Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Boundaries, backroads and backwaters

These towns cling to the loess hills like strangler vines, tucked away into draws and hollows, masked by an impenetrable jungle of trees and vines, the raw exposed hillsides venous with roots. The hardest thing to remember is that this, too, is Kansas, and the lazy drawl of the Missouri River at your back a road of another kind where in 1804 the improbable appearance of white men maneuvering boats upstream bespoke a new unthinkable future. One gets the impression that floods and wars and time’s implacable erosion have touched this place hardly at all, and also that in a century little will be left but the few capillaries of rarely-traveled backroads, the steep-sided hills and shadowed woods, and the eternal, ceaseless river.

Not that there’s much remaining now. Step off the main thoroughfares and you exit civilization as most of us know it, even those of us who live in small rural towns. There’s something different about extreme northeastern Kansas, an aura of another place, the Appalachians, perhaps, or the Ozarks, homes nestled in gullies or tiny cleared meadows, towns fading into forests so thick the languorous air barely stirs, and roads as winding as the perennial streams. Throw in a belted cow or two and the idea of Vermont crops up. Like the innumerable springs and creeks, the roads, mostly gravel but a few paved, take the path of least resistance. Which means slow going—but with scenery this lovely, who’s in a hurry?

We certainly weren’t. We were on a one-night, two-day excursion to Watkins Mill, a 19th century woolen mill, now a Missouri state park, located just a few miles north of Excelsior Springs. It wasn’t all that far, a few hundred miles at best, mostly a chance to get out and see the country and relax after the grueling two-year presidential race. We probably weren’t the only Americans nauseous at having to undergo such withering nonsense, nor who were disheartened by the venomous attacks, outright slander and base pandering that goes into running for high office. Our system of governance is clearly dysfunctional and in need of repair, but if I were asked for a solution—which I most assuredly won’t be—I’d settle for starters on a six-month limit on presidential elections. If it can’t be done in that amount of time, it ain’t worth doing. And if a candidate can’t speak the truth, an old fashioned tar-and-feathering shouldn’t be out of the question. Give us a break already.

The question always arises whether Americans are as stupid as they sometimes act. Maybe elections bring out the worst in people, but each succeeding election I’ve witnessed seems to aggravate a penchant for lemming-like behavior and Chicken Little hysteria. The depth of ignominiousness by politicians and the public alike grows ever deeper. The difference between democracy and mob rule has never been adequately explained to me, or else I slept through that part of civics class. But then school was never the highlight of my life. I much preferred exploring the mesas and foothills around Albuquerque and communing with nature. The writer Daniel Pinkwater said when voting he always pencils in fictional names, possibly the only sane thing to do.

The fecundity of the loess soil and the riotous growth of this area, coupled with the perpendicularity of the terrain and the slow purl of the river, create a sense of ageless finality and decadence at once removed from the power plays of rich men in suits. Armed with our trusty guide, “The Kansas Guidebook for Explorers,” we had a blueprint for what the area contained, the historical sites, the cafes and gift shops, unusual architecture and regional art, and a modicum of route information. The rest was up to us and our Kansas DeLorme Atlas, whose maps were correct most of the time. When they weren’t we relied on common sense and an unfettered appreciation for adventure best summed up by Winnie the Pooh’s excellent descriptive, “expotition.”

There were times, however, when I wished for a compass. On several occasions, after innumerable ninety-degree bends and long graceful curves, I completely lost track of the cardinal points and could no longer tell north from south or east from west. I’m usually pretty good at keeping directions but here I became utterly discombobulated. Nor could I adequately retrace our route on a map. Somewhere north of the town of Highland we ended up on the wrong road, or not the road I wanted, and after some puzzling glances at the trunks of trees—which side does moss grow on?—we dropped down to a broad level area with light fracturing through the trees. And so to the river.

North was White Cloud, a small town perched on vertical lines and above which from an observation point one can see four states. Its claim to fame was Wilbur Chapman, a 10-year-old boy who in the early 1900s sold his prized pig to raise money for a leper colony. The story goes that children throughout the world joined his cause by collecting money in little iron banks shaped like pigs. While nobody’s saying this was how piggy banks started, experts admit uncertainty over its true cosmology. Personally, I like the idea that it began here.

The difficulty for the itinerant photographer and explorer is in trying to capture the essence of a place when time is short. Ideally, several days would be involved in a thorough immersion, capturing the play of light in its infinite forms and angles. In the end I settled for several panoramas of the wide sweep of the river angling to the northwest and tight vignettes of the architecture: a steep white metal staircase leading up a dark brick wall, a stone frieze contrasting with a dented metal awning. The long and short version of White Cloud, Kansas. And then the road took us and we were gone. 

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Davis Memorial, Hiawatha, Kansas

The economics of remembrance

Today an air of mystery hangs over the memorial, sort of a second canopy of skepticism and resentment.

Hiawatha knows whodunit: John Milburn Davis. The question remains...why? 

– Hiawatha Convention and Visitors Bureau brochure

There’s a vestige of stubbornness in his expression. Flinty eyes shadowed under furrowed brow, old John Davis glowers defiance, mouth downturned, fierce beneath a full beard cascading in waves to his chest, one eyebrow half-cocked as if in askance: You dare question me?

Some do, amazingly enough. Some still do.

I don’t. As Lori and I stood beside his marbled monument on the eastern fringe of Hiawatha, I stared into those cold gray eyes and saw something besides anger, a trace of longing so deep and terrible no words could express. The stiffness in his posture belies his anguish; feet placed carefully together, right hand draped over the arm of his overstuffed chair, left hand gone, sleeve empty, jacket unbuttoned, spine rigid, eyes locked forward. An almost formal posture, as if sitting for a portrait or worried that any sudden movement would irreparably fracture his comportment. Beside him an empty chair matching his own is all the more revelatory for what’s missing, what’s designated simply by an inscription that reads, “The vacant chair.”

But even that doesn’t explain his unregenerate demeanor. Something more is at play in the grassy fields of Mt. Hope Cemetery, whose headstoned ranks eddy around the central bastion of the monumental Davis Memorial. 

Commissioned after the death of his wife, Sarah, in 1930, the memorial consists of 11 life-sized statues portraying the couple through the stages of their lives. Here a younger John Davis sits on a bench beside his wife, an attractive woman impeccably dressed. Foursquare beneath a central marble canopy weighing more than 50 tons are two middle stages of Davises, one set older, him dressed more casually as depicting his occupation as a farmer and her outfit trendy, the other set more casually attired but with the addition of hats; his broad-brimmed, hers stylish. Opposite the seated younger couple sits an even older vintage, and it is this that greets visitors when they drive into the cemetery. Sarah stares placidly into the distance, cheeks sunken in a toothless mouth, eyes hooded as if gazing inward at another place entirely, some inner dimension or landscape people by shadows. Her husband looks to the side and down, sorrow etched in the lines of his face, pooled in his eyes.

It’s an impressive assembly of marble and granite. Some would say pretentious, as I did when I first heard of it. I’ve been around spectacularly rich people and have seen their monuments, both to the living and to the dead, and in nearly all instances found in them a hollow facade tinged with fear. Death is the great equalizer but some imagine themselves greater than the common denominator, not knowing, and probably not caring, that others view their sepulchers as no more than outlandish wastes of money.

Such was certainly the case with John Davis. By the time the monument was taking shape he was embattled, harried by townspeople who saw only his assets and not his need, and after their demands for assistance were rebuffed, flayed him with vicious rumors that persist to this day. 

The town lacked certain amenities, a swimming pool, a hospital; the Great Depression was a wolf ravening at the door. Community leaders pressed Davis to underwrite the projects, but he undauntedly carried on with the memorial. Their union had been childless, and opposed by Sarah’s parents, so he sank his fortune into creating a lavish tableaux of their life together, all the while slipping money to the truly needy and ignoring the townspeople’s demands. When Ernie Pyle interviewed him in the late 1930s, he told Pyle, “They hate me. But it’s my money and I spent it the way I pleased.”

No wonder the look of brooding discontent. 

I knew little of this at the time. We were on our way to an old woolen mill in Missouri and had taken a detour through northeastern Kansas to pick up a few of the more interesting sites that had eluded us in the past. But while researching our itinerary I came upon John Davis and felt a kindred connection. That vacant chair spoke volumes, much more so than the angry, beggarly entreaties of the good citizens of Hiawatha who saw his entrenchment as simple selfishness. I believe it was a matter of remembrance. The alleged “mystery” about why John Davis paupered himself to create a memorial to his wife and the times they’d shared—versus forking his loot over to the town—is artificial and disingenuous, a figment to lure tourists and to mask a central greed. 

The wind was raw, raking the cemetery in gusts that sent dust and corn husks skittering down the pavement. Lori and I got out of the car and walked around the monument, me framing photographs and measuring light, Lori reading the documentation and the expressions on the faces of the graceful statues. When she disappeared into the car for warmth I remained alone and letting the camera drop finally stared at John Davis’ scowl, and in a flash felt something raw and elemental as the icy wind, personified in the vacant chair, and I thought of him sitting in his living room as dusk settled down and the walls closed in, the silence deepening into a preternatural scream. After she was gone, nights would have been the worst. When Lori’s not home I never know what to do with myself. Pace the floor, stare out the window or aimlessly surf the Internet, read a book with only a half-measure of concentration. Rub Sheba. Grow brittle and apathetic. I recognized the look.

There’s no mystery here. There’s only a vacant chair.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Snake in the grass

“Want to see a snake?” 

As the informal and unofficial chronicler of our lives together, a job which involves varying skills of censor, comedian, sage, psychologist, tinkerer, revisionist and historian, I am prone at times to making lavish announcements concerning era-inducing events. Being a journalist and occasional headline-writer only aggravates this tendency. With that in mind, let it be known to all and sundry alike that such an event transpired on Tuesday, July 8, 2008, when Lori entered the house and calmly posed the preceding question with none of the usual hysterical hue and cry, call to arms, half-veiled insinuations or glaring death-threat looks. If not for a slight higher tone to her voice, she could have been discussing a singularly-beautiful red-blushed cloud, a first purplish blossom on the echinacea or, as happened later in the day, an impromptu and mysterious hoedown on our porch by six young cottontails. 

So collected was she, in fact, that I almost misunderstood her. But snake is a word immediately impressed upon our consciousness: at first sensuous and sibilant, a slow hiss jarringly truncated by a harsh stop with only a short vowel bridging the gap.

At the time I was sitting on the floor in our back room, a sheaf of important papers in my lap and our black Angora rabbit, Sheba, beside me. I’d made a mistake on an important survey and was trying to locate it among dozens of forms and didn’t want to be bothered, but as any veterate married man will attest, a wife’s speech consists of delivery and content and the twain are both isolate and inseparable. “I’m coming!” I said.

For at heart her question was not a question but a command and a plea. Identify it. Make it go away. As a man, I find this touching and, dare I say, affirming. My grandmother, a farmer’s wife on the brutal plains of West Texas, would without fanfare or prompting snatch a hoe and vivisect any serpent audacious enough to slither onto the property, with added emphasis in each blow the nearer the offending herp was to the chicken coop. In our relationship, I’m the defender as well as the herpetologist, lepidopterist and ornithologist, with a few other ists thrown in for good measure, and vastly prefer my wife’s direction toward a living specimen rather than to bloodied portions scattered throughout the tomatoes and cucumbers.

As we walked to the garden I questioned her about what she’d seen.

“How big was it?”


“What color was it?”

“I don’t know. Yellow, maybe.”

“Any distinguishing marks?”

“I didn’t see any.”

“Did you see its head?”


Translated, this means she didn’t hang around long enough to look.

The snake had been coiled inside a wire containment fence enclosing a potato plant. The closer we got to the garden the slower Lori walked so that by our arrival she lagged behind a good ten feet. She pointed to  the fence amid the overgrown tangle of wild lettuce, bindweed, velvetweed, pigweed, fleabane daisy and pokeberry—ideal habitat, I noted—and I carefully parted the fronds and peered into that green and wild jungle. No snake.

“Where did it go?” she asked.

I assured her that it was no doubt still around. The main bulk of our garden is laid out in three rows of hay bales with a fallow section piled high with sticks and broken branches left over from our ice storm. One border is mostly tall weeds, left there for the grasshoppers. Any self-respecting snake would be delirious with joy over finding such a home. 

I poked around for a few minutes without result. Blister beetles were dispatched with vengeance so I felt as if I’d done my job at least somewhat. 

The question now is how my new non-hysterical wife will handle her garden. Will she fear it, startling at the sight of a coiled hose or a darting skink, or wade into it with impunity? Will she still rely on me for help with snakes and other monsters? Time will tell. If she buys a hoe I’ll know she’s gained the grim capabilities of my sainted grandmother. And if I find her thumbing double-00 shells into the shotgun, I’ll suspect my services are no longer required.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

No escape from the past

All night I heard the creak and pop of a century-old house and felt in my joints a compounding stiffness and an electric sear of pain from a nerve in my shoulder. For what seemed an eternity I lay there straddling the borderlands of the real and the unreal with a half-shout echoing faintly, truncated, cut short abruptly in a manner that both troubled and alarmed me. Cocking my head toward the sound I waited and inventoried a long list of whom it might have been, whose voice so brutally snatched away, and when it came to me I rolled over in shock and the pain from my shoulder shook me awake. Faintly in the distance I heard a quavering who? of a barred owl and not for the first time wondered how the present bleeds into our nocturnal otherlife.

I waited for a reply as the owl waited and when none was forthcoming it called once more.

And listening, ears strained, while the outlines of a room spread around me with dim sunlight filtering through slatted blinds and blue paint peeling in brittle curlycues on the plaster walls. Other uniformed men walked around me while I turned toward the doorway and held my breath.

“Did you hear that?” I asked a man standing nearby.

He shook his head.

I walked to the doorway and peered out. An alleyway led in both directions. Opposite was another doorway, open to an unrelieved darkness. On the step an Asian man sat watching me with a look of hostility. I tried staring him down and couldn’t, and shifted my eyes toward the street. When the cry came again he stood and hustled off without a glance. My eyes bored into the open doorway.

There is/was always a moment, a split second of time, preceding a terrifying act where you suffer almost suffocating loneliness and the surreality of your situation is weighed against the sure knowledge that within mere yards the world goes on without a thought, cars driving by, people walking down the street, the banal underpinnings of civilization utterly divorced from your new circumstances. Life slows to a crawl, an elasticized thud of a heartbeat, while your senses become heightened, sensitive to all sounds, all motions. Your hands sweat. Your own fear taints the air like the musky odor of an animal.

I stared in dread at the doorway and though I wanted to run took four steps crossing the alley and stepped inside the threshold. What little light entered was swallowed up though I made out a hallway leading into the building. Tentatively, each step a struggle, I made my way down the hall until I was near-blind, feeling my way with one hand touching the wall for guidance, the other poised near my holstered pistol. The hall finally opened into a larger chamber whose far walls were lost in the gloom. A trickle of water echoed hollowly, beneath whose reverberance was a silence as deep as the darkness.

Fighting panic, I staggered back down the hall and into the alley. 

The owl called, nearer this time. I threw off the covers and swung my legs over the side of the bed and sat up.

“Are you all right?” Lori asked.

“I don’t want to go back there,” I said. She didn’t ask where there was.

I walked downstairs and swallowed several aspirin and asked my reflection in the mirror why I couldn’t be normal, why my dreams were more real than reality. It didn’t reply so I climbed the stairs and crawled into bed and shut my eyes, and immediately found myself back in the alley, directing the others to grab more ammunition and weapons and to follow me back into the chamber.

It may seem impractical, but I always go back.

As once upon a time I always did go back, and it was a point of pride that I did. In many ways it defined who I was, or who I imagined myself to be, for we’re rarely certain that the person we think we are is genuine and not a figment of our imaginations, our faults and shortcomings veiled by biases and conceits inherent to our natures. We are mostly strangers to ourselves. And it came to me, after the terror of the chamber jolted me awake for good, that my past career was indeed the catalyst for my nightmares, and that perhaps in some way I cannot decipher I’m still struggling to prove myself.

I remembered a dark warehouse in lower downtown Denver where mysterious noises coming through a steel roll-up door left me with no good choices. Not wanting to make any sound or give myself away, I backtracked outside and tried my keys in all the locks along the street, and when they wouldn’t fit I knew I had to go through the steel door, that when it opened any element of surprise would be lost. For a while I stood beside it listening to the noises, trying to determine what they might indicate, and then unsnapped the chain from the keeper and hand over hand cranked up the door with an ungodly shriek and rattling of chains.  Beyond was only more darkness punctuated dimly by a few emergency exit lights. Crouched beside the entrance with my flashlight off, I listened for the sound and heard only a louder silence. Wiping my right hand on my pants, I drew my pistol and moved fast into the room sweeping it with the light. Fifty paces beyond the light flickered and died; my batteries were dead.

Step by step I backed from the room and retrieved fresh batteries from the truck. And then I reentered the room as I always did and searched it, fruitlessly, it turned out, for the origin of the noise.

Was this the chamber of my dreams? It seemed a familiar landscape. There were so many, though, it’s hard to tell. 

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Boulder, Dinosaur Nat'l Monument, Utah side

A dispossession of possessions

I used to subscribe to the notion that he who dies with the most toys wins. That was before we owned our own mercantile business and had first pick from dozens of vendors’ wares, some of which were the epitome of desirability and cool. It was also before we moved to the country and discovered life on gravel roads and the concomitant migratory traits of dust, something I thought only birds and caribou were known for. 

Last week I hauled several large boxes of VHS video tapes and music cassettes to the street for the trash man to take away. It was more than a simple spring cleaning, something instead approaching a complete and wholesale divestiture of items that have lost their importance either through technological obsolescence, shifting personal interests or, as I prefer to say, wearied disgruntlement from decades of dealing with a copiousness of stuff

It all came to a head several weeks ago when I was out of town. My wife wisely chose that moment to call a contractor to begin remodeling the basement. First, though, she had to make room for the guy to do his business, and this in turn led to the uncomfortable realization that a sizable amount of the stuff she’d have to relocate was, in fact, useless. Stuff that had been hidden inside boxes for eight long years without once seeing the light of day. Stuff that had to be weighed against the larger issues of space and livability.

Each year when I engage in a half-hearted spring cleaning, I tell my wife we have to be brutal. There's really no other way. The half-hearted part comes not from a lack of willpower on my part but on hers—things we’d forgotten even existed suddenly become valued treasures when rediscovered in some moldering box. And so I toss what I can and grit my teeth over what I cannot, and the next year and the next we follow these selfsame paths and fight these same fights. 

On my return, I found the basement shaping up nicely. Actually, it hadn’t looked that nice, or so spacious, since we bought the place. From such simple acts come great inspiration, and in the next few days I threw myself into weeding out a lifetime of collecting. 

Like dust, stuff tends to accumulate without any visible means of generation. This is not to say I’m blameless over the vast amount of things that somehow have found their way into our home. And it’s becoming painfully obvious that no matter how much I accuse my wife for the clutter, there’s enough guilt to go around several times over. For example, upon inspection one large cardboard box labeled “fly-tying supplies” was found to contain miscellaneous scraps of dun jute and string, short lengths of copper and brass wire, broken extension cords and strips of tinsel. The embarrassing thing was that I’d hauled that box all the way from Colorado and had dutifully stored it downstairs since, and yet had the temerity to call my wife a packrat! 

The cassettes were just the beginning. I was a man possessed, a Caesar casting a cold, cruel eye on the victims of my displeasure and pronouncing judgment with downturned thumb. What couldn’t be recycled or given away was set out for the trash, and my paring was thorough and exact. There were occasional grants of leniency, rare absolutions for trivial personal items that my heirs will have no qualms about disposing of—rusty lures, a few tattered royal coachmen, a music cassette that somehow never made it to CD, neoprene waders I can no longer fit into, a worn leather holster from a former career, the lowly and base underpinnings of a life of memories.

In one box I came across a small wooden container dating from my teenage years. Inside was our wedding announcement, an old chipped prism, two broken arrowheads, a pair of hospital identification bracelets worn by our sons after they were born, a receipt from the Friendly Hills Inn in Taos, New Mexico where we spent our honeymoon, a miniature Oriental vase and matching hairbrush. Time slowed to a crawl. In spite of my imperialistic mood I found myself choking back tears.

What matters in the long run? By the end of our lives do we come to understand that the only important thing is the living itself, the moment to moment communion with what we’ve been allocated? I can’t say. But I know this: some stuff matters. Most doesn’t. Differentiating the two is our life’s task. 

I carefully put the items back into the box and closed the lid, and walking up the stairs called out to my wife, Lori, come see this, come see what I found.