Friday, September 21, 2007

Chief Joseph and Shaka Zulu: The Great Plains September 19, 20, 07

No wonder they call Easterners "effete." Once you cross the Red River (of the North) at Grand Forks you enter the Great Plains and the real West--the Old West of legend and the New West of oil, coal, farming, poverty for some, enormous riches for others--especially corporations. But above all it is a big landscape; bigger than an Easterner can appreciate in "one sitting." As Minnesota's endless trees slowly recede into my rear view mirror I'm confronted by rolling hills and flatland, by the Dakota's proverbial "Big Sky," by a growing sense of loneliness and smallness, the puniness of human effort. But that doesn't stop us. Our dreams and grasp grow to accommodate the landscape. Tractors that I thought large and impressive have grown now to 12 gigantic drive wheels (or often equipped with caterpillar threads), outsized chisel plows, enormous cultivators. Ironically, since most old equipment doesn't get destroyed it remains lying about the farms: many farmers have taken to put the old tiny, steel wheeled gas tractor and equally tiny cultivator on a nearby hillside for all the world to see as we pass in our endless ribbon of cars and trucks on old Rt 2 or the ubiquitous interstates.

Rolls of hay stretch as far as the eye can see; an eastern farmer's best fields and first cutting would only bring a smile to the agriculturist's of the western prairies. Grass is king. Sure they grow sugar beets (the smell is stifling, suffusing the air of East Grand Forks) and corn, wheat, sunflowers (smiling everywhere but at you) soybeans, who knows what else, but they cut and bunch grass--hay--for sale and for the consumption of their cattle. They graze their animals on it and like the grasses of Africa, like the grass dominating the high veldt of central South Africa, grass creates a culture. The African tribes that pushed south onto the rich prairies of today's South Africa, the Zulu, the Xhosa and others all built their cultures around the grazing of cattle. Brides are paid for with cattle or husbands are bought with cattle; a cow is slaughtered to feed the mourners on the death of even the poorest member of the tribal community--and all are invited to come, feast and mourn. The white Afrikaner eats meat: beef and lamb. Like his black (or coloured) native counterpart he or she eats vegetables to provide a momentary respite from more meat. The "Brai," similar to an American barbecue (which Afrikaans laugh at for cooking hot dogs and hamburgers over an open flame), roasts piles of meat: chops, wursts, steaks, legs; slow roasted and skewered over coals lovingly heaped together after a celebratory wait of at least three hours. My friend Harry says that the brai is over once the meat is put on the coals. It is in the waiting that the Afrikaner celebrates his and her victory over the tribes of southern Africa, victory over a landscape every bit as treacherous, dangerous and immense as north America's Great Plains. Like Afrikaners, white Americans also celebrate their victory over the natives that "roamed," that is, grazed their own "cattle" the buffalo from which they also created a culture and way of life rooted (no pun intended) in the enormous landscape dominated by grasses.

It is no inappropriate comparison. The temperate southern part of southern Africa looks like the American West, a rising veltd giving way to the high buttes and arid low mountains of the desert American southwest with the extraordinary Drakenburg Mountains, like the Rockies, looming over both the veldt and (in this case) eastern coast of southern Africa. Both landscapes have eroded out fossils; dinosaur bones continue to come to the surface in the Dakotas and Montana as I found to my delight in Glendive, Montana. In both instances, Afrikaan and American (U.S. Canadian and Mexican), natives "had" to be exterminated or pushed aside; reserves established; cultures twisted into conformity (later I'll devote more time to Shaka Zulu and the native peoples of southern Africa). I ended my day (Wed. 9/19/07) in the rugged badlands of eastern Montana in a wonderful state park, Makoshika State Park in Glendive, Montana--one of 13 stops on Montana's Trail of Dinosaurs. After a nice hike of about a mile I saw my first
fossilized dinosaur remains still encased in the red sandstone that engulfed them 65 million years before. Simply amazing.

After a long ride the next day (Thurs. 9/20/07) across these same prairies of central and western Montana, I was compelled to stop to visit the Museum housing many of the remnants of the Battle of the Bear's Paw (mountains). The battle marks the end of the "roaming' of the Nez Perce people and their eventual confinement to the "res." Chief Joseph's haunting words of surrender speak for natives' worldwide:

"Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead.

Tu-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Here me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever." (Found many places but see Friends of Bear Paw, Big Hole & Canyon Creek Battlefields)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Long Lake: Hubbard, Minn. Tues., 09. 18, 07

Left logging country--Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox Country--this morning; turned south off Rt 2 heading back in time to visit my Grandfather Neal and Grandmother Elsie's small resort on the east bank of Long Lake in Hubbard County MN. I only visited my grandparents there twice, each time for a single week long after I was an adult. My biological parents were divorced when I was two or three and I lost contact with my father Bud's parents--my grandparents--until I was twenty one. years old In the next ten years or so I was fortunate enough to visit Elsie and Neal near the village of Hubbard at their small resort (their home and 7 tiny cottages on stilts) on Long Lake.

I headed there this morning, drifting south about 150 miles from Rt 2, out of logging country into a mixture of farming and small resorts--lots of wild rice and fishing but like most of rural America, more and more decay and decline. I seem to find the old place easily, turning off the main highway onto East Lake Road and suddenly saw my grandparents turnoff. The old garden, so carefully nurtured by Neal and Elsie, was still there at the top of the hill but now just a pitiful remnant of its former glory. All the carefully tended raspberry bushes were gone, the gentle slope that carried the sheep manure mixed with water to the root crops and tomatoes also long gone. Now, on both sides of the old place were new large "camps" typical of the American excesses of recent years--"camps:" really fully insulated houses out sized and out of place for the forested lake shores they now dominate. Neal and Elsie's place was still there-a little run down--but still much the same as I remembered it from a more idyllic time.

Finding no one to speak with, I turned north first going into Hubbard looking for the village coffee shop--long gone--another casualty of the decline of rural America. Glad to be moving again, I now found myself in country quickly opening up, larger and certainly more prosperous farms--the Red River Valley --deep black soil, flat land, easy to cultivate; made difficult only by the enormous acreage each farmer and his family has to contend with. Enormous tractors, plows, implements: fields of sugar beets, wheat, sunflowers, corn and field after field full of round bales of hay. Only the high veldt of South Africa compares in my own experience, although the similar pampas of Argentina and Brazil are equally productive I'm sure.

A brief but wonderful lunch at Whitey's--founded as a speakeasy by Whitey Larson in the early 1920s--let me revel in the fabulous art deco of the period, so wonderfully preserved in Whitey's, East Grand Forks, Minnesota. The original Whitey's building was lost to the horrifying flood of 1997--6 feet of water in the restaurant--but the new owner, Greg Stennes, lovingly took it apart and put the original magnificent glass and neon back into a new building. Try the famous onion rings washed down with a good beer on tap drawn from the taps in the original magnificent art deco "Wunderbar" built by Whitey himself all those long, exciting, prohibition years ago.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Must Be Crazy

I'm too tired to write much tonight; I'm holed up in a clean if cheap room in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Terrific thunderstorm with hail and ferocious lighting. Glad to get in. Long tiring day but more anxious and even scared than exhilarated. After driving down around the top of Lake Michigan I arrived at my dear friends, Ann and Rod's house in Neenah Wisconsin several days ago--Thursday afternoon. The upper peninsula, UP, of Michigan is a long stretch of nearly barren road in the Hiawatha National Forest--today much of it is logged and the few houses one passes have logging trucks or skidders in the yard. The few restaurants and motels are mostly struggling to survive--and mostly failing at that. once one turns south along the beautiful lake suddenly the human geography changes from poverty and extractive industry to manicured lawns, expensive homes looking out on to the lake and the wealth that is middle America today. instead of logging trucks and scattered farms one encounters Hummers and the usual assortment of chains that past for most of America today. Why would anyone buy a Hummer for God's sake? I'm even afraid to give this question much thought.

Still, there are small towns that hint at an earlier America: bucolic Neenah is pretty neat all over even though there are working class neighborhoods and quite a few real factories still producing real products. Downtown Neenah has the usual assortment of small retail shops and restaurants owned by local people and hanging on for dear life. Ann, Rod and I went to my favorite: Zacatecas owned by Ruben Hernandez, MaryLou Hernandez and their son Ruben Jr. Wow--what a great place to eat. Fabulous salsa, hot chillies and terrific combinacion platters. Like so much of the Midwest today the Hernandez's came to Neenah a few years ago bringing new tastes and, at least for some, a welcomed diversity. Sadly, some midwestern Americans whose parents and grandparents arrived from Germany and Scandinavia a scant generation or two ago now don't want to make a little room for newer immigrants but the Hernandez's are hard working folks who have built a wonderful restaurant and business in the part of Neenah most vulnerable to decline. I'll post a few pictures when I can get my pictures downloaded.

I have to admit that on my way out of town I stopped for coffee at Starbucks happy to find their great flavors there but a little embarrassed that I wasn't giving my business to a local coffee shop on Main Street instead at the interstate exit. Rt. 41 took me north a short way to the rural farms now of central, north central Wisconsin. Hundreds of old barns litter the landscape--almost all in some state of decay. The rural land remains, but the once tiny farms are almost all gone, the farmers working in nearby cities or trying to farm their few acres sometimes producing cabbages, pumpkins, anything but the proud dairy farms they once were.

Tomorrow, the Great Northern Woods and the magnificent Muskie fishing of northern Wisconsin. I must be crazy to be doing this--gas prices are unbearable and the old $35 motel is almost gone the way of the little farms, collapsed barns and empty silos; not sure how Americans make a living today but a drive through the upper midwest is pretty devoid of farmers, factory workers, and miners. Every little coffee shop, restaurant, motel that does live on has its own collection of photos of past endeavors--working men and women whose day has come and gone.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sudbury to Lake Huron

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pretty amazing day. With two choices to turn out of the motel in Deep River this morning, I went East. After 9 kilometers I regained my senses, turned around and headed West. Spectacular country: the Near North of Ontario along Rt 17, the King's Highway, is vivid, deep greens, splashed with crystal blue lakes and small ponds, predominately pines and softwoods, endlessly fascinating. Naturally, the logging trucks and trains with cars specially developed for carrying logs can be found here and there on the landscape but without the sense of violence one feels in Oregon and Washington passing mountain sides completely clearcut. The off road reality might be different, but its impossible to see very far into the dense forest cover. The Canadian Shield of bedrock to the surface is much in view the entire length of the 300 miles or so I drove today. With glaciation and thin soils, bed rock is exposed almost everywhere--fascinating for the geologist and the interested layman like myself.

Lunch found me in North Bay, larger version of the smaller towns and villages along the route, but nestled against Lake Nipissing where I found the most amazing hamburger joint. Hamburger World lived up to its billing. Packed with local folks taking a break from there work , lined 6-8 deep to order the one young man at the flaming grill was yelling orders and his assistants were jumping to bring more plates, more burgers, more fries, more everything. the resulting cheese burger with the works: relish, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, dill pickles sliced thin and longways, hot peppers, ketchup and mustard was fantastic. Sensibly, if stupidly, I ordered a single when i saw the triple burgers! going out I was envious! I beat it before I succumbed to temptation.

Sudbury helped to suppress my appetite. Nickel and copper have been dug from the rocks here for a long while, smelting, with the largest smokestack in the western hemisphere (once the largest on earth if memory serves me), has spread toxic wastes mostly acid for miles to the east--reaching just to the western outskirts of North Bay. With each passing mile the once beautiful landscape becomes bleaker; the trees more stunted, white birches all broken at the tops more and more exposed black rock. I first passed through Sudbury on my way back to teaching at the University of North Dakota, then it was an absolute nightmare--no vegetation to speak of at all--just soils of a gray clay; no trees and a landscape more akin to the moon. Today its much better thanks to the environmental concerns raised by young people and others following the first Earth Day in the early 1970s.

Immediately to the west of Sudbury the landscape shows little ill effects of the acid that follows the prevailing winds to the East. In a few miles, Rt 17 intersects the North Channel of Lake Huron at a place called Spanish. From here to Thessalon, where I'm staying the night, Rt 17 traces its way along the shore of the lake; here and there one is offered glimpses of extraordinary natural beauty. The day, after yesterday's rains, is cold with blustery winds but incredibly bright and sunny. A great day for traveling through the past and present of Ontario. Rt 17 as it winds its way up from Ottawa is also following the Ottawa River for several hundred miles the path of choice for the Voyagers including Samuel D. Champlain who traversed much of the distance by canoe that I followed in my trusty old car today. Was a nice day. See you tomorrow.

On The Road, September 12, 2007

Swept up in the euphoria of the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Jack Kerouac's On The Road I, in a crazed moment, began preparations to drive alone in my new (well, new to me) dark gray--sort of blue--1997 Toyota Camry from Plattsburgh on the shores of beautiful Lake Champlain to California and back. I awoke yesterday feeling a mixture of dread and excitement. Mostly, I ws totally unprepared, practicing lifelong habits of not planning ahead too much. Not sure i understand this part of me: I find myself usually responding to the newest alteration--sometimes crisis--in my plans and that seems to almost always work out for me--anyway, thats the pattern of a lifetime probably too late to change but not too late to reflect on it. I've come to distrust "planning." I mean we need to do something like it but most plans seem to go awry, at best and at worst create chaos if we call them ideology or build our institution's secure future on them. Iraq is another example of the same mix of ideological zealotry (neocons and Bush) and, in this case, weird planning. Somehow believing that government has no role in the life of a society or nation, that after you decapitate the leadership and then fire all the police, army and most of the civil servants the civil state will pick itself up, hold elections and rebuild a nation state--truly amazing. Rumsfeld, Chaney and Bush clung to that plan until Iraq settled back into tribalism and anarchy.

So, how did my day go: lack of planning didn't help much either--total chaos. The "last minute" purchases--battery for the camera, bulb for the overhead light in trusty car, and worse, trying to fix the "check engine light" create endless frustration, I agonized as nothing went "as planned." Finally, at 2 pm I set out from the burgh, just happy to be on the road and Free like JK. Stopped to take a few pictures of the amazing windpower plants--windmills--now growing out of the farmer's fields of northern NY--now this is a real crop for which each farmer who allows one of these enormous futuristic corn stalks to be planted is paid a handsome sum.

After missing the turnoff to the cross border bridge at Cornwall, retracing my steps I began to relax, the gale force winds were a little tough and the sheets of rain were blinding but still i was underway and beginning to enjoy my adventure. Relaxing best by chewing on sunflower seeds I immediately broke my front tooth on a freaking sunflower seed shell. I'm sorry i just have to say fuck man. How could this happen. I've had this front tooth on-a-post for years it must have withstood far worse than this puny sunflower but maybe this is true sunpower. Anyway, I heard "crack" and knew it wasn't a minor matter. Well it is broke but thankfully stayed in place and even better doesn't hurt--yet. Any kid raised in the 50s knows that what follows cracking sounds in his mouth is--pain--not from the tooth--from the dentist. Nothing in a long life of pain and sorrows is worse than the dread of going to the dentist in 1955! Good God! Shit! The drills were driven by little beltlike rubber bans; as the dentist applied pressure to drill the damn things slowed down to a crawl and smoke and steam came from your mouth. If you moved or tried to cry out he only increased the pressure and nicked you to make sure you stayed immobile. Then, out came the "shot" oh my god , he tried to hide it but any kid knew what was coming: with gigantic needles three times the size of today's little gentle pins these things were like nails --it was better to let him drill without the novocaine than endure the pain of the shot--well a slight exaggeration but not by much.

Oh well, about to start day two of my big adventure. After the tooth debacle I made it to a little town called Deep River in southern Ontario--careful planning made sure that I got the last bed to be found in a 100 kilometer radius of the Canadian military base at Petawawa. My goal--what a fanciful word--my goal for today is to make it to a little town on Lake Huron, Thessalon where i intend to eat white fish (avoiding biting in the front) and enjoy the amazing scenery including the recovering landscape downwind from Sudbury's nickel mining and smelting.