The Southwest 1 (West Texas, New Mexico, a bit of Arizona)

This is our bugout kit. From back to front of our SUV: two 50-gallon plastic bins with lids―the left has our mobile kitchen with two-burner front country stove, stainless steel half-sheet baking sheet, cutting board, mixing bowl, 12-inch steep-walled stainless steel pan, 10-inch cast iron frying pan, sieve, small plates, grater, measuring cup, tongs, metal spatula, immersion blender, french press, single-mantle propane lamp, food scale, various food storage containers, one roll of parchment paper and one roll of heavy-duty aluminum foil, and a smaller container with lid opener, knife sharpener, ruler, chef’s knife, bread knife, utensils, chopsticks, silicon spatula, bartender’s tool, various nozzles, and other small tools; the right is our mobile pantry with various oils, vinegars, and other seasoning liquids, a few pounds of white rice and brown rice, various (mostly Asian) noodles, a few packs of different heirloom beans, sugars, two medium tupperwares and two gallon ziplock bags full of spices and herbs, different canned vegetables and some prepared dry foods (like mac-n-cheese), and, especially, several pounds of various dals. Wedged between the two bins are two camping chairs. Atop them we keep three duffle bags, one shared containing technical outdoor clothing and a personal bag each for our street clothes. Here, too, we’ve been wedging our front country tent. Immediately in front of the large bins is a foldable pullup bar, then a roto-molded cooler (a generous gift from our very good friends), a canvas-and-cardboard box full of shoes, and my wife’s backpacking backpack with most of our backpacking gear (inflatable pads, foam sit pad, tech bag (med kit, trowel, flashlight, extra batteries, patches, head nets, bug spray, sanitizer, compass, cord, swiss army knife, pocket bellow), bear can (inside the bear can are smell-proof bags (and my stash), bear spray, various small containers), water filter, and mess kit (one 2L pot, one 1L pot, stove, two small bowls, two small utensils, a spatula head for cleaning, two small pack towels, aluminum windscreens). In front of my wife’s backpack, two large ditty sacks, one with our front country bedding (2 older thermarest inflatable pads, 2 closed-cell foam pads, and a bedsheet) and one with our front country and assorted other camping gear (this includes our beloved two-person down quilt (used for both front- and backcountry camping), one synthetic blanket, one Costco down quilt modified (with Kam snaps and shock cord) into a one-person either top or bottom quilt (for hammocks), lightweight tarp and bug net with cordage and stakes (our backcountry shelter), a packraft, a solar shower, a 1 gallon ziplock of assorted extra cordage, stakes, bug spray, etc., microspikes, gaiters, solar-powered inflatable light, and assorted ditty sacks. In front of the box of shoes is a canvas bag (purchased at the STAX museum and branded as such) with games (Dominion plus three expansion packs, Race for the Galaxy, Morels, Sushi Go, Llama, Tiny Epic Western, and Star Realm; plus ultralight backpacking games that include Cosmic Wimpout, a paper version of Hive, and Love Letter (Adventure Time version)), two lightweight beach wraps/towels, a double-walled growler, various koozies, backpacking hammock with ultralight straps and bugnet, and two (wonderful) double-walled titanium cups. In front of that is a canvas bag full of dehydrated backpacking food, atop which we keep another canvas bag full of snacks and lunch items. There is is often a third canvas bag full of other groceries we’ve recently purchased. In front of the cooler we have one tupperware full of bath items (shampoo, conditioner, Dr. Bronner’s soap, body sponge, toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss, scissors, razor, comb, deodorant, a few oils and fragrances, various lotions and body products (from our good friend’s business, Little Herbal Apothecary), med kit with ibuprofen, antihistamines, bandages, a roll of Leukotape, and tiger balm) and another full of electronics and household miscellany (miscellaneous cables, two portable power cells (one of them solar powered), rechargeable nickle metal hydride and lithium ion batteries with a charger, scissors, screwdrivers, two padlocks, a small sewing kit, E6000 adhesive, gorilla tape, twine, and binder clips (one of the most useful things on earth). On top of and in front of these are my wife’s and my personal messenger bags with our computers, tablets, (for her) important documents, notebooks, postcards, satellite communication/SOS device, (for me) a mechanical keyboard and USB mouse, bluetooth speaker, my DAP (a Fiio M9), balanced IEMs, external hard drive, extra notebooks, and any associated charging cables and transformers. Floating variously atop all of this cargo is a small wool blanket (mostly used beneath our front country sleeping pads) and our tennis bag (with two tennis rackets, four cans of balls, old hammock straps with attached handles (for suspending from the pullup bar or anything else), two resistance bands, and a ukulele), and my fanny pack (with flashlight, knife, watch, and a lighter). Wedged between the folded down rear seats and the front seats are: a camera bag with Nikon D5000 with kit lens plus a 35mm prime lens and a 75mm-300mm macro/telephoto lens; a canvas bag of books; a canvas bag of liquor; a canvas bag of cleaning supplies (paper towel, disinfectant wipes, laundry detergent pods, rubbing alcohol) and propane cans, and a foldable solar shield. On our roof we have a roof box that contains: my empty backpacking backpack, a day pack (empty save for the Mardi Gras beads we’ve kept), two sets of hiking poles, collapsible raft paddle, two 5 gallon collapsible water jugs, my outback-style cowboy hat, a foam roller, an EVA foam mat, a five-tray food dehydrator, and two pillows (now lovingly cinched up in a large (and surprisingly durable) plastic bag from the Mardi Gras Supply Depot). Up front we have a road atlas, water bottles, coffee thermos, small garbage bag, assorted small decorations (an alligator bead, a red-headed bean fetish from the Dead Beans Mardi Gras parade, a small crystal, a small fake flower, a small mountain hemlock cone, and a plastic alien skateboarder my wife and I got out of a quarter machine from a China Buffet in central Illinois in the earliest months of our courtship in college and which we have always kept hanging from the review mirror of whatever car we’ve had at the time), often our phones, wallet, small notebook, our sunglasses, my wife, myself.

~

Needless to say, it has been a very surreal couple of weeks. The coronavirus response has been so breakneck, and in the past few days we’ve been talking with friends and family and trying to think about everyone we know in their homes, taking care of their children, trying to work, cook food, and take the occasional walk―everyone canceling pretty much all of their plans, learning new home routines, and wondering how we are doing, out here (we are so grateful that so many people have been checking in with us). We are good, thinking carefully about how to be responsible during this time, considering the fact that we have no home to shelter in. Luckily we have had vast wilderness―social distancing built in, as it were―and that’s where we’ve been.

We left New Orleans (that sounds so long ago) on the last day of February, our car packed and our hangovers stabilized. We spent a few days in the Sam Houston National Forest, arriving on Saturday to a relatively busy camp full of families from the Houston area, but then spending the next few days almost completely alone, save the campground host (and on Sunday, two large family BBQs on the other side of the lake). We read, lounged in the hammock, hiked about eight miles of the Lonestar Trail, and cooked some good meals. From there we headed to Austin for a few days―a city neither of us had been to―and enjoyed taco after taco and a fantastic set from The Barfields at The Continental Club, as well as joyful voyeurism over a blues dance night at the White Horse (community dance classes seem always at my wife and mine’s periphery). Overall, though, we found Austin to be almost too familiar, young professionals in urban exuberance, sparkling new but blasé condominiums shooting up out of the rhizomes of cool old school dive bars. We were there when they canceled SXSW because of the virus, but hardly anyone seemed to know (maybe we got the news quickly because were looking it up, thinking that all the plastic wrap they wrapped on every surface near the convention center was some prophylactic against it (it turns out it’s against sticker bombs)).

Leaving Austin, we drove across the hill country on a long, bright, and windy day, arriving late afternoon at the Stillwell RV Ranch (friendliest staff!) just outside of Big Bend National Park. Our trip in Big Bend is one of the core highlights of this period, and I’ll say more about it in a moment, but let me just deposit two surrounding memories here: listening to Purple Rain on a very scenic drive, in the rain, to cache water at the Homer Wilson Ranch (the creosote bush activated by the moisture, so stepping out of the car was stepping into a wonderful charcoal aroma, clean and deep smelling); and then listening to Truckin’ after our backpack, on the way out of the Chisos mountains and into the desert, feeling each mile of that vast terrain flow beneath us―I want to say it was the first time I really felt on the road (Houston? Too close to New Orleans).

We got permits for the Outer Mountain Loop, a roughly 35-mile hike typically (and as we did it) starting in the Chisos basin, heading clockwise down some 3000 feet through Juniper Canyon onto the Dodson Trail (camp 1), which then heads west for 11 miles across the Chihuahuan desert and Chisos foothills to the Homer Wilson Ranch and Blue Creek Canyon (camp 2), then north climbing 2500 feet back into the mountains and into the Laguna Meadows and western hills (camp 3), then back down into the northern basin. It was a challenging hike, a bit of a boot camp for us for our Grand Canyon trip, and it introduced us to elements we aren’t very familiar with from our time in the Cascades, mostly heat and the lack of water. It is advised that you carry in and/or cache all of your water, but we also noted a creek in the middle of the Dodson Trail (Fresno Creek), and asking the ranger she confirmed that it was flowing and that we could filter there. The advice is to carry a gallon of water per person, per day, which when you add it up gets pretty heavy. We carried pretty much that (8 liters), with the intention of stretching it for a half a day the second day to get us to Fresno Creek. That ended up being a bad, though not completely dangerous, miscalculation.

By the time we woke up (in a beautiful camp) on the second day, we were already feeling a little dehydrated. Two miles into the hike we were feeling zapped, the 85 degree heat (which I know is not blistering hot, but it is when you are hiking 11 miles in it), exposure, exertion of the hike (it looks flatish on the topo map, but it is nonstop up and down in and out of washes and over passes and foothills) and our water conservation (only about 2 liters for 5 miles for the both of us) adding up. Up and down we hiked. My shirt was already completely salt stained. We stopped at every top-out, having handfuls of snack and sips of water. By the time we reached Fresno Creek, we had half a liter left. Fresno Creek was little more than a slushy trickle, but hiking down twenty feet we found some small pools (just big enough to dunk your head―our a 4 liter water bag―into), and we luxuriated in them. We immediately drank probably 2 liters each. We washed up, and I did the full circuit―face, neck, armpits, crotch, and bidet―lounging around naked in the sun and on the rocks afterward, letting my sweaty clothes dry out while we ate lunch. We filtered and drank more water, then, after about an hour and half stop there, carried on. The remaining half was still difficult and tiring and very long, but we weren’t quite so delirious, and when we arrived the Homer Wilson Ranch was just clearing out of its day visitors, so we had the shaded porch to ourselves while I retrieved our water cache. We relaxed, then found a camp nearby in a wash.

The next day was a slow 1000 foot climb up a wash through beautiful Blue Creek Canyon, then a more aggressive 1500 foot ascent up the canyon headwall and back into the mountains. By the time we topped out, we were already nearly at our camp, and we enjoyed long hours with a big lunch and naps and games and whisky. Our hike out the next morning was a swift descent back down into the basin, and, after a lunch and some fooling around in the front country, we decided to drive to Marathon, where my wife got us a room at the Marathon Motel and RV park. Marathon is a real West Texas treat, small but with a few choice luxuries (like the quaint motel, or the nearby bar, the White Buffalo)―we enjoyed it more than Marfa, where we did laundry the next day, which was a bit surprising given Marfa’s art and literary importance. But just passing through, it felt too LA-ified indeed, the overrun new real estate almost mocking the Chihuahuan landscape and West Texas culture with its adoption. It’s an unfair assessment, and I’d like to spend more time there, maybe to write poems!

From Texas we headed north into New Mexico, which began a robust couple of days characterized by rapid changes in landscape and the quick escalation of the coronavirus response. We arrived at Guadalupe Mountains National Park to find the camp full (not surprising to us), but then made our way to a comfortable RV camp just outside of the Carlsbad Caverns, where we sat in the car in front of our camp waiting out heavy rains, getting pretty drunk finishing Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, Slow Burn’s season one (on Watergate), and an episode of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. The next day was a marvel of national parks and monuments―we went to three: Carlsbad Caverns for a stroll of the Big Room Trail, a quick couple of dunes at White Sands National Park, and then an elegant camp in the beautiful highlands of Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument, waking the next morning to numerous doves cooing and landing in dusty proclamations within the junipers that surrounded us.

Then we headed north deep into the Gila National Forest, spending most of the day trying to find a good camp (we got a decent one). The next day we hiked up into the Gila Cliff Dwellings, extraordinarily well-preserved dwelling sites in the beautiful and dry norther Gilas, then drove all the way back south into Silver City for groceries and some coffeeshop internet, where we learned that many states had ordered restaurants and bars to close their dine-in services. That’s when the virus news really hit us. People were nervous in the co-op where we shopped. We ate a solemn lunch sitting on a park bench, and the town (which struck us as a hidden gem, a small college-town hippy enclave) felt especially empty. We started to rethink our plans, but we knew we had at least two more nights camping, so proceeded up to the Cosmic Campground in the western Gilas, a dark sky site where my wife, at least, was able to stay up and view some deep galaxy textures before the moon rose. The next day we talked with many friends and family as we made our way into Arizona, where we ended up doing an offtrail backpack in the Painted Desert. This was quickly one of our favorite trips, a beautiful, fun, and accessible romp through deep washes and among badlands and copious deposits of petrified wood, fossilized old growth from the Triassic period (about 210 millions years old). We camped out of the high winds in a low wash and enjoyed the stars there, too. We felt far away from every person, and oddly, that that was a good thing.

And now we’ve been holed up in a hotel in Flagstaff, trying to keep distant from others while we wait out some weather (it snowed about 10 inches when we arrived) before our trip to the Grand Canyon, which starts tomorrow. I want to say so much about the places we’ve been―how lush the Chihuahuan desert is (my love for the whimsical sotol, the elegant play of ocotillo, yucca, prickly pear, and agave in elaborate desert gardens, and then the uniqueness of the isolated Chisos mountains with their juniper and pinyon pine), the interplay of sky (aliens, missile testing) and earth (gypsum white sands, stalagtites, stalagmites, curtains, popcorn―all the depositional sculptures of the caverns) of New Mexico, or the extraordinary erosional structures of the painted desert and how apparent the forces of time are (in erosion, unearthing of fossils, the uncanny feeling of being around huge timber in a desert landscape, knowing the terrain you are walking in is literally hundreds of millions of years old), but our trip, and the world, has changed so rapidly, and it’s all I can do to just recount this itinerary. Pictures, anyway, probably tell it better (just a few below, with the promise of more).

So we have been decided to change some plans. We are going to proceed to the Grand Canyon, though it has shut many of its services. We talked to a ranger about our trip, and he was welcoming and optimistic. We expect the park to be mostly empty, but we’ll see. We might not complete the rim-to-rim-to-rim (maybe more because of weather), and that’s fine. We are hesitant to keep traveling, but we don’t have a home, and the bottom of the Grand Canyon feels appropriately socially distant. We did change our April plans though, which was a month in Echo Park in Los Angeles. That seems like a bad idea. We were able to cancel our accommodations and have gotten new ones for a few weeks in the homestead area (every property is surrounded by 5 acres) outside of Joshua Tree, where we are going to hunker down. Looking forward to that time, actually. But first, a bit more wilderness.

We’ve met a few lovely people this month. Pete (a later post will include the “Three Petes”), a school bus driver originally from Paradise, CA, who drove busloads of children (and recounted it so nonchalantly) to safety during the devastating fires there (he drove literally until the tires melted). A group of brothers/friends in Sam Houston National Forest who offered us their Korean BBQ (we still cringe at having to decline, being vegetarians). An extremely nice park ranger at Petrified Forest National Park. But mostly we’ve been to ourselves. I figured I’d close with one specific person we met, though, Harris, a gentle young man (early twenties?) stationed at Fort Bliss outside El Paso, whom we met in the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks. He was scheduled for his first deployment, a 19-month tour in Afghanistan where he was going to drive convoys. The deployment was canceled because of the virus outbreak. I am an unashamed pacifist and have disagreed all of my adult life with most of our military actions. But I couldn’t help but feel for Harris. He had spent months and months and months mentally and logistically preparing for his deployment, and I could see the evacuation of that energy clearly within his eyes. He had already hiked all the high trails at Organ Mountains, and yet he still, after our long conversation, was pacing around the camp restlessly in long loops. What he knew and was planning for was suddenly interrupted, forcefully, chaotically, with little leadership or communication. He didn’t know what to do, how to be. It was the most outward expression of how everyone must be feeling, if they are affected financially or not, if they are closed up in their homes or, like us, in a tightly packed car and then empty-of-people landscapes. I bristle at the term “social distancing”―apart from the pandemic, this is exactly what we don’t need and what part of our trip was trying to break through―isolation, estrangement, and mediatized interaction. It’s now the remedy, the order, and I accept that―we will hunker down and make the best use of the time we can. But I worry about its effects, our stamina, our energy. Standing above the “bottomless pit” in Carlsbad Caverns, I jokingly noted that it triggered like five different phobias, of heights, the dark, the unknown, of closed in spaces, and wide open ones. I still sort of feel like that.

―Flagstaff, AZ, March 20, 2020,

I’ll upload a million more photos once I’ve got them edited; for now, a smattering of media:

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Looking down the Juniper Canyon into the Chihuahuan desert in Big Bend National Park

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Early morning in our camp on the Dodson Trail, Big Bend National Park

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Exhausted, looking back over the Chisos foothills we’ve just gone over. 

 

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Friendly sotol stem pointing the way up back into the Chisos.

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A jumble of depositional structures in the big room of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

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The vast dunelands of White Sands National Park.

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Our pretty camp beneath a juniper in Organ Mountains Desert National Monument in New Mexico.

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Cliff dwellings in the Gila National Forest, New Mexico.

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A petrified wood deposit near Angels Garden in the Painted Desert of Petrified National Park, Arizona. 

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Sunset on the badlands of the Painted Desert.

Mardi Gras

I first noticed the ulcer on my tongue in City Park in New Orleans on the third weekend of Carnival. I was sitting down with friends to little paper bags full of beignets and powdered sugar, next to cups of chicory coffee mixed with milk, at an outpost of the famous Café du Monde. I noticed the powdered sugar irritating the right side of my tongue. Beignets are already a little bit awkward to eat, and I found myself going at them more and more askew, increasingly favoring the left side of my mouth (where many years ago I had a molar removed and never replaced), slowly working the dough into a mash soft enough to swallow. It wasn’t the most enjoyable experience of beignets, though the warm, creamy coffee provided some succor. I knew right away that a canker sore was coming, forming as a little polyp on a spot where my tongue met my teeth. By the next day, at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, I was avoiding the right side of my mouth completely, softening the fried okra and delicate red beans with copious amounts of iced tea. I was starting to talk with a lisp, and I was grateful that my friends were leaving that afternoon, not because I was eager to see them go, but because it meant I could sit silently and watch movies for the rest of the day, drinking little cups of whisky. When I woke up the next morning opening my jaw and pulling my tongue away from my teeth felt like ripping duct tape off of sutured-up sunburn. I teared up a little bit, hurrying to the bathroom to gargle some water. The sore was grayish-white and nearly a quarter inch across, alarmingly deep. Little bubbles of spit foamed in its concavity. I stared at it in the mirror while construction equipment―tractors and backhoes and such―passed by outside, softly quaking the house.

I quickly began a regimen of saline gargles, avoided sugar and salt dustings (up until then, I was delighting in coating everything in a Slap Ya’ Mama, a simple and delicious (if unfortunately named) cajun seasoning found widely throughout Louisiana), and began with a full-on Daffy Duck slur, trying to keep the canker sore completely outside my dental complex, which made for some amusing conversations with my wife. By evenings, my tongue was tired and strained from the altered biomechanics. Eating was so laborious I lost my appetite; kissing was painful and made me feel like a mutant; I was getting humidity headaches; anything carbonated (mostly, beer) stung sharply, as did anything acidic (mostly, wine). Whisky was the best relief, and I bathed my tongue in it, enjoying the numbing effects with a giddy I haven’t felt in what must be at least a decade. I had absurdly little time to convalesce, mere days before eleven of our friends would arrive in waves for Mardi Gras weekend. My wife and I took it easy, running errands and getting the house cleaned up; the weather shifted around restlessly and you could feel the city and its traffic in kinds of high-intensity intervals, a start-stop arrhythmia that felt anxious and unsure. I was irritable but mellow. I tried very hard not to move my tongue, for any reason whatsoever.

~

We spent 29 days in New Orleans, pretty much the entirety of the Carnival season. We had 15 different guests, went to 9 parades, saw (I estimate) 20 music shows (not counting street musicians or marching bands), drank 6 liters of whisky, 15 or so of wine, and caught around 80 pounds of beads. These aren’t necessarily impressive numbers (we also watched, easily, 30 hours of television), but I mention them to satisfy a weird desire to quantify our time in New Orleans. Because while we spent an entire month there, it was an artificial month. It was Mardi Gras, and we don’t have jobs, and our experience as longtime tourists ran messily against the complexities of the city, which were so present around us, so unhidden.

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Beignets and chicory café au lait at the Café du Monde.

I want to say it right away: I think New Orleans is the most American city in America. True, New Orleans is pretty singular, quite unique, but many cities have their unique qualities (New York, as the center of the world, is also uniquely New Yorkish (though perhaps long in the process of losing that)). True, New Orleans is on a far-flung edge, the Gulf Coast, the Deep South. But it absorbs these regional qualities within an American way of being that is much larger than them. It unites the north and the south (in politics, sensibility, accent), the urban and rural (and suburban), the extravagant and the impoverished. Its roads are complete shit (and the remnants of the collapsed Hard Rock Hotel remain in its skyline), but there’s fat, salt, and sugar in damn near everything. It has brand new parks and age-old sewage. It’s very segregated on one hand and yet famously integrated culturally. It bears the ineffable time stamp of a catastrophe (Hurricane Katrina) in a way few other cities do, and yet this time stamp powerfully exemplifies the contemporary catastrophes that have defined all of America in the past decades (9/11, the 2008 economic collapse, mass shootings, political upheavals). It’s artsy and fratty. It’s touristy and proudly local. It’s full of violence and love. Mardi Gras, its most famous indulgence, is predicated on abstinence. Its grand metaphor is jazz.

I say all of this casually, and as I’m wont to do in these writings, please take the caveat that I don’t mean to offer anything definitive―indeed this is the impression of an unrooted tourist doing little else for the city than spending money there. These thoughts are contextualized by my own baggage. Which is to say: New Orleans did far more for me than I could ever do for it. All of this complexity was, for me, a needed affirmation of a true reality in a time of bewilderingly hyperreality (this will remain a theme of these writings). This is true even of the masquerade of Mardi Gras, which I found remarkably devoid of mediatization, remarkably old school, as it were. It is alive and well and fully in the streets and real gatherings of real communities, buoyed by the efforts (and dollars) of thousands and thousands of people, numerous organizations (krewes and sub-krewes), and around two centuries of traditions. It persists unapologetically, and I say that because there is plenty about it at which to be aghast. Even forgoing the stupidities of Bourbon street, an outsider might notice the incredible excess of plastic in the parade throws (shout-out to the Arc of New Orleans, one of the only organizations with a bead recycling (combined with job rehabilitation) program―this was the final destination of most of our 80 pounds). Or one may pause in front of the masking, some of which has racist echoes, like the eerily klan-like masks found in many of the larger krewes or the signature black makeup―which many outsiders might construe as black-face―of The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club (this is, by the way, one of the very best parades in all of Carnival, taking place the morning of Mardi Gras day). Yet the the complex of these moral confusions among all of the other (less troublesome) signs and motifs and fetishes of Mardi Gras amounted to a tremendous reassurance for me. Somewhat like our experience of the Everglades, Mardi Gras felt completely its own: tenacious, proud, bold, very, very alive. That I want to analyze it feels mostly useless.

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A float in the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade on Mardis Gras day.

Besides, we were there to party. And party we did. It was, in two words, absolutely amazing to have so many friends come join us. We stayed in Bayou St. John, a block off the Lafitte Greenway, which made for an easy walk through the Treme and into the French Quarter. We caught early parades like Krewe Bohème and Krewe du Vieux in the quarter with some of my oldest friends from childhood, feeling high and giddy afterward among the incredible (almost all homemade) costumes at an after-party at The Black Penny on Rampart. We saw some of the larger family parades (Carrollton and King Arthur) on a relaxed weekend in uptown with a poet-friend and old colleague following an extensive and what ended up being private tour of St. Louis No. 2 cemetery. We had a mega crush of guests for the Super-Krewe parade Endymion, before which my wife and I danced to Bruce Springsteen covers at their Samedi Gras street party and after which we hosted an impromptu party at our house in a sea of beads and blinking trinkets (our defacto niece was fully wound up). We triangulated the routes of Red Beans and Dead Beans to catch them nearly at their intersection, finding their goofy and brilliant designs (all made out of beans) a lovely alternative to the more gaudy (and again, insanely plastic-heavy) conventional parades.

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A very crowded Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras day.

And, impossibly, after weeks of parades and nights stumbling the quarter or Frenchman street or the Bywater, we woke up at 8am on Mardi Gras day, smeared some stale grocery store King Cake into our faces, packed whatever beers we had left, and made it to the sidewalk side of Zulu just blocks before its terminus at the Social Aid and Pleasure Club in the heart of the Treme. We were there for nearly six hours, screaming in adoration, dancing to fantastic marching bands, drinking warm tallboys of Highlife and snacking on anything that was available, many of us paying to use a nearby porta-potty. After the parade we walked through the massive street party on Claiborne under the I-10 overpass (also the gathering of many of the Second Line parades (it should be noted that before the highway was constructed in the 60s, this used to be a beautiful, live oak–lined street that defined the Treme, one of the most important black communities in America; to hear horn bands echoing against the concrete is to hear a kind of defiance, a tenacity). From there we headed down into the quarter, buying (surprisingly good) pizza on Bourbon street, then making our way to Marigny in search of what we remembered to be a relaxed and delightful bar (the Royal Street Inn), hoping for crowd-respite there but of course, in our uninformed tourism, finding instead the massive gathering of the Society of St. Anne walking parade, a true locals parade characterized by elaborate costumes of various themes (eighteenth century French court life remains a persistent one, via krewes such as The Merry Antoinettes; we were within fifty feet of a powdered wig for most of Mardi Gras night; and yes this is a pretty stark “white” contrast to the Zulu parade). From there we split up a bit, and a smaller group of us went club hopping on Frenchman street, in search of a good brass band, eventually finding it at the Blue Nile, where the Marigny Street Brass Band took the stage at 9pm.

Musically, for me, one of the best traditions of New Orleans music is the Second Line–style brass band: usually tuba/sousaphone, trombone, trumpet, saxophone, a snare player, and a bass drum and cymbal player, with maybe a guitarist or keyboardist, but not necessarily. It’s parading music as much as it is dancing music, and it has a mix of tresillo shuffle, swing, and funk that I find absolutely intoxicating. Talk to a New Orleanian and they might mention the Rebirth Brass Band as a fundamental group. I heard it everywhere on loudspeakers but seemed always to miss it in its live forms, save the occasional street ensemble or a distant, undefinable echo. I think, probably, I wasn’t staying up late enough most nights. But Mardi Gras I did, and it felt like my holy New Orleans grail to see such a good band, dance so freely, clutching my Zulu medallion beads to keep them from snapping free but also, of course, in a kind of communion, as best as I could be allowed. My tongue still hurt, but it only made sense―that organ of appetite and expression, overwhelmed by a city engaging both at the fullest.

 

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The rumored real tomb of Marie Laveau in St. Louis No. 2 (affectionately called the “Faux Laveau”)

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I got into taking these tableaux of parade litter

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Charlie and the Tropicales doing their Monday night set of French Caribbean tunes at the wonderful Bacchanal in the Bywater.

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Under the I-10 overpass, Claiborne Ave, after the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras day.

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St. Anne and other masqueraders in the Marigny on Mardi Gras day.

 

More photos here: https://www.amazon.com/photos/shared/PCR1VNMrTKi17y7TlQ-OPg.5EcyHaGaVmX4sIVqgcmkIZ

―Sam Houston National Forest, March 02, 2020

 

 

The Everglades

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A brown pelican aloft above Jewell Key in the Florida Everglades

Probably the first thing I ever got serious about was playing the drums. The interest initially came about because of friends; I remember the music teacher visiting our fifth grade classroom, demonstrating various instruments, and while I liked the trumpet, my friends signed up for the drums, so I did, too. I took lessons for one year, then moved from Baltimore to the suburbs of Chicago, starting middle school. The drums were the only interest I really knew how to take with me, and I clung on to them during that difficult social transition (new city, no friends, right at the start of adolescence), so I signed up for band. Within the year I was pretty obsessed. I’ve played the drums ever since, even deep into my thirties, and while I was never dedicated enough to try to make a livelihood of it, playing the drums has been one of my greatest joys in life, and it has definitely had a profound impact on my mind and the way I organize my universe.

Which is to say, it has made me think about nearly everything as bound to a rhythm. This is undoubtedly true about my writing, and the drums are probably the reason I became a poet. But it is also everywhere else. In working life, it defined my daily routines, the process of making coffee and breakfast, of catching certain buses, the flow of emails and reports, of meetings and casual conversations, the rhythms of computers and the dance-like navigation of interfaces, buildings, and streets; it organizes the energy of a week, the goals of a month, and the meaningfulness of a year. An ingrained sense of rhythm is probably why I’ve always felt so comfortable in the Midwest, with its well-defined seasons and associated cultural calendars. Of course, I have no special claim to rhythmic thinking―maybe just that I have been especially sensitive to it―and in fact I think of rhythm, patterning, and beat, with their emphasis on anticipation and memory, as a universal human expression. They are forms of time travel. The next time you listen to your favorite song, feel yourself waiting for the chorus (or simply clap your hands on the downbeats and feel what lapses in between): that held breath, that attendance. You are living in the now, the then, and the will be all at once. You are transcending time in a special way. You are, as many might say, in the groove.

Traveling on this trip has overturned my sense of rhythm. It’s been one of the more surprising elements, even as I have been anticipating its dynamic. I’ve made numerous lists of daily routines to keep me “regular,” and I’ve barely followed them. My waking and sleeping times have been affected by shifting time zones and whatever schedules are dictated by the cities I’ve been in and the people whom I’ve been with. I can go a whole day just eating snacks, or I can have three huge meals, and for the most part it all feels the same. I’ve been undercaffeinated and overcaffeinated; I’ve been hungover, exuberant, or focused seemingly at random. For money and crowd reasons, my wife and I have inverted our weeks, going out on Mondays and Tuesdays and staying in on the weekends (though even that, too, is changing now that we are here in New Orleans, hosting groups of friends every weekend). I feel like my fingernails and beard are growing more quickly, in need of more frequent grooming. I’ve been cycling my clothes differently, more like backpacking, with daytime and nighttime outfits I wear through a succession of days (it’s easier this way living out of a bag), so outfits have started to define little periods of three or four days. Waiting out an additional ten minutes on the clothes dryer in the garage of our rental can feel interminable, and yet days on the road feel like a passing thought, a small dream of podcasts and traffic and variously clouded skies, of gas station picnics and hurried campstove dinners under dusk and then headlamp. I’m a week late in getting to these writings, and even now paused them to talk with some friends for half an hour. New friends arrive in New Orleans tomorrow. Mardi Gras is less than two weeks away. In four days we will have been on the road for two months.

We spent our first few days in Florida staying with my wife’s parents in their new condominium in North Naples. It was great to be there with them in the newness of their retirement winter home in the very midst of its final touches, and while we went out for happy hours, the beach, and even dancing, a lot of our time was sharing in our sort of mutual retirements, getting acquainted with new routines, a new home, really a new sense of living (less new for them, to be sure). I have been thinking a lot about one specific aspect of their renovations: when we first arrived in Naples, they had just put their kitchen shelves up and were frustrated by delays with their counter-top installation, which was supposed to have been complete by our arrival but was not. We spent a few days pretty much without a kitchen, eating sandwiches and washing our dishes in the bathroom sink, then my wife and I left for five days to paddle the Everglades, and when we returned the counter tops had been installed. I felt a domestic meaningfulness to that magical appearance, as though the ability to cook in that kitchen underscored something my wife and have been cultivating for a long time.

We joke, though I think with considerable truth, that we were able to save for this yearlong trip simply by eating-in all the time. Being on the road, we’ve been learning the ropes of our new food routines, and it has felt good being in apartments in Nashville and now New Orleans, not only to be able to cook but to plan a week’s worth of meals, to be more deliberate and joyful about going out to eat and not just needing to grab fast food (though a veggie burger in a brewery you’ve never heard of is often both quite reliable!). I have much more to say about this, about grocery and market shopping across the country, regional cuisine and the way foods signal heritage or gentrification, about our own mobile kitchen and pantry, our evolving cache of homemade dehydrated backpacking food (our food dehydrator rides in the roofbox of our car), and more, all for a different set of posts, and hopefully with input from my wife, the executive chef of our lives. For now just to say that I very much think of our time in Naples with my wife’s folks as characterized by the inability and then ability to use a kitchen.

What I want to talk about now is wilderness. Much of the later months of our trip will be defined by wilderness, and in many ways this is seasonally deliberate. That Carnival takes place in February only helped cement the plan that we would spend our urban time (and accommodations budget) during the winter and spring months (all of February here in New Orleans; all of April in Los Angeles), and when the north (and the mountains) are gradually opened up by warmer weather, we’d shift modes. But we did want to mix this up a little bit, and next month, March, we’ll be almost entirely on the road, heading through wilderness areas in Texas and the southwest, with trips planned for Big Bend and the Grand Canyon, and probably more trips we’ll improvise along the way (we will also spend some time in cities like Austin). And of course one of the main reasons we went to Florida in January, apart from visiting our family, was to paddle the Everglades, a trip we’ve been thinking about for many years now.

I have been bewitched by wilderness for, well, all my life, but especially the last five years or so, right when we started thinking about going to Alaska (which we did in 2016, and we will do again this year). It’s one of the main reasons I wanted to move to Seattle (along with poetry and an incredible opportunity with my favorite press), and during this span of time we’ve gone backpacking at least once a month (during the summer nearly every weekend). My enthusiasm for wilderness during our sabbatical is so great I have to manage it, try not to get obsessed looking at topo maps for a trip four months from now when I should be planning the upcoming week. I had thought of this time in the Everglades as something of a prelude, but I was kind of wrong to think that way. It was itself, it’s own thing, full of surprises, lessons, and other communications, some of which seemed to resonate with the imaginary of our future wilderness trips and others that stood obstinately apart. It forced us to be present to itself as ourselves with an especially demanding attention―not just present to the moment and its qualities (weather, distance, etc) but present to our own assumptions, applicable and nonapplicable knowledge and skills, satisfactory or unsatisfactory research (ask me where Crooked Creek chickee is sometime), our own energy or fatigue.
Coming from Naples, our obvious put-in would be the Gulf Coast side, near Everglades City and Chokoloskee. Permits at Everglades National Park are all first-come, first-served, but the only real anxiety we had was securing chickees―elevated wooden platforms scattered throughout the remote backwater mangrove labyrinths, a unique and wonderful camping experience (and with tight quotas, since you can only fit two parties on each). We had rented a long, aluminum canoe (read: a slow tank) months in advance, but didn’t know what our route would be until the day before, when we woke up early and drove the hour south, watching the primrose sunrise scatter egrets and pelicans across the low-lying swamps of Big Cypress, arriving to a fairly empty backcountry office and our pick of camps. With high winds the first couple of days (and upon the recommendation of the ranger), we opted to start in the backwaters, camping two nights on the chickees as we paddled south along the wilderness waterway, emerging then into the open bay (with now calmer winds) where we paddled out to some of the farther keys to camp on remote beaches nearly to ourselves, slowly heading back north and then east into the passes of the Ten Thousand Islands to complete our loop.

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Our route

Apart from unusually cold weather the first few nights (which we were hardly bothered by given all of our mountain experience) everything went almost 100% to spec. The largest challenge of the trip was marine navigation, which we have pretty much zero experience with. If you can read a USGS topo map then you can read a NOAA chart (swapping out contour lines for water depths), though doing so with a partner while also trying to keep on bearings in high winds and not run a-shoal on low tides in the very shallow Everglades will test any newbie (and any marriage). Not to mention the fact that islands and passages can hide behind each other in ways that mountains have more difficulty with (being so tall and noticeable!), so you really have to navigate by bearing (or GPS location, as we ended up doing). Paddling is also a different kind of exertion than hiking, and in tides, currents, and winds, your sense of progress, pace, and rhythm can get fairly messed up. A head wind, for instance, blowing ripples toward you along the surface of the water, will make it look like you are cruising forward, when in fact you are barely moving. A tailwind, just by virtue of its insistence, will make you feel like you are struggling, when in fact it’s assisting you mightily. Any seasoned paddler has a good feel for these things, but we are not exactly seasoned paddlers. And need I repeat: we were in a canoe, a fact that gave pause to most of the few people we encountered (in fact, we only saw one other group of canoeists the entire time).

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Triple checking the GPS that that is, in fact, Pavilion Key, before we paddle across the open water.

Overall, though, these were enjoyable challenges, and they reminded us helpfully of the fact that, while not tucked high up in mountains, the Everglades are still a remote and rugged place (as it happens, a kayaker got lost and stranded for several days during the same week we were there; he was safely rescued). They are true wilderness, an important and fragile one, home to a wonderful community of alligators, sharks, rays, dolphins, lizards, crabs, raccoon, and especially fish, and especially especially, birds. We encountered all of these creatures almost constantly. The sound of brown pelicans splashing noisily into the waters, or of dolphin exhaling wet gustos of breath, or mullet fish leaping and plopping in goofy rhythms all around our chickees (shining a headlamp on them makes them freak out even more), or the morning cacophony of roosting ibis, became the backdrop noise of our time there, like the sounds of traffic or construction. The diversity reminded us―in a way that the even the dense and lush forest of the Pacific Northwest haven’t quite done―of what is at stake in our changing world. The spirit of a mountain forest surrounds you, but apart from the occasional visit from a jay or a bear or even a herd of elk, the forest feels for the most part only barely populated. A great forest is more like a temple than a city, and in many ways that’s why I love them. But the Everglades, and the transitional marine environment they encompass, is indeed a city, chock full of inhabitants. Every single mullet fish that lept, every gull or pelican that swooped down in front of us, had a remarkably perceptible intentionality, a purpose, a pursuit, a narrative, a life and above all a dignity in that life. Egrets standing tall on the hunt above the shallows in which they wade, leaping sting rays, the arcing paths of sharks’ dorsal fins, dolphins cruising the shorelines in small groups, even lone gators sunning on a haul-out―all of these actions increasingly imparted to me this sense of dignity. And while it felt so abundant, it also felt so fragile, as I know these areas are one of the front-lines of climate change. Traveling from Florida to New Orleans along the gulf, spending time on the thin barrier islands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and, just last week, Grand Isle here in Louisiana, that sense of fragility was even more stark. These are places that will be the first to be erased by rising seas. They are extraordinary places, rookeries and harbors, long, singular extensions that bring land and sea together in wild, wind-swept communion. They will be in my imagination, now, forever.

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Entering the backwaters via the Turner River.

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An elegantly preening ibis perched among the mangrove roots.

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Crooked Creek chickee.

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Smiling alligator. Shot from our chickee on Sweetwater Bay.

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How low can this pelican go? Just offshore of Jewell Key.

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One of the more perfect sunsets on remote Pavilion Key.

You can view a full set of our Everglade (with a few other places) photos here: https://www.amazon.com/photos/shared/YMO-2nYDQ8ymVkN9NYcbNA.AwCXYJMBS3jO3QIDi0c3uG

―February 13, New Orleans, LA

Nashville and Memphis

In my sleeplessness I can hear the traffic picking up on Vanderbilt Beach Road here in North Naples, Florida, where we are staying with my wife’s parents. The sound is not dissimilar to that of waves lapping against a beach or gentle undulations of wind through a forest canopy, though it’s reminding me now of all the early mornings in Chicago years ago when I would lay in bed in our condo, which sat at the corner of two busy streets, Grand and Western, that would express a swelling morning urgency in that short predawn dark in which, in more religious places, prayers might instead be heard. It’s the sound of activity, commercium, plans, of rush hour, and these past days in blissed-out Florida it has mixed with recurring dreams of work, of trying to return to work, or apply for work, dreams in which I would find myself among former colleagues populating made-up places, the twenty-somethings of long-ago jobs now middle-aged and focused, directing me through the interiors of elaborately vertical high-rise buildings with complicated elevators or labyrinths of interconnected campus buildings (in my dream last night I was at the University of Chicago, where I used to work, though it was, of course, not actually like U of C, but instead some newly built educational park, its buildings characterized by cantilevered joists and massive angles of glass, polished concrete, sporadic seating, and even temperatures as you move from room to room). In all of these dreams trying to reenter work is not going well―I can’t login to the computers, I don’t get the inside jokes, I don’t know the keycodes, the directories, or the abbreviations ; I try to fake it but fool no one; I’m gently mocked; I’m a source of some annoyance, even to those who know me, who vouched for me, who I remember liking me before. As I cycle from these dream scenarios to actual consciousness, lying in bed listening to the road, I can feel, or mentally visualize, the sunrise, the gorgeous pink dawns of Florida slowly articulating the palm trees and bougainvillea, making the glassy surface of the subdivision’s pool and that of its manicured pond glow in slowly changing colors of pink and blue and purple, until the day is established and the waters assume their hard reflection of the uniform, blue sky and whatever geometries of buildings and landscaping interrupt it. I feel already kind of stoned and incapable, the day not even begun. Then I slowly think of the few things I need to do. Then I remember we are about to impeach the president.

~

I am ashamed to admit that I’ve been a little nervous to drive through the south, afraid of my interactions with people as someone with a northern accent, afraid of antagonism, contempt, or even just my own anxieties increasing as I see more and more signs of our difference. I’ve been especially anxious to enter “Trump Country.” But I’ve been surprised to see (see) hardly any signs of Trump support at all, and these have been days on highways and two-lane country roads (most of our drive through southern Alabama and Georgia was a string of two-lane roads), the very days leading up to his impeachment. No rallies over road -spanning bridges, very few lawn signs or flags, at most half a dozen bumper stickers,. I’ve been joking that we’ve seen more confederate flags than MAGA hats, though even the flags have been just a few (of note, one particularly massive one on a property next to I-75 in central Florida).

But the view from the road is extraordinarily shallow, and in any case it’s a completely naive and imperial attitude to assume you can understand the totality of a place, or even define a place such as “the South.” Instead we’ve been trying to approach something more like a “heartland” or “spirit-land” of America, through the specific tourist enjoyment of music, especially country (especially bluegrass) and soul. We will be going to New Orleans in February, and no doubt this little project will continue there, but for this section we were anchored by two places/experiences: seeing the Grand Ole Opry in the Ryman auditorium in Nashville and visiting the site of STAX Records in Memphis, which has been rebuilt into an excellent museum of American soul music.

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The original mixing board from STAX studios.

We got to Nashville after a great visit with some family in Louisville, and we stayed in a cozy loft above an alleyway garage. Nashville as a whole is booming, that’s the general consensus from locals. There’s been an explosion of new restaurants and bars, a spike in real estate, and an overwhelming aggravation of traffic over the past five years or so (this is a very similar attitude we encountered in Seattle, also famously exploding). It’s been marketing itself as a bachelorette party capital, and whether you are wandering the Gulch on a glitzy afternoon of brand-name shopping (though, why would you do that?) or drinking tall-boys with hipsters in East Nashville, the same sense of change is apparent―Nashville has become a destination for young people. I have felt a slight sense of carpetbaggery to this boom, but it also seems to fit perfectly within Nashville’s historic commercial motivations, shaping and packaging southern culture for national audiences, especially via country music.

It is this sense of packaging that has been particularly interesting to me because, as with other forms of cultural export (Italian cooking, the French language), it relies on an expert knowledge of techniques and tropes, which are recombined over and over to make new things, things that are pleasing, impressive, and confidently indicate an original kind (i.e. things that are “authentic”). I was elated to see two great bluegrass shows, the Sunday night jam session at the Station Inn and then a Monday night show from East Nash Grass at Dee’s Lounge. The former was old-timers, so to speak, and the latter young players (they couldn’t have been older than 30), but in both cases the players’ kinesthetic knowledge of the progressions and scales and their casual but absolute command of the repertoire evinced an uneraseable familiarity, thousands upon thousands of hours of practice (both musically and socially, players jumping in and out, barely a head nod to the next soloist).

What I’m describing, I believe, is tradition. The Grand Ole Opry uses tradition to anchor its presentation of new artists, mixing bluegrass (often comedy-bluegrass) routines with various country standards (travel advice: if you want to see a real celebration of country standards, go to Robert’s Western World on Broadway, which we did numerous nights as our supposed-to-be-nightcap―hardest working country cover bands in America) to help shape the presentation of newer artists (for our show the newer artists were Mark Wills, Mitchell Tenpenny, and the band Seaforth; the headliner was modern country legend Vince Gill). The format of the Opry itself is traditional: an old-time radio revue, complete with an announcer (20-year veteran Eddie Stubbs) who read commercials over the setbreaks. The format, with no subterfuge whatsoever, is entertainment meant to sell: the products of the sponsors, the records of the artists, and the Opry itself.

 

Dolly Parton, in her interviews on the excellent podcast “Dolly Parton’s America” (which has been our “road-reading” on this segment of our trip; it’s from WNYC, hosted by Jad Abumrad and produced by Shima Oliaee) cites commercial demands often when talking about her songwriting. In listening to her interviews, you get more of that sense of tropes or packaging, writing “blue and lonesome” songs, or “stand by your man” songs, or, as meticulously discussed in one dedicated episode (guided expertly by historian Nadine Hubbs), the “don’t take my man” song. That episode focuses solely on Parton’s hit single “Jolene,” discussing the ways it flips the script on the “don’t take my man” trope. They contrast it to Loretta Lynn’s song “Fist City” (which, incidentally, is one of mine and my wife’s favorite country tunes), which is more in line with the trope―pretty much one woman telling another woman off in a dispute over a man. In “Jolene”, however, there isn’t so much antagonism but a “rhapsodic fixation” on her competitor. There is a wonderful discussion on the podcast of the pacing Dorian scale that Parton uses in the guitar lick, this ancient-feeling lyricism, sensuous descriptions of Jolene’s beauty, all of which leads them to ask whether the song might actually be homoerotic. It’s a great episode and I’d recommend it as a standalone, but the point I take here is that even in Parton’s subversion she’s still cleanly engaging the tropes, the various modes of tradition―it’s not radically new, per se, more upside down. Of course country music has evolved a lot over the decades, but I would still maintain that it’s been within these kinds of parameters, always paying some homage to the past that precedes it, asking the favor, as it were, of Nashville, a well-greased industry town that has worked a tried-and-true formula to slowly advance traditions for new audiences.

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Even in a dive bar in East Nashville, the icons reign.

To say that the music of Memphis is the opposite isn’t exactly right, but the motivations are palpably different. I read this David Cohn quote for the first time in a Memphis travel guide: “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel,” and the opening exhibit in the STAX Museum of American Soul Music is the restored Hooper’s AME Episcopal Church originally built in Duncan, Mississippi in 1906 by sharecroppers, former slaves, and others who lived in that area. Being in Memphis I immediately felt that sense of spiritual surrounding, of the Delta following the Mississippi river up to and overflowing Memphis, which has, like Nashville, done it’s own work to mix and package this regional culture. But the orientation to that culture and the overall sentiment of the two cities is pretty different. On our last night in town, we saw a wonderful show at a small bar in Cooper-Young (where we stayed), a fantastic two-piece surf-rock band, The Turnstyles. At one point the drummer apologized for the next song, “Cashville”―“it’s a small knock, really,” he said, “it’s just, they have the money, we have the soul.”

Drive from Graceland to the STAX museum, and you’ll go through some somewhat impoverished parts of Memphis. Even immediately around Graceland the contrast is jarring: this opulent home of an American icon, one of the main tourist destinations of Memphis, surrounded by bedraggled strip malls lining a roughshod road. That’s route 51, “Elvis Presley Blvd,” and to get to STAX you just drive north, going through working-class communities with rundown retail districts and light industrial businesses, discount furniture, auto salvage lots, small churches, some mom-and-pop restaurants. No bachelorette brunches or craft breweries here, though STAX is the anchor of a few revitalization efforts aimed mostly at a youth, a new charter school and music academy that seem to be doing great things for the community.

My feeling, this day we drove from Graceland to STAX (and then on to Sun Records) was: “real people.” That’s kind of a bullshit term, but it’s the one that stuck in my head as we spent time in some of the main neighborhoods where some of soul music’s most iconic songs (and artists) originated. Like country music, soul uses a traditional repertoire of styles and techniques. But there’s something about its expression that has always, to me, felt uniquely direct (and, of course, very emotional)―living out these traditions without the same sense of needing to pay homage to them, to master them, prove one’s credibility by them. STAX reminded me so much of the small independent press I’ve been working for. It’s commercial motivations were more about survival, about making the best art it could and letting it live as widely as possible without compromising its values or betraying the people (the artists, producers, and family members) for whom it was everything. In comparison to the “shine” of Motown, STAX’s gritty soul feels more exploratory, what you might in a high-fallutin’ way call indexical: trying to trust and capture the human spirit as its overcome by the endeavor of its artistry, expressing the struggles and dreams of its people not through configurations of tropes but in moments of musical intensity that might give way onto some kind of truth, and this sense of wanting to be together during those moments. I felt the echoes of this all around Memphis, in the blues jam we went to at Lafayettes and The Turnstyles goofy and but loving show, where covers of both the Zombies’ “Tell Her No” and Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis” hit me with equal warmth, this weirdly glad feeling to just be there at that moment with each other in all our individual ways.

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I stood here forever.

Driving out of the Osceola National Forest about a week ago, Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine” came on, randomly shuffled from the USB stick we keep in our car, and I cried uncontrollably. We had just been to STAX days before, and I watched the video at the Otis Redding exhibit twice. Otis Redding is probably mine and my wife’s top shared musical love. His story is heartwarming and tragic, and “These Arms of Mine,” was his first recording with STAX, done on a whim (much like Elvis’s “That’s Alright Mama”) mostly meant to freshen up a stale session. It’s incredibly simple, unequivocal, and completely overwhelming: “ These arms of mine, they are burning, burning from wanting you. These arms of mine, they are wanting, wanting to hold you, and if you would let them hold you, oh how grateful I will be.” The sentiment is so pure, the longing, and in Redding’s voice, it is fragile and ever so desperate, sung in that slightly dragging rhythm that evinces this cautious but assured attempt at expression, a care, as though the vocalist is looking down at the words and watching each almost parentally as it exits them. The song transcends romantic love. Or rather, it is about romantic love as a form of salvation, though plainspoken, supplication in the simple statement “how grateful I would be.” As the tall, thin pines flickered past us in that narrow avenue we drove through the Florida forest, I was overtaken not by my own desires, per se, but an admiration for the fullness of the human experience this expression of desire proved. I wanted myself to be that full, and I was afraid that I was not.

―January 26, Naples, FL

The start of our roadtrip

It’s January 11, 2020, and it’s been raining all morning here in East Nashville. Earlier, immense winds swept across the neighborhood, and from the window of our little apartment above an alley garage, I watched it mat and swirl this 15 foot stand of bamboo spraying up from the owner’s yard. The bamboo’s resistance gave the wind a three-dimensional feel, more of a solid chimerical entity than a broad force―more animal than weather. The thunder, too, has been 3-D, roiling in various distances on the full perimeter of our lofted space, making shapes or signs or signatures in my mind as I’ve lounged into the afternoon, staring out of the window and into the air that itself has the quality of mud, the bare winter hardwoods blurred scrawls ornamented here and there with the brilliant, rain-soaked, red-feathered cardinals that these past few days have been flitting at every periphery.

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With the sun at our backs in eastern Montana

This is the beginning of a year-long trip my wife and I are taking across America. Or anyway, it feels like the beginning, even though we’ve already been through ten states, driving from Seattle on I-90 across the Cascades, northern Rockies, and the high plateaus, plains, and rolling forests between the West Coast and Chicago, where we spent Christmas and New Year visiting friends and family. We’ve also stayed with folks in Minneapolis, Lafayette, Indiana, and Louisville, and have been in Nashville now for half a week or so. Last night we went to the Grand Ol’ Opry, which returns to its original home in the Ryman auditorium downtown every January and February. Being here in Nashville, it’s hard not to think a lot about country music, and I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve connected with the full set of its tenets―its commercialism and professional pop ethos, its rootedness, its poetry, its simplicity, the melodramatic ballads and jumping honkytonks, the taste of cheap beer in the lights and electricity of a good times band. And especially, its nostalgia, which it has cultivated ever since its birth, this feeling that what you want is always just beneath your feet, if you could just figure out how to bend down and touch it.

I have to be as honest as I can: nostalgia has been a dangerous force in America; it’s been violent, racist, and xenophobic, and it has been strategically deployed to garner power for the powerful. I feel it is a major element of what strangles us now, in the form of nationalism, in the fear of others and of porous boundaries, in our inability to conceive of a harmoniously global community. It is a version of uncanny unease, the unheimlich, never totally feeling at-home, or feeling that home has been taken from you (or soon will be). It’s something, with this trip and with this writing (whatever shape it ends up taking), that I am trying to look directly into, for myself, as it might exist in myself, how it shapes my desires and imagination, my frustrations, my depression. Now I am in no way a conservative, and I do not dream of a bygone era in this country, so when I connect whatever nostalgia lurks in me with the nostalgia I associate with conservative America, I mean to do it as an exercise, the most earnest exercise I can employ, to root out my own concept of rootedness at the very time I’ve embraced full mobility, and of course, to try to understand the America I am setting out with my partner to see.

So maybe thinking about a song like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (at the Opry last night, they did the Carter/Cash version, making a bit of a comedy routine, stopping the song at “daddy sang bass, mama sang tenor” to pit the registers against each other, to see who could go further into their respective range, who could go lower, or higher, each striving for an ever more distant octave) is a useful starting place to think about America now, and for us, our trip, and what we are seeking to understand. People have been asking us if we are looking for a new home, if we are trying to figure out where we want to land. In a way, we’ve wanted to say yes, but we’ve been hesitant to; it’s not that it’s the wrong question, per se, but more like it isn’t formulated correctly, like it’s in a language we don’t yet know how to speak. I’ve always had a slight cynicism about “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which is, of course, one of the most important songs in country music history (and a song I have, despite this cynicism, deeply loved). It’s always struck me as ambiguous, as a question, maybe even an interrogation. Is the circle a perimeter or a unity? Is it a form of protection, or one of connection? Is it the gated kingdom for the chosen, or the path by which we are all returned to each other? By and by, lord, by and by, we chorus―there’s a better home a waitin’. Is there?

~

Here is our plan so far. We are a week in Nashville and then a few days in Memphis. Then we go to visit with my wife’s parents in Naples, Florida, where we will also do a roughly five-day paddle of the Everglades. After Florida we will travel west to New Orleans, where will stay for all of February (that’s all of Carnival and Mardi Gras), enjoying visits from numerous groups of friends. In March, we head farther West, with vague plans to stay in Austin and Houston, firmer plans to backpack in Big Bend National Park, and definite plans (i.e. we already have permits) to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim. In April, we rest again, this time in Los Angeles, for another month. May first is our ten-year wedding anniversary, and we will spend it in Big Sur. Then north to the Bay Area to visit friends, then back south to Sequoia, than east across the crest and into the desert, Las Vegas, then hopefully picking up a friend to backpack Chesler Park in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, eventually making our way to Colorado by Memorial Day when we hope to see more friends and stay the early season in the mountains. We have tickets for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in mid-June and plan to do many hikes and backpacks as summer settles in, flying back to Louisville for a family reunion over the Fourth of July. Then back to the Rockies, where, if snowpack allows, we will do a late-July traverse of the Wind River High Route, before heading, likely, to Oregon to celebrate my wife’s fortieth birthday. Then, mid-August, we fly to Alaska, where I hope to complete a three-week trip hiking from Wonder Lake to the park entrance of Denali National Park, my wife and perhaps some friends joining me at various points (my wife will also explore other parts of Alaska). After that, things get especially vague, but our general hope is to make it to the East Coast for the fall, to visit with numerous people there.

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Aswirl in the honkytonk

We think it’s a good itinerary, more shored up, naturally, in its earlier parts, with various nodes cast out into the calendar to help anchor our plans and give us a general sense of direction. We’ve been telling people we are hiking and dancing all year, and I’ve enjoyed the celebratory nature of that description. It is a big celebration, but I hope it will also be disciplining, that it will show us better what we need and don’t, how to be with people and alone, how to listen, talk, move, solve problems, and leave no trace. We are doing it all in our car―not a camper or van―and I’ve been joking that we are going ultralight, and that is indeed an earnest set of values I want to cultivate on the trip. We have it all meticulously budgeted. We will try to cook the best food we can for ourselves, eat only in restaurants we really want to eat in, be outside as much as possible, interact with as many people as are willing, exercise, read, take photos, notes, make lists, play games, and constantly check in with each other. Or anyway that’s the idea.

It’s a strange and challenging time for a lot of people. I hear it in their voices, and of course I see it prominently in every form of media, from raging social media posts to the endless furies of cable news to the weird social fantasies of popular shows, the post-apocalypses and other visions of different societies. This year is going to be hard for America, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that we are trying to escape it a little bit. But I also hope we will get beneath it. One of the words that constantly comes up in my mind is “estrangement,” and I think that’s what we are trying to overcome, to connect with real people and real land, and to foster the good.

Right now, my wife is sweeping the floor of our loft while talking to her sister on the phone; a dal is simmering on the stove (our plan is to dehydrate it for the Everglades), and the smell is starting to fill the room. Outside, the rain has stopped and the air is glowing more warmly in the emerging light. The mud seems to have flattened, lying low now in the yards and alleyway, glistening slightly. This is as good a threshold as any; will the circle be unbroken.

―January 11, Nashville, TN

2020 Year-long Trip across America

I will have much more to say here very soon, but for 2020 I am traveling full-time across America. I’ve been describing the trip to friends as a giant pretzel. My hope is to record my experiences in the cities and wildernesses of this big, diverse country through routine posts (weekly? biweekly?), with a lot of photographs and hopefully some poems. It may very well become a kind of photographic haibun. My wife and I have  been lovingly calling this trip our sabbat, but you’ll probably find it under the tag #2020. 

More T/K.