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

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

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

Oct. 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct. 27

What a satisfying end to a horrible, horrible day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct. 28

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

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

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

Oct. 29

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

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

“Look, a bear.”

“Where?”

“There. No. Up in the tree.”

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

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

“No, wait. Two bears.”

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

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

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

My closest friends know who that bear was. 

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In October my ex-wife and I decided to take a drive from Asheville, N.C., to Sullivan, Maine, to visit our old college friends, Sandro and Mu. This is Part 4 of that trip. 

Oct. 21

State mottos. “Virginia is for lovers.” “West Virginia: Almost Heaven.” New Jersey: “Home of  Jimmy Hoffa.” And Maine: “The way life is supposed to be.”

I need to catch up on a few things I’ve passed over so far. One of these is Mount Desert Island, or MDI as it is called here. One of the things Anne wanted to see was Bar Harbor, MDI, and Acadia National Park. 

Perhaps I am too jaded: I’ve been going there since 1978 and in the summer, it is so jammed that you can hardly move an elbow without stabbing the next guy. This was October and the crowds have drained out, although even a fall visit means traffic. 

We took the park road around the eastern lobe of the island. There are parking turnouts along the way, but as we drove, each was filled. A few places along the one-way road have a parking lane on the right, and we squeeze into one or two of those to get out and look. 

MDI is shaped on the map something like a lobster claw, with eastern and western halves, divided by a long, narrow inlet called Somes Sound. The busier half of the island is the east. The posher is the west, although if you continue on the loop road past Southwest Harbor and back up the westernmost coast, it is pretty much wilderness.

Most of the national park is in the eastern half, and the road passes Thunder Hole, Monument Cove and places so scenically perfect you can believe you have entered an idealized simulacrum of reality. 

Finally, there is the road up Cadillac Mountain. It rises above the tree line to a rocky crest and a parking lot, filled with people making photos and filled with tour busses. 

The view is stunning, and we can look out over Frenchman’s Bay and see Schoodic Mountain, which sits over Sullivan. 

That visit was earlier in the week, but on this Monday, we head west from Ellsworth to the Big Chicken Barn, which is an antique and used book store west of Ellsworth; it is the size of an aircraft hangar. You can’t really compare it to any other used bookstore. When you are at one end of the books and look south, you cannot actually see the south end of the building.

And unlike so many mini-mall used bookshops, it isn’t filled with paperback romance novels, but with the real treasure a booklover seeks: Old books printed with letterpress type on rag paper, bound in leather or buckram, all piled on unfinished shelves like so much cordwood piled in a shed waiting for winter. One could browse for months. 

The problem I had was that although there were tons of books that caught my attention, and that I sort of wanted, there were none I could justify buying and adding to the midden of books already at the house. As I have gotten older, I am divesting my home of books more than acquiring them. It’s one of the things that comes with age and retirement. 

I did finally buy Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Bound, a compilation of all the Nathan Zuckerman books Roth wrote. I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read any Roth. I am now making up for that.

We were originally planning to leave on Wednesday and head home to Asheville, but Anne is having back trouble and is flat on a heating pad today. At 1 p.m., she has an appointment with a massage therapist. So we are waiting to see if she feels better after that, and will now probably leave on Thursday. Or Friday. Or Saturday. Anyway, we expect to be back before Halloween.

While Anne is having her back rolfed, I will be driving inland to find some good photos that are NOT of the rocky coast. And — more honestly — to listen to some Mahler on the car CD player as I drive. I miss my music. In the car, Anne would rather listen to NPR to keep up with the latest Trump news. Political chaos theory.

On the way out of Sullivan, I went to a Dollar General store. First time visitor. I was astonished. Anne swears by them, but I have simply never gone into one. As I left the house, I asked Anne if there was anything I could get her. She asked for a heating pad (the one she’s using is borrowed). I doubted they would have such a thing, but I said I’d look. When I got to the store (which is just down the street) it was as if an avalanche of American culture had its moraine enclosed in a box. I wandered up and down the aisles in rapt admiration, as if I were walking through a museum. They have pretty much everything.

The manager was a young man, about 25, with a a two-day growth beard and an apron, and he asked me if I needed help finding anything. “Do you have, by any slight chance, a heating pad?” “Yes, follow me.” He walked about five aisles over and down halfway toward the storefront and pulled a box from the bottom shelf. “Twelve Ninety-five,” he said. I added it to the armful of items I was purchasing: a box of kitchen trash bags, an extension cord, a micro-fiber cloth to clean the inside of the car’s windshield, a bag of Fritos, a 50-cent minbar of Dove dark chocolate to feed the monkey on my back, and a pretty green, leaf-design reusable shopping bag to carry it all in.

The trash bags were to help us with the refuse. In Asheville, we divide ours by garbage and recycles. Two dumpsters. But here, we had to go through the trash and separate the recyclables from the regular junk and all that from the compost. Three bags; one for each. In Maine, every can and bottle has a redeemable price, five to fifteen cents. Jay and Gina save them all up, take them to the redemption center (which doesn’t look at all like a church), and donate the money to an animal rescue fund.

I drove north of town, and cut east along Route 182 from Franklin to Cherryfield, a road that took me through endless woods and lakes: Fox Lake, Tunk Lake, Long Pond. I stopped at each and enjoyed the fall color

The color reflected in the water

The reeds along the shore

Driving for me is relaxing. 

Traffic was light to the point of being almost non-existent, and the hour-and-a-half of puttering along was exactly the right length to listen to all of Mahler’s Third Symphony. 

Oct. 22

Anne and I went to a local quickie grocery for breakfast this morning. Dunbar’s has been here in Sullivan since 1881. Obviously through several changes of hand or generation. It was going to close two years ago, but two hippies bought it and turned it from a 7-Eleven kind of place into an upscale joint where they had free-trade coffee and imported wines. They also added a lunch counter and a deli section. Anne wanted to try it, and so we went. She had a bacon and egg biscuit — normal for breaking fast — but I saw the daily special: two pulled-pork tacos. Loaded with lettuce, tomato, guacamole, onion and cheese. “Hold the sour cream,” I said, proud of my abstemiousness. They were yummy, but a bit sloppy. 

I walked up to the counter to ask for a fork to shovel up the overspill and mentioned to the counterman that when a Mexican makes a taco, he always uses two tortillas for each taco, the outer one to hold together the inner one. “This is Maine,” was his terse reply. With a smile; he wasn’t being snotty.

Anne planned to hit thrift stores with Mu, which left me free to drive up the coast to Corea, which is a fishing village on Schoodic Peninsula, just south of Gouldsboro. My goal was to drive as many back roads as possible, as deep into the woods as possible, and make as many photographs as possible.

I turned off the main road onto a dirt road and drove deep into the brush, before picking up pavement about a mile or so in, The road looped around the north end of a spike in the peninsula and I saw not a single other car for at least 10 miles.

I put 65 miles on the car during this jaunt. I drove down the road at 7 mph taking in all the view. If I saw something I wanted to photography, I braked, opened the driver-side window and poked the camera out and clicked. Everything I photographed during this portion of the excursion was on the driver’s side.

Corea is a rocky cove at the southeast end of the peninsula and a lobster fishery center, with a warehouse, dozens of dories and boats and, at low tide, as I came through, docks that towered above the floating boats below, waiting for the tides to rise and level them out. 

Corea was the home of the writer Louise Dickenson Rich, who wrote a famous best-seller in the 1950s titled We Took to the Woods, which is largely about Corea. Because of the boats and the wharves, Corea is one of the most photographed spots in Maine. It is picture-skew.

I then passed through Prospect Harbor, Birch Harbor and Winter Harbor and took the Schoodic Point loop again. 

The other day, when I was there with Anne, she got cold and tired and we didn’t stay as long as I would have wanted, but today I was alone and could walk down the rocks all the way to the water.

I am old. Way too old. I can no longer gambol over the rocks like a goat. In fact, I walked so tentatively, I moved rather like a tree sloth edging out on a branch. I scouted out a path along the flattest portions of the rock, making a circuitous route down to the water that probably stretched three or four times longer than the crow-fly route. Like little Billy in Family Circus cartoons.

There were a few iffy places where I had to jump over a crevice  or hold onto an outcropping as I needed to hold my balance. But I got down there, and enjoyed the barrenness, the isolation, the chill, the wind, the spume, the overcast sky, the numbness on my cheeks. This is the way the Maine coast is supposed to be.

Anyway, when I got back to the apartment where we are staying, Anne had bought another pair of shoes at the thrift store she had gone to with Mu. That makes four pair of shoes she has purchased on this trip. Sometimes the gender stereotype matches the reality.

Oct. 23

Sandro and Mu have been feeding us each night with such treats that they entice us to stay several extra days. There is the promise of duck and of Lobster Thermidor. 

“We’re not having that tonight,” Mu said. “We’re having red cabbage and apples with mashed potatoes and sausages.” The hidden agenda being that if we had what Sandro called a “junk meal” tonight, it would add a day to our stay, because we wouldn’t want to miss the lobster tomorrow night and the duck breast on the next and therefore couldn’t leave till Friday at the earliest.

It wasn’t a “junk meal” at all. It was really delicious. Mu grew the cabbage herself in a garden plot she shares with her sister in Hancock, which offers public gardening plots. The apples we brought from West Virginia. The mashed potatoes are Sandro’s specialty, loaded with cream and butter. The sausage was chicken. Mu has decided she will no longer eat any meat from a mammal. Chicken OK. Lobster OK. Cod OK. Pork — No-no. The sausage I had was spiced with jalapeños. All washed down with Stella Artois.

It’s supposed to rain tomorrow again. I probably won’t be traveling, but plan to spend the day with Sandro. We haven’t had a really good, thorough chin-wag so far this visit. Tomorrow should be the day.

All those years ago, when I lived with them in a country house in Summerfield, N.C., Sandro and I would climb out a dormer window and sit on the roof at night, smoking cigars and discussing deep and meaningful ideas. Mu allowed no cigars indoors. 

Sandro and I became friends 50 years ago at college and shared an enthusiasm for classical music. We have been brothers since then. When I went through some hard times, he and Mu took me in till I got back on my feet. 

Once, in the extravagance of young men, we listened to all 16 of Beethoven’s string quartets in one sitting, followed by another go in which we attempted all 32 of his piano sonatas. We were blasted before we could make it to the end. 

Now, in Maine, we are old men. 

To be continued

Click on any image to enlarge

In October my ex-wife and I decided to take a drive from Asheville, N.C., to Sullivan, Maine, to visit our old college friends, Sandro and Mu. This is Part 2 of that trip. 

Oct. 12

The plan was to drive no more than 200 miles a day. Yesterday, we did 305; today, we did 370. We woke up this morning in somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, and are going to sleep this evening in Massachusetts. Again, not our plan. But sometimes fortune intervenes. 

The problem, once again, was finding a motel. I’ve driven all over France, where the guide books tell you that hotels are scarce and you should always plan ahead and make reservations. We never did, but always found a place to stay, and some of the cleanest, best-designed rooms I’ve ever seen. You can’t beat the Ibis hotels. 

Who ever thought that we’d come a cropper in upstate New York or western Massachusetts? 

The day began well. A fast trip to the Delaware Water Gap and a slow 15 mph drive up the National Scenic Area along the Old Mine Road on the New Jersey side. At the visitor center the ranger told us to be careful of the potholes. “Some of them are bigger than I am,” she said. The road alternated between pothole pavement and gravel, with a couple of patches of new macadam. We played pothole slalom for most of the way, weaving from one side of the road — call it a path most of the time — and back to the other. For the first nine miles or so, we saw no other car, either coming or going. 

The Gap is a place where the Delaware River has cut through the Kittatinny Mountain ridge, leaving a notch in the hills. On the Pennsylvania side, Mount Minsi rises to 1,540 feet and on the Jersey side, Mount Tammany, about 20 feet lower.

The 40-mile stretch of the river and surrounding country is now the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, and the whole area has been a tourist draw since the 19th century, when landscape painters, such as Thomas Doughty, made scenic and romantic paintings of the region. 

It is also about 4 miles from where I went to summer Boy Scout camp as a boy.   

The Delaware River is gorgeous in the morning. We stopped away from the river at an old bridge and watched a couple of fishermen tossing their lines into the tributary creek.

Bear Mountain Bridge, Hudson River

Then we hopped back on the Interstate in Port Jervis, N.Y., and drove across Orange County and into Harriman State Park and Bear Mountain. By this time, Anne was feeling hungry and bladder-bloated, so we had to find a place to satisfy both urges rather than drive up Bear Mountain. 

So, off to West Point. In the town of Hudson Highlands we found a pizza joint — a storefront with three tables and a counter to order at. We asked the man if they had a bathroom. “No, no bathroom.” But, he said, “They have bathroom two buildings up street.” I hope you can tell by my brazen attempt to capture accent that he was not born in New York.

We walked up the street and found the public library, a tremendous old wooden building white with columns in front. Inside there was no one. You could hear the echo of your own footsteps on the wooden floor. But they had the conveniences that Anne required. We walked back to the pizzeria and had a damned fine pie. New Jersey style. The way it’s supposed to be.

Each time I drive anywhere near the tri-state area, I seek out a non-chain pizza joint to achieve that satisfying foodgasm of a New York pizza, the only real pizza to anyone who has grown up with it. 

Every region has its food chauvinisms. North Carolina barbecue, Seattle alder-smoked salmon, Philadelphia cheese steaks. One of the lesser regional contenders is the soft pretzel. These are the size of calzones, with a malty, bready interior and a thin crisp brown crust coated with kosher salt. They taste like nothing else, especially when they are still warm, and the only place to get them in their true form is in eastern Pennsylvania and in a belt up through New Jersey and parts of New York. Oh, you can find them elsewhere, but they are no better than the so-called “New York style” pizza you find in Kansas or Saskatchewan. Worse: the frozen pretzels you can find in the grocery store. 

Well, Anne, who has barely left North Carolina through most of her life, had never had one of these. We stopped at a turnpike rest plaza and I bought one for the car. She took a bite of it and decided she had to have another. And another. We spent a good portion of the drive all the way to Maine looking for another pretzel, but never found one. We had left the pretzel’s home territory. 

Anyway, we drove up U.S. 218 around Storm King, a great mountain of rock that juts out into the Hudson River with a tiny two land road curving around it above the water and below the summit. This is a road my family used to take when driving up to the family bungalow in West Park and the ride on the thin ribbon of road around the mountain was the part of the trip that I loved most, but gave my poor father white knuckles.

Finally, we got to Newburgh, where we had intended to spend the night. But, I thought — like an idiot — let’s just get over the river on the bridge. So, we crossed over the Hudson to the other side and immediately came a cropper on finding a motel. “Motels are often found along the freeways,” I thought to myself, so we turned north on the Taconic State Parkway. No hotels. No nothing. Robert Moses designed this road in the 1940s and must have purposely routed it through empty terrain to make a pleasant and green drive. But it meant no hotels. We drove for a hundred miles. No hotels.

Got off the parkway and back on U.S. 9, which is a commercial road. No hotels. We drove through Hudson, N.Y., home of Frederick Edwin Church’s Olana. No hotels. Up through Kinderhook, boyhood home of Martin Van Buren. No hotels.

“Route 9 will hit the interstate soon,” I said to Anne. “There are always hotels along the exits.” No, there aren’t always. The interstate turned into the Massachusetts Turnpike. We asked the man at the toll booth if there were any motels along the pike. “Yes, he said, every exit has them after Exit 2.”

We sighed relief and drove on. Turns out, the turnpike runs for more than 30 miles before any exit. We both thought of the old song about “running forever ’neath the streets of Boston.” The MTA.

The deal was that the turnpike runs up and over the Berkshires and there were no exits until the road came back down from the hills. Then we turned off into Exit 3 in Westfield, Mass. Hooray, a single solitary motel. I went in to sign up. No room. All full.

“There’s a dog show in town and a couple of 50th anniversary school reunions and a football game, so everything is booked. You might try the next exit; there are several hotels there.”

So, back on the turnpike to Exit 4. A Miracle Mile sort of place and several motels. But this time, I am pretty well blasted. We have driven 370 miles so far today. I pulled in to a Clarion Inn. Anne stayed in the car and I went into the lobby. Eight people were in line at the desk and when I finally got to the front of the line: “No, we’re all filled up.”

I drove up and down the highway, trying to get into motels that always seemed to be on the other side of the median, making me drive up the street to make a U-turn and back to the place. Full.

“There’s a Red Roof Inn over there,” Anne said. Up the road. U-turn. Into the lot. A room. A blessed room. A holy respite. Peace at last. Second floor, up the exterior stairs with all our bags.

“I’ll go out and get something for supper,” Anne said. She walked up the road to Five Guys and got a couple of greasy burgers and a bucket o’ fries and brought them back. We ate. We watched the glum news on MSNBC.

It was getting dark when we finally pulled into the motel. Sleep will be early tonight. Tomorrow, we head for Portland.

Oct. 13

We are in Portland tonight, at a La Quinta. We are wondering what is it about New England that they try to hide their motels? We came up I-95 into South Portland and took an exit that had a “lodging” sign by the roadway. The ramp emptied into a roadway that came to a stoplight in the middle of nowhere. All around us, vacant lots and empty fields. In the distance, a few office buildings.

I tried to find signs for the airport. Motels usually cluster around airports. But when I got to the airport: Nothing. We circled the airport and found zilch. How is this possible?

Anne thought she saw a Comfort Inn near the freeway, but when we drove to where she thought she saw it: Bupkis. We drove aimlessly for a while, trying to scare up something and finally drove by the La Quinta. Drove by is the operative word. It came up on us too fast and I was in the wrong lane. So, I tried to loop around, but faced a maze of one-way streets. Finally, we got there. It is the most expensive hotel I have ever stayed at, but I wasn’t going to venture out into the jungle again to find something cheaper.

Earlier today, we drove through Concord, Mass. When I first visited Walden Pond, so many years ago, I remember we were dreading that it would turn out to be a tourist trap. We imagined fast food restaurants and miniature golf. But when we got there, there were only a few parking spots beside the road and no one at the lake except a couple of fishermen with their lines in the drink.

I’ve been back to Walden Pond maybe a half-dozen times, maybe eight. I have circumambulated it three times. Each visit back, the site is a little more built up. Still just a wide spot in the road, except for the swimming beach on the east end. Walden Pond, it turned out was the local swimming hole. The last time I was there, for the newspaper, someone had built a replica of the original cabin across the street from the pond.

Well, this time, it was the full catastrophe: Tour busses, parking lots, a new visitor center and the street choked with pedestrians crossing from their cars to the beach. I got into the line for the parking lot, but when I got up near the turn-off, I could see the cars extending like a freight train into the distance and so decided to drive off without visiting the shrine.

“Maybe it’s because it is a weekend,” Anne said. “Maybe we can come back on the way home during a weekday. Maybe it’s because it’s Columbus Day weekend.” I dunno, but it was Myrtle Beach all the way. How horrifying.

The other misadventure was Kittery. It was lunchtime and Anne was hungry, so I got off I-95 and looped into town on U.S. 1, only to find it was clogged with tourists. We found a Dunkin’ Donuts and had a sandwich and got back on Route 1 heading north. At Ogunquit, we found the highway turned into a parking lot. The road into downtown was stock still. It took us nearly an hour to get through town. We felt a teensy bit better on traveling north as we watched the parking lot headed south go on for miles and miles, much worse than we had it going north. Phew.

Anyway, as soon as we could, we got off Rt. 1 and back onto the interstate and cruised into Portland.

Tomorrow, to Augusta, Rt. 3 to Belfast and then zip the rest of the way past Ellsworth and into Sullivan.

Oct. 14

We have arrived in Sullivan, Maine. It has been a drive of 1472 miles. The fall color has been absolutely neon. I don’t remember the last fall with this much color.

It is overcast and chilly this afternoon, and although it is only 4:15 p.m., it is already getting dark. We are a touch on the pooped side, and will probably turn in early tonight.

To be continued

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

road into hills BW
In 1997, I took an epic road trip north along the 100th longitudinal meridian from Laredo, Texas, to the Canadian border. The previous blog entries covered Texas and the Central Plains. This final installment brings the Northern Plains and the end of the trip.

wounded knee 2

Mile 1294, Wounded Knee, S.D.

Most of the action by the U.S. against the Indians in the past century was reprehensible at best. The list of atrocities is nothing to be proud of, from Sand Creek to Washita River. But one of these massacres bothers me more than the others.

It is the photographs that make the difference.

On Dec. 29, 1890, a Lakota elder named Big Foot and more than 200 of his band were gunned down by soldiers at Wounded Knee, S.D.

The Indians had obeyed Federal orders to come to the reservation and had obeyed orders to give up their rifles. Big Foot was deathly sick and coughing up blood.

But the soldiers didn’t believe the Sioux had given up all their guns. One remained, and as it was being turned in, a gun somewhere went off and the army went crazy, gunning down not only the Indians, but up to 30 of their own men. The Indians, wearing “ghost shirts” they thought would protect them, fought back as well as they could with knives, hatchets and a few pistols. But most of those killed were women and children.

Of the battle, one is reminded of My Lai in Vietnam. Writer Herbert Welsh, who saw the battle site soon after, wrote, “From the fact that so many women and children were killed, and that their bodies were found far from the scene of action, and as though they were shot down while flying, it would look as though blind rage had been at work.”

It isn’t the stupidity or the injustice that gets to me — there are many examples, not only in the so-called “Indian Wars,” but pretty much in all of history. Humans have not been good to other humans anywhere on the globe.

No, what gets to me are the photographs.

big foot corpse

Taken three days after the massacre, they show the frozen, contorted body of Big Foot, with his hands knotted up arthritically and his body bent up out of the snow in frozen rigor. He is isolated against the blank, white background of the snow, and all the more symbolic for that isolation. A few soldiers stand off in the background talking and a horse puts his nose to the ground for some grass sticking through the snow.

Another shows a line of soldiers standing behind a mass grave. James Mooney, who wrote the first definitive account of the Ghost Dance phenomenon and the Sioux uprising of 1890, wrote:

“A long trench was dug and into it were thrown all the bodies, piled one upon the other like so much cordwood, until the pit was full, when the earth was heaped over them and the funeral was complete. Many of the bodies were stripped by the whites, who went out in order to get the ‘ghost shirts,’ and the frozen bodies were thrown into the trench stiff and naked.

“They were only dead Indians,” he added, with an accusatory dose of irony.

There is another set of photographs that come to mind — the emaciated, contorted bodies being bulldozed into mass graves at Dachau and Buchenwald.

For many, the Indian Wars are just cowboys and Indians stuff from a long ago history. But for me, they sing of a continuity of outrage. The “Final Solution” of one century mirrors that of its predecessor.

So, I have wanted to visit the site at Wounded Knee and when I got there, was surprised to find it barely marked at all. Perhaps both sides feel shame over it. The whites for the evil they don’t like to recognize in themselves, the Indians for the humiliation.Pine Ridge Reservation square

The Pine Ridge Reservation in southern South Dakota is more beautiful than it has been described, with grassy hills and cedar trees dotting the plains. While it is true that poverty is endemic, it is not the fault of the landscape, which is better than some of the grasslands I passed through in Nebraska on my way north.

But the actual massacre site is little more than a spot in the road. There is a hand-lettered wooden sign that describes the event, but there are no official markers, no commemoration, no visitors center, no rangers ripe with interpretation.

wounded knee gulley

The dusty ground at Wounded Knee is a gully with the bridge on one side of the road, and a hill with the Indian graves on the other. During the battle, troops had placed cannons on the hill and lobbed exploding shells down the slope at the Indians.

There are also a few ramadas. In the summer, there are booths selling Indian crafts. In October, most were empty, although there were two young Lakota girls with a clothesline strung with dreamcatchers.

I stopped and asked them if this was the massacre site and they said yes.

“Where did it happen here?” I asked.

“All around.”

The older was about 12, the younger, 8. We talked about being Indian, about the effect of history and about the price of dreamcatchers.

“We need to sell them. Our sister is in the hospital and needs our help,” said the elder, in an ages old play for sympathy. I wondered who had taught her to scam me. If I had any doubts over whether it was a scam or not, they dissipated  when I said: “I’m sorry to hear that. What does she have?”

The girl looked caught out and gave me a distressed look, as if she hadn’t anticipated the conversation getting this far.

“Why is she in the hospital?,” I repeated.

A wait of two beats: “She’s sick.” It was almost a question.

I felt more sorry for her being caught in a lie than I did for her probably imaginary sister, so I bought one.

badlands 1

Mile 1379, Badlands National Park, S.D.

Near Kadoka, S.D., the rolling grass of the plains is cut through by erosion, sculpted into spiky, spooky mazes of canyons and hills. They were called by the early French trappers, “les mauvaises terres a traverser,” or “bads lands to cross.” And they certainly would be, if it were not for the smooth roads of the National Park Service.Kadoka sign

The Badlands National Park is a long, gangly loop of lands lodged in the corners of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In places, the park is less than a mile wide, although if you walked from one extreme to the other along its length, you would hike a semicircle of something like 60 miles.

Most of it is flatland. As you drive along S.D. 44 from Scenic to Interior, the badlands themselves are a whitish line of crenelated hills on the northern horizon.

Only when you get close to them, near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center at its eastern end, can you really appreciate the blasted, washed out, weathered exhaustion of them.

blizzard headlights

Mile 1707, Bismarck, N.D.

A freak October blizzard blew across the Dakotas. One day, I was in Pierre, S.D., and it was 80 degrees; by the time I pulled into Bismarck, N.D., the next day, a front had barreled through and the thermometer had dropped into the 30s. With winds at a steady 50 mph, the wind-chill was more than a TV weatherman’s conceit: It could mean frostbite.

During the overnight, a line of powerful thunderstorms had run from Texas to Manitoba along a cold front that moved east with the speed of a freight train. Tornado warnings were issued for the whole length of the front.

One day the Prairie population was talking about their tomatoes lasting so late into the season, the next day, they are scraping windshields with parkas pulled tight around their cheeks.bismarck night snow downtown

Just before the blizzard moved in, I wandered through the streets of Bismarck, looking up at the sky that was turning ever more slatey and frigid.

To get in out of the cold, I wandered into several downtown stores, including one antiques shop. The woman behind the counter also does home interiors: One side of the shop is given over to fabrics, the rest to consignment antiques.

The proprietor was a bubbly woman of about 50, who praised the plainness of the  Prairie people.

“Even the politicians are ordinary people,” she said. “The governor is a regular customer and his wife says she’d come here more often except that she has to clean the house.”

But there are cosmopolitan Bismarckians and those who are less so.

“I ask my customers if they’ve ever been out of North Dakota,” she said. “If they have, I know they’ll go for the weird things, some of the more tasteful and unusual treatments.” She fingers one of the fabrics that is tightly gathered with pleats.

“If they’ve never been outside North Dakota, well, I bring out the J.C. Penney catalog. They’re really conservative.”

I told her that I take it to be an inborn modesty they seem to have in the Plains Midwest, a desire not to appear more fashionable than they are.

“But it’s not quite modesty, either,” she says, “almost a kind of lowered expectation.”

Like Pierre, S.D., whose tourism brochure proudly claims it is the “tenth best small town in America.”

Or the High Plains Museum in McCook, Neb., whose billboard promises only that it is “interesting and free.”snow tractor bismark

As I begin driving again, the skies have begun flaking and the crystals blow around the pavement like sand blown across the beach in a storm.

What are predicted are snow showers and snow squalls, but by the time I’m 100 miles out of Bismarck, it is a full-scale blizzard.

Luckily, the roads are still warm enough that nothing is sticking to them, although the farm fields are speckled with white, catching in the furrows making a scumble of white and black.

It is a tailwind, so as I drive, I hardly notice it, except to see the grasses bent sideways and vibrating on the shoulders. And the snow dances on the pavement in front of me like some sort of fairy mist, swirling and shifting. I can see the flakes bobbing around in front of the windshield.

But when I stop at a rest area and step out of the car, I can see that the snow is rushing past me horizontally. I can barely put my foot down where I intend as I walk through the gale.

Visibility is reduced at one point to less than a tenth of a mile; the world is whited out and the windbreak trees at the other side of the cornfield are faint ghosts.

Contending with weather like this, I decide, must make you modest. You are not likely to believe the hype of the American media siren when you know a pair of jumper cables can save your life.

By the next morning, the wind has died down, although the snow flurries continued. When I set out again, the landscape is white and astonishing.

snowdrift on highway

Mile 1869, Canadian border, N.D.

It seems as if there is nobody left on earth. The hills are empty of buildings and if it were not for the tractor paths through the fields, you might actually believe that the acres and acres of sunflowers grew there naturally.

In the summertime, the expanse of yellow is astonishing. I have driven through North Dakota when the sunflower crop is as brilliant as trumpet music.

In October, though, the color is gone and all the heavy seedheads, browned and dried, bend over like so many showerheads — and all facing east.

Sunflowers in two seasons

These giant flowers should not be confused with the roadside sunflowers that cover the Great Plains. Those, with their ten or a dozen three-inch flowers per stalk, swaying in the breeze, are delicate and lacy compared with the commercial variety that grows in the fields.

Each of those grows a single giant flower on a woody shoulder-high stalk with a central disk crammed with the sunflower seeds we nibble on at ball games. But it isn’t as snacks these fields are filled, but for their oil, used in food processing.

You can see them in the summer, armies of them, over the rolling hills, cut through only by the two-lane blacktop and, every few miles, a farmhouse surrounded with its outbuildings, fences and a couple of pickup trucks parked in the gravel driveway.

I first came through North Dakota on a train, some 20 years ago, and I was fascinated by the lonesomeness of the land. Neighbors are miles apart; the only way you know you are on an inhabited planet in the winter is to see the smoke from a distant chimney coming over the snowy rise.

It is this country that Gertrude Stein meant when she said that, “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.”

And it seems to me, as I finish my odyssey up the 100th Meridian, that it is this Heartland that seems the most American to me. It is this country of Thomas Hart Benton paintings and Hamlin Garland books that seems to hold the nugget of Americanism.

New England may have been the intellectual center of the growing nation and the twin coasts may have driven the commercial development. But it is this central axis, furry with grass, that has been and remains the heart of our country.

It is the Plains that spread out in front of the wagonloads of pioneers and gave them the epic sense of continental expansion.

It is the Plains that separated the Atlantic and Pacific, as guts fill the space inside our skin.

It is the Plains that gave the country its defining metaphors, whether cowboy, Indian, sodbuster, religious migrant, long stretching miles of highway or landscape that must be tamed. We learned self-reliance and cooperation, we learned how to adapt when we must and how to maintain tradition when we could.hundredth meridian sign ND

It is the Plains and the Indian Wars that provided us — second only to slavery in the South — with the guilt that gives emotional complexity to our national naiveté and, when we don’t deny the sin, our depth as a people.

In the cities of East and West, we can pretend that society is paramount and that human beings have charge of the world. It is in cities that theories are propounded.

But in the Plains and prairies, we are forced nakedly into the realization that we live on a planet, with the racing sky above and the blackbirds dotting the snow beneath.

It gives us perspective.

road ribbon

In 1997, I took an epic road trip north along the 100th longitudinal meridian from Laredo, Texas, to the Canadian border. Previously, I covered the part of the trip in Texas. This second part covers the Central Plains. Next will come the Northern Plains and the end of the trip.

cheyenne okla

Mile 631, Cheyenne, Okla.

One cannot forget the Native American presence in the Great Plains. The sense of the Plains, with the Cheyenne and Lakota riding horses across it, looking for buffalo, still is felt in every little corner not yet given over to corn and sorghum.

And one sad reminder of the history of Indians is the Washita River, near Cheyenne, where George Custer and his troops slaughtered a band of friendly Cheyenne Indians who were camped in the snow along the banks of the creek in late November, 1868.

The band, under the leadership of Black Kettle, attempted to remind the army over and over that it intended to remain peaceful.

“We want peace,” he said. “I would move all my people down this way. I could then keep them all quietly near camp.”Washita woodcut

But Custer and his superior, Gen. Philip Sheridan, decided to “make battle.”

In the cold of Nov. 27, Custer divided his troops up into four parties, just as  he would do eight years later at the Little Bighorn. But there was no Native army lying in wait at Washita. Just a village filled with families.

When Black Kettle realized what was going on, he fired his rifle in the air to alert the rest of his band that they should flee for their lives. Black Kettle had seen this sort of thing before: He had lived through the massacre at Sand Creek, Colo., in 1864 and knew what was coming.

But it was too late, the army had already descended on the encampment. Black Kettle was one of the first to be killed, with a bullet ripping through his belly. His wife was killed at the same time.

After the action, Custer reported that he had won a great battle and had killed 130 warriors. A later counts run from as few as 11 warriors and 19 women and children to around 100, mostly women and children.washita battlefield

The site of the battle is in a coulee a mile west of town. Most of the countryside around it is farmland and grazing land, but down in the wedge, along the stream is a dark line of trees where the Cheyenne camped. It is a lonely place among the lonesomeness of the Plains.

woodward downtown 1

Mile 705, Woodward, Okla.

County historical museums exist in almost every small town in the Plains. And there is a peculiar sameness to them.

They all seem to have the identical items on view, but gathered from their different locations. After wandering through a few of them, you come to know what an old-time dentist chair looks like, or the old telephone switchboard, or the pigeonholes from the old post office.

There are white-enamel ladles, wagon wheels, butter churns and moldboard plows. There are “Old Flo” blue china sets, cornucopia-topped Victrolas and immense oaken bankers’ desks.

But it is the sameness that is important. For, north of Texas, the Great Plains is surprisingly homogenous culturally.

Whether it is Oklahoma or North Dakota, the same rugged immigrants plowed the land. German here and Irish there, but otherwise, the same.woodward museum

Like the land itself, the variation is slight.

One of the best tended and displayed of these museums is the Plains Indian and Pioneers Museum in Woodward, Okla. It tells the familiar history: a land occupied by Native Americans; incursions by whites; a growing cattle industry on the open range and cows replace buffalo; the raising of fences and the building of farms.

In this portion of Oklahoma, the white invasion began in earnest in on Sept. 16, 1893, when northwest Oklahoma was opened to permanent white settlement in the third great land run in the state. Some 100,000 homeseekers carved the prairie into 160-acre homesteads in a single day. Almost overnight, towns popped up — first as tent cities — as land offices registered homestead claims.

Woodward itself sprouted 500 buildings in its first three months of existence. The railroad came through.kansas sod house

Outside the towns, however, buildings were hard to come by. Many settlers made their homes in dug out hills. Others built up “soddies,” or sod homes made of dirt bricks spaded from the turf. In those dusty, buggy, leaky homes, they set up their lives, cooking, sleeping and freezing their way through winters with nothing to burn in their stoves but buffalo chips or cowpies, and sharing that warmth with mice.

Yet, they made the best of it, usually whitewashing the mud walls, tamping down the dirt floors, bringing in their sideboards and pianos.

If they succeeded in busting through the soil knotted with grass roots, planting and harvesting their potatoes, wheat or corn, they may eventually have built a lumber house.

But much of the farm life of the Plains was disrupted in the 1930s by drought and the blowing dust. They had to adapt, and those who didn’t move away, did.

The “dusters” sometimes blackened the daytime sky for a week at a time, stuffing sand under the doorjambs and blowing the precious topsoil to Virginia and New York.

Now, the crops are mostly forage corn and milo, mixed with wheat. Cattle still take up a lot of the land, but there is a change in the wind — literally and none too pleasantly.

“There is a pig boom going on in Oklahoma,” explains Louise B. James, director of the museum. Huge hog farms are being built across the Plains, to make pork intended to pick up the slack in beef sales.hog snout

“They make pork chops and Spam, yes,” says James, “but I’m boycotting them. It doesn’t seem to be doing any good, though.”

Runoff from the farms is seriously polluting streams and groundwater.

“It’s real touchy stuff. A lot of people really hate the pigs. This is cattle country, but many people look to the hogs as salvation.”

Meanwhile a law is slowly working through the state legislature that would control the size of the hog farms.

dodge city

Mile 747, Dodge City, Kan.

I took up life as a pedestrian in Dodge City.

This wasn’t a state I would have chosen for myself; it was brought to me when my rental car coughed, wheezed and then decided to take a nap in the turn lane of Wyatt Earp Boulevard, which is both Main Street and Motel Row in this Kansas cattle town.

The problem, I was told, was not really bad and could be quickly fixed, if they could find the part they needed. Unfortunately, the nearest part turned out to exist in Oklahoma City.

“We can have it here tomorrow,” they said.

Which was going to leave me on foot. First they drove me back to my motel so I  could arrange for the room. The man who drove me was 83.

“I came to Dodge City in 1921 in a covered wagon,” he tells me.

“We came from Colorado. My father worked for the government.”

I asked him what had changed over the years.

“It’s all changed,” he answered. “There used to be a livery stable on this corner and over there,” he motioned to a vacant lot, “that used to be City Hall.”

The railroad tracks run through town, paralleling Wyatt Earp Boulevard.boot hill

“That used to be Front Street,” he says. Now Front Street is a tourist trap behind a chain link fence where you pay $5 to see “Boot Hill” and a streetfront of Hollywood-set buildings where you can get a sarsaparilla at the “Long Branch” saloon or pay to have the printer work up a wanted poster with your name on it.

“Is that the way Dodge City used to be,” I ask.

“Hell, no,” he says. “That’s just for tourists.”

He has lived in Dodge for most of his life.

“Do you like it here?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know nothing else, I guess.”

For the rest of the day, I walk. It wasn’t a first choice, but Dodge  City is light on public transportation. There are no buses and when I call the taxi company, I get a recorded message that asks me to leave my name and number and they’ll “get back to me.”

So, I head off in the direction of downtown, following the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail line (or more accurately, in this age of railroad megamergers, the BNSF rail line). On the other side of the tracks are green fields and old houses.

Grasshoppers jump under my feet like popcorn.dodge city grain elevator

The gigantic grain elevator roars with cooling fans and a train pulls by me, squealing and humming.

After so many days of driving, it is a revelation to be on my legs once more. When the wind shifts, I can smell the feedlots on the edge of town.

Wyatt Earp is lined with Taco Bells and Burger Kings. It looks like every generic “Miracle Mile” in the West.

The Dodge City most people think of from Gunsmoke reruns is a flat town surrounded by the Hollywood version of the West, full of woods, deserts and mountains.

There are no mountains anywhere near Dodge City, but surprisingly, the downtown is built on one of the few hills in the area. Walking through it means climbing steep streets paved with bricks.

The Chamber of Commerce plays up the “Old West” angle and everywhere you see come-ons that tout the “gunslingers” and saloon girls.

The prize, though, must go the the Gunfighter’s Wax Museum, which is even cheesier than it sounds. Taking up the second floor of the Kansas Schoolteachers Hall of Fame, it’s dark corridors are filled with cartoonish murals lit with blacklight. There’s Jesse James and Davy Crockett, although I never heard of Crockett called a gunfighter before.

But then, John F. Kennedy wasn’t a gunfighter, either and he’s here, along with LBJ and Dracula.dodge city bull statue

A gigantic bronze longhorn steer acts as official greeter for the town: It is the first thing you see when you reach downtown.

It commemorates the hundreds of thousands of “beeves” that were herded to Dodge City in its prime, to be shipped on the railroad back to markets in the East.

As I walked back to my motel after dinner, I saw a cloud of about 2,000 or more blackbirds trail across the sky like a river, slowly filling the sky channel from one horizon to the other, then the first birdstream was joined by a second, running right beside it, with its own several thousand birds.

It was a monumental Western sight, a Milky Way of black stars spread out over the twilight. When the first herds rode through, a third followed and after they left, a fourth: a sky with something like 10,000 blackbirds, twisting and skittering like sparks from a fire.

oakley kansas sign

Mile 880, Oakley, Kan.

Vi Fick couldn’t stop collecting shark’s teeth. She collected so many in the fossil beds near Monument Rocks in western Kansas that she didn’t seem to know what to do with them.

So she wound up giving them to the tiny community of Oakley, Kan., providing, she said, that they erect a building for the collection, which included not only the 11,000 teeth, but dinosaur bones, mammoth teeth and the hysterical paintings she created with them. The museum opened in 1972.fick museum exterior

For Vi Fick had something of the crazy folk artist about her. She painted oil paintings in the learn-to-paint-from-the-TV-painter school, but she added a touch of her own with bits of seashells, bones and shark’s teeth.

The Fick Fossil and History Museum is one of the must-see stops in northwest Kansas. Not only will you find her bones and her pictures, but a decent local history museum, with its usual collection of old Victrolas, antique dentistry tools and antediluvian flour canisters.

The fossil collection is genuinely impressive and scientifically identified. Some of the fossils are from Fick, others from the collection of paleontologist George F. Sternberg, including a 15-foot Portheus molossus, a kind of huge prehistoric fish.

But you have seen fossils before, I’m sure. What you probably haven’t seen is a painting of the American flag with sharks’ teeth for all the stars and the stripes covered in more teeth, pointed one way for the red and the reverse way for the white.

Nor have you likely seen an entire wall lined with 2-foot tall oval picture frames — 30 of them — each filled with neat, symmetrical arrangements of sharks’ teeth.vi fick art

There are also the great seals of the U.S. and Kansas, outlined in the teeth.

There is a photograph of Vi Fick in the museum. You can tell from her modest dress, set with a cameo pin at the collar, and from her well-scrubbed face that she was a hard-working, pioneer-stock God-fearing woman.

But you can likewise tell from the pile of tight white-haired curls, gathered in a football-shaped pompadour over her head and rivaling it for size, that she wasn’t completely in control of herself.

If you have any doubts, just look at her eyes, wider than any normal person feels comfortable holding them and staring out at you with the intensity of thumbtacks.

It may be true that the obsessive dedication Vi Fick felt toward her sharks’ teeth and her wacky paintings is the very dedication needed to make a successful life on the farm in the Great Plains, where everything in the natural world conspires against you.

oberlin kansas 2

Mile 942, Oberlin, Kan.

The wind blows across the plains the way it blows across the ocean, ceaselessly, raising great waves in the grasses and grains that cover the great sea-swell of the hills.

It is not possible, once you have been here, to imagine the plains without the blow. Spiny tumbleweeds barrel across the road in front of you and if you look in your rear-view mirror, you may very well see one caught in the grille of the  car behind you.

Near Oberlin, Kan., I saw the biggest tumbleweed I have ever seen, and the darkest. Usually, they are a kind of straw-yellow and a foot or two in diameter. The one that blew straight northward with me on U.S. 83 was about four feet in diameter, rotating on its edge like a wheel. It sped along in a 40-mile-per-hour gale, turning top over keel for a hundred yards down the highway.tumbleweed 1

When I passed it, it was still following me till I lost sight of it in the back window as I drove up over a rise. For all I know, it made it to Nebraska just behind me.

The wind rattles the windows at night and if it gets under your house, can seem to be in immediate danger of lifting it in the air like a kite.

The worst winds, in terms of consistent blow, are found in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and western Kansas and Nebraska, where the average hourly wind velocity climbs to 12 and 14 miles per hour.

As I drive through, the wind runs a constant 40 mph, gusting to 50. When I step out of my car, the wind rips my shirt clean out of my trousers.

When I ask in North Platte about the winds, an old town resident thinks carefully and tells me, “On Aug. 13, 1947, we had a calm day. I remember it well.”

bailey yard 2

Mile 1039, North Platte, Neb.

Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard in North Platte, Neb., is the largest railroad classification yard in the world. Every day, 10,000 railroad cars in 120 trains run through on the 260 miles of track telescoped into a yard 8 miles long.

It runs through the city and out for miles to the west, where an observation tower is built for trainwatchers.

But, when I drive through North Platte in October, the yard is also something of a problem.

This fall has brought one of the best harvests ever to the Great Plains and there is concern that there are not enough railroad cars to transport all the grain, corn, sorghum, milo and beets.

“North Platte is reportedly one of five railroad ‘bottlenecks’ in the Union Pacific system that are causing disruption to business and industry across the country,” I read in the North Platte Telegraph.

The problem is the merger between Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railways. Bookkeeping and bureaucratic snafus have tied up some 10,000 railroad cars in limbo and there are not enough locomotives to redistribute the needed cars.

Senator Bob Kerry (D., Neb.) expressed his concern about “delays in grain car deliveries, pick ups and system gridlock,” an article reads.

“These shortages and backlogs are especially troubling since the harvest season has barely begun,” the senator said.north platte grain elevator

Nebraska beef producers were running out of molasses, which they mix into their cattle feed.

Concern has been expressed for the health of Nebraska cattle. UP delivers entire train cars of molasses that beef producers use to make feed more appealing to their cattle.

Trucks have been hired to move the molasses, but a business spokesman said that trucking “can’t continue to handle loads of this magnitude.”

“We have a plan in place to fix (the problem),” said UP Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dick Davidson.

The company said it had purchased 288 new higher-horsepower locomotives this year and would buy another 229 next year. To help with the short-term situation, Davidson said, 214 locomotives have been leased during the past few months.sandhills square

North of the town, the Sand Hills spread out like a lunar landscape, if they grew grass on the moon. Ducks fly west along the Platte River so low I can see their eyes.

And when I reach Thedford, at the edge of the Nebraska National Forest, the wind is blowing at 30 mph, with gusts up to 50 and there are people out on the golf course, playing.

Next: The Northern Plains

 

Olympic coast

 

There were a few photos left over from my blog about seeing the West for the first time. These were taken, mostly, on trips across the country in 1981, 1982 and 1983, leaving from Virginia and driving west across the Mississippi River and into the landscape that has the mythological cast to become not merely a piece of land, but a segment of psychology.

Olympic stumpScorched redwoodMendocino County, CalifKiva, Mesa Verde, ColoNisqually GlacierHydro OklaSonoma Valley fenceHaystacks, Joes, ColoSunflowers ND 01Desert scene copyTexasDante's View Death ValleyTorrey, UtahCrumbacher LakeTsegi CanyonChuckanutVermilion CliffsAspens, ColoArch Cape, Ore