Betty and I are off venturing in the foothills of Northern California on the beginning of another screening tour. One of the things we like best about traveling like this is how we get to see so much of the US that we might not be able to visit otherwise. We get to meet people we probably would never have met. We get to shoot video and take photographs. We get to SEE.
The last few days we’ve conducted a prolonged and detailed discussion about film and video and photography, something we seem to do a lot. Each of us is toting around multiple cameras and we have been taking in and recording what we have discovered. Beside our screenings, paramount on the agenda have been a couple of days shooting photos in the Mono Lake Basin and Yosemite country. We are old travelers in this part of the world but remain amazed and hypnotized by nature’s variety. Tufa tubes like soft, crumbling teeth, and new aspen leaves the color of Bearss limes, snowy peaks far above the tree line, ice on the high meadow tarns, spots of dirty snow (it’s a dry year here and the portents are for FIRE).
On Wednesday, Mono Lake wore a variety of hues, some like high mountain lakes in Idaho, some reminding me of the Mediterranean off the southwest coast of Majorca in the channel between Isla Dragonera and the fishing village of Sant Elm. Besides dental imagery, the tufa formations reminded me of hoodoos in the south of Utah and as Betty says, the ancient remains of Roman villas on the west coast of Italy.
In Yosemite, the moisture content is dangerously low and the threat of fire will hang over the Sierra until major rain/snow shows up and drops heavy doses of relief. Despite the lack of snow, the meadows are the color of fresh mornings and the waterfalls thunder and thump, throwing echoes into the walls of the canyons.
Some of the conflict between film photography and digital photography just got resolved around our outfit. We used to shoot film. Then we put our old Pentax K1000 film cameras away with all the lenses and the accoutrements of a past artistic age and moved on to digital cameras which we have to upgrade. Upgrade. Upgrade because the ones we own right now just…they just don’t….they just can’t…we don’t like….
We got our K1000s reworked, renewed; bought some film…yes it still exists…and we’ve been taking photos of the country with our new old cameras. Black and white film is our milieu and that means it is about form and shape and shades of gray. It’s also about planning the shot, thinking of aperture and shutter speed and light, things that you think of too with digital, but film is finite in a number of ways—how many shots on a roll, how much they cost—not like digital where you just throw away what you don’t like at no apparent cost, although I suspect that with the act of shooting a photo there is a cost in time and effort and something more that cannot be regained, something about artistic moments lost and never again showing up. Because each moment, each shadow, each glint of light on a distant piece of quartz, the osprey pair on the tufa formations, the coyote at Glacier Point, the mule deer in Yosemite Valley, all these things in composite will not occur again, just the same way, in our short lives. Too, with film there is something very satisfying about the sound of the film advancing and the click the shutter makes when you take that photo. Digital doesn’t do that although they try to make the cameras so that they might sound that way. But it is not the same.
We still shoot digital too, and especially if the scene, like Half Dome over the rush of Merced River rapids, is about the vibrant colors of May in the mountains, yellows and greens and blues, not black and white and gray. We use our cell phones too and shoot both still and video. Hopefully we will look at what we have created as not just shooting photos for the act of shooting photos, but shooting photos for the aesthetic. For what it means, whether black and white or red and blue, or digital or film or….
This is the season of remembrance and I suppose as we get older we can expect our opportunities to mourn and grieve to line up and bang at our metaphorical portals. This one is a bit tardy, but nevertheless, I choose to now write my remembrances.
Last summer Betty and I were traveling in the east when our friend Cam Cunningham died. We were far from northern California when his memorial celebration occurred, and even though I was sad, and am sad, I missed it. But in some ways I am also relieved that I was in Nova Scotia. Something about good-byes, especially final good-byes, bothers me to the point that I tend to elude them. Maybe what I do is elide. Elide in the sense that I slide around them, keep them at arms length if they must happen.
In some ways Cam and I were very different. I was one of the two or three resident rednecks of Sebastopol, California, and more than once he described himself to me as an Anarcho-Marxist. In terms of war, economy, history, we saw things very differently.
But we also had many things in common…more in common than we had in opposition. I first met Cam in a poetry class. I think it was the fall of 1995. He came into the classroom, a tall, long-haired man with a booming voice and a Texas drawl. He announced he planned to become a poet. Over the course of five weeks we found out, besides our differences, we shared some parallel experiences. When he was young, he’d hunted dove and quail, like I used to do. He was from the southwest and had lived and lawyered on the Navajo Reservation. I had not lived there, but I’d spent a chunk of the summer of 1963 on the res. We’d both been caught up in the craziness of the 1960s. We’d both been victims of ourselves…substance abuse and other personal disturbances. We both liked blues music. We both liked poetry. We talked football and baseball. We talked about the oil field and cowboys and….
Over the course of the next five years, I bumped into Cam a number of times, at street fairs and art shows…besides a poet, he was a painter.
In 2001, Cam became a student of mine. We worked on poetry together. He wrote and wrote, putting out copious amounts of poetry, musical things with snare drum rhythms and a voice often trapped between Baptist fundamentalism and Delta blues. His poems roughed you up at the same time as giving you a glimpse of the spiritual; a native mask, a prickly pear cactus, a bottle of Mescal, a stumble down a south Texas street, a native god sitting on a fence post both smiling and frowning at you. As my wife Betty says, “Cam was the closest thing to Magical Realism that I know.” When Cam wrote, your shoe soles were firmly on the ground while simultaneously bouncing along atop a Navajo country thunderhead. He also composed pieces that investigated how one segment of humanity tromps on another. He was blantantly political and irreverent while still remaining spiritual. Sometimes he would actually sing his poems and his voice would soar over the audience and lift the rafters. Cam could warble…he had a powerful baritone voice that was as familiar with scat as it was with old time rock and roll…way-back stuff, like Carl Perkins songs, and Elvis, and Johnny Cash. I really liked when he mixed spiritual-style music with the lyrics he composed. Made for some sweet hearing on my part. It wasn’t unusual to have him break out in song in any location, in the park, in a coffee shop, in class; something I had heard when my older sister played her little radio, like Fats Domino, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Tiny Bradshaw.
By 2005 I’d moved on to Idaho and he and I had become pretty good buddies. He’d been to see me. I’d gone to see him; had lunch with him fairly often at K & L Bistro where we both enjoyed juicy cheeseburgers of the highest quality. Then…Cam got sick. And even though I thought of him everyday, I stayed away. We got fairly regular reports about his progress…it didn’t sound good.
Finally, Betty and I went to visit Cam at his home up on the ridge where you can see all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Wind blew in the gum trees along the road. Cats sat on the deck and lounged around like nothing could be wrong. Cam sat trapped in a wheelchair and his appearance frightened me. Not for who he was, I think, but for a vision into what I will become one day. Sick and leaving this existence. He reminded me of a cadaver, a really old man, except for his eyes and the way he sat in that wheelchair, ramrod straight. Cam’s face had always been so alive and animated that I had never noticed the power in his eyes. Even in a weakened condition, those eyes reminded me of chunks of burning mesquite in a campfire. Orange and blue flame sizzling, and his mind too. Not much gone wrong on that end at all.
Of course we talked about a lot of things, one of them being the future and us…and when I left, I wondered if I’d see him again.
I didn’t, because he died not long after.
But I’m still thinking about him every day.
It seems like whenever I think it may be time to move on from Idaho and experience some other part of the world that moment of indecision coincides with a trip to the one-hundred-five-year-old Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding environs in southeastern Oregon. The country there is a mix of high sage and bitterbrush flats, juniper dotted ridges, and to the north and east, mountains. And in the spring, the Malheur country, or Harney County, is a place full of birds. Great Horned Owls and Burrowing Owls and Short-eared Owls.
Every year, Betty and I hit our personal high spots, the roads and fields around Crane and the Pete French Round Barn, Diamond and the Diamond Loop, the P Ranch, the Central Patrol Road that meanders parallel to the Blitzen River. Yellow Warblers and American Bitterns and Northern Shovelers and Yellow-rumped Warblers and Cinnamon Teal.
We go south of Frenchglen and check out the road into the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area and look for the herd of mustangs that rove there. Cassin’s Finches and Vesper Sparrows and Warbling Vireos.
We go along The Narrows and into the refuge headquarters where the cottonwood trees tower over the old masonry buildings and Coots graze on the grass and the Lewis’s Woodpeckers haunt the treetops. Cassin’s Vireo and Northern Goshawk and Dunlins and Forster’s Terns and American White Pelicans.
This year we did something different, as we do every year. For instance, last year we went around on the east side of Steens Mountain and checked out the arid Alvord Desert and then climbed up into Crane passing numerous small lakes, seeing lots of mule deer and pronghorn (or antelope as the locals call them). And of course, birds; Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes and Cormorants. Osprey and Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers.
This year we asked around to see if anyone was working cattle since it was time for branding calves, and lo and behold, we were invited to a branding which we stood and photographed, shooting picture after picture after picture. Shooting something like a branding is different from landscape or portrait or still life photography…it’s kind of wild, the buckaroos building loops to head and heel the calves, the cows on the prod (folks are messing with their babies), the vaccinating, the branding, the tagging, the cutting. It goes on with the smoke and the dust boiling up and the scent of burned hide from the branding and the loops of lassos that float on the horizon just before they snake in and capture a calf. The shouting and laughing, the bellowing of the animals, the cutting horses twisting and turning, digging in their heel bulbs when necessary, and this is all going on at rat-a-tat machine gun speed, and if you wish to photograph this you are on your toes, so to speak, with the zoom going in and out and in and out, finding those moments when the action gets caught, like a packaged explosion just about to ignite. Vavoom! Wow!
What a comedown, but not a sorry one, after that experience. Then on to the tiny burg of Diamond where the poplar limbs still stood naked as if they didn’t trust the warm breaths of the breezes. We photographed old buildings and big trees and hunted for sign of White-faced Ibis and saw Sandhill Cranes and Great Egrets.
Then on to the Buena Vista ponds in search of signs of Black-throated Sparrows and Sage Sparrows. Instead, it was the haunting mating call of a male Sora from the marshes below, and Western Kingbirds darting from sage to sage catching the little creatures whose short, flitting lives come and go in the course of a few days.
From there it was back to Burns, and the following day we took that drive south of Frenchglen and located over forty mustangs. A lot of the Harney County ranchers hate these creatures and I understand that, for the mayhem they create on the range, but still, there is something that gets up inside my throat when I see them out there lazily grazing on the new grass down in the swales. Something primitive speaks to me about freedom and all that stuff that often gets stuffed when we start thinking in terms of dollars and cents.
While in search of mustangs we found Warbling Vireos and Cassin’s Finches and an ambiguity of sparrows that left us perplexed as we thumbed through our Sibley…is it this kind of sparrow or that? We think we saw Lark Sparrows and Vesper Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows. We know we saw White-crowned Sparrows.
Then we traveled down to the P Ranch and hiked along the Blitzen River. Two Caspian Terns circled us like fighter jets, squawking as if berating us. One showed up with a fish as it swept by and then abruptly veered overhead as if to show off the latest morsel of piscine paradise. At The Narrows again, Ruddy Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, Ruddy Ducks.
The next day, on the road home, we cut off the macadam and bumped down some dirt roads. Pickup trucks pulling trailers loaded with saddled horses sped up behind us, and we pulled over multiple times to let these earnest travelers get on their way and soon we found out where they were hurrying. A branding, but not so formal in terms of corral and pens and headquarters structures as those we encountered earlier in the week. Here, the corral was makeshift, mostly trucks pulled up end-to-end and some portable panels wired together.
A hot fire crackled in a fifty-five gallon drum turned into a fireplace. Branding iron handles stood out from the sizzling orange-red and the smell of burning calf hair filled the air, along with the dust, and the voices talking local cowpoke gossip, or the boss-man barking orders about where to drag a calf, or comments on the quality of the calf crop or who was going to be the header and who was going to be the heeler. Wild action, back and forth, and loops built and caroming off the sky and onto the dusty ground, caught on the camera screen like something you might see in a Charlie Russell painting. Yeehaw! And Mountain Bluebirds…so bluebird blue.
Betty and I drove away and headed home and she commented to me, “Pretty darned western.” And it was, and it was more, and just a part of why we stick around.
The red in the rocks to the north of where we stood bled like rusty paint into the juniper-piñon green. To the south and west, the chalky white buttes and ridges jutted and alternately reminded me of the ends of white spuds and crumbling teeth from a shark’s jaw fossil.
The streets in the little Mormon town looked almost as old as the surrounding rock. Squatting in the middle of large lawns were century-old two-story homes with sleeping-porches and dormer windows in each side of the upper floor. Oak and elm and ash trees shaded the yards with their peeled picket fences and trikes and bikes that littered the mown grass.
Betty and I stood in the street and said her name, as she had asked. “Gail Larrick. Gail Larrick.” We filmed it on a cell phone and sent her a video. She e-mailed back that we were standing close to where her home had been in Teasdale, Utah. Many years before she had lived in the village. She loved it in Teasdale. That was obvious from what she said about the red rock country and how she knew all about the Henry Mountains and Hanksville and Caineville and Goblin Valley and Capitol Reef and Escalante and Torrey and the Fremont River and the bomb…yes that bomb…and government poison gas tests that eliminated bands of sheep; and Delta, Utah, and Dugway, Utah, and many more places in that glorious combination of mountain and desert and red rock and salt flat and snowy peak and rolling hills we call Utah.
But she knew a lot about a lot of places in this special country and I suppose we could travel all over these United States and speak her name, Gail Larrick, and these places would know her in some form that non-spiritual folks like me would not understand. Some communication occurring between the rock and tree of a particular place and the spirit of a seeker like Gail. Palouse Falls, Ulm Pishkun Buffalo Jump, Pine Ridge, Tubac, Aravaipa Canyon, La Luz Canyon, Pawnee Grasslands, and the list could journey on, a litany of all the places that she communed with and that in some way communed back. The conversations private, in a language that only Gail understood.
Sometimes that voice came through to me in her writing, because that’s how I first knew her. She took my internet writing classes, first in poetry, then in lyric essay, those short little sticks of dynamite that ignite the space behind the eyes of those who choose to read them.
It is there I learned about her passion for red rock of Utah, and the gangly arms of Saguaro cacti, the crash of waves on the Mendocino Coast, her connection with the ceremonies of Native Americans. Her passion for photography. Her writing communed with me.
Through her writing I knew her as one who lived alone, but she did not fear that; she had chosen to live so, and I would fear that loneliness to no end, but she didn’t. She embraced her loneliness and made it her friend. And so she wrote.
Not to say she did not have family and a large circle of close friends, because I think she did although I was not well acquainted with that part of her world.
Once Betty and I went from Boise to Sonoma County where I taught a class with my friend Guy Biederman. Gail signed up. I would finally meet her in person.
At the time, Gail had been sending me intricately-described short pieces about her travels and her life, both past and present; things about her dad and mom, her former life in Seattle and San Francisco, her time in Arizona, and most gloriously, her pieces about—yes I will say this—about her glorious southern Utah. Not my Utah, or your Utah, but Gail Larrick’s Utah and her encounters with the buffalo in the Henrys and the Mormon women of Teasdale and the sweeping glide of the monster red-rock cliffs of the southern part of that state, her trips to Escalante and beyond.
When she wrote these pieces, there was a hint of the mystical in her words, in her imagery that made me wonder how I would feel about her. And when I met her, I was surprised. She was frank and straightforward, her mystical belonging only to her.
After that, we planned to write books together. Which we did not do. And I am sad about that, that she is now gone and I cannot share that experience with her. I suppose I am selfish in this regard; there was much I stood to gain from working with and being around Gail Larrick.
But one thing I know, I will be speaking her name in French Glen and Sonora and Lee’s Ferry and places between and beyond because I will know she has been there and in her spiritual world, may be there still, to hear me speak her name.
Wednesday Betty and I drove from Boise to Moscow, Idaho, and Pullman, Washington, via US Highway 95. Well, not all the way; the first hundred or so miles we journeyed along Idaho Highway 55 through Horseshoe Bend, up the Payette River Canyon into the high long valley that runs through Cascade, Donnelly and McCall, Idaho before dropping down into New Meadows and Highway 95.
Springtime in Idaho is always my favorite time. Often tinted a dead brown, the state comes alive with multi-hued greens and the beginnings of wildflower season show up with yellows and reds and blues. The sky is enigmatic, often the most crystal shades of blue before turning sullen black with wide sprays of moisture falling like opaque shower curtains.
Wednesday was bright and blustery with scattered clouds scudding across the sky from northwest to southeast. In the high country the aspens looked as naked as they do in winter, but the wide variety of willows were an arresting shade of orange; and in the towns, the domestic trees shot shocking hints of chartreuse along the streets.
Cattle grazed on new grass. New grass always has a fresh look about it, as if it were gift-wrapped just to please the viewer. Alongside the cows, young calves romped; some black Angus, some Hereford, a lot of mixed breeds.
In the Salmon River country, the rivers ran manic, bouncing off the sun-swept rocks. The mountains dropped down like they wished to embrace us. Ospreys ruled the skies and made me think of catching salmon.
Above White Bird Hill, the land planed out, somewhat, and the vast fields that rolled away in all directions reminded me of some wild plaid of various shades of green, gold and brown. Strips of conifers grew in the harsh spots.
At Lapwai, an Appaloosa wore a hide that looked as if it had been painted by some master and reached his head over a barbed wire fence in search of tender morsels to chew on. The old sawmills sat vacant, their galvanized roofs undone and banging in the wind.
We wandered past the stinking paper mills at Lewiston, along the Clearwater River where Lewis and Clark wintered with the Nez Perce tribe in 1805 dining on salmon and various meals prepared from the native camas root that grows in the marshy prairies of the inland northwest.
Up another long grade from the river onto the Palouse and the rolling farmland sectioned into fields planted, waiting to be planted, and fallow, all different colors and in the slant of afternoon light seemed electric, as if created by mechanical tool instead of the play of light frequencies on sprouting wheat, newly plowed ground, and harrowed soil.
At Moscow we entered town and turned west towards Pullman and then settled in for the night.
Writing about spring and green and the newness of the season seems trite, hackneyed, clichéd, but we cannot defeat the march of seasons and so why not enjoy them and take their beauty, their hope for our own?
Betty and I are going north to Moscow, Idaho, to screen our documentary film BRAVO! and as always, the prospect of traveling to a new location leaves me with—besides a sense of elation—a sense of trepidation…sort of, anyway.
Not that I am on edge like I would be if I had to travel to Syria right now, but it will be a new experience going up north to meet new people, see new places. We’ve passed through Moscow on the way north or the way south, but this time we will actually be driving down the streets and meeting the people there, the folks at the university and in the town and the surrounding environs. Every time I go on one of these “new journeys” I have an underlying tension, a subtle doubt that simmers just below my typical bombast and bravado.
Going into unfamiliar territory also sets my scout and warrior senses on high scan. I can smell better, I hear better, I hear things that no one else can hear and I hear things that may not even exist. I hone in on details, the true color of a turquoise stone in a bolo tie, or the dimples in a Stetson hat or the precarious spiked nature of a pair of high-heeled shoes. The moment screens right there in my mind, cinemagraphic in high-grade Technicolor.
Traveling to new country happened to me a lot when Betty and I lived in New Mexico. Once a good friend of mine and I went quail hunting down in southwestern New Mexico, around Columbus where Pancho Villa invaded the United States in 1916. We arrived and found a camping spot on a piece of Bureau of Land Management land west of Columbus at a place known as Hermanas which virtually straddles both Mexico and New Mexico.
After dropping our gear and setting up camp, we ventured west along the international border between Mexico and the US to the Big Hatchet country and New Mexico’s boot heel and some of the most isolated spots on the US-Mexican border. We murdered red-hued rattlesnakes and visited with the two or three locals we met over the course of our two-hundred-mile jaunt. (I have previously written about this in several genres–fiction, essay, for instance–maybe even in this venue. The event impressed me, what transpired proved instructional.)
When we got back to camp we mixed biscuits and marinated T-bone steaks and baked potatoes and simmered pinto beans and roasted Big Jim chilies.
After nightfall, as we yarned, some pickup trucks appeared out on the highway and three long tall mean-fisted buckaroos showed up in dirty black hats. We could see the beams of their flashlights seek us out among the staghorn cacti. We could see hog leg pistols dangling from their right hands.
Talk about feeling alien. My friend conducted a heated discussion with them about who had property rights and why they didn’t want us camping there, even though it was federal land. They feared we were drug smugglers, or coyotes running illegals across the border, or that we were illegals camping out before moving on to New York or Chicago.
The firelight gleamed off their six eyes, one of which flipped and flopped every time that old farmer/cowpoke moved his head. Several times I thought we were going to have a shoot out, between folks who didn’t know each other…who were of the same race, same skin color, spoke the same language, were citizens of the same country and state. We obviously upset them as they tried to hide those hog legs up against their sides. The oak coals in our campfire sizzled and popped. The wind whispered around the thorns of the cacti and a great horned owl hooted over our controversy.
They were frightened of us…these big, black-hatted, hard-knuckled buckaroos. We were different, weren’t from around there, weren’t familiar to the straight road that ran along the bottom of Tres Hermanas.
We finally convinced them with logic—or maybe they were afraid we’d shoot them—that we meant no harm to anything except the quail we expected to kill the next day. So they left us and went on back to their trucks.
Right then, I understood how it must feel to an illegal, an alien, a person who does not belong to the cultural milieu of a particular place. And I’ve felt it before, but it wasn’t so visceral, so bone-shaking scary. Yes, I fought in Vietnam, but that was different in many ways, because I went to fight, to shoot at, to kill the people who supposedly hated me for what I represented. Not for who I was, but again, for what I represented.
There at Hermanas, I understood how it felt to be in a country in an illegal status. I felt how it was to be a “wetback” crossing into the States. I know those black-hatted buckaroos were frightened too, and concerned about what kind of activity was happening right there down the road from their houses, their families, their lives.
But at that moment they had power—familiarity with the arroyos and ridgelines, familiarity with the local folks—and they held hardware in the form of those long-barreled six-guns. Had we been the kind of undocumented travelers I’ve normally encountered along the border, we’d have had nothing but our feet to run with and our fear to drive us wherever we needed to go to keep from being killed or captured.
So it was with a different view towards aliens when later that year we again encountered some gentes crossing the Chihuahuan Desert on their way towards El Norte. My friend and I stood next to a mesquite thicket mid-morning, waiting for some sign of quail to shoot. The muggy sky glowered at us from gray clouds and scads of ravens flew across the horizon cawing their unknowable lingo.
As if they had been there all along, six men stood behind us, and when we got over the shock of being sneaked up on, I said, “Buenos dias.”
And one of them responded with a “Buenos dias” back.
I thought back to our experience with the black-hatted Hermanas gents with the hog leg pistols dangling from their right hands. I knew how that felt to be on the receiving end of those buckaroos’ fear and the concomitant reactions it generated in them. I smiled.
Even though my friend and I were armed, the six men we looked at didn’t seem particularly alarmed.
They wore straw hats and though it was a warm autumn day, they donned faded jeans jackets. They wore jeans trousers and carried sacks and cloth bags and cheap backpacks. Most wore sneakers of white and gold or red or blue on their feet. They looked about our age, but they looked harder, too, and maybe “harder” is not the best word. Maybe the word “seasoned” is a better way to describe them. One’s face was pitted with smallpox cicatrices and another had a large scar across the left side of his face. One wore a wispy black mustache that reminded me of fine feathers.
One of them asked me if we had work. I responded that we were only cazadores trying to shoot some codorniz. He must have thought we were locals because he asked me if I knew the farmer on whose farm we hunted. I recall looking out across the sorghum field and on to the low ridge of hills beyond. I shook my head and said, “No.”
“Gracias,” another one said and they moved on, across the dusty road and along the ditch that ran west of the sorghum field, over a barbed wire fence and into the desert. Towards El Norte.
But then I did eat lobster. Not one of those big sea-bottom bugs that cleans all the trash off the floor of the ocean. The bug-eyed wavy-feelered gout-creating sea-bottom bug. My lobster came disguised as chowder and seafood filling for a wrap. I finally gave in to the push push push to eat lobster bugs while we traveled in Nova Scotia. I mean, if you are there, you should give it a go, eh?
One of the many aims of our trip was to, while traveling, sample the local fare, especially grits. But as we motored east, the multiple southern US menus I perused and their descriptions of gree-its (as Betty says, in the South, grits is a two-syllable word) didn’t jangle my taste buds. But I ate a lot of other regional stuff.
In Brownwood, Texas, I had a lot of BBQ, Texas style, but the real Texas dining delight was a big platter of Sunday morning chili that lit my nostrils up and made my head sweat. Hot tortillas too, and hot coffee. Outside, it was bumping over one-hundred degrees. Hot.
In Mt. Pleasant, Texas, I ate the worst etouffe I’ve ever had. It wasn’t inedible, just the worst I’ve ever eaten. Etouffe is a crawfish and rice stew, so to speak, and usually is tongue-tingling spicy and delicately nuanced in its seafood and rice paddy flavors. But this etouffe was mindful of mud. Not for nothing do they call crawfish mudbugs.
I ate BBQ from Texas all the way east into Virginia, but the best was at the Blues City Cafe in Memphis, Tennessee. Right across the street sat BB King’s blues club and the sound of delta blues rattled off the old brick facades of the clubs and restaurants that line Beale Street. My BBQ was boisterous and sharp-flavored, redolent of hot things and the sweet melt of brown sugar.
In Bentonville, Arkansas, I took on southern fried chicken in a wanna-be swanky joint, but the spice on the chicken kept revisiting my palate all night long. In gustatory conflict I reckon, with the sweet waffles served as a side to that fried bird.
At Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, just north of Shiloh’s Civil War battlefield and the legacy of that vicious and horrible fray, I dined on fried catfish so light I thought it was some exotic denizen from foreign seas instead of American freshwater bottom feeder.
In Virginia it was finally grits. In an Arlington diner I took on the grits and wasn’t moved either direction, for or against. In Williamsburg, I tried them again and this time they lived up to my expectations. Like fine polenta, (and why not, they are both a form of corn meal mush) the grits were golden and full of cheese and butter and lots of shrimp and red and green peppers. Very delicate and fine. Now I know why southern folk brag about their grits.
Also, while in Williamsburg, I sampled some colonial fare…bangers and mash. In my ken, this English dish has a sorry reputation and when I have eaten it in the past (bangers and mash are mashed potatoes and sausage), they’ve left me swearing I would never do that again. But at the old Williamsburg colonial tavern where the staff dressed in 18th Century garb, the meal was tasty and passed the real test…my bangers and mash didn’t revisit my gullet two or three hours later.
In Boston I ate something that I haven’t really had since we moved to Idaho, unless of course we are traveling. In between film screenings, tours of Boston’s red-bricked and cobblestone-streeted North End, not once, but twice, on successive nights, I dug into a monumental plate of manicotti…cheese and red meat sauce and delicate pasta. Ahh!
And then further north, to Nova Scotia, Cape Breton and seafood. Seafood pasta, chowder, haddock fish and chips, haddock fishcakes and chow chow, fish, fish, fish. I probably eat seafood four or five times a year, but I’ve been eating it every day, sometimes twice a day. Even lobster.
I am sitting here in central Maine thinking about radiant hardwoods that glow like neon in the waning light of evening. Brilliant, possessive reds and oranges and yellows crowd my inner vision, but we are in Maine too early, so the only colors here are summer green and the hinted ends of the maples barely kissed by the cool lips of autumn.
When I last blogged, I promised to be prompt with reflections of our travels, but the travel itself has battered us a bit and our schedule of BRAVO!’s film screenings, although heady and satisfying, have drained us of energy.
My last blog was created in Memphis, Tennessee on August 20, 2012, and since then we have motored east and north approximately 2700 miles over 23 days including a trip to one of my paternal ancestral homes in northern Mississippi where we bought fat red bell peppers from a retired school teacher at the farm market in the parking lot of the old Tippah County courthouse in Ripley and visited with the historical museum director about families with the last names of Adams and Banta and Rodgers.
We spent a day with a Van Dyke-bearded National Park Service Ranger at the Chickamauga Civil War battlefield in northwestern Georgia, just a few miles south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The ranger was a man caught in a love grip with history, and he dramatically sashayed and bent and swayed and delivered other gesticulations about history, life and death on the battlefield.
The heat stayed away as we journeyed east and we were refreshed as we drove through the fog on the Blue Ridge Parkway of North Carolina, recalling books like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, a story of the Civil War and that dire tale certainly slipped and bobbed in my brain as we cast our eyes on the gorgeous layers of ridges that ran off east and west, the greenery seething with the mists. I recalled, too, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ novel The Yearling about a young boy and his pet deer named Flag. The deer population in the Blue Ridge country is prodigious (as we saw it) and the harsh nature of the epiphany of Rawlings’ story seemed to fit right in with the Civil War milieu that is still so important in the American south of 2012.
In Washington, DC, we stayed with Betty’s cousins Chuck and Donna Dennis and journeyed to Richmond to visit our old friends Lee and Betty Plevney. We attended a Khe Sanh Veterans reunion where we again screened BRAVO! to over 130 enthusiastic viewers. We journeyed to Colonial Williamsburg—a most wonderful place—and toured the Revolutionary War site at Yorktown and the archaeological dig at Jamestown where Virginia’s first settlers managed to survive. Old tales from high school literature about John Rolfe and Captain John Smith and Pocahontas erupted into a time capsule reality as we trod across storied ground by the waters of the wide James River where they lived their lives with osprey and belted kingfishers and fiddler crabs.
Then on to Boston through rural Pennsylvania and New York. We again screened the film and enjoyed a tour of Boston from our wonderful host, Marie Mottola Chalmers, who snaked us through the delightful warrens of the red- bricked North End, redolent with the history of Paul Revere and the Old North Church, Samuel Adams and Faneuil Hall, the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, Peter Agoos’ modern sculpture titled “Art Imbalance.”
Boston Tea Party, Chickamauga, Civil War, Yorktown, Khe Sanh, Boston Massacre; it seems I am encapsulated by war. Is it only me, filled up with a memory of death and mayhem, who lives in the cocoon of war?
We are now in Calais, Maine, pining for the colors of fall. But we are early and the weather is quite balmy and so, it seems, we need to head north. On to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton.
Yesterday the blue in the sky acted like a magnet, dragging me into the puffed-wheat world of clouds. The road bored into a thick hardwood forest. The humidity and temperature pitied my dry-skinned Idaho-ness and remained in the realm of comfort.
Betty and I showed at Shiloh battlefield early, before the midday Sunday visitor rush descended like long lost Civil War angels. The official name is Shiloh National Military Park and the name “park” fits the location well. It looks like a park, with the requisite monuments and peaceful fields bordered by luscious stands of pine and hardwoods.
The fight at Shiloh on April 6 and 7, 1862, was the first great Civil War battle in the west with one-hundred-eleven-thousand combatants and resulted in 24,000 dead, wounded and missing in action. What happened there belies the peaceful place Betty and I encountered. Wild turkeys clucked and putted. Spotted white tail fawns loped across the East Corinth Road, the Corinth-Pittsburg Landing Road and the Bark Road. Woodpeckers drummed and cicadas sang.
Only the monuments and the field markers told of the havoc and death that occurred there one-hundred-fifty years ago. Musket balls, grape shot, bayonet charges were apparent only in the history. All over this magnificent park, signs and testaments delineated every regiment, every artillery battery, the field hospitals, the troop movements, the savage engagements with names like the “Hornet’s Nest” and “Bloody Pond” and the “Peach Orchard.” A serious student of what happened at Shiloh in April 1862 could spend days walking from sign and monument to sign and testimonial and receive a detailed lecture in both historical and spatial facets of the battle.
But Betty and I were here for the country and the mood and the photography, and yes, the history, too. But what never fails to astound me is how these manmade cataclysms, these Antietams, Gettysburgs, Pea Ridges, Spottsylvania Courthouses all tendered their slaughter on terrain of breathtaking beauty. And not just in the Civil War: The beaches at Normandy are magnificent; the battle site of Little Bighorn—or Greasy Grass as the native Americans have named it—commands a kingly view of the surrounding plains, mountains and rivers of the Wyoming/Montana landscape.
When I arrived in Khe Sanh, Vietnam, in the spring of 1967, the triple canopy jungles, the mountains and marshes were gorgeous. When I left in the spring of 1968, the land was shattered tree trunks, rust red bomb craters and death death death.
I could wax on about why we do this, but answers that make sense evade me as do so many other pat solutions when man goes about besetting himself against man. We love, we crave the beauty of our surroundings, and then we sometimes crush it.
On this day, in the rolling verdant landscape of southern Tennessee and Shiloh, we pondered man and history for a while, then went to dine on catfish filets at the Catfish Hotel, hard by the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing.