Quarantine

1. I’m extremely bored.

2. No I’m not bored. I’m restless. We’ve been sheltering-in-place for a month. During this period we’ve left the house eight times: 1. a grocery run; 2. drive to a small bodega at the end of our neighborhood; 3. drop our car at the mechanic (taxi home; snowing/raining); 4. walk around the neighborhood; 5. pick up our car at the mechanic (9-mile walk into town; sunny/flowers blooming) + drive to Palm Springs for another grocery run (Whole Foods search for tofu; no tofu); 6. leisure drive to Pioneer Town; 7. leisure drive to Integratron (we initially had a soundbath reservation; just checking it out); 8. tennis (testing the waters of outdoor activity) + grocery run (Walmart search for tofu; no tofu).

3. A lot of folks have been in quarantine much longer. A lot of folks are not bored. Many of our friends are actually busier at work. Many have children. We’ve had Zoom calls for happy hour, kids eating; ones mid-morning on the weekend with children showing off their toys, artwork, pets; night calls midweek with tired parents who’ve just put the kids to bed (at some point, often, both parents will suddenly dart their eyes offscreen, their child awake (standing creepily still in the crack of the bedroom door)). The number one quarantine issue? Children. And taking care of them while keeping a job. We have no children or jobs.

4. We’ve been watching a lot of movies. The Criterion Channel has a series called “Observations on Film Art,” small craft discussions on specific films given by film scholars Kristin Thompson, David Bordwell, and Jeff Smith. Discussions include topics such as three-point lighting, analytical editing, narrative and subjective perspective, and mise en scène. We typically watch them mid-afternoon during the week, and in the evenings we’ll watch one of the films discussed. We call it “film school.” We’ve also been watching non-Criterion movies. We call that “junkfood.”

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5. The world now is characterized by invisibility. There is a simple two-part structure to this. The first part is the coronavirus itself, which is invisible. It’s invisibility, as it were, plagues us. I don’t mean the virus itself but specifically its invisibility. The threat of contagion is a contemporary obsession, hence our fascination with zombies and vampires (this is an idea from my friend Carrie). And contagion is tied up in invisibility. Of course pathogens are essentially invisible. These past months, how many times have we visualized the aerosol physics of a sneeze or the infinitesimal transactions of an external surface to our hands and then to our faces? Have we imagined the virus as a globular mass moving like a weather system across a map? Have we thought of it as a binary system, a yes-or-no equation compiled into an exponential curve on a graph? I think that these are all just models to help us see something invisible. The second part of the two-part structure is the world itself, which has become invisible. City streets are empty, businesses dark, playgrounds quiet. The very photographs of these dramatically emptied places feel, themselves, empty, simply tricks of light (Zoom calls can feel this way, too). And of course no other news embodies our discourse, not even the US election―all other facets of the world have become invisible. Our relationships have been emptied of their physical substantiation. I believe that, for many of us, our desires have become invisible (the word that keeps occurring to me as I see folks on video is “enervated”). The future is very much invisible.

6. Yucca Valley has felt pretty remote. We are thousands of miles away from most of the people whom we know. We are not in anything like a city, which is what we are most familiar with. Our home is not ours, nor most of the things in it. But we are situated on an elevated acreage at the foothills of some mountains, in the middle of the Mojave desert, and from here we have the distinct feeling that we can look out across the world. It is a vantage. From it, we’ve been thinking a lot about other people, how their experiences must be different (or the same), and how they are caught up in a society, economy, and governments that have long had massive shortcomings. I look at photos of hospitals in Brooklyn (of drive-up testing lines in Tampa, a lone vendor on a New Delhi street, elaborately suited sanitation workers spraying the floors of a hospital in Wuhan, half-obscured arms and faces hanging out of various apartment windows). I profusely thank the cashier at the grocery store. I wonder about the McDonald’s employees (every time I’ve driven past the one here in Yucca the drive-thru line has extended into the street (maybe the world isn’t so invisible after all)). My wife and I have been lucky to be merely restless, and every item I hold in my hand at the grocer, every truck I see on the highway, the daily sound of the mailman driving the rutted-out dirt road in front of our house, the semiweekly sound of the garbage collectors, every movie I fire up, every light switch I flip, every glass of water I drink, all remind me now, constantly, of how much I depend on other people. “Privilege” is a word, but it isn’t sufficient.

7. In Street of Shame, Kenji Mizoguchi frequently eschews traditional shot/reverse shot editing for dialogue, instead employing continuous shots of characters arranged in very deep composition, through windows and doorways and down hallways, as they converse. The film is set in a red light district of 1950’s Tokyo, when the prohibition of prostitution was being hotly debated, and explores the lives of brothel workers while the existential threat of their legality looms in the background (often, on radio news reports). The effect of Mizoguchi’s direction (and Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography) imparts a sense of claustrophobia and tunnel-vision―characters trapped by different layers of fate. At the same time, it highlights their will and ingenuity, the elaborate social (and staged) choreography they use to keep themselves going.

8. One of the most necessary people in the world is the grandparent. Grandparents have always played an important role, often numerous roles, assisting overburdened parents with childcare; lending knowledge, experience, and emotional support; being a chauffeur, a cook, a maid, a repairman. Now, with no schools or daycare, their value is even greater. One of the most necessary sectors of the economy is the remittance economy. Without it many regions of the world would be unlivable, increasingly so, the more that wealth regionally consolidates. The remittance economy provides critical (if fraught and exploitative) access to those regions of consolidation (I also believe it provides a meaningful act of devotion and heroic narratives of expedition and return). I think a lot about grandparents and migrant laborers during the pandemic, which has been nullifying them. Grandparents, as the group most vulnerable to the virus, have to dramatically limit their interactions with family. Migrant laborers―who literally cannot work from home―face lockdowns, difficult travel, and a contracting economy (and probably increasingly unsafe conditions when they can work).

9. My response to the pandemic, from the specific place that privilege, planning, and luck has put us, has been something like stringent resourcefulness (or ambitions thereof). Buy only what we will absolutely use, in as few and as thoroughly planned trips as we can make. Make use of what we have. If possible, don’t order anything online, or otherwise place stresses on distribution centers and supply chains. Exercise and stay healthy, if mostly immobile. Try to keep days organized, recognizing the inherent limits of time even when time feels endless. Foster my marriage, the one relationship that isn’t cut-off. Say yes to every Zoom and phone call, and make the scheduling work. Wear masks, wash hands, handle as little as possible out in the world. Become, in some ways, invisible. But also deliberate.

10. When we arrived to Yucca Valley, we planned to stay put. We didn’t move the car in five days. During that time, rodents climbed up into our engine block and gnawed on various wires and hoses, damaging a significant amount of the car’s electrical and air systems. Fortunately we were still able to drive it to the mechanic, with alerts going off and very weak acceleration. Repairs cost $1500 and took just shy of two weeks as the pandemic put delays on parts. Since we’ve had it back, I’ve been very nervous about keeping it here. The property owner very swiftly sent us a care package of rodent repellents: peppermint oil spray and an ultrasound noisemaker and light strobe. I installed the noisemaker and every night have been spraying the oil on the tires, wheel wells, CV axles, and front grill, running the engine for a few minutes and driving the car to a new spot on our property. So far we’ve had no new issues. I’ve never worried about rodents damaging my car, but now, and for the rest of my life, I will, at least a little bit. It is a new invisible threat.

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11. I had dinner in New York last September with a friend who was elated that his chronic, lifelong illness had maybe, finally, found an effective and sustainable therapy. He was buoyant describing it. I am sad for him that just as he became healthy the rest of the world became sick. I take the liberty to say that my wife and I experience a similar absurdity, that just as we set out to see the world, the world went into hiding.

12. The opening credits of The Big Lebowski feature a flyover of the lights of Los Angeles, where we were supposed to be in April. Watching the credits, and then rest of the film―the casualness of the bowling alley, streets lined with strip malls, thinly rolled joints and CCR on a beater radio, bathrobes and diner coffee, this sense of the plain citizens of a city magically caught up in the elaborate (and elaborately styled) mysteries of that city―I pined for Los Angeles; I felt the loss of it in our itinerary and our lives. Of course it occurred to me, too, that I pined for that Los Angeles, one in which plain things still exist, and you could be a deadbeat and still live in Venice Beach.

13. I’ve been mixing up the word “suspicion” with “superstition” in writing and speech and thought. I amuse myself with a little joke that I am a “superstitious rationalist.” This goes a long ways back, to my teenage years when I struggled with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I had a working belief in highly ordered superstitions. If I turned a doorknob a precise number of times, then walking through that door would forestall whatever disasters constantly occupied my mind. I could prolong a “good state” (no disasters coming), once attained, by never ceasing movement, resulting in a little tick where I would rub my thumb and forefinger together in endless circles. I did a lot of things like this, and they are worth much longer writings on another occasion. For now to say that for decades I have been in control of my OCD but still see little vestiges of it (for instance, my slightly ritualized way of turning the car on now that I’m worried about rodents). This makes it confusing, sometimes, to understand how to behave during the pandemic. If I don’t leave the house, I won’t get anyone sick―that’s one cause-and-effect thought, but another that I have, almost equally, is that I should always use my red bandannas as a mask. This is just a little fucked up, isn’t it?

14. And superstitions can become suspicions, or vice versa. I see this more when I think about (and judge) how other people behave. I worry tremendously, perhaps most of all, more than anything else with the pandemic, about how suspicious we are becoming. Suspicious that that person, a bit sweaty looking, has the virus. Suspicious that this plastic bag was made in China and thus likewise has it. Suspicious that people are breaking the rules and endangering us (having wild parties in bold defiance, under cover of night, or as here, tucked back in the mountains). Suspicious, rather, that the coronavirus is not as dangerous as has been made out, and that we have shut down the economy and jettisoned millions of jobs for nothing. Suspicious that someone, somewhere, is making a lot of money off of this. Suspicious that when this is over, we will be irretrievably worse off, accustomed to new norms of social distance, new economic orders, new forms, indeed, of suspicion. None of these suspicions is necessarily untrue, but to me (for me) they all behave alarmingly like superstitions, which I am not allowed to have.

15. Judy Davis is absolutely fantastic in Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career.

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16. I am proud of a few resourceful things we’ve done this month, mostly food-related. I soaked, then blended, some of the numerous pounds of mung beans we have, making savory and nutritious pancakes that we’ve tooled into several dishes. I made a delicious vegan mayonnaise with the leftover juice from a can of chickpeas (known as “aquafaba”). I conditioned my exercise bands with coconut oil (usually they need Armor All); I use our hammock straps suspended from our pull-up bar as an olympic ring setup; I can do pretty satisfactory dips on our twin kitchen bins. My wife made fruit leathers with inexpensive frozen strawberries plus overripe bananas; she made potato bark from a cheap bag of russets; she’s cooked and dehydrated three different dals (I’ve done one); she’s pickled several batches of onions and cucumbers in leftover commercial pickle juice. I wiped a sluggish Macbook Pro and put Linux on it (typing now in LibreOffice), learning (yet again) about its quirks, and learning, especially, the photo-editing application Darktable (since I no longer have access to Adobe’s Lightroom; Darktable proves a superior, if harder-to-use, application). My wife made an elaborate meal plan for the next several weeks using the colored pencils and drawing paper in our art supply–appointed rental. She also cut her own hair. We both wear the same clothes for longer than we should.

17. I read the New York Times pretty obsessively and yet I still do terribly on the quizzes.

18. In Robert Altman’s Nashville, a presidential campaign van (for the fictional candidate Hal Philip Walker, running under the “Replacement Party”) is always driving around at the periphery, proselytizing a political sea-change via its loudspeaker. The ensemble cast of characters seem mostly to ignore it, too focused on their personal ambitions and desires (“Neoliberal Subjectivity,” as it were). But for the audience, the constantly droning speech from this mostly invisible source imparts a faint but widespread sense of menace. The film’s timeline leads up to a fundraising gala for the campaign, and there is an increasing anticipation in the film that something bad will happen there, or at least that everything will fall apart. This suspension of ambient dread atop the individual energies of the individual characters lost in their pursuits is one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever experienced in a story. It is similar to the public dread + personal ambitions dynamic of Street of Shame (though more comically employed). And yet what I take away most from Nashville is the desire to see live music, be elbow to elbow with sweaty (70s sweaty) strangers.

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19. There is a tremendous amount of both law and marketing being improvised right now. My wife and I encounter the first mostly as we navigate campground and forest closures while we try to figure out what next steps, if any, we can take in our travels. Jurisdictions overlap. I’ve read national, state, county, and municipal documents―from CDC guidelines to gubernatorial executive orders, National Park Service boilerplate to statements from regional BLM field offices. Language shifts and shimmies―squirms, maybe―through neighboring connotations, “stay-at-home” vs. “shelter-in-place” vs. “stay home, stay healthy” “orders” or “recommendations” or “initiatives.” The second―marketing―feels slightly desperate and especially improvised. The Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago (we were longtime subscribers when we lived there) has been proffering podcasts, videos, virtual performances, or simply “thoughts.” The Greenwood Sip ‘N Ship (who handles our virtual mailbox) has increased their email campaigns, offering words of inspiration and camaraderie (“Kindness is Contagious” and “Six Feet Apart Can’t Keep our Love Away”). REI has altered the approach of their famous sales (the “Inside/Outside” sale, for instance), and the various cottage outdoor brands I follow have been sending emails geared toward planning and training (“No Gear Required: 11 Bodyweight Exercises to Train for Hiking”), encouraging its readers to keep thinking about that next adventure. Law describes and conditions our material reality. Marketing stands in lieu of it. Both are to the side of it. They are, as it were, derivatives. I ask you to remember that word.

20. There are remarkable similarities between Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. They are both portraits of a defined social milieu. They both intermix their ensemble casts in various dialogue combinations (Renoir preferring mobile long shots that poke into different conversations, Linklater lacing together medium shot walk-and-talks) to articulate a complex social network. They both feature an abundance of alcohol. They both have a hunt (Renoir’s is for pheasant and rabbits, Linklater’s for freshmen). They both careen toward an epic party (La Colinière, the Moontower). As such, both also focus a lot on hooking up (Linklater’s is decidedly more innocent). They both have characters who wrestle with the limitations society has given them. Music drives them both. I don’t know maybe I’m describing a lot of movies.

21. I guess my other relationships haven’t been fully “cut-off.” In fact, one joyous aspect of the pandemic has been Zooming with old friends. A major motivation of our trip was to reconnect with people from whom we’ve grown―if still occasionally connected―mostly estranged. Zoom calls are a poor substitute for the deeper and more sustained engagements we had in mind, but they do evince a new commonality, a will to be together despite the quarantines (and, I would argue, the separate social and economic demands) that keep us apart.

22. I love Goddard’s Breathless even though I am weary of every character type in it.

23. Mine and my wife’s 10-year wedding anniversary is May 1. Six months (plus one day) prior to that date, I woke up just before 6AM to spam Recreation.gov with my keystrokes so I could get a choice coastal camp in Big Sur. In many places, especially California, this kind of behavior is necessary. I succeeded, and we’ve looked forward to our stay there. Upon the pandemic, the campground we selected (Kirk Creek Campground in the Los Padres National Forest) was closed. That closure went through April 30th, one day into our reservation. But our entire reservation was canceled. I was notified of this just as I was about to jump in the shower. I took a shower, then got back onto Recreation.gov to see if I could rebook the rest of our itinerary. In that time (my shower), someone else had booked our site. Most of the rest of the camp was also booked. I will be frank about my anger with this maddening dynamic. The campground is emptied, and yet then it is made rapidly full. I am competing with both forces simultaneously. People, in both cases, and in oddly the same way, are the problem. I am also a person.

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24. These are the sounds where we are: dirtbikes and ATVs, dogs (many dogs) barking, roosters, a pig, a donkey (hilariously cliché, “hee-haw, hee-haw”), the minute clacking sound of lizards running across the rocks of our driveway, the surprisingly heavy sound of wingbeats from many kinds of birds (from hummingbirds to doves to enormous ravens), lots of chirping, ambient highway noise, ambient wind noise.

25. Of course The Big Lebowski also employs a peripheral menace: this aggression will not stand, geopolitical uncertainty conditioning the super (media: Bush Sr. on the TV at the grocery store) and sub (dreams: Saddam Hussein handing the Dude his bowling shoes during his Rohypnol dream sequence) consciousness.

26. Surely we’ve all had some difficulty understanding public health guidelines. Mostly we should be at home―got that. But is it OK to go to the park sometimes? Should I shop at the grocery store rapidly? How often should I wash my clothes? Going back and forth over what’s right and what’s wrong has, I’ll bet, made some of us feel, if ever so faintly, like a criminal. Is being, merely, outside, illegal? What about driving in my car, touching this handrail, letting my mask slide this far down my face? Is it criminal to see my mother? As a longtime (i.e. before any states legalized) user of cannabis, I’m fairly comfortable with a diffuse sense of criminality. I’m also good at recognizing it, and finding, for what it’s worth, entertainment in it.

27. People are literally dying.

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28. Thinking about thinking a lot about certain things: I’ve been captured by a notion introduced to me by Michael Allen Gillespie’s excellent, if unwieldily titled, Hegel, Heidegger, and the Ground of History. In his history of the philosophy of history, Gillespie discusses a Heideggerian concept that supposes a development of rationality into the hyperrational. Bear with me. The idea is that the project of rationality (i.e. the Enlightenment, democracy, and capitalism) has lead to a hyperrational state wherein the very forces of liberty, equality, science, and truth are leveraged via technical supremacy to consolidate power, ultimately evaporating “reality” and replacing it with, for lack of a better word, “representation.” So the electoral college process of democracy becomes distorted by severe gerrymandering. The rigors of journalism and the labor of fact-finding and documentation give way to the cheaper content of talking heads, and then to the even cheaper content of audience opinion (i.e. social media). Politicians are no longer legal scholars or decorated veterans but celebrities, and not even celebrities but “reality” TV celebrities. Our economy implodes not because of drought or war or even fear, but the insubstantiation of debt and speculation and “derivative instruments” (did you remember?). Human experience is replaced by law and marketing (and photography and videos and emojis). In all of these cases power leaps from reality to the representation of reality (from gold to “trust”), where greater efficiencies and scales lie. Except that Heidegger (and many other important philosophers) would probably argue that it’s not so much a leap from reality to representation but a radical exposition of reality as only, ever and always, representation. There is no ontology, only epistemology. There is not thought, only language. No truth, only games. And yet within this radicality, within the specific history of its intellectual development (i.e. the Twentieth Century), the emergence of “mankind” has been profound (here I’m citing Foucault and The Order of Things), recourse to humanity as an inviolable narrative, an exceptionally real nucleus negotiating an unreal world.

29. Zombieland was just satisfying, for whatever stupidities it exploits (do we really need a love interest in this?). Fuck you, apocalypse.

30. I should mention here that I am anxious, but not necessarily fearful. This is maybe tied up in my OCD. I sense dread, immensely, but in terms of the system and not necessarily myself. I don’t mean to be saintly about this, just trying to understand myself. I worry about maintaining my relationships and what others think of me, but I am not, as best as I can suss out, afraid of dying.

31. National Lampoon’s Vacation, directed by the still underappreciated Harold Ramis (and starring the skilled if somewhat insufferable Chevy Chase, who struck me this go-round as something of a reup of Jacques Tati but with speaking lines and a libido), gratifies mine and my wife’s situation by positing a roadtrip (“holiday ro-ohhhhhh-ohhhhh-ohhhh-ohhhh-ohhh-ohhhh-ohhhh-oh-od”) across the American West that ends in an abrupt closure of the promised land. I want to punch that fucking moose right in its fucking nose.

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32. And so maybe our humanity is secured by the emergence of “mankind,” except that I am reminded of the opinions of numerous polar scientists, which are paraphrased deftly in Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World. Spend enough time in the worrisome mental perambulations of pandemic thought and one will undoubtedly arrive at climate change as an even more horrifying future. Much of the communication of climate change is anchored in a concept of human stewardship, of the Anthropocene, of our own fault, responsibility, and possibly redemption. Like many I believe climate change is our greatest task ahead, that we have to exercise our great powers responsibly, caringly. And yet how do the polar scientists of Herzog’s film feel? We should be so arrogant to think that we have control. This is not the Anthropocene. Nature is always in control. When we exceed its allowances, Nature will simply regulate us.

33. So the coronavirus. Are we the inviolable nucleus of reality navigating the indeterminacies of an unreal world? Nay, we are merely hosts of an even greater indeterminacy, the not-even-DNA-complete force of a virus. We have become derivative to life itself.

34. OK that’s enough of that. I should probably walk this back a little bit. Look I can get kind of goth sometimes, as a lover of German philosophy, as a recovering obsessive-compulsive. It’s late April, and yes April is the cruelest month, but things are looking up. “Mankind” might be a myth, but I believe in the human will, because I see it everyday during this god damned thing, the smartest, hardest working people (it goes without saying that the US president is not included in this description) employing unprecedented technologies (which humans have built) and sharing their knowledge and skills at breakneck speed to try and beat this thing. I’m suspicious that the pandemic might even help us see more clearly, understand how connected we really are, realize that Nature needn’t regulate us, that we can in fact regulate ourselves. My wife and I will celebrate our 10-year anniversary right here in Yucca (extending our stay), cooking a great meal and working on a playlist of the music that has been most meaningful to us during our marriage. We plan to get back on the road soon―probably not the California coast, more likely southern Utah―as long as we can do it responsibly. I want a better world, but there is still no other world, and no other time, I would rather live in.

Yucca Valley, CA, April 27, 2020

The Grand Canyon

Our first heavy winds were in Nashville, a thunderstorm that bent the trees in balletic anguish, pulled mud up from the ground and into the air, left a brilliant quiet afterward. I wrote about it in one of the first posts of this trip. Nashville was later devastated by tornadoes, just a few weeks after we left. Wind, it seems, has been everywhere. The day we paddled across Chokoloskee Bay and out of the Everglades was full of wind, an easterly wind in our face sculpting the shallow water in frothy brown pinnacles that would sometimes combine into heavy rolling waves that our canoe would pitch up against and slap down upon. On Santa Rosa Island in the Florida panhandle we sat on an empty beach, beneath darkly gathering skies, while a cold wind blew across the sand. Several days in New Orleans were bleak with wind and rain, days we spent entirely inside, listening to the cheap plastic chairs on our porch slide around on the rough concrete and smack continuously against the iron railing, the rain percussive against the windows. New Orleans, of course, endured one of the most devastating hurricanes in American history. In Austin, the day before SXSW was canceled because of the coronavirus, we played tennis in heavy winds, trying to time our ball tosses to depressions in it, thankful for the windscreens that were fraying at their edges and the cutouts of their vents. In Ozona, Texas, we ate lunch in a public park, huddling our picnic items together to give them resistance against the wind, which we tried to block with our broad backs. In Marfa, Texas, at another public park, it was the same, though the low white noise of the wind was this time punctuated by the sound of a nearby rollerskater swishing up and down a halfpipe whose plywood also buckled audibly in the wind. The wind took a tupperware out of my hand at an overlook in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico (I was able to retrieve it before it sailed over the side of the mountain). In eastern Arizona, heading north on route 191, the wind brought up a dust storm whose squarish, totalizing mass we were just able to drive past before it crossed the highway from the west. In the Petrified Forest, a ranger told us we might experience wind, but we already knew that; we hiked the badlands and fossil deposits in unwavering expressions of it, searching for the narrowest wash in which to put our tent, which we then guyed out at every available tie, perfecting our taut-line hitches (that night the wind eventually ceased and the stars hung still in the sky like droplets of condensation). At Bright Angel Camp in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, we watched the wind give our scant few neighbors in their open creek-side camps earnest hell, their tent doors flapping wildly, their poles bending under heaving gusts, dust blowing everywhere (earlier we opted for the more sheltered canyon-side camps, because of the wind). I’ve felt the wind blow right through my jackets, burn my face, and sting my eyes with grit. I’ve heard it punching against bedroom windows, tautly snapping our tent walls, crackling against the side paneling of our car, and whistling beneath the roofbox above our heads as we’ve cruised down the highways. Here in the Mojave Desert, a full day of it brought tremendous rain, then snow. It has, for much of this time, been terribly windy. But now, as I look at the yellow grasses of the desert, the wind is dead still.

~

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The switchbacks of the South Rim

The day we climbed out of the Grand Canyon began optimistically. We were up at daybreak with ease, enjoyed coffee and a calorie-dense breakfast of tofu scramble, and got our camp struck and feet on the trail by 7:30am. We had about 9.5 miles and 4200 vertical feet of gain in front of us to top-out on the South Rim, but we’d already been doing numbers like that this trip and were feeling energized. We’d eaten all of our food except the snacks for that day and knew we could fill our water en route―our packs were somewhere in the 12-pound range, about as light as we can get them. We sailed. The first mile contouring the river distracted us with a beautiful play of dawn-lit clouds, and the 1500 feet or so of the Devil’s Corkscrew, which climbs out of the bottom-most Vishnu Basement layer, went by in a blink. Before we knew it, we had hiked through the beautiful shale canyon that marks the lower entrance into Indian Gardens camp, where we took a break and enjoyed some snacks (fighting off some very habituated squirrels that reminded us how crowded with people the area usually is).

The weather was bright and crisp, but we knew they had been calling for a new system to blow in, colder temps, rain, and probably snow. Over the North Rim it already looked installed, heavy charcoal clouds teetering atop the canyon edge. By the time we finished our snack, those clouds were draining like bath water south down into the canyon of Bright Angel Creek, which was were we had been spending most of our time on this trip (the northern half of the popular “Corridor,” though it was hardly peopled at all when we there because of the coronavirus). And those earlier, golden, dawn-lit clouds we enjoyed on the river bottom were starting to thicken into a dark paste. We left Indian Gardens, hiking up. Within minutes, we ran into two other parties heading down, and they told us the rangers were closing the Corridor to all hikers, permits or no, at noon (this was part of escalating coronavirus closures; we would be one of the last groups, save the few parties still in the canyon completing their itineraries, to be in the canyon). After another 20 or 30 minutes the lower canyon was thick with hanging moisture, a wall of it maybe 2000 feet high, just transparent enough to still see bits of the North Rim walls through it. Above us the skies had grown into an even, whitish-gray, a suspicious color, like the sky were muffling something―luminosity, moisture, ions. We climbed, the temperature gradually got cooler, and when we reached the Three-Mile Resthouse (that would be three miles from the South Rim, so three miles left for us to go), I watched the temperature gauge hanging on the picnic shelter move very slowly into place right over 30F. It started to snow very lightly.

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The Devil’s Corkscrew bottoming out in the Vishnu Basement

We climbed more. It was still going well, and we didn’t have much left to do, our eyes on the massive wall of Coconino Sandstone just above us that marked our homestretch. But the snow was picking up rapidly, and we didn’t know the status of things―especially our camp for the next few days―at the top; we had only heard on the trail about the Corridor closure, and even then we didn’t know if that information was totally accurate. We only saw two or three day-hikers, mostly just popping down for a quick look. We kept hiking. The wind got more insistent and more erratic; the snow was really coming down now, blowing chaotically against the canyon walls. We kept switchbacking up, making it through the first tunnel, then the second tunnel, and eventually could see the lodges and walkways of the South Rim. By the time we topped out, it was just about blizzard conditions, wind and snow whipping across an almost completely deserted trailhead and parking lot.

We threw coats on pretty quickly. The bathrooms were closed with chains wrapped around them, and I ended up peeing in the mule corral (I really had to go; no mules there). We walked the extra half mile or so to the backcountry office, where we had parked, and tried to recomabobulate ourselves as quickly as possible to keep the snow from blowing too badly into the open cardoors (it still accumulated an almost absurd amount for how fast we were moving). We started the car and sat with the heaters on us for a few minutes. Then we drove down the road to the Mather Campground where we had reservations for the next couple of nights (making a quick pit stop at the in-park grocery store, which was now gating and limiting customers; its gift section was closed, and I was a little upset that I had not purchased the “I Hiked the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim” sticker there earlier, thinking it bad form to buy a boast before the deed was done). We had camped at Mather on the front-end of our trip, and even then it was almost deserted. This time it was completely deserted. There were new signs posted on the bathroom doors; my wife jumped out to read one, and sure enough, they had closed the campground, just that day.

We weren’t terribly surprised (nor had we been excited to camp in a snowstorm), but we still had to figure out what to do. As we looked at our phones, we saw another message: our AirBnB reservation for the following month in Yucca Valley, CA was also going to get canceled, San Bernadino County having issued restrictions on short-term rentals because of the coronavirus. Cell phone service was very spotty, so we drove out of the park and found a McDonald’s. We parked in front of it and leeched their wi-fi to communicate with the AirBnB host. I booked us a room at the same Comfort Inn in Flagstaff where we stayed before the Grand Canyon. We drove south, out of and away from the snowstorm (though the mountains of Flagstaff were snow-capped; earlier in the Grand Canyon trip, I gazed at them, exhausted, from the North Rim).

We got to Flagstaff, ordered a deep dish pizza, took hot, hot showers, and hashed out a solution for California with the AirBnB host. Our original reservation was shy of a full month by three or four days, mostly because it abutted another reservation. But since that reservation, too, had been canceled, we were able to extend our stay, signing a bona fide month-long lease instead of using AirBnB. This put us into long-term status. We felt sketchy about the workaround, but we were getting increasingly anxious about sheltering-in-place. We were already carrying most of the supplies we needed for a long time, had been in remote locales and away from people for almost all of the coronavirus escalation, and exhibited no symptoms of the virus (at that point lack of symptoms still seemed like a reasonable assurance). And Yucca Valley itself is fairly remote, the property we were going to rent sitting on five acres. It was the best option. We signed the lease, wired the money, and holed up in the Comfort Inn for a couple days of movie marathons and takeout before making the drive down out of the Colorado Plateau and into the Mojave Desert.

~

We almost didn’t go to the Grand Canyon at all. Our doubts really cemented on the drive from the Painted Desert into Flagstaff. All along the highway signs were warning of winter weather, snow and ice on the roads, which was surreal because we were smack in the middle of the desert. But as we approached the mountains of Flagstaff, we could see it was socked in. By the time we made it to the Comfort Inn, it was snowing heavily, and it continued to snow all through the night and the next day, depositing about a foot. This was something of a resonant warning, and it mixed with the strange feeling of being in a nearly empty hotel and going to roped-off restaurants and shelf-bare grocery stores, which was our first urbanish experience of the effects of the virus closures (we mostly stayed in our hotel room, making plans, watching movies, and doing a lot of stretching).

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A view of snowy Flagstaff from our hotel window

The coronavirus response in the Southwest, as in other rural parts of the US, was later than in the cities, and up until that point it hadn’t seemed to effect the operations of the parklands we had been visiting very much. We had been in the mindset that these were sparsely populated areas where social distancing was built in, and that we could travel responsibly by keeping any necessary interactions (gas stations and grocery stores) at a minimum and practicing the appropriate distancing and hygiene measures. But the virus, and the response to it, was, of course, moving rapidly, and we began to question the prudence of going to one of the most popular National Parks in the country, which itself seemed to be changing its messaging nearly every day. And then there was all that snow. We called the backcountry office, and to our surprise they were pretty encouraging. The ranger we spoke with said everything was weird, but that the backcountry was still open, and he assured us that we could easily alter our itinerary because of weather on the fly, making it all sound fairly casual. We weighed his response against some of the increasingly cautionary messaging on the park website and, after some deliberation, decided to wait out the weather an extra day in Flagstaff then drive to the park to get a feel for the place before deciding whether or not to drop into the canyon.

When we got to the Grand Canyon our first impression was definitely surreal. No staff were at the gate to take payment or control entrance; we knew that would be the case, but it still felt weird, like a free-for-all. The visitor center was, of course, closed, as was everything else, including most of the bathrooms, with briefly worded closure signs printed on office paper. Elsewhere there were a few larger posters, on information boards and at trailheads, describing proper social distancing measures, but that was pretty much it in terms of any official park communication, and there certainly weren’t any rangers or other staff anywhere to be seen. It felt eerily empty and quiet, though there were just enough visitors wandering around to create a kind of inherent community bound by confusion. People seemed unsure what to do, what was available, and yet there was the Grand Canyon, right there (it was sunny and warmish now, the snow mostly melted), and so one ought to go take a picture.

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Organizing our backpacking food in our hotel room

We went to the campground, which was, as I mentioned before, fairly deserted. It was kind of beautiful unpeopled, its terrain sloping gently beneath giant ponderosa pines, dotted with picnic tables and woven through with narrow asphalt roads. There were a few other campers, one group, humorously enough, immediately across from our site: they were a young couple who worked hotel and restaurant service in Houston; they found out they both lost their jobs on the drive to the canyon, which was otherwise supposed to be a long weekend for them.

We got our camp together and headed to the backcountry office to see if there was any other information posted. There was just another very shortly worded sign: they were no longer issuing permits (up until that point, you could still call and arrange an itinerary, and they would either email you a permit or slip it to you under the door), but those with existing permits could proceed with their itineraries. That was us; we talked it over and decided to go ahead with our trip. I think about this moment of our decision a lot, not because it was ill-fated but because we had to make it in the midst of a fairly widespread confusion, what ended up being the process of the world seizing up into the global quarantine we are in right now. The Grand Canyon, like most National Parks, is now completely closed, but that happened in gradual steps, which we followed closely in the days leading up to our trip. First, large audience events like ranger talks and films were canceled; then the Geology Museum was closed, and the visitor center. Then they stopped issuing permits for commercial river trips. Lodges were closed. Shuttles went to seating-room only, then were canceled completely. The backcountry office closed in-person permitting, then all permitting. Then Phantom Ranch closed (surprisingly late, but it is an independent concessionaire with its own rules and imperatives). Later they would close the Corridor trails, then cancel Corridor-only backcountry permits, close the front country campgrounds, and eventually the entire park (canceling any remaining backcountry permits).

The National Park Service guides individual parks in their procedures and has provided some shared boilerplate in response to the pandemic that most of the individual parks now have on their website. But individual parks still have―as they always have―a fair amount of their own jurisdiction, and the specifics of their closures has varied. Some have end dates. Some are ticketing anyone found within them. Some you can still hike into. And every National Park Ranger is different. Hikers coming up the canyon as we were first descending into it warned us of a distraught ranger near Indian Gardens who was basically telling people to leave. We never saw her, and the rangers we did encounter instead went about as though nothing were different, checking our permits, reminding us of camp rules and backcountry guidelines, and even helping us alter our itinerary. The piecemeal closures and differences in messaging and tone were difficult for us to interpret, especially given our somewhat unique circumstances. It seemed pretty obvious that traveling and being in anything like a group was irresponsible. Yet we had nowhere else to go that wouldn’t require yet more traveling, and a relatively deserted Grand Canyon seemed like a good assurance of being away from people, as the rest of our time in the Southwest had proven. The Grand Canyon was our home, for that moment at least, and we decided to shelter within it.

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A nearly vacant Bright Angel Camp and Phantom Ranch

We spent six days in the canyon. We hiked one of the most well-known itineraries there, the “Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim,” pretty much a yo-yo route from the South Rim to the North Rim and then back. We made two alterations. Typically hikers will drop in at the South Kaibab trail and return via the Bright Angel Trail, using a shuttle to get between them. Since shuttles were canceled, we just did it both ways on Bright Angel. Our second alteration was day-hiking the North Rim. Often hikers will camp one night on the North Rim, but all we had done for days was watch it get hammered with snow, so we decided to stay at Cottonwood Camp for two days, day-hiking from there on the second of them―no need to schlep a heavy(ish) pack up to and camp in a wintry version of the North Rim, the trade off being a pretty substantial day-hike of 14 miles and nearly 9000 feet of vertical change. So our final itinerary was as follows: Bright Angel Trail in, Bright Angel Camp night 1, Cottonwood Camp night 2, Cottonwood Camp night 3 (day-hike North Rim), Bright Angel Camp night 4, Bright Angel Camp night 5 (a “zero” day, a beach day), Bright Angel Trail out. It’s about 50 miles and something like 18,000-19,000 feet of vertical change in total (I’ve struggled with IT band issues, so the vertical is always very much on my mind, and one of the near miracles of this trip was almost no knee trouble at all). We saw a few trail-runners attempting it in one day, which I learned is a thing, a very insane thing.

The emptiness felt eerie at the South Rim, but it felt special down in the canyon. Watch videos of a rim-to-rim hike: it’s a conga line (especially on the switchbacks near the South Rim). Everything in the Corridor is setup for people: large camps, water stations, lots of resthouses and bathrooms. Crowd management is crucial, and everywhere below the South Rim were (sometimes comically illustrated) signs warning of fatigue, heat, and exhaustion (“Down is optional; up is mandatory”). The first day of our trip we saw a decent amount of people, but nothing like I’ve seen in videos (we always appropriately distanced). Our fist night at Bright Angel was with about five or six other parties (the camp has 33 sites, so it was about 1/5 full). By the next day, at Cottonwood, it thinned out even more, and we settled into a cohort of three other parties (two couples and a small group of young men) with whom we shared roughly the same itinerary.

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The Colorado River (and both bridges) near Bright Angel

The day we hiked to the North Rim was especially empty. We went early. My wife had no designs on completing the North Rim (though she still made it almost to the top, stopping at the Redwall Bridge), and we separated a few miles in so she could enjoy her hike and I could keep up pace to get it done. It took me about four hours to get to the top, and it was snowy indeed, about four or five feet of it. But I’m grateful for how good the conditions were. The weather had been very iffy the whole trip, but that day had dazzling blue skies, which, coupled with my exhaustion, sense of accomplishment, and the fact that I was the only person up there, made for a pretty sublime sojourn. And the North Rim is beautiful, the approach a series of tight canyons, floating pinnacles, and dizzying ledges (the South Rim is also beautiful, but a bit of a simpler climb up a relatively straightforward wall). I enjoyed the solitude and beauty for about 15 minutes then realized I wasn’t the only one up there, just the first, one of the couples from Cottonwood soon audible a bit below. They topped-out, too, and we enjoyed the accomplishment for a moment together, then I left them to enjoy their own solitude and headed back down.

Our last full day in the canyon we did no hiking. We went to the beach, spending an hour or two making little “Andy Goldsworthy” sculptures with river reeds and sand and drumming up a menu and grocery list for our hunker-down period in California. We were staring off at the river when suddenly, almost comically, a man popped out of the grasses and onto the sand next to us. We started chatting with him. He lived there and worked at Phantom Ranch. The ranch had closed about a week earlier, but employees could stay in their lodging (if they left, they would have to go through a two-week self quarantine upon returning, so in a sense they were encouraged to stay). We talked about how empty it was, and we mentioned that we were happy to trade having a drink at Phantom Ranch’s cantina for less crowded trails. At this he immediately jerked toward his bag, dug into it, and offered us a beer. My god. This initiated hours of conversation, our new friend tossing us beers over the social distance. Touching someone else’s possession felt irresponsible, but the enticement of cold beer on our last day, with the sun high and hot, was too strong. We learned all about the dynamics of the concessionaires, their relationship with the park rangers, what visitors (“peeps”) are like, a dozen other hikes we could do in the canyon. He had hiked the PCT two years before. We talked about our sabbatical. He pretty much offered us jobs there. I invited him to join me on my Alaska traverse.

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A vertiginous ledge near the North Rim

As we’ve dreamed of our time in the Grand Canyon, socializing was going to be a big part of it. We did want to have drinks at Phantom Ranch. We wanted to talk a whole bunch with other hikers, just as we had been talking with folks up until the social distancing measures were called. We knew it was supposed to be busy, maybe annoyingly so, but that’s what we were planning on. That day at the beach realized at least some of that sociality, and while we checked it with distance and caution (apart from handling the beers), it still felt really good (this is, incidentally, the second time that my wife and I have “partied” on the fly with National Park concessionaires).

In hindsight, that moment now feels like the crumbling edge of a past world. Since then, we’ve interacted in-person with: the front desk at the Comfort Inn in Flagstaff, an employee at Oregano’s pizza in Flagstaff, a cashier at the Whole Foods in Flagstaff, a cashier at Von’s grocery store in Yucca Valley, and the service manager at the Ford Dealership in Yucca Valley. All of these people are risking their health to keep things from totally falling apart, and I can’t ever thank them enough. Otherwise, the world is becoming invisible. This feels almost literally so, as though the ground were evaporating in front of us with every step we try to take. A lot is going to change for our trip. Of course a lot is changing for everybody, in chaotically disparate ways, and I keep trying to decide if we are lucky, or unlucky, to be on this trip during this crisis. What a weird question to have.

―Yucca Valley, CA, April 10, 2020

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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