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People hate speaking in public; it is often listed as the No. 1 fear — a nightmare of anxiety. It is a fear I never felt. I love speaking to an audience. Whether it is giving a lecture, sitting on a panel discussion or moderating an after-movie discussion, I am in my element. Over the years, I’ve spoken in public hundreds of times. It is exhilarating and leaves me pumped with energy. 

Yet, that comfort does not extend to acting. I cannot act my way out of a second-grade pageant (when I had my first onstage experience as a daisy in an Easter program.) The problem is two-fold. First, I have difficulty learning lines. I can’t memorize them. I can paraphrase them, extemporize them, but not repeat them word-for-word. In most plays, that is a problem.

Second, I am so firmly constructed of my own idiosyncratic personality — that ego is so well defined — that I can never leave it behind to assume the mask or persona of a distinct separate character. I am stuck with myself. 

Yet, there were two times over the years that I have trodden the boards. There is a theme to the twain. 

In high school, I took a speech and drama elective. As part of the class, the final was an assembly program in which we put on a series of one-act plays or skits. We were each required either to act in them or to write the scenes. I did not want to play-act on stage, so, I opted to write a play.

Three of us did that. One student was a natural for the stage, and he wrote a gripping dramatic scene built on the Kitty Genovese story. The second was an incredibly dumb James Bond parody. And mine was unbearably pretentious and literary. I had just read John Updike’s The Centaur and thought I might update, in like fashion, the Seven Against Thebes myth and set it in a modern high school. 

We were well into rehearsals when our principal, having been made aware that my play featured a suicide (Oh! The teenage angst!), outright banned the performance, which I was both miffed at and also puffed with pride over — I was banned! Just like Henry Miller or James Joyce. A point of pride. 

As a result of my cancellation, I was then coopted into acting in the James Bond parody. I was made an English bobby, shot in the first moments by the lead character, James Bomb. I was to remain motionless on the stage, an inert corpse, for the rest of the play. I had one line and then — bang-bang and then falls bobbie. 

The moment I died, James Bomb was supposed to realize his mistake (he shot me thinking I was the villain), and he walked cross-stage to me, grabbed a glass of water from a handy nearby table and splash it in my face to try to revive me. Well, I was wearing this heavy woolen bobby costume and in rehearsal, the wet wool stunk and irritated my skin horribly. I had to lie there for the rest of the play, stewing in the wet clothes. 

So, on performance day, just before the curtain rose, as we were all standing on our marks, I reached for the glass and drank the water. I was so clever. And as the scene played on and James Bomb came over to splash me, and finding no water in the glass, he improvised. I had failed to take account of the full pitcher sitting next to the empty glass on the table. Our hero then ignored the glass and poured the entire pitcher of water on me. 

As if that were not humiliation enough, imagine me splayed out in my soup on the stage floor, my bladder slowly filling to the uncomfortable water-balloon phase, having to hold it all in till the curtain finally came down, went up again for the curtain call, down again and I could finally run down the hall to the boys’ room and pee “for what seemed like forever, but in reality was only seven minutes.” 

(I can’t take credit for that line: It was written my my friend, Doug Nufer of Seattle.)

 My next appearance, not an Equity production, came in 2005 in Phoenix, Ariz., as a bit of stunt casting in a play about a notorious local restaurateur. 

If you are not from that city, you may not have heard about Jack Durant, who opened the smoky eatery, Durant’s, in 1950. Decorated in whore-house chic, it became the meeting place of politicians, lawyers, and visiting Hollywood celebrities. Everyone who was anyone met at Durant’s. There was an in-the-know air about the place. No one who was a regular ever came in the front door. If you had your wits about you, you came in through the kitchen. Many customers had regular tables. Many a legislative deal was cut in the dark corners of the place.

Durant’s

Durant, himself, was more of a personality than any of his celebrity guests. A former colleague of Bugsy Siegel, reputed to have once bumped off a mob rival, married three or five times — the stories varied — Durant was ringmaster at his restaurant. 

Such a colorful character made for many stories, some of them true. Durant died in 1987, leaving his house and an annual allowance of $50,000 to his dog, Humble. The restaurant is still there, running on the ghost of its founder. It is still dark; people still enter through the kitchen, and deals are still negotiated over a great big porterhouse steak. 

In 2005, playwright Terry Earp did the inevitable, and created a play about Durant, called In My Humble Opinion, ironically because Durant was never humble — only his dog was. 

 The play was set in the restaurant after closing, a year after Durant’s death. The man’s ghost sits at a table, recounting his life to a passed-out drunk at the bar. The drunk was played by a different local “celebrity” each night. I was one of them — the local art critic, and rather low down on the celebrity list, but of course, the play went on for a month, so they had to scrape the barrel-bottom at times. Others who played the role included former Phoenix Suns center Alvin Adams, local TV star Bill Thompson and rocker Alice Cooper. 

My part had no lines. It also had no motion. I was to sit there, head in my arms flat on the bar for the full hour of the play. Not twitching a muscle.

I don’t know if you have ever had to do that — like you are playing dead during a bear attack — but it is not easy. Muscles begin to scream at you: “Twitch. Twitch, damn you. Shake a leg. stretch your fingers.” But, no, you have to pretend you are carved from marble.

I managed it, but then came the curtain call. I had to unlimber my limbs and stand up from the barstool to acknowledge the acclaim of the audience. My joints had become riveted in their static positions and to stand up required a full course of physical therapy. I wobbled. I nearly fell over. I was half asleep from meditating quietly for the hour. I tried to smile for the crowd, but I’m pretty sure I could only manage a silly grin. I must have looked like the drunk I played. 

And thus, my life as a thespian came to its rightful conclusion. Two motionless parts, lying still for the duration. And I never got my Equity card. 

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. 

Camelback from air

I have a love-hate relationship with Phoenix, Arizona. No, that’s too strong. I have a like-frown relationship. Living in its ever-expanding confines for an entire quarter of Arizona’s statehood, I never truly warmed up to it, the way one comes to love San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans or Manhattan. There is a kind of numbing neutrality to Phoenix. It isn’t as bad as all that, but neither is there much to get excited about. It is a city with little personality.

Click any photograph to enlarge

Click any photograph to enlarge

I don’t mean that to sound too negative. There is much I miss. I loved my job; I can’t imagine being happier in employment than I was for most of my time at The Arizona Republic, or having better colleagues. When I retired, I didn’t so much leave the newspaper, as instead, the newspaper left me. It was going in directions that had less and less use for what I provided. It was time to go. But what happened to The Republic is true of newspapers all across the nation. It is journalism that left me.

Phoenix skyscraper

There are things I miss, besides the occasional meal at the Golden Greek or El Bravo.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I sorely regretted leaving Ballet Arizona. By the time I left, ballet had become the art form I most loved. Ib Andersen had raised the local company up to a level that competed with the major troupes around the country, and even around the world. I miss the art museum and its staff (now, most of them are gone, too), I miss the symphony and the chamber music. I miss the lunches I shared with Phoenix Chorale’s Charles Bruffy. (Congratulations on yet another Emmy).

Phoenix Double sign

My wife and I have friends in the city and we miss them dearly.

Papago Buttes

But the city itself? Not so much. And here, I mean the whole metro area. It is hard to make any distinction between Phoenix, Glendale, Mesa, Scottsdale and Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert, Fountain Hills: It all turned into endless suburbia, 60 miles from east to west and 45 miles from north to south, and it continues to metastasize. The last time I drove south to Maricopa, it seemed like more of the same.

Phoenix car junkyard

The weather was brutal, the traffic brutish, the city politics banal (and state politics worse: delusional). New gated subdivisions gobbled up huge spreads of desert. Have you driven down Dynamite Road lately? Shopping malls, freeways, mobile-phone towers, endless Circle Ks and 7-Elevens, red-tile roofs, and stucco, stucco, stucco.

Phoenix washingtonia

But there were places I could retreat and find some character. South Phoenix, with its poor neighborhoods, houses with sun-warped wood and flaking paint, with its panaderias and tiendas. The gravel roads before they were chewed and digested into Macmansions; the old canals, not yet channelized and rinded with concrete; the farther expanses of the city limit where there are still working farms; and the old warehouses south of the railroad tracks. I like seeing the older stores painted garish colors, and the black-painted bars on windows and doors. My favorite Mexican food found at the hole-in-the-wall storefronts where the clients are all Hispanic and they still serve tongue and tripe, and where the frying is still done in lard. It isn’t so much that these things are old and I feel nostalgia, but rather that these things still have character, personality; they are not whitewashed into the great Osterized American culture. They battle the blandness of television and the chamber of commerce.

Maria's children

Maria’s children

 

In the next several blog entries, I plan to take a trip around the state, beginning in the Valley of the Sun, to see how much I can turn up of the lost and forgotten, the real flavor of the state, the part of it that I miss and wish I could experience all over again. I’ll move south through Tucson then west and north, traveling counter-clockwise around the state. Most of this virtual trip will be in photographs, with a few words stuck in here and there. They are the parts that to me feel alive and wriggling, even when abandoned or forgotten — the played out mines, the baked arroyos, the Native American ruins, the dusty places just outside of towns. This is the Arizona I miss when I remember my years there.

Goodyear Cemetery in Chandler

Goodyear Cemetery in Chandler

 

This Arizona is completely personal and subjective. But I suspect many of you harbor similar feelings, similar places in your psyches, whether it be in Ohio, Quebec, Idaho or Mazatlan. This is the Arizona that remains alive to me.

Here are some of those things and places:

 

South Phoenix

South Phoenix

 

Canal and farmland

Canal and farmland

 

Gila River south of Phoenix

Gila River south of Phoenix

 

Abandoned racetrack

Abandoned racetrack

 

Agricultural buildings west of Phoenix

Agricultural buildings west of Phoenix

 

Pueblo Grande

Pueblo Grande

 

Hiking around North Mountain

Hiking around North Mountain

 

 

Phoenix Santa Fe close up

 

 

Near Fredonia

Near Fredonia

During the 25 years I lived in Arizona, I saw pretty much every dusty corner of the state, either on assignment for my newspaper, or on my own. I came to love the state — warts and all. And it has warts: Arizona politics is dismaying, its inhabitants sometimes astonishingly parochial, its sense of itself as “special” endearing; I’ve lived in enough different places to know that they each think of themselves as special: You can outright choke on Seattle; North Carolina Public Television crowds out PBS programming with self-congratulatory programs on local history, local events, restaurants, the cult of barbecue, its exceptionally progressive foresight, and its sports heroes. The self-regard is truly cloying. Arizona hasn’t a patch on that, even counting Arizona Highways magazine.

Brewery Gulch, Bisbee

Brewery Gulch, Bisbee

And speaking of warts, the city of Phoenix is essentially Cleveland in the Desert: ugly with traffic, convenience stores and real-estate deals. But in Arizona, the land is essential: The desert is like nothing else.

Red Mesa, Navajo Reservation

Red Mesa, Navajo Reservation

Arizona has a particular difficulty because its image of itself is incredibly beautiful. It is the Grand Canyon State, and its landscape has filled more calendars and books than horsehair has filled sofa cushions. The Arizona Highways effect prettifies the state so to anyone with clear eyes, it is no longer recognizable. Arizona for most people is a fictional Arizona, a fantasy landscape drawn by John Ford’s Monument Valley, Ansel Adams’ Grand Canyon, or the “Tonto Rim” of Zane Grey. The landscape we mail out to the rest of the world is one of pristine wilderness and vast vistas. This is not, however, the Arizona I came to love. Quartzsite in the middle of winter is not part of this picture, neither is Apache Junction or Sacaton.

Morenci

Morenci

My Arizona has been worked over pretty thoroughly, by mining companies, by ranching conglomerates, by real-estate developers, by tract housing, road-building, tourist traps, warehouses and farm tractors. It is canals, cotton gins, interstates, gas stations and Circle-Ks. And since leaving the state four years ago for retirement in North Carolina, I have often grown homesick for my Arizona.Washingtonias gone to beard

I actually love the forgotten places, the abandoned garages on the abandoned Route 66 that parallels Interstate 40. I love the grade crossings by the trash dumps near Mobile; the painted concrete dinosaurs that advertise eateries and tourist spots; the gravel roads across dry washes; the busted-out Gillespie Dam, choked with willows; the mountains of junked cars in South Phoenix wrecking yards; the eroded bentonite hills north of Cameron; the worked-out copper pits in Ajo and Bisbee — great gaping holes in the earth. I’ve been everywhere from San Luis to the Four Corners, from Hoover Dam to the Slaughter Ranch. How can you not love seeing the white expanse of the Wilcox Playa from a distance, knowing that when you get there, you can visit the statue of Rex Allen and have some great barbecue from Rodney’s hole-in-the-wall?

Yuma

Yuma

It isn’t that I don’t like the Grand Canyon. How can you not? But I love the North Rim, the 60-mile dirt road down to Toroweap, the beginning of the whole thing at Lees Ferry. Old apple trees and weathered wood buildings tell you about when old John Lee lived there and supervised the crossing of the Colorado River.

Coyote melons

Coyote melons

I began a few weeks ago collecting material for a potential book about this Arizona, as a kind of counterbalance to all the pretty-face calendar art that oozes from that quarter of the Southwest. Whether it ever actually turns into a book or not, I thought I might share a few of my images with my readers on the blog.

Roper Lake, Mt. Graham in storm

Roper Lake, Mt. Graham in storm

I have some 320 pictures filed for use in the book. I will post maybe 10 or 15 at a time for the blog. I hope they spark some of the same love for the real Arizona that I continue to feel from afar.

Tumacacori

Tumacacori

Click on any image to enlarge.

Morenci pit

Morenci pit

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.

01 Cholla Organ Pipe Cactus NP Ariz
I miss the desert.

02 Ocotillo Organ Pipe Cactus NP ArizThe gravel, the dust, the prickles, the skin-shriveling heat, the raking shadows, the beige mountains turned pinkish in the afternoon, the buzzards hanging overhead, the greasewood smelling like aftershave in the rain.03 Organ Pipe Cactus Diana pair 3

When I lived in Arizona, I lived in the city; I don’t miss the city. I used to call Phoenix “Cleveland in the desert,” but aside from the scorch and desiccation, the desert doesn’t make itself much known in the cities of Arizona. For that, you have to leave the gridlock of reticulated and decussated streets and get out to where the dust devils spin and the owls burrow. 04 Cholla close Organ Pipe Cactus NP Ariz

Many years ago, I took a toy camera out to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, south of Why, and drove the loop road past Bates Well and Quitobaquito Spring. 07 Pond Organ Pipe Cactus NP ArizThere was no sight of another anthropoid anywhere. The only hint of human occupation was an abandoned ranch, the gravel roads and an occasional descanso commemorating someone’s unfortunate death under the oven dome. The horno cósmico13 nicho trio

Click to enlarge

The Diana camera cost something like $1.99 and had a plastic lens and used old roll film. It had the solid polystyrene worksmanship you might expect from Mattel or Ron Popeil.05 Butte Organ Pipe Cactus NP Ariz After a lifetime of Nikons, Canons and Hasselblads, and having moved up to a 4X5 camera with a Super-Angulon lens, it was a kind of mortification of the flesh to bust out the Diana. A means to get away from the high-resolution, Zone-System rut. 06 Saguaro Organ Pipe Cactus NP Ariz

And now, looking at the results 20 years later, the fuzz and blur of the photos seems more like the nostalgia I feel: less like being there, more like remembering, even half-remembering.16 Organ Pipe Cactus Diana pair 4

08 dark vista Organ Pipe Cactus NP Ariz12 Wire fence Organ Pipe Cactus NP Ariz

10 Ranch fence Organ Pipe Cactus NP Ariz

 
 17 Carole as Flora in the desertCarole as Flora