April 29, 2006

India: "Ears clean, madam?"

A version of this story appeared in October 2005.

After I did my laps in the pool this morning I headed for the steam room, my post-workout reward.

A sign hung on the door’s fogged glass: “Per Order of the Board of Health Shaving is Not Permitted in Public Steam Rooms. Thank You For Your Cooperation.”

“People shave in here?” I asked Kateri, the lifeguard. (Kateri, a petite girl from a large family, is named for a Native American Catholic saint. “My parents named us all after saints.”)

“Yes.” She wrinkled up her nose. “We found a disposable razor in there.” I muttered a “gross” and headed for the shower where I’d look for alien stubble stuck to my skin. Shaving in public. Yuck.

If I find out who the secret shaver is, I’ll recommend he or she try India, where public grooming is part of the landscape. You can groom, be groomed, or watch others being groomed -- on dusty streets, outside tiny wooden shops, in parks, on riverbanks. Like China, India is a very public place, and that publicness takes some getting used to.

If you’re set down into the midst of it immediately after a draining global circumnavigation, it can knock you for a loop.

Mike and I landed in India 24 hours after leaving Boston. We flew to London, then to Kuwait, then on to Delhi. Our exhaustion was complete. We’d arrived five hours too early for our hotel’s noon check-in, so we walked to a park near Connaught Circle to ooze ourselves into our surroundings and to catch some sorely needed rest.

The scene made rest impossible. The light, gray fog of an early Delhi morning hung heavy. On the streets abutting the park, people rode bicycles and three-wheeled yellow and black pedicabs, and the air pinged with the chinks of their handlebar bells. Bamboo scaffolding covered myriad cinderblock construction projects like yellow ivy, and thin workers hammered and pounded and climbed and carried and sweated. Near us, legs tucked beneath him in the lotus position, a holy man with a peaceful, beautiful face, shock of white hair and a long, cloud-wispy beard sat chanting, eyes closed, under a tree. A string of eight graceful, dark-eyed girls with jugs on their heads floated through the morning mist and disappeared down an embankment to collect water from a rust-colored stream.

Welcome to India. Whirling, swirling, pressing masses of humanity. Soldiers doing a drill with shouldered rifles. Beggars, nut sellers, street cleaners, cart haulers, firewood carriers, fortune tellers. Welcome to India! Bright saris and sandals and baggy white trousers and vests and foreheads with red dots and cows and pretty babies in party dresses with bows in their hair and stoop-shouldered grandmothers. Welcome to India! Laughing schoolgirls in maroon jumpers and crisp cotton shirts swinging bookbags through the air. Barbers cutting hair and shaving faces. People polishing other people’s shoes and cleaning their fingernails.

Wait! I need a slower introduction! My brain screamed. Overload! Overload! I need to rest, to get my bearings, to establish a mental and emotional toehold, to have this India seep into me more slowly!

But it isn’t possible. India doesn’t introduce itself slowly. It greets you with crushing intensity and doesn’t let go. You are pushed in whole. Experiencing India for the first time is like learning to swim by jumping into the Atlantic from the deck of an ocean liner.

You are swallowed. You gasp for air. You push and pull to find the surface and pockets where you can breathe.

Just when I felt my brain reach its limit and every fiber of me yearn for noon so I could escape to the sanctuary of a hotel room, the ear cleaners arrived: a group of ragged young men carrying pipe cleaners and forceps.

One approached us, sitting there shell-shocked and jet lagged, backs against our packs. He asked if he could clean our ears.

That is India: a thin, coffee-colored man appearing out of the mist wanting, needing to clean your ears.

Where would you like to go next? If I've been, I'll take you.


April 25, 2006

Gerard Baker: Removing the rose-colored glasses at Rushmore

I just read the May issue of Smithsonian and had one of those it's-about-time moments. An article by travel writer Tony Perrottet introduces readers to Gerard Baker, appointed in 2004 as Mount Rushmore's first Native American superintendent. Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa Indian, has, writes Perrottet, "begun to expand programs and lectures at the monument to include the Indian perspective. Until recently, visitors learned about Rushmore as a patriotic symbol, as a work of art or as a geological formation, but nothing about its pre-white history -- or why it raises such bitterness among many Native Americans."

The mountain that holds the monumental heads is, and has always been, sacred ground to the Lakota Sioux and other Indian nations, and it, like the rest of the Black Hills, was stolen by the U.S. government after prospectors under the command of George Armstrong Custer found gold. Perrottet quotes Baker: " 'I'm not going to concentrate on that. But there is a huge need for Anglo-Americans to understand the Black Hills before the arrival of the white men. We need to talk about the first 150 years of America and what that means. ' "

I took my kids to Rushmore on our post-9/11 cross-country road trip, and I did what I could to have them understand what had happened in the high, forested landscape they stood in. In Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America, I wrote:

We were up and out in the morning (after a two-dollar, all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast in the KOA’s Big White Tent) before most of the other 499 sites’ inhabitants, and we had Rushmore’s giant presidential heads and adjacent giant parking lot almost to ourselves.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee had, many years ago, changed my view of pieces of our history, history I’d learned in school in the days before honesty became part of the policy.

In my mind, Mount Rushmore was appallingly insensitive, a monument to manifest destiny cut into the sacred hills of people on the receiving end of the dark side of continental expansion, an inescapably huge reminder of white men’s domination and theft of the Sioux land it towered above. I respected Gutzon Borglum’s artistic accomplishment. And, I respected the presidents portrayed.

It was the act of chiseling them permanently in that particular landscape that bristled me. As we drove toward Rushmore, I asked the kids to consider the land around us and try to understand that these hills, this high, curving earth, these stone pinnacles pointing like fingers into the sky, this forest, these deer by the side of the road, were and are revered by the tribes that had called this place home before white men found gold and killed them or pushed them out. Before the Black Hills became theme parks and fake gold mines and go-kart tracks and wild west shootouts staged for tourists, they were Sioux identity and heritage, and still are. I wanted Dana and Adam to enjoy seeing Mount Rushmore, but I didn’t want them looking at it in a naïve and uninformed vacuum. The rampant kitsch of the Black Hills is dangerous, and I didn’t want my kids to be so seduced or anesthetized by it that they gave no thought to the people whose homeland this had been or, indeed, to the beauty and essence of the land itself...

We stood in the wind at the end of a great walkway lined with flags and plaques of all the states of the union and gazed up at four granite men who’d helped create or preserve or defend America and its ideals at some turbulent or pivotal point in its still-young life. I wondered what they thought as they looked down over us now...

By the time crowds and traffic had begun to thicken around Rushmore, portending a sloth-paced touristic sludge by early afternoon, we were far away, first on spectacular Needles Scenic Byway, then on Iron Mountain Road toward Keystone, catching glimpses of the monumental heads across the valley, the stone portraits framed by the orange and pink spires and rock arches and narrow stone tunnels of these thin, twisting ribbons of high forest road.


April 22, 2006

Greenland: The mother of all meltdowns

On this Earth Day, I offer a suggestion for those in power who deny or dodge the reality of global warming: Fly over Greenland.

It’s melting, and that thought, coupled with a view from the air of this unutterably vast icemass, will scare the pants off anyone who thinks continuing to mess around with the earth is no big deal.

The kids and I were flying home from Scotland, and our connecting flight out of Reykjavik, Iceland (photo) took us closer to the Arctic than I’d ever flown before in daylight. I saw the North Atlantic in her frigid, February glory, and, while most of what I saw awed me – gray-green swells lit yellow at their tops by a low, intense sun; tankers and trawlers riding the sickening crests of big-jawed waves; legions of slow-moving, near-frozen whitecaps decorating the black water like winter merinque – some of what I saw terrified me.

We were flying into daylight, and the air was cloudless and crystalline, so as we approached Greenland, every topographical detail jumped out in vivid, frightening relief. Chilled by the clarity of the scene, I gathered my fleece tighter around my shoulders.

When I spied snow-covered Greenland in the distance, I saw between it and us a huge expanse of tall, white structures seemingly built on a thin crust of ice in the gun-metal sea. I was surprised to see what I thought was a manmade community of ice-houses and buildings. But as we got closer, I saw they were behemoth blocks calved from icebergs, stuck in place by the sea, which was frozen solid for about a mile off Greenland’s coast. Nearer the coastline, icebergs as big as office buildings towered above and between waves that were frozen and unmoving. Here, the North Atlantic was a massive, unbroken ice sheet.

We crossed the coastline and began our flight over Greenland proper. Inland ran a range of mountains that looked soft and rounded because they were buried beneath years of thick, virgin drifts. Deceptively beautiful drifts whose depth and remoteness would swallow you silently and make you disappear. A cobalt-veined glacier tracked through the rolling snowscape.

After the coastal range, Greenland became a completely flat, white ice world. As far as you could see. Raw and never-ending. The stark, white, unbroken sheet ran hundreds of miles up to the curvature of the earth and, I knew, beyond... and beyond. The power of the place to intimidate was overwhelming. Then, more mountains, everywhere, infinitely, with giant, blue-fingered glaciers crawling through them. The glaciers’ ends were azure-tinged cliffs, hundreds of feet high.

White-ice Greenland went on for what felt like a lifetime, and I was eager to be away from it. While the kids drew Vikings in their notebooks – Adam’s were heavily armed, and Dana’s had names like “Viking Dog,” “Viking Cat” and “Kelly, the Viking Girl” – I began to feel queasy. Greenland was making me sick.

We’d been bumped to first class, so the flight attendants were attentive – and perceptive: “Excuse me. Would you like a cognac?” I’d never tasted cognac, but it sounded like just the thing to take the scary edge off Greenland.

As I sipped, I wrote this in my journal:

“Greenland has been going on forever. At least the last 45 minutes, and all through dinner. And I just looked at the route map. We are crossing but a minuscule speck of the mass that is Greenland. If this place ever melts, we’re all in big trouble.”


April 19, 2006

Nafplio: Bouboulina and the Bourtzi

(A version of this story appeared in March 2005.)

Nafplio, Greece may be the Peloponnesean peninsula's most beautiful town, and life there moves at the unhurried, languid pace of hot places. When in Nafplio, visitors who live by the "early to bed, early to rise" maxim at home find themselves making adjustments to their usual routines.

Old, cobbled, twisting and whitewashed, Nafplio rises late, bustles from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, closes up tight for rest and family meals during the afternoon’s hottest hours, goes back to work for a bit in the early evening, dines at ten and later, then cruises the seafront promenade until the cool, early hours of tomorrow morning.

Nafplio's action centers around Syndagma (Constitution) Square and the quay built along the Aegean.

Syndagma is a sweeping, marble-cobbled public space ringed by tavernas and anchored by fabulous architecture that tells Nafplio’s history. Sit at an al fresco café table and absorb a view that serves up the Palamidi, the 700-foot-high Venetian fortress and crown of Nafplio; an imposing 18th-century Venetian naval warehouse-turned museum; an exquisite brick mosque built by the Ottoman Turks and reincarnated by the Greeks as a movie theater; and the square itself, site of fervent demonstrations for Greek independence and a Greek constitution.

Nafplio also hangs out on its seafront promenade (small photo), and evening is when things come alive. The place to be is quayside Bouboulina Street, named for Laskarina Bouboulina, a widowed mother of seven who commanded significant naval operations during the 1821 Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Turks and who participated personally in the siege of Nafplio.

Along Bouboulina Street couples stroll; grandmothers sit with grandbabies on their laps; small boys hold their fathers’ hands and lean down over the water looking for fish; young people cruise the promenade on motorbikes; taverna diners turn their chairs toward the sea and linger over meals of sparkling seafood served by places like the Poseidon (large photo); whole families walk the cobbles, sometimes holding hands; tourists try to capture the mellow mystery of this beautiful place, easing themselves into café seats, envying the people who live here; trios and quartets of big-bellied old men in short-sleeve shirts sit on waterfront benches, stare out at the rippling water, and retell worn, treasured stories.

Out in the bay, where boats bob at anchor, floats the Bourtzi (peeking between the palm fronds in the bottom photo), turned silhouette by a fireball sunset that paints the sea and sky orange and magenta and the Argolid mountains purple.

The Bourtzi looks like a dream, but the vision belies the building’s turbulent past. Built by the Venetians in 1471, it and its namesake island began life as a fort – Castel Pasqualigo – built to protect the entrance to what was then Venetian Napoli. After
Venetians, Byzantines and Turks left the scene and Greeks regained control of Nafplio in 1822, the Bourtzi did a stint as a prison.

It later became home of the town’s hangman. Town elders had to ensure that Nafplio’s citizenry wasn’t sullied by contact with the man with the dirty job. So, to keep him a proper, decorous distance from townspeople, municipal leaders sequestered the hangman out in the harbor in the cold stone rooms of the old prison, where he effectively became a prisoner himself.

Today, people sit in Nafplio and look wistfully out at the Bourtzi. A hundred and fifty years ago, a man with a job considered necessary but too foul to allow intercourse with the general populace sat in the clammy, sunless rooms of the Bourtzi and looked wistfully in at Nafplio.


April 15, 2006

Valley of Fire

Las Vegas, while ecologically criminal, is a great vacation destination for those seeking a temporary suspension of reality. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it, but Vegas was great fun. We gambled, up to a limit we'd established before leaving home: Mike put 25 cents in a slot machine at the Mirage. When we got home, we told people we’d lost everything we'd bet.

Vegas is weird and unnatural, and that’s its appeal. Some of my favorite moments came during dawn runs down the Strip. The megawattage of round-the-clock casinos lit the way through the 6 a.m. still-dark, and I noted that, save for the homeless and a few locals on their way to work, I was pretty much the only person in Vegas up for the new day at that hour. Lots of people were still working on yesterday and hadn’t been to bed yet. Limo drivers ferrying all-night partyers back to their hotels tooted and waved, often through the din of inebriated passengers shooting through the cars' sunrooves, arms in the air, mouths casting loud, happy, unintelligible mumbles into the pre-dawn.

When you need a break from Vegas’s bright lights, buffets and bacchanalia, rent a car and head for the Valley of Fire, a remarkable state park one hour northeast of the Strip . This compact, beautiful place serves up the full spectrum of Mojave Desert scenery and topography in one short road trip. A six dollar entrance fee puts you on a series of roads that run through the park and past a visual feast of red rock, sandstone formations, cactus and desert scrub, fields of petrified wood, magenta mountains and ancient petroglyphs.

At massive Atlatl Rock, a wooden staircase takes you to a high viewing platform built next to a magnificent collection of 1,500 to 3,000 year-old petroglyphs carved into the stone face. At the Beehives (photo), orange sandstone mounds eroded into busty, elegant swirls, the kids did some rock climbing and hid from the hot sun in cool niches worn into the formations' sides.

Park your car at Arch Rock and walk around to its back side, where nature over eons has carved two stories of rooms into the monolith the arch rests on. A giant stone condo. We sat inside and thought about the Fremont and Anasazi people believed to have spent time in this valley and thought to be the artists of the Artlatl petroglyophs. They probably rested, perhaps lived, where we sat. Today, you can get married at Arch Rock. For about a grand, Las Vegas Weddings 4 You will transport you from Vegas, get you hitched, and broadcast your wedding video over the Internet. (What would the Fremont think?)

When you’ve had your fill of this beautiful place, head back to Vegas the way you came, or continue up to Lake Mead and Hoover Dam before returning to the Strip. The road through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area yields views of the biggest, bluest desert sky you’ve ever seen, mountain goats standing atop great ridges covered in scrub, oases of wild palms nurtured by natural springs, gentle curves and undulations falling away from the road down to Lake Mead, which shimmers in the distance. Stop at boat put-ins like Callville Bay to ogle the seriously tricked-out houseboats (they're for rent) tied up at the marina.

We made a quick visit to Hoover Dam. You can take the expensive Visitor Center tour into the bowels of the dam, but we skipped that, opting instead to stand, for free, on the road that runs atop the mighty dam and connects Nevada to Arizona. Mountain and Pacific time zones meet atop Hoover, and one clock tower tells "Nevada Time," the other, "Arizona Time," an hour later. We took in the powerful view – Lake Mead on one side, the Colorado River on the other.

Hoover Dam is 25 miles from Vegas. We were back in time for happy hour.


April 12, 2006

Boston Marathon: 26 miles of sights

The 110th edition of the Boston Marathon gets under way at noon on April 17, Patriots’ Day, when Massachusetts commemorates Paul Revere’s midnight ride.

As I tucked my spring marathon away two weeks ago, my work is done, so I plan, weather permitting, to snake an extension cord out to the deck, put my legs up on the railing, enjoy a few Coronas with lime, and watch the race on TV. Here’s to you, runners. May you have wings on your feet. (OLN will carry the race live starting at 11:30 a.m. EST and will rebroadcast it at 5 p.m.)

There’s nothing like running Boston. A piece of you becomes part of the history of the world’s oldest continuous annual marathon, and the race gives back far more than it takes out of you. Closing in on the Boylston Street finish (above) in Boston’s Copley Square – crowds clapping, the Prudential and Hancock towers touching the clouds above your head, H.H. Richardson’s masterful Trinity Church visible just beyond the finish line clock – is a rich moment. You feel it forever.

But the 26 miles that you cover before hitting Boylston Street offer their own magic, and if you’re a middle-of-the-packer like me and not focused solely on the time clock, there’s a lot to see along the way. Some highlights from the route:

* Hopkinton Common – Both the Boston Marathon and the Charles River begin in Hopkinton, incorporated in 1715. Revolutionary War-era homes line the Common, and some of the owners open their homes on marathon day to athletes from specific running clubs or geographic areas. One house hosts Texans and another welcomes runners from Oklahoma. The hospitality of the people of Hopkinton is remarkable, given that on race day their bucolic New England village is besieged -- overrun you might say -- by 20,000 microfiber-clad strangers. On Patriots’ Day, runners outnumber residents by about two to one.

* Natick’s historic district – The town was chartered by English settlers in 1650, when it was home to a tribe of Narragansett Indians. At the outbreak of King Philip's War in 1675, the community's British colonists imprisoned the native Narragansett on Deer Island in Boston Harbor, where most died. Natick surrounds Lake Cochituate, which runners pass at about Mile 8 before entering the welcome shade of the Henry Wilson Historic District. The tree-lined district, named for the man who served as Ulysses Grant's vice president, brims with impeccably maintained Victorian, Queen Anne and Gothic revival mansions.

* Wellesley – At mile 12, when I ran past the screaming gauntlet of Wellesley College students who line the route outside the gates of the venerable, all-female institution, I was one of the only women in the knot of runners I’d fallen in with, and the cheers of support from the ladies of Wellesley overwhelmed me. I nearly cried. In the din, I heard some half-dozen variations on the “You go, girl” theme. You hear the roars from the Wellesley students long before you reach the college, and runners call this uplifting stretch the “tunnel of sound.” Just beyond the college sits a food store, Bread & Circus, opened in affluent Wellesley in 1980 and a beacon for the natural food-inclined ever since. (I used to drive the 15 miles one way to get there until grocery chains wised up and began stocking [ little teasing bits of] chemical-free food.) Owned since 1992 by Whole Foods, the orange slices held out to runners here are different from oranges proffered elsewhere along the route: these are organic.

* NewtonNewton is where things fall apart for some runners. Newton is hilly, and Heartbreak Hill, which grinds you down as you chug upward toward Boston College, is only a small piece of the eight miles that wind through this city’s various and distinct parts. Cruelly – or perhaps thankfully – the Woodland MBTA train station (just after the Newton-Wellesley Hospital), welcomes you to – or delivers you from – Newton. More runners drop out in Newton than anywhere else on the course. At sprawling City Hall, Mile 19, runners in the know look for “Young at Heart,” the bronze dual statue of a young and an old Johnny Kelley, which sits under the trees on the left side of the road. You glance at the statue and pay homage to and absorb all the good karma you can from this legend who ran Boston 61 times, won it twice, finished second seven times, and left our earth at age 97.

* Brighton to Beacon Street in Brookline – At Brighton, Mile 22, the route goes urban. Cleveland Circle (which isn't– it’s just a rounded corner where the course starts to parallel the MBTA’s Green Line trolley tracks) marks the transition from suburbs to city. In Brookline, only seven miles square and once a place for country homes for well-to-do Boston merchants, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in 1917. The course here is narrow and close.
Runners are wedged between the trolley tracks and the cheering, banner-waving crowds that stand in front of Beacon Street’s lineup of wise old brownstones.

* The Citgo Sign – When you see the iconic Citgo sign towering over Boston’s Kenmore Square near Boston University, you know you’re going to make it. Just a few miles to go. It may be the logo of a Venezuelan gas company, but Bostonians, and Boston marathoners, love their Citgo sign. “You did it," it says to 20,000 runners every Patriots' Day. "Bring it on home."

* Fenway Park – Your legs kill but your brain bubbles with the anticipation of finishing when you near Fenway, the Green Monster, which got a $40 million extreme makeover in time for the 2006 baseball season. (The home opener was yesterday. The Sox beat Toronto.) Since 1954, the Red Sox have scheduled every Patriots’ Day game at home to make their baseball coincide with the running of the Boston Marathon. Game time is rigged so baseball fans exit the park at about the same time that the marathon’s lead runners pass. If the Sox win, fans come out happy and cheer on the dog-tired runners. If the Sox lose, fans come out sad and get reinspired by the dog-tired runners.

To those making the journey on Monday, Godspeed, and enjoy.


April 09, 2006

Copacabana: The Virgin, the pope and the popcorn ladies

A recent item in the Los Angeles Times reported that $30 of raw popcorn can generate $3,000 in sales at a movie theater concession stand. The Bolivian women selling popcorn outside the cathedral in Copacabana on Lake Titicaca don’t enjoy a thousand percent profit margin, but when the plaza that fronts the cathedral fills with campesinos who come for blessings on their cars and trucks, the popcorn ladies can move more than a few bags of the white stuff.

I bought Adam a red plastic bag of it. Big as his torso. We sat down by the cathedral to people-watch. I scooped a handful of popcorn and discovered it was coated in sugar. I was on vacation, so I kept eating.

Some two dozen members of an extended family, covered in streamers and confetti, sat on the sidewalk outside the cathedral gate near their brand new van, bedecked from bumper to bumper with crepe paper flowers. One of the family’s men stood in front of the van and faced the cathedral. Head bowed and hands clasped in prayer, he asked the Virgin of Copacabana to bless the vehicle and those who would travel in it. While Bolivia’s indians practice the Catholicism brought by Spanish priests and conquistadores, they keep all their bases covered and pepper their Christianity with ancient Aymara traditions and beliefs. So, while one man prayed, the rest of the family ate, imbibed and drizzled drink onto the pavement to honor Pacha Mama – Mother Earth. The offering would help ensure safe journeys in the van and good mechanical karma under its hood.

Inside the cathedral, the Virgin of Copacabana (also known as the Virgen de la Candelaria) reigns. She is the mistress of Lake Titicaca. Copacabana’s population is some 4,000. But on the Virgin's Feast Day in August, over 50,000 people from Peru and Bolivia come to Copacabana to worship her.

She stands, four feet high, inside a niche above the 400-year-old cathedral’s audacious, breathtaking gold and silver altar. But her back is to you. For good luck. (To see her face, you visit a small chapel tucked behind the altar.)

To preserve peace and good fortune in Copacabana, indian lore dictates two things: the Virgin must face Lake Titicaca, and she cannot be moved. The church’s altar faces away from the lake, so the Virgin looks out, not in. Only on weekends and feast days, when the sanctuary is filled with pious pilgrims, do church elders dare turn her around for mass. Service over, before anything bad happens, they spin her quickly back lakeward.

The "cannot be moved" dictate (other than those mass day spins) is immovable, even when the Church's big cheese suggests bending the rules. Years ago, Pope John Paul II visited Bolivia and wanted to see the Copacabana Virgin. He asked that she be taken to the capital, La Paz, where he was staying. Copacabana's religious officials were faced with a no-win situation: on the one hand, the sacred, permanently-rooted Virgin and the fate of the city. On the other, an impossible request from the Holy See’s big boss.

Their flocks saved the Catholic fathers from having to make a messy decision. Campesinos by the thousands descended on Copacabana and surrounded the cathedral. They said "no" to moving the Virgin to La Paz. Church officials took the people’s "no" to John Paul. The pontiff took it in stride, and the Virgin stayed put.

The guy was cool. He probably said, "Never mind. How about some popcorn? And pour some sugar over it, like they do in Copacabana."

April 05, 2006

Travel America

I have a book reading tonight at the West Bridgewater Public Library here in the Boston area. (At 7 p.m., if you're from these parts and looking for a TV alternative.) This "Evening of American Travel" will mix excerpts from Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America with a slide show of images from across the U.S. Here's an excerpt I'll be sharing:

We crossed the southern Nevada desert on a morning when forecasters down in Vegas promised 110 degrees. I knew we were in for a challenge when we hit Modena, Utah. On the map, it looked like a sizeable border town, and I’d planned to fill up there and take a mental deep breath before we jumped into Nevada.

In real life, Modena sat in an elbow-shaped depression off Route 56. We looked down on its tiny entirety from the highway, and I saw nothing inviting. The Nevada crossing was the only point in the trip I’d had any concern about, as the map showed few towns and great, hot distance between them. Looking down on Modena, it hit me that maps are collections of comparisons. Whether something’s written big or small on a map depends on what’s around it that cartographers compare it to. Modena was near nothing, so they wrote it big. That doesn’t mean it has a gas station. If it did, I didn’t see it.

We came to the Nevada line and entered eight hours of utter brown desolation. Leaving Utah felt like stepping off into a giant superheated void. This was the trip’s longest day.

Through all of Nevada, we’d climb about 1,500 feet to the crests of 6,000-foot summits, plateau at that elevation for a while, then drop 1,500 feet to do it all over again. We crested Panaca Summit at 6,719 feet, then coasted about 10 miles downhill into the town of Panaca. We needed gas. We had half a tank and all of Nevada in front of us. Like Modena, Panaca was big on the map. And, it was the last place writ large for a long, long stretch. If Panaca didn’t have gas, we were in trouble.

The town was a shock. Route 319 cut through downtown, where we saw not a soul. There was Panaca Market, a Mormon church, and the Spud Shop, which sold something called spudnuts. No gas station. Was this a joke? Were we in a bad dream? People could buy spudnuts in Panaca, Nevada, writ big on the map, but no gas? My hands clammed up on the steering wheel as I looked clear to the end of Panaca where Route 319 dead-ended at Route 93. I knew we couldn’t leave this town without buying gas, because the map showed a whole lot of hundred-degree nothing beyond it. I made plans. I’d call AAA on the cell phone and have them deliver. I’d flag down passing cars and pay them to siphon gas into New Paint’s tank. I’d find a local rancher and buy up his supply of tractor gas.

Just as I had us putting down temporary roots in Panaca, (“Hi, Mike, it’s us. Just wanted to let you know we’ll be a few days late meeting you in Fort Bragg because we’re living in Panaca, Nevada until we find gas.”) an old service station appeared. It was a full-serve. I laughed out loud, because New Paint needed an oil check, too. Hot dang. Good joss, this!

Two guys were working under the hood of a white pickup. We sat at the pumps for a few minutes, waiting to be full-served. We were three feet from these guys. Neither looked up. There was an old man inside the station. He didn’t come out. I got out of the van and waited. Nothing. I popped the hood and stood there. Not so much as a “be with you in a minute.” Adam got out of the van and stood next to me. We were invisible. “I guess we’ll have to figure out how to check the oil,” I said so they could hear. Nothing. None of the three grown men at this blistering outpost paid any attention to a woman traveling across the desert with two children. Yes, this was a joke, and we were in a bad dream.

I filled the tank and went inside to pay. A trio of slovenly, overweight people was stocking up on 9:30 a.m. chips and soda. The leathery old man behind the counter took my money without looking up. He said nothing. I read all the signs and newspaper clippings he’d tacked up. I figured he wanted me out of there, so I took my time. “Dear IRS, Please Cancel My Subscription.” “If you’re grouchy or ornery there’ll be an extra $10 charge for puttin’ up with you.” “It’s easy to call branding inhumane when you’re sipping wine in Las Vegas.” And the handwritten chart showing mileage between Panaca and other populated places. Beyond nearby Pinoche and Caliente, every other place was triple digits away. I went outside feeling bad. We’d just started Nevada, and it hadn’t shown us anything good.

When I got to the van, one of the guys who’d been working on the pickup had just finished checking the oil and coolant and was teaching Adam how to do it. He told me everything was full, that everything “looked good.” That was all. No other conversation, no questions, no lingering.

But that’s all that was needed to redeem Nevada.

Excerpted from Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America. Copyright Lori Hein, 2004

April 01, 2006

Cemeteries: Stories in the stones

I saw a strange thing on my way home from downtown Boston. I was on one of the old, winding parkways that feed into and out of the city. I came to a red light and found myself idling next to a small headstone shop. (Monument dealer? Memorial store? Grave outlet?) Planted in the dirt around the property were signs announcing, “SALE!” and “SALE TODAY!” Signs you see at discount mattress places and used car lots.

Gray and rose-colored granite stones etched with angels, curlicues and open Bibles rose from a sad, yellow lawn outside the showroom window, and the banners touting get-‘em-while-you-can gravestone bargains fluttered between them. It was disconcerting. Were they offering two-for-ones? Buy one get one for half-price? Discounts on last year’s models? Frequent dier memberships –bury three people with us and the fourth one’s on the house? And was this really a one-day sale? Did the owners think buyers would rush over to stock up on gravestones because they were cheap today or that someone with an old or ill relative would detach himself from his remote and recliner and say to his wife, “Edna, I’ll be back. Dad’s gonna die soon, so I’ll head over to that tombstone sale and pick something out.” Or that people on the parkway – people like me – would see the sign and swerve in to make a monolithic impulse buy?

A crisply dressed young salesman with clipboard and pen came out of the showroom with a potential customer, a fifty-something guy in jeans and a bomber jacket sucking on a large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Before the light turned green, I watched them peruse the inventory stuck in the lawn. They pointed, nodded, smiled and joked. There was none of the sadness you see when you drive past a family shopping for a stone and find yourself torn between looking and looking away. Maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe when you don’t need it is the very time to buy a grave.

When I travel, I look for graves. You learn things about a place by visiting the silent yards, fields and confines where people bury their dead.

The body-shaped mound in the Amazon jungle, covered by a reverent roof of thatch, ever-tended, where rests a beloved tribal chief. The Breton cemetery on the Rose Granite Coast where polished graves hold plaques honoring Resistance fighters who quietly worked to take back Nazi-occupied France. The Istanbul tombs marked by green stone turbans announcing that these deceased had made the haj to Mecca. The centuries-old stone in the churchyard at Duloe, England, a Cornish town, which tells the tale, in poem, of a young man’s death at sea: “Unfortunately Drown’ed in The Shallow Pool and was Swallow’ed by The Deep.” Near the lost sailor rest two brothers: Richard Brapp died in 1888 at the age of four years and nine months. In 1891, his brother, William, died – at the age of four years and nine months. Oh, the incredible grief of Mr. and Mrs. Brapp! From more than a hundred years ago, it bolts up out of the ground and stabs you in the heart.

And places like La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the cemetery has assumed urban legend status. Eva Peron lies in La Recoleta (photo above), and I happened to visit on an anniversary of her death. A line of people 20-deep waited to lay blood-red flowers at her crypt.

As I walked through La Recoleta, a city of the dead where massive, ornate mausoleums simultaneously mourn and celebrate our human passing, I noticed the cat lady. She wandered about, looking at the ground, peering around corners and down the eerie alleys that weave through the rows of towering tombs. Spying a cat, she’d retreat to some cool, shadowy space between the tall marble and granite graves, open a plastic sack of food scraps, and wait. A dozen cats would appear from nowhere to eat what the old lady lovingly tossed. They were family, the cemetery lady and her raggedy cats.

In La Recoleta, the tombs are property, and people own their mausoleums. They pay taxes, about $500 per year for a good-sized mausoleum. And they can sell their crypts.

When you buy a used mausoleum, you want your dead’s name on the door, so buyers often erase the name of the previously deceased and sandblast in the name of the newly departed. Some new owners use the tear-down, build-up strategy, demolishing old crypts and erecting new ones in their footprints.

There are tombs that hold 30-foot-deep stacks of coffins, generations of a family’s dead piled atop one another under the earth. You peer down into the crypt chamber through a wrought iron grate and look upon centuries of life and death and inhale the musty odor of bones and wood and worms. On shelves carved into the earthen rock lie coffins, large and small, new and old, intact and broken. Way down there in the dark and the dirt lies a tiny one with a date from the 1700s.

A baby died in the 18th century in Buenos Aires, and you stand now, looking at a dusty, infant-sized box in the ground. And you wonder about that life, and that time.

Where shall we go next?