Circling the middle
I have lived in the four corners of the U.S. I was born in the Northeast, lived in the South, the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest. And yet it is somehow the vast middle of the nation that most draws me to it.
In the Northeast, there are cities and woods, the Hudson River slicing up New York State, the “bare and bended arm” of Massachusetts jutting out into the cod-waters of the cold Atlantic. There are the great curved ridges of the Alleghenies forcing highways into what look like Golgi bodies on the gas-station maps. This is the land of salt-rust on the undercarriage of family cars; Of hillside cemeteries bordered by brick apartment buildings. Warehouse districts and tract housing; turnpikes and wharves; glacial till and the stone walls the till makes both possible and necessary — and the fallen ruins of those walls making forgotten property boundaries in second- and third-growth forests. Swimming holes from abandoned quarries and the ever-present nose dust of bus fumes.
I look back on these things and a wave of nostalgia warms me. Manhattan in the winter, with the Con-Ed grates pouring steam into the air; the periodic burst of warm air blowing up from the sidewalk as the subway train rumbles in the Stygian underground. People in vast tides walking with purpose up Fifth Avenue. The smell of coffee and pie at the Horn and Hardart.
But I left the Northeast at just about the same time as the Horn and Hardart began fading away. I moved to the South, where I became accustomed to slower talking, slower walking and human interactions that were not based on efficiency and gain. It was a land of pine trees grown for paper pulp, a coastline of sea oats and dunes on barrier islands, cities of fewer restaurants, and what there were served meatloaf and fried chicken. When I moved there, the single Chinese restaurant in Greensboro, N.C. pretty much restricted its menu to chop suey and egg foo yung with pot roast gravy.
I have lived in the South now longer than I have lived anywhere else, although I have not been faithful, and have moved elsewhere, yet I seem always to return. There are pinxter flowers dripping with rain along the Appalachian Trail; there are bass-filled man-made lakes where small towns used to be; there are old lawyers in worn suits who meet every morning in the coffee shop to talk about the day’s events while sipping hot coffee cooled by pouring it out into its saucer slurp by slurp. When I moved to the South, the Klan was still common — in both senses of the word — and otherwise perfectly decent white folk made a sincere case for not changing things too precipitously. Every town had its black community, usually on the other side of the railroad tracks that had once provided the reason for the town’s existence and formed the terminator as clearly as if there were the lit and dark sides of the moon.
There were cotton warehouses and tobacco barns; men actually used spitoons — and if they didn’t have one, they might have an empty tin can into which to spit the brown excess saliva from their chaw. I know of one old reprobate who actually died when he passed out drunk and rolled off his couch, cutting his throat on the jagged edge of his spit can.
If, in the North, people had little time for each other, always in a rush to get somewhere and do something, in the South, everything revolved around relationships, around talking and with that talk establishing social rank and responsibility and anyone you knew, you also knew who their daddy was. People talked endlessly, about weather, business, politics, gossip, taxes, planting, hunting, dogs and church meetings. Even now, so many decades later, when I made my first visit to the local barber, one of the things he asked, making small talk, was what church did I go to. He wasn’t being nosy nor was he proselytizing, he was merely establishing a relationship.
A good deal has changed in the South since I first got there four decades ago. Accents that used to define hierarchy have begun flattening out: You can walk through whole blocks of Atlanta and hear the same language you might hear in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Fine dining is now possible if your city or town is now large enough. Your mayor has at least a 50-50 chance of being African-American. When I got there, every white Southerner was a Democrat; now, they are all Republicans.
I moved to Seattle in the late ’70s, before half of California swept north, and before every streetcorner had baristas pouring white swirls into the foam of a latte. The railroad switchers shunted cars from dock to dock along Alaskan Way where homeless men in dirty coats and black watchcaps clutched brown paper bags while sleeping in industrial doorways. The ferry moved out of its pier in the morning light to make its way to Winslow on Bainbridge Island or to Bremerton. Although it rained most days during the three non-summer seasons, it was mostly a drizzle and few people even thought it counted as rain and no one I saw ever carried an umbrella.
From my house on Phinney Ridge, across from the Woodland Park Zoo, you could see the snow-capped Olympic Mountains to the west and the snow-capped Cascade Mountains to the east. To the south was the biggest permanent, unmoving white cloud you ever saw — on those days you could actually see it for the weather — and it was called Mt. Rainier, which was pronounced, unlike the sovereign of Monaco, as if it described the precipitation in the Puget Sound: rainier. Certainly rainier than Arizona, where I moved later.
There was Olympia beer and Rainier beer, and I could hardly believe it to see pedestrians stop at the “don’t walk” lights, even at 2 in the morning when there were no cars on the road. No New Yorker would do that; I had friends who otherwise had a cavalier attitude toward authority who would stop me from jaywalking, as if the Stasi were keeping files.
When I got out of the city, the forests were populated with douglas fir and western redcedar. Nothing else. Endless miles of the stuff, climbing up the sides of mountain ranges and with downed logs greened over with moss, and the path a spongy loam under your feet.
I think that is what finally drove me to move back to the South: The sense of homesickness for a forest with scores, even hundreds of varieties of tree. The sameness of the Northwestern forest seemed unnatural to me, as if I shouldn’t be there.
There is much I loved in the Northwest. The moist air, the cool summer, the planked salmon and Ivar’s Acres of Clams. I knew a bunch of bicycle messengers, known as “Buckies,” and enjoyed the friendship they provided. There was a political progressiveness that was nearly universal; one could shop at the co-op grocery, the Public Market at Pike Place. Stop off at a bar and have a beer like a real person.
Finally, there is the American Southwest, as dry as Seattle was moist. One can see for 20 miles at a glance, taking in a meaningful quadrant of the earth circumference. The Southwest mean space. At least outside the city of Phoenix, where we settled — and we got out of the city as often as we could — the desert was intense, sharp and beautiful. Before a rain, the humidity made the creosote bushes smell like spicy cologne. The saguaro cactus stood vertical above the thorny undergrowth. Jack rabbits, roadrunners, the occasional javalina or rattlesnake darted in and out of view. The air was dry; sweat evaporated before you even knew it had escaped your pores. The sun bleached the landscape and radiated heat like an open oven door.
There were three different experiences of Arizona. The most common one was the urban experience of Phoenix.
My wife and I moved there because we had traveled summers across the country and thought it might be pleasant to live in the West for a few short years. I’m sure we were thinking of Flagstaff or Santa Fe. We wound up in Phoenix. We were thinking of having a little adobe house with a white picket fence and perhaps a butte in the background and a few pinto horses grazing in the pasture. We wound up on Seventh Street, the busiest thoroughfare in the city, with traffic noise like endless surf crashing outside the house, and exhaust soot collecting in the cooling ducts of the house.
The street grid was punctuated by Circle Ks and 7-Elevens. The right-angle network of streets were broken in places by the eruption of mountains: Camelback, Squaw Peak, South Mountain. Enthusiasts climbed them to get a view of the city below, which spread out like a plaid tablecloth, divided into square patches. You could hardly get lost in this checkerboard of roads; you were either driving north-south or east-west, and the city’s mountains provided easy landmarks. You always knew where you were.
Outside the city, the land was split between northern and southern Arizona. To the south, there were greasewood flats, saguaro cactus and stony mountains catching the sun late in the day to demarcate the rosy lit areas from the bluish shadows. Dry lake beds hovered in the distance, white salt pans, and the taller mountains caught snow in the winter.
To the north was the Colorado Plateau, Flagstaff, the Navajo and Hopi reservations and the Grand Canyon. The air was noticeably thinner and cleaner — no Phoenix, no Tucson to fill the valleys up with yellow smog. Roads unrolled in long ribbon streams ahead of you heading to the horizon bounded by mesas and buttes. The landscape painted tawny, ruddy, sooty, whitish and blue by streaks, the sky larger than you have seen it anywhere, and most likely uniform blue, only darker toward the zenith.
At First Mesa on the Hopi reservation, you can hardly tell the blocks of stone making up the hillside from the stone houses built atop. You drive endless miles across grassy plains to the next habitation. Streams are marked by slight empty depressions that only fill up in the rare rains that come, mainly in late summer as thunderstorms and mid-winter as constant frontal drizzles. They can become roiling mud rivers almost instantly. Cars will be washed away in the flow. You can always tell the newbies in the desert; they think they can drive through the flooded washes. They fill the nightly news and we see the cars floating downstream, their owners on the roof waiting for rescue.
We spent one Christmas day with friends in Walpi. We brought apples and oranges, coffee and sugar. They gave us cookies they were baking. It snowed on First Mesa; the fire in the stove heated the low stone house.
What you are never quite prepared for is the sense that the canyons are not, like mountains, something that rise from the level, but rather are gigantic holes in the ground you don’t see until you are right on top of them. The stratigraphy is a geological story that is told, part by part, as you move from one part of the state to another. The same layers, in the same order hundred of miles apart, although they might be covered by yet more layers in one place, and rest on the surface elsewhere. You could, like a good geologist, anthologize the landscape to tell a continuous saga.
When we left Arizona, we immediately became homesick for the Plateau and the desert. I cannot say, however, that we missed the city. I used to call it “Cleveland in the desert.” I loved my job there, and my colleagues and friends, and my wife loved her job and her colleagues and friends, but the city itself is rather charmless. The South called us back.
And so, we returned — for me it was my third homecoming. Now we live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and I am constantly amazed, as a Yankee, at just how open and friendly the people are — so much so, it sometimes creeps me out.
But as I was saying at the head of this periplus, I have lived and absorbed the people and land in the four corners of the country, but somehow, there is a gravitational pull to the middle I have always felt, to the place I have never managed to live, the vast gut of the continent.
For me, there are two emotionally resonant attractions to the middle. First, there is the rustbelt city, the factories, the immigrant populations, the train yards and highway junctions that all spoke of the industrious rise of the nation from the late 19th century through the Second World War. It is where so many of our great writers came from. It is the home of pirogis and deep fried ravioli, sausages and red cabbage. I have loved taking the train across the lower shores of the Great Lakes past Cleveland and Toledo to Chicago. There is a Midwest that is populated. What is not industry is farm. And there is corn and wheat, silos and tractors. The land tends to lie flat. You could play billiards on the ground in places in western Indiana.
But there is the second middle of the country that calls to me even more insistently: It is further west than the prairies; it is the Great Plains. Driving through North Dakota or Nebraska, eastern Colorado or eastern Montana — there you feel more than anyplace else in the 48 states that you live on a planet. On the coasts, it used to be proof of the roundness of the earth that you could see the ships and their masts slowly dip below the horizon; on the plains, you see the next grain elevator rise from the same horizon in front of you as you drive and later drop again behind you. You are always on the high point of a dome; the earth falls away from you in all directions. And on this dome, the grasses curl like whitecaps on the ocean.
It is this sense that Melville captures so well in his late story and poem (or is it poem and prose prologue) John Marr. “Blank stillness would for hours reign unbroken on this prairie. ‘It is the bed of a dried-up sea,’ said the companionless sailor — no geologist — to himself, musing at twilight upon the fixed undulations of that immense alluvial expanse bounded only by the horizon, and missing there the stir that, to alert eyes and ears, animates at all times the apparent solitudes of the deep.” The landscape between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains was “hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.”
There is little in this expanse that can count as a city. Much that seems uninhabited. Moving across the Dakotas and into Montana, you find that neighbors count their separation not by fences but by miles. The land rises and falls like sea swell, and from the top of any ridge, you can see the land spread off in grassy waves.
Why this landscape should call to me so seductively is a mystery, even to me. I have wondered if it is some atavistic genetic memory of the Indo-European origins in the Caucasus, the Trans-Oxiana, where the grass continues unabated for a thousand miles, that Scythian homeland of my peoples, or at least of my language.
Or perhaps, even further back, it is the imprinted memory of the African savannah where even before the global diaspora, we hairless monkeys were born. Why should I feel a homesickness for the grasslands that I have never actually lived in, unless there be some tick in my chromosomes that was molded there?
Whatever the cause, I feel it strongly. I feel it also in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and eastern Alberta. The grasses swirl in the breeze, like animated hair whorls on an infant’s head; you can see the breeze moving through the grass in waves, the way a man in a sailboat sees the fretting of the lake surface as the gust approaches.
I am old now, and it is unlikely that I will dot the center of a quincunx of habitations by finally moving to the continental center. I will stay fixed in the North Carolina mountains. The Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest are part of my past. The spindle around which they all turn will remain a psychic locus, not an actual one for me. And the gust that frets the water a hundred yards off is the final one.