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In a 1993 interview on the Charlie Rose show on PBS, author David Cornwell (aka John le Carré) talked about his childhood. “We are creatures of our background and environment,” he said. “We are very quickly made in life. The first few years seem to be determining who we are for years and years afterwards. You look for explanations for yourself and you go further and further back and wonder if you ever changed or ever developed.” 

When we look at a life as a story, with a single trajectory, and rather like a novel that we tell ourselves about ourselves, one way to organize the narrative is in chapters, and those chapters are the houses we have lived in. 

Each house has its particular memories, its particular emotional resonance and its beginning, middle and end, an end leading to the next chapter, the next home. Some chapters are short, some are long. There are even those among us whose lives are told in a single long chapter — a house they were born in, raised in, married in, inherited from parents and eventually died in. Such continuity is rare; most of us have many chapters. 

Until I was about three, I lived with my mother and father in a house in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, about a block from the New York Central rail line. There were six tracks alongside each other back in 1948. The rails  are gone now, chewed up by langoliers but left in memory. 

The novel I have internalized begins there, with the sight of sunlight striping the walls in the room where I sat in my playpen. I then added to Chapter One the soot and roar of the steam engines that ran on the tracks a block away. Little else remains; I was two when we moved.

We moved then to the house my grandmother owned in Teaneck, N.J., only a few miles away. It was a tall, old house where we shared the lower floor and my grand-aunt and her husband shared the top floor. I have been back to see that house. It is much changed. The vacant lot next door is now an apartment building. The driveway is seeded over with grass. It’s been repainted many times. 

It was in that house that I watched my grandmother make applesauce from apples gathered from the tree in the back yard. It was here that my great-grandmother died in my bed, while I had to move temporarily to a bed in my Nana’s room. I remember my great-grandmother only vaguely, as a very shriveled old woman confined to my bed and then, one day, not there anymore. No one spoke about it much. She just wasn’t there anymore. 

I can piece out the floorplan of the house, with the living room stretched across the front of it, the dining room at right angles running back toward the kitchen — the kitchen in most houses almost always at the back — with two swinging doors, one on each side of the room, almost like the kitchen doors of a restaurant. Parallel to the dining room ran a hall that connected three bedrooms, and the bathroom, with a great animal-claw bathtub which fascinated me. The front bedroom was for my parents, the middle for my grandmother, and the back for me, and later also for my baby brother. 

Behind the kitchen was a pantry with the house’s back door and the stairs that ran down to the basement. 

Houses are said — by fantasists and psychologists — to be metaphors of our selves, and the dark basement, with its golem-like furnace and the thick, insulation-coated pipes and duct-work, was the animating presence in the house. I played with my toy rocket ships down there almost as much as I played outside in the vacant lot. 

There was another dark place in the house, an under-stairs closet left unfinished with lathe and plaster walls. The public rooms, that is, the living room, dining room and kitchen, were all light and airy, but I was drawn to the shadowy parts of my universe. 

I walked a mile to school to kindergarten and first grade, passing a friendly old policeman who stopped traffic on the main street so I could cross. 

Not all of the houses I’ve hunkered down in have left a psychological mark. Maybe only three of about twenty, but the Teaneck house was the first and gave me a profound sense of place, of what architecture means emotionally. Thus ends chapter two. 

The summer before entering second grade, we got ready to move to a new house my parents had built. It wasn’t quite finished yet, and so we spent the summer living with my mother’s sister and her husband in New Milford. Where Teaneck had an urban feel, this summer had that suburban, tract housing feel. Mostly what I remember from then is that the tap water smelled very strongly of chlorine. It was a brief residence, but I made close friends with the boys who lived next door and went to Catholic school — something that seemed absolutely exotic to me. “Glory, glory hallelujah, Sister hit me with a ruler.” 

Chapter Four was a split level in the then-rural township of Old Tappan, on the border with New York’s Rockland County. It was a house my parents had built on a half-acre lot they bought with a stream running through it and woods on three sides. For a kid it was idyllic. In the years I lived there, I saw the town grow into a suburban bedroom community. Busses to New York City stopped by every hour on the street corner. Bits of woods everywhere were turned into housing developments, but the woods around our house remained wild. 

The house zigged and zagged from floor to floor, as if cut down the middle and half raised up between floors. On the bottom was a cellar, next up to the other side, the garage and laundry rooms, zag back to the other side and up the stairs and you get the living room, dining room and — at the back of the house — the kitchen. Back the other way and up a flight were the bedrooms and bathroom. By now I had two brothers and we all shared the same room. But up still another set of steps and you had my grandmother’s apartment, with its own living room, bedroom and bath. 

It’s a house plan not much favored today, but a split-level was the height of suburbanocity back then. From second grade through high school, I watched the town fill up, tract housing explode and farms and woodlands disappear. All that happened just as I was becoming rebellious and angry at my middle-class life. It was the Holden Caulfield syndrome, and I despised everything middle class, suburban and bourgeois. I couldn’t wait to get away to college. 

Next chapter was Cox Hall, a dorm at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. My rude introduction to the American South came on my first day, when I faced my dorm and saw a giant banner hanging from the third floor that said, in crude handwritten letters: “Forget? Hell!!” I didn’t know what those words meant, but I quickly came to understand. 

Cox Hall was built before World War I, and was quite seedy, with wobbly wooden floors and thick plaster walls. I was dumped into a room with a proudly redneck bully and an ineffectual milksop, neither of whom had any academic interest. Mostly they were after poontang and Everclear. (Everclear, for the uninitiated, is a brand of pure grain alcohol of especial toxicity. Wikipedia tells us that it “is also used as a household ‘food-grade’ cleaning, disinfecting, or stove fuel alcohol.”)  

I got moved to a two-person room, but my roommate quickly dropped out of school, and I had the room to myself. It was heaven, just me and my books and my Sears Silvertone phonograph on which to play my pile of classical music LPs. 

For my sophomore year, I was moved to the more modern and quite faceless Milner Hall, which might as well have been designed as a prison — all brick and tile and fluorescent lighting. There was a communal bathroom and showers arrangement that echoed like a cavern. 

I hated dorm life; it was riotous, noisy, crowded and cramped. I petitioned the dean to let me live off campus and eventually, because I was such a thorn in his side (over many a social issue, like women’s rights and integration), he let me go.

And I moved with my friend, Hank, into the home of a sociology professor and his wife. They had an addition at the back of the house with its own entrance and two bedrooms and a bath, and it was only a block from campus. It became a meeting place for all the other disaffected “hippie” students of 1969, and one night we threw a grand party when about 80 students showed up, most of them not invited, and the party lasted till dawn and left the back yard covered in beer cans. It did not ingratiate us with our landlords. 

But by then, I had become engaged to be married, and my new wife and I moved to our own rental house. It was the second floor of a duplex and our entrance came with an outside staircase, which in winter was a treachery of ice. Rent was $50 a month. 

There are three times in life when a home becomes mythic. Obviously, first when you are a child and the entire world has that glow and the house is the axis of the universe. Every corner and cornice has meaning.

The second is when you first consider yourself an adult, have gotten married and must make a life for yourself. The world has a lesser glow, but it is renewed, a decent echo of the magic of your childhood home. And this old house, with its tiny kitchen with enameled metal cabinets, became the projection of my inner state. 

It was 1969, and I painted the living room burnt orange, with avocado green trim. It was a testament to the zeitgeist, but so was I. 

Like so many houses built in the nineteen-teens and -twenties, it had a central hallway with rooms off each side — what architect Frank Lloyd Wright excoriated as “boxes inside boxes.” When you entered the house from the outside steps, you reached the living room. At the back of the house was the kitchen. On the other side of the hall were two bedrooms and the bathroom. 

There was a vacant lot behind the house with a felled apple tree that continued to produce fruit, even while horizontal.  

The house had no heat except for a kerosene stove in the living room. In the winter, I would have to walk down the icy stairs to get a gallon of kerosene from a 50-gallon drum of fuel in the back yard, carry it up, pour it into the reservoir at the back of the stove, crumple up some paper, let it soak up some kerosene, throw a match in and slowly let the kerosene heat up and vaporize so it could catch fire. Sometimes the heat would be so intense as to turn the stovepipe cherry red and begin shaking violently, and I would have to swivel the damper to discourage the fire. This too, is a metaphor. 

We moved to a new house shortly before we broke up. It was about mile away and was another duplex. It would remain my home for the next seven years and the next “permanent” relationship. It was also an old house, and even more of a mythic Eden than the last. This was Chapter Eight. 

There was a front door, but we hardly ever used it. We entered the house from the back, through the kitchen and into living room beyond. There was also a back bedroom — a guest room — and the master bedroom at the front of the house. What made the house such an Eden was the grounds; a great black walnut tree in the front yard, a pecan tree in the back. A vacant lot to our side and a patch of woods behind us. All year long, new weeds would blossom — I called them wildflowers. I counted once and found 190 different species of plant in our yard and the lot next door, including a pear tree. We grew a vegetable garden in the front yard and there were a couple of fig trees that gave us fresh figs to eat. This counts as one of the high water marks of my life. I was happy.

At least until my partner told me one day that she was getting married — to someone else. Eden was gone and so was my Eve. I was in shock. I sold most of what I owned and took the train from North Carolina to Seattle, where I moved in with a friend on Phinney Ridge, sharing a house with two lesbian doctors and the world’s most obscene man. 

Chapter Nine was a small house and I made a room for myself in the coal bin in the basement. Upstairs, there was a living room, dining room, two bedrooms, bath, and a kitchen at the back, where we took turns cooking, almost always with hot peppers. I got work at the zoo and spent my days in an iron box selling popcorn, hot dogs and cokes. In the chill gray air of Seattle, the hot dog steamer filled the box with a Dante-esque steam-fog which condensed on every surface. The smell of those dogs and the chemical popcorn butter have put me off both for life. 

A short but ecstatic relationship came crashing down and I found myself moving back to North Carolina, where my best friends from college offered me a room in their house in Summerfield, just north of Greensboro. I was a mess; I was not over the heartbreak that had shattered my selfhood. I had no job, no money — if they hadn’t given me a place to stay, I would have been homeless. I spent the next year and a half there, doing the cooking and maintenance work and feeling the comfort of a surrogate family. 

The house was an old farmhouse, with a barn, or shed in the back. My room was on the ground floor with the kitchen-dining area, which were combined in one space, with the wood stove, which was the only heat in the house. In the winter, the stove was kept going constantly, and we spent almost all our time in that room. When I woke up in the morning, a glass of water would be frozen solid next to my bed. I chopped a lot of wood during that year and a half. If you have never done so — a more modern life being what it is — you will not know the calming power of splitting logs. This is the third time when life became mythic: I was hyper-aware of being the protagonist in an epic that was my own life. The world had an inner glow and throb and I recognize now that I am old, that I was not quite in my right mind. 

It was while trying to regain my balance that I began writing. There was an old tree stump in the back under an ancient oak tree. I put my aqua green portable typewrite on the stump and typed away, writing letters to everyone I knew. One was 50 pages long. 

I was saved when the woman I would spend the next 35 years with wrote me and asked me to come and visit her in the mountains. I visited but never left. 

And so, Chapter 11 ended my psychic bankruptcy and I moved to a house on a bluff overlooking the New River in Ashe County, North Carolina. It was a new house, with a living-dining area, a bedroom and a kitchen at the back, with a basement and another bedroom for the teenage daughter that I acquired. Off the kitchen was a porch that hung out over the bluff looking down at the river, a hundred feet below us. From the kitchen window, I could watch the shifting weather on Mount Jefferson as I washed dishes. Mt. Jefferson was the central mountain in Ashe County and it changed constantly as the sun and weather shifted. 

It was a long drive on a snowy winter day to the schools where my new lady was teaching, and so we moved closer to Boone, in Watauga County and found a small house in the community of Meat Camp. The house sat on a creek just below the hill on which one the schools she taught in sat. 

The house had two floors, the first with a living room in front and a dining room and kitchen in the back. Upstairs there were two bedrooms, with angled ceilings under the roof. Both were small and the one we didn’t use became just storage. In the summer heat, I could lie in the creek in the icy water and cool down. 

Unfortunately, the Watauga school system shut down several programs, including the art program and we needed to find other jobs. I had taught a class part time at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, Va., and Carole found a job teaching art in the Norfolk School system. And so, we moved everything down to an apartment building on a cul-de-sac about a half mile from the ocean. Our apartment was next door to my brother’s. He was a fulltime teacher at the school.

It was a building with 10 apartments, side-by-side, two stories each. In ours, the kitchen was at the front, with a window that looked out on the street. Behind it was the living-dining area. Upstairs were two bedrooms. The art faculty at the school all became great friends and we held great dinner parties together. We lived there for six years. 

Then my wife got a job offer from her old boss, who had moved to Phoenix, Ariz. and we decided it might be fun to live in the desert. We imagined a little adobe house with a white picket fence. Never did get that. 

Instead, we had four different houses over a period of 25 years. We had packed everything up into a Ryder truck and drove across the continent, towing our car behind us. We didn’t have a place to move to, but came completely unprepared. We pulled into the street where her new boss lived, and stayed there a few nights. It turned out the house next door was for rent and we moved in. 

It was a small place, with its kitchen rightfully in the back again, with two bedrooms and a combined living-dining area. It was on the corner of Seventh Street, which is probably the busiest street in all of Phoenix — probably all of Arizona. It was like living by the ocean, with the constant roar of the surf — i.e., traffic — and, while you sort of get used to it, it also wears on you long term. We had to get out. 

We found a flat-roofed faux adobe house on 13th Street, a quiet back street closer to downtown. It was owned by an artist who was covered in tattoos — we called her the “dragon lady,” and who had painted the stucco on the front of the house in a trompe l’oeil imitation of crumbling adobe, revealing its bricks. Across the front of the house was a living room, which led to a hallway kitchen, to another hallway with more than 20 built-in cabinets — more storage than I have ever had or seen in a house — and a glassed-in drop-down family room with a view of a lily pond. At the back of the house was the bedroom and bathroom. 

Both of our first homes had no air conditioning. In Phoenix, that is a problem. They had swamp coolers, which work beautifully in the spring and early summer, when the humidity is non-existant, but fail to cool anything in July when the monsoon humidity hits, leaving everything hot and sweaty. 

That’s when my wife’s best friend offered us her place. She was moving to Hawaii and needed a tenant for her house, on Cheery Lynn Road (which everyone mistook for “Cherry Lane”). For the first time since living in Greensboro, the yard was an Eden of trees, flowers, plants and roses. Ivy devoured the entire western half of the house and the front was covered by a great tree. 

Inside, the living room gave way to a kitchen behind, with a dining room jutting off it, which was actually a converted garage, tutted up with lots of added windows. Three bedrooms under the ivy half of the house, one of which became my office. We lived there for seven years. Then our landlady moved back to Arizona.

And so, we moved into the shadow of Camelback Mountain, the most familiar landmark in the city — a 2700-foot mountain on the border of Phoenix and Scottsdale in the double-hump shape of … 

It was the most suburban house I had lived in since my childhood and I felt almost as if I had sold out. It was a sprawling ranch house with a drop-down living room, a huge kitchen with a fireplace and three bedrooms. And there was a swimming pool in the back yard. In Phoenix, the swimming pool usually runs a constant temperature of about 95 degrees in the summer, but feels downright chilly compared with the 110-degree air. 

The house was exactly the time of one Haydn symphony to work, and so, I listened to all 104 of them, two a day going and coming, for 52 days. The commute was the highlight of my day. 

Ah, but there’s always a worm in the apple and my worm was named Gannett, the newspaper chain that bought The Arizona Republic, where I worked, and everything changed from “our responsibility to our readers” to “our responsibility to our shareholders,” and there were layoffs, management stupidities, a lowering of standards, and a general dumbing down of the paper. Many of the staff were horrified, and when, at age 65, I was offered a buyout, I knew I had to take it. I loved my job, but it was dissolving in front of me. Leaving was the only rational option. 

After 25 years in the desert, we moved back to North Carolina, where our daughter was living, in Asheville, up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Asheville is a blue city in a red state, full of art, music, hippies, restaurants and craft breweries. 

We found a house in a quiet neighborhood with the best landlords we’ve ever had. The house sits on a hill, with a kitchen at the back, and three bedrooms, one of which is my office. I have now been here 10 years, which is longer than anywhere else I have lived. My wife of 35 years died five years ago and my daughter moved away. 

I am now approaching 75 years old and am writing Chapter 18, and through one of the oddest series of circumstances, I am now reconnected to my first wife, who I had not seen or spoken to in 50 years. She has moved in and we share this house. We are not planning to move anywhere else. Oddly, I am not at all the same person I was, but because through all the chapters, I was me, there is an equally odd continuity. 

Cornwell, on that TV show I mentioned at the top of this mountain of words I have written, called life a “dangerous journey of introspection.” I first became aware of that fact as a student in North Carolina. Over the course of that life I have lived in all four corners of this continent and have, in the end, returned to North Carolina. And I wonder at how much I’ve changed and developed. 

Cartoonist Reg Manning said you could take in all of Arizona in three great bites. Manning was the Pulitzer-Prize winning political cartoonist for The Arizona Republic from 1948 to 1971. And he wrote a book, What is Arizona Really Like? (1968), a cartoon guide to the state for newcomers (he also wrote a cartoon guide to the prickly vegetation of the state, What Kinda Cactus Izzat? Both required reading for any Arizonan.) 

Anyway, his introduction to the state bites off three large chunks: the Colorado Plateau in the north; the mountainous middle; and the desert south. It is a convenient way to swallow up the whole, and works quite well. 

I spent a third of my life in Arizona and I traveled through almost every inch of the state, either on my own or for my newspaper, and I never found a better explanation of the state (and state of mind) than Manning’s book. Admittedly, the book can be a bit corny, but its basis is sound. 

But my life has been spent in other parts of the country as well, and I came to realize that Manning’s tripartite scheme could work quite as well for almost any state. 

I now live in North Carolina, which is traditionally split in three, with the Atlantic Coastal Plain in the east; the Piedmont in the middle; and the mountains in the west. The divisions are quite distinct geologically: The escarpment of the Blue Ridge just up from the Piedmont, and the coastal plain begins with the Fall Line — a series of dams, rapids and waterfalls that long ago provided the power for industry. 

But that is hardly the only example. I grew up in New Jersey, which could easily be split into the crowded suburban north, where I grew up; the almost hillbilly south, which is actually below the Mason-Dixon Line, and where the radio is full of Country-Western stations (and who can forget the “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos?); and finally, the Jersey Shore, a whole distinct universe of its own. 

And when I lived in Seattle, Washington state was clearly divided into the empty, dry east; the wet, populated coast; divided by the Cascade Mountains. Oregon was the same. It divided up politically the same way: a redneck east, a progressive west, and a mountain barrier between. 

So, I began looking at other states I knew fairly well. South Carolina and Georgia follow North Carolina with its mountains (“upcountry” in South Carolina), its Piedmont and its coast. Even Alabama does, although its coastal plain borders the Gulf of Mexico. 

Florida has its east coast; its west coast; and its panhandle — all quite distinct in culture. Michigan has its urban east, its rural west and then, hardly part of the state, the UP — Upper Peninsula. There’s lakefront Ohio, riverfront Ohio and farmland Ohio. 

Maine has a southern coast that is prosperous and filled with tourists; a northern coast (“Down East”), which is sparsely populated and mostly poor; and a great interior, which is all lakes, forests and potatoes. 

Massachusetts has its pastoral western portion, with its hills and mountains; its urban east, centered on Boston; and then there’s Cape Cod, a whole different universe. 

Heck, even Delaware, as tiny as it is, has its cities in the north, its farms on the Delmarva Peninsula and its vacationland ocean shores. 

Go smaller still. Draw a line down the center of Rhode Island and everything to the west of the line might as well be Connecticut. For the rest, Providence eats up the northern part and south of that, Rhode Island consists of islands in Narraganset Bay. 

Colorado has its Rocky Mountains and its eastern farmlands, separated by the sprawling Denver metropolitan area. 

But I don’t want to go through every state. I leave that to you. Indiana has its rural south, its urban midlands with Indianapolis, and that funky post-industrial portion that is just outside Chicago. Oy. 

Yet, as I looked at that first state, defined by Manning’s cartoons, I realized that each third of Arizona could be subdivided into its own thirds. This was getting to be madness. 

The Colorado Plateau is one-third Indian reservation, both Navajo and Hopi; one-third marking the southern edge of northern Arizona in what might be called the I-40 corridor of cities and towns from Holbrook through Flagstaff and on through Williams to Kingman; and a final third that encompasses the Grand Canyon and the remote Arizona Strip. 

The mountainous middle third of the state includes the Mogollon Rim and its mountain retreats, such as Payson; another third that is the Verde Valley; and a finishing touch the Fort Apache and San Carlos Indian reservations.

Finally, in the south and west, there is the urban spread from just north of Phoenix and continuing south through Tucson and that nowadays continues almost to Nogales and Mexico; there is the Chihuahuan Desert portions in the southeast, from Douglas through the Wilcox Playa; and in the southwest, the almost empty desert including the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, the Barry Goldwater bombing range, and up to the bedraggled haven of trailer parks that is Quartzsite. And no, I’m not forgetting Yuma. 

It’s a sort of “rule of thirds” applied to geography. It seems almost any bit of land can be sliced in three. Phoenix itself, as a metro area, has the East Valley, including Mesa, Scottsdale and Tempe; central Phoenix (which itself is divided into north Phoenix, the central Phoenix downtown, and the largely Hispanic south Phoenix), and the West Valley, which nowadays perhaps goes all the way up through Sun City to Surprise. 

Here in North Carolina, the Coastal Plain runs through the loblolly pines and farmland of eastern North Carolina; into the swampy lowlands of marshy lakes and tidal rivers; and on to the Outer Banks and the ocean. Another tri-partite division. The Piedmont has its 1) Research Triangle; 2) its Tri-city area of Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem (extending out to Statesville and Hickory); and 3) the Charlotte metro area; and the mountains include first the northern parts of the Blue Ridge, around Boone and Linville Falls; second, the Asheville area, which is a blue city in a red state; and finally the southern mountains around the Great Smokies. Thirds, thirds, thirds. 

Even Asheville, itself, comes in three varieties: East Asheville (where I live); downtown (where the drum circle is); and West Asheville (where the hippies live). West Asheville is actually south of downtown. Why? I dunno. 

You can go too far with this and I’m sure that I have. After all, it’s really rather meaningless and just a game. But you can divide California into thirds in three completely different ways. 

First, and too easily, there is Southern California; central California; and northern California. Each has its culture and its political leanings. But you can also look at it as desert California, including Death Valley and Los Angeles; mountain California, with the Sierra Nevada running like a spine down the long banana-shaped state; and populated California north of LA and in the Central Valley. 

Finally, you can split California into rural, farming California, that feeds the nation from the Central Valley; wilderness California with deserts and mountains; and entertainment California, from Hollywood and LA up through San Francisco and Skywalker Ranch (and all the wine) that keeps America preoccupied with vino et circenses

The U.S. as a whole is often looked at as the East, the Midwest and the West. The East then subdivides as the Northeast, the Middle Atlantic States and the South; The Midwest has its Rust Belt, its Corn Belt, and its Wheat Belt. The West has its Rocky Mountain States, its Pacific Coast states and, well, Texas. 

And, I suppose if you look at the world in toto, you have the West, including Europe, North America and Australia; you have Asia, or the East, which includes China, Asian Russia, and most of the Muslim nations; and the Third World, which comprises most of the rest. You can quibble over Japan as Asian or a First World Nation; and India seems caught between, with growing prosperity and growing poverty at the same time. 

These distinctions are coarse and could well be better defined and refined. And I mean nothing profound — or even very meaningful — with this little set of observations. It is an exercise in a habit of thinking. If anything, I just mean it as a counterbalance to the binary cultural prejudice of splitting everything up into pairs. There is a countervailing cultural pattern that prefers threes to twos. I wrote about this previously in a different context (link here). 

We think in patterns, and well-worn templates. But the world doesn’t often present itself in patterns. The world lacks boundary lines and the universe is a great smear of infinite variety. The mental template allows us to organize what is not, in reality, organized. The most pervasive template is the binary one, but we are entering an increasingly non-binary culture. Of course, thirds is only one alternative pattern. Perhaps best is to ignore patterns and look fresh at evidence. 

The patterns are roadmaps for thought, and we can too easily take the easy route and fit the evidence to the pattern rather than the reverse. 

I woke up this February morning to a gray, cloudy, cold day, with reaches of fog climbing up the sides of the mountains, giving them all the look of a Chinese painting. Brouillard in French. Nebel in German. 

And that set me to thinking about Long John Nebel, a radio personality from WOR-AM in New York, who had an all-night talk show when I was a kid, interviewing people who claimed they had been in flying saucers, or explained there was a civilization that lived in the center of the earth, or that could bend spoons with their minds. It is where I first heard of Charles Fort, Edgar Cayce and astral projection. 

Long John’s theme song was originally written for the movie The Forbidden Planet by David Rose, but was never used there. It was distinct and spooky, just like most of Long John’s guests.

Remembering Long John reminded me also of Jean Shepherd, whose program ran on the station just before Long John. For 45 minutes each night, Shep told stories of his childhood or army life, ranted about modern culture, played the Jew’s harp or kazoo along with The Sheik of Araby, and drove his engineers and management nuts. His theme music was Eduard Strauss’s polka Bahn Frei, in a Boston Pops arrangement by Peter Bodge. Eduard was the lesser known younger brother of  Johann Strauss II and you could call him the Eric of the Strauss family. I listened to Shepherd night after night and heard the polka so many times — thousands — that as soon as I think of it, it becomes an ear worm and for the next couple of days, it plays in my head endlessly. 

And so, I’m sitting there this morning, enjoying the nasty weather outside and my mind wanders to TV show theme music. There’s the William Tell Overture and The Lone Ranger; Love in Bloom for Jack Benny; Love Nest for Burns and Allen.

Burns and Allen was a show we watched regularly in the 1950s, and in retrospect, I can see it as the first Postmodern series, as George would retreat to his study above the garage and watch the same show we were watching, on his TV and commenting on the plot as it played out. This level of knowingness became common later with such shows as It’s Like, You Know… Everyone’s doing it now. 

These connections, from fog on the mountain to Postmodernism, are the way the human mind works. One damn thing leads to another. We might all like to think we are rational beings and think logically, but no, it’s a slow bumping from one thing to another, and sometimes we make them fit together like the Tab A and Slot B of a puzzle. 

It’s a version of the Kevin Bacon game. How many steps to get from this to that. For instance, I can get to Vladimir Putin in only three steps. When I was music critic in Phoenix, I was friends with the director of the Arizona Opera, the late Joel Revzen (an unfortunate  Covid victim late last year; I will miss him). After he left Arizona, Revzen worked at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and became the designated repetiteur for Valery Gergiev (Revzen would rehearse the orchestra and singers for weeks to get them ready for the jet-set conductor who would swoop in the last week and put the finishing touches on the performance). Gergiev also invited Revzen to conduct his orchestra in Moscow, the Mariinsky Orchestra. Gergiev, in turn, is pals with Putin. Three jumps and bingo. 

I can connect with Albert Einstein in two steps: My friend and predecessor as music critic in Arizona was Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who was born in Berlin. Dimitri’s father was a noted violinist, and when Dimitri was a young boy, the family played string quartets at home, and occasionally, Einstein — an amateur fiddler — would sit in. A quick two-step. 

Dimitri knew many of the most famous musicians of the 20th century, and through them, I could trace connections to Rachmaninoff, Heifetz, Rubinstein, even George Gershwin. And through Gershwin to Arnold Schoenberg, and through him to Gustav Mahler. Short trips and many connections. 

Let’s see how many connections I need to make it to Johann Sebastian Bach.

—I knew Dimitri; who knew cellist Gregor Piatagorsky; who recorded Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 2 with Artur Schnabel; who studied piano with Theodor Leschetizky; who learned piano from Carl Czerny; who was a pupil of Ludwig von Beethoven; who met Wolfgang Mozart; who knew Johann Christian Bach; whose father was Johann Sebastian. Nine steps over 271 years, an average of 30 years per step.

That’s a bit over the standard Kevin Bacon line, but I can still claim only six degrees from Beethoven. I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone, etc., who knew Beethoven. Finding connections, whether of acquaintance or through association of ideas, everything is connected to everything else. When we isolate anything, we rip it from its context, and its context extends, however tenuously, to the edges of the universe. 

And I cannot think of 271 years as being all that long ago. I have lived for nearly three-quarters of a century; my father was born 102 years ago. That’s the year of the Versailles Treaty and the year Pierre-Auguste Renoir died. So, that’s a century, a father-son century. Only 10 of those father-son centuries and we are in the reign of King Canute of England. The Middle Ages. A millennium. And only 10 of those brings us to the very beginnings of agriculture and civilization itself, growing along the Fertile Crescent, the Indus River Valley and in China. That’s just the father-son century times 10 times 10. All of civilization, there between your thumb and forefinger. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, that everyone with even a drop of European in their DNA can count Charlemagne in their family tree. We are all related. Further back, we seem all to have the bones of Lucy as our great-great-great, etc. grandma. 

And anyone who saw the 1978 James Burke television series, Connections, knows that the world doesn’t progress in a linear fashion, but by accretion. It takes a handful of previous inventions to permit the breakthrough we all know. It’s a web, not a line. 

Even today’s weather in Asheville is dependent on yesterday’s rain in Tennessee and last month’s disturbance over the Pacific Ocean. 

In my own life, I realize I could have had a Ph.D. in some specialty, maybe a sinecure in a college or university. It was actually what my life-arc seemed to predict. But I could never narrow down my interests. I wanted to learn everything. An impossibility, of course. But I have spent my seven decades looking for the way all things are related, for the bigger picture. The beaker into which it all mixes. The mind casts a wide net, wide enough to move from a gray day through a radio talk show to Charlemagne and even to Gobekli Tepe in Turkey. 

I wrote, by actual word count, two-and-a-half million words during my 25-year career at The Arizona Republic. I retired in 2012 and couldn’t stop. Since then, I have written another million words for this blog. As I have said before, a writer never really retires, he just stops getting paid for it. 

There is also a collection of five years worth of monthly essays written for The Spirit of the Senses web journal, which averages out to something like another hundred thousand words. The monthly essay gives me a deadline, something I miss terribly since leaving the newspaper. 

I loved my work. My editors will tell you, that even when I went on vacation, I came back with a packet of travel stories. I worked even when I wasn’t working. I don’t know if it is a blessing or a curse, but I am saddled with that stupid Protestant work ethic — even though I haven’t been a Protestant since childhood. It feels wrong, morally delinquent, if I am not producing something to justify my continued existence on this planet. 

And I wasn’t just a writer. I also made photographs, artwork, and sometimes even typography for the stories I wrote. And for the continuing blog, I continue to fill it with my own images. Before I was a writer, I was a photographer: I have had gallery shows and self-published books. I remind myself of William Blake’s mythical figure of Los, whose job in the cosmos is to create a chain of links forever; he cannot help himself — indeed his very definition is his production. 

In my case, it is to invent a project and then work on it. And whenever I feel I have sat on my duff too long, I work up another. And this covid “vacation” has left me too inactive, too dulled out. And so, yesterday, I set off with my camera. 

It is November and the sun is lower in the sky, and that “certain slant of light” creates long shadows and teases out any textures to be had. Bark on trees becomes rougher, pebbles on gravel roads become sharper, the scribble-lines of leafless trees in the woods, cross each other like Jackson Pollock paint drips. The sunlight is less bright, but more incisive. Late afternoon becomes a drama. 

And so, my project for yesterday was to drive the back roads of Buncombe County, North Carolina and see if I could capture some of that feeling. (Today’s project is to write this and post the pictures). 

U.S. 70 runs east-west through the mountains east of Asheville, and a series of back roads parallel the highway, with many spurs heading back into the coves nested between the hills. I drove up each one for miles until the pavement ran out, stopping to make photographs whenever I saw something that caught my eye and I didn’t have to block traffic to snap the shutter. 

The trip alone was restorative. The pandemic keeps too many of us holed up in our houses. We watch way too much Netflix. Sit too much. Eat too much. Getting out in the nippy air seemed healthier even than a workout at the gym. 

Asheville sits in a broad, flat-ish valley. Mountains are all around, including the tallest in the East. U.S. 70 runs along the Swannanoa Mountains and south of the Black Mountains and the back roads snooker up into the crenelations between peaks, always coming to an end at the foot of some steep incline. 

Waterfalls wash under culverts and lines of mailboxes sit by the road where a dirt drive heads up into the trees. It is late fall, not yet winter. The trees have not lost all their leaves, but many of them are bare skeletons, or have a shag of hangers-on, dry as cellophane. 

I drove for about four hours, until the sun was so low, whole mountainsides were darkened on eastern side and their shadows drowned out by grayness. In all, I wound up with about 70 images, of which about half were decent enough to edit into a set. I usually think of my photographs in sets, rather than as individual images, the way a novel is not simply discreet chapters. In the past, I would print them out as “books” and show them that way. 

Now I no longer have a darkroom, nor an art-grade digital printer. My publication preference is the blog. I have posted quite a few sets of photographs over these past eight years. 

In this posting are a sampling of the photos I’m calling “A Certain Slant of Light,” after the poem by Emily Dickenson. I am 72 years old and nearing the end of my own day. My own shadows are bringing out the texture of my selfness. Things like the lowering sun speak to me ever more than they did when I was young and had no meaningful idea of an end. 

And so, perhaps these images have more emotional import for me than for my viewers (or readers). I cannot help that. After all, I began writing this blog not for its potential readers (although I always hope what I write is worth the time it takes to read them), but for myself. I write because I have to. I make photographs because I have to. I breathe because I have to. 

The landscape listens — shadows — hold their breath. 

Click any image to enlarge

I grew up on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. At the other end of the bridge was the wider portion of the world. It was the escape from parochial suburban concerns and into a life infinitely richer. 

New York city was not just the gateway to the larger world, it was the larger world. 

One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother taking me at age three, maybe four, into Manhattan to see the Christmas display windows at Macy’s department store. I remember being frightened by the subway and being returned like Odysseus from the underworld up to the snowy Seventh Avenue. 

It was only a few years after the war and the city was still the one described by E. B. White in Here is New York, published a year after I was born. It was the city of yellow cabs, of subway roar under the sidewalk grates, Con Edison steam pouring out of street vents. The Third Avenue El blocked the sky and the Horn and Hardart automat flipped out sandwiches and soup. Barges carrying freight cars crossed the Hudson from Weehawken and Hoboken; Penn Station and Madison Square Garden — the old one — were still standing. The GWB was still only one level. Skyscrapers were still mostly stone, brick and steel. The Empire State Building was still the tallest in the world. 

When you are young and the world is that new, every encounter with it imprints and becomes the ur-version of your Weltanchaung. Everything you later learn is first compared with these initial impressions. 

And so, two great geographical “gods” I grew up with were the Hudson River — every other river until I crossed the Mississippi failed to earn the name — and New York City. A city wasn’t a city unless it had sun-blocking canyons of impossibly tall offices, apartments and hotels. If it didn’t have a subway or a ring of bridges and ferries. Or the wharfs with their ocean liners and longshoremen. 

As I grew up, the city remained the touchstone not merely of urban-ness, but of civilization itself. It was where I went to find bookstores. There was Little Italy, Chinatown, Harlem and Spanish Harlem. I saw Puerto Ricans and Arabs, Norwegians and Hindus. The idea of a mixed population seemed absolutely normal. 

As White wrote, “The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.”

And all that makes a kind of poetry: “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal [combustion] engines.”

That music includes the sound of jackhammers, car horns, squealing bus brakes, street-corner arguments, police whistles, sirens, and on special occasions, marching bands. 

Through high school, and later when I returned home from college, I would take the Public Service bus to the bridge and walk across it from Jersey to Manhattan, looking down on the way to the little red lighthouse. Up past Cabrini Boulevard to the 175th Street IND subway station where a 15-cent token would take me anywhere in the city: Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Modern Art, the Sheridan Square Paperback Corner, the Hayden Planetarium. 

The city became so much a part of my world-view that it took traveling halfway around the world to break me open. That is the importance of travel. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” wrote Mark Twain. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

The Mississippi River was more river than the Hudson, and the Columbia was a drained a greater area. The St. Lawrence was a wider gouge on the continent. And once I left the New World and stood on the banks of the Rhine in Dusseldorf, I marveled at night over the racing current and the moon reflected in the waves — so big a river and so rapid a flow. This was the Rhine of the Lorelei and the Valkyries. Robert Schumann wrote his Rhenish Symphony in Dusseldorf. 

And so it was with cities. Philadelphia and Chicago were smaller imitations of New York, but so many others created their urban civilizations on other patterns. I would have to come to terms with Los Angeles, with Seattle, with Miami. 

I had avoided LA for many years — decades, really — with the unearned disapproval of an East Coast snob. It wasn’t really a city at all. What did Dorothy Parker call it? “Seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.” 

LA was the city where the people who pass you on the freeway are always better looking than the people you pass. The city where all the women are beautiful and all the men wear shades to protect their eyes from the shine of their own smiles. 

My tune has changed. After many trips to Southern California, I have come to love LA, with all its traffic and sunshine. 

Los Angeles is genuinely cosmopolitan; I feel there as I must likely have felt in Amsterdam in the 17th century or Venice in the 16th century. I cannot remain awake and self-satisfied at the same time.

St. Louis

Of course, when something is cosmopolitan, that means it includes a great deal we might feel uncomfortable about.  

Mystery writer Walter Mosley wrote, ”It’s a land on the surface of dreams. And then there’s a kind of slimy underlayer. The contrast of beauty and possibility and that ugliness and corruption is very powerful.”

You ride up over Sepulveda Pass on the 405 and spread out before you is all of the San Fernando Valley, one vast Vaseline smear of suburbia and middle-class values — and you know that this is the world capital of porno films.

From Simi Valley to Costa Mesa, you find every food, every culture, ever language, every social class, every fast-food joint. There is high culture at the LA County Museum of Art and history at the La Brea Tar Pits; there is outdoor dining at the Farmers Market on West Third Street and Fairfax; there are the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills, pecking at the ground like so many chickens. 

When my late wife and I first began to travel, we avoided cities. As long-time Easterners, we were besotted by the empty West and its long horizons and open skies. Driving down carless roads that measured straight for 20 miles or more at a stretch, wiggling in the distance through the lens of desert heat, it was the isolation that fascinated us. Cities only slowed things down and gummed them up with stoplights and bumper-to-bumper glue. 

It was only later that the cities opened up their gifts to us. Since then, I have come to love several cities, and cherish their idiosyncrasies and talents. 

First among these is Paris. I have been back many times. It is so different from New York, so compact, so comfortable. You can walk almost anywhere, and with only a miserly few skyscrapers, it is a human-scale place. In New York, restaurants can seat hundreds at a time; in Paris, a typical restaurant has maybe a half-dozen tables and only two workers: the waiter and the cook. 

Tourists think of Paris as the Eiffel Tower or the streetside artists of Montmartre, but we never went there. Instead, we walked the streets near where we were staying and got to know the butcher, the florist, the baker. A morning visit to the patisserie for a pastry, a stop at the bookstore to pick up a Pleiades edition of Victor Hugo, a duck-in to a small neighborhood church that has been there for only, say, 400 years. 

Cape Town

The most beautiful city I have ever seen, based on its setting and geography, is Cape Town, South Africa. It sits in a bowl surrounded by peaks, including Table Mountain, which is a long, flat cliff over which a fog often drapes, like a tablecloth. The streets are wide and sunny, and the houses clean in the sunlight and often brightly colored. I was there near the end of the apartheid era, and while the Afrikaners to the north held fast to their racist ideology, in British-heritage Cape Town, I saw black and white Africans comfortably together on the beaches, despite its being technically illegal. 

Chicago (left) and Johannesburg

Back north in the former Transvaal, the city of Johannesburg, or “Jo-berg,” was more familiarly urban. In fact, if you didn’t know where you were, you could easily confuse the city with, say, Chicago. If you thought of Africa as elephants and zebras, the high-rise congestion of Jo-berg could come as quite a surprise. 

Durban

I have a special warm spot for the city of Durban, on the Indian Ocean, with its thick tropical humidity and dense pack of various humanity.

Seattle

I lived for a while in Seattle, and came to love it for its weather. What elsewhere might be called rain is hardly noticed in Seattle, unless it’s a downpour. Most days, it seems, the air just hangs with a slowly-dropping mizzle. The city is built on hills, and you are always going up or down, and until the recent and ugly development of a self-regarding amour propre, Seattle was a kind of forgotten city. That was the city I came to love. Now, it is overrun with Starbucks and hipsters. It used to be cool; now it knows it is cool, which is never cool. 

New Orleans

New Orleans is a city I used to despise. I thought of it as infested with cockroaches and humidity. But as I’ve gotten older and have begun to decay myself, I find a bit of deterioration admirable. Now, it is one of my favorite cities. How can you not love a place where the restaurants feature 60-year-old waiters in formal dress? 

San Francisco

There are other cities I hold dear: London; Oslo; Vancouver; Miami; Mobile, Ala.,; Halifax, Nova Scotia; San Francisco; St. Louis; Tijuana — yes, if you leave the tourist center, it is a wonderful city. 

Las Vegas

And there are places I have never come to love. I really dislike Las Vegas, for instance. It gives me the creeps. I see those retiree women sitting at the slots, their eyes turned into lifeless ball bearings in the soulless, windowless casinos with their dead, ringing bings. The horror; the horror. 

Atlanta seems like nothing but traffic; Dallas like endless freeway flyovers; Houston like a fungus that grows to eat up a wedge of southeastern Texas. Once you enter the city limits, it seems as if you can never get out. Houston covers more ground than Rhode Island, and paints it with minimalls, Comfort Inns and tire dealerships. 

Phoenix

I have been avoiding mentioning Phoenix. That is because my feelings are ambivalent. I have always called the city “Cleveland in the desert.” It has little actual character and the roads are as regular as jail bars. I lived there for a quarter century and came to love many things about it, and made many friends, who I now miss since I left. But the city itself has little to recommend it, outside of being in the middle of a desert paradise. Of course, you have to drive at least 60 miles in any direction to even get out of the city into the desert, and the remoteness of the desert only increases as the city expands. 

Yet, even in Phoenix, I get the feeling of civilization — both good and bad. Civilization is defined by cities. Before cities, life was villages and farms. After the growth of Sumer and Ur, and the creation of writing and the spread of trade and political power, it became possible for the cooperation and interaction that cities allow. 

And, even if an urbanite doesn’t leave his city, he will encounter those who have come from elsewhere. He will be forced to give up his “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” City life tends to make one cosmopolitan and therefore, tolerant. Maybe not universally, but largely. 

It explains, in part, the vast political gulf we face, not so simply between red and blue states, but between urban and rural. As cities grow, the nation gets bluer. If we encounter what is “other” and discover it is not, we give up fear and dampen hatred. Cities work because everyone has to put up with everyone else. It is what makes New York such a model. 

“The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity,” wrote White. “The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. If the people were to depart even briefly from the peace of cosmopolitan intercourse, the town would blow up higher than a kite.”

But it doesn’t. Not normally. In fact, the diversity of the city is more than merely tolerated, it is enjoyed: Who would want to live in a city where you could not get a good mu-shu pork or a good osso buco; not find a movie theater showing the latest Iranian film; not be able to buy a kofia and dashiki; not hear a Baroque opera? 

Asheville

I have learned to widen my definition of what counts as a city. Even the Asheville, N.C., I now occupy has, in its tiny compass, an urban feel. The downtown is old and brick, and pedestrians walk up and down its hills. The stores and restaurants are busy and it is hard to find a parking spot. It is a concentrate of urban-ness. I can eat Ethiopian injera or find a well-used copy of Livy. It is a blue city in a red state. And thank the deities in the stars for that. It still echoes the New York that is buried in my deep heart’s core.

Click on any image to enlarge

In October my ex-wife and I decided to take a drive from Asheville, N.C., to Sullivan, Maine, to visit our old college friends, Sandro and Mu. This is Part 5 and the conclusion of that trip. 

We left Sullivan on Friday, Oct. 25, and made it easily to Portsmouth, N.H. On the way north we took a desultory route with side trips and excursions. On the way south, the plan was to stay on the interstates and make time. I generally despise interstate driving. One such road looks very much like all the rest and you share the way with gargantuan trucks and impatient drivers who believe that no matter what speed you are driving, it is never enough, so, get the hell out of my way. 

There was one stop on the way, however, that took us off the four-lane. 

Oct. 26

We had tried to visit Walden Pond on our way up to Maine, but it was so clogged with traffic and visitors, there was no possibility of parking. “We can see it on the way home,” Anne said. 

When I was a young man, my attention was split between books and what we nostalgically used to call nature. I had a life list of birds and could identify any tree or wildflower by popular and scientific names. I was a hiker and once attempted, with my second unofficial wife, to traverse a large chunk of the Appalachian Trail. 

The one hinge that swung both worlds was Henry David Thoreau and I read everything he wrote, including his journals, which come in at 14 volumes and each of those come in at an average of 500 pages. 

There have been four writers who have most influenced my own feeble scribblings. They weren’t so much models as they were permissions. Henry Miller gave me permission not to care too much about being literature, i.e., to lose my self-consciousness about writing; Edward Gibbon gave me permission to write long sentences; Herman Melville allowed me to hide philosophizing in cryptic jokes; and Henry Thoreau taught me to think directly in imagery and metaphor. 

  “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”

I still read Melville and Gibbon with pleasure; I cannot read Miller anymore — he was a passion of my younger shallower self — and Thoreau I can seldom tolerate. His prescription for living now feels hyperbolic and not a little selfish. 

But I still love — and I use that word advisedly — love Walden Pond. I cannot count the number of times I have visited. I came to see it first with my second unofficial wife and have been back over and over. I have walked its circumference it three times, written about it too many times, both for my newspaper and for my blog. 

We must each have our sacred spaces. Places we go to for recharging, for awe, for a recognition of the larger things, for connection or reconnection with what matters. I have maybe five or six such locations on the planet. Walden Pond is one of them. 

When I first visited, the pond was just a place outside of Concord, Mass., who only a few students of American literature ever visited, except in the summer, when it was the swimming hole for locals, most of whom probably never connected it with one of the classics of American culture. It was a place I could consider proprietary. Only us acolytes knew or cared. 

Now, it is a spot on a tour bus itinerary. Hordes of people show up at the 335-acre state park during summer months and there are multiple parking lots, a visitor center and worse — signage. 

Yet, still, under it all is the 64-acre lake, the trees, underbrush and the birds and insects that populate it. 

We arrived in early morning, it is chill and the only visitors so far are several fishermen and a kayaker. I walk past the reproduction cabin, peek into the window and continue on downhill to the water. 

It is the height of fall and there are trees of bright red and yellow. 

I don’t have time to circumambulate the lake one more time, but I did walk about a quarter of the way counterclockwise around its shore. I do not need to do anything; just stand there as if soaking up the sun’s rays, but soaking up instead the sense of connection with: nature; time; history; literature; my own past; the sky; and what is beyond the sky, pebbly with stars. 

And finally, my recognition that this is almost certainly the last time I will ever be able to stand on this sandy, watery edge. Travel has become difficult, and what travel I still have in me should aim at the many other holies that need valedictory visitations. 

So, I walk back uphill to the car and head south through Connecticut, New York and New Jersey before finding a motel in Easton, Penn. I feel the loss of leaving Sandro and Mu, and of leaving behind Walden Pond for a last time. 

Oct. 27

What a satisfying end to a horrible, horrible day.

We left Easton, Pa, in a simple rain, but in only 10 miles or so, it became a Niagara. The sky was slate and then got darker. The windshield wipers could not keep up with the downpour and I had to slow down, not that anyone else did.

We were on I-78 and about an hour in, we hit a work zone in which there was no shoulder and a concrete wall on either side of the roadway, leaving no wiggle room. The visibility was often only a couple of car-lengths in front of us. And then — And then the semis would pass (I called them “bruisers”) and kick up a wash that blinded me entirely. I tried desperately to maneuver so that the truck would pass me on a straightaway, but of course, that wasn’t always possible.

The bruiser would pass and splash and I would have to slow down to 20 mph on the interstate, knowing that the vehicles behind me weren’t going to do the same thing.

I entered a completely Zen state, if you can call it that, or “wu hsin” — “no mind.” The Zen master attempts to get the student to empty his mind so that it is not processing any words, not thinking about plans or the future, not remembering past delights or grudges, but to be wholly in this moment, very like we believe animals must be.

Well, that pretty well describes the situation. Nothing was in my mind but concentrating on keeping the car in the road, in this moment, now, with no thought even of what might be around the bend. Nothing existed in the entire universe but this Buick on this road in this precise, rolling instant.

At one time or another, the dark lour would seem to lighten and gave us hope that the weather might break, but then it darkened once more and buckets poured onto my windshield and another bruiser passed, hissing up a gusher.

We crossed the Squeaky-Hannah River and continued down I-81. The sky cleared, the sun came out and the roads dried. I still flinched every time I saw a bruiser in the rear-view mirror, but I soon got over that. Pumped up to 65 mph and cruised into Chambersburg, Pa. and went on to Winchester, Va., and got a room. I have to say, I was blasted. The intensity of the drive through the weather took every ounce of constant focus I had, both hands on the wheel, grabbing tight and eyes bulging out wide staring through the windshield and glancing back through the rear-view. The expression “holding it in the road” took on new and immediate meaning.

I plopped down on the bed in our room and tried to keep the flashback to a minimum. Anne went to sleep. I couldn’t. We rested for a couple of hours and then the magic happened.

Anne searched on her phone for a place to eat and found what she called a Popoo-Syria. At first I didn’t understand, but as soon as I did, my face must have ignited like a skyrocket. I burst a giant grin and said: “Pupusaria. It’s a pupusaria! I haven’t had a good pupusa since leaving Phoenix.” I think I may have done a little jig.

“Where is it? Is it close?” This was important. I don’t know Winchester and was afraid I would never find it. Anne gave me the address; I punched it into my Google maps and lo, it was exactly one block from our hotel.

“I’m not really hungry,” Anne said. But she came anyway. We found the joint, a little storefront hole-in-the-wall — just as it should be. I ordered a couple of pupusas and a plate of fried platano with crema. An horchata to drink. The only people there spoke Spanish. The waitress could barely put together a couple of words of English. I felt completely at home. I spoke my best laughable Spanish. “Me gusta la comida.” It fulfilled every desire I had for pupusas.

Anne had one, too, a chicken and cheese pupusa and judged it “really good.” She actually liked it.

I sat there in the booth with a great shit-eating grin on my face. “Estoy muy feliz,” I told the waitress. I sat for a moment soaking up the pleasure, nay, almost ecstasy.

Back at the motel, there is a Halloween-themed wedding party and the halls are filled with costumed guests yelling, screaming and dancing. As I pass the hotel laundry room, the door is open and inside I see a pony-size fiberglass horse. I have no idea why. 

Oct. 28

Interstate 81 runs down the Shenandoah Valley along the western edge of Virginia. It is a chute-the-chute towards home. The Blue Ridge to the east and the long, low Allegheny Mountains and Massanutten to the west. 

We stop for a leg-stretch at Valley Pike Farm Market in Weyer’s Cave, Va., and Anne looks for some gifts to take back to her friends in Augusta, Ga. 

We make our night — the last one on the road — in Radford, Va. and find a chain restaurant for dinner. Tomorrow, home. 

Oct. 29

We shift from I-81 to I-26. As we near the North Carolina state boundary line, the highway twists through the mountains again on the way down towards Asheville. I begin to see familiar landmarks. There is a nervous sense of homecoming. 

We got home about noon. Total mileage for the whole trip: 3,419.3 miles. Finally, I pull up the driveway. 

“Look, a bear.”

“Where?”

“There. No. Up in the tree.”

We pulled up the driveway and turned the car off and I spotted a bear up in the tallest oak tree in our back yard. It was a young bear; not a cub, but not fully adult either. 

It was walking out on a branch about 30 feet above the ground. 

“No, wait. Two bears.”

There were two bears in the tree. I couldn’t get a photo of them both, because the one was around the back side of the tree trunk, mostly hidden. We watched for several minutes.

The second bear turned out to be an adult; I guess the mama. There were dogs barking in the next yard, behind the screen of trees and brush. We guessed that may be why the two bears were up in the tree. Anne went inside, since it seemed nothing was happening. I waited and saw the grown-up bear begin to descend, head downwards then turning around to shimmy down behind-first. Again, it was mostly on the far side of the tree and obscured by twigs and leaves, so I couldn’t get a decent photo. Then, I didn’t see either one of them anymore. 

A little later, dogs began to bark on the other side of the back yard, so I assumed the two had ambled on towards the woods and the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

My closest friends know who that bear was. 

Click any image to enlarge

I live in the American South and it seems you cannot drive more than two blocks in any direction without coming across a church. In fact, I have seen a crossroads where all four corners each features a different church. They come in all varieties, from the most sedate Episcopalian, to the most frenetic Holiness. There are so many different types of Baptist, that I wonder that anyone can be confident that he has chosen the right one and not by accident found the shortcut to Hell. 

Church is so completely built into the culture, that it is taken for granted. The first time I visited my barber here in Asheville, N.C., he made for casual conversation by asking me which church I went to. I had to squirm a little and let on that I don’t go to any. “I am not religious,” I said, understating the case rather diplomatically. 

I have no religion; I’m not even an atheist. Being an atheist seems like wasting your time angrily proving that Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist. I haven’t had a religious impulse since I was 9 years old. 

Anyway, the South must be the only place in America where churches outnumber convenience stores. You find them everywhere and in every economic register, from the banal brick churches with large parking lots that minister to the bourgeoise, to the strip-mall storefronts that cater to the more out-there fringe-element evangelicals. In one, the parking lot is filled with Buicks and in the other, with pickup trucks and aging Datsun hatchbacks. 

My favorite is a church just north of Greensboro, N.C., that looks something like a high school pre-fab gymtorium with words in large letters on its front that can be read two ways. I’m sure its believers only see “God Can” as a profession of the capabilities of the deity. But I prefer to think of it as a place of canned piety. The tin roof only reinforces the image of a  kippered divinity. 

The newest pestilence among the churches is the clever changing sign out front, advertising either a Bible verse or bad pun. These can be entertaining, although I wonder what a real old fire-and-brimstone preacher man would have thought of them. Not much, I suspect. 

I know of two such preachers, one on my side of the family, and the other on my wife’s. I grew up in New Jersey among Norwegians, and the first church I ever went to, as barely more than a toddler, was Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Teaneck, N.J., where the presiding minister, Pastor Anderson, gave his sermons in Norwegian and although I didn’t understand the language, there was no mistaking the import of his message: He was a hellfire and damnation sort, who poked his finger at the congregation, wagging it as he scolded them at the top of his voice. We were all damned, for sure. I have been told that away from the pulpit, E.W. Anderson was a kind and mild man with a good sense of humor. It’s a side of him I never saw. 

(Pastor Anderson may have been ahead of his time in at least one regard: From 1931 to 1936, he broadcast a weekly radio program — in Norwegian — every Sunday. His religion may have been old-fashioned, but he took advantage of emerging technologies.)

RD Bell preaching

The other is my wife’s grandfather on her mother’s side, a wiry and contentious old man named Rhudy Dolphus Bell. No one seems to know where he earned his ordination, but he was a severe and unforgiving man, always ready to consign the sinner to an eternal rain of fire. He was known in his time to padlock churches where offending parishioners had been caught in — or suspected of — sinful behavior, and he would post a sign on the door: “Because brother so-and-so was seen at the dance hall with sister so-and-so, who is not his wife, this church is officially closed.” Of course, he had no official authority to do such things, and was thus rather taken for a crank. 

RD Bell baptizing

That old-fashioned Old Testament fire-in-the-eyes preaching was much more common in the past than it is now, outside of televangelists ranting and weeping on the airwaves. R.D. Bell regularly took part in so-called camp meetings, aka tent meetings, aka revivals, when the preaching went on all day long, with preachers spelling each other as they wore down, like tag-team wrestlers. 

Of course, the king of the revival circuit was Billy Graham, who ran things on an industrial scale. 

The Cove

I live in Asheville off Exit 55 of Interstate 40. That is also the exit for the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, which is fashionably set upslope on the mountain on the far side of the highway. This is Billy Graham country. The bypass around downtown is the Billy Graham Expressway; there is a bronze statue of the man in Ridgecrest, just east of Black Mountain at Exit 66, and Graham’s home in Montreat, just north of Black Mountain; Montreat is a religious retreat community that looks like the vacation home of old money. The houses tend to be cobbled from stone set among the trees, and Lake Susan sits in the center of town, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Real estate values are astronomical. 

Lake Susan, Montreat


Graham is an interesting case. Less Old Testament than many evangelists, he preached against racial segregation and even allowed, in some moments, that even good non-Christians might be saved. 

A few things you might not know about Graham. When he was a boy, he loved reading Tarzan books and, according to his father, would hang on trees and try out the old Tarzan yell. “I think that yelling helped develop his voice,” his father said later.

St. Anthony of Padua

And, after he received the calling in 1937, while a student at the Florida Bible Institute near Tampa, he was known to paddle to an island in the Hillsborough River where, like St. Anthony of Padua preaching to the fishes, he would practice his sermons and “preach to the birds, alligators, and cypress stumps.”

By the way, Graham’s college degree, from Wheaton College in Illinois, is in anthropology. Who knew? 

I mention Graham because I have a personal confession to make. No, not that kind. 

My parents were relaxed when it came to religion. They both grew up in religious households, but seemed to have taken the lesson away from their upbringing that they would not force church on their children. My father, especially suffered from religion. His father — my Pop-pop — had been a successful homebuilder in New Jersey and quite well off, but lost it all in 1929, when my father was 10 years old. The old man tipped into the religious mania, banning dancing, radio, music, and anything that might be considered fun, from the home. They went to church two or three times a week, and all day Sunday. It was quite a constrictive childhood for my father and his five siblings. 

They never said it, but I believe my parents decided they would never visit that on their children. 

My mother’s mother wasn’t quite so bonkers, but she was pious, and her apartment was filled with religious trinkets and devotional pictures. When I was young, she lived with us. And when I was 9 years old, she took me to Billy Graham’s 1957 Crusade at Madison Square Garden in New York, where he preached to sold-out crowds nightly for 16 weeks. I was young and impressionable; Graham was riveting and inspiring.

I had been to the Garden for Rangers hockey games and the Ringling Brothers circus, so I knew the venue. But I had never seen so many people packed into it. At first, I wasn’t sure who was talking. Graham sideman Cliff Barrows did most of it, acting as an emcee for the show, but I thought at first he was Graham. After all, he was as far from me as home plate is from the outfield bleachers. The choir sang, and George Beverly Shea dropped his pear-shaped baritone down into the depths of what I now recognize as bathos. 
But when Graham finally came out and began sermonizing, he was electric. It was my introduction in crowd psychology, and the power of oratory over the masses. My friend, the late Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who fled Nazi Germany told me how he had listened to Adolf Hitler speak when he was a teenager and how, he said, even as a Jew, “I could hardly keep my arm from raising in the Nazi salute.” Hitler had that effect on his audience. There must be something to that. I would never otherwise compare Billy Graham to Hitler, but Graham had that kind of hypnotic effect on his listeners. And when it came time, at the end of his speaking, to “come forward and accept Jesus,” I was ready to go. Let me go down. But my grandmother said I was too young, and wouldn’t let me go. I rankled, but I stayed up in the bleachers. The mood soon passed. I never had a religious moment again. 

There may have been something in Graham’s relentless activity, because his minion, Cliff Barrows lived till he was 94; Graham till he was 99 and Shea until he was 104. 

But then, famous atheist Bertrand Russell lived to be 97. 

Where is home? I don’t mean where is your house, where do you sleep most nights, what is your address. But rather, where do you belong? 

For many of us, home is illusive. For most of my adult life, I have not lived in the same house for more than seven years at a time. I have lived in four corners of the nation, splitting my time from the Northeast, where I grew up; to the Southeast, where I went to school, got married and divorced; to the Northwest, where I went to recuperate; back to the South, where I got married again; to the Southwest, where I worked for 25 years; and now, back to the Southeast in retirement. But I cannot say, despite repeatedly returning, that I feel the South is home. 

It is where I feel comfortable, where I recognize the landscape on my skin, where I have found family. But there remains something alien about it. Something I can never be fully a part of. 

Certainly, part of this is political: The red state conditions are sometimes depressing. There is nativism, clannishness, religion, suspicion of outsiders, lingering racial division. There is a satisfaction of being Southern that can seem provincial. 

Yet, there is also a friendliness and helpfulness that I never found in any other corner of the U.S. When my wife, before we were married, was snowed in in the mountains of Ashe County, N.C., a neighbor she barely knew, walked a mile and a half through the knee-high accumulation to knock on her door and check on her, to make sure she had enough firewood to last out the imposed isolation, and to bring her a basket of food. Not in New Jersey. Not in Seattle. Not in Phoenix — although snow in Phoenix would be pretty much out of the question anyway. 

North Cascades

When I moved to Seattle, in 1978, before all the Starbucks and California immigration, I was agog over the Olympic Mountains I could see over Puget Sound to the West, and the towering Cascades to the east. When I went out hiking, it was through rain forests of Douglas fir and western red cedar. The ground was spongy underfoot and emerald green moss grew on decaying logs and stumps. Floating on the waters of the sound were goldeneye and cormorant. The air was soft with cool humidity. 

I certainly had planned to make Seattle my home, and I mean that —  not just a place to sleep at night, but I never felt like more than a traveler spending time in an exotic locale to soak up the ambience along with the rain.

And, compared with the East coast I grew up in, the nature was almost monotonous. When I lived in North Carolina, on the land around my house in Greensboro, I counted a hundred different species of tree and plant. I came to love them all. But there on Phinney Ridge in Seattle, there were two species of tree. Two. They were everywhere and they were prodigious and impressive. But two. I longed to return to the East. And so I did. 

Meat Camp, NC

But even then, I moved from Summerfield north of Greensboro, to Obids in the mountains, to Meat Camp just north of Boone — all in the space of two years. And then, to Virginia Beach, Va., to take up a job teaching. After six years there, when my wife was offered a teaching position in Arizona, we packed everything up into a Ryder truck and drove across the continent, without even having a house lined up where to unload the truck. We thought it would be fun to stay in the desert for a couple of years. It turned into a quarter of a century. 

I came to love the desert, but truth be told, I did not live in the desert, I lived in Phoenix, which is Cleveland in the desert, a characterless city of endless suburbs and strip malls in the valley of the Salt River — a river with no water in it. 

(The famous joke about Arizonans is they go to visit New York City and when they came back they were asked about it. “It was wonderful, huge skyscrapers, millions of people, and traffic like you wouldn’t believe.” “What about the Empire State Building?” “Yep, we went up to the top and you could see for miles around from river to river.” “The Hudson?” “Yep.” “What was the Hudson River like?” “Couldn’t tell, it was covered in water.”)

I loved my job, writing for the newspaper, and I loved my colleagues: I came to respect and value the really hard and dedicated work that journalists do. Over those 25 years, we moved four times. None of the houses was home. They were our quarters, but there were no roots. 

North Carolina called back after retirement, and I now live in Asheville, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a blue city in a red state. And I have gotten old here, but it is not home. It is a residence. 

I don’t know if it is my New Jersey birth that has given me this sense of rootlessness. I spent the first 17 years of my life there, but I couldn’t wait to escape. Going off to college was liberation. New Jersey was banal, suburban, bourgeoise, dull, conventional, oppressive. I never felt I belonged. 

River Street, Madison, NC, in Rockingham County

I know from my wife and her family, that there is usually a deep sense of belonging that Southerners feel. A genuine love of the patch of ground where they grew up, a love like you feel for a parent. It is a love of where you were born that may not extend beyond the town or county and maybe the state. But for my wife, Rockingham County was where her father and grandfather were buried. That fact alone meant there was an unseverable umbilical connection to that omphalos, that tiny patch of piedmont, those trees, those creeks and rivers, those very weeds that crept over the edges of the crumbling pavement on the back roads. It is the feel of the red clay between your fingers, the blackbirds roosting by the hundreds in the oak tree. Home. 

I don’t know how widespread is this feeling I have, how many people share it, whether it is a symptom of the late 20th century, or whether it is confined to just me and my personal makeup. I believe I am not alone. 

I suspect many from my generation, growing up with the very real threat of nuclear annihilation and living through an adolescence and young adulthood of assassination, riots and revolutions, felt chucked out of Eden quite unceremoniously. 

If you come from Armenia or Poland or Vietnam or Tibet, you have a clear sense of identity, and an unbreakable bond with the land that gave you suckle. Certainly, most Southerners I have come to know have that feeling about their soil of origin. But there are many others, certainly from my generation, who share my sense of rootlessness, the sense that I can never be so comfortable in a place that I would long to be buried there. 

Perhaps it is because I have moved so often that I cannot share that sense of home. I have a residence on the earth, but not a home. 

I express all of this not so you should feel sorry for me. In fact, this homelessness has its advantages. I have had, in recompense, an ease and comfort anywhere in the world I find myself. I have been to three continents, and 14 countries, three oceans and the Mediterranean Sea, and never have I felt anything but at ease wherever I have gone. Being in a country where English is not spoken is as comfortable as being in a place where people eat mopane worms off the grill. 

Travel has felt such a part of my self-identity, that while others might feel distressed having to move to another state or country, torn roots and all from the soil they call home, I, in contrast, feel most myself when seeing some new terrain, hearing new accents or languages, eating new food, driving on different pavements and finding out about the sun-orbiting globe that, more than any single spot, feels like home to me. 

The Swannanoa River runs in western North Carolina from the town of Black Mountain to Asheville. It is where I live now, and it is spring. 

As I drive through the valley, with the Swannanoa Mountains directly to the south and, further north, in the distance, the lofty Black Mountains — the highest east of the Mississippi — the lower slopes of the Swannanoas are green, the bright green of early spring. The mid slopes are what Robert Frost wrote about: “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold.” And the tops of the peaks are still the dusky grey-black of winter. You can see spring climbing up the mountains. The green-line moves fast; a few days ago, it was all grey. Tomorrow, the line will be hundreds of feet higher up the slope, chewing up the grey, until it is all consumed in green. In their half-world, the hills look almost iridescent, the way draped satin will pick up the highlights and shimmer.

And all the while, I have Mahler’s Third playing and — I didn’t plan this; it’s just what was in the CD player — the first movement culminates in a great joyous march that is meant to describe the triumphant return of spring; all the animals and plants, all the hills and rivers are marching in procession like Mummers. It was overwhelming. I almost had to pull over and stop. Luckily, I hit a traffic light. I could steal a look to the left and soak in the iridescence and the utter, unutterable beauty of it all. De Welt is schoen.

I will be heartbroken to leave it when my time comes.

It used to be that January turned to February and February turned to March — and so on. Then, as I got older, it was January-July-January-July. Now, it is January-January-January. I don’t know why time speeds us so in senescence. I think, May is so far off, I don’t have to decide anything yet, then, all of a sudden, it is May again. The earth spins around the sun like a propeller.

It never stops; it only speeds up. Existence is not a thing but a process: nature is a verb, not a noun. It is never the same river; it is always the same flow. The green climbs up the hillside; my years shrink in front of me. I have now seen countless leaves sprout, green, shrivel and fall, and countless lives. The loss builds up and each spring slightly more wistful, more sad and the joyful march of plants and animals, hills and rivers deeper and more grief-laden. All rolled up into a single procession, full to bursting. 

Die Welt ist tief; tief ist ihr Weh. 

It is going to be 6 degrees  tonight. Even in the day, it won’t get over freezing until Wednesday. It is winter.

I have not been out of the house for three days.

I may climb into the refrigerator for warmth.

Now that I am old, winter gets into my bones. But when I was younger, I loved the bracing cold, the breath congealed on my beard. I made myself warm by chopping wood. A good walk in the woods, with snow crunching under my boots left my cheeks ruddy and numb. I felt like I was skin to skin with nature. It was a glorious feeling.

Many years before that, I remember building an igloo on the front lawn in New Jersey. I must have been 8 or 9 years old. Inside, it was dark and if you stayed there long enough, it began to get a little warmer. The neighbor’s yard was a hill, and my brothers and I would sled down it when it snowed.

In New Jersey, the snow only stayed white a short, glorious period before turning soot gray as the snowplows piled up moraines of the stuff along the roadsides.

So, I am not so fond of winter now as I was then. The cold makes my knees ache. Yet, there are still elements of the season I cherish. In North Carolina, there is always a midwinter spring, often in February, when the temperature rises for a week before dropping back into the bin-bottom of the thermometer to remind us winter is not so kind, nor so short.

In February, the red maples earn their name, with spreading leaf buds uncovering the red beneath. You can see, even as the winter grips hard, that spring is working its way to the surface.

In March, as winter recedes, the frozen ground melts and mud season descends. Boots get stuck in the mire; you have to watch out not to step completely out of them.

But it is January First, and a cold snap has bottled up Asheville. The trees seem brittle with the freeze. It is a perfect day to listen to Sibelius and stare out the window.

For some reason, although most other people seem to most appreciate trees in the spring, when they come back to sap-life or fall, when they turn gaudy colors, I have always responded to the empty trees of winter. Looking over the Blue Ridge in winter, the leafless trees, from a distance, become a gray fur on the backs of the mountains. The hills look almost soft.

I think of the winter trees as nudes. They have dropped their clothes to show their real form, the trunk, branch and stem.

If you remember your Wölfflin from art history, there are eras — and people — who prefer painting and those who prefer drawing. I have always been a drawing-guy. I appreciate the linear, the ink-on-paper scratches of tree limbs, the crosshatching of twigs. There is something dour in my soul that enjoys gray more than party colors. Not a flat, simple gray, but a complex gray built from dusty blues mixed with tawny beiges. A good gray has as much depth as a river.

In winter, the air is clearer, except when a cold mist obscures the trees. The cold keeps you awake. The floors are icy underfoot, even if the room temperature inside is kept a comfortable 68. One sleeps well at night, with cool air in the nostrils.

A steaming stew or vegetable soup with a crusty bread and the evening seems just right.

Winter light, low and dim; early dusk, late dawn; the sun not strong enough to reach zenith, but arcing across the sky barely above the trees.

I remember one winter day, 40 years ago, walking across the railway bridge the cuts over Lake Brandt. It was probably 20 degrees and the air dead still. The surface of the water was not yet frozen, but it was mirror-smooth. The remains of snow covered the lake’s banks and no one seemed stirring in the landscape except me, walking tie by tie over the water beneath. It was silent; so quiet I could hear my breathing. It was one of those moments of epiphany, when suddenly the world becomes clear. It is almost a religious experience. You recognize that fact of the planet beneath your boot sole, and the atmosphere above your watch cap, bleeding into infinite dark space.

Such moments are delicious, and more valuable for their rarity. If we are lucky, we have perhaps a dozen or so such instants in our lives. For me, most of them have happened in freezing cold.

But now, my joints ache. What glimpses of eternity I get are less optimistic. Winter has a different meaning as you turn 70.