Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Stormy Weather

The report on Thursday showed rain through Saturday, as the cold front continued to move in from the Midwest, slow but steady.  By Sunday, it was due to be colder, much colder, with crystal clear skies through the week. The leaves would be at peak, and the leaf-peepers would be up from the city, crowding the roads as they headed from craft sale to self-picking apple orchard to pumpkin stand.

On Friday, the Bushes, Wayne and Wayne, Jr., came by to pick up the Komatsu excavator.  Wayne Senior was edgy; he’d been waking up nights impatient for the rains to stop.  I got jobs waiting; not just yours, and I cain’t just sit around watching tv and waiting for something to change.  We got some stumps to pull out on that new house up top the hill—we can do that in the rain. Later that day, as it cleared off a bit, Ed came with the new propane tank that the Bushes were going to bury.  After he hooked it and swung it down from the truck and laid it by the Porta-Potty, we walked around a bit so he could recollect where we’d run the small propane line to the kitchen wall furnace a few years ago.  We didn’t find it, but the line seemed secure and gas was going to the unit, even if it wouldn’t light. The new one was on order and he was planning to come in on Wednesday while the Bushes were burying the tank and cutting the trench for the new line to the little house we were putting up off the back of the old house. He was planning to do the install and the hookup and the inspection all that one day so as not to have to twiddle his thumbs while the Bushes poured the sand and the rough stone.

Charles came over late that afternoon to talk about bringing in the herd to graze off the hayfield. It’s the last circuit of the year; they start here, and then cross the creek to Harry’s clover field, then work counterclockwise from meadow to meadow, as Charles and Francesca move the electric fencing along with them.  Land around here is way too expensive to make a go of a small herd; Charles sharecrops the cattle with seven or eight of us, moving his cattle around the hay-cutting schedules that differ from field to field depending on the fertility of the soil and the rainfall.

Mike and Clint looked at that extended weather report as well.  Mike said on Monday they’d start ripping off the old roof on the main house and get it decked so JC could bring his standing-seam crew in from Connecticut to do the whole roof-and-gutter job on the next dry spell. As of Sunday, there was a 10% chance of precipitation for five days out, pictures of sun with a cloud in front of it on and Accuweather both.

This morning I woke up to a steady rain, not too hard, not drenching, but enough to worry its way under the roofdeck and the tarps and drip down inside the house.  Everyone was off the roof except for Eric, who was looking for the spots where it came in, so as to save the insulation. The electric fence was on, but the cattle weren’t coming today. The Bushes weren’t going to do the propane tank and trench or dig the new graveled ditch to direct the spring floods from the ridge down to the creek.  Ed didn’t even bother to come by or call to say the hookup was off.  Mike came in to the kitchen to check to make sure Eric had caught the leak.

Last night, Harm left a message while I was out in the last light splitting firewood and watching Charles and Francesca lay the fencing.  I expect he was worried about his hay-rights again.  We don’t get anything out of the haying, and each cutting takes another percentage of the fertility of that soil.  He’s right to be worried.  We are looking for a better plan, pricing manure and talking to Paul up the ridge about having him plow the full 18 acres of hayfield under so we can plant a nutrient-restoring rotation for a couple of years.  This isn’t great soil to begin with—it’s clay-based, and it needs the composting of green that withers to brown around this time of the year.

Out in the field where he was surveying to set the electric fence, Charles talked to me about survival when you don’t have tourists or weekenders or contracting or landscaping jobs to sustain the year-round population.  Around here, the builders have split in two.  A few of the small crews have gone upscale—people like Will Wallace do trendy work for the ones who will always be rich no matter what the economy: geothermal heating units, three-acre duckponds surrounded by artfully arranged plantings that include full-size trees trucked in for $5,000 a tree and fed by drip-irrigation from the pond using solar-powered pumps.

The bigger crews are pretty much gone, now, bankrupt or shrunk to subsistence, to a couple of men with older pickup trucks and the woodworking equipment relocated to the basement of the house, the big compound with its hardwood kiln-dryer and cabinet shop and fixture showroom and sales office abandoned, the keys given back to the bank. Mike’s crew here is small. Dan was a children’s book illustrator.  Ethan is a kid, an apprentice who does the pickup and carries for Mike, setting up the scaffolds and working the compressor. Eric shows up in his van at 7 every day.  It’s a few years old, and it still has the signage from when he worked for himself.  Eric Rose Contracting, it says. Roofing Siding Painting Flooring. Like a lot of the guys who were doing ok before the bust, he keeps the company name, though he’s working for Mike now. Mike himself is 64; some days it’s just him on the job, because Clint has another job somewhere and it’s smarter to pull the crew for a few days than lose the work.

Charles has heard me talk about my son.  Taylor is something close to a freegan, a class of people, mostly young, who have rejected the economic system and vowed to live outside its cash-and-credit market.  Freegans live by barter and by exploiting the wastefulness of the dominant economy.  They don’t live on the land like the commune people of the old counterculture.  They’re urban, and usually well-educated. They majored in music, and literature, and philosophy, but also political science and economics and sociology.  Instead of moving into advertising, or video game orchestration or consumer-desire polling, they went to Americorps or Teach For America, where they were thrust into the bowels of American failure—places the comfortable and the conservative—their parents, often—can’t even admit exist.  On the West Side of Chicago where he ran the computer lab for a middle school that had consistently failed the No Child Left Behind criteria, Taylor heard from the kids that he was the first white man they’d ever talked to who wasn’t a cop or a social worker. On standardized testing day in the spring, the teachers at schools like that one look out at a classroom in which perhaps a quarter or a third of the students started the year there.  They’re being judged on the performance of pupils few of whom they’ve taught for more than a month.  The kids have cycled in and out of sometimes three schools in a year, as their families moved, or were evicted from place after place, or as they themselves were passed from relative to relative, foster home to foster home. It’s hard to be immersed in that world for even a few months and keep believing in a brighter, shinier America where freedoms are extolled and the heavy arm of government regulation is loosened so a new crop of bright and shiny entrepreneurs can lift the economy to new heights. 

Working at Americorps, Taylor started rooming with a group of musicians and computer hackers in a drug-dealer’s block at the edge of Humboldt Park, where rent was cheap and the three-flat was surrounded by vacant lots from burnouts dating back to the riots of the ‘60s and ‘70s.  Dave, and Aaron, and Taylor and the others had given the dining room over to rows of humming servers-- Macs and HP and Lenovo machines that ran day and night.  They were tied into a global network of open-source software programmers who were building apps that could run on crank-powered laptops linked to the internet via cellphone networks in places like Malawi and Somalia, Laos and Mongolia. Everybody did overflow-work to get by, living on the froth that cascades down the outside of  the craft-brewery glass poured for a financial analyst whose Audi is parked outside the tastefully rustic or factory-themed restaurant. 

I was thinking about your son, Charles said, as the last light was dying in the hayfield and the fences were set, their neon-blue cabling glowing over the green and brown grasses. You know, before I ran cattle, everyone I knew was a refugee from the city. The locals around here—they’re the ones I spend my time with now.  They’re used to living on the edge.  They’ve been living on the edge around here for generations.  The Schoonmaker’s down 209—you know them.  They’ve been here since 1650, and it’s never been safe. The locals—they worry about the weekenders and the city people; they can see that these are people who don’t know how to get by, don’t know what to do. I know what he means.  I’m returning to skills I grew up learning—woodworking, furniture repair, housepainting, plumbing. We’re looking for crops we can trade off with others, the way Charles trades the organic grass-fed freerange beef—beef whose organic grass freerange is our hayfield, and Harry’s and Paul and Sarah’s. 

We can look for niche-crops to drive down to the locavore slow-food restaurants that are all the trend in Brooklyn and Chelsea and the Lower East Side.  Taylor advises against it, and Charles is on his side.  They share a sense of doom, though from different angles.  Charles sees the fragility of that market and the system of faith that lies behind it. What do you do when all you’re harvesting is thyme and rosemary and heritage tomatoes, but there’s no banker-bonus epicure to support the restaurants that have been supporting you?  For Taylor, it’s more a matter of ethics admixed with radical politics.  He believes it’s wrong to participate in a morally bankrupt system.  No, not exactly.  It’s wrong to contribute to that system.  It’s right to participate by siphoning off its excesses to support the project of building the tools for a different system.

In the now-dark field, I stand by myself as Charles drives the muddy Toyota up Old King’s Highway, done for the night.  The stars are emerging, as the weather reports tell us they will emerge every night for days, after cloudless afternoons loud with the rattles of activity:  the setting of the propane tank, the buzz of the jigsaw, the pop of the pneumatic nailgun.  But I don’t think so. I am looking at the cloudless, starry night and waiting for signs of the storm.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Foreigners in Monument Valley

Rebecca Solnit posted on her Facebook page a picture of hands clenched on a steering wheel, with the formations of Monument Valley visible beyond the rolled-up windows.  I’ve never been through Monument Valley in a car;  every trip has been in a Herrera Bus Company MCI luxury coach, up from Albuquerque with 30 foreigners, and Alicia, our queen of travel and dispenser of medications, and Karl or Maureen or Neil or, way back at the beginning, Eva, to help me count heads, and to supervise while I shepherded someone to the emergency room, and to sit in the back of the bus and doze with the rest of them while I talked about the topography of the lower Rockies, the history of mining in the Durango area, the cosmology of the Mormons, or about Navajo hogan architecture, and water rights in the arid regions.  

Or I’ve been on a bike, ice water in my bottle cages, extra water in my jersey, a tiny circular mirror attached to my helmet to watch as the Navajo water trucks lumber up behind me, their white polypropolene tanks bulging over the sides of the back flatbed. As they’d pass me, pushing up the grades into the stiff, hot wind, I might see the passengers looking at me sidelong, maybe sometimes raising up their arms a bit, letting go of the chrome outside mirror to give me the smallest semblance of a wave—men, women, or children, in western shirts and blue jeans, acknowledging the foolhardiness of a white man with a cyclist’s tan in black shorts and a garish team jersey, blue and yellow, with the emblem of the Chicago Police Department on each shoulder, grinding up US163, only a third of the way between Kayenta and Bluff, with the sun already starting to touch the tops of the mesas.

Most of the time, though, I was leading international education tours of the US, an American authority providing insight for the foreigners who’d been picked to spend the summer studying American culture and life, for the purpose of returning to write textbooks, revise curricula, teach seminars, train other teachers, drawing on the weeks of lectures and the guided tours, the boxes of books and articles we had guided them through (The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro, 1852; Sister Carrie, 1900; There Are No Children Here, 1991…), the encounters they’d had with Americans and with each other.

In the Navajo Nation, I am a foreigner myself.  Why deny it? When the bus turns left onto the side road that leads to Goulding’s Lodge, the degrees of alienation multiply.  Toyan, from Mongolia, laughing at something her roommate has said, two rows behind me on the bus, is far closer to native than I am.  Her DNA may record her kinship to the Navajo; the contours of her face are akin to those of the Navajo woman in a Navajo costume seated at a loom in the tricked-up hogan that’s part of the guided tour;  their native tribal tongues are both derived from Athabaskan, the root language of those Americans who crossed the Bering Strait so many millennia ago, and migrated southward.  Some of them stayed here, before the Long Walk that forced the Navajo into internment camps, and returned after that disastrous policy was traded for another equally as cruel, ignorant, arrogant.

The Navajo that live here now, the older ones, are legatees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School era, when they were taken from their families, often by force, forbidden to speak their language, taught the English language and the usual skills designed to make them good servants and good employees when they left school at 18 or 19.  The ones who speak the Navajo language, the ones who continue to farm and herd, who migrate between summer hogans and winter hogans:  most of them were hidden from the BIA officials, and they received their educations from their grandparents and the members of their born to and born for clans. They had to learn their English later, and they did, in order to write the letters of appeal protesting water-rights expropriation, or get their GED down in Gallup or over in St. George, or pass the driver’s test in Arizona or Utah, getting the commercial license after that, and perhaps the certification that legitimated them as tourist guides outside the boundaries of the Navajo Nation.

The Navajo guides at Goulding’s don’t like us, any of us, but we are tolerated for our group tickets on the Monument Valley tour, and our tips at the end.  Some of the foreigners try to engage the guide in conversation during the breaks when the cut-down and converted flatbed trucks, with their rows of seats under aluminum or galvanized canopies,  disgorge our dusty group to wander around in the epic scenery, taking pictures of Honeymoon Arch, or the Thumb, drinking ice water from the cooler mounted to the back of the truck, next to the folding stairs. Some of the guides are more taciturn than others, but none in my years have ever been direct, or garrulous, save, perhaps, one.  They have set spiels, some better than others, by which I mean, more ingratiating to white people, aliens.  But even the funniest or most outgoing guides stick to their scripts.  Riita from Finland asks the guide about his family:  what do they do?  where do they live?, thinking of the family structures I’d laid out in my talk on the bus—she was awake, taking notes.  He is resolutely, politely evasive.  She knows better than to push much harder than that, and leaves it be. 

The names of the rock features reflect a similar resistance veiled in accommodation to the Bilagáana, the white people (some translate it:  white devils), accommodating the anthropomorphism of the Bilagáanakʼehgo, the white man’s style of thinking.  Just inside the Navajo Tribal Park, at the beginning of the circle tour you can take with your own car, you’ll see Merrick and Mitchell Buttes, named after two partnering prospectors, one of whom was shot by the Paiutes and, legend has it, managed to drag himself three miles or so to the butte bearing his name, before he died of his wounds. The Paiute had been there for many centuries; they traded with the Navajo in an often-uneasy relationship, the differences rendered moot when white usurpers and idolators like Mitchell and Merrick arrived, defiling the sacred mountains looking for gold and silver.
Next up:  The Mittens, articles of clothing unlikely to have been found among either the Navajo or the Paiute, unlikely to have come to mind when the first peoples were here, looking at the mesas and buttes that jutted up from the desert floor. It was white people who named this place Monument Valley;  for the Navajo, it was Place of Rocks.

 Further in, past Elephant Butte and John Ford’s Point, you arrive at the pseudo-Indian names—Rain God Mesa, Spearhead Mesa, Totem Pole.  By this point, that Bilagáana talent for lumping all things Indian in with all things exotic begins to take on the tenor of an imperialism borrowed from England’s follies—Elephant Butte and Camel Butte describe formations that look like images from tourist photographs of the 19th century incursions into Egypt, Nubia, the Nile and, eventually, India.  Totem Pole: that’s a moniker based in some visitor’s conversance with the Vanishing Tribe fuzzygraphs of Edward Curtis. It’s not some racial memory of long-abandoned ritual sculpture by an ancient Athabaskan bloodline linking Kwakiutl Indians with the Piute and Jicarilla and the Navajo.

I call them Indians for many reasons, not least of which is:  this is what they call themselves to white people these days.  Native American is a term invented by Western academics, as if to say so would erase the heritage of brutality and self-assurance that won the West for the whites.  One night, at the Best Western owned by the Jicarilla Apache, one of the tribal officers told our group: that term:  just the most modern of the ways other people name us.  We keep our names to ourselves.  When we talk to the white man, it’s better to use the words that sting with their disrespect for us. Indian is better that way, don’t you think? Some of the Europeans didn’t understand his meaning, but the participants from Africa and the one from Pakistan nodded their heads and leaned forward a bit in their chairs, giving him their renewed attention.

Past the fuzzy-mitten stage, past the Hollywood Indian stage of the Monument Valley self-guided tour, the circular route turns back, and the vacationers in their Ford Explorers and their Chevy Tahoes lumber back up the dry dirt road to the Visitor Center, where they can buy a Navajo kachina at the gift shop without having to know that the Navajo have no kachinas in their cosmogeny.  For a tenth the price, they can also buy a Chinese-made kachina doll, or a dream-catcher to hang from the rear-view mirror as they drive out to the motel in Mexican Hat, or head toward the Grand Canyon for their next dose of superior sublimity.  The Navajo don’t trade in what is authentic to them; anything in that gift shop is trade goods, the reverse equivalent of what Wetherill or Goulding sold in their trading posts in exchange for silverwork and turquoise when they set up shop here more than a century ago.

If you took one of the Navajo-sanctioned guided tours, as we always did, you went out past the end of the self-guided loop;  the driver stopped to switch the transmission to 4-wheel drive and activated the locking hubs before dipping down into the sandpits and dry washes.

Out there, the names change.  Yei Bi Chei is a formation of conjoined vertical rocks, consistent with the collection of spirit figures for which the formation is named.  Then there’s Tse Biyi Yazzie past that.  The truck roars and lumbers, tilting alarmingly at times, and everyone tends to fall silent at that point.  The guide is guide no more; he, or she, is all driver, and the microphone is firmly shoved into its receptacle on the dashboard of the cab that isolates her from you.  At the far end of the long tour Alicia always arranged for us, there’s a stop at Big Hogan, or Hidden Arch, before the driver heads back.  Usually the tour disembarks at the Visitor Center, but for us the trucks head out of the Tribal Park, crossing US 163 to deposit us at Goulding’s Lodge where John Ford and John Wayne and the film crews stayed on location and, in the years when the USIA and then the State Department released the funding early enough, Alicia would arrange for us to stay.  Covered in red dust, sunburned and exhausted, the 33 of us would tumble out of our two tour vehicles, sternly enjoined to tip the guides before heading in to the rooms to shower before dinner. 

Once in a while, some concatenation of circumstances would change our relations with the guide.  When Toyan was with us, so also was a woman from Kamchatka Krai, not one of the European Russians who dominate that peninsula, but someone of decidedly Aleut lineage. Alyeska and Toyan had hung together throughout the Institute—both were ethnic-subculture Russians at a time when the collapse of the Soviet Union was still a relatively new event, and they felt themselves to be eyed as exotic specimens by the participants from France, Germany, Belgium, Italy. During one of the breaks of the tour, the guide approached them to comment on the striking resemblance among the three.  Soon they were laughing; Toyan’s sense of irony, already finely honed, found its match in the Navajo guide’s, and by the time we headed back their informality had graciously enveloped all of us.  Much of what little I know of the real Navajo world began with that encounter. 

That  was the time of the sudden storm and the flash flood that swept down one of dry arroyos, taking with it a Lincoln Navigator, its driver trying to grab traction as the current pushed the huge black block parallel to the banks, quickly eroding the sandy soil on either side of the big wheels and rendering each maneuver a little more treacherous, as the water rose higher and the current grew stronger.  A rented subcompact with a family of German tourists burst down the bank, hit the water, and floated down, coming to rest on the grill of the Navigator.  Watching from above, waiting her opportunity, our guide took up the microphone again, and began to narrate a play-by-play, switching between the pompous sports anchor and the color commentator with unerring skill.  By then we were all drenched, for we’d pushed aside the plastic drop-down walls the better to see the comedy with cars below us, and our worry evaporated into antic laughter. 

The two hapless tourist cars formed a momentary dam of sorts, and our guide saw her chance. In a moment we were grinding down the embankment, and she yelled to us to hold on to anything we could.  With a roar and a great splash, we hit the stream, which was cold and powerful, cresting over the side of the flatbed and sinking us nearly to our waists. Then we were coming up the other bank, threading our way past the minivans and the rentals that were hub-deep in the mud, burning out their transmissions in a panic of inexpertise and lost hubris

When we got to Gouldings, we were all giddy; we emerged from the back, down the folding stairs she had deployed for us;  she was dry, immaculate, beautiful, her Tony Lamas hardly dusty, her red bandana with its paisley pattern jaunty around her neck.  Toyan and Alyeska were the last, and when they hugged her, they left wet, red-clay imprints on her perfectly starched Western shirt, with its mother-of-pearl snaps and cowboy pattern.  They saw their affront and begged forgiveness;  it was nothing, our guide laughed—she was off work now and would be headed back to her place.  She’d be muddier than this by dusk, she promised, and she waved to all of us as she roared off, just as the rain she'd raced us past struck us there, in the parking lot at Goulding’s Lodge. 

It was hours before the second truck arrived with the rest of our group;  they were silent, wet, and exhausted, while we were showered clean, still exuberant, watching the brilliant sunset behind John Wayne's old cabin, the one he'd stayed in when they filmed Stagecoach. Late that night, a little drunk, perhaps, we laid down in the road to watch the stars wheel above us in a silence broken only by our breathing.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Finding the Tea Party at Bulgers Hollow-Thompson Campground, Iowa

Bulgers Hollow-Thompson Campground, Army Corps of Engineers, NNE of Clinton, Iowa, May, 2012

We crossed the Mississippi into Clinton, Iowa, on US Highway 30.  Leaving Chicago on a temperate spring day, we’d driven a continuous sequence of memorials to Republican presidents.  I-290 is the Eisenhower Expressway; it was on-and-off congested, in pockets interspersed with open areas where the more reckless and the more harried raced it up to 80 and 85, hitting the brakes hard when the next jam appeared.  The Ike runs through some tough spots—the West Side of Chicago is still a landscape devastated by the King assassination riots;  the burned-out blocks are full of junk: old cars, some without doors, some burned out, piles of tires, the usual. What geographers and planners call the housing stock is a mixture of worker bungalows and greystones; some of the greystones were once substantial, even opulent single-family houses for the managers and owners of the factories and businesses employing those workers.  Going west, you’re traveling through legendary bad neighborhoods, with names that resonate the way the South Bronx does to a New Yorker:  East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park, Lawndale, South Austin.  Some of the people are racing past you because this is their world;  some of them are racing past you because they’re terrified of some legendary catastrophe—four cars boxing them in and taking them out; the breakdown that leaves the car stripped in minutes and the occupants terrorized or dead.  Chicago doesn’t have a New York Post to provide the detailed myths that intensify racial fear until the skin tingles and the smell of it comes off your shirt.  It hasn’t ever needed one. The white drivers moving fast in their SUVs navigate this angry, smashed-out ring of black rage and despair every working day, on their way in to the air-conditioned downtown garage or out to their near-perfect white-edge suburban cul-de-sacs.

  After the Ike, there’s I-88, the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway. That intersection is about where things change, where the racial turnover of the working-class suburbs like Maywood (1960, 80% white; 1990, 12% white; 2000, 9.7% white) has reached its outer limit, and the new edge cities, with their sanitized townhouse communities and gated subdivisions and huge office campuses loom— communities like  Oakbrook, with its Butler National Country Club, for decades home of the Western Open, Downers Grove, and Naperville (2010:  76% white, 15% Asian). Soon thereafter, you’re in the orderly grids of flat plains farmland—corn and soybeans, soybeans and corn.  I-88 passes De Kalb, where much of the engineered corn hybrids were developed—the company’s now a division of Monsanto, but you can still see the metal signs with the bright yellow and deep green silkscreened logo on many of the cornfields on either side of the Reagan.

When you exit at US 30, you’ve effectively moved back in time by a half-century.  US 30 is the Lincoln Highway—another Republican president—and it was perhaps the earliest transcontinental auto route, linking New York to California in 1913. The topography is still relatively flat— from west of Rock Falls, this is entirely alluvial floodplain of the Mississippi, which accounts for the original richness of the soil, now long-replaced by mountains of chemical fertilizers, high-grade pesticides, and complex farm machinery to enable the massive mono- or bi-crop agribusiness that dominates the region. The farms aren’t particularly picturesque and they don’t inspire nostalgia.  They’re dominated by grain silos, huge parking areas for the combines, the big tractors, and the other farm equipment;  the old barns are usually long gone, replaced by prefab metal warehouse buildings.  The old farmhouses have mostly disappeared, as well—in their place, there’s a double-wide or a prefab or, if the conversion was a bit earlier, a raised ranch or a split-level, with a bay window aimed at the equipment yard or the road. 

The Lincoln Highway crosses the Mississippi River in three stages. First there’s a bridge over the east branch;  then you’re over a string of three lush mid-river islands—the sort that Huck and Jim hid out in, before they began their raft-trip. Then there’s the last stretch of river. It’s a little disappointing if you’re seeing the Mississippi for the first time, as she was—the scale of it is broken up sufficiently that you don’t sense its power as perhaps the most important feature of the American landscape.

I’d anticipated this.  We were traveling, after all, specifically to give her an opportunity to see this bifurcation of the continent, this icon of the Midwest, before we moved, permanently, back to the landscape that formed us. I was due in Dubuque that Sunday afternoon, to talk about two paintings by American landscapist Thomas Moran that had recently come under the museum’s purview.  We could have driven straight across Illinois, stopped at the picturesque tourist town of Galena, stayed at a b&b, crossed over to Dubuque, and been done with it.  But the Clinton crossing is just below a spot where the river widens dramatically, a sort of aneurism in the narrower, more winding character of the river above Cairo, where the Ohio River converges, and where Huck and Jim had hoped to make Jim a freed slave rather than a fugitive.

Google Maps is a deceptive guide.  Along the west side of the Mississippi, it seemed there were a number of roads leading off US 67 and down to the river.  As we came out of Clinton, the flatlands of ancient Mississippi mud split on either side of the road:  to the left, farms and meadows, and to the right, dense woodlands, punctuated sometimes by croplands.  At Bulger Hollow Road, I turned us to the right, expecting a nicely paved route down to the edge of the river.  Instead, we were plunging down a washboarded dirt road, pressed on either side by trees that arched over the car and made the mood dark and even a little forbidding.  Soon the road was snaking between short bluffs, and then we reached the bottom.  There was the railroad track—the one that used to take hoboes and itinerant musicians from Mississippi to Minnesota, the one Robert Johnson wrote about, and Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan.  

Google Maps hadn’t shown a campground there—just an open area right at the river.  But the Army Corps of Engineers had erected a small park around a boat ramp meant to accommodate those metal boats with the outboard motors you see on the Bassmasters show on Saturday cable. We pulled to the left along the road, and parked in an empty campsite.  Behind us was a cinderblock privy with a corrugated metal roof.  The rest of the campground was staked out already.  Ahead of us was a rusting-out monster truck—the type with the big tires and the high suspension—next to a camper-trailer, the sort with pullouts on either side so that, settled onsite, it could serve as the equivalent of a three-room shanty.  There was a propane tank next to it, with a beatup gas grille attached. There was also a small Honda emergency generator, with a string of extension cords running from it.  It wasn’t turned on. 

As we opened the back doors of the Jetta wagon to let the old dog out, a man came around the rear of the truck carrying something, and watching us with evident suspicion.  He was moving quickly, jerkily;  at moments he seemed to be heading toward us, then he’d shift direction, ending up over by the generator, where he bent down and then settled on his haunches, leaning on the side of the generator, watching us, doing something with his hands. Another man came out of the camper-trailer; well, he didn’t exactly come out—he opened the half-screen door and put one foot down on the top step.  After a moment, he said something to the other man, but we were far enough away that I couldn’t hear what he said, or the tone of his voice.  I noticed, then, that the tires on the camper-trailer were flat, and there was a good deal of stuff clumsily wrapped in blue plastic tarp stored underneath it.

When we brought the dog around to the back of the car, I saw the campsite on the other side of us; it was an RV, one of the smaller ones, from the ‘70s—maybe a Fleetwood Jamboree or a GMC Birchaven. The paint was faded, and there was plywood replacing one side of the split windshield.  There were lawn chairs, four of them, around the firepit, and there was what looked like a Barcalounger, one of the big leather ones, partly covered with a plastic drop cloth. 
Around the edges of the firepit, enclosing the area and perhaps shielding it from the wind, a semicircle of yard signs: two of them showed a coiled and hissing snake above the words Don’t Tread On Me, and another a stylized American flag attached to the V of Vote Freedom First; above

We walked down toward the river.  There were a few boats in a sheltered area close to the banks, but between the river’s edge and the campsites, tall grasses and weeds had grown up, interrupted by passages of mud and puddles, some of them iridescent with the surface sheen of motor oil or gasoline.  At the farm, Lyme’s Disease is commonplace—I’ve had to take the antibiotic regimen once already—so we didn’t venture far from the car.  When we turned back, a man was walking along the track from the far campsites, heading for the chemical toilets.  He was wearing a pair of boxer shorts above a huge thump-hard belly tanned dark, and he was carrying a can of Busch. As he walked, he stared at us frankly and directly; when he came past the monster truck, he said something to the two men, and all three of them laughed. 

We got the dog back into the car; she wasn’t spooked, and didn’t want to return to her makeshift bed in the back seat.  I ended up lifting her in, and she looked at me reprovingly as she settled in and the car began to move. We took the road down to the end of the campground;  every site was filled, and almost all of them by encampments of people who had been there for a while and were planning to be there a while longer. There were Sarah Palin campaign signs, and down at the end there was a  wire between trees that served as a clothes-line.  It was late afternoon, and a few people had already lit their grills.  The women were dressed in Kmart sweats and the men, mostly, in jeans and workshirts.  

  As we rounded the curve toward the exit, the man with the Busch can came back out of the toilet, and he waved at us. Up closer, he looked friendly, and he was wearing flip-flops and his boxer shorts had Bart Simpson in a mask and cape, his cartoon balloon read Watch It, Man

Past him, we could see the other side of that ‘70s RV as we bumped past.  Facing the entrance to the campground, another sign, handmade, pushed into the hard ground by the empty parking space with an oil stain in the dirt, said Campground Supervisor.  Now we could see that this side of the RV was covered by a large American flag tied to the roof rack, front and rear, with the sort of bright blue plastic roping you buy at Uhaul or Budget Rental when you’re picking up the moving truck—not the 50-star flag, but the Betsy Ross version with the circle of thirteen stars in a square of blue. We turned to jostle over the railroad tracks, and headed back up toward the highway.

The Bulgers Hollow-Thompson Park campground is about midway between Clinton and Bellevue.  In Bellevue, the highway runs right along the river past Corps of Engineers Lock and Dam Number 12.  We turned left onto the side streets, where the town is—mostly bungalows and ‘20s-era Midwestern stuccos, many of them Sears houses.  There were some For Sale signs, and on those lawns, and others in front of houses evidently empty, the grass was high.  The yards weren’t trash-filled; there wasn’t graffiti or even board-up plywood, as there is off the Eisenhower in West Garfield Park and Lawndale back in Chicago.  But you could tell.  Back on 52, we passed a 10-unit condo development on the river side, nearly completed but evidently abandoned, a foreclosure auction sign in front of it.  The front courtyard, flanked on either side by two-car garages, was a morass of clay mud, with puddles extending into the garages, over the concrete pads. The views of the Mississippi from the river side were probably magnificent; the auction sign said the project was completed in 2006. 

City people don’t really understand the Tea Party world.  Mostly, it looks like relatively well-dressed, middle-class people, the sort you see when you’re traveling in the summer, at the RV parks and the Country Buffets.  It’s hard to see what they’re so adamant about:  most of them are beneficiaries of some government program—if they’re older, Social Security and Medicare; if younger, the highways they drive in their SUVs to and from work, the subsidized student loans that got them through college, the mortgage home interest deduction. Their pleasant, middle-class demeanors don’t match the signs they’re carrying, or the rhetoric of the professional politicians and pundits up on the speaker’s stage.  Watching them on the tv news, you might think:  they should be at a swap meet or a classic car show. What have they got at stake?

The people living at the Bulgers Hollow-Thompson Park campgrounds are also the beneficiaries of the government’s largesse.  The campground’s free; every couple of weeks, the honey wagon lumbers off US 52, down that dirt road, over the tracks, to pump out the toilets.  While the pump is going, the driver sluices out the bathrooms with disinfectant and replaces the toilet paper.  All winter, the Corps ploughs the road, and in the spring a crew regrades the gravel and lays fill to level the section leading up to the concrete boatlaunch pad.  Somebody plants the grass, and someone mows it, even if not all the way down to the river’s edge, as we’d hoped.

These are the new Okies.  They’re living down there because they were evicted from houses foreclosed upon, or they simply went around to the bank and gave the loan officer the keys before heading down here.  Before 2006, their lives were different.  They came down here to fish in their bass boats.  They’d bought that monster truck, that travel trailer, that RV back when they were making good money and it was going to last.  The C&W they listened to back then was pretty much rock and roll with pickup trucks and telecasters and big voices with Southern accents, praising American pride, American domination, American resilience, hope, expectation. Those songs knit together a mythic past with a promised future.

It was a powerful force, that music.  I know:  Back then, driving back and forth across the country, I sang along in the car, tears in my eyes, sometimes, and sometimes choking up with the power of that communal emotion, the force of that promise. Now I hear those songs on the country oldies station, and they are different.  The emotions they wring out of me are marked by regret.  

What do you do when you’ve lost it all—not just the physical things, the house, the good car, job, bikes for the kids and vacation places, but the myths and beliefs that gave meaning to the smallest and most mundane details of an everyday life?  What do you do when you are living on food stamps and temp work and short hours at the Walmart, driving a car that may or may not start up tomorrow when you have to get to work, coming home to your uncle’s old ‘70s RV, the one he’d parked in the back behind the grain silos when it was too much trouble and expense to fix up, cooking on a gas grille or a two-burner propane campstove, running the Honda generator a few hours a day to get the portable fridge cold enough to keep the beer chilled and the food from spoiling?  What myths, what beliefs, what community, will you take to take the place of what is lost?

Looking to find a vantage point from which to take in the great mythic expanse of the Mississippi River, we had come upon an Okie encampment:  people evicted from their land, ditched, stalled and stranded, as Dorothea Lange's Okie farmer coined his circumstances, and the phrase became the title of her 1935 photograph of him.  I wish that Okie’s declaration might have found a new audience in the people down in Bulgers Hollow Campground. But the signs down there were of a different sort. 

 Don’t Tread On Me:  that’s a manufactured slogan by a professional political organization underwritten by billionaires, machine-printed on mass-produced yard signs and political rally signs and banners, unfurled as part of a Republican Party campaign to retake the Senate and the Presidency by redirecting the frustration and impotence of Americans whose mythology has been stripped from them by adversity. But Don’t Tread On Me has another inflection:  it implores the powerful, acknowledging weakness, subjugation.  The coiled rattlesnake beneath the words in that sign at Bulgers Hollow campground isn’t really the threat it’s meant to be;  it’s the comforting dream of power and assurance that has long since leaked out of lives, as the air in the tires of the camper-trailer and the Fleetwood Jamboree.  

Up past Bellevue, close to Dubuque, there’s Mines of Spain State Park, where Catfish Creek spills into the Mississippi.  I’d planned it so we’d turn off 52 and get down to the river at dusk.  But it was cloudy and grey by then; the dog was restless and there was nothing on the radio we particularly wanted to listen to. All Things Considered  seemed arch, trivial;  the big-conglomerate C&W station was playing string after string of Saturday-night-bar-fight anthems.  We turned off the radio and concentrated on the detour from 52 to US 61, the Blues Highway.  I was driving with one hand, the other reached back to rest on the dog’s soft flank.  From the passenger seat, she was doing the same, and for a moment, our hands touched, and we wove our fingers together, resting them lightly on the old dog, now settled back down and sleeping, each breath a sigh.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Dessicated Houses, Under Water: Lake Havasu City, Arizona

You can tell that they’re foreclosure houses if you’re used to looking at the listings.  The teaser—you can own this house for as little as 3% down—is followed by the warning: Property is sold as is.
There’s another hint:  you can click the more pictures link, but there might not be any more pictures.  Just the lone shot from the street up the driveway; it’s likely the photographer didn’t bother getting out of the car.  These days, the banks aren’t paying much for the elements of a listing that might draw the casual shopper in.  Besides, there’s probably not much to attract at closer range. 

Over $140,000, though, you might see some inside pictures.  That’s a good sign:  it means the previous owner didn’t leave everything—plastic bags full of old toys, pilled blankets on the unmade beds, unflushed toilet, showerbath with the dandruff shampoo and the little wire soap rack still there in the corner, a lava-flow of dried soap running down the side of the tub. There aren’t dirty dishes still piled in the kitchen sink, the food crusts petrified by the desert air.  

That’s not to say the place didn’t look like that when the foreclosure finally went through and the eviction notice came with the sheriff or the bailiff or the hired process server.  It means Bank of America or Wells Fargo paid one of the services that have appeared in the online yellow pages of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, services that send an estimator and then, after the bank has chosen which of the levels of cleanup it’s ready to pay for, a crew, with a pickup truck to carry off the leavings if it’s an easy one; if not, a dumpster for the fisted wallboard, the carpeting destroyed by water left on in the sinks, old socks or underwear stuffed in the drain to keep the flow slow and steady, ensuring the maximum damage. 

It gets worse than that, of course—we’ve all read about the crews of scavengers who strip the house of every bit of metal, from the P-trap under the kitchen sink to the electrical wiring in the walls.  With these houses so new, and Lake Havasu City so liberal in its building code during the boom years, there’s not a lot of copper piping—it’s mostly PVC. So there’s not nearly the boom business in scrap to be had here as opposed, say, to Detroit or Chicago or Cleveland, where the Sears houses from the ‘20s and the Cape Cods from the postwar years and the raised ranches and split levels from the ‘60s and early ‘70s are a trove of overbuilding.  Even the porcelain sinks of the prewar places fetch a good price at the salvagers, especially if the faucets are still on them.  

Cleaning the surfaces, ripping up and replacing the carpet, waxing the terra-cotta Southwest themed tile floors, repainting the walls, emptying the swimming pool:  these are the daily activities of the only growth industry in Lake Havasu City, these days.
When the listing opens up to a set of pictures, you can often see the residues the cleaning service left, off in the corner of that photo of the cavernous interior of the four-stall garage— a box of contractor trash bags, super heavy duty, a five-gallon tub of cheap paint, the off-white or ivory or even Desert Tawny that the entire place has been repainted, except for the bathroom.  If it’s a HUD house, there seems to be some regulatory requirement that everything be photographed, and the pictures proliferate, and you can see the halo of slightly darkened, slightly more shiny residue where a thousand, ten thousand  hands fumbled for the lightswitch just inside the front door, or the slight valley in the carpeting from the bedroom to the bathroom. 

Sometimes these HUD houses are on their second or third foreclosure.  When that’s the case, you can see the half-finished work of the buyer or the contractor-crew that started to clean it up, the speculator betting—wrong—that the market had fallen as far as it could. 
The market in Lake Havasu City, Arizona has not fallen as far as it could, not even now.  In a week, the realtor has sent me 60 new listings, all foreclosed.  Read the descriptions and look at the pictures, and you can see why.  Almost all of these places, including some as low as $51,000, have RV garages or RV ports, in addition to the three- and usually four-stall garages. In some of these places, the square footage devoted to vehicles is much more than that allocated for the human dweller and mortgage payer.  

Outside, the yards are desert landscaped, which means the house is surrounded by dirt, with a few shrubs or a scrub oak tree or two. The driveways are empty.

It wasn’t this way six years ago, when I came through on the Freeways project.  Then the yards were desert landscaped, the stones were arrayed in geometric patterns, or tasteful arcs that led from one cactus to the next. In the late afternoon light, the cars gleamed:  an SUV, usually a Ford Explorer or Expedition, plus a smaller car, a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry. If the door to the RV garage was open, or if the RV was parked outside, the garage having filled to capacity with other things—boats and their trailers, half-restored Corvettes, or just the neatly organized metal shelves filled with someone’s historic radio collection, or boxes marked with their contents (Hummel I, next to Hummel II, above Barbie I and Barbie II)—you could see the heavy-duty trailer hitch where that smaller car was attached on the trip from here to other places, places older, with longer histories and more seasons than hot and hotter

Lake Havasu City does have a history stretching back to the Great Depression, though to look at the houses for sale, you'd not guess it-- every one of the foreclosures in the last month’s listings was built between 1985 and 2008, and all of them look more-or-less the same:  open plans inside, wall-to-wall mixed with Southwest tiling; hollow-core Lowe’s or Home Depot doors; windows without frames; great planes of drywall leading from entryway past kitchen and dining area, through the living room to the wall separating the bedrooms from the public areas;  the bedroom ceilings often sprayed with popcorn, so that they look, in the pictures, more like motel rooms stripped even of the anonymous furniture that you find in a Red Roof Inn or a Best Western. The kitchen cabinets aren’t built in—they box out from the walls, and where they show their ends, there’s rarely an effort to disguise the cheap panelboard.  

These are houses that were built on spec; real estate speculators bought the acre lot of an older subdivision, bulldozed the adobe ranch house with the desert chiller left over from 1948 or 1955 or even 1970, subdivided the lot into four or six or eight, and crammed the houses in with no concern for their permanence, beauty, or even functionality.  There’s usually a swimming pool taking up much of the small back yard—it’s a swimming pool too small to actually swim in; it’s more like a large bathtub. In June, the average high is 1060; in July, it’s 1110.  You don’t sit on the veranda or in the cabana drinking a margarita after taking a dip when, at 7pm, it’s still sunny and 980.  Inside, the kitchens aren’t made for real cooking.  The stoves are pristine in the listing pictures; it’s the microwave that shows the signs of protracted use. There’s not much wear in the carpets, outside the master bedroom, that is. These don’t look like houses that were lived in. 

Lake Havasu City was an invented place, invented by waves of speculation, dating back to the building of the Parker Dam in the mid-‘30s, flooding the Colorado River.  From the first, the area was an epicenter for wild-eyed utopian schemes, schemes that emerged as the latest in a succession of spectacular misreadings of the landscape, the climate, the ecology.  Exporting water across hundreds of miles to Los Angeles, San Diego, and the irrigation-dependent agriculture of the Imperial Valley, the Colorado River Aqueduct required half of the electric power generated from the Parker Dam to power the pumps pushing the water up and around mountainsides that cut across the desert wasteland. Traced on satellite photographs, the Aqueduct emerges and disappears as it’s piped through minor elevations; at Iron Mountain, though, north of Desert Center (average high temperature in July: 104o; average high for the year: 84o; total average annual rainfall: 4.4 inches), a massive pumping station shoves the water up one mountain, the rush downmountain providing the momentum to carry it all the way to Coxcomb Mountain, where it disappears under the harsh, vegetation-free rockfaces, returns as an on-again-off-again open ditch, then sinks beneath Eagle Mountain, emerging to the west to run parallel with the fantastically misnamed Hayfield Road.  Along these stretches, the satellite pictures show dry washes under which the Aqueduct is piped. 

The Aqueduct is well-sealed;  that’s evident.  No river-loving willows or cottonwoods grow on either side of the waterway.  The air is so dry that evaporation from the water’s surface is so quickly wicked up and dissipated that it fails even to provide a modicum of humidity for a plant to exploit.  West of Eagle Mountain, it’s running north of Interstate 10 and south of Joshua Tree National Park until, a few miles east of Chiriaco Summit, another massive pumping station sends it back into the Eagle Mountains.  There the remnants of the Hayfield Reservoir are etched on the land. In 1939, the Southern California Water District dug a small auxiliary holding reservoir, filled it, and watched the water disappear, sucked down by the porous desert soil that quickly cracked and dessicated, leaving an imprint of white like the ghost of a water-dream.
Hayfield is the last pump lift; after that, the water descends through a long string of tunnels bored into the San Bernardino Mountains, then emerges to water the Quail Ranch Resort and Country Club, passes the Perris Reservoir, and terminates in what was once the Cajalco Reservoir, now Lake Matthews, southwest of Riverside. 

By then the desert has ended;  the satellite images show not a grey-brown shading to the hard white of the alkali desert but a brilliant irrigated green.  Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City, Palm Springs:  these are the oases that served as the fantasy models for Lake Havasu City, Arizona.  Golf courses with names like the El Dorado or Indian Wells are surrounded by densely packed housing subdivisions, many with swimming pools behind each sprawling house, and all of them with green lawns fed by irrigation water.  

This is what Lake Havasu City was supposed to have been.  Look at the satellite pictures, though, and a very different process can be seen hidden in the archaeology of land, its color, its overlays with the grids of building and farming, its striving toward an orderly domesticity of human use subordinating the imperatives of climate, topography, soil.  There are three golf courses—two of them carved out of the same small area near the city’s “center”, though the city has no center:  Lake Havasu Golf Course, and London Bridge Golf Course.  Further north along the lake's edge is the Refuge Golf Course.  These are the spots of green you can read, inserted in the complex weave of subdivision streets.  From a wide angle, at low magnification, the city seems ever-so-slightly greener than its surroundings.  Bring the picture down, and you see why—almost every house has one, or perhaps two, green plantings—shrub palms, mostly, or perhaps mesquite or junipers, usually close to the house, where they can be watered with the garden hose early in the morning or late at night when the temperature drops below 95. And of course, the greens and blues of those small pools, spa pools, they’re called, contribute to the shift in color.  

Along the lakeside, there’s a thin band of greenery, sometimes as narrow as two or three trees deep.  That’s as far as the water can sustain life. Beyond that, the street views confirm what those of us who’ve patrolled the citys know too well:  this is a landscape beyond arid.
What possessed those real estate agents, those speculators, those contractors and subcontractors, bank mortgage agents, those snowbirders and speculative landlords and city boosters:  what did they see that isn’t here?  Palm Springs, California, perhaps, where freely flowing water assured irrigation ditches for the golf courses, sprinklers for the lawns and parks, free-flowing water from the Colorado for as long as it might flow.

Not so Lake Havasu.  By the doctrine of prior claim, it came too late to get more than a tiny stake in the water right beside it.  What the foliage might steal from lake’s edge was about all that could be expropriated;  upriver and downriver claimants were vigilant to keep their rights and slake their own desires for greenswards and golf courses, parks and playing fields.  In Lake Havasu City, even the high school’s baseball and football fields are sparse and parched. 

What Lake Havasu City doesn’t have in greenery or scenery, it more than makes up for in houses.  Houses whose mortgages went under water at the very earliest moments of the Great Bust, and now are dessicated with the drought of interest, attention, fantasy that might bring buyers and dwellers.  The spa pools are dry, the scrub palms are dying;  inside the walls, behind the thin veneer of stucco, the 2x4s are twisting in the absolute dryness, for the air conditioner and the humidifier have long been turned off.  

When this happens to a city in a temperate climate—in Detroit, say, or Cleveland, or Philadelphia—over time the land and its primordial occupants claim back their portions, their rights.  Camilo Vergara, my old friend, has been photographing these sites for decades.In one sequence, we watch as the dome of a library crumbles.  It collapses.  Then the compost of leaves and branches accumulates on the tiled floor.  A tree grows up, rising through the ruined remnants of a Carnegie-funded American monument.  Soon the neighborhood, the city, is a Piranesian  fantasy, only it is American civilization that has had its time, its flowering, and its decay, and is now disappearing from view and from memory.

Not Lake Havasu City.  There’s no foliage to reclaim this land.  There’s no rainfall to hasten the decay, to return plaster to earth, wood to dirt. Instead, it will stand for centuries, perhaps millennia, until, finally, a great wind will come and brush it away, dust to dust.