Archive for September, 2011

Where Two Rivers Become One

Thursday, September 29th, 2011


-Standing at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers

Michael stands at the crossroads of America. Behind him is the confluence of two of its greatest rivers, the actual spot where the 2,541-mile Missouri River flows into the 2,320-mile Mississippi River just north of St. Louis. This is the place from which the Lewis & Clark Expedition left in 1804 to explore the West and to which they returned in 1806.

The water in the Missouri flows from its headwaters in Montana through the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. This combined waterway is the world’s third longest with the Nile and Amazon ranking first and second respectively. The surrounding wetlands are part of the Mississippi River flyway, making it a great place to see waterfowl, including bald eagles and raptors.

In 1721, French explorer, Father Pierre Francois de Charlevoix, wrote of these two mighty rivers, “I believe this is the finest confluence in the world. The two rivers are much the same breadth, each about half a league: but the Missouri is by for the most rapid, and seems to enter the Mississippi like a conqueror, through which it carries its white waters to the opposite shore without mixing them, afterwards, it gives its color to the Mississippi which it never loses again but carries quite down to the sea.”

Beverly Hills

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

We remember Beverly Hills from our westward journeys down Route 66. The venerable Mother Road uses the alias Santa Monica Boulevard in this ritzy neck of the woods as it nears its terminus at the Pacific shore. When we motor past the posh palaces and smart shops of Beverly Hills we are reminded that this mecca for the rich and famous was carved out of an old Spanish land grant covered with sagebrush.

Less than six square miles in area, Beverly Hills was the brain child of entrepreneur Burton E. Green, a land developer who, in the early 1900s, named his newly created California city for his hometown of Beverly Farms, Massachusetts. The fledgling motion picture industry was booming in nearby Hollywood and when Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford came to Beverly Hills and built their “Pickfair” estate in 1919, a legion of other celluloid luminaries soon followed, including Tom Mix, Will Rogers, John Barrymore, Gloria Swanson, and Rudolph Valentino.

Always a city of superlatives, Beverly Hills developed into an oasis completely surrounded by the megopolis of Los Angeles. Known as the most prestigious address in America, city promoters tout the community as a trend setter in fashion, lifestyle, and beauty. But we like what Ray Riegert had to say in his book, Hidden Southern California: The Adventurer’s Guide.

It’s a rags-to-riches town with a lot of Horatio Alger stories to tell. The world capitol of wealth and glamour, Beverly Hills is a place in which driving a BMW makes you a second-class citizen and where the million-dollar houses are in the poorer part of town. The community with more gardeners per capita than any other United States city, Beverly Hills is one of the few spots outside Texas where flaunting your money is still considered good taste. A facelift here is as common as a haircut and many of the residents look like they’ve been embalmed for the past thirty years.

Beverly Hills will always play host to both royalty and swarms of tourists all seeking the ultimate experience, whether it’s at the Polo Lounge in the famed Beverly Hills Hotel (built in 1912 at Sunset Boulevard and Beverly Drive), in one of the trendy restaurants, or at the splashy designer boutiques with outrageous prices along the three blocks of Rodeo Drive (pronounced roh-DAY-oh) in the heart of this city that is simply too much.

Campo Santo

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

It was in the high desert of Arizona just across the New Mexico border. We were traveling west as far as we could go, all the way to the Pacific shore. Our vehicles of choice for this particular adventure were a blue van filled with ice chests and the songs of Woody Guthrie and the Eagles, and in the lead a ragtop Corvette, as red as spilled blood, that rolled off the assembly line in 1964.

Bitter coffee and a greasy Gallup breakfast churned in our stomachs, and we stayed thirsty all the time. Bottled water and a sack of shriveled peaches and grapes helped a little. Those riding in the van sucked in waves of cool air pouring from the dashboard vents. In the convertible, we tried to stay comfortable with damp bandannas — cowboy air conditioners — tied around our necks, and dreams of motel swimming pools that became real every evening. It was coming up on the Fourth of July and there had not been any rain for a long time. Just lots of sun and record high temperatures that made front-page news all summer long.

We passed a traditional Navajo hogan made of logs and earth and saw a herd of sheep crowded into the slim ring of shade on one side of the dwelling. At the state line we paused at Chief Yellowhorse, a stucco teepee trading post, to look at the neat rows of steer skulls baking in the desert heat. As usual some tourists, this time a family from Arkansas, inspected us and the vintage Corvette. We bid them adieu and took to the road. The towns of Lupton, Allentown, Houck, Sanders, and Chambers came and went. Despite the strong sun it was a gentle ride. Like desert creatures we were adjusting to the climate.

Then off to the right, we spied the graveyard. At first it appeared to be an illusion, our eyes being tricked by the hot air near the surface of the earth. But we slowed down and saw it might be real. Without anyone saying a word, we turned around and went back. We stopped the van and the Corvette in the swirls of cinnamon-colored dust to pay our respects to those we never knew.

There was simplicity to the cemetery. No mausoleums, no bronze gates, no granite obelisks. There were no marble angels and lambs with fancy curls, or elaborate tombstones shipped from St. Louis. The graveyard had a natural beauty without relying on manicured lawns and paths trimmed with ivy.

We realized that this was consecrated ground. It was a campo santo — a blessed field. For twenty minutes, it became our oasis. The wood was weathered, and the inscriptions had been erased by too many seasons of dry winds and blowing sand. Now, only those who came on Memorial Day to pull up brittle grass, brush away tumbleweeds, and leave jars of wild blossoms knew for sure who rested there. Survivors returned on special dates, like feast days or birthdays and anniversaries. They usually came around Christmastime, to festoon the graves with plastic poinsettias and garland from Wal-Mart.

As we walked among the dead, no one spoke very much. The strong hot wind blew away our words and we stayed content with our thoughts. In our minds, we decided it was an Indian cemetery. We found a grave with a handmade sign that could still be read listing the name and the years of the man buried below and a rubber Mighty Mouse doll, like a smiling cherub, was wired to the marker. Nearby, we stood over another man who died when he was too young. From the barely visible dates we thought he had been a soldier in Vietnam. A china Madonna, intact except for her face, guarded the grave. We stood there and, as the living always does, passed judgment over the dead. We guessed that probably not a soul buried there had ever uttered a line of Hamlet or gazed at a Cezanne or listed to a single stanza of Handel.

But as we turned to leave, we choked on our presumptions. We realized that in the silent dirt were people who had been given other gifts. They had been enraptured by the oral literature of elders who tended sheep and molded pottery and wove rugs that were works of art. They had watched thousands of sunsets that no one could ever capture on film or canvas. They had memorized the poetry of the coyote’s song. The eternal wind was their benediction.

Back on the road we stayed quiet for many miles. Then without warning, the hot wind vanished and the sky changed color. A cool rain fell and broke the earth’s fever. We left the top down on the Corvette and opened the van’s windows. The steady rain stayed with us the rest of the day as we raced on.

That evening, around yet another motel pool, we toasted the dying day with glasses of water cold enough to make us shiver. It was decided that even though the graveyard we had visited was on the beaten path none of us were certain we could ever find it again. Perhaps it had been only a mirage after all.

But inside the motel room was an ashtray holding highway treasure. Mixed with the souvenir fragments of concrete from the Mother Road, the old buckle and buttons dug from the pavement, the bits of animal born, and café matchbooks was a piece of glass we had found buried in the dust. It appeared to be a tiny Madonna’s face. Her painted eyes were closed and there was just the trace of a smile. She was our best gift. She was the most revered of all our totems. It was Christmas in July. Our mirage was truly real.