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. 


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.