I have lived all around the United States, but no matter where I’ve staked my claim, I wanted to travel elsewhere. When I was a teacher, my wife (also a teacher) and I had all summer long to travel. Later, as a writer in Arizona, I wrote hundreds of travel stories for my newspaper. I’ve been to three continents, seen more than seven seas, been to all but one state (Hawaii) and to all Canadian provinces and territories (save Nunavut, Labrador and Prince Edward Island). From Hudson Bay in the north to the Cape of Good Hope in the south, travel has been a source of experience, growth, joy, and enlightenment.
Cape of Good Hope, South Africa
Travel dissipates provincialism, fosters tolerance, expands awareness, and perhaps most importantly, keeps one alive, awake and engaged.
But I can’t be everywhere. And now that I am 75 with wobbly knees and the straitened pocketbook of a retiree, travel has become difficult. Long hours driving are too exhausting, and the last time I flew anywhere, I thought it would kill me (I’m six-foot-four and the airplane seats keep getting more and more squeezed: On the last flight, I had to angle my legs out into the aisle — and then the passenger in front of me decided to recline his seat. And that doesn’t even account for the madness of gate hopping at a sprawling hub-airport.)
When I was a kid, my parents made sure that my brothers and I were exposed to travel and they spent many summer vacations taking us to places, such as Niagara Falls or Washington, D.C. And when at home, in the 1950s, I’d watch whatever travel shows turned up on TV. There were a few: Bold Journey, Kingdom of the Sea, I Search for Adventure. Col. John D. Craig, John Stephenson and Jack Douglas hosted these shows, made mostly of home movies of travelers, and with lots of South Sea islands and exotic tribes. I ate them up.
And so, television provided a surrogate for travel. And I continued to watch any travelogue I could find, up through Michael Palin and Tony Bourdain. (Food and cooking shows were often just as much about travel and culture as about frying or simmering.)
Now that YouTube has elbowed its way past TV, it has its own brand of travel, and one variety I have found absolutely riveting are the many — hundreds, really — postings of train journeys, filmed from the front window of a locomotive cab. These videos usually run anywhere from about a half hour to up to 9 hours, and typically run unedited, showing the view from the front of a train as it crosses huge swaths of countryside.
You learn a huge amount about nations from such trips. Normal travel shows tend to focus on the highlights and the cities. But the train, running, say, from Nice to Paris, shows you the land that tourists pay little attention to. And yet, it is those long “flyover” miles that can speak most eloquently about a nation’s character.
Admittedly, no one is likely to watch a three-hour uninterrupted window view, which can become monotonous, but I put the video on while I do other things and keep track of the voyage, the same way you might read a book on a real train trip and glance out the window from time to time to see how the countryside had changed.
Nevertheless, I find myself hypnotized, wanting to see what is just around the next bend, and that often keeps me watching for hours.
These videos vary in quality from fuzzy, low-resolution and often shaky, hand-held images, to the highest quality HD productions, sometimes sponsored by the nation itself, or the rail line. But always, they take me traveling when I cannot leave the house.
They come from almost everywhere, with the three biggest sources being Switzerland, Norway and Japan. But I’ve found train trips in New Zealand,
Montenegro, Which turns out to be one of the most beautiful countries I’ve never actually visited.
and “the mountains of the Netherlands” (Yes, I’m not making that one up).
Train yard in Oslo
Norway comes to us by a YouTuber going under the rubric RailCowGirl. She is a train driver and has uploaded more than a hundred train trips, seen through her windscreen. (A second train driver has also posted videos, under the name “GingerRail.” It’s worth checking those out, too.) They cover many seasons and weathers, and while many of them are of the same trip from Bergen to Oslo, there are also excursions to other sites, including the Arctic Circle. Following the seasons alone is often simply beautiful. A few run over the mountains in a snowstorm with the rails completely hidden under the white. Wind blows, window-wipers try to keep the view clear, the snow comes swirling down, although “down” might be wrong to describe horizontal weather.
The Switzerland videos focus primarily on the Alps and mountain landscapes. There are also several city tram videos, and at least one I’ve found taken from an aerial tramway (It’s stunning).
The winner, though, as far as I’m concerned, is Japan. I’ve learned more about Japanese geography from these videos than from almost any other source. We tend to think of Japan as an urban nation, with 14 million people scrunched into a city of blaring neon lights, loud traffic, and a million tiny ramen shops and pachinko parlors. But take one of these train trips out of the city and you discover that the vast majority of Japan is both rural and mountainous.
A special aspect of the Japanese videos is found in the many local regional trips on diesel-powered one-car trains that go from countryside community to to other countrysides, on old, squeaky tracks through the backcountry of Japan, into mountain valley villages and riverside towns. They travel at a slower pace and you can see so much to the right and left of the tracks — the farmland, the houses and architecture, the local businesses and the people, often waving at the train as it passes.
Other Japanese videos do go through cities, and often from one jammed up urban center to another, with lots of rural clean air between them. There is a fastidiousness to most of the Japanese train videos that vies with the commercial professionalism in the Swiss films.
I often choose a Japanese trip above any other for its beauty and peacefulness. It’s just amazing watching a trip through the springtime with all the cherry trees in bloom.
In contrast to the tidiness of the Japanese videos, those from Eastern Europe and Russia often show us overgrown tracks, decaying railway stations, abandoned rolling stock, and an industrial landscape with no environmental concern evident. The rural trips are nevertheless often beautiful, even if weeds are growing in the rail ties.
You can take the jungle ride from Peru’s Machu Picchu down to the flatlands.
A trip to New Zealand
British Columbia’s Kootenay River Valley
Colorado’s Royal Gorge
Through Queens on New York’s elevated subway
Multiple trips through Vietnam go from crowded hovels in the back streets
To beautiful pastoral countryside
You can get a very wide picture of a country from multiple of these train journeys.
For railfans, there are tons of tunnels
And views of locomotive controls
French train from Nice to Paris
RailCowGirl often begins her videos with her engine in a yard and we watch as she inspects it before boarding, drives it through the yard to pick up passenger cars, and brings it into the station, before taking off on the journey. It is fascinating for anyone interested in railroads and rail procedures.
Not everyone has the patience for a four-hour stare out the front window of a train, but for those who do, there is a world to learn.
I’ve concentrated on train travel. But there are also many videos of boat and ship travel, and a great series of British intercity bus trips.
A number of Americans have posted “dashcam” footage of road travel, including at least one running for 9 hours using time-lapse photography to squeeze in some 3000 miles of driving.
Watching these over the years I have supplemented my own travel across portions of the globe, and gotten an overpowering sense of the roundness, smallness, and the continuity and kinship of the world.
There were a lot of pleasures to working for a newspaper before the imposition of austerity that followed corporate buy-outs. The earlier parts of my career in the Features Department with The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz., came with great joys.
Before being eaten up by Gannett, The Republic was almost a kind of loony bin of great eccentrics, not all of whom were constitutionally suited to journalism. Those days, it was fun to come to work. When Gannett took over, it imposed greater professionalism in the staff, but the paper lost a good deal of personality. Those who went through those years with me will know who I’m talking about, even without my naming names. But there was a TV writer who tried to build himself a “private sanctum” in the open office space, made out of a wall of bricks of old VHS review tapes. There was a society columnist who refused to double-check the spelling of names in his copy. A movie critic who could write a sentence as long as a city bus without ever using an actual verb. She was also famous for not wearing underwear.
I could go on. There was the travel writer who once wrote that in Mexico City there had been a politician “assassinated next to the statue commemorating the event.” And a naive advice columnist whose world-view could make a Hallmark card seem cynical. The book editor seemed to hate the world. The history columnist was famous for tall-tales.
And let’s not forget the copy editor who robbed a bank and tried to escape on a bicycle.
There were quite a few solid, hardworking reporters. Not everyone was quite so out-there. But let’s just say that there was a tolerance for idiosyncrasy, without which I would never have been hired.
The newspaper had a private park, called the “Ranch,” where employees could go for picnics and Fourth-of-July fireworks. The managing editor was best known for stopping by your desk on your birthday to offer greetings.
What can I say? Just a few months before I was hired, the publisher of the paper resigned in disgrace when it was revealed that his fabulous military career as a Korean War pilot (he was often photographed in uniform with his medals) was, in fact, fabulous. It was a fable he made up.
And so, this was an environment in which I could thrive. And for 25 years, I did, even through corporate de-flavorization and a raft of changing publishers, executive editors, editors-in-chief and various industry hot-shots brought in to spiffy up the joint. I was providentially lucky in always having an excellent editor immediately in charge of me, who nurtured me and helped my copy whenever it needed it.
(It has been my experience that in almost any institution, the higher in management you climb, the less in touch you are with the actual process of your business. The mid-level people keep things functioning, while upper management keeps coming up with “great ideas” that only bollix things up. Very like the difference between sergeants and colonels.)
The staff I first worked with, with all their wonderful weirdnesses, slowly left the business, replaced with better-trained, but less colorful staffers, still interesting, still unusual by civilian standards, but not certifiable. The paper became better and more professional. And then, it became corporate. When The Republic, and the afternoon Phoenix Gazette, were family-owned by the Pulliams, we heard often of our “responsibility to our readers.” When Gannett bought the paper out, we heard instead of our “responsibility to our shareholders.” Everything changed.
And this was before the internet killed newspapers everywhere. Now things are much worse. When I first worked for The Republic, there was a staff of more than 500. Now, 10 years after my retirement and decimated by corporate restructuring and vain attempts to figure out digital journalism, the staff is under 150. I retired just in time.
Looking back, though, I realize that every job I’ve ever had has had its share of oddballs.
The first job I had, in my senior year at college, was on the groundskeeping team at school. It was full of eccentrics, mostly Quakers fulfilling their alternative service as conscientious objectors during the Vietnam war. One day, Bruce Piephoff and I were trimming the hedges at the front gate and he lit up a joint and offered me one. Traffic streamed in front of us, but he didn’t seem to mind. A few years later, Piephoff robbed a restaurant, grabbing everything he could from the till and then walking up the street throwing the cash at anyone he passed. He seems to have done well since then, now a singer and recording artist.
Later, I worked at a camera store. My manager was Bill Stanley, who looked rather like Groucho in his You Bet Your Life days. Stanley chewed on a cigar all day, turning it into a spatulate goo. He had an improvisatory relation with the English language. When an obnoxious customer began spouting stupid opinions, Stanley yelled at him, “You talk like a man with a paper asshole.” When someone asked about the big boss, Stanley told her, “He came through here like a breeze out of bats.” Every day there were new words in new orders.
When I worked at the Black weekly newspaper, the editor was a drunk named Mike Feeney, who had once worked at the New York Times and I would see him daily sitting at his desk surrounded by a dozen half-finished paper cups of coffee, some growing mold, and he would be filling out the Times crossword puzzle, in ink! And he would finish it before ever getting to the “down” clues. He gave me my first lessons as a reporter. “What reporting is,” he said, “is that you call up the widow and you say, ‘My condolences, I’m sorry that your husband has died, but why did you shoot him?’”
The zoo in Seattle was also full of crazies. There was Bike Lady, Wolf Man, Gorilla Lady. And the kindly old relief keeper, Bill Cowell. One day, the place was full of kids running around screaming, spilling soda pop and popcorn, and Bill leaned over to me, “Don’tcha just wanna run them over?”
And I finally got to be a teacher, in the art department of a two-year college. The art staff was especially close, and we had dinner together about once a week. There were some great parties. A Thanksgiving with a contest to make sculpture out of food. The winner was an outhouse made from cornbread, with a graham cracker door and a half a hard-boiled egg as a privy seat. I made a roast chicken in the form of Jackie Gleason, with a pear attached as his head. Another time the drawing teacher, Steve Wolf helped us put on a shadow-puppet show. He had us falling on the floor with the most obscene performance he called, “The Ballerina and the Dog.”
And so, I suppose I have always worked with a class of people outside the normal order. So, when I was hired by the Features editor at The Republic and he was wearing Japanese sandals, it hardly registered with me. Mike McKay gave me my first real job in newspapers.
But, oh, how I loved my years there. Newspapers everywhere were profit-rich and the paper was willing to send reporters all over to cover stories. I benefited by getting to travel across the country, and even the world.
I was primarily an art critic — and ran immediately afoul of the local cowboy artist fans when I reviewed the annual Cowboy Artists of America exhibition and sale at the Phoenix Art Museum. It was one of the major events on the social calendar, when all the Texas oil millionaires would descend on Phoenix to buy up pictures of cowboys and Indians.
The event was an institution in the city, but I wasn’t having any of it. I wrote a fairly unfriendly review of the art and got instant pushback. I wrote, among other things, “It’s time, Phoenix, to hang up your cap pistols. It’s time to grow up and leave behind these adolescent fantasies.” And, “their work is just, well, maybe a few steps above black velvet Elvis paintings.” I was hanged in effigy by Western Horseman magazine. It was great fun.
But my portfolio expanded, and by the end of my sojourn in the desert, I was also dance critic, classical music critic and architecture critic — one of the last things I did was complete a 40,000 word history of Phoenix architecture. I also became back-up critic for theater and film. And I wrote hundreds of travel stories.
The paper sent me to Boston, New York, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, Reno, and almost once a year, to Los Angeles. I covered major art exhibits by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Audubon, Jackson Pollock, among others.
Because Frank Lloyd Wright had a Scottsdale connection, I wrote about him often and got to travel to and write about many of his most famous buildings, including Taliesin in Wisconsin and Falling Water in Pennsylvania.
Pacific Coast Highway
But the best were the travel stories, as when they let me take 10 days to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from Tijuana to Vancouver, or another time when I also drove from Mexico to Canada, but along the Hundredth Meridian in the center of the continent — and then down the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Over several different trips, I cobbled together a series of stories about the Appalachian Mountains from Alabama to the Gaspé Peninsula.
Mississippi River near Cairo, Ill.
I had assignments that let me cover all the national parks in Utah, and several excursions to every corner of Arizona. In 1988, I went to South Africa for the paper.
Indian Ocean, Durban, South Africa
Of course, when Gannett took over, the travel miles shrunk to near zero. They didn’t want to pay for anything they didn’t absolutely have to.
I left in 2012. The handwriting was on the wall. Thoughtful pieces about art and culture were no longer wanted. We were asked to provide “listicles,” such as “Top 5 things to this weekend.” After I left, I heard from former colleagues how the photography staff was let go, the copy editors were fired — how can you run a newspaper with no copy editors? They are the heart of a newspaper. They saved my butt I don’t know how many times. But no, they are all gone.
It was a sweet spot I was lucky to have landed on, to be able to observe the old “Front Page” days in their waning glory, and leave when everything was drowning in corporatism. I have often said that if Gannett thought they could make more money running parking garages, they would turn The Republic building into one.
When I left, a group of colleagues bought and gave me a blog site. I’ve been writing on it ever since — now just under 700 entries — and it proves what I have always said, writers never really retire, they just stop getting paid for it.
I have been thinking of Paris a lot lately. It is the city I have felt most at home in, perhaps along with Manhattan. It has been a dozen years since I last went, and I will almost certainly never get back — I am too old to put up with the torture of airline travel.
It is a great city, made up of many smaller neighborhoods, each with its individual character. You can walk almost anywhere, and if you need to go further than your feet feel comfortable, you can always grab the Metro.
When Carole and I used to go, we would pick out a neighborhood (or arrondissement) and settle ourselves in it, as if we lived there. Each visit, we’d go to a different one. And we shopped in the local shops, ate in the local restaurants, and shared pleasantries with the people we came across.
Parisians have a reputation for being rude, but we never found that. Everyone we came in contact with was unhesitatingly friendly and helpful. When I was sick one day, Carole went to the chocolatier at the end of the block, and when she told the sales person why she was buying some “get-well” candy, the bag was loaded with as much again, no charge. “Tell him we hope he gets better soon.”
That was our constant experience in Paris. One day, I was walking by myself along rue Monge, near our hotel and the woman who ran the flower shop asked after Carole. “Is she not well?” “No, she’s just resting.” We had not talked with her before, but she had noticed we had been in the neighborhood and she worried about us.
The city has been brought to mind in part because of a series of TV shows about Impressionist art, made by British art historian and TV presenter Waldemar Januszczac. (Yes, that’s seven consonants and only three vowels — a Scrabble nightmare).
In the series, he makes the point that what defined the Impressionists was not all the flowers and flowery dresses, all the sunlight and paint daubs, but an interest in the daily lives of Parisians. The official painters of the day (second half of the 19th Century) were the academic painters and they painted elaborate historical, biblical or mythological paintings — subjects considered “important” enough for art.
But there was Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Degas, Caillebotte, Sisley, Gauguin, or Marie Bracquemond — all painting what they saw on the streets, or the people they hung out with. The paintings captured the life of the bourgeoisie, the ordinary people of the city.
And when I went looking back at the photographs I made while in Paris, I realized that so many of them were contemporary versions of the same things that featured in those canvases.
This was “my” Impressionist Paris.
The other reason Paris has been on my mind is that I am re-reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I first read it when it first came out and I was in high school. I had just been forced to read The Great Gatsby for class, and Hemingway gave me a very sour take on Fitzgerald. (I don’t know why they assign Gatsby to teenagers; there is no way in hell they can have any clue as to what is going on in the book — I know I didn’t. I have just re-read it and been blown away by the beauty of its prose — all that lost on me when I was a snot-nosed adolescent).
But now, as I’m re-reading the Hemingway, I am hit with my own past. I know so many of the streets he names. He and Hadley first lived on rue Cardinal Lemoine; our first visit put us right at the bottom of the hill off Lemoine. We ate breakfast each morning at Le Petit Cardinal bistro. Our regular waitress, Lauren, a sandy-blond woman in her 30s, would have our regular breakfast for us even before we ordered. (And one morning, when I had ordered a pain au chocolat and they were out, she went across the street to the patissier and brought back a sack of them, so I wouldn’t be deprived.)
The cafe culture Hemingway writes of is one we became intimate with, each time we went (and we attempted to stay for a month at a time, each visit).
At the cafe Etoile d’Or, at the bottom of the hill, we came late one night after a concert to have a demitasse and a dessert. Carole ordered a crème brûlée and when it came, she lightly tapped the hardened caramel crust on top, a rich glaze that she said reminded her of the stained glass of Notre Dame. She told this to the waiter, with his apron wrapped around his waist, and he smiled. We heard him in the kitchen telling the cook, who answered simply, “C’est vrai.”
I first went to Paris when I was in high school. I had accompanied my grandmother on the transatlantic boat trip to Norway so she could visit her birthplace in the south of the country. I was also given a Cook’s Tour bus trip, by myself, across northern Europe.
When we stayed in Paris, one night when the rest of the tour went to the Folies Bergere, I was deemed too young to go. So, as evening descended, I walked up the street stopping about a half-block from the hotel, at a boulangerie and bought a baguette. Next door was a charcuterie, where I bought a paper boat of wurst salad. Another door down, I bought a bottle of dry white wine and I took the bundle back to my room, where I had a private dinner that I know I enjoyed more than the poor slobs who had gone to the nightclub. Sausage, bread and wine — I was 16 and I have never again felt so grown-up.
Paris made the biggest impression on me at that tender age, of all the places we visited across five nations. It was Paris before the cathedral of Notre Dame was cleaned, and so its facade was sooty with grime. The church of Sainte Chapelle was brilliant with stained glass. The Metro impressed me — an afficionado of New York subways — by riding on rubber tires and making almost no noise.
But I didn’t get back to Paris until 2002, when Carole and I decided it was time. We had a hotel in the Fifth Arrondissement, just off rue Monge. On our first full day, we walked down the hill toward the river.
Hemingway begins his fourth chapter: “There were many ways of walking down to the river from the top of the rue Cardinal Lemoine where we lived.” It was the same route Carole and I took, although we didn’t know it at the time. We could see the spire of Notre Dame at the end of the road, less than a half-mile off. Along the way, we past a thousand cafes, bistros, tea bars and restaurants. In between were shops, fruit stands, book stores and churches.
The river divides the city in half, and along its banks you still can find the fishermen that Hemingway wrote of: “The good spots to fish changed with the height of the river and the fishermen used long, jointed, cane poles but fished with the very fine leaders and the light gear and quill floats and baited the piece of water that they fished expertly. They always caught some fish.”
It’s a working river, still.
When in A Moveable Feast he writes: “With the fishermen and the life on the river, the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with their smokestacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great plane trees on the stone banks of the river, the elms and sometimes the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river.”
Paris is an oddly layered city, with the newest on the bottom and the oldest above. Almost every building houses some modern shop on the ground floor, with neon lights, plate glass and corporate logo. While from the second floor upwards, you see the old wrought-iron balconies to the small casement windows, peeling paint, rotting plaster or concrete, and surmounted by a gaggle of chimneys, each with a half dozen flues poking out the top.
How they got those modern shops underneath the old apartments, I don’t know. It looks like they jacked the buildings up and constructed a shopping mall underneath.
For dinner, we tried a little Italian restaurant and had a opening course of mortadella, which Carole called “the worlds best bologna.” Then we had the lasagne boulognese, and a chocolate mousse for dessert. My notes of our trip are filled with descriptions of our meals. I believe I cataloged every one of them in my notes.
At La Aubergeade, on the rue de Chaligny, two men were sitting at a table across the room. One short and sandy haired who was making a point in the air with his hands. He was about 55 and wearing a wool suit. The other man was tall with a de Gaulle nose and mustache, bald with a crew cut. He was so gangly and angular that his knee, crossed over his other leg, poked high above the table level. He was skeptical and showed it with a raised eyebrow and a pursed lip. He also sawed the air with his right hand palm inward, fingers extended, in a slow and deliberate fashion, in total contrast to the energy of his friend. Momentarily, they stopped, cut their steak or potato, put it to mouth and then began their counterpoint gesticulation again.
It was like watching a Tati movie, live. In fact, the tall man might as well have been M. Hulot on one of the moments when he was dragged into the cafe by his friend, accordion music playing as soundtrack. Vielle France.
At the restaurant across the street from our hotel, we had one of the best meals of my life: A steak with grilled fois gras. A small dog wandered from table to table looking for scraps and a good pat on the head. Eventually, he climbed up into my lap and stayed there contentedly, while I finished my dessert.
It feels silly writing about our food every day, but it is truly a highlight. Paris is a city where your lunchtime conversation is likely to be about where you will eat dinner. The promise of Christian salvation has little value compared with the presence of a good French meal.
“I’m not sure it does us honor, but if I had to admit it to myself, the real reason for coming back to Paris is the food,” I said.
On our first visit together, in 2002, we ate at Le Physicien, a Basque restaurant at the far end of rue Monge. It was group seating, and we were at a long table with a bunch of students. They had such a ball, it was infectious. They sang and drank and ate. Carole shared her braised kidneys with them. They shared shrimp with her. We had a piperade — a Basque specialty with garlic, onion, peppers and egg — that was the highlight. Daniel, the chef and owner, smiled on us all with his aged, whiskered smile.
Two years later, we came back for more on a bright, sunny Tuesday afternoon at lunchtime. But when we entered, a woman there was trying to shoo us away. I wasn’t sure why. I couldn’t understand her French.
But then the old man came in — the one we remember from last visit — and he immediately calmed the woman down and offered us seats.
Carole explained in French that we had been there two years ago and loved the piperade and that we wanted piperade again, with ham and egg and pepper and — well, garlic.
He was enthusiastic and hit the kitchen right off.
We had ordered two glasses of wine, but the woman brought us a whole bottle and made an apology for trying to send us away.
The piperade was wonderful — along with the vin rouge and the basket full of baguette chunks. For dessert, we had the gatteau basquaise with crème anglais.
When we left, the woman took both of Carole’s hands in her hands, and then Daniel, took both my hands and put them inside of his hands and said thank you. So, they both understood what we had been trying to tell them in our pidgin French.
It was a perfect experience, but when we walked out the door, I noticed a sign I had missed on the way in: Fermé le mardi — “Closed Tuesdays.”
That has always been our experience of Paris and Parisians.
Yes, we went to the Louvre, and other must-sees, but we didn’t spend a lot of time on the usual things. We never, for instance, went to the Eiffel Tower. Why? You can see it from pretty much any point in the city, and if you spend your day climbing the tower, well, you cannot see the tower.
On our second trip, in 2004, we stayed on the Boulevard St. Marcel and a couple of doors down from the hotel was the Pizza Lino, where we ate a couple of times. On the third time, our waiter greeted us as old friends. He wouldn’t let us order. He had made cous-cous.
“I am from Algeria,” he said. “I made it myself.”
He brought out a tagine and plates of white cous-cous and we covered them with a ladle or two of a rich red sauce filled with vegetables — potato, squash, tomato, chick peas, carrots — and a selection of meat, including meatballs, an anise flavored sausage and the best lump of lamb meat I’ve ever had. He brought it with wine and told us the wine was part of the deal. It was.
The food was wonderful, but it paled in comparison to the human interaction we had with our friend, Madjid. “I am not Arab,” he tells us, “I am Berber.” He has been in France for three years, he says. He and a friend own the restaurant. Madjid is married to a Brazilian woman and has a 14-year-old son. (the boy must now be in his 30s.)
Madjid expressed that he felt an instant sympatico with us, and we told him we felt it toward him, too. He brought us a free pichet of wine, which we felt compelled to drink.
“It is good,” he said, “when you have something to give” — like his food — “that someone truly knows how to enjoy and accept it. A gift is best when it works both ways.” I am paraphrasing his macaronic French and English. (He speaks French perfectly well, but tries to add enough English to help us understand. His English is imperfect, but better than our French.)
Two years later, we were walking up the Boulevard St. Marcel, late in the afternoon and I heard a voice: “Reeshard? Reeshard, No?” It was Madjid, in front of Pizza Lino.
“Yes, bon jour.”
“I have good memory,” he says, understating the case.
And he pulled us in and told us he had cous-cous and hardly gave us a chance to assent, but sat us down at the same table we used to sit in. “Your place, yes?”
And he set before us a bowl of white fluffy cous-cous with white raisins swollen plump, and then a great big white Normandy bowl of vegetables and soup, with big chunks of carrots, onions and turnips. While we were spooning the veggies and soup over the couscous, he brought another plate full of braised lamb, meatballs and andouille sausage, bright red with white chunks of fat.
We added the meat to our bowls and chowed down. We couldn’t possibly finish everything he brought us, and he showed the same grinning pride in his cooking that he did last time.
Our bellies were bursting, our warm-spot in our hearts were glowing and we promised to come back the next day. And, of course, we did.
At the Luxembourg Gardens, we walked among the statues and horse-chestnut trees and were in the middle of a living city. People all around were walking dogs, sitting under trees and reading, or cuddling or smoking. Teenagers rolled past on their inline skates and joggers puffed around corners. All I heard was French.
What never fails to give us pleasure is just walking around the streets. We walked along the quai, or even up the Rue Monge near our hotel, and look in the shop windows, drool at the patisserie, see what French vacuum cleaners look like, watch the people sitting at the round tables in the cafes sipping their cafe au laits. The cars are different; the way people walk or cross streets is different. It is all utterly and completely fascinating.
Throughout the city, street markets pop up on their regular days. I found the Thursday street market, spread out along Avenue Lendru Rollin from the rue de Lyon all the way to the rue de Bercy. I started to walk along it, past fish and fowl.
The market sits under canvas tent-roofs along the sidewalk, with the territory divided up between vendors. One was a fishmonger, with heaps of silvery dace and mackeral, red-fleshed, skinned flatfish, piles of oysters, boxes of shrimp and langoustini. The next had meat, with freshly butchered shanks and steaks, and platters of livers, kidneys and other oddments. More than one stall was end to end vegetables and fruits, with cauliflowers, tomatoes, leeks, cabbages, peaches, apples, pears.
A few meters down the road, the food gave way to junk jewelry and hairpins. Further, there were clothing stalls, shoes, jackets.
Then, more food. One great-smelling stall had whole chickens on rotisserie racks, about 6 skewers high, over a trough with golden roasted new potatoes. He called to us in English, “Take home a half chicken, only 3 Euro.” I shrugged my shoulder: We had nowhere to take such a succulent morsel.
At the end of the line, we kept walking for a bit, down to the river and halfway across the bridge to the Gare de Austerlitz. It was chilly that morning and the sun, barely a glare through the grey sky, broke into crystals on the sharp-edged little waves of the Seine.
A few years before that, we had been staying in a hotel off the rue Claude Bernard and one morning, we heard a crowd outside. It was market day on the rue Mouffetard.
It was like something from a movie, or a travel poster, with hundreds of vendors selling vegetables, fruits, meats, fish and all kinds of viands. Up and down the narrow street, shops offered oysters, coffee, bread and beer. On shop had freshly-dead rabbits hanging in the window. “Lapin — 8 Euro, Lievre — 10 Euro.” The hare was about 20 percent larger than the rabbit.
The street was mobbed. It was a hive of activity, and at the bottom of the hill, by the Saint-Médard Square, there was a small band, with accordion, playing music. The crowd sang along and gathered in a circle around the musicians and two or three couples would move to the center and begin dancing, all with great smiles on their faces.
By about noon, the marché came to an end, and the band signaled the end of their performance with an elegiac La Vie en Rose — the whole thing could not have been more French. I’m sorry if it all sounds corny, but it also felt very real.
We knew then that we had to come back, and we did so every other year, when we could afford it.
I have lived in the four corners of the U.S. Born in the Northeast, I went to college in the Southeast, later moved to the Pacific Northwest and for 25 years, lived in the desert Southwest. I found value and pleasure in each region.
But having moved back to North Carolina after so many years in Arizona, I am having lurching pangs from missing the West. I cannot deny that when I lived in Seattle, I had similar pangs about the South — I missed the tremendous variety of plant life when faced with forest consisting of nothing but Douglas fir and western redcedar. Hundreds of miles of Douglas fir and western redcedar. Where were the dogwoods, the sweetgums, the witch hazel, the sassafras, the red maple, canoe birch, beech, elm, oak?
Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.
And so, I moved back to the East and back to North Carolina, where I had by then spent the largest portion of my life. I met my wife there and some years later, we moved to Phoenix, Ariz., where she got a job teaching and I found my life’s work writing for the newspaper. For the paper, I did a lot of traveling, and visited every state west of the Mississippi to write art and/or travel stories. It is always a pleasure to travel on someone else’s dollar.
Pacific Coast Highway, Marin County, Calif.
After retirement, we moved back to the mountains of North Carolina, which I love. But I have to admit a nagging desire to spend time again in the desert, on the Colorado Plateau, driving up the coast of California, or revisiting the less glamorous portions of Los Angeles. The American West has wormed itself into my psyche and I feel almost as if some part of it has been amputated and I’m now feeling “phantom pain” or at least pangs in the missing limb.
It is not the idea of the West that I harbor. The idea has been around since before Columbus thought to sail west to find the East. It was there for Leif Erickson; it was there for the Phoenicians; and before that for the Indo-Europeans. It was the idea that grabbed the early American colonists who saw the trans-Appalachian lands and envied their possession.
The West of the mind is a West of infinite possibility, of clean slate and fresh start, of fantastic riches to be had, of prelapsarian goodness. People emigrated to the West for a better life and a quarter-section.
Fort Bragg, Calif.
The reality, of course, is something different: not enough rain for crops, prairie fires and tornadoes, mountain ranges nearly impossible to cross. And an indigenous people we first needed to wipe out and then mythologize into something noble and vanishing — as if the erasure had happened on its own.
The Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey; we had our two epics: First, the Civil War, which is our battle epic, and then the wandering to find a new home in our Westward expansion, our odyssey. We made movie stars of our cowboys. The West of the movies is scenic and immaculate. It is a cinemascope landscape.
But that isn’t the West I miss. The West I knew isn’t pristine; it is dusty, dry, spackled with convenience stores and gas stations, and getting hotter every year. It is even boring: If you’ve ever driven across Wyoming, you know what I mean. It has been described as “miles and miles of miles and miles.”
Near Pendleton, Ore.
Gertrude Stein’s description of America is really a description of the West: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.”
The West I miss in my deep heart’s core is the dusty, windblown vastness, but it is also the crowded, traffic-choked cities. I miss Los Angeles as much as I miss the Rocky Mountains.
And let’s be clear. There are four very different Wests. There is the Great Plains region;
the mountain West;
there is the desert West;
and the Pacific West.
Each has its character and its psychic magnetism. I am drawn to each.
Route 66 near Oatman, Ariz.
The flat middle of the country is usually forgotten when we talk of the West. In the movies, Dodge City always seems to have the Sierra Nevadas in the background. The Kansas reality is very different: grassy, flat, and smelling of cattle dung.
San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Ariz.
As you drive across the Staked Plains of West Texas, you feel you might as well be out on the high seas with no land in sight. Indeed, that is how Herman Melville describes it in his story/poem, John Marr, about an old salt now living in the center of the continent. “Hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.” And the wind in the tall grass makes waves that undulate like the sea.
Friends used to laugh when they asked where I planned to spend my vacation and I said, “Nebraska.” No one, they said, goes to Nebraska. How about the beach? How about Manhattan. But I had in my head a sense of Manhattan, Kansas, instead. I loved seeing grasslands, badlands, farmlands and cowhands.
Republican River, Kansas
The mountain West is spread into broad bands. The largest is the Rocky Mountains that were such a barrier to the early pioneers.We drove up and through the Rockies in many of its latitudes, from the Southern Rockies in New Mexico to Glacier National Park in Montana — and further up into Banff and Jasper parks in Alberta.
My wife wanted to see bears. When we camped, she threatened to tie a peanutbutter sandwich to a string and drag it through the campsite, saying, “Here, Mr. Bear. Here, Mr. Bear.” I persuaded her that was a bad idea, but we found several bears on the side of the road as we drove.
Then, there are the Sierra Nevadas of California, some of the most photogenic peaks in the country, and the background to so many cowboy movies of the ’30s and ’40s. The mountains are home to the sequoia forests and Yosemite National Park. The lowest point in the U.S. is Death Valley and the highest peak in the Lower 48 is Mount Whitney of the Sierras and they are only about 80 miles apart. You can practically see one from the other.
The Sierras eventually turn into the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington, and a series of giant volcanoes, such as Mt. Baker, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Rainier. And Mt. St. Helens. I have climbed up portions of Rainier and walked along the Nisqually Glacier on its southwestern face. On a clear day in Seattle, the snowy, ghostlike presence of Mt. Rainier seems like a permanent cloud on the horizon south of the city. It is immense.
Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, Calif.
The desert West is the one I know best. I lived in it for a quarter of a century, in Phoenix. But it is not Phoenix that I miss, except for the friends I left there. No, Phoenix is merely Cleveland in the desert. But outside of the city the desert is beautiful. In a good year — about one in every 15 — the winter rains make the desert floor a paint palette of wildflowers. The January explodes.
To the north of the city, the Colorado Plateau is what I miss the most, those long vistas of grassland and badlands, the Navajo and Hopi reservations, the mesas and canyons, the Colorado River and a half-dozen national parks. The plateau continues north into Utah and into the southern parts of Colorado.
Petroglyphs scar the rocks and cheap souvenir shops, like those called “Chief Yellowhorse” dot the interstate.
I can no longer count the number of times I have visited the Grand Canyon, both north and south rims, and the forlorn and uninhabited parts of the western stretches of the canyon on what is called the Arizona Strip. Anytime someone visited us in Phoenix, we took them up to see the Canyon. Pictures just don’t suffice; you have to see in to understand the awe. A picture is static, but the canyon changes color minute by minute as the sun slides across the sky and clouds pass over the rock. One of my great experiences was to arrive before dawn and watch the growing light slowly illuminate the stone and see the slim, glowing white ribbon of river a mile below us.
South of Phoenix, there is the Sonoran Desert, with its Saguaro cactus and unending greasewood plains. And rivers with no water in them. The common joke in Arizona was about a long-time desert rat who took a trip to New York City and when he returned, his friend asked him about it. He saw all the sights, including the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. “And did you see the Hudson River?” “Yeah, but there weren’t nothing to see; it was covered in water.”
Lavender Pit, Bisbee, Ariz.
The picturesque parts of the desert are certainly attractive, but what I miss are the unlovely bits. The decrepit mobile home parks of Quartzsite, in the middle of nowhere, with its pyramid monument to Hi Jolly, the camel herder hired by the U.S. Army in a futile experiment. The burned out and abandoned shacks in 29 Palms, Calif.; the stink of dead fish along the shores of the Salton Sea; the shimmering fata morgana over the Wilcox Playa; the city-size holes in the ground where copper is hauled from the pits; and the mountain ranges of slag heaps hanging over the cities of Miami and Claypool.
In so much of the desert, it is not the unsullied nature that used to be there, but the used-up quality, the peeled paint and weathered wood and broken-out windows, the abandoned and rusting cars, the roads cracked with weeds growing through. These would never be called pretty, but they have an intense kind of beauty about them. There is something very human about the ruins that no bland red sunset can match.
As I said, it is the physicality of the West that speaks to me, not the idea. It is the West as it is, not as it is imagined to have been.
Mural, Los Angeles, Calif.
This is true also of the Pacific West. I have written many times about Los Angeles and the parts of the city I love most: the concrete river,
the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills,
the thousands of little strip malls and their ethnic restaurants and food markets. The bungalow houses, the back streets, the Deco architecture.
I have driven from Tijuana to Vancouver along the coast, soaking up cities and redwoods, mountains and rushing rivers; the Samoa Cookhouse of Eureka; the bridges of Conde McCullough; the stonehenge of Maryhill; the Channeled Scablands; the floating bridge over Lake Washington; the Olympic Mountains.
Jupiter Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park
I have visited every state except Hawaii and every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island and Labrador, and I have absorbed the geography into my tiny head, swallowed whole.
Mexican cemetery, Chandler, Ariz.
We all become the landscape we have lived in. It is what makes a Southerner so darned Southern, the Yankee so taciturn, the desert rat so possessive of his burning sun-broiled gravel. In the past — and still in the American South — people tend to live within a few miles of where they were born, and their regional differences become part of their DNA. In more mobile times, when so many move around the country or even to foreign climes, that conflation of land and psyche may attenuate. But it is still there, defining, in lesser or greater extent, who we are and what we feel and think. It is why red states tend to be rural and blue states urban.
And because I lived in the dry air so long, with the greasewood flats and the arroyos and the roadrunners and javelinas, the West — not the idea, but the real thing — has become a part of my insides. It is why even in the gorgeous Blue Ridge, I miss the desert, mountains, plains and cities of the West. We are in some part, the same thing.
“Comes over one an absolute necessity to move. And what is more, to move in some particular direction. A double necessity then: To get on the move and to know whither.”
The opening sentences of D.H. Lawrence’s 1921 travel book, Sea and Sardinia. It is one of my favorite sentences ever, first because it expresses an impulse I share, but mostly because of the odd inversion of word order and the way it replicates the order of the impulse hits.
What I mean is that when such a feeling “comes over one,” it is first unnamed. You don’t originally understand what this need is, just that it rushes your emotions. It is only second that you identify what it is that you are thinking of. To run the sentence in normal order — “An absolute necessity to move comes over one”— implies you understand what it is when it hits. It is a two-part process and the first part is non-verbal, almost primordial. Word order matters.
Lawrence is largely unfashionable these days. His novels — those “bright books of life” — can feel dated. Certainly his phallo-centric worship seem bizarre. It’s hard to read “Lady Loverly’s Chatter” without without laughing, or at least gasping. Of course, it’s not his best book. (Fashion is untrustworthy; you should read one of his novels or short stories to see just how good he is, despite his preaching).
But in addition to his fiction, Lawrence wrote about his travels and singular writings they are. Do not expect objective recitations of fact, but rather what is left after being filtered through the author’s distinct sensibility. This makes them both more interesting and relevant many decades after they were published. Many travel books are written; most drop out of date within years; a few — a very few — transcend time and place to become, dare I use the word, “literature.”
Such books are a joy to read, and give you insight not so much into a destination as into how an active mind can interact and react with place and turn its air and soil into words.
Lawrence wrote four such books. In addition to Sea and Sardinia, there is Twilight in Italy, Etruscan Places and Mornings in Mexico, which includes essays he wrote about New Mexico also and a beautiful encomium to the Hopi Snake Dance.
“How is man to get himself into relation with the vast living convulsions of rain and thunder and sun, which are conscious and alive and potent, but like the vastest of beasts, inscrutable and incomprehensible? How is man to get himself into relation with these, the vastest of cosmic beasts?”
Such books go back into antiquity. Few books are as readable, or as revealing of their authors, as the Histories of Herodotus. While the book functions mainly as a history of the Persian Wars, in it our gentleman from Halicarnassus takes us everywhere from Egypt to India, serving up travel tidbits that may be true, may be lies, or may be simple misunderstandings.
His story of ants in India the size of dogs that go into the desert and bring back gold could perhaps be a mistranslation of a word for marmot rather than ant, and a further misinterpretation of Himalayan marmots who dig into the sand and catch gold-bearing sand in their fur. He never says he actually saw such ants, but only heard travelers tell of them.
Herodotus is sometimes called the “father of lies,” but he is always lively.
There are other classical travels, too, such as the Anabasis of Xenophon and the Description of Greece by Pausanius. Xenophon is pretty straightforward, but others, such as Ctesias of Cnidus stretched the credulity of their readers. Ctesias wrote a book about India, called Indica (existing now only in fragments, but quoted often by other authors), in which he describes such things as a race of men with only one leg, and whose feet are so huge they can be used as umbrellas.
In the Second Century, Lucian of Samosata ridiculed such outlandish claims in a book he called “A True Story,” in which he reported on “things I have neither seen nor experienced nor heard tell of from anybody else; things, what is more, that do not in fact exist and could not ever exist at all. So my readers must not believe a word I say.” In this, he says, he is therefore much truer than such liars as Ctesias or Herodotus because he admits his tales are all lies from the get-go.
The most famous of questionable travel books is certainly Livre des Merveilles du Monde or “The Book of the Marvels of the World,” also called the Travels of Marco Polo, which appeared in the late 13th Century. (I say “appeared” rather than “was published” because there is no authoritative version. It sprung up in many languages in many countries at the same time, often with conflicting content.) It was ostensibly compiled by a Venetian hack writer named Rustichello of Pisa who shared a prison cell with Marco Polo in Genoa and transcribed Polo’s tales of his travels to China.
The trustworthiness of Polo’s Travels has been questioned since it first appeared. Parts of it are surprisingly accurate, geographically and historically, but other sections are cribbed from other books written by Rustichello, ripped whole-cloth from his popular fictions. Scholars have been arguing over the book for hundreds of years.
It is, however, and despite some tedious repetition, a good read, which is why it came out in six different languages and 20 different editions in just a few years.
The discovery of the New World led to many journals, books and manuals. Perhaps the most famous is now just called “Hakluyt’s Voyages,” and was published in 1589 by Englishman Richard Hakluyt. His many books informed William Shakespeare’s sense of the world and its peoples.
The title of his principal work is nearly a book all by itself. There was a fashion for long, descriptive titles back then. For instance, what we now call Shakespeare’s King Lear, was first known as the “True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three Daughters, With the unfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of Tom of Bedlam: As it was played before the Kings Majestie at Whitehall upon S. Stephans night in Christmas Hollidayes.”
And so, Hakluyt, not to be outdone, titled his travel book:The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation: Made by Sea or Over Land to the Most Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at Any Time within the Compasse of These 1500 Years: Divided into Three Several Parts According to the Positions of the Regions Whereunto They Were Directed; the First Containing the Personall Travels of the English unto Indæa, Syria, Arabia … the Second, Comprehending the Worthy Discoveries of the English Towards the North and Northeast by Sea, as of Lapland … the Third and Last, Including the English Valiant Attempts in Searching Almost all the Corners of the Vaste and New World of America … Whereunto is Added the Last Most Renowned English Navigation Round About the Whole Globe of the Earth.
And that’s why we now call it “Hakluyt’s Voyages.”
But it is in the 18th Century that travel writing went mainstream. It was the era of the Enlightenment, and learning about the other quarters of the globe became a part of what we were enlightening ourselves about. Scores of travel diaries and memoirs were published.
Samuel Johnson wrote A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, which is about a country he had little affinity for, and his sidekick, James Boswell wrote about the same trip in his The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL. D. Johnson wrote about Scotland; Boswell wrote about Johnson. In one notable episode, they extolled a hearty dinner consisting entirely of cold butter and milk. Yum.
Novelist Tobias Smollett wrote a popular Travels Through France and Italy, published in 1766, which is not much read these days, but in contrast, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, by Laurence Sterne, is a classic. Smollett didn’t much cotton to foreign ways and pretty well grumped his way through the Continent. Sterne, in his book, from 1768, took a much more amiable view. Sterne actually crossed paths withSmollett in Italy, and satirized him and his pique as the character Smelfungus.
HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan
In 1839, Charles Darwin published what is now known as The Voyage of the Beagle, which was his portion of the scientific and geographical expedition of the H.M.S. Beagle around South America and into the Pacific.
The trip provided Darwin with much of the data that led to his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. But much of the book is just a good read, with the author’s reactions to what he discovers.
In mid-summer the ship stopped at Bahia in Brazil. Darwin wrote: “The day has past delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration. A most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence pervades the shady parts of the wood. The noise from the insects is so loud, that it may be heard even in a vessel anchored several hundred yards from the shore; yet within the recesses of the forest a universal silence appears to reign. To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again.”
Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft
In 1844, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, published her Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843. The book combines memoir with political analysis and was widely praised at the time.
It followed the path taken by her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark in 1796. In it, Wollstonecraft wrote that “The art of travel is only a branch of the art of thinking.” And she wrote that travel writers should have “some decided point in view, a grand object of pursuit to concentrate their thoughts, and connect their reflections.”
Mark Twain in the Holy Land
It is the point of view that distinguishes travel literature from mere travel writing. And you get that in spades in four books by Mark Twain. He published The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress in 1869 about a trip he took two years earlier to the Holy Land, with side excursions all through the Mediterranean. It was his best-selling book during his lifetime.And the source of one of his most famous quotes:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
He followed it up a few years later with Roughing It, an account of his travels and travails in Nevada and California. Then in 1880, he followed with A Tramp Abroad, which details a trip he made through Germany and the Alps. In it, he included a screamingly funny pasquinade on the Teutonic tongue, called “The Awful German Language.”
For instance, linguistic gender baffled him. “Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in distribution; … In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.”
Finally, he went around the world, including to Hawaii and and India, and wrote about the trip in Following the Equator, published in 1897. The heat in India got to him: “I believe that in India ‘cold weather’ is merely a conventional phrase and has come into use through the necessity of having some way to distinguish between weather which will melt a brass door-knob and weather which will only make it mushy.”
I wish I could mention all the wonderful and quirky travel books I have read: Travels with a Donkey by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Alhambra by Washington Irving; Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (yes, it’s a travel book, of sorts).
And those I wish I had read: A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling by Ibn Battuta; Through the Brazilian Wilderness by Theodore Roosevelt; Travels With Myself and Another: A Memoir by Martha Gelhorn (the “other” is Ernest Hemingway); The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara.
But there are finally three more that I have read and recommend to everyone:
—The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Matsuo Basho, which recounts a journey he made, mostly on foot, around the wilder parts of the north of Japan in the spring of 1689. It is a haibun, a combination of prose and poetry — mainly haiku — and functions as both a travel diary and a poetry anthology. It also has profound things to say about life, time and consciousness.
“Months and days are travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float off on ships or who grow ancient leading horses are also forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them.”
—Voyage autour de ma chambre (“Voyage Around My Room”), published in 1794 by French writer Xavier de Maistre. He wrote it while under house arrest, and managed to turn his confinement into a pilgrimage, as he wandered around the room, 36 paces in circumference.
“I have just completed a 42-day voyage around my room. The fascinating observations I made and the endless pleasures I experienced along the way made me wish to share my travels with the public; and the certainty of having something useful to offer convinced me to do so. Words cannot describe the satisfaction I feel in my heart when I think of the infinite number of unhappy souls for whom I am providing a sure antidote to boredom and a palliative to their ills. …
“When I travel through my room,” he writes, “I rarely follow a straight line: I go from the table towards a picture hanging in a corner; from there, I set out obliquely towards the door; but even though, when I begin, it really is my intention to go there, if I happen to meet my armchair en route, I don’t think twice about it, and settle down in it without further ado.”
—Finally, I want to offer George S. Chappell’s 1930 Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera: A Fascinating Trip to the Interior. The title seems self-explanatory, but the book antedates Raquel Welch’s breakout film Fantastic Voyage by three and a half decades.
Our hero, along with an ornithologist, botanist and cameraman, first enter the mouth, do some spelunking and climb the cliffs of the molars. As they explore the innards of the human corpus, they escape from an enraged Amoeba, and discover the Heeby-Geebies that infest the Nerve Forests of the Lumbar region. Pausing only to carve their initials on the spinal column, the four brave souls reach Lovely Livermore and search for the source of the river Bile. Scarcely have they had time to shoot the rapids at the conjunction of the Gall and the Spleen and view the dance of the Hemoglobins when a violent upset in the interior forcibly ejects them.
What can I say? It isn’t only travel that is fatal to bigotry, but so is reading, especially reading about travel.
I grew up on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. At the other end of the bridge was the wider portion of the world. It was the escape from parochial suburban concerns and into a life infinitely richer.
New York city was not just the gateway to the larger world, it was the larger world.
One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother taking me at age three, maybe four, into Manhattan to see the Christmas display windows at Macy’s department store. I remember being frightened by the subway and being returned like Odysseus from the underworld up to the snowy Seventh Avenue.
It was only a few years after the war and the city was still the one described by E. B. White in Here is New York, published a year after I was born. It was the city of yellow cabs, of subway roar under the sidewalk grates, Con Edison steam pouring out of street vents. The Third Avenue El blocked the sky and the Horn and Hardart automat flipped out sandwiches and soup. Barges carrying freight cars crossed the Hudson from Weehawken and Hoboken; Penn Station and Madison Square Garden — the old one — were still standing. The GWB was still only one level. Skyscrapers were still mostly stone, brick and steel. The Empire State Building was still the tallest in the world.
When you are young and the world is that new, every encounter with it imprints and becomes the ur-version of your Weltanchaung. Everything you later learn is first compared with these initial impressions.
And so, two great geographical “gods” I grew up with were the Hudson River — every other river until I crossed the Mississippi failed to earn the name — and New York City. A city wasn’t a city unless it had sun-blocking canyons of impossibly tall offices, apartments and hotels. If it didn’t have a subway or a ring of bridges and ferries. Or the wharfs with their ocean liners and longshoremen.
As I grew up, the city remained the touchstone not merely of urban-ness, but of civilization itself. It was where I went to find bookstores. There was Little Italy, Chinatown, Harlem and Spanish Harlem. I saw Puerto Ricans and Arabs, Norwegians and Hindus. The idea of a mixed population seemed absolutely normal.
As White wrote, “The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.”
And all that makes a kind of poetry: “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal [combustion] engines.”
That music includes the sound of jackhammers, car horns, squealing bus brakes, street-corner arguments, police whistles, sirens, and on special occasions, marching bands.
Through high school, and later when I returned home from college, I would take the Public Service bus to the bridge and walk across it from Jersey to Manhattan, looking down on the way to the little red lighthouse. Up past Cabrini Boulevard to the 175th Street IND subway station where a 15-cent token would take me anywhere in the city: Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Modern Art, the Sheridan Square Paperback Corner, the Hayden Planetarium.
The city became so much a part of my world-view that it took traveling halfway around the world to break me open. That is the importance of travel. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” wrote Mark Twain. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
The Mississippi River was more river than the Hudson, and the Columbia was a drained a greater area. The St. Lawrence was a wider gouge on the continent. And once I left the New World and stood on the banks of the Rhine in Dusseldorf, I marveled at night over the racing current and the moon reflected in the waves — so big a river and so rapid a flow. This was the Rhine of the Lorelei and the Valkyries. Robert Schumann wrote his Rhenish Symphony in Dusseldorf.
And so it was with cities. Philadelphia and Chicago were smaller imitations of New York, but so many others created their urban civilizations on other patterns. I would have to come to terms with Los Angeles, with Seattle, with Miami.
I had avoided LA for many years — decades, really — with the unearned disapproval of an East Coast snob. It wasn’t really a city at all. What did Dorothy Parker call it? “Seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.”
LA was the city where the people who pass you on the freeway are always better looking than the people you pass. The city where all the women are beautiful and all the men wear shades to protect their eyes from the shine of their own smiles.
My tune has changed. After many trips to Southern California, I have come to love LA, with all its traffic and sunshine.
Los Angeles is genuinely cosmopolitan; I feel there as I must likely have felt in Amsterdam in the 17th century or Venice in the 16th century. I cannot remain awake and self-satisfied at the same time.
Of course, when something is cosmopolitan, that means it includes a great deal we might feel uncomfortable about.
Mystery writer Walter Mosley wrote, ”It’s a land on the surface of dreams. And then there’s a kind of slimy underlayer. The contrast of beauty and possibility and that ugliness and corruption is very powerful.”
You ride up over Sepulveda Pass on the 405 and spread out before you is all of the San Fernando Valley, one vast Vaseline smear of suburbia and middle-class values — and you know that this is the world capital of porno films.
From Simi Valley to Costa Mesa, you find every food, every culture, ever language, every social class, every fast-food joint. There is high culture at the LA County Museum of Art and history at the La Brea Tar Pits; there is outdoor dining at the Farmers Market on West Third Street and Fairfax; there are the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills, pecking at the ground like so many chickens.
When my late wife and I first began to travel, we avoided cities. As long-time Easterners, we were besotted by the empty West and its long horizons and open skies. Driving down carless roads that measured straight for 20 miles or more at a stretch, wiggling in the distance through the lens of desert heat, it was the isolation that fascinated us. Cities only slowed things down and gummed them up with stoplights and bumper-to-bumper glue.
It was only later that the cities opened up their gifts to us. Since then, I have come to love several cities, and cherish their idiosyncrasies and talents.
First among these is Paris. I have been back many times. It is so different from New York, so compact, so comfortable. You can walk almost anywhere, and with only a miserly few skyscrapers, it is a human-scale place. In New York, restaurants can seat hundreds at a time; in Paris, a typical restaurant has maybe a half-dozen tables and only two workers: the waiter and the cook.
Tourists think of Paris as the Eiffel Tower or the streetside artists of Montmartre, but we never went there. Instead, we walked the streets near where we were staying and got to know the butcher, the florist, the baker. A morning visit to the patisserie for a pastry, a stop at the bookstore to pick up a Pleiades edition of Victor Hugo, a duck-in to a small neighborhood church that has been there for only, say, 400 years.
The most beautiful city I have ever seen, based on its setting and geography, is Cape Town, South Africa. It sits in a bowl surrounded by peaks, including Table Mountain, which is a long, flat cliff over which a fog often drapes, like a tablecloth. The streets are wide and sunny, and the houses clean in the sunlight and often brightly colored. I was there near the end of the apartheid era, and while the Afrikaners to the north held fast to their racist ideology, in British-heritage Cape Town, I saw black and white Africans comfortably together on the beaches, despite its being technically illegal.
Chicago (left) and Johannesburg
Back north in the former Transvaal, the city of Johannesburg, or “Jo-berg,” was more familiarly urban. In fact, if you didn’t know where you were, you could easily confuse the city with, say, Chicago. If you thought of Africa as elephants and zebras, the high-rise congestion of Jo-berg could come as quite a surprise.
I have a special warm spot for the city of Durban, on the Indian Ocean, with its thick tropical humidity and dense pack of various humanity.
I lived for a while in Seattle, and came to love it for its weather. What elsewhere might be called rain is hardly noticed in Seattle, unless it’s a downpour. Most days, it seems, the air just hangs with a slowly-dropping mizzle. The city is built on hills, and you are always going up or down, and until the recent and ugly development of a self-regarding amour propre, Seattle was a kind of forgotten city. That was the city I came to love. Now, it is overrun with Starbucks and hipsters. It used to be cool; now it knows it is cool, which is never cool.
New Orleans is a city I used to despise. I thought of it as infested with cockroaches and humidity. But as I’ve gotten older and have begun to decay myself, I find a bit of deterioration admirable. Now, it is one of my favorite cities. How can you not love a place where the restaurants feature 60-year-old waiters in formal dress?
There are other cities I hold dear: London; Oslo; Vancouver; Miami; Mobile, Ala.,; Halifax, Nova Scotia; San Francisco; St. Louis; Tijuana — yes, if you leave the tourist center, it is a wonderful city.
And there are places I have never come to love. I really dislike Las Vegas, for instance. It gives me the creeps. I see those retiree women sitting at the slots, their eyes turned into lifeless ball bearings in the soulless, windowless casinos with their dead, ringing bings. The horror; the horror.
Atlanta seems like nothing but traffic; Dallas like endless freeway flyovers; Houston like a fungus that grows to eat up a wedge of southeastern Texas. Once you enter the city limits, it seems as if you can never get out. Houston covers more ground than Rhode Island, and paints it with minimalls, Comfort Inns and tire dealerships.
I have been avoiding mentioning Phoenix. That is because my feelings are ambivalent. I have always called the city “Cleveland in the desert.” It has little actual character and the roads are as regular as jail bars. I lived there for a quarter century and came to love many things about it, and made many friends, who I now miss since I left. But the city itself has little to recommend it, outside of being in the middle of a desert paradise. Of course, you have to drive at least 60 miles in any direction to even get out of the city into the desert, and the remoteness of the desert only increases as the city expands.
Yet, even in Phoenix, I get the feeling of civilization — both good and bad. Civilization is defined by cities. Before cities, life was villages and farms. After the growth of Sumer and Ur, and the creation of writing and the spread of trade and political power, it became possible for the cooperation and interaction that cities allow.
And, even if an urbanite doesn’t leave his city, he will encounter those who have come from elsewhere. He will be forced to give up his “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” City life tends to make one cosmopolitan and therefore, tolerant. Maybe not universally, but largely.
It explains, in part, the vast political gulf we face, not so simply between red and blue states, but between urban and rural. As cities grow, the nation gets bluer. If we encounter what is “other” and discover it is not, we give up fear and dampen hatred. Cities work because everyone has to put up with everyone else. It is what makes New York such a model.
“The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity,” wrote White. “The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. If the people were to depart even briefly from the peace of cosmopolitan intercourse, the town would blow up higher than a kite.”
But it doesn’t. Not normally. In fact, the diversity of the city is more than merely tolerated, it is enjoyed: Who would want to live in a city where you could not get a good mu-shu pork or a good osso buco; not find a movie theater showing the latest Iranian film; not be able to buy a kofia and dashiki; not hear a Baroque opera?
I have learned to widen my definition of what counts as a city. Even the Asheville, N.C., I now occupy has, in its tiny compass, an urban feel. The downtown is old and brick, and pedestrians walk up and down its hills. The stores and restaurants are busy and it is hard to find a parking spot. It is a concentrate of urban-ness. I can eat Ethiopian injera or find a well-used copy of Livy. It is a blue city in a red state. And thank the deities in the stars for that. It still echoes the New York that is buried in my deep heart’s core.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 3 of that trip.
Sullivan, Maine, is a small community in Hancock County along the eastern edge of Taunton Bay, about a dozen miles east of the cutoff road to Mount Desert Island, Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. It is well outside the normal haunts of seasonal tourists, and just off of U.S. 1, which continues north to the Canadian border.
It was founded in 1789 and was originally a fishing town, but later became prosperous by mining silver and quarrying for granite. The primary use for the rock was for making curbstones for cities further south. Several abandoned quarries are still found up behind town in the woods.
The stone was loaded onto ships at Gordon’s Wharf in Sullivan and shipped out past Sullivan’s most prominent feature: a two-way rapids at the mouth of the bay which shifts direction with the changing tides. The wharf was later used for lobster boats. the town is now home to about 1200 people.
My college friends Sandro and Mu moved there in 1988 to live in an old white clapboard house about 100 yards off the road behind a stretch of woods.
The two are an amazing pair. Mu has multiple graduate degrees and Sandro was a Classics scholar who reads Latin for pleasure. I count them as my closest friends for the longest time; it is always like coming home when I go to visit.
And I’ve been up to see them too many times to count. Before the two got married, Sandro and I drove to Maine together some 40 years ago. I believe that is when he first decided he would eventually move there.
A few years ago, Mu’s sister, Gina, and her husband, Jay, moved to Sullivan also. They generously offer their above-the-garage apartment to visitors.
And so, Anne and I arrived in Sullivan by late afternoon on Monday and moved into the apartment. On Tuesday, Anne crossed item number two off her wish list by visiting the L.L. Bean in Ellsworth to find a new pair of shoes. Back in Sullivan, she napped in the afternoon while I listened to music and read some Melville.
On Wednesday, all hell broke loose.
A “bomb cyclone” is a new, fancy word for the storm that creates a “nor’easter.” We got hit on Wednesday night.
The wind hit 60 mph. The rain came down in Niagaras. Windows rattled. Door was blown open. Morning came, the storm continued. In the dim light of dawn, I could see out the bedroom window and watched a 60-foot pine tree catch the wind; its tip was pulled off from vertical by 20 feet.
It finally died down about 11 a.m. on Thursday, but no power anywhere in miles around. Power went out before dawn on Thursday morning. Trees were down everywhere. Most of coastal Maine was damaged. Over all New England, nearly half a million people were left without power.
A bomb cyclone is said to exist when the barometer drops 24 millibars in 24 hours. Over the night, it dropped 24 millibars in 11 hours. I dropped 37 millibars in 24 hours. It was a mega-nor’easter.
We were basically on hold for three days. No electricity, no water (the well-pump runs on power), pouring jugs of bought water in the toilet tank so we can flush three or four times a day. Darkness after sunset (by 5 p.m., it is already too dark to read).
That meant not only no power, no internet, no cell phone, no recharging anything, it also meant no water, no stove, no refrigerator no way to wash dishes and no way to make coffee in the morning. Jay brought up to us a couple of jerry-cans of non-potable water to flush with. Sandro brought us a bag of ice to put in the fridge so the food wouldn’t go bad.
The only heat was a propane stove in the living room, and the pilot light went out every time the wind blew. (Relighting it required getting on the floor with a flashlight and twisting dials and pushing buttons to get it to flame up again).
All day Thursday and all day Friday there was no power. Anne was getting a smidge petulant; she suggested she’d had enough of Maine and perhaps we should begin driving home NOW. She suggested we get a hotel room. She suggested perhaps I was the anti-Christ. I suggested she think of it all as a great adventure. “This is fun. Just think of it as camping,” I say.
This does not go over well.
When the thing died down, we tried to drive down the street to see how Sandro and Mu fared, but a tree was broken at the base and leaning into the power lines, stretching them like a rubber band and threatening to snap them. We debated whether to drive under the tangle, and did so gingerly. Trees and branches were littered everywhere. Just before we got to Sandro and Mu’s driveway, a gigantic pine tree was broken into two 8-foot chunks in the road, one half on one side, the other on the other with just enough room for a car to slip between.
The mighty maple tree that had stood beside their house was a shattered pile in the driveway. It missed their car by a few feet.
“We heard a boom in the night, I thought it was thunder,” Mu said. “But it must have been the tree falling.”
We then went the 12 miles into Ellsworth to see if anyone had power yet. It was eerily quiet and empty. No power anywhere.
The third day and the power was still out. But the air had cleared and the sun shone again. We left the dark apartment and drove to Schoodic Point, which is part of Acadia National Park.
Schoodic is one of my holy-of-holies, a windswept peninsula of rocks hammered by constant waves. If the weather is right, they crash into the granite and spray a hundred feet into the air. And, after the bomb cyclone, the weather was driving the water into the shore in massive bursts.
It was still windy and cold, which turned my hands to ice and my face to a kind of numb leather. But it was perfect: This is Schoodic the way it is supposed to be, nature with unchecked energy. Spume, thunder and we were nearly the only ones there to enjoy it.
It is Saturday and there were trucks in Sullivan with cherry pickers and flagmen working on cutting down fallen and damaged trees and re-stringing wire. By about 3 p.m., power was finally restored and Anne could take a shower and decide that Maine was beautiful, after all.
Sandro and Mu cooked dinner. He fixed some salmon and asparagus; she made apple cobbler for dessert. We sat around their dining room table, drank wine and talked into the evening. This is what we came for.
Back in the apartment, Anne rested on a heating pad for her aching back and I sat across the room, reading under the only light we had on, which made a kind of warm, glowing light very like the candle light we had been getting used to. It makes a difference if you do that by choice.
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.
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.
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.
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.