Tuesday, June 30, 2009
For every Nascar race with millionaires driving in circles like they were looking for parking, there are dozens of small tracks out in the hinterlands where regulars guys (and the occasional high-threshold-for-abuse woman) toss together a car out of spare parts and wishful thinking and indulge their inner hell-raising, moonshine running, full throttle demons.
Out here, it's all backyard mechanics. No fancy corporate sponsors or factory-trained pit crew (your dad's here, and your girlfriend and your slightly retarded cousin), and you're out there with a flashlight in your teeth and sweat running in your eyes trying to figure out why she's missing on that third cylinder.
Not that you can't spend money on this sport all the same. One guy brags he's got more money in his car than his house. I joke, "Your wife must love that."
I take one look at the racing, watching the guys run flat out down the straights then kick the ass-end loose and run through the banked turn in a barely controlled full throttle slide, spitting mud and bashing metal, and I think...damn...that just might be fun.
Monday, June 29, 2009
I suppose if I longed to spend the day tromping around several acres of battleship steel in the midday Alabama sun, and was willing to pay $12 for the pleasure, I would have followed the masses up the gangplank.
But I don't, and I'm not, so I didn't.
Instead, I walk down to a nearby pier overlooking muddy Mobile Bay. A small knot of families has pooled together an admirable collection of fishing gear, and is hard at it.
They're using fat local shrimp for bait. Personally, I'd be just as happy to pop a beer, cook up the shrimp and call it good. But they throw in their lines with determination from a spot overlooking the battleship and distant city skyline, while ignoring both completely.
The afternoon passes with cheerful banter among the grown-ups and gentle lessons for the boys. No one gets too excited when the kids tangle lines, they get the help they need and I watch as their casting grows more confident, even if the results are roughly the same: Fish growing fat and happy on an inexplicable supply of shrimp floating in from on high.
On the other hand, Dee Dee, one of the few women on the pier, is killing 'em.
She excitedly hollers "I'm going to break it!" as her rod bends against a struggling fish. In the excitement, her chair is hurled over, beers are spilled and everyone laughs as she lands a five-inch Croaker. Someone snorts "That's baby jaws..." It's her first time fishing, and the guys laughter becomes only a little less enthusiastic as she lands fish after fish.
A breeze cuts through the stultifying noon heat, and distant storm clouds build and trap the humidity without offering any relief. I walk back to my car past the assembled tanks, mortars, jets, choppers and even a submarine. None of it really captures my interest. Off in the distance, though, I can still hear laughter.
Friday, June 26, 2009
Even with killer hurricanes and a collapsed housing bubble, it still feels like they're getting off easy.
I spend hours driving between two endless walls of identical strip malls. Can there possibly be enough people to buy all the useless junk, eat all the crappy food and hire all the shyster lawyers from billboards along the local highways? Judging from the number of vacant storefronts and foreclosed shops, perhaps not.
The landscape is one vast, unbroken plain, showing the same weary succession; swamp drained, citrus grove abandoned, housing and retail development thrown up and sold at extortionate profit, post-bubble slow decay. Everything was built with one eye on the next hurricane that will surely take it all out to sea. Why knock yourself out?
Heat shimmers off the pavement and thunderheads boil. Even the black buzzards look defeated as they pick over some over-ripe scrap of road kill.
For lack of a better plan, I head for the beach. Crossing a scalding quarter mile of blinding white sand, I stand looking out at the sea. I know it's too early for hurricanes, but I stare out anyway, watchful for any sign of the coming storm.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
To my great disappointment, it wasn't like that at all. It's not Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. More like an exceedingly pleasant walk down memory lane. With dead people.
Angels peer down from their marble pedestals as I wander amidst the Confederate generals, depressive authors and garden variety drunks and notables. An unlikely cheerfulness finds me. The morning sun grows hot, but a gentle breeze stirs the air and the tendrils of moss. Last night's passing storm front has drained the swampy humidity and the sky is a deep blue.
Though I'm in no special hurry, I can imagine worse places to pass on to my reward. To spend eternity in a gracious old city filled with a reverence for its past and possessing a cheerful willingness to overlook, and even celebrate an impressive range of character flaws. When my time comes, find me a quiet spot in the shade of some ancient oaks, out by the drunken poets and ladies of unsound morals and let the cool sand take my bones.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Jazz drifts out from one of the bars lining the boardwalk, open to the night breezes stirring along the Sampit River. The setting sun sets the clouds alight above yachts and fishing boats anchored in the calm water. "Do Not Feed The Alligators" signs hang along the dock, where couples walk hand in hand in the fading light, the night air finally losing some of the heat, but none of its sultriness. The tourist trade seems to keep the lights on at half a dozen restaurants and bars, and the waterfront breathes a comfortably seedy prosperity.
Across the river, an International Paper mill looms spitting smoke and steam in to the sky. I caught small, inexplicable whiffs of it on the way into town, smelling like something threw up on my engine block. The plant's lights and billowing stacks dominate the western horizon, glittering almost prettily against the sunset sky.
Driving up to the gates, the smell doesn't get any better, but the light show grows ever more dramatic. The factory looms steaming and clanking above a dismal trailer park, and a warm, foul mist falls from the night sky, stinging my eyes.
The only signs of life beyond the swarming mosquitoes is the procession of cars lining up at the car wash across the street. As a concession to the town for fouling its air, the company does offer a free hose down for your car. After standing downwind for half an hour, I'm tempted to burn my clothes and walk through it myself.
Driving out of town and fiddling with the radio, I accidentally run over something in the road. Out of the corner of my eye, I can tell it's already dead, looking like a pile of white feathers or fur. A gull maybe, or a dog. I look back in the rear view mirror and an old man is slowly walking out from the road side. He stoops to pick it up, but before he does, I look away, ashamed.
Friday, June 19, 2009
I follow the canoe rental signs, in spite of a number of unpleasant previous boating attempts. Forget my chronic inability to master the J-stroke. I'm happy if I can make it through an afternoon without awkward riverine camera recovery attempts and unpleasant phone conversation with my insurance company.
Merchants Millpond, separated from the vastly better named Great Dismal Swamp by an escarpment, drains 80 square miles of forest into a tea-dark lake. Duckweed covers the water like a green blanket, and Cypress trees stream Spanish Moss in the still heat of late afternoon. A distant thunderstorm stirs the air, offers a menacing rumble, but keeps its distance.
I paddle slowly through the haunted landscape. A snapping turtle dives with a surprised splash. I regularly snag the paddle on barely submerged....something, and try not to levitate out of the boat. A park service poster helpfully suggests viewing and enjoying the local alligator population from a safe distance.
It's good to know I won't drown in here. The gators will make sure of that.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Our destination, selected for reasons lost to time, was Rehobeth Beach, Delaware. Though the date was determined months in advance, my father would procrastinate until the morning of departure. At the appointed hour, he would adopt a murderous expression and find a number of household and automotive repair tasks that suddenly required his undivided attention.
We would watch, bags packed in nervous silence, waiting for the storm to break. After a barked shin or bashed knuckle, he'd explode with a fearsome shower of temper and strong language. And then we'd load up the car and hit the road.
Though he repeatedly sailed across the submarine-infested North Atlantic in World War II, he wasn't much of a navigator on land. One summer we towed the family boat on a lively tour of Baltimore's public housing projects. The story is still passed down through generations, to great hilarity at the Lafayette Courts and Lexington Terrace, of the six goggle-eyed white people dragging that trailer around in circles, driving off in a huff, then returning for one more lap half an hour later.
Upon arrival at some mildew-scented rental, my father would take his surf fishing rod and a cooler full of beer and walk purposefully to the sea. That would be the last we would see of him. He would return, days later, sunburned and crusted in salt and happier than I ever saw him.
The rest of us would find some patch of sand on the crowded beach, wade out into the waves and set out with dogged determination to drown ourselves. I wasn't much of a swimmer, and and never had more than a farmer's tan. At the beach, I went for the major first day full-body burn, cooking myself until the flesh came off in satisfying translucent sheets a few days later. My sister slathered herself in cocoa butter and slowly baked in the sun until her skin was the color and texture of an old piece of Samsonite luggage.
I visit now with SPF 35 applied generously to forehead and nose, in spite of low clouds threatening rain. There's a cold wind blowing in off the Atlantic and both water and sand seem grubbier than I remember. But families spill out onto stolen hotel towels and kids frolic in the choppy waves. Dolle's Salt Water Taffy still stands as a cornerstone on the boardwalk, but I resist the sugary urge to pull out my fillings.
I've never been much for fishing, or vacations for that matter. Too busy. But what I would give to be out here, drinking a beer and casting out into the surf with my old man.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
I make my way down the Via Dolorosa of tourist sites. The Capitol, attended briefly by a parade of dorky Segue riders and then quiet again. No sign of Clarence Thomas or his RV at the Supreme Court. The Washington Monument, encircled by flags and hosting a small jazz festival in the late afternoon sun. The Jefferson and Iwo Jima memorials across the water. But for me, nothing beats the solemn grandeur of Lincoln. It stands as a secular temple to the goodness that this country can achieve.
Lincoln sits in his outsized club chair like a father figure to the nation, he maintains a quiet dignity despite the swarming throng, their chatter reduced to a surging echoing murmur inside the cool marble walls. Cub scout troops and Indian families and school field trips pose for snapshots at his feet, a paparazzi swarm sputtering flashes. A "Quiet. Respect Please" sign goes clattering over in the crush.
What would Lincoln have made of all this? From his feet, before being elbowed aside, I look up at his stern countenance. He stares evenly out on the city he governed and the nation he saved, revealing nothing. I walk off to his left past a row of columns and into the airless cool shadows. Standing beneath the words of his second inaugural address, delivered to a nation exhausted by war. Barely a month later, he would be dead.
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right...let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds...to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
Looking at his profile, I think I can make out the hint of a country lawyer's wry and weary smile, but it sure feels like there's work still to be done.
Monday, June 15, 2009
Is there a more quintessentially American sport than Demolition Derby? Take some perfectly serviceable old cars and smash them into each other repeatedly for the viewing pleasure of paying spectators.
Any sensible soul might feel unease at such a debased gladiatorial spectacle. It's loud and dangerous, wasteful and stupid. And fun.
There may be some things offering more reckless excitement than a full-on derby, but you'll have to take your clothes off to do them. After the first round, with ears buzzing and clods of mud stuck to my cameras and hair, the only thing I wanted to know was where do I sign up?
The cars, stripped of glass and with doors, hood and trunk welded shut, enter the arena in single file and line up. After a short countdown, it's mayhem. Engines howl, smoke billows, metal crumbles with a sickening thud. Stomp the throttle into the floorboards and keep hitting 'till the tires come off. Then run the sumbitch on the rims. Last man moving wins.
This is a sport for guys who think Fight Club is for pussies.
The night's big winner was Austin Davis, all 5' 3" of him. Driving a white '68 Imperial with nothing short of murderous intent, Austin is barely 16 years old and doesn't even have a driver's license. His mom was absolutely beaming with pride, especially when he t-boned some poor bastard hard enough to knock him over the concrete barrier.
She says he is making good progress toward getting that learner's permit.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
"These mountains were made for a road," President Herbert Hoover said after a horseback trip through the Virginia. He didn't get much right as he steered the country off a cliff and into the Great Depression, but here at least he wasn't far off the mark.
The Skyline Drive winds for 105 miles above the Shenandoah Valley from nowhere much to nothing in particular. And with a 35 mph speed limit it does so in no special hurry.
It's just as well that I waited until late in life to drive this road. In my younger and more impetuous years I can imagine growing weary of all this senseless beauty and racing to determine the terminal velocity of my go-cart Honda through the hairpin turns. They might still be searching, in desultory fashion, through the endless forest hollows for my remains to this very day.
Fortified into a post-prandial haze by a hearty plateful of chili verde, I serenely cruise the narrow two-lane over mountain crests. I stop at each overlook and survey the misty panorama of mountains receding like waves on a blue ocean to the very edge of the earth. It fills me with some of the awe and wonder that must have all but overwhelmed the first white settlers to this region.
I can just about imagine looking west upon mile after mile of trackless forest unfolding below. You turn around and and look east at an identical tableau from which you have just emerged, then shaking your head and sighing in exhaustion and trudging on.
My trip is rather less fraught. I spot a smattering of wild turkey and one shy black bear. It's not exactly the forest primeval, but as a dozen or white-tail deer descend to graze at random intervals on roadside grass, I search warily for their twin gleaming eyes, glowing spookily in the gathering darkness at the forest's edge.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Outside the town of Mount Storm, an artificial lake provides fresh water for the power station's turbines. Steam and smoke belch from one tall stack, and the plant dominates the landscape. There's a knot of pickups in the parking lot, along with some tents. Three boys walk down to the water's edge with scuba masks and fins and ease in.
My first thought is, you guys are nuts. But they insist it's not bad. "It's okay today, but it's beautiful when all them boilers are going. It's like bathwater then." The boys are there with family on a week-long vacation camped out in the parking lot. In the tepid power station runoff, they swim like sunburned otters.
It would be easy to caricature these people, and to mock them. The state suffers a reputation for grinding rural poverty and a fondness for handguns, shitty pickup trucks and Mountain Dew. But it's also a state of uncommon beauty, fearsome independence and a resistance to being just like every other damned place in America.
These young boys were utterly without guile and the family welcomed me, a stranger with unknown intentions and provenance, into their circle. A traveler can ask no greater kindness.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
He was deeply devoted to Civil War history, and we regularly took trips to old battlefields and re-enactments throughout the mid-Atlantic. He would carefully explain how Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia pushed north into Pennsylvania and came within a day or two of capturing Washington and ending the war and the Union. Gettysburg was the battle that crushed those Confederate dreams, a charnel nightmare that left 50,000 dead in three days.
My dad took us to the battlefield as kids, and would explain all the moving parts of the machine of war, units of two armies clashing in an overlapping series of skirmishes and battles around the sleepy farm town. He would tell the story and I would forget it as soon as the words left his mouth. I just wanted a hot dog and to get back to throwing rocks at my little brother.
On a sunny and nearly perfect spring afternoon, I drove my mom the 45 minutes down to Gettysburg for a return visit. Recent rains have left the rolling farmland lush and green, and we walk past Boy Scout Troop 241 in uniform at the end of their day, sunburned and exhausted and scarfing down gift shop candy.
The battlefield was utterly peaceful, not much different from a serene July morning almost 150 years ago before the two armies collided. The silence now is broken not by firing cannons and musket shots, but the roar of fat men on motorcycles and the honking of ill-tempered Garden State motorists.
I try to imagine the noise and blood, the gut-sinking fear of watching waves of men sweep over the landscape toward your position, fighting in close quarters, swinging muskets like a club before a bayonet slides home.
But not too much.
I drive with my mom around the park, looking for the places where we picnicked as a family four decades back, and let the ghosts of battle sleep.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
I was just about ready to put the Jersey shore behind me. In truth, I already had. But there in the rear view mirror, a blinking twirl of ferris wheel lights shimmered blue and red by the rising moon. As with all things sparkly, I was drawn like a moth to flame.
It was just like I remember from 1976. The glaring, flashing lights, girls’ screams drowning out crashing surf, the slightly creepy carnies running rides that threatened to kill or maim with cruel indifference. Rip-off games and crappy prizes. Knots of menacing kids from other towns. Bikinis and suntans, budding sexuality and teen lust.
I am 15 again, only with a lot less hair.
I could ride the Tornado and the Cliff Hangar. The Speedway and the Arctic Circle. Plus try newer thrills like mechanical bull riding and the Tower of Fear. I could fill up on taffy, pizza and ice cream at the Midway Cafe and chuck it all up inside Starship 2000.
But I don't.
I content myself watching a knot of youngsters take over the bumper car ride. As soon as the power came on, high voltage sparks fly from their aerials as they swerve and collide, cut each other off and hurl verbal abuse.
It was like everything I'd seen on the Garden State Parkway, only with better manners.
Monday, June 8, 2009
I owe a lot to Robert Kincaid. The famous, albeit fictional National Geographic photographer improved my romantic stock through much of the nineties.
On assignment to photograph the Bridges of Madison County, this wandering loner found, and then lost his one true, if inconveniently married, love. The book itself was one very small step above a pulp romance novel, but many women adored it. If they could stop laughing at the stupid bits.
Driving through rural Vermont, an entire state that looks to have been decorated in the same style as my mother's living room, I too am photographing covered bridges.
From a creative point of view, it's been a patch of rough sledding. A tired cliche, the bridges are squat, dark barns above stream banks covered with dense vegetation and abandoned tires. At random intervals, murderous rednecks roar through them at high speed with tourist blood on their minds.
I admire Kincaid for even finding the time for his affair. I was way too busy getting lost, clawing through poison ivy or beating my head against those stout and ancient bridge timbers in sheer frustration.
By day's end, I'm done with bridges.
Or perhaps not entirely. There's a young woman working night shift at the Knotty Pine Motel, tan and blonde and smelling faintly of blueberries and the maple forest. I work the Bridges of Bennington County angle for all it's worth. She is having precisely none of it.
I gather that a night of adulterous passion is not to be. I sit alone, washing down my filet-o-fish sandwich with warm beer, and raise a lonely toast to the sustaining power of bad fiction.
Friday, June 5, 2009
As I drive up a winding park road, a thin ribbon of rose light kisses the clouds. A vast puzzle of islands and the Atlantic spreads out to the east. My more immediate foreground is soon filled with parked cars and chattering, shivering tourists. Couples cuddle up close, wrapped in blankets against the cold wind, and pretty much everyone is thinking about the warm bed they've so recently left. For no discernible reason, some jackass is wearing moose antlers.
People stand watching as the color fades from the sky. Clouds roll in like disappointment and someone finally mutters, "Dude, it's definitely getting darker."
It dawns on pretty much everyone that it's not happening today. Still dazed from the early hour, we shuffle back to the parking lot and make our way back down the mountainside to embrace the new day, however gray.
Thursday, June 4, 2009
Driving past, my head swivels nearly to the snapping point.
It seems that four decades ago, as Ted Asselin was serving his country in the humid wilds of Alabama, he noticed a field filled with surplus Army missiles. He came to the only conclusion possible, that what his humble hometown, nestled as it is in the bosom of the White Mountains, needed more than anything was a 60-foot tall rocket. It's bigger than a puppy, but you don't have to clean up the mess.
I cannot begin to imagine the conversation that followed as young Private Asselin cajoled, wheedled and begged a spare missile out of the United States Government, but I can only assume his powers of persuasion were formidable.
But I do try to picture a simpler time in America. When it was still possible to load up the truck and drive an intercontinental missile through a dozen states with the window rolled down, the radio turned up and a smile on your face.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
There's still a kind of suavity and glamor clinging to this place, and it must be very nearly heaven to a certain class of white people. The kind of guy with casual ease and grace and just a touch of careless cruelty. Jay Gatsby in polo shirt and docksiders. The kind of guy I always hoped to become. And never even came close.
In Hyannis, I look for a spot to park and walk to the shore, but every lot is blocked by someone richer, better looking and smarter than me charging admission. There's one empty lot and I duck in, but a guy saunters over and tells me it's for residents only. I need to use the visitor's lot. For twenty dollars.
I look up and sputter..."Um, is there a place where I can just go and...um...kind of like out west, where we have this big ocean and pretty much anybody can drive up and just hang out and admire the scene...Is there a place like that around here someplace?"
He looks with me with thinly disguised contempt and asks "You gonna' be long?"
"Five minutes, I swear."
I have come to accept that I will never be as suave as Gatsby. But it hurts that I’m not even as cool as his parking lot attendant.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
There are urgent repairs underway on a broken sewer line and the air is filled with the distinctive smell of...it's not money and I'm pretty sure it's not roses...it's the faintest whiff that maybe the very rich aren't so different from you and me after all.
Grand mansions line Bellevue Avenue, but it soon becomes apparent that vast wealth and good taste do not easily mix. I make my way down the avenue in a downpour, and simply cannot force myself out of the car to visit and photograph the palaces. Many are now open to the vast unwashed public as historic artifacts, tourist destinations and cash cows, but I don't want to satisfy their desperate craving for attention.
Instead, I venture down to the Cliff Walk, a rare point of public access to the rocky ocean shore. No Parking signs and tow-away threats line both sides of the street, but I take my chances and walk down to the cold, gray Atlantic.
I almost put a hand in, to dip my tongue into the ocean salt like when I was a kid, but then I remember that broken sewer.
The money from the Second Gilded Age, so recently passed, has gravitated to this rocky coast. Though there is no evidence of foreclosure, no piles of Jimmy Choo shoes and plasma TV's picked through and soaking on the sidewalk, but there are enough Sotheby's For Sale signs in evidence to give hope to the baying mob at the gates that their pain is, to some small extent, shared.
Monday, June 1, 2009
The way she circles past. How her eyes follow me. Finally, she works up her nerve and stops. Through the glass, our eyes meet and her face reveals an enigmatic smile. She opens her mouth and seems ready to speak.
And then she bares her sharp teeth, pops her jaw a couple times and starts rubbing her gelatinous melon head against the glass.
Such is love at the Mystic Aquarium. She's a beluga whale who, having traded cold arctic waters for more refined surroundings and a steady diet of frozen herring and head scratches, now swims laps inside this oversized fish bowl for our entertainment.
It's easy to anthropomorphize these whales. I sit in front of the thick acrylic wall and watch as the beluga circles past again and again. Each time, she stops, looks me over rubs against the glass before moving on.
She's so hitting on me.
A guy with the aquarium staff tells me not to get my hopes up. "That's Inuk, the old male. He likes to be dramatic. He's like that with everybody." He was brought in seven years ago with hopes of breeding with the two females here, but he has shown no great interest.
I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure he's flirting with me.