walking with frankenstein
After last summer’s cross-country sequence of odd events (thunderstorms in the Black Hills and an unconstitutionally touchy-feely South Dakota State Highway Patrol officer just outside of Rapid City, illegal camping by the Mississippi in La Crosse, a harrowing fender-smasher, curiously haughty rednecks in Butte, Montana, et al.) it was deigned I could not take a chance on repeating the past so soon and the boys and I boarded a jet in Seattle which dropped us off lickety-split in Minneapolis where we were nearly run over by several airport terminal go-carts after which we limped onto a rough-around-the-edges prop plane featuring numerous malfunctioning seats and important-appearing foam batting spilling out of our overhead bin and a San Diego-based flight crew resembling a group of zombies unfazed-but-tossed after a dangerous whitewater rafting trip. Oliver Fern and I sat by ourselves and Adam shared a row with a chatty Florida businessman bound for White Cloud- I felt bad for the gentleman at first because Adam sneezed violently about twenty times (irritatingly dry cabin air) into the same, skimpy napkin and innocently studied his boogers in extraordinary detail as some eight year old boys are wont to do from time to time but I simply threw my hands up halfway across Lake Michigan. Before takeoff we’d thrilled to see our very own suitcases being tossed onto the cargo conveyor belt and we were positive we heard the telltale thunk-briggletunk-thunk of the suitcases falling tetris-like below- I don’t think this has ever happened in all my years of flying. And many questions were answered as I watched a member of the ground crew (vaguely resembling an angry, sweaty young Henry Rollins) abuse my suitcase with a broken lead pipe. My eyes must have been playing tricks on me since our luggage arrived relatively unharmed in Lake Michigan country so green it resembled the Land of Oz except for a preponderance of rusty Chevy Blazers.
After several days at my parents’ home which is surrounded by cornfields, sandhill cranes, the lavish rolling hills of orchard country (not the orchards I remember but perhaps more about that later in different writings) and the not-too-far-away Muskegon Wastewater System (but a bonanza for birders) I was left mostly to my own devices as various family members necessarily retreated to schedules and everyday lives in places like Chicago or beat-down, overgrown towns uplake which variously supply the rest of the country with goods such as obscure tractor parts and bowling alley equipment. The boys were enveloped into the company of doting grandparents, aunts and cousins and I found myself essentially orphaned with no grand plans save for the completion of several works of non-demanding literature, dewy morning strolls around the house in search of hummingbirds and sporadic trips into town for items such as bananas and the Muskegon Chronicle. Although the laptop was brought along in the event periodic inspiration struck for researching or writing on a recent project, I found myself far too distracted by recalled memories and inserted myself headlong into various micro-studies in the field. Photography had a vague muse-like position on the agenda but my patience was severely tested with the Nikon: From hard-working, wonky air conditioning into the steamy continental jungle outside, the front of my lens was like the drippy mirror inside of a sauna (not the fancy kind of place, but a moldy one with bored fat guys conversing tiredly in old world tongues) and no predictable degree of mad blowing, windmilling or jogging about with camera lifted into the air overhead could reliably defog the thing until it was good and ready (eventually I would adopt a somewhat-effective, three-stage transitional atmospherics phase-gradation system involving grandma’s extremely-warm but climate controlled sewing room, inside of which a dehumidifier hums twenty-four hours a day).
Besides the humidity, I was limited as usual because of the tiny rips and tears, impingements and most of infuriatingly-all the chronic strangulation and compression of nerves and blood vessels which corkscrew, chord and lace down the neck and shoulders and serve to supply units and impulses for things like holding books up at night for reading in bed, sitting in the easy chair for a movie or reaching a terrific itch but I’ve discovered by pushing my shoulders back in a vaguely Frankensteinan manner it’s easy enough walking for miles upon miles to bury the ache and so I did this every day over dirt roads criss-crossing three counties until it felt so effortless it seemed like I was an airborne seed floating languidly across the countryside (albeit, a seed on the lookout for snarling dogs and country drivers who don’t recognize a person walking on the side of the road until they’ve hit one). Mind you, this is not exactly walking but very slow trudging but it makes me feel like whatever the bird equivalent is to soaring as slowly and carefully as possible.
Often, I set out on these forays in profound silence on account of the oppressive, precision electronics-zapping heat and humidity and this reminded me of the “Deaf Child Area” signs posted by the walnut trees just up the road, during my childhood. Those signs always seemed like they were about someone else and that was always my story. The signs are long gone and sometimes I forget to look both ways and I shiver and worry….. just one time is all it takes. Another concern on these walks was my longish hair and beard and propensity to sweat profusely as though high on a cocktail of questionably-obtained pharmaceuticals from a sleazy circa-late 1980s Rite Aid, thus lending me the distinct appearance of a wayward Lennie Small in search of random farmhouses to burglarize fancy VCRs or premium leather roller-skates to trade for cash at the pawnshop. I tried to counteract this with friendly (but not-too friendly nor overly cautious) waves and nods and at other times by assuming searching gazes across the surrounding orchards and cornfields in the hope I might be mistaken for a local tumbledown farmer surveying his or her fields with that fast-disappearing native, pastoral intuition (but think a little bit of Marlboro Man sexiness mixed in with a pigeon-toed Lennie Small). Judging from the large number of enthusiastic reciprocal waves and nods by everyone from cement mixer truck drivers, motorcycle rednecks, menacing tweakers rubbernecking in hoodless Dodge Neons and cows imprisoned inside the enormous dairy on the county line (it was unnerving the way they gathered round for a sniff at me through the bars of their corral), I think I might have sold it. On the other hand, actual farmhands roaming the countryside on bank-owned tractors seemed hostile or indifferent to my folksy facade as did those tooling around on their riding mowers. America and its riding mowers, but I digress.
One afternoon after a nearly ten mile stroll into the village limits of a farm-town known for the richness of its muck fields and where ironically enough a large tractor trailer carrying an enormous load of carrots scattered a few carrots of its load along the shoulder of the road at my very feet (this is probably only funny if you’ve ever spent summers standing at a conveyor belt flinging aside rotten carrots and onions), I had the distinct impression I was under surveillance by the local yokels. It all started when a corpulent teenager sitting barefoot astride a John Deere mower, joyriding across a shady, tiny yard of pine cones took a long pause from his enormous Mountain Dew soda and matching fluorescent-greenish yellow headphones to stare at me with sharp daggers as if I was positively bad news afoot. I don’t know if it was the creepy Silent Observer sign in front of his house or my upturned shirt collar (the sun was intense that morning) but for the first time I felt uncomfortably very out-of-place and this pattern was repeated several times until I reached a picnic table in the shade by the railroad tracks in the center of town and took off my shoes and shirt and sprawled out to rest and air out and it was there my sun-baked brain started turning the idea of racial profiling over and over like a roasting slag of something meaty- the more I dwelled on the ridiculous unfairness of my white privilege simply strolling across the countryside like some kind of loser middle aged Johnny Appleseed worrying mainly about dogs biting me in the balls or dirty looks by lazy people on riding mowers, the more sheepish I felt about feeling like an outsider and henceforth I decided it was my destiny to keep walking around Carrotville in circles until the deputy cited me for loitering and disturbing the boringness and that got me to realizing if I’d never made it out of this place I might have very easily ended up the town crazy and that gave me the shivers. I’ve been back to Seattle for a couple weeks and I have to admit that I sort of miss the regular adrenaline (big dogs frothing out of their mouths like starved wolves) and the survival-triggered boost of endorphins. I’m not an outsider at home- the blessing and curse is that nobody really cares in the city. You can be physically emaciated and mentally fucked out of your mind like the guy down at the Montlake interchange (he and I crossed paths on Sunday night over Foster Island) and everyone just goes about their daily business. At any rate, many interesting discoveries were revealed on my walks, not including the found treasures I always enjoy pocketing and returning to Grandma for a home somewhere in the menagerie of bunny statues, rope swings and twisted metal wire around her garden. Hummingbird moths, convertible pickup trucks, wandering buffalo, startled herons, nine foot high cattails and the list goes on although I imagine in this High Def world one couldn’t be faulted for wondering if I’m being real and whether the list gets significantly more impressive. You can find and think about a lot when you’re walking forever with stuff on your mind but most of the time for me it was less philosophizing and mostly trance-inducing states of observation interspersed with haunting furry faces which stared piercingly out like creepy Uncle Sam posters from the bazillion roadkill mosaics. Whenever my feet started to bother me a little I imagined my grandfather years ago hitchhiking and walking thirty miles to and from work at Continental Motors. I didn’t spend all of my time walking around in a humidity-addled haze. I took Adam and his cousins to Deer Park Funland to ride roller coasters all day (the chaperone skipped rides this year and moved around shady benches all day with his nose in a book although it can’t be denied I did an equal amount of people-watching), dropped in on family friends, went back to the woods to see if the path I hacked through the ivy last summer had survived at all and went out on the pier at Lake Michigan.
The color exposure I’ve shared tonight is where Penoyer Creek empties into the Muskegon River in Newaygo County in the little town of the same name, there was a mill right here and I’ve been pondering if the old, wobbly crosscut saw I shipped home might’ve cut a few trees down right around these parts. Earlier in the day I’d transported an entourage of boys (sons and cousins) here as we had a list of errands which included obtaining a fly-swatter (auntie lives on the hill next door and has about a billion chickens) from the gun shop for grandma and after our business was accomplished I got the kids burgers and milkshakes and we retreated to the river for poking around and in the doing of such I discovered this intriguing spot which resembled a life-sized marble run (but with poison ivy here and there). The boys teetered on the tops of broken concrete walls like daredevils and I had visions of broken arms, legs or terrible snakebites and I was fucking drenched with goddamn sweat. The humidity, Bob Christ Almighty. Did I mention the humidity, already? I returned several hours later that evening by myself with a wide angle lens and neutral density filter. Roiling, dark thunderheads brought the evening to a premature close and I had unfinished business and came back another morning to discover fog had inexplicably filled the shallow river valley with darkness so I waited awhile before beginning and noticed after some time I was standing underneath an enormous hornet’s nest about ten feet above my head and that each leaf in the tree was a landing pad for some sort of angry wasp and it seemed a horrible war of insects was about to break out in my midst (due to the extreme humidity, I think) and tension built with each long exposure. I eked out a handful of pictures I’m excited about which are far more compelling than this view but I liked this one for sense-setting (try to imagine yourself standing here on a narrow viaduct, a brown river at your back and the smell of moldy tannin and fishguts permeates the air which you breathe).
Editorial Addenda for those with Unusual Stamina and the Patience of Job: First off, I’m sorry for such a ponderously through-the-overgrown fields tripping and stumbling ramble that amounts to a classic back-where-I-began-just-after-I-sharpened-my-pencil. Secondly, where has the time gone? A week ago yesterday, Seattle was so dark and soggy I thought we’d skipped ahead to October- a handful of of intense downpours had me checking our porous 1910 basement for flooding. That evening, Oliver Fern fell asleep right away to the briskest air of the season sifting through duct-and-3M-taped window screens and the train sounded like it was coming down our hill instead of the tunnel by the International District (trains help boys and girls fall asleep). Adam and his mother had gone down to the Moore Theater for a sit-down-in-a-cushy-chair kind of rock show. While I’m not a Wilco aficionado we do have a couple old albums laying around upstairs and Adam adopted one as Lego-building music for him and Oliver Fern. I thought it would be fun for Adam and his mom to hang out by themselves for a night out and see the band. I was disappointed to hear Jeff Tweedy wore a fedora. The rest of that weekend: Saturday was reserved for the aquarium (Lootas is a grannie, these days) while most of Sunday was spent in the woods on an olden CCC path above the Middle Fork Snoqualmie in a quiet forest except for Oliver Fern screaming his head off about the plenitude of slugs. The evening was about finishing books (a comic-strip biography of Louis Riel along with a charming collection of essays by Amy Leach) and the boys tore the house apart wrestling like maniacs: Oliver Fern (Super Nova) with a silver cape and black leather Mizuno batting gloves and Adam (Hippo) shirtless in blue jeans but donning a pair of enormous fleece winter gloves that made him look like Mickey Mouse. Yesterday, I took Adam to school for his birthday (bright and sunny). He forgot to brush his teeth so I gave him three sticks of winter-fresh gum but he protested because gum isn’t allowed on school grounds (he says he wants to be more mature now that he’s in third grade) and I told him to play it cool until the bell rang. I couldn’t believe how trashy the school yard was. We found a mixer turntable in the bushes that Adam wanted me to take home and usually I’m game for useless hoarding but a pile of suspicious-looking, moldy gunk underneath gave both of us the herbie-jerbies. And finally: Oliver Fern and I headed back up to the Middle Fork Snoqualmie today, for exploring a new DNR trail that’s under construction. Really, I didn’t think I could drive that far and my shoulders ached like lead-balls perched on tinker toys but we made it and the hours drifted into each other in the woods as did leaves from skinny alders and big leaf maples. I love taking my boys up to the woods! Though the groundhog seems to have mistaken my shadow for its own (yet again), autumn has always been my real springtime and the crisp, fall air has variously had me feeling as though I could gallop down a rocky, wilderness coastline of the Pacific Ocean, bareback atop a nasty horse named Peewee, and still live to tell about the agony that resulted.