Creative On The Road

from FOOTNOTE 1 — “Route 66: The American Road”

(News came two days ago that Martin Millner, along with George Maharis, one of the two stars of the legendary television series Route 66, has died, at 83. As a young boy, my own introduction to the adventure of road travel and the romance of the route came from the series and the experience of new places and people each week of Milner’s Tod and Maharis’s Buz. It seems the right time, then, to offer this excerpt of my “Route 66: The American Road,” originally published, along with the photography of Julia Dean, in the final issue of the also legendary, documentary journalism magazine DoubleTake, and republished now in the inaugural issue of Footnote: A Literary Journal of History.)


When the beaver were depleted, and there was too little left to trap, many of the mountain men who wished to continue to live outside of civilization hired on as guides for the new wagon trains leaving from Missouri for unsettled land. The trappers had found the way, and now, from St. Louis, St. Joseph, and Independence, not only individuals seeking fortune at gold strikes and elsewhere, but whole families seeking new lives were heading west. In the heyday of the Western wagon train, from 1840 to 1860, as many as 500,000 people migrated along the Oregon, California, and Santa Fe trails.

These trails became permanent routes west, but as coordinates on maps and rutted wagon-wheel trails, they were paths for the most intrepid— of which the United States has never had shortage—but not for the ordinary lone individual or family. Phenomena like the Pony Express, and the telegraph that spelled the short-lived Express’ demise, provided the first sense of coast-to-coast communication, but they were not a means of travel.

Only with the driving of that last, golden spike connecting the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroads in 1869, had a means of transportation been established that enabled the free flow of people, without the daunting hardship and risk of wilderness travel, between the nation’s Eastern origins and its Western expansion. It had taken just short of 64 years from the date Lewis and Clark reached their destination across an uncharted wilderness until the completion of the first, fixed, permanent, regular, and safe means of transportation across it. Where once an overland journey would have taken months—it had taken Lewis and Clark twenty— or a journey by ship around Cape Horn weeks, on June 4, 1876, the Transcontinental Express traveled from New York City to San Francisco in 83 hours and 39 minutes.

Before and after the railroad, there was also the stagecoach, for some decades a regular fixture of western commerce and travel. But companies such as the Butterfield Overland Express Company were primarily government- and private -mail haulers and, like Wells Fargo, movers of bank funds. For the nine people crammed into a semi-weekly Celerity coach for the typical twenty-five day, bone-jarring, cold and snowy, or hot, sweaty, and smelly journey from Missouri to California, the fare was around $200, or about $4,000 in today’s money, more or less the price of a one-way ticket on the Concorde SST over its lifespan. If you could afford it, you took the stagecoach before the transcontinental line was completed, or because it went places the railroad didn’t, not to celebrate your individual freedom as an American to travel where you wished.

The railroad, on the other hand, moved thousands, hundreds of thousands—millions. Along with the Homestead Act of 1862, it completed the settlement of the West.

The Homestead Act offered free title to 160 acres—after five years, if you worked the land and improved it. In contrast, the railroads sold the land along their right-of-way, the land they had been granted by the federal government as an incentive to undertake the transcontinental enterprise. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad lives on in the popular historical imagination as one of the great moments in the building of the American nation, and it is certainly that. An extraordinary technical feat and a permanent conquest of nature cannot be denied. But here again, as with every inroad to the West, that tension between the individual and the collective is visible.

An individual picks up from New York, or Philadelphia, or the Ohio River Valley, or even somewhere in Europe, and alone or with his family makes his way finally, by train, to Nebraska, Wyoming, California, or another state, to start afresh. The railroad is available for travel, however, because the government had its grander social and commercial goals, granted land—and its natural resources—to the enterprises commissioned to lay the track, and even subsidized the construction.

The railroad is there to be used because legislators succumbed to wholesale bribery from lobbyists in the form of cash and corporate bonds. It is there because the owners and operators of the Union Pacific Railroad established the shell company, Credit Mobilier—the Enron of its day, owned by the same majority shareholders as the Union Pacific—to which to award the construction contract and bill back the railroad, subsidized by the federal government (and risk-taking private investors), multiple times the actual cost of materials and labor.

Once the Transcontinental Railroad was established, the railroads also went into the business of luring settlers to migrate to the West. They offered reasonable prices for the land, good credit terms to enable purchase, showings of parcels, and even established European offices with representatives to attract additional emigration across the Atlantic. The settlers would populate the land the railroads traversed and help establish the railroad towns that would both service and feed off the railroad. Thus is the goal of a westward expansion fulfilled. Thus does the American mythos of individual initiative and self-determination run up against a contradiction. And that is how it remained for almost 60 more years.

But if our world is anything, it is a world of contradiction. However settlers may have arrived—by someone else’s wagon train, stage coach, or train, or by steamer from another part of the world—whatever corporate hucksterism or nationalistic boosterism had sold them an idea about the circumstances toward which they traveled that was not entirely in accordance with reality (disgruntled natives not entirely glad you’re coming, anyone?), they had made their own choices, determined their own wills, and endured hardships their neighbors would not undertake. They possessed the independence and strength to travel far from unhappy or unsatisfactory conditions that others less daringly abided, and they felt no less individual because they aimed to shape their destinies within a web of relation and influence they could not always see around them.

Perhaps that is why the lone cowboy on his horse, crossing the panhandle, passing among the mesas, a speck on a vast prairie beneath an enormous sky—what so few, in fact, ever were—became our resonant American myth. Nothing is ever how we portray it, but our symbols are what we feel, and we feel for a reason. The cowboy, as we see him, is singular and integrally himself within the natural world. His kindnesses are not mandated, but his own. His cooperation is given, not required. And if he’s of a mind, whenever he’s of a mind, he’ll go his own way. Just point his horse’s head like a compass, and move on.

Yet, how many could really live that dream?

Beginning November 11, 1926, anyone.

And with the affordability of Ford’s Model T—soon to be a fixture on the new Highway 66—the automobile was quickly developing into what it would not take very long to become, the singular and democratic mode of transportation of the 20th century and beyond. Route 66, the first transcontinental interstate highway, was created to serve it.

It is true that in the years before the opening of the route, there had developed the romance of train travel, and the train has its romancers still. Stand in so many small towns across America—a town, say, like Dwight, Illinois, through which Route 66 runs—and watch the train pass through, even now. Listen to its whistle. Hear it “moan mournfully,” as Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene Gant heard it. Far places, it says. Distant lives. The great, wide world. Teasing you with its call. Passing on. For so many who longed for experience, the train’s receding rumble, the lingering whisper of it gone, uttered the great paradox of the nation—that while one might live, it seemed, smack-dab in the middle of it all, one felt stranded so far from everything that was happening. To live in the middle, it turned out, was to reside at the edges. To move to the center meant to travel to the boundaries, because the boundary—the frontier—is where the “other” is, and the other is experience.



For the remainder of my feature and all of the fine work by many authors at various stages of being given up to history, order your copy of Footnote: a Literary Journal of History.

Paperback $10.99

PDF $3.99

Complete DRM-Free Digital Package $5.99
(PDF, Mobi, ePUB, & jacket art)

On The Road

Wander Lust


Longtime readers of this blog and the conscientious historians will know how it began. For my last sabbatical year, in 2008, Julia and I bought a thirty-seven foot Class A, Tiffin Allegro Bay motor home (which I named Obelisk), attached a hydraulic lift on which to carry two Yamaha C-3 motor scooters, moved all our belongings into storage, rented out our home, and drove around the country for a year. We spent most of the year visiting Indian reservations and other Native communities as we began researching our book Native Now, on which work continues. The first year of this blog concentrated mostly on our experience of travel and in Indian Country.

Two years earlier, we had driven the length of Route 66 and covered the history of it, in prose and photography, for Doubletake. We’ve driven around a chunk of Europe together and we fly wherever we can get to in the world through the travel workshops of Julia’s school, The Julia Dean Photo Workshops. We have various dreams for the future – North to South from Canada to Patagonia and from China through the Malay Peninsula to Singapore, for instance – and we have made it a tradition always to travel, both far and near, for New Years.

Even earlier, my first trip away from home on my own, with my best friend, at 17, was to fly from New York to California, and hitch hike up the Pacific Coast Highway, making all the scenes from the Sunset Strip and Santa Barbara to Big Sur and Berkeley. In those days, when air travel was still exotic, and treated that way by the airlines, any international airport smelled to me of Alpha Centauri. I longed to go places.

I offer these few highlights just to make the point – I love travel, and the older I get, the more I live for it. When our year on the road was over and other responsibilities called, we needed to sell the Allegro Bay.  I told everyone then, and do still – I’ve never had a clearer feeling in my life – that having to sell the motor home made me feel like a cowboy forced to give up his horse. The freedom to pull up stakes, literally, any moment I chose, and the work of doing it, and then to travel and sink them in again almost anywhere I wanted had become an intoxicant. The music played, the dogs were at our feet, that wide window was a world Cinerama, a constant moving picture, and life felt lived every day, not for any purpose (though, in fact, we had more than one), but just for the wondrous pleasure of living it.

As the years continue in addition and subtraction, I think more about what it is – what it means exactly – to “stay young,” not in any artificial physical or superficial manner, not in self-delusive pretense, but in response to the world. If one is lucky enough not to age too severely or prematurely in body, there is still that weariness of the world that accumulated experience inflicts. When you’ve seen and done it all, you feel, what’s the point?

What occurs to me is that this weariness has two components. One is in the actual blows one takes in life and how they chip away at our resilience and capacity for renewed joy. The other is in the conclusive thinking we do about the nature of experience, based upon our own – however wide it may be – still only individual experience. The generalizations we make about the world and the course of our lives in it – that wisdom we accumulate, like the blows, and sometimes presume to pass on to others – does one thing, certainly, badly. It abstracts. To generalize is to abstract. Good sometimes, bad others. Why meet another human being? Haven’t you met some already? Why another culture, another town, another feature of the earth?

One thing that travel does is stop the abstraction. Every culture and every village you enter, every person you meet who is a product of that culture and village, once you stop abstracting, can surprise you with a new individuality.

There is, for me, no greater joy than driving down a road and knowing that the town rising up ahead of me, the street, that building with its history unknown, that clump of earth with a chip of stone on it is one I have never seen before, never before a part of my world, until now.

All of this is by way of introduction to Gunther Holtorf’s 23 Year Road Trip, a trip that did not begin until he was in his 50s. Gunther Holtorf – today’s inductee into the Wanderluster’s Hall of Fame. (H/T Dan at Smogranch)


Enhanced by Zemanta
On The Road

El viajar en Ecuador


Making our way through the Andes, writing and connecting as I can. Preparing some posts for the coming days.

Mountains and clouds – always a road to wonder.

Enhanced by Zemanta
On The Road

“The Poverty of Experience”

Another one of those particularly good posts at the Atlantic yesterday, this one from James Fallows, or more precisely, mostly from one of his readers. This has been my experience, too, in travel, that every place I visit is transformed from more than just another place in the world into a part of my life, another hometown about which I continue to care and always feel interest.

I had a remarkable conversation with a very savvy woman who lives very close to the poverty line. The fear and loathing about world travel was appalling from my perspective as a global traveler. I studied first from travel books and then on the internet most of my destinations before I arrived and was constantly astounded by the rich experience of taking myself to a foreign place. Upon returning this place was forever in my memory and I always read any mention of any country, region, city, neighborhood I visited. I learned that a short stop to change trains was better than reading about it; a half day was always a pleasure; overnight stays meant a foreign breakfast; a week meant site seeing and a month meant getting to know what time the water cart woke you up in the morning and where the best bakery was if you could find it.

The person I talked to will never experience the places I have been except when a bomb goes off in London/England/NotUSA or an earth-quake strikes Tokyo/Japan/NotUSA. The poverty of experience is the worst poverty. Lack of experience of the world NotUSA is poverty on stilts.

For another time: why almost all of my “how to fix America” plans include getting large numbers of young people outside the country for a period of months or years, so that early in life they can have experiences like those the reader describes.

via ‘The Poverty of Experience’ – James Fallows – National – The Atlantic.

Enhanced by Zemanta
On The Road

Life in Motion

I drove the motor home down to San Diego for servicing yesterday for its final repairs and detailing in preparation for sale. It has been sitting in storage, and after driving it around the country for over a year, I hadn’t been behind the wheel for two months, since we moved out of it into our present digs. It was quietly exhilarating to have my foot on the pedal again, up high above the rest of the traffic, moving through a world that rose up to meet me on the face of a giant windshield like a panoramic movie screen.

The tow plane released, and we dipped and soared again in whispering silence, banking over the mountain sides of New England in the knowledge that only wind currents and geothermal waves prevented the sheer drop back to earth.

On the way south I passed along a stretch of Interstate 5 between San Clemente and San Diego designated the Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone Memorial Highway. Fans of  the HBO series The Pacific will recognize the name as that of “the hero of Guadalcanal,” the Pacific war’s first medal of honor winner, who after more than two years back home chose to return to combat at the head of fresh recruits he had trained himself, and who was killed in the first hours of the Iwo Jima landing leading his charges off the bloody beach. For a few years, Basilone was a famous, honored man in the United States. Today, very few drivers on that stretch of road know he was. I wouldn’t have known two months ago.

The service center is across the road from the Miramar Naval Air Station, which, if you are a Tom Cruise fan, you should know was the location of Top Gun, both the movie and the real thing flight school, until the latter was moved to Nevada. Now it is a Marine Corps Air Base. As I sped along the interstate on my approach, two fighters ascended my panoramic screen, splitting directions on their path out of view. Like most of us, I have flown commercially, of course – large planes, small planes, props. But what could ever have approximated what those fighter pilots experience in their rapid, wrenching loft over the earth? Nothing. Not the speed or the pressure on the body. But the motion, up and across the earth, so that one is able to lose a sense of containment on it, and in one’s life, and imagine instead some mastery over the geography diminishing in size below, and turning, in its relation to you, not because of its movements, but your own. Some people do get to live that grandest of illusions: the transcendence of boundedness by space, in place.

In the years when we took beach vacations along the Pacific in Baja, there was a local Mexican who built and sold ultra light airplanes and flew them along the coast between Rosarito and Ensenada. They are basically oversized tricycles with kite wings. I’d fly with him sometimes after he landed on the beach, maybe a thousand feet up, probably less – once, mistakenly only in my bare beach feet, which ached all the flight from the wind chill. But nothing could diminish the sense of release that the sky and the passing coast below could deliver. Once, over the Green Mountains of Vermont – I was holed up at the Vermont Studio Center on a grant for a month of poetry writing– my oldest friend, Arnie, and I were lifted into the sky by a tow plane, seated behind the pilot of a glider. The tow plane released, and we dipped and soared again in whispering silence, banking over the mountain sides of New England in the knowledge that only wind currents and geothermal waves prevented the sheer drop back to earth. Twenty years earlier my insides floated with fear as I sat pressed against what seemed the tissue-thin fuselage of the small prop plane in which I awaited my first jump. Then I shifted over the floor to the open cargo door and sat at its edge, New Jersey passing below as the wind blew me back. Count, one, two, three (don’t freeze with fear, don’t fail to launch) and push off. Fall. Spread. Tumble. Open shoot. Unwind the tangled lines above. Look around. Float. Why does silence always whisper?


It wasn’t just the motion in the motor home I loved during our travels. There were the motor scooters we carried along. The test monitor at the Department of Motor Vehicles, for our permits, before we left town, confided to Julia, “Just wait. He’s going to want a motorcycle very soon.” He was right.

A week or so later I’d be eyeing Santa Barbara through the windows of a hearse, which had picked up along the road two teen boys, and a girl who had fallen nude on acid into their laps at the Blind Faith concert the night before.

The last time I had been on a motorized two-wheeled vehicle, I was seventeen years old. Jerry, a friend two years older and twenty more daring, and who led me into many adventures and some trouble, possessor of a fringed suede jacket the likes of which was only otherwise seen on Roger Daltry during his Tommy years, and which was the envy of every freak from the East Village to Rockaway Beach, according to which Jerry became known as Jerry Jacket – Jerry had bought himself a motorcycle, bought it cheap, too, owing to its not having any brakes. Around midnight and the end of a weekday’s partying, everyone else preparing to crash back home, Jerry asked if I wanted to go see Ed Carlin’s new place in the Bronx. Whatever answer but “Sure!” even if it meant traveling ninety minutes over expressways, from the bottom of New York City to the top, riding a motorcycle with no brakes?

Jerry downshifted to slow all along surface streets of Queens, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Grand Central Parkway, and surface streets, again, of the Bronx, both of us dragging our Frye boots against the roadway to assist. We arrived to a sleepy residential neighborhood, our soles worn through, near 2 a.m. and climbed the garage over which Ed’s rental apartment in a private house was located. Jerry jimmied the window and we slipped through. We crouched and stared at Carlin’s gaunt, sleeping John the Baptist visage. Jerry nudged him, nudged him again.

“Carlin. Carlin, wake up.”

Ed opened his eyes.

Jerry smiled. “Got any dope?”

The next morning Jerry went off on some other escapade and I headed home by subway, two hours through Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, over Jamaica Bay to the Rockaway peninsula. The ride across the bay, past wetlands and inlets, over channel islands, in sight of JFK Airport, was always a reflective one for me. Even then I loved the motion of travel, and to think about life by its rhythms, and windows, any windows, car windows, bus windows, motor home, plane, and train windows were like a screen on which to project the footage of my memories, my anticipations, superimposed on the passing scene. Sad young man in search of adventure that I was, I preferred always to sit moving backwards, whichever way I was traveling, with a view of what I was leaving retrospectively, melancholically behind, even as I aimed myself with eagerness ahead.

Who's that barely keeping his head above water?

Some months after that motorcycle ride, still seventeen, I took my first plane flight, with a hundred and fifty dollars in my pocket I had earned over the summer, off on my California adventure with Arnie. A week or so later I’d be eyeing Santa Barbara through the windows of a hearse, which had picked up along the road two teen boys, and a girl who had fallen nude on acid into their laps at the Blind Faith concert the night before. Now, though, it was a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, a big deal in flight at the time, and when the monster banked over Jamaica Bay, my throat caught with the fear we’d drop like a stone into the water. But we straightened out, and I settled in, and for five plus hours, my headset over my ears, my nose never left the window pane. I gazed at every quilted square of farmland, every coagulation of humanity and cement called a city, every lone car on a lonely road headed straight across a prairie or winding through some hills. Then we reached the Rockies. Months before, love had wounded me for the first time in my life. Three weeks later, I would stare up from the grass of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, a yearning seventeen year-old, and see a vision in the sky of all my decades to come, and how they might deliver me from pain, carry me into some kind of fulfillment it was too early on to know. All those years to live in which I might yet be happy.

But for those minutes in the plane, it was the Rockies in all their majesty and whiteness below , and in my ears it was “The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.”

Joy rose up. I was in motion. I was going somewhere. And maybe love would.


On The Road


Julia and I took an apartment yesterday. Just over sixteen months ago we rented our home, uprooted nearly every element of our lives, and hit the road in our thirty-seven foot motorhome. We spent four days with the coach parked in front of our house moving about a half percent of what we own into it. I haven’t missed a thing. Of course, I didn’t give up my tenure. I simply took my sabbatical. And Julia didn’t sell her business, though she did take on a partner. (We’ll call him Deep Pockets.) But we did disconnect our lives and travel, just as we both love. Julia returned to Los Angeles periodically to teach classes at her school, while over twelve months, I returned for one night only, early on, to help close the deal with DP. I never wanted to come back. But I did have to teach again, and the Workshops finally required more complete attention from Julia. Everything ends. Everything transitions into something else.

For the past four months we have been living in RV parks around Los Angeles – whenever we could, right on the beach, right at the Pacific. However, the pleasures of motorhome living have been less without the daily excitement of travel and new places. The disruption to our lives became more pronounced. Most people who fulltime it – that’s what it’s called – are retired – you know, the gray-hairs everyone thinks of when they hear of motorhome travel. But those older RVers are not all fulltimers. Some are snow birds, heading south for the winter. The gray hairs are what Julia thought of when I first talked to her of motorhome travel well over a decade ago. I had some little experience, and already knew the joy.

Those older travelers are much misunderstood by the people who capture them in a cliché. On one of the countless occasions along the way that I observed some back-bent codger emerge from a forty-footer, and his maybe spryer but plumper spouse head for her own work in parking, setting up, maybe unhitching what’s called a fifth wheel, leveling it, and connecting it to the grid, I turned to Julia and said, You know they’re actually very impressive. Most people their age are rooted like plants in front of a television. These people are out there seeing the world, traveling the roads, engaging life with all they’ve got left. They’re something. And so they are.

One of the rich rewards of travel is the regular encounter with lives, kinds of lives, whole subcultures of which you would otherwise never have known. It’s like discovering new planets, populated planets, right there around the bend, over a mountain, deep in a wood. The fulltimers and the snow birds are two kinds of motorhome traveler, and there are many who are younger, younger than Julia and I, and the family vacationers with their kids. There are the people, too, old and not so old, who are not travelers, who are a different kind of fulltimer. The RV may be a twenty-year old motorhome worse for wear and time, or maybe a fifth wheel, up on its blocks, an apron around its base like a foundation to a house, a makeshift yard of chairs, tables, bird feeders crowding the site. There are many variations, but in each case, not in the resplendent motorhome resorts on lakes and oceans that are condoed and timeshared, but in the small, meager parks stuck back in the rural trees, tucked away on lots off the interstate, they may rent monthly for three or four hundred dollars, and they are not recreational or much of a vehicle, but they are a permanent home, twenty-five feet by ten or even eight, for someone old, or veteran, or attached to reality a little differently, and its better, by far, than a big-city street or some charity hotel, and you’ve got some propane for heat and maybe a pet and your own blue sky, and life is always a road to somewhere you didn’t know you were going.

So finally, for Julia and me, after sixteen months and no longer traveling, fulltiming became too much. She has this business to help guide, I have several book projects in progress and too long in coming, and life is joy if you can make it and let it be that, and if you are lucky, but it is also work, and we just need more space and to be settled again. We needed to land somewhere for awhile.

Among the oddly contradictory feelings of preparing to land, is my reluctance to give up the Allegro Bay, our motorhome, just as we prepare to sell it. (If you’re interested, by the way, the asking price is $125,000 for a 2009, with many extras and a Hydralift, hydraulic motorcycle lift, the best on the market and adaptable for an ATV, welded to the rear, an $8,000 value newly installed.) All my life, whenever talking with friends about the fantasy of wealth, I always said my definition of the kind of rich I’d like to be is the ability to travel wherever I want whenever I want. If you are intrepid and disentangled enough a person, that doesn’t have to be that monetarily rich. For me, though it doesn’t yet cross oceans, the motorhome, has been that freedom, that rich, and while I have longed these past couple of months to be landed, I feel, too, like a cowboy about to give up his horse.

Julia and I both love and embrace change. It comes to you anyway, and we make our own. Our apartment is little more than a mile from the home we own, still rented out, and which I never wanted to live in again when we left it. We expect to stay in the apartment for a couple of years, do some traveling by air and auto to continue our work in Indian country, and then see where the economy and work and circumstance have delivered us. We anticipate another year of motorhome travel in four or five years. This time around with only a very little experience driving RVs, I was reluctant to go above the 37 feet. Now I’ve driven through mountains and over narrow country roads and barreled along interstates amid crowds of trucks and trailers, and loved every second of it. Next time, I’m going 44 feet – the king size bed, the second bathroom, the kitchen island. (Some cowboy.)

We’ll see where we are in four or five years. We are all held out into our existential space, deep into the unfathomed universe. It is cold there, and dark, and in the very dead of night it is frightening. So we seek connection, in love and family and faith, in culture and tradition, in the comfort of habit and routine, as if to believe there is no wonder that anything, a tree or a walk in the park, is the way it is – even though we know our end is to separate from most or all of those connections.

In these final days before we move next week, I walk the dogs along the low bluffs of Playa del Rey, overlooking the Pacific. The ocean and the beach are my heaven, what I hope to see at my end, if not after. I grew up in several communities in New York City, but mostly in Rockaway Beach, a collection of communities, actually, along a peninsula in the Atlantic that many New Yorkers don’t even know is part of the city, or think is in Brooklyn, though it is Queens. My parents moved us there, twice, because they loved the seaside too.

My father, who was born in Ukraine, a cold and unforgiving clime – especially in the first half of the twentieth century, and before, for a Jew – loved three things in the world: his family, everything new and clean (because in his youth everything had been old and of the earth), and the sun. He worshiped the sun, and so he worshiped the beach, and on his restful Sundays, while his indolent children still slept, and when we didn’t live in Rockaway, he would make the drive to Jones Beach, farther out on Long Island, and lie for hours with a reflector, be home before we had risen yet. In the painful days after he died, and now, several years later, every time I sit on a beach, whenever I feel, simply, the heat of the sun on my skin – feel that the universe is not empty space surrounding me, but something touching me – I think of my father. In that inexplicable communion of heart and memory, I am my father.

My mother’s love of the sea was more melancholy, as she was. She loved to sit at her window beside the Atlantic on stormy days and watch a dark Caribbean mood travel up to New York’s southern shores. She swam in sorrows that were buoyed by the love of her family.

On the day before we took the apartment, I walked Homer and Penelope amid those kinds of stormy seaside colors. The ocean was steely beneath dark clouds, the wind blowing, the white caps churning, light, though not sun, cracking the clouds for contrast. On this day, thinking of beginnings and ends, and the distance in between, I was not my father but my mother. In contrast to seasides, mountains, and great plains, cities like New York are great works of imagination, architectural installations, stages of human drama, the worlds of the novel a reader enters to live on its streets and know the merchants and neighbors. But on a bluff above the ocean, one returns to the original creation. There is the sea, the sky, the land, where they all meet, and one can feel, originally, how one connects to them, to the sphere they embody, and what lies beyond.

I walked ahead of Penelope, who these days, no longer hunting in woodlands, does not forge maniacally ahead anymore, and followed behind Homer. When he was a puppy, Homer was frightened of the world itself. I had to pull him down the stairs of the three-story Venice loft we lived in then, and out the door, just to get him to do his business. He was not unlike the shy, timid, frightened child I was, who in my infancy, through a long week in the Catskills, would not go potty until my father drove up for the weekend to hold my hand.

Now Homer has seen the country and peed on it all. He was about my age when we left, our gray about the same, but is older than I am now, aging faster, though I’ll get there. On the Playa del Rey bluffs, he lumbered through the gusts ahead of me, each slow step rippling through his body to the hind haunches. He turned to look back at me, his eyes wondering.

“I’m coming,” I said.

AJA (photos from my Moto Q)

On The Road Photography

Uruguay (Ooruɣwai)

Uruguay, they say in Ooruɣwai, is the ubiquitous ham in the sandwich between the baguette-size slices of Brazil and Argentina. If it bites on those populations, the teeth are heading for the Uruguayans (Uruguayos – Ooruɣwaishos) The 3.3 million-person nation (1.1 million in the capital of Montevideo) is formally the Oriental Republic of Uruguay. According to the Ecomomist‘s “quality of life” rankings, little (second smallest nation in South America, after Suriname) overlooked Uruguay has the 46th best quality of life in the world, out of 111 ranked nations, third in SA, after neighbors Brazil and Argentina. In case you were wondering (and I know you were) health care is split between what is referred to as private care, funded by a 6% payroll tax, and public care, for those who can’t contribute to the former, funded by other government revenues. Uruguay was the first country in SA to legalize same sex unions.

Originally settled and contested by the Spanish and Portuguese, Uruguay has a British history too, but like Argentina and the United States is now largely populated by the descendents of a late nineteenth and early twentieth century European immigration, mostly Italian and Spanish. The fiercely resistant indigenous population, the Charrúa, forestalled widespread colonial settlement throughout the sixteenth century, but ultimately were effectively exterminated by a deliberate, documented campaign of genocide. DNA studies reveal, however, that there is an approximately 20% Amerindian genetic component in the present population. As elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere there was a significant African slave population that survives in a small Afro-Uruguayan minority. There is a significant Jewish minority, too, in a Roman Catholic nation that contains the highest percentage of agnostics and atheists in South America. The Africans were the source of Umbandan spiritual traditions and Yemanja, a Yoruban orisha, or spirit, invoked today in seaside rituals.

The Central Uruguayan Railroad opened its first line in 1869. As roadways expanded in the small nation, the importance of the rail lines diminished. The dictatorship of the seventies and early eighties permitted the system to fall into disrepair. The central depot and repair facility, opened in Peñarol in1891, still operates, now with 200 employees instead of a one-time 2000. Work for the railroad is a multi-generational family tradition, as is working, still, with the early twentieth-century British machines and tools that the workers rave still function and never break down The Peñarol station is a working museum of the mid industrial revolution. The collection of locomotives stretches back to the 1880s, and the workers, all passionate about trains, are intent on returning them all to running order.

Uruguay’s Carnival is the longest in the world, at 40 days. Participants prepare for months before, and the various celebrations, theatricals, and revues are central to Uruguayan life. All the floats and costumes are made of recycled materials. The cuerdas consist of dozens of drummers, along with dancers and stock theatrical characters, in dozens of competing teams.

Photograph by Donna Stellini
Photograph by Donna Stellini

Photograph by Donna Stellini
Photograph by Donna Stellini

It’s been a hard day’s night.

Photography by Julia Dean, except where noted.


On The Road Photography

On the Road

Julia and I will be traveling in Argentina & Uruguay over the next two weeks – we just landed in Buenos Aires yesterday – so posting will be a little erratic. I will try to keep it up, though, and interesting. Since I’m with a pack of voracious photographers, I’m going to flatter them with the prospects of an immediate audience and try to get some of their work up. Tomorrow, another taste of How We Lived on It.


On The Road

A Pause in the Journey

A year and and nearly two weeks ago, Julia and I left Los Angeles to travel the country by motorhome and do research for our book on contemporary Native American life. Thursday we returned to L.A., not home quite – because we’ll be setting wheels to road some more, intermittently, throughout the next year – but to a surprising little hideaway on the beach, looking out at the Pacific.


Fifty-three weeks of travel – unthinkable for some, but for me and for Julia, as our lives have evolved, an almost pressing need. Our travels started uncertainly. They didn’t always go so well. We did not reach all of the destinations on which we had set our sights, but as John Steinbeck said, “A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” Our destinations and our destinies are like a ball bobbing on the ocean, and we kicking behind it. Sometimes we do, in fact, direct it exactly to where we were aiming, and so we are apt to forget that the current might just as well have gone against us.

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

Among the fascinations about human life shared both by travelers and lovers of literature – so I am doubly blessed in what absorbs me – are the varieties of those human destinies, and the more one travels, the greater number of different kinds of lives one encounters. There are those among us, the larger number, who lead settled lives of varying degree. There are those – players in the great games of power and progress that posts on this blog often address – who are driven in their lives to consequential action. Their purpose is in the work of attempting to direct that water-borne ball over the waves, for themselves and for others, and their lives would feel otherwise aimless.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

Another kind of life is that of the other travelers making their way over the earth, most from starting points different from your own, some even choosing to remain where one of their journeys has taken them. In cozy mountain villages in Laos, rambling seaside retreats along the South China Sea, in Roman train stations or filling up the tank, one crosses trajectories with so many random destinies, as one randomly happens to others. There is talk of coming and going, places one should see, a beer in a café at sunset. And if nothing else, there is one thing you all have in common: a place exists in the world called home, in whatever language, and none of you are there. You are each held out into the void of what still remains to unfold in your life, as is everyone, only made more palpable because of the newness, at every step, of the ground beneath your feet and the unfamiliarity of every moment. “There are no foreign lands,” said Robert Louis Stevenson. “It is the traveler only who is foreign.”

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

Of all the elements of travel, the originating impulse is in the elation of setting off. Traveling over land by motorhome, picking up our home (not simply ourselves, and on to some hotel, but our home) and moving on when it suited us – this became a reinvigorating joy. It reminded us each time, having rutted our wheels in a place we had stayed long enough, of the essential freedom of what we were doing. The panoramic screen of our windshield looming before us, Homer and Penelope setting their chins to the floor, Julia would lock us down and I would shift into gear, counting time into Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”:

Goin’ places that I’ve never been.
Seein’ things that I may never see again

“There is no moment of delight in any pilgrimage like the beginning of it,” said Charles Dudley Warner. In a motorhome, that delight can come every time you draw up your levels and pull in the slides. “I just can’t wait to get on the road again.”


Some of what you can understand through travel is as plain as the West Texas expanse or a Tennessee woodland: how could people living in those places, with their histories and their struggles, possibly see the world in the same way as someone from New York City or Los Angeles or Miami or Seattle? Why should they? It is a wonder they all make up a single country. If one travels for the only profound reason a person should – to come to know the world, and oneself, and not simply dip a toe and shrink back from the cold water of the new and strange – one might reject a little less and abide a little more. Tolerance, rightly understood, is not a PC shibboleth, a guilt-ridden principle of holding no principle dear enough except the one of tolerance – it is essential humility before the immensity of experience. The whale is not greater than the eagle.

“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” – Samuel Johnson

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

There are the people, the places, and yourself. There is the world that contains them all. In 1981, I traveled to Greece. I had just left my corporate life and almost certain fortune behind (offered, by the company’s owners, the final promotion on Friday – the last rung on the ladder to the top – I resigned on Monday) and was beginning, not for the first or last time, a different life. I flew first to Rome, later took a taxi to the Roma Termini railway station to catch a train to Brindisi, from where I would travel by ferry across the Adriatic Sea, along the coast of still closed and mysterious Albania, to Greece. At the rail station in Rome, I encountered two young men, one still in his twenties, like me, a slight, long-haired and wispy-bearded Canadian, the other an athletic and red-headed eighteen-year-old Brit. With all three of us headed to Greece, we chose to travel together, and for a week were the fast friends that found traveling companions can become.

The young Brit was exploring Europe on a parent-financed escape from grief. His twin brother had died, and he was seeking whatever there was of recovery in the distraction and education of travel. The still hippieish Canadian had been living overseas for ten years. At about the Brit’s age, his girlfriend had left him, and left him devastated. He took off for Europe and had returned to Canada only once: some years of living in North Africa had created havoc with his intestines, and he had returned to Canada for surgery. Now he was living in Greece on tourist visas, which he renewed every ninety days by traveling to Italy and then reentering the country. He had bowel problems that the Brit and I patiently accommodated while we remained a threesome.

“The open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.” – William Least Heat Moon

The Brit, of course, considered the Canadian and me vastly more experienced older fellows, and was duly impressed to learn the Canadian had been at Woodstock. I missed Woodstock because my closest friend and I had flown to California on the first independent travel of my life, while still in high school: we were ticketed for vagrancy on the Sunset Strip, hitchhiked up the Pacific Coast Highway to camp illegally in Big Sur, and made our way to Golden Gate Park and Berkeley, where our acid connection awaited us. The “promised land of my people” I called the golden state of our travels in my senior-year creative writing class.

Well, I was even younger then than the Brit.


The Brit, Canadian and I explored Brindisi together, rode the Adriatic waves to Patras, and traveled from there by bus to Athens. We hunted cheap hotels, cheap food, and toured the ruins. Then our destinations led us apart as I took another ferry from Piraeus, the port of Athens, to Crete. We exchanged addresses, determined to write, and never communicated again.

“When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.” – William Least Heat Moon

On Crete, I walked for miles. I visited the Minoan ruins. I traveled by bus over the central mountains to the southern coast – mountains Julia would traverse twenty-five years later, though without the bus driver who crossed himself at every mountain’s-edge, unrailed switchback. At last, I landed in Matala, a former 60s hippie haven (the fossils still remained from when they shat in the caves) where the residents lived in cliffside shacks, the Greek Orthodox women black-robed from the head down in the still strong, late September sun. I set out to sit with my own long-mending heart. I checked into a pension for two dollars a night, and proceeded to shave, for the first and last time, the beard I’d sprouted on my return home from Berkeley at seventeen. I stared hard in the mirror at the man I had become since I’d grown it.

“All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.” – Paul Fussell

On the beach each day, I lay staring out at the wide Mediterranean sky and the sun-speckled sea beneath it, saw under sail on an imaginary horizon the ship of Odysseus, he tied to the heaving foremast by his men that he might hear and withstand the sirens’ song. In the evenings I sat on the porch of the beach taverna indulging the short-lived taste for Retsina I had acquired in Athens, smoking cigarettes end to end and contemplating my life. The sky was star-shot and beating with an elemental pulse. Once, from the tavern sound system, “Light My Fire” vibrated in the ancient night around me.

The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire

“Try to set the night on fire.”

The next morning, curious for news of the world, I walked the half mile up a dirt road to the kiosk for an International Herald Tribune. On the front page the images spread before me, the headline was bold: Anwar Sadat assassinated in Cairo.

I headed home to New York.


Most obviously, maybe most simply and surprisingly too, travel is about movement. It can be disorienting. A question for the traveler becomes how well he can accommodate, even welcome, that loss of bearings. In a motorhome, you maintain a constant living environment – you are taking your home along with you. So for a year, no matter where we were, at night particularly, the shades drawn, when we ate at the same table and slept in the same bed, wrote and backed up images and interviews – watched TV from our satellite – everything was the same. Outside might be the high Apache desert, suburban Atlanta, a Wal-Mart parking lot in Oxford Mississippi, a Virginia woodland, but inside – more than once, for a moment, I didn’t recall where I was.

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark

But for all I love of travel, I think I have come to appreciate nothing more than the actual motion of it. At just the right convergence of movement and what surrounds it, travel achieves a meeting of adventure and architecture. The adventure might be in sitting at the edge of the open cargo door of a small plane, a chute on your back, preparing to push yourself out on your first jump. It might be skimming the Baja coast in an ultra light or getting launched into the whispering sky in a glider, to soar and bank above the Green Mountains of Vermont. Pilots experience this all the time, ship’s captains in a different way, mountain climbers. It isn’t just the thrill of the risky challenge; it’s the motion on or over the earth. Architects do not, of course, just design constructs: they conceive spaces in which to be and move, and part of the success of the design is in the experience of moving in that space, in relation to what contains or abuts the moving body.


“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

To stay confined to the grid of one’s town or at the bottom of high metropolitan canyons is to lose the sense of one’s bodily relation to the sphere one so remarkably lives upon. Climb above it all, withdraw from a part of it, as from a continent, speed over it with little or nothing of the human in your way, as the sphere itself turns, without regard to you, and you perceive your relation to the earth, the universe, in a different way. I recall the night lights of Brindisi fading in the distance, as they would have for Virgil almost two thousand years before, one land receding, a far one waiting, and all our lives, on all the ships, bobbing on the water. I can still recover to my senses the worldly stillness and silence of the upper Mekong River, in Laos, as we motored beneath the high banks, the lone fisherman on a skiff oblivious to us as we passed. The clouds that revolved around the peak of Machu Picchu as we climbed. The mesas that loomed and receded as our home on wheels moved on.

“Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe”……Anatole France

The explorers and builders of civilizations who follow such routes of travel may feel emboldened by the enormity of the nature they reach to conquer; if they are wise beyond the norm they understand that the measure of their achievement is in the smallness of the conqueror.

“A child on a farm sees a plane fly overhead and dreams of a faraway place. A traveler on the plane sees the farmhouse… and thinks of home.” – Carl Burns.

Before we continue our travels here at home next year, we will fly in January to Buenos Aires and Uruguay. Julia will be teaching a photo workshop there. (It is a fun and seasoned group of travelers going, by the way, lovers of photography all, and there are still spaces open, if you are a photographer at any level who would like to learn from the teacher PhotoMedia Magazine named its 2008 “Photo Person of the Year.”)  We were last in Buenos Aires in 2005, and though we had hoped to make it to Montevideo then, we didn’t manage it. This time Carnival Week there is part of the itinerary. The most scenic way to travel from Buenos Aires to Montevideo is by boat, an hour or three, all depending, across the Río de la Plata, as it opens onto the Atlantic. I anticipate it even now, the sense of great waters beneath me, and of an ocean ahead, our boat breaking the waves as the wind tears up my eyes, and I squinting for the first sight of a new destination, standing, for all my life, in the utter joy of moving in its direction.

“The map is not the territory.” – Alfred Korzybski


Photography by Julia Dean

On The Road Photography

Dog Days

The Nature of Things

(by Julia Dean)
(by Julia Dean)

Bound for Glory (or Mobile)

(by Julia Dean)
(by Julia Dean)


On The Road Photography

Along the Interstate

Blue Beacon Truck Wash: West Memphis, Arkansas






God is Everywhere






To swerve is to miss
To miss to long for:
A receding highway light
In the middle of the country
Through the center of the night.

How distance beckons and turns away.

This starry billboard rises
Along the road, through every county
It chances one may go.

To miss is to fail
To reach or contact. The tire
Misses the road. In the general vagueness

In the general night, the rest stops
Blink and sigh over cup and saucer
Above the glum Formica –
The accidental faces.

The windows mirror the way.

A stretch of darkness, like longing’s light
How far I must have traveled
When you rise up quickly, surely
It’s always the center of the road
And I swerve and miss you, miss you.


originally published in Pebble Lake Review, September 2005

On The Road Photography

The Taking of Enchanted Trails RV Park

Desert Assault
Desert Assault
Preparing for the Final Push
Gearing Up for the Final Advance
I said, Cut the Wire, Now!
I said, Cut the Wire, Now!


On The Road

Poem of the Day

Julia and I are often asked what this experience is like – traveling around the country in our motorhome with our two dogs, doing the work we love, writing and photographing.  I first caught the bug of motorhome travel nearly twenty years ago, when I toured the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, including Yellowstone, in a twenty-eight footer. If you have the moving gene but are not entirely vagabond, it is a joyful union of two kinds of life. You wander wherever you wish, always stirred and invigorated by the natural and the new, yet you’re always home. You sleep in the same bed every night, retain all the conveniences of home, and you can have your “stuff” around you. It is a limited amount of stuff, but you can take everything essential, including the most sophisticated communications and office equipment, and you learn, as a consequence, how little stuff you really need. We left 98% behind. I miss none of it.

You can also pick up and move on whenever you like. In a few hours you pack up, unhook, and disconnect. The disconnection would be the challenge for those who need to feel always rooted in place, in community, in relationships. Instead you float over the earth. Through the panoramic window of, say, a thirty-seven footer now, the world spreads out before you, changing by the moment, offering the constant vista of the new.

And you drive. You test your skills. In ’91 it was winding up through South Dakota’s Black Hills to Mount Rushmore. It was ascending the 10,300 feet of Montana’s Red Lodge Mountain switchbacks at sunset, and white-knuckling them down in the dark. Two days ago it was driving from Albuquerque to Gallup in 30 mile an hour winds with 50 MPH gusts and passing outside of Gallup another motorhome gone over the edge and on its side. Cranked the music up real loud and held on tight.

Travel – extended travel – changes your relation to the world and your life. The flow that fixed walls and property lines and routine seek to shut out washes over you and you feel a part of it. You feel it in you and around you, and you know you will wash away in it, to some kind of mouth, through some kind of delta, into a new geography where everything is altered. The world, you sense, in every moment, is vast, and the multitudes you pass among great, and so maybe, as Julia did in India back in 1993 – and so unlike those Wall Street “masters of the universe” who looked down from what they thought great heights on so reduced a prospect – you begin to feel like that “speck on the surface of the sad red earth.”

There is a tension in all we do between the large and the small. Traveling, you may begin to see the line, and the tautness in it, that tugs between them. Here is Ted Kooser, Julia’s fellow Nebraskan, one-time U.S. Poet Laureate, and, by the way, in his pre-retired, salaried life, an insurance man, about a different kind of travel:


Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.

Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies

like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,

some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,

snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn

back into the little system of his care.

All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,

tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.


Indian Country On The Road Photography

Rodeo, Roping Competition – Apache Gold Casino















The Political Animal

The Personal and the Historical

One of my continuing interests is the intersection of the “ordinary” individual life and the historical moment. My own father, Meyer, or Mac, had many. Born in a small shtetl in Ukraine before the Russian Revolution, he emigrated to the United States, arriving, still a teen, in 1927. In the early Thirties, at the height of the Great Depression, he returned to Russia, to Moscow, to seek work. Mac was always very sparing with his memories, but one he often repeated was of living in a barracks-like apartment with a score of men without any heat. He recalled vividly the icicles on the wall beside his cot during the winter. I had always presumed that my father was lucky to have returned when he did – after about a year, the worker’s paradise having turned out to reside still farther east in the imagination than the Soviet Union. Now a book on the subject. The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia, by Tim Tsouliadis, writes new history as it offers an account of the Americans (though my father did not gain his own citizenship until after his Second World War army service) who went to Russia during the Depression years and the thousands of them who died in the gulag. This review from Adam Hochschild at the Times Literary Supplement Online is the most current of many admiring accounts.


On The Road

Death Map 2008

NewScientist maps the likelihood of death by weather across the country. Julia and I are afraid. We’re very afraid.


On The Road Photography

Saturday Night Parade of Lights; Globe, Arizona


On The Road Photography

The View from Our Window

On the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation


Creative On The Road Photography

Bordello Rooms

The way I do it is I stand in the middle. I’m in the desert this time, gazing at the landscape as the dogs chase rabbits and roadrunners around me. My back is turned to Highway 80, to RVs and the other signs of post-nineteenth-century life, though they aren’t that plentiful. Before me, almost all round me, is an empty, sweeping, sometimes rolling desert expanse ringed by a moonscape of mountains. It startles me with its beauty. I hadn’t expected it. I’m only a mile from Tombstone.

I conjure. It is easy enough to see Doc Holiday or the Clantons, ghost-like, riding their horses through the brush, over the shallow gullies. Like a slow superimposition in a film, I can draw out of the atmosphere Wyatt

Wyatt Earp at 21
Wyatt Earp at 21

Earp and Josie Marcus – the Jewish prostitute who was his third and final wife, of over forty years – talking by a bush as he woos her away from Sheriff Johnny Behan. What I imagine probably more miraculously than anything else is the notion that these people and the moments of their lives – because they have become so legendary – continue to occupy some alternate dimension of the coordinates that surround me. As if every period of time – every instant – continues to occur in some fractional off-frame, a parallel universe just a little invisibly, dimensionally beyond sensory apprehension. Until I conjure. And then I envisage that Earp and Marcus, in clandestine conversation in the desert in 1881, are an event somehow more concrete than my own occupation of that space, standing there in all my mundaneness in 2008, an experience the ephemeralness of which I exhale with every breath.

The famous line from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” But though there are disputes about many of the “facts” of Earp’s life, there is little, really, about the genuinely legendary nature of the life. Testimonies to his fearlessness and strength of character, by men nearly his equal in legend, like Bat Masterson, are many. That of the seven men who stood their ground during the gunfight at the OK Corral (really two lots down the street, but legends are created of words, and “two lots down from” doesn’t work) three died, three were wounded, and only Earp emerged unscathed is firmly established. And we must acknowledge the force and will of the man who led what is known as the three week “Earp Vendetta Ride” in pursuit of the men who murdered his brother Morgan five months later, leaving anywhere from five to fifteen men dead.

The town lives up to its legend too. It was named by the silver miner Ed Schieffelin, who was told by soldiers at the nearby fort that the only stone he’d find in Apache country was his tombstone. It had – still has – the most compellingly named newspaper in journalism: The Tombstone Epitaph. (Every tombstone needs one, said its founder, John Clum.) Of those buried on Boot Hill, by far the largest number were shot, or murdered in some other way. Many are of unknown identity. More than a few were killed by Apaches, as Tombstone is in Apache country, in what is now known as Cochise County. Some were hanged or lynched. Of one, it says on his grave marker, “Here Lies/ George Johnson/ Hanged By/ Mistake/ 1882/ He Was Right/ We Was Wrong/ But We Strung/ Him Up/ And Now He’s/ Gone.” By my rough count in just the years 1881-1882 (the gunfight at the OK Corral took place on October 26, 1881; Morgan Earp was murdered March 18, 1882) about 40 people were killed in a town of roughly 5000, nearly one every two weeks. It was a helluva town to try to live and not unlikely die. (And by the way, down a slope from Boot Hill, erected in 1984 is the Jewish Pioneers Memorial, dedicated by both groups to “the Jewish Pioneers and their Indian Friends.”)

Earp was one of the few of his stature to die of old age, at 80 in Los Angeles in 1929. Doc Holiday died of

Earp the Legend
Earp the Legend

tuberculosis at 36. Big Nosed Kate, Doc Holiday’s lover, lived to 90. Hungarian by birth, she was the daughter of the physician to the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, who was deposed three years after her family’s arrival. A long, sordid journey and tale took her from that life to Tombstone. When she died in 1940, it was in the Arizona Pioneers Home, which was founded to offer a refuge to the aging pioneers of the Arizona Territory. What the legends and the movies don’t tell us is that the “pioneers” were not simply agents of their personal destinies, for good or not so. The Clantons and the Earps represented interests who were vying for control of the land and its mineral wealth: the Clantons post Reconstruction Southern Democratic forces, the Earps Eastern Republican businessmen.

It was Josie Earp who lived the longest, dying in 1944, just two years before John Ford’s My Darling Clementine was released and only 11 years before the television show – about what seemed such a remote past – that I watched as a child.

But even these words, fairly plain, tend to build a monument. A monument, too, is The Birdcage Theater, the only wholly intact original structure of Tombstone from those early days. For nine years, the theater, bar, gambling house, and bordello was open 24 hours a day. All of the famous were regulars, and Russian Bill, supposedly of royalty, who attended every night for two years until he tried to earn his unwarranted reputation as a bad guy by stealing a horse, for which he was hanged. And “Curly” Bill Brosius, who got shaves in a corner room with windows on the show, and was later killed by Wyatt Earp during the Vendetta Ride. Greats performed there: Eddie Foy of later Vaudeville fame, Lilly Langtry, Bernhardt. (How worlds collide.) A poker game ran non-stop downstairs from opening day to closing, right outside the prostitute’s “crib” where Josie would receive Wyatt.

“Those aren’t theater boxes” she told me. “They’re bordello rooms.”

Now a museum of its past and of its former patrons, I arrive by serendipity just before twilight – the final and only patron during my visit. I have the building to myself. To stand in the middle. To perform my magic. When new owners took possession in 1934 and opened the theater for the first time since its closing in 1889, they found much of it and its contents undisturbed. Photos, guns, knives, paraphernalia and old newspaper clips encircle me. The faro table where Doc Holiday played and sometimes dealt. The grand piano just feet away, and the space between in which Holiday and Johnny Ringo held opposing ends of a bandana and drunkenly shot at each other, missing. The craps table. The stage. The twenty-six people killed there.

Wyatt Earp at 80
at 80

Just before she left me to myself, the guide who escorted me in drew my attention to the “birdcages” that ring the main room along the ceiling.

“Those aren’t theater boxes” she told me. “They’re bordello rooms. Even the wall paper, what’s left of it, is the original.”

For twenty dollars for the night, a man got a bottle and a woman. Maybe ten feet above the action of the gambling tables and the stage, he could drink and watch the activities, then without diffidence draw the curtain. An act that intimate in a place that public, separated by only a curtain. So near in space, so far in nature. Like two events, two people, in the same space one hundred and twenty six years apart.

So I have all the elements. It isn’t hard. To see the crowded room. The cards. The dice. The theatrics on stage; the drama on the floor. Shots being poured. The shot ringing out. A shout. The general honky-tonk and the orgasmic grunts of hungry men from the cribs above. I can think it’s all there in the space around me, an atomic-vibration off from the world I inhabit, events made material and permanent by the words that continually inscribe them. And then I think, no, it is all long gone, the players forever emptied from that space. One man strikes it rich, another is murdered, a woman does what she must to survive. Some of it is remembered and talked about, some of it is not. But human time is not a compiling of moments, layer upon layer, like old newspapers there to be drawn from down in the pile. It is a fuse, burning up our moments as we live them, leaving behind its historical ash, but moving only forward, from opening to closing night, to another actor and another dusty wind, to me standing one day in the shadows, and beyond.


Tombstone, Arizona; December 2008

On The Road Photography

It’s a Dog’s Life

Penelope is pleased to hunt in the tall grass.


Willcox, Arizona; December 2008

On The Road Photography

Christmas Pageant; Willcox, Arizona


December, 2008