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Archive for June, 2021

As world leaders, including President Biden, finished their G-7 meeting in Cornwall yesterday, I was reminded of another leave-taking from the same place. In the unseasonably warm October of 2014, Wanderland Writers left their residences and the gardens and grounds of Tregenna Castle after a wonderful workshop in Cornwall. I was the last to leave St. Ives and made one return trip to the castle, and felt acutely the magic of that “Riviera” of England, with its palm trees and surfers, as well as the mystery and grit of that land of ancient standing stones. I also felt the melancholy of leave-taking when perhaps one’s business is unfinished and wrote this poem. I wonder if those world leaders experienced any of the same emotions.

Tregenna

                                        Last Climb Up Tregenna Hill

                                      Out of synch, out of season, summer sun

                                          on the summer sea. October and I am

                                          running up

                                          for one forgotten thing

                                          I still cannot remember.

                                          Was it my words?

                                          Fern paths, palm trees, golf grass green

                                          as winter in a greedy land,

                                          I pause, wanting breath,

                                          wanting what I have come

                                          for up this stony path. 

                                          But my companions are not here.

                                          Gone as ghosts, the writers,

                                          the breeze wiped clean of their

                                          laughter, their stories, their laments.

                                          Gone Linda beneath the faded lamplight

                                          In the cottage of the weeping stone.

                                          Gone myself.

                                          Inside the stone-walled castle

                                          wedding revelers dance,

                                          but I am not invited.

                                          Now a stranger here,

                                          I look only for what is lost.

                                          The wind strikes noon;

                                          my blood turns.

                                          Alone

                                         in this moment

                                         I freeze in the sun

                                         and fear

                                         that,

                                         on the great mossy green,

                                         without

                                         what I have come for,

                                          I will become

                                          the last stone standing.

                                              –Joanna Biggar–

                          From: Wandering in Cornwall: Mystery, Mirth and Transformation in the Land of Ancient Celts, Wanderland Writers, Oakland, CA, 2015;  image by hospitality interiors               

                                   

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 With a salute to the king of the road-trip genre, William Least Heat Moon, I offer a glimpse not so much of a trip as a drive-by. Doug and I were on a mission to deliver a car in a few short days from Las Vegas to Tampa. We did linger a bit in the dazzling red rock territory of N. Arizona and longed to explore the surreal landscapes and sites of New Mexico.

But mostly we clung to that universal, monotonous, and generic space, the highway, to skate across as quickly as possible, and occasionally to get off to peek into the “real world.” Also to try to find real food and possibly a real place to stay. These exits were like a series of vignettes giving us tantalizing hints at the country we were crossing.

The gorgeous rock formations and dramatic skies of the Southwest gave way to a different terrain in the Texas Panhandle and Western Oklahoma, and not one I was expecting nor remembered from my travels through there decades earlier. Instead of the dry, endless scrub (that would come later)

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the land looked fertile, green, cultivated and full of wind farms. But Texas gave off an air of prosperity that Oklahoma did not.

In one of our off-highway excursions we went in search of a non-fast-food meal. We scoured three Oklahoma towns with promising signs, found places full of farm equipment and boarded up businesses, and even McDonald’s that were closed—or open only for drive-through. We both agreed we preferred hunger. In one town, we actually found local café with comfy chairs and a promise of a bakery. When we got out of the car, a woman came out to tell us they, too, had closed and to look down the street for an open restaurant. There was none. An open McDonald’s became our new gold standard.

When we could see it, we loved watching the changing architecture, too. From the grace of pueblo-influenced Spanish and Mexican style buildings and squares in the Southwest

to the crab-shack style along the rivers and bayous of Louisiana and Mississippi, to, of course, the ubiquitous plantation-style all through the South these buildings seemed vignettes in themselves. In the tour books (including AAA!) I have been reading, none has mentioned slavery.

As this trip was inevitably seen through the lens of others decades in the past, it is perhaps worth mentioning what we did not see: “coloreds-only” signs for restaurants, drinking fountains, motels and campgrounds. We did not see Confederate statues, flags, symbols or iconography. Nor did we fear getting run out of town for being outside agitators, as Bob Biggar and I had been from Philadelphia, Miss., by the infamous Sheriff Rainey in 1965; nor were there signs about the dangerous Communist leader Martin Luther King as a greeting to Mobile, Alabama.

What we did find, and is one of our favorite off-road experiences, was the Crab Shack in Dixie Inn, in the general region of Minden La., beyond Shreveport. 

A true Cajun haven, we were served by a blue-eyed young woman who spoke in cadences of Zydeco; the cook was black, some of the customers white, but most either black or mixed-race Native Americans, and one woman distinctly Vietnamese. Everywhere the plates were huge: platters of boiled crayfish, steamed crabs, shrimp of every variety, to say nothing of blackened catfish, fries, hush puppies, po-boys of all descriptions, and underpinning it all, andouille, rice and beans. Doug with his Southern roots was in heaven. We finally stumbled out, having to hit the road again, but visited a convenience store first. It was run by a Sheikh; they seem to be numerous in the region.

The hundreds of miles east across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama featured long corridors of often empty roads (parallel to the highways which the GPS advised us to ditch) lush with frequent rain (a shock to our drought-fearing sensibilities) and lined with mixed forests of pine and magnolia.

Modest houses, often mobile homes, were tucked beneath the overhanging trees. And even these back roads were in such good condition that the pot holes of Oakland stood out in sorry contrast.

Still in off-road mode, Doug booked us into a cottage, The Cottage, behind a house in Brandon, Miss., just beyond Jackson. It was very well-appointed and decorated with ubiquitous American flags. The couple who owned it—she a city council member, he a member of the National Guard who often deployed overseas—spoke in that inimitable Southernese with its soft vowels and “Yes Ma’am, and No Sirs.” The lady of the house recommended we not visit Jackson. Too dangerous, she said. Doug also found the sign to the turnoff for the town’s Confederate statue, but we declined the visit. The thing that still rattles me, however, was the tribute everywhere to the late Ross Barnett (a notorious racist leader back in the day) and the signage pointing out the reservoir named to honor him.

What to make of all this as we skate into Florida, another country entirely? On the surface, which is all we saw, the territory we traversed seems a better, more equitable and prosperous place than it did years and decades ago. On the other hand, we are all still shocked and imprinted with the images of Jan. 6th, its Confederate flags, its Proud Boys, and our Security reports that tell us the main threat to our country now is that of white supremacy. I rode over those highways with the words of Heather Cox Richardson’s book, How the South Won the Civil War, looping through my mind. In all its beauty and complexity, with its enormous claims on our past and our future, it deserves a closer and more thoroughly Blue Highways look.

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