Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Coynes Laundry - Marathon, FL

The humidity is suffocating. It's like breathing a hot milkshake. The line of dryer vents is not helping either, as they churn out hot air onto me as I sit on a creaky park bench in front of Coynes Laundry. My wife is inside dealing with eleven days of clothes and I'm keeping the bench down, staring across the hot four lanes of US-1, halfway between Miami and Key West, where we're headed for a 2 day break from Winnie and the Poets.

My wife joins me and we have the following stirring conversation:

Me: Jesus, it's hot.
Her: I don't think I can stay here if it's going to be this hot.
Me: Jesus, it's hot.

After that dies down, my wife spots a guy staggering alongside the highway. He's got a buzz cut, wearing jeans and a denim shirt and is lurching down the southbound shoulder while cars shoot past him. It's clear he's drunk. My wife taps me to get me to watch, and as soon as I look over at him he piles head first to the ground, rolling halfway over into the gravel shoulder just feet away from the paved surface.

In less than a minute a red pickup truck pulls off the road and a guy gets out and goes over to help. The drunk wants nothing to do with it. He's up again, staggering toward a convenience store while the samaritan walks alongside.

Finally the drunk goes down again, and this time it's for good. Two of the ladies doing their laundry come out and look across with us. "Is that Mike?" one of them says, and then she walks toward the road, sort of eyeing the scene.

The owner of the laundromat comes out and looks over, then looks at me. "Uh, a guy fell over and it might be Mike," I say.

"Oh, no," the owner says. "He just got out of jail last night."

We hear sirens. Two cop cars and one ambulance come from different directions. The samaritan turns things over and heads back to his truck. He waves over at us and one of the laundry ladies. She shrugs her shoulders and sort of waves. She doesn't know him.

The samartian pulls a u-turn and stops in front of us. He points at the one lady and says, "Hey, when did you get back into town?"

The lady is still a little confused, but says, "Last month."

"You don't remember me, do ya?" the guy says.

We're all standing there sort of playing along.

"It's Mikey," the samaritan tries. "Remember? Melon shooters? My brother's got an apartment above the Dive Shop?"

"Oh, yeah," the lady says, finally pulling in the signal. She winks at the laundry owner and then sidles over to the guy's truck to reacquaint. He pops his door open and I'm a big fan of his shirt full of pelicans and his neck full of chains.

The lady who originally walked away to check out things walks back to all of us. "Yep, it's Mike. It looks like he tied one on last night."

"He's a homeless guy who lives under the bridge down there," the owner says. "He comes around here a lot.

Another thin guy in jeans and a t-shirt is sort of sneaking up on the ambulance, looking things over, steering clear but trying to see what's up.

"That's Mike's buddy," the owner says. "They hang out together. They're good pals."

We all stand there a bit longer and the humidity starts to get to me again. My big head is sweaty, beads rolling down onto my nose.

Mike gets loaded into the ambulance and a dryer buzzes inside. My wife and I look at each other and we go inside to fold.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Campbell McGrath - Miami Beach, FL

Campbell and I are standing in front of his gorgeous garden home plugged serenely in a bucolic neighborhood in Miami Beach. He shows me two trees in his front yard, both planted and grown by him over the past ten years. One is a Royal Palm that is as big around as two bulldogs and must approach 40 feet. It started as a stalk, not even waist high. The other palm is a little shorter, but thicker, and grown from a coconut that Campbell stuck in the ground ten years ago. I could maybe hit a golf ball over it if I had a full case of Red Bull. I wonder if it takes any particular skill to grow palms like this, but don't want to ask. Perhaps all it takes is sandy soil and the ever present humidity that makes even a cool morning like this feel sticky.

We go in Campbell's bright yellow home - under a pretty arch, scooting past his sons' skateboards - and sit in the front room, the outside air wafting in through two elephant-eye-high gated windows that are open to the street.

Campbell's a Chicago transplant, but he's fully at home in Florida now after a decade. He's happy to call himself an urban poet, and his work has long explored the commercial landscape of America, the strip malls and convenience stores that are undeniable cultural and physical landmarks.

We talk about South Florida, a region that Campbell says is distincly Latin, not like the American South at all. He's interested in it and his bilingual students who come to him with a dense melange of cultures. Campbell tells me that Florida's culture is something he went in search of when he first moved here, but he found it missing. It's as if the place developed and grew without a record being made of its spurts.

When we finish, we go stand outside and Campbell points out some other trees opposite his house, 90 years old, original residents of the neighborhood. He asks about our plans, which include a brief vacation from the trip - a two night stay down in Key West - and we say goodbye.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Denise Duhamel - Hollywood, FL

With more than 13,000 miles very recently under our belts, it's pretty easy to say that traffic varies widely from town to town, state to state. With the possible exception of Beverly Hills on a Saturday afternoon, the stretch from Miami (where we and Winnie Cooper are spending a week) to Hollywood is the most discouraging. We spot the signs of U.S. 1, The Dixie Highway, and we imagine it will link us quickly to the north, but it's a soul-killing parade of endless red lights and jittery drivers who slam between lanes like they were lottery players looking for just the right combination. 

Additionally, our resting point while in South Florida has turned into a bit of a nightmare. Now, I don't expect every place to be green and beautiful like Granite Lake in southeastern Washington State, or remote and pristine like Death Valley, but nothing could ever prepare you for the Miami Everglades KOA Camp where we pulled in a couple of days ago. Motorhomes have been shuffled here as tight as any deck of playing cards. Need sugar from a neighbor, just slide your window open and tap the dude on the shoulder. Well, unless it's our neighbor to the west. All he's got is weed. Oh, and the classic rock radio that he plays all day, all night, even past the normally Nazi-strict "quiet hours." All parks have these hours, usually something like 10pm - 8am where everyone is supposed to tone it down a bit for the retirees. But not our dude.

On the first night, around 10:15 pm while Free was blasting "Feel Like Making Love," I strolled past the side of his place to see what was up. Party, maybe? All of his friends. A minor breaking of curfew. Good friends, good times. But it was just him, head slumped, doobie in one hand and Jim Beam in the other. When he spotted me he gave me a big grin, a welcoming smile. I reversed field and headed back to the relative quiet of Winnie Cooper.

The next night the music played on. Mostly 80s stuff tonight, Men at Work, Hall & Oates, but then back around to the oldies, the Moody Blues..."I'm just a singer in a rock and roll band..." Etc. We're here for 5 more nights.

Denise lives on the ocean under blue skies year round. She lives in Hollywood, Florida, a place full of retirees and vacationers. But she's young, hip, working, and getting all of the benefits most of us dull slabs have to wait until we're 65 for. So it'd be easy to hate her if she wasn't so wonderful - as wonderful as her work, I suppose I'd say.

A Rhode Island native, she's logged her time in Boston and New York, so sunny climes are a gentle and wonderful reward for all of that. She tells me about some of her favorite writing spots, a local coffee shop, the wide and windblown boardwalk just north of her apartment, the beach itself, just steps away from her building.

Like some of the writers I've met, Denise revels in the anonymity of a large, bustling city. She can escape in public places and take in the characters and stories only available to someone who's a great listener. She writes in notebooks while on the town, then comes home to her office to turn the scratchings into full-blooded poems.

In person, she's a dynamo, eager to talk about the powerful effect this newish place has on her work, her health, and her happiness. She's animated and lovely and we have a terrific session in the sunny and large living room where light pours in on us. I tell her about another poet who she knows and she's sincerely happy to hear some news of a good friend. I tell her about another poet I know here in town and she knows him, too. We talk about his recent new job and in this way we catch up like pals - even though we've just met.

I say my goodbyes and look for my wife. She's across from Denise's apartment complex, staring into the shiny waters of the Intercoastal Waterway where $250,000 boats bob past on their way to - wherever - does it matter? Neither one of us wants to get in the damn rental car and get back on that highway. I ask her if she'd like to live in Florida, and she says, "Only if we never have to drive."

True enough. But we know we have to get back to Winnie for the night. And the classic rock. Our dude waits, he and his pal Jim Beam. We drive and start making bets on what's playing. I think it'll be the Marshall Tucker Band's "Heard it in a Love Song." My wife opts for anything by Skynyrd.


About a third of the poets I meet ask, "Why me?"

It's a complicated question, and I don't think I've ever given a completely satisfactory answer. But in this entry I thought I'd try.

1) The work of some poets just screams out "place" to me, poets like Miller Williams, for example. It's always been impossible for me to read his work without feeling the South in every line. So I sought out many poets like this when I was first putting a big list together. I wasn't trying to stack the deck in favor of the conceits of my book, but I did want some ringers, some folks who would think that the question, "Has place influenced your work?" was a satisfying and enjoyable place to start a conversation.

2) Simply, geography. The planning of this trip has been monumentally challenging. I've been unable to completely describe the logistics of it to anyone. The truth of the matter is, early on, I had a huge road atlas in front of me, and I knew we'd be hurtling thousands of miles, dozens of states, shooting through countless - and many now unremembered - towns. And since we were there, why not talk to someone? I will confess that there are some of the poets I've met this year who I hadn't even read before this trip. I don't know what sort of revelation this is; my god, there are tons of poets out there. But lucky geography has led me to several folks who I've now "discovered" in a real way. One of these poets is David Romtvedt of Buffalo, Wyoming. I saw that our route was taking us through his part of the state, and using Google, I happened across his name. I read some poems online, loved them, and I'm very grateful I took the time to contact him and visit his picturesque little town. His work fits this project beautifully, and better yet, he was a terrific guy to spend the morning with.

3) The old/young dynamic. Relative terms, I assure you, but since I went to school in the early 80s, many of the poets I studied are now 60+. Because I wanted a good cross section, I knew I'd need to find poets roughly 40 and below. It's easy to pick someone who's been in the game a while and has 15 terrific collections. It's a little harder to find someone more or less just starting out. But as the overall list was being created, I noted that it skewed older than, say, the average age of a living American poet. So I began to work on adding younger poets. It was in this way that I discovered Beth Ann Fennelly, for example, a dynamite poet from Illinois, now in Mississippi.

4) Some poets I wanted to meet with disqualified themselves by noting that place just wasn't a concern for them. They didn't see how they'd fit into the book's conversation. Some poets have bowed out because they were too busy, finishing books, doing research, teaching, new children, etc. Sometimes it just was simple bad timing. Poets on sabbatical. Poets out of town during the week I was going through their area. The vagaries of my trip caused some of this, and without going around AGAIN, I don't know how to avoid this sort of problem.

5) Some poets I just could never contact. Some never replied to any of my queries. My preferred method is via email, and a surprising number of poets - even ones in academia - don't publicly list an email address of any kind. In many of those cases I've sent faxes to their offices. In some cases, the fax worked and we've been able to set up meetings in that way. But in other cases I was never able to reach some poets that would have been welcome partners in the book's conversation. (In some extreme situations I've even used the telephone to reach folks who had been otherwise unreachable, and again, sometimes I've been successful getting a hold of someone, sometimes not.) Obviously this limits the book in some ways. I toyed with the idea of seeking out previously published interviews, finding a way to fuse this material with my own, but that seemed less than satisfactory. So much of this trip is the actual physical visit that I make to the poet's home. And in the end, I never want the visits or the interviews to be something the waiting poet is dreading.

Finally, I can say that the process of choosing poets for the book has been a fascinating challenge. It's a rigorous thing I'm asking. Not just, "Let me ask you some questions," but welcome me into your home or office. I'm going to appear on your doorstep in a few weeks with a giant bag of cameras and tape recorders. I'm an imposing presence (I mean, fat); my bald head is gleaming with sweat (regardless the weather). I'm on a schedule. I've just driven 200 miles in the big rolling tin can. My wife is circling your narrow neighborhood streets while I'm here, and I've got 200 miles to go this afternoon, SO PLEASE RELAX AND GIVE ME THE ANSWERS TO MY QUESTIONS. I'm unclear what state I'm in, what town. I may confuse you with another poet I met yesterday or will meet tomorrow. And I'm likely to eat any amount of cookies you put on a plate in front of me. It's frightening, I guess is what I mean!

But, 38 poets into the project, over 13,000 miles later, I would do it all again, every moment, because the poets I have met have been universally terrific, giving of their time, receptive to the ideas, and just plain fun to spend part of a day with. A mighty "thanks" to them all - past and future - just isn't enough.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Peter Cooley - New Orleans, LA

Peter Cooley's house has a purple door. It's a rich and powerful hue, and we see it from well down the street as we negotiate the narrow passage.

We're in Jefferson, actually, just minutes west of New Orleans proper. In less than 24 hours in and around the city we've been stuck in traffic behind three different accidents. Last night, after spending a pleasant but chilly night in the Quarter, we sat for nearly an hour motionless on I-10 behind a two car fender bender just before the gorgeous twin span bridge that links New Orleans to Slidell, Louisiana, across Lake Ponchatrain. Then this morning as we drove into the city again we came to a stop behind what looked to be a dirt spill. No truck in site, but maybe 70 yards of black topsoil was spread across three lanes about three inches thick. Of course the cars come to a screeching halt. The dirt, my god, the dirt! A little honking, however, convinced the delicate flowers ahead of us to push through. Then on our way here we edged by a t-bone crash in an intersection, a champagne colored Saturn up on a median, its driver scratching his head, wondering where on earth that other car had come from.

But the purple door opens and I'm welcomed in my Peter and his wife - and the delicious smell of chicken cooking.

Peter and I sit in the living room and I arrange the gear. The digital camera goes on a tripod off to the side, where it will work on its own, shooting images once every 10 seconds or so. I get out my indestructible Sony Cassette-Recorder and look for a place near Peter to set it. He's on a big soft couch with no tables near him so I prop up two very unlikely - but charming - fish-shaped pillows, each about 18 inches long. I learn that Peter's wife doesn't like them, but to me they look quirky and homey.

The chicken cooks, Peter's wife fusses with some papers, and Peter and I start to chat.

The purple door comes up a couple of times because Peter wants to talk about the rare quality of light that exists here. He's always had a debt to light in his work, but he really became aware of it during the research and writing of his celebrated volume, The Van Gogh Notebook. This part of Louisiana has just the right climate and humidity to give colors their due. The reds have a rich redness, the purples really pop. I wouldn't believe if it weren't for the door that I look at more than once during my visit.

I tell Peter about another poet I saw earlier in the trip who had suggested I make this visit. It's a poet who Peter knows of, but doesn't know personally. He's genuinely touched at the gesture and says, "He owes me nothing." But I hope I would have found my way here anyway. Cooley's work is not a natural or obvious fit for a book about "place," but I've long since learned to look past the obvious things. Peter's landscape is internal, questing. The speaker in many of his works is caught inside a frame of his own design, looking out, peering out, wondering if indeed there is a way out. It's heady stuff, and rich in place in ways that doesn't require the occasional name of a town or street or roadside bar.

He tells me a bit about his kids, who he clearly loves, and who are displayed in photos on the fridge, in a bookcase, on the piano, etc. He asks about the next stop while I start to pack up.

"Let's get some photos outside," I say, even though it's a chilly January morning - and even though Peter has already told me a handful of times that he left Detroit, Chicago, and Iowa behind mostly because of the temperature. I'm thinking get him posing by the door. The purple door. The poet outside.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Beth Ann Fennelly - Oxford, MS

Beth Ann Fennelly has just finished a 15 page poem about kudzu, the climbing and unstoppable vine that covers millions of acres in Mississippi, Alabama, etc. Kudzu is a Southern touchstone, and when my wife and I first moved down here in the mid 80s, it seemed an exotic and frightening natural world element too spooky and mysterious to ever fully understand. We left Mississippi after only about 18 months, so its reappearance as we drove into the state last night set us thinking about the South, a place, a way of life, a varied and multi-faceted landscape vastly more intriguing than the easy and lazy stereotypes that abound.

But Fennelly is from the north, suburban Illinois, specifically. So I wondered how she came to be here in Mississippi, and - more importantly - how she got so in touch with the evil vine.

We park alongside her home's huge corner lot, and Beth Ann greets me and lets me into her delightful and airy home just minutes after putting her daughter down for a nap. I sit opposite her, my back to an entire wall of book-filled shelves, actually pretty and white cupboards, some with glass doors.

She met her husband, the fiction writer Tom Franklin, in Arkansas, the furthest north Franklin had ever traveled (he's from Alabama), and the furthest south for her. After some years in Illinois, they've settled in Oxford, a hip and wonderful Mississippi town, also, of course, the venerable college where Fennelly teaches, Ole Miss.

Fennelly tells me a little about kudzu, an Asian vine that was introduced to America at the 1876 Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia. An ornamental vine in its homeland, it grows best in the climate of the southeastern U.S., where it is free of its homeland's variety of pests and bugs. In the summer, the vine can grow a foot a day, and it does, obscuring fences, trees, power poles, sides of houses, etc.

Most folks see it as a nuisance, but for Fennelly, it represents one of the things she loves about the South, its places, and people. It's mysterious. It covers up some things that would normally be too in the open, too easily seen. Like her favorite elements of Mississippi, the kudzu conceals some of what's underneath, leaving rich stories for writers to unearth. She believes in her own work she's doing the same things.

Supposedly napping, Beth Ann's daughter has serenaded us throughout the interview with a combination of singing and talking, a burble of words and sounds that have reached down the hallway to us while chatted.

I won't see her on this visit, but I was glad to to hear her little songs.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Naomi Shihab Nye - San Antonio, TX

Nye lives in a beautiful 100-year old house in the fabled King William district in downtown San Antonio. The neighborhood - which boomed originally in the middle of the 19th century - is an eclectic collection of two story houses painted in funky colors. Right across the street is an empty park and I stand there and look across at it for a while before going in.

We go through the house to a back room that looks out over the back yard and garden. Nye gets me iced tea and a tray of nuts and candy. She shows me some pages from a new anthology she's put together, one that pairs poems and paintings from Texas writers and artists. It's large, colorful, and rich inside with many folks that Nye has known after a quarter century in the state.

We talk about the project a bit, but soon my questions lead her into several terrific stories. She tells me about a 5 day trip thorugh Louisiana that she took with her husband and son in the waning days of 1999. They took turns being in charge of all the events of a single day. The trip, they called a "meander." On her husband's day, they all went and sat in a field, sketching. On her son's day, they knocked on a small town mayor's door to ask some questions.

They found themselves one evening watching the sun go down while standing on a jutting promontory. Water surrounded them; the sun bore down into the horizon. Nye tells the story with real feeling, and it's not hard to be caught up in the event as though I had been among them.

We go out to her bustling back yard and shoot some photos. It's been overcast all day, but as soon as we get out there, the sun starts poking through the towering pecan trees that are everywhere in this part of Texas. Nye, the wife of a photographer, is comfortable as I shoot. We continue chatting while I run a few shots with the Canon and then the newish Nikon. When we're done we go back inside. I go after the caramel popcorn squares, Nye signs a book for my wife and me, and too soon I'm back on the road.

Wherein the Author Waxes About the Concept of "Repair"

Somewhere in Arizona a rattle develops underneath Winnie Cooper. It's not one of those rattles you can live with, it's a heart-stopping rattle that is so loud that you can't even hear the endless and life-killing whine of the tires on yet another stretch of highway.

My wife and I look at each other with different thoughts on our minds. Hers: "My goodness, there's a small problem that we will have to solve as a couple; then the trip will continue apace." Mine: "I hope that this thing explodes like a supernova so we can sell the parts for scrap, get a nice Buick Century, and start living in hotel rooms like regular human beings."

We pull over on the side of the highway and I squeeze my gigantic belly underneath the coach, somewhere near where the sound seems to originate. I don't see it for a while, but eventually I spot a sort of tin mud flap that is there to protect the motorhome's automatic stair mechanism from roadspray. The flap has detached from a metal bracket. The bracket is worn out, unrepairable. The tin flap is going to hammer like John Henry against the tire and the stairs for the next million years. We're doomed. Any sense of peace or joy is gone.

"We can fix it," my wife says. Mentally, I'm placing an ad in the Daily Bugler: "RV 4 Sale. Includes towels, soap, and wife." My wife says, "We can go to Wal-Mart and find something."

So we do. We drive the newly clanging beast up the road and pull into the distant stretches of a new Wal-Mart. I trudge behind my wife to the eleven or so aisles that make up the hardward section. She tosses various packages to me, some kind of aluminum wire, plastic ties, duct tape, a new pretty towel for the kitchen.

When we get back to Winnie Cooper I am resigned to the fact that it is expected that I should be able to fix this thing. I drop the various items out of the bag and then get down below Winnie again. I begin threading the plastic ties in and around some holes I see in the flap. I take those ties and attach them to other ties. They're brightly colored. It's a kaleidoscope of color, the ties, my red pulsing head, the black and greasy undercarriage.

I'm not much of a man. I mean, I'm unable to build a cabin or tie a fly or fly a glider off the coast of Brazil. I just watch TV, write a little. I know what I lack. I couldn't have lived through the depression. I'd be the first person to crack in a stuck elevator. I'd be the one the soccer players would eat first after a plane crash.

But, as sweat flops from my brow to the ground below, I continue to tie the flap to anything I see. I use the plastic ties, some of the wire, and then encase the entire mess in about $24 of duct tape. It's an unmovable mess. It looks like something very bad has happened, or will soon. But it doesn't make any noise when I whack it with my head as I try to get out.

My wife wants to see it, but I just tell her to get in the coach and cross her fingers.

The noise usually starts around 35 mph. By 45 mph it sounds like a small airplane. At highway speed it sounds like fifty nickels in a blender set to frappe.

We point it on Highway 10 and keep heading south. It's quiet. It's unnerving it's so quiet. At 60 mph I get a little smile. I'm drinking an entire can of Sierra Mist and thinking about me and the other greats, the Wright Brothers and whatever it was they built, the guy or gal who made the radio, whoever made up fractions. We're all giants. We've all looked into the world's mysteries with keen eyes and unbending will.

My wife looks at me anew. I am evolving. I am one step closer to being the grown-up she's been waiting for.

As we cross into Texas a few hours later, while my wife dozes under the new issue of Time magazine, a single rattle sounds from beneath us. It's momentary. She doesn't hear it. The "fix" is coming undone; of this, I'm sure. I hold my breath but hear nothing else. At any moment I fear it will all come apart.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Jane Miller - Tucson, AZ

Jane Miller lives across the valley from the gorgeous Santa Catalina Mountains that ring the eastern landscape outside Tucson, Arizona. We sit in her great room and I sip sparkling water as though I were a fancier man than I actually am.

Jane's a walker, and she tells me a little bit about hiking the trails in and around this hillside house. I ask about the local wildlife (spiders, snakes, scorpions, etc.) and she admits that she's skittish about the snakes, and sees a variety of these desert creatures regularly enough. (Because I'm hopeless, I spend the next thirty minutes scanning the floor for an approaching attack. It is winter, however, and I'm unlikely to get stung, bitten, or poked. But since I'm such a delicate flower, it's good to be careful.)

She admits to a somewhat nomadic life, and tells me a bit about her love of the sea, coasts, and particularly Humboldt County in northern California. Aside from the poetry talk, she confesses a brief involvement with painting - while in California - and I ask a bit about that. On the trip, I've been fascinated by the avocations of poets and academics. I ask Jane about the connection of painting and poetry and happily she tells me that - for her - they connected in very real and obvious ways.

We also talk a bit about the ongoing project, and I'm always glad to get advice. I'm always worried that the personal journey is too far removed from the interviews with poets, but Jane suggests that there are likely stronger connections between those twin studies than I'm currently seeing.

As always, far too quickly it's over. I pack my stuff and we say goodbye.

I load up the rental car (because Winnie and my wife are 100 miles north with some family while I do this quick 2 day trip to the Tucson area), and drink in the endless and bathing sunlight. It's been nearly 20 years since I left Arizona, and winter here is spectacular. My mind recalls my first day in the area in the late 70s, an August scorcher of 114 degrees. But by the time this area heats up again, I'll be a long ways from here.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Richard Shelton - Tucson, AZ

When Richard and his wife Lois built their house in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains in 1961, they were one of only three residents in the vast and unscrubbed Sonoran desert some 10 miles west of Tucson. They and their young son relished the remote location, but scorpions and one spectacularly dog-hungry gila monster made the land a little more hostile than a similar spot nearer the city.

But Shelton wouldn't trade the experience or the spot. While it's true that the neighbors have arrived over the past thirty years, the spot is still breathtaking. Unlike the desert areas right around Phoenix, where I've just left, Tucson's desert is packed with cacti, hundreds of thorny "platypus" or pancake cacti jammed in every square city block of space. And up on the foothills where Shelton lives, the inhospitable nature of the place is still apparent. Sure, there are concrete roads that wind in and around the adobe-colored homes, but a foot off the main road and you're on gravel and rock, and the desert is everywhere.

When I first arrive, we try to broker a peace settlement with Shelton's mammoth St. Bernard - Jefe. He's not fond of some strangers, and I must appear more strange than most. It's decided - by Jefe - that he and I won't meet. Shelton puts the otherwise friendly and implacable behemoth out of our way and then joins me on a sun dappled patio south of his house.

As always, I'm interested in a poet's place, and it's obvious this place has beauty, but Shelton talks about the transformational nature of the desert, a place that in summer can still be scorching in the dark of a moon-filled night. He has for years brought his students to a nearby area to read poetry under moonlight, and his love for the area is clear in his conversation and his work.

When we're done, Shelton and I shake hands. I peer through the gate at Jefe as I leave. His tongue takes a circle around his jowls and I give him a little - a final - nod.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Alberto Rios - Chandler, AZ

Phoenix is a bit of a homecoming for me. I went to school here in the late 70s and early 80s, met my wife here, and drove fast and wild on the desert highways in and around Phoenix when I was infallible and indestructible. So it's terrific to be here again, my first visit in almost 20 years. And while I did my B.A. work here, I hardly ever think about Phoenix as my "college" hometown. I just wasn't much of a student. I didn't think much about class, went as seldomly as I could, and really just visited campus when I had to. (Not that I'd recommend that for any of the kids...stay in school, stay off the pipe!) 

Two things I love about Phoenix: 1) Streets are wide. Not just the big streets, every street. The mountains are a long ways off, and the desert surrounds you, so even in the city you feel a bit like you're in the middle of nowhere. Room to move. Room to breathe. 2) Most folks have given up on the whole lawn thing. Keeping a nice lawn is a vexing sort of thing no matter where you live. What kind of seed? Do you want to aerate? What about those weeds? Crabgrass? Kill them with chemicals? An organic path to a weed-free lawn? Aren't there BUGS in the lawn? Chiggers waiting to feast on my belly. A chigger with an attitude and a tattoo. In Phoenix, "lawns" are nice stretches of chipped rock, gravel, white, gray, red sometimes for contrast. A saguaro cactus and three wheelbarrows of rock and you're done landscaping until the next ice age. Anything else is just vanity.

Alberto Rios - and his family's sweet dog, Kino - welcomes me to his lovely home in Chandler. We're just south of Tempe where Rios teaches at Arizona State, my alma mater. We read at the same function more than 20 years ago, although neither of us remembers too much about it. We sit in the front room and we talk about what it's like for me to be back in Arizona after all this time. I tell him about the trip a bit and he tells me about a recent sabbatical he's taken.

He was born south of here in the border town of Nogales, and has spent his entire life in the state. He talks with real passion about the deeply complex twin culture that has been such a big part of his life. Born on the border, and inhabiting borders of all kind ever since. His poetry is well known, affecting, beautiful. His manner is gentle, sincere, and his responses to the questions are thoughtful.

He tells me about his first poetry, scribbled in the back of his school notebooks. As he recalls it, the only thing the back of the notebook was used for was spitballs and stuff you could write but couldn't show anyone else. He remembers that he was writing for himself then, not for school, not for assignment, not for a grade. It was an important but solitary part of his progress, and he wonders what effect a more organized introduction to poetry might have done to him.

As an important and influential poet, he clearly has had numerous opportunities to go elsewhere, nearer the hubs of publishing and academia, but he's chosen - both consciously and subconsciously, I'd imagine - to stay here, within an easy afternoon drive of his hometown. The Southwest is his place, a place to live and work, but more importantly the place that is inside him and his poetry. As a dedicated wanderer, as someone who believes the "next" place is always to be sought, I find myself deeply envious of Rios as I watch him and Kino go back inside the house.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Wherein the Author Wonders Anon About RV Life (In What May Be Called Part 2 Of That Series) And Also Goes Bold About the New Year

We’re not like the normal RV travelers who surround us in the parks and campgrounds we travel through. What’s been very surprising is the diversity of folks who live – if even for a little while – in big rolling tin cans.

Not surprisingly, retirees make up a good portion of the mix. As we moved south, we found more and more travelers who were full-timers, people who lived mostly year round in their RVs. These folks often are equipped with 35-45 foot Class A rigs, some approaching a half million dollars. But others get by with 40 foot travel trailers (pulled by a ubiquitous Ford 450 truck). These rigs are a lot like our own, but enjoy extra space in the bathrooms and kitchens. The appointments inside the most expensive rigs are a lot like a really nice model home.

But full timers often don’t travel too much. In every park we’ve stayed in, “perms” or permanent residents make up a hefty percentage of the park’s denizens. In some parks, perms take up as much as 70% of the spaces. These are honest to goodness trailers and RVs, but they are usually heavily appointed with built on porches, skirting from the bottom of the rig to the ground, and decorated with plants, bushes, bikes, and garden sheds.

Other full timers will spend months at a time in their favorite spots. They’ll put in 6 months in Yuma, Arizona, or Orange, California, then suddenly pack it all up and head back to the Dakotas for a month to see kids and grandkids, only to head to Florida for a month and then back “home” again in space 41.

Once we got into California – and in small part nearly everywhere – we found many parks where workers of various kinds live in the parks. Sometimes three or four guys will share a small travel trailer. They leave early each morning and arrive late at night, some wearing phone and power company uniforms, some just day laborers. In every park we’ve stayed we’ve seen three or four kids waiting for school buses at the highway feeder.

And not all rigs are like the deluxe version discussed a couple of paragraphs above. Some parks are full of broken down trailers and motorhomes, some 30 years old, many clearly not going anywhere ever again. Rent is cheap in these places, sometimes as low as $10 a night, or $100 a month. When people’s options narrow, RV parks and campgrounds – always with bathrooms, showers, and coin laundries – become homes. Folks struggling to put food on the table for their kids share spaces next to millionaire retirees who might own a stainless steel barbecue on wheels that costs more than the rig of their poorer neighbors three spaces down.

Each park is as different as one can imagine. Typically, state or national parks offer the fewest amenities. You’re lucky if you can get a water line; it’s very rare to have power. But of course, like at the Painted Rock Petroglyph site where we spent New Year’s Eve, your amentities are different, a brilliant star-studded sky, immense and suffocating quiet, the endless desert floor ringed by sharp and pretty hills and mountains. (But god forbid, if you should want to watch Dick Clark’s Rocking New Year Eve, you have to run the damn generator, and generator hours always end at 8 pm!)

The typical RV park is more “RV” and less “park” than we first thought. Some larger parks have 500-1000 spaces. There may be trees dotted through these places, but for the most part they’re parking lots with water and electric stands popping up every few feet. The showers, bathrooms, and laundries are usually in good shape, clean, located well. But it’s not very verdant. It’s a business, obviously, and if you’ve got x amount of space, it makes financial sense to fit as many rigs in as you can. But there’s usually nothing to look at, just endless rows of white rigs.

Other times, however, parks are lush and green, with ample space provided. In Pahrump, NV, we sat alone with grass on one side, a man-made lake on the other, and a picnic bench and barbecue pit alongside. In Clarkston, WA, we stared out over the bank of the Snake River in a park that was immaculate and pretty, and made up of only 50 spaces.

The people are unfailingly friendly – although the “perms” tend to hang with their own a bit, suspicious of day travelers like us who make too much noise getting set up only to unhook the next day and spoil the normal routine.

Everyone has advice about rigs or accessories. Everyone wants to know what you think of your slideouts. A lot of folks just want to look inside. Every conversation ends up being about where you’ve been and where you’re going. You can find one person in any park who knows every single propane stop in the state, or every public dump station. If you say you were in an RV park off the highway in Oregon, someone knows the name, the name of the owner, the fact that the price went up to $12 last year, and whether or not they have space in the summer.

But the daily driver, the day traveler, is rare. Typically, because of our schedule, we’re spending 1-2 nights each place we go.

We arrive midday and pull into our spot. Our routine is set and comfortable. I deal with getting the 30 amp power plugged in – a manly and robust black plug so big and heavy that I feel I might be turning the lights on to a small city somewhere – and my wife connects our water hose. We push buttons inside to operate the slideouts, one the width of our couch that turns the dining room into a dining room and living room, one in the bedroom that gives us walking space all around the queen sized bed. I get the satellite dish up and pointed to the southeast sky. Well, I don’t do anything but press two buttons, but I hear the whirring and know that I’ve made it so.

And we’re home. There’s a soft fabric cover that we connect to snaps that separates the cab of our rig from the back, and once that’s in place we don’t even think about Winnie Cooper (the rig’s long-standing name) as a moving vehicle. We’re home. We cook. We fire the computer up and tell folks where we are. We take a stroll through the park. We peer in at folks playing bingo in a small hall in the park. We might take a shower, do some laundry, and then catch Sex and the City and Soprano’s reruns before going to sleep.

And the next day we will likely unhook it all. We’ll put the power cord back, the water line. We’ll negotiate the necessary but unpleasant task of dumping the contents of our black and grey tanks (huge holding tanks under the vehicle that collect – I know you’re dying to hear this – waste from our toilet, sinks, and shower). After breakfast we get in the cab, check the map, and roll out of one park and onto the highway feeder. We drive slowly at first to make sure stuff is settled and put away. We occasionally jerk to the side when one of us remembers that the all-important satellite dish is up and being torn from the roof because someone – it’s me, obviously – has forgotten to put it down. And then we take the on ramp onto one of the endlessly amazing highways or interstates, and we’re back on the road, always looking, always pushing forward.

And in this way, days have become weeks have become months.

It is 4:45 am as I write this. New Year’s Day 2004. We have crossed over from one year to the next. When the sun went down last night, we cooked dinner, popped a bottle of champagne we’ve been carrying around since early October, and then – under only the light of the half moon – we scoured the sky with our binoculars. Stars upon stars. Countless dots of light, light hurtling at us – like the light of the North Star, for example – sent this direction hundreds and thousands of years ago. And then, like old people all over, no matter the home or location, we turned in early, long before the big ball dropped in NYC or anywhere else. At midnight we were asleep as 2003 clicked off and 2004 began to arrive.

I woke up early, around 4 am. And I began to think about the journey started months ago. The decision to leave our jobs, our home. The mountains, the coast, the desert. Highways. And always lurking, what’s next? What town, what job? This trip is full of things that are named and unnamed. I’m writing a book, looking for a new teaching job. My wife is deciding what’s next for her, a business, back to her career, something else we don’t even know.

Loose ends. The money is disappearing. It’s not an endless supply, I can tell you. I have the small white bank receipts to prove to you that the time is dwindling faster than even I – a noted pessismist – imagined. But we wouldn’t go back now. We wouldn’t turn back for anything. It’s a road that we chose and one we’re going to hurtle down until we finish the journey. When the interviews are over in March, and when we’ve negotiated the rest of the country, I suspect the sadness will be real and overwhelming. The real world will intrude like never before. But there’s time still. Time still to continue the dream.

Just now, the light is appearing in the east, over a hill whose name I do not know. My wife sleeps. I leave Winnie Cooper for a bit. The desert is always cold in morning, but I stand out there for a while anyway. The only sound – I mean the only sound – is the rush of blood in my temples, the sound of my breath. The sound of a new world coming on.