July 22: Houston, Minnesota to Taliesen to the House on the Rock to Racine, Wisconsin
there is a town I dream into
that might be Caldwell, Idaho
that might be Santa Monica
may be you know...
Maybe you've been the place I mean...
Maybe you've walked there in your sleep
lalo kikiriki, Dreams of the Everyday Housewife
Soundtrack: Garden State soundtrack, Beck, Sea Changes and Odelay; Good Stuff for Laura mix
I sat in the parking lot of the coffee shop across from the hardware store mural until the sky grew lighter, then went for a walk though the sleeping town. It reminded me of Caldwell, Idaho, where I went to college, down to the clapboard houses and trim lawns and the city park with a B-52 jet mounted pointing at the sky. Since there were no bathrooms open anywhere, I decided to explore in the car. Up and down foggy streets I cruised, finding shut up coffee shops, body shops, and fairgrounds but no open filling stations. I pulled into the parking lot of a park with recycled art in its native plant garden, a sign at the fairgrounds proclaiming a “hoedown” next week, and (glory be!) a hot water shower in the restroom.
Rather than wake Laura, I napped for another hour and then woke her up to shower and change. On a wire overhead, starlings gathered like a scene from The Birds and the sky glowered, but eventually both cleared and we went back into town to gas up. The gas station attendant was an affable young man, doing a job Charlie could have done, and he reminded me of him. For $8 Laura bought a Hoedown button that would have let her in both days if we could stay, and we took the 16 to the green-dotted 26 south out of Houston in search of the Mississippi River, a suitable bridge, and maybe even breakfast.
Crossing at Reno after being just over a levee for 14 miles without a glimpse of the river, we found a picturesqe erector set bridge that took us into prime riverview fishing territory on the Wisconsin side. We stopped at a fish camp that was serving breakfast at the bar, frequented by vacationers in their skimpy and colorful attire: feathered fishing hats and cargo shorts. A couple of well-bruised local drunks having beer with their eggs and related the previous night’s escapades.
Finally in the rolling hills of Frank Lloyd Wright country, the green-dotted 60 followed the Wisconsin River east through farmland to Taliesen. We signed up for the Studio Tour, one of several options, and followed a docent up and down stairs and back ways, through the drafting room and into the little theater like the one at Taliesen West. Wright was criticized for using his tuition-paying apprentices to run the day to day operations of the Fellowship, but for many young people just out of school the responsibilities of participating in such an enterprise was a education in itself. At least that was the idea. Some students became so rooted to the land and the organic ideal that they never left and they made the yearly trek to Arizona like an extended family. I had spent 17 years as a docent at Hollyhock House and 10 at the Ennis house before the 1993 earthquake shook loose so many elements of each that they couldn’t be visited by the public. Here we were, finally, at the original Taliesen. The landscape was so unlike the compound in Scottsdale that it was a shock: the river and the green hills and the huge trees, stained green on their north sides, were emblematic of fertility and richness that only a rain-drenched country could provide. With or without the architecture, the place was spectacular, but we would soon find that architecture did make a difference when we went south to the House on the Rock.
We bought souvenir house letters for our Eric Lloyd Wright project next door in L.A. and stopped by the little cemetery on the way out. One of the goals of our trip was to put flowers on Anne Baxter’s grave and we read all the headstones looking for her. Among all the Wrights children and aunts and cousins, we couldn’t find her, and I had heard she was buiried by her last husband in Connecticut. But Laura was particularly moved by Mamah Borthwick Cheney’s grave under a big tree, green with moss and vegetable immortality. Frank Lloyd Wright’s headstone was a tall, pointed rock, nearby. Rain began to fall softly as we headed south on Wisconsin 23 to the House on the Rock; the storm darkened the sky overhead and we were caught in rain and hail so violent that we had to take shelter under an overpass. From Laura’s journal:
We are south of Spring Green, Wisconsin. The sky is screaming a wild thunderstorm and spitting bits ice on all the little people in their fancy cars loaded with diapers and trail mix.
I love rain.
Mother Nature laughs above us now, knowing she is a goddess. Every icy diamond that falls rough from the sky, that slaps the wind and lands upon our heads, is an omen. Each one says, BEWARE: The bitch is back and she does bite.
There is no way I can collect this storm in my 2 oz. shampoo bottle; it travels south now as we go east I wave goodbye and waltz in the sun. Rain is a wonderful thing. Yes it does kill, but it has personality.
The House on the Rock had become so overgrown with landscaping that it was very hard to see, but that didn’t stop the proprietors of the attraction from charging arms and legs for looking at it. There were four separate tours with separate charges for each, and though something of a curiosity, it was mostly a collection of mechanical bands and oddities jumbled together every which way. The most inspirational thing about it was how the owner/builder had financed it all - by asking his neighbors and passers-by to give him a dollar to look at his latest improvement and selling souvenirs. You had to admire his ingenuity and the narrow wing of the place that took off over a bosky dell on seemingly thin air.
Near Madison we stopped out of the rain for a Grand Slam and a mediocre grilled cheese at Denny’s. This was disappointing since we were in Wisconsin and one would expect the cheese to be exceptional. The waitress admired the Frida Kahlo necklace, saying it was an antique and probably very valuable. Fortified with coffee and carbohydrates, we took Interstate 94 and the rain kept up all the way into Milwaukee.
I was looking forward to a civilized evening and a shortcut across Lake Michigan on the Muskegan Ferry, but we couldn’t find a hotel and ended up in a Knight’s Inn in Racine, where the office window was made of duct tape and most of the patrons were bikers. It wasn’t until I was doing laundry the next morning that it hit me: we were just minutes away from Wright’s Johnson Wax Building and, unavoidably, Chicago had become part of our itinerary, just like it was for Steinbeck.