Travels 13: Always on the Edge of Beauty–A tale of women, beauty, a city and a marred landscape

Once I found myself wandering through the streets of Bruges, a small lace making city in Belgium.  I walked along canals and old buildings.  I began to cry.

“Why can’t all cities be this beautiful?”, I kept asking myself.  “Why can’t every city be a Bruges, or a Paris or a London?”

I’ve always been attracted to beauty…but not the runway, highly stylized and magazine-perfect beauty of Barbie Dolls and Supermodels.  No, what attracted me were the little quirks and gestures of my teenage girl friends and later, the women I dated.

I was sitting at the faculty lunch table of the school where I last taught.  The talk was about the senior girls.

A female science teacher mentioned a student of hers named Karyn.

“Everyone teases her,” she said.  “And to be honest, if I were her age again, I would be among those teasing her.”

I was startled.

“She drives me crazy with her blinking.” the teacher said.

I had taught Karyn two years earlier, in the 6th Grade.

I expressed shock that a teacher would find a mannerism like blinking so off-putting.

“Well, if I were her age, I would probably have a crush on her,” I said to the table of silent teachers.

“But the blinking?”

“Yeah, but I would find that endearing about her,” I said.

The teachers kept silent…hopefully thinking about what they had said about the blinking Karyn.

My girlfriends always had something different about them.  Some little indescribable tick or something that made them less than “perfect”, less of a Prom Queen, but more of a girl-next-door.

I am going to make a major conceptual leap in this post.

I’ve driven over 4200 miles on my journey to Orting.  Now I’m on my way back home.  At this moment, 6:34 Pacific Daylight Time (PM) I am at an RV camp that appeared in the middle of the mountains leading to Crater Lake.  Yes, it appeared.  It wasn’t on the map or my guide to RV campgrounds.  Just when I was growing very tired of the car, there was the sign for the Last Chance RV park.  We’re somewhere in the Rogue-Umpqua National Forest.  There are mountains with slopes as steep as building facades all around us.  The evergreen trees bring the twilight into this little valley quite early.  I’m going to wait up for the rising of the Full Moon…it’ll be awhile because the horizon I saw on the Plains is not here.  Only the dark steep slopes of these beautiful mountains.  This is Bigfoot land.  And, I can almost understand why such a beast (I’m not necessarily a believer) would choose to lose itself in these heavy forests like these.

Which brings me back to thinking about what I’ve seen and learned about this country (the whole country as seen from my selected route)…and to beauty.

I expected some rough edges along the trip.  That’s the way of nature.  But the way of humans is something that is troubling to me.  In an unclothed situation, a woman…a real woman…will have blemishes.  Those little quirks that attract me.  The imperfections that shouldn’t be airbrushed away.  But the landscape I’ve seen is unclothed as well and the blemishes are glaring.  This land, once home to the First People, passed on to the developers and it never left their hands.  Entire mountain tops are scraped away for coal.  I expected much of this, but the pure expanse of raped earth left me shaken.

Then I got to the Pacific Northwest, another haven for Bigfoot and another place where the unspoiled skylines of foothills show the scars of clear-cutting.  Trees unimaginably ancient have been cut away leaving patches of bare earth, like a drunken barber might attack a three-year old beard.

Again, I found myself near tears.  But now my question was why can’t things be left alone?  All cities can’t be Bruges but do we really NEED to cut, split, saw and stack this precious old wood on the shelves of every Home Depot in the country?

A naked surface can be a wonder to gaze on.  But a forest without trees is problematic.

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The Oregon Coast.

ClearCutWashingtonForest

Clear-cutting on the Olympic Peninsula.

ClearCuttingOregonBeach

A tree covered mountain with something missing on the left.

Travels 5: Oh, Pioneers!

The great American Poet and Literary Goddess of the Prairie, Willa Cather, once said:  “I was raised by a tooth-less bearded hag…I was schooled with a black strap across my back…but it’s alright now, in fact it’s a gas.”  Hold on, I don’t think that was Willa Cather.  No, after rechecking my sources, I find that Cather wanna-be named Mick Jagger was the author of that famous American line.

Here it is, Willa Cather actually said: “Of all the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening.”

I’m beginning to understand her meaning.

We’re getting deep into the very edge of the center of the Great American Prairie.  With each day that passes, as I watch this world go by from the driver’s window of our Ford Escape, I sense that I am delving deeper and deeper into the shallow soil that covers these vast ranchlands.  Yes, I am becoming part of the very geography itself.  My left arm is getting brown.  My gray hair is dry and wind-tossed into a teasingly innocent thatch of salt.  Just enough of my well-tanned neck is seductively visible beneath my tussled hair and my Wrangler shirt collar.  Yes, I gain insight every second I exist in this amazing place.

Right now, that amazing place is central Iowa.  We speed along Highway 20.  I am becoming one with the land.  With my increasingly keen eyesight, I see something in the road, ahead.  There goes one, across the pavement, from brush into brush.  I know immediately it’s a “side-winder” snake.  Like the ones you seen in the cowboy movies.  There’s another.  Can it be?  Can it be that we are driving Highway 20 at the exact time of the Great Side-Winder Migration?  It can’t be.  This occurs only once every quarter of a century.  God has granted me this sight.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness the Great Migration of these rare snakes.  There’s more in the road in front of us.  I slow.  I don’t to kill any of these innocent creations of God as they make their way to the Breeding Grounds north of Iowa.  No one is behind me.  I slow to a stop, pulling over on the gravel shoulder, pebbles clicking against my R-Pod.  I reach behind me to take hold of my new Nikon D3200.  I need a shot of this!

It’s then that I realize that the strong breeze is actually blowing strips of dried packaging from a Chinese Take-Out back in Waterloo.

I get out and pretend to check my tires, just in case someone is watching.  Checking my tires is something I REALLY intended to do right now.  I even snapped a few pictures of the tires to drive home the point…just in case someone is watching.

I want to see the endlessness of these infinite lands.  At a rest stop (boy, there aren’t many of these around).  There is a hill.  I climb to the top and read a sign about the Grasslands that are now almost gone.  I wanted to see the Empty Quarter.  The lack of human landmarks that Willa Cather spoke about.  I wanted to get depressed looking at this forbidding landscape.

And, there it was!  Gently rolling hills that disappeared into the haze of distance.  What’s that?  It’s a cell phone tower.  Over there?  It’s a mega-farm with silos as tall as the Empire Building.

I got back into the car and headed to North Sioux Falls in South Dakota.  I was hoping not to get it confused with Sioux Falls, Iowa or South Sioux City in Nebraska.

We parked in a KOA RV site.

The guy that rode a golf cart and led us to our site lost no time in noticing the bikes atop our car.  Hey, he said, you can bike about three miles on the bike path by the entrance and see a herd of Buffalo.  I thanked him, and looked at the bikes.  Just then I felt a familiar stabbing pain in my lower back.  There’ll be plenty of Buffalo to look at in the days ahead.  I headed to the picnic table.

I stretched my legs and then turned through the pages of the Sioux City Journal.  I saw a help wanted ad for the position of Corn Receiving Specialist.  I wondered if that was entry level or management.

While Mariam began dinner (hey, I drove) I decided to walk over to the office to buy a pint of ice cream.  As I strolled down the lane, I passed a guy with a hand-held iPad type of thing.  I told him that I loved having my iPad Mini along to help in Google searches.  I asked what he had.  A Kindle Fire, he said.  A reader, I thought.  Yup, he said, this the only way my wife allows me to gamble.

On the way back, I had to walk around a few times because I couldn’t find our R-Pod among the gigundo RV trailers that surrounded me.

But, I found our little trailer.

I am getting to be so good at being in this amazing country.

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The Lawn and the Short of It

Why are people afraid of trees?

The Adirondack State Park, where I live, has something like 6,000,000 acres of land.  This great northern forest was to be held “forever wild.”  That was stated in Albany in the 19th century.

Now, it seems logical to me (I’m not Plato, mind you) that those who choose to live here would do so in the spirit of the “forever wild” clause, i.e., embracing the ethos of the natural environmental world that encompasses us.  This is a land of trees, rivers and mountains.  The operative word, for this post is ‘trees.’  Hey, I love a good rousing manly game of croquet as well as the next guy.  And can I put a Frisbee in the palm of a friend’s outstretched hand at fifty feet? You betcha.

So, having said all that, I now grow edgy and sullen when I drive by people who think they live in Newport, Rhode Island.

Simply put, I dislike lawns in the Adirondacks that are landscaped like Augusta National Golf Club.  As you compare and contrast (I used to be a teacher) the photos below, consider a few points:

  • The Carbon footprint for mowing these fields of Kentucky Bluegrass.
  • The egregious amount of water to keep the lawns as green as Connemara, Ireland.
  • The cutting of the trees (and then replanting selected nursery stock).
  • The alteration of the microclimate that comes with deforesting and replacing with grass.
  • The disruption of the landscape esthetic (argue if you want, but wilderness is vital to our spirits…look it up.).
  • Is Astroturf next?  Actually, on the shore line of a lake near my home, the owners put large sheet of plastic grass, I assume to prevent sand from touching the bathers feet.

These “McMansions” of the north sadden me and break my heart.

Look closely at the photos again:

Notice the top photograph and the Great Lawn.

In the lower photograph, there is a house there, a rather large one at that.  But you would never know it.

One property screams at you like a Brooklyn Dodgers Fan.  The other merely whispers like a gentle breeze.

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