Sunday, April 13, 2014


So we are sitting the Peace Tree Juice CafĂ© in Monticello, Utah, and a nice young lady is explaining Utah’s liquor laws to a table of six young men who have been speaking German.  You see, in Utah, in a restaurant you must be eating something if you want to drink beer. 
            “Do you want to order chips and salsa?  Maybe hummus? That’s the cheapest.”
            Turns out the men ask for a menu.  They want something more substantial. 
            “And before I get you that Bud Light, I need to make sure you are twenty-one.”
            Knightsmama and I are reading through IRS documents and writer’s guides on-line to make sure that we are not breaking any laws with the tax deductions we are taking for the Caravan.  Let me say this boldly, if you haven’t been paying attention:  I do sincerely intend to turn these writings, based on this crazy trip across these here United States, into some kind of book that will make me a millionaire, and if not that, then like all my other writings, a thousandaire.   Just you wait and see, I raise my fist and shake at the ceiling. 
We Are Moving West
            It has been a crazy day, here in Southern Utah.  First of all, it is my father’s birthday (and also Thomas Jefferson’s—strange, we are in Monticello).  If he were living, my dad would be 103.  I have said in previous posts, my father’s life, ambitions, and pleasures have informed this adventure a great deal.  He was one of those Americans from The Greatest Generation who enjoyed his automobile and employed it to see America.  The family photograph albums, now in storage, are basically a record of vacations, sightseeing, and family gatherings and reunions.  When the Caravan began its wanderings, I could say that some time in my life I had visited maybe 40 of the 50 states on vacations my father took with my mother, sisters, and me.  The problem was that I didn’t remember many of these places because I had visited them when I was very young. The crazy part is that as many sons, as much as I have tried not to be like my father, is how much I have become like him.  On this trip, the similarities:  national parks and historical sites, battlefields, baseball, and beer.  The differences:  the caravan itself, art museums, coffee shops, graves of dead writers.  Of course, the most important difference is this blog, these posts.  I write about the adventure.  Even though he let me know quite definitively that he did not support, would not support, my writing habit, I do think he would find, at least, the reportorial aspects of the blog entertaining.   Therefore, tonight, I will lift a beer to him—not a Budweiser but a Devastator, an 8% abv Double Boch, from Wasatch Brewery in Park City, Utah.    Cheers, thanks for the gift of loving travel and the history and land of this nation.
Peace Tree Juice Cafe in Monticello, Utah
            What has really been strange today is the weather.  This morning is was chilly but sunny.  Then all of a sudden around ten, the sky clouded, and sleet and snow fell for an hour or so.  At moments, the sky was so thick, we could not see the 11,360 foot tall Abajo Peak that stands right out our trailer window.  Then our snow and sleet melted, blue shown brightly, and the peaks radiated white.  Odd how quickly it all happened.  Odder that it happened twice more during the day.  Winds stirred, and fell still.  Sleet and snow sliced the air, and disappeared.  The sun radiated, and turned dark. 
            In the Peace Tree, we met a fellow who stopped in for a burger.  He was traveling from Salt Lake City to Albuquerque.  We discussed our travels, and he asked if we had been caught in the drizzle in Moab, and I told him we had been in Monticello all day and about our surprise at the changing weather.  All he could add was a glib, “Welcome to The West.”  In Texas, we talk about rapidly changing weather—a Blue Norther charging in and dropping temperatures 40 degrees in an afternoon.  But that is nothing to what we experienced today.
            I don’t know what else to tell you.  Today was sort of a wasted day.  Except, of course, that we completed our taxes using the Wifi in the Peace Tree.  For a while we seemed to be on a useless chase for internet.  Our campground Mountain View RV Park in Monticello provided decent connections, but during all the haywire weather, things got sketchy. (The internet is working now, obviously.  I am posting this from the campground.)  In addition, Knightsmama and I figured that as we finalized our taxes, we would want to talk without the boys arguing, begging for junk food and sodas, or loudly playing electronic devices.  So we hit the road searching for some place to light.  Not finding anything open in tiny Monticello, we actually drove 26 miles to Blanding, thinking we remembered the town as something more substantial.  Wrong.  You know, Southeast Utah is sparse.  And on Sunday something open is even sparser.  We even began to wonder if on Sunday everyone just ate at home.  When by 1:00 we had returned to Monticello, we found neon signs proclaiming the Peace Tree had opened.  Was it open before and we just missed it?  I don’t know.  I am not going to investigate.  Whether through stupidity or chance, on the road Knightsmama and I were able to engage in adult conversation for an hour or so.  I had some pet theories about Eastern and Western states and industrial waste, which she convinced me were not ready for prime time.  She had regrets that we had missed ski season in Southern Colorado and wanted to make sure we scheduled other, substitute activities for the boys.  My checkbook groaned a little bit, but agreed. 
            Like I say, it was a strange day, a kind of wasted day.  Knightsmama ate a bagel with salmon spread at Peace Tree.  I ate a hummus wrap with blue corn chips with a cup of coffee.  Both were tasty.  Other folks near us got some carrot juice that looked as yummy as any I have seen at Wholefoods in Austin.   I recommend the Peace Tree.  Back at the trailer, the boys played x-box and watched Netflix through the Mountain View RV internet connections, which seemed to settle down once the weather returned finally to bright, chilly, and windy.
On US 160 on Way to Four Corners
            The only thing I have to add is that we drove here yesterday from Durango, Colorado, but took a longish detour to catch Four Corners—that place where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah touch.  It was nothing like what I expected.  All that I hoped it would be is simply a marker on the side of a road.  Something simple, and merely statish and official.   Maybe kitchy.  What we found instead was a quick right off at the top of a little rise on Interstate 160, which I missed, and had to turn The Monster around for.  Good thing there isn’t much traffic on this road.  Once we got The Monster pointed down the correct dirt road, we met a strange lady in a ticket booth, who informed us that to go further would require $5.00 per person.  You see, it turns out that the four corners happens to be on land reserved for the Navajo people.  I say the lady was strange, not because she was Navajo.  I have no information about her.  But she took our money, and while my Big Ass Truck’s diesel engine roared and hummed, she just stared at her cash register or something else I couldn’t see inside the ticket booth.  This went on for a minute or two, until another lady appeared in front of the truck, came around, then entered the booth, and said a few words to her co-worker.   The first lady returned from her puzzlement or reverie or whatever it was and handed me a receipt. 
            Since we were in the desert, there was plenty of parking, a lot of space to guide The Monster to a pretty little spot all poised for a quick getaway if needed.  The Navajo Nation has created, I think, a very interesting monument.  Of course, there is the metal marker on the ground that indicates where the corners of the four states meet.  For those of us who look for these kinds of things, I note that we have straight lines.  A “T,” or a cross.  I have no idea if the border between Colorado and New Mexico, on the east, and Utah and Arizona, on the west, are perfectly North/South.  Nor do I know if the border between Colorado and Utah, on the north, and New Mexico and Arizona, on the south, runs perfectly East/West.  I assume they are not. But one could say, either poetically if not factually, that we have the marks of the compass right here.  But our linear selves are disrupted by the great brick circle that encompasses, surrounds, and encloses these straight lines.  We enter the larger circle, and  we notice circles inside of that one, guiding us, concentrically, to the point, the center, this political mark on the imaginary grid of our geography.
Captain Crunch Bridging the Four Corners

My sons hear, and repeat to me, a man saying, “Is this all there is?  And I paid $5 for this?”  There is a point here, several points actually.  Why did any of us drive so far out of our way:  33 miles from Shiprock, New Mexico; 40 miles from Cortez, Colorado;  65 miles from Bluff, Utah; 77 miles from Kayenta, Arizona?   What did we expect to find here?  A carnival, a gunfight, a monument detailing the history of The West, a declaration of independence?  Did we expect a certified vision delivered to us on the wings of Eagle, on the back of rattlesnake? 
Let me tell you what I saw there, in my vision.  I witnessed a bunch for folks like me and my family taking photographs.  One man slightly younger than I with a man slightly older—father and son, most likely—hugging side by side, feet straddling two states each, then changing position.  A slightly over-weight woman in her fifties, doing Downward Dog, one hand or foot in each state, her somewhat flabby butt raised triumphantly to the sky:  “I told my yoga instructor that I would do this.”  Her husband, as straight as a small town banker, clicks her photograph and smiles at me.  A teenage girl lies on her back, arms and legs forming an X, one limb into each state, her manipura chakra over the spot where the states meet.  More and more families and couples forming a raggedy circle, all witnessing each other, all noting whose turn is next.  Congratulating each other, laughing with each other, celebrating each other.  Captain Crunch forming Setu Bandha Sarvangasana or, in English, the Bridge Pose, kind of like Downward Dog, but upside down.
            And around all this, witnessing these individual rituals, in booths enclosed in the outer circle, are the Native Americans selling their jewelry, arrows and bows, dream catchers, sand paintings, and food.  (Both Knightmama and I have new earrings; the boys got fry bread.) We have entered a place unique in our American journey.  But something in me is reminded of the Lincoln Memorial and the Statue of Liberty.  Above us, the US flag, the four state flags, and the Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute tribal flags remind us of the complicated history that transpired in arid landscape.  But here also in 2014, people are gathering, people are called together onto one strange piece of ground, and if we are lucky we begin to see something beyond state boundaries.  I begin  to recognize both the pain and horror of American history and the never ending desire to right those wrongs.  I don’t have much hope that we will ever come to terms with the great migration, or the great invasion, if you will, of The West.  In addition, as with slavery and its mark on Americans and our history and sense of self, I am a bit wary of rituals where the oppressed forgive the oppressors.   Sure, you can accuse me of Liberal guilt, if you like.  Or we could listen to my father, who as an adamant believer in manifest destiny, and admit that “we” stole this land, fair and square. 
The Devastor

            I can tell you one thing, I am not going to complain about paying $20 for my family to stand on this ground.  And while wars go on in Afghanistan and Syria, and while Russia claims the Crimea and Ukraine creates or loses its future, I know I must recognize the historical realities of populations and migrations and wars and cultural independences and cultural alliances.  Our history in The West in the Nineteenth Century is no different. Still, my moods shift as often as the weather out here.  I guess I am just going to keep pondering what the hell all this means ought here and wonder where we go from here.  Time for that Devastor, Dad.

Soundtrack Double Feature.  Jerry Jeff Walker.  "My Old Man."
Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Quartet, "Cold Rain and Snow."

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Go West

I have some thoughts.  They will not be coherent.  At least, I don’t think they will be.  We will have to wait for the end of this post to see if the thoughts add up to anything.  Not that this situation is all so different from other posts, but at this moment I feel particularly ungrounded and unsure about what I am feeling.
            The Waller Grant Caravan of Wonder has been back on the road for seven nights.  Today begins the second week of what we hope will be a four and half month journey through the West.  We have a little less time and a little more space to cover for the second half of our adventure.  And if you have been following the blog lately, you will know that we had a three month lay-over in North Texas, where my wife, Knightsmama, cared for her father following a stroke.  In these past seven days back on the road, we have visited Balmorhea State Park, Davis Mountains State Park, Marfa (Texas), Carlsbad, and Santa Fe.  Last night, we arrived at the Alpen Rose RV Park in Durango, Colorado.  We have a lovely pad, Site A, with full hook-ups, and picnic table.  Right now the boys and Knightsmama are exploring downtown Durango, hanging out in a city recreation center where Dr. J. is playing basketball with some boys, and Captain Crunch is climbing an indoor rock wall.  It was below freezing this morning; it is about 70 and bright and sunny right now. 
The Durango in Durango
Yesterday was the first day of the last class I will take through American Military University to qualify me to teach humanities, so I have been completing introductory assignments and beginning my first readings for the class.  The course concerns the Enlightenment.  Our readings move us from Catherine the Great’s Russia to Thomas Jefferson’s America.  Also, today, I have repaired four drawers in The Monster.  Drawers break fairly often because when we haul The Monster down the highway at 60 miles per hour and we hit a bump or pothole, all hell breaks loose like a quarterback’s brain on the concussive side of a blitz.   Ever so often, we just need a time out to catch our breath, let things settle and reconnect.
            So I am sitting here looking out my window at a beautiful red rock formation streaking across a mountain wall.  I am trying to catch my breath.  Literally, since we are at 6500 feet elevation, and I can feel my heart beating a little bit stronger to move the oxygen around.  Figuratively, because the adventure has begun again and there were moments in the past months that I didn’t know if it ever would.  And because, we are in The West.
            Already it is hitting me how different The West is.  West of what?  West of the Mississippi, sure.  But really, west of the 98th Meridian.  In August, we began the adventure  just east of the 98th in Wills Point, Texas, heading north to Tulsa, then east to St Louis.  There, we toured the Museum of Western Expansion and rode to the top of the Gateway Arch.  But, next, we traveled east eventually to Maine, then south reaching South Carolina before being called back to Wills Point.  Now in April, we have crossed that geographical boundary where The West begins.  We watched the land flatten and dry out; we watched trees disappear.  Around Midland and Odessa, we witnessed the pumping wells of the second or third Great American Oil Boom.  Then we entered the rising mesas of the Davis Mountains, cooler, still arid, with brief respites of ground water.  Almost 600 miles from Wills Point and still in Texas.    Perhaps Donald Judd had it right out there in Marfa:  cement blocks, rectangles, unpainted; that’s art.  (Personally, I don’t think so, but I can understand how an Easterner gets reduced to simple geometry out here.)
Searching for Meaning in the Desert
            Then after a night on top of a mountain at the McDonald Observatory viewing the stars in pitch black skies, we headed north and spent an afternoon viewing the mysterious workings of ancient seas and reefs, tectonic movements, hydrogen sulfide, and all sorts of other processes to create the wondrous caverns at Carlsbad. Equally dark but quite a contrast.  The far and near.  The above and below.  Yet still, time incomprehensible:  light years or geographic eons.  I ponder this now:  did I think of these things rumbling in the subway in New York City, or gazing from the rocky shores of Bar Harbor, or driving in Vermont valleys penetrated by the stabs of fall colors.   I was not so small or so alone as in West Texas and Southern New Mexico.  It’s down right existential out here.
            Even in only a week, we have gone further.  Almost 700 miles from Marfa to Durango, Colorado, by way of Santa Fe.  But it is more than miles.  Marfa, founded in the 1880s as a stop for the railroad.  Santa Fe settled by the Pueblo people around 1100, named a provincial capital of Spanish America in 1610.  Since in October we visited Plimouth Plantation and a few years ago, the family explored Jamestown, let’s say this again:  Santa Fe has been a town since the 1100s and a “Western European” town since 1610.  It is always a mistake to think that The West is new.  The West doesn’t have the same kind of patriotic historical obscurity that Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Richmond has—the haze of noble revolution that obscures who dealt with the Penobscot, Narragansett, and Rappahannock. Instead, The West has a mere century and a half of dime novels and western movies and television to ennoble and horrify, or so we are supposed to believe.
In Carlsbad
            But I am getting off point, a bit, in examining my confusion.  What really puzzles me is the fact that my family stopped traveling west, never crossed the Mississippi until my father moved me, my sisters, and mother to Texas in 1964.  My mother’s ancestors stopped in Franklin, Tennessee, in 1820.  My father’s ancestors stopped in Southern Illinois in the 1850s.  My family was part of the great Scots-Irish migration over the Appalachian Mountains, and then they ceased traveling.  But there was another group of folks who kept going.  They were wildly ambitious men like Sam Houston ready to create another empire.  They were mountain men like Jedediah Smith.  They were dreamers for wealth and gold like Mark Twain or entrepreneurs like Levi Strauss.  Cattlemen like Charlie Goodnight.  Or just plain folks who wanted a small stake in something new.  My folks stayed put.
            Like Walter Webb, the University of Texas historian, friend to J. Frank Dobie and Roy Bedichek, pointed out, for normal people (my phrase) western expansion stopped at the 98th meridian because all the old tricks, the cultural institutions and practices, quit working.  In the east, you have rivers to travel.  In the west, not so much.  In the east, you have wood for fences and homes.  On the plains, not so.  In the west, you needed horses, windmills, barbed wire, and the colt 45.  Expansion had to wait until someone  invented these.  
            So we crossed the high deserts north of Santa Fe, traveled into Georgia O’Keefe country and were excited into exclamations.  Then we kept going higher and passed over into Chama, then into the lower reaches of The Rocky Mountains into Pagosa Springs and Durango.  Here we find a second West.  Of course, there is more than one "West."  Of course.  I began to sense something different in myself.  I do not know what it is.  Something about freedom.  Something about strength.  Something about ascending and sitting taller in the saddle.  Something about bears and elk and wolves, not prairie dogs and coyotes.  Something about trees and water, not cacti and sand.  Whatever the desert is, it is not ennobling.  One watches horizons not peaks. 
Looking South toward Abiquiu

            So I still don’t understand what I am feeling.  But let’s say the obvious, this part of The West is different.  It calls something out of you that the East and The Desert Plains do not.  I don’t know what it is.  But I like it.  I wish I could say this more clearly, but I wanted to record the confusion, the intuition, the recognition that there is a power here that is unlike what we have seen so far.  It is not Western European Enlightenment; it is not civilized. It is not Nomad Existenialism and Aloneness.  It's something larger.  It is not cynical or ironic or empty.

Soundtrack.  Linda Ronstadt:  "Colorado."

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Headed West on 20

           I kept my promise to myself, and on Sunday, March 30, as I guided The Monster on to Interstate 20, and as Knightsmama chatted on her telephone making last goodbyes to the Buckaroo’s Girlfriend, I poked the Ipod and Willie began singing:

On the road again
Just can't wait to get on the road again.
The life I love is making music with my friends

And I can't wait to get on the road again.
On the road again

Goin' places that I've never been.

Seein' things that I may never see again

And I can't wait to get on the road again.
On the road again -

Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway

We're the best of friends.

Insisting that the world keep turning our way

For awhile Knightsmama needed to inventory all the small and large tasks that we did and did not accomplish.  Beds made with clean linens.  Refrigerator relieved of possible stinky stuffs.  Floors vacuumed.  Keys placed in Spot A.  Important paperwork locked up on Place B.  Document D mailed to Government Office E.  So on and so on.   Since, I have 101 Willie songs from many albums on the Ipod, some from live albums and greatest hits collections, several songs repeat from various recordings.  Therefore, I did not need to catch Knightsmama’s attention during the litany.  “On the Road Again,” would roll up again on the player soon enough after “Whiskey River,” “Bloody Mary Morning,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Stardust,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “Night Life,” Crazy,” and my all time favorite “Hello Walls.”  It was a little after noon. Our goal was Big Spring, Texas.  Traffic was a little heavy, even occasionally slowed to ten or twenty miles an hour getting through Fort Worth.  We settled in for the long haul.
At Balmorhea
            There’s a lot of West in West Texas.  The land just stretches out like an old man in a recliner drinking a beer and watching a baseball game. You better get used to it because things ain’t changing for a while.  Except, of course, they do, if you are paying attention, about every hundred miles or so.  For us, the most obvious shift has been trees.  Since the middle of August when we hit Southern Illinois going east, we have lived among trees.  We have experienced beautiful campsites among forests of various sizes:  Shawnee State Park in southern Ohio; Pinery Provincial Park in Ontario; Glimmerglass State Park outside Cooperstown, New York; the Tree Farm in Springfield, Vermont; MistyMountain Campground in Virginia. Sometimes the trees were so thick, I worried about backing The Monster into one or more, or scraping the awning off the side of the trailer.  You get to West Texas and trees evaporate.  Here at the tail end of March, we find wide expanses of ankle high brown grass and scrawny shrubs.  After another hundred miles or so it's cacti.
            After a night of sweet repose in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Big Spring—who would have thought that Sunday night between ten and midnight in the Wal-Mart parking lot would be the location for teens to gather and compete over who had the loudest muffler?—we made our way to Davis Mountains State Park, by way of Balmorhea State Park
Somewhere West
            Before we got there, however, we needed to pass one sector of the New American Oil Boom.  The main thought I had while driving from Big Spring to Monahans, or thereabouts, was “Why the hell are these people so damned angry with Obama?”  If one judges a President by how well one is doing economically (“It’s the economy, stupid!”), these people have nothing to complain about.  The traffic is high—so many pick-up trucks—the landscape is filled with oil rigs pumping, oil rigs being erected, huge trucks hauling pipes and cables.  All along the sides of Interstate 20, new buildings constructed of metal siding are rising two and three stories, with machinery of all sorts of monstrous shapes and sizes arranged about.  Pickup trucks, all belonging to employees, one guesses, line up in front and to the sides.  Midland and Odessa are two of the busiest towns I have seen in the past year.  But to listen to West Texas politicians  talk, you would think they were living amongst dire poverty imposed upon them by communist China.  By all outward appearances, this is a busy, manly culture out here.  But these manly creatures sure do whine a lot.  Still, at least they have their way—women cannot get health care out here anymore.  If a woman says “yes,” and even if she doesn’t, and she becomes pregnant, she’ll have his baby, by God. 
            But I have gotten distracted by all the “getting and spending," and what I view as moral hypocrisy.  But, let’s be honest, who am I to cast the first stone?  I filled up the tank in Odessa before heading out into the Chihuahuan Desert.  This topic will come up again—or if I am intellectually honest, it will—the Great American Road Trip, whether attempted by Lucy and Desi or by Kerouac and Cassidy, is fuel by the Great American Oil Industry.  A True Blue Hippie Environmentalist Liberal would never buy an RV and drive it at 12 miles per gallon around the nation.  I should remember that whenever I point a finger, there are four more pointing right back at me. 
Theo Taking a Plunge from the High Board
            Maybe there are three types of people out there:  those who want to have their cake and eat it too; those who want to have their cake and once they have it quit sharing with others; and those who want to have their cake and then blame the folks who baked it for putting too much sugar and butter in it.  Geez, it is a difficult path being morally superior and such. 

            As we made our way to Balmorhea State Park just for an afternoon visit and dip into the natural swimming pool fed by the San Solomon Springs, we crossed Interstate Highway 10.  At that moment, I began singing (singing again because I had been thinking of the song for some time) “I Love West Texas,” the opening track from Todd Hoke’s CD Headed West on 10.   Todd and his wife, Meg, are friends.  We met them at Trinity Methodist Church in Austin, I don’t know, maybe fifteen years ago.  Even while we moved to College Station for a couple of years, then out in the country, then changed churches, and they moved to Hendersonville, North Carolina, we have remained in touch all this time.  
Todd Hoke's First CD
             Back in December they put us up for a couple of nights, gave us the tour of local breweries in Hendersonville and Asheville, and talked about Thomas Wolfe.  Todd even invited me to read some poetry at his gig at the Appalachian Brewing Company.   The main thing I can say about Todd and Meg is that they just are pure and simple “Good Folks.”  They do “good work.”  Meg is a social worker and Todd is a hospice nurse.  In spite of, or maybe because of, the seriousness of their employment, they are people with light hearts and happy spirits.  They belong to a fourth type of personhood:  they have their cake and they share it.   In fact, the proceeds from Todd's CDs go to a non-profit organization called "Feeding America."  If life is a series of chances to be reborn and achieve higher and higher states of consciousness and goodness, then one day I hope I am reborn as either Todd or Meg Hoke.  If I am so lucking I will know I am on the right track.
            So I was singing Todd’s song “I Love West Texas.”  And that, of course, made me think about all his other tunes on this three CD’s.  So while I have been driving to Davis Mountain State Park, Fort Davis National Park, the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, and to Marfa, I have been indulging in a Todd Hoke marathon.  I recommend that you, too, find a way to discover and enjoy Todd’s music.  It will make you feel good about Texas and the South.  Since I have written about Todd a couple of times for publication, I will add those reviews of his second and third CD below.  I recommend all three:  Heading West on 10, The Turning of the Wheel, and Southland. Enjoy!

My review of The Turning of the Wheel, published at
Natalie Maines had it right the first time.  There are many of us who live in Texas who are ashamed that George Bush is Texas spawn.  But then Texas has fostered on the nation and the world all sorts of horror.  If it is any consolation to those who live outside the state—and I can’t suppose it is—we who live in the state suffer these horrors long before they cross state lines.  It’s a big state and it takes a long time to get out.  But there is more than shock and awe in this state.  Some of us survive by singing our own local kind of blues, a Texas version of the singer-songwriter tradition.  Famously, this tradition has produced a great number of artists.  Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Iris DeMent, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt and scores of others have somehow created something palliative and uplifting from whiskey, broken hearts, horses, beer, ancestors, highways, tomatoes, fishing, tequila, front porches, sunsets, and dogs.   Todd Hoke’s music grows from this rich tradition.
Todd Hoke's Second CD
In 2000 he released his first CD, Headed West on 10, produced by Ray Wylie Hubbard.  He has just released his second, The Turning of the Wheel, produced by Chris Gage.   The producers have certainly left their individual marks on the two disks.  Comparing them we can hear how Gage has relocated Hoke’s songs from Hubbard’s open-country campfires to jaunty, swagger-filled roadhouses.  Gage strips away the mandolins and dobros of Headed West on 10, and adds piano, steel and electric guitars, and drums.  Nor should I forget to mention Christine Albert’s witty background vocals.
The CD’s first notes from the first song, “Spring Days,” foretell the contents of the following eleven songs—a fiddle spritely leading a two-step, joined by bass, guitar, harmonica and a barroom piano.   Hoke rolls out a cast of characters—Maggie, Uncle Tyrone, Elsie the wonder cow—and adds the iconic images of spring—lemonade, crickets, fireflies, and owls.  In the chorus, he sings, “lordy them spring days / they drive my blues away / with honeysuckle mornings / and junebug afternoons.”  The best moments on the disk are those in which Hoke sings about the simple joys—cups of coffee, early morning walks, neighbors saying hello, the unadorned beauty of his wife.  I think he must be deep down a happy man.  He is also a bit of a mystic,  that odd, unexpected kind of Texan, of which there are a surprising number congregated in Austin, who takes volumes of William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Rainer Maria Rilke to the fishing hole.   Hoke isn’t telling us to “Shut up.  Be Happy.” Nor is he telling us to “Drink up and forget.”  He is telling us, instead, that if we look closely at that dragonfly and think about what we are looking at, we just might remember that there is more to life than our empty bank accounts.
When Hoke writes and sings the blues, I suspect and hope that they are more like exercises in sympathy and compassion than expressions of his own dark nights of the soul.  His portraits of down on their luck gamblers, drunks, abused women, the lonely and discarded are moving and sadly beautiful.  But they are portraits sketched by the confessional priest, not the penitent himself.  (So Hoke doesn’t quite take us to those places that Townes Van Zandt does.)  For this we should be happy and glad.  After all, we do not wish for there to be more sufferers, but we do wish that the fortunate hear the sorrow of those less fortunate.   This is not an example of Bush’s bizarre oxymoron, “compassionate conservatism,” but of that simple, old-fashioned and unmodified compassion.    As Hoke sings in “Mayberry,” his tribute to The Andy Griffin Show, “let’s all spread us a little kindness.  Unleash it upon the world and changes, changes shall be wrought.”   That’s a kind of liberation we can all live with.
My favorite song on the disk is the second to last, “My Own Day,” in which Hoke describes what the world would be like if he had a day made as he would wish:  “no nation would be at war / the guns would go dusty / we’d forget what they were for / the generals would go fishing / we’d close the Pentagon / if I had a day all my own.”  To my ear this is one of those classic songs that people will be singing for decades. I feel the same for the song “Short Time Here” from his previous CD.  In both, Hoke has sunk his roots deeper than the immediate influences of the Texas singer-songwriter tradition into the even richer traditions of classic folk music, at least into Woody Guthrie, perhaps as deep as the old Scotch Irish songs and ballads.  So if you wonder what some Texans do during those late nights after suffering the stupidity, greed, and hubris of the Bush’s and the Enron’s, we listen to singers like Todd Hoke:    “when the dark has finally passed / cling to the morning glory/ like the dew upon the grass.”
 (Note: was published by Rich Perin.)

My “Review” and Liner Notes for Southland.

I can cease being angry with Todd Hoke--now that he has recorded his third CD, Southland.   About a decade ago, I was one happy dude making semi-regular treks to Smithville, Texas, and the little restaurant at Rocky Hill Ranch to listen to Todd sing his unique renderings of Texas folk.  My wife and young boys would pile in the jeep and drive the 40 miles from Austin to Smithville and meet up with some like-minded friends.   At sundown we would order up some Shiners, fries, and two-fisted burgers (with a fresh Jalapeno tooth-picked on top), and let Todd serenade us to simpler times.  It was a treat and an honor to watch and listen to Todd as he followed his star, studied his craft, and astonished all with a series of songs anyone would be proud to have written.
Todd Hoke's Third CD
Then he and his wife Meg moved from Austin to Hendersonville, North Carolina, in some misguided and mature attempt to make a living and do good work.  I took it hard.  Selfishly, I wanted more songs.  But I also thought that Texas and the rest of the world was missing out on something important and vital.  We have a way of neglecting our treasures.  I understood the sensible decision Todd and Meg were making; yet I was more than a little miffed that talent like Todd’s could be stifled or shelved or merely frustrated.  Sure there are plenty of singer-songwriters, but the world was a little dimmer without the light of new music from Todd.  Although my wife and I would occasionally see Todd and Meg, I never asked how the music was going.  I assumed he had made a decision and that was that.
            And now a decade after The Turning of the Wheel, a cloud moved and the sky brightened, and Southland appeared in the mail.  From the very first song, which gives the title to the collection, Todd announces that he is back, better than ever and with a few surprises.  If his first CD headed west on Interstate Highway 10 and celebrated jackrabbits, roadrunners, and coyotes, on this one he heads East and discovers New Orleans ragtime, levies, kudzu, and gumbo.  Then singing about a red-headed Tennessee boy, he brings in a bluegrass banjo and fiddle.  And later he turns to the blues with a dirty electric guitar and an anguished background singer.  In fact, it seems that the blues colors this collection in new and deeper ways, and the song “Sinking Down” marks a leap in storytelling by this accomplished storyteller.  Todd, of course, is one of the funniest people you can know.  His Hoagy Carmichael-esque “Frittering” and gospel tinged “Chickenwashing” will not disappoint. 
But my favorite songs by Todd Hoke have always been his quiet numbers in which he finds inside the constant awareness of our mortality the candle light of grace.  It was “Another Summer Evening” and “Short Time Here” in the first CD.  In the second, I wore out “Come the Morning,” “Sunday Morning,” and “My Own Day.”  And now I find “Christmastime in Bethlehem,” and “Do Remember Me” to be sustaining.  These are my hymns, songs that return to me in memory when daily life gets a little dicey.  This man has a gift that goes beyond song craft. It’s wisdom, human understanding.  It’s the thing that Townes van Zandt, Guy Clark, Steve Earle and Leonard Cohen have: compassion and pity and awe.  How could I have ever been angry with a man who can write like that?

Soundtrack.  Todd Hoke:  "I Love West Texas."

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

X Marks the Unknown

You have to admire them, on some level.  At least I do.  It takes enormous devotion and sometimes huge outlays of cash to be a Conspiracy Theorist.  I mean, they are seeking and finding The Truth.  I, on the other hand, spend my time redistributing the taxpayers money in service of the common good.  I attend meetings predicting the academic needs for the next generation of community college students, apply for grants to promote public/private dialog on some important topic still to be determined, or, when the time is right, request ten percent raises in faculty travel budgets.  I do important work—I really do.  But while I ply the trade of a bureaucrat, they become at various moments detectives, historians, scientists, and philosophers.  Their intellectual roots are those of Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Oppenheimer.  These are people who listen to whatever the authorities tell them and reply with a resounding, “Bull Shit! Let me tell you how things really work.”  
X Marks the Spot Where John Kennedy
          Suffered the Fatal Wound
For me, I just don’t care enough.  Nor do I care enough to search for the roots of my particular brand of intellectual apathy.  Perhaps I am cursed with an idiosyncratic strand of dull-witted DNA.  Maybe I suffer from the accumulated compound interest of so many afternoons imbibing in delicious beverages brewed from malt and hops.  It could be the cranial scar tissue developed over a decade or two from self-important verbal slashings offered by various discontented teachers who earnestly wished that I would finally learn their sage wisdom that “curiosity killed the cat, you know.”  Or maybe my unappreciative psyche never recognized the opportunities for intellectual freedom offered when I was caught alone in the corner of a dull dinner party while a brave Theorist spit the evidence of his canapĂ©, spiced with the latest crumbs of his pet atrocity.
It’s been fifty years and four months since John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated on Elm Street in Dallas, Texas.  I have lived in Texas forty-nine years, and this week was the first time I have visited Dealey Plaza.  (So the Theorists can exclude me as a suspect.)  I have no reason why it has taken me so long to visit this so powerfully important piece of geography.  I mean, when one makes the list of the most important dates and places in the history of the United States, November 23, 1963, 12:30 p.m., Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas, is somewhere near the top of the list.  Being ten when he was killed, I am the product of the grieved and shocked nation: I am one who inherited the deflated hopes of a nation, the distrust of all authority, the skepticism of honor, and the fear of institutional evil.  At bottom, you know, the assassination and the unsolved crime, all just proves that in the end the bad guys will win.  The Vietnam War and Watergate, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, did nothing but reinforce those feelings.
photo by John Mazziotta, Dallas Times Herald
But who done it?  The Lone Gunman.  Or two. Or four.  Oswald. James Files. Howard Hunt.  Why?  Mob retaliation.  Cuban retaliation.  Ku Klux Klan.  CIA.  The Russians.  Lyndon Johnson.  While the Sixth Floor Museum allots respect to the possibility that someone hid behind the fence above the Grassy Knoll and to the difficulty of someone like Oswald firing three shots in the required time, I, at least, departed Dealey Plaza feeling what I have always felt.  I will never know.  Maybe my government did kill its president.  Maybe some criminal or political entity did.  Maybe, as in Lincoln’s case, it was a small group of discontents.  Or as with Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, the assassins of Garfield and McKinley, Oswald was his own special breed.  And perhaps this is another reason, we travel to Dallas and to Dealey Plaza.  We hope that we will solve this mystery.  It is like visiting The Alamo or The University of Texas Tower or the compound of the Branch Davidians.  We want to stand in the real world and feel our way toward answers otherwise denied us. But will we really understand what occurred in these?  I don’t expect so.  I do not expect to be set free in a perfect understanding of people or history.  Yet somehow I wake up each morning and proceed to do my job in spite of these unanswered questions.  Odd. 
      Before the family and I leave North Texas and head west for four months, I thought I should visit Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum in The Texas Book Depository.  Knightsmama and the boys decided that the sixteen dollar price tag was a bit much, so they headed over to the Ross Perot Museum of Nature and Science.  By the way, they loved it.  My sons were so happy not to be visiting another historical site or art museum.  And I was equally taken by the Sixth Floor Museum dedicated to Kennedy and the fateful day in Dallas.  I hung out for about three hours, with a couple hundred other people, at least, reading most of the historical displays and listening to the very informative taped guided tour.  I walked about Dealey Plaza imagining the motorcade making its turn onto Elm Street, hearing the shots, standing where Zapruder stood with his camera rolling, walking up the grassy knoll where there was or there wasn’t a second shooter.  And I watched my fellow human beings perform one of those odd and moving spectacles that it never occurs to me to participate in:  when the traffic halted for the light up the hill, men and women stepped into the middle of the street and stood on the X’s painted in the middle of the street.  The First X lay where Kennedy was struck by the first bullet that pierced his throat.  The Second X, several yards down the road, marks where the President suffered his fatal head wound. Now why would calm sane citizens rush out into busy street and pose for that photo-op.  “I stood where U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot,” they will tell their family members, their co-workers, the next guests at their back yard bar-b-cue.  What they won’t say is, “where his head exploded like a melon smashed by Gallagher’s mallets....”  What is the source of this urge I asked myself as I photographed the tourists standing on the spot.  X marks the spot.  X for extermination.  X for extinguish.  X for exit wound.  Are we gawkers at the gallows?  Are we meditators on memory?
Where the First Bullet Hit
Even though this one behavior struck me as bizarre, the rest of the experience was one filled with as much reverence and deep love for this country as our visit to the Statue of Liberty, to Ellis Island, to the 911 Memorial, to the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, and to Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  In each of these places, people of all ages, of many colors and hues, from many nationalities, speaking many languages come together to consider the weight of the dream that is American Liberty and the cost of that liberty and the cost of the mistakes we make creating and defending that liberty.  Of all the places that the Caravan has visited in the past year, and really in all our past travels as a family, these locations are significant for a deep sonorous hum of respect and awe that pervades.  At the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial, an international joy is added, a palpable sweetness, as if humans could really accept each other and offer mutual respect and love.  At the Vietnam Memorial, Dealey Plaza, and the 911 Memorial we honor great wounds to the American spirit.  We hope and pray, together, in our individual acts of pilgrimage and homage, to keep that spirit alive.  Through the winter of grief, we wish, that the sprig of greeny tenderness return.  We remember, we say, when peace and a purposeful positive future seemed possible, even probable.  We have not given up, we announce by our mere presence.  This is our civic faith and John Kennedy and his brother Bobby are among its saints.  

Soundtrack.  Moms Mabley:  "Abraham, Martin, and John."

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On the Road, Again

I was drunk.  It was dawn.  Those are two facts I am certain of.  I was strolling down an empty two-lane country road.  That’s a third fact.  Then let impression and imagination step into the story.   Some details are foggy, but the sky is cloudless, not quite blue yet, still gray, but lightening, like worn white sheets, cool and comforting.  The song of a few birds rise from some random trees.  It is late April, early May, 1974, slightly past the height of wildflower season west of Austin.  The startling outcroppings of bluebonnets have receded, and sporadic stands of swirling flames of Mexican Blankets have replaced them.  There are Prickly Pear and the occasional juniper cedar, spared for some reason by generations of Hill Country cedar choppers.  Most of this section of land has for decades been routinely cleared for small herds of scrawny cattle.  But since LBJ and other visionaries dammed up the Colorado in 1942,  the speculators have been buying and dividing, and the county’s been angling roads around undeveloped parcels, seemingly heading nowhere, but eventually descending toward Lake Travis, where a few camp homes, saved for wealthy city dwellers or rented to hippies or near-do-wells, nestle somewhere near the water.  There is no breeze.  I am the only thing moving across the landscape.
Willie Nelson. by sculptor Clete Shields
I have been abandoned by my equally drunk friends—Claud, Tim, and Neal.  Actually, I am unsure exactly who sits in my car, and who scoots over into my seat, when I neglect control of the wheel to take a piss.  Claud, I am sure, is here.  Fact four.  Tim and Neal are good bets.  Sometimes Tim would drive up to Austin after his finals at Rice for a post-semester celebration.   Neal and I are roommates, a year away from graduation.  What I remember or reconstruct is that Neal and Tim and I are celebrating the end of the semester with homemade tacos and refried beans, Shiner beer, and tequila.    One thing leads to another shot and at some point we decide we want to appreciate a sunrise at the lake.  These were the good ole days when people drove drunk and somehow remembered to stop at red lights and always managed to avoid wayward joggers and bicyclists.   Things have certainly changed.    These days, someone would be dead or arrested.  (Don’t do as I did, children.)
So it was still dark, and I was driving as steadily as I can.  We navigate the roller coaster of Ranch Road 2222, famous for its sharp curves that carry you over the Balcones Fault line and into the new world.  Some people say the Balcones Fault is where the “East” ends and the “West” begins.  For sure, once one crosses and enters the Texas Hill Country, there ain’t no more farming.   We make it to Ranch Road 620, which runs parallel west of the city about 15 or 20 miles from downtown.  Drive on it long enough and you ride the top of Mansfield Dam that temporarily halts the flow of the Colorado River, thus creating Lake Travis, home to notorious Hippie Hollow where men and women swim naked.  Hell, they walk around and sun bathe naked, tempting like sirens, motorboat loads of straight families with binoculars hoping to glimpse what freedom looks like.   In the east, the sky begins to brighten.  I peel off to the right on a narrow road,  heading west again, thinking the Lake must be over there somewhere.   We drive around for awhile, and wonder where have all the road signs gone.  Where are we?  Where is the lake?  I need to piss.
Willie, downtown Austin
It was Claud.  It was always Claud,  chemistry major at UT,  smart as a whip, funny as a knife, always the guy with the practical jokes.   A fact I insist upon:  Claud climbs behind the wheel of my car.  While I stand by the side of the road, returning to the dry earth some of its precious liquid, my car pulls away, at moderate speed, proceeds for several hundred yards, and then approaches a rise, crosses over and disappears into the radiating nub of the corona of the rising sun. 
Did I tell you I was drunk?  And I was twenty-one and attending the University of Texas.  And the semester was over.  And I felt free.   There I stood in the cool air of a Texas dawn.  I am wearing my pointy-toe cowboy boots, faded blue jeans, a pearl snap button cowboy shirt.  A bandana around my longish hair?  Sure.  I don’t remember, but it would not be unusual for me to be dressed so.   But what happened next I do remember because this moment was and remains one of those moments of light, enlightenment, lightness, where what we know and what we experience come together in a unity, in an explosion of joy.
I zipped up my jeans, tucked in my shirttail, and began walking along the side of the lonely, neglected road, away from the lake I had been searching for, toward the sunrise, toward home, not knowing how long Claud’s joke would last.  And this is a fact: I began singing, loudly, jubilantly, maybe even foolishly,

It’s a bloody Mary morning
Baby left me without warning
Sometime in the night.
So I'm flying down to Houston
With forgetting her the nature of my flight.

As we taxi down the runway
With the smog and haze reminding me
Of how I feel,
Just a country boy who's learning
That the pitfalls of the city
Are extremely real.

Willie Nelson, originally from Abbot, Texas,  125 miles north of Austin, was forty-one years old when the album Phases and Stages appeared.  The song I was singing, “Bloody Mary Morning,” begins side two.  Do you remember when music came on vinyl records with two sides?  It was like there were second beginnings, second chances, in those days.   A couple of years before, Nelson had abandoned Nashville, where he experienced solid, but moderate and frustrated success. Recently, he had divorced for the second time and lost his home in a fire. He needed a change, perhaps a new career, even. So he moved to Austin.  In the next three years, from 1973 to 1975, Nelson reinvented himself blending, as we Austinites of a certain age always say, our unique mixture of hippie and redneck cultures.   He released three albums, Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages, and The Red Headed Stranger, each one developing bit by bit the eclectic and electric persona that became the moral and aesthetic center, of, to use Jan Reid’s phrase, “the improbable rise of red-neck rock.”  I could call these the midlife crises albums—declarations of freedom, expressions of regret, and explorations of a new self. 
Your Essential Magnificence, by James Talbot
Recently, in reading Joe Nick Patoski’s biography of Willie, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, I was, now that I think about it, struck, stupidly, about how ambitious, how conscious, how quietly manipulative Nelson was in re/creating himself.  “Well, the short-hairs in Nashville won’t listen to me, so I’ll grow my hair and move to Austin,” I can almost imagine him saying to himself.  Just like Elvis and Rick Nelson (another of my favorites), Willie wasn’t getting his share of the cash from the hippies.  Willie went so far as to recognize his music, his own being, as a product like beer.  Patoski quotes a representative from Lone Star beer telling how Willie came to him and told him they were in the same sad boat.  The kids won’t listen to his music and the kids won’t drink Lone Star beer for the same reasons:  their parents liked it.  So they worked out product placement deals and advertising campaigns around Willie and Lone Star as the next cool thing.  I bought Willie and ignored Lone Star.  But nowadays the hipsters in Austin, and the rednecks, are still drinking Lone Star. 
Close up of Your Essential Magnificence
Those who have followed Nelson’ career know, however, that he never stood still.  After teaming with Waylon Jennings to help invent Outlaw Country—which basically meant country music without the Nashville strings, literal and figurative, or we could call it country music without bullshit—Willie began placing himself in the center of a greater American culture.  Step one, to my mind, was the album Stardust, an album of songs from the Great American Songbook, which won Nelson a Grammy for best country male vocalist, and so far has sold over five million copies.  He assembled this album, lived in this record, just as Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra would.  Willie was always an interesting and intentional singer, but with Stardust he began a second or third career in which he becomes sometimes an astonishing singer and interpreter of classic songs, whether they be country, jazz, blues, pop, folk, or rock and roll, everything from “Will the Circle be Unbroken” to “Georgia on My Mind” to “Heartbreak Hotel” to “Graceland.”  In many ways, he has become something beyond a songwriter or performer, and reached a cross over status something like an icon or treasure.  He sort of reminds me now of one of his heroes, Louis Armstrong, someone about whom one simply forgets all the labels.

Over the years, since my drunken revelry, I seldom followed Willie’s music closely, like I did Leonard Cohen’s or Dylan’s or Paul Simon’s, or Joni Mitchell’s, for that matter.   In 1996, while I was living in an apartment in the process of getting a divorce, I purchased the album Spirit.  After listening to it a few times, I found myself so depressed, I shelved it.  It is a quiet but powerful record, and I recommend it if you want to cry.  Still, even though I haven’t been purchasing each new record, it’s not like Willie is not a constant part of my life.  Knightsmama wore out her copy of Across the Borderline. When I pulled out the CD to download it for the trip, it was cracked and broken.  When I visit my sister The Queen Bee, who hasn’t lived in Texas for thirty years, the first thing she does is make a batch of margaritas and “puts on some Willie.” 
Stevie Ray Vaughan,
             by sculptor Ralph Helmick
           For all of these reasons, on a recent trip to Austin—while still anchored in East Texas—I made sure I visited Willie’s statue in the center of town.  I am re-beginning my pilgrimage in my home town, in downtown Austin, on Willie Nelson Drive and visiting Willie’s statue, placed there by the city of Austin on April 20, 2012 (4-20, if you’re a code breaker).  Willie Nelson is not a native to Austin—very few of us are.  But somehow he embodies the character and personality of what the best of Austin has striven for, a smiling rural acceptance of one’s fellow humans blended with a knowing urban skepticism of power.  It is a love of tradition balanced by a fierce individualism.  This is a fact:  American art and ideas don’t get much better than Willie Nelson. 
            While I was at it, I made my way to the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan along Lady Bird Lake.  I also drove by two sculptures along South Congress Avenue created by two men I like to call friends.  Right near the Congress Avenue Bridge is the “Bat Sculpture” by Dale Whistler, whose work commemorates the Austin spirit all around town.   Further south is the iridescent throne by the multi-media artist most people know by his last name—Talbot.   When Knightsmama and I begin to contemplate leaving Austin for good because of all the changes that are being wrought, I remember the cultural roots of Austin that made all these people move there in the first place.  Before us, it was country boys and girls wanting a little liberal sophistication offered by the University and state government.  Next, it was us Rednecks wishing to be Hippies.   Now, it’s Hipsters wishing to be whatever they think Austin offers.    

Nightwing, by Dale Whistler
              In five days, the Caravan hits the road again, leaving Hundred Acre Woods in Wills Point by way of the highway that “brung” us here, Interstate 20.  In January 4, when we learned of The Buckaroo’s stroke, we caught 20 in Columbia, South Carolina, and drove straight through to Tyler.  On March 30, we will hop back on to 20 and ride it until it ends in far West Texas.  We will have driven almost the entire length of it, approximately 1450 miles on this one road, which is 1539.4 miles long.  An odd accomplishment.  But one we will all celebrate by singing with Willie, “On the Road Again.”

Soundtrack Double Feature:  Willie Nelson:  "On the Road Again."

Willie Nelson:  "Bloody Mary Morning."