Malu and I are driving cross-country to ferry some of her stuff and her new car to LA.
First we stopped in Columbia, MD, at my parent’s house and had a long lunch with my parents, my sister, Erik (her partner), and their twins.
We drive on, past the Mormon Cathedral in DC that rises over the trees and looms over the highway. It was built on this spot intentionally to give that effect, and its tall white spires remind everyone around here more of the Emerald City — though white, in this case — than a church. It’s a fairy tale image, an awe inspiring one, come to life. Inevitably, someone wrote the words “Surrender Dorothy” on one of the highway overpasses over which the temple looms. The temple was begun in the late sixties, and the surrounding acreage was purchased by the church and left alone — both for effect and to increase the feeling of the church as isolated in the wilderness. Smart idea, as everywhere around here is now crowded with mini-malls and housing developments. The architecture then, doesn’t end with the building — it includes the surrounding context, the trees in this case, and maybe the view from the highway.
Truman O. Angell was chief Mormon architect for some time back when the church was founded, although Joseph Smith got some real estate and design help from the Almighty. From Angell's journal:
Joseph received the word of the Lord for him to take his two counselors, Frederick G. Williams and Sidney Rigdon, and come before the Lord and He would show them the plan or model of the house to be built. We went upon our knees, called on the Lord, and the building appeared within viewing distance, I being the first to discover it. Then all of us viewed it together. After we had taken a good look at the exterior, the building seemed to come right over us, and the makeup of this hall seemed to coincide with what I there saw to a minutia.
The Church Architect at the time was a guy named Emil B. Fetzer (pronounced EE-muhl). He's 93 now, still sharp as a tack and driving around Salt Lake City (in the daytime, at least). There were four architects on the DC project: Fred Markham, Henry P. Fetzer, Harold K. Beecher, and Keith Wilcox — Mormon church leaders like to use their middle initials, btw, and the in-house architects follow suit. As a spectacle it surely ranks as one of the great works of architecture, but I seriously doubt that architectural scholars and critics will agree with me here — they might prefer the more austere, minimal church of Tadao Ando or Corbusier’s wacky asymmetrical church in France. I’ll take this one, and Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, over those austere buildings. If certain architectural works are made to inspire awe and act as three dimensional signs and symbols, then surely this one qualifies. Fetzer the Elder also designed the kitschy 60's temples in Provo and Ogden, UT, which look like giant 1-yo birthday cakes (the spires used to be gold). For sheer driveby temple spectacle though, nothing beats the San Diego temple, which is right along the I-5 freeway — it's like a temple from Buck Rogers. (Thank you Greg for writing in with this wealth of information).
We drove on as far as Lexington, VA, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The drive down the Shenandoah Valley is lovely. The mountains on our left turn blue, then purple, as the sun goes down. Lexington is a little town tucked in the hills, home to the Virginia Military Institute and to Washington and Lee University. VMI is the West Point of the south, rivaled only by The Citadel. On the cute old streets we could see military academy students in what seemed to me to be full dress — the boys in white with matching caps and the girls in trousers and stiff grey jackets. These are their school uniforms.
The new cadet, known as a "Rat", walks a prescribed line in barracks while in an exaggerated, painful form of attention known as "straining". The Rat experience, called the Ratline, is intended to instill pride, discipline, brotherhood, and a sense of honor in the students. A Rat faces many physical and mental challenges and must memorize rules, school songs, and facts about the school and its history. The Ratline is among the toughest and most grueling initiation programs in the country. It is best described as a longer version of the Marine Corps boot camp combined with rigorous academics.
Once the first week is complete, life continues to get tougher as Rats await the arrival of the returning students, the "Old Corps". Each Rat is paired with a first classman (senior) who serves as a mentor for the rest of the first year. This pairing is integral to cadet life at VMI. The first classman is called a "Dyke", reference to an older phrase "to dyke out", or to get into a uniform. This arose from a pair of cadets helping each other get into the full parade dress uniform, which includes white pants or ducks, a full dress coatee, belt and leather cartridge box, a military dress shako, and several large web belts, or "cross dykes", that are extremely difficult to don alone, along with a school-issued M-14 rifle.
After break out, rats are officially fourth class students and no longer have to strain in the barracks or eat "square meals" at attention. Many versions of the Breakout ceremony have been conducted. In the 1950s, Rats from each company would be packed into a corner room in the barracks and brawl their way out through the upperclassmen. From the late 1960s through the early 1980s, the Rats had to fight their way up to the fourth level of the barracks through three other classes of cadets determined not to let them get to the top. The stoops would often be slick with motor oil, packed with snow, glazed with ice, greased, or continuously hosed with water. The barracks stairs and rails were not able to take the abuse, so the Corps moved the breakout to a muddy hill where Rats attempt to climb to the top by crawling on their stomachs while the upper classes block them or drag them back down.
We ate in a lovely little restaurant (Bistro On Main) and then retired to our Best Western further down the hollow. I told Malu we used to take family vacations in the National Park in the Shenandoah Mountains and Malu asked me, “What did you do?” Gee, I guess we went on some hikes, camped out, attended little nature slide talks and stopped and looked over the scenic overlooks. It doesn’t sound like much to a New York City kid I guess.
The next day I drove as fast as I could further down the valleys until we got to Tennessee and Pigeon Forge, home of Dollywood — our destination — and a whole lot of other attractions too, it seems. The road leading to Pigeon Forge is also the approach to Great Smokey Mountains National Park, and as there are no vendors allowed in the park, the approach roads tend to turn into a border town where all the forbidden pleasures can be indulged. There are rides (the band and I rode a free fall ride once while we were on tour), souvenir shops and today there is a car show somewhere, so the roads are packed with trailers pulling pumped up cars and attendees. Cars are the hot item this decade — NASCAR and other “shows” seem to be in evidence all across the country. We pass massive trucks and trailers covered with images of NASCAR drivers and/or race cars. The highways are now a network for race cars carried by trailers crisscrossing the continent to do their “shows” here and there. These trailers are constantly on the move — they fill the roads and the race car images are everywhere, including fast food outlets and billboards.
The song on the hotel TV is Lil’ Mama singing, “My lip gloss be poppin’[…] And all the boys keep stopping.”
Dollywood is off this main drag that leads to Knoxville, tucked up into a more remote hollow. In fact, you can’t see anything of the theme park at all form the road, just the parking lots and the little trams that ferry you into the woods where the park is hidden.
The park is a mixture of amusement park rides — both for little kids and adults — regional foods (most of them cooked or prepared on the spot), gift shops, small musical venues and stages (all free with the hefty admission), and re-creations of 19th Century crafts and skills.
We stopped to chat with a man pouring molten aluminum into sand molds and other containers. There were lots of BBQ stands (a pig slowly turned over some coals at one of them), ice cream made by churns powered by belts run off a small water mill, and pies made for giants, each piece big enough to feed about four people.
There was a wooden shack meant to replicate the Appalachian home where Dolly came from, though it never says so explicitly. There is very little evidence of Dolly herself except in the gift store as you leave, as well as a plaque by that simulated Appalachian house. It’s all very 19th or very early 20th Century — definitely before Dolly’s time.
We watch a short talk about eagles. There is a bald eagle sanctuary as part of the park, a sort of fenced in section of the surrounding forest. The “cage” has something to do with bringing the birds back from being endangered. Two handlers on a little stage bring out various birds and one flies over our heads from one handler to another. The golden eagle is massive; its talons can penetrate a wolf skull I think they said.
Dolly made much of her humble upbringing (“Coat Of Many Colors” was one of her early hits) and sure enough, tucked in between the hillbilly souvenir joints, fast food restaurants and BBQ joints, there are still some double wides and slightly dilapidated houses with cars in the yard.
Although there are none anywhere else, I glimpse the few posters of Dolly on our way out, with her huge tits and hair, and her fairly extreme makeup. This was not the young Dolly who teamed up with Porter Wagoner; although that look was in evidence then, this was an almost contemporary photo.
Here she is in 1972.
Photo by Henry Horenstein
She’s a little worked over now, which makes the look even more extreme, and a little scary. The hourglass figure on the tiny woman, the little girl voice- combined with an astute business sense and dynamite songwriting — well, it’s a confusing combination for a Yankee. The look smacks of insincerity, or someone living in a fantasy world, yet her acts, what she did (like creating Dollywood), and her songs are completely sincere and heartfelt. The look says sex combined with little girl, a combo typical of Japanese schoolgirls and manga comics, but not of a serious singer, and later an actress.
Feminists used to stand up for Dolly, mainly because she was in charge of her own business affairs and wrote her own material, I imagine, not because they envied her cleavage and high hair. I remember Patti Smith once covered Dolly’s wonderful heartbreaking song “Jolene,” an endorsement from another empowered woman.
We stay until the park closes, then join the throngs heading for the various parking lots. We take a back road, and pass surplus stores and honky tonks, and eventually that night we make it to Knoxville. The early Goth country classic “Knoxville Girl” comes to mind, the song where the singer murders a young girl out in the woods by beating her with a stick and then drags her round and round by the hair as her blood soaks the ground around his feet. It’s all graphically described in the song, made all the more chilling because the singer gives no reason for his murderous rampage and professes to have loved the girl. To me this kind of love is Old Testament love — God may love mankind, but he’ll send down wars and genocide and serial murderers for no reason whatsoever. The song prefigures Cormack McCarthy’s Child of God, and Flannery O’Conner’s stories of minds bent by Jesus or by introspection and isolation.
At the Holiday Inn in Knoxville, I saw a sign for the historic town center. Thinking it might contain some character and restaurants, we head there in search of dinner. There’s no one on the streets — not metaphorically, but literally not a single soul is out and it’s not even 8 o’clock. Eventually, we reach Market Square where we see people sitting at some outdoor seats. There are few restaurants, so we’re in luck. They serve me wine in a tiny plastic airplane bottle and we share a nice salad and some salmon. We wonder, where is everyone? Do they come to town to work, some of them, and then go home and stay in at night? Or do they go to restaurants and bars in suburban strip malls?
On the way back to the hotel I grab a free copy of a local hip tabloid sized mag called Skirt, and I suggest to Malu that this might give us a clue what people do around here. Inside the well-designed and hip looking magazine there are numerous editorial exhortations directed towards their women readership — The Goddess Manifesto, Light Up The Universe, Be the One Who Makes the Rules, Miss Congeniality or Ms President?
But interspersed with this are ads for plastic surgeons (Repario! It’s not magic, it’s portrait plasma!); Wedding and “Event” photographers (“Exquisite Moments”); Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation (get those feelings back again!); Beautiful Hardwood Floors (the ad photo shows a couple from the knees down, on a nice hardwood floor, he wearing khakis and business shoes, and she, barefoot on tippy toes, standing on his shoes); No Needle Mesotherapy; and my favorite, an ad for a Brookhaven Retreat, a countryside rehab clinic that looks like an exquisite spa hotel (“no judgment, no shame — for women with emotional or drug addiction challenges”).
Wow, so THAT’S what everyone is up to! How does one reconcile the empowerment rhetoric with the insecurity implied by the plastic surgery, the “catch a man with a hardwood floor” and the drug addictions? Do I believe what I hear (the self-boosting) or what I see (degradation and insecurity)?
The next morning we head for Memphis, and we hope to make Graceland before the last tour. We are on the Tennessee interstate, which winds through the rolling hills of this long state. There are occasional religious billboards on the route, such as “Are You Ready?” and many others. Malu is shocked by the aggressive threatening tone. The ad paraphrases all 10 commandments in simple white letters on a black background — no affiliation or comment is needed — and it makes me wonder about that story.
I wonder if the story — Moses going to mountain and returning with the moral law engraved on tablets — might be “true” in a metaphorical sense. The idea that the “law” has deep roots, that those roots might be Meta human, and therefore “universal” makes psychological sense, even today. Not literal sense, but sense in the way that social strictures and rules are often considered to be innate, genetic, or a result of a combination of genetic and environmental influences.
Likewise, the idea that to discover these laws one has to “go to the mountain top” also makes perfect sense. Martin Luther King Jr. used the same metaphor. One seeks a place of isolation, a place apart from men, away from society and the grazing herds in which to allow one’s inner nature to speak, a place where it can be heard above the clamor and conflicting shouts of the crowd. A walk in the wilderness is a metaphorical inner voyage, and if the inner voice can be heard, then its message is presumed to be beyond individual, temporary or local biases (in each society, at least) and therefore true beyond mere personal concerns. If one substitutes one’s inner being, one’s “true” nature, one’s genetic and generic nature, for the concept of God— or if one assumes they are identical — then Moses could be said to have indeed brought down the Lord’s commandments. He simply heard his inner voice and intuited what laws should be carried over from Hammurabi’s Code.
That the myth says he brought them down inscribed on tablets might have been a way to redirect the focus away from Moses himself, as a Prophet, a shaman or visionary and towards the invisible force and ubiquitous presence he claimed to have communicated with. He claimed to be just the messenger, not a God.
The King Is Dead
We just make it to Memphis in time to board the tram at the visitor center for the Graceland mansion across the street. Elvis’ choice of decorator, or his decorator’s choices were pretty, um, imaginative. Some of the other visitors giggle that he must have been on drugs when he made some of his décor decisions. Having seen the photos that the family allowed Bill Eggleston (a native Memphian) to take shortly after the King’s death, I knew what to expect, so I was prepared (they trusted Bill, as he was assumed to be “one of us”).
Here is the Poolroom.
Following the mansion tour are exhibits of Elvis’ cars (a pink convertible Willys Jeep!), and the many, many jumpsuits worn by the King during his 4th act. (The first act was the rocker, the second, the Army enlistee, the third, the movie star, and the fourth, a return to the stage, mainly in Vegas.) These jumpsuits, like the décor in the house, were created in collaboration — in this case with a tailor/designer, and were wholly original in my opinion. They combine Elvis’ love of Karate, Afro-American couture (the Temptations and Jackson 5 were wearing jumpsuits in the early 70s, most hippie rockers were not) with a touch of…Liberace.
I take a bunch of photos as we walk through, but Eggleston’s remain embedded in my mind, so I may not have anything original.
Malu calls her classmates, who have heard of Elvis, but not of Graceland, and certainly not of Dolly Parton.
We pass the Soul Music Museum on the way out of town — that will have to be another visit. I remember when its creation was being discussed and I thought while the recognition is good, better would be if those influential creators got paid.
We drive on and make Little Rock by dinner-time. Another Holiday Inn. This one has a presidential theme (Bill Clinton was Governor), so there are pictures of Bill, and of George Bush (!) and framed copies of the Declaration of Independence. The front desk recommends a Bar-B-Q place not far away and we rush out before their 8PM closing. (8PM! New Yorkers are just sitting down to eat!). The place — The Whole Hog Café — justifies the recommendation. There are trophies all over the walls and plaques for all the awards their BBQ has won. I am recognized by one of the staff and I sign a bunch of autographs on the sidewalk outside. It was really sweet.
The next morning we head southwest. We don’t have a destination today, no attraction beckons, so we will simply see how far we get. We pass Dallas and Fort Worth, but it’s a little too early in the day to visit Christina and Johnny Reno there, so we continue to Abilene. I explain how Fort Worth was once the big town for cattle, etc., and the Jewish merchants couldn’t get a foothold. So, they pulled up stakes and made their own trading center 30 miles east, which eventually became Dallas. Not sure if this apocryphal story of karmic justice is true, but it holds like a little myth.
We cruise through Abilene and Malu sees every run down motel and gas station as a location from Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Jeepers Creepers. I love an old motel with character (if it’s clean), but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. We drive on and stop at a Best Western next to the highway in Sweetwater, a small town where we are told Elvis played twice. We eat at a restaurant across the highway from our hotel. My steak is delicious, as it should be here. The decor is all red chairs, tables and trim, in honor of the local High School football team, the Mustangs. A large painting of the coach sits right on the wall behind us. I watch a man across from us shoot up his insulin after he and his wife finish their meal. He does it deftly, as casually as one would look at one’s watch.
The restaurant (the only one within walking distance of our hotel) doesn’t serve alcohol. I’m not that surprised — between the early-for-us dinner hours and dry counties, I know we’re not in New York anymore. I wonder at how some of these puritan restrictions — the encouragement to go to bed early and to not enjoy a drink with one’s meal — have lingered. I suspect that drinking, much like drug use, is considered a sign of moral weakness, and a disdained desire for pure, cut-loose pleasure something maybe not to be encouraged either by our puritan ancestors or the skin-of-our-teeth settlers and farmers in this part of the country. You never know what will come out of that bottle once you open it. These indulgences have therefore been relegated to “bad” places — honky tonks and dark, sad bars in the case of drink, secluded sessions in the sole company of other users for druggies. Either way, this disdain creates a counter-culture, and ostracizing the ‘weak’ only creates the bad scenes the culture had hoped to eradicate in the first place.
Along the same lines, in the local paper a debate is taking place over whether the high school students should have a curfew. It’s not clear what hour is being proposed, but some students who aspire to have after school jobs would be unable to take those jobs if the hours extended past the proposed curfew. Some other students who have after school sports and other activities would likewise be hamstrung — many of these students have to walk home from jobs or activities, as they are not old enough to drive or don’t have their own cars. They therefore risk being picked up as curfew breakers.
One student offered that ever since the local skating rink and some other activities closed, there is nothing to do in town. So kids, bored out of their minds, will find something to do and sometimes it might be disruptive. Some students are in favor of the curfew, as are the local football coaches, who seem to function as the local wise men.
I sort of suspect that the curfew could be an unspoken and underhanded way to round up “loitering” Mexican kids, who are no doubt seen as the principal troublemakers in this town. We drive around the older part of town. A motel that was once on the main highway, and is now probably an SRO weekly rental, reiterated the moral message.
I wonder if this frontier Puritan fundamentalism combined with economics is what made buildings like this one common and acceptable:
It’s so Spartan and purely functional in keeping with the Bauhaus dictum “form follows function.” But these structures take the prize — they make the Germans and 20th century Modernists looks baroque. I think these buildings, much like the taboos mentioned above, are expressions of the hard, no-nonsense life that this land demands — an endless landscape of few concessions and little accommodation to the settlers.
There are people selling watermelons in a shopping center parking lot, a US flag made of plastic cups jammed into a fence, an abandoned drive-in and a church in a pre-fab metal building with a sign urging visitors to “come be apart.”
We drive on across West Texas, through Midland and Odessa, home of George and Laura, they claim. It’s oil country out here; all the industries are devoted to drilling, refining, selling, storing and marketing oil. W was given an oil company to run out here I believe, but he ran it into the ground, as is his wont. Failing upwards I think they call it. Oil pumps move lazily up and down, scattered across the flat plain, fed by a network of telephone poles that carry power to the pumps. This power grid — one can see row upon row of telephone poles — extends over a vast area. In some areas, no one has risked digging, so there are no pumps; other wells have run dry, but the power grid is ready.
There is a museum of petroleum that features oil derricks like they used to have all over Texas, when Texas supplied much of the US oil. I remember passing through here as a kid and gas was 21¢ a gallon (not a liter, a gallon).
We cross into New Mexico and arrive at Carlsbad Caverns National Park by 2:30pm. We’ve missed the last guided tour and a chance to clamber down the natural entrance, so we take the elevator down and spend almost 2 hours wandering the marked paths underground. The Big Room is vast, bigger than a football field (one quote claims one could lay the Empire State Building down in here — what an image!), and other spaces branch off from it. There are electric lights cleverly hidden behind rocks and formations so one can see pretty well, but some people still bring flashlights and I saw one couple with lights on their heads.
The formations are creatively named, as they often do in these caves: The Chinese Doll Theater (really!), The Temple, The Klansman(!), the Twin Domes, The Giant, The Lion’s Tail. I remember seeing some hilarious B&W pieces that Mike Kelly did where he made up his own names for cave formations.
I find the formations disturbingly biomorphic, organic, and mostly sexual. Alien sex planet. The names they give them seem to belie what they actually resemble. It seems the underworld is comprised of vast landscape of penises, vulvas, vaginas, tentacles and fleshy flaps. Freud would have had a field day in here: it’s as if our own forbidden images and imaginings have all been forced not merely into the unconscious, as he would have it, but physically underground, in exaggerated form, with elements of the male and the female sometimes mixed together. Other elements seemed strongly sexual, but not quite human, like the sexual organs of insects, or deep-sea creatures. Only in this case it is the sexual organs of rocks hidden 830 feet beneath the earth’s surface, as they should be. Imagine farmer Jim White seeing a plume of weird black smoke being spewed out of the earth near the top of a ridge – these were the bats. At sunset, thousands gushed from its small orifice, the way in to the sexy underground world. Any artist producing objects like these in such quantity and profusion would be considered a pervert, or at least obsessed. In this case, it is the Earth that is the pervert.
We drive on, past the Guadalupe range, and descend gradually along some long bleak highways. We pass across a salt flat and over a small range of hills and as night approaches we can see El Paso looming in the distance. On one of the hills on the far side of El Paso — the Juarez side — someone has written in Spanish with huge lettering,“The Bible is the truth — Read it!”
The Rio Grande is so small here that one cannot tell where one city ends and the other begins, at least not from this distance. As we get closer to downtown we can see that there are big banks (Chase, Wells Fargo and others) in El Paso, and in Juarez there are shantytowns and residential tracts covering the surrounding hills. (Juarez also has some great restaurants.) As we approach the center of town, near the bridge that crosses to Juarez, El Paso becomes a Mexican town — there are discount stores and little barbershops and bars, and all the signs are in Spanish. The buildings in the center of town don’t seem to have changed much — they are low and funky. The modern, slick US business and mirrored office buildings are out on the fringes of town, well away from the migrants that once passed through here daily, but are more restricted now. I saw, on the other side of the highway, a checkpoint where all traffic was funneled through, and the (mostly Hispanic) guards looked for illegals.
I tell Malu that on a previous visit here I saw — a little ways from the bridge and the main immigration checkpoint — various improvised ways of crossing the river. A couple of men had some large inner tubes with a piece of plywood tied to them, making a rudimentary raft so that the “wetbacks” wouldn’t get wet feet. A rope helped guide this little ferry straight across the river, and there were slices in the chain link fences that allowed easy passage.
Signs on the Mexican side warned of the risks of hiding in a boxcar — one could suffocate or die or heat stroke — or of the dangers of trying to cross the desert around El Paso on foot. The signs also claimed that the Rio Grande water was dangerous, though that might be directed to non-swimmers.
It was all tolerated, all the travel back and forth, and maybe even encouraged at one time — where else where the cheap pickers and workers to come from? But circumstances have changed, and now the desire is to keep the Mexicans on their side and just ferry the goods over and back for the Mexicans to assemble cheaply in sweatshops.
We stay at a nice hotel — The Camino Real — downtown, and at dinner Malu remarks on a nearby couple — throughout dinner they didn’t speak to one another but were transfixed by their cell phones.
The next day we move on to Phoenix, where a girlfriend of Malu’s has started school at University of Arizona. Before leaving town, I wander around in the 100º heat and take some pictures of mirrored buildings, vacant lots and saguaro cactus as landscaping.
The road enters the Mojave Desert and we pass over scattered ranges of hills separated by long flat desolate expanses. It’s lovely. We stop briefly at Quartzite, where many RV parks are clustered — people living in RVs with hookups, not holiday campers. I browse through a sort of flea market of rocks that a couple has set up. On tables and in metal barrels there are piles fossils, crystals, jade and other minerals priced mostly by the pound.
More ranges of hills, and eventually we pass San Bernardino and we have entered the LA sprawl. As downtown LA comes into view we hit traffic. We slow to a standstill and I try surface streets, but they’re not much better (or I’m on the wrong one). I realize why I eventually couldn’t stay in LA when, in the late 80s, I tried for a few years to be bi-coastal. We hit rain in the desert around Joshua tree, so we didn’t stop there, and more rains hit LA at night after we arrived. It was a torrential downpour, like they usually have in their winter. We’ve made it cross-country in almost exactly a week.