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.

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