Monday, September 26, 2011

Red Cloud

May 18,  2011

The end of the line for us on route 136 was Red Cloud, our holy grail, and the last important stop on our pre-Auburn amble.

Sometimes it is the chronology of the spirit that guides us.  It is passion and providence, not time, that provides the guideposts on the road of life.  So it was with Red Cloud, one of our last stops on the road before we ended up in Auburn for cousin Chase's graduation.   It was foremost on our minds from the first day that we arrived in Lincoln after an uneventful and generally uninspiring (Warren Buffet aside) 3 day stay in Omaha, a city flattened, ethnically cleansed, and replaced with 10 square blocks of multi-level parking lots and too many 70's and 80's style utilitarian pre-cast concrete and chrome and glass office buildings of a most undistinguished, and almost Soviet style nature.  If you look hard, there are are a few surprises (building wise), but they are few and far between, and there is the old market area,  partially intact and still charming, that hints of what once was.

But I digress into my usual rant about the decimation of old down towns.  Don't even get me started on Des Moines and Chattanooga et al.

Anyway, Jackie has a thing for state capitols, so after checking into our hotel, we walked down Centennial Avenue to the capitol building, an awe inspiring monument to the rustic, broad shouldered nature of rural Midwest life,

for what was to be the 3:00 tour which included us, 20 5th graders from some farming town about 25 or 30 miles from Lincoln, and one other adult who we were told happened to be from New York as well.  We were about 20 minutes early for the tour, so it was suggested that we take the very antiquated elevator to the rotunda where you have a view of all of Lincoln.  Upon exiting the elevator ride experience, we entered the rotunda and I immediately had the experience of Indiana Jones in the cave of Somes when the sun, in exact position, beamed through a portal onto his staff whose shadow indicated the exact location of the Ark on the floor map.  Well there I was in the rotunda, with the sun shining in a photogenically direct manner on the only object there, a sign, letting us know that we were not alone.  A comforting thought in these uncertain times.

After the tour we got talking, and it turned out that the other New Yorker was Willa Cather's great nephew who had taken the train to Nebraska, and was just returning from Red Cloud, where he was attending an annual event honoring the Pulitzer prize winning chronicler of turn of the century Midwest life who often liked to dress in men's clothing, refer to herself as William, and who fled to Pittsburgh and later New York City as soon as she had the chance,  and who later became the patron saint of culture and literature for Nebraska.  I'm sure she would be amused by the irony.   There are courses devoted entirely to her works given at UNL.

As it turned out, George, her great nephew, was staying at our hotel, so we planned to meet for drinks later in the afternoon and then walked down to Billy's on H Street (where all of the legislators meet) for dinner and what turned out to be quite an entertaining evening of stories about his family, and particularly his mother, Willa's niece, and the times she spent at the Cather house while she was growing up..  By the time we parted company with George we too felt an almost familial connection to the town and the Cather family.

There is not much to be said about Red Cloud that you can't find on some of the many web pages devoted to the town and to Willa Cather.  It is a quiet, substantial midwest town,  lots of brick buildings befitting a county seat, and one gets the sense that it is mostly intact, although no longer the hub of activity and commerce it once was judging by the number of empty store fronts and the prevalence of turn of the century photos seen here and there showing the busy vibrant place it once was.

While I get the feeling that there was a certain ambivalence to Willa and her strange ways while she lived   here, in the end she became the savior of this town that might otherwise have lost all sense of real purpose and gone the way of other ghost towns, were it not for her.  While there, we did become members of the Willa Cather Society and I have since read O Pioneers, My Antonia, One of Ours, and A Lost Lady. In the process, I have developed and even appreciation of the people and place of Nebraska.  These are a few odds and ends to add to a sense of place.  Unfortunately time constraints here like elsewhere limited photo opportunities.  

As you can see, this is the Red Cloud Post Office, built in the 1920's.  If there is any architecturally compelling reason why, I like to take pictures of the P.O.  where ever I am.  Unfortunately, I did not find out until later that there are 4 murals inside painted by WPA artists during the 1930's.  It's on my list of things to do if I get back there.

According to pamphlets given out by the Willa Cather Society, this presently unoccupied store front  that is now for sale, was the place of business used by Willa's father after they moved into town following a short and apparently unsatisfying stint at sod busting and breaking the land into something useful (see O Pioneers).

This is the drug store next door to the above picture.  That's about it for Red Cloud during this trip.  Looking back at this selection of photos, I could have done more.   Hope I will get the opportunity to fill in the blanks next time around.


Addendum, 2/24/13...

While nosing around a used book store in Mobile, Alabama, I came across this heavily used, frayed library copy of   Death Comes for the Archbishop.  Fifth printing, December 1927.  Four dollars.  A find at twice the price. 


Bayard, Nebraska...

Three and a half miles north of Chimney Rock is a town of about 1600 people called Bayard, whose main raison'd etre at this point seems to be its proximity to the rock and thus a possible stopping off point after the anti climax of seeing Chimney Rock, which is nice to see if you are in the neighborhood, but otherwise....

Bayard is the self proclaimed "Hometown, USA" maybe because it is a good place to come from, but there doesn't seem to be any compelling reason to stay on unless there is the family farm, or you are going into your father's business.  It is quiet and unhurried and will cause you no harm.  To their credit, they have not capitalized commercially on their proximity to the rock in the tacky way that so many places near Mt. Rushmore have.  But then, Chimney Rock is no Mt. Rushmore.

The gas station/convenience store on the way out of Bayard back to the main road.  Its just that there was something soft and muted about it, kind of like the prairie that surrounds it.

As always, it was late in the day when we got to Bayard, so this pictorial survey is not complete or satisfactory, but you get the idea.  As the sign indicates we took the 62A link to the 385 making our way east.  The weather started to get bad as it got darker and although it didn't rain, it got windy and something we had never seen before, horizontal lightning, moving strong and sideways along the flat prairie.   I was enjoying the light show until Jackie got me thinking about the possibility of tornados which we could never see in the dark.  Luckily, we made it to Ogallala and found a room for the night along with a bunch of truckers who were also impressed with the weather and the strong rains that were just letting up as we finished our communal buffet breakfast.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

At last!!!! Back in Nebraska....

Its been a while, but we're back.  It was an exhausting adventure back east, and in case you lost the thread of where we have been going in the midst of all of that excitement, we're  in Nebraska on that 10 day amble between the Berkshire Hathaway convention in Omaha and Chase's high school graduation in Auburn.

Nebraska, home of the sand hills,

Nebraska, where the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad line seems to crisscross the state where ever you look, carrying coal from Wyoming and everything else that seems to pass through Nebraska as it makes its way back and forth across the country.

I don't know if its just too good to be true, or is it just so alien to a New Yorker, that it just seems like paradise, but there seems to be an emotional connection and a sense of "we're all it it together" that Nebraskans have for each other that you don't seem to find back east.  Jackie said this is because there are so few people out here who are part of a  subconscious network of interdependence  on each other, friend or stranger, to be there for one another in this vast sea of grass and uncertainty.  It grew from a prairie ethos well described in Willa Cather's books which give a real feel for the generations of pioneers whose existence was truly tenuous and at the mercy of untamed forces greater than their resources that demanded an organic interdependence to survive which remains in their DNA, unspoken but visceral even now.   So unlike the way our east coast population density has evolved a need to isolate and encapsulate to survive.

Everybody in Nebraska seems to wave to each other, mainly from their cars and pick-ups, whether they know you or not.  In our rental Ford Focus with Iowa plates, we were welcome strangers now part of the whole.  It didn't take long for me to start waving back, once I looked behind me and saw no one was there and realized that they were waving at me, and although it was painful at first, but I soon began to initiate the occasional spontaneous wave myself.  It felt right.

There was a warmth and sincerity in that open hand and open heart that seemed real and unmistakable to this cynic from back east who had been told by a thousand New Yorkers with distracted, unsmiling faces to "have a nice day" with all the warmth and and sincerity of someone telling me to go screw myself.

Anyway, the return to the Nebraska trip seems to coincide with our return from South Dakota with a short side trip into Wyoming that requires a blog entry of its own.

Crossing over from Wyoming heading to Scottsbluff and beyond, we were met with this "welcome" to Nebraska sign.  As I travel through more and more of the US, I am often disappointed by the generic and boring signs states put up to inform you.  New York is one of the worst offenders in terms of totally a uninspiring and utilitarian obligatory effort at letting you know you are there.  This is not much better.  Come on Cornhuskers, you can do better!!! 

At this point, we are on highway 92 as you can see.  It parallels the Oregon Trail in this section of Nebraska (as you can tell by the covered wagon on the sign) where the historic point of interest is Chimney Rock which you can see from anywhere around here.  But route 26 does take you to Bayard.

As you can tell, I do have a thing for signs.  These signs are not great, not really even blogworthy but they are part of a narrative, providing a sense of place, however lame, so here is a photo of the real thing...

That's Chimney Rock out in the distance framed by the obligatory windmill which is ubiquitous in Nebraska, used to pump water using wind power.  Chimney Rock was an important landmark for the pioneers traveling in wagons along the Oregon Trail and a source of great excitement and false hope for them.  After traveling for an interminable period of time across the mind numbing tedium of the praries, insect and disease infected plains, cold, wet, muddy, at the mercy of the elements, barely sheltered, bored and afraid to the point of insanity, sniped at by indians, bandits and going through an unimaginable hell in the middle of nowhere, Chimney Rock offered some sense of something familiar, non-prarie, false hope, anything to give these wretched survivors of the first half of the trip something to be glad of.  The knowledge that they were more than half way there and would only have to endure their pain and terrors for a few more months, if they lived through the next season.  Being out there virtually alone together, it is truly unimaginable what these poor pioneers risked and went through for the promise of unknown and unknowable.  There was nothing romantic about this journey.  They left much behind, and loved ones in shallow graves along the way.  God bless those brave souls who made the trip and lived and whose families continue to inhabit our great plains.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The search for Mezcalito...

Now that I've spent some interesting times in Toronto and NYC, its hard to get back to Nebraska at the moment, so before the Cornhuskers get too far into the season, there was one more thing I had to get out of my system before I head back.

There was this funky little tiki bar in this almost non-existant little town on the ocean side of Cozumel, Mexico, that I'm sure that I had too much to drink at 5 or 6 years back.  I couldn't remember the name of the place and I was sure that if it even existed, it would no longer be there, as happens so often where I live, but it has been on my mind.  Because it is so stereotypically like something out of a Jimmy Buffet song,  could it have really been the perfectly desolate, thatched, have too many Dos Equis and just roll into the ocean kind of place I imagined.  I do have an active fantasy life, so anything is possible.  There was only one way to find out.

We took a flight to San Miguel do Cozumel, a tasteless tourist trap of a city with a Diamonds International on every block that makes you want to get out of town as quickly as possible.  To get out and around the island in your own way, you have to hire a cab.  Our cab driver who was nice and easy to get along with was a very hispanic looking man named David Saul of all things.  I half jokingly asked him if he was Jewish and he said no, why did I ask. "Porque en Neuva York, David Saul es un nombre Judio" I explained.  He seemed surprised to hear this.  I was surprised he was surprised.

With formalities taken care of, we asked him to get us to the other side of the island as quickly as possible.  The first stop where you make the turn onto the ocean side was Punta Sur.

After passing a few very little clusters of shanty buildings that could not quite pass for a town,  that were obviously not what I was looking for, we did make a pit stop at Playa Bonita, named so for obvious reasons.  There was not much there but a little restaurant on the other side of the road,  a little bar with some tables in the sand and our waiter named Lucho who found us quite amusing and inferred something about us being rich Americans.  Everything is relative, so after two beers and a little more small talk, it started to seem like a prudent time to move on.  

Further along the road was this area called Chen Rio which did not look all that inviting a place to get out of the cab so I just took a picture and we moved on.  At this point, I was beginning to doubt myself and wondered if I were going to find what I was looking for.

We were now only a few miles from the end of the ocean road which turns to the left and heads back into the city.  At one point along the road, just about here;

I had the feeling we were close, and if you kind of squint a bit, you can see the thatched roofs of Mezcalito, the "town" I was looking for.  And sure enough there it was.

That's me, celebrating by having the first of 3 Dos Equis, just about my limit for drinking beer.

This is the table we were sitting at, when we were sitting at all.  In this day and age of photoshop and other post production techniques that allow people to cobble together all sorts of beautiful and improbable images, one might think that this great photo is is a product of photoshop magic or some such thing.  Its not.   Its just an improbably good and evocative shot of an improbably great spot.  On the table is my second Dos Equis.  I have just begun to settle down into the mind space that is Mezcalito.

I am on a little roof top deck of the bar, overlooking greater downtown Mezcalito.  It is comprised of the bar, the gift shop next to the bar, the roof of which is on the right, and the two thatched buildings off to the left, a restaurant called Senor Iguana, and another gift shop named Marilyn Azul, "The Mexican Target".   That is my third and last Dos Equis in the picture.

These are the two shops across the way.  The only other building in Mezcalito was a boarded up somewhat derelict building across the road from Marilyn Azul.  I probably should have taken a picture of it to round things out, but it wasn't all that photogenic I guess.

Next to the bar was this sign, but since we were the only people there, and I didn't feel like asking, I wasn't sure if this was a "chiste" or not.   Anyway, you don't often get a second chance in life to do the next to impossible, but we did, we found Mezcalito, and it was just as we remembered.  Interesting, the side of the island facing the ocean remains completely undeveloped with the exception of a few small,  local, eco-friendly little places like the ones seen above.  It is 20 or 30 miles of pristene beaches and warm Caribbean blue water on one side of the shore front road, and island wilderness on the other.  Not a Marriott or Hilton to be found.  I'm not complaining, just reporting and wondering how miracle could exist in this day and age.  So if you get to Mezcalito and don't want to leave, there's no place to stay.



Sunday, September 11, 2011

Hobo Time...

Hobo time is ephemeral time, time spent drifting and ambling on the highway of daydream and possibility, along the roads down which ideas take us, with progress measured in miles and discovery, not hours and minutes.   It is a boxcar of the mind with no illusions of immortality.   Life on the road distorts time in ways Albert Einstein never considered.  Sometimes it takes a hobo with a PhD in epistemology to recognize the contours of the non-conforming temporal envelope that is the province of our more mercurial, intuitive faculties.  Sometimes time stands on ceremony, indignantly refusing to reveal its secrets, at times it moves in an evasive, sideways, non-perpetuating arc (don't ask me to explain right now), and most painful of all, it frequently moves at the speed of life placing you in the most unexpected of places at the most inopportune times in circumstances you are hard put to explain, leaving you to just plead ignorance, or insanity, which ever feels right for you.

But today, I feel most occupied with the surprising notion that time can and should at times stand still.  Last week we were in downtown Toronto for a few days.  Toronto was a city I was quite familiar with, having spent a good deal of time there back in the late 1970's and early 80's.  I am quite sensitive and averse to change, and when it is not for the better, suffer its insults intensely.  But much to my surprise, it looked and felt as if Toronto had not changed in the least.  A few new buildings here and there, but it remained remarkably Toronto.  If anything, it is I who has changed.

 Back then, we all stayed at a pension on Spadina Avenue called the Karabanow Guest House, a bizarrely furnished maze of rooms and hallways run by this elderly eastern European couple who did not speak English too well, and who, for some reason, we believed to be brother and sister.   Back then, we were all still crazy and our quiet nights and cognac at Karabanow Guest House were so much a state of mind as a geographic location, that I sometimes wonder if it really existed.  Googling it, I found a few others who spent time there, and remember it fondly as well, particularly Olga Karabanow, now gone.

Now I stay at the King Edward Hotel on the corner of King  and Yonge, in a building which continues to lavish you with with the overindulgence and epicurian good taste befitting the Edwardian era in which it was built.  No place for a hobo, and while there, it is easy to forget who you are!!!  My friend Jeffery, who has lived in Toronto for 30 years did not know the hotel and when he joined us for cocktails, couldn't believe such opulence and antiquated charm existed any more.  Maybe it doesn't.
(Pictures to follow)


Queen Street East...

When I'm in Toronto, there are two things I particularly like doing.  Spending time in the Kensington Market which continues to be just run down enough to maintain an authenticity and urban antiquity that seems hardly changed from my Toronto days and continues to interest me.  But change does seem to be in the wind with restaurants and boutiques beginning to out number traditional market things.

The other thing I like a lot is taking the Queen Street Trolly 3 or 4 miles east from down town to the area known as the Beaches.  Aptly called because of its extensive beachfront on Lake Ontario, and the cute little town there that originally grew up there to serve summer vacationers and has now taken on a year round life of its own.  As well, Glenn Gould just happened to grow up there, which makes it extra special for me because he is my hero, both artistically, and because he is one of the few, or in modern times,  maybe the only Canadian who did not feel the need to move to the US once he became famous.
I guess this is a bit like my annual Coney Island adventure, except that the transition is not quite as dramatic, but still a treat.

But the real point of interest turned out to be not so much the destination, as the journey through a section of town called Leslieville and the little storefronts that lined East Queen Street which appears to be an area in transition between the urban grit of east Toronto and gentrified, totally "cute" beaches area.  The mix of storefronts here remains interesting and not too cute yet.  Here are a bunch.  Hope to get back soon and add to the collection.

We happened to be in Toronto the weekend after the premature death of Jack Layton, the leader of the NDP party.  The NDPs had traditionally been a small 3rd party who won few seats in parliament, but under his leadership, they won many and became the official opposition.   He was from Toronto and seemed to be quite well liked.  While we were there, his body was transported form Ottawa, where he died.  The funeral was this weekend, August 27, 2011.  Here is the headline; " Farewell Jack Layton".  You really did seem to have made a difference.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ottawa to Toronto the hard way...

Soon after the Coney Island vacation, it was back on the road.   Devora came down for annual her summer visit and giving her a ride back to Ottawa served the dual purpose of saving on the airfare, and giving Jackie and I the excuse to make a long over due visit to Toronto to visit old friends.

Sure you can go from Ottawa, Ontario to Toronto taking the Queensway to highway 416 to the 401 which would hold out the possibility of making the trip in 4 1/2 hours or less, if you were lucky and there were no volume related back ups at Peterboro or beyond, but otherwise, what's the point of seeing Canada at 70 mph, unless you had a good reason?  About the only thing Canadian you might see along the way are the Tim Horton's Donuts at the rest stops, a few Petro Canada gas stations, and some unlucky speeder being pulled over by an RCMP (mountie) officer.  Not a Canadian Tire store in sight.

You would see little else and have no sense of the rural beauty and British loyalist history of southern Ontario, built and inhabited by those with a different perspective on the American Revolution.    Highway 7, the mostly 2 lane, diagonal route between Ottawa and Toronto was the original Ontario segment of the trans-Canada highway (their Route 66) and is an education.  It travels through country settled by North American colonists who were not in favor of breaking with Britain, and  being no longer welcome in the soon to be USA,  made their way to various towns north of the border, many of which are along Highway 7  in the farms and townships of Lower Canada like Perth (still reminiscent of an old British barracks town), which we drove through, loved, and decided that it would merit a much longer stay next time around.   All seems to be forgiven at this point, and they welcomed us and our American money with open arms.  But maybe that forgiveness is not mutual.  I was recently rebuffed by a local store clerk in upstate New York who refused to accept a Canadian penny I mistakenly slipped her.  Maybe the revolution is not as over as I thought down here.

There was lots more to see along Route 7, and one day I will be reporting back, but there's only so much you can see and do when the trip is not really an amble and this time around, it was mainly the chip trucks and the roadside stands selling blueberries that caught my eye.

Jackie getting a large order of fries at the prototypical chip truck.  Of course I like mine with ketchup, Jackie has hers with mayo, tres belgique, and Canadians seem to like theirs with vinegar, very British.
And then there's the French Canadian contribution to North American culture, Poutine, a combination of soggy fries topped with cheese curds and drenched in a thick brown gravy.  But that's a culinary nightmare worthing of a posting all it's own.

Woody's Chips.   That thing on the roof is a box of fries, just to remind you who they are since they got rid of the truck and generally negated the whole reason for stopping there in the first place..  Maybe they really wanted a McDonald's franchise.

Had a long talk with Ken who retired from the highway department a few years ago and opened this truck, which he said was his true calling in life which he was now able to indulge.  He was very friendly, but we were still full and a bit queasy from the chips we had at that first truck not that long ago, so had to explain and apologize to Ken for not ordering some, but did promise to stop at his stand on our next go around.  He told us not to worry about it, but we do, and we will, but we will be taking a bit of a chance as well, because his was the last chip truck we saw on Highway 7, and if he's not there....

One of the many blueberry stand we kind of stopped at which became quickly photographically tedious, and therefore I won't bore you with them,  rounds out the sights we were able to see on the 7,  next stop, Toronto.