This year we’re staying on the beach in Michigan. Last year, we were in the woods. I was an artist in residence in the Porcupine Mountains. Here’s an edited version of the journal I kept — yes, journal not a blog.We didn’t even have running water, let alone Internet — that was part of the Walden-esque story. I donated this text to the Friends of the Porkies, the organization that runs the AIRP. Though I keep thinking I should try to get it published — suggestions?
Monthly Archives: July 2010
I may hate camping, but I love the sound of Lake Superior waves hitting the shore mere yards from my bed. This spot of land in the Upper Peninsula — barely half an acre, no house, a dirt road, but 97 feet of beach frontage — is the place to which I feel most connected. It’s where I’ve spent summers since I was younger than Cole (though at least we had a trailer). Bud was born and raised in this neck of the woods (literally), as were his daughters. And Cole, too, comes into himself when his feet hit that sand.
Our days in Waupaca were restricted by rain. That allowed us to fully enjoy the addition and renovation to John and Judy’s “cabin,” which is bigger than most houses. Particularly lovely was the screened-in porch. Screened porches are one of the finer things in the world, and if Bud and I ever do build here — which I swear we will — a screened porch we will have. The best part of the trip was playing “Oh Hell.” Cole’s number smartness makes him good at cards. He loves playing with his uncles. As soon as they arrived, Cole grabbed Paul’s hand and led him down to the pond. Otis, the otter-dog, saw the water and promptly jumped in, not realizing it was green muck. My brother helped my son excavate dinosaur bones out of plaster and then assemble the T. Rex; I remember Brett patiently gluing together models when we were kids.
Waupaca’s turning into a cool little town, with nice, if a bit pricey, stores on Main Street. I coveted many items at a place called Panache, settled on some hip socks (damn travel budget). Gotta love a downtown centered around a library with farmers selling fresh produce on the weekends. We bought lots of meat — summer sausage, kielbasa, even oxtail — at Niemuth’s, the German meat shop that’s packed Saturday mornings. We celebrated both Judy’s and John’s birthdays. Congrats on the first three quarters of the century, Dad.
I feel lucky that my parents are doing relatively well healthwise. For the first time I can recall, our old, close childhood friends the Von Eschens are not at their Lake cabin this summer. Liz is in the late stages of a cancer she has battled for two years. They are like a second family for me, and I’m heartbroken for them. So while the lake water is about the warmest I ever remember it being and sparkling clear, a bald eagle flew past yesterday, and the wild raspberries are ripe, this stay feels all wrong, like the fabric of my life here has been irreparably torn.
The rows of white gravestones ripple like ribbons across the green hammocks. The Lebanon National Cemetery in Kentucky was officially founded in 1867. Two-hundred-and-eighty-three stones have no names, only numbers — unknown soldiers of the Civil War found their final resting place here. In section 1, site 2B, my grandmother Guyla Harrod shares the earth with her husband, Arthur. A few sections away lie Aunt Louise and Uncle Proctor. They were the only other women in my mom’s family, and I finally paid my respects to them yesterday morning.
Mama, as everyone knew my grandmother, was a 20th century American matriarch. As a young woman she sewed bathing suits at a factory; she survived breast cancer; she rolled cigarettes in a little handheld machine; and every Christmas she watched It’s a Wonderful Life. When I was a teenager, once a week I used to bring Kentucky Fried Chicken to her apartment in a retirement home in downtown Beloit, and we’d have dinner together. She grew up in Colonel Sanders territory, and the greasy fast food provided a taste of home. She died several years later. Although she was the grandparent I knew and loved the most, I didn’t make it to her funeral. Two decades later I finally said goodbye.
I brought Mama a box of KFC and some flowers. “Mom’s got allergies!” Cole shrieked as he saw me tearing up as I laid them down — apparently this is what they say on The Suite Life when Zach or Cody cry. I think Mama would like Cole, wild though he can be. He’s definitely got a streak of the frontiersman in him, Daniel Boone if not James Harrod.
I’ve never spent much time in Kentucky, but my family roots here are deep — James Harrod founded Harrodsburg, the first US town west of the Appalachians. We’re some sort of descendant of his. Not too far down these country roads, one of the greatest Americans ever was born. Cole explained who Abraham Lincoln was as we drove by his birthplace and childhood home and stopped at the Lincoln Museum: “He made it so the white people stop treating the black people badly.” Pretty close for a second grader.
I’m traveling through my past. We stopped in Oak Park, Illinois, to visit my old college-friend Yasmina, whom I haven’t seen in a couple decades. Her beauty is completely untouched by the years, and she lives in an amazing brick Prairie-style home with her lawyer husband and two children. The house was designed by Tallmadge and Watson; Bud and I were in envy of its hard-wood and leaded-glass fixtures. Then we climbed back in our van and drove through the night to Beloit, Wisconsin — the city where I grew up.
Yesterday we had lunch with my old childhood friend Mary, who looks ever more willowy and has a vise-like memory of our past. Then it was back on the Wisconsin highways to Waupaca, where my dad and his wife have doubled their “cabin,” and where we’re celebrating her birthday today, and Dad’s upcoming 75th in August. My brothers are here, it’s raining out, and everyone is doing their own thing: Cole watching TV, Paul making a puzzle, Bud looking at wood, John and Judy looking for a missing coat hanger, and me, typing.
I hate camping. We’ve been on the road a month now, and I have to admit it. Okay, maybe not all of camping. Just the part where you try to sleep on the ground and not get eaten by bugs, freeze, or bake in a plastic sauna. Beds. And roofs. I like beds with roofs over them.
We had a particularly miserable experience our first night back on the road. We stayed outside Savannah at Skidaway Island State Park, a swamp and woods barrier island between the Intracoastal and Atlantic. We got refused from the RV resort where we had made reservations when they saw our van and declared it “not an RV” — i.e., too white trash. The park was much nicer anyway: Giant oaks draped in Spanish moss amid palmetto-studded marshes. We rode our bikes through the trees, stopping at an observation deck overlooking the sprawling spillway. The ground was literally crawling with crabs; Cole scampered after them ecstatically.
The campground was only half full and we had plenty of room. Miraculously, there were no mosquitoes. It was a perfectly lovely experience — until, as it got darker, the hot, humid, Southern summer air just got heavier and stiller. If you moved a muscle, you sweated. Even with all the windows open, the tent condensed the heat.
Now, Cole is a hothead, literally and figuratively. He burns off so much energy in his sleep that his hair curls with sweat. He was miserable. Tossing, turning, moving off the air mattress to sleep on the cooler floor, clinging to me in despair, pushing me off as an added heat source. After hours of this, I finally took us to the van, turned the key, and we slept with the engine running and the blessed AC on. Ah, the great outdoors.
Admittedly, we’re traveling in epic heat. We drove to Savannah in the morning. I’d been foretold of the beauty of its canopied squares and grand 19th century houses. But what I loved was the riverfront, with its old brick buildings and trolley tracks. I felt like I was in Europe. Cole was enthralled by a busker’s “Amazing Grace” and watched another street vendor weave a flower out of palm grass. But it was too hot to move, too hot to leave the cat in the van. So we appreciated this American gem from the vehicle windows and vowed to return one day — but maybe not during the summer.
The city and the highways were packed with travelers. It was absolute madness at the Pilot gas station/McDonald’s on Highway 26. We saw two different crushed, overturned vehicles on the road to Asheville. Lives crumpled in a second.
How different our stay Sunday night was: An entire guest house to ourselves in the woods outside of Asheville. We stayed with the photographer and journalist Michael Carlebach and architect Margot Ammidown — two other Miami refugees, what the locals here call “Floridiots.” Wild turkeys roam outside and there was bear scat on the door sills. Paleface got to go outside for the first time in more than a week. Cole slept in as the rain came down on the tin roof. Ah, a roof, a bed, and the woods.
The mountains here are so different from out west: lushly soft and green, not rocky and arid. The Smokys lived up to their name, draped with mist as we drove up to them on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We stopped by a river in Smokyy Mountain National Park, had lunch, and went swimming. The Smokys has butterflies like Skidaway has crabs: the air danced with purple, blue, and yellow wings.
Then, the second we left the park, we were in hell. Gatlinburg is the epitome of a tourist trap: You’re immediately and irreparably ensnared in its mile upon mile of T-shirt stores, ice cream parlors, wax museums, miniature golf courses, motels, hotels, etc. My “favorite” was Cooter’s, the Dukes of Hazzard Museum — go-carts also. Tourists cross the street like wannabe death-race victims — hard to resist the urge. Just when you think you’ve escaped, you drive into Pigeon Fork: More cheap, plastic commercial hawkery. One mall of fleeting entertainments had as its centerpiece a giant “Jesus Saves” sign. A more honest billboard would have read, “Jesus Spends.”
Day 27 (July 15)
Had one last great meal in Miami: Lunch at Michael’s Genuine Food and Drinks. Pizza with shrimp and chorizo, a handmade soda with cherry syrup and a sprig of rosemary, and for dessert, not just my favorite of all time: the chocolate cremoso with sea salt and sourdough crostini, but also popcorn ice cream. Sounds strange, but was light and rich and sweet. Michael Schwartz deserves his James Beard award and more. I got a sneak peek at his forthcoming recipe book; I recommend you preorder it now at Amazon.
The current economic crunch is no mere recession, author Richard Florida says: It’s a complete shift of the economy from an industrial base to a creative one. I interviewed him about his new book, The Great Reset, and his groundbreaking work on the Creative Class for the LA Times.
Saturday the drag bombs exploded. A “drag bomb” is what punk queen Taylor Mac calls the revolutionary messages he sets off in his performances, one of which he gave Saturday night at Miami Beach’s Colony Theater. Mac is a drag deconstructionist, in the spirit of Ethyl Eichenberger, Justin Bond, or even Theo Kogan. He channels the channeling of divas, throwing in a mix of homeless savants and Jello Biafra. In The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac, he pummels and parodies post-9/11 paranoia. He also takes a hard look at his own emotional issues, singing pitch-perfect absurdist confessionals, with or without a ukelele — Tiny Tim meets Stephen Merritt. He pulled a typically buff, tan, “homo-genic” looking gay man from the audience and dressed him in a dirndl, then sang, “The revolution will not be masculinized.” The show was brilliant, deep, hilarious, disturbing, perhaps the best musical I’ve seen since Hedwig and the Angry Inch.Mac’s performance was part of the new Out in the Tropics festival, the kind of cutting-edge event that gives me hope for Miami.
Seemingly at the other end of the spectrum, but really not so different, was the Red Bull Flutag, earlier that day at Bayside Park. The Flutag is an infinitely silly event: Contestants devise flying machines that, after performing skits that show the widespread influence of Monty Python, they then send crashing into Biscayne Bay. The Flutag had none of the serious moments of the Beast, but with grown men parading in silly costumes, pretending to be Italian pizza makers or Mario villains, it was its own kind of drag show. It drew an estimated 80,000 people under the baking sun, as opposed to the 100 at the Colony. Both inspired me — to slip out of my gray shorts and crash land a dada party frock.