Category Archives: Travel

GHOSTS OF INHUMANITY

It wasn’t all that long ago really when Dad, Mom, and the kids joined the vendors around the scaffold of a fine day, in, say, Dodge City or Denver. A row of men (usually, anyway) kicking and bouncing around at rope’s end, trying to touch the ground or breathe, their hands behind their backs, provided entertainment with a morality lesson. If a subject wasn’t an especially repulsive individual, or the executioner got a few pence, the latter might calculate the rope-length/body-weight ratio and the neck would snap with the drop. We Westerners have outgrown treating executions as a spectacle to be looked forward to, though. We’re familiar with the stonings in the Middle East, the amputations for thievery and such, and are properly repulsed.

But like I said, it hasn’t been long since executions were cause for a public outing in our sophisticated world.
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That interest in gruesome fates hasn’t fully faded yet. Picture a group of witnesses, some somber, some thinking right on! Picture them seated on a little set of bleachers so close they can touch the glass of the chamber. A man (again, usually) is strapped into a chair and the cyanide is released. The guests watch him hold his breath, and they watch as the inevitable happens. If they want, they can see every horror-driven distortion of the condemned’s wrinkled face while his lungs sizzle.
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The gas chamber being held in awe in the above photo is at the recently-decommissioned Missouri State Pen, a place with an utterly gruesome past and an oddly active present.
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Cell 76 on the second floor in building 4, or A-Hall, is one with a busy repute, where two inmates slipped in to gouge out the eyes of one of its tenants and let him stew on that while they sliced him further until he crawled out onto the catwalk and bled to death. Shivs have always been a way of life in prison, and that was as true here at “The Walls” of Mo State as anywhere.
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Gougings and related murders were a daily occurrence for long periods of time in this penitentiary, one of which inspired, after the warden offed his own self, Time Magazine to dub Mo State as “The bloodiest 47 acres in America.”
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The prison opened in 1836 and before it closed in 2004, was the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi. Plumbing came in the 40s, and off-the-floor sleeping probably before that.
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Still, the violence only got worse. So then, do spirits of humans who spent their last seconds here still hang around? Imagine 5 or 6 or 8 guys squeezed into a tiny, frigid or baking cell with straw mats on the floor for bedding, one bucket of filthy water for drinking, and one bucket to shit in, while the din from whipping posts in concert with insane, echoing howls competes with the smells for the attention of the senses. It doesn’t take some childish eagerness-to-believe in unscientific phenomena to imagine that events where human emotion is stretched beyond all conceivability might just be capable of leaving a stamp, or a historical impress, that can be picked up on now and again. As for real-time interaction with the world of the dead, that’s not for me to adjudicate for you.

Below ground in A-Hall, a large number (documentation verifies 13 on one occasion) of inmates are forced into a limestone cubby hole where light equals what one finds in the depths of a cave when the last lantern battery dies.
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Blindness. A thick wooden door covers the steel door to ensure nothing resembling light will find a crack. The prisoner-quarried stone entombs the cell’s denizens at a thickness that promises no cracks of which any accident of sound might take advantage, either. There are two buckets. Which one has the water? The shit bucket will not be emptied by a guard for days. The dead bodies will be removed then too. No sooner.
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James Earl Ray, cell 45, escapes in a 4×4 box in the back of a bread truck. Less than a year later, he kills MLK. (Or was at least arrested for it, but I’d like to stay on target.)

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Sonny Liston’s talents were discovered by a couple of guards here.
Stagger Lee. I know I know that name. Blanche Barrow was put in the women’s facility when she was caught. She hated the movie.

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Cell 40 has made a name for itself, I see, on You Tube. I spent a few minutes in there alone, very quiet I did stay.
But other than the temperature dropping about 40 degrees, not much action. Kidding. It doesn’t matter. The history is enough.

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On the east coast of Ireland is a prison that has existed in one form or another for three centuries. Wicklow Gaol. A prison for all the people—men, women, and children—and for all the Catholic people in particular. The rebels of 1798, the croppies. The Popish.
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Women were thrown in with the men and if they had children, the British government would be damned if they were going to be babysitters.
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They did however provide an area for schooling. One of those children has never left, many people swear.
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You slept on the straw or the dirt. You worked.
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Sometimes men broke rocks and women took them to pave the road. During the years of rebellion, however, work was much more about punishment.
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Back-breaking work to produce nothing—a good way to fuck with their heads. Pick up a cannonball chest high, walk two steps, set it down, repeat for four more hours in the heat of the day.

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Or get on the treadmill for five hours and force it to turn and produce nothing. Mouth off and get shackled, or get your spine and ribs bared with the lash.

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Like the decommissioned penitentiary in Missouri, Wicklow Gaol suffers from no shortage of adamant witnesses to the paranormal. The true (verified or silenced) horror stories that accumulated in Wicklow throughout all those decades doubtless left marks that can still be felt.
Humans may grow intellectually, societies may become more sophisticated, but the fascination with horror is a part of us. The chief rule of the sane is to maintain a handle on fascinations.
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Finding the truth about what lies beyond may be a hobby for those who don’t deride it as silliness, but it is also, in another sense, a way to get a handle on the dangers that intrigue us.
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ARCH ENEMY (What not to do in St. Louis)

Westbound, soon to cross the Mississippi River. For several minutes you’ve been watching it from whichever angle the road wants to present it to you. Should you? Go up there? You’ve seen the other stuff. Most of it, anyway: the Golden Gate, Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, the giant baseball bat in downtown Louisville, the Grand Canyon, and of course the geyser thingy that ejaculates in a fashion you can set your watch by. The Time’s-Running-Out list still has a blank square next to Gateway Arch, though. It’s early in the day. It’s decided then. You cross the widest drainage ditch in the country, where all water between the Rockies and the Appalachians goes. Sort of.

You cruise off the interstate at a convenient-looking downtown exit. The Arch stays in sight, just to the south. After a few stoplights, you see a sign that says “Gateway Arch” with an arrow pointing left. At the next block, you see an Arch-arrow pointing up, or straight, you’re pretty sure. You look up anyway and there it is, the top of the Arch, so that arrow’s ambiguous. The lower parts of the Arch, however, are to your left, so you figure you will be led back around to it, possibly to bypass the road construction in progress. No different than any other downtown. And there you see it at the next light: “Gateway Arch” and an arrow pointing left. Done. A block later: Gateway Arch! And an arrow pointing again to the left. You turn and are driving from whence you came. You pass the Arch, look for that next sign. Maybe you missed it, so you make the same circuit, see the same sets of signs, end up doing the same thing, expecting a different result.

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By the fourth time around you try something new, get yourself caught in a line of vehicles going nowhere. Are they empty? Have you parked on the street without even knowing? No. Heads bob, brake lights are tapped. And then you see the sign: “Park Here.” Ok. That’s doable. You’re in line. Somehow. You wait your turn. You pay the nice lady collecting money at the entrance and proceed. The yellow “BEST NOT BE NO HIGHER THAN THIS” gate-arm seems to pass through the roof of your pick-up truck like a ghost. You’re on level one. The purple level. You drive to the end and have to make a tight turn up a ramp. The concrete ceiling—you just know—is going to scrape the hell out of your truck’s roof at this angle. The radio antenna bends ninety-degrees and makes all the noises it looks like it should. Your roof is unmolested and you continue. You continue just as soon as you back up and almost hit the guy who’s on your tail. Honk. Your corner is too tight to negotiate without drilling one of the parked cars ahead of you. It requires a second try. You are on the orange level, where there are no empty slots. At the end of the row, you make another one of those crazy-tight turns and cringe as you wait for the concrete overhead to key your paint like a psycho girlfriend. But it doesn’t and what’s more, there’s an empty slot right in front of you. But back up because now you see the sign that says “COMPACT CARS ONLY.” On the blue level, four stories up, parking spots are everywhere. Laughing.

Hobblestones

Hobblestones

Down the stairs and down the stairs, and then onto the cobblestone walk. You call them hobblestones. They deserve it, what with those wide gaps and uneven surfaces. Kinda neat though. A few blocks later you pass “Arch Parking.” Much closer, much cleaner, much unadvertised. Son of a…. To the west, the streets rise sharply Godward, but just for a couple of blocks. It’s Louis, not Francisco. Chilly for this far into the spring, but a pretty day to all but the unhappy. You see pretty people–a preponderance of them from across the Pacific for some couldn’t-venture-a-guess reason. Even without the Grand Draw playing tricks with light in the sky, you notice the area has a singular feel to it. History.
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Much silent contemplation going on, much tilting of heads, much encouraging the beloved other to lean in and absorb body heat along with the picture, to inhale scent, artificial and real, and to smile inwardly. Incredible minds came together as one here, and they have not left. The sight of the approaching Japanese couple remind you that there’s a word, but what is it? Tomashii. The soul of the artist lives in his art. You see that so quickly it dazzles.

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Concrete steps drop to the river’s edge, wide steps that remind you of amphitheater seating from Roman Tunisia, which is probably because of all the backsides keeping them warm, bolstering the illusion. Front-sides are tuned into the river below. Like a dying midnight campfire, waves command attention. You and the other front-sides watch and listen. You listen with eyes closed. One sound for buffeting concrete, another for wood. The depths of the water were fathomed centuries ago, but the force of the current, to your simple mind, is unfathomable. Paddlewheels and barges. Swaying riverboats await passengers. A horse, carriage, and driver hold steady in their riverfront allotment for the next fare, both the horse and driver able to hear the local-history speech in their dreams by now, you suspect. A few blocks away, from a grassy knoll where the season has finally laid down its first patina of green, a cover-band entertains a handful of standing, jacket-clad pedestrians with metal, heavy and melodic. You passed them on the way. A touch of legato here, a sweep arpeggio there, the music rides the breeze. Your stride has been in sync. And like the Grand Canyon and the Pyramids, this Gateway Arch is not captured by any photograph. You look up and ask: How? You’ve asked the same question about the Parthenon. Architects have kept secrets for thousands of years. Architects and Metallurgists. You would too. It takes eyes better than yours to fix on the row of windows at the apex. Those tiny dots fading and returning. Time to go up there.

A ramp leads underground from either one of the Arch’s bases. The line is long and scarcely moving. You wonder what the deal is. In time you notice a voice coming from the PA. A recorded speech, over and over. You move a foot and a half more. People are entering the underground facility through glass doors some dozen yards ahead. The speech, that same giddy male voice that you’re sure was behind “You’ve got mail,” begins its cycle again. It was just so much background noise until now. You start to pick out words. You hear “search,” and “contents.” What? You hear “pockets.” Why did none of this occur to you until this late stage? What a target for terrorists. Next to the Statue of Liberty, above you stands what has to be second on the list. You twist your way out of line and begin that longest journey. Single step. Something. You estimate from memory: thirty minutes each way, to the minute, exactly, give or take.

After you climb up to the blue level, it’s been twenty minutes, but you didn’t tourist your way back. You look around. You looked around the whole way there, but you do it again. Cameras are trained on your every move but you pretend otherwise. Out of your left jacket pocket comes the OTF, one of your favorites. Out of the right, the one you can’t talk about. You don’t forget the butterfly contraption in your back pocket. Better sit in your vehicle, you decide, to unload the defenses in your shoes. Hey, you never know.

You’re back. Eventually you’re far enough along in line that you hear every loudspeaker word. Remove your jacket. Remove all items from your pockets, it says, including cell phones and all other electronic devices. Remove all jewelry including watches. Remove your belt. You will be ready. You will make it go smoothly for your part. You have in one hand: folding money, change, your camera, your wallet from which you’ve removed your driver’s license and the pass you have for national monuments. You are holding your comb, sunglasses, brochures, a package of tissues, your cell phone and recharge cable. Your jacket is in your other hand. Damn. Forgot the belt. You balance stuff but stuff falls anyway. You get the belt off with one hand and commence picking things up off the ground. Everyone in front of you puts items in a plastic tub to be sent on rollers through the X-ray machine. Jackets are inspected manually. Your turn.

“I’m going to make things easy on you,” the national park version of a TSA agent says. “Put everything in your coat pockets and we’ll run it through the machine all at once.” Wa…huh? It takes a second to sort it out in your brain. It can’t be happening. With a long line behind you, you begin stuffing or trying to stuff brochures and combs and wallets and cameras and driver’s licenses and park passes and dollars and change and sunglasses and tissues into the coat draped over your other unfree arm. Instead of simply dropping all that necessary nonsense into the plastic tub like every other person in line has done all day and will do the rest of the day, you’re trying to force those items into tight little pocket openings—-slits, really–of your jacket without losing half of it. Why? No one will ever know why. After your walk through the metal detector arch, you collect your stuff and set up shop off to the side. You unload and inventory everything, tediously appointing the correct pocket where each piece of junk is to go so you won’t lose it—your pants pockets, shirt pockets, jacket pockets, wallet sleeves. Do it now while security people watch you on a monitor in a room somewhere, or never find those things again. Just like at the airport.

The line to buy a ticket to the top of the Arch? Five minutes or so. You’ve made it this far, you can handle five more minutes. You ask for a ticket to the top. You are asked in return if you would like a riverboat ticket and a movie ticket. (There’s a theater in the underground area and they show a movie about Lewis and Clark, you think.) You say no, just one ticket to go to the top of the Arch. You are asked, “Today?” You nod in a way that says if you could think of something to say other than duh, you’d say it, but you can’t so he’s lucky and it’s not his fault anyway and let’s move on. You are told they just sold the last ticket of the day a few minutes ago.

Who's watching whom then?

You exit through the glass doors and begin dragging your defeated feet up the ramp. Defeated. You stop. You walk back down to the glass doors. You see a lady walking through the metal-detector gateway, and you see all kinds of lights of color flashing. You watch the federale–he who chose you for gratuitous torment–you watch that guy send her back through, and you whip out your camera and start snapping shots of the event because that’s why you came back. You should let it go but you don’t. TSA guy sees you, says something to lady-of-concern, something to the effect of move and you’ll be strip-searched, and makes an upstream thrust right towards you. He comes out through the in-door. A leap over the railing separates the two of you. HAW ha. His face looks mirror-rehearsed, but it ain’t. He is angry angry. He says you can’t take pictures of that. He says more–lots more–but the words melt into an amusingly-indiscernible current of downstream rantage. You walk off, satisfied he’s going to choose the lady-of-concern and the sirens and bells over you and your camera and a hop over the rail. You feel better. You couldn’t have seen that face from way up there anyway. Why did you do that? He will never know.

TUNNEL

100_0299There I stood on a precipice. It was no metaphor. I gazed at the canyon floor some thousand feet below, my internal monologue of the moment transforming into internal dialogue, a debate with the self. I wondered what it would be like, those terrifying seconds of falling. Would that split second of pain, of bones breaking and organs rupturing, linger beyond the moment of death, or would it all quickly vanish into nothingness? You often hear that suicide is the easy way out. I wasn’t so sure. Nevertheless, I was on a mission of sorts, and after I cleared my head of morbid thoughts I decided I was going to the bottom of that canyon rather than not.

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I’d spent the previous winter dragging through chemo and radiation, and the spring trying to recover from it. Here in late June was the first time since then that I’d challenged myself physically in any meaningful way. This particular trek into Canyon De Chelly follows a steep switchback down a sheer cliff. The hard part would be the return trip. The sun would be higher in the sky by then and more potent than it already was. But I had to prove to my weakened self I could do it.

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Not far from the top, only a few yards into the descent, the trail led into a tunnel through the rock. It was heaven in there, to be honest. Freakin’ paradise on such a day in the Arizona desert. A natural breeze swept through continuously, making it feel for all the world like air conditioning. I rested there for a minute or so, and then begrudgingly left those comforts behind in the darkness. Somewhere in that canyon was a millennium-old Anasazi cliff dwelling and I wanted to see it. That was my reason for the trip if anyone asked.

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The one-way distance from the trail head to the cliff dwelling was a mile and a half—most of it vertical. I made it down the wall and across the canyon okay. I didn’t figure that would be much of a problem and it wasn’t. But after I got my fill of the ruins and the accompanying hieroglyphs, with my head tilted back I contemplated the bluff that stood between me and a real success. The sun was now straight overhead in a cloudless sky, the temperature in the middle nineties. As it turned out, I could only take the ascent in segments, three-minute cycles of walking and resting. Then two-minutes walking, four resting. I wasn’t yet ready for something like this. Most of the walking was done with my hands on my knees and my tongue visible. The water from my bottle did its best to put out the fire in my throat, but after several agonizing stretches of climbing ever higher, it was no match for nature. I’d been thinking I’d made a mistake for some time now. I creased my eyes in the harshness of the unfiltered light. Everywhere tiny rocks sparkled and reflected the pelting rays of the noonday sun. The RV-size boulders that squeezed me into various sideways aspects from time to time exhaled heat. Every step was more grueling than its predecessor. I had moments of doubt—many of them, in fact. I kept pushing, though. I kept pushing up that interminable bluff and through those torturous sunbeams because I was propelled by a certain bit of knowledge: I never forgot that there’d be a tunnel at the end of the light.

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EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT LIFE I LEARNED ON GOOGLE EARTH

I read maps the way most people read books. It’s a geography thing, a thing I can’t help. The invention of Google Earth—or the day it was made available to the public—was my sixteenth and twenty-first birthdays combined. Google Earth to me is like a nun to a TSA agent; I can examine it for hours when I should be doing something constructive. From the moment I learned how to navigate the big blue marble on my computer screen, the world started getting smaller; I began studying every navel and armpit of every body of land from East Timor to West Virginia. From Area 51 in Nevada to the Nazca Lines in Peru to the crop circles of the Salisbury Plain, I’ve found all the goodies. Google Earth has expanded my horizons and shrunk my world indeed. But the globe isn’t the only thing that’s shrunk—Google Earth, at least for me, has also shrunk history.

The Earth program is fascinating on its own, but the photos that users install on it are a game-changer. To know the lay of the land where Turkey, Iraq, and Iran touch noses at a common geographical point may be a satisfying leap into Future World, but when you click on a picture icon at that junction to see an armed PKK camp tucked away in the mountains, you’re in another dimension. Geography and history have come together in the same lesson. It doesn’t matter which picture you open up out of the hundreds in South Korea, you’re going to see images of a modern, industrious, and clean country. In North Korea, however, you can count the photos. The few you will see are either obvious government propaganda (they come with the same website info attached) showing beachfront resorts and golden temples, or you’ll see those depicting the subsistence lives of the population—the rice paddies and oxen transports and such—most likely taken at great risk to the shutterbug. To make things interesting, someone has slipped in a set of pictures of a very phallic-looking missile being launched on the peninsula’s east coast. And you won’t have to look too hard to see larger-than-life-size pictures of a little Kim something-or-other glaring down with all-seeing eyes on a cowering populace.

Like North Korea, Myanmar is closed off to the outside world. I don’t know who, but at least one brave soul has got away with something there in the northern state of Kachin that could mean arrest or worse if that person was caught. You and I are not supposed to know what goes on in that hellish collective they once called Burma, but a candid camera has pulled back the rain forest canopy. This is where green jade comes from. All green jade. Mining operations have torn up the pristine jungle to such effect that you can see the destruction—unlike the Great Wall of China, contrary to popular myth—from over 2000 miles up according to the altitude feature at the bottom of the screen, or practically from outer space. The villages that spring up around these mines to house the workers are literal shit-holes, where elephants are contracted to pull vehicles from the mud. Here, the human laborers are as close to zombie-hood as it gets in real life. Chinese mining concerns operate their own heroin production and distribution facilities in the area, and every morning, addicted workers line up in mine drug camps for their day’s dose. Down into the pits they then descend. You won’t see the drug camps on Google Earth, but you’ll see the rest of that mess, including the mud-bound elephants. Incidentally, the official communist government line is that there is no drug problem in Myanmar. That’s okay. There’s no jade problem in Beijing. And what’s this? Just across the border in the other People’s Republic, we descry massive stockpiles of lumber. The Chinese seem to be busier than cockroaches in a strobe-light extracting the resources of Myanmar. But there’s a chink in the system: as the photos show, you can’t move merchandise in a crummy economy. Too bad for the Chicoms.

Just for fun, let’s fly north and west to the former Soviet province that presently answers to the name of Kazakhstan. You can zoom in low and soar around for a long time before you’ll cross a population center here. This is the Central Asian steppe, the desolate stretch of land the Tartars, Huns, and Mongols roamed so many centuries ago. It was also home to eleven Soviet gulags, including facilities for “Wives of Traitors of the Motherland,” and that was not long ago at all. The few roads here are mostly gravel, mud, and dirt, as are the few hovels. If you look closely at the photos, you’ll see where the Soviets detonated nuclear bombs. You’ll even see a statue dedicated to a renowned Soviet nuclear scientist in the local atomic town where he worked. The scattered cities in Kazakhstan are drab and Soviet-looking, with those old, cookie-cutter concrete buildings that have the appearance of army barracks but are really civilian housing units. The semi-arid landscape is lousy with rusted out tanks and other defunct war machinery. Someone has been busy installing photos of dilapidated buildings and villages across the country, as if trying to prove something to the outside world. In the south of the nation, the former capital of Almaty, where Soviet police slaughtered 200 protesters in 1986, is an ancient and dense city with a stunning range of mountains shadowing it from one side. Like other formerly-Soviet cities, it is full of that shoulder-shuddering, communist-style architecture, stared at by statues of a serenely-omniscient Lenin. Even the casinos in the northern suburbs are boring cubes as featureless as the dominant Kazakh landscape, including the, yes, Flamingo. But there is something strange going on in the new capital. Zoom into Astana and let the 3-D feature kick in, or click on the photos. This is a new, post-Soviet city like something out of a dystopian best-seller. The greatest architectural minds of the modern free world have come together for this oil-funded project. The buildings that form the skyline here will blow your mind.

Speaking of blowing your mind, let’s buzz a little farther north and west to Grozny in Chechnya. The photos downloaded for this berg will make it clear how the Russians deal with troublemakers. Many of the high-rise buildings in the downtown area are thoroughly rocket-blasted. But you won’t blame Putin too much when you scroll over to Beslan in North Ossetia and look at the memorial garden and the grade school where Muslim rebels slaughtered nearly two-hundred children and almost as many adults back in ‘04. But let’s be done with this morbidly-evocative locale and move on.

Even farther north, deep into Siberia, we now fly. An observant Earth-pilot will perceive the environmental havoc that seventy years of Bolshevik rule have wreaked. If you can find the metal-mining town of Noril’sk, you will see in the photos that the trees are denuded in a wide area, a symbol of the Soviet finger to the world and Mother Earth. But Siberia goes on forever, and within her mass you can find lots of cities like Noril’sk, cities built by forced labor from the gulag system. This is an inspiring land of mountains, forests, tundra, taiga, lakes, and rivers, a land that learned up close and personal the government regard for natural beauty. Forget Chernobyl; Siberia is an environmental disaster of the first water. And this reminds me: don’t drink the water in Siberia should you travel there. Bring your own. Your constitution may be unequal to the local standards of water purity.

Start clicking on photos in Siberia and you will soon cringe. Scenic landscapes are the subject of half the pictures; nasty, polluted, military-industrial metro-plexes cover the other half. And over any major Siberian town, you can find downloaded photographs of memorials to Russian military might. Retired fighter jets, missiles, howitzers, or tanks often decorate a village square, as do sculptures of Marx, Lenin, and lesser-known communist stalwarts of dubious distinction. It makes perfect sense, though, that every Siberian town is home to some memorial wistfully idolizing Marx or Lenin. Because of the system the one created and the other realized, the Russian government had a bottomless free-labor pool, without which they could not have afforded building those towns.

Old Russian habits of honoring founding fathers apparently die hard. They die hard not only in Siberia, but in European Russia as well. All the cities there have eerily similar attributes, and particularly the housing units, which are tributes in themselves. It’s that look (and surely the feel) of state domination and state ingenuity. Stack some concrete blocks in the shape of apartments and only then may your wife visit you. The images drip with hidden history. Zoom into the Crimean coast near Sevastopol, now Ukrainian territory, and you will discover the hidden submarine repair facility that prison labor also built, or the bunker several stories deep constructed by the same captive work force. In Russia, as the Google Earth photos reveal, the cities all house monuments to the concept of victory. Victory in war is the predominant theme of Soviet sculpture. For post-Soviet sculpture, on the other hand, find Katyn, west of Smolensk, and behold the touching memorial to the 4,000 Polish officers and men Stalin ordered massacred after he invaded Poland.

I’m not one to sit still, so come along if you would as we soar beyond the stratosphere. From 20,000 miles up, we can make out all the countries of the Middle East. They are countries of bulk, too. There’s Morocco and Algeria…and there’s Libya just past Tunisia. Egypt is a spacious country; Turkey, Jordan, and Syria likewise eat up the square miles. Saudi Arabia stands out from up here. Iraq is big, but Iran is massive. Look at this: the Middle East goes all the way around the globe to the Pakistani border with India. I can make out just about every Middle Eastern nation from this height. Wait a minute. There’s something down there I can’t quite see. I’ll have to zoom in much closer. Yeah, there’s something there all right. It’s backed up against the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, like it’s ready to fall off or something. Hold on…I’m starting to see it now. The closer I get to it, the bigger the rest of the Middle Eastern countries grow. They’re spreading out around the curvature of the globe. Oh, okay…that’s Israel. I’m embarrassed I didn’t know that sooner. Wow, look how tightly Tel Aviv is squeezed into that corridor between the West Bank and the sea! I know I’m only looking at this on a computer screen, but I’m getting uneasy being here just the same. Time to blow this falafel stand.

Off we go to another hemisphere. Let’s check out the island of Cuba. There are sculptures here, too; but unlike in Russia, they’re not all of the same people. There’s one of Columbus, and one of the Virgin. In Havana, there’s one of John Lennon sitting on a park bench. Imagine that. Now here’s one of Che Guevara carrying a child in his arms. How realistic that looks. But Cuba’s not as frenetic regarding sculptures as it is about signage and murals. Che’s face and quotes pop up along every highway and in every town. Hasta la victoria siempre! And look at this sign on the side of a crumbling apartment building with no electricity: Nuestro pueblo combatiente defendiendo socialismo! Yes, I’m sure your combatant village does a fine job defending socialism, which must be kinda hard to do without running water. The community outhouse needs a coat of paint, by the way. And a roof. Here’s another good one: Libertad Ya! That’s rich. Like Siberia and North Korea, Cuba is a land of natural beauty and abject poverty. The living conditions depicted in these Earth photos are unreal and unforgiveable. The wheel/draft-animal combo is an invention Cubans could not get along without. They can and do get along without cell phones and cars, however. Those who have cars usually own nothing newer than a ‘56 Buick, as the pictures attest. And it is probably not the Cuban citizens putting up the signage, anyway, unless to curry favor. The ubiquitous murals on the island are reminiscent of those you’ll see when you Earth-cruise Londonderry in Northern Ireland, which stands to reason: Che Guevara was a student of the Irish Republican Army, and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein was a student of Che Guevara. From Google Earth, I deduce that colorful, violent murals are an exponent of communist revolutionary principles. I don’t mean to get distracted, but look at the billboard in this picture: Revolucion es no mentir, jamas! Revolution ain’t never no lie. And here’s a word I see in bright bold letters everywhere in Cuba: Venceremos! There it is again—“We are victorious”—that monument to belligerent victory.

In the United States, and in Canada and the rest of the civilized West, we don’t really commemorate victory in war. Our Iwo Jima image is about the extent of it. War is not something to honor. We pay tribute to the fallen and honor the survivors. Think Gettysburg. Look at the photographs of sequestered, hidden-from-view countries on Google Earth, including all the one-time Soviet republics, and you’ll see any number of victory tributes. Monuments to victory are foreign and uncomfortable to free people. I’d never thought about that before, not until Google Earth. I learned other things, too. Don’t litter. Don’t pollute. In other words, respect your environment. Treat your neighbors as you would have them treat you. There is no perfect system of government, but some must require gulags and reeducation camps. Those will incorporate terms such as “enemy of the state” and “wives of traitors” in their legal codes if they are to survive at all. Such styles of government will always produce extreme national poverty, information blackouts, and monuments to victory. And a close study of Google Earth reveals one huge, unmistakable irony: the government system that is responsible for the worst, most irreparable ecological damage ever inflicted upon the planet is the one system that no prominent champion of the environment will speak of disparagingly. Ever. Thank you, Google Earth, for the lessons.

IN THE REALM OF THE ARCHITECTS

Anasazi canyon community in Utah

I wanted to stand where humans had stood a thousand years ago, but in a place that had not changed since then. I wanted to see what those people had seen, to hear what they had heard. I wanted to know what it felt like to traverse their territory by their same means of travel. There are locations in the lower forty-eight that meet those qualifications, where a person can experience the shade of a bluff when that shade becomes invaluable rather than being just a novelty, and the sound of a silence that provokes thought, if not profound introspection. There are places where you will hear neither planes overhead nor vehicles down below, where the hum of transmission lines is non-existent. But you have to earn your presence there. The mode of transport can only be your feet. And it must be far enough away from cars, trucks, and buses that none could be heard moving. And you must necessarily be alone, that is if you want the full effect.

The “White House,” Canyon De Chelly, Arizona

The place I found that best met my stipulations was Chaco Canyon in the northwest of New Mexico. Here was a quietude that cannot be found, I’m sure, in the East of the country. To hike through these sands with the mid-summer sun straight overhead, to position yourself miles away from help, is to gain a sense of another existence. The ancient Puebloans of Chaco Canyon hauled the building materials for their copious metroplexes across this desert, as well as their trade goods–and not only across the canyon floor, but up and down sheer cliffs hundreds of feet in height. They carved out foot and hand holds in these walls, as well as thirty-foot-wide staircases in the bluff-tops. These were part of their highway system that stretched for dozens of miles in several directions.

Chaco astronomers camped out atop this monster to figure out the heavens

The Chaco seem to be the first of the Puebloans (Anasazi) to have learned the art of stone architecture, but those techniques and others were disseminated during the 12th century, when a veritable building boom hit the Southwest of the present day U.S. Houses and communities began to be constructed in and around canyons, and even in alcoves of sheer cliffs hundreds of feet above the ground. At that same time, a building boom was happening in Western Europe. The first wave of Crusaders, particularly the Knights Templar, had returned from the Holy Land with an unprecedented knowledge in the area of architecture. They began building cathedrals–magnificent houses of worship  that even to this day stump the experts. No one knows where that ability came from, or how construction was accomplished other than the rudimentary aspects of it. Somehow, incredible methods of architecture were burgeoning simultaneously on two continents at the same time, where they had not existed only a short time before. These are the kinds of things a person thinks about while grinding through a desert.

Pictographs–my reward for six miles of humping it. Supposedly, the image at bottom left is a super nova.

Mesa Verde in Colorado

One of many Puebloan villages scattered throughout Chaco Canyon

Anasazi community with multiple kivas

In Ireland, there are three mind-boggling structures that were built by transporting hundreds of gigantic boulders for several miles, and some million quartz rocks for ninety miles. They sit near each other in the same valley, and each contains passageways that receive the sunlight for a few minutes on certain predictable days. Newgrange, the most astounding of the three, lights up internally at sunrise on the winter solstice. The sunbeams creep along a sixty-foot passage, ultimately illuminating a thirty-foot-high chamber in the structure’s center. The light soon slides back down the passage and leaves the interior in blackness for another year. On Ireland’s west coast, there sits a complex of stacked-stone buildings known as bee hive huts or ring forts. That they have existed in place for so long gives testimony to their remarkable design. They overlook the Atlantic Ocean from a sheer cliff, giving the appearance of a set of defensive works. Some archaeologists believe these buildings to be 4,000 years old. Expert speculation abounds as to the purpose of the Chaco complexes and their carefully-designed and laboriously-manufactured roads and stairways. Likewise the mound-structures and beehive huts in Ireland. It is all just a guess. We know that the Templar Knights built cathedrals for worship, but there seems to be other, more cryptic incentives underlying those massive endeavors. Nor do we know the provenance of any of the aforementioned architectural mastery. One attribute that the medieval cathedrals, Newgrange, and the buildings of Chaco Canyon have in common is that they are all in alignment with one astronomical event or another–either with the course of the sun or the cycles of the moon. If we are allowed to ask questions in the afterlife, those that my brain posed as I rested under a bluff in the New Mexican desert, or as I stood in the chamber at Newgrange, would be at the top of my list—higher even than questions about the pyramids. In one way or the other, they all pertain to the Architects.

13th century cathedral ruins in Ireland–an example of the Templar architecture

Beehive structure on West Ireland coast dated to 2000 B.C.

My daughter Randi and me in front of Newgrange, the oldest man-made structure on Earth

Irish petroglyphs, 4,000 years before the Chaco carved theirs

Newgrange was built in 3200 B.C. Nobody knows why.

Ancient Chaco petroglyphs--of what?

Chaco Petroglyph–of what? An architect, maybe?

Trail Through Chaco Canyon

No wind, no sound, no shade, no water

DON’T COME A KNOCKIN’ (Tales of My Youth Part 1)

Warning: Adult situations, language

Winnepeg signEver known a sex fiend? I don’t know how else to describe my buddy Johnson, whose name I have changed considering he, against all odds, ain’t dead yet. They say the average male thinks about sex every seven seconds. What you never learn is how many seconds that thought lasts. For Johnson, the answer was eight. Even on our thousand-mile fishing trip to Manitoba, Johnson’s urges followed us. We—Johnson, I, and a third guy named Shriver—were compelled one night to leave our campsite in the woods for the urban wilds of Winnipeg so that Johnson might be placated and shut up.

I should make clear we were just old enough to buy alcohol. We drove a pick-up truck with a camper on the bed, and from this combination Johnson called to a city cab driver to point us in the direction of the women. The cabby offered to lead us to the appropriate neighborhood, whereupon we tailed him toward the skyscrapers. Several working girls populated the street that the kindly driver brought us to, two of which were hanging on our doors before we even stopped. One was blonde, the other an Indian, or maybe she would rather have been called a Native Manitoban, but this was before political correctness and I didn’t ask. The blonde was much prettier, but Johnson said he had never had an Indian girl. Hooker girlAll I could say was that I’d once been with a Chinese girl, and that I was ready again an hour later. The ladies pointed us to an alley where, they suggested, it would be relatively safe to park our vehicle. They came after us on foot, and Johnson urgently announced his pick and disappeared with her into the camper. Shriver and I, along with the dismissed blonde and a few of her friends, the chosen girl’s brother among them, hung around in front of our truck, exchanging pleasantries by the glow of a security light. (The brother made an interesting comment: “I take care of my sister, man.” And a bang-up job he was doing.) Even with whores and sibling pimps, it’s “where you from?” and so forth. It wasn’t long, however, before someone said, “Oh shit, the cops, eh?”

I was thinking quickly that night. I grabbed a folding map from the front seat of the truck and had it spread out on the hood before either of the two cops got out of their vehicle. Of course they asked for ID, and wanted to know what we were doing back there in that alley. Well, hell, that was obvious, wasn’t it? We were lost fisherman trying to find our place on the map. With our new friends.Winnepeg Police

I think those cops honestly thought for a moment we might be lost. Why would anyone drive a thousand miles from the States to buy a Canadian hooker? Naw…they didn’t buy it for a second. At any rate, we checked out from the police perspective. Nothing illegal would be going on now. Shriver and I found our position on the map and thanked everyone for their help. But as I folded the map and the cops were a few steps into a return to their cruiser, it happened. The camper began to sway in a sickening rhythm. Back and forth. Bam, bam, bam.

Freakin’ Johnson.

Couldn’t he hear the cops’ voices? Well, we were busted. Shriver knew it, I knew it, the pimp knew it, and the gaggle knew it. Or so said all of their eyes as everyone sort of froze on that warm, Indian summer night. The cops ambled back toward us while the slap of the camper shell against the truck-bed accelerated. The shock absorbers squeaked out a crescendo and heralded a finale. The maestro was lost in a world of raw, Native Manitoban bliss, unconcerned with the goings on outside that camper door. The cops regarded us for a moment with half-grins. “Next time you get lost in this city,” one of them said, “be a little more discreet about it, eh?”