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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

―Flagstaff, AZ, March 20, 2020,

A smattering of media here, followed by a link to a fuller set of photos:

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

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

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

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

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

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The vast dunelands of White Sands National Park.

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

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Cliff dwellings in the Gila National Forest, New Mexico.

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

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Sunset on the badlands of the Painted Desert.

View a fuller set of photos here: https://www.amazon.com/photos/shared/ITQq94qzSrGTvGmsZT3mBg.kV9tgnd4QgsNzJU1p3yf-g

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

 

 

Nashville and Memphis

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

~

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

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

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The original mixing board from STAX studios.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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I stood here forever.

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

―January 26, Naples, FL

The start of our roadtrip

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

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With the sun at our backs in eastern Montana

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

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

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

~

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

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Aswirl in the honkytonk

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

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

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

―January 11, Nashville, TN

2020 Year-long Trip across America

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

More T/K.