Tuesday, September 30, 2008

At Home With My Truest Friend

Who could forget the fall of 1988? In case you have forgotten, you're more than welcome to borrow my memories.

Picture yourself as a 22 year bicycle racer, jet-lagged and dead broke, stumbling off of a dank greyhound bus and into the dismal midwest drizzle of Iowa City, IA. A day or so ago you were in The Netherlands, and already it is a burned-out memory of slick cobblestones, blaring car horns, hard labor, strange new faces, and culture shock. You rode well enough to earn a spot on a big Dutch trade team for the next season. You think that your sports career is finally, sort-of, taking off. To the dismay and bewilderment of your Dutch sponsors, you turned down a winter job in a tire factory on the outskirts of Amsterdam. You chose instead to go back to the States. You chose to go home. Trouble is, you have no permanent address. So then, what is home exactly? You figure that home is a place where you know every building. Home is a place where you know every street name. Home is a place where your truest friend lives.

You haul a giant red duffel bag out of the guts of the bus. Then you grab a mashed cardboard box with a bicycle jammed inside, a pair of wheels, and a battered five-string guitar. Since you can't afford cab fare, you load your worldly possessions onto your back, grip the bike box by its rotten handle, and begin the long drag across town through cold and grimy mud puddles. Within a block your feet are cold, wet, and squishy. But you don't care. You know exactly where you're going. You know exactly how to get there. You are going to Dogbait's house.

Dogbait has offered you a no-strings flop under the Elvis Shrine. Your bed will be on "The Asthma Couch"--so named because it is so hopelessly impregnated with dust and dander that after a night's sleep on it you wake up with a wheeze--until you can get an off-season job and move into your own place. And for the first time in about a year you are happy.

Who is Dogbait? Tweny years ago, as I drag-assed through town, I thought about this. Dogbait--a.k.a Big R.; a.k.a Randy Dickson--was a fellow cyclist and world traveler. The first time I met Randy, I thought he was a mad pirate on two wheels. He wore an eyepatch (that kept changing eyes), to correct a lazy eye on the mend after a horrific cycling accident. He challenged me to speak up, speak my mind, stand my ground, and be entertaining in the process. He wowed me with the most outrageous personal adventure stories I'd ever heard. He drove a rodded-out British sports car that he built-up himself. He wore a leather jacket festooned with death-skulls. He played the bass. He was Sid Vicious with a college education. He was intimidating. He was funny. He was cool.

But, in the fall of 1988, as I staggered across a footbridge over the Iowa River, I knew this is not why Randy is, and will always be, one of my best friends. Back in the spring of 1986, while out for a ride, I suffered a traumatic, life-threatening head injury. I endured three-odd days of touch-n-go in an ICU, a few more days in a hospital bed, and nine days without eating. I couldn't walk without leaning against a wall. I couldn't read. I couldn't think for the headaches. Yet somehow I survived and completely recovered. Who visited me in the hospital? Who helped me in my time of need? Who saved my life? My only family: My brother, my mother, my father. And my truest friends, with Randy leading the pack.

And now, a full 20 years later, I find myself behind the wheel of an old microbus headed for Sturgeon Bay, WI, thinking about the good old days and looking forward to seeing my old friend. The Asthma Couch and Elvis Shrine may now exist only in memory, but the invitation to flop at Randy's place still stands.

Randy is a man who can handle any number of roles and a mountain of activities with ease and aplomb. He is a devoted father and husband, a hardworking and successful entrepreneur/profesional archaeologist, home owner, carpenter, British sports car enthusiast, epicurean, vintage guns aficionado, and diehard Hawkeye fan.

It goes without saying that Diane and I thoroughly enjoyed a fine long weekend with Randy and his family--his absolutely fantastic wife, Amy, and their thoroughly charming daughter, Claire.

These were the sorts of days I dream about on a long road trip. Early-morning breakfasts in the kitchen with true friends that become late-morning brewfests and monkey wrenching sessions in the garage...

...followed up with afternoons of fun and games on the shooting range...

... that are capped with long and lingering dinners, either beside the backyard grill or out at a favorite restaurant. Dear readers, do not doubt what you are about to behold. This indeed is Randy, insiting on paying the dinner tab--for five--including the tip!

Thank you, Randy. Thank you, Amy. And thank you, too, Claire. Our home is your home, no matter where it might be, any time and always.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Instant Yooper

The people who live in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (or the U.P.) are called "Yoopers." And they're proud of it. The people who live to the south, under the Mackinac Bridge, are called "Trolls." Since they don't know they're called trolls, they don't mind.

Lots of trolls dream about moving to the U.P., but every Yooper will tell you that there's no work to be found in the U.P. This means trolls like us only get visit the U.P., where we relax, enjoy, spend our cash, then move along. But while in the U.P. every troll is a Yooper. Just add beer.

Where is Yooperland? It balances atop the the fingertip of Michigan's lower peninsula, connected by the Mackinac Bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world.

How do you get to Yooperland? First you shake off the beatnick heel of Motown and weave your horseless carriage northward. In our case, we passed through Grand Rapids, MI, my sort-of ancestral home*. Though most of my Michigan family has passed along, we were able to see my uncle Mark, my father's youngest brother.

It was a brief but immensily enjoyable visit. We wished we had more time to visit, but we were just passing through and Uncle Mark had to hurry back to work (he has a very large family of his own to support**). On a road trip like ours, we are obliged to everyone who shares their time with us, and we're happy for what we can get.

Out of booming Grand Rapids metro area, the rolling farmlands open up along with the roadside fruit stands. It's not Yooper country, but it's the next sweetest place.

But then we crossed over the Mackinack Bridge and entered into a land of wonderful wilderness, the edge of the world hanging out there
like a rawhide flap of the old frontier, outposted from the swirl of mainstream America.

We strolled on the beaches of the greatest lakes in the world...

... picnicked in small towns nested beside pristine bays, where the difference between the buses and the boats are more a matter of style than sunstance.

Hey yah there, sure you betcha. The U.P. is one of those kind of places...

And we wondered what those Yoopers do up here, all year 'round? We asked around and learned that in the winter they shovel snow and in the summer they swat mosquitoes. During the spring and fall they rest up for swatting and shoveling.

This begs the question: What do Yooper-Trolls do up there? In the winter they stay down south where it's warm and in the summer they travel somewhere that's airconditioned. During the spring and fall they travel to the U.P and sit around and don't at all think about swatting and shoveling...

In fact, they don't think about much of anything at all.

*This is a long and shaggy story that only members of my family would enjoy reading. And since my family already knows all of the shaggy details, the story is not one that bears repeating here.

**This is an even longer and truly inspiring story that bears telling. I will leave it for my Uncle Mark to tell his own story. If he cares to write up the story of his family and send it to me, I'll post it on this blog.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

On the Road to the Motor City

It was an ordinary part of our bus trip with hot sun and countryfolk in their minivans lined up in one fast food drive at one rust belt town after another, till we got on the rim of Lake Erie up by Cleveland. We pulled into town and crawled past crumbling mansions that had, a hundred years ago, been home to the managers of the now-closed mills and factories. Thin black men hobbled along weedy sidewalks, pushing wobbly shopping carts loaded with junk, their sorry faces gaunt in the broken glass of the dusty corner barber shops and check cashing stations that hadn’t seen a big payday since the flush a generation back.

But then we crossed the tracks and swung into the shady graces of the University of Cleveland, its neoclassical buildings bright and shiny and new with squeaky clean doctors in residence stepping lively across the green campus, the still mighty towers of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil in command of the distant skyline.

We were glad it was lunchtime because that meant we could stop driving for a while and eat. We had heard of this restaurant called Slyman’s. It was near the train tracks, just east of downtown. The place was all clattering plates and shouted short orders and popping bags and a line of regulars out the nothing-to-look at storefront. Diane and I dodged the line and grabbed stools at the low bar and shared a plate of their specialty, corned beef on rye.

It was the biggest sandwich we had ever seen and we ate every bit of it. We knew it was nutritious and it was delicious, of course and we would have had another, but we had to get going and stop moaning, so we paid the tab, said so long to the waitress manning the cash register and made for the bus.

It was slow going out of Cleveland, but no sooner did we clear the downtown than the wide blue lake peeked out again, this time from beside the never-ending ranks of stately stone houses that are home to the managers of check cashing companies and temporary employment bureaus. After a half hour of watching groundsmen mow lawns and clip elaborate hedges, we rode past the city limits and made time around the gentle southwestern sweep of Lake Erie and the Michigan border.

We arrived in the Motor City quite early in the morning. Tacking through the wind from Lake Erie with a bop over an overpass we saw smokestacks, smoke, railyards, red-brick buildings, and the distant downtown gray-stone buildings, and here we were in Detroit, the great roaring furnace of Michigan industry that still belched fire from its nostrils, its big rank smell like the raw body of America itself, and I felt as if its red river face was daring us to reconsider our trespass.

But we slipped the old troll and were soon enough cruising down the long walk of Michigan Ave., a street that hustled hope to injured souls and broken bodies despite its defaced character.

Though from block to block this stone block jungle cast a suspicious gaze on our cruising car, for no other car was on this potted road but us in this early hour, and in this small light the tallest buildings reared back and revealed to us how strong their old bones were, though in truth their stately visage was streaked with tears from a thousand broken eyes.

And as we drove by listening to that tearful sound of the light which this city has come to represent for all of us, I thought of all my friends from one end of the country to the other and how they were really all in the same vast backyard doing something frantic and rushing about, because wherever they were they were not in downtown Detroit. Nobody was. Except us. And a few other hopeful fools.

Even so, the day was warm and beautiful and we had a meal of franks and beans in American Coney Island, a downtown institution since century’s turn a hundred years back, then extracted ourselves from the impossible tangle of downtown streets and aimed the bus at the DIA, a.k.a., the Detroit Institute of Art. We gained entry to the temple and stood in silent reverie before the epochs: the North American ancients and their totem poles that told of terrible beasts and soaring eagles and untold bounties long since forgotten; we heard the hoarse whispers of grotesque African masks, all stretched and thorny and bleeding evil blessings like sweat-stained skin; we pondered the pictures from an Old World, a time when the mercantile class in Europe was amassing great fortunes and willingly tossed their money onto a oily canvas to prove it; we saw the tangled mess of the modern mind—air-conditioned shards of broken glass on green finger-like carpets tacked to tall walls, a white-noise nonsense of repeating neon that slyly winked at us as within this holy temple of endowments.

We heard tell that Diego Rivera was still kicking around. He had arrived in the 1930s and some say he never left. I was excited to lay eyes on that dirty old Mexican so I beat feet to a large reception hall and found him hanging around, just like I thought he’d be. His language was melodious and slow. He was patient. He wore old clothes that had been turned black by the soot of railroads and the dirt of boxcars and sleeping on the ground. He fixed his face with a sardonic and insinuating smile, and though he had a lot to say about our lord Henry Ford and the terrible machine that feeds on the sweat of human labor, he said not a word and instead spoke to all who dared listen in a room filled with nothing but cartoons.

It was agonizing stuff and I pictured Diane and I and The Ford Himself in a Detroit bar that night, all the gang on stage, and in their eyes we would see something strange and ragged, filled with Wonder, like prophets of War who long ago walked across the land to bring the dark world its bright beat. And before we knew it, Diane and I were at the doorstep of Hitsville, USA.

We entered the dead rooms inside, and though the walls had long ago ceased to talk we could feel the spirits of those sounds still noisily clinging to the thin air.

In its time, the early ‘60s, Motown was going like mad all over America. The fellows at Hitsville blew with a wild air—Stevie and the Funk Brothers, Diana Ross and her Supremes—because Motown was somewhere between the glory rock that began with King Elvis and ended with the booty roll of Queen Disco.

Today it’s the early ‘00s and the Studio A is a museum of sorts, but they still let you into the sacred chamber and blow your horn and sing your song, standing tall and leaning up into the hot mics just like the greatest hit makers once did when they too were young and rushing about in beat sweaters and baggy pants and had nothing more to their names than a toothbrush and handkerchiefs and high heels and horns, their senses sharp with the kindest form of human love and friendship.

The sun was still high but falling by the time we left Studio A. And though I had a song of love in my heart, once I got back in the bus my head became fogged again with a torrent of Diego’s pastel cartoons I had witnessed earlier that morning. Unable to disperse these dark clouds, I resolved to pay a visit to our lord Henry Ford as soon as it was possible, and once I had made that decision I told Diane about it and she agreed. She told me the ghost of old Ford himself could be found in Dearborn, at a place called Greenfield Village, and once that was settled we headed across town to look up the old man.

The Motor City seemed empty somehow as we roared through its rough intersections and mean streets, surging past the burned up husks of once fine houses and startlingly green weedy lots and closed up shops that still promised the sweet heart of love forever in the pink, I was overtaken with the strangest feeling.

For once in my life I didn't know who I was. Diane and I were far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, and I heard the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of a mean hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked through that scratched old windshield and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. We were halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of a dying Old World and the West of the future, and maybe that's why it happened right there and then, in that strange high sunset.

But then we arrived at The Henry Ford, and in an instant we were transported back to the time of small town steam engines and railroad tracks, and shacks all smelling of sawdust in the dry summer haze of a midwest afternoon.

We stumbled along with the most wicked grin of joy in the world, among the old cars and beat engines of Main Street, the lonely brick walls destined to be illuminated by one lamp, with the prairie brooding at the end of each little street and the smell of the corn like dew in the night. All the townsfolk seemed to be going home from work or preparing for an evening’s pleasure ride, wearing railroad hats, baseball hats, all kinds of hats, just like after work in any town anywhere.

The only cars that came by were antique cars; they gave us friendly waves as they clanked along, the cows were coming home. It was beautiful there. But soon enough the sun turned red as it snuggled down into the its bed on the western horizon and before it disappear into nothing, Diane and I climbed back into the bus and roared off onto the open road, the openness of the Michigan pastures looming ahead of us like the Promised Land, way out there beneath the stars, and I thought about the glories of Diego’s mad dreams and The Old Ford’s mad machines and we aimed the bus northward toward the roof of America and the very edge of the Great Lake Superior where the wild land blooms with giant bears and roaming wolf packs and ahead and I saw the thin outlines of jackpines in the silver moon, and saw the dirty ghosts of worn out factory workers, and heard the still-young voices of Motown, and wondered about them all. And this was really the way that our whole road experience began, and the things that were to come are too fantastic not to tell.

Friday, September 19, 2008

White Gowns and Waterfalls

Summer is the season when life thunders in the rush of wild abandon. It is a time when the blossoms of newly minted promises gleam on fields of virgin white. It is the season of waterfalls and white gowns.

This summer we’ve logged about 9,000 miles in the bus (and have hiked or biked hundreds more), and at every turn in the road, at every clearing on a forest's path, the moment we spot the plume of falling water or the puff of a wedding gown, we grab for the camera and record the moment. It isn’t a weakness. We simply can’t help ourselves.

Of course, we’re not the only ones who swoon at the sight of white flowing things.

The waterfall, above, trickles through the rugged wilds of the Great Smokey Mountains. To get to this tiny falls, you have to labor many steep miles uphill (driving and hiking) away from the easy splendors of Gatlinburg, TN. This is saying something. This is also to say that no matter how big or small, how elaborate or ordinary, the spectacle of a white gown or a waterfall is utterly alluring. People will sweat, swear, and even put their “off-road” vehicles in harm’s way to see them up close.

And why not? For only in the great white north of Nova Scotia, Canada will you behold the breathtaking tableau of sea and sky and land and brides and bridegrooms.

And only at the western edge of New Brunswick, Canada, can you gawk at the largest waterfall (by volume) east of Niagara Falls.

Indeed, travel deep into French-speaking territories of Quebec, the hilltop towns above the St. John’s River induce a sort of white-knuckled vertigo.

These are lovely sights. But the beautiful treachery of a dizzying falls is nothing when compared to the dastardly knots tied upon the tracks of eternity…

… or the dazzle of competing princesses…

… and the pearly gleam of awaiting carriages…

… and white-suited suitors…

… and sometimes a little of everything.

It seems to me that we don't really care if a given waterfall is the biggest, the tallest, or carries the most volume. It’s just that the bigger the falls, the more people can see it at once. Behold, Niagara Falls.

Likewise, we truly don't care if a gown is elaborate or simple. We love them all with equal adoration. And I think I know why.

Though waterfalls may seem permanent, they are, in truth, rushing through time and space. Though a woman may spend a lifetime planning for her white gown party, in truth a bride shines for one short day. And because this beauty is of a fleeting sort, because they have the permanence of mist and air and light, because this glory dazzles in the flash of the whetted eye, every white gown and waterfall is splendid in its own way for the moment we behold it...

... and we are powerless to resist their every charm.