St. Joseph to Mt. Vernon, Ill.

Another late start this morning. Both of us had vivid dreams last night. I can’t remember what happened in my dreams; I used to write detailed notes of my dreams, but gave it up a long time ago because dream narratives are usually confused and ridiculous, the characters strange and inconsistent. Reality is already confused and ridiculous and strange and inconsistent, there’s no need to add to the trouble. Nevertheless, this morning I knew I had had vivid dreams, and I was glad to let the sunlight drive them out of my head.

In Nevada and Wyoming, the interstate highway gives you the best view of the landscape, generally showing you pastoral idylls and hiding from view the huge mining operations and industrial plants. But once you get as far east as Missouri, the interstate highway shows you the large industrial plants and huge warehouses; industries want to be close to the interstate, and you see only occasional woodlands, and fields of corn or soybeans.

We past Columbia, the state capitol, and drove south through exurban housing developments to Little Dixie Lake Conservation Area. A map showed a trail going all the way around the lake, and we started walking along it. It started out as a broad trail which had been mowed through the grass and plants growing under the second growth trees, and as it wound away from the boat landing it slowly narrowed until it was no more than a path. It wound along near the shore of the lake, and tract houses on their one- and two-acre lots were sometimes visible through the thousand foot wide woodland. The beauty we found was in the trees and plants and shoreline immediately in front of us; the broad views were unremarkable.

Little Dixie Creek CA, Missouri

A light breeze blew off the water and kept us cool. We kept coming across Great Blue Herons sitting like sentinels on snags out in the water. We had been listening to an audiobook of Homer’s Odyssey, and when I saw the herons I thought about the eagles Zeus sent in answer to Telemachos’ prayer:

“So spake Telemachus, and in answer to his prayer did Zeus, of the far borne voice, send forth two eagles in flight, from on high, from the mountain-crest. Awhile they flew as fleet as the blasts of the wind, side by side, with straining of their pinions. But when they had now reached the mid assembly, the place of many voices, there they
wheeled about and flapped their strong wings, and looked down upon the heads of all, and destruction was in their gaze. Then tore they with their talons each the other’s cheeks and neck on every side, and so sped to the right across the dwellings and the city of the people.” (trans. S. A. Butcher)

Halitherses, who excelled his peers in his knowledge of birds, interpreted this augury for Telemachos: the suitors who took advantage of Odysseus’ absence to try to force his wife Penelope into marrying one of them — these men would meet certain doom. The young men dismissed Halitherses, just as you now no doubt are dismissing him, saying that the actions of birds have no meaning. Of course the actions of birds have no meaning, other than finding food and procreating; the same may be said for human beings, our lives are nothing more than the attempts of our DNA to mindlessly preserve itself. The Great Blue Herons standing like sentinels had no message for me or for anyone. They just reminded me of my father, who liked Great Blue Herons so much.

We walked for half an hour, then it was time to turn around. I saw some sassafras seedlings, and cut a twig for Carol. “Mm,” she said, smelling it, “what is that?” “Sassafras,” I said. She wanted to know what you can do with it, and I said you can make tea, which supposedly has very mild narcotic effects. Upon hearing that, I think she dropped her sassafras twig. I chewed on mine for a while; I found the taste very refreshing, but I didn’t notice any narcotic effects.

The rest of the drive was uneventful and not particularly scenic. I craned to see the Missouri River as we crossed over in west of St. Louis, but mostly what I saw was the guardrail and bridge abutments and a little bit of water as we sped across.

Crossing the Missouri River on I-270

Avoca to St. Joseph, Missouri

We stayed in Avoca last night, and our next stop was St. Joseph, Missoui, which turns out to be only a two and a half hour drive away. Yet I thought I had scheduled us to drive six hours every day. But I planned this trip right around when my father was dying, so it’s no wonder I made a mistake. And as it turned out, we needed an easy day. We slept late, took our time getting out of the motel, and as a result I felt far more rested than I’ve been feeling.

We went for a walk at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, three quarters of a mile along a dike through a huge freshwater marsh out to an observation platform. The deer flies began swarming us almost as soon as we started walking; they were undeterred by the steady easterly breeze. Carol put up a bright red parasol for the sun, and to decoy the deer flies to bite the parasol instead of her head. But I think she had just as many deer flies near her head as I did.


We flushed two or three Great Blue Herons out of the water near the dike, and they flew low over the cattails and rushes, necks tucked back against their bodies, long legs trailing behind, huge wings flapping slowly. My father took endless photographs of Great Blue Herons in the national wildlife refuge near where he lived: herons wading, herons stalking prey, herons about to take flight, herons standing and looking warily at the camera. He got access to a large-scale printer, and of course he printed out a large photo, some 20 by 30 inches, of a Great Blue Heron. From the observation tower, we could see for a mile or more across marshlands in all directions, except behind us, where trees growing along the dike blocked our view. We saw more than a dozen Great Blue Herons standing here and there, and one White Pelican sunning itself on top of a muskrat lodge.

Half an hour after leaving Squaw Creek NWR, we were in St. Joseph. We followed the signs to the “Historic Downtown,” parked the car, and wandered around. We saw a great many empty storefronts, and hardly any pedestrians. Some of the buildings were beautiful, like the German American Bank Building, made with red brick and red stone, with details including staring heads of fanciful animals or perhaps gargoyles.


A map in a storefront declared this neighborhood to be the Arts and Entertainment District, and the map showed where to find restaurants and bars and arts venues. One of the restaurants on the map was closed and a sign in the door read: “Business for Sale.” A couple of other businesses had closed at three in the afternoon; it was now just before five. The Missouri Theatre had no shows scheduled for the near future, and the last performance took place more than a week ago. We went into the Bourbon Street Restaurant, where several people were already eating early dinners. We had blackened shrimp and broiled catfish; one of the wait staff raved about the fried okra, so we had extra helpings.

Later we went to Tiger’s Den Bookstore and Bar. The emphasis was on the bar, not the books; but they had a pretty good selection. For two dollars I got a clean copy of Graham Greene’s biography of John Wilmot, a book I’ve always wanted to read though I don’t think I will like it. We paid the bartender for our books, while a woman sitting at the bar made friendly small talk with us. Outside on the sidewalk, Carol said we should have stayed and talked with her. But it was late and we wanted to get to sleep.

Big Springs to Avoca, Iowa

When you drive across the country, what you remember are the eye-catching parts of the landscape through which you have traveled. You focus your vision on what turns out to be a tiny portion of what you can actually see. When you look at that bright red tractor on the tractor-trailer rig going the other way on the highway, it looms large in your vision; you ignore the junk piled down by your feet, the driver sitting next to you, the landscape rushing by the window to your right, the road rushing towards you in front of you.


When you are in the car, you hear very little of the landscape through which you are passing. Instead, you hear the rush of sound made by your own car, and perhaps sound from the cars that pass you; you hear the recorded music that plays through your car’s speakers, Louis Armstrong singing about missing New Orleans, or eighteen musicians playing music by Steve Reich. You do not hear the cicadas whirring, the birds singing in the marshes along the river, the wind whispering through the trees.

And when you are driving, you don’t exert your muscles, although your muscles start to ache, because you have to hold them in the same position for long periods of time. If you think about it, driving on interstate highways is slightly surreal: you drive along in a dream bubble, not really seeing what is around you, not hearing, not smelling, not feeling the temperature of the air. In this surreality lies part of the power of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: Humbert Humbert becomes unmoored from moral reality, drifting in a dream world of highways and sex.

We saw signs advertising gasoline for less than two dollars a gallon; adjusting for inflation, this is about what gasoline cost in 1966, and since our car gets nearly forty miles to the gallon, it is cheaper for us to cross the country now than it would have been in 1966. This is surreal, particularly when you recollect that in this presidential election season so many of the politicians tell us that life is so much worse now than it was back in some Golden Age of the past; and what the politicians say is both true and not true, which only increases the surreality.

But as the sun got higher, these dark thoughts occupied me less and less.

We stopped at Rowe Audubon Sanctuary near Gibbon, Nebraska, and walked through the fields near the Platte River. A large cloud was blocking the sun when we arrived, and with a gentle easterly breeze it was a perfect summer day: warm, but not too hot.


I told Carol to go on ahead because she wanted to walk, and I wanted to look at birds. Soon she was out of my sight. I listened to dozens of Dickcissels singing their funny buzzing song in the tall grass around me. Red-winged Blackbirds flew back and forth across the path, growing noisy and worried when I walked too close to their nests. Northern Bobwhites called in the distance, and once one flew out of the brush near me and across the meadow, short little wings carrying its tubby body to safety. One rabbit scurried down the path in one direction, and two more flushed out of the brush where they had been relaxing and scurried off in the other direction.

The cloud drifted away and the hot sun beat down on my head. The breeze died away. The blue sky opened up above me. Even though it had grown hot, even though I kept sneezing from something that was in bloom, it was a perfect summer day.

Rowe Audubon, Nebraska

We left the Audubon sanctuary, and I took a nap while Carol drove through the afternoon and into the evening. We got off the interstate and drove down a two-lane highway into Avoca, Iowa, driving between fields of soybeans and fields of corn. On the way into town, we passed Titan Machinery of Avoca, and admired their Case agricultural equipment, glowing deep red in the fading sunlight. I especially admired the dozen or so combines with cornheads mounted on them, all lined up along the edge of the street.


I ordered a ribeye steak at the Old Main Street Grill, while Carol ordered a salad. I felt guilty for eating beef because all my liberal friends tell me how bad it is for the environment, but the ribeye steak was inexpensive, perhaps raised in neighboring Nebraska; Carol’s salad was mostly shredded iceberg lettuce, doubtless shipped a thousand miles from where it was grown in California and perhaps harvested by undocumented immigrants. And which is better, monoculture fields of corn and soybeans, much of which will be heavily processed before it is eaten, or even not eaten at all; or range lands devoted to beef cattle? Moral equations are never as simple as I would like them to be. One thing I know for sure: farm work may be deeply rooted in reality, but is is brutally hard — hot, exhausting, hard on the body and the mind — and I’d just as soon not so it myself, not even on a picturesque organic farm.

Evantston to Big Springs, Neb.

We had a hard time getting going this morning. Both of us slept a long time. I feel as though I have no reserves upon which to draw. And no wonder: long hours at work throughout June; and prior to that, the death of my father two months ago, followed a few weeks later by the death of my mother’s twin sister.

A couple of hours east of Evanston, we stopped at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. We ate lunch on the deck of the visitor center, looking out across the broad valley of the Green River, a line of cottonwood trees marking the course of the river, the bluffs on the far side of the valley, then the sagebrush of the rolling Wyoming plains drawing your eye to snow-covered mountains in the distance.


After lunch, we walked down the bluff into the valley. There was very little wind, and the deer flies buzzed in anxious circles around our heads, trying to find a way past our broad-brimmed hats. Carol walked on at a brisk pace; I dawdled, looking at and listening to the birds in the marshlands on either side of the gravel road. As Carol walked past a clump of three big old cottonwood trees, she startled an owl. It flew out, a big brown ghostly shape. Smaller birds swarmed around it — swallows and blackbirds — and one brave little bird, maybe a kingbird, swooped down and with its feet clawed at the back of the owl. The owl turned and twisted, trying to get rid of its anxious tormentors; it flew low over the marsh grass to some distant trees.

The flies wouldn’t leave us alone, so soon we made our way back to the visitor center. The warm sun almost directly overhead, the dry clean air, the teeming life around us: I felt something in me replenished, just a bit.

Wagonhound rest area

A long afternoon and evening of driving followed. At one rest area in Wyoming, a sign on the side of a small box truck proclaimed “MONSANTO=MUERTE,” and above the amateurish lettering was a painting of ears of corn. Each kernel of corn was a skull.

Near Cheyenne

We drove on into Nebraska. The radio told us that there was a tornado watch in effect for southeastern Wyoming and northwestern Nebraska. Tall clouds began to rise on the horizon. In front of us, directly in the path of the highway, rose a huge cloud, broad at the top with undercut sides, like a huge unsteady island floating above us. We got closer and closer, then the highway turned, taking us north of the huge cloud. The light waned, night fell, and off to the north of us we could see lightning flashing continually.

Winnemucca to Evanston, Wyo.

I love the green valleys in northeastern Nevada, nestled along the Humboldt River and minor creeks and seeps. At the lowest points, where there is water, everything is bright green at this time of year. As the land gets higher, the green turns to the silver-green of sagebrush, and then brown, and then the high rugged mountains tower over everything else. Every once in a while, you’ll see a ranch house at the boundary between the well-watered low lands and the sage brush.

Near Beowawe, Nev

Above: Near Beowawe, Nev.

We drove over the pass to Wells, Nev. Once we got above about 4000 feet, most of the land was green, or somewhat green, and there were enough small trees that you might almost call it a forest. At these high elevations, the green well-watered land near watercourses backed right into mountain slopes that were also green, though less vividly so. The peaks of some of these mountains still had bright white patches of snow near their peaks.

10 mi. west of Wells, Nev

Above: About 10 miles west of Wells, Nev.

Northeastern Nevada would be a beautiful place to live. Not that I’d actually want to live there myself. Making a living from agriculture wouldn’t be easy, and the other major industry, resource extraction, would be just as hard and less beautiful. Plus this part of Nevada is heavily Mormon, and I am not a Mormon. So I wouldn’t want to live there, but when you drive past those pretty green valleys at 75 miles an hour, it’s fun to fantasize about how beautiful it must be.

We drove out of Nevada and into Utah, across the salt flats. It was hot, and we kept seeing what looked like large bodies of water, but they were just mirages. Carol looked to the north, across the other half of the interstate highway, and there was a mountain standing in water that was higher than the level of the roadway. Or was it a strange undercut mountain-island floating in midair? Of course it was a mirage, but it was beautiful, and I wanted it to be real even though it was not.

Mirage, Utah, mile 16, I 80

Above: Near mile marker 16 on Interstate 80 in Utah.

San Mateo, Calif., to Winnemucca, Nev.

We finally got on the road at half past one. It took more than an hour to get free of Bay Area traffic, and then more than another hour to get past Sacramento. Carol decided to pull off the highway at Auburn, Calif. We walked the steep streets around the historic district, passing restaurants and stores selling tchotchkes, up the hill to the Place County Superior Courthouse, a monumental pile of yellow brick.

Auburn, Calif.

Along Interstate 80 on the way up the Sierra Nevada Mountains, we passed a roadside billboard that advocated splitting off a new state, to be called Jefferson State, from the rest of California. Republicans and libertarians who want “less government” and low or no taxes are behind this movement for a new state. Not surprisingly, there was a large Donald Trump sign attached to this billboard, for he is the new standard-bearer for those who want low taxes and less government. They would not have funded the construction of the monumental Placer County Superior Courthouse.

An hour or so later, we stopped in Verdi, Nev., to stretch our legs. Out in front of ESP Art, a trout sculpture leaped in front of a reflection of the eastern Sierras.

Verdi, Nev.

We drove through Reno and Sparks, and at last, as the sun was setting, we were in the wide open spaces of the Great Basin. We passed the Carson Sink, which had some patches of open water in among the salt pans; passed tall brown mountains that turned gold in the setting sun; passed mysterious large industrial plants along the Humboldt River; passed sage brush and tumbleweeds; and arrived in Winnemucca at half past ten.

East of Sparks, Nev.

San Mateo, Calif.

We had planned to leave San Mateo at noon. Now it is half past twelve, and we still haven’t finished loading the car with clothes, camping gear, ham radio gear, jars of plum jam, and Lord knows what else.


Even though we got up at 6:30 this morning, we just had too much to do. Carol and I spent the last two weeks running an ecology camp, and that left us little time to get ready for our trip.

So here we are, still in San Mateo. We hope to get on the road by one o’clock. We hope….

Who’s your youth advisor?

This story from the Babylon Bee (a completely reliable source of news, and besides everything on the Internet is true), reveals the truth about the Dakota Avenue Christian Church’s youth program:

“Scandal erupted at Dakota Avenue Christian Church on Sunday, as it was revealed that beloved and long-standing youth pastor Blake Dickinson, who goes by the name “Rhino,” was actually just a homeless guitar player that had wandered into a service several years ago.

“An internal investigation revealed that Dickinson had been sitting on the corner of Dakota Avenue and First Street one summer morning, playing acoustic covers of Radiohead songs in hopes of scoring some change from passersby. Wandering into the church to ask if he could use the restroom, he was immediately assumed to be the new youth pastor, due to the guitar he was carrying, as well as his unkempt looks, Birkenstock sandals, and distinct patchouli scent.”

This raises the question: Who, exactly, is the youth advisor at the Dakota Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church next door?

Happy Watergate Day

A friend from high school reminded me that yesterday was Watergate Day. On Saturday, June 17, 1972, five burglars paid by CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President) broke into the Democratic National Convention headquarters at 2600 Virginia Avenue, Washington, D.C., in the same building as the Watergate Hotel. They placed hidden microphones — bugs — and took photos of sensitive material. It eventually turned out that then-President Richard (“I Am Not A Crook”) Nixon authorized and had direct knowledge of the burglary; he resigned rather than face impeachment proceedings.

The Watergate scandal shaped the political consciousness of my immediate age cohort. People a few years older than my age cohort talk about the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X as defining moments in their political awareness, but for us the defining moment was criminal activity by the President of the United States.

A few years after the Watergate scandal, I think in 1977, some friends of mine and I re-enacted the Watergate break-in in our high school: we walked in to the office of one of the principals, dumped dead insects on his desk, and informed him that we were bugging his office. I don’t remember suffering any punishment for this act of street theatre. At least we weren’t selling drugs, one of the things our high school was known for (the school had its own undercover narcotics agents), and at least we showed that we knew something about U.S. history.

I have never commemorated Watergate Day since then. But maybe I should, under the theory that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. The current presidential election campaign has already descended to mud-slinging and name-calling, and outright criminal acts may be following close behind.