August 27-September 28 2002 / Seen in America: Cross-Country to the Southwest Parks
A Patriotic Journey
NOTE: This is an account of a trip from 2002. The Image Gallery that is associated with this journal contains images from another, somewhat similar, trip, done in 2013. I did not actually take any pictures on the 2002 trip. Please enjoy both this journal and the images.
Written in Oneonta NY
Strange lovely cows in the tidy fields. They are black with wide white bands around their middles. There are some sheep too. A valley of green stretches away from the road, on which almost no one is driving but us. At intervals, not too close to each other, but not too far either, are farm houses, with silos and barns and neatly tended fields. I look across and down the valley, and see these human spaces, mowed, inhabited, amid the softly-furred hills, little places of safety. It must be very cold and hard here in the winter, all covered with white, smoke rising from the little houses, the cows in the barns, the horses standing quietly in the hard white fields, their breath smoking the icy air.
But right now it is late summer, and all is green and full of life. The road passes down the valley, and a few people farm the valley, and stay at a distance from the little towns. Who are these people, I wonder? Will their children stay and farm the land, too? What women are in these houses now as I drive past in my capsule of the fast life—the women tending children, cooking, washing, doing farm chores that I do not know of.
The sun sets in a great drift of coppery pink and blue. Every cloud seems glorious—as a child, at camp, watching the sky at this time, I always felt that the light was shining straight from heaven even onto me.
That’s how it was this evening in New York State, Oneonta.
Our small motel room looks out, through its tiny back window, upon a miniature forest of hemlocks and pines, and there are wildflowers amid the darkness. Tomorrow I’ll see what they are.
Written in New Market VA
I looked upon a rocky hillside where four thousand young men slaughtered each other at the behest of their elders, and I stood near where Abraham Lincoln, in profound hope and despair, dedicated a killing field into a cemetery with his noble words. I saw corn fields and wheat fields and hundreds and hundreds of monuments amid the fields, honoring the men who died. Statues and plaques and stones, bronze and granite and never will they come back, dead, they are all dead. Their fresh young man’s blood fertilized these plants I see, their essence flowed out upon these small hillsides, and the people come here to look, perhaps to ponder.
The country song says, They’re growing houses in the fields. Here, at Gettysburg, the young men’s warm blood desperately, most horribly, grows cold metal and stone monuments.
We go to look at the huge painting of the great battle at Gettysburg, painted in the round by a Frenchman, perhaps in love with the romance of it all. I see the images, but I hear this: soft talking, coughing, the clink and clank of weapons and eating utensils, the snoring and crying out in dreams, the nicker of horses. Then the screams, the screams of horses and of men, the deafening clangor of cannons and rifles, the sighing and the crying out. The silence of the dead men and animals. I smell the blood of horses and of men, horse and human dung, the acrid smell of gunpowder and bloody metal. The sweat of terror.
There are pictures of some of the men, they are handsome, hopeful, and so unknowing. And thank God for that.
The town of Gettysburg, surrounded by this bloody field, all peaceful now, and lined with small neat brick or clapboard houses right at the sidewalk. Some are stores that advertise: “Bullets, uniforms, swords. Documents, leather goods. Accoutrements.” How can they sell the pitiful remains of young men’s lives?
Written in Kingston Springs Tennessee
The road filled with fog, many many trucks speeding down the highway. The small mountains covered with dense forests on either side. Forests to be lost in, so easily. I think about the people who know these forests, and who do not become lost in them. Each of us knows our home place.
Here in Tennessee, finally at the day’s end, we go briefly to a nearby state park, and walk for a short time in the forest. I have been eager to walk on this ground. It is very dry here, and crunchy underfoot with dry fallen leaves. There is a sweet scent, perhaps of crushed hickory shells and hulls, which lie underfoot in great abundance. I see things I know—sassafras and black oak and Christmas and Sensitive ferns, and others, and many I don’t. Each of us knows our home place.
We stop at a very local barbeque place to get something to bring back to the room. The dark heavyset waitress takes herself from her intimate conversation with a shaven-headed, bare-armed young man to take care of our order. She does not smile and is not responsive to my friendliness. There are two other men eating, and a couple.
While we wait for our order, an older man and his wife enter. The man is grizzled, with a several day’s beard, and has a large nose and sunken jaw—missing some teeth. He is greeted in friendly manner by the other men, and when he’s asked how he’s doing, sags sideways to show how tired he is. His wife, dark haired, coarse of skin, wears a shapeless flowered dress, dark shoes without socks. Without looking up from her conversation, the waitress says, “Tea?” There’s a barely perceptible nod, and she gets up and brings the tea, the ice tea. The wife says, muttering and also not looking up, “Fries, jus fries.”
This man and woman are my species yet I hardly recognize them nor they me. Each of us knows our home place.
Written at Royal, Arkansas, just outside of Hot Springs, at my cousin Ted's house
From the close-in forest on either side as we pass down from the hills of Tennessee, we cross The Great Mississippi, and on through the wide and beautiful fields of the flood plain. Here grows rice, its bright green familiar to me from halfway around the world. It is planted in lovely undulating rows and shows its straight stems in cuts at the edge of the fields. Also there is dark green and leafy soybeans, I think it must have been, and a strange and handsome crop, with strappy stiff pointed leaves in a low fountain, and a dark brown seed head was it? rising from the center. My cousin Ted, with whom we are staying, says maybe it was cotton. At any rate, the fields stretch away in elegant plains on either side of the road, and I love them, I love to see such elemental things as plants grown for food—or for clothing us.
We stop briefly in The Waffle Shop just outside of Memphis, and Cheryl there waits on us. She has a terrible cough and is grim with the weight of her life. Yet she has a dignity, that peculiar dignity which those of the South seem to have. A kind of grittiness, a fortitude, a classiness under her harsh makeup and dry blond hair. Fortitude: strength and endurance under hardship, says Ted’s dictionary.
Along the roadside, now closer to Little Rock, all the varied enterprises of hopeful people. Many churches with preposterous elaborate architecture, and plenty of exhortations to the good life. One says, Exposure to the son may prevent burning. Another, puzzlingly, says, Worry is interest paid on trouble before it is due. And, Tithe if you love Jesus, anyone can honk.
There are enormous numbers of places that sell campers, horse trailers, truck tractors.
It all looks as I remember from Florida. Not sure what it is: partly the people, that dignity, intimidating dignity. The frank religion, not the religion of the north, stowed away for Sundays and never, ever referred to in polite company, but the open and frank religion of the south, that marks you for life. The many places strewed with wreckage of lives and hopes.
In a city park in West Memphis, where we stop, this Friday of Memorial Day, for our lunch, under a covered picnic area, a couple of black men have gathered. They observe us as we set up to make our sandwiches. One man tells John in a friendly but firm manner that he had reserved the place for two days. I’m making the sandwiches and don’t hear this conversation but get the idea. Oh, I say, are you having a family get-together? Yes, yes, they are. John tells me later that the man asked where we were from, and welcomed us to Arkansas. I was way, way impressed. I’m thinking about that man’s grandfather, and how the conversation would have gone then…or his great-great grandfather…
So now, having arrived at Ted’s a day early, we settle in with family to rest on our way.
Written at Royal (Hot Springs) Arkansas, still at Ted’s house
Coffee at 7 am on Ted’s beautiful screened porch overlooking his land. The land falls away from the house in a lovely curve, like the curve of an animal’s back, rising slightly in the center and sloping down gently on either side. It is dotted with trees, pines and oaks. The bird feeders that hang just at the porch from a willow oak are jumping with birds—chickadees, a couple of cardinal pairs, blue jays. A road runner trots quickly past at the side of the yard. Ted says he saw a stand-off between a road runner and a snake, just in front of the porch, a while back. The road-runner grasped the snake and shook it smartly, but the snake resisted, and after a while they each went their own way. The air this morning is warm and sweet.
We go to a couple of flea markets, at my request. A man shuffles and squeaks along in his walker, bump bump screech squeak, slowly up and down the aisles filled with the detritus of others’ lives. There is more stuff than anybody can look at it, and every object belonged to someone, maybe several different someones, and they all have histories. There are so many stories here that it makes my head ache, makes my heart ache, to consider the richness represented by this multitude of objects.
Then to Wal-Mart, only my second visit to one of these behemoth stores. For $43 we buy: a large Eskimo cooler, a milk crate, a pair of canvas shoes for John, two plastic tumblers for drinkies on the road, four bungee cords, a flag holder and flag to fly on our car on 9/11, a large bottle of ginger ale, a package of coffee cake. The place is like the flea market, only the things haven’t got histories yet.
Well, they do, though, because I bet they were made, as a group, in half a dozen countries, by real people living now, who have histories, and they got to that Wal-Mart in eight or nine different ways, too, and each of those travels is filled with drama.
After lunch we drove into the outskirts of the Ouachita National Forest on a nice wild goose chase looking for a place Ted showed me another time, where there are quartz crystals just lying on the ground. But we couldn’t find it, after some bushwhacking. The woods are dry, and most of the plants are unfamiliar.
This evening the air is moist and warm and filled with a sweet rich scent of some kind. I am happy to be in the south, though this is a particularly unattractive bit of it, in my opinion, with its strips of garish or decrepit businesses, low boxy brick houses or “doublewide” prefab houses, cheap living for people on the margin. But Ted’s land here, and his porch, are truly beautiful.
Written in Shamrock, Texas.
A long drive today, first over the Ouachita Mountains, piney and thick, up and down, up and down on a small road. Then gradually as we enter Oklahoma, we have moved from the south to the west, at least culturally. Billboards advertise Western gear. “Cowboy-owned” says another about a motel (oh right). The farms and herds of milk cows are gone, and instead there are dry pastures and herds of what might be Black Angus cattle.
At the Welcome Center, there is a most impressive and enormous painting of The Trail of Tears, in which the Five Civilized Tribes were forced by the government to move from their ancestral lands to Oklahoma. All along the road are advertisements for Indian goods and museums. We got gas at once such place, which had had huge billboards for miles about Cherokee things: jewelry, rugs, moccasins, and so forth. I did not even go in—maybe I should have—because those place usually have only the crudest objects, mass-produced by people who know nothing, nor do they care, about the culture the objects are supposed to have arisen from. I don’t like to support such stuff. So I only imagined the Cherokee, in my mind, on these plains.
We stopped by Oklahoma City to pay our respects at the memorial to the dead of the bombing there. It is particularly horrid to see the Lawn of Empty Chairs, with a stylized glass and bronze chair for each person who was killed. The chairs representing the children, the little children at day care that morning, are smaller… I can understand the twisted reasoning behind 9/11, but this? No, not at all.
The landscape gets bigger and bigger, until the horizon in all directions is low and flat, and the sky rises above it in a tower of blue and white. Back to the simple forms, the straight line, the fence, the road, after the confusion of the forest and towns.
At a rest stop in Oklahoma where we made our lunch, a small and scrawny gray and white cat came to stand nearby, just in the trees, watching and waiting to see if we would drop or leave anything. Fortunately for him, today was a chicken lunch day, and so there was a chicken can, not totally emptied, and chicken juice, for him. I set it down away from our table, and chirruped at him. After a bit he came cautiously over, and ate the chicken and juice, then went off under a tree to wash thoroughly, before stealthing over to a nearby table to see what they might have for him.
Written at Cedar Crest, New Mexico, at the home of our son-in-law’s parents.
We left before dawn this morning, the landscape laid in front of and around us in plain and elegant grandeur. The sky slowly filled with light and the sun rose fat and red, and the grasslands were illuminated. Nothing but sky and a sliver of land, and the road ahead.
When New Mexico came, the land turned almost abruptly to the West, the mesas appeared on the horizon, and we passed over little draws eroded red and white. The roadside billboards enticed with Western Gear, New Mexico’s largest selection.
Many little businesses are simply abandoned, the buildings fallen down, the windows empty, the signs faded or broken away. Wreckage of dreams and visions, perhaps forgotten now by anyone still living. In the dryness, though, they persist.
I can’t describe what it was like, very well, coming back to the West. The high sky. The flat land. The cattle grazing here and there. The dry heat. The pines in sun. The blue mesas on the horizon.
Things reduced to their minimum. A low house, some outbuildings, some trees planted by your father or grandfather, a fence, your land. A way of getting water, a way to a bigger place where you can buy things and sell things, if you need to.
And the rest is the land, much of it “empty,” at least empty of the things that most people would find interesting or beautiful. I hate it when people say, oh, there’s just miles and miles of nothing. It’s like the vision at the Cape, of only sand, water, plants, and sky. Tan, blue, green, and white. Here the colors are much more subtle, of greens and rose and cream and gold. But the forms are similar: the great curtain of sky, the wide plain of land or water.
Some of the hillsides, where they were eroded, were so deeply red that they could have been bled upon.
Written at Whites City New Mexico, just outside of Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Oh, what a splendid drive! Early morning, a divided highway with absolutely not a single other vehicle on it, passes through a vast, flat space with scattered small plants, cattle here and there, pale colors, high high sky.
We pass through Vaughn, which on the map looks like a reasonably sized place. Instead it appears to be a modern-day ghost town. There are the gas stations, small stores, a few motels. But there are no people. No people at all. Most of the businesses are boarded up, doors hanging open, signs broken or faded beyond reading. We make jokes about how the aliens that are supposed to have crash-landed down the road in Roswell have certainly had their way here. Why, we tell each other, we heard only yesterday what a thriving little town it was! Now, deserted, falling apart. It’s a strange feeling to drive through it.
Along the roadside, what is that ahead, under the guard rail? Oh. It is a small deer, dead on the road, lying under the guard rail.
At Carlsbad, we take a slow drive along a gravel road to look at things. I’ve learned about a hike you can take off the road, so we hop out of the car, in the big empty, and slowly make our way in the heat up a little ridge. Unless you get out of the car and walk on the land, like this, you can’t really see how lovely and varied the plants are, their different shades of green, their clever desert forms. It’s wonderful to walk in the dry heat, slowly, savoring this new place. We see cholla, and ocotillo, juniper, small barrel cactuses, prickly pear cactus, yucca, and some other plants the names of which I forget. I love them all.
In the early evening we sit with about a hundred others in the stone amphitheater where people wait each evening to see the bats fly from the cave opening for their night’s insect hunt. At first there are only a few people, and nobody goes beyond the little chain hung across the opening to the seating. Americans are very law-abiding, on the whole. But then eventually as a few more arrive, somebody goes and sits down, and then we all do, especially after one of these people undoes the chain. I also love how Americans take matters into their own paws.
A young woman ranger gives us a fine talk about bats and their wonders, while we wait for the bats to appear, which they do in their own good time.
First there are just a few, so few we can all count them, and then they begin to swirl upward out of the enormous mouth of the cave, swirling upward in an orderly but complex vortex, and out to the sky, some of them fluttering just over our heads. The crowd is perfectly silent, watching this. We sit in silence, watching this ancient natural process. The bats are like swirling black leaves in wind. The light dies away softly, and the crowd disperses in silence, bats still uttering forth into the night.