Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Rest of the Story

Cedar Springs, Michigan

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Paul Harvey, that folksy beloved right-wing radio geezer-icon, used to do a show called The Rest of the Story. It featured looks at mysterious or obscure aspects of commonly-known stories of famous people and events. Old Paul was on the radio so long that he outlived a couple of generations of listeners. I remember my grandfather listening to Paul's jingoistic version of reality back in the '50s, and assumed he was old back then, since grandpa was old. Maybe it was also that creepy, creaky timbre his voice had even when he was relatively young. Paul Harvey died last year at 91, an age many thought he had attained long since, having become, over more than half a century, a sort of animated rendition of the Reader's Digest--an American version of the Word Become Flesh if ever there was one.

All that has nothing to do with the rest of my trip, except for the coincidence of the name I chose for this entry. I left readers hanging in the middle of Nebraska, that vast and uneventful chunk of land in the center of the country. On the final day I traversed Nebraska and Iowa, merging onto what might be the most tedious route in the country, or at least in the midwest--Interstate 80 across northern Illinois from the quad cities to Indiana, then the familiar but equally boring I-94 and I-196 in Michigan.

Did my heart leap up when I reentered the Great Lake State? Of course I was happy to be home and reunited with Laurine, but I must say that this state as a destination or a choice of a place to live leaves me cold. During my absence I tried to muster wistful memories of my home state, something that would make me say to myself as I passed the welcome sign, "Ah yes, Pure Michigan." Nothing doing. In fact, I didn't miss it at all. More than that, as I thought back over sixty years I had to admit I've never really liked Michigan very much. It's possible that I'm incapable of attaching myself emotionally to a spot on the map. But I'm not so sure about that. Much of the west is beautiful and alluring, as is New England, where I resided for many years. No, I think Michigan itself produces the geographic ennui I'm feeling. But on the positive side, at least it isn't Nebraska or Iowa.

One bright spot during my last day of driving was an hour-long detour into the Nebraska capital. I try to tour statehouses when I can. They're open to the public and usually contain a surprise or two. In Lincoln is one of the most interesting capitols going. Built in the 1920s in the grand and muscular art deco-influenced style I love, this building isn't the usual imitation of the U.S. Capitol, but a small skyscraper, rising fourteen stories out of a block-square granite base, topped with a small gold dome and a statue.

Inside and out it is reminiscent of a secular synagogue, devoid of religious icons but reaching mightily toward the sky in a salute to the gods of justice, democracy, and good government we used to revere in this country before our eyes were dimmed by the cataracts of religious fundamentalism and before we commenced our unabashed worship of capitalism. The arched hallways of the interior, rising three stories and covered with murals and stained glass windows above mosaic-tiled floors, are filled with a combination of sinewy Romanesque personifications of civic virtues and more modern depictions of the great natural and human resources of the Cornhusker State. Standing in the midst of all this it's possible to breathe in the vapors of the national mood that gave birth to the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center in New York, the Fisher Building in Detroit, and many others. As a nation our aspirations certainly overreached our realities, especially in the area of civil rights, but the very fact that we chose to showcase our ideals rather than just our tawdry lust for money bespoke a different set of priorities, at least for the common man.

Of course I visited the locus of the nation's only unicameral legislature, which is housed in the old state senate chamber. It wasn't until the 1930s that Nebraska adopted one-house, nonpartisan rule, so there's still a state house of representatives chamber, now used as an auditorium. Having spent my career working for states, and the latter part of it interpreting and administering the newly-minted products of the state legislature, I can't overstate my contempt for the citizen lawmakers who inhabit these chambers. Words like moron, nitwit, scallywag, blowhard, and poltroon come readily to mind, but don't really describe the combination of ignorance, ambition, and puffery that prevails inside these chambers when they're open for business. Imagine Ted Knight from the Mary Tyler Moore Show being in charge of the government and you begin to get the picture. So the idea of having a one-house parttime state legislature consisting of only 49 persons seems eminently sensible to me, or at least a step in the right direction.

I wouldn't recommend a trip to Nebraska for the express purpose of seeing the capitol in Lincoln, but if, God help you, you're there on business, by all means drop in.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


North Platte, Nebraska

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

This morning as I drove north out of Moab, Utah I was convinced that I was in the midst of the most beautiful mountain scenery I was likely to see on this trip. But as I hopped on the interstate and headed east into Colorado it was obvious that the Kodak moments weren't over. For this comparative flatlander it was hard to resist stopping every ten miles or so to take pictures, even when I realized that at some point all these photos were going to look pretty much alike.

Then I drove through Denver, and things began to change dramatically. Suddenly I wasn't in the Rocky Mountains any more. As they receded in my rear view mirror I was greeted by low hills and plowed fields and the overwhelming stench of manure. I'd gone from beauty to bullshit in a matter of a few miles. What a comedown, literally and figuratively. I thought about the hundreds of miles of driving I had ahead of me through terrain that was, if anything, even less attractive than this. My impulse was to turn around.

People don't write songs about Nebraska, nor should they. To tell you the truth, certain people shouldn't have written songs about the Rocky Mountains, either, but they did, and I guess their exuberance was understandable.

Now I'm in the middle of a state that has only one thing to distinguish it as far as I know. Well, two. The country's only unicameral legislature and a pretty damn good college football team. That just doesn't seem like enough.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Uranium and Cigarettes

Moab, Utah

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Coming up through the Navajo reservation, which is mostly in the northeast corner of Arizona but also spills into Utah a little, I was convinced that the Indians had the best scenery all to themselves. But Utah is no slouch when it comes to photo opportunities.

I said southern California looked familiar, but it turns out this spot is almost as much so. With its red rocks, snow-capped mountains, and natural bridge formations, southeastern Utah has been used in movies for years. The director John Ford first filmed Stagecoach near Monument Valley in 1939, then did several more around Moab, including Rio Grande, in 1950. If you saw Thelma and Louise or Once Upon a Time in the West or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or City Slickers II, you saw Moab. And also The Greatest Story Ever Told, which is either about Jesus or the invention of Viagra.

The real boom took place when they started mining uranium here for nuclear bombs and electricity in the 50s, and Moab began to call itself "The Uranium Capital of the World." Not sure that's what I'd want my town to be famous for, but there it is. Then those pinko wide-eyed one worlders and tree huggers started scaling back the weapons and power plants and the radioactive bubble burst. Now Moab is back to trading on its scenery.

In terms of media exposure, perhaps the most familiar images of the Moab area are from the Marlboro Man advertising campaign. It was here that the rugged cowboy, astride his horse, paused to survey the breathtaking scenery and light a smoke. For a whole generation of TV watchers this was cigarette central, and the theme from The Magnificent Seven was the musical accompaniment to pure rich tobacco pleasure.

When the town was first settled back in the last quarter of the 1800s and given the name Moab, some folks objected because in the Bible the city of Moab was known for incest and idolatry. Feathers were ruffled and petitions were signed. Evidently, though, the cooler heads of the golden calf worshippers and sister rapers prevailed, and the name stayed the same.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

No Past Necessary

Flagstaff, Arizona

Monday, May 3, 2010

Spent three days in Palm Springs, California, then over to the Los Angeles area and after that a quick stop in Las Vegas. Each state deserves its own blog entry, but things are moving too fast for that.

I'd like to thank Uncle Ed for his Palm Springs hospitality. Besides showing me around the city, he took me out to the Salton Sea and up into the mountains to a town called Idyllwild.

If you're famous in Palm Springs, when you die they name a street after you. I got off the freeway onto Gene Autry Trail in the middle of a dust storm. On the way in I passed Dinah Shore Boulevard and Bob Hope Road. In Palm Springs and all the neighboring municipalities along California 111--Palm Desert, Cathedral City, Ranch Mirage and so on--the motto is Live Long, Play Golf, and Die, sort of a riff on the Vulcan benediction from Star Trek. In fact, driving along i11 is sort of a star trek of its own. Surrounded by mountains.

There's something about Southern California that an outsider can't put his finger on. Not that there are anything but outsiders there. Or rather, insiders who came from somewhere else. It would take about a week and a half to fit in as if one had been born there. No past necessary. I've lived in places where you don't officially belong unless you've been in town for five generations. Not in California. No accents to speak of, no traditions to uphold, no mysteries to penetrate. Just get in your car and hop on the freeway and drive. Get there, get out, and stay.

Maybe it's the feeling you get that you've been there already, all your life. In the movies and on TV. With the Lone Ranger and Tonto and John Wayne in the dusty desert back lots, with Sean Penn and Robert Duvall in the hot ghetto streets of LA, with Eric Estrada on the endless miles of crowded highways, with Jed Clampett and Granny in the terraced hills of Beverly.

A twisted two hundred fifty miles to the northeast, past arid mountainsides and flat empty deserts, lies Las Vegas, the strangest city in America. There's no excuse for it, really, especially now that there are Indian casinos in every corner of every state. But it keeps getting bigger and more bizarre and outdoing itself for unmitigated tastelessness year after year. This is a city that simply could not have been imagined by the likes of Nero and Caligula and one that would have seemed like a fond pipe dream to the denizens of Sodom and Ninevah. Beside the gluttonous and greedy neon and steel of the Vegas strip Walt Disney's goofy imaginings look trite and amateurish and comparatively classy. Illegals stand on the sidewalks handing out cards advertising call girls. Senior citizens with walkers pump Social Security money into slot machines. Vacationing middle Americans galumph through the streets sipping brewskis and looking for the next buffet. Las Vegas is a city that celebrates shlocky former boy sopranos, louche German animal tamers, washed up comedians. And of course Elvis. Elvis the bloated, the purple, the dead on the toilet. Michael Jackson's death was the perfect career move for him, Vegaswise. He's just getting warmed up.

Having said all that I hasten to add that I had a great time in Las Vegas. I met Laurine, who was there on a business trip, and daughter Katie. We stayed in a modest suite in the Venetian, which was only about the size of a small Cambodian village. And I won more than I lost in the casinos.

After all that the utter practicality of the Hoover Dam seemed trivial. Hydroelectric power? Is that all? No gambling? No decadence? I slipped over it and out of Nevada and up into the mesas of Arizona and it was like shutting the door on a frat party and walking over to an ivy-covered library. Quiet and meaningful and clean, at least by comparison.