Monday, May 12, 2014

The Third Quarterly Report

Question:  Guess what, Dude?  Bummer time.  You have now entered into the final three months of The Caravan of Wonder’s Tour of America.
Answer:  Bummer, indeed.
Q:  So that means that it is time for the third quarterly report.  Are you ready?
A:  Probably not.  But ask away and I will tell you what I know and feel.
Q:  Well, let’s start with the “now” and then find out where that leads us.  Where are you today, May 11, 2014.
A:  Today, which is Mother’s Day, by the way, we have The Monster parked at the Dockweiler RV Park in Playa del Rey, just outside of Los Angeles, more or less under the take off air space of LAX.  We have been here two nights, and we will stay another four nights.  We are doing the Southern California beach thing.  I mean, literally, the beach is not thirty feet from our front door.  Dockweiler is a county park, basically a parking lot with electrical and water hook ups.   Row upon row of RVs.  The past two nights, Friday and Saturday, have been sort of Party Central, people making fires on the beach, young families, lots of grilling, twelve packs of commercial beer, and radios and sound systems.  When one says “cacophony,” this place is what one means.  It is wonderful, or awful, depending on how one controls one’s expectations. 
The Dude at Joshua Tree National Park
Q: What have you guys been doing in LA?
A:  So far, nothing really touristy or wondrous.  The first afternoon, Knightsmama and the boys headed off in the car to Performance Bikes in Santa Monica.  Dr. J.’s mountain bike fork had done something really funky that needed repair.  I stayed in the trailer and read The Confessions by Rousseau for the class I am taking.  Friday night, one of my long time friends, Francine Taylor, dropped by the trailer.  We talked and remembered old times and all that.  Saturday morning, Knightsmama and I found wi-fi in a cute little suburb, El Segundo, where I made my discussion board contributions; later, everyone enjoyed the beach, and we retrieved Dr. J.’s repaired bike.  Saturday night, the boys filled their media needs at Francine’s house with her sons, while she, Knightsmama, and I dined at an Indian restaurant, Bombay Cafe, (usually off our list, since the boys hate Indian) and deserts at Urth Café, which Francine tells me is an occasional setting for Entourage.  Francine’s husband, Dane Davis, couldn’t join us because he was in The Bay area at Skywalker Ranch.  Dane is a sound engineer and editor.  He won an Oscar for his work on The Matrix.  Francine and Dane just might be the only really famous people we know.  We were all disappointed to learn that The Oscar was packed up and stored in a really safe place. 
Q:  What’s next?
A:  Don’t know, really.  We have been strangely free floating about LA.  In one sense, I am not at all interested in Los Angeles.  I think I am afraid of getting sucked in to celebrity culture.  I am enjoying it.  Still, I am fascinated by how I don’t really have a list of things to see, in the same way I had that list in New York or Boston or Philadelphia or D. C.  Why don’t I?  Today, Francine’s family is taking the boys to Disney Land, and I think Knightsmama and I will head off to The Getty, maybe a dinner in Santa Monica, and the never-ending search for wi-fi. 
In Canyonlands National Park
Q:  So this is the quarterly report.  What do you have to report?
A:  Well, as you know, we have been back on the road slightly over one month, since March 30.  We have had to make some significant repairs on our vehicles.  That has been a bummer.  It has eaten up whatever financial cushion we had.  We have traveled from Will’s Point, Texas, to Los Angeles.  That is significant as its own achievement. 
I have rediscovered my love of The Southwest.  When I went to graduate school at Texas A&M in the summer of 1975, the first class I took was a class in Southwest Literature, taught by a codger named Sid Cox.  He fancied himself a kind of J. Frank Dobie.  I don’t think I impressed him very much.  It was a “problems” course, meaning he and I created a “problem” I was supposed to solve.   I read the books he assigned and wrote a 25-page paper.  My final essay had lots of typos—a weakness I still contend with.  I made a B+.  Basically, I read about deserts.  Mary Austin, Haniel Long, Joseph Wood Krutch., some others I don’t remember.  And some Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb.  Then I added in Carlos Castenada and his crazy blend of anthropology and fiction.  It was the poet Alurista, at the University of Texas, who introduced me to the adventures of Don Juan.  As I remember it, the paper was an exploration of the essential and existential qualities of the desert.  I mention this course because something clicked in me, again, about the pure, one-on-one qualities of this world out west.
The South Rim of Grand Canyon
Q:  What do you mean?
A:  I mean, that even though I am traveling with my family, and even though most of the places we have visited in the past month, when we wandered around them, were crowded with other people, I don’t experience the desert Southwest as a member of a lonely crowd.  Staring at The Grand Canyon, tipping over the edge, for instance, is not like standing on the observation deck of The Empire State Building, peering into the canyons of the city.  Riding the train from Salem into Boston, looking at the passing city, is not the same as riding The Grand Canyon Express from Williams to the hotel El Tovar.  In these experiences, the process and the crowds are the same.  But the landscape in the desert does not remind me that I am one among many (although factually I am).  The desert grounds me as a simple, lone entity in a vast expanse.  Not an individual in a crowd, but an individual alone.  I am wondering now if there are any pack or herd animals in the desert.  Certainly, not snakes and rabbits and jays, elk or mule deer.  No wolf packs in the desert.  We have seen prairie dog towns.  I don’t know enough about them to know if they support or contradict my theory.  I have some research to do.
Q:  That’s interesting.  What else have you been thinking?    
A: Well, go back to the new beginning.  You know, we have been back on the road for one month.  April.  According to T. S. Eliot, the cruelest month, but he lived in England.  Our April has not been cruel.  Changeable certainly.  Fickle.  Low and high.  Flat and jagged and peaked.  Open and narrow.  Beautiful and moody.  Cold and warm.  Bracing and tender.  But never cruel.
Hoodoos Near Bryce Canyon

            So we have had one month in the American Southwest.  Fort Worth to Fort Davis.  Davis Mountains to Guadalupe Mountains.  Carlsbad to Santa Fe to Chama.  Durango to Silverton to Mesa Verde.  The Four Corners to The Arches to The Canyonlands.   Monument Valley to the Grand Canyon.  Flagstaff and Sonoma. Bryce Canyon, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, and Zion.   A couple of days’ diversion in Las Vegas, with the Hoover Dam, thrown in.  Then Joshua Tree.  It has all been staggering.  The only God Awful Ugly parts were most of West Texas and the desert south of Las Vegas.  I never want to return to Austin. 
            Q:  That’s shocking.  Why? 
            A:  Well, you know how Knightsmama is always speculating about where we could move, and I am always saying, no, I have a job in one of the best towns in the U. S.  After all, people are trying to move to Austin.  First, there was Durango.  It is at the edge of some serious mountains, and then there is Silverton.  In these towns, I felt like there was a freedom in the air that I had not experienced in a long time.  It’s all about the West and cowboys and horses.  I think I could drop everything and move to Durango.  Something of the Hippie ethic has survived here.  Cosmic Cowboy stuff.
            But then we hit the four corners and the Colorado Plateau.  This is amazing country.  My favorite towns here are Moab, Utah, and Jerome, Arizona.  Kanab, Utah, almost makes the list as does Joshua Tree, California, which is outside the region.  And, if anyone cares to know, Marfa doesn’t even come close to making the list.  Alpine maybe, Balmorhea, even.  I found Marfa to be both dull and pretentious. 
At Brian Head, Utah
            What one has in the Colorado Plateau is a repeated reminder of the powerful force of slow time.  The landscape is more dramatic than Georgia O’Keefe’s Central and Northern New Mexico.  The Redlands wear time on its face.  Wind and water peel away what is soft; that which is hard remains.  And so one is shaped by forces of nature, not protected from them by society.   You can let it wear you away, wash you away, burn you away, freeze you and weaken you.  It all shows in how you stand and walk, and face the forces.  One place it is arches; another place, hoodoos; in all places, it is canyons.  It all places, the sky is gigantic. 
            Q:  Anything else?
            A:  Yes, I want to note my reading along the way.  I am taking a class in Humanities because I said I would to earn the sabbatical.  So this month has included a memoir by Ekaterina Dashkova, a member of Catherine the Great’s court, parts of Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience, and now The Confessions by Rousseau.  All this reading has been an odd counterpoint to the American experience.  But I have also read Elmer Kelton’s The Good Old Boys, and have been reading in N. Scott Momaday House Made of Dawn and Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Men, which I had to give up when we left the Durango area.    And now I am exploring The Annals of a Former World by John McPhee.  Of course, when all this is over, I will read Edward Abby’s Desert Solitaire, again.  But actually there are a dozen books about this part of the country that I want to explore.  It is an electric countryside that sparks the imagination. 
            I am want to report that I have been enjoying Westerns, when we have wi-fi.  Netflix and Amazon Prime have supported my exploration of John Ford and John Wayne.  I was never a great John Wayne fan, nor do I remember him being an icon for my father.  Chuck Connors and James Arness were more my father’s style.   Monument Valley is also sometimes called John Ford Country.  I have loved watching Stagecoach, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, True Grit, and a couple others. 
Near Sedona
            One problem I constantly face with The Caravan of Wonder is that as soon as I begin to dig into an area and explore and think about the cultural and historical meanings, I move on.  Whenever one pulls back the cultural clichés of people and regions, one finds that meanings are much more complicated.  For instance, I have always felt that Hemingway and his supposed view of manhood was terribly simplified and inappropriately vilified by feminist critics.  (This is one reason I am sorry we did not make it to Key West. Hemingway was on my list of people to ponder.)  After watching the few movies I have seen so far, I am convinced that John Wayne has been terribly simplified by those who have made him a hero and representative of true manhood and by those who have turned him into a container for everything bad about Americans and American men.  I have also bored Knightsmama with prolonged discussions about the death of the Western and which actors today could carried a Western like Wayne or Henry Ford or even Clint Eastwood.
            Q:  Speaking of American men, how are your sons doing?
            A:  I think they are enjoying this part of the trip better.  They will tell you that they would prefer to be at home with their friends.  They are a bit jaded when it comes to looking at American landscape.  There is only a finite number of times a parent can say, “ Look at that amazing mountain” until the child stops looking.  They are both great readers, so that keeps them occupied.  Thank God for Kindles and lending libraries. However, we still can’t keep them in books.  They have gotten to experience snow several times, which is unusual for Texans.  Even though they will complain about hiking, they are both great hikers and can keep up and/or surpass their mother.  In addition, we have rented a jeep in Canyonlands, and ridden horses in Zion.  They really enjoyed the rocks at Joshua Tree.  In addition, they got to walk The Strip in Las Vegas, and now we are on a beach.   Today my friend Francine is taking them, with her two sons, to Disney Land.  I don’t think they have much to complain about.
            Q:  Anything else.
            A:  I should report that The Buckaroo, back in Texas, is doing well, adjusting to his new life and discovering how much of his old life he can retain and/or recover.  Finally, I think everyone has been surprised at how easily we returned to the old travel habits.  After almost three months tied to shore in Northeast Texas, even though we were eager to return to the road, I think we were all apprehensive about getting used to each other in such closed quarters and packing up and moving at the pace that we do.  I think it is all going well.  I will be glad when we are done with the big cities.  But, since the Caravan will hit a number of National Parks this summer, I am wondering if I can blend in with the summer rv vacation crowd. 
            Q:  Well, thanks.  See you in Texas in August.

            A:  Wow, sad but true.


Soundtrack Double Feature.  Michael Murphey:  "Geronimo's Cadillac"

Robert Earle Keen:  "The Road Goes on Forever."

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