State 4: North Carolina, July 2017

pink = where I went

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One of my dearest humans lives in North Carolina; she has been my reason to travel there a handful of times in the past twelve years. At this particular time it was a bonus that she lives in a red state. I stayed with my friend Kim and her partner Gaby at their house in Asheville for several days. Kim has lived in North Carolina her whole life and Gaby moved there from Los Angeles several years ago.


I flew into Atlanta and then drove north through Georgia and into North Carolina through the Smoky Mountains.

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Kim works for the University of North Carolina at Asheville, training UNCA undergrads to be tutors/mentors for local middle and high school students. UNCA is a predominantly white campus. Asheville Middle School, Asheville High School and SILSA High School are multi-racial; the middle and high school students participating in the program at UNCA are primarily students of color. Kim explained that an important part of her work is helping the white UNCA students understand what their identity is, what their place is, and what they bring to every interaction they have.

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For the summer program Kim leads, called AVID Summer Bridge, a group of students from Asheville Middle School, Asheville High School and SILSA High School come and spend two weeks on the UNCA campus, where they engage in meaningful discussions and work that relates to their life experience. Students work collaboratively and independently on projects with such themes as clean water access, media literacy, gentrification, immigration, the criminal justice system, and activism. The guiding principle of AVID is systemic change. Students that are members of underrepresented groups [which includes students of color as well as, this year, a white student who grew up in rural Appalachia] are selected for the program based on their GPA, a desire to go to college, and an interview. Most will be the first in their families to go to college.  

In line for lunch at 12 Bones

In line for lunch at 12 Bones

Lunch with Kim at 12 Bones

Lunch with Kim at 12 Bones

The AVID students are often surprised and taken off guard by the way they are treated on the college campus. They don't have to ask to use the bathroom! They are gently told before sensitive discussions that if difficult emotional material comes up, they can step outside if they need to. Their final project is something they present in front of their families; there is accountability, yet no grades. 

Walking through the River Arts District (RAD) toward Livingston Apartments

Walking through the River Arts District (RAD) toward Livingston Apartments

A few months before my trip to North Carolina, Kim and I decided to invite her AVID students to participate in my project. Kim told them she had an artist friend visiting from Seattle and then relayed messages between us. My message to them was, “Where do you think I should go in your state? It can be a place that you feel is important personally, or culturally, or historically. It can be a beautiful place or an ugly place. It can just be a place you go a lot.” If they wanted a more specific prompt, I offered these as options:

1. choose a place that changed you in some way

2. choose a place where you feel like you are in nature

3. choose a place that makes you feel proud of your state

4. choose a place where something shameful happened

The Good Vibes tank is a popular place for teens after school

The Good Vibes tank is a popular place for teens after school

Kim passed out paper and thirteen students wrote down where they thought I should go; some sharing personal details, some drawing maps. When I arrived in North Carolina, Kim gave me these notes, and they became the basis for our itinerary.

Walking over the freeway on the fence-enclosed bridge to Hillcrest

Walking over the freeway on the fence-enclosed bridge to Hillcrest

Places they suggested included Vance Elementary School (“The garden is a peaceful environment”); Black Mountain; the Chocolate Lounge; the Good Vibes tank; the housing projects where some of the students live: Hillcrest (“It’s where I live and where most of the accidents happen”) and Livingston (“It’s a place that makes me feel ashamed of my community. Not the people inside it but the people that come and go starting drama”); the Grove Park Inn (“because I go there a lot)”; the mountains; waterfalls; downtown; Biltmore Park; the park near Charlotte Street with the mural; Depot Street (“because you have the River Arts District [RAD] then it goes right to the projects. The RAD is super artsy and beautiful and the hood is where you’ll see regular people just living their lives”) and West Asheville.

Crossing the street from the River Arts District to the stairs up to Livingston Apartments

Crossing the street from the River Arts District to the stairs up to Livingston Apartments

When I told my Pacific Northwestern [liberal] friends that my visit to North Carolina would be based in Asheville, they unanimously responded with variations of "Asheville doesn't count!" [as "red" state material] because it is considered a little liberal haven in the South by liberals in the rest of the country. Compared to surrounding towns, it is. There are a lot of wealthy white people moving to Asheville. But there are a lot of other people who were there before, are still there now. Kim said she felt like her students, in their responses to my prompt, and in their eagerness to be included, were saying to me and anyone who will listen, "WE are here too!"

Livingston Apartments

Livingston Apartments

If you do google image searches for Hillcrest and Livingston (the two housing projects mentioned by Kim’s students), you will get collages of tragic photos of fires, shootings, and cop cars.

Livingston Apartments

Livingston Apartments

It was quiet as Kim and I walked through Livingston in the heat. I was telling myself that it was ok that I was there because the students told me to go. The premise of this entire project is that I have essentially been given permission to go to a place if someone who can claim that place tells me to go there. But in this place, the reasoning suddenly seemed flimsy and I was keenly aware that if it collapsed I would just be a privileged, trespassing outsider.

Hillcrest Apartments, Asheville

Hillcrest Apartments, Asheville

Kim and I talked about the physical safety afforded by our whiteness, along with the imaginary cultural Green Card granted by my artist-ness, as we walked through these communities. If these residents walked through many white neighborhoods across town they certainly wouldn’t be as safe.

The father of one of Kim’s students (the one who told me to go to Hillcrest) was killed by police the previous year.

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At Hillcrest there were more people out and we were greeted warmly by a few people on their porches. We were admiring this thoughtfully laid out garden that spells L O V E, and its creator, a man named Charles, came down from the porch to talk.

Hillcrest Apartments, Asheville

Hillcrest Apartments, Asheville

Charles said people always ask him, “Why are you doing this?” or say “You need permission to do that!” He tells them, “I was raised to make my home beautiful! Why would I need to ask permission to plant flowers in my yard? I was raised to think of the place I live as mine.” He told us about how he goes to his construction job for ten every day, then comes home and works in the garden for four hours with a headlamp on after it gets dark. It’s his meditation. I feel the same way about my garden.

Charles and his garden

Charles and his garden

On another block we met Mary Jo Johnson and talked with her on her porch about gardening and President Obama.

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Mary Jo’s roses

Mary Jo’s roses

Mary Jo told us about the part of Asheville that has been important in her life - a neighborhood, a block, that was the center of black-owned businesses and community. Due to gentrification, all that’s left now is the church and the cultural center. A new mural commemorates the community that once thrived there. Kim and I visited the mural, which was a site one of her students had said I should go.

Triangle Park Mural, Asheville

Triangle Park Mural, Asheville

Triangle Park Mural, Asheville

Triangle Park Mural, Asheville

We walked around the beautiful campus of Warren Wilson College. Once a farm school for boys and now a liberal arts institution, the college’s mission has sustainability as its guiding principle. Kim said that a few of her former AVID students have gone on to go to college at Warren Wilson and have had wonderful experiences there.

Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, NC

Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, NC

When we were there students were selling fresh produce from the campus garden in a mini farmers market. Some vocal neighbors of Warren Wilson insult it as being “the most liberal place in North Carolina.”

Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, NC

Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, NC

West Asheville is one of Asheville’s more recently gentrified neighborhoods. One AVID student (the one who said I should go to West Asheville) lived there as a child. Her parents both immigrated from Mexico undocumented. She said they live in fear of being rounded up.

West Asheville

West Asheville

Kim talked about Asheville in comparison to other cities in the South, like Charleston and Atlanta. By erasing nearly all traces of its unsavory history, Asheville allows a myth to be perpetuated that there wasn’t slavery there. While Charleston has maintained sites that stand as witness to its history (like the slave market), Asheville has erased them. Meanwhile, monuments to the wealthy slave owners remain.

Vance Monument, Asheville

Vance Monument, Asheville

Since several of Kim’s students recommended that I visit waterfalls, we decided to go to one that Kim and Gaby hadn’t been to yet.

Kim, Birdy, Gaby

Kim, Birdy, Gaby

The one we found was in Rosman, and though it was listed as a waterfall open to the public, it was on private property. We arrived at a nondescript family home and handmade signs directed us where to park. With Birdy the dog we enjoyed the  short hike to a beautiful waterfall.

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We wondered about the people who live in the house, who have this wonder in their backyard, and who were willing to turn their front yard into a parking lot in order to share it.

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Leaving North Carolina, driving back to Atlanta on the freeway, I passed a bad car accident, cars and people strewn in the median before any help arrived. I saw a man in a baseball cap frantically doing CPR on a man on the ground. The stricken man's big white belly shone in the sun as it heaved up and down violently with each thrust. My mind replayed this scene for a few days afterward. I googled the date, time, and location of the accident to see if I could find out if the man survived but there were so many pages of accidents to sift through I eventually gave up.

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Days of healing, ease and real-talk

“Sethe had had twenty-eight days - the travel of one whole moon - of unslaved life. From the pure clear stream of spit that the little girl dribbled into her face to her oily blood was twenty-eight days. Days of healing, ease and real-talk. Days of company: knowing the names of forty, fifty other Negroes, their views, habits; where they had been and what done; of feeling their fun and sorrow along with her own, which made it better. One taught her the alphabet; another a stitch. All taught her how it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with the day.”

- Tony Morrison, Beloved, 1987

(Red Country Reading List)

The longer you are here, the more you start to get it

“Understanding America for the Non-American Black: American Tribalism

In America, tribalism is alive and well. There are four kinds - class, ideology, region, and race. First, class. Pretty easy. Rich folk and poor folk.

Second, ideology. Liberals and conservatives. They don’t merely disagree on political issues, each side believes the other is evil. Intermarriage is discouraged and on the rare occasion that it happens, is considered remarkable. Third, region. The North and the South. The two sides fought a civil war and tough stains from that war remain. The North looks down on the South while the South resents the North. Finally, race. There’s a ladder of racial hierarchy in America. White is always on top, specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, otherwise known as WASP, and American Black is always on the bottom, and what’s in the middle depends on time and place. (Or as that marvelous rhyme goes: if you’re white, you’re all right; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re black, get back!) Americans assume that everyone will get their tribalism. But it takes a while to figure it all out. So in undergrad, we had a visiting speaker and a classmate whispers to another, “Oh my God, he looks so Jewish,” with a shudder, an actual shudder. Like Jewish was a bad thing. I didn’t get it. As far as I could see, the man was white, not much different from the classmate herself. Jewish to me was something vague, something biblical. But I learned quickly. You see, in America’s ladder of races, Jewish is white but also some rungs below white. A bit confusing, because I knew this straw-haired, freckled girl who said she was Jewish. How can Americans tell who is Jewish? How did the classmate know the guy was Jewish? I read somewhere how American colleges used to ask applicants for their mother’s surnames, to make sure they weren’t Jewish because they wouldn’t admit Jewish people. So maybe that’s how to tell? From people’s names? The longer you are here, the more you start to get it.”

- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 2013

(Red Country Reading List)

a kind of safety word

Travels with Charley is John Steinbeck’s memoir of his road trip around the U.S. with his big poodle Charley in 1960.

“We could not go fast because of the ice, but we drove relentlessly, hardly glancing at the passing of Texas beside us… We stopped for gasoline and coffee and slabs of pie. Charley had his meals and walks in gas stations… The blue-fingered man who filled my gas tank looked in at Charley and said, ‘Hey, it’s a dog! I thought you had a nigger in there.’ And he laughed delightedly. It was the first of many repetitions. At least twenty times I heard it - ‘Thought you had a nigger in there.’ It was an unusual joke - always fresh - and never Negro or even Nigra, always Nigger or rather Niggah. That word seemed terribly important, a kind of safety word to cling to lest some structure collapse.

And then I was in Louisiana, with Lake Charles away to the side in the dark, but my lights glittered on ice and glinted on diamond frost, and those people who forever trudge the roads at night were mounded over with cloth against the cold… I scudded on toward New Orleans… So, well on the edge of town I drove into a parking lot. The attendant came to my window. ‘Man, oh man, I thought you had a nigger in there. Man, oh man, it’s a dog. I see that big old black face and I think it’s a big old nigger.’

‘His face is blue-gray when he’s clean,’ I said coldly.

‘Well I see some blue-gray niggers and they wasn’t clean. New York, eh?’

It seemed to me a chill like the morning air came into his voice. ‘Just driving through,’ I said. ‘I want to park for a couple of hours. Think you can get me a taxi?’

‘Where you from?’ the driver asked with a complete lack of interest.

‘Liverpool.’

‘Limey, huh? Well you’ll be all right. It’s the goddamn New York Jews cause all the trouble.’

I found myself with a British inflection and by no means one of Liverpool. ‘Jews - what? How do they cause trouble?’

‘Why, hell, mister. We know how to take care of this. Everybody’s happy and getting along fine. Why, I like niggers. And them goddamn New York Jews come in and stir the niggers up. They just stay in New York there wouldn’t be no trouble. Ought to take them out.’

‘You mean lynch them?"‘

‘I don’t mean nothing else, mister.’”

- John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, 1962

(Red Country Reading List)

I take the woods

My Side of the Mountain is about a teenaged boy in the 1940’s who runs away from his home in New York City to live in the Catskill Mountains.

“While I prepared trout baked in wild grape leaves, Matt sat on the bed and told me the world news in brief. I listened with care to the trouble in Europe the trouble in the Far East, the trouble in the south, and the trouble in America. Also to a few sensational murders, some ball scores, and his report card.

‘It all proves my point,’ I said sagely. ‘People live too close together.’

‘Is that why you are here?’

‘Well, not exactly. The main reason is that I don’t like to be dependent, particularly on electricity, rails, steam, oil, coal, machines, and all those things that can go wrong.’

‘Well, is that why you are here?’

‘Well, not exactly. Some men climbed Mount Everest because it was there. Here is a wilderness.’

‘Is that why?’

‘Aw, come on Matt. See that falcon? Hear those white-throated sparrows? Smell that skunk? Well the falcon takes the sky, the white-throated sparrow takes the low bushes, the skunk takes the earth, you take the newspaper office, I take the woods.’”

- Jean Craighead George, My Side of the Mountain, 1959

(Red Country Reading List)

they can kiss my ruby-red asshole

"I'd like to tell you how my grandparents thrived in their new environment, how they raised a successful family, and how they retired comfortably middle-class. But that is a partial truth. The full truth is that my grandparents struggled in their new life, and they continued to do so for decades. 

For starters a remarkable stigma attached to people who left the hills of Kentucky for a better life. Hillbillies have a phrase - "too big for your britches" - to describe those who think they're better than the stock they came from. For a long time after my grandparents came to Ohio, they heard exactly that phrase from people back home. The sense that they had abandoned their families was acute, and it was expected that, whatever their responsibilities, they would return home regularly... 

That stigma came from both directions: Many of their n ew neighbors viewed them suspiciously. To the established middle class of white Ohioans, these hillbillies simply didn't belong. They had too many children, and they welcomed their extended families into their homes for too long. On several occasions, Mamaw's brothers and sisters lived with her and Papaw for months as they tried to find good work outside of the hills. In other worlds, many parts of their culture and customs met with roaring disapproval from native Middletonians...

One of Papaw's good friends - a hillbilly from Kentucky whom he met in Ohio - became the mail carrier in their neighborhood. Not long after he moved, the mail carrier got embroiled in a battle with the Middletown government over the flock of chickens that he kept in his yard. He treated them just as Mamaw had treated her chickens back in the holler: Every morning he collected all the eggs, and when his chicken populations grew too large, he'd take a few of the old ones, wring their necks, and carve them up for meat right in his backyard. You can just imagine a well-bred housewife watching out the window in horror as her Kentucky-born neighbor slaughtered squawking chickens just a few feet away. My sister and I still call the old mail carrier "the chicken man," and years later even a mention of how the city government ganged up on the chicken man could inspire Mamaw's trademark vitriol: "Fucking zoning laws. They can kiss my ruby-red asshole." 

The move to Middletown created other problems, as well. In the mountain homes of Jackson, privacy was more theory than practice. Family, friends, and neighbors would barge into your home without much warning. Mothers would tell their daughters how to raise their children. Fathers would tell sons how to do their jobs. Brothers would tell brothers-in-law how to treat their wives. Family life was something people learned on the fly with a lot of help from their neighbors. In Middletown, a man's home was his castle."

- J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, 2016

(Red Country Reading List)

 

Gustavo Milhojas

"My name is Gustavo Milhojas. I was born in Chinique, El Quiché, Guatamala, in 1960, the year hell came to that country. I arrived in the United States on November 14, 2000. Before that, I resided in México...

I came to the United States to earn more money for my children. They are living with a family friend now while I'm here. I did not think of it so much as a choice as an obligation. It is my obligation to provide a good life for them. My son is in college now, and my daughter will start college next year at Universidad Veracruzana in Orizaba. This makes me happy because I believe it means they will both get to do what they want to do. There are not many people who can say that. 

I thought it would be very difficult to cross. It was after September 11 and the security was supposed to be high. I crowded with a group of men into the back of a van with tinted windows. We were all on the floor, under a heavy black burlap blanket and, on top of that, a lot of empty cardboard boxes that were meant to look like freight. We drove right up to the checkpoint. A guard examined the driver's papers, which were legitimate. The guard did not know we were in the back of the van. He did not even look. The driver simply told him he was transporting construction supplies for a job in El Paso. There was a long pause. All of us in the back held our breath, waiting to be discovered. And then the guard let the driver through. That was it. It was almost unbelievable to me. 

I found a job as soon as I could and began sending money back to my children. I started off in a mattress warehouse, dragging mattresses down metal ramps at the back of the store and loading them onto delivery trucks. When a mattress was defective, sometimes, one of the employees kept it. The bed I have today is from that job. 

For a while, I worked at a canning factory were we packaged chiles and salsa. It wasn't very clean. There were maggots everywhere. The owners blamed the conditions on the workers. Besides that, I didn't like standing in one place for ten hours. We got only one break for fifteen minutes. 

Now I have two jobs. Five mornings a week I work at the Newark Shopping Center movie theater, cleaning the bathrooms and the theaters. I make sure there's toilet paper in the stalls. I mop the floors. I have a wire brush I use to clean the sinks. In the evenings I work at the Movies 10 movie theater in Stanton. That job is harder because there are so many theaters. If too many movies finish all at once, it's a challenge to clean the theaters before the next group of people comes in. I have been reprimanded for leaving an empty cup in the seat arm. Usually I don't have time to go home between my shifts, so many times I eat popcorn and soda for dinner. 

But I am very grateful for these jobs. They allow me to send money to my children to pay for their schooling. When both of them graduate, I would like to go back to México to be with them. My wish is that they'll do something worthwhile with their lives, something more important than sweeping popcorn. I have done what I can for them. I would like to see them give something back."

- Cristina Henríquez, The Book of Unknown Americans, 2014

(Red Country Reading List)

this isn't really a small town

I finished this book on the day Robert M. Pirsig left this earthly realm. He's riding through Montana in this part:

"We ride down out of the pass onto a small green plain. to the immediate south we can see pine-forested mountains that still have last winter's snow on the peaks. In all other directions appear lower mountains, more in the distance, but just as clear and sharp. This picture-postcard scenery vaguely fits memory but not definitely. This interstate freeway we are on must not have existed then. 

The statement "To travel is better than to arrive" comes back to mind again and stays. We have been traveling and now we will arrive. For me a period of depression comes on when I reach a temporary goal like this and have to reorient myself toward another one. In a day or two John and Sylvia must go back and Chris and I must decide what we want to do next. Everything has to be reorganized. 

The main street of the town seems vaguely familiar but there's a feeling of being a tourist now and I see the shop signs are for me, the tourist, and not for people who live here. This isn't really a small town. People are moving too fast and too independently of one another. It's one of these population-fifteen-to-thirty-thousand towns that isn't exactly a town, not exactly a city - not exactly anything really."

- Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974

(Red Country Reading List)

it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor

I finished this book the week before Sherman Alexie was in the news, and in my Facebook feed (we share some colleagues), for having sexually harassed many female writers. I am glad I read it Before. Now, he joins the category of other Fallen male culture producers whose accomplishments smell faintly of fridge-with-moldy-food. [But note: there are other categories in the spectrum of Fallen male culture producers whose accomplishments now smell much worse.]

"Seriously, I know my mother and father had their dreams when they were kids. They dreamed about being something other than poor, but they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams. 

Given the chance, my mother would have gone to college. 

She still reads books like crazy. She buys them by the pound. And she remembers everything she reads. She can recite whole pages by memory. She's a human tape recorder. Really, my mom can read the newspaper in fifteen minutes and tell me baseball scores, the location of every war, the latest guy to win the Lottery, and the high temperature in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Given the chance, my father would have been a musician. 

When he gets drunk, he sings old country songs. And blues, too. And he sounds good. Like a pro. Like he should be on the radio. He plays the guitar and the piano a little bit. And he has this old saxophone from high school that he keeps all clean and shiny, like he's going to join a band at any moment. 

But we reservation Indians don't get to realize our dreams. We don't get those chances. Or choices. We're just poor. That's all we are. 

It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it. 

Poverty doesn't give you strength or teach you lessons about about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor."

- Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, 2007

(Red Country Reading List)

 

 

all good folks, colored and white, abided by that

"I parked the truck and got out. The way it was in Kentucky, in the South back then, was that going into a colored neighborhood was more or less like going into a whole other country. Your neighborhood could be on the edge, you could live three blocks or not even that, maybe just the distance of a field, be as close as from here to there, but the chances of you ever getting there, assuming your business was good, were about as much as you getting to California. Folks didn't mix, plain as that. There was no town meeting, no drawn-out line that said this is where you don't cross, but there was an understanding, and all good folks, colored and white, abided by that. 

So when I had the opportunity to find myself on the other side, I looked around. That particular road was dirt and dark, but the snow on the ground spread around whatever light was left. I looked at the same porch on every house, each with a couple of chairs, a stack of empty bushel baskets, some firewood, maybe a flat of empty Coca-Cola bottles. I watched the curtains draw back, a face peer out and disappear. They wanted to know what a white man big as me was doing out in their road come nighttime, though it was clear enough whose house I was standing in front of. They wanted to let me know they'd seen me, that if anything was to happen, they would have seen my face." 

- Ann Patchett, "The Patron Saint of Liars," 1992

(Red Country Reading List)

a well-loved colored woman whose lover was the horizon in any direction

"The South in her, the land and salt-winds, moved her through Charleston's streets as if she were a mobile sapling, with the gait of a well-loved colored woman whose lover was the horizon in any direction. Indigo imagined tough winding branches growing from her braids, deep green leaves rustling by her ears, doves and macaws flirting above the nests they'd fashioned in the secret, protected niches way high up in her headdress. When she wore this Carolinian costume, she knew the cobblestone streets were really polished oyster shells, covered with pine needles and cotton flowers. She made herself, her world, from all that she came from. She looked around her at the wharf. If there was nobody there but white folks, she made them black folks. In the grocery, if the white folks were buying up all the fresh collards and okra, she made them disappear and put the produce on the vegetable wagons that went round to the Colored. There wasn't enough for Indigo in the world she'd been born to, so she made up what she needed. What she thought the black people needed." 

- Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, 1982

(Red Country Reading List)

you think about a job where you have pretty much the same authority as God

"It's a odd thing when you come to think about it. The opportunities for abuse are just about everwhere. There's no requirements in the Texas State Constitution for bein a sheriff. Not a one. There is no such thing as a county law. You think about a job where you have pretty much the same authority as God and there is no requirements put upon you and you are charged with preservin nonexistent laws and you tell me if that's peculiar or not. Because I say that it is. Does it work? Yes. Ninety percent of the time. It takes very little to govern good people. And bad people cant be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it." 

- Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men, 2005

(Red Country reading list)

State 3: Arizona, May 2017

pink = where I went

This was my first time in Arizona. My only prior connection to the state is ancestral. It is the state through which my maternal great-grandparents immigrated from Mexico.

Susanna (whom I'm named after) and José Robles came to the U.S. in 1917, after a flood devastated their ranch in Hermosillo, Sonora. With hopes of finding work as day laborers, they crossed the border with nothing but the clothes on their backs and their three children. They eventually settled in Los Angeles. My grandmother, Guadalupe, was their youngest of eight surviving children. I found myself thinking about Susanna and José a lot on this trip; about how the narrative of three generations and exactly 100 years has made my experience of this country so different than theirs.

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I flew into Phoenix and stayed the night in an Airbnb - a bedroom in Paul and Harry's home in Scottsdale. Paul has a nice little patio garden in front, which he keeps as tenderly tidy as he does the rest of the house. I asked them the name of the lovely flowering tree in front and Harry spent the good part of an hour trying to find out for me.

We talked about being gay in our different generations and different parts of the country. Harry is originally from Boston and Paul Bangkok, but they moved to Arizona together from southern California. They do Airbnb with the extra bedroom in their home as a way to fund their love of travel. 

I told them I was hoping to see some giant saguaros on my way out of Phoenix and they said I should go to the Desert Botanical Garden; that even if I didn't go inside I could see a lot wandering around the grounds. On my way there I drove through rock formations that looked other-worldly in their terra cotta skin folds and craters. I got out and went for a walk. Bushes with little yellow flowers were in bloom. I admired a giant, weathered saguaro standing its ground in the hot dry quiet, then looked up and found a grey bird with red cheeks sitting inside it, blinking at me. 

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The entry fee for the Desert Botanical Garden was $25 so I did not enter and just looked around the grounds like Harry suggested. Their saguaros and succulents were the well watered, flamboyantly blossoming cousins of the toughened ones out in the desert. 

Harry and Paul said that for Mexican food I should eat at Carolina's sometime during my stay. (They told me the neighborhood it's in is often featured on the nightly news because of shootings and recommended I go in broad daylight.) I stood in Carolina's lunch line with a truly diverse crowd that seemed aglow in the comradery that is natural in a situation where you get excellent food for under $5. I thoroughly enjoyed my tacos, rice, beans, and salsa. 

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Then I walked around the neighborhood.

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Before I left town I stopped by a Mexican grocery store, Los Altos Ranch Market. It reminded me of the store I used to go to with my Grandma in California. 

I took my time driving to Cornville (near Sedona), where I would stay that night. I came across the biggest, happiest saguaros I saw on my whole trip - in a mobile home park in Wittmann, where people have made lovely desert gardens around their homes. 

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More scenes between Phoenix and Cornville:

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There were confederate flags up on other structures around that little church. 

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I arrived in Cornville in the evening and met Maggie, who hosts people in rooms in her home and in tents on her property through Airbnb. She signs her correspondences "Maggie + the Critters." The critters include horses, dogs and cats - all of whom are as sweet and welcoming as Maggie, who gave me a warm hug upon meeting me.  

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In the morning she introduced me to her horses. Her beautiful mare Reiny nuzzled me for biscuits. 

Maggie's place is appropriately named Peace Tree Sanctuary. My plan had been to get up early and spend the day exploring the famous sites of Sedona but instead I spent the morning enjoying this special place. 

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A little waterfall runs off a canal that goes through the property. From the little creek produced by the waterfall, Maggie has rigged up an irrigation system with PVC pipes to different parts of the land.

I also enjoyed other less functional but still purposeful arrangements. 

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Maggie told me about Sedona, as had two dear friends in Seattle who lived there for a while and were eager for me to visit. Originally a sacred place for many Native American tribes, Sedona is now a hot spot for the New Age community. Maggie explained that Sedona and the surrounding area have powerful spots of energy, generated by the earth itself, called vortexes. I was primed for an experience in a magical landscape! 

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As it turned out I only had about two hours in Sedona. Maggie told me about a swimming hole in Oak Creek Canyon so I decided to spend my time there, at Grasshopper Point. It was a beautiful drive through the canyon and then a short hike down to the swimming hole. When I got to the beach I stumbled onto a party in progress. Young men drank beer and ate Doritos and played loud country music that occasionally tried its hand at rap. I was there, in my swimsuit I'd clumsily changed into in the back seat of my rental car, but I wasn't there. I was swimming in the cold clear green water at the foot of steep red rocks. I was a fly on the wall at a frat party. 

Scenes driving from Sedona to the Grand Canyon:

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One of my dorm-mates from undergrad lives in the Grand Canyon (!) and she invited me to stay in her home there. Miranda and her husband Todd are both employed by the National Park Service - Miranda as a Wildlife Biologist and Todd as an Interpreter. They have a wonderful three year old named Theo, who decked herself out in her finest - hair styled with baby powder - to water plants and paint rocks. We read books together in the evenings. 

In the morning I drove a few miles and parked at the visitor center, then walked to the edge of the south rim. 

Vast many-colored beauty!

I was struck with the standing-under-a-starry-sky feeling of floating between infinite bigness and crushing smallness. 

A very persistent squirrel attempted to join me for lunch. My girlfriend in undergrad was a wildlife major and so by extension I was schooled enough to know not to be swayed by this mammal's cuteness and enable its self-destructive habit. A man taking a picture a few feet away saw me using my chip bag to make noise and shoo the squirrel away and looked at me reprovingly and said "Little guy's just hungry." In defense of my hard-heartedness I offered, "The wildlife biologists in my life taught me not to feed them." He said, "But we're regular people, not wildlife biologists. We don't have to do what they do." I didn't know what to say to that. 

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I had thought I'd do a half-day hike and being someone who likes ample water and snacks, ended up with a rather heavy backpack. I felt virtuous rather than excessive (that came later) and validated by the signs everywhere that ask accusingly, "Did you bring enough snacks and water?" as in YES YOU and then provide graphs and charts to show you that YOU DIDN'T. Unlike the assumed average Grand Canyon visitor, I probably had enough water and snacks to reach the bottom of the canyon and back. 

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I knew altitude sickness was a thing but somehow thought that since I was young (i.e. younger than many of the hikers I saw bounding up the canyon with ease) and relatively in-shape (not true) and not a tourist (huh?) I would not experience it. I was stumbling around with my too-heavy pack for not very long before I got quite queasy. I kept trying to walk away from the bathrooms only to have to walk back... each time like, WHAT is going on? Look at all these tourists that do not appear to be sick! Miranda and Todd reminded me that night that I live at sea-level. And that altitude sickness is a thing. And I admitted that one's altitude and related sensations are none of them contingent upon one's motives for being in a place or the means by which one arrives there.

Anyway, I had a nice day walking around the rim near the bathrooms. I got to see the sunset, a magnificent gift I hardly believed I got to receive simply by being there. There are small gifts everywhere that don't care if you're worthy of them, but usually you have to look for them. This one was unabashedly grand, and it found me; jumped on me and pulled me in. And it glowed. Many shades of tangerine and lavender. Before driving back to Miranda's I sat in my car where I had cell service and called my family at home. I was about to start the car when a couple rode their bikes past my parked car. The guy asked the girl "How's your stomach now?" and she said, "Oh, better. I guess I just really had to fart." I was glad to know others were having gastro-intestinal reactions to the splendor. 

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The next day I drove east to the Watchtower at Desert View. The Watchtower is a structure that was conceptualized, designed and overseen through all stages by architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter in 1932. 

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Colter wrote a book that functions as a manual for understanding her creation for a very specific audience: [male] tour bus drivers and Grand Canyon guides. Despite being an excellent resource on prehistoric Southwestern architecture, the book has the feeling of a personal letter; its first words are a salutational "Dear boys." Beyond the act of creating this building, it was of great importance to Mary Colter that it be understood, and she didn't trust her luck that someone else would do the job of interpreting and educating for her. So she wrote a book. I grew more fond of her with every page I read. She wanted her work to be experienced in context and known for what it is as well as what it isn't: it is a unique, modern-era building inspired by prehistoric ruins of the Southwest; it is not a replica or restored relic. 

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The Watchtower and its surroundings were a visual feast with unexpected surprises around the back of the building, such as cinderblocks on a tarp covering firewood, a pink barrel on stilts, and walls with nooks and crannies. 

On the ground floor of the watchtower, Navajo weaver Florence Riggs (Deer Spring Clan: Mother's Clan, Mexican Clan: Father's Clan) was sharing her process. I asked if I could sit with her and watch her and if I could take her picture. She said yes and I sat on the floor while she worked. It was surprisingly quiet in the room. 

Wall paintings by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie cover the interior surfaces of the Watchtower. Climbing the stairs to the top is like moving through a painting. 

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The experience reminded me of the interior painting spaces I've had the privilege of putting my body in in Florence - the fresco-filled churches and monastery cells. The difference was that in Florence, I stood on the firm ground of years of Art History classes. Here, I was completely unprepared and mind and heart experienced an earthquake and tumbled around a little. 

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Feeling successfully not nauseous and bathroom-bound on this day, I then took a short hike to Shoshone Point. This hike isn't advertised or described anywhere in the park and there is no sign marking its trailhead. I'd read about it in a library book about the Grand Canyon before my trip, and then Todd told me it is one of the best views of the South Rim. After driving too far down the road and doubling back, I found the trailhead and went on the walk through woods that opens up at the edge of the canyon onto this view, which I had entirely to myself. 

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I asked Miranda to tell me about her job as a Wildlife Biologist in the Grand Canyon. She does some field work, some office work, some educational work, and a lot of strategizing and negotiating the intersections between humans and wildlife, which she has some great stories about. Once, a rattlesnake was hanging out at the front door of the visitor center; she used a "snake grabber" (!) to move it to safety. Another time a park visitor took a bat off a wall in the bathroom, brought it into the gift store, and handed it to the cashier. The visitor disappeared and the store keeper had to get a rabies shot. Miranda brought the bat out of the gift store and released it. She told me about these encounters like they were just ordinary days on the job. It was so good to reconnect with this friend after 20 years.

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On the day I was to fly out of Phoenix, I left the Grand Canyon a different way than I had come so that I could visit Wupatki National Monument. Days ago in Cornville, Maggie had given me some rosemary from her garden to put on the dashboard of my rental car, which smelled strongly of new car smell. The rosemary released its smell as it cooked in the sun and was a comforting presence over the week. 

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The Wupatki Pueblo is the remains of a village from the 11th century. It was a kind of multi-use building whose modern-day equivalent might be a multi-storied apartment building with some Airbnb rooms and shops below. People from different regions would meet here to work, play, and gather for spiritual reasons. 

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I was especially taken with the blowhole. 

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The Blowhole is a human-made (11th century) portal to a naturally occurring crack in the earth of unknown depth and proportions. Depending on the quality of the air pressure outside, warm or cool air will flow in or out of the blowhole, creating wind. Standing over it is like feeling the earth as a body next to you, breathing. 

what you were supposed to do was get in your car, drive twelve feet down the street to another parking lot, park the car and get out

At times guiltily, I found Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent enjoyable. He is an irreverent white American straight man on a road trip across his home country in the 1980's after having lived in England for years. He is baffled by race and the book has plenty of sexist comments that, like the book, come straight from the 1980's. Thankfully he focuses his scrutiny mostly on other white American straight men; he is ruthless and it is funny. This is the first book I read for this project in the genre of White American Male Sets Out To Explore His Country. 

"I got a room in the Heritage Motor Inn, then went out for a walk to try once more to find Carbondale. But there really was nothing there. I was perplexed and disillusioned. Before I had left on this trip I had lain awake at night in my bed in England and pictured myself stopping each evening at a motel in a little city, strolling into town along wide sidewalks, dining on the blue-plate special at Betty's Family Restaurant on the town square, then plugging a scented toothpick in my mouth and going for a stroll around the town, very probably stopping off at a Vern's Midnite Tavern for a couple of draws and a game of eight-ball with the boys or taking in a movie at the Regal... But here there was no square to stroll to, no Betty's, no blue-plate specials, no Vern's Midnite Tavern, no movie theater, no bowling alley. There was no town, just six-lane highways and shopping malls. There weren't even any sidewalks. Going for a walk, as I discovered, was a ridiculous and impossible undertaking. I had to cross parking lots and gas station foodcourts, and I kept coming up against little white-painted walls marking the boundaries between, say, Long John Silver's Seafood Shoppe and Kentucky Fried Chicken. To get form one to the other, it was necessary to clamber over the wall, scramble up a grassy embankment and pick your way through a thicket of parked cars. That is if you were on foot. But clearly from the looks people gave me as I lumbered breathlessly over the embankment, no one had ever tried to go from one of these places to another under his own motive power. What you were supposed to do was get in your car, drive twelve feet down the street to another parking lot, park the car and get out. Glumly I clambered my way to a Pizza Hut and went inside, where a waitress seated me at a table with a view of the parking lot. 

All around me people were eating pizzas the size of bus wheels. Directly opposite, inescapably in my line of vision, an overweight man of about thirty was lowering wedges into his mouth whole, like a sword swallower."

- Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, 1989

(Red Country reading list)

 

these laws were essential to the security of my body

"To survive the neighborhoods and shield my body, I learned another language consisting of a basic complement of head nods and handshakes. I memorized a list of prohibited blocks. I learned the smell and feel of fighting weather. And I learned that "Shorty, can I see your bike?" was never a sincere question, and "Yo, you was messing with my cousin" was neither an earnest accusation nor a misunderstanding of the facts. These were the summonses that you answered with your left foot forward, your right foot back, your hands guarding your face, one slightly lower than the other, cocked like a hammer. Or they were answered by breaking out, ducking through alleys, cutting through backyards, then bounding through the door past your kid brother into your bedroom, pulling the tool out of your lambskin or from under your mattress or out of your Adidas shoebox, then calling up your own cousins (who really aren't) and returning to that same block, on that same day, and to that same crew, hollering out, "Yeah nigger, what's up now?" I recall learning these laws clearer than I recall learning my colors and shapes, because these laws were essential to the security of my body."  

- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, 2015

(Red Country reading list)

I will fight no more forever

CHIEF JOSEPH: SURRENDER TO THE U.S. ARMY, 1877

"Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking-Glass is dead, Ta-Hool-Hool-Shute is dead. The old men are all 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. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."

I listened to this as a part of Caroline Kennedy's 2001 compilation A Patriot's Handbook: Songs, Poems, Stories and Speeches Celebrating the Land We Love. 

Chief Joseph's surrender was recorded and published in the November 11, 1877, issue of Harper's Weekly. He was chief of the Nimiipuu, or the Nez Perce (the name given to them by French Canadian fur trappers in the 1700's.) His people saved the Lewis and Clark expedition from death on several occasions. 

(Red Country reading list)