Barstow to home

I awakened sometime in the middle of the night, and had a hard time getting back to sleep: too much caffeine too late in the day. So I listened to the freight cars in the railroad yard behind the hotel. As the cars were moved around the yard, their wheels gave off flute-like, almost musical, tones. First a tone held for three long beats, the basic tone of which was maybe as high as the C above middle C; then it would change in pitch, shifting suddenly to a higher note or notes. I began listening to the change in pitch, using standard solmization syllables to determine the rise in pitch. Do, re, mi, no not quite mi; a slightly flatted third, like the blue notes in jazz or blues. Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti; that’s a major seventh. The notes began to blur into each other, there were chords, I was fast asleep.

The next morning, we took a long walk along the Historic Route 66 in Barstow. The sun was incredibly bright, the air clear and very dry, and because it was so dry we didn’t feel uncomfortable walking through the desert heat. We went down a short side street where there was a big sign that read “Barstow Classification Yard,” and another sign that read “BNSF Barstow CA.” Carol stood around waiting while I took some photographs of the rail yard beyond. We walked past that, taking photographs of the motel and restaurant and other signs next to or on buildings along the highway: “Palm Court American-Chinese Food”; “Yahweh Flooring”; “Entrance /Low Rates / Office,” with an arrow pointing, and a Hindu “Om” symbol; “Route 66 Motel / Vacancy / Free WiFi — Round Beds — HBO — Remodeled Rooms — Best Prices”; “Robertiroz Mexican Food / Open 24 Hours 7 Days a Week.”

On one side of the highway, side streets led to neat modest homes; on the other side of the highway, beyond the Barstow Classification Yard, we could sometimes see the desert. If this strip of highway, with its big bright signs and bright gaudy roadside architecture, was anywhere else, it would have looked gaudy. But the highway was competing with the intense desert sun, and the glare, and the hot dry air, and it was no competition at all for the sun and glare and dry air won handily.

Driving west, we climbed up towards the Tehachapi Pass, through the high desert with Joshua trees here and there on either side. Erle Stanley Gardner, in one of his detective books, writes about driving through the desert at night and seeing “the weird Joshua trees on either side”; they do look weird, they look vaguely humanoid, but to me they have a friendly and very satisfying look to them.

Once in Tehachapi, the humidity set in. Visibility dropped, distant hills looked blue, the most distant ones disappeared in the haze, and I kept wanting to polish my glasses so I could see again. We began feeling the heat more. All during the long drive through the Central Valley, the air was blue with humidity, and the heat felt uncomfortable, even in the air-conditioned car. Finally we wound through the Coastal Ranges, and arrived at home near the shores of San Francisco Bay, where at last the air felt cool and comfortable.

from July 2, posted July 3

California Aqueduct

Heading north from Barstow to our apartment, driving along Interstate 5, just before where we were to turn off to take state road 152 through the Pacheco Pass, we saw a little sign reading “Vista Point.” We turned off into a narrow, dreary parking area, and looked down into the California Aqueduct. There’s an explanatory sign that tells you why the California Aqueduct is important. I admit I didn’t read it; I was too interested to look at the water flowing through the uncovered aqueduct, and the parched grass on either side, and the green irrigated agricultural fields of the Central Valley in the distance. It was a hot summer day, and as I stood there looking at the aqueduct, I wondered how much of that water is lost to evaporation on its long journey to southern California.

Navajo Nation to Barstow

We were almost the only whites in the Dine’ Restaurant this morning; and we were the only whites at the Window Rock post office; and the only whites at the Navajo Nation Museum, which doubles as a cultural center and meeting space. Of course we went to the bookstore in the Navajo Nation Museum, where, among other things, I bought I Swallow Turquoise for Courage, a book of poetry by the Navajo poet Hershman R. John. In the poem “Strong Male Rain,” John writes about his childhood fear of thunderstorms, and how he discovered that his friend “Darcy, a Jewish girl from Phoenix,” was also scared of thunder:

I told her about the Male Rain and what not to do during a storm.
She told me about Ean and his tale of the Kugelblitz.
I guess Jews and Navajos aren’t all that different.
We were both afraid of thunderstorms.
We have other past storms we were afraid of too.
She had the Holocaust
And I had America.

We drove up to the tribal park in Window Rock, and looked at the memorial to the Navajo Code Talkers of the Second World War. We also looked at the memorial that had a long list of Navajo who had died while serving in the U.S. military. Continue reading “Navajo Nation to Barstow”

From Texas to Navajo Nation

We left Amarillo and drove across the flat plains to the west. Everything looked frighteningly dry: the grass wasn’t even brown from lack of water, it was bleached almost white.

At lunch time, we got off the interstate and followed Historic Route 66, as it is called in New Mexico, through Santa Rosa. We pulled in to a restaurant called “Route 66.” A man got out of a truck marked “City of Santa Rosa” and walked in in front of us. I figured it was a good sign that a city worker was going to eat there. Inside, the restaurant was well kept, with lacy curtains in the windows, Route 66 memorabilia on the walls, and pretty red and white artificial flowers in vases on the tables. It seemed like just about everyone eating in the restaurant knew each other; one older man stopped at nearly every table to greet people on the way to his table at the back of the restaurant.

A distinguished looking man with salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a sport shirt and new and neatly pressed blue jeans, stood at the cash register. He asked us with a soft Spanish accent how our meal was. We got to chatting about the weather. “It’s the driest year ever since they’ve been keeping records,” he said in his soft voice. When he learned we were from California, he asked, “How is it there?” “We’ve had a wet year,” I said. “And cold,” said Carol, “our tomatoes just aren’t growing.” He shook his head at this news: wet and cold! Continue reading “From Texas to Navajo Nation”

Heading west

We got a late start this morning, and didn’t leave Van Buren, Arkansas, until nearly noon. After we had been driving a bit, we turned off at a sign that said “Oklahoma Welcome Center,” and turned into the poshest rest stop I think we’ve ever seen. It was staffed by three volunteers. One politely asked me if she could help me with something, and I said, “No thank you, I’m just waiting while she checks email,” pointing to Carol, who was sitting an a very comfortable armchair enjoying the very fast Internet service. “In that case,” she said in her Oklahoma drawl, “I’ll just kill flies,” and, picking up a flyswatter, proceeded to do just that. “Do you keep score?” I said. “No,” she said, “and I’m not doing a very good job, either,” as she missed a fly for the third time.

As we drove through eastern Oklahoma, I noticed that the land looked much greener and much less dry than it had when we drove east a couple of weeks ago. Clearly they had had rain since then.

At exit 200 for Seminole, Oklahoma, we turned off to see if Robertson’s Ham Sandwiches was open. We had seen their distinctive red-and-white billboards heading east, but we had arrived after they closed. They were open. There wasn’t much on the menu but ham sandwiches, so we each had a double ham sandwich for less than five dollars. We sat at one of the wood tables to eat our sandwiches. It was about the best ham I’d ever eaten in a ham sandwich.

We turned off the interstate at El Reno, Oklahoma. Continue reading “Heading west”

Still in the South

Our goal for our driving vacation this year was to see the South. We saw some southern cities — Birmingham, Memphis, Nashville, Charlotte — and we saw a little bit of the country — Natural Bridge and San Mountain in Alabama. Now here we are in Van Buren, Arkansas, and tomorrow we drive in Oklahoma.

I feel that we’re still in the south here. The air is warm and damp, and the trees and plants are all very green. When you walk across some grass or under trees, you can smell the earth and the vegetation. Distant hills are blue. The people say “y’all,” and it’s easy to find a place that serves turnip greens or green beans cooked up with bacon, or some fried okra.

By tomorrow night, we’ll be in Amarillo, Texas. The air will be dry, there won’t be those rich smells at night, the trees won’t be nearly so green. People will still say “y’all,” but it won’t be quite the same. We’ll be headed back towards home, towards the far West.

Inside “La Cabeza” by Niki de Saint Phalle

“La Cabeza” is part of the show “Creation of a New Mythology,” now at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, N.C. Five monumental sculptures are outdoors in a public park across the street from the museum; and you can climb inside this sculpture. You can also stick your arm through its teeth.

At Amelie’s

Carol and I are sitting at Amelie’s, a French bakery in Charlotte, N.C., that’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s after eleven o’clock on a Thursday evening, and there are lots of people here. At a table to my right, I can sort of hear two men talking about the theater. There’s a card game going on at aother table. There’s a couple who look to me as though they’re on a date. Two women sitting on couches are talking very seriously in low voices. That’s this room. There are two other rooms, the main bakery counter, and the outside patio. I’ve heard at least two languages other than English (Russian was one, and I’m not sure about the other). I’m seeing a lot of white folks, but there’s definite racial diversity here. And I’d guess that all of the people here are younger than Carol and me (that is, at least under 45). There is excellent wifi access, and I can see people checking Facebook and surfing the Web. We are sitting at a table with two laptops, a pear tart, a peach tart, and a cup of really good coffee:

OK. You know what the setting is like. Now, a lot of what I’ve been hearing about recently is how the shape of religion and spirituality is changing, and it’s increasingly taking place outside of traditional places of worship, particularly for people younger than me. If I lived in Charlotte, given that I’m something of a night owl, I have a feeling that I’d be spending a lot of time here. And if I were going to imagine a place where I’d want to do spirituality, this would be it. This pear tart can only be described as spiritual. Good wifi access, pleasant surroundings, interesting conversations going on around you — what more do you need?

If I had my way, church would look more like Amelie’s, and I’d be able to get fast wifi access and really good pear tarts and really good coffee there.

Hey, a guy can dream.

Andy Warhol Robot, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Andy Warhol Robot by Nam June Paik

We spent last night in Chattanooga, and this morning we decided to visit the Hunter Museum of American Art. “Andy Warhol Robot,” a 1994 sculpture by Nam June Paik on loan from the Kunstmuseum, greeted us as we entered the musuem. The main body of the robot is made out of cabinets of early television sets; the original cathode ray tubes (CRTs) have been replaced by newer CRTs which display short video clips by Paik. Other robot body parts include cameras, film projectors (at least that’s what I think they are) canned soup, and a Brillo box sculpture made by Andy Warhol.

As we were leaving the museum, a woman and two boys, aged about five and seven, were standing in front of the robot. The two boys were looking up at it with great interest, and as we walked by, I could overhear one of the boys telling the woman some story that involved explosions and either monsters or robots.