he reached the animal, scooped him up, and stated without fear of successful contradiction that the dog was afraid of me. It was possible. However, it seemed more likely just another curious dog that approach from time to time in campgrounds everywhere.
My new best friend settled on the bench of my picnic table, as “McGee” shook with cold or fright, his plight no longer a concern apparently now that his master had found something to do. The man asked a few cursory questions about where I came from and where I was going. In a summary sort of way he dismissed that as information he had either suspected or found of no interest and in an officious manner began to tell me of him. Much of his life was spent, as one would have suspected from his attire, in the Navy. He was retired. He had been since the 1990’s. The narrative was short on many other details, including his name, but included all the ships he had served in, all the places he had been in the world, and all the time he was the Commander of the Port Angeles, Washington American Legion Post. This presumably explained the patches and the medals.
As he held forth about the ships and the time he had been at war, it seemed not just something he needed to do. There was urgency about it. It was as if I needed to know it. It was without prompting or encouragement. Interspersed with this commentary of this life was his view of various past and present current events and public servants. John Kerry, a fellow Navy veteran, was a man he had “lost all respect for,” (presumably in the 1960’s), when he threw someone else’s medals instead of his own over the fence at the White House. Whether he knew who Senator Kerry was then, or the Senator ever had his respect seemed, from his tone, unlikely. The incident, as he described it, I knew had never happened. When asked how he knew Senator Kerry did that, he dismissively stated that everyone knew it because it was on the radio. They–the radio voices--told him too, that Bill Clinton was a draft dodger and Barack Obama was a Muslim.

Clearly this was a man with strong if tenuously grounded convictions.

Some of the patches were unfamiliar so it seemed a prudent to send the conversation in their direction since it was clear he was content to settle here awhile and my interest in his life and times was quickly waning. Some were interesting if only because I had never heard of them before. A five-minute explanation of each was the minimum. When he reached the medals he explained that they were not all he was awarded, but not why he wore them. He had the “right” to wear twelve, he said. One could only assume that these were the ones assigned, at least for this evening around the fire, to this particular sweatshirt.
At some point during his narrative, Mrs. Whomever had pried herself from her camp chair, lumbered over to retrieve the shaking “McGee,” and repaired to the trailer. The man then continued to explain his life and times without regard to the glazed eyes that met every new subject. The stories of what he did and where he went became repetitive and the temptation was to dismiss him as a buffoon. He touched on many subjects, all related to his service and his veteran status. One such was that if one holds a 30 percent military disability in Washington State one can camp free. This “benefit” has apparently been passed by the Washington and Oregon Legislatures for the benefit of troops now returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, because of the vagueness of the statutory language, it has been ruled to apply to all veterans, something never contemplated or intended, and the loss of fees is hemorrhaging the DNR budgets in both states as the men of previous wars take advantage of this newly provided free lunch. He was delighted with the unintended benefit. He viewed it as an entitlement long overdue. He complained about the amount of paperwork he had to file and the time it took to get the pass. When I asked what made it so onerous, he admitted that a “Disability Award” letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs and an application was what was required and the “pass” was issued in four weeks.
He seemed a melancholy man. If he had a real life now beyond remembering his memorable moments of the past, he never mentioned it. He complained of the time it took to carry out his responsibilities and that he would have to return from Minnesota early to participate in some ceremony or other in Canada. He made it clear that he was the official American Legion Representative to these friendship ceremonies—as opposed to someone who just went out of curiosity. He seemed to enjoy the distinction yet it made him seem even less joyful. He occasionally felt compelled to ask a question about one subject or another, yet he let them pass without comment whatever the answer, simply nodding to suggest that either he had no interest or he already had enough knowledge of it. The word condescending came to mind more than once. His retirement life seemed to have been about ship decommissioning ceremonies, honor guards, remembrances of his time in service, and days spent at the Legion Hall. It seemed to me there should be more to life than that.
In the end, I decided his life was what it was. It may have been only his memories of his service. That was his problem or his joy, not mine. I now knew more than I wanted about it and if I chose to judge him a buffoon because of it or his worldview that was up to me. He seemed a good example why it is sometimes good to just listen and leave it there. When you travel in a van alone, sometimes this is what you get.
As he rose to leave in the gloaming of the cool damp night in response to the screech that boomed from his camper, he said that he had given his wife the camper for her birthday, and she had given him the dog for his. They were going to travel now, and, so long as his back didn’t get any worse, they planned to have a good time.
He turned and walked slowly back to his camper. As he did, it occurred to me that a good time sounded like something he needed.

© December 2008, all rights reserved

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Dorothy and the Possum Hollow Inn

I took a route west with which I was not familiar. It was to the west and I usually went east when in this part of Pennsylvania. I was wandering a two-lane road through small towns and I wanted to be sure I was headed back to where I was spending the night. On the outskirts of one there was one of those small “beauty salons." We have all seen them and I suspect a some have been in one. They are always a very small building standing alone by the side of the road. They are often painted pink. Many have a “tanning center” in the Upper Midwest now. I am not sure why. Sunlight Affected Disorder (SAD) perhaps. It is so in Alaska so why not near Lake Bemidji? Often there is a house nearby . All that attracted me to it however was the size of the parking area. The shoulders here were narrow and I needed to get La Coachasita far enough off the road to check the map. The spaces were long and empty, so I took advantage of it.
As I looked for the road, a woman came from the small porch of the building. I had not seen her when I parked. She reminded me of a waitress in a long ago sit-com from television who I believe was named “Flo.” She had Beehive hair, blonde for now, a pleasant woman with maybe too much make up or just the wrong color. This was not Flo. She introduced herself as Dorothy smiling brightly and asked if I was all right, "being from California and all," she said. I told her what I was doing and apologized for the parking job. She waved that off and she set me straight on the route back to the main highway. She asked if I would like some ice tea. That seemed like a good idea on a warm day. The town had looked interesting when I came through and there was plenty of time left in the day, so I thought I would learn some more about it. I had just passed the Possum Hollow Inn, an odd and foreboding looking place not open at this time of day. I was sure I had questions about it even if nothing else had been remarkable about the place. Dorothy was looking forward to a quiet afternoon, she explained, "unless someone came in on the way home from the packing plant," she said, so talking to me while smoking a pack of cigarettes seemed something to do for her at least. She brought some tea, her cigarettes, and silenced the ubiquitous quiz show on the television which could easily be heard from the small porch where we sat.
The town was near Mount Holly Springs where Sid Bream, a first baseman who played much of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates came from. It says so right on the sign on the way into town. Sid is unfortunately most famous for a play in the National League Play-offs with the Atlanta Braves. He slid home as the tying run in the ninth inning. It was a remarkable, exciting, and heartbreaking moment. He was out and so were the Pirates. Sid was on a World Series winner once. A very good ballplayer who shattered his knees early but still could hit even after all the surgery. Dorothy knew all about him. After all, a major league ballplayer didn't grow up near here every day.
The town is a suburb of nowhere and supports itself with a little farming, a large fruit packing plant, and some farm implement repair business. The highway strip mall is where the heavy shopping gets done and the State Route I was on was Main Street. Dorothy is the only beautician in town and has been, mostly, for the last 30 years. She certainly seemed to know the town. She has worked here, lived here, and owned her shop since around 1977. She grew up in Cashtown not far from here and went into the profession of cosmetology after high school. She was married three times, has kids from all the marriages and grandchildren nearly everywhere in a 200-mile radius. She seems happy with her life as it is now. She spoke wistfully of earlier urges to travel or move on. She and husband one or two, I lost track somewhere, lived in Pittsburgh for a time, but she came back "after that was over" in her phrase, and believed she had no reason move now that would make her life more interesting or more complete. She is happy here by the side of the road caring for the tresses of the ladies of all ages, and on occasion apparently, being a friend to a lost stranger. Those she did not have as customers went over to one of the" big" towns like Mount Holly Springs. She genuinely did not seem to care if she cut all the hair of the female population of the town. It was their choice, and she made “a fair living” she thought, although that was hard to tell on this mid-week afternoon. She was enjoying her role of unofficial goodwill ambassador. She told me all I wanted to know about the town and more.
When on trips with my father, he would drive through a town like this one and say that he never could figure out what all the people did for a living. Pennsylvania is famous for small towns with substantial homes right in the in the downtown area. They all crowd the sidewalk with narrow front porches that empty immediately on to them. I have not yet found the style elsewhere. They were built in a time when the towns were less populated, the traffic on the main street less congested, and people took the evening breeze and conversations there. It is quite different from the Midwest or the East where a lawn is interposed between the porch and the street. Many of the older towns—and there are many of those in Pennsylvania--are still this way. The porches, some of them, still are used. They have a pair of rocking chairs or a swing and some, even hanging plants. The truly “posh” have that green carpet referred to as "indoor/outdoor" for reasons that have never been clear to me since I never saw it used indoors. It was clear when you drove through this places that the people had jobs, it was just tough to figure out what and where they were.
Well, Dorothy knows all about that. When I related that this was a prosperous looking town with no visible means of support, she knew told me about it. Most people work at the packing plant. It once was shift work at reasonable wages in the good seasons, and they saved for the winter. Trucks come all year now both to take the produce away, but also to bring the raw product from many places. The packing plant was a local concern once, but Dorothy says it is big business now, year round at fair wages but few benefits except vacation.
I asked her about the Possum Hollow Inn. Silence hung until Dorothy shook her head and said that it was usually full of the field hands of little substance and the lower order of packing plant employees on the weeknights. I took this to mean the locals who went to work before they finished high school that had not yet, and likely never would, make a decision to leave. She said I could go there if I liked but the food wasn't much and the whiskey wasn't either. The weekends were interesting times, she supposed, when the sheriff comes regularly and the pool cues get broken over people's heads. Of course, she said, it had been years since she had been there but her customers tell her about such things and she supposes there is no good reason to go if some fool is just going to crack a pool cue over someone else's head. Especially since the owner can't even buy a decent brand of whiskey. I never did find out what a "decent brand" was to Dorothy or how she knew he didn’t have one, but it seemed important to her.
There are three churches in town. Lutherans and Episcopalians were the majority, but a fair number of Baptists as well. The ministers were all eccentric, or odd in some way to hear Dorothy tell it. Not in a bad way, they all just seemed to be odd or strange in one of their habits or dress or speech. Apparently Dorothy had been a member of all these ministries over the years so she knew first hand and didn't necessarily have to rely on the chatter of her customers. Once or twice, she referred to the ministers as "busybodies.” I took that to mean, in the way she said it, that there was a reason why she had changed religions periodically. Dorothy, I don't believe, didn’t much care for people who knew too much about her or how she lived. She seemed to believe that was her business.
In the end, politics came up in a sly sort of way. There was no real doubt that she came down on the “Right” side or that "Rush" was a staple of her morning radio listening. I feigned but a passing interest in the subject, opined, as Tip O’Neill often had, that all politics are local but didn't attribute the quote. She thought it a fine expression and, I suspect some heard it while having a wash and set sometime later in the week.
Having drunk enough tea to last several weeks and smelled enough smoke to remember why I quit a long time ago, I left as the afternoon began to fade. Dorothy said she hoped I’d stop back when I came through again. I said I would if I ever did that and thanked her for all the tea and the insight she had given to a town like hers. She laughed and said that she had barely scratched the surface, but that it was a good place with mostly good people, if you didn't count the foolish and the stupid. She thanked me for sharing the afternoon and my trip that she declared "amazing.” I had heard a lot of that word from her. The fruit packers were amazing. Church services were sometimes amazing. She favored the word. Some might say Dorothy and the others here live out lives of quiet desperation. They have cigarette in one hand and a TV remote in the other. They listen to the opinions of the talk show hosts and adopt them as their own, and move from paycheck to paycheck, working mindless jobs for little money, no health insurance while ruining their health with every puff of smoke, side of beef and bottle of "good whiskey" they consume. Yet they never lock their doors. They know each other and share their lives. It seems, except for the folks at the Possum, no one much bothers each other unless asked. Yet they take care of each other in times when they need to cry and seem to enjoy each other's company most of the time. Small town life is hard to understand for someone like me. It isn't bad or good. It is something a honestly don’t know enough about except that it fascinates me. Maybe, and more likely, it is just not for me to judge.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Field of Dreams and Looking for Radar O'Reilly

A detour to Dyersville just west of Dubuque brought me to the place even those who live in the Red Sox Nation, worship the Chicago Cubs, or believe that Yankee Stadium is the center of the baseball universe generally admit is the place that is the cult center of the sport. The field met my expectations.

On the 90-year-old Lansing Farm is the baseball diamond "created" by the Kevin Costner character in the movie "Field of Dreams.” Suffice to say that among baseball fans it is a cult film. The field which was kept up after the movie was finished attracted a substantial tourist trade. It became a Mecca for the purists of baseball. Its simplicity is a reminder of simpler times as the movie was, when the ballplayers played the game very well, yet seemed human, not superstars.

I will only briefly summarize the plot for those of you who may not know the movie. A farmer built the field in the middle of his farm. His neighbors believed him crazy since he took corn out of production to do it. He believed that if he built it his long dead father, who had been a catcher at some level of professional baseball, would return to play there. He believed it because a voice told him. His wife and son were his support along with one other man, played by the wonderful James Earl Jones. When done, many dead greats of the game came and played, as did his father. Only he and his family were able to see them. The teams came and went through the cornstalks that lined the outfield. The movie either originated or made famous the phrase, "if you build it, they will come.” I should assure you that the movie was much better than my explanation.

My short time there was nearly as dreamlike as the movie. It was very early, There was a fine mist which added to this surreal vision which made it seem quite possible to me that at any moment "Shoeless "Joe Jackson or another of the greats of long ago would walk out of the corn stalks and take his place in field or the batter's box. It is a remarkable place, sadly made less so by the folks who "saved" it. There are suits and counter- suits as to who owns what and the rights to what. All rather tawdry and only reinforces my core belief that greed drives the world in far too many endeavors. This greed has now caused the field to be abandoned. My last news has it that will be dismantled. They say it is not popular anymore and that may be true, as the movie was years ago. Yet, it seemed a place worth saving. Many of us still care.

I avoided the unpleasantness and commercialism this weekday morning in light rain. Only a few other pilgrims stood there with me. I came away with no overpriced T-Shirt or hat to proclaim my attendance, just the memory of a verdant place and an uncomplicated field. If ghosts of the greats from the past do come to place to play the game they loved you have the feeling that it could happen here.

A map told me I wasn’t far from Ottumwa, Iowa, home of the mythical Radar O'Reilly from the television series M*A*S*H. Radar was played by Gary Burghoff who is the nephew of a man I worked with for a number of years. The character's special naiveté and bumbling competence, made him memorable to many and hard not to like. He was the company clerk that kept the hospital working in its dysfunctional way and in bandages and whatever else it needed. “Radar,” was a nickname for more than one of my co-workers who had extraordinary powers of anticipation and always seemed to have the right piece of paper to be signed. Radar was the Patron Saint of good staff people everywhere. The story line was that his Mother and Uncle Ed ran the family farm in Ottumwa. Both were portrayed as being a few sandwiches shy of a picnic as the saying goes. There were other equally off center members of his family who lived in town. Eventually, some years into the series, Uncle Ed died, and the conflicted Radar leaves the 4077th M*A*S*H to run the farm. He is, it turns out, less successful in this than in keeping a Mobile Hospital running.

I went to Ottumwa because I had time, was curious about the place, and thought it might be interesting to see what the people there might say about Radar. When I stopped for fuel, I asked where Radar was and where I might find the O'Reilly farm. I got a smile that time, but no comment. As I did my shopping and other errands before going west, I asked a lot of people the same question. Some smiled, some frowned, I was ignored a lot, and occasionally someone would say he was just fine. One lady told me she had known the family for years but they were gone now. Finally a man named Richard in the barbershop reacted as I had hoped and gave me precise directions to the farm, although he said that Radar had sold it a few years ago and had moved to Florida a year or two ago. Richard said Radar was healthy enough for a fellow who had been in Korea way back then. It was an impressive display. He never cracked, but remained as serious as one would be about a real person. Following his directions, I found a farm, which I dutifully photographed. It probably belonged to Richard himself, but I was sorry Radar wasn't there. There was a lot I wanted to ask him.

From my experience, it was clear that I was not the first tourist who had wandered through with these questions about a fictional character. I am not sure that some who asked before me did not believe there was a Radar, a farm, and the rest. Graceland is like that. There was an Elvis, of course, but I remember clearly there were people there who would never accept that he was dead and buried in the backyard of the mansion.

Later in the trip, I told this story to my nephew's wife. I was surprised to learn that Gary Burghoff now lives quite near her parents in Connecticut. He is now a painter of some note. I also met a physician in her practice, who had grown up in Ottumwa and had apparently put up with a good bit of this nonsense in her life.
Ottumwa, of course, is hardly the small town one expects if you take the series literally. It is a city likely smaller at the time of the Korean War, to be sure. It is the "City of Bridges" according to the visitor center on the way to town. Three span the Des Moines River. The town was born a river port town in 1851. Ottumwa means, "rippling waters" in one Indian language or another. One of the bridges, the Jefferson Viaduct, is said to be the longest municipally owned bridge in the state. I will take the Chamber of Commerce's word for it. A carnival was in a park near the river, and on an sunny, early summer's day, made it a fine place to eat lunch and watch people.

I went back north to a less crowded place and headed west. The weather was clear and cool when I made a camp near Kellogg. It was near the Interstate, but uphill and upwind on the edge of a farm. It had electricity, and some lovely old trees. I sat outside watching the traffic, dreaming of destinations for them and watching a glorious sunset. It was then to bed in my own field of dreams. A cornfield came up to the edge of the camp's access road. It was a lovely place, a simple setting to sleep, and dream of baseball games of long ago.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Mississippi

“I feel that there is something in having passed one’s childhood beside the big river which is incommunicable to those who have not…The river cast a spell over the entirety of my life. It was always with me.” ---T.S. Eliot, poet

This mighty river is part of me now. I have travelled its length from south to north, I have slept and walked beside it, smelled it, heard it, seen its flora seen and head its fauna, and know the swiftness of its current. I have been at the beginning and at the end, and driven its length on the scenic byway known as The Great River Road. I have heard and seen the barges moving through the day and night. I have spent time with the crews who move the powerful small “tugs” that push them. I have spent time with port operators who load the grain, rock, and coal and met the men and women who run the locks and dams on the upper river. I have met and gotten to know people who live along its banks.

Yet after all that, I do not know the River.

Those who grow up on its banks, live along it, depend on it, get their wages from it in a direct or indirect way, who get their weather from it, derive their pleasures from it, and endure its heartbreak truly know it. Those of us who come, look, take pictures, and ask questions are merely what we seem, visitors to it, and its ways. To know the River, you must experience it in good times and bad. You must live it.
The River is a living thing, a life changing force. It is a River of commerce and beauty. It is a River of treachery, whimsy, floods, and pestilence. The level of the water changes dramatically by area and by season. It has a current that, even in normal times is remarkably swift which, in some places in some seasons, requires the “up bound” barges to give way to those moving down, in a barely controlled in that often very narrow and ever changing channel. It is all these things, all that can be quantified, and yet so much more. The people who run the river tugs can sense when things are right or wrong. They run 24 hours a day with crews of six to 22 depending on the size of the load and the part they are travelling. There are no Locks or Dams below St Louis, so the loads and the size of the tugs increase, and the River becomes more undisciplined and unpredictable. It is a very cheap way to get lots products a very long thing way, but it is complicated. Barge traffic accounts for 40 per cent of Louisiana’s freight, for example, and other states have comparable statistics.

The Mississippi drains 31 states from Montana to New York and flows nearly 2350 miles from Minnesota to Louisiana. It discharges an amazing 600,000 cubic feet of water into the Gulf of Mexico every second. Commercial traffic occurs on many of its tributaries, such as the Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri Rivers. It is divided into an Upper and a Lower Region. The Upper Region flows from the headwater at Lake Itasca Minnesota to where the Ohio River enters the stream. On the Upper Region there are Locks and Dams that control the ebb and flow to assure nine feet of water under the hull of the barges. It is a beautiful place but in a different way than the lower part. There are bluffs and rocky prominences along the shore. There is more recreation here. The river is gentler, more controlled. The hot baked, rich, loamy bottomland is scarcer.
It is a difficult thing to know, this River. It is a statistical phenomenon, but that does not begin to tell its story. There have been tomes written about its commerce, about the disease, the pollution it has spread, the people, the wars, and how it has been tamed. All of that is an important part of its soul, but so much of our history is tied to it that it is easy to be distracted and see it as only a waterway and it is decidedly not.
It is both the lifeblood and the scourge of the people who live on it and near it. It has the habit of changing course when it floods so that many places that were thriving years ago are gone. Whole commercial centers from the 1800’s are now underwater many miles from its present banks. It has broken the heart and bankrolls of many, shattered the peace in its rage, and brought pestilence, fever, and flood to its people. It is easy to be distracted and travel the side roads of the life of a Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) or Ulysses S. Grant who have a small part in its history and lore, but little to do with its purpose. The River was the first true national commercial highway and very much remains one.
The River has been important to this country far beyond what most that live on the coasts and consider it part of “the fly over country” can begin to imagine. The rich black soil, the “bottom land” has yielded magnificent crops in abundance for the earliest of peoples here. After them, the Indian, then White settlers from at least three countries who controlled parts of it for a time, and then the United States have used it. Long after the country was united farmers rhapsodized, as Sgt. York, the great hero of World War One once did, when he said all he wanted was to go home and “get myself a good piece of bottomland,” as it was a much more important prize than any medal a President might give him.
Were it not for the Corps of Engineers and the levees and dams on the River there would be whole cities yet in danger of being washed away in the spring thaw and rains. If the River was not controlled, St. Louis and other cities would either not exist today or would have been built and rebuilt many times over and miles from where they are. Enormous feats of engineering been accomplished to keep those places from being overwhelmed by the whim of the river. It can be debated whether it is bad or good that man continues to “engineer” the River. Yet even with those efforts, it is hard to quantify the terror and heartbreak the River can bring to those who live near it and work on it.
The River is the heartbeat of the towns and cities on its’ banks. It may not be as important to the commercial interest of each of them now, but it is their soul. The natives talk of it as we do the weather. They know when the water is high, low, too high, and too low. They worry about the River and speak of it as a living thing. It is their River, their barometer of good and bad.
Over the years it has changed course so often and radically it is hard to know where some places were when the first whites settled in the towns on its banks. At a place in Arkansas, for example there is what is known on the River as a “cut off lake,” Lake Chicot. Generally, these were, and are, formed when the river floods and finds an easier path to flow down to the Gulf. This beautiful lake now covers the area of the original county seat of Chicot County. In fact that town, Columbia, was swallowed whole twice by the River and Lake Village is now the County seat, safely on the banks of Lake Chicot, but 20 or more miles from the River. It is common. It has happened all along its length.
In Mississippi, Grand Gulf was, as it name implies, a grand place in the early 1800’s, with 76 blocks of homes and businesses. Fifteen stern wheelers and packet boats visited every month. It had paved streets, an Opera house, newspaper, and all the comforts of a southern city of its time. It was the major shipping point for cotton grown in the Mississippi bottomlands. It was on a bend in the River where the Black River enters. In 1840, Yellow Fever came, and ten years later, a tornado touched down. Then, between 1850 and 1860 the currents of the River took over and a staggering 55 blocks were lost to the River. By the time the Union Army and Navy came to Grand Gulf in 1863 on its way to Vicksburg, it had been reduced from a flourishing commercial and cultural center to a village of 158 people. There are subtle changes to the River as you travel north. It is not as wide near Cape Girardeau and St. Louis, but it is still deep and swift. Barges are still pushed in “32s” and “28s,” four across and seven or eight barges long. Yet there is a difference. It is narrow and yet seems tamer here, better controlled. A campground called The Vale of Tears State Park in Missouri is right on the River. Barges move through day and night and one learns to distinguish from the throb of the huge diesels whether they are “up” or “down bound,” full or empty. Crews are changed here. A Zodiac boat will ferry tired men in and a fresh crew out. Barges will often pause here to wait for the down bound traffic to clear the bend just up river.
On a quiet Sunday morning heading north, I noticed another side road with signage that marked it as “The Port of…” and the name of the very small town I was in or just leaving. I had seen many of these going up the River. I took the turn and found three silos there and conveyors running to the River’s edge. I met the man in charge of it and he explained that it was where the barges were filled and the loads made up. It never occurred to me that they would be this far away from large cities. It made sense because it was a short distance from the quarries and farms. It was a quiet day with no loads to be made up, only maintenance to be done, so he and his crew were happy to share how the loading is done. They knew the economics of this shipping method, that sand, grain, asphalt, rock for roadbeds, and timber could go down the river at a tenth of the cost of any other method. They explained how barges so much larger than truck beds are measured in acreage, not feet. These men had a job they did well, and were happy to explain it to a stranger. They knew “their” stretch of the River as well as anyone could.
There was no plan to spend much time in Illinois yet in the end I had a ride on a tug, watched a day as the barge load was “made up,” and got to know the people of the small river towns. I used the Mississippi Palisades State Park at Savanna, Illinois as a base for a week to explore both the Iowa side of the river as well as the U.S. Grant home and Galena just to the north.
By Memorial Day I was moving up the River through more small towns. After one night in an Iowa Park called Pike’s Peak it was off to a little bit of Wisconsin and a lot of the Minnesota side on the Great River Road. The small towns were fun and the two and three car ferries that still ply the River a delight to ride. The Lock and Dam complexes come more often up here in the far northern reaches. The people who run them are informative and friendly, glad to tell the visitor how it all works and why it is important.
I revisited the headwaters at Lake Itasca State Park so that I could put my hand in the River at the place it rises and begins its southern journey.
So now I had “done” the Mighty Mississippi River and know more of it than I ever have or will need to know. It was a wonderful journey. It feels as if it was a continuum and not just a trip from place to place. The common factor in all the miles was the River. It affected everything I did, where I went and who I met. It was an agreeable experience. One it will take time to absorb fully, because there is so much to understand.

Friday, December 5, 2008


“… we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.…”
---Abraham Lincoln, “the Gettysburg Address.” November 19, 1863

If you have a sense of history, stand at dawnon a summer day, the sun rising, the mist thinning on the well preserved battlefield at a place called Gettysburg, and you may know how it feels to be moved by an awesome and awful event.
It is north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Those two gentlemen surveyed it to settle a land dispute all the way from Ohio to the Atlantic Ocean, which was no mean feat in the early 1800's. Surveyors were a noble breed and a respected profession in the early colonies and states. George Washington started as one. Lincoln did some in Kentucky. George Mason became Governor of Virginia and a University is now named for him.
The line is quite straight making no allowance for natural boundaries. It became, during the Civil War, and since, the division between " hi y'all" and "hello.” It still is the demarcation for "the south" even though it seems quite far from it. Yet during the war, Lincoln declared martial law in Maryland so the state would not secede, leaving the Union with the untenable situation of a Capitol surrounded by states hostile to its existence. The majority of people of Maryland at the time lived in or near Baltimore or fished and farmed the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Many joined the Confederate Army.
La Coachasita and I had returned to civilization from the Shenandoah Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway. I had been to Gettysburg often. It is the only place that a major battle of the Civil War was fought in a northern state. One of the more interesting vacations I took when I was very young was here when my Father brought us to see this place he knew so well. He was a bit more than an amateur Civil War historian. He had read most of the books including those written by Bruce Canton, and in fact knew him and attended round table discussions about the War with him. Canton wrote of the War from the Union point of view without apology. I later inherited those books and many others which replicated the diaries of soldiers who fought here. My father knew many of their fascinating stories .
It started by accident, when Confederate soldiers came to town looking for shoes (not the one they had been sent to, as it happened) and concluded in the long and painful withdrawal of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, Three days of carnage in July of 1863 intervened.
There are still houses and working farms in the middle of the battlefield where General Pickett made his famous charge. The battle was never, except for some minor skirmishes on the first day, fought in the town itself.
The battlefield had changed very little from what I remembered. The town had . Like all interesting places there is a desire to become all things to all people. There are outlet stores, The Eisenhower Convention Center, and lots of resort hotels. If the battlefield interests you, fine, it’s over there if you want to go. However, there is a great film you can see for five dollars, so why bother tramping around over there? When we were here, the battlefield was the reason. A chance to buy clothes at a discount was for another time and place.
The "personal tour guides" of my youth survive. They are interesting fellows who will ride along in your car with you. They have a vast storehouse of important information and minutiae, information passed down from the elder men to the younger, some sons of the elders. They can tell you the whole story of the battle and are happy to stop at any of the monuments on the field and tell you what happened there. They make certain you stop at the more significant places. They know many things. They can tell you the distance each type of cannon could fire, and which side had how many. They know many of the stories so strange to this battle and to that war which tore families and friendships apart. The war was personal, the most personal Americans have ever participated in, and this brings ironic, sad, and serendipitous stories. Here at Gettysburg, for example, the only civilian killed was the fiancée of a young officer whose own company fired the shot. A farmer who had remained loyal to the Union lived here. His son enlisted in the Confederate Army. They saw each other here the second day of the battle for the first time since he went south to join two years earlier, spent two hours in the root cellar of the family house before the shelling started that morning, and then the boy went back to his company. They both survived. The house did not. Major Abner Doubleday was here, as he had been at Ft. Sumter the day the war began and he was only a Lieutenant. He had already likely invented at least a form of baseball and would later build the San Francisco cable car system.
There are many, many more. It is part of what haunts the place. Almost 55,000 men died here those first three days of July, nearly as many as in the entire Vietnam War. Yet this was not the bloodiest battle of the War. That many died at Antietam, Virginia on the first day of a three-day battle there a year earlier.
I stood at the monument that marks the place where General Pickett and 12,000 Confederate Troops left to cross 1,000 yards of open field under withering fire to try to breach the Union lines on the higher ground at Cemetery Ridge. It seems insane, yet likely what is best remembered of this battle. At the start, the line of troops stretched for more than a mile. By the time they reached the Emmitsburg Road a bit more than halfway, they were broken and leaderless yet the line was still a half-mile long. Only 200 men actually broke through the Union emplacements and were quickly captured or fell back. General Pickett was not one of them. The charge cost Robert E. Lee not only Pickett, but most of the very best leaders of his Army. All 15 Regimental Commanders, two Brigadier Generals, and six Colonels were killed.
Like many officers who fought for the Confederate States, Pickett had been to West Point and had friends in both armies. Under flags of "truce," which the arcane rules of War allowed in that time, some of those in the Union Army rode through the lines to see him the night before and begged him to try to make General Lee understand that he could not succeed. He seemed to acknowledge that he would not when he spoke in a melancholy way about the human cost. Yet he had his orders and he saw it as his duty to General Lee and the Confederate States to do as he was told. He led the center and right flank.
When he was done, it was nearly over. On the same day that Grant took Vicksburg on the Mississippi in the West, Lee retreated from Gettysburg . The southern troops had no more to give, the force broken, their energy and munitions spent. The Union forces under General Meade were victorious. Yet Meade feared a counter attack at dark and was restrained by what he feared would be the cost in Union troops. He did not press the battle. He did not try to pursue Lee’s army and destroy it as he could have. As a result, the Army of Northern Virginia was allowed to leave. A seventeen-mile long train of wagons re-crossed the Potomac River to regroup and fight again for another two years, at great cost to both sides, and much to the agitation of President Lincoln. General Meade was relieved and General Grant brought east to command the Army of the Potomac. Many historians believe had Meade fought differently it could have ended here. Many lives might have been saved.
It is hard to stand in that early light and look across the fields knowing all of this. It is hallowed ground. The words Lincoln spoken at the cemetery here but three and one-half months later haunt one still.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Suicidal Progress

In the Santa Yenez Valley above Santa Barbara, they have what they call in New York “a situation.” The old stage road that led to the wineries and boutique towns of the Valley took three days by that route. People wanted to get there faster and more directly from Santa Barbara so they built a long lovely arching span of a bridge over the Cold Spring Valley to connect the two ends of State Highway 154. The span, known as Cold Spring Arch Bridge, is 224 feet high. It opened in 1964. The view of the valley and surrounding hills is enhanced by the fact that the bridge has only a 30-inch concrete barrier on the sides. That seems to be the problem. In the intervening 44 years it has been a magnet for people to try to pull over and take pictures. There are no real shoulders, however. It is also a magnet for people who have seen enough of this life for one reason or another. The first year it was there, someone jumped. In fact, in the 44 years it has been there, 44 have jumped. The California Transportation Administration (CALTRANS) believes they need to do something about that “situation.”
Groups form to protest anything in California. It is an entitlement for living here and there is no requirement that any member of the group be encumbered by the thought process. Now here are the “Friends of the Bridge” who have circled the wagons around this wondrous view to protest the desire by CALTRANS to add fencing of sufficient height, commonly used on high-speed highway bridges here, to keep the people and vehicles on a bridge. They feel more than merely posting a sign about the dangers of jumping is needed, which is one of the solutions the “friends” originally suggested as they object principally to the aesthetics of a fence. They also, I presume, object to the people jumping, but they have chosen what they believe to be the more important cause to champion here.
This bridge, the spokesman for the group alleges, is one of the most scenic bridges in the state. He may or may not have seen all the others, I do not know. I have seen many and this one isn’t in my top ten. It is not clear that he is aware the bridge also has the highest number of traffic fatalities in five counties since vehicles have a bad habit of leaving a bridge when they impact barrier only 30-inches high. The local authorities have no data as to how many of these may also have been suicides. The “Friends” spokesman called the project a “misallocation of public resources, a nanny-state, Band-aid solution…” and “…it isn’t like it’s a magnet for suicides, like the Golden Gate Bridge. They want to treat it like an inner city freeway. Come on.”
Despite the testimony of mental health experts to the contrary, he contends that barriers just divert people elsewhere or to other means. He believes that the budget is triple what the agency proposes and, to sum it up nicely, in the end the proposed fencing won’t work. Cameras would be good, he opined. Deputies at the substation some 40 miles away could “monitor” the bridge.
Yes, they could.
Well. In the face of that sort of reasoned hostility what is an agency to do that needs to protect the responders who try to keep people from making a jump into a wooded ravine which is always fatal and trying to keep vehicles with people in them on the bridge. At the last public hearing, the opinion of the “Friends of the Bridge” spokesman, a part-time law professor at UC Santa Barbara, was countered by the comment of one citizen who lives nearby, who inquired of the County Supervisor, “What took you this long?”
I suppose it is possible to weigh the alternatives and decide that the view is more important. I haven’t worked that out yet. Perhaps one has to be the friend of a bridge to understand it.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Navajo Nation

The early Navajo people were homogenous. They came to the southwestfrom Canada in the 1500’s or perhaps earlier. They lived in houses that were here when they came. These were built by an earlier people. Several different tribes and clans of these tribes, not related to the Navajo, claimed other areasleft by these early people.
They were the “Anasazi.” Depending on which tribe translates it, the word has a different meaning. It is, according to those who study such things,a Navajo word.
The Navajo National Monument literature on the reservation in Arizona will tell you it means “the other people.” The cliff dwelling ruins at Aztec, New Mexico are described as the buildings of “pre-Pueblo people.” In other places, the Park’s Service literature and films calls them “the lost people.” There is politics and disagreement here even to the question, “where did we come from?”
A trip through the ruins of the cliff dwelling peoples of the southwest teaches much. It all seems quite straightforward until one finds that the Hopi, Zuni, Ute, and finally the eponymous Pueblo all had clans that used these dwellings at various times. So while the Navajo seem the dominate people here on the reservation, the Hopi would not agree. Many believe these cliff dwellings were stops along a sacred trail for many tribes and clans within those tribes. The largest of the villages that likely held 150 people at one time in the 1200’s were Hopi in its last days. Before they left, perhaps for no better reason than they were nomadic in nature, they sealed the grain and pottery in rooms as if they might return some day. Elders still make pilgrimages there. It is complicated, as all Native American things seem to us. Yet it is indisputable that these cliff houses were first built by a vaguely agrarian people known as the Anasazi before the year 1000.
Civilization in the “New World” as the Europeans who thought they “discovered” it called it, has been operating in community groups since at least 1700 BC. I don’t recall this in any of my history books. My elemental knowledge in school taught me the people on the North American Continent before the white man came, were mere “savage” tribes of hunters and gatherers who seemed to have some idea that planting corn was a useful thing so they taught the early whites how to do it to keep them from starving. How they came to have the corn seeds to plant or learn how to grow it was either not important nor a question asked. That was too many years ago for me to remember with clarity, but it seems I would have a recollection.
This desolate land here in northern Arizona and New Mexico and southern Colorado seems too arid to support any life at all, much less organized villages of men and women which grew grain, had a network of “roads” and interactions between groups. Yet in these Mesas there is water that seeps from the top when the rains and snow occur which is held in the sandstone rock until it reaches the bottom to form springs. These are in the crevices where there is also shade. When these nomadic people found water, shade and soft rock to build with it was all the Anasazi needed to make a home. Given the steepness of the cliffs, they first lived in the open near them in “pit houses” which were at least partly underground with a fire pit and a roof of animal skins. This provided some relief from the brutal heat in summer and the cold winds of winter.
As they progressed in their invention of tools, learned how to make rope from plant fibers, cut huge timbers from the trees some distance away, they began to stay closer to their “villages” to take care of the corn they had planted--which came originally from nomadic tribes that lived in Mexico. They somehow learned how to construction complex structures and began to fashion the cliff houses in the shaded crevices close to the water sources. They built with a brick they made from the soft rock and made remarkably tight storage areas for their grain to deter rodents. Their living spaces seem very small to us now. The rooms surrounded courtyards where most of their tools were made and the grain was ground to meal. Working and living here might be an extended family or one or two smaller, unrelated ones. A series of these made up the village. In all the ruins, there is one commonality. It is the “Kiva.” It is a room with no windows, and only two openings, both in the roof. This was both the community’s gathering place and the “church.” In all the ruins the “Kiva” represents the place from which they emerged into this world. The larger opening had a ladder. The smaller hole represents the one which they believed was how the ancestral spirits had risen into this new world. Why? Because they had no other explanation for how they happened to be here. The descending to earth did not occur to them since even today they believe they are of the earth, not just placed on it.
In the ruins in this neighborhood, it is generally accepted by those that study such things that some were only lived in for about one generation by the earliest people. One day, or over several days or months, they simply left. No one is sure why. It is possible society frayed. They were now farmers and not hunters so the crops may have failed. It does not appear from the ruins that it was a violent reason. Yet less than 30 years, after all their work and innovation, they left. The homes had everything they needed. Yet they choose to move on or to disappear depending on which tribe’s political answer you want to believe. Whatever the reason, they were gone by 1790 or 1800 BC.
Other people, the Navajo, Hopi, Ute, and Pueblo tribes came to these plains later. They found these prebuilt “cities,” occupied them, and replicated them. Some were here a long time, until the whites decided there were other places they should live. The Navajo stayed the longest. They are still here, as are the many clans of the Hopi. The Navajo Nation became powerful and lived both in times of peace and mutual distrust with the Hopi and others. Eventually these conflicts annoyed the new white colonists enough to send the Army in to separate them. They sent the Navajo on their “Long Walk,” some 300 miles to eastern New Mexico to a reserve at Fort Sumner in what is now New Mexico. Four years later, under a new treaty, they returned to the lands of the ancient Anasazi with sheep to start again. They still raise them in northern Arizona.
The Navajo Nation dominates and fascinates. They were in many ways the most dominate and bravest and most feared by the whites and the Hopi. They also believe themselves to have a culture superior to the white and hold tightly to their ancestral traditions. There are 300,000 still here on and near the reservation. It is the Navajo one finds at the Four Corners Monument (the place where the surveyors said Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico would meet) selling jewelry and T-shirts and fried bread. They populate Monument Valley. They build churches. They seem to receive little help from their casino-owning brethren in other states but live in this corner of Arizona arid high country on the mesas and grasslands herding sheep in Tsegi Canyon or living in the traditional “hogans” on the snow covered mountains in the Navajo Nation. They do so in poverty so grinding it is hard to look at as you pass through it on land so unforgiving that one wonders how they survive. Faith and government’s minimal assistance help, but clearly only to a subsistence level. Failing banks, subprime mortgages, and Wall Street have no meaning here.
That they do survive here is a tribute to their culture, faith, and tenacity. They seem a gentle people dreaming the same dreams as anyone if you take the time to talk to them. They work for ranchers and small business. The artisans make jewelry from the rock and they silk screen t-shirts with their original images. They pass these skills to their children. They stay in these small businesses here on or near the Navajo Nation. There is a pressure to stay, to be a “real” Navajo. The alcoholism rate is beyond reason, infectious diseases are rampart, and virulent contagious diseases are becoming a huge concern. They lack healthcare, proper diet, and so many things, yet wait for better things that will likely never come. Some have children who have gone on to live in other places and succeed. The telling about them is not immediate, but the pride is apparent when they do and the hope--an expectation-- that they will return to make things better can be heard in their voices.
They are hardy people. They are proud, poetic, and poor. They are pious and hopeful that better things will come to this land of the original North Americans. They live what seems to the traveler in a quiet dignity that their faith supports but that reality chips away at every day of their life.
Perhaps there is a lesson here, perhaps not. Yet there is a sense of wonder of how a people with a tradition of trusting the “new settlers” and of proud warriors could have been left here with only their pride, poverty, poetry, and hope.