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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.

Big Baby

I have slighted a good deal of the state in these writings. So much is left out. I have barely mentioned the Navajo Reservation, an area the size of West Virginia. I have loved visiting the Rez, and the Hopi Reservation swallowed Jonah-like inside it. I have left out huge chunks of Arizona that I love and remember well: I scarcely nodded to Tucson, Aravaipa Canyon, Fort Huachuca, the Petrified Forest, Painted Desert, Payson, Showlow, the Mogollon Rim — the list is too long to number here. All of it fascinating either for its geology, its history, its development, its politics, its beauty or its characteristic ugliness. Whatever it is that makes it memorable.

Little Colorado River, Holbrook

Little Colorado River, Holbrook

I feel bad for not being able to squeeze it all in.

Cottonwood bark

I began in Phoenix, drove south then southeast; then up north and across Interstate 40, making a grand spiral. If I followed that logic, this entry should begin at Hoover Dam and continue on a plumb line south to Yuma, where the excursion should end. But I have left out the middle portion of the state so far. And I should like to be able to mention such prodigies as the pile of rocks at Granite Dells, the prehistoric ruins at Tuzigoot, the Verde River valley and the sliding town of Jerome.

Jerome

Jerome

This imaginary roadtrip began because I was feeling homesick for the state I left four years ago. I have seen its distances in dreams, when I wake and only half-remember that my eyes now open in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. (When I lived in Phoenix, I often had this same homesickness for the Eastern forests and hills). The fact is, I want to engulf it all, sweep it all into my innards and swallow the map whole: I have loved travel more than anything in my six decades and eight years.

Verde River

Verde River

So, I finally recall the dusty streets of Kingman, the old road through Oatman, and the wastage south, through Spring Break Gomorrah (Lake Havasu City), and on to the remains of the internment camp at Poston, with its memorial (although more moving are the stumps of concrete foundations you can find throughout the area, where the barracks used to be that warehoused Japanese Americans), and Poston’s irrigation and farmland, all on the Indian reservation.

Poston

Poston

South of that, you follow the Colorado River to Yuma, where you can walk across the river most times of the year and hardly get your ankles wet. The green farmland along the river, all the way down to San Luis, remind you that so much of Arizona remains agricultural.

Crazy cactus

I have loved it all, and more: It has become a part of my inner landscape. Drop me anywhere — Burro Creek Canyon, Yarnell, Mormon Lake, Old Oraibi, Gila Bend — and I will know where I am instantly. I have soaked Arizona in like a sponge.

Yuma

Yuma

But I have lit out for the territories — in my case, that is returning to my past in the Blue Ridge, among the beech and oak and ash and dogwood, where bears scavenge my garbage and a pileated woodpecker knocks the old red maple in my front yard.

Quartzsite

Quartzsite

I have lived in the four corners of the continent: born in New Jersey, schooled in North Carolina, taught in Virginia, tested in Seattle and ripened in Arizona; visited every one of the contiguous 48 states at least a half-dozen times, not counting all the Canadian provinces save Prince Edward Island, and I’ve internalized it all. Now that I am old, and driving long distances is torture on my knees, I can revisit the places I know by writing about them. I recommend the maneuver to everyone: Write — or draw, or dance, or sing — and reconnect with the life you have led, with the world you inhabit. Everything written is a new Genesis: the world is created once more, and the world needs to be reborn constantly.

Tacna

Tacna

Near Pendleton, Ore.

Near Pendleton, Ore.

There are books that give us pleasure in the reading, books that inform us, books we are required to read, and there are books that become so internalized, they essentially shape the course of our lives. We can probably all name such books for ourselves. I made a list, maybe 15 years ago, in a moment of quo vadis self reflection, of those books that have most shaped who I am. I stopped listing after 50 books. Since I made the list, I could add several more; after all, I keep reading.

Pageant of Life

Pageant of Life

Of course, it is the earliest reading that had the most influence — as the twig is bent, so the tree inclines. Even the best of the more recent books cannot have influenced me even a percentage of how much I was shaped by, say, the Life magazine book, The World We Live In, which my grandmother gave me on my eighth birthday, and which left me wide-eyed at the wonder and diversity of nature  — volcanoes, blue whales, dinosaurs, jellyfish, rainforests, barchan sand dunes. I wear the badge of that book in my deepest heart’s core. It is the holy of holies.

But what caught my attention as I reread my old list, was that it continued to include lists of other things that shaped who I have become: music that influenced my developing psyche; art (that I saw in person, not just in books); movies; TV shows; — and last on the list of lists —  landscapes.

We don’t often think of how deeply landscape affects us, guides the direction of our lives — but how different might be the novels written by Fenimore Cooper or Washington Irving, or Mark Twain if those authors had lived elsewhere and seen different rivers, different mountains, different forests. I think of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is practically a landscape — a cityscape — spread into lines of type.

Back Bay, Va.

Back Bay, Va.

Joyce had Dublin; Thomas Wolfe had Asheville, N.C., where my wife and I now live. Recently, I opened the first pages of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and read his description of Oliver Gant’s trip to western North Carolina. At one point, he describes a trip up the face of the Blue Ridge from “Old Stockade” to “Altamont” — thinly disguised versions of Old Fort and Asheville —  and as I read it, I knew that landscape — I knew that gravel road; I’ve driven it myself just last month. It’s still gravel and few cars venture it as it wanders and loops through the trees and snakes up the mountain. The interstate long ago made the trip faster and easier. But freeways are boring. As the old road loops and hairpins its way, you can frequently spy the railroad line as it winds its way uphill. That railroad was just being built as Wolfe wrote about it but even now, it  passes just under the hill where I live, and hear the locomotive whistle blow every night. It is uncanny to read about something fictionalized that you know as real.

But, in a sense, all the landscapes that are buried in the psyche are fictionalized: They have been transformed from mere fact into meaning. They are now metaphor and their existence takes on a reality that is imaginative rather than quotidian. It is imprinted as deeply as the smells of childhood, a mother’s kisses, the woodgrain of the school desk scratched with initials and scribbles.

Hudson River, West Point

Hudson River, West Point

Dunderberg

Dunderberg

My own internal landscape begins as I do, in New Jersey and New York, with the Hudson River running through it and the Catskills bumping one bank and the Taconics the other. The automobile drive around the dizzying Dunderberg north of Tomkins Bay was a white-knuckle ride when I was young, the three-lane highway incised into the edge of the cliff. My father hated that part of the drive; we kids loved it. The “mothball fleet” of rusting liberty ships off Jones Point was a living link to the war my father had returned from only a few years before. There was Bear Mountain, with its ski jump and the suspension bridge over the Hudson; there was Seven Lakes Drive through Harriman State Park, all trees and granite; there was the Red Apple Rest and its billboards on the highway.Bear Mountain Bridge for blog copy

I don’t know why, but the suburban life I lived in Bergen County barely registered as landscape. The housing developments and county roads never embossed themselves on my synapses in any significant way. But the summer vacation trips we took up the Hudson to Newburgh, NY, and to the “bungalow” that was my father’s family summer cottage in West Park burned themselves deeply into my awareness of the world. The Hudson River was the aorta that pumped the lifeblood of my awareness of the larger world.

Deep River, NC

Deep River, NC

So, when I moved to North Carolina and college, I was amused at the Tar River or the Deep River. They weren’t rivers. The Hudson was a river. Guilford County’s Deep River was a wet gully. I could have jumped across it.

I have lived many places, and in many landscapes, but they haven’t all dug wormholes into my psyche. I’ve traveled to every continental state of the union — most several times. When Hank Snow sings, “I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere,” I can honestly say that I have been to the places he names in the song: “Hackensack, Cadillac, Fond Du Lac … Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravellburg, Colorado, Ellensburg, Rexburg, Vicksburg, El Dorado, Larrimore, Atmore, Haverstraw” … the song goes on.

And all those places have landscapes that accompany them, the way a song accompanies each Fred Astaire dance number. They are there in the memory. But not all of them have transformed from geography to mythology. There are moments in life when you are particularly open, when your very skin seems adhesive to experience. It is like that when you are a child, but it also happens when you go through some life altering change, a first divorce, or a move across country, a close call, the birth of a child, or a new job. The rind of the psyche gets pulped, and becomes a place for a mythic sense of life to become rooted.

At vulnerable moments in the course of living, the world takes on an extra glow, a mythic noumenon and becomes fixed in the synapses as something larger than itself. The landscape thus internalized becomes an emotional nexus, a place where complex thoughts and feelings can be induced merely by seeing an image of that landscape, or reading an evocative description, perhaps even hearing a certain piece of music.

Mendocino County, Calif.

Mendocino County, Calif.

And so, these landscapes can influence the way you see the world. If you live by the river, you become Twain, if you live by the sea, you become Sarah Orne Jewett, if you live in Manhattan, you become Woody Allen — and all you write takes on the world view the land provides. Think of Faulkner and the red clay, of Hemingway and Michigan, of Henry Miller and Brooklyn (I know Paris comes first to mind, but it is the Brooklyn of the Rosy Crucifixion where you see the real Miller world view).

And so, when a seven-year relationship was breaking down in suspicion and acrimony, we took a trip up through Pennsylvania and the Delaware River to try to make things right. The heart was a sodden wet rag, and one chill fall morning at Port Jervis, the sun rose over a field by a railroad roundhouse that was choked with more wildflowers than I have ever seen before: yarrow, aster, ironweed, joe pye weed, mullein, sunflower, black-eyed susan, queen-anne’s lace. It burned into me, and is still there as a kind of metaphor for the infinite sadness of paradise.

Watauga County, NC

Watauga County, NC

Years later, when I first came to live with the woman who has been my wife for the past 30 years, our house was on a ridge overlooking the New River in the Blue Ridge, and the landscape of rolling mountains and hills, divided between pastures and forest, coves and hollows, whitewashed churches and unpainted barns, took on that numinous glow. It is why we have moved back to the mountains, although the same landscape has now quieted down into comfortable daily life.

Hatteras

Hatteras

When I first entered college, and the intellectual world gaped open for me, I traveled several times with my friend Alexander to the Outer Banks. The sea oats and dunes, the long beach, Hatteras point — climbing illegally to the top of the lighthouse at night under a blanket of stars, feeling the steady wind on my cheeks, the smell of salt in the air — so that coming back to the dorm and  listening to Debussy’s La Mer on the tiny Sears Silvertone portable phonograph, sealed the experience into the brain like a mordant fixes dye in a fabric.

In the years I was unemployed and nearly homeless, I traveled back to New Jersey with my brother for Christmas. On the way back South, we drove through West Virginia, where he had friends, and we spent New Years Day on the top of a mountain. Before dawn, I woke and dressed and went out into the biting cold, where the grass was brittle with frost and my breath clouded in front of me and I surveyed the Cumberland Plateau, bumpy with mountains, spread out to the horizon. I felt lost and alone in all that frozen landscape.

Tsegi Canyon, Ariz.

Tsegi Canyon, Ariz.

The opposite emotions were engaged the first time my wife and I drove out West, in 1980, and the first time we saw buttes and mesas. The land seemed even more expansive than the West Virginia mountains, but they seemed to offer unlimited potential. The air was clear; you could see mountain ranges a hundred miles away. Over the quarter-century we lived in the West, there were many such landscapes printed on my psyche, from Christmas in the snow in Walpi, on First Mesa, spent with a Hopi family; to driving across the Escalante National Monument alone; to spending the night camping north of the Grand Canyon in a forsaken part of the Arizona Strip, one of the least populated plots of land in the country.

Landscape functions not merely as a stage set, a backdrop of other memorable occurrences, but for themselves alone, as metaphor, as an image of the inside state of one’s emotions and mind. It can be as if the landscape were not injected into your mind through your eyes, but rather, projected outward upon existence from the deepest recesses of your mind. If you were to enter my skull and photograph what you found, it would be landscape.

Big Bend NP, Texas

Big Bend NP, Texas

From my list, other landscapes you will find inside my head include the Olympic Mountains in Washington; Schoodic Point in Maine; Big Bend National Park in Texas; the sea-swell grasslands of eastern Montana that I rode past on the Empire Builder train from Chicago to Seattle; driving by night through the Big Sur in California; and Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., which I have circumambulated half a dozen times.

I do not know if it is rare — I have not asked many people — but many of the dreams I manage to remember as I wake up, are dreams consisting purely of landscape, often highly imaginary, exaggerated like the Andes of Frederick Church. It is the space in these dreams that seems to carry meaning, the emptiness from the spot where I stand to the thing I see before me: In between is air, and the air has shape and meaning.

Ansel Adams, Clearing Storm, Yosemite

Ansel Adams, Clearing Storm, Yosemite

The best landscape painting and photography functions not as a record of the topography, but rather as an image of the interior state, vast and romantic, like Ansel Adams’ Yosemite in a winter storm, or Thomas Cole’s Crawford Notch. O blow you cataracts and hurricanoes, in the scumble of Turner, or cooly glow on the horizon, like the misty suns of Claude Lorrain, or the chessboard order of Canaletto.

 

Thomas Cole, Crawford Notch

Thomas Cole, Crawford Notch

 

Skull Island

Skull Island

When I was very young, perhaps 6 or 7, I first watched King Kong on TV, and what has stuck from then to now is the steamy, vine-clogged, rocky-cliffed landscape of Skull Island. That skull is mine, seen from the inside out.

If you want to shake the world out and make it larger again, get up at 3 in the morning and drive across the flatness of Indiana and Illinois. It is dark, the stars are thick as the July humidity. And the world seems quiet, empty and stretched once more to full size.

The sky grows upward as the stars populate it, lightyears away. Not only is the earth big, but you can see that you are a pebble at the bottom of a very deep universe.

You drive alone for miles and the only thing you see is distant headlights, like fireflies, flitting along the horizon line that shows up as the boundary between two different shades of black.

One set of headlights gets closer. You recognize a kindred spirit, someone else is driving in the lonely, vacant night. You wait a very long time for the lights to draw close. They are still miles away.

As the car gets nearer and dims its headlights — that salute of recognition in the dark — you see that it is the God of the Nighttime Highway, whose eyes are headlights and whose halogen gaze keeps the world from disappearing when everyone else is asleep.

And he passes and you drop once more into the large darkness.

Click on any image to enlarge

Baldwin County, Ala.

Baldwin County, Ala.

MapI 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.New York 3

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.red maple

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.nc church jesus saves

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.barista

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.Seattle docks

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.Hurricane Ridge, Olympic NP, Wash

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.Badger Creek Ariz

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.camelback mountainSaguaro NP Ariz

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.Chicago, Ill

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.Joes Colo haystacks

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.Pawnee Buttes 5

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.

Linville Falls
It has been nearly 50 years since I first saw Linville Falls in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Back then, getting there meant finding an unmarked gravel road and an unmarked dirt parking lot — really just a thicker place in the road to pull over into.Linville Falls 03

Then we followed a spongy, loamy footpath under the hickories and oaks toward the distant roar of the waterfall on North Carolina’s Linville River. No one was there but us and we picnicked on the rocks over the crashing water. The upper falls are a broad, shallow drop, but at the lower falls, the quartzite pulls tight, constricting the river and forcing it down a spiraling chute that drops over the edge of the cliff and down 75 feet to the river and Linville Gorge.Linville upper falls

It is an impressive torrent with a basso profundo roar, and nothing will ever change the way it seemed to me that day, as I leaped over rocks, crossing the white water to the other shore so I could climb on the gnarled rock to see down the waterway.

Leaping from rock to rock across the cataract could easily have got me killed, swept over the precipice, but I was young, and therefore, an idiot.

I’ve been back many times over the years. The National Park Service built a paved road from the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it easier to find. Then they paved the parking lot and built a pedestrian bridge over the river upstream from the falls.Linville Falls from above

The last time I went back, there was a visitor’s center and a souvenir shop and a parade of vacationers trotting down the path to the fenced-in overlook. The falls are just as impressive, but the experience isn’t.

If I speed up those five decades in my head like time-lapse photography, I can see time take shape. It builds and it destroys in a constant rise and fall like an ocean tide.

And what comes in, ebbs.

A few years ago, my wife and I visited another familiar site, on Old Route 16, a dirt road that drops down the side of the Blue Ridge from Ashe County towards North Wilkesboro. When we lived in the mountains, we used to visit an abandoned farmsite along the road, halfway down the mountain face.

There was a clearing in the wood and an old wooden house with a broad porch that looked out over the steep valley below. Above us was the spot ominously known as the “Jumpin’-Off Place.”

We could picnic on the porch with the bluebird and tanager singing in front of us, the buzz of insects all around and the gentle breeze rattling the grass in the field.Linville trillium

It had been 20 years since we visited that farmhouse and we thought we should see what had become of it.

About three miles down the old dirt road, we passed where it should have been, but there was no break in the forest, no open field. We couldn’t find the house. We kept driving, hoping we’d find something that looked familiar, but we didn’t. Finally we stopped the car where the farm should have been and walked deep into the woods.

Buried a hundred yards into the tangle of maple trees was a naked standing chimney, completely eaten up by brush and undergrowth.

When I climbed down the hill towards it, I discovered the forest floor was spongy with rotten boards, completely collapsed in on themselves, with a few nailheads still showing.

In the years since we last visited, the old house had been completely digested by the woods, leaving only the indigestible brickwork of the twin-sided chimney.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And the once-glorious view of the declivity was now completely obscured by trees and brush. Instead of a vacant field overgrown, the house was survived only by complete woods.

In just those few years.

Nature can reclaim an entire farm in 20 years and leave nothing behind but the masonry. And that won’t last much longer.

 
 
 
 
 

snow on peaks 2

Some people say the best thing about traveling is coming home.

I say, you never do come home.

That is, if you have gotten from your travels what they best offer, you can never return to the life you had been living. You are changed.

Of course, the return to normal life, after weeks of living out of suitcases and eating out of McDonald’s bags, is a relief. Vacationing is hard work. You use all the hours of the day like each day is the last.

But an engine is not meant to run full throttle 24 hours a day.

At home, you can finally take your shoes off, sit back and watch Seinfeld reruns, knowing that you are going back to the office in the morning. It is like the rerailing of a derailed locomotive; you are back on track, you know where you are going and when. The schedule is published and you can consult your timetable.

And there is also something comfortable about being surrounded by all your things. They are familiar. Your books, your TV, your sofa — and most of all, your bed.

Home is where your family and friends are, too — or so it used to be before America decided to move every few years.

It’s like putting on an old pair of sneakers after wearing rented shoes for a week.

Yet back home, there is something you miss from the traveling. A kind of rush from not knowing what comes next, from having to pay attention. Travel can be exhausting, but it is also enlivening.

For the workaday life is a life that is not fully awake. Routine dulls the luster of the stones under your feet, turns the music of the blackbirds in your back yard to an irritating squabble.

Feijoada

Feijoada

Travel provides many other benefits. It makes you less provincial, for one thing. You can no longer believe that your local way of doing things is the only way. You may have been brought up on meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but only the most stubborn of us is not seduced by Brazil’s feijoada or London’s aloo matar. We learn that other nations may be more civilized than our own. Certainly there are many that are safer.

Travel also entertains. The scenery shifts, the menus shift, the languages shift. There is always something new to tickle our attention.

And travel can separate us from our problems, like a two-week bender. We forget office politics, forget project deadlines, forget our debts and trespasses. It is like halftime in the game of life.

But none of these things is as important as the power travel has to reawaken us to our own lives.

Drakensbergs

Drakensbergs

What travel gives us that our regular lives cannot is newness. Everything seems brand new; you can’t get enough of it. We may have mountains at home, but we don’t really see mountains until we drive through the Rockies or the Drakensbergs in South Africa. We have desert at home, or a river, but we don’t see them until we cross Death Valley in July, or see the moon glowing on the fast midnight current of the Rhine near Dusseldorf.

Our work lives are formed of clay and mud. Our travel lives burn with flame.

But if we have done our travel properly, we bring that flame home with us. And we are reawakened to our own lives; we can see it again for the first time.

It can be even more true if the travel has lasted too long. Twenty-five years too long.  A lifetime of travel, and a later return to what was once familiar. The Ithaka you left is never the Ithaka you return to.

As I write this, snow has just left the lower heights of the Blue Ridge and hangs over the tops of the bowl-rim of peaks that form the zig-zag horizon just outside Asheville in North Carolina. Up on the ridges, the white remaining on the ground provides a visual relief allowing us to see the leafless trees as distant hashmarks inked onto the hills like pen-strokes, in a way we can never see it in summer, when the foliage softens the view and makes ever mountain furry instead of hairy. snow on forest floor 2

Seeing that again this year is refreshed in a way it never was when winter was the ordinary slush of melting snow, greyed with soot and piled by snowplows into tiny cordilleras parallel to the curbs of the wet, slick streets. Coming back to the East after a quarter-century in the Arizona desert has allowed me to see the snow all over again as something miraculous, a world-state of the intensely beautiful.

And the ordinary light of day is rendered what it always is, extraordinary.

Part 5: In which temps perdu come alive for the author

hog snout

Some 30 years ago, my wife and I were invited to Edd Presnell’s annual pig pickin’. It was an event in Watauga County, N.C., and attracted up to 200 invitees. My wife was a schoolteacher and had Edd’s granddaughter, Mona McGrew, in her class, and therefore wangled an invite.

Edd Presnell died in 1994, his wife, Nettie, three years later. The pig pickin’ ceased to be a yearly occurrence. Sic transit.

Edd Presnell

Edd Presnell

The Presnell family had been in the area — mostly on the same mountain — since at least the time of Edd’s great-grandfather, James Presnell, who was born in 1796. The mountain was still full of Presnells, many of whom were named after presidents: James Monroe Presnell, Hoover Presnell, even Martin Van Buren Presnell.

Of the lot, Edward Lee Pressnell, known as Edd, was the most famous. He was a renowned makers of dulcimers, and a spectacular woodcarver. How much of his look was calculated, and how much was culturally inherited is hard to tell. He sported a hillbilly beard, was thin as a rail and wore overalls; his hair seemed as if it hadn’t been combed since the Truman administration, and maybe hadn’t been barbered, either. But inside his home was a lattice-work room divider he had carved, 8-foot tall, of mountain laurel and birds that was as delicate and refined as anything made by the best trained beaux-arts master.

It was not easy finding Edd Presnell’s place. It sat on the north face of Beech Mountain in Banner Elk, near Boone, N.C. and at the end of five miles of gravel road followed by another mile of tractor path.

You can see why he wanted to stay in a location so remote: From his back porch you could see not only the local mountains of Watauga County, but also parts of Tennessee and Virginia. Mt. Rogers, the highest point in Virginia, loomed on his horizon.

On the downhill side of his property there are deep woods and laurel thickets. His neighbors’ pasturelands cleared the view, so the trees never completely blocked it.

And in the middle of the several houses, barns and cabins at the end of the tractor path, Edd Presnell constructed two beautiful trout ponds.

The leathery patriarch rarely made an appearance at these shindigs. He was a shy man, but a generous one. He liked to see “young people have a good time.”

So Edd retreated to one of the farther cabins to play pinochle with his brother while everyone else whooped and hollered.

A pig picking, by the way, is when you roast a pig slowly, all day over a hickory coal fire, so the meat, sweet and juicy, pulls away from the bone.pigmeat cooking

It is like a great Fourth of July picnic, with every variety of Southern comestible. The ice tea flowed in rivers.

Two men were cleaning four or five trout in a bucket of water as we approached the ponds. Each wore a ballcap.

“This here’s a rainbow, thems others is browns,” said one, answering my question. “Edd stocks his ponds ev’y other year, so’s you only fish the top one this year and the bottom one next. That ways the fish get eatin’ big. Like this here.”

He held up a beauty about 15 inches long and glistening in the sun. He slid his barlow knife along the trout’s belly and gutted it, holding it underwater to clean the slop away, then with a movement that told of years of experience, knifed the head clean off.

“We save these for the cats,” he said, tossing the fishhead onto a pile of several.

Nearby was a cinderblock pit with a hog splayed out with its opened belly cavity spread flat on the rack over the hickory coals glowing with white-hot heat. One elder, in another ballcap, was tending to the pig, brushing it every while in a once with a sauce that seemed to help crisp the fat.

Next to the hog were the fillets of those trout we had watched being cleaned.

I am no Izaak Walton, but my wife convinced me I should give the trout pond a try. So, we borrowed a rod and a wad of biscuit dough and headed to the pond.

Presnell dulcimer

Presnell dulcimer

Across the water there was an artist of a fly fisher, with an angler’s cap, a canvas vest and a very impressive looking rod and reel, casting his line out over the water with the grace of a Fred Astaire.

“I just had the biggest trout I’ve ever seen up here,” he said. “Had him right up to the bank, but he pulled loose and I lost him.”

He cast his scintillating fly out once more and cranked it slowly back in.

“I love fishing up here. My and my wife come up every year from Goldsboro and have a great time. Edd really knows how to throw a pig pickin’.”

He swung his arm again and plopped the fly down in the middle of the pond like an expert.

“Have you caught anything yet,” we asked.

“Not yet, but I’ve never failed before. I wished I had that big one.”

Now, there are different reasons for fishing. The pro angler was a genuine artist, and I am sure that he received great satisfaction out of the perfection of form he attained in his sport.

But I have a different reason for fishing. Me, I like to eat trout. I’d use dynamite if it got me more fish to eat.

So, I wadded up doughballs on my hook and dropped it down in the water.

I cast my line out and the bait plinked reassuringly in the pond. Unfortunately, the hook was still at the tip of my rod. I tried once more and the line flew out a good two or three feet from the shore. A third time and my hook made it into deeper water. As I said, I’m no Izaak Walton.

In contrast, the pro in the vest, now on the other side of the pond to avoid the children who had gathered around us, was a ballet dancer, so graceful was the flick of his wrist, so classic was the arch of his line.

But it was my line that gave the tug. Something took over for me; maybe it was instinct, maybe it was years of watching Saturday afternoon fishing shows on the TV. I yanked the line in, letting the fish play with the spring of the rod and then he broke the water in a jumping, twisting splatter. The kids all started screaming. “A fish! A fish! He’s got one!”

And I gave one last pull and landed the trout on the grass. One of the kids freed the hook and threaded an anchor line through its mouth and gills. It was a handsome prize, glimmering like silver in the sunlight.

We anchored one end of the fishline in the soil of the bank and let the fish down into the cold water and I cast my line out again.

Meanwhile the horde of children had found other playthings. There were crawdads in the mud and they were digging for them and taunting the crustaceans into nipping the air with their claws. There were also bright blue dragonflies careening across the surface of the water. Godfinches flitted from shrub to shrub. My line pulled a second time.

I played with the second one just as I had the first and pulled him in. The pro on the other side was getting just a wee bit disgusted with me, I could tell. He still hadn’t landed anything. The kids dropped their crawfish and rushed over to see the new fish.

We added the second trout to the first on the anchor line and wadded another piece of dough on the hook. I cast it out and hit my spot in the water. The sun was climbing ever higher and hotter. Water striders walked over the quiet pond surface. I hooked another one.

This one was big. He must have been the same one that the pro had hooked earlier. He fought and splashed and flipped his gleaming body back and forth, but I cranked him in and landed him. He was about 17 inches long, impressive and handsome. The pro turned away. We added the big one to the string.

I caught two more fish before the call went out for dinner.

About 50 people were lined up for the beans, salads and vegetables. After piling our plates, we walked over to the pit and loaded up on pork and trout. Then we sat in the shade with about a dozen youngsters and lazily ate till our bellies burst.

A breeze stirred our maple tree and made a low hiss. I licked my fingers and rose for another round of victuals. Heaven couldn’t be more satisfying.

The pro found us and with a look of discomfort asked, “You fish often?”

“Almost never,” I said.

“Yer doing mighty good. What you using?”

I could imagine his flybox full of hand-tied flies, each a masterpiece.

“I use doughballs.”

He winced. “If’n it works, I guess you don’t need nothing else.”

And dull practicality won out over art once again, as it so often does in America.

Later, when we cleaned the fish, it turned into an impromptu anatomy lesson for the children who followed us around all day.

“Is that a girl fish or a boy fish,” one of them asked.

“This is a female,” I answered as I gutted the second trout. “See this here? This is her egg mass.”

“Eggs! That’s her eggs,” one girl shouted. They wanted to touch.

“Here, feel that.”

“OOOOoooogh!”

“Can I have the head?” asked one of the boys.

In the distance, behind the house, we could hear Edd’s wife, Nettie, singing “Wildwood Flowers” and “Amazing Grace” to a small audience.

Nettie Presnell

Nettie Presnell

The clouds drifting across the skies, the herky-jerky of thousands of butterflies, the glistening blue of the dragonflies, the chirrup of the redwings, the splash of the trout, the laughter of children, the drawling conversation of the elders — they were all of a piece.

As the afternoon lengthened, carloads of guests began leaving and we gathered up our trout, wrapped in aluminum foil to take home to our freezer and started our dusty, gravel-filled way back off the mountain.

And as we drove off, we could see Edd, sitting on the front porch with Baxter, rocking back and forth, probably discussing rabbit hunting or the heat.

NEXT: Mountain crafts