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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. 

Carole Steele was born two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and she spent her childhood in rural North Carolina, and for a short while during the war, in Portsmouth, Va., while her father worked in the shipyards at Norfolk. 

While we were married, she often told stories of that childhood: her older brother, Mel; her hardworking father, Mutt; her peculiar grandfather, Earl Thaddeus, whom she called “Papa E.” They lived in a small house on the banks of the Dan River in Rockingham County, some 30 miles north of Greensboro, in the 1940s, where her family kept animals — a cow, some hogs and chickens. In her memory, this childhood was by turns idyllic, stormy, disappointing and exhilarating. It was for her, even more than for most, the persistent foundation of her adult life. 

In the years before Carole died, I tried to get her to write down her stories of life and childhood. Finally, we settled on a strategy: I would sit her down, and like George Burns saying to Gracie Allen, “So, tell us about your brother, Gracie,” and she’d be off to the races. Carole was like that: She had a million stories. I typed as fast as she spoke, and I got much down, but I’m afraid Carole did not live long enough to finish the project. 

Ultimately, we filled about 35 pages with her recollections. I hope that someday, granddaughters Carol Lily and Tallulah Rose will want to find out more about their Tiggy and will appreciate that this was written down and saved for them. 

These are Carole’s words, verbatim and unedited. She spoke like a great storyteller, and much of it sounds as if it might come directly from Faulkner. These are 10 episodes, from when she was about two years old until she was eight or nine. 

Papa E and the Easter chicks

When I was a child, Easter chicks were sold at Mack’s 5&10. They were dyed fuchsia, green, blue and purple. The purple ones were my favorites.

And one day, before Easter, I saw them in the dime store counter between the toy watches and the rubber balls. So, I bought a little purple one and took it home. I had a colored Easter chick every year, but the poor little things never lived long. The dye probably made them sick.

On this occasion, Papa E was home when I brought my chick in and he thought it was beautiful, too. So pretty that he went up to the dime store and bought 100 of them, all different colors. And he put them in a big metal drum with high sides; he put them under the back porch where the land dropped away toward the river. This open spot was my “ranch/mud pie bakery.” And I was thrilled to have the chicks with me.

I must have been 5 or 6 because I had to drag a cinderblock up to the oil can to climb up high enough to hang my ribs on the rim of the oil can to look down and see the chicks. They were wonderfully beautiful. All different colors. Fuzzy and peeping.

Papa E came down to check them after supper, kicked the cinder block away and held me up over the rim so I could see them again. And then we all went in to bed.

The next morning, I woke up to the sound of Papa E’s feet hurrying through the house. 

“Get your pistol, Mutt. A weasel’s got the chicks.”

Daddy grabbed his pistol; Papa E already had his. And I jumped out of bed in my pajamas, barefooted and ran behind them out of the house, where Papa E had already located the weasel in the dirt road.

We all went running down the road behind the weasel, with Daddy and Papa E each shooting their pistols as we ran.

The bullets would puff up the dirt under the weasel’s feet, but it ran zig-zagging from left to right, left to right, all down the dirt road and finally ran off to the left into our small swamp, where we couldn’t follow.

We had to give up, turn around, and walk slowly back home and I heard Papa E tell Daddy, “He  killed ‘em just for blood, Mutt. Just for blood, every one.”

Daddy said, “Don’t you look at them, Carole.”

But when we got back to the house, I ran to the oil drum in my playhouse and dragged up the cinder block again, climbed up and hung on my ribs and there they were, 100 colored chicks each of their necks bitten and no chick swallowed. 

Carole and the balloons

One day, when Mama Piggy was visiting, Daddy was at the shipyard; Mama Piggy, Mother, Melvin and I rode to Buckroe Beach in Mama Piggy’s dark blue car. We were walking on the sand when we came upon a man selling ugly brown balloons. Mother bought one for Melvin and as we walked on, I pulled at Mother and asked could I have one, too. This was a familiar situation because Melvin often whined for things and when Mother got something for him, maybe because she thought I hadn’t expressed a desire for the Dixie Cup of ice cream or the balloon, or a toy, that I didn’t need one or even want one. But of course, seeing a toy in Melvin’s hands made me want a toy, too. So we turned around and went back to the ugly brown balloons and one was bought for me.

They were each tied on to skinny wooden sticks. Balloons were very scarce during the war, as were bright colored things. Anything related to grease or metal or oil or oil byproducts was scarce. When we got home from Buckroe Beach, we lay down to take a nap. I stayed awake long enough to make sure that Mother and Melvin were actually asleep; then I pulled a safety pin out of Mother’s pincushion and sneaked into the living room where the thin sticks of our balloons were slipped behind the coiled spring of the front spring door. I selected one balloon to represent the one that belonged to Melvin and I popped it. As Mother and Melvin were waking up from the bang, I realized I would have to sacrifice my own balloon to deprive Melvin of his, and with my cold hard little heart, I popped the second balloon. Melvin was totally pissed, and I thought he would never stop whining and crying about it.

This experience was really rewarding to me, so I decided to try some other things. That night, after everyone went to sleep — at this time Melvin and I shared the big double bed — I pulled up on my knees on the bed and leaned over and looked in Melvin’s face. I made faces at him; stuck out my tongue at him; waved my fingers behind my ears; and became convinced that he was completely asleep. Then I raised up, balled up my right fist and punched him in the nose as hard as I could. He woke up screaming and crying with blood running down his face. After cussing me, he ran into Mother and Daddy, told them I had punched him in the nose on purpose. They assured him I would never do anything like that, that I was a sweet little girl and he must have had a bad dream and waked up with a nosebleed.

When he came back to bed, he didn’t hit me back, but he really hated me. But I had drawn blood. I wondered what else would draw blood. I really enjoyed hitting him.

The next day, he and Ruebel Jones got into a fight in the back yard. I was probably 3 and Melvin would have been 5, making Ruebel about 7. Ruebel had a little brother, blond, named Dewey. His nose always ran and his face was always covered with dirty snotstripes. They were both unsavory characters and Ruebel was certainly a bully. 

I had a Pepsi bottle that Mother had filled with ice water and I carried it around with me in the back yard. Ruebel hit Melvin in the nose and of course, Melvin started bleeding all over again. Melvin did not hit Ruebel back because Ruebel was much bigger, but I ran over to Ruebel and hit him as hard as I could on the head with my glass filled-up Pepsi bottle and Ruebel went down with blood running out of his nose. Bloody noses, bloody noses: I was a MAN.

Melvin was furious with me because Ruebel had beaten him and I beat Ruebel. Ruebel and Dewey both ran home crying. Melvin ran into Mother crying and tattling on me: one of his favorite things. I don’t know that I ever really hit another child after that in my whole life; it was too easy to win. All it took was a hard heart.

Carole and yellow food

Sometimes I got into trouble entertaining myself, on my own. 

I loved to explore all the containers in the bathroom. Sometimes I left great messy trails of bath powder through the house, or pulled all the tissue off the roll. Sometimes I opened the refrigerator and experimented. After the first banana I ever had, I pulled out all the yellow foods of the refrigerator because I thought yellow meant sweet.

I carried it all to the back porch and tested each item. The worst disappointment was crookneck squash.

Then I found a cake of butter, a one pound cake of butter, that Grandmother Bell had mailed to us in an oatmeal box. I thought it would do as a doll birthday cake. Mother and Melvin came back into the house just as I was finishing the last few bites. Mother was sure I would be very sick, but I didn’t suffer any ill effects. 

Hub Hawkins stutter

Papa E’s sister, Mattie, married Captain Jack Hawkins. One of their sons was Dewey Hawkins, who ran the pool room. And this Dewey was Papa E’s nephew and lifelong sidekick.

Mattie and Captain Jack also had a son, Wallace Hawkins. And Wallace Hawkins married Mama Piggy’s sister, Valerie. Susie inherited Great Aunt Vallie’s reddish hair and blue eyes. 

Captain Jack and Mattie also had a son who was called Hub Hawkins and Hub could not talk plain, and might have been a little slow.

One day, I saw Hub coming walking down Murphy Street toward our house. Papa E, whose real name was Thaddeus Steele, or Thad Steele, and Dewey were in straight chairs, leaned up against the front of our plumbing shop. They were wearing their pistols in their holsters as usual, which Captain Jack always did.

At this time, Captain Jack was the sheriff, or head policeman. He was the big policeman of the town in that day.

Papa E said to Dewey, “You know, Dewey, if Hub ever got mad enough, he could talk plain as any man.”

And Papa E and Dewey pulled out their pistols and began shooting at Hub’s feet. Hub was, of course, furious. 

And as he was hopping up and down in the middle of the street trying to dodge their bullets, Hub yelled out, “D-Dod D-Dam you D-Dad Deele.”

Papa E and Bucko

Papa E bought a bull for a pet and named the bull Bucko. Or maybe I named him Bucko. Because each day when I would come home from school,  Bucko would be chained to a telephone pole at the right side of our house, of our front yard. And he was always trying to buck the telephone pole down. 

Bucko was very ill tempered and I was afraid of him. His only role at our house was to be Papa E’s pet. Bucko managed to work himself loose occasionally and only Papa E could catch him. 

There was a sunken well in our back yard, a very dangerous place that Melvin and I were forbidden to go near. We had some wooden Adirondack style furniture in the back yard and Bucko butted it all into the sunken well, piece by piece.

On my way home from school, I always checked the telephone pole to see if Bucko was tied up; he was. So I went down under the back porch to my cowgirl ranch/mudpie bakery to check on things and when I came out, Bucko was standing loose in the yard with red eyes and steam shooting out his nostrils and ears. I tried to run up the back steps, but Bucko cut me off from the steps and I had to run toward the creek. Bucko followed me and I ran around the yard twice. Finally, I saw mother at the top of the steps with the screen door open, and I made a run for the steps. This time, I made it and mother pulled me in the door just as Bucko climbed the steps after me.

The next morning, I looked out the window to see if Bucko was chained up and Bucko was not there. 

I went out into the front yard to talk to Daddy to ask about where Bucko might be, and I saw Papa E loading Bucko into the back of the truck. I asked mother where Bucko was going and she said, “The glue factory.”

Tea with dead squirrels

In the glove drawer, I used to keep a little white cardboard jewelry box with a rattlesnake rattle that Papa E had given to me. Every time I came home from college, I would open the little box and shake the rattle, but the day finally came when I opened the little box and the rattlesnake rattle had turned to dust. Rattlesnake dust.

Papa E often gave me parts of little animals when he skinned them. He gave me many poofy little rabbit tails and furry rabbit paws. When I was 5, and we lived in a cabin, Papa E was taking care of me one day and we went hunting. Papa E shot two flying squirrels but first, he had me watch them and he showed me how they spread out their little arms and sailed from tree to tree.

After he shot the two squirrels, he wanted to continue hunting, but was worried about me in the woods, so he found a good playhouse tree for me and stationed me under the tree asking me to take care of the two squirrels and not to leave the tree. I collected a lot of acorn caps and made a tea set; I closed the little squirrels’ eyes and put them to bed for a nap at the base of the tree using dry leaves for blankets. I woke them up and gave them tea.

It probably sounds gruesome, but I had a wonderful time.

Papa E and the pond

When Papa E and I walked in the woods, there was one special day that I realized Papa E was teaching me important things that he wanted me to remember.

He took me around to all the trees and had me rub the bark and sniff the bark, pull a little of the bark off and feel how wet the wood was underneath. He showed me the leaf shape of many different trees and I remember he told me that sweetgum twigs make good toothbrushes, and to find a sweetgum tree, to look up in the canopy for leaves that looked like stars.

He said, if I saw a tree in the woods that looked like a ghost, it would be a sycamore. There was a big-leafed plant he showed me, and he called it elephant ears. He also showed me what poison oak and poison ivy look like.

And then, I found jewelweed and he told me it was a cure for poison oak and poison ivy.

He dug up a little piece of ginseng root and cut off the tip of one of the roots. It looked just like a little bloody toe. He said, he and great grandmother made a tonic of ginseng every spring. That it would keep you healthy.

But best of all the plants in the woods, and I think his favorite, too, was young sassafras. He showed me the three kinds of leaves: the mitten, the ordinary leaf, and a glove, I think. I’m not sure about the third leaf shape.

We dug up the roots from one and using creek water, we boiled it in a tin can and then drank the tea. It was wonderful.

There was another thing that Papa E showed me that day about the trees. One was to take off some bark and pull out a wet strip of flexible hickory wood, make a slash in one end of the strip and cut a notched point at the other end of the strip. Then you could thread that strip through a piece of meat to hang a rack of meat strips over coals to dry the meat. As the hickory strips dried over the fire, they shrunk and held the meat fast. He said you could use hickory strips this way to fasten many things.

He also said, small hickory limbs, branches are the best for slingshots.

Daddy often made slingshots and was a great expert in their use.

Daddy could kill as many bullfrogs as he wanted to with the slingshot instead of a frog gig.

On this day, we stopped at a little black pool in the woods and we lay down in the pool on our stomachs. Papa E showed me how to lower my chin and nose into the water so that the water came up just beneath our eyes and then he said, now look. The top of the water had turned into something like a wonderful skating pond and there were dozens of tiny insects, many different kinds, skating across the water, hopping, taking off, landing and I knew this must have been his favorite game when he was a child.

These days with Papa E were the beginning of my lifelong love of the woods and the woods were my retreat. I was very proud that day because I did not feel like Papa E’s grandchild; I felt proud because I believe he found in me, a sister.

Old man Ratledge

Janice’s grandfather, Old Man Ratledge was the meanest looking man I ever saw. He still had some black hair and always grizzly whiskers. He always smelled like whisky and was extremely grumpy. I just have to say he was very mean. He spent his days on the porch of the old Ice Plant rocked back on the two back legs of his chair. Occasionally, Janice and I would walk down to the Ice Plant and ask him if he would please give us a nickel or a dime and he would call out, “Goddamn it, you sons of bitches! Get away from me!” 

Hog killing

We also had hogs. Down the road some distance from our house. If Daddy happened to be at home and Melvin or I telephoned, when we asked “Can I speak to Mother please,” Daddy would always say, “She’s gone to feed the hogs and the hogs got her.”

The hogs were a real trial. We had one successful year of raising hogs and on the day they were slaughtered, Daddy made me leave the scene but I was too tempted. It was a very exciting morning already because Melvin and I had seen a cottonmouth at the creek and daddy had sent Charlie Mosely down to the creek to hunt the cottonmouth and kill it.

Since I couldn’t go down to the creek, and Charlie wouldn’t let me go with him to kill the snake, I hid around the corner of the plumbing shop and watched the hog killing. Daddy and the men shot the hogs in the temple with a pistol. I remember seeing the heavy hog bodies go lifeless. Then they tied the two back feet together and hung the hogs upside down. They put buckets under the hogs to catch the blood and cut the hog’s bellies open down to their necks. 

I have a strange memory of everything that happened next because I have confusion about Charlie coming up holding the dead cottonmouth by its tail, and the hogs entrails coming out of them. I have a memory of seeing a snake or a hog cut open and little live black snakes crawling out.

We took lots of our hog meat to friends and family. Mama Piggy came and helped mother make extra hot sage sausage and Papa Bell took the hams to salt cure for us. The tenderloins were the most prized part of the meat. We ate those right away and took them fresh to friends.

Mother made wonderful country gravy with the tenderloins and we had all of the tenderloins and pork chops that we could hold for a good while. 

2 year old’s paradise

This doesn’t belong to that time: but to a time when I was probably 2 years old.

We’d come to Mayodan to visit Papa Bell and Grandmother Bell and very early in the morning, our cousin Marilyn came and woke us up to go out and play. And we went down the hill toward Papa Bell’s turnip patch. There was a big concrete conduit pouring out toward the turnip patch. It had a little water in the bottom of it. We crawled up in there and splashed around for a while. Then we came out and walked into what I thought was a jungle: all kinds of weed were up to my shoulders and trees I’d never seen before. At the other side of the turnip field, I could see a rising bank and the back steps of a group of houses. One of those back doors opened and a boy came out with a white dishpan full of soapy water. His mother yelled at him and he threw the water out and went back inside. Birds were singing all around my head. The smell of the leaves and the weeds all around me was so intense that I will never forget that morning. I think it might have been the first time I was ever in weeds and the first time I heard birds singing to me.

Now, if I imagine paradise, it is that second when the birds were singing and I saw the boy come out his kitchen door. 

Reidsville is a small town in north-central North Carolina halfway between the city of Greensboro and the Virginia border. It was once the home of the American Tobacco Company and at the north end of downtown is a huge factory complex with a smokestack that still says “Lucky Strike” on its shaft. 

Like so many Southern towns, there is a main street where the shops are found, and a parallel street where the old factories and warehouses are located, with the railroad tracks running alongside. This pattern is repeated throughout Dixie, but is especially common in the Piedmont, which was once the industrial heart of the Southern states. 

The downtown in Reidsville is not as vibrant as it used to be. There are many empty storefronts and some of those have been filled with “antique” emporia and consignment shops. I don’t want to imply it is a dying town; in fact, it seems quite happy and busy, even though its heyday ended with the closing of the tobacco plant. 

There were also textile mills and other factories and their old buildings, now repurposed or abandoned, line the back street and railroad tracks. I find such relics irresistible. 

As I explained in the previous blog entry, I am compelled to make things — the compulsion is itself a relic of the old Protestant work ethic; I feel guilty if I am not producing something. So, as a retired writer, I still pump out blog entries, and as a former photographer, I am still driven to make images. These usually group in series; which I call “projects.” For years, I made serial images of gardens, always meant to be seen not singly, but as a cohesive group, rather like a book. I hope each image can stand on its own, but it is not designed solely for that purpose. 

In the entry previous to this one, I presented bits of a series of fruit and vegetable images, and a recent bunch of “tree nudes” — winter trees with their branches and bark naked to the weather. 

I also spent a day driving the industrial streets of Reidsville, looking for the past poking through the present. Along SE Market Street, alongside the rails, there are the shells of old warehouses and factories, textured with brick and sometimes closed off with tornado fencing. 

I have been fascinated by such places since I was a boy, loving the less visited side-streets in New York, looking at old apartment buildings and second-story residences above storefronts. There is something about the edge of decay that is beautiful. A fresh new building just seems unripe; one that has been settling for decades, even a century, has gained character.

This is something like the Japanese esthetic concept of wabi-sabi, or an appreciation of the imperfection and impermanence of things, and why a Japanese potter will often crack or warp a vessel before firing it, finding the result more beautiful than bland regularity. 

In the past, when I made photographs of old buildings, I made them in black and white, which seemed a way to emphasize form and texture, and was then the accepted presentation of “art” photography — color not making it into most museums because of its perceived impermanence (consider your old snapshots, turned magenta and faded. A museum didn’t want to pay good money for an artwork that would go south in only a few years). 

Black and white was what all the photographers I admired used (with a few exceptions). And if I looked at one of Walker Evans photographs for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, I found beyond the images of poverty, a way of making beauty out of decaying architecture. 

One of the few classic artworks I actually own is Evans picture of the Rock Hill Cafe in Alabama. It is beautiful and I love it. 

But as I get older and as technology has improved and my perceptions have changed, I find myself making color photographs more often, and often the color is the point. So, I might see an old welding shop in Reidsville and see it in monochrome.

Or I could present an old rusted doorway in B&W

I saw, though, a range of subtle color that just delighted my eye. 

Interestingly, Evans himself took up color and in the 1960s made a series of color photographs of old buildings. His materials were not as good as we have now and the color never completely satisfied him. 

Walker Evans 1960

There have been some truly impressive color photographs made by such artists as William Eggleston, Eliot Porter or Ernst Haas. They forced me to reconsider the esthetics of color.

To say nothing of the melancholy and beautiful streets of Edward Hopper. 

So, I drive through the streets of Reidsville on a December morning and see so many absolutely beautiful wrecks. Because it is cold, and because I am old and my hams have gone weak, I aimed my camera through the opened side-window of my car and made my series. 

There were times I parked and got out of the car, but mostly, I made the window-height camera a part of the esthetic — or I’m just lazy. 

I drove down Market Street and up the other side of the tracks, then crossed back by Harrison, Gilmer, Settle and Williams streets. There was beauty everywhere. 

The question of whether what I have made is art no longer interests me. There was a time I wanted to be an artist, but now my emphasis in not at all on how I am seen or judged by others, but rather the direct fact of making stuff. It matters little what it is called. 

The photographs are my way of engaging with the world, reminding myself to see it and see it whole, not just the sunsets and mountainscapes, but the sagging doorways, too, and the cracks in pavement. The way the clouds gray-up and dull the shadows till they flatten completely. The roundness of an orange, the spatter of mud on my tires, the layers of paint on my back porch. 

I now consider this engagement far more important than the artifacts that results, however much fun it is to share them. 

I have talked with my brother about this, who is an artist — a real one, with sales and exhibitions — and he rather laughed. “What do you think an artist is? A vocation? Something you go to trade school for, like plumbing or accountancy?” 

The urge, the need to make things, he said, the fact that you do it makes you an artist, whether you think of yourself that way or not. Being an artist is not so lofty a title; it is simply something one does. 

And so, I drive up and down streets looking at the world that amazes me, and I find color and shape and texture; shadow and highlight; past and present; banality and transcendence.

Click on any image to enlarge

This past January, my first ex-wife and I observed our 50th wedding anniversary, but also 47 years of divorce. Between that rupture and last year, we hadn’t talked or seen each other. 

But about a year ago, we reconnected and agreed to drive with each other to see our son in Austin, Texas. That trip proved so agreeable, that she suggested a longer trip. I offered that we drive to Maine to visit our college friends, Sandro and Mu, who live in Sullivan, Maine, north of Mount Desert Island. And so, we made plans. 

Anne and Vanessa Redgrape

When I was young, I thought nothing of driving six- or seven-hundred miles in a day. But my old bones cannot take such treatment anymore, and so we decided not to drive more than two hundred miles in a go. That limit was tested several times during the trip.

We figured it would take about six days to make the 1200 mile drive. 

“What do you want to do when we go?” I asked. 

“I’ve got three things: I want to eat lobster,” she said. “And I want to visit Mount Desert Island; and I’d like to see West Virginia. Is that on the way?”

“It can be.” Before Anne got here, I made an itinerary that would take us through West Virginia. Originally, I had thought to drive the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, but I rejiggered the route. It added some miles to the trip, but I wanted to show her the state; I love West Virginia, although maybe for the wrong reasons. I love the decay and the dreariness of those parts I knew best — coal country, with its tipples and meth labs, the nearly empty towns of old brick and service stations. 

And so, the departure date was set and on Wednesday, Oct. 9, we packed up Anne’s car — which she has named Evelyn Angelina Buick — and sidled onto the BRP and headed north.

Not everyone names their cars. When Anne and I were married, four decades ago, we owned a maroon Chevrolet the size of an aircraft carrier that I named Vanessa Redgrape, for a cluster of polyethylene grapes hanging from the back window. Our friend, Hank, owned a green VW beetle that he named Gigi, or G.G., for “Green Gonad.” If you don’t own a dog or cat, you can always pet your automobile. 

Evie, as Anne nicknamed the car, is a 2014 Buick Verano the vaguely silver color of pewter that Anne calls “car colored.” Half the cars on the road these days are “car colored.” 

It is a cyborg of a car. It screams at you if you drift out of lane; it beeps if you are backing into someone; it tells you your gas mileage by the second; it has a key that folds up like a switchblade; and a camera in the rear bumper so you can see front and back at the same time. It also has cruise control, which is, for me and my right foot, a miracle. 

I don’t think we could have made the trip if we were driving my own Kia Forte, which is admittedly a very well made car, but a very badly designed one, and with an engine in it with just enough power to start it moving forward on a flat surface. My legs and feet would have cramped up within a few hours of starting out. We took her car. 

Craggy Gardens

Oct. 9

Almost immediately as we started the fog closed in, and we kept driving in and out of obscurity, up and down the mountains and looping around the tight corners. About 20 miles on, at Craggy Gardens, where we stopped, we were above the mist and the view was pure Caspar David Friedrich, with the sun glaring in patches off the clouds underneath us, as bright as fluorescent lights. To the south, fog filled the valleys, but to the north it was uninterrupted whiteness, with two or three peaks poking through like islands in the sea. It was very like flying above the clouds. 

Normally, from the turnout at Craggy Gardens, you can look to the southeast, back toward the towns of Montreat and Black Mountain and see civilization: houses, warehouses, highways and fast-food chicken franchises. But with the white blanket, that was all hidden, and you could have the fresh look one imagines early settlers had on utter wilderness. 

Altapass

At Altapass, we made the obligatory stop at the orchards. It was too late in the season for many apples in the store, but Anne found a jar of preserves she wanted to take to Mu in Maine. 

We continued north and exited the BRP in Ashe County. I used to live there, many decades ago, in a house on a bluff above the South Fork of the New River. A back porch cantilevered out over the hillside drop, about 200 feet down to the water and gave a similar sense of flying. We took a side trip to Obids to see the old house. Time and the river have both flowed on. 

New River

We drove up the drive to the old house, which is now occupied by a family that, while I didn’t see any cars up on cinderblocks, managed to give that impression anyway.

Beside that, it had all changed. It used to be that the land around the house was all grass. We could see the hills on the other side of the river and Mount Jefferson to the north. But now, four decades later, trees have all grown up around the house and the view is blocked in all directions. The house was closed in, but so, I felt, was I. 

I had been feeling deeply nostalgic. But I also realized that however much I might like to travel back to the places of my younger days, I would also need to be able to travel in time as well as in space.

West Jefferson

We drove into West Jefferson for lunch and found the town busier and healthier than it was back then. Stores were open rather than storefronts with rent signs in them. When my late wife Carole and I lived there, there were two restaurants in the whole county — a breakfast cafe and a pizzeria. Now, the joint is jumpin’ with nice places. We had barbecue for lunch and moved on north, through Galax, Va., and into Hillsville, where we found a motel and, tired from the road, a Chinese buffet across the road.

Oct. 10

“Look out, there’s something in the road!”

“I see it.” A lump in the middle of our lane. I slowed, it began to move.

We got up close to it and it began to waddle across the road. It was a badger. I’d never seen one in the “wild” before.

The roads in West Virginia are notoriously bad, with patches and potholes. But things may be changing. As we drive up along U.S. 219, miles and miles have been resurfaced with rubberized macadam. It’s like magic. All road noise quiets down and the ride is perfectly smooth. As we drove along, I kept looking for more of it and was tickled every time we found another few miles of the stuff.

Driving has been fun for me, but not so much for my passenger. Western West Virginia is all Ridge and Valley Province, and the road constantly climbs up the mountains and down the far side, and to do so they are twisty. More than twisty, they are carefully banked, so that speeding downhill, it’s like the 24 hours of Le Mans. I felt like a Grand Prix driver, banking hard to the right or left as we rounded the hairpins. But it just made Anne carsick. We pulled off the road a few times so she could calm her belly.

Despite that, she loved the countryside, although I was disappointed. I had never been to this part of the state before and it turned out to be notably devoid of coal tipples. Instead, it was rolling farmland interrupted by breadloaf mountains. 

The early morning gave us more low-lying fog dropped into the hollows and coves and for about 10 miles, the ridge to our east was lined with wind turbines. They were a constant presence on the horizon. 

We spent the night at Elkins, WV, home of Davis Elkins College, which by the look of it serves as the safety school for those whose first choice was Elon College.

Elkins did not impress us. We took the concierge’s recommendation for dinner and went to Maggie CG’s. Walked a few blocks to get there. The place was cavernous and dark, and we stood at the hostess podium for about 5 minutes and not a peep from anywhere in the joint. I grabbed a couple of menus from behind the podium and we sat down. Nothing. One other couple was eating already at one table and a very large man was seated by the front door, obviously waiting for something. But nothing. Not a sound, not a person, not a waiter, not a hostess. We sat at our table for another 5 or 10 minutes and decided to leave.

Elkins, W.V.

Went across the street to Beander’s, which was clearly the college dive of Elkins and a hot spot for college students, who, by definition, tend to be loud and rowdy. No hostess again. We again grabbed menus and picked a table. Eventually a waitress came by. Menu was notably unimaginative, but the food was adequate.

Oct. 11

It’s been a long day. We drove 305 miles. Didn’t mean to. Left Elkin at 8:30 a.m. and took U.S. 219 north into Maryland, past a town called Accident. (Internet says people who live in Accident, Md., are known as “Accidentals.”) Picked up I-68 to Cumberland and U.S. 220 north to the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Bedford. Took that to I-81 at the notorious Carlisle, home of the infamous Indian boarding school. The plan was to get a hotel in Harrisburg. We stopped and discovered there were no rooms in the whole town. A giant car show had them all booked.

So, we kept going on I-81 till we got to Frackville and got a room at the Holiday Inn Express. I don’t like Holiday Inn, but after 300 miles and traffic you wouldn’t believe, we had to take what we could get.

Anne really seemed to enjoy the countryside. Lots of long low mountain ridges with barns and silos, with cows and cornfields. It looked like something out of a calendar photo. Right from Central Casting.

The Turnpike is a toll road and when we got off in Carlisle, the tariff was $12.45. A bit more than I had expected. I paid the man in dollar coins. I don’t know if he gets to see many of those.

Dinner tonight at Cracker Barrel. Again: All that was available.

Tomorrow the plan is to drive up the Delaware Water Gap and maybe get to Bear Mountain on the Hudson River.

To be continued

Click any image to enlarge

A few years before my late wife got ill, I began asking her to tell me stories from her childhood. She would talk and I would type them into my laptop (I can type as fast as someone can speak). 

She had been telling these stories for decades; she seemed to have an uncanny memory for even minute details, memory that went back nearly to her infancy. I thought it would be important to preserve some of these, especially for her granddaughters. We knew from our own experience how much we wish we could now ask our grandparents for information now irretrievable by their deaths. Here was a trove to preserve for when the granddaughters finally come to want to know their roots.

Well, their roots are as Southern as they could be. I am from New Jersey, and I always thought the baroque and byzantine tales of William Faulkner were clearly hyperbolic and sensational, but as Carole sat and recalled her life, it seemed ever more likely that Faulkner was just writing what he knew.

I thought I might share a few of these stories that Carole retold me. This group concerns her grandfather, Earl Thaddeus Steele, who she called “Papa E.” He was a character; he hardly worked a day in his life, spending his time hunting and fishing instead. When he was a boy, his family migrated to Kansas in a wagon to start an apple orchard; it failed and they moved back to North Carolina. Late in life, Papa E caused a car wreck in which he lost a leg. He had driven through a stop sign, but he always said that traffic signs were only for people who didn’t know how to drive. 

I have what amounts more than a hundred pages of typewritten recollections. I can only offer a few here. These are Carole’s words, transcribed by me. 

Bucko the Bull

Papa E bought a bull for a pet and named the bull Bucko. Or maybe I named him Bucko. Because each day when I would come home from school,  Bucko would be chained to a telephone pole at the right side of our house, of our front yard. And he was always trying to buck the telephone pole down.

Bucko was very ill-tempered and I was afraid of him. His only role at our house was to be Papa E’s pet. Bucko managed to work himself loose occasionally and only Papa E could catch him. 

There was a sunken well in our back yard, a very dangerous place that Melvin and I were forbidden to go near. We had some wooden Adirondack style furniture in the back yard and Bucko butted it all into the sunken well, piece by piece.

On my way home from school, I always checked the telephone pole to see if Bucko was tied up; he was. So I went down under the back porch to my cowgirl ranch/mudpie bakery to check on things and when I came out, Bucko was standing loose in the yard with red eyes and steam shooting out his nostrils and ears. I tried to run up the back steps, but Bucko cut me off from the steps and I had to run toward the creek. Bucko followed me and I ran around the yard twice. Finally, I saw mother at the top of the steps with the screen door open, and I made a run for the steps. This time, I made it and mother pulled me in the door just as Bucko climbed the steps after me.

The next morning, I looked out the window to see if Bucko was chained up and Bucko was not there. 

I went out into the front yard to talk to Daddy to ask about where Bucko might be, and I saw Papa E loading Bucko into the back of the truck. I asked mother where Bucko was going and she said, “The glue factory.”

The Easter Chicks

When I was a child, Easter chicks were sold at Mack’s 5&10. They were dyed fuschia, green, blue and purple. The purple ones were my favorites.

And one day, before Easter, I saw them in the dime store counter between the toy watches and the rubber balls. So, I bought a little purple one and took it home. I had a colored Easter chick every year, but the poor little things never lived long. The dye probably made them sick.

On this occasion, Papa E was home when I brought my chick in and he thought it was beautiful, too. So pretty that he went up to the dime store and bought 100 of them, all different colors. And he put them in a big metal drum with high sides; he put them under the back porch where the land dropped away toward the river. This open spot was my “ranch/mud pie bakery.” And I was thrilled to have the chicks with me.

I must have been 5 or 6 because I had to drag a cinderblock up to the oil can to climb up high enough to hang my ribs on the rim of the oil can to look down and see the chicks. They were wonderfully beautiful. All different colors. Fuzzy and peeping.

Papa E came down to check them after supper, kicked the cinder block away and held me up over the rim so I could see them again. And then we all went in to bed.

The next morning, I woke up to the sound of Papa E’s feet hurrying through the house. 

“Get your pistol, Mutt. A weasel’s got the chicks.”

Daddy grabbed his pistol; Papa E already had his. And I jumped out of bed in my pajamas, barefooted and ran behind them out of the house, where Papa E had already located the weasel in the dirt road.

We all went running down the road behind the weasel, with Daddy and Papa E each shooting their pistols as we ran.

The bullets would puff up the dirt under the weasel’s feet, but it ran zig-zagging from left to right, left to right, all down the dirt road and finally ran off to the left into our small swamp, where we couldn’t follow.

We had to give up, turn around, and walk slowly back home and I heard Papa E tell Daddy, “He  killed ‘em just for blood, Mutt. Just for blood, every one.”

Daddy said, “Don’t you look at them, Carole.”

But when we got back to the house, I ran to the oil drum in my playhouse and dragged up the cinder block again, climbed up and hung on my ribs and there they were, 100 colored chicks each of their necks bitten and no chick swallowed. 

Language Therapist

Papa E’s sister, Mattie, married Captain Jack Hawkins. One of their sons was Dewey Hawkins, who ran the pool room. And this Dewey was Papa E’s nephew and lifelong sidekick.

Mattie and Captain Jack also had a son, Wallace Hawkins. And Wallace Hawkins married Mama Piggy’s sister, Valerie. Susie inherited Great Aunt Vallie’s reddish hair and blue eyes. 

Captain Jack and Mattie also had a son who was called Hub Hawkins and Hub could not talk plain, had a terrible stutter and might have been a little slow.

One day, I saw Hub coming walking down Murphy Street toward our house. Papa E, whose real name was Thaddeus Steele, or Thad Steele, and Dewey were in straight chairs, leaned up against the front of our plumbing shop. They were wearing their pistols in their holsters as usual, which Captain Jack always did.

At this time, Captain Jack was the sheriff, or head policeman. He was the big policeman of the town in that day.

Papa E said to Dewey, “You know, Dewey, if Hub ever got mad enough, he could talk plain as any man.”

And Papa E and Dewey pulled out their pistols and began shooting at Hub’s feet. Hub was, of course, furious. 

And as he was hopping up and down in the middle of the street trying to dodge their bullets, Hub yelled out, “D-Dod D-Dam you D-Dad D-Deele.” 

Flying Squirrels

When I was growing up, I had the most beautiful piece of furniture in the house. It was a handmade walnut chest of drawers and on top, there was a small glove drawer and a small handkerchief drawer, or collar drawer.

It was made by someone in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a relative, but I don’t know who. It would have been someone old enough to be one of my great-great grandfathers. I hope someday Mother will give the chest to me. 

In the glove drawer, I used to keep a little white cardboard jewelry box with a rattlesnake rattle that Papa E had given to me. Every time I came home from college, I would open the little box and shake the rattle, but the day finally came when I opened the little box and the rattlesnake rattle had turned to dust. Rattlesnake dust.

Papa E often gave me parts of little animals when he skinned them. He gave me many poofy little rabbit tails and furry rabbit paws. When I was 5, and we lived in a cabin, Papa E was taking care of me one day and we went hunting. Papa E shot two flying squirrels but first, he had me watch them and he showed me how they spread out their little arms and sailed from tree to tree.

After he shot the two squirrels, he wanted to continue hunting, but was worried about me in the woods, so he found a good playhouse tree for me and stationed me under the tree asking me to take care of the two squirrels and not to leave the tree. I collected a lot of acorn caps and made a tea set; I closed the little squirrels’ eyes and put them to bed for a nap at the base of the tree using dry leaves for blankets. I woke them up and gave them tea.

It probably sounds gruesome, but I had a wonderful time.

The Sock Drawer

The day I thought Papa E was dying. It was late in his life and he was lying in bed and he was wearing a van Gogh style beard and he was growing this beard as a hobby and it was irritating Mother. I loved his beard.

He called me to his room, motioned me to his bedside, asked me to lean down so he could whisper something in my ear and I was scared to death he was going to tell me goodbye for the last time. But he said, “Carole, look in the third dresser drawer, under my socks. Peach brandy.”

Daddy did something similar many years later. And when I bent down to hear what Daddy had to say to me, this was after one of his heart attacks, he said, “Catbird, go out to the Hudson, look in the floorboard of the back seat under a blanket. There’s a new rifle I bought. Your mother doesn’t know anything about it. Wrap it up in the blanket and bring it to me so she doesn’t find out.”

Testing the Edge

One of the funniest things about Papa E was, about the same time as the peach brandy, after he’d lost his leg, Daddy had built an addition on the house, that they called the Florida Room. it had the television and the dining table and chairs, the sofa and a couple of other comfortable chairs for watching TV. 

Mother used to work on the books for the plumbing company in this room at the dining table. And Papa E would watch television sitting in the recliner. And although he was watching television, his chief activity at this time was practicing casting his fly rod over mother’s head. That was the last of a long string of things he did that drove Mother nuts. Starting with Papa E’s guns.

Daddy was turned down by the Army and the Navy because the third finger on his left hand had been shot through at the knuckle near the fingertip. This happened when Daddy was a little boy and had picked up one of Papa E’s loaded guns. 

I remember at least two times in my childhood that Mother scolded Papa E about keeping loaded guns in our house, and Papa E would go get the gun and say to Mother, “This gun is not loaded. See?” as he shot a hole in the living room floor. Or a hole through the living room window.

Knife sharpening drove Mother mad, also. Every morning Papa E would sharpen his straight razor. So in the morning when he sharpened his straight razor, he would hone the edge on a leather strop and the strop would hang inside the bathroom. And he would step outside the bathroom and shave a thin strip of wood out of the kitchen doorframe to see if his razor was ready. 

When winter came, Papa E would leave us and head to Florida to hunt and fish with Uncle Jim and Dewey.

He would return to us with spring and when he did, he would push all the furniture out of Melvin’s room and pitch his tent in the empty room.

Papa E and the Pond

When Papa E and I walked in the woods, there was one special day that I realized Papa E was teaching me important things that he wanted me to remember.

He took me around to all the trees and had me rub the bark and sniff the bark, pull a little of the bark off and feel how wet the wood was underneath. He showed me the leaf shape of many different trees and I remember he told me that sweetgum twigs make good toothbrushes, and to find a sweetgum tree, to look up in the canopy for leaves that looked like stars.

He said, if I saw a tree in the woods that looked like a ghost, it would be a sycamore. There was a big-leafed plant he showed me, and he called it elephant ears. He also showed me what poison oak and poison ivy look like. And then, I found jewelweed and he told me it was a cure for poison oak and poison ivy.

He dug up a little piece of ginseng root and cut off the tip of one of the roots. It looked just like a little bloody toe. He said, he and great grandmother made a tonic of ginseng every spring. That it would keep you healthy.

But best of all the plants in the woods, and I think his favorite, too, was young sassafras. He showed me the three kinds of leaves: the mitten, the ordinary leaf, and a glove, I think. I’m not sure about the third leaf shape. We dug up the roots from one and using creek water, we boiled it in a tin can and then drank the tea. It was wonderful.

There was another thing that Papa E showed me that day about the trees. One was to take off some bark and pull out a wet strip of flexible hickory wood, make a slash in one end of the strip and cut a notched point at the other end of the strip. Then you could thread that strip through a piece of meat to hang a rack of meat strips over coals to dry the meat. As the hickory strips dried over the fire, they shrunk and held the meat fast. He said you could use hickory strips this way to fasten many things.

He also said, small hickory limbs, branches are the best for slingshots. Daddy often made slingshots and was a great expert in their use. Daddy could kill as many bullfrogs as he wanted to with the slingshot instead of a frog gig.

On this day, we stopped at a little black pool in the woods and we lay down in the pool on our stomachs. Papa E showed me how to lower my chin and nose into the water so that the water came up just beneath our eyes and then he said, now look. The top of the water had turned into something like a wonderful skating pond and there were dozens of tiny insects, many different kinds, skating across the water, hopping, taking off, landing and I knew this must have been his favorite game when he was a child.

These days with Papa E were the beginning of my lifelong love of the woods and the woods were my retreat. I was very proud that day because I did not feel like Papa E’s grandchild; I felt proud because I believe he found in me, a sister.

I am a retired writer, although a writer never really retires, he just stops getting paid for it. 

In the six years since I left The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz., I have written 532 blog posts and another 35 monthly essays for the Spirit of the Senses salon group there (link here). That works out to just under two blog entries per week since I stopped getting paid. That is not many fewer than my weekly average while working. 

I have also taken and published countless photographs, usually in series, mostly in my blog. (One advantage of writing for the Web instead of for print, is that I can run as many images as I need. At the paper, I was frequently frustrated by the lack of space for photos along with my writing. Unlike most reporters, I usually took my own photographs.)

In 25 years in Phoenix, I wrote more than two-and-a-half million words and had four exhibitions of my photographs (catalog of the most recent: Link here) and produced 14 self-published books of my photographs (link here).  

I just can’t seem to stop working. Huff, puff. 

Yet, I have always had one nagging fear: that I am lazy. That I am just not doing enough. I have proof that I have been productive, but underneath, it always feels as if I’m slacking. I blame the PWE — the Protestant Work Ethic. It is something I don’t believe in, but it is so deeply buried in there, that it simply doesn’t matter if I believe in it or not. 

It is a disease, like an STD or PTSD; the dreaded PWE. It makes it a moral failing if I don’t match my self-imposed quota of productivity. Even a vacation is just another opportunity to create new stuff.

I am reminded of William Blake’s mythical deity, Los. Blake’s poetic universe is filled with mythic beings, each a projection of some psychological state. Los is a blacksmith (among other things — Blake is hardly consistent) and he is pictured as eternally forging a chain, one link after another. It is not clear there is any reason for the chain, but that doesn’t stop Los. It is his metaphorical job to produce. It is creativity unlinked to any other purpose. Make, make, make. 

So it is, during a time of Hurricane Florence, I was visiting my brother- and sister-in-law in Reidsville, in central North Carolina, and made yet another series of photographs. These.

I usually work in series. I cannot count the number of them I have made; I often think of them as “books,” that is, a group of photographs that work together as a single statement. I have photographed dozens of gardens, public and private, that way, with anywhere from a dozen to 40 images intended to be seen together. 

These are not meant to be seen as records of places I have been, but for their own esthetic pleasure. I have done clouds above Phoenix (link here), the interior of a house in Maine (link here), and the view from an airplane window seat (link here). On an earlier visit to Reidsville, I found a trove of abstract patterns in little things (link here). 

This time, I looked at the ceiling, and then, the floor. Humble subjects, without much intrinsic interest, but with shapes, shadows and subtle colors in which I found a visual tickle. 

Make no mistake, I do not present these with any pretense that they are important, or even that they might count as art. They are more like simple exercises in seeing. I believe they are of sufficient interest to award a quick gaze. 

But I didn’t make them because I wanted to add to my “ouevre” — my “corpus” — but because if I am sitting around not doing anything, I feel I am being insufficiently productive. That damned PWE infection that I can’t seem to shake. 

That is also why I keep making these blogs. Please accept my apologies. 

Click on any image to enlarge

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. 

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.

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.