A journey into America
BY WILLIAM LEAST HEAT MOON
THE canceled IDEA CAME expectations: TO ME ON the FEBRUARY day I learned 17, A my DAY job OF teaching English was finished because of declining enrollment at the college; the day I called my wife, from whom I’d been separated for nine months, to give her the news; the day she let slip about her “friend”—Rick or Dick or Chick. Something like that. I decided that a man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go. He could quit trying to get out of the way of life. Chuck routine. Live the real jeopardy of circumstance.
The result: on March 19, the last night of winter, I lay awake in a tangled bed and doubted the wisdom of just walking out on things; I doubted the whole plan that would begin at daybreak—to set out on a long (equivalent to half the circumference of the earth), circular trip over the back roads of the United States. Following a circle would give a purpose—to come around again—where taking a straight line would not. And I was going to do it by living out of the back end of a truck.
The vernal equinox came on gray and quiet, a curiously still morning neither winter nor spring, as if the cycle had paused. Because things go their own way, my daybreak departure turned into a morning departure, then to an afternoon departure. Finally, I climbed into the van, rolled down the window, looked a last time at the rented apartment.
I drove into the street, around the corner, through the intersection, over the bridge, onto the highway. I was heading toward those little towns that get on the map—if they get on at all—only because some cartographer has a blank space to fill: Remote, Oregon; Simplicity, Virginia; New Freedom, Pennsylvania; New Hope, Tennessee; Why, Arizona; Whynot, Mississippi; Igo, California (just down the road from Ono), here I come.
My father calls himself Heat Moon, my elder brother Little Heat Moon. I, coming last, am therefore Least. It has been a long lesson of a name to learn. To the Siouan peoples, the Moon of Heat is the seventh month, a time also known as the Blood Moon because, I think, of its dusky midsummer color. I have other names: Buck, once a slur—never mind the predominant Anglo features. Also Bill Trogdon. The Christian names come from a grandfather eight generations back, one William Trogdon, an immigrant Lancashireman living in North Carolina, who was killed by the Tories for providing food to rebel patriots and thereby got his name in volume four of Makers of America. Yet to the red way of thinking, a man who makes peace with the new by destroying the old is not to be honored. So I hear.
My wife, a woman of striking mixed-blood features, came from the Cherokee. Our battles, my Cherokee and I, we called the “Indian wars.”
I named my truck Ghost Dancing, a heavy-handed symbol alluding to ceremonies of the 1890s in which the Plains Indians, wearing cloth shirts they believed rendered them indestructible, danced for the return of warriors, bison, and the fervor of the old life that would sweep away the new. Ghost dances, desperate resurrection rituals, were the dying rattles of people whose last defense was delusion—about all that remained to them in their futility.
A final detail: On the morning of my departure, I had seen thirty-eight Blood Moons, an age that carries its own madness and futility. With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land, I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.
THE out of FIRST Columbia, HIGHWAY: Missouri. INTERSTATE The road TO here EASTBOUND follows, more or less, the Booneslick Trail, the initial leg of the Oregon Trail; it also parallels both the southern latitude of the last great glacier in central Missouri and the northern boundary of the Osage Nation. The Cherokee and I had skirmished its length in Missouri and Illinois for ten years, and memory made for hard driving that first day of spring. But it was the fastest route east out of the homeland.
Eighty miles on, rain started popping the windshield, and the road became blobby headlights and green interstate signs for this exit, that exit, LAST EXIT TO ELSEWHERE. I crossed the Missouri River not far upstream from where Lewis and Clark on another wet spring afternoon set out for Mr. Jefferson’s terra incognita. Further to the southeast, under a glowing skullcap of fouled sky, lay St. Louis.
The tumult of St. Louis behind, the Illinois superwide quiet but for the rain, I turned south onto State 4, a shortcut to 1-64. After that, the 42,500 miles of straight and wide could lead to hell for all I cared; I was going to stay on the 3 million miles of bent and narrow rural American twolane, the roads that used to be shown in blue on highway maps to distinguish them from the main routes, in red.
The early darkness came on. My headlamps cut only a forty-foot trail through the rain, and the dashboard lights cast a green glow. Sheet lightning behind the horizon of trees made the sky look like a great faded orange cloth being blown about; then darkness soaked up the light, and, for a moment, I was blinder than before.
In the approaching car beams, raindrops spattering the road became little beacons. I bent over the wheel to steer along the divider stripes. A frog, long-leggedy and green, belly-flopped across the road to the side where the puddles would be better. The land, still cold and wintry was alive with creatures that trusted in the coming of spring.
At Grayville, Illinois, on the Wabash River, I pulled up for the night on North Street and parked in front of the old picture show. The marquee said TRAVELOGUE TODAY, or it would have if both the o’s had been there. I should have gone to a cafe and struck up a conversation, but I stumbled to the bunk in the back of my rig, undressed, zipped into a sleeping bag, and watched things go dark. I fought desolation and wrestled memories of the Indian wars.
First night on the road. I’ve read that fawns have no scent, so predators cannot track them down. But I heard the past snuffling about somewhere else.
The rain came again in the night and moved on east to leave a morning of cool overcast. Driving through the washed land in my small, self-propelled box—a “wheel estate,” a mechanic had called it—I felt clean and almost disentangled. I had what I needed for now, much of it stowed under the wooden bunk:
1 sleeping bag and blanket;
1 Coleman cooler (empty but for a can of chopped liver a friend had given me so there would always be something to eat);
1 Rubbermaid basin and a plastic gallon jug (the sink);
1 Sears Roebuck portable toilet;
1 Optimus 8R white gas cookstove (hardly bigger than a can of beans);
1 knapsack of utensils, a pot, a skillet;
1 U.S. Navy seabag of clothes;
1 tool kit;
1 satchel full of notebooks, pens, road atlas, and a microcassette recorder;
2 Nikon F2 35mm cameras and five lenses;
2 vade mecums: Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Neih an It’s Black Elk Speaks.
In my billfold were four gasoline credit cards and twentysix dollars. Hidden under the dash were the remnants of my savings account: $428.
Ghost Dancing, a 1975 half-ton Econoline (the smallest van Ford makes), rode self-contained but not self-containing. So I hoped. It had two worn rear tires and an ominous knocking in the water pump. I had converted the van from a clangy tin box into a six-by-ten place at once a bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, parlor. Everything simple and lightweight: no crushed velvet upholstery, no wine racks, no built-in television. It came equipped with power nothing and drove like what it was—a truck. Your basic plumber’s model.
The Wabash divides southern Illinois from Indiana. East of the fluvial flood plain, a sense of the unknown, the addiction of the traveler, began seeping in. Abruptly, Pokeberry Creek came and went before I could see it. The interstate afforded easy passage over the Hoosierland, so easy it gave no sense of the up and down of the country; worse, it hid away the people. Life doesn’t happen along interstates. It’s against the law.
At. the Huntingburg exit, I turned off and headed for the Ohio River. Indiana 66, a road so crooked it could run for the legislature, took me into the hilly fields of CHEW MAIL POUCH barns, past Christ-of-the-Ohio Catholic Church, through the Swiss town of Tell City, with its statue of William and his crossbow and his nervous son. On past the old stone riverfront houses in Cannelton, on up along the Ohio, the muddy bank sometimes not ten feet from the road. The brown water rolled and roiled. Under wooded bluffs I stopped to stretch among the periwinkles. At the edge of a field, Sulphur Spring bubbled up beneath a cover of dead leaves. Shawnees once believed in the curative power of the water, and settlers even bottled it. I cleared the small spring for a taste. Bad enough to cure something.
I crossed into the Eastern Time Zone and then over the Blue River, which was a brown creek. Blue, Green, Red— yes—but whoever heard of a Brown River? For some reason, the farther west the river and the scarcer the water, the more honest the names become: Stinking Water Branch, Dead Horse Fork, Cutthroat Gulch, Damnation Creek. Perhaps the old trailmen and prospectors figured settlers would be slower to build along a river named Calamity.
I took the nearest Ohio River bridge at Louisville and whipped around the city and went into Pewee Valley and on to La Grange, where seven daily Louisville & Nashville freight trains ran right down Main Street. Then southeast.
Curling, dropping, trying to follow a stream, Kentucky 53 looked as if it needed someone to take the slack out. On that gray afternoon the creek ran full and clear under the rock ledges that dripped out the last meltwater. In spite of snowpacks here and about, a woman bent to the planting of a switch of a tree, one man tilled mulch into his garden, another cleaned a birdhouse.
TO WALK MAIN STREET IN SHELBYVILLE, KENTUCKY, is to go down three centuries of American architecture: rough-hewn timber, posthellum brick, Victorian fretwork, 1950s plate glass. Founded in 1792, it’s an old town for this part of the country.
At the west end of Main, a man stripping siding from a small, two-story house had exposed a log cabin. I stopped to watch him straighten the doorway. To get a better perspective, he came to the sidewalk, eyed the lintel, then looked at me. “It’s tilting, isn’t it?” he said.
“There’s a little list to it, but you could live with that.”
“I want it right.” He went to the door, set up a jack, measured, and leaned into it. The timbers creaked and squared up. He propped a couple of two-by-fours under the lintel to hold it true and cranked down the jack. “Come in for a look,” he said. “After a hundred and fifty years, she’s not likely to fall down today.”
“That’s before people started jacking around with it.”
The interior, bare of plaster and lath, leaked a deep smell of old timbers. Bigger than railway ties, the logs lay locked in dovetails, all careful work done only with ax, adz, froe, and wedge. The man, Bob Andriot, asked what I thought.
“It’s a beauty. How long have you been at it?”
“Ten days. We want to move in the first of April.”
“You’re going to live here?”
“My wife and I have a picture-framing and interiordesign shop. We’re moving it out of our house. We just bought this place.”
“Did you know the log cabin was underneath the siding?”
“We thought it possible. Shape of the house and the low windows looked right. We knew some were along Main.” He went to the window. “That little house across the street—could be one under the siding. A lot of cabins are still buried under asphalt shingles, and nobody knows it. I’ve heard Kentucky’s got more log houses than any other state.”
A squarely solid man stepped through a back window. Andriot said. “Tony here got himself one last year in Spencer County.”
“But I knew what I was gettin’,” Tony said. “It wasn’t sided over. Some fellas clearin’ a field were discussin’ whether to burn the cabin or push it in the holler. We were lookin’ for a house, so we bought it and moved it. Only three inches off square, and I know factually it’d been there since 1807. Good for another couple hundred years now. ”
“Tony’s logs are chestnut and a lot more termiteresistant than these poplar logs here,” Andriot said. “Somebody let a gutter leak for a long time on the back corner, and termites came up in the wet wood. Now that end’s like a rotted tooth, except we can’t pull it. So we’ll reinforce.”
He took me around to the east wall. “Look at this.”He pointed to a worn Roman numeral I cut between adz marks into the bottom log. The eighth tier had a VIII scratched in it. “They’re numbered, and we don’t know why. I don’t think it was ever moved. Maybe precut to a plan.”
“A prefab nineteenth-century log house?”
“Don’t think this was a house originally. Records show it was a coach stop on the old road to Louisville in 1829, but it’s probably older. Main Street’s always been the highway.”
“What about the gaps between the logs?”
Andriot stuck a crowbar between two timbers and pried out a rock caked with mud as hard as the stone. “They chinked with rocks and mud, but we aren’t going to be that authentic. We’ll leave the rocks but chink with concrete.” He locked the crowbar onto a wooden peg, its color much lighter than that of the logs, and pulled it free. “Handwhittled oak. Sniff it.” The peg smelled of freshly cut wood. “You’re sniffing a tree from 1776.” Andriot touched his nose. “Gives you a real sense of history. Take it with you.”
He asked where I was from. Tony listened and asked if I had ever read Walking Through Missouri on a Mule.
“Never heard of it, but I like that title.”
“It’s about an old boy that tramped across the state a hundred years ago. Boy that walked it wrote the book. Now, that’s good reading.”
A head popped in the window. “Hey, Kirk,” Andriot said. “Coke time.”
We sat on the plank floor and talked. “You know,” Andriot said, “this old place makes a difference here. To us, of course, but to the town, too, before long. I feel it more than I can explain it. I don’t know—I guess rescuing this building makes me feel I’ve done something to last. And people here need to see this old lady. To be reminded.”
“Old lady?” Kirk said. “That’s not what you were calling her yesterday.”
“That was yesterday. She gets better as she gets older.”
The men got up to work again, and I shook hands all around.
I drove on east. I thought about how Bob Andriot was rebuilding a past he could see and smell, one he could shape with his hands. He was using it to build something new. I envied him that.
Not out of any plan but just because it lay in front of me, I headed for the bluegrass region. I took an old road, a “pike,” the Kentuckians say, since their first highways were toll roads with entrances barred by revolving poles called “turn pikes.” I followed the old pike, now Route 421, not out of any plan, either, but because it looked pleasant—a road of white fences around thoroughbred farms.
Along the Leestown Road, near an old whitewashed springhouse made useless by a water-district pipeline, I stopped to eat lunch. Downstream from the spring, where butter once got cooled, the clear rill washed around clumps of new watercress under peeling sycamores. I pulled makings for a sandwich from my haversack: Muenster cheese, a collop of hard salami, sourdough bread, horseradish. I cut a sprig of watercress, laid it on, and then ate slowly, letting the gurgle in the water and the guttural trilling of red-winged blackbirds do the talking. A noisy, whizzing gnat that couldn’t decide whether to eat on my sandwich or my ear joined me.
Had I gone looking for some particular place rather than any place, I would never have found this spring under the sycamores. Since leaving home, I felt for the first time at rest. Sitting full in the moment, I practiced the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention. It’s a contention of Heat Moon’s—believing as he does that any traveler who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get—that a man becomes his attentions. His observations and curiosity, they make and remake him.
Etymology: curious, related to cure, once meant “carefully observant.” Maybe a tonic of curiosity would counter my numbing sense that life inevitably creeps toward the absurd. Absurd, by the way, derives from a Latin word meaning “deaf, dulled.” Maybe the road could provide a therapy through observation of the ordinary and obvious, a means whereby the outer eye could open an inner one. STOP, LOOK, LISTEN, the old railroad-crossing signs warned. Whitman calls it “the profound lesson of reception.”
THERE IS ONE ALMOST INFALLIBLE WAY TO FIND honest food at just prices in blue-highway America: count the wall calendars in a café.
No calendar: Same as an interstate pit stop.
One calendar: Preprocessed food assembled in New Jersey.
Two calendars: Only if fish trophies are present.
Three calendars: Can’t miss on the farmboy breakfasts.
Four calendars: Try the “ho-made” pie, too.
Five calendars: Keep it under your hat, or they’ll franchise.
One time I found a six-calendar café in the Ozarks, which served fried chicken, peach pie, and chocolate malts that left me searching for another one ever since. I’ve never seen a seven-calendar place. But old-time travelers—roadmen in a day when cars had running boards and lunchroom windows said AIR COOLED in blue letters with icicles dripping from the tops—those travelers have told me the golden legends of seven-calendar cafés.
To the rider of back roads, nothing shows the tone, the voice of a small town more quickly than the breakfast grill or the five-thirty tavern. Much of what the people do and believe and share is evident there. The City Cafe in Gainesboro, Tennessee, had three calendars that I could see from the walk. Inside were no interstate refugees with full bladders and empty tanks, no wild-eyed children just released from the glassy cell of a station wagon back seat, no long-haul truckers talking in CB numbers. There were only townspeople wearing overalls, or catalogueorder suits with five-and-dime ties, or uniforms. That is, there were farmers and mill hands, bank clerks, the drygoods merchant, a policeman, and the chiropractor’s receptionist. Because it was Saturday, there were also mothers and children.
I ordered my standard on-the-road breakfast: two eggs up, hashbrowns, tomato juice. The waitress, whose pale, almost translucent skin shifted hue in the gray light like a thin slice of mother-of-pearl, brought the food. Next to the eggs was a biscuit with a little yellow Smiley button stuck in it. She said, “You from the North?”
“I guess I am.” A Missourian gets used to southerners thinking him a Yankee, a northerner considering him a cracker, a westerner sneering at his effete easternness, and an easterner taking him for a cowhand.
“So whata you doin’ in the mountains?”
“Talking to people. Taking some pictures. Looking, mostly.”
“Lookin’ for what?”
“A three-calendar café that serves Smiley buttons on the biscuits.”
“You needed a smile. Tell me really.”
“I don’t know. Actually, I’m looking for some jam to put on this biscuit, now you’ve brought one.”
She came back with grape jelly. In a land of quince jelly, apple butter, apricot jam, blueberry preserves, pear conserves, and lemon marmalade, you always get grape jelly.
“Whata you lookin’ for?”
Like anyone else, I’m embarrassed to eat in front of a watcher, particularly if I’m getting interviewed. “Why don’t you have a cup of coffee?”
“Cain’t right now. You gonna tell me?”
“I don’t know how to describe it to you. Call it harmony.”
She waited for something more. “Is that it?”
Someone called her to the kitchen. I had managed almost to finish by the time she came back. She sat on the edge of the booth. “I started out in life not likin’ anything, but then it grew on me. Maybe that’ll happen to you.” She watched me spread the jelly. “Saw your van.” She watched me eat the biscuit. “You sleep in there?” I told her I did. “I’d love to do that, but I’d be scared spitless.”
“I don’t mind being scared spitless. Sometimes.”
“I’d love to take off cross-country. I like to look at different license plates. But I’d take a dog. You carry a dog?”
“No dogs, no cats, no budgie birds. It’s a one-man campaign to show Americans a person can travel alone, without a pet.”
“Cain’t travel without a dog!”
“I like to do things the hard way”
“Shoot! I’d take me a dog to talk to. And for protection.”
“It isn’t traveling to cross the country and talk to your pug instead of people along the way Besides, being alone on the road makes you ready to meet someone when you stop. You get sociable, traveling alone.”
She looked out toward the van again. “Time I get the nerve to take a trip, gas’ll cost five dollars a gallon.”
“Could be. My rig might go the way of the steamboat.” I remembered why I’d come to Gainesboro. “You know the way to Nameless?” I had picked Nameless out of my atlas while I sat on my bunk in Livingston, Tennessee, waiting for the rain to stop.
“Nameless? I’ve heard of Nameless. Better ask the am’lance driver in the corner booth.” She pinned the Smiley on my jacket. “Maybe I’ll see you on the road somewhere. His name’s Bob, by the way.”
“The ambulance driver?”
“The Smiley. I always name my Smileys—otherwise they all look alike. I’d talk to him before you go.”
“The am’lance driver.”
And so I went looking for Nameless, Tennessee, with a Smiley button named Bob.
“I don’t know if I got directions for where you’re goin’,” the ambulance driver said. “I think there’s a Nameless down the Shepardsville road.”
“When I get to Shepardsville, will I have gone too far?”
“Ain’t no Shepardsville.”
“How will I know when I’m there?”
“Cain’t say for certain.”
“What’s Nameless look like?”
“Is the road paved?”
Those were the directions. I was looking for an unnumbered road named after a nonexistent town which would take me to a place called Nameless that nobody was sure existed.
Clumps of wild garlic lined the county highway that I hoped was the Shepardsville road. It scrimmaged with the mountain as it tried to stay on top of the ridges; the hillsides were so steep and thick with oak, I felt as if I were following a trail through the misty treetops. Chickens ran across the road, doing more work with their necks than their legs, and, with a battering of wings, half leaped and half flew into the lower branches of the oaks. A vicious pair of German shepherds raced along trying to eat the tires. After miles, I decided I’d missed the town—assuming there truly was a Nameless, Tennessee.
I stopped beside a big man loading tools in a pickup. “I may be lost.”
“Where’d you lose the right road?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere around 1965.”
“Highway 56, you mean?”
“I came down 56. I think I should’ve turned at the last junction.”
“Only thing down that road’s stumps and huckleberries, and the berries ain’t there in March. Where you tryin’ to get to?”
“Nameless. If there is such a place.”
“You might not know Thurmond Watts, but he’s got him a store down the road. That’s Nameless, at his store. Still there, all right, but I might not vouch you that tomorrow.”
Nameless, Tennessee, was a town of maybe ninety people if you pushed it, a dozen houses along the road, a couple of barns, same number of churches, a general-merchandise store selling Fire Chief gasoline, and a community center with a lighted volleyball court. Behind the center was an open-roofed, rusting metal privy with PAINT ME on the door; in the hollow of a nearby oak lay a full pint of Jack Daniel’s. From the houses, the odor of coal smoke.
Next to a red tobacco barn stood the general-merchandise with a poster of Senator Albert Gore, Jr., smiling from the window. I knocked. The door opened a few inches. A tall, thin man said, “Closed up. For good,” and started to shut the door.
“Don’t want to buy anything. Just a question for Mr. Thurmond Watts.”
The man peered through the slight opening. He looked me over. “What question would that be?”
“If this is Nameless, Tennessee, could he tell me how it got that name?”
The man turned back into the store and called out, “Miss Ginny! Somebody here wants to know how Nameless come to be Nameless.”
Miss Ginny edged to the door and looked me and my truck over. Clearly, she didn’t approve. She said, “You know as well as I do, Thurmond. Don’t keep him on the stoop in the damp to tell him.”Miss Ginny, I found out, was Mrs. Virginia Watts, Thurmond’s wife.
I stepped in and they both began telling the story, adding a detail here, correcting a fact there, both smiling at the foolishness of it all. It seems the hilltop settlement went for years without a name. Then one day the Post Office Department told the people that if they wanted mail up on the mountain, they would have to give the place a name you could properly address a letter to. The community met; there was only a handful, but they commenced debating. Some wanted patriotic names, some names from nature; one man recommended, in all seriousness, his own name. They couldn’t agree, and they ran out of names to argue about. Finally, a fellow tired of the talk; he didn’t like the mail he received anyway. “Forget the durn post office,” he said. “This here’s a nameless place if I ever seen one, so leave it be.” And that’s just what they did.
Watts pointed out the window. “We used to have signs on the road, but the Halloween boys keep tearin’ them down.”
“You think Nameless is a funny name,” Miss Ginny said. “I see it plain in your eyes. Well, you take yourself up north a piece to Difficult or Defeated or Shake Rag. Now them are silly names.”
The old store, lighted only by three fifty-watt bulbs, smelled of coal oil and baking bread. In the middle of the rectangular room, where the oak floor sagged a little, stood an iron stove. To the right was a wooden table with an unfinished game of checkers, and a stool made from an apple-tree stump. On shelves around the walls sat earthen jugs with corncob stoppers, a few canned goods, and some of the 2,000 old clocks and clockworks Thurmond Watts owned. Only one was ticking. I asked how long he’d been in the store.
“Thirty-five years, but we closed the first day of the year. We’re hopin’ to sell it to a churchly couple. Upright people. No athians.”
“Did you build this store?”
“I built this one, but it’s the third general store on the ground. I fear it’ll be the last. I take no pleasure in that. Once you could come in here for a gallon of paint, a pickle, a pair of shoes, and a can of corn.”
“Or horehound candy,” Miss Ginny said. “Or corsets and salves. We had cough syrups and all that for the body. In season, we’d buy and sell blackberries and walnuts and chestnuts, before the blight got them. And outside, Thurmond milled corn and sharpened plows. Even shoed a horse sometimes.”
“We could fix up a horse or a man or a baby,” Watts said.
“Thurmond, tell him we had a doctor on the ridge in them days.”
“We had a doctor on the ridge in them days. As good as any doctor a-living. He’d cut a crooked toenail or deliver a woman. Dead these last years.”
“I got some bad ham meat one day,” Miss Ginny said, “and took to vomitin’. All day, all night. Hangin’ on the drop edge of yonder. I said to Thurmond, ‘Thurmond, unless you want shut of me, call the doctor.’ ”
“I studied on it,” Watts said.
“You never did. You got him right now. He come over and put three drops of iodeen in half a glass of well water. I drank it down and the vomitin’ stopped with the last swallow. Would you think iodeen could do that?”
“He put Miss Ginny on one teaspoon of spirits of ammonia in well water for her nerves. Ain’t nothin’ works better for her to this day.”
“Calms me like the hand of the Lord.”
Hilda, the Wattses’ daughter, came out of the back room. “I remember him,” she said. “I was just a baby. Y’all were talkin’ to him, and he lifted me up on the counter and gave me a stick of Juicy Fruit and a piece of cheese.”
“Knew the old medicines,” Watts said. “Only drugstore he needed was a good kitchen cabinet. None of them anteebeeotics that hit you worsen your ailment. Forgotten lore now, the old medicines, because they ain’t profit in iodeen.”
Miss Ginny started back to the side room where she and her sister Marilyn were taking apart a duck-down mattress to make bolsters. She stopped at the window for another look at Ghost Dancing. “How do you sleep in that thing? Ain’t you all cramped and cold?”
“How does the clam sleep in his shell?” Watts said in my defense.
“Thurmond, get the boy a piece of buttermilk pie afore he goes on.”
“Hilda, get him some buttermilk pie.”He looked at me. “You like good music?” I said I did. He cranked up an old Edison phonograph, the kind with the big morning-glory blossom for a speaker, and put on a Wax cylinder. “This will be ‘My Mother’s Prayer,’ ” he said.
While I ate buttermilk pie, Watts served as disc jockey of Nameless, Tennessee. “Here’s ‘Mountain Rose.’ ” It was one of those moments you know at the time will stay with you to the grave—the sweet pie, the gaunt man playing the old music, the coals in the stove glowing orange, the scent of kerosene and hot bread. “Here’s ‘Evening Rhapsody.’ ” The music was so heavily romantic we both laughed. I thought: It is for this I have come.
Feathered over and giggling, Miss Ginny stepped from the side room. She knew she was a sight. “Thurmond, give him some lunch. Still looks hungry”
Hilda pulled food off the wood stove in the back room: home-butchered and -canned whole-hog sausage, homecanned June apples, turnip greens, cole slaw, potatoes, stuffing, hot cornbread. All delicious.
Watts and Hilda sat and talked while I ate.
“Wish you would join me.”
“We’ve ate,” Watts said. “Cain’t beat a wood stove for flavorful cookin’.”
He told me he was raised in a 150-year-old cabin, still standing in one of the hollows. “How many’s left,” he said, “that grew up in a log cabin? I ain’t the last, surely, but I must be climbin’ on the list.”
Hilda cleared the table.
“You Watts ladies know how to cook.”
“She’s in nursin’ school at Tennessee Tech. I went over for one of them football games last year there at Coevul.” To say “Cookeville,” you let the word collapse in upon itself so that it comes out “Coevul.”
“Do you like football?” I asked.
“Don’t know. I was so high up in that stadium, I never opened my eyes.”
Watts went to the back and returned with a fat spiral notebook, which he set on the table. His expression had changed. “Miss Ginny’s deathbook. She’s wrote out twenty years’ worth of them. Ever day she listens to the hospital report on the radio and puts the names in. Folks come by to check a date. Or they just turn through the books. Read them like a scrapbook.”
Hilda said, “Like Saint Peter at the gates inscribin’ the names.”
Watts took my arm. “Come along.”He led me to the fruit cellar under the store. As we went down, he said, “Always take a newborn baby upstairs afore you take him downstairs, otherwise you’ll incline him downwards.”
The old cellar was dry and full of cobwebs and jar after jar of home-canned food: sausage, pumpkin, sweet pickles, tomatoes, corn relish, blackberries, peppers, squash, jellies. Watts held a hand out toward the dusty bottles. “Our tomorrows. ”
When it was time for me to go, Watts said, “if you find anyone along your way wants a good store, on the road to Cordell Hull Lake, tell them about us.”
I said I would. Miss Ginny and Hilda came out to say good-bye. It was cold and drizzling again. “Weather to give a man the weary dismals,” Watts grumbled. “Where you headed from here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Cain’t get lost, then.”
ONE NIGHT, I STOPPED IN A CLEARING NEAR THE dam in Franklinville, North Carolina. Ten-thirty. I hadn’t eaten, and now I was too tired to do anything but crawl into my sleeping bag.
At the moment of sleep, I heard something, something moving in the near woods, then into the clearing, toward the truck. A slow stepping. I couldn’t remember whether I’d locked all the doors. It wasn’t the steps that bothered me, it was the slowness of them, the deliberate coming. It came on. Then it started to lurk.
f lay perfectly still, wondering whether I’d set the emergency brake and hoping Ford Motor Company hadn’t skimped on a millimeter of steel wall. I had the sense that something was crouching outside, near my head. A soft brushing along the truck—a hand, a body—then an impacted silence. It moved again, and I tried to tell how many legs were stepping away.
There was a rational explanation for whatever it was, but I didn’t have the nerve to find it. There are two kinds of adventurers: those who go truly hoping to find adventure, and those who go secretly hoping they won’t. Midnight. I forced myself out of the ball I’d curled into, afraid as I did that my toes would touch something that didn’t belong inside.
At three o’clock I sat bolt upright. I had no idea where I was, but I had just heard a yelp, and the walls of the Ghost pulsed blood red. I looked out the back window into a pair of ruby, oscillating eyes. Someone yelled. I clambered out barefoot, wearing only skivvies, and hobbled gingerly to the squad car. “What’s wrong?”
In a Carolina cadence, the deputy said, “Ain’t no sleepin’ up here.”
“That’s what I’m finding out.”
A fleck of yellow paint from a pencil stub stuck to his lip and bobbed up and down as he talked. “We close the dam area at sundown.”
“I’ll be gone in the morning.” He stared at me. “I guess I could get dressed and leave now.” He said nothing. “Just drove in from Missouri, though, and this bad leg I got in the U.S. Navy starts acting up if I don’t rest it. Hurt it fighting communism.”
“What’s your name?”
I started to say “Standing Bull.” Some Indians believe that to give your name is to put yourself in a stranger’s power. But he might already have run a license check, so I told the truth. He pronounced the first name “Wim.”
“Wim, I’ve logged your machine in. Maybe you’re innocent, but just bein’ near the dam makes you suspect if anything happens tonight.”
“Happens? What do you mean, happens?”
“Been trouble around the dam. Things rollin’ into the reservoir, gas drums knocked over. Always happens after dark.”
“I heard something about midnight—don’t know what.”
He looked a moment as if to assess. “Guarantee one thing, Wim. This boy wouldn’t sleep up here ‘mongst the whangdoodles withouten his peace of mind.”
“Peace of mind?”
“Peace of mind.” He tapped a thumb on the butt of his pistol. “Go ahead on and stay tonight. I’d sure secure those doors, though.”
Before I fell asleep again, I remembered the red men who walked backward and brushed out their tracks so no dead soul could follow.
NEAR DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA, LITTLE dusty clouds went puffing over powdery tobacco fields in the hot wind, the pine needles looked dry and bleached, and the buds in the deciduous trees afforded no shade. A horse stood up to its belly in a pond of rustcolored water. For me, there was nothing to do but go on into the sun. I’d forgotten to refill the water jugs and had only a few swallows of warm, stale water left. I hoped for a soda fountain or a root-beer stand, but the road was dry fields and sun glare, and it went on and on.
Then, like a mirage, a sign: ARTESIAN WELL. I turned around. In a cool grove of loblolly, from an upright, L-shaped pipe the diameter of a saucer, flowed a silvery bash of water among ferns and moss. It gushed into my jugs, filling them instantly, almost knocking one from my grip. I drank off most of the first, gulping, spilling, drinking the coldness for so long I came up gasping. I put my head under the cataract, and the force bent me over. I shook the water off.
Someone was laughing. Behind me, a black man with white balls of hair at his temples said, “Had a tickhound used to do that.” From the back seat of his Ford Galaxie, he and his wife unloaded forty-six empty plastic milk containers. He filled each gallon, capped it, and set it on the seat; then he opened the trunk and took out six five-gallon lard buckets and filled those. He finished in ten minutes. “Do you use the water in gardening?”
“We uses it in us.”They lived three miles away, had no running water, and came to the well Saturday mornings for seventy-six gallons of eet water.”
“What makes it sweet?” I said.
“Nothin’ in that water but water. Be comin’ up from four hundred feet, gettin’ cleaned all the way down and all the way back up. Natural wells used to be all over here, but them new, drilled wells dried up the othern. But this one, he be too deep.” The man closed the trunk and helped his wife into the car. “Gov’ment man come round and say he’d drill a well by the house. I tole him all we’d do with it was flush a water toilet, and we got no water toilet. I says, ‘How that water gon get up to me?’ He say with a ‘lectric pump. I says, ‘We drinks water what come up of his own mind.’ ”
When I went back for more, the water pressure shifted, answering some change in the aquifer deep below. I wondered how old the water was, how long it had taken to get down and back up. I’ve never drunk glacier water from snows that fell a thousand years ago, but I couldn’t imagine it being any better than the South Carolina water what come up of his own mind.
Out of the pines it was fifteen degrees hotter. A car passed, the driver slumped under the steering wheel, his shoeless and sockless left foot stuck out the window. Southern comfort.
Four words describe the history of the past three centuries here: indigo, rice, cotton, tobacco. One crop yielded to another as economics, society, science, and the land changed. In the past generation alone, erosion control, crop rotation, fertilizer, and pesticide have changed the face of the South, and the people’s lives show it. Along the highway stood remnants of a Reconstruction South: sharecroppers’ cabins. Many, like the ones in North Carolina, had been deserted for a subdivision-green prefab next door, but not all. On one slanting porch a woman worked at her wringer washer, and on another a man sat at the ready with a flyswatter. The Old South disappears. Yet the cabins, once an emblem of a land and a way of life, are something you can’t see in Provo or Fort Wayne. Only on humanitarian grounds can a traveler approve the nationally standardized boxes replacing them.
I crossed the Wateree River, which meets up with the Congaree to the south and forms the Santee. South Carolinians like their rivers with paired Indian vowels: the two Pee Dees (Great and Little), the Combahee, Keowee, Tugaloo, Ashepoo. In Kershaw County, the land began rising once more as the road went into the eastern foothills of the Appalachians. I’d come again to the Piedmont Plateau. The people call it “the up country” and the coastal plain “the low country.” Oak and pine covered the slopes, except where sections had been logged out or a pasture opened.
The heat held until sundown in Newberry. There, wearied from the eighty-five degrees, the glare, the racket of wind, I stopped. Newberry was a town of last-century buildings, old trees, columned houses with cast-iron fences, and gardens behind low brick walls. A lacy town. Old people moved along old sidewalks or pulled at greenery in old flower beds; they sat on old porches and shook the evening paper into obedience, or they rocked steady as old pendulums and looked into the old street as if reading something there. Living out the end of an era.
IN THE LAND OF “CO-COLA,” IT WAS HOT AND DRY. THE artesian water was finished. Along Route 72, I tried not to look for a spring; I knew I wouldn’t find one, but I kept looking. The Savannah River, dammed to an unnatural wideness, lay below, wet and cool. I’d come into Georgia. The sun seemed to press on the roadway, and inside the truck hot light bounced off chrome, flickering like a torch.
Sunset arrived west of Oglesby, and the air cooled. I hadn’t eaten since morning. A road sign:
SWAMP GUINEA’S FISH LODGE ALL YOU CAN EAT!
An arrow pointed down a county road. I would gorge myself. A record would be set. They’d ask me to leave. An embarrassment to all.
The road through the orange earth of north Georgia passed an old, three-story house with a thin black child hanging out of every window, like an illustration for “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe,” and on into hills and finally to Swamp Guinea’s, a conglomerate of plywood and two-by-fours laid over with the smell of damp pine woods.
Inside, wherever an oddity or a natural phenomenon could hang, one hung: stuffed rump of a deer, snowshoe, flintlock, hornet’s nest. The place looked as if a Boy Scout troop had decorated it. Thirty or so people, black and white, sat around tables that almost foundered under piled platters of food. I took a seat by the reproduction of a seventeenth-century woodcut depicting some Rabelaisian banquet at the groaning board.
The diners were mostly Oglethorpe County red-dirt farmers. In Georgia tones they talked about their husbandry in terms of rain and nitrogen and hope. An immense woman with a glossy picture of a hooked bass leaping on the front of her shirt said, “I’m gonna be sick from how much I’ve ate.”
I was watching everyone else and didn’t see the waitress standing quietly by. Her voice was deep and soft, like water moving in a cavern. I ordered the $4.50 special. In a few minutes she wheeled up a cart and began off-loading dinner: ham and eggs, fried catfish, fried perch fingerlings, fried shrimp, chunks of barbecued beef, fried chicken, french fries, hush puppies, a broad bowl of coleslaw, another of lemon, a quart of iced tea, and an entire loaf of factory-wrapped white bread. The table was covered.
“Call me if y’all want any more.” She wasn’t joking.
I quenched the thirst and then—slowly—went to the eating. I had to stand to reach plates across the table, but I intended to do the supper in. It was all southern-fried and good, except for the southern-style sweetened iced tea, and I even took care of a quart of that. As I ate, making up for meals lost, the Old Woman’s house flashed before me, lightning in darkness. I had no moral right to eat so much. But I did.
The loaf of bread lay unopened when I finally abandoned the meal. At the register, I paid a man who looked as if he’d been chipped out of Georgia chert. The Swamp Guinea. I asked about the name. He spoke of himself in the third person, like the Wizard of Oz. “The Swamp Guinea only tells regulars.”
“I’d be one, Mr. Guinea, if I didn’t live in Missouri.”
“Y’all from the North? Here, I got somethin’ for you.” He went to the office and returned with a 45-rpm record. “It’s my daughter singin’. A little promotion we did. Take it along.” Later, I heard a throaty North Georgia voice let go a down-home, lyric rendering of Swamp Guinea’s menu:
For a dollar fifty,
Hey! The barbecue’s nifty!”
And so on through the fried chicken and potatoes.
As I left, the Swamp Guinea, a former antique dealer whose name was Rudell Burroughs, said, “The nickname don’t mean anything. Just made it up. Tried to figure a good one so we can franchise someday.”
The frogs, high and low, shrilled and bellowed from the trees and ponds. It was cool going into Athens, a city suffering from a nasty case of the sprawls. On the University of Georgia campus, I tried to walk down Swamp Guinea’s supper; everywhere couples were entwined like moonflower vines, each waiting for the blossom that opens only once.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. STREET, IN SELMA, Alabama, used to be Sylvan Street. Some whites still call it Sylvan. It’s the main route through the so-called “project”—a typical federally sponsored housingdistrict—and the street the Southern Christian Leadership Conference assembled the marchers on, using the block under the high steeple of Brown’s Chapel as the starting point. The first marchers walked down Sylvan (as it was then), up Water Avenue, turned left, and started across Pettus Bridge. About half a mile. At the other end of the bridge, deputies and troopers, shouting to the people that they had no permit to march, forced them back to Water Avenue. But for once, chants and signs and feet were better weapons than anything the state could show. Whitman, the egalitarian, said it a century before:
And I will make a song for the ears of the President, full of weapons with menacing points,
And behind the weapons countless dissatisfied faces . . .
When King assembled the marchers again, two weeks later, he had not only a permit but the protection—albeit spotty—of federal troops called out by President Johnson, the man with the big ears. People gathered at Brown’s Chapel and walked fifty miles to Montgomery The two marches roused Washington as none of the other SCLC confrontations had, and a few months later the Congress passed the Federal Voting Rights Act.
It was dark and moonless when I started looking for Brown’s Chapel. I planned just to drive by, but I stopped near a big brick church that fit the description to ask a black man if it was the chapel. “That’s it,” he said. “What difference does it make?”
Without knowing it, he had asked me the question I’d come to Selma to answer. “Isn’t this where King started the march?”
“What they say. So who cares?”
I stood on the step of the van. “I’m trying to find out if things have changed since the march.”
“Tell you in three words. Ain’t nothin’ changed.”
“Let me ask another question. Could you get a drink in Mickey’s tonight?”
“Go ask me if I want in there, because I’ll tell you they don’t gotta keep this man out because he don’t want in.”
“I hear you, but could you?”
“Minute I do it’s membership time.”
“I just went in and nobody said anything about membership.”
“Your membership’s got a way of standin’ out—just like mine.”
Several teenagers gathered around. I was the wrong color on the wrong street, but no one said anything. The man talking to me was James Walker, born and raised in the Selma project and just discharged from four years in the Air Force. “Been almost ten years to the day since King got shot,” he said, “and the movement’s been dead that long. Things slippin’. Black man’s losin’ ground again. My momma’s afraid to talk to a white, and my grandmomma don’t care. She just worries about the kids.”
“Didn’t the march do anything you can see?”
“Say what? Last week I went to get my driver’s license. Twelve-thirty. Lunch time. Sign on the door says they open again at one. I wanted to wait inside, so I pulled on the door. Trooper comes out and says, ‘What’s wrong, fool? Cain’t read? Get off that door ‘less you want me next time comin’ out shootin’.’ There’s your change.”
“Ten years ago he woulda come out shootin’ the first time.”
“Nothin’, dude. This man’s not stupid. I know when to shut up and I know when to talk. This man knows when he’s got a chance.”
A police car cruised by. A teenager said, “That’s twice.” A Buick pulled up and Walker got in. He said, “You’re makin’ people nervous comin’ in down here. You ain’t the right color, you know. Better watch your ass tonight.” The car jumped forward, then backed up. “If you ain’t jivin’ about Brown’s Chapel, come round the basketball court behind the church in the mornin’.”
At ten the next morning, I was back on King Street, a block south of where it crosses Jeff Davis Avenue. On the court, Walker was alone, juking and shooting. “Hey! You showed up.” For the first time I saw him smile. “Just workin’ on my game till school starts. Didn’t get out of the Air Force in time to make spring term.”
“Alabama Lutheran, here in Selma. All black, which is what I want. I’m tired of hasslin’ with whites. Got enough in the Force.”
“You don’t want to go North or West?”
“And be a minority? That ain’t my land.”
“What’ll you do here?”
“Study guidance counselin’. I’m stayin’ where I can do some good. Fifty-five percent of Selma’s black—we got potential. First, though, brothers gotta see what’s on the other side of Pettus Bridge, see where to go from here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean figurin’ a new course. King said turn the other cheek. Malcolm X said fight fire with fire. I don’t want that. But we gotta show the brothers they can do more than just hang cool like meat in a locker.”
“Maybe things haven’t changed because of apathy in the project.”
“I ain’t lettin’ nobody off that easy. A man shouldn’t gotta care so much about gettin’ a fair game. You gotta worry every day about a fair game?”
“So why should this man? Sure, the brothers could do more, and they would if they didn’t spend so much time gettin’ and keepin’ a job. Wearies a man out. It never quits. If a brother gets hired and then gets active—there goes the job he worked his ass off to get.”
“Can’t legally let a man go if he’s not talking around on company time.”
“They don’t fire him—ain’t that clean. They hassle him. Get him thinkin’ new ideas ain’t worth it. Stay on him till he quits. A mover gets to stay only if boss-man’s under quota. Otherwise, carry your hat in your hand.”
A friend of Walker’s came up. “Saw you down here last night,” he said. “We doan get many calls from your people.” His name was Charles Davis. He worked the middle shift at a battery factory. “I’ll tell you about jobs. If I quit mine and go over to the job office, they’ll hand me a shovel or send me to Florida to pick oranges. I can do more than dig a hole or cut a weed.”
“Lotta people in the project feel like they cain’t be nobody,” Walker said. “Me? I feel I can be President of the United States.”
“Sheeeit, man!” Davis said. “Force musta did in your brain-housing group.”
“I know things ain’t changed, but things gonna change.”
“Young, and mad, and believe so much,” Davis said.
“I’m twenty-four and he’s thirty-one. So I am from nowhere? I’m talkin’ future. Anyway, this man wants to know about the march.”
“I think I was fifteen,” Davis said. “Made both marches. People be sayin’ we wasted our time, but things are better. Least a little bit.”
“Ain’t nothin’ changed didn’t have to change,” Walkersaid.
“Some of those things be important, though. But lotta times it’s like always. Take yesterday. I put a quarter in a soda pop machine at the gas station. Money keeps comin’ down. Two honkies sit watchin’. I ask if the machine was broke, and one honker says it takes thirty cents now. Machine says twenty-five on it. Then he says, ‘Wondered how long ‘fore you figured it out.’ He couldn’t tell me they changed it. I said, ‘Don’t take long to figure you,’ and walked off. Other honker says, ‘Want me to whup the nigger?’ Five years ago I’da fought him. Now I try to ignore it. But hey, I used to follow Malcolm X.”
Walker said, “Alabama state motto is ‘Defendin’ Our Rights.’ And that’s all we’re doin’. All the time.”
NEAR VILLE PLATTE, LOUISIANA, I SWITCHED ON the radio and turned the dial. Somewhere between a shill for a drive-up savings-and-loan and one for salvation, I found a raucous music that was part bluegrass fiddle, part Texas guitar, part Highland concertina. Cajun voices sang an old, flattened French, part English, part undecipherable.
Looking for Cajun music, I stopped in Opelousas at the Plantation Lounge. Somebody sat on every barstool; but one man, seeing a stranger, jumped down, shook my hand, and insisted I take his seat. In the fast roll of Cajun English, he said it was the guest stool and by right belonged to me. The barmaid, a woman with coiled eyes, brought a Jax.
“Is there Cajun music here tonight?” I asked.
“Jukebox is our music tonight,” she snapped.
A man called Walt, with black hair oiled and slicked back in the style of an older time, squeezed in beside me. “If you’re lookin’ for French music, you need to get yourself to laugh yet.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Means haul your butt to laugh yet. Biggest Coonass city in the world.”
“Lafayette?” I made it three syllables.
“You got it, Junior, but we don’t say Lah-fay-et.” “Where should I go in Laughyet?”
He drew a map so detailed I could almost see chuckholes in the streets. “Called Eric’s. That’s one place. In Laughyet they got whatever you want—music, hooch, girls, fights, everything.”
If you’ve read Longfellow, you can’t miss Cajunland once you get to the heart of it: Evangeline Downs (horses), Evangeline Speedway (autos), Evangeline Thruway (trucks), Evangeline Drive-in, and, someone had just said, the Sweet Evangeline Whorehouse.
I found my way among the Evangelines into an industrial area of Lafayette, a supply depot for bayou and offshore drilling operations. Along the streets were oil-rig outfitters where everything was sections of steel: pipes, ladders, derricks, piles, cables, buoys, tanks. Crude oil opened Acadian Louisiana as nothing in the past three centuries had; it seemed as if little could be left unfound in Cajun hamlets that once were literally backwaters.
Eric’s, on the edge of the outfitters’ district, was a windowless, concrete-block box with a steel door, broken neon, and a parking lot full of pickups, Cadillacs, and El Caminos (“cowboy Cadillacs”). But no French music.
I drank a Dixie and ate bar peanuts and asked the bartender where I could hear “chanky-chank,” as Cajuns call their music. She, too, drew a map, but her knowledge gave out before she got to the destination. “It’s called Tee’s. It’s down one of these roads, but they all look alike to me out there.”
“It’s in the country. Follow my map and you’ll be within a couple miles.”
When I left, she said good luck. The traveler should stand warned when he gets wished luck. I followed her map until the lights of Lafayette were just a glowing sky and the land was black. I wound about, crossing three identical bridges or crossing one bridge three times. I gave up and tried to find my way back to town and couldn’t do that either.
Then a red glow like a campfire. A beer sign. Hearty music rolled out the open door of a small tavern, and a scent of simmering hot peppers steamed from the stovepipe chimney. I’d found Tee’s. Inside, under dim halos of yellow bug lights, an accordion—the heart of a Cajun band—a fiddle, a guitar, and a ting-a-ling (triangle) cranked out chanky-chank. The accordionist introduced the numbers as songs of amour or joie and the crowd cheered; but when he announced “line chanson de mariage,” they booed him. Many times he cried out the Cajun motto: “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”
While the good times rolled, I sat at the bar next to a man dying to talk. His name was Joe Seipel and his speech Great Lakes. I asked, “You from Wisconsin?”
“Minnesota. But I been here seven years working for PHI.”
He put down his bottle and gave me an exaggerated, wide-eyed, open-mouthed look to indicate my shocking ignorance. “You gotta be kidding!”
“Petroleum Helicopters Incorporated!” He shook his head. “Jees!”
“Oh, that’s right. What kind of helicoptering do you do?”
I tried to talk between tunes, but he talked through them all.
“I don’t fly. I’m a mechanic. But Stoney here flies out to the offshore rigs. Delivers supplies, crews. You know.”
The pilot, in his fifties, wore cowboy boots and a jaunty avocado jumpsuit. He was applying a practiced Bridgesat-Toko-Ri machismo to a hugely mammaried woman who had painted on a pair of arched red lips.
Seipel said, “I was just like you when I came here— dumb as hell. But I’ve read about Louisiana. Learned about Coonasses from that yellow book.”
“What yellow book is that?”
“That one comes out every month.”
“That’s it. They had a story on Coonasses.”
“Did they explain the name ‘Coonass’?”
“I think they missed that.”
A small, slue-footed Gallic man wearing a silky shirt with a pelican on it dragged an upturned metal washtub next to the band and climbed on. I think he’d taken out his dentures. A mop handle with twine tied to it projected from the tub, and he thrust the stick about in rhythm with the music, plucking out a sound of a double bass.
“That’s DeePaul on the gut bucket,” Seipel said. “He’s not with the band.”
After a couple of numbers on the tub, the small man hopped down and waltzed around the floor, quite alone, snapping his wrists, making sharp, rapid clacks with four things that looked like big ivory dominoes.
“Those are the bones,” Seipel said. “Sort of Cajun castanets.”
When the band folded for the night, the little fellow sashayed to the lighted jukebox, drawn to it like a moth, and clacked the bones in fine syncopation, his red tongue flicking out the better to help him syncopate, his cropped orb of a head glowing darkly. Seipel hollered him over.
He showed how to hold the bones, one on each side of the middle fingers, then flung out his wrist as it throwing off water and let loose a report like the crack of a bullwhip. “Try dem in you hands.”
The bones were smooth, like old jade. I laboriously inserted the four-inch counters between my fingers and snapped my wrist. Cluk-cluk. “Lousy,”Seipel said. I tried again. Cluk-cluk. Wet sponges had more resonance. Seipel shook his head, so I handed them to him. He got them mounted, lashed out an arm, and a bone sailed across the room.
“You boys don’t got it,” DeePaul said, his words looping in the old Cajun way. DeePaul’s name was Paul Duhon. He had cut the clappers from a certain leg bone in a steer and carved them down to proper shape and a precise thickness. “You got to have da right bone, or da sound she muffle. And da steer got to be big for da good ringin’ bones.”
I tried again. Cluk-cluk. “I work at dis forty years,”Duhon said, “and just now do I start gettin’ it right. Look at me, gettin’ ole and just now gettin’ good. Dat’s why only ole, ole men play da good bones.”
“Where’d you learn to make them?”
“Ole color man, he work on da rayroad. He got nuttin’ but he love music, so he play da bones. He play dem in da ole minstrel shows. He da one dey call ‘Mister Bones,’ and it Mister Bones hisself he show me carvin’. Now people say, ‘Come play us da bones in Shrevepote.’ But da bones just for fun.”
“I can play the musical saw,” Seipel said, and called to the barmaid, “Got a saw here?” She pushed him a salt shaker. “What’s this?”
“That’s the salt you’re yellin’ for.” Seipel and I laughed, holding on to the bar. Duhon went home. Everybody went home. The barmaid watched us wearily. “Okay,” she said, “come on back for some hot stuff.”
“Is this where we find out why they call themselves ‘Coonasses’?” I said, and we laughed again, holding on to each other.
“All right, boys. Settle down.” She led us not to a bedroom but to a large concrete-floor kitchen with an old picnic table under a yellow fluorescent tube. We sat, and a young Cajun named Michael passed a long loaf of French bread. The woman put two bowls on the oilcloth and ladled up gumbo. Now, I’ve eaten my share of gumbo, but never had I tasted anything like that gumbo: the oysters were fresh and fat, the shrimp succulent, the spiced sausage meaty, okra sweet, rice soft, and the roux, the essence— the roux was right. We could almost stand our spoons on end in it.
The roots of Cajun cookery come from Brittany and bear no resemblance to Parisian cuisine and not much to the Creole cooking of New Orleans. Those are hautes cuisines of the city, and Cajun food belongs to the country, where things got mixed up over the generations. No one even knows the source of the word “gumbo.” Some say it derives from an African word for okra, chinggômbo, while others believe it a corruption of a Choctaw word— kombo—for sassafras, the key seasoning.
The woman disappeared, so we ate gumbo and dipped bread and no one talked. A gray cat hopped on the bench between Seipel and me to watch each bite of both bowls we ate. Across the room, a fat, buffy mouse moved over the stove top and browsed for drippings from the big pot. The cat eyed it every so often but made no move away from our bowls. Seipel said, “I’ve enjoyed the hell out of tonight,” and laid out a small shrimp for the cat. Nothing more got spoken. We all went at the gumbo—Minnesotan, Cajun, cat, mouse, Missourian.
DIME BOX, TEXAS, IS NOT THE FUNNIEST TOWN name in America. Traditionally, that honor belongs to Intercourse. Pennsylvania. I prefer Scratch Ankle, Alabama, Gnaw Bone, Indiana, or even Humptulips, Washington. Nevertheless, Dime Box—as a name— caught my ear, so that’s where I was headed.
In the humid night, the inside windows had dripped like cavern walls. Along State 21, I opened up and let warm air blow out the damp. West of the Brazos, the land unfolded even farther to the blue sky. Now the horizon wasn’t ten or fifteen miles away, it was thirty or forty. On telephone wires sat scissor-tailed flycatchers, their oddly long tails hanging under them like stilts. Roadside wild flowers— bluebonnets, purple wine-cups, evening primroses, and more—were abundant as crops, and where wide reaches of bluebonnets (once called buffalo clover, wolf flower, and— by the Spanish—“the rabbit”) covered the slopes, their scent filled the highway. To all the land there was an intense clarity, as if the little things gave off light.
Across the Yegua Creek a sign pointed south to Dime Box. Over broad hills, over the green expansion spreading under cedars and live oaks, on into a valley where I found Dime Box, essentially a three-street town. Vegetable gardens and flower beds lay to the side, behind, and in front of the houses. Perpendicular to the highway, two streets ran east and west: one of worn brick buildings facing the Southern Pacific tracks, the other a double row of falsefront stores and wooden sidewalks. Disregarding a jarring new bank, Dime Box could have been an MGM backlot set for a western.
I walked to the post office for stamps. The postmistress explained the town name. A century ago the custom was to drop a letter and ten cents for postage in the pickup box. That was in Old Dime Box, up on the San Antonio road, now Texas 21. “What happened to Old Dime Box?”
“A couple houses there yet,” she said, “but the railroad came through in 1913 three miles south, so they moved the town to the tracks—to here. Now the train’s about gone. Some freights, but that’s it.”
“I see Czech names on the stores.”
“We’re between Giddings and Caldwell. Giddings is mostly German and Caldwell’s mostly Czech. We’re close to fifty-fifty. Whites that is. A third of Dime Box is black people.”
“How do the different groups get along?”
“Pretty well. We had a to-do in the sixties over integration, but it was mostly between white groups arguing about who had the right to run the schools. Some parents bused kids away for a spell, but that was just anger.”
“Busing in Dime Box?”
“City people don’t think anything important happens in a place like Dime Box. And usually it doesn’t, unless you call conflict important. Or love or babies or dying.”
The big bass had a pair of horns, and beneath it, the barber of Dime Box dozed in his chair. He woke when I stepped in front of the long, open windows to look at the trophy on his wall. “Texas bull bass,” he said. “More bull than bass.” It was so craftily assembled I couldn’t see how he’d done it. “I caught the fish and mounted it to the steer horns. Kids come in to stare. Spooks them. Don’t know why nature never put horns on a fish.”
“Or fins on a longhorn?” I needed a trim. “Just nip the ends.”
“One of them no-ears cuts. Took an ear off’a week back— didn’t see it.”
I trusted that was a joke. I hadn’t paid $1.50 for a haircut in a decade. The old clock in Claud Tyler’s barbershop had stopped at two-ten, and in the center of the shop stood an iron wood stove, now assisted by a small gas one. Above the sink were bottles of Lucky Tiger hair tonic. I’d forgotten about tonics.
“Where you hail from, bub?” he said.
“Same place your Lucky Tiger’s made.”
He stepped away from the chair to look me over closely. “Ever know a fellow named Wendell Thompson from up in Missouri? Called him ‘Hop’?”
I said I didn’t. Several other times he asked if I knew So-and-so from up my way, each time giving the moniker: Beep, Cherry, Pard, Tinbutt.
“Hop lived in the county a while. I and him was in the Fox and Wolf Hunters Association. Now that was a bunch of fellers. I had a history of the association. Plumb interesting. The mother-in-law burned it up.”
He took from the wall a framed panoramic photograph of a group of men in hunting garb and laid it across my lap. The picture was a good three feet long, and there must have been a hundred men standing or kneeling in a field with a beagle here and about. “Can you find me?”
I tried four or five times. I think it disheartened him that I couldn’t recognize a younger Tyler. “Have I changed that much?” He pointed himself out and then brought me a worn copy of a Texas hunting magazine with several photographs of men around campfires. I looked carefully and took a chance.
“Hell, that’s Raymond Mueller. Called him ‘Dipper.’ This one’s me.”
“I see it now. How could I miss it? Got a bad eye.”
“Hooey. That’s before I started fading away. I had an aneurism removed, and I just ain’t the man I was. I can abide that, but take you, you’re a stranger, and all you see is a seventy-six-year-old man. I wasn’t always like this. That’s what hurts—people forget what you been.” He stepped away from the chair again. “Listen to me. I used to cut hair and press suits all day, then go out and hunt half the night. Now I just talk a big stick. Only thing that don’t run down is your mouth.”
“What’s that about pressing suits?”
“Come here.” I followed him to a small back room, the striped chair cloth still around my neck,hair half cut. He pointed to an old steam press.
“Sold the dry-cleaning machine, but there’s where I put a million creases in pants. Started in 1925. Feller would come in for a shave, haircut, and suit pressing. All for thirty-five cents. This was as good a shop as any in Texas. And I did a business. Listened to a million stories cutting those old squirrels’ heads. Barber’s the third most lied-to person, you know.”
“Man’s wife is first anywhere in the world. Priest is second.”
We went back to the chair, and he took more snips. “Used to barber across the street. West of Sonny’s. Oughta go see the rattlesnake skins in there.” He motioned south, and for a moment I thought I would have to cross the street with a half-cut head to look at Sonny’s rattlesnakes. “Been in this shop since the forties. Built it myself. Howmany barbers left that built their own shops?”
“Saw some figures on it. I think it was three—not counting you.”
Tyler smiled. “Come here.” I followed him to the side window, where a big sycamore grew from under the edge of the wooden building. It had started to lift the floor. “Tree’s old as the shop. Cut it down once a year for six years. Finally gave up. I’ll be gone before it turns the place over. Filled in that west side with river sand when I built the shop. Musta took in a seed.” We went back to the chair. “Gotten old watching that tree grow. It’s so cussed fixed on making its way, I’ve thought about pulling the shop down to give it room. Kind of living memorial to shade-tree barbering. Ain’t much need of a barbershop in Dime Box now. People get out to the bigger towns anymore.”
“A lot of small towns are coming back.”
“Could happen to us. They located a big pool of oil here—deep oil. Way down. Feller picked up some land for back taxes, turned around and discovered oil. Now people believe oil’s gonna bring things back like they used to be. I say hoping’s swell, but better be ready for it to go as fast as it comes. Who listens? People thought the railroad wouldn’t ever play out neither—that’s why they moved the town here. We used to say there’d always be the railroad. You could count on it because it don’t depend on weather and weevils don’t eat steel. Well, bub, how’d you like our depot?”
“I haven’t seen it.”
“Tore down, that’s why. But Model Ts used to line up all along the road to the depot. Cars, trains, girls in big hats. Dime Box made noise then.”
“Freights still come through, don’t they?”
“Can’t live off a toot and a whistle unless you can eat steam. Hell, it ain’t even steam anymore. We get on now with ranching, farming, people stopping off on the way to the artificial lake.”
“Artificial?” I imagined a giant plastic pond—the height of Disney World fool-the-eye stuff.
“Lake Somerville. One of those dam lakes.” He whisked away the hair with a little white brush. “Before the cattle business got big in here, we used to grow cotton—even had a gin. All gone. When I was a whippersnapper, I used to look at the cotton fields and wonder which boll would end up in my shirt. Now shirts are this polyester made from oil. But I reckon when we go to pumping oil, Dime Box will be back in the shirt business, and they’ll call that progress.”
He started to dress me down with Lucky Tiger. “Leave it dry, if you would.”
“You young fellers take all the fun out of barbering. I’da got run out of town thirty years ago for a haircut like that.”
To me, it was the best haircut I ever got in Dime Box, Texas.
STRAIGHT AS A CHIEF’S COUNTENANCE, THE DEL Rio-San Angelo road lay ahead, curves so long and gradual as to be imperceptible except on the map. For nearly a hundred miles due west of Eldorado, not a single town. It was the Texas some people see as barren waste when they cross it, the part they later describe at the motel bar as “nothing.” They say, “There’s nothing out there.”
Driving through the miles of nothing, I decided to test the hypothesis, and stopped somewhere in western Crockett County on the top of a broad mesa, just off Texas 29. At a distance, the land looked so rocky and dry, a religious man could believe that the First Hand never got around to the Creation in here. Still, somebody had decided to string barbed wire around it.
No plant grew higher than my head. For a while, I heard only miles of wind against the Ghost; but after the ringing in my ears stopped, I heard myself breathing, then a bird note, an answering call, another kind of birdsong, and another—mockingbird, mourning dove, an enigma. I heard the high zizz of flies the color of gray flannel and the deep buzz of a blue bumblebee. To say nothing is out here is incorrect; to say the desert is stingy with everything but space and light, stone and earth, is closer to the truth.
I drove on. The low sun turned the mesa rimrock to silhouettes, angular and weird and unearthly; had someone said the far side of Saturn looked just like this, I would have believed him. The road dropped to the Pecos River, now dammed to such docility that I couldn’t imagine it for merly demarking the western edge of a rudimentary white civilization. Even the old wagonmen felt the unease of isolation when they crossed the Pecos, a small but once serious river that has had many names: Rio de las Vacas (River of Cows—perhaps a reference to bison); Rio Salado (Salty River); Rio Puerco (Dirty River).
West of the Pecos, a strangely truncated cone rose from the valley. In the oblique evening light, its silhouette looked like a Mayan temple, so perfect was its symmetry. I stopped again, started climbing, stirring a panic of lizards on the way up. From the top, the rubbled land below— veined with the highway and arroyos, topographical relief absorbed in the dusk—looked like a road map.
The desert, more than any other terrain, shows its age, shows time, because so little vegetation covers the ancient erosions of wind and storm. What appears is tawny grit once stone and stone crumbling to grit. Everywhere rock, earth’s oldest thing. Even desert creatures come from a time older than the woodland animals, and they, in answer to the arduousness, have retained prehistoric coverings of chitin and lapped scale, and primitive defenses of spine and stinger, fang and poison, shell and claw.
The night, taking up the shadows and details, wiped the face of the desert into a simple, uncluttered blackness until there were only three things: land, wind, stars. I was there too, but my presence I felt more than saw; it was as if I had been reduced to mind, to an edge of consciousness. Men, ascetics, in all eras have gone into deserts to lose themselves—Jesus, Saint Anthony, Saint Basil, and numberless medicine men—maybe because it happens almost as a matter of course here if you avail yourself. The Sioux once chanted, “All over the sky a sacred voice is calling.”
With dawn, the wind came strong from the north, blowing the dusty mesa tops into the irrigated valley, pushing my little coach from shoulder to centerline until my arms tired from holding a course against it. Far to the south, long purple stretches of the Glass Mountains slowed the rush of wind into the Chihuahua desert, but nothing was big enough to shut it down altogether. The radio warned that gusts would hit fifty miles an hour by afternoon.
The land rose steadily, then at Balmorhea the highland mesas became the eastern ridges of the Rocky Mountains. Interstate 10, the only way west, differed here from a twolane simply by extra strips of concrete—there were few towns to bypass. And so, like the locomotive, I lapped the miles across the Apache Mountains and Devil Ridge and onward. Bugs popping the windshield left only clear fluid instead of the yellow and green pollen-laden goo of woodland insects; it was as if they extracted their colorless essence from the desert wind itself.
ARIZONA: SOMEWHERE OUT THERE WAS THE COLOrado River, perfectly hidden in the openness. The river wasn’t more than a mile away, but I couldn’t make out the slightest indication of it in the flat desert stretching level and unbroken for twenty or thirty miles west, although I was only fifty miles above where it enters the Grand Canyon. This side of the Colorado gorge was once an important Hopi trail south and, some say, the route Hopi guides took when they first led white men to the canyon. While the arid path followed the river below, water was an inaccessible 400 feet down. Typically, the Hopi solved the desert: women buried gourds of water at strategic points on the outward journey for use on the return.
The highway made an unexpected jog toward Navajo Bridge, a melding of silvery girders and rock cliffs. Suddenly, there it was, far below in the deep and scary canyon of sides so sheer they might have been cut with a stone saw, the naturally silted water turned an unnatural green (Colorado means “reddish”) by the big settling basin a few miles upriver called Glen Canyon Dam. Navajo Bridge, built in 1929, when paved roads began opening the area, is the only crossing over the Colorado between Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam, several hundred river miles downstream.
West of the gorge lay verdant rangeland, much of it given to a buffalo herd maintained by the Arizona Game & Fish Commission; the great beasts lifted their heads to watch me pass, their dark, wet eyes catching the late sun. To the north rose the thousand-foot butt end of the Vermilion Cliffs; the cliffs weren’t truly vermilion, but contrasting with the green valley in the orange afternoon light they seemed so.
In 1776, a Spanish expedition, led by the missionaries Francisco Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Dominguez, returning from an unsuccessful search for a good northern route to the California missions, wandered dispiritedly along the Vermilion Cliffs as they tried to find in the maze of the Colorado a point to cross the river chasm. They looked for ten days and were forced to eat boiled cactus and two of their horses before finding a place to ford; even then, they had to chop out steps to get down and back up the 400-foot perpendicular walls. My crossing, accomplished sitting down, took twenty seconds. What I saw as a remarkable sight the Spaniards saw as a terror that nearly did them in.
Escalante’s struggles gave perspective to the easy passage I’d enjoyed across 6,000 miles of America. Other than weather, some bad road, and a few zealous policemen, my difficulties had been only those of mind.
I went up an enormous geologic upheaval called the Kaibab Plateau; with startling swiftness, the small desert bushes changed to immense conifers as the Kaibab forest deepened: ponderosa, fir, spruce. At 6,000 feet, the temperature was sixty—a drop of thirty degrees in ten miles. On the north edge of the forest, the highway made a long, gliding descent off the plateau into Utah. Here lay Kane and Garfield counties, a place of multicolored rock and baroque stone columns and, under it all, the largest unexploited coalfield in the country. A land certain one day to be fought over.
I CROSSED THE CASCADES ON OREGON 58. ALTHOUGH the mountains were not particularly high, the road made steep climbs and drops over timbered slopes, and runaway-truck escape ramps looked like ski jumps. On the western side, humidity increased and ferns grew thick as jungle vines. For a while, desert lay behind.
At noon, the journey began a kind of sea change that started when I drove up an old logging road into the recesses of Salt Creek, a stream working hard to beat itself to a lather. In Missouri, when a man’s whereabouts come into question, the people say he’s “gone up Salt Creek.”It’s a place you disappear into. Maybe I should have taken warning.
After a sandwich, I poked about the woods. Then three things, quite unconnected, began to stack themselves like crystals into a pattern.
First: Waiting on rain, I studied the map. Where to go? South lay two towns of fine name—Lookingglass and Riddle—but I would have to backtrack sixty wet miles, and already the desert showers had left me prey to the “Oregon blues,”that dissipation of spirit that accompanies the rainy periods, when suicides noticeably increase. But Lookingglass—what a name!
Second: The town recalled to me a line from Walter de la Mare: “Things are the mind’s mute looking-glass.”
Third: Still waiting on the weather, I started reading a book I’d bought in Phoenix, The Sacred Pipe, Black Elk’s account of the ancient rites of the Oglala Sioux. In contrast to the good and straight red road of life, Black Elk says, the blue road is the route of “one who is distracted, who is ruled by his senses, and who lives for himself rather than for his people.” I was stunned. Was it racial memory that had urged me to drive 7,000 miles of blue highway, a term I thought I had coined?
That’s when something opened like a window shade unexpectedly rattling up in a dark room. A sudden, new cast of light. What need for a man to make a trip to Lookingglass, Oregon, when he’d been seeing his own image all across the length of the country? De la Mare was right —a mirror may not reflect mind, but a man’s response to landscapes, faces, events, does. My skewed vision was that of a man looking at himself by looking at what he looks at.
Hadn’t I even made a traveling companion of the great poet of ego, the one who sings of himself, who promises to “effuse egotism and show it underlying all,” who finds the earth his own likeness? Whitman:
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.
Money half gone, I’d come up with a bit of epistemological small change.
Not knowing what else to do, I drove off westward. The highway rolled out of the mountains into the basin of the Willamette River, a broad trough with at least as many shades of green as the Irishman can count in Eire. The level and verdant valley should have been soothing after so much aridness and stone, so much up and down, but I sat absorbed in my own blue funk.
Old Oregon 99 led into the clean college town of Corvallis. I had no heart for more road. For two days, two days of drizzle, I wandered around Corvallis more dispirited than edified by the blue-road perception. I walked and walked. “Nothing,”Homer sings, “is harder on mortal man than wandering.” That’s why the words “travel” and “travail” have a common origin.
During those days, I was drawn to telephones, and on four occasions I dropped in coins and four times I put the receiver back. On the fifth I didn’t.
“Hello?” the Cherokee said.
A quiet. “Could I call you back?”
Well, boys, there you have it. Struggling to put it all out of mind, I went to the university library to find how Lookingglass, the town I hadn’t seen, got its name. One theory held that Lookingglass was a local Indian who so admired himself he always carried a small mirror. Well, boys . . .
WHAT DOES THE TRAVELER DO AT NIGHT IN A strange town when he wants conversation? In the United States, there’s usually a single choice—a tavern.
The Oil City Bar, in Shelby, Montana, was north of the railroad tracks, near the spot where the Great Northern accidentally founded Shelby in 1891 by dumping off an old boxcar. From it the town grew, and the antecedents still showed.
One of the authors of the Montana Federal Writers’ Project describes Shelby in the 1890s as
the sort of town that producers of western movies have ever since been trying to reproduce in papiermâché. . . . The town playboys were featured in the Police Gazette after holding up an opera troupe passingthrough on a railroad train. . . . They shot out the engine headlight, the car windows, and the red signal lights, and forced the conductor to execute a clog dance.
I was out looking around to see how the old Wild West was doing when I came across the Oil City Bar. Although the night had turned cold and gusty, only the screen door was closed; the wooden one stood open so men in down vests wouldn’t overheat. A shattered pool cue lay in the corner, and to one side was a small room lighted only by the blue-neon flicker of a beer sign—the kind of light you could go mad in. Left of the ten-point buck trophy and above the gallon jars of pickled pigs’ feet and hard-boiled eggs hung a big lithograph of a well-formed woman, shotgun in hand. She was duck hunting. Other than her rubber boots, she wore not a stitch.
A man somewhat taller than the barstool and dressed in yellow from shoulders to cowboy boots drank with assembly-line regularity. He leered wobbly-eyed at the huntress, tried to speak, but blew a bubble instead.
I blame what was about to happen to him on the traditional design of the American bar: a straight counter facing a mirrored wall, which forces the customer to stare at himself or put a crick in his neck looking at someone else. The English build their bars in circles or horseshoes or right angles—anything to get another face in your line of sight. Their bars, as a result, are more sociable. The American stares into his own face, or at bottles of golden liquors, or at whatever hangs above the bar; conversation declines and drinking increases. If the picture above the bar is a nude—as is common in old western bars—you have an iconography for creating unfulfilled desire: the reality of a man’s own six o’clock face below the dream of perfect flesh.
I turned away from the huntress to watch a pool game. There was a loud flump beside me. Knees to his chest, the man in yellow lay dead drunk on the floor. He looked like a cheese curl. His friend said, “Chuckie’s one good little drinker.”
A woman of sharp face, pretty ten years ago, kept watching me. She had managed to pack her hips into what she hoped was a pair of mean jeans; a cigarette was never out of her mouth, and, after every deep draw, her exhalations were smokeless. She was trying for trouble, but I minded my own business. More or less. The man with her, Lonnie, walked up to me. He looked as if he were made out of whipcord. “Like that lady?” he said.
“What lady is that?”
“One you been staring at.”
“Without my glasses, I can’t distinguish a man from a woman.” That was a lie.
“The lady said you were distinguishing her pretty good.”
Some fading face trying to make herself the center of men’s anger, proving she could still push men to their limits.
“Couldn’t recognize her from here if I did know her.”
He pressed up close. Trouble coming. “Don’t tell me,” he said. “Happens all the time. She thinks men stare at her.”
“Look. No offense, but I’ve no interest in the woman.”
“I can see it, and she can see it, and that’s the trouble. But let’s talk.”
It was an act he had been coerced into. He was faking it. He called for two beers and set one in front of me. “Take it,” he said. “When I sit down, I’m going to tell her you apologized for staring but you just thought she was one hell of a fox. Don’t make a liar out of me.”
He walked off. That was the silliest row I never got into.
I went to the restroom. When I came out, Lonnie was standing at the bar and the woman had gone to sit with three other women. She didn’t buy it, I thought.
“Trouble?” I said.
“Forget it. She works with those broads. Casterating bitches every one.”
There was a commotion that got loud and moved outside to the windy street. Two men from Mountain Bell, the phone company, were going to fight. They came at each other, locked outstretched arms, and pushed, circling slowly as if turned by the prairie wind. They tired and revolved more slowly, but neither let go or fell down. A police car drove up and honked. The fighters went to the squad car, both leaning on the window to listen. After a while, they slumped off in opposite directions, and that was the end of it.
Lonnie and I watched from the bar. After it was over, he said, “Jack Dempsey had a real fight here.”
“A fight in this very bar?”
“Not a bar fight—heavyweight boxing. Shelby built a grandstand for it. Forty thousand seats. Seven thousand people showed up. Town almost went bust.”
The woman came over to Lonnie and said, “Let’s go.”She was mad. I left soon after, walking out into the streets of the new Wild West.
AT THE HIGH-LINE TOWN OF CULBERTSON, I TURNED north toward treeless Plentywood, Montana, then went east again, down forsaken blue Highway 5, a road virtually on the forty-ninth parallel, which is the Canadian border in North Dakota. In a small flourish of hills, the last I was to see for hundreds of miles, on an upthrust lump sat a cube of concrete with an Air Force radar antenna sweeping the long horizon for untoward blips. A Martello tower of the twentieth century. Below the installation, in the Ice Age land, lay a fine, clear lake. Fingerlings whisked the marsh weed, coots twittered on the surface, and at bankside a muskrat munched greens. It seemed as if I were standing between two worlds. But they were one: a few permutations of life going on about themselves, each thing trying to continue its wav.
East of Fortuna, North Dakota, just eight miles south of Saskatchewan, the high-moraine wheat fields took up the whole landscape. There was nothing else, except piles of stones like Viking burial mounds at the verges of tracts and big rock-pickers running steely fingers through the glacial soil to glean stone that freezes had heaved to the surface; behind the machines, the fields looked vacuumed. At a filling station, a man who had long farmed the moraine said the great ice sheets had gone away only to get more rock. “They’ll be back. They always come back. What’s to stop them?”
The country gave up the glacial hills and flattened to perfection. The road went on, on, on. Straight and straight. Ahead and behind, it ran through me like an arrow. North Dakota up here was a curveless place—not just roads but land, people too, and the flight of birds. Things were angular: fenceposts against the sky, the line of a jaw, the ways of mind, the lay of crops.
The highway, oh, the highway. No place, in theory, is boring of itself. Boredom lies only with the traveler’s limited perception and his failure to explore deeply enough. After a while, I found my perception limited. The Great Plains, showing so many miles in an immodest exposure of itself, wearied my eyes; the openness was overdrawn.
You’d think anything giving variety to this near blankness would be prized, yet when a Pleistocene pond got in the way, the road cut right through it, never yielding its straightness to nature. If you fired a rifle down the highway, a mile or so east you’d find the spent slug in the middle of the blacktop.
Here the earth, as if to prove its immensity, empties itself. Gertrude Stein said: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.” Onward across the appallingly featureless yonder of North Dakota, where towns, like the poor verse of Burma Shave signs, came and went quickly; on across fields where farmers planted wheat, rye, barley, and flax, their tractors sowing close to fences marking off missile silos that held Minutemen waiting in the dark underground like seeds of another sort. As daylight went, the men, racing rain and the short growing season, switched on headlights to keep the International Harvesters moving over cropland that the miracles of land-grant colleges (cross-pollinated hybrids resistant to everything but growth and petrochemicals) had changed forever. The farmer’s enemy wasn’t a radar blip—it was the wild oat.
In the city park at Langdon, a Nordic town of swept streets and tidy pastel houses with pastel shutters at the picture windows, a man walking with a child saw me staring at a “retired” Spartan missile apparently serving the same function that courthouse-lawn fieldpieces with little pyramids of cannonballs once did. The white Spartan, a skeletal finger pointing into the beyond, was undefaced by initials, lovers’ notations, graduating-class years, or spray-can anarchy. The only blemishes w’ere a smudgy ring of handprints, from children who had tested the reality of the thing, and this—penciled small, near the bottom, as if to hide it:
WARNING: THE SURGEON GENERAL HAS DETERMINED THAT SMOKING ICBM’S ARE DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH.
“She’s a nuke,” the father said with proprietary pride. His shirt sleeves were rolled to the elbows, and he carried a full complement of bail-point pens in a plastic pocket protector above his heart. “We’re lucky to have her here. Came from a silo at Nekoma. Air Force selected our town.”
“I’ve seen a lot of missile installations along the highway.”
“Make you feel good, don’t they? Proud and taken care of, like.”
“Taken care of—that’s it.”
“From a distance, in the right light, this bird looks like a church steeple. And I promise you, if these things ever start flying, she’ll be the mother we’ll be praying to.”
“Our Lady of the Unholy Boom?”
He ignored me. “I don’t mean these old Spartans. I’m talking about the new Minutemen. Or the MX, when it gets approved—and it will. Ten nuke warheads on the MX.”
His daughter fell in the grass. Without a drop of irony, he cautioned her to be careful.
“Do you believe they’ll be used?” I asked.
“This one’s deactivated, of course. But I promise you we’re ready for the Soviets up here. The Canadian border is only seventeen miles away. You ask if they’ll ever be fired. As long as Moscow is insane for conquest, don’t bet against it.” He waited for a response, then flagged his arm to the northeast. “Walhalla’s the next town over, and you know what that is.”
“What is it?”
“The home of warriors slain in battle. The place the Valkyries carry heroes to. We’re ready, here on the perimeter.”
“The Air Force is ready, you mean.”
“I don’t tell tales out of school, but some of us are personally equipped.”
“Let’s just say we have basements stocked for whoever crosses that border.”
“I hope you don’t have the other cast-off ICBMs in your rumpus rooms.”
“Everybody worries about ICBMs. We live on top of them up here. We grow the bread you and the Russians eat, right over the missiles. You want to worry? Worry about IBM. Worry about bug bombs. But with what the generals got over there in the Ukraine—those ICBMs that carry ten times the kilotons of our biggest—don’t fret yourself about this baby.” Parentally patting the Spartan, he dislodged the ball-points in his pocket protector, then repositioned them precisely to make sure he would reach the aftermath free of ink stains.
BACKOO, NORTH DAKOTA, MAY NOT BE THE ONLY town in America named after an Australian river (the Barcoo), but then again, maybe it is. I went to see it, or, as it turned out, to see what was left, which was: the Burlington Northern tracks, a grain elevator, a grocery, a boarded-up school, a church, and a thimble of a post office. The town had closed for Saturday, so I started back to the highway; after a mile, the smell of gasoline stopped me. I lifted the hood. The fuel line below the gas filter had split and was arcing a fine jet of no-lead into the sunlight. I tried to wire it closed, but it didn’t work.
I made for Cavalier, the nearest town. I pulled into the first garage I saw. A teenaged boy with the belly of a man came out and stared. People don’t just throw words around in the North. I lifted the hood to show him the line. I didn’t speak either.
“Sumbitch’s likely to catch fire!” he said.
“I know that. Can you fix it?”
“Pull the sumbitch in the bay fast and shut her down. God damn!” He backed off a safe distance as I drove in.
“Have you got that hose?”
He pointed toward a big coil of hose hanging on the greasy wall. “Fix every sumbitch in the state if we had to.” The boy’s blackened hands grappled with the connection. He struggled, cut himself, cursed, and took off on an analgesic tour of the grease pit, blood seeping from his oily finger. I picked up the pliers and tried to free the clamp. My hand slipped as the connection popped loose, and I cut my finger. The boy sliced a piece of hose off the coil and clamped it in place. “That’ll take care of the sumbitch,” he said.
“Very speedy service. What do I owe you?”
“A dime for the hose and two bucks for the labor—that’ll take care of the leak. But it won’t do anything about the real problem under your hood. Water pump’s about to go.” He grabbed the fan blades and pulled them back and forth. “Shouldn’t be no play in the fan. When those bearings give, fan’s coming through your radiator and that’ll be all she wrote.”
“I’ve been keeping an eye on it.”
“How long’s it been like that?”
“About 9,000 miles, I guess.”
He slapped his forehead to indicate my stupidity. “Suumbitch!”
“Trying to buy a little time.”
“You’re gonna buy a lot more than time when that sumbitch goes. I wouldn’t even drive the sumbitch to Hoople.”
“How far’s Hoople?”
“Can you fix it?”
“Wouldn’t try. Take it to the Ford dealer.”
So I did. The service man said. “Can’t get parts on Saturday. In fact, I couldn’t get a pump before Monday afternoon—if then. All of our parts come out of Grand Forks, so you might as well drive down there yourself.”
“Can I make it?” For 9,000 miles I hadn’t worried, but now I worried about seventy.
“Quién sabe, podnah. You know? Maybe you make it home. Then again, maybe you won’t make it to Hoople.”
I went down State 18 toward Grand Forks and wondered what this Hoople place was that figured as a basic guide to distance in Pembina County, North Dakota. I couldn’t get to Grand Forks before five o’clock, so I drove slowly, relaxed in my fate. The truck had carried me to the eastern seaboard and then to the Pacific and halfway back to the Atlantic. But now, of course, the sumbitch might not make it to Hoople.
Who in America would guess that Grand Forks, North Dakota, was a good place to be stuck in with a bad water pump? Skyscrapers from the thirties, clean as a Norwegian kitchen, a state university with brick, big trees, and ivy. On Monday morning the pump got replaced in an hour for $37.50. I had expected to be taken for three times that figure, but I met only honest people.
THERE’S SOMETHING TO BE SAID FOR BANAL CONversation. Across the central North, conversations were difficult to strike up. The people were polite but reserved; often they seemed afraid of appearing too inquisitive, while at other times they were simply too taciturn to exchange the banalities and clichés necessary to find a base for conversation.
When I walked the North towns, people, wondering who the outsider was, would look at me; but as soon as I nodded they looked down, up, left, or right, or turned around as if summoned by an invisible caller. “Stranger,” Whitman says, “if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me?” I even tried my old stratagem of taking a picture of a blank wall just to give a passerby an excuse to stop and ask what I could possibly be photographing. Nothing breaks down suspicion about a stranger better than curiosity—except in the North; whatever works better there, I didn’t discover. The effect on me was that I felt more alone than I ever had in the desert. I wished for the South, where any topic is worth at least a brief exchange. And so I went across the central North, seeing many people, but not often learning where our lives crossed common ground.
BLUE HIGHWAY 109 RAN THROUGH NEW HAMPshire, out from under the Ossipee Mountains, down toward the sea, all the way twisting like snarled fishline as it unreeled through an eerie spruce forest. I crossed into Maine, where evergreens absorbed the heat and the sky darkened. Lakes glowed luminescent in the last light, the water sending wisps of condensation into the cool air.
A heavy sea fog came in to muffle the obscure woods and lie over the land like a sheet of dirty muslin. I saw no cars or people, few lights in the houses. The windshield wipers, brushing at the fog, switched back and forth like cats’ tails. I lost myself to the monotonous rhythm and darkness as past and present fused and dim things came and went in a staccato of moments separated by miles of darkness. On the road, where change is continuous and visible, time is not; rather it is something the rider only infers. Time is not the traveler’s fourth dimension—change is.
Kennebunkport was a town coming and going, a place in that way like any other. A quarter of a mile up the estuary from the ocean, the citizens once built large wooden ships on the north side of the river and unloaded fish downstream on the south. At Government Wharf they still unload fish and lobsters, and the boat building continues too, but on a smaller scale.
The rain passed inland, and by morning the sky was clear and warm and squealing with gulls scratching themselves in flight. In 1830, some of the townspeople sighted a sea monster, but things now were quieter, except during the summer, and that was the way it had been for almost a century. I did what you do in Kennebunkport: walk the odd angles and sudden turns of alleyways and cul-de-sacs among the bleached, shingled buildings, climb the exterior stairs to the old lofts, step around lobster pots and upturned dinghies.
The summer season was coming on, and already middle matrons in non-skid-sole shoes and wraparound skirts were leading middle-level husbands into shops rigged out in macramé and down counters of perfumed candles, stained-glass mobiles, Snoopy beach towels, brass trivets, ceramic coffee mugs from Japan, music-box cheeseboards, ladybug jewelry. Clerks, a generation younger, watched with expressions stuck on like decals.
Most of those visitors stayed on the north side of the river with the gift shops and galleries selling paintings by artistes, with the motels, restaurants, and tour-boat docks; but a few found the south-side eateries, small and slanty, the ones on pilings out over the river; and some people even wandered into the boatyards, where winches and cranes clanked out the old music of the harbor.
I went down to the shore. People lay in the sand of a narrow beach blocked at both ends by big, broken mounds of glaciated rocks. Children dug holes, mothers read fat novels by women with three names, and fathers read the coeds’ damp T-shirts. Later the women would stretch out on towels, the men would doze off under The Wall Street Journal, and the children would look for something to do away from the blowing sand, cold water, and 600 yards of salted humanity.
I drove a hilly back road a couple of miles up the coast to Cape Porpoise, a white-picket-fence village bent around a little balloon of an inlet off the Atlantic. Here, in 1629, Englishmen made the first so-called permanent settlement in Kennebunkport. Sixty years later, Indians “depopulated” Cape Porpoise. That first settlement was on Stage Island, now an overgrown rise that loons and gulls rallied on.
At the edge of the town pier was a lobster house. Lobsters were beyond my means, but I bought two pounds of steamed quahogs (also called “littlenecks” and “cherrystones” when small), walked to Bradbury Brothers grocery for a stick of butter and two bottles of Molson ale. I packed up my dented aluminum pot and Swedish stove and headed down through the sumac and wild beach roses to a rocky coign of vantage just above a tidal cove that Vikings likely saw. While the tide went out. I melted the butter and warmed the clam broth, dipped the steamers into the broth and hot butter, and ate, sitting against the granite, drinking the Molson’s, watching the water.
The tide drained the flats, their seaworn things once belonging in the air returned to it for a short space: sunken punts, busted lobster pots, barnacled timbers, pop bottles. And there were banks of shining, steely-blue mussels closed tighter than the lips of God. At one time, only gulls harvested the black mussel, but when the tidal-flat clams and lobsters became harder to find, people began gathering mussels for steaming, and now they, too, were not so plentiful.
Herring gulls, flashing white in the sun, circled down and let loose their hullabaloo, picked over the flats, and cocked a careful eye at little tidal pools full of orange rockweed and iridescent froth washing gently back and forth. They stitched the rank, black ooze with an embroidery of gull feet.
I went again to the pier. Old men came down in Valiants and Dodge Darts and stood watching the fishing boats. Someone said they came every day, just like the gulls. When one died off, another always took his place to do the watching.
A westerly had blown in strong, and the little Cape Porpoise fleet was returning early, each boat carrying into the pier an attendant flapdoodle of gulls circling as sternmen gutted the catch, then swooping the water for the pitched entrails. Trucks from Boston fish houses waited under the hoist as the fishtubs came up. Gill-netters tore mackerel loose from nets and threw them into baskets. The mackerel is a beautiful piece of design: a sleek body of silver touched with indigo. An old watcher said, “A mack looks better than it eats, unless you’re a cat.”
The trawler Allison E tied up to unload her catch of flounder, cod, haddock, and hake. The skipper climbed the pier ladder and said, “it’s steak and potatoes for me, boys.” He kept an eye on the trawler as his crew cut the last of the catch, and he counted the baskets of fish coming up to the truck.
The Allison E was the last to unload. When she moved off to tie up in the little basin, the pier emptied. In late afternoon, schoolboys came down with their Zebcos to fish for pollock. They filched chunks of cod and flounder from the foul shed, where lobster bait festered in barrels—the stronger the bait, the better to lure a lobster. One small boy struggled out with a massive codfish head, its jagged maw—a good fourteen inches across—gaping wide enough to swallow him. In the harbor, red-throated loons paddled and dived and gulped, but the boys had no luck and went home when the eastern sky and sea turned inky in the dusk.
THE ISLAND OF RHODE ISLAND IS A MISSHAPEN BOOT in Narragansett Bay: just above the instep stands the old town center of Newport, and around the sole stepping into the Atlantic is the other Newport—that of the exclusive oceanside gilded estate “cottages,” detached in space, attitude, and history. Old harborside Newport, however historic, was never quaint; it was much too rough and lusty for that. Nor was it ever a preserved relic like Wickford or picturesquely cute like Little Compton, other Rhode Island coastal villages. In short, it was a sea town.
I’d spent my share of Navy time in Newport down on Thames Street—also known as Bloody Alley—which had ever been the waterfront thoroughfare, although things had slipped and no longer was it the main business street. But in the seventeenth century only a madman or a seer might have predicted that upstart New York City would have an avenue more important than the Alley.
Thames Street—a narrow; dark trench of a lane under hip roofs and gables and old doorways with fanlights—had seen the likes of Captain Kidd, Roger Williams, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Lafayette, Rochambeau, Kosciuszko, Baron Steuben, Count von Fersen (a lover of Marie Antoinette), Nathanael Greene, Gilbert Stuart, Stephen Decatur, Oliver Perry (Battle of Lake Erie), Matthew Perry (opening of Japan), Herman Melville, most of the Vanderbilts, Astors, and Rockefellers, and a thousandthousand fishermen and sailors. Not bad for a street that began as a swamp.
Citizens of Newport hanged pirates at the north end of the Alley, buccaneers and merchants refitted ships at the Thames Street wharfs, and Englishmen impressed American seamen they found wandering “the Strand,”as it once was called. The first cobblestones were bought with receipts levied on each slave imported from Africa. (Later, any Negro who owned a pig and sty could vote in a mock election for a black governor at the corner of Thames and Farewell streets.) In one house nearby, a boy in his father’s arms, upon seeing George Washington, said, “Why Father! General Washington is a man!” To which the General replied, “Yes, only a man.”
After the British stole the town blind and devastated the area, following their three-year occupation during the Revolutionary War, new businesses grew up around Thames: sugar refining, rum distilling, malt brewing, the bottling of sperm whale oil. Sea captains’ children, hoping for a pet monkey or a parrot from Brazil, came down to Thames Street to meet their fathers’ ships; officers of the line walked between piled boxes of Turkish brass, Chinese porcelain, Persian carpets, Japanese lacquerware, Indian spices; and they caroused in clubs where they drank Newport punch made of rum, lime juice, arrack, and loaf sugar.
Before the Civil War, summer colonists from Charleston, Mobile, Havana, and the Indies strolled the Strand, although few stayed after dusk. Fishermen pitched pennies and bet on impromptu dog fights and sold fish from wheelbarrows on Bannister’s Wharf.
When I saw Thames Street the first time, in the sixties, it was still a dark little guttery thing filled with the odor of beer and fried food and dimestore perfume; the noise was music, shouts, laughter, gull screeches. The Navy remained its main order of business. At five o’clock on a summer evening, when the Alley really came to, you saw pressed white uniforms of the gobs, shining black oxfords, and faces wiped down with Old Spice; but as the street emptied in the dark morning, the uniforms now smudged and rumpled and stinking of beer, there would be vomiting and sometimes fights. Only when the cup races brought the regatta to town would high society (the Four Hundred) and the gentlemen from the War College come down to the Alley to play at the nautical life. Then the attitude was: SAILORS AND DOGS KEEP OUT.
Newport entrepreneurs neglected Thames, because they believed that Broadway and the north-end highways should have the new commercial growth, and so shopping centers saved the Alley from the twentieth century. From one war to the next, waterfront changes were small and slow, and the past, seamy and seedy and alive, continued. I came to like the street. It possessed something rare.
Now, nearly fifteen years since I’d last seen it, I walked into the lane where Washington Square—actually more an isosceles triangle—meets the old Long Wharf. The harbor side of the street was gone. Where seventeenth and eighteenth-century buildings had stood were parking lots and a mall. My expectation sank as if flushed down a scupper. Most of the city side of the street (now called America’s Cup Avenue) had been modernized into trendy shops of concrete and glass that sold plastic scrimshaw, driftwood lamps, lighted whelk shells, garish seascapes, marijuanaleaf belt buckles.
The seamen’s taverns had yielded to places with oldestyle signs: SPIRITS AND VICTUALS, GROG HAPPY HOUR. Navy outfitters were now women’s shoe shops; tattoo parlors had become perfume boutiques.
I stopped for a beer. The bartender brought a Narragansett. I asked what had happened to Thames Street. “Redevelopment for urban blight.”
The bar was crowded. America’s Cup Avenue was clearly a moneymaker. A man, young, said, “They trashed the place to save it. The American plan.”
“How did it happen?”
“Navy cut back. Businessmen wanted tourists who’ll spend more than sailors.”
“But the history.”
“American history is parking lots.”
The room was full of girls with orchid-colored lips, signed trousers, and disco pumps; hands full of high-technology cigarettes and sugary, Day-Glo drinks; faces agog with the fal-lal and frippery of the new Thames Street. They jabbered with twenty-one-year-old men of all ages.
Somewhere between that vile past and the vacuous present, somewhere between history and trends, there must have been other possibilities for Thames Street that the burghers of Newport missed.
There was no point staying on; what I’d come for was gone, replaced by things available all over the United States.
The Newport-Jamestown ferry was extinct too, superseded by a two-mile bridge. I said to the toll keeper, “Damn expensive bridge—the toll, that is.”
“We got a joke here. It’s high because it’s high. Get it? They built it so aircraft carriers at Quonset Point could sail under. As soon as the paint dried, the Navy pulled its birdfarms out of Narragansett Bay.”
“What’s the bridge here for, anyway?”
“Opens Newport up to New York City traffic. Lotta new businesses to support here now.”
They might just as well have opened the old harbor town to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I went on toward Quonset Point, the home port of the ship I had been assigned to. The U.S.S. Lake Champlain, a World War II flattop, once held the transatlantic speed record, and it pulled out of the sea America’s first spaceman, Alan Shepard. I’d heard the carrier was sold for scrap, but I wanted to see the ships that had taken her berth—if I could get permission to go on the pier.
As things turned out, I didn’t need to worry about permission. On the west side of the base, where Seabees invented the Quonset hut, was a carnival. The new Navy, I thought. I drove down the long road to the air station and wondered what excuse might get me in—ironic after all the time I’d spent years ago thinking up reasons to get out.
But the gates were open, sentry boxes unmanned, the ten-foot chain-link fence torn and leaning. Still, I expected base security any minute. One of the mess halls had a name on it like a restaurant. The new volunteer Navy.
At the end of the road, a mile in, the big pier was empty. Nothing but rusting stanchions and bollards, and weeds along the railroad tracks. The whole bay stood open and vacant. The Champ, the Essex, the Wasp, used to fill the sky with gray masses of hull, gun, and antennas. The great carriers were gone, and also tugs, tenders, big naval cranes, helicopters, jets; the shouts and hubbub and confusion of sailors and machines and aircraft, all gone.
On the shore a man was stacking lobster traps. Lobster traps? “What the hell’s happened here?” I shouted over to him, but it didn’t carry. I walked out on the pier, where a lone tern watched. Once there was a gull for every sailor. Lobster traps! I was angry at seeing my service come to this. I had lived and died walking off and on this pier and many times had dreamed of the day I’d come back as a civilian, free of the tyranny of the boatswain’s pipe and his curses, free of working in a 125-degree steel box. I felt cheated.
Where in hell was the diesel oil of yesteryear? Where the drawn faces when we left, the cockahoop faces when we returned, the sailors kissing girls and lugging seabags, mahogany statues, brass platters, straw hats, and black velvet paintings of bulls and naked native women; trucks honking, the sailors on duty cursing down from the deck and offering services to the women, the sea wind snapping the flag from the jackstaff, the last smoke blowing grit on us from the tall stacks? And now lobster pots! Christ. I knew you couldn’t go home again, but nobody had said anything about not getting back to your old Navy base.
A horn blared. A man with a bulgy, bulbous head shouted, “Got official business out here, Mac?” That was more like it. He was a Rhode Island Port Authority watchman with all the command bearing of a dirty rag, but he was better than nothing. He did his best to be properly official, writing my license number down on his clipboard. “What’s your name, Mac?” That was much more like it.
“I was stationed here on the Champ, CVS-39. She was a sub hunter.”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your first name?”
“That’s it. Drexel. Drexel Twitty. I can’t believe it’s all gone.”
“Never saw it before the Navy turned it over to us. Okay, sailor, take your look-see and get your butt out of here by dark.” He drove off, and that was my triumphal return to Quonset Point Naval Air Station.
ON TILGHMAN ISLAND, MARYLAND, I PARKED NEAR the wharf where much of the last sail-powered fishing fleet in America tied up. Against the cloudingsky, I could make out the tall masts and long bowsprits of the skipjacks, ships that hoist 1,200 feet of sail to pull port and starboard dredges over the oyster rocks. Some people believed the skipjacks were the last of an era while others held they were, once again, the future.
A storm came on, and I ran for Ghost Dancing. Inside, I listened to the rain beat out a hard, steely number on the roof; not yet ready for sleep. I lay on the bunk to watch the electric night.
Black Elk loved thunderstorms, because in their “swift fire” he heard the Great Voices. For me, I heard more the Heyokas, those beings of lightning, those dancing human clowns who do things foolishly backward. In his time on the blue road, the immaterialist Black Elk often heard voices from the clouds; in my season on the blue highways, the voices I heard were those of men—men who knew about stumbling not from observation, as gods know it, but rather from having stumbled. For that reason, their words carried a force cloud voices could not match.
If clouds gave Black Elk his visions, they merely made me wet. But, like any man of ordinary cut, I sometimes heard human voices that showed the power not of visions but of revision, the power to see again and revise. Whitman:
Can each see signs of the best by a look in the lookingglass? is there nothing greater or more?
Does all sit there with you. . . ?
Something opened. Call it the Looking-glass syndrome.
Like a crazed enemy running amok, ego, that excessive looking inward, had had its way in the Indian wars, and now the old life with the Cherokee was lost. But what had not been lost was the chance, as Black Elk says, “to make over.” A man cannot remake ego, because it is able to grow only in size, like a simple cell. A locked form unable to change its structure, it is ever only what it is. Not so an angle of vision—that a man could make over. To remake is his potential, his hope. His very form depends not on repetition but upon variation from old patterns. In response to stress, biological survival requires genetic change; it necessitates a turning away from doomed replication. And what of history? Was it different?
Etymology: educate, from the Latin educere, “to lead out.”
AT CINCINNATI, I LOOPED THE CITY FAST ON THE INterstate and came to Indiana 56, where corn, tobacco, and blue-sailors grew to the knee, and also wild carrot, fleabane, golden Alexander. Apples were coming into a high green, butterflies stitched across the road, and all the way the whip of mowers filled Ghost Dancing with the sweet waft of cut grass. Each town had its feedand-grain store, each farm its grain bin and corncrib. Rolling, rolling, the land, the road, the truck.
I dropped south to New Harmony, Indiana, twelve miles downstream from Grayville, Illinois, where I’d spent that first grim night. New Harmony in June piles up with the sprinkle from golden-rain trees, here called “gate trees.”The town is known for two experiments in social engineering, both of which failed. Yet those failures put in motion currents that changed the course of what came after: the abolition of slavery, equal opportunity for women, progressive education, emancipation from poverty. The futuristic village was once even the headquarters for the U.S. Geologic Survey.
Rappites from Pennsylvania created the town of Harmonie out of bosky Wabash River bottomland in 1814. They grew wheat, vegetables, grapes, apples, and hops; they produced wine, woolens, tinware, shoes, and whiskey. The Rappite Golden Rose trademark, like the Shaker name, became an assurance of quality. A decade later, however, as the struggle of primitive life eased, members began finding more time for reflection; to blunt a growing discontent, the leader, George Rapp, sold the village to Robert Owen and moved the colony back to Pennsylvania, where the people could again start from scratch and live the peace of full occupation. Seventy-five years later, their Shaker-like refusal to have any truck with the future brought about their disappearance.
Owen, the British industrialist, utopian, and egalitarian, who worked to create a society free of ignorance and selfishness by eliminating the “causes of contest among individuals” (his basic tenet was “circumstances form character”), renamed the town New Harmony and built a cooperative community that developed into a center tor creative social and scientific thought in antebellum America. Yet, before the first settler died, egotism and greed did the experiment in. New Harmony survived, but only as a monument to idealism and innovation.
Not far from a burial ground of unmarked graves the old Harmonists share with a millennium of Indians, the mystical Rappites in 1820 planted a circular privet labyrinth “symbolic” (a sign said) “of their notion of the Harmonist concept of the devious and difficult approach to a state of true harmony” After the Rappites, the hedges disappeared, but a generation ago, citizens replanted the maze, I walked through it to stretch from the long highway Even though I avoided the shortcut holes broken in the hedges, I still went down the rungs and curves without a single wrong turn. The “right” way was worn so deeply in the earth as to be unmistakable. But without the errors, wrong turns, and blind alleys, without the doubling back and misdirection and fumbling and chance discoveries, there was not one bit of joy in walking the labyrinth. And worse—knowing the way made traveling it perfectly meaningless.
Before I crossed the Wabash (Algonquian for “white shining”), I filled the gas tank—enough for the last leg. From the station I could see the blue highway curving golden into the western afternoon. I’d make Columbia by nightfall.
The circle almost complete, the truck ran the road like the old horse that knows the way If the circle had come full turn, I hadn’t. I can’t say that, over the miles, I had learned what I wanted to know, because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know. But I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.
The highway before, under, behind. Through the GreenRiver-ordinance-enforced towns. Past barnlot windmills that said AERMOTOR CHICAGO. On and on. The Mississippi River. Then the oak risings of Missouri.
The pump attendant, looking at my license plate when he had filled the tank, asked, “Where you coming from. Show Me?”
“Where I’ve been.”
“Where else?” he said. □