Asheville, N.C.

Carol went off to visit her co-author Dave, while i wandered around downtown Asheville. I liked Malaprops bookstore, and I liked the public library (which has a good used bookstore), but the rest of downtown Asheville seemed to me to be dominated by two kinds of people: white middle-aged and overweight tourists who lumbered from gourmet restaurant to fancy gift shop, and white twenty-somethings who asserted their individuality in anxiously loud voices.

Carol picked me up, and we began to drive back to our motel when we saw a huge garden, half an acre or more, in front of Grace Covenant Community Church, Presbyterian Church USA. We decided to stop and walk through the garden.

Grace Covenant Church PC-USA, Asheville, N.C.

Above: Community Garden at Grace Covenant Church PC-USA, Asheville, N.C.

We saw tomatoes, squash, beans. A woman who was also walking around stopped Carol and said, “What is that?” Carol looked and said, “I think it’s watermelon — something in the squash family, probably a melon.” We asked her if she were part of the church, but she said, “No, i just love looking at this garden, and since I had a few free minutes, I thought I’d walk around in it.”

I went in and asked in the office about the garden. Leah, one of the church staff members, told me that seventy percent of the harvest goes to alleviate food insecurity in the region. It is a cooperative project with church members, and members of the wider community. She gave me the email address of someone who was instrumental in making the garden happen.

Just outside the church office was a “World Garden,” a demonstration garden showing tire gardens and bag gardens to grow a lot of food in small spaces.

World Garden at Grace Covenant Church PC-USA, Asheville, N.C.

Above: “World Garden” at Grace Covenant Church PC-USA, Asheville, N.C.

We made one more stop before we went back to the motor court for dinner: the giant Goodwill store in Asheville. We skipped the furniture outlet and went in the retail side. I looked at their used books while Carol shopped for t-shirts. They had an eclectic mix of books: a book on choral conducting, several copies of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a book about schnauzers, a children’s book of train stories which I had read as a child; I bought a cheap science fiction paperback.


Above: Interior of Goodwill retail store, 16161 Patton Ave., Asheville, N.C.

Alpharetta, Ga., to Asheville, N.C.

Yesterday evening and this morning we had to complete some necessary tasks — do the laundry, get the oil changed in the car, and so on. We grabbed a quick and unexciting lunch in a fast food place in Alpharetta, then started driving north.

Pretty soon we were in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the highest mountains in North America east of the Mississippi River. Compared to the mountains in California, these are not high mountains — the highest is Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina, at 6,684 feet — but they are just as beautiful. Perhaps they are more beautiful, because they are greener and shaped in more interesting ways by glaciers, and because the air here has more moisture which lends a mysterious bluish cast to objects in the distance, and because the weather is more variable at any season, with passing sunshine and rain showers and thunder showers and mist and fog in the summer, and snow and sleet and hail and hail and freezing rain and even occasional sunshine at other times of the year. And as a result of all that variable precipitation, everything is so brilliantly green.


Above: the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, from U.S. 23

After driving through thunder and lightning and showers and downpours and sunshine on winding and sometimes steep mountain highways, we arrived in Asheville, N.C., where we are staying in a 1930s-era motor court, where each of the bedrooms is a little log cabin — not a conventionally-framed building with fake log cabin siding, but an actual log cabin. When you stay in an actual log cabin, the first thing you want to do is get out your guitar and sit in the rocking chair on the front porch, and play a little something while you rock back and forth.


But it looked like it was going to rain, so we walked down to the Bavarian restaurant at the entrance to the motor court, and had some gourmet turkey bratwurst.

Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church, Alpharetta, Ga.

A little before ten this morning, Carol dropped me off at Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Georgia. The church has been engulfed by upscale suburban sprawl — office parks, gated communities, tasteful shopping malls, impeccably maintained four-lane roads — but once you get on the church grounds, you enter into a different cultural landscape. The church, a plain and attractive brick building, is surrounded on two sides by moss-covered gravel parking areas shaded by trees; quite a few cars were already nestled in shady parking spots. Behind the church was a cemetery with quite a few older gravestones, and some gravestones that looked very new.


Above: Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church, Alpharetta, Ga.

Inside, the church was quite plain, as you’d expect in a Primitive Baptist Church: little ornamentation, plain white walls, simple but attractive pews — and no musical instruments. Fifty or so singers were gathered up at the front of the church. I went to sit in the bass section, and noticed that in the hymnal racks on the backs of the pews were hymnals, Bibles, and fans in case it got too hot. I opened up my copy of The Sacred Harp, and got ready to sing.

The singing, the 146th session of the annual Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention, belonged to this other cultural landscape, removed from the gated communities and office parks. It’s music that’s meant to be performed and shared, not consumed; it’s a democratic musical tradition where everyone sings, and anyone can lead a tune if they want to. The singing rose up into that plain white sun-washed church, loud and triumphant. It had that old-time lonesome sound that lets you know that in spite of all the sorrow and troubles we face, God is in heaven and all is right with the world.

Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention

Above: View from the bass section, 146th session of the Union Musical Sacred Harp Singing Convention

A seven year old girl got up to lead “Africa,” an old Isaac Watts hymn — a hymn seems to me to express a Universalist theology of hope and assurance — set to music by William Billings in the late eighteenth century. Between the words to the hymn and that self-possessed girl leading the other singers so well, I got a little choked up and couldn’t sing for a bit, and maybe there were some tears running down my cheeks.

Lunch was served in the time-honored custom of dinner-on-the-grounds. There was a small kitchen building behind the church. Extending from that was a long table, perhaps fifty feet long, built on concrete blocks. Everyone who had brought food to share laid it out on this long table. Over the table was a roof to keep the sun and rain showers off, and between the posts holding up the roof were boards set at a height where you could put your plate while you stood and ate and talked with everyone around you. The woods stood near at hand, and some people from the church instructed us to through any food that was left on our plates out to the varmints in the woods.

Carol had come to the singing by now, and we got our dinners: ham, pulled pork, collard greens, fried okra, perfectly ripe cantaloupe, broccoli casserole, and some of the best layer cake I’ve ever eaten. We stood and ate and talked. I talked with Henry from Alabama, with whom I talked universalist theology. I talked with Nathan, an art historian who’s moving to North Dakota, who specializes in spiritual painters in the southwestern U.S. in the early 20th century. We talked with Shawn and Natalie, who live in Melbourne, Australia, and who sing Sacred harp there. I can’t remember who all we talked with.

The singing was just as good in the afternoon session, if not a little better. During the afternoon break, I got involved in a brief and somewhat technical discussion with a couple of fourth- or fifth- or maybe sixth-generation Sacred Harp singers on the proper tempo for “David’s Lamentation,” a William Billings composition. The piece has become a standard in the repertoire of college choirs, where it is often sung at a slow tempo, and apparently some people have tried leading it slowly at Sacred Harp singings. But the three of us all agreed it should be led at a fast pace (not that my opinion counts), which is both the traditional way to sing it in the South (and not coincidentally, the way Billings clearly preferred it to be sung).

The singing ended. Jeff offered to give me a ride back to the motel. We pulled out of the parking lot, leaving behind a cultural landscape devoted to shared experience, democratic traditions, and matters of the spirit, and re-entered a cultural landscape dominated by consumption and competition.

Montgomery to Alpharetta, Ga.

We planned to meet Carol’s cousin for dinner; that left us with the rest of the day to spend in Montgomery.

We went to the Rosa Parks Museum and Library, which is part of Troy University in Montgomery. The museum has a well-designed exhibit that tells the story of the Montgomery bus boycott through artifacts and creative audio-visual displays. The audiovisual presentation on Rosa Parks’s refusal to get out of her seat on the bus was especially good: it told and showed enough so you could follow along even if you didn’t know much about Rosa parks, but it left enough not told and not shown so you recreate the story in your imagination, which is what really makes it come alive.

Out in front of the museum is a historical marker that reads:

“At the bus stop on this site on December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to boarding whites. This brought about her arrest, conviction, and fine….”

There isn’t much except the marker to remind you of 1950s Montgomery: there’s no longer a bust stop, the sidewalks are different, all that’s there is that historical marker with some words on it.


I wanted to walk up towards the Capitol building to see the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, and Carol was willing to go along. You couldn’t get near the church; the whole city block was closed to pedestrian traffic because Oprah Winfrey was filming her movie “Selma.”


A couple of white guys with cameras were standing there talking. “Last night they let me walk up to the church,” one of them said. He had a fancy-looking digital single lens reflex camera on a monopod. “They changed the name on the church to the original name” — that is, to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — “and on the sign board it said, ‘Sunday morning, Dr. Martin L. King preaching.’ I got some good shots of that. But now they’re not letting anyone in.”

Small buses rolled in regularly. Extras in 1950s-era clothing walked from each bus into the Dexter Avenue Baptist church. A middle-aged black woman came up and cheerfully asked when Oprah was going to show up. Someone said she was going to be there at 5:30. We hadn’t seen any stars; all we had seen were extras.


I got to talking with the man with camera on the monopod. He pointed out his church, in the next block down, the River City Methodist Church. He said that they had gotten down to four members, when the bishop stepped in and settled a dynamic young pastor there. This pastor, said my friend, got rid of the organ music, brought in a praise band, started a thrift store, reached out to the homeless population in downtown Montgomery, and in less than a year had gotten the membership up to 65 people. My friend with the camera was the drummer in the praise band. “We’re Methodist in name only,” he said. “I was a Baptist, but they chased out the pastor of my church, just when River City Church was looking for a drummer. My sound guy used to be a Pentecostal, and I’ll look out when I’m playing and he’s there with his arms in the air. We’re from all different backgrounds. Our pastor says, ‘Church is not inside this building, church is out there, everywhere.'”

We left Montgomery to visit Catherine Coleman Flowers, someone Carol had met through her work in ecological wastewater management. Catherine was born in Lowndes County, Alabama, one of the poorest counties in the state, and is now the executive director of Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE), a non-profit devoted to environmental justice. Catherine told us about a study recently conducted by ACRE that discovered evidence of hookworm in close to half of the stool samples they tested. This is a remarkable study because hookworm was supposedly eradicated from the United States in the early twentieth century. Yet people who live in poverty in rural areas may not be able to afford to install adequate wastewater management systems.

Plus, because of global climate change, Catherine believes that hookworm may find the South a more congenial place to live these days. Here is a serious issue linked to global climate change that cannot be solved through installing solar panels and purchasing fuel efficient cars — the solution will involve a combination of economic justice, economic development, and ecological justice involving decentralized wastewater management solutions.

If Rosa Parks were alive today, I’ll bet she’d be involved in environmental justice.

Russellville, Ark., to Montgomery, Ala.

Before we left Russellville, Carol wanted to stop in and check out Jim and Ed’s Old House, which was a sort of cross between an antique store and a thrift store down the street from the motel. One of the proprietors — I never did learn whether it was Jim or Ed — greeted us cheerfully and told us to look around, and to be sure to ask him if we had any questions.

After we looked around a bit, he remarked on my height: “You’re taller than I am,” he said. “How tall are you?” said Carol. She had to repeat her question a couple of times before he could hear her. “Six one,” he said. Carol pointed to me, said, “Six five,” and held up six fingers, then five fingers. He smiled and nodded. I said my height came from my German roots, and asked him if he had any German in him. “No,” he said, “no German in me. But I’m part Indian.” “Which tribe?” I said. “Cherokee,” he said, as if there were no other possibility. “And they’re tall?” I said. “Oh yes,” he said.

He showed us around the house, and told us how they were going to pull down this wall, remove the kitchen, and greatly expand the space they had to show their merchandise. Carol finally bought a little pitcher in the shape of sweet corn. But we kept right on talking, and it took about ten minutes to say good bye, and another five to actually get out the door.

We ate lunch at the Panda Buffet in Lonoke, Arkansas. Carol went into a thrift shop while I walked around town. The malls along the interstate have sucked much of the life out of the old downtown, but the county courthouse and its attendant law offices mean that there are enough people to support a few restaurants and small businesses, a used book store, and even a storefront church. I was disappointed that the used book store had closed for the day. But then I came across a Tudor Revival wood frame church building, a once beautiful building now in sad disrepair. It stood a block from the old depot building, nicely sited on the corner of Second and Depot streets, a building with a definite character and personality.


(A little research on the Web tonight reveals that the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and that it even has its own Facebook page.)

I couldn’t help comparing First Christian Church to the storefront church a block or two away. Storefront churches avoid the expense and hassle of maintaining their own building, but there is no beauty or character in their architecture.

As we drove through Mississippi, I was amazed by how incredibly green everything was. And how wet everything was — the air was humid, we hit little rainshowers throughout the day, and in some of the fields there was even standing water. California never feels this green, or this wet, not even in the depths of the winter rainy season.


We stopped for coffee in Potts Camp, Mississippi, and wound up at Flick’s Country Restaurant. Carol got to talking to a couple of older white men at the table next to ours. One of them left not long after we sat down, but the other stayed and talked with us for some time. He had been a pilot in the military, flying MD-11s, and also had a private pilot license, although, as he said, “The doctors don’t let me fly any more.”

He asked where we had come from, and we told him, and he wondered what brought us to the South. Carol said we were visiting a cousin of hers in Montgomery. I asked him if he had ever heard of Sacred Harp singing. “Oh, yes,” he said, “my grandparents used to have a singing [I think he said at their church]. People used to come from a hundred fifty, two hundred miles around to sing.” I told him I was going to a Sacred Harp singing in Alpharetta, Georgia.

He told us about Flick’s Country Restaurant, and nodded at the next table over, where an elderly man sat with three other people. “That’s old Mr. Flick himself,” he said. “No longer runs the restaurant, but there’s his picture there on the wall.” The photograph he pointed out was clearly of the same man, perhaps forty years younger, with a hair style from the early 1960s.

We said we had better get on the road again; we had to make it to Montgomery tonight. “You’d better start driving,” he said, and shook both our hands before we set off.

Amarillo to Russellville, Ark.

A wild thunderstorm blew through Amarillo in the middle of the night: thunder rolling and booming across the sky, flashes of lightning coming through the motel’s blackout blinds, rain lashing at the window. I got up and closed the window so the rain wouldn’t soak the floor; then I stood there for a minute or so and looked out at the storm. We rarely have thunderstorms in the Bay area, and never on a scale like the thunderstorms on the Great Plains.

I slept late — I’m still on California time, I guess — and fortunately by the time I had taken my shower the motel was no longer serving breakfast. Breakfasts at budget motels, with their limp gray sausage patties, and scrambled egg product that comes in a plastic bag that the motel staff sticks in a microwave to heat up, are well worth sleeping through.

As we drove across Oklahoma, I noticed how green everything looked. The last time we drove across Interstate 40, at about this time of year, Oklahoma had been in the grip of a lengthy and severe drought, and the landscape looked silvery-brown from lack of moisture. This year, though, there has been enough rain to turn the fields bright green. I’d read a chapter from Agatha Christie’s Murder at Hazelmoor to Carol, then look out the car windows at the miraculously green landscape.

By the time we reached Oklahoma City, we were ready for a longer stop. We found our way to Bricktown, the self-proclaimed arts and entertainment district. The weather was hot and sticky — not at all the dry heat we’re used to from having lived in the West for five years — and we were glad to walk along the Bricktown Canal where it seemed a little bit cooler.

We left the pathway along the canal to tour around a city block or two, just to see what was there, and we saw a sign saying: “American Banjo Museum Entrance,” with an arrow pointing around a corner. “We have to go see this museum,” I said. Carol was willing to go. A polite older man took our admission fees. “You can tell this is a real banjo museum when the man at the front desk has a banjo case beside him,” I said. The man smiled and asked me if I played, but I said I only played a little guitar.

I liked the older banjos best, particularly a William Boucher banjo from the 1840s, with a lovely scroll pedhead, and a Bullock Fretless banjo from 1854.

Bullock Fretless Banjo (1954)

Above: Bullock fretless banjo, 1854, American Banjo Museum, Oklahoma City

Most of the banjos were pretty fancy, with complicated inlays on the fingerboard, ornate carving on the neck, elaborate designs painted on the back (i.e., on the resonator head), oddly-shaped banjos, etc. These are the sorts of banjos that appeal to collectors, but they didn’t really appeal to me.

American Banjo Museum

Above: American Banjo Museum, Oklahoma City

I was much more interested in the banjo owned by John Stewart of the Kingston Trio: a “Pete Seeger” model banjo produced by Vega, and played by Stweart during his Kingston Trio years — a working banjo, rather than a show banjo.

But the most interesting rooms what was apparently a repair room. The door was locked, but you look see though a window. There were two tables, the further table stacked up with banjo parts and tools and what might have been glue; on the near table was a banjo that had been disassembled into its component parts: neck assembly, pot, resonator, head, etc.


Above: American Banjo Museum, Oklahoma City

We spent too much time in the American Banjo Museum. As a result, it was almost 10:30 by the time we checked into our motel.

Grants to Amarillo

Before we got back on the interstate, we drove to El Malpais National Monument, parked at the visitor center, and hiked for about an hour on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. We didn’t see much of the badlands for which El Malpais is best known, but we did see a meadow and a dike that was all that was left of a failed 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps project to attempt to dam up a seasonal stream to create a reliable water source, and we did see some beautiful pinyon pine woodlands.

The badlands are actually old lava flows that crept out across the red dirt and sandstone so characteristic of this part of New Mexico. The trail was marked by cairns made up of a mixture of volcanic rock and red sandstone.


Above: Continental Divide Trail, El Malpais National Monument

In ancient Greece, cairns were inhabited by Hermes, god of travelers, and of thieves and tricksters. Hermes, it was said, got into trouble with Hera for killing her servant Argus. A trial was held, with the other gods and goddesses acting as jurors. Each god or goddess had a stone which represented their vote, and Hermes argued so skilfully in his own defense that all the gods and goddesses cast their stones at his feet, until there was a pile of stones with Hermes inside. Ever since then, Hermes resides, as it were, inside the piles of stones that are cairns, helping travelers find their way.

In New England, I always thought that there was a remote whiff of Hermes inside the cairns that I saw on mountain trails; New England is close enough to Europe that perhaps the old gods and goddesses immigrated with the white Europeans who came to North America; so every New England house I ever lived in had its household gods, our version of the Roman Laertes. But these Western cairns had nothing of the Old World gods and goddesses about them. They did, however, have a presence; I felt there was something partly alive about them; but it was more of a sense of animism than of Olympian divinities.

When we left El Malpais National Monument, I went into the small visitor center to use the bathroom. I tried to avoid the books, but a children’s book titled Eco Trackers caught my eye. Ah, that would be perfect for the ecojustice camp were going to do! That was the third book I bought on this trip; I had gotten an Agatha Christie mystery and another book yesterday in Starrlights Books in Flagstaff.

As we drove towards Albuquerque, I called my dad. “What was that restaurant that you liked so much in downtown Albuquerque?” I asked him. He couldn’t remember the name, but reminded me that is was on the main drag right across from one of the main entrances to the University of New Mexico. We drove down old Route 66, and there it was: Frontier Restaurant, Tony Hillerman’s favorite restaurant. Carol had pozole, flour tortillas, and a peach smoothie; I had breakfast.


Above: Albuquerque, N.M. (Photo courtesy Carol Steinfeld)

The food was excellent, and the restaurant was a good place for Carol to hang out and watch people while I ran across the street to the University of New Mexico bookstore — where I bought three more books.

We drove on. The red rock country of New Mexico began to flatten out, and turn into the southern end of the Great Plains. We could see dark thunderclouds all around us, and rain coming down in the distance. I was reading the Agatha Christie novel aloud to Carol, when I stopped and said, “Look! there’s standing water on that field!” Coming from drought-stricken California, where it doesn’t rain all summer anyway, that was an amazing sight.

We stopped in Adrian, Texas, at nine o’clock to see if we could get me some dinner. The cafe was closed.


Above: Adrian, Tex.

But right across the interstate, there was a gas station with a mini-mart. The kind woman at the counter — I’d guess she owned the place — sold me her last two hot dogs. “And I’m glad to sell them both to you,” she said. “So you don’t have any left over to go to waste,” I said. She chuckled and said that was it. They were pretty good hot dogs. I ate them standing by the car looking out at the darkening sky over the wide open, and very green fields, of Adrian.


Above: Adrian, Tex.

Needles to Grants

Vivid dreams occupied me all night, though I didn’t remember any of them when I awakened in the morning. Perhaps they were anxiety dreams, or dreams of overwork; with Peace Camp and the youth service trip and my ordinary tasks, I worked pretty much seven days a week in the three weeks leading up to vacation.

We got up late, and after I ate breakfast we walked over to the Needles Point Pharmacy. I needed razors, and Carol needed a needle to sew up a shirt.


Above: Needles, Calif.

The store was pretty big on the inside. I found the razor blades I wanted, and then Carol and I wandered around looking at everything they had. They seemed to have everything. In addition to the usual drugstore merchandise, they had in stock: jigsaw puzzles, Hummel figurines, 3.5 inch diskettes for your computer, writing tablets with air mail paper, a bright red Mickey Mouse travel alarm clock in yellowed plastic packaging, and brand new Clairol blow dryers dating from the 1980s. On a whim, I bought some air mail paper from the very pleasant woman behind the counter.

When we finally started driving, the thermometer outside the motel office read 110 degrees.

Carol drove for most of the day, while I dozed, and read aloud to her from Agatha Christie’s Murder at Hazelmoor. It seemed odd to be reading about a murder in country house in England in the middle of a dark snowy winter, when we were driving through the wide open, sun-filled southwest.

We stopped for some caffeine at a gas station in Navajo, Arizona. While I was in the gas station, Carol wandered over to where a man was selling jewelry that he had made. When i got there, Carol was trying to decide if she liked one of his necklaces. I got to talking with him. He had been born in the area, half Navajo and half Hopi, and he spoke both languages as birth tongues. Then he had been relocated to a Mormon couple in Utah; enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam; went to college in Provo on the G.I. Bill; and then had lived in Greece, the Bay area, and several other places I have now forgotten.

He was a big supporter of Barack Obama. “He’s the only president who has done anything for Native Americans,” he said. We agreed that, regardless of his merits, that some of the criticism of Obama was due solely to the fact that he wasn’t white. “White people really like to be right,” he said, and I gave a snort of laughter at the truth of that statement. That got us into a discussion of race and racism, during which I insisted that the Boston area, where I grew up, was the most racist place I have ever lived. “Even the white people hate each other in Boston,” I said, thinking of the Yankees, Irish, Italians, and French Canadians. He agreed with me, though I wasn’t convinced he knew anything about Boston.


Above: Navajo, Ariz.

San Mateo to Needles

We left San Mateo in the middle of the morning, drove down through San Jose and Gilroy, and up over Pacheco Pass into the Central Valley. There’s a grayish-brown cast to the landscape of the Central Valley, and everything looks dry and dead — except where the land has been irrigated for crops.


Above: Interstate 5, near Lost Hills, Calif.

We’re now in the third year of a severe drought across California. In a few places, acres of trees had been uprooted and left to die, perhaps because they use too much water. On the fences surrounding many agricultural fields were signs protesting any possible reduction in water allotments to agribusiness and farming interests: “No Water = No Jobs,” “Stop the Congress-created Dust Bowl,” etc.

We turned east onto Route 58 through Bakersfield, climbed over the mountains at Tehachapi, heading towards the Mojave Desert. “There’s a Joshua Tree!” I said to Carol, pointing out the car window. The sometimes contorted shapes of Joshua Trees, their arm-like branches, make them seem like beings that are about to move, to turn and point at you.

On a map, it looks like there isn’t much in the desert, but it is far from empty. There’s the highway; there are mysterious industrial plants in the middle of the desert; there are power transmission lines everywhere; there is Edwards Air Force, with its planes, and strange structures on the tops of high mountains; there’s the historic Southern Pacific rail line, now owned by BNSF, with several mile-long freight trains per hour; and there are the Joshua Trees.


Above: Near Boron, California

In Barstow, we stopped at the Canton Diner for dinner. Carol asked our white waitress if she could get just plain vegetables. The waitress went and got a middle-aged Chinese man from the front desk. Carol explained that she wanted just some plain stir-fried vegetables. He disappeared, and came back in a moment with some uncooked Chinese broccoli, and something that looked like amaranth, to show to her. She choose the Chinese broccoli. “Any meat?” he asked. “No, thank you,” she said apologetically, “I just want some vegetables.” “A little garlic?” he asked. “Sure,” she said. When the plate of stir-fired Chinese broccoli came, it was as good as anything you might get in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

When the man brought us the check, I asked him if he were from Hong Kong. “Yes,” he said, looking a little surprised, “why do you ask?” “You have just a little bit of an English accent,” I said; and he was old enough to have completed his education while Hong Kong was still a British possession. He smiled, and when we walked out, he bid us a pleasant good-bye.


Above: Canton Diner, Barstow, Calif.

East of Barstow, the landscape grew emptier, though the rail road was still nearby, transmission lines crisscrossed the landscape, and there were still mysterious-looking plants here and there in the distance. The setting sun turned the landscape a warm glowing red.


Above: Along Interstate 40 east of Newberry Springs, Calif.

We pulled in to Needles at 9:20; it had gotten up to 108 in the middle of the day, and the temperature was still in the mid-90s. The first time I came to Needles, I had just read a biography of Charles Schulz, the cartoonist. He had spent three years of his childhood in Needles, and hated it. It was cold during the winter, so cold he could hear rocks cracking; and during the long summer it was brutally hot, sometimes not getting below 90 at night. But I liked Needles: I liked the small-town feel, I liked the newspaper that’s been continuously published since 1888, I liked the stark desert landscape surrounding the town. I liked it enough that I keep coming back.

The only reason Needles existed when Charles Schulz lived here as a boy was because of the railroad. It’s still a railroad town, and it’s still a small town, with fewer than 5,000 residents. Carol and I took a walk down to the Amtrak depot. A man was standing on his front porch, and we said hi. “Nice and warm,” I said to him. “It’s a lot cooler now than it was,” he said, and we both chuckled. If it weren’t for the climate, it might be a nice place to live.

Pee on Earth Day 2014

Pee on Earth Day is an annual holiday designed to remind us that we are an integral part of the water cycle. Pee on Earth Day is celebrated on the first day of summer (June 21 for the northern hemisphere), since it is likely to be warmest then, and we don’t want to freeze any delicate bits.

I just celebrated Pee on Earth Day. It is somewhat challenging to do so in an urban setting. Let’s just say I waited until dark, and now there is a very happy plum tree.