‘Half a head of lettuce’

I don’t remember what I thought when I first saw the billboard for the ‘Texas Hot Lunch: maybe chili, or barbecue, or steak, maybe.

I was in a cuisine-free zone. Thats not a criticism, just an observation.

Kane is best described by where it’s not. It’s not near Buffalo, or close to Cleveland, or a suburb of Pittsburgh. It’s somewhere in between those three cities. To the east there’s not much until Williamsport, where the Little Leaguer’s play.

Shoofly pie? I think you have to go a bit east for that gooey feast.

Scrapple? Does scrapple have an actual point of origin? I’ve seen it in West Virginia.

Cleveland is famous for its Pierogi: others are fine with that.

The Texas Hot, the menu says, dates back to 1914. Some say it tastes that old… just sayin’.

Not that I would have cared. Tradition has its own taste.

Like I said, or implied, it was hard to resist searching out this place and figuring just what a Texas Hot Lunch was.

Turns out it wasn’t, a lunch that is.

On the back of the menu they try to explain it, and do a damn poor job of it.

Turns out the Texas Hot Lunch began life as a candy store, confections they called them. The son of the original owner took it over, and later the son’s four sons took it over from him.

At some point along the way they acquired – at least this is my reading of the confusing little history on the back of the menu – a hot dog stand, rolled it over on logs to its present site. That old hot dog stand is no longer standing. They tore it down and put up a new building in the same spot a few decades back.

The neon sign also includes a vertical display that reads “4 sons,” though two have moved on to other pursuits, including a small brewery.

I am reminded of the joke about the Philadelphia chicken. Do you know it? It’s a long joke, a kind of ‘shaggy dog’ with at least four parts beginning with the story of the Texan – no relation to the Texas Hot Lunch – who asks the produce man in a grocery store for a “half a head of lettuce.”

The produce man heads into the back – not realizing the tall Texan is right behind him – and exclaims loudly to other workers that there’s an idiot in the store who wants “a half a head of lettuce.”

When he turns and sees the Texan has followed him into the back room he quickly adds, “and this handsome fellah would like the other half.”

The boss hears about the produce man’s quick-witted response and… well the joke goes on for a good deal longer.

I mention that joke, in part, because Texas Hot Lunch was also one punch line after the other.

The first was that there was a Texas Hot Lunch – since 1914 sort of – in Kane (which is neither here nor there) Pennsylvania at all. The second was that Texas Hot Lunch wasn’t a lunch at all: it was a hot dog (Texas Hots are a kind of hot dog style, like a Coney Island hot dog) that gave its name to a hot dog stand which gave its name to a restaurant. The third was that the Texas Hot Lunch was actually a Greek restaurant, not a Texas Steak House. The fourth was that the traditional hot dog in a bun that started it all (sort of, just after the confectionary shop) came covered in a rather unappealing brown gravy.

The Texas Hot Lunch and Four Sons also serve what they call “Greek Fries:” French Fries covered in a spicy, brown meat sauce with Nacho cheese.

I had the Greek-style dog in gravy, and the Souvlaki dinner, and a piece of homemade apple pie.


Famous Texas Hot Lunch

Ever hear of ramps? I once spent a few weeks thinking about ramps, from the lily family I think, a sort of wild scallion, an obsession of folks in the rural south.

I nearly bought a domain name, back when that was a big deal: rampsuppers.com, ramparoundtheclock.org, ramproute.us…

It’s an American, mostly Appalachian tradition.

There are ramp festivals, fundraisers, dinners; ramp socials which they say are not too social considering that ramps – once consumed – will stay with you (and those in close proximity) for days.

Looking back now I guess it wasn’t ramps that I was so excited about: it was the excuses people find for celebrating, the endless excuses.

I wanted to specialize in poor excuses for overeating.

No, that’s not exactly it.

I wanted to be the authority on food festivals, voluntary fire department fundraisers, and unusual and not altogether appetizing appetizers. 

I think I was always looking for an excuse to go the road, to stay on the road.

Memories of my ramp period came back to me when I came across Famous Texas Hot Lunch in Kane, Pennsylvania on day three, or was it four: first came across an old sign off 417, partially obscured by a misshapen tree, a billboard meant for travelers from a different, slower era.

Hold on to that Famous Texas Hot Lunch for a few minutes though: I feel another leap through time bubbling to the surface.

Walking east from Albuquerque a month or so later I was scooped off the highway by a big guy from Moriarty, New Mexico who hated, he made a point of saying as soon as I climbed in, Phoenix, had moved to Albuquerque after that and then – after he broke down in Moriarty – while he waited for a tire to be fixed, wandered around the little town and found a house for sale that he bought on the spot.

I was about ten miles east of Moriarty when he picked me up off the highway, and he was headed to Lubbock, Texas, if I remember correctly, to either sell the truck he was driving or the truck he was hauling, or was it that he was going to buy a 57’ something or other because his father had one when he was a kid?

A 57’ Ford Station Wagon, that was it.

The connection with Kane is that, let’s call him Luke, Luke might have been the foremost authority on food festivals, at least those in New Mexico.

New Mexico, don’t forget this, has its own cuisine, its own food dialect. 

Moriarty, I think Luke said, was the Pinto Bean Capital of the World, and then he went on to describe a half dozen other otherwise nondescript New Mexican towns as the chile capital of this, the sopapilla capital of that… 

I should have taken notes, but my rucksack with my tape recorder was in my lap – so I couldn’t subtly fish it out and start to record Luke – and my notepad and pen were in a side pocket of my backpack which was still strapped to my three-wheeler which was tipped on its side in the bed of the truck.

I never hitchhiked on the walk. Well, almost never. Just twice, that I remember. One time after a policeman gave me bad directions outside of Filmore, California and I had to backtrack off a mountain and it was getting late so I tried for about five minutes to hitchhike into the nearest town and, when unsuccessful, had just started walking when someone pulled over…

Another time, caught without a good place to camp on a cold day headed into a very cold night on Interstate 40 in the middle of nowhere New Mexico I tried, unsuccessfully again, to thumb a ride to – hopefully – Santa Rosa, then after 20 minutes of semi trucks blowing by me rolled my cart back to the rest stop and set up my tent behind a little brick wall.

Several times, five if you want me to be specific, people seeing this odd long-hair with the backpack and the three-wheeler ambling along the highway, just stopped and asked if I wanted a ride. 

I never said no to an unsolicited free offer, though to be honest I never had a ride that I wasn’t, at least at first, suspicious of the reasons why someone would just pull over and pick me up.

If you have ever hitchhiked you know that however excited you are to get a ride you are at least as suspicious why anyone would pick you up. It’s the Woody Allen thing: I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member and oftentimes that suspicion is well-founded.

The first of those unsolicited rides was into Filmore. This young man who had a little two-seat Toyota Supra that had been buffed to the metal and never repainted pulled over and announced he was “only” going as far east as the Mojave – which was a few hundred miles away. Said, when I explained my mission, that he’d been homeless himself for a time. There was a power drill on my seat when I got in. That would have been a great ride but I wasn’t looking to accumulate miles. He barely had time to tell me his life story which like most of the others that picked me up included homelessness, drug addiction, rehab, jail time, a runaway wife and a love of… There was always something they were passionate about and had to share.

One guy that plucked me off the road announced that he loved off-roading and proved it. Another offered what he called “esoteric knowledge,” and had newspaper clippings that, he said, proved that Jesus was just as capable of eye-for-eyeing as any Old Testament god.

I felt I had stumbled into the invisible realm that exists between the rings of Saturn, a zone inhabited not by fallen angels but by angel wannabees, applicants who had failed the entrance examination. Life had not been kind to them and they were hoping – not always succeeding – at finding strangers they could be nice to or, if that proved impossible, leave hastily buried along the side of a dirt road just a short distance from the highway.

What was a short ride for them was a big deal for me. I was with him – the Supra owner – no more than five minutes – or about 5 miles. That would have taken me over 2 hours to walk. He reluctantly dropped me off at McDonalds in downtown Filmore.

I am taking a very long time getting started with this day’s walk, this day’s drive, day three’s reminisce but you have to understand that’s how every day of the walk was: every day I had to create  a new day from the dust of the day before.

Where was I going, how would I get there, where would I stay when I got wherever that was, with whom, and what would I say to them, how would I plead my case, how could I make them believe – and re-believe myself – that what I was doing was worthy of their interest?

Does love have to be re-initialized, re-ignited, re-established every day as well? Maybe it does. Maybe we should.

I woke in the dark, confused, then realized I was on dark street across from the College of Human Ecology in Ithaca, hadn’t really slept that well – maybe a few hours of actual sleep –and after wriggling out of my sleeping bag – wet moth out of a crusty cocoon – headed out toward Corning and then, I hoped, south towards Pennsylvania.

There was a long climb out of Ithaca: perfect spot for an escalator.

Just southwest of Corning – not even an hour from Ithaca – my oil light went on and I stopped immediately on the side of the road and asked Siri for the nearest quick oil change business: Look to your left, Siri suggested.

Just to my left, across the road, obscured by a few trees, was “Oil Xpress.”

In less than 15 minutes my oil was changed, my story told, and the entire crew of Oil Xpress posed for a picture: I left them with a few of my posters as well.

Lube, wash and service.

Then it was a long day of beautiful if remote scenery. In the Southwest you can see for a hundred miles in all directions. In the northeast you can only catch glimpses of the natural world through the windows of your car. Through the trees that lined most of the roads I could see green hillsides dotted with cattle. From a ridge top I could see mist-filled valleys. As the day went by the undulations were becoming more extreme, the sinus waves tighter, the edges more prominent, the stone bones beneath beginning to break through the flesh, the dark watery arteries deeper, slower.

I don’t think you can tell these states apart, not here: I don’t believe you can tell this corner of Ohio, that piece of New York or that part of Pennsylvania from each other, save for the names of politicians that still bloomed on yard signs from the recently concluded election.

The history too is intermingled here.

The beginning of the oil boom of the late 19thcentury which I had always heard began in Pennsylvania (giving birth to Quaker State Oil) is celebrated in Bolivar – named oddly enough for the South American hero Simon Bolivar – which while near the Pennsylvania state line is actually in the state of New York.

The Pioneer Oil Museum says so.

I stopped at the Bolivar Free Library as well and offered a bemused librarian one of my posters.

Was Jasper in New York, or Pennsylvania? 

I’m not sure but I know I slowed for a photograph of an odd ‘wigwam’ historical museum and gift shop in Jasper and it seems just moments later I was in Eldred, which is definitely Pennsylvania, where though the library next door was closed the World War Two Museum was hopping.

The Jasper Wigwam

I was just beginning to understand what it would take to have the conversations – the interactions that I desired, that I needed to give substance to my walk so I engaged the two men managing the museum.

I’ve lost their card, but the museum –which features a 3D trompe l’oeil of a tank exploding out of the exterior wall of the museum – is worth a visit, if just to figure out where you are.

You are in Eldred, one of the men told me without irony: a mural near the entrance shows the important role that women played in helping with the war effort.

The road rose and fell, and rose and fell.

Just over the Pennsylvania State Line, just as my cell connection began to waver, I received a phone call from my bank, a pre-recorded message listing four suspect charges – one in Munich, one in Singapore, one in Toronto and the other near Corning, New York. Suspicious charges on my bankcard.

In a panic, on a hillside in Pennsylvania – this was the only ‘cash’ I had in case of an emergency – I consented to having the account closed, a new card issued and sent, but where? California? It’s hard to explain to a bank that you have no mailing address, no forwarding address, no permanent domicile.

My home was the changing landscape. My friends those I encountered  on the road.

As I sat in the parking lot of a Baptist Church trying to talk with the bank’s customer service agent and looked down over the farms and ranches all around me the only discernible structures were church spires.

From there, until Los Angeles, the prominence of churches would grow and grow. McDonalds has sold so many billions of burgers. Jesus has saved, the church marquees might justifiably proclaim, billions and billions of souls.

Why are rural areas more susceptible to Jesus than urban areas? Is it that the Wi-Fi is sketchy? Is it that there are more opportunities for religious start-ups in rural areas: there is almost always a failed church to move in to and start your own church business?

What is the break-even point for an evangelical start-up?

What is more important to the success of an evangelical church: an organ, the monthly beano, a charismatic preacher?

After a long climb I arrived in Mt. Jewett, Pennsylvania – for some reason that name sounded familiar to me – offering visitors what its website says is one of the wonders of the world, the Kinzua Viaduct. 

The Taj Mahal sure. Machu Pichu, without a doubt. A railroad bridge?

When the viaduct was built after the Civil War it was the highest and longest railroad span in the world.

About 30 years ago the US Park Service – the Allegheny National Forest lies beneath this span – had plans to turn the bridge into a tourist attraction. Good thing they were slow to move on those plans, because a few years later a tornado knocked a large portion of it down.

The scaled-down attraction is now referred to as a scenic overlook.

I didn’t stop for the overlook either. 

I blew through Mt. Jewett, past the road for the viaduct- the skywalk as it is now billed – and into the town of Kane, Pennsylvania where I took a room at the Kane Inn, once owned by the family of General Kane.

“The need to transport coal, oil and lumber across the Kinzua Gorge inspired General Thomas Kane, president of the New York, Lake Erie and Western Coal Company to design a colossal viaduct,” the Kane website informs.

I stopped in Kane because I was tired. I was tired, in part, because I had not yet figured out where I would be staying for the next year, and in part because Sharl was not talking with me, perhaps for forever.

She wasn’t answering my calls, had not been since I left Plymouth. I had the burden of re-inventing myself every day added to the challenge of reinventing, re-establishing, re-imagining – fighting for her love.

She felt abandoned. She said I had made a choice. I had abandoned everything to undertake this walk, except my heart I pleaded redundantly on the voice mails that were piling up on her digital doorstep. 

For the last two days the road I traveled, the climbs, the plummets, the sights and the sounds and the words of strangers – no matter how bright, colorful or melodious were to my senses as harsh as the sound and sight of blackbirds in the distant trees: an ache of noise, a tumult of wings, a hale storm of broken shadows.

Was this what I had always wanted?

Outside of Kane, before I turned off the road for the Inn, there was a sign, a fading billboard, almost obscured by the branches of an old oak tree on Route 417 that read, “Famous Texas Hot Lunch.”

I managed a smile.

Why famous, I wondered? What exactly is a hot lunch? 

I imagined a small roadside stall, an open grill out back, oversized cars parked at odd angles with men in baggy pants leaning into the car windows.

It was a minor mystery, a piece of hard candy that I could unfold slowly and slip into my mouth.

I wondered if I was in ramp country?

I checked into the Inn. Or rather I arrived and found the entrance locked. I spoke with a man, a guest I thought, someone leaving the Inn’s gravel parking lot and he asked me if I had seen a man in overalls, a few blocks back on the same road as the Inn, raking leaves? 

When I nodded he said, “That’s him.”

General Kane?

I drove back a few blocks, spoke briefly with the caretaker through the car window, drove back to the Inn and in a few minutes he came shuffling through the leaf-strewn yard, still clutching his rake, opened the door, gave me my key, showed me my room.

It is a work in progress, he acknowledged: the unnecessarily large rooms were clean if a bit careworn. The off-season price suspiciously reasonable. Breakfast included. A King-sized bed. Sufficient if poor water pressure.

I put my backpack in the corner of the room, flopped on to the bed and tried calling. No answer. No answer. No answer. I left a few more messages.

I found directions to the Famous Texas Hot Lunch and headed out the door.

New York, Pennsylvania, or somewhere in between.

College of Human Ecology

After the Albany Pine Bush New York opens up.

Albany is the cave’s mouth, the gaping wound, the toothsome grin and inside is the larger state of New York, the Empire State and deeper still the echoing promise of the west, and deeper still, perhaps, America.

Salvy’s special lens…

In many ways this trip, drive, walk, was a descent into that dark cave, or a leap.

I remembered a trip to Cooperstown a decade or so ago with the family, a drive down a long, endless valley but endless only in the sense that we had a specific destination and speed was our only concern. 

On this day there was no family, and only a temporary destination: a night’s stay.

Drive west young man.

For Cooperstown we had taken Interstate 88 which has a kind of non-committal feel: it is separate from the environment it passes through.

This was a different road. Route 20?

If this was Route 20 it was the first of what would be many famous east-west roads I expected to travel in the next year.

If this was the same Route 20 that passes through Worcester it goes a long way, starting in Cambridge I think, moves halfway across New York State. Maybe I have it confused with another 20. 

This 20 rides west along a wide ridge, changing names and numbers, sits upon a plateau of sorts for a time, through a number of small towns, boroughs, villages, hamlets, some crowded along rivers, some built along the ‘crick.’

I love the changing vernacular of the road. 

I thought at first that this would be a good alternative route – thinking of my walk back – both for its population density and because it didn’t seem to have too many changes in altitude, too many difficult ascents for someone carrying a heavy pack, but instead ran along the spine that would eventually end in the Allegheny though long after I had turned south. But an hour or so west of Albany that changed. 

As I drew near the fingers, the Finger Lakes – those strange flooded valleys that appear like deep claw marks in the mountainsides and that, looking from the water, appear to be landlocked fjords – the road began to roller coaster violently.

I imagined myself spending days walking down, days on the way up, with little in between. I had anticipated that my largest challenge would be weather, but here I could see that topography would play a large role in the distance I might cover, the shelter I might find.

That’s why I was driving out though, wasn’t it, I asked myself? So that I would know what to expect, what to avoid on the way back. I guess I thought this would be easy.

Should I avoid these hills I asked myself? It was, I thought, too soon to consider avoiding anything. 

At least there were towns, villages, hamlets, boroughs, and the chance to interact: that’s what I really hoped for, needed, interactions, conversations. That might no be so easy out west, with long distances between anything of any size so, for the moment at least, I chose to simply note the topography, nod to it.

I drove through Plainfield, Eaton, Erieville and DeRuyter, passed a number of small, quaint post offices, a rare A&W Root Beer drive-thru.

I drove on.

I found myself tongue tied in a village spelled “Tioughnioga” which, after I had tried on several pronunciations one local told me when I got out to take a picture of the voluntary fire department building was pronounced – although he may have been pulling my leg – ‘tough night?’

Tough night…

In Guilderland I stopped at the town hall, dropped of a few posters but the clerk wasn’t in.

I never knew, after I introduced myself, who I would be referred to. In Guilderland it was the clerk. In Kingman the tourism services manager. In Tucumcari the city manager.

By the time I reached the outskirts of Ithaca the sun had disappeared and a slight mist was falling.

Ithaca is crowded, steep, up and down and in and out and overrun by students.

In an area crammed with restaurants and businesses catering to the college I stopped for a few minutes, parked, and considered sleeping in the car but then I had an idea.

I called the Cornell Student Union and asked the first person that answered the phone, Caroline she said was her name, if she was a student? Then I explained my predicament. I am walking – though not yet – across the country, talking – though not yet – about community – sleeping – though not yet wherever I can and asking everyone I meet – and that means you Caroline – if they can help me out in any way.

By which, I explained further, I meant a place to stay, sleep, nod without fear of being interrupted?

Yes, Caroline said, and without further prompting offered “Martha Van Renssalaer Hall.”

“If you’re in there at 8, they lock it up but allow you to stay, and study.”

I found my way to Garden Avenue and a parking lot, out of the light and waited. Then I reconnoitered: What is the “College of Human Ecology?” I felt, instinctively that its students would want me laid out on a slab, secured to the table with bungee cords and Twizzlers, would marvel at my insecurity.

The College of Human Ecology

I walked into the hall and took the elevator to the second floor, and to a study area. There was no one there. 

I waited ten minutes, then returned to my car and pulled out my sleeping bag and then quickly returned, found a cubicle out of sight of the entrance and waited until 9 p.m. Then, when I was sure that I would be alone, I got out my sleeping bag, spread it on to the floor and..

Around ten two students came in but did not penetrate the room beyond a noisy printer that was near the entrance.

Around 11 there was a similar visit.

I think I slept, a few minutes at least, disturbed only by the thought that this would be my fate for the next year: sleeping on hard tile floors, in empty office buildings.

Somewhere around 12:30 a custodian came in and began to systemically move through the room, emptying trash cans, cleaning up, slowly making his way toward my cluster of cubicles and workstations.

I tried to ignore him. I pretended to be asleep. He has to see me I thought. The floor was hard but the room was warm. It was just day 2. I had such a long way to go.

“You can’t sleep here,” I heard him say.


Failure to launch

Salvy’s Savoy shack should have been the perfect launch pad but it was more of a lily pad, a place to contemplate the universe and lunch, not launch, on the occasional dragonfly.

I needed a launch specialist, not a philosophical frog, not a short Italian metaphysicist however sweet his song.

Simons Road, Cropseyville, NY. Nov. 5, 2018

I needed a kick in the pants, not a treatise on art in the renaissance. I needed a good night’s sleep and maybe a good ‘talking to.’ I left the next morning with my intellect illuminated but my physical self tired and irresolute, yearning stay in Savoy while hoping to reach Ithaca by the early afternoon.

It’s not wise to start a journey moving in two – or more – directions.

The idea, as I noted earlier, was to trace the route that I might take back, on foot, so as to avoid unnecessary mistakes, unrequired climbs, unforgiving terrain and otherwise hostile territory and to somehow take note of all of that – to scrawl it all in my little black notepad – to prepare the way for my return.

I was Hansel, leaving breadcrumbs on the Interstate.

I was Hansel, leaving business cards with librarians, Rotarians, gas station attendants.

Cold calls, that’s not a metaphor or a weather forecast, that’s what I had to do, make cold calls, knock on doors, introduce myself, explain my mission and make the sale. But was anyone really buying ‘world peace’ these days or, as I was calling it, ‘community.’ And if they were why would they buy it from this vagabond, this long-hair, this ex-fake news dispenser, the stranger.

Day 2, Savoy MA to Ithaca NY

I didn’t’ have a clue. I was making it up as I went along. I was inventing this walk as I walked – or drove as I was at this point – I had no problems with that. I have always thought making it up as I went along was my particular skill.

So unlaunched I just left.

I drove back to Route 2, stopped with Salvy to pay homage to a 350 year old tree that overlooks the gorge there then headed west, through Williamstown, Williams, Billytown and the like, navigating hairpins and s-curves and steep, steeper, steep as hell grades and probably less than an hour from Salvy’s pad the road flattened some, straightened out a bit and I calmed down as well, enough at least to see if not where I was going where I was at.

To the rootless ‘where I was going’ is a place, and ‘where you are at’ difficult to place.

Where was I at? I was headed into the unknown, seeing faces in clouds. My all-knowing iPhone however assured me that I was actually someplace specific, captioned a photograph with the quaint name “Cropseyville,” a village of Grafton.

According to wherethehellamikipedia Cropseyville is a hamlet in Renssalaer County and was named for prominent citizen Valentine Cropsey.

I didn’t know A&W Root Beer Stands still existed, until I came upon this one in Munson’s Corner, New York.

I stopped to take a picture of one of the banners hung from telephone poles around town, banners called “Grafton Heroes.”

I parked under the banner of “Merritt E. Wagar, army, Tech Sgt, 1942-45,” which featured a tinted picture of a smirking Wagar, arms folded, one hand clutching a cigarette, posing in in movie star fashion.

A hero? Why, I wondered? Because he died? Because he served? I liked the idea of personalizing community heroes, but wondered if there were towns that I would stumble upon somewhere along my route that saw fit to give teachers, librarians, even the local press equal billing?

After Cropseyville it was Troy – “The Hill” my phone named it, the picture showing a long descent into a nondescript city.

Topography is the first hint that you are not in Kansas, or Massachusetts, anymore.

I was in the woods of Savoy in the morning, high in the Hoosacs, and in the turn of a page I was in the ugly of Albany. Why is this the capital of New York, I wondered out loud?

Do you talk to yourself when you are alone in the car? I am quite animated. Why is New York not the capital of itself, I huffed? What would Albany have become if it had been left alone, I asked an unresponsive audience?

I have learned to judge communities by comparing their Greyhound stations. Albany’s is particularly depressing.

I camped out in the ‘career exploration center’ in the Human Ecology building at Cornell University in Ithaca on day 2 – for a while at least.

I was trying to avoid the interstates: believing that I would not use them for the walk so just outside Albany, a few miles to the west, I found myself within the “Albany Pine Bush:” surprising that my phone would recognize and name an ecological identity. Coincidental at least, that I should come upon it.

It would be nearly 100 days of coincidences, synchronicity, magic – call it what you will – but on day two it was just a coincidence.

Still it made me smile seeing where I had come to, where I was at, what I had stumbled upon.

In the years since I first admitted out loud to the idea of “walking home” I had come to realize that home, or the hometown, is not simply comprised of people, not simply comprised of people organized into altruistic organizations, not simply the result of effective, human-scale government, and not the sum of all that divided by history and multiplied by art and music and literature. Community, I had come to realize, demands an environment as well: environment from the ground up, not just parks and recreational fields but real earth, the natural environment, native species, the water and the air and everything in between.

You cannot have community without environment: you can have the hope of community, but without a connection with the earth between, beneath and around our manmade world community cannot flourish.

We have so much of that in my hometown, in Plymouth, in the home I was leaving behind to have the pleasure of walking back to: so many rare species and wonderful vistas – much of it in the form of what is called the Atlantic Coastal Pine Barrens – and here I was on the outskirts of the famous Albany Pine Bush, a similar ecological phenomena so I had to, didn’t I, had to stop at their “Discovery Center,” just outside ugly Albany.

I felt as if I had picked up a flat stone on the shore of a familiar lake and had set it skimming across the state: where it came to rest was the Albany Pine Bush.

I wandered inside.

It was really the first of my cold calls. When she asked, as she would, “how can I help you,” I had to tell the young woman working there that day how I was driving across the country so I could walk back and how significant it was for me that on the edge of my world I had come upon an outpost of the world I was leaving behind.

I had to conveigh all of this calmly, concisely, without smiling like a madman or shedding a tear.

The Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center

The smiles of strangers. There are so many and so often they are anything but welcoming. The arch of a brow, the slight tightening at the corner of the mouth, nervous movements of the hands – and words that often belie the panic that lies just underneath.

I remember now – months later – a New Mexico State Policeman who pulled over behind me as I walked along Interstate 40 and sounded his klaxon: I had been scrupulously staying to the right to give the never-ending steam of semi-trucks the opportunity to avoid running me over like a bug but, he insisted that I had wandered too close to traffic, that’s why he had pulled me over or, more accurately, pulled in behind me.

In the whine of the semis I didn’t hear him, until the klaxon, and so I practically came out of my shoes when he sounded that digital horn.

When I came down though I remained calm. I slowly turned and, with a hunch of my shoulders, bid him instruct me. I knew the drill. He motioned that I should approach his car on the inside and I slowly walked to that side as he lowered the window.

What struck me the most was this maniacal smile that he had glued to his face. I am sure that he was schooled in the proper way to approach the potentially mad. ‘Don’t stop smiling,’ he was told. Even as you interrogate the suspect keep smiling.

It must have been painful, to smile like that.

It is I think, at the very least disconcerting, when we encounter a stranger.

At this moment though the smile, to mangle a phrase, was on the other foot.

What could I do with what they showed me, what educational innovations they might have on display, what preservation techniques they might employ, what passions they might communicate except to put them in my pocket like beautiful pieces of beach glass, and hope that they might still be there tomorrow and tomorrow and that at some point, on my return, I could find a place for them on my bureau.

What would I be able to do with all of the kindnesses that people showed me as I moved across the country?

It is easy to dispose of rudeness, to dismiss indifference, even hostility: they accumulate like coffee cups and fast food bags along the periphery of our consciousness but rarely impede our way.

Kindness and consideration and good will though?

I had to find a way to do justice to charity and it struck me at that moment that no matter how open-ended my journey was, how indefinite each day, how unsure I was of what would come next that I still had to work on being in the moment, on being brave.

For as I contemplated the beauty of that preserved land, that oasis of un-development, I couldn’t help but worry about how far I had to go, how few hours of sunlight remained, how I had no pad, lily or launch or other waiting for me on this second night.

Only darkness.

Day 1, the last dry stone in the riverbed

You want to know the plan? The plan was to get to the west coast, dip my toes in the water, then head east.

That’s it.

Oh yes, and I wanted to talk to community leaders about what they did, or did not do, to allow community to grow, to thrive.

This homeless thing? That came later.

So close to noon on day 1, November 4, 2018, I climbed into my now graffiti-covered black Prius and drove down the hill and out of Plymouth Town square on to Main street, going left, north.

For the first night at least I was covered, had a place to stay, in tiny Savoy, Massachusetts, tucked into the northwest corner of the state in the Hoosac Mountains, with Salvy.

Salvy’s little house was like the last dry stone in the river bed before I’d have to jump for the shore, only the shore was – where? Surfer’s Point in Ventura, California where the walk would officially begin? Simi Valley where my sister lived, where I planned to drop off the Prius?

No matter where I hoped to land this was a leap of faith and Salvy’s home was the last dry ground, where I could plant my foot before the unknown.

You have to be brave enough to take that last step, to put yourself in a place where the only way to go is forward. After that though, after you make that big leap forward, you have to be lucky.

After Salvy there was only a thick line on a map of the US: a diagonal, the northeast to the southwest: ocean to ocean, and a million and one different ways to get lost or lose my way – not necessarily the same thing.

My plan was to drive the side roads, the byroads, the alternate routes: the logic there, if there was any, was that I couldn’t’ walk along the highways on the walk back so I needed to see where the lesser roads went.

I knew the way to Salvy’s and didn’t need to explore that route but I still opted for the slow way to Savoy, mainly route 2 through Concord then west, all the way, through Leominster – Johnny Appleseed’s town, north of the reservoir, a beautiful drive even in the late fall until I reached the Hoosacs and then, at a sharp bend in the road, the recently restored short cut to Savoy, up a steep hill, through a small farm, past a 350-year old tree and, after a smattering of abandoned trailers, tumble-down shacks and renovated cottages “if you see the beaver dam on your right you just missed me.”

In Savoy at Salvy’s

During the years leading up to this day when I contemplated this adventure I found myself exhilarated at what I expected would be one of the most appealing aspects of this journey: its slowness. “Imagine,” I asked others to imagine, “how slow I will be going. Cars go a mile in a minute. Bicyclist travel that same mile in less than five. For me a mile, over 3,000 miles all told, will take 30 minutes!”

For this first half of the trip – the drive out to California – I would be driving, but still I soon found myself seeing things differently, slowing things down, noticing things I would otherwise have passed blindly: even on this first step toward Salvy’s just the willingness to step toward the unknown and the scales fell from my eyes.

What new things was I seeing? Little perhaps that was truly new but seeing with new eyes.

My heart too.

Not a new heart, but a heart exposed to the elements for the first time in years.

That had not happened overnight. That was a gradual unveiling, the removal of a scab.

Over the last few months I had come to realize that the commitment that I had made to this walk – a largely intellectual commitment – was in conflict with the direction of my heart.

For nearly a decade I had been falling in love.

Bon Voyage!

Is that possible? When people speak of falling in love they generally refer to a short, terrifying plunge: a leap off a rooftop, a slip on the ice, a foot caught on the root of a tree and an involuntary somersault on to your chest knocking the wind from you, leaving you gasping for air.

I had been on a spacewalk: I had left the comfort and safety of my cabin in the sky and with her help had learned the name of the stars, then the constellations, then for the first time had spied the blue-green earth beneath me.

For ten years I had been falling.

As I drove west, I was still falling.

As I drove west, I was leaving her behind.

As I drove west to Salvy’s I realized that the little stone in the stream that I hoped would provide the firm footing for my final leap was small and wet and resting in wet sand.

First morning

The morning of Day 1, November 4, 2018, which is to say, in a real sense, day 1,764. 

I had been talking about this walk for nearly five years and now I was actually leaving.

I was in Town Square watching as people took turns with a special white marker writing on my black car.

I wanted them to write the names of their favorite places in town, but most were variations on ‘bon voyage.’

Carlos Fragata, like me a board member of a local environmental group, got it right: he drew a picture of Flag Rock on White Horse Beach. Earlier I had drawn a picture of a wave, and the name “Center Hill Beach,” a place in Plymouth that I loved, where I had fallen in love.

‘What drove you to do this?’

Though I had been talking about this walk for years even close friends weren’t sure what was motivating me. People that I told about my idea at some point in the last five years would often come up to me on the street and ask if I had gone already, and returned.

“Weren’t you doing that walking thing,” they’d often say, to which I would smile, let the question dangle in the air for a moment, and then explain.

It was – is – not an easy thing to explain. It would be simple, I thought, in its realization but difficult to explain.

To give my “elevator speech” I needed to be going up to the 50th floor.

The idea for leaving and ‘walking home’ first began to materialize on the morning of December 31, 2013.

Were you there?

I had taken a picture at or around sunrise, somewhere in Plymouth, every morning in 2013 and on the last day – the last sunrise I called it – 500 of my nearest and dearest friends showed up at Plimoth Plantation for the final picture of the year.

December 31, 2013

I was stunned, elated, confused?

That first ‘last sunrise’ event wasn’t even over before people began to come up to me and ask, ‘what’s next?’

What will you do for an encore?

The Ponds, many suggested. The myth had always been that there were 365 ponds in Plymouth, one for every day of the year. I could take a picture of one a day..

But there weren’t 365 ponds in Plymouth: there were 430.

I wanted to move on to the next thing as well, to sleep until the sun was in the sky, but first I had to understand what had happened, first I had to figure out why 500 people risked frostbite to pose for a picture at 6:15 in the morning, the morning of the last day of the year?

And they didn’t just show up: they came with oysters, oatmeal stout, fresh muffins, coffee, placards proclaiming their particular cause or charity. 

The final picture happened around 6:30 that morning: the tailgating in the Plimoth Plantation parking lot went on for hours.

That afternoon I began to look at some of the pictures from that final sunrise. 

I examined the list of those that had said they would attend.

Cheryle and June, the founders of the Friends of Burial Hill were there early, helping me put out signs directing people to the site where we would take that final picture of the year.                                                                                                                                                                            The lady in the faux fur coat in the front row? From the Fragment Society – the oldest continually operating charity in America.

Halfway back in the crowd were members of the Plymouth Lodge of Masons, all formally attired.

Lurking near the front, bright eyed and energetic despite being desperately ill, super-Townie Wedge Bramhall with a sign protesting the local nuclear power plant.

Both the police and fire chief were there.

The Plymouth Masonic Lodge

Congressional aid Mike Jackman and then, at the last minute, his boss, then freshman Congressman Keating.

Vinnie deMacedo, still a state representative I believe.

A group of woman who baked cupcakes for families in stress.

The Friends of Myles Stasndish State Forest.

As I looked over the pictures from that day I began to realize what they all had in common: these were people already engaged in their community, already serving on one on more boards, town meeting representatives, members of historic societies, artists and photographers and musicians.

Five years later as I walked into Albuquerque, New Mexico, about two months into the walk, Tobias Esquibel – the brother in law of Plymouth School Superintendant Gary Maestas, asked me what “drove” me to  it.

I laughed.

I wasn’t driven to it I protested. I was compelled. I was inspired. I was seized by the idea of it.

It intoxicated me.

In trying to understand why others had shown up on that cold morning in 2013 I had an epiphany: Plymouth was my hometown.

I had never felt the need for a hometown but now it was suddenly there beating in my chest like a second heart.

WalkingHome – it came to me in one crystalline moment like the first drop of rain after a long drought landing on the bridge of your nose as you gazed heavenward hoping – would be a journey to a greater understanding of what made me feel that Plymouth was my hometown: what combination of natural human empathy, effective government, civic engagement, history and environment creates a soil fertile enough to grow a sense of community.

What can we all do to create and maintain that feeling that you belong someplace?

Or what do we do – intentionally or unwittingly – to obstruct or deny that sense of belonging?

It seemed to me the perfect idea. 

It came out of the box fully assembled. 

I knew immediately that I would call it “walking home,” because it was about  finding the way home to a sense of belonging, home to a community of caring, home to a community with a legacy of civic engagement.

Perfect.

Or so I thought on that winter morning almost five years ago. But today, as I prepared to drive away?

Belief

An old friend of mine, Joe Rose, was confident that gases venting out of the earth, from volcanoes roughly distributed along the equator, were responsible for night and day, the spinning of the earth.

I remember smiling when he confessed that belief – or rather his disbelief in science to me.

I remember listening excitedly – before the invention of the Internet – as a Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, metaphor-driven radio host on a station that during the day played non-stop polka music for its largely Polish-American audience – assured me that I could improve my social life by recognizing that I was living at the center of the universe.

I took him seriously enough to go out on my own that night – to The Rusty Nail in Amherst – to see what kind of creature might be dancing (like the unusual glow-in-the-dark worms that inhabit the deepest depths of the ocean) at the center of everything.

Just about a week ago I walked from a hostel on San Francisco Street in Flagstaff to the Willow Bend Environmental Center and met with its Executive Director, Moran Henn.

 

We spoke for no more than 15 minutes, but found much in common, as I was a member – in absentia – of a similar organization back home in Plymouth. 

The next day was spent with Apache Don Decker, the Public Information Officer of the Yapavai-Apache Nation, meeting with Tribal elders and elected officials: a day that was supposed to culminate with a tribal community Christmas dinner but, as the dinner concluded Don told me we were going to a Winter Solstice party at a friends who lived just east of Flagstaff.

As we entered that house I recognized Moran Henn, the woman I had just met the day before in Flagstaff.

I met her husband Avi as well, and their bilingual children (Israeli and English).

What a nice coincidence, I thought.

A week later I was at a local coffee shop in Flagstaff to meet with Jamie Whelan, a member of the Flagstaff City Council, when I noticed Avi Moran sitting by himself. I re-introduced myself and just then the councillor came in and came right over: the two were old friends.

 

The next day I left Flagstaff early in the morning to start walking again and in the early afternoon was happy to learn that a family that lived along my route wanted to take me in for the night.

It was, it turned out, the same family that had held the Winter Solstice party.

The patriarch of that family is Jones Benally, a respected Navajo medicine man and it was in his ceremonial hooghan that I slept that night, first spending several hours listening to Jones explain Navajo beliefs and dissecting the challenges that modern tribe members face.

I spent the next night as the guest of the Navajo casino Twin Arrows and received an amazing lecture on Navajo arts and beliefs, social structure and government from Geri Hongeva, who knew the Benally family, told me that in fact she was a member of Jones’ clan (in Navajo culture Jones was her grandfather) and also an old friend and colleague of Don Decker though she had not seen him in more than a dozen years. 

The night I spent with the Benallys Jones held up dinner so that he might offer a Navajo prayer for me.

Though the prayer was incomprehensible to me during the song – so much of their prayers and ceremonies are delivered in musical chants – I could clearly make out the occasional “Francis.”

I can’t do justice to those three days with words. 

I can’t believe all that happened in just three days.

The magical beings, adventurous cicada, dramatic artwork, architecture and perhaps above all the pride of these people was stirring.

There are 300,000 Navajo people, I learned, and unlike many other tribes they have never come close to losing their language or traditions.

Most Navajo don’t live on tribal lands but 60 percent speak fluent Navajo. It is, Geri told me with a fierce look in her eyes, “my first language.”

Easterners often laugh sarcastically at the notion of a tribal casino, and are against their establishment in their own communities but the Twin Arrows Casino outside of Flagstaff is closer to a church than our idea of a casino: everywhere you look there are representations of their beliefs, their ceremonies, their traditions and their industry.

We are about to celebrate 400 years since the arrival of the Mayflower in Plymouth and I have to admit that I used to think that was an impressive number especially for westerners who are barely more than a century removed from the granting of statehood.

But most if not all of the tribes of the Colorado Plateau believe that they originated thousands of years ago, emerging from caves and caverns and canyons where today there is still evidence of ancient civilizations.

I think that it is not so much what you believe, it is what beliefs you share.

The mythical creatures, holy beings and rituals of the Navajo and other tribes would, without shared belief, be fit only for cheap pots and Chinese-made faux ‘Indian’ jewelry.

With faith and pride they are the powerful beliefs of a powerful people.

Keeping up with… myself!

I can’t keep up with myself.

The past few days, maybe the last week, have been remarkable for the things I have seen, the places I have passed through, the people who have come to my aid or added color and depth to my vision…

Wait, that last idea. – ‘the depth of my vision’ – should really be the starting point of, at least this commentary.

The idea for the walk began with the end of another journey:  a year long sunrise series of photographs.

The seminal moment was December 31, 2013 – when friends and neighbors joined me in the cold and dark of 1627 ‘Plimoth.’

It had been a wonderful year and that last morning at Plimoth Plantation for the ‘last sunrise of the year’ I was amazed to look out of the fort and see 500 people lining ‘Leyden Street,’ in chronological order, clutching the sunrise pictures I had taken 364 times before.

What had been a mostly solitary quest produced a seed of inspiration.

I was filled with the joy and confidence that comes from feeling part of something greater than yourself, in this case the joy of feeling part of a community.

But so strange was that feeling for me, so alien to my experience, that it took me a few months to recognize it and a few months more to find a fitting way to commemorate its discovery: by “Walking Home!”

I was excited, you might even say intoxicated by the idea of this walk, but I really had no idea of what I was getting myself into, or what I would find, or indeed what I was looking for.

There was no real depth to my vision, just an intuitive sense of its potential importance.

I was also, I can admit now, somewhat callously indifferent to this walk’s potential effect on those closest to me.

No, take away that modifier “somewhat:” I was insensitive. I have a habit of giving too much importance to ideas.

So the 4 years leading up to my departure this past November 4 were years of internal exploration and debate.

Why was I walking? What did I hope to accomplish? What about those I was leaving behind? 

During those years some, but not all of my questions were answered. My sense of the importance of community deepened. The disruption to my personal life was no longer an abstract discussion.

And during that same time in this country the idea of community seemed to stiffen, shatter and send sharp shards in every direction, making a discussion of its foundation – and my walk – increasingly relevant.

I’ve gone on a bit here, haven’t I, when I simply meant to catch you up on the last week’s ‘activity.’

So maybe I should just offer a condensed version of the last week.

Actuallly it hasn’t been a week, just a few days since I left the Grand Canyon International Hostel on a dark, snowy, bitterly cold morning and walked up Route 66 which turned into Route 89, looking to walk about 12 miles that day and find someplace to stay/camp/stay warm in Winona.

I think it was about 19 degrees when the sun came up and I realized I had gone two miles too far north: I should have taken the Winona-Townsend Road, a right turn off 89, but I misread my diirections.

I asked the clerk at the convenience store where I had stopped what lay ahead of me if I took the short cut my mapping app offered me and as she hemmed and hawed a local resident who happened to be  in the store at that mooment and overhead me offered to give me a ride back to Townsend-Winona Road.

Back on track I paused for a moment and took a picture of the San Francisco Mountains – sacred to Native Americans – posted it and its location on my Facebook page, and trudged down the still snow-covered road.

I keep my phone off to save battery charge so it wasn’t for another hour – about two miles of the ten that remained – that I turned it on to take another picture.

As soon as it came on I saw a message from Don Decker (read an earlier blog post about Don) telling me that a family that he knew that lived just off the road I was on were offering a place to stay that night.

Just moments later I saw a car turn into a driveway ahead of me and then immediately turn around and stop, facing out into the street.

My ride!

It wasn’t just a nice family taking sympathy on me. It was the Benally family: Jones, a former Hollywood stunt man now a Navajo medicine man, his remarkably talented children Clayson and Jeneda, grandchildren, adopted friends, three dogs, two cats, a Native dance group that travels the world, the band Sinhasin… 

I wasn’t just taken in by a family, I was given temporary membership in a psychedelic, social-justice, rock and roll, Native dance, Wild West traveling medicine show.

I was given the ‘hooghan’ to sleep in, with its Pendleton blankets, sheepskin rugs, and wood stove to help stay warm.

I accompanied Clayson on a walk thorough the snowy woods to a neighbor’s horse farm where a wild pony that Clayson had helped save after its mother died giving birth, was being raised.

At dinner that evening Jones offered a long, beautiful prayer – in Navajo – for my safe travels and later came to the hooghan where he talked for over an hour about Navajo beliefs, healing ceremonies, the challenges facing their tribe, the assault on their traditional beliefs by Christian missionaries (when he was a young man) and much more.

I had fed the wood stove when I came in and he added a log when he arrived and as he talked the flue turned cherry red and my bedroom became a sweat lodge and visions of peyote cults, lightning ceremonies and insect creatures from the 3rd World of the Navajo creation story danced in my fevered head.

There is so much more to say about my 12 hours with the Benally family, but this is again simply meant to catch you up.

The next morning I set out for Winona again, which is located right on Interstate 40, with a plan to walk on or parallel to the highway east as far as the exit for the Navajo casino and hotel known as Twin Arrows.

The big question that morning was choice of routes. The highway was the most direct but especially with the recent snow i was concerned about my safety. Angel Road looked, on my map, to be a good alternative but I’d heard it was very rough in spots, and passed over or through or along a deep canyon at some point.

I’ll cut to the chase: I took Angel Road and had a thrilling adventure, something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, ending with having to throw my cart and bags over a barbed wire fence and clamber over a locked gate before a last, exhausting walk to the casino without any assurance that I could camp on their grounds.

Is it too much to add in this one post that I was given a night’s stay at their lovely hotel with a view of the sacred San Francisco mountains, and an hour long cultural tour of their magnificent Native art collection or that…

There’s too much to tell, too litttle time.

I will have to go back and offer a more lengthy account of those days, my good fortune, and my deepening knowledge (or at least awareness) of the Navajo people and what they can teach us about community.

But today I am ‘standin on the corner’ in Winslow, Arizona, wondering, once again, where on this cold, snowy day I will spend the night.  

I can’t keep up with myself. 

I may have to wait until my walk is over to understand what is happening to me.

All I know is that it has been magical. All I ask is that the magic continues.

The secret code

The black obelisk in director Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: a Odyssey” has nothing on the red rock monument at the edge of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

We can argue over the meaning of author Arthur C Clarke‘s obelisk (my sense is that it symbolizes the unknowable mysteries that have sparked the imaginations of humans since they first turned their gaze upwards) but for Kubrick I believe it served more as a kind of Hitchcockian ‘McGuffin:’ a device meant, above all, to maintain dramatic suspense.

The McGuffin here is accidental. Since it was dedicated in 1995 this monument has apparently been obscured by development along Milton Street (The boulevard that many visitors coming off Interstates 17 and 40 use to access the historic downtown, Arizona snowbowl and other attractions), overshadowed by the ever-escalating growth of the university itself.

This monument literally has its back turned to Milton Street. Was that intentional?

If you are headed for one of the endless fast food offerings that stretch down Milton as far as the eye can see you are not likely to notice the monument at all. But if by chance you do catch a glimpse of it as you stride purposefully ahead all you can see from the sidewalk is the tall rectangular stone base and, on top, the back of a bronze bust of indeterminate sex.

It may be the season but the landscaping around the monument appears dry, unkempt and overgrown: that last adverb however may be due to the design.

Overgrown by design? Intentionally unkempt?

You have time on your hands so coming back from Smash Burger or Habit Burger or any one of a dozen other burger joints you walk on to the grass and up to the monument and move between the shrubbery and attempt to decipher the faded brass plaque on the western face of the stone base and, with effort, can make out that it was “In Commemoration” in 1995, “The Year of the Native American.”

That’s only part though, a very small part of the story, but it is as if the others were not enough to justify its erection? But those other parts, the other faces of the stone and their faded inscriptions are far more significant than the apologetic notion of a year dedicated – whatever that might mean – to any oppressed people and as you perambulate the monument and see the busts’ profiles the drama grows.

On what I took to be the southern face there is another plaque which lists the names of the original thirty-two, ”Navajo Code Talkers.”

In World War Two over 400 Native Americans utilized their native, unwritten languages to send coded messages that the Japanese found impossible to decipher.

Look up now and the masculine outline of the model is readily apparent.

You are more intimate with the setting now so it is also apparent that the plantings around the monument are almost impossible not to brush up against as you circle the uneven obelisk.

On the eastern face a new stone and plaque have been planted outside the compass-like walkway but you don’t notice that at first so intent you are now upon the third plaque and on the strong, noble Native visage looking over you toward the birthplace of the sun.

This plaque reveals the sculptor to be perhaps the most famous Native American artist of the last century, R.C. Gorman, and his model, also a renowned artist and his father Carl Gorman, whose name you may have noticed is on the southern facing plaque as he was one of the original code talkers.

Remarkable men of imagination and accomplishment and yet this monument to all of the Code Talkers appears neglected, overgrown?

Now you begin to take the monument into your mind in its entirety and like the unblemished black obsidian obelisk in 2001 a piercing note…

No, there is no sound, no eardrum-splitting tone, but there is a question, a cloudburst of questions suddenly thundering in your ears.

How could such an important piece, commemorating the bravery of a people that we tried so hard to wipe from the face of the earth be so blithely neglected? And why, among many other questions that hover above this tooth of desert, do the five faces of this monument not align with its stone walkway.

You instinctively noticed this: symmetry is intrinsic to our human design so the tilted frame or the sunken landscape is palpable to our senses. 

Is this intentional? I scanned the internet and located a Navajo compass of sorts but apart from the symbols and significance of its traditional colors saw no purposeful distortion: east was east and west was west.

Is this itself a code to be deciphered? Is this a sly aside between Navajos in their own language, a message hidden in plain sight?

There may be a simple or simpler explanation. It may be that at this time of year the plantings appear uncared for, or that the artist wanted the inscriptions to fade into the eternal rock, or that he deliberately turned his back, and his father’s face, away from commerce and toward the east and his Alma Mater… the university. 

In Kubricks’ film, in Clarke’s book, in every life there are an endless stream of streams diverging from the main. Distractions are the substance of life.

A Word or Two About: Don Decker

In large part these blog posts will be about the lessons I learn, the knowledge I gain, or the ignorance I recognize in myself as I walk across the country – west to east –  trying, like an archaeologist, to understand the foundations of community from the broken obelisks and decaying friezes of our cities, towns, native lands and windswept landscapes. From time to time though I will encounter individuals and places that stand out on their own and deserve, I believe, to be chronicled as well.

Here is one such piece, what I call, “A Word or Two About..”

 

I couldn’t keep up with him.

We’d never met but I recognized him right away: An Apache face, bold, prominent nose, broad forehead. An Icelandic shock of fine silver hair, pulled directly back. A crease of flesh in the center of his forehead, suggesting I thought, a kind of spiritual balance.

He was up at around five that morning, doing a wash he told me, then drove north from his home near Sedona around 8.

He scooped me up outside the Amtrak Station on Route 66, downtown Flagstaff at precisely 9, flew down Interstate 17 to Camp Verde talking non-stop all the way.

After a detour through the drive-thru at the local Starbucks he rolled into the Center like a soft rain after a long drought.

He is a rain man, I say that now after spending just 15 hours with him: where he goes it pours laughter and music and meaningful conversation.

At least that was my experience of a day with Don.

Fittingly he is responsible for the Nation’s weekly newspaper, so in part for its cohesiveness as a community.

For me he took on the role of spirit real estate salesman as well: in between interviews he drove me to many of the Nation’s housing developments, handsome single family homes and duplexes that the Nation offers its members at subsidized rates, and down dirt roads to the river, past alfalfa fields, both proud of the Nation’s growth and development while dispassionately pointing out how little of the lands they once hunted and foraged and depended on they possess today.

We passed the Cliff Castle Casino and took a side trip to the actual castle in the cliff, Montezuma’s Castle – passing go without paying an entrance fee to the Park Service because of his tribal status.

What was an historic park to most visitors was, under his guidance, revealed to be a bountiful grove crowded with the spirits of his ancestors still diligently reaping the fruits of their labor.

As the wide sky darkened we arrived at the location of the community’s Christmas parade and party – and Don was called upon to photograph the gathering.

Is it patronizing to say that these are beautiful people, especially to the eyes of a New Englander where there is, in large part, a uniformity to the visages of the inhabitants.

These are beautiful people.

It was a long, intense day: for me it was a a kind of school day and I gave my entire attention to those who graciously gave me their time. But in between, in his car or at the cafe we stopped at midday, or with his friends that night at a Winter Solstice celebration in the moon shadow of the San Francisco Mountains Don’s energy never flagged.

His interests are boundless. His talents unbridled.

Have you seen his artwork? A series of his watercolors depicting the Mountain Spirit Dance grace the Tribal Council offices.

In the back of his small car was a guitar case.

He is fluent in Apache.

He has taught in high schools, in college, has written an autobiography, Apache Odyssey, dabbles he would say- though I am sure he is skilled – in Indian crafts and seems knows everyone from Flagstaff to Amarillo .

If I had the opportunity to choose one person to introduce me to the Nation, to teach me the fundamentals of the Native American experience, to guide me to the less frequented vistas, and to provide insightful if oftentimes tongue-in-cheek commentary from a Native perspective on both his brethren and the newcomers, it would be Don.

I meant this to be a short recollection of the man, but I really don’t believe that is possible.

In the West you often find yourself in valleys or crater-like depressions that go on for hundreds of miles in all directions and, in the distance, are bordered by an uneven mountain rim that seems to encircle you completely. Don is a human  expression of that expansiveness.

Show me what you love about your hometown…

Skip to toolbar