Saturday, May 30, 2009

Hartford, Connecticut

Hartford is certainly a town not lacking in pretension. A city built on stolid insurance premiums grown glossy and sleek on nouveau riche investment swindles.

There are grand boulevards...devoid of traffic. Vast public spaces...abandoned. Towering skyscrapers...seemingly vacant. It's as if the Rapture came and it turned out that God's chosen were insurance adjusters and derivatives traders. And the bees of course. Which if you kept them all in a smallish enclosed space would be okay by me.

Granted, a cool and drizzly work night might not fully capture the bustling energy of the place. And on the plus side, there's plenty of on-street parking.

Still, it all feels a little Potemkenish, a city built for a population that had other ideas entirely. After Manhattan’s crowded vitality, this feels a little like Pyongyang without the whimsical dictatorial lunacy or nuclear ambitions. Just that creepy insurance watchtower lighting up the night sky.

Sitting for what felt like an hour at an abandoned four-way stoplight left me feeling like the last man on earth. Stopping on the yellow, I watched as the lights cycled through Then a leisurely wait for nonexistent pedestrians. As I near retirement age my turn finally arrives, and a lone jaywalker appears from the mist to amble out in front of my bumper before stopping to check his laces. I race through under the yellow, drive a block and stop again while the remaining minutes of my life tick....slowly...away.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Brooklyn, New York

Hoping to further cultivate my melancholia, I go for a walk in the rain at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. To be honest, few things cheer me more than walking past people who, however celebrated and happy and full their lives might have been, are now dead.

And I’m not.

There is peace here, away from the manic energy of the surrounding city, but rather less permanence for the 600,000 residents. Angels grace many of the graves, but their features are slowly melting in the toxic mist. Site of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Brooklyn and home to legions of Civil War dead, many of the names are all but lost.

A bust of Elias Howe, Jr., looking quite pleased with himself, lords it over a corner of the cemetery’s rolling and verdant hills. Beloved father and husband, brave in battle and successful in business (he invented the sewing machine), he passed at the tender age of 48 years, 2 months and 24 days. After a fair bit of mental gymnastics, I realized that though I have thus far achieved exactly none of those things, I have managed to outlast him by three solid weeks. And counting.

So there.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

New York, New York

In the 4th grade, Billy NIchols told us that if you threw a penny off the top of the Empire State Building, you'd kill somebody. The penny would go right through their head and out their feet and an inch into the sidewalk. If you threw a quarter, you could wreck the subway.

Billy Nichols was possibly the biggest liar I ever met.

By the time I got to the top of the Empire State Building, I was ready to take his theory up a notch and hurl myself off.

Upon entering the fabled building, I stood in a winding line to go through a security scan. Then I stood in line to pay $20 to stand in another, much longer series of lines, that in the fullness of time took me to a stifling elevator, into which I was crammed with 30 of my closest friends and taken 80 stories skyward. Emerging slightly stunned and with popping ears, I could opt to stand in another line for upwards of half an hour. Or climb the final six fli

I take the latter in the hopes of saving time and restoring circulation. And after the 29 minutes it takes for the geriatric ward ahead of me to make the ascent, I stand in a scrum on the observation deck along with the entirety of humanity peering over the abyss.

Don't get me wrong it was very nearly worth the effort. It's an amazing view, peering out across the Manhattan skyline, the Hudson River, the Kansas prairie, Los Angeles shimmering in the distance.

It's just that I saw the line for the elevator heading back down.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania

For the majority of the citizenry, Memorial Day is an abstract; an extended weekend at the beach, beers around the barbecue, and checking out the sale at Home Depot. Most years I'm no different.

But passing Indiantown Gap, I pull off the highway and drive past rows of flags honoring the recent war dead and and into hundreds of acres of manicured lawn and identical stones. Their numbers astound, flowing over the gently rolling Pennsylvania landscape.

A line of Vietnam vet bikers rides through up the quiet lane. Bellies and beards overflowing, they stop and stand in a quiet circle around a small grave marker.

I stop at random and study the names, most men of my father's generation, veterans of WWII and Korea, passing after their long, productive Greatest Generation lives.

An old woman walks past me, carrying a bouquet and accompanied by her daughter and grandson. The boy empties the watering can on the flowers, then swings it overhead already bored. Her daughter looks away distracted and soon walks back toward the car calling back, 'Take all the time you want." The old woman stands alone, stooped and lost in memory.

When she walks past, I'm kneeling, photographing a small graveside flag, trying not to intrude on her privacy. When I look up, our eyes meet. Hers are rimmed with tears, and the sight unleashes a wave of grief inside me. In a moment, I'm choking back sobs.

What am I mourning? My father, gone these six years? Row after row of dead old men I never knew? Some ideal of honor and service that I'll never measure up to?

A hot spring sun beats down, and I walk through the rows, wondering what these tough old men would have to offer in the way of fatherly advice. It's a little late to ask, but I'm all ears.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Carlisle, Pennsylvania

I wrote the early chapters of my autobiography behind a four horsepower Briggs and Stratton lawnmower. Growing up on three acres in Pennsylvania farm country, the only responsibility my father entrusted to me with was keeping the grass under control. Walk 150 yards east, shift 18" south, and walk 150 yards west. And try not to cut your damn toes off. It offered me ample opportunity to envision a life more grand than my immediate circumstances might indicate.

Say...playing right field for my beloved, benighted Philadelphia Phillies.

“Hank Aaron connects. It's going deep. Souders races back...he's to the warning track...he leaps’s amazing,,,he steals a home run away from the champ. Only 13 but that boy can really play some ball....

Riding the Tour de France.

"The peloton approaches the Champs Elysee. Souders breaks away. He's sprinting hard. It's unbelievable, but a kid in cut-off jeans and tube socks is the first American to ever win..."

Seducing my 7th grade mathematics teacher.

"Paul, what the hell are you doing out there? Will you just mow the goddamn lawn already...That boy, Louise, I swear...."

I had a lot of time to think about the amazing adventure my life would become just as soon as I got out of Carlisle.

I'm home again for a short break from the road. My mom still lives on those acres as she has for more than 50 years, keeping old age and infirmity at bay with a steady diet of fresh air and gardening. I help out with the lawn while I'm here though.

Walking back and forth in the cool spring evening, I marvel at the verdant beauty of these Pennsylvania woodlands. There is a brief window between the brittle mid-Atlantic winter and long months of humid summer torpor. A week of blue skies, gentle sunshine and the vision of the genteel life of a gentleman farmer.

There's as much chance of that happening as I had with Miss Bixler.

But I walk back and forth through the soft fields of bluegrass and dandelion. The sun sets, and twilight descends, and I spend a lot of time wondering if I shouldn't come up with a higher class of dreams.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cleveland, Ohio

It's all here at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Lyrics in a cribbed, nearly illegible hand scrawled in school notebooks. Black cowboy boots from a forgotten tour. The 501's and white t-shirt from the Born in the USA cover. On the screens an endless video loop ranging from early shows on the Jersey shore to polished and dull arena concerts.

Bruce Springsteen wrote the soundtrack of my youth, and it can't be a good thing for either of us that he's now a museum piece.

Walking past these artifacts, it's like trying to understand a fire that raged through your life by staring at a pack of burned matches. In an acrylic display case.

None of this stuff touched me. It wasn't until I walked up a spiral staircase with the opening lines of Thunder Road written on the walls, spiraling up with me. It's probably the only song I know start to finish, and one I've sung to myself across three decades. A paean to youth and longing and possibility.

The screen door slams
Mary's dress waves
Like a vision she dances
across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
That’s me and I want you only...

Born to Run, two sides of vinyl that formed the philosophical framework for a generation of confused, awkward guys growing up in the seventies. We were all struggling to break free from our small lives and embrace some grand dream that was waiting for us just beyond the horizon.

That was a long time ago and a lot of miles back. You eventually figure out that beyond the horizon, there's just more road. And ourselves. And there's isn't a one of us who can drive fast enough to outrun that.

He's a dad now, nearly 60 with three kids and some marital complications if you believe the tabloids. He pretty much jumped the shark at this year's Super Bowl. I walk past his old Harlie here, polished and sleek, but looking strange and sterile and a little sad behind velvet rope. It's a memento from a 20 year old road trip.

I wonder if he doesn't wake up nights and dream of throwing it all in. Grabbing the keys and hitting the open road, driving hard one more time toward that ever-receding horizon.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Detroit, Michigan

If you're looking for symbols of Detroit's utter collapse, you need look no further than the old train station. The shattered remnants look like something out of ancient Rome. Vandals have managed to break every single window throughout seventeen stories. You could almost admire the sheer determination.

In some nearly forgotten era, passengers alighted from their trains, setting off in topcoats and fedoras through the monumental station and into a city bustling with industrial might. Now it stands abandoned and destroyed, home to vagrants and urban wildlife, and awaiting the wrecker's ball.

The class of visitors hasn't improved much either. I drove into the city and straight into the Downtown Hoedown, an annual country music festival in the shadow of GM's bankrupt but shimmering corporate office headquarters. Every redneck in a 150-mile radius was there in a cowboy hat, drunk, and yee-hah-ing in traffic before going off to piss on a parked car. I haven't seen so many white people behaving badly since the last Republican National Convention.

All of which made the click of handcuffs around my wrists that much more unexpected.

I photographed the depot as the sun set and was intercepted on my way back to the car by Harrison, a overly friendly but harmless local who described the tragic wonders inside. I couldn't help but notice the cyclone fence and concertina wire that rings the building, but he knew a spot.

We ducked under a hole in the fence and made no more than 20 feet before the siren and flashing lights. In surprisingly short order I was spread-eagle on a police car, then cuffed. In the fullness of time I was issued a trespassing citation for venturing onto Canadian Pacific Rail property.

I looked at the young cop, shook my head in wonder and could only laugh. "Wow. That's quite the welcome to Detroit."

He looked down and stifled a smile that seemed to say "Trust me, it only gets better."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Madison, Wisconsin

No body search. No metal detectors. Citizens and visitors are free one and all to enter. How strange that this should feel a special privilege.

There is something more than a little bit inspiring about walking into a good state capitol. Wisconsin's is a lovely marble and dark wood replica of the DC prototype. Towering and spacious and echoing, it feels like some temple of democracy.

Mobs of school kids on field trips file in, then scatter like excited molecules under the rotunda, taking snapshots and running in ecstatic circles. Their yelling and laughter echoing through the halls.

I sit and watch the multitude pass through, an Indian family, the nose-ring mohawk dude, overworked school tour guides and overpaid lobbyists and lots of sturdy-looking midwesterners. It's nearly enough to thaw a cynic's heart.

The dome towers in classic geometric perfection. At its apex, a romantic vision of liberty herself. She is draped in a white robe and bedecked in flags and 11 lovely maidens in various stages of entanglement and undress. The maidens represent the states' It's all a bit sapphic, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I was informed later that the mural was in fact Edwin Blashfield's "Resources of Wisconsin." For one, I can’t fault the man for taking a dull task and running with it.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Minneapolis, Minnesota

I hate Frank Gehry. I've hated the world-renowned architect ever since he added a crashed spaceship monstrosity to the Seattle skyline. He built it for the city's second richest billionaire, and I watched it materialize outside my apartment window in the late 90's. I hate the narcissistic, egomaniacal design philosophy that seeks to plop a shiny new toy in whatever city some gazillionaire ponies up the requisite bankroll.

, Minnesota has one, the Weisman Art Museum on the University campus. It stands on the banks of the Mississippi River, surrounded by a sea of nondescript buildings that fill the campus. I walked around, thinking of all manner of clever insults to hurl. Imagine the illicit spawn of a medieval castle's one-nighter with a mobile home. I studied all the playful angles, the audacious steel shell, the clever windows, the play of light against the flawless blue of a spring morning.

I was utterly entranced. So much so that on my second lap I walked off the sidewalk and painfully wrenched my ankle.

I sat on the campus lawn, gripping my throbbing boot and held onto my one remaining reason to hate Frank Gehry.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Highmore, South Dakota

After filling up on five cent coffee and a small five dollar slice of pie, I set out from Wall Drug, South Dakota and head east. I skip the interstate and head out on state two-lane.

An enormous thunderstorm forms over the prairie to the north, growing dark and angry. I parallel it for miles, listening in on AM radio reports of baseball-sized hail and 60 mph before the station plays a set of the Carpenters' greatest hits.

I finally give in and drive toward the storm, helped along by a 30 mph tail wind as the cloud begins to spiral upwards and suck in air at its base. The radio blares a civil defense alarm warning, then returns to playing the Eagles.

The sky grows creepy dark as I drive under the enormous cloud. I head into a wall of rain as lightning starts to crackle above me. A bolt hits very close, blinding me for a second. Not that I can see much to begin with as the wipers struggle to keep pace. Hail hits the car like a bucket of rocks, and this starts seeming like not such a great idea after all.

The radio reports the storm moving at 50 mph east, and there's no way I can get out ahead of it. I drive for an hour buffeted by wind and sheets of rain before breaking away and trying to find a hotel for the night.

Just because I'm done doesn't mean the storm is and I slog through waves of rain, hail and wind. I look at the silver lining; at least I won't have to wash the car.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

I drive through towns in South Dakota where junked cars outnumber the resident population by an order of magnitude. The highway runs off like a perfect expression of the Cartesian ideal. There's an unnerving geometric perfection to it, a line bisecting the entire visible world. I pass a sign that warns "Next Gas 40 Miles." If you squint, you can just make out the next station's lights, at the end of that long, perfect asphalt ribbon.

Thanks to a detour in Wyoming for more scenic splendor, It is close to midnight before I reach Keystone in the Black Hills. I obey the alarm clock's summons, and trudge off to meet my country's makers. I arrive before the parking garage staff, so I avoid ransoming my car to the concessionaire. Instead, I surprise a small herd of deer hiding out in the garage.

I climb the stairs and four familiar faces stare back.

Almost immediately, I start to see Mount Rushmore as a Rorschach, you see what you want to. Founding father or imperial hypocrite. The man who saved the Union or the bastard who crushed the flower of Confederacy. Genius of democracy or slave-shagging libertine. And can someone explain what the hell Teddy Roosevelt is doing hiding in the back?

But as I sit and think about it, maybe that's the point of democracy. You make what you want of it. You can see the country as the hope of nations or a tyrannical empire in decline. Or a bit of both.

The old men peer out of the mountainside as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa and as silent as the Sphinx. I guess we'll have to sort this out for ourselves.

I duly photograph the mountain, and then its reflection in the visitor center's windows. Looking for a different angle, I'm soon sprawled on the sidewalk, eye to the viewfinder and ass in the air. I hear tittering laughter and look up to see an Amish family looking down at me, before politely returning their gaze to the Presidents.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Watford City, North Dakota

I have a soft spot for the prairie, this land gone lonesome. It helps that I don't spend a lot of time here. But if nothing else, if you've got troubles, you can see them coming from a long way off.

I heard on the radio this morning that North Dakota attracts fewer tourists than any other state in the nation.

Inexplicable, I know. I think it's just a problem of perception. You say "North Dakota" and people think blizzards in winter. Tornadoes in summer. Locusts and Dustbowl Depression year round.

Maybe they need to think re-branding. Start with a new name. How about "South Manitoba?" And stop calling them Badlands. They're not bad, they're just misunderstood.

Driving east from Montana, I followed the Yellowstone River for hours, the land opening up, but getting a harder edge, too. I stopped to admire an eroded moonscape near the Dakota border and fell in with a skinny young kid taking his wife and baby out for a Mother's Day excursion. With a mini-bike. He pretty much ignored the two of them, and we looked off into the Badlands all around, dead-end canyons and eroded hoodoos stretching to the horizon. A distant storm cloud spat lightning, but we were too far off for thunder.

He looked around and said, "These are some of the harshest lands on earth. Jesse James, the bank robber, used to hide out here. He hid a whole bagful of silver dollars out there. He came back looking, but he never could find 'em. They say they're still out there somewhere."

He looked like he wanted to take that mini-bike out for one more look around. And if he found the treasure, the first thing he was going to do was buy a bigger bike.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Big Timber, Montana

Big Timber lies in the rolling ranchlands north of Yellowstone, with a mountain range called The Crazies looming white and jagged to the west. Bull-a-rama marks the unofficial arrival of spring in these parts, and folks come in from throughout the surrounding counties.

Sturdy looking men and women walk into the Sweetgrass County Fairgrounds carrying six packs of Bud or Coors in cans, making steady progress through the evening's festivities.

Bull-a-rama is rodeo for the attention-deficit generation. Sort of the monster trucks for the agricultural set. Strip away all the barrel racing and horsey crap and you're left with a guy on a bull getting the shit beat out of him.

Rodeo cowboys are professionals in a sense, though the circuit is short on glamor. Bullfighters follow the competition from town to town, driving hundreds of miles across the west, paying entree fees and hoping to bring home enough gas money to keep going.

Each cowboy carries his duffel bag to a shared corner of the stockyard. Most everyone dresses there, stripping down to boxers and putting on Wranglers and cowboy boots with raking spurs. Some stretch and limber up, others practice the wildly jerking moves of the ride's first seconds. Fans stand and gawk. A knot of fat girls titter at the sight of grown men in their underpants. Everyone else lines up at the burger stand twenty feet away.

As sports go, Bullriding rules are basic. Sit down and hang on. The particulars are a little more problematic. You're climbing onto the back of two thousand pounds of irate beef that will do nearly anything to get you off. If he does, there's an excellent chance he'll try to pound the stuffing out you for good measure.

The bulls are led into a series of rough wood chutes. This angers them greatly. The cowboys sit on their backs, which does little to improve matters. Cattle aren't generally known for their acrobatic propensities, but rodeo bulls leap, lunge, pirouette and spiral with surprising speed and agility. The effect is only enhanced by cinching the bull's testicles with a leather strap. As one cowboy put it succinctly. "You put a strap around my balls, I'll jump too."

When the chute's gate flies open, the next seconds fill with almost unimaginable violence. You can watch damn near anything on television and it won't spoil your supper. But seeing these bright eyed young kids hurled, thrown and trampled tears at your heart. Still, folks pay ten bucks and drink a beer while they watch it.

And truth be told, I had a blast.

After the final bull, the dust settles and the crowd ambles toward the exit. Prize money and the winner's prize saddle and belt buckle are handed out. In dust and headlights, cowboys limp out to their trucks. Beers are cracked in the parking lot before the long drive to the next show.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Generally speaking, I like to think wildlife photography requires equal measures of stealth and patience, guile and skill.

But not always.

Sometimes you’re fiddling with the radio and minding your own business when a herd of large, brown ungulates pops up in front of you, altogether unexpectedly. After the requisite swerving, braking and swearing, the rest of the job is fairly straightforward.

I had crested the Continental Divide, the highway topping 7,000 feet with a howling squall at my back. Both the wind and temperature were somewhere in the 30’s, and dark clouds spat rain and then pellets of sleet before settling on horizontal snow.

Yellowstone in the off season is not without its charms. Chief among them the relative absence of tourists. More than three million tourists flock each year to the park, but the vast majority swarm like locusts during the short summer. Weeks before Memorial Day in the teeth of a spring blizzard, traffic was merely annoying, not yet rage-inducing. A minivan full of chain-smoking French tourists did try to ride an elk, but it was strictly a pre-season exhibition.

When the bison appeared, everyone formed up in an orderly queu and we made our evolutionarily improbable way down the narrow park two-lane.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Bliss, Idaho

“You want fries that? Or tots?”
It’s not a question I get a lot of, but this is Idaho after all. And for the first time since the fourth grade, I had Tater Tots with my lunch.

I stay off the interstate, winding through small towns. New Meadow. Brunneau. Hammett. Buhl. Bliss. Two hundred miles before noon.

I pull over to photograph the Koffee Kup Motel, seemingly closed and abandoned since the Nixon years. A young girl of seven or so materializes out of the weeds and tells me about her day. I look around nervously. Middle aged stranger. City fella’ from the look of him. With a camera. Out of state plates on that fancy pants ess-you-vee. Chatting up that poor little girl.

This couldn’t look more suspicious if I put on clown clothes and start handing out candy.

Sure enough, dad emerges from the old motel. He wants to chat. About cameras, fortunately, though my choice of a plastic Holga toy doesn’t inspire confidence. Soon enough, he scoops up the girl and carries her back inside. He stares out the window until I drive away.

These are strange days to be a traveler.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Eastern Washington

Due to a clerical error, I departed Seattle under blue skies with the cherry trees in bloom. Birdsong filled the warm spring air, and sunlight filtered through a canopy of ancient dogwoods. I’m not one for omens, but I’ll take what I can get.

I climbed the Cascades and crossed the Columbia River before sunset, and the land seemed alive with possibility.
Though snow is a weeks’ old memory on this side of the range, the days are already midsummer long at this latitude. Twilight lingered until past ten, and both the sun and I were up before 5:30. Only one of us desperately needed coffee to get moving.

I took a long drive up the Columbia to see the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams, the jewels of FDR’s New Deal public works efforts. They turned this high desert green, helped win the war and kept the northwest if cheap, subsidized electricity. it also drowned a great river and are slowly but surely killing off one of earth’s great salmon runs. But there you go.

By noon, dark clouds rolled in over the Cascades and it started spitting rain. The rolling fields, some planted in wheat, some fallow, turned bleak and ominous, and I drove for hours through driving rain. So much for omens.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Coulee City, Washington

At the end of a long day of driving, I stood at the counter at Big Wally’s. It was rumored to be Coulee City’s finest restaurant, though the title is not hotly contested. It also doubled as a Shell station and liquor store. I ordered my burger and gently inquired about an adult beverage to go with it. The lady at the till looked me over, slowly shook her head and said, “You can buy some beer, but you’re gonna’ have to drink it out in the parking lot like everybody else.”

Monday, May 4, 2009

The American Road

My first car was a 1964 Chevrolet Impala. I used to steal my parents' keys and go joyriding up past the chicken farm before I was legal. The car was blue and sported a crushed left fender, but beneath the rusted hood lurked a massive 327 V-8 engine. As soon as I got out of sight, I stomped on the gas, swerved to avoid a manure pile and headed for the open road.

The ensuing 30-odd years have largely played out as an extension of that theme. I have inflicted grievous mechanical and emotional damage on a dizzying array of cars, trucks, scooters, boats and the occasional snowmobile. I have driven them all with more enthusiasm than skill and not infrequently with one eye on the rear view mirror looking for flashing lights.

Truth be told, my wild driving days are behind me. Towing a boat trailer up the Alcan is not exactly the stuff of Smokey and the Bandit. I haven't driven 700 miles through the night buzzed on No-Doze and howling a Springsteen soundtrack into the darkness since early in the Reagan administration.

Upon reflection, that might be such a bad thing, either.

Still, I've decided to go for a drive and see what life is like in the country I’m forever leaving. I'm setting out without destination or deadline, just the self-imposed goal of traveling to each of the lower 48 states, make some pictures and tell a few stories from along the way.

The truck is packed and it's time to go. I can pick up some No-Doze and Bruce cd's on the way out of town.