Wednesday, July 27, 2011

W-b-N High Winds into Denver

May 27, 2011
I’m in the parking lot of the Flying J in Aurora, CO, just outside of Denver, having spent the night last night at a rest stop about 50 miles east of Denver on I-70.  I arrived here a day later than initially intended because I spent that extra day in WaKeeney, KA, waiting out a wind-storm.  I woke up two days ago, after the tornado-brewing front passed south-east of WaKeeney, and the wind was still blowing mightily.  I didn’t want to be driving in that wind and thought I might just wait it out right where I was.  The wind was still lashing the campground trees and wobbling my rig at 11:00 AM, check-out time, so I decided to stay there another day, work on some writing, and get online.  I have a little “Mi-Fi” internet access device, which has been wonderful for this trip.  It really does seem to connect anywhere! 
I sat in the RV most of the day while it rocked like a light boat in heavy seas.  It’s a good thing I don’t get motion sickness. The chimes I always set up when I stop for the night were clinging and clanging as the vehicle swayed in the broadside shear.  I did manage to accomplish quite a bit in the forced idleness - finished revising the proposal for the Korea book, cleared e-mail boxes and updated my blog.
Yesterday morning, high wind still blew across the high Kansas plains, the blue sky was dotted with distant clouds, and the highway (I-70) was sparsely traveled.  On the road, again, the impression I had was of a huge, ordered, emptiness.  "The immense fields are mostly brown now, littered with corn stubble, although a few fields are deep green, probably winter wheat.  The horizon is far, far away, so far that the curvature of the earth is the only impediment to seeing what might be a hundred miles away.  No matter where the vista, clusters of grain elevators can be seen somewhere on the horizon.  Although there is a slight roll to the plains, with trees, and cows, and water sometimes collected in depressions, there is a gentle vastness to it all.  In some places, two or three parallel lines of evergreens lean slightly, blown aslant by the wind coming up from the south.  The trees are no doubt planted as wind or snow barriers."
When I crossed into Colorado, the landscape began to change to a more rolling countryside with deeper dips and arroyos.  And the land changed to mostly scrub - short, tawny-green prairie grass dotted with scrub plants - sage-brush, small, pointy-leafed succulents and some foot-high pine or cedar or juniper.  Although there were fences, I saw few cows, and buildings were mostly dilapidated remnants of houses and sheds.  Tumbleweed blew across the highway.  The rest-stop where I stayed last night was in the midst of this dry, windy wasteland.  Trying to make a living on that land might drive you crazy.
This morning, the landscape driving into Denver became greener, and mountains appeared on the horizon – gray at first, then deep blue with white tops extending into and blending with clouds hovering above them.  The driving, even in this suburb of Denver, seems easy, and the highways were not crowded when I came into the Flying J. in Denver.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

W-b-N American History, Part B

May 24, later
Yesterday, I visited the Eisenhower museum in Abilene, Kansas, which was interesting but a bit disappointing after the marvelous displays at the Truman Library, and especially the World War I Museum.  As I wandered through the Eisenhower museum, I realized that Truman and Eisenhower were presidents during the time of my life when I felt probably the happiest, safest and most patriotic – high school and college.  Kennedy replaced Eisenhower, and his presidency promised continued social progress and peace.  Then he was assassinated; the war in Vietnam accelerated; the powers of reaction tried to block social progress; and the American cultural ethos and social contract deteriorated.  We have still not recovered from that disastrous sequence of events, and I am now an old lady.  Whoever and whatever was responsible for Kennedy’s assassination set this nation into a downward cycle.  (I’ll admit, I believe a conspiracy was involved, probably among politically powerful reactionaries.)
Later, I just managed to get to this KOA campground in WaKeeney, KS before the deluge started.  The sky was already gray; tornado warnings were in effect for the county south of here; and the wind across I-70 was pushing the RV around, when I saw a sign for the campground.  I got off the interstate and managed to hook up before the rain started pelting the roof and windows, and thunder rumbled and droned like a kettle drum with bass accompaniment.  Now, the wind is bending the nearby trees and rocking my rig as if it were a light ship in heavy seas.
Driving during most of the day was pretty pleasant; the sky was overcast, but there was only slight wind and almost no rain.  The rolling hills were mostly green-gray prairie grass dotted with cows and scrub pine.  Cottonwoods and beeches clustered in the hollows or along stream beds.  On the stretch of interstate between Salina and Hays, I saw two huge wind farms; each must have had close to a hundred windmills, their blades circling slowly and gracefully like a ballerina troupe performing a huge, solemn pavanne.  My heart rose in my chest as I passed by fields and fields of these steady, patient, productive giants, thinking that we, as a nation, may finally be approaching some semblance of sense about energy production and usage.
As we neared Hays, there were no more windmills. Rather, tank-sized, mechanical oil-locusts dotted the fields, bobbing their heads up and down in a rhythm similar to that danced by the windmills.  In Hays, I visited the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, which included some very fine fossils collected from the Cretaceous chalk beds of Kansas, largely the result of the efforts of one man, George Sternberg, an amateur fossil collector.  The highlight is the fossil of a fish-within-a-fish.  A very large fish had eaten a smaller fish (the "smaller" one about six feet long) whose bones were preserved in the visceral cavity of the larger fish, but the latter then died, its prey still within it, and the skeletons of both were preserved in the bottom mud of the large inland sea that covered the central part of what is now North America during the Cretaceous Period.  Did the predator swallow more than his gastrointestinal tract could handle?  Did the sharp fins of the prey pierce the predator’s gut or a large blood vessel, consigning them both to a muddy entombment for the later amazement of human posterity?  Could this be a parable for our times (with its big-fish-eat-all economic ethic)?

Friday, July 15, 2011

W-b-N American History, Part A

May 24, 2011

In a church parking lot across from the Eisenhower Memorial Museum and Library, waiting for a violent storm to pass.  I’m glad I decided to do dishes this morning, which delayed my departure; otherwise I would have been caught on the high plains in this storm, wind whipping across the the prairie with nothing to stop its force.  The sky is a dark, roiling gray and rain pelts the fiberglass roof of the RV, an occasional, syncopated clunk-click of hail accenting the steady tattoo of the rain. Yesterday, the sky wore its most peaceful, innocent blue after an angry gray the day before, which had spawned a tornado that devastated the town of Joplin, MO, just a hundred miles south of Blue Springs.  Yesterday, after I made it through Kansas City, the driving was easy and pleasant, and I was able to pick up PBS all the way to Abilene, where I visited the Eisenhower museum.

This has been an American history itinerary so far.  I spent three nights in in Blue Springs, MO, parked by the home of my ex-sister-in-law, Judi, with whom I am on good terms.  Judi and I went to Independence, MO my first day there, where we visited the Three Trails museum that celebrates the American expansion westward via the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, and the Sacramento Trail.  The Missouri River was the jumping-off point for many of the pioneers and speculators who settled the western half of the country and, in the process, drove out most Native Americans.

We also went to the Truman Library in Independence, which was fascinating and informative.  I hadn’t realized how much Truman had done during his (nearly) two terms in office.  Besides ending WWII, he fostered the Marshall plan that allowed Europe to recover from the devastation of war with amazing speed.  He instigated the Berlin Airlift; he oversaw the Korean Conflict; he recalled General McArthur (a wise and courageous act); and he fostered the move toward desegregation in this country after African Americans had served so selflessly in the Second World War.  Although his reputation as a president was low when he left office, it has grown steadily since then.
As a bonus, in the basement of the Truman Library is an exhibit of paintings, mostly by George Caleb Bingham, that depict life in the mid-west in the mid-nineteenth century, American frontier paintings that give the flavor of the people and towns that existed then and there.  And Bingham was a master craftsman.  His paintings are not spectacular, but they deserve careful scrutiny; his attention to detail and mood is marvelous.
The next day, Judi and Danny (her husband) and I went to the World War I Museum in Kansas City.  With its phallic tower, I expected some rah-rah male war tribute.  It was anything but that, beginning with an anxious walk across a field of poppies.  Apparently it has been recently renovated and Judi and Danny hadn’t visited the memorial since then.  We originally intended to spend about two hours there, but finally left after four hours, not because we had seen everything we wanted to see, but because we were suffering from fatigue and information overload.  It was frankly the best cultural museum I have ever visited, and very informative.  It tried to make sense of the web of alliances and cultural tensions that resulted in  the virtual inevitability of the “Great War.”  Several exhibits described, in chilling detail, the horrors of trench warfare, which made that war a nightmare beyond anyone’s imagining.
After the WWI Museum (and a quick lunch in the snack-bar there), we visited the Kansas City Art Museum (Nelson-Atkins), where we saw Monet's water-lily triptych, then went upstairs to the older part of the museum and spent an hour or so viewing the American collection.  There, again, were Bingham paintings and sketches, as well as a large collection by Thomas Hart Benton - dramatic and quirky in style, but evocative of the American (especially frontier) past. They also had on display a couple of Winslow Homer paintings and a few works from Hudson Valley painters, which I enjoyed, as always.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

W-b-N, Quilts and Obama’s Middle-East speech

May 20

I spent the night in a rest-stop near Booneville, Missouri.  This one was certainly quieter than last night’s stop, but I slept as well.  The house battery was very low again when I awoke this morning.  I’m not going to be able to leave it unplugged for a few days, as I had originally intended, when I go back from Denver to Charleston to pick up Blake.
The trip from Nashville was pleasant, again with trees and hewn, bare-faced rocks offering a kaleidoscope of scenery along the highway’s edge.  Once across the Mississippi River, the land becomes very flat; large fields, dotted with barns, farm houses, and sheds line the road.  Many fields, just recently planted, are covered with a film of luscious, pistachio green - newly sprouted plants.  Patches of brown, where plants have not yet germinated, show the soil beneath.  Other fields are bright yellow with rape-seed flowers, already in full bloom.
Near the border of Kentucky and Illinois, approaching the town of Paducah, I noticed a sign for the “National Quilt Museum” and, on a lark, decided to visit it.  The rest stop I intended to stay at was about an hour away, and it was only 4:00 PM, so I thought it might be fun to spend an hour looking at quilts.  My friend, Ellie, does quilting, as does Marlene, one of the women in the K-Gals group.  Even Lis has done quilting, and was teaching some of the students in her class to quilt as a project while I was visiting her school.  The quilt museum was marvelous – quilts of every description decorated its walls and hung on rods between rooms so the viewer could see both front and back.  These are quilts as art-form, and the intricacies of design, the meticulousness of the stitching and background are almost beyond imagining.  They are art-works that take years to complete; the patience and persistence required boggles the mind.  And as a female art-form, quilting is largely unappreciated by the general public.  Mostly other quilters come to stand in awe before the imagination and effort involved.  But I was as enthralled by the quilts as I normally am by well-done paintings in a museum.  I wished I had given myself more time.  I was reminded of the patient creativity of trees as they slowly craft their limbs and leaves and create a standing beauty that is largely unappreciated by observers.
Normally, I listen to audiobooks on a long trip like this, but I didn’t pick up any at the library before leaving Charleston.  Just not enough time to do it; besides, they would have come due before my return.  So I’ve been trying to listen to NPR (public radio) as I drive, where I can get music, news and interesting talk radio.  But, of course, I lose the signal every hundred miles or so.  Usually I can find another PBS station by using the “seek” button in the lower FM ranges - except in western Tennessee, Kentucky and southern Illinois.  This bandwidth is also where you find religious stations and other quirky types of broadcasts.  The other evening, I found a station where the theme was “Hep-Cats Holiday,” featuring Tommy Dorsey and other ‘30s & ‘40s musicians.
Yesterday about noon, I was lucky.  Skirting St Louis up 255 and around 270, I picked up a NPR station that was about to carry President Obama’s speech on the Middle East.  There were commentators trying to guess what he would say.  The speech came through loud and clear on the radio, and was rational and sensible in tone and content.  When he got to the section of his speech about women, I started to choke up.  He declared that those countries with educated and empowered women were the most economically advanced and the most peaceful nations in the world.  He was making such an obvious observation, yet other men in positions of power have been unwilling to articulate that or unable to see it.  I began to weep because he was willing to come out and say it for the entire world to hear.  I don’t believe I have ever before wept during a political speech.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

W-b-N; Leaving Nashville

May 19, 2011
After spending five days in Nashville, I’m on the road again – currently just east of St. Louis, parked in a Flying J station after filling up on gas.  I spent last night in a rest stop near Benton, Illinois, surrounded by trucks with their growling diesels and generators, but none of it kept me awake (I’m so used to that sort of “white noise” by now), and I slept until 7:30 AM.
The RV spent two days in a repair shop (Mid-Tenn Ford) in Nashville while I was visiting Lis and her family in Mt. Juliet, about 25 miles from Nashville.  On the way to Atlanta, on day two of the trip, the “service-engine-soon” light came on.  I pulled over shortly thereafter and called Mick, who walked me through what I should look at in the engine.  Everything seemed O.K. – all the fluids were fine.  And the dash-board gauges all registered in the normal range; I didn’t smell anything acrid (burning oil) or metallic, and the engine was running as smoothly as it ever has.  So I continued driving it to Lis’ house.
I didn’t plug it in that night, because Lis got in late and it was dark, and I thought the RV would be fine overnight (the batteries usually hold a charge for three or four days).  But when I awoke the next morning, the battery was really low, which indicated that the battery was either not holding a charge or wasn’t charging as I as driving.  So I plugged in before we left to go to the Montessori school where she teaches.  We were there all day, then that evening, the children in her class did a musical entitled “The Best of Broadway” written by one of the music teachers at the school, using Broadway hits from the 20th century.  Judson also had a part in the musical, and Lis had helped with the research and writing, so she wanted me to see it, which is why I left Charleston earlier than I had originally intended for this trip.  The musical was delightful, if amateurish (to be expected when children ages eight through thirteen are involved), although there was one girl who performed splendidly.  She had several singing roles, including the role of Eliza Dolittle singing “All I want is a room somewhere.”  Her voice was strong and pleasant, she sang on key, and she even managed a creditable cockney accent.  She’s that one in a hundred who might succeed at a career in music or entertainment, although that’s not a life I would want for any of my children.
I left the RV plugged in all week-end, and then Sunday night I drove it to the repair shop and parked, and slept there overnight, in order to have it in as early as possible on Monday morning.  I originally intended to leave on Tuesday.  When I awoke Monday morning, the battery was again very low.  When I talked with the repair shop folks, I also asked them to check the battery, which they did.  They couldn’t find the original problem with the dash light on the first day, and they claimed that there was a problem with a solenoid on the battery, which needed a new part.  So after waiting a whole day in the shop, they offered me a loan vehicle and I went back to Lis’ house.  The problems were “fixed” by mid-day on Tuesday, so I picked up the RV and spent that night with Lis and family, then left the next morning. 
As far as the RV goes, the battery problem doesn’t seem to have been fixed (the battery was very low again this morning after a night at the rest-stop), but at least the service-engine-soon light is off.  And the whole thing cost $1,500, or about a third of the money I had put aside for this trip.  I’ll just have to resort to credit cards, which I had hoped not to do.  Perhaps, with the poor economy and that truck dealership not selling many trucks, they're trying to make as much money as possible from na├»ve, out-of-towners who need repairs and have no other options, nor any recourse in the community.
As I was organizing to leave, two workmen, in the first stages of building a house on a lot across the road, cranked up their chainsaws and began sawing limbs off the trees on the lot, preparatory to chopping them down, I presume.  The sound of chainsaws is a particularly tragic sound to me, having heard it so often after Hurricane Hugo.  As I looked across the street, the trees were just standing there, stoically awaiting their fate, unable to move, to run, to hide from their imminent destruction.  I felt a wave of empathy for those helpless trees, for their years and years and years of slow, patient growth – leaves, stems turning to branches, trunk widening and becoming sturdier with each year.  They survived a nearby tornado’s fury only to be felled by a chainsaw-wielding human.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

W-b-N: Leaving Charleston

May 13, 2011
The West-by-North peregrination from Charleston to Yellowstone to Michigan and back, otherwise known as “my last-big-RV-trip,” is underway.  Preparations were arduous, as always for a long trip.  So much needs to be thought about ahead of time, to be dealt with, to be taken care of.  But once the journey is underway, a sense of relief finally comes over me, followed by feelings of freedom, even joy.  Driving up highway 61, the low-country oaks with branches dripping Spanish moss create a tunnel, darkening the mid-afternoon sun.   I take the back-roads toward Augusta, GA, 61, 78, and 287; it’s as quick, if not quicker, than taking the interstates (26 & 20); there’s almost no traffic, and the scenery is lovely – quiet forests and small, quaint (dilapidated, mostly black) country villages, a couple of small towns.  It's mostly flat, but in the far western part of the state, the hills undulate fiercely, then abruptly descend to the Savannah River and give way to the gentle, rolling  Georgia plains. 
As I pass over the hills and across the river, a bank of clouds draws a sharp line between the gray sky above and a bright orange sky off to the west.  As I pursue the orange streak, that city of gold in the west, the color swirls from peach to mauve; the sun briefly flares brilliantly, and then sets beyond the trees.  I find a rest-stop along I-20 and pull in as the sky darkens.  I’m exhausted, having awakened that morning at 4:30 AM.  I sleep from a little after 9:00 PM until a about 8:00 the next morning, hardly hearing the truck diesels growling nearby. 
I leave the rest-stop about 10:00 AM, after a leisurely breakfast, and drive toward Atlanta.  After about an hour of driving, the “service-engine-soon” light comes on, which raises alarm bells in my mind.  I call Mick (at Charleston Truck Service), and he talks me through everything I should check out.  The engine has been running smoothly, the dashboard dials don't indicate any problem, and I don’t smell acrid or metallic odors nor hear any odd noises.  So, after driving another hundred miles, filling up the gas tank, checking the gas mileage, and calling Mick again, I decide to drive on to Mt Juliet, near Nashville, where daughter Lis and her family live.  (I’ll be taking the RV into a Ford dealer/service center in Nashville on Monday.)
On the interstate between Atlanta and Chattanooga, I meditate on how lucky I am – how lucky we all are in this country.  I’m driving in a comfortable vehicle, listening to a Telemann sonata for two flutes on PBS and watching the green, rolling, forested hills:  the dark green of pines and the lighter green – nearly chartreuse – of deciduous trees in spring. Above the verdant foliage floats a light blue sky brushed with wisps of clouds; I feel as though I’m living in an eighteenth century aristocratic pastoral idyll. 
Then, as I top a hill, I see a large swath nearly devoid of trees.  On the right side of the highway it looks like some giant lumber-jack has pushed over all the large trees, snapping them or uprooting them, leaving only a few spindly saplings standing.  Then I look across to the other side of the highway and see that the same thing has happened there also, but worse.  Almost nothing is standing.  And I realize that one of those recent, devastating tornados must have passed right across that ridge.  Driving on past the destruction, I see that most trees are standing, but many limbs have been torn off or are hanging limp on their trunks, held tenuously by sinews of bark.  And the sense of well-being – almost nirvana – that carried me, free-floating, along that highway for miles is suddenly tempered by anguish for those trees, with no choice but to stand straight and silent before the vicious onslaught of the sky-god.