Sunday, August 31, 2008

Day 27: Through the South Coast Swamps. Flying Through the Universal Ether

August 10: Ocean Springs to Slidell to Avery Island to Houston

Soundtrack: Zydeco radio, Pirate 101.3 (Sulphur, LA), Gulf Coast Rock, KTRU

When I started this narrative, I knew that sooner or later I would have to have a go at Texas, and I dreaded it. I could have by-passed Texas about as easily as a space traveler can avoid the Milky Way.
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley in Search of America

Glenn Miller’s job at the drawbridge required him to rise before dawn. I followed his car out to the bridge at 6 a.m., and for the first time saw the little watchroom where he had worked for years, a concrete bunker up metal stairs with a panoramic view of the little inlet lined with trees. He was lucky. Of the five bridges over the bay by Ocean Springs, his was one of 2 that survived the hurricane. His last word to me was The Word and his concern that I hadn’t been sufficiently “born again.” Though I had my own ideas about religion they were never One Way Jesus enough for Glenn and he was always concerned for the salvation of my soul. I was working on it.
Driving out into the gray dawn, I found Interstate 10 and the bridge over the state line into Louisiana; the gas gauge dinged and demanded I look for a gas station. When I finally found one near Slidell, I had a hard time getting back to the Interstate again and drove around the streets lined with piles of rubble, the huddled jobless and their FEMA trailers, past closed schools and hospitals surrounded with chain link fences and reconstruction signs. That weekend, Dr. Phil was hosting a fundraiser with all the usual Crescent City suspects performing for Katrina relief, but I was expected in Houston and would miss it; I wished them well on the way out of town.
Through New Orleans again, down shady streets of quaint shops, familiar from past trips but not yet open because of the hour, west on Highway 90, through Houma, which Steinbeck called “one of the pleasantest places in the world,” Morgan City and the courtroom where I weathered Hurricane Carmen in ‘73, and on to Avery island where we always stopped to buy tabasco sauce. Ann Fudge on radio said, “There is no turning back, only going forward.” This was some of my favorite landscape: drawbridges and towers, truckbed Mardi Gras wagons parked in vacant lots, long front lawns of plantations shaded with mossy oaks, and ubiquitous slow-moving bayous along the sides of the road. While I listened to Gospel 94.9 the Praise New Orleans Inspiration Station, signs advertised the Cajun Men’s Swamp Tours and Henry Miller’s beloved Shadows-on-the-Teche; a church in Humphreys declared “Mother Mary was pro-life – thank heavens!”
After shopping the McIlhenney's company store for the obligatory souvenir towels, pralines, and logo items and many varieties of hot sauces - they even had a tabasco ice cream now - I took a little extra time for the self-guided driving tour through Avery Island’s “Jungle Gardens:” 200 acres of ponds and woods and meadows that promised alligators and deer and a variety of birds. Once again the totem heron made an appearance, as well as snowy egrets and black ibis, but I saw no alligators. The nesting frenzy was over, but one surprise was a shrine with a thousand-year-old stolen Buddha on a platform up some steps in a stand of bamboo. I endured 5 quick mosquito bites taking the trail to see the outsize figure, part of a Chinese-themed garden, and then drove on, listening to the funky radio of Cajun country, ears sharp for announcements of live music. But it was Thursday and it seemed all the bands were playing tomorrow. Too late for the Acadian Memorial and too early for bar-hopping, I stopped briefly in the shade of the Evangeline Oak, but didn’t take a picture like most visitors. I thought of my daddy who read Longfellow to me when I was 3 and forever implanted iambic and dactylic rhythms in my budding consciousness. I never understood the story of Evangeline, but somehow knew it was sad, the landscape of backlit oaks, “bearded with moss and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,” dark and dramatic like George Rodrique paintings.
I was lost for awhile on backroads and found myself abruptly back on the interstate, headed for Houston, without a taste of crawdads or gumbo; I was expected by the relatives, driving into the sunset like some cowgirl heroine. I got off the 10 for gas and was lost again looking for an antique shop advertised on a billboard. When I made it back to a gas station, they had “Stage Planks”, a nostalgic form of gingerbread I remembered from my poorgirl days in the Quarter. Drawn into the embrace of Texas Radio and the Big Beat, John Hiatt and Chicken Skin Music, I nibbled the pastel-iced cookies all the way to Greg Lacy’s, where there would be parties, perhaps not so orgiastic as Steinbeck’s, but typically Texan, on the horizon.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Day 26: Art and Rough Weather in Mississippi

August 9: Ocean Springs to Gulfport to Ocean Springs

Soundtrack: Conversation

We have a chance to renew ourselves, to create a place better than it once was.
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour

Sunny and warm after the rain, the day beckoned through attic windows in Glenn Miller’s unflooded upper room; I changed into jeans and a rummage sale dashiki and knocked on the FEMA trailer. Through damp streets, under still dripping oak branches, we walked to a donut shop that featured Glenn’s etchings of local architecture, where he met with a Presbyterian elder to talk over the design for a cross he was fabricating for a church. Besides the etchings he executed murals, sketched in the local bars, and used the long slow hours tending a drawbridge to work on his own abstract paintings. Tuesdays and Wednesdays were his days off from the bridge.
The flood had surprised him, bursting through glass patio doors and washing him into the street. It ruined years of sketchbooks and the stockpiled drawings of a lifetime, but the public spectacle of drying out the salvageable artwork in his yard had made the newspapers and, if anything, further endeared him to the community. Glenn was at once the eccentric artist and tragic victim of the hurricane. But he had managed to partially restore the back garage studio, which had been on higher ground, and teams of Lutherans from the Midwest had helped him strip the moldy sheet rock from ground floor of the house. The process was physically and mentally draining, but funds had come in from a grassroots plea on the internet and a couple of nonprofit organizations.
A year before, he had visited L.A. and stayed in my studio at the Sir Palmer Apartments by Echo Park Lake, agonizing over whether to bail out of the whole mess or stay and fight. Now FEMA had come through with money to rebuild and he had decided to stick it out. THROW ME SOMETHING, FEMA, indeed.
There was a little museum down the street, enclosing the reconstructed studio of Walter Anderson, a wooden room in the back. The main exhibition space showcased works of the family ceramic business, Shearwater Pottery, and had a little store staffed by local volunteers. Glenn told me about Anderson and how he had periods of “madness,” sometimes rowing away to the island studio, leaving his wife and children, and especially the pottery business, to be close to nature. The vases and plates, figures and watercolors had a charming organic quality, but it was the little studio, painted all over with sunlight and stars and plants and birds that fascinated me. It was like Gauguin’s hut decorated from floor to ceiling with the iconography of his art.
There was also a mural in a sort of civic center next door with historical figures and planetary images, rather faded in places because of age and storm damage. Around the corner we discovered a lovely frame house with a porch and a signboard in front saying it was a model for prefab “Katrina Cottages” available as an alternative to the trailers the federal government had provided for those left homeless. We went inside. The single module was a shotgun shack with room for bunk beds in a front bedroom, bath in the middle, and kitchen in back. It was not that different from our first house in Silver Lake, but about half the size. Additional modules could be added depending on the size of the lot and, at around $35,000 per module, it was about as affordable as a small recreational vehicle. But permanent, as such things go.
I wanted to see Biloxi, because I loved the Jesse Winchester song, and we set out in my car. But we were caught in a violent storm in Gulfport, taking refuge at Vrazel’s, a famous restaurant that had just reopened near the shoreline. Hotels were being rebuilt nearby and where casinos had floated on large offshore barges, one had washed up spectacularly onto the beach and was soon to be rebuilt out on piers. The storm raged on outside the plateglass windows; the electricity went out and the entree was delayed, but there was a feeling of camaraderie in the dining hall and luckily, the blackout was short-lived.
We decided not to risk going round by the one remaining bridge to Biloxi and headed back to Ocean Springs. By the time we got there, the storm had lightened and we were able to walk about, go into a local bar and meet the mayor, Connie Moran, who offered to buy Glenn’s property to extend the adjacent park. I told him he should try to convince her to make his studio part of the park and have art programs there, but of course there was the little matter of rebuilding everything.
Next morning’s shift at the bridge started at 6 a.m., so we turned in early and I read Blue Highways as fast as I could, knowing it had to be turned back in to the library.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Day 25: Venturing Out on the Gulf Coast

August 8: New Orleans to Algiers to Ocean Springs and a FEMA Trailer

Soundtrack: Local Radio; Blues film

After this tour, you’ll have a better understanding of events pre- and post- Katrina and the “REBIRTH OF NEW ORLEANS!”
Gray Line 2006 Sightseeing Tours Brochure: New for 2006 - Hurricane Katrina Tour

I got up early to do laps in the pool and catch up with the Joads on Route 66. Like Steinbeck, the spectacle of he little girl running a gauntlet of racist harridans in this very city had frozen my own backwards trek through the South. I had stopped reading Travels With Charley and taken up the more distant history of the Depression and the California Dream. But where Steinbeck found his odyssey flagging in the face of an America he could not stomach on the brink of the Civil Rights Revolt, I was about to plunge into the aftermath of the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina.
In the safe haven of the Quarter the familiar funk and squalor of New Orleans was like I never left, though it had been twenty years since my last Mardi Gras. On my own at 717 St. Peter Street in the nineteen seventies, I had welcomed the experiences of poverty and racial tension as thoroughly as my new tastes for gumbo and raw oysters. I got my first job in New Orleans by the sheer luck of being at the unemployment office on the day State Senator Gillis Long hired the first six girls referred to update his mailing list for Christmas. All of the others were African American and lived in the projects. Their everyday conversations and concerns were an education in real life for me, sheltered as I had been in the all-white suburbs of Houston. My handwriting was fine enough that I stayed through December addressing the cheap black and white family photograph cards Mr. Long sent out to constituents, (saving taxpayer money, I presume). Sometimes I made a little extra money playing music on Bourbon Street.
My birthday a week before Christmas was also payday. I decided to celebrate by playing harmonica on Bourbon Street and donating the proceeds to Pacifica Radio in Houston, where my sister and I had begun to produce a little jazz show. When the police hassled me at my “spot” on the Marie Jean steps by the Club 500, I managed to get myself arrested, wrestled to the ground by my hair, and dragged off, literally kicking and screaming, to Central Lockup. The senator had me bailed out within hours, but then fired me for being associated with a “commie organization.” The paranoia that hung heavy in the air of the “city without care” was never lost on me. After Katrina, there were allegations that the deferred maintenance of levees on the last bend of the Mississippi was a racist plot to wash poor African Americans out of the landscape. Wouldn’t put it past the kind of government that blew billions for defense but not one cent for upkeep.
Dry at last poolside and homesick for Steinbeck’s “bright and terrible desert,” I wrapped a towel around me and went to check on Glenn, who had finished off last night’s leftover wine and was ready to bike it across the Mississippi on the ferry. He had found one of the few secure free parking spaces in the Quarter and I let the HHR stay up an elevator in the Monteleone garage after checking out of the room. The borrowed van stayed legally right where it was and Glenn took out the bicycles. As the sun hit the sidewalks, so did we.
In Algiers Glenn knew some people who ran a cafe in an old 2-story house and we had a fritatta for brunch, my first. The place was named for the owner’s Aunt Leni whose recipes they used and it had an open, sunny feel to it. We talked over the trip I was taking and he reminded me that I should also be reading Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon.
We pedaled on through the charming district to the Blaine Kern Warehouse, where the stuff of Mardi Gras dreams was stored: a hodgepodge of cartoon characters and giant heads of floats and Wizard of Oz sets. Algiers had largely been spared by the hurricane and the community was thriving, with many people buying and restoring old buildings. We rode the ferry back, posing for pictures as the boat neared the New Orleans shore near Jackson Square.
As soon as I had redeemed the HHR, an interesting process by which the car rode an elevator down and crossed the street to the valet area, I drove up behind the van where the bicycles had been stowed away. We pulled out east toward Ocean Springs, a town where Glenn had lived for many years, hard hit by the hurricane. Our route took us by neighborhoods where most of the houses had been flooded and were now useless because all their wiring was ruined by rising waters. Piles of debris sat outside at the curbs and many trailers provided by relief funds were parked in the drives.
At Glenn Miller’s, volunteers had pulled off most of the interior walls on the first floor to get rid of mold and he had his own FEMA trailer in the back. The cute cottage with wood siding painted pale green was slowly being stripped to the studs and the art books and sketches he had managed to save were stored on the porch and in the garage on higher ground. We walked over to the library where he went to check his e-mail but I wasn’t allowed access to a computer because I didn’t live in Ocean Springs. We got a copy of Blue Highways and a dvd of Song of the Thin Man to check out on his card.
That night we drank wine out of a box in the well-equipped but cramped FEMA trailer and watched a blues documentary by Ntozake Shange, the author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuff. As Frank Lloyd Wright would have said, Glenn Miller was “battered, but still in the ring,” maybe hitting the communion wine a little heavier than usual, but still trying to get his home back together. I could sympathize totally: I had sometimes finished a whole bottle Chardonnay in one evening and other members of the suicide grief group reported the same reaction. Some had given up and moved on, but Glenn decided to hand in there; I admired his tenacity.
There was an addition upstairs in the house that had escaped flood damage; it was a serviceable room, with lights and working plumbing and relief supplies like tuna and granola bars in the cupboards. One of Glenn’s friends had been staying before the hurricane. I climbed the outside deck stairs to read myself to sleep with Blue Highways.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Day 24: Freewheeling in the French Quarter and Beyond

August 7: Monteleone Hotel to Faubourg/Marigny and back again

Soundtrack: Carousel Bar muzak, Jazz at The Spotted Cat

Imagine the luxury of lolling on the rooftop pool at the Montelene, stretching out on chaises and swimming in the tepid water while the sky worked its way out of mist from the river! Well, maybe not so tepid; the pool was sufficiently bracing that for the two early mornings of my stay I was the only one willing to brave the experience. Once in, of course, it was heavenly to float under the authentic Royal Street sky and relax reading Grapes of Wrath poolside.
I napped in the room until noon and then walked about the quarter, first to try to buy India Arie tickets for the House of Blues and then to visit the Martin Lawrence Gallery and see if they stil had any Peter Max art. I was unsuccessful in both, but stayed out of the rain at the music shop acoss from the club, where I found a copy of The Best of the Zydeco Party Band, and browsed the expensive art at Martin Lawrence. The George Rodrique Gallery was closed. Again the blue dog holding a “Hey FEMA, throw me something!” sign made me grin.
Glenn Miller, my old friend from the Quarter was meeting me at the famous Carousel Bar. In glass cases through the Monteleone lobby, autographed editions of works by Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, and Tennessee Williams attested to the literary significance of the place. The main effect of the hurricane on the Hotel was the clots of filthy relief workers dragging in to their subsidized rooms after spending hours cleaning up flood debris. Only one section of the hotel’s ground floor, the former oyster bar, remained barricaded because of water damage. The bar was the first attraction to recover and it wheeled nonchalantly round and round as patrons became more and more susceptible to dizziness from the happy hour well drinks, sangria and Szeze rac cocktails they knocked back. I was sufficiently tipsy by the time Glenn Miller waltzed in and we took up conversations left off years before as easily as if no time had intervened. He had been out to Hollywood to show his art at the Runyon Canyon Festival when I was the Keymaster and Charlie was the Gatekeeper (we watched a lot of Ghostbusters back then).
The rain eased up and Glenn Miller rolled out bicycles from the back of a van he was test driving to see if he wanted to buy it. He had already scored several vehicles from people leaving town after Katrina and wasn’t sure he need another one, but it was an opportunity to take bicycles into the quarter. We pedaled up DuMaine to Fauberg-Marigny where we lounged in a bar called the Spotted Cat and listened to some young guys playing azz. The Spotted Cat had a unique way of saving money: they bought blank matchbooks and let the patrons decorate them and leave them for others at the bar. We made custom Spotted Cat matches and in the process Glenn found an old freind, tooling past the bar on a segue scooter, who showed us his latest paintings in progress in a chaotic bungalow a few doors down.
We looked about for a place to eat out of the quarter, but as it got later we ended up back at the hotel, closing down the Hunt Club on the ground floor next to the Carousel. I had a bottle of Barefoot Chardonnay from the A & P on Royal, the market I had frequented when i lived in the Quarter, and we stayed up talking and watching the television far into the night, finally falling asleep on the separate beds just before dawn.

Day 23: Cranes and Oysters in Louisiana

August 6: Natchez to Bird Sanctuary to New Orleans

Soundtrack: Moody Bible Network

At that table with its silver soft and dull, shining as pewter, I remember the raised glass of the grape’s holy blood, the stem caressed by the doctor’s strong artist fingers, and even now I can hear the sweet little health and welcome in the singing language of Acadia which as once French and is now itself.
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley in Search of America

There was no Denny’s in Natchez; starving, I followed the local traffic and pulled in to a Shoney’s, a southern franchise I had seen advertised on billboards all the way from Shenandoah, but never tried. Their mascot was a cute cartoon bear. The word, as Monty Python cautioned about Australian table wines, was BEWARE! I didn’t know it was possible to ruin breakfast, but the cold scrambled eggs and flaccid bacon at this location took all the pleasure out of dining out. Even the grits verged on concrete consistency and this was the South, for gosh sakes. Queasy from the indigestible lump in my innards, I took the road into Louisiana, vowing to uphold my foolish consistency and fidelity to Denny’s’ Grand Slam in the future, bourgeois as it might be.
From 79 degrees at Ferriday, the temperature climbed to 86 as I left the river road to explore a wildlife refuge that wound through piney woods on red gravel for what seemed like hours, without a single bird or reptile to redeem it. Assured by two guys in a pickup truck that the highway was close by, I reemerged onto Louisiana 15, listening to a sermon on answered prayers on the Moody Radio Network. Suddenly, miraculously, overhead a flock of whooping cranes wheeled around in a big circle, huge and wonderful seen through the sunroof. A little farther down the road another flock passed, with black faces and long legs tucked under, so close, and settled into a deep green field.
The Reverend Irwin Luther preached on about making prayer work for me. In my childhood I had prayed to see whooping cranes, especially when my daddy had taken me on a trip to Aransas Pass Bird Sanctuary in the 50’s. Then there were only 36 left; we never saw a one. As I drove away from the field the twenty or so birds were bright white against the receding landscape. It was amazing!
I continued down the levee, past locks and channels devised to manage the Mississippi, which snaked along, largely invisible, east of the barrier. Through the tiny towns on the way into New Orleans I played tag with rain, trying to time my arrival to check in to the Monteleone and hit the SatchFest events in the Quarter. In a few places I saw wind damage left over from the hurricane, cypress trees standing gray and dead from the intruding saltwater and big billboards advertising help fighting insurance companies. Around three I dropped the car at the underground garage off Royal and walked toward the old watermelon stalls, with jazz music floating through the alleys from the riverside. I had lived on St. Peter Street for a while in 1971 and sold candles in the flea market on the weekends, so this was familiar territory.
Lectures were scheduled at the visitor center for Lafitte National Park Visitor Center, a small room with a stage behind the Cafe du Monde, nowhere near Barataria. I watched Times Picayune photographer John McClusker show photos of historic structures, some damaged by Hurricane Katrina and years of neglect: the homes of Sidney Bechet, Kid Ory, King Oliver, Buddy Bolden and Nick LaRocca, the saloons and theaters that were early venues for Louis Armstrong and other jazz pioneers.
Finally settled into the 14th floor of the hotel, I took a nap and dressed for a peak experience, dining in the French Quarter.
Earlier I had seen a group of boys recruited to staff Brennan’s gathering on Royal Street, the older guys instructing their colleagues in how to act to keep their recently acquired restaurant jobs. Brennan’s had finally gotten back up to speed and was serving dinner on a regular schedule, necessitating hiring of new busboys and kitchen help. I had a $50 bill Doug had given me in L.A. and was determined to stay within that budget and still sample some of the hautest cuisine in town. He played piano at the Brennan's in Downtown Disney, so
There was a private party upstairs and a jazz trio working on the balcony, but customers in the main room were sparse. I was able to walk in and be seated in a corner booth. Within my budget I had Chardonnay, turtle soup, oysters Rockefeller and creme brulet. My waitress, Rachel, was a Tulane student who had left after Katrina, but came back to finish her degree. I told her that Doug played piano at Ralph Brennan's next door to Disneyland and she gave me a rundown of the pedigrees of the various Brennan restauranteurs.
The candlelit courtyard with vintage music drifting over white tablecloths and silver was perfect, another peak experience in the wake of disaster. I walked the few blocks down Royal back to the Monteleone, from pure delight into luxury I might never have been able to afford if the Quarter hadn’t been humbled by Katrina.
The next day I would be meeting my old friend Glenn Miller to see more of the devastation first hand, in places where rebuilding was slowed or hampered by less available funds than many of the Quarter businesses could draw upon. A poster in George Rodrique's Gallery window showed the blue dog with a sign: "Hey, FEMA, Throw me something!" The art was funny, but the reality was bitter. In 1960, Steinbeck encountered New Orleans in the first throes of the Civil Rights upheaval; in 2006, the city was still recovering from a broken levees and promises unkept.
I settled into the opulence of the 4-diamond hotel to read about the Cheerleaders in Travels With Charley. Even with the supposed freedoms gained through decades of struggle, New Orleans still had its share of trouble.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Day 22: All-Nighter on the Freedom Road

August 5: Atlanta Day’s Inn to macy’s to West Point, Georgia to Montgomery and Selma Alabama, to Vicksburg and Nachez, Mississippi

Below us the old rails were covered by kudzu, a voracious and surreal plant that has turned most of the South into Bosch-like topiary...impressionist and ubiquitous like postmodernism.
Andre Codrescu, Hail Babylon

I remember thinking that our parents didn’t have the first idea where we were, other than that we were somewhere in the continental vastness between Des Moines and the Florida Keys...
That sort of thing did really happen down there, you know This was only five years after three freedom riders were murdered in Mississippi. They were a twenty-one-year-old black from Mississippi and two white guys from New York, Andrew Goodman twenty, and Michael Schwerner, twenty. I give their names because they deserve to be remebered. To me this was and always would be the South.
Bill Bryson, Lost Continent

The ice machine on the 14th floor overlooked the pool and both were necessities in Atlanta in August. There was a quick swim in the early heat; a couple of little girls and their mother were bouncing in the water by the time my laps were finished. With my in-room coffee and granola bar breakfast I read more Grapes of Wrath and caught Travels With Charley up to the Cheerleaders in New Orleans, where I planned to be by Monday. From the comfort of the queen-size hotel bed and the infernal convenience of my secondhand cellphone, I fulfilled a girlhood dream, booking two days at the Monteleone Hotel in the French Quarter. I never had the money to stay there during all my Mardi Gras in the 70’s. The closest I had come was trailing along with the Half-Fast Walking Club – right behind Phil Harris and Pete Fountain – as they ducked into the back door to the Carousel Bar on Mardi Gras Day, swaying through their celebratory itinerary.
Hurricane Katrina had interfered with the rates in the Quarter, even putting a damper (so to speak) on Carnival and the Jazz and Heritage Festival. Word was out that hospitality had recovered in the historic core, but the rates were still around a third of the usual and this would be my opportunity to luxuriate, as well as survey the damage.
First I had to find a macy’s and pay my bill, so I followed the desk clerk’s directions, sort of, and headed across town to the Lenox Center, where I basked in civilization, found a Mexican wedding dress-style blouse to go with the skirt from New York and, after being demonstrated on by a persuasive clerk, bought the Strivectin I had intended to get for Charlie’s stretch marks three years before. Now it was for my wrinkles. The temperature in Atlanta had climbed from 80 at 9 a.m. to 94 at noon and by the the end of my shopping trip at 4:00, it was 102. Fortified with a Raspberry Freeze from the in-house Starbuck’s, I headed out on the 85 toward Alabama, out of those sunny skies and into a raging thunderstorm; the temperature dropped to 79 in a matter of minutes.
Rain came in sheets that obscured the windshield and I watched a Georgia pine struck by lightening crack open and explode at the side of the road. Radio kept me company: 97.1 The River from Atlanta, through the hulking overgrowth on the Georgia roadsides, Rooster Country 106.1, and another Eagle radio station playing classic rock out of Birmingham. It was too hard to choose cd’s and drive, so I followed radio stations through their broadcast ranges to where they merged with another agreeable frequency.
Out of the storm, I drove between humps of kudzu into blue skies at Lake West Point, took a nap at a picnic area next to another family reunion, and watched a wild black and white cat lounge and stretch on a picnic table. This, the ring of horseshoes, laughter, and boaters shouting from the lake was civilized, idyllic. At a closed Army Corps of Engineers center, planted with magenta crape myrtle that sheltered hundreds of shy birds, there was a quote from W.H. Hudson, “There is no more fascinating pasttime than to keep company with a river from its source.” This was what I looked forward to, driving toward a reunion with the Mississppi after the earlier encounter in Minnesota. At Montgomery I left the 85 and started west on a direct collision course with the River. The clouds gathered again and the sun was red, the sky gold, green, and deep gray as lightening began to flash in the distance.
This was to be one of the most dramatic drives of the trip because of the weather and the special significance of the road. As I traveled west in gathering gloom, I picked up amazing blues music on WVFG, 107.5, “The Real Thing” out of Uniontown, Demopolis, and Selma and realized I was driving the route of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Freedom March, the Historic Road of the March to Montgomery. A billboard advertised 5 museums in Selma, and coaxed the weary to stay “Where Hospitality Meets History.” Along the way, markers announced the site of four encampments where the marchers spent night on the way from Selma to Montgomery in 196. When I reached Selma, commemorative signs pointed the winding way to the church where the march began, an imposing if somewhat down-at-heel two-story red church next to a newer and sleeker chapel with tall white columns. There was the ominous feeling of being at ground zero for the Civil Rights Movement, from which we had been somewhat insulated in the suburbs of Houston. Driving through Selma, a college town still a little ragged at the edges, the feeling continued down the road to Meridian, where the three boys were run off the road after being released by the police. In the dark, the ditches falling away into blackness on the roadside held a particular terror, especially as the lightening and thunder continued and a Black History Montage came on the radio from WNPR, segue to Highway 61, blues at WMRR, non-profit stations like the Pacifica of my youth. These were songs I hadn’t heard for twenty years: “Freddy’s Dead”, James Brown’s “Payback”, “Get Up. Stand Up”, The Last Poets, and a Slave Ship narrative with the sound effect of lapping water that I had never heard before. It reminded me of Lawrence Jones, a poet who was on the 3-6 a.m. shift before me at KPFT, the kind of politically-charged juxtaposition of music and spoken word he used to do. This carried me into Vicksberg at 4 in the morning and I drove around to look at ante-bellum mansions in the dark, then took the foggy Nachez Trace down the levee to the sound of gospel and Sunday Morning preaching.
Finally coming out onto the Mississippi after another all-nighter, I parked in a lot overlooking two casino riverboats, one of which had its own hotel and shuttle service a little back from the shore. Early morning joggers crossed in front of me on a path with an amazing view of the mile-wide Big Muddy and an old iron erector-set bridge spanning the river to the south. It was 6:00 and 70 degrees, perfect conditions for taking a nap, and I leaned the seat back, secure in this public lot on the edge of the Sublime.

Day 21: Carolina Smoky Mountain High

August 4: Mount Rogers State Park, Grayson Highlands to Abingdon, Virginia to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Atlanta, Georgia

Soundtrack: Bad bluegrass from the National Park store; 97.1 FM The River, Atlanta

My own journey started long before I left, and was over before I returned. I know exactly where and when it was over. Near Abingdon, in the dog-leg of Virginia, at four-o’clock of a windy afternoon, without warning or good-bye or kiss my foot, my journey went away and left me stranded far from home.
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley in Search of America

In the mists over the meadow where I parked, three children from the campground were already romping with their dachshund, trying to fly a kite in the lilting wind at six in the morning. I took out my toothbrush, towel, and washcloth and went looking for restrooms among the RV’s and campsites. When Steinbeck traveled this way he had marveled at the congenial community of trailer parks. Would he have been surprised at their evolution into this bourgeois institution?
The pickup camper lifestyle was, in a sense, his own invention; Travels With Charley so captured the imagination of the American public that it became an inspiration for thousands upon thousands of travelers, intent upon carrying a simulated home environment with them on the road. Now, as I walked among the metal behemoths with their extensions and accessories, I marveled at the mobility of these enormous homes on wheels, most of which also dragged along a rover car for quick trips off the park. The vehicles bore insignia of the ideologies of their manufacturers and sometimes the personal stamp of their owners, as well as state license plates. There was an American Star from North Carolina, A Holiday Rambler Endeavor from Florida, Weekend Warriors and Trekkers and Jamborees and Fleetwoods and a purple and taupe monster called the Flagstaff Classic Supreme, also from North Carolina.
It was Friday and some of the campers were getting the jump on the weekend, but others, looking as if they had been there awhile, had personalized their spaces with staked signs like, “Lord Help Me Be the Man My Dog Thinks I Am” and The Walters – “On the Road Again.” One campsite had multiple tarps used as tents with every activity carried out in the open: cooking, washing, tables, beds and chairs around a fire ring. Shades of The Grapes of Wrath.
The children, with Henry the dog sniffing about the meadow, had managed to snag their kite in one of the trees at the edge of the clearing by the time I smoothed the bedding over to leave. Once again I traced “Travels Without Charlie” and the broken heart in the dust on the door of the HHR and wondered if anyone would notice. I didn’t want to be noticed as, for the first time on this trip, I snuck out before the ranger came around to check for fees.
“Breaking the Law, Breaking the Law!” I chanted on the way into Abingdon. Charlie would have enjoyed the sneak retreat. In direct opposition to Steinbeck, who found his experiences in the South so disturbing that he couldn’t wait to get back to New York, my adventure was just beginning. But as I cruised through Abingdon looking for a gas station and breakfast, I could see how the picture-pretty little burgh could be a bit of a downer in its perfection. Across the street from the Barter Theater, where once anything of value would get you in to see the show, the locals had set up an an arts and crafts fair, a little heavy on the crafts side. Under fluffy clouds, the thermometers just touched 80 degrees, the flower beds bloomed and the trim hedges sang with honeybees. It was all too picturesque. I couldn’t find a coffee shop, so I got gas at a bp, took a chance on the Lotto and headed down the highway. At a Bob Evans Restaurant I ate rather pricey raspberries and whipped cream among a tasteful selection of curtains and antiques. Although the food was tasty, it seemed I could not escape the boutiquery.
Little did I know the tribulation ahead as I drove towards the Great Smoky Mountains. Gray skies threatened and made good on the threat, pouring rain as I entered the uber-tourist trap of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Bill Bryson in Lost Continent describes the situation perfectly:

The ugliness intensified to fever pitch as I rolled into Gatlinburg, a community that had evidently dedicated itself to the endless quest of trying to redefine the limits of bad taste.
There is not much more to it than a single mile-long main street, but it was packed from end to end with the most dazzling profusion of tourist clutter – the Elvis Pressley Hall of Fame, Stars Over Gatlinburg Wax Museum, two haunted houses, the National Bible Museum, Hillbilly Village, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, the American Historical Wax Museum, Gatlinburg Space Needle, something called Paradise Island, something else called World of Illusion, the Bonnie Lou and Buster Country Music Show, Carbo’s Police Museum (“See Walking Tall Sheriff Buford Pusser’s Death Car!”), Guinness Book of Records Exhibition Center, and last, but not least, Irene Mandrell Hall of Stars Museum and Shopping Mall.
In between this galaxy of entertainments were scores of parking lots and noisy, crowded restaurants, junk food stalls, ice cream parlors, and gift shops of the sort that sell Wanted posters with YOUR NAME HERE and baseball caps
with droll embellishments, like a coil of realistic-looking plastic turd on the brim.
Walking in an unhurried fashion up and down the street were more crowds of overweight tourists in boisterous clothes, with cameras bouncing on their bellies, consuming ice cream, cotton candy, and corn dogs, sometimes simultaneously...

Not much has changed in the nearly twenty years since Bryson made the trip. Add to this intermittent torrents of rain and signage contrived to deceive the unwary into sticking around this third circle of hell. The marvel is that Bryson actually enjoyed himself and, once I got off onto Nature Loop #8 north of town, so did I. But I mistook the 10-mile-an-hour one-way trail for part of the National Park and, rustic as it was, it was just another Gatlinburg ploy to keep me in the city limits. Now, if you happen to stay overnight in this hillbilly side-show of a town, Nature Trail #8 is a bucolic mini-tour just outside the Park, with the requisite settler’s cabins and burbling streams, woods and waterfalls, within biking distance of the main drag. If I hadn’t been so miffed at being fooled into staying in Gatlinburg, it would have been a pleasant diversion.
But at the end of the loop, here I was driving back past the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, predominantly obese tourists, and curb-to-curb traffic; I couldn’t believe I fell for it! With a closer reading of the signs, I finally aimed the HHR toward Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The mountains really do appear to smoke, mist actually, in a most provocative way, and at the apex of the park, Clingman’s Dome, the clouds were so scuddingly close you could taste them. 6643 feet up it was 66 degrees cool, with a substantial cloud chill factor and an effort just to climb the trail to the coiled observation tower. But wonderful! Just watching the play of mist concealing and revealing the landscape was a thrill. There are benches tucked into the rocks along the way facing out over the mountains, not just for viewing but to catch your breath on the hike up. Charlie, the heartbroken romantic, who in his teens reminded me of the doomed Manfred in Beethoven's overture, would have loved this place, its air of The Sublime and the natural high of the altitude. I paused on the way down to sit in one of these niches, wet with tears and clouds, missing him.
At the Visitor Center I meant to just get a decal and accidentally bought a sterilized mountain music cd, of all the vast offerings available, because I wanted to hear “Wreck of the Old 97.” They didn’t have Roy Acuff’s or Hank Snow’s version and I paid $15 for something I could hardly stand to listen to once, let alone enjoy as a soundtrack to the park. By the time I had been to the top of the Dome and back, it was too late to get gas at the last park store, but as I swung through the turnout, past the shutoff pumps, a handsome buck deer crossed my path from the median, Charlie’s totem animal again; it looked right at me.
In gathering mists on the way down the hill, there was a band of Mountain Men playing at a roadside bar, and I was sorely tempted to stop for more than gas. But the downside of the hill had no vacancies and seemed to be the Native American version of Gatlinburg with similar, if slightly less obnoxious, exhibits. So I pressed on in the dark to Atlanta.
Then came the uneasy awareness that I was entering The Deep South, which Steinbeck had approached with such trepidation, and it didn’t help that I got off the highway and was lost in the dark in a maze of muddy dirt roads, edged with the blurred forms that kudzu made of roadside trees and hedges. At one point, rounding a sharp curve crowded with pickup trucks and milling dudes in jeans, some loud goings-on in a lit-up metallic building had me “a little uh, anxious, if you know what I mean.” But I eventually edged toward where I could see more lights and found my way onto Interstate 85.
With Atlanta as my goal, I promised myself a nice dinner, maybe music and and a hotel room. By the time I reached the outskirts of town it was around midnight and, lured by a billboard advertising a $39 motel, I took the Shallowford exit. At closer look, the discarded beds on the balcony and trashed doors on the units indicated a level of maintenance that seemed a bit iffy. Continuing down the poorly lit road, drug dealers whistling and slapping palms on streetcorners began to actually frighten me and bode ill for finding upscale accommodations. I turned around in the parking lot of a Latin dance club, where squadra of lurching borachos crossing the pavement only added to my trepidation, and escaped to the comparative safety of the freeway. What a woose I was! Oh, well...
Since the only major street I knew was Peachtree, I got off at that exit and aimed at the skyscraper profile of a Day’s Inn that radiated familiarity and a good chance for a vacancy in its hundred or so rooms with views. Luckily, there were a few left, despite the presence of a large family reunion for the weekend.
Determined to treat myself to a salad or appetizer and glass of wine, I changed into my red and black batik lounger and headed down to the bar. But it was a Sports Bar, with no entertainment but a widescreen t.v., so I had my dinner in the City Grill next door, which was completely filled with wide-awake African Americans enjoying their own late night snacks. Nervous in a crowd of mostly young blacks, I imagined they were wondering whattheheck the old white lady was doing there in the middle of the night. The concept of Caesar Salad Southern Style did not translate well; the lettuce was smothered in heavy cream dressing and the only wine they had was rose’, sweet as soda pop. So much for even modest expectations, let alone the Peak Experience. Still, it beat sleeping in the car in Georgia heat.

Day 20: A Mighty Rough Road and Fireflies

August 3: Waynesboro, Virginia to Lynchburg to Danville to the New River Trail near Glaxa, Virginia to Mount Rogers State Park

Soundtrack: Wreck of the 97 and New River Train (in my head); Zydeco Party Band, Greatest Hits; Taj Mahal; O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack

They gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia
Saying, “Steve, you’re way behind time
This is not 38, but it’s Old 97
You must put her into Spencer on time...

It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville
In a line on a three mile grade
It was on that grade that he lost his airbrakes
Oh you see what a jump he made

Charles Noell, Fred Lewey, Whittier/Work as recorded by Hank Snow

I woke up in Waynesboro to free granola bars and snacks and coffee in the room. After a quick swim in a cold pool, I dressed in my usual denim jacket and leggings and drove south toward the George Washington National Forest.
Passing through Lyndhurst, Virginia in the rising heat, a sign on a church challenged: “You think its hot here?” Things cooled off a bit at 4,000 foot elevations on the Appalachian Trail.
In downtown Lynchburg, Virginia I parked diagonally on an old- fashioned high curb and went looking for a pawnshop to buy an accordion. The local music store was heavy on guitars and drums, but not even the ghost of a squeezebox and no one behind the counter had any ideas. So I walked on, searching the brick storefronts (many to let) for a macy’s so I could pay my bill. Finally I asked another middle-aged lady in a respectable print dress.
“Is there a macy’s in this town?”
“I WISH!” she said simply and we both had a good laugh about it.
The quaint shops and abundant churches notwithstanding, this was a downtown in the throes of urban decay, with the wide, slow James River heading south at its edge. Before the meter could expire, I followed the signs past cemeteries and parks toward Danville and the mighty rough road I’d been hearing about since my childhood. I didn’t have a recording of the Wreck of the Old 97, but kept hearing the song in my head every time a mileage sign for one of the cities came in view. It was a song I'd learned from my mother, who was raised in the Ozarks and had brothers who played country songs on their guitars. The road was not so rough, but the train tracks paralleled it on the right and The O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack was appropriately tragic in places. Interstate 29 ran down to the Dan River sheet factory (largest in the world, who knew?) and from there the Crooked Trail led west in the opposite direction of Steinbeck’s route, past Lovers’ Leap where I pulled over and had a short nap. Dozens of cars pulled into the precarious parking area near the sheer drop, with its promise of almost certain death to the heartbroken who jumped, many of them star-crossed couples.
I got back on the winding road, looking for a suitable place to stop for the night. Just outside of Glaxa there was a section of the New River Trail with a parking lot and small visitor center, restrooms, and picnic tables. I had a nice dinner of granola bars, cashews, and some of the Luray Caverns wine and set off down the trail to walk it off before dark. Fireflies drifted in and out of the bushes along the river, where the cliffs often soared hundreds of feet high from the water’s edge and all the totem animals appeared one by one. There were deer foraging on the opposite bank, a blue heron wading in the pebbly shallows, and even a rooster, the symbol of my poetic alter ego, strutting by from a neighboring farm. Signs along the way stated that the narrow swath of riparian land linked private properties and farms that were united in their effort to restore the New River and complete the rustic trail along its banks. It was a magical place.
But it was not a campsite. I put the Taj Mahal CD on and started west in the last of the sunset. By the time I arrived at Grayson Highlands just east of Abingdon, it was late enough that I had missed the bluegrass concert on the park stage. Everyone had left except the ranger and a couple of die-hard talkers and I was sorry I had missed it. Under the light of a half moon I parked at the edge of a tree-lined field. The branches tossed in the light wind; I read a little Grapes of Wrath by flashlight, and settled into the comfort of the body pillows and Mexican blankets under the moonroof.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Day 19: Ci Gits in the Limberlost

August 2: From Matthew’s Arm campground, Shenandoah to Luray Caverns to Limberlost Trail to Dark Hollow Falls and the Cave Cemetery to Waynesboro

Soundtrack: Townes Van Zandt Live; Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde; Brandenburg Concertos 1-4

“...I used to know St. Louis, even collected epitaphs.”
“Did you, sir? You’ll remember the queer one then.”
“If it’s the same one, I tried to memorize it. You mean that one that starts, ‘Alas that one whose darnthly joy...’”
“That’s it. Robert John Cresswell, died 1845 aged twenty-six.”
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America

In the morning, 75º already with hundreds of birds calling invisibly from the canopy above, I sat at the picnic table, longing for coffee and drinking water, and got my first mosquito bite. Out came the Off and the park paper to plan my escape. A blurb about Luray Caverns captured my interest. Charlie and I never made a road trip without taking in a cave, so I drove down the mountain at 8:30, thinking to take in an early tour and stay cool. In the gift shop I changed my earrings for tiger swallowtail butterflies, bought a bottle of local wine, and walked around drinking coffee until the tour was called.
Luray is lovely, compact little cave, still growing and dripping water. At the bottom there is a programmable pipe organ made of stalactites where live concerts are staged, though we only got the automated demonstration and dropping water down the back of the neck from the ceiling. Your cave ticket buys another air-conditioned hour in the car museum next door, an unexpected diversion that displayed beautifully restored early 20th century vehicles and the local Black Maria from the Police Department up the road. When I left at noon it was 103º in the parking lot, but an hour later the temperature in Shenandoah was 88º.
Now the park card came into play and I consulted the park paper for hikes and peak experiences, with the standard issue park map as a guide. In Joshua Tree, we had pretty much hit all the viewpoints and one of the last things I did with Charlie was to watch a ranger slide show on the history of Desert Queen Ranch and walk the Jumbo Rocks Trail by the light of the full moon. Today there was a advertised ranger talk about the Girl of the Limberlost, one of my mother’s favorite books although I never had read it. (Her favorite author was Harold Bell Wright and I didn’t share her literary taste in general).
The prospective hikers met at 2:00 at the trailhead; it was 84º in the shade as six of us strangers started down a loop trail though cut and dying forests and saw the requisite fawn, chipmunks, woodpeckers, warblers, and terrapins on the way. The ranger, Ms. Ives, was married to a park botanist and explained to us that the naked standing trees (snags) that infested the park were hemlocks, being slowly wiped out by a pest that had worked its way south and was beginning to decimate the hemlocks in Great Smoky Mountains as well. In this part of the forest there had been so many standing trees that the Park Service became alarmed and went in to cut them down wholesale after a windstorm knocked a few over. The effect was like a logged-over forest with the logs left to decay and new species shooting up through the gray corpses of the dead. As for the “Girl of the Limberlost,” its lady author (an oxymoron according to Steinbeck) had simply appropriated the name for its “ring” and there was no such person. There had been people living in this neck of the woods, however and a few fruit trees and introduced shrubbery marked the site of their former homestead.
The other hikers were a schoolteacher from North Carolina who had been coming here for years on vacation and a couple with their grown son and his fiancee. From them I heard the first of the fallout stories from Katrina: the boy had been a graduate student at Tulane with a full scholarship to get his doctorate in medicine, but the funds had dried up after the hurricane, his program was canceled, and now he was casting about to find another way to pay for his medical training. We all wished each other luck, for the boy with his school, the teacher with her outing, me with my cross-country quest, and the ranger with encroaching non-native species; I drove on down Skyline Drive, past the Hawksbill, still 83º, at the top of the park, to where a sign for Dark Hollow Falls offered an opportinity for exercise and scenery.
Although the skies threatened, the cool wind was refreshing and the hike into shade was a welcome relief. With the rain parka tied around my waist, just in case, I set out. At the upper falls a few locals had brought their kids in bathing suits and they larked about; persevering, there was another falls below that was quieter. I sat on a rock looking into the jewel-like stones through clear water, wishing Charlie were along to enjoy it with me. Rain began to fall gently. The lower trail was sheltered with tall trees and in the occasional shower it was possible to stop under pine branches for a minute and stay fairly dry, but how to get back to the main road without getting soaked? I took a rutted trail that headed toward the Drive and found, instead, the Cave Family Cemetery on a grassy rise in the middle of the National Park.
Like Steinbeck and his ci gits, I seemed fated to uncover epitaphs, though there was no pale gentleman to interpret them on this trip. A neat grave with the dates June 14, 1958 – June 14, 1996 marked the short life of one M. Dale Foster with the cryptic(!) note, “A white piece of leather well put together.” I thought of Richard Cory, “Clean-favored and imperially slim.” Who but a suicide would die so early, and on their birthday. Maybe facing forty was too much.
It was a wet walk out of there, but the trail finally intersected the highway , which led to a Days Inn in Waynesboro, one of the many towns named for Mad Anthony. In the most generic and freeway-accessible of rooms, I found all kinds of treats for hikers, including money-saving coupons and free toothpaste and granola bars. Unfortunately, the hot water in my room was out, so I was moved down the line to another room, with an identical set of freebies. Life was sweet.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Day 18: On the Road Again

August 1: New York to Roadside America to Shenandoah National Park

Soundtrack: Bartok, Sonata for Solo Violin ,WKCR; Gary Barsky, 91 AM (KZZO)

After dumping the last of my change into the meter next to the Rodeo Bar, I pulled into traffic ahead of the parking police, headed for the Holland Tunnel (with its No Bottled Gas prohibition that kept Steinbeck’s camper out). It was 93 degrees at 10:30 in the morning as I drove past a big red building with horns, around the Fashion Institute of Technology, and by the Handsome Dog Cafe, where the girl on the banner seemed to be sweltering already with the heat. The Bartok sonata on the radio was sad, the Statue of Liberty appeared briefly in the haze to the west and there were no more twin towers at the end of Manhattan.
This time I was careful and breezed through New Jersey into Pennsylvania, occasionally pulling off the road for gas and restrooms and enjoying the suburban ambiance along the turnpike. At Round Valley I found a filling station and a rustic detour around a meandering creek, past well-maintained stone cottages, and a burgeoning development of luxury farm-style houses set among rolling hills and bare graded lots. More Bartok, this time works for piano segued into a rant from a guy named Gary Brisky out of New Jersey who declared “Jerry Springer is worse than pornography” and carried on about Christie Brinkley’s problems with men. I usually don’t listen to talk radio, but he was a lively talker and kept it up until KZZO took over with classic rock. The gossip item reminded me that our friend Scott Harris once saw Christie Brinkley backstage at a Billy Joel concert and not, knowing who she was, said, “Now there’s a pretty girl!”
With no sign of the belching factories that Billy Joel sang about in Allentown, I stayed on U.S. 22 west until it merged with the 78. In Pennsylvania, there is an amazing attraction called Roadside America that recreates a miniature chunk of local countryside with attached souvenir shops and restrooms. The two Lauras and I had stopped there on the way to Fallingwater a few years before and it was charming. During an hour spent reading all the tiny signs and the history of its creation by two brothers over the course of 30 years, the lights dim and the stars come out. The Fallingwater Kaufmans are immortalized with a model department store, their house hovers over a real working waterfall, and the church in town plays Onward Christian Soldiers. Canned patriotic music comes on and the windows in all the little buildings and trains glow and I just sat and cried, the way you do when someone is gone. Charlie never saw Roadside America, corny as it is, and never would.
In the souvenir shop I bought a shoo-fly pie and a bag of pecans and made a meal of nuts and diet soda that fueled me for another hundred miles or so. When I started nodding, I pulled into the parking lot of a library off the turnpike and took a nap in the shade of the building with the windows open. The long days of summer meant light until nine or so and Shenandoah National Park was just ahead off Interstate 81.
All the way, it was around 96º and hit 100º in Harrisburg; the spectre of global warming oppressed the air all across the country; but, as one church in Virginia said “You think it’s hot here...”
It was cooler in Shenadoah National Park, but not a lot: 88 at the entrance and 78 by the time I found a space in Matthew’s Arm Campground. I confess to stopping for fast food at a Taco bell in Front Royal, a trim little National Park gateway town, but it was more for the restroom than the dining experience. My quest was not for cuisine, like a lot of road trippers, but to re-create the kind of trip I would have taken with my son. We would “get the good out” of the National Park pass, stop to hear a bird with a complicated song and look out over the Appalachians, have a smoke and a glass of wine at sunset. We would have put up the tent in Matthew’s Arm, sprayed down with Deepwoods Off and walked the nearest nature trail, maybe starting a fire for marshmallows in spite of the heat, but the most I could do on my own was settle into the bed in the HHR and read Grapes of Wrath by flashlight. It was too stifling to sleep with the windows closed, so I covered the car with a Mexican blanket and sprayed Off liberally, hoping it would repel bears, too.

Day 17: Loose Ends in Terrible Heat

July 31: Last day in New York City: JFK Airport to Huntington Hartford Museum to Auto Club to Macy’s to Monster House

Talk about white-knuckled driving! Laura Anne and I took off for JFK in the dark and the whole way seemed to be over high narrow ramps that hung in the air over nothing, with everyone passing us speeding. She got off to L.A. without a hitch and all the gritty way back oil tanks and factories reminded me of driving with Tony Soprano. I parked the car in the $12 a day lot and consulted the AAA guide for the nearest auto club office, which turned out to be off Columbus Circle.
Like Sister Laura, I was accustomed to walking the distances in Manhattan, so in spite of 100º heat I started uptown. Islands of coolness beckoned: the underground mall that made the transition to Park Avenue, the Disney store, where the hottest item was the talking, moving Jack Sparrow doll for $75, and a shop that sold archival photos of the Rat Pack and stars of stage, screen, and television.
The spookiest block was the sidewalk where Anne Baxter collapsed from a stroke in 1986, another coincidental location that I knew from the Elizabeth Arden Red Door nearby. In the cool spot on the sidewalk, I leaned against a nearby building and cried silently for her and Charlie and all the beloved gone too soon.
On Columbus Circle I tried to gain access to the former Huntington Hartford Museum, which had been given to Farleigh Dickinson University and later became a visitor center for the City of New York. From a haughty and handsome concierge in the Warner Building I learned of the remodeling of the Edward Durrell Stone building that Hartford, heir to the A&P fortune and editor of Show Magazine in the 60’s, had commissioned to house his idea of modern art. Two of his most memorable exhibits had been a Faberge egg show and a Salvador Dali retrospective. Now the building was fenced off and guarded and rimmed with garbage, including the contents of someone’s purse thrown up against the fence in the back.
My connection with Hartford was through his estate in Hollywood, now Runyon Canyon Park, once the proposed site of an ambitious Frank Lloyd Wright Country Club and Hotel Complex. The chamber of commerce, local homeowners, and the principal of Hollywood High had successfully stymied the construction of the futuristic “play resort” in 1947. Although a Lloyd Wright-designed museum was also canceled, a pool house and stone caretaker’s building had remained at the site, along with the ruins of other buildings dating back to 1929 and added to in the ‘50’s. After Hartford abandoned it for other investments, the estate had sat empty for thirty years, becoming a park in 1984. This urban wilderness was the history-haunted canyon where most of Charlie’s ashes had been scattered, illegally, in 2003, the place he had come to love most in the world.
Huntington Hartford had managed to dispose of most of an 80 million dollar fortune, funding an artists’ colony in Pacific Palisades, buying an island in the Bahamas, and pumping more of his millions into the gorgeous but short-lived Show, best know as the inspiration for Playboy. Hartford’s saga was sad, but he lived on, now in his 90’s, somewhere in upstate New York. His name remained on none of his projects; even the theater he had founded in L.A. had been renamed for Ricardo Montalban. The current museum renovation would obscure the gleaming marble facade of the triangular-shaped skyscraper and open it as a state of the art design facility overlooking Central Park.
Two blocks on, the AAA office was secreted on the second floor of an office building at 1881 Broadway and 62nd I waited in air-conditioned comfort for the opportunity to get free guides and maps for New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Middle Atlantic states, the Virginias, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, all on the Steinbeck itinerary. The whole package, in plastic carrying bags, weighed about ten pounds, a burden I looked forward to carrying 40 blocks back to macy’s. My one purchase the day before had turned out not to fit and I needed to exchange it.
Navigating the subway to 34th Street meant a few more minutes of air conditioning. I traded the blouse that didn’t fit for a skirt that did and luxuriated in the coolness for a couple of hours; the macy’s bill was due on the first of August, but I forgot. to bring it with me and it would become an impetus for a quest later.
Late in the afternoon, as the day cooled and a short shower refreshed the air, I schlepped the en pounds of AAA Travel Guides back to 27th Street and moved my car into a secure spot around the corner. In the morning I would get one of the Rodeo Bar spots to load in my luggage. The inconvenience inherent in moving the car about to avoid tickets was one explanation for New Yorkers’ not keeping cars. Most of the cars parked on Laura’s street had out-of-state plates.
Laura had a Pink Panther reception to go to after work, so I took one of the free movie passes I had brought from some promotion in L.A. and went around the corner to a multiplex. The animated feature Monster House was a movie that I would need to add to my repertoire in teaching elementary school, although I had been displaced in the last round and I had no idea what grade level I would be teaching in the fall. Knowing the latest kidflicks was indispensable to connecting with my students; the lessons implicit in Finding Nemo (survival skills), Cars (Route 66), and Spongebob Squarepants (marine biology) could always be applied to the material at hand. Monster House was a story of childhood bonding, with the Freudian overtones of the house as a manifestation of the female persona. It reminded me a little of a cartoon ‘Burbs, but the neighborhood freaks were not really evil, just misunderstood.
Sister Laura’s cinematic experience, outdoors on the roof of a building in the heat of sundown, had not been as pleasant. She returned ahead of schedule, wilted from the heat and thirsty. After a few drinks, we turned in early. Tomorrow would begin the return leg of my cross-country travels, a perilous task not often undertaken by a woman alone, at least in the literary annals of the American Roadtrip.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Day 16: Souvenirs and Sushi

July 30: Westminster to Amherst to New York City

Soundtrack: Conversation

At least since the sixties, the interstate has been the system that all state roads and, more recently many suburban roads have chosen to emulate. Why have a two land, easy-moving local road, in other words, when you can have something fast and frenetic and well, kike an interstate!
Robert Sullivan, Cross Country

We woke to a "continental breakfast" of coffee and donut holes, one small box to feed the 18 units of the motel. The weather had cleared again, but heat and humidity had set in by 10 and there was no pool to linger for. We took off so fast that Laura Anne forgot her leftover fettucine in the refrigerator, excited by the prospect of doing some of the driving on the interstate. We had planned to go to Amherst to find Emily Dickinson's house, but the town sprawled for miles around the green lawns of the University and we drove around looking for signs that never materialized: foiled again.
Now our goal was to get back in time for Laura Anne to buy New York City souvenirs on her way out of town. Since we could take interstates all the way, Laura Anne got to drive through the rest of Connecticut and on to Massachusetts. Springfield was the largest and most interesting city we passed by, with its gigantic silvery Basketball Hall of Fame. The shining chrome sphere was in contrast to most of the other buildings, which were brick and several stories tall, a combination that makes Angelenos nervous. But then there probably aren’t many earthquakes in Springfield, Massachusetts.
We made good time and the distance wasn’t much farther than going from Houston to Austin, so we arrived with most of the afternoon left to cruise down 34th Street to Macy’s and browse the shops on the way that sold miniature Empire State Buildings and Statue of Liberties and I Heart New York memorabilia. It was Sunday and parking was catch as catch can when people moved out of their hoarded spaces in the neighborhood; we snagged a spot near Sister Laura’s apartment, unloaded, snacked and started out walking. By the time we got to Macy’s we were dripping with sweat and pleased to find a Starbuck’s in the Junior Department that served frozen drinks. While the Lauras shopped, I luxuriated in the air conditioning and a raspberry tea concoction that threatened brain freeze with every strawfull. A few years earlier when I visited Laura. we had spent an entire Labor Day staying cool in Macy’s and Bed Bath and Beyond. Marathon shopping was one of the thrills of New York City, a la Breakfast at Tiffany’s, even if we did graze the lower end of the consumer chain.
As for the souvenir shops, Laura Anne found shot glasses and lighters and pins for all her friends back in L.A. and bought a cityscape from a vendor on the street. I got an Empire State Building towel to cover the car-bed and broken heart salt and pepper shakers for the cover of this book.
Sister Laura took us to a Japanese restaurant called East around the corner from her place, a rabbit warren of dark bamboo rooms upstairs in on Third Avenue. Downstairs it had a sushi bar on a conveyor belt, which apparently was its claim to fame. Very tasty!
Laura Anne was going to catch a plane at 8:00 the next morning and fly to L.A. for her first week of film school, so we would have to be on the road by 5; we packed up her new treasures and turned in early. Tomorrow would be my last day in New York City, time to hit the Triple A for maps and brochures, and Sister Laura would be back on the chain gang at BBC America.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Day 15: No Time for New Hampshire

July 29: New London to Salem, Massachusetts to Gloucester to Massachusetts

I was determined, if not to camp out, at least to have the means of camping out in my possession; for there is nothing more harassing to an easy mind than the necessity of reaching shelter by dusk, and the hospitality of a village inn is not always to be reckoned sure,,,
Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels With a Donkey

Soundtrack: Radio potluck, rockabye Sweet Baby James

There must have been a continental breakfast in New London - isn’t there always at these franchises? We were not exactly “on the water, “ but a river called Thames on the map edged past to the west, stitching a pocket of trees and grass just off the freeway. And there was always the pool... Laura Anne and I took a swim and then we pulled out onto the 95 with the remains of the morning.
Edging up the coast in sunlit splendor, we bypassed Providence and Boston and turned into Salem before noon. There was a marvelous summer art exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum that somehow distracted us from the witchy enticements at every bend in the twisted streets. Room after room shone with paintings of seashores and meadows and storms and pretty girls in their summer dresses by Evergood and Hartley and Bellows and scattered local artists; we wandered from room to room for hours. Coming out, I saw another blue HHR, with another middle-aged schoolteacher at the wheel, larking about the country I presumed. With its Maritime Museum and Witch Hunt histories, House of Seven Gables and Marblehead Light, Salem must be a magnet for teachers collecting brochures. We were too late for the House of Seven Gables tour, but took pictures of each other mugging outside the building. So far we had not connected with the dark side of the New England Myth.
Now we were really hungry and nothing but lobster would do. We started north up the coast and found the suitably quaint seaport of Gloucester and a venerable seafood restaurant with a view of the ocean. I had a lobster pie, sort of like a Newberg with a crust and delicious bits of lobster floating in a tasty sauce. Laura Anne had lobster fettucine, which, as usual, she couldn’t finish and we took the leftovers for later. A local rock band was setting up to play in the corner, which would have been fun, but we wanted to start the loop back toward Amherst and Emily Dickinson Country.
This time we took the State 128 inland which connected with the old reliable Interstate 95 for a while, branching off into State 2 and veering west. Surprise! Just as a glorious golden sunset was cutting misty rays through the tall forest, we arrived (too late for the tour) at Walden Pond. The gates were about to close and rangers were stationed at the exits. Family groups of tourists who had been enjoying the little strip of State Reservation, hard won from developers, headed back to their cars with historically significant smiles, beaming in the rapturous light.
We slowed down for the crowd, absorbing the psychic energy of the place second hand. Somewhere nearby there was a rude bridge that arched a flood and memorials to Minute Men and other historic figures, but the sun was sinking and we had yet to locate lodging for the night. We would have to bypass New Hampshire, where a tantalizing brochure from the motel rack had promised the opportunity to "explore the mysteries" at the "American Stonehenge" (featured on The History Channel) and where Steinbeck had encountered a farmer curious about his "rig," Rocinante.
Although we carried a tent and camp chairs, Sister Laura was not too gone on camping out. We only had one mattress, though the star pillows could be used as one in a pinch; we hadn’t had time to try out that concept yet. So we cruised State Highway 2, finally settling on a long white Cape Cod clapboard style place with a covered porch, high on a hill just off the road. It had a green roof and shutters and backed up to a dense stand of evergreens, just outside the tiny town of Westminster. We had the last room on the row, actually a suite, with 2 tvs and 2 refrigerators and 2 double beds, forming a sort of L at the end of the veranda.
There was a back door to the room, and windows looking out into the forest primeval that made mysterious noises all night long. What was out there - lions? tiger? bears? That's what Sister Laura would say, but, safe in the cozy air-conditioned rooms, we had the luxury of imagination without peril and June bugs hitting the lamplit screens, that sweet sound of summer.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Day 14: With Aunt Laura in Connecticut

July 28: New York to New Jersey to Easton and New London, Connecticut

Soundtrack: Beatles, One; New Haven radio

When John Steinbeck began his 1960 tour of the United States that he describes in Travels With Charley, he crossed long Island Sound on this very boat and worried about the nuclear submarines of an earlier day.
William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways

The nature of parking on East 27th Street decreed that we move the HHR by nine in the morning, so Laura, Laura and I packed in our duffles and cooler and headed out through the tunnels, one jump ahead of the meter readers. We promptly got lost in Jersey. After going too far west and then too far south, we finally connected with the road to Connecticut. Clouds gathered and full-scale rain hit by the time we had crossed the state line. In the picturesque town of Greenwich, we checked the public library for a restroom and the location of Anne Baxter’s grave, supposedly in Easton, Connecticut where she had lived for a short time with her last husband, David Klee. We found one but not the other, although we got directions to the Easton Cemetery. We headed north on gray highways through the little town. The rain intensified, and we nearly missed the entrance to the graveyard in the downpour.
There were puddles on the gravel road between the graves as we pulled in, scouting for tombstones engraved with the name KLEE. With a loud drumming on the wet lawn, a doe leapt up suddenly from grazing on the cemetery grass and bounded toward the brook beyond the trees; Charlie’s totem animal again. We got out umbrellas and walked up and down the rows, soaking our shoes, finding nothing but the sad tombstone of a boy named Bobby who died at 22, decorated with his toy cars. Charlie had no grave, only a circle of stones in his beloved “meadow,” the former Red Car Right-of-Way and the vegetable immortality of being scattered in two beautiful urban parks.
After slogging around in Easton Cemetery for half an hour, we finally had to give up. (Further investigation after Sister Laura got back to her office computer and consulted imdb reveled that Anne Baxter really was buried at Taliesen and somehow we had missed her.) We worked our way south to the coast 95 and red highway 1 that wove parallel to it, closer to the ocean. In and out of rain, Laura Anne drove the Interstate while I scanned the maps for a prospective peak experience. Like Steinbeck, we skirted the larger towns, in this case Bridgeport and New Haven and looked for someplace quaint. I had never been to New England; though Sister Laura and I had fantasized about retracing H.P. Lovecraft’s steps in Providence, we had decided the rail trip was too expensive several years before. What I knew of New England was strictly from literature: besides Lovecraft, I'd read a lot of Hawthorne and Melville and Washington Irving, so naturally there was a certain gothic bias to my perception. I knew there should be bright shorelines and sailing and lobster and seaside cottages, et cetera, and maybe we would find some.
Leaving the 95, we turned south on a road that promised these things, but it all seemed like Anywhere, U.S.A., winding lanes with ordinary houses and no quaint bed and breakfasts to be found. Billboards on the Interstate weren’t much help and as it grew dark we finally settled on a Hampton Inn next to a broad inlet called that promised at least a view of water. We couldn’t really see the Thames for the trees, so we decided to cross the 95 again to check out the Atlantic.
When we consulted Travels With Charley later that evening, to see if we were on the right track we realized that we were just outside of New London, the town where Steinbeck had talked to a young sailor about nuclear submarines. Headed south toward the coast for dinner, we passed the vestiges of naval installations, still in evidence after 40 years. There were no peak experiences, no lobster, but we had good seafood at a local joint over the water, watching the reflected lights and planning ahead to witch-hunting in Salem. Lovecraft notwithstanding, we would follow Steinbeck’s example and bypass the eldritch lure of populous Providence and Boston for the charm of the little whaling towns up the shore.