Boardwalk Empire

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Inexplicably tucked into a corner of Texas is the Kemah Boardwalk. This is a relatively recent edition to the Nation’s strategic boardwalk stock, and a compact operation. Kemah is something like Rehoboth Beach, I can’t stand it, my cultural informant told me. She did not care for the “sort of people” one finds down there. Having worked in Rehoboth (Delaware) as well as vacationed in Lewis, a charming beach town of historic vintage where as soon as the settlers stopped dying from starvation, disease, and being massacred by Indians [feathers], a pleasant little village was constructed to which the middling classes continue to visit on hot summer days, I had to visit this Kemah Boardwalk if only to confirm the “sort of people” I would find.

The road to Kemah was determined by the guidance system that came with the rental car so I cannot speak of this in any detail as to other potential scenic routes or some turn the locals would know in order to avoid the traffic since for the most part I was stuck in traffic crawling along to the coast. The summer heat had made a tea of the air and while I pride myself on being one of those people who “don;t use air conditioning” (nor can afford the electricals bill), the car had the windows tight and the cold stale Legionnaire’s Disease air was filling the car in order to bring some relief.

The high lit towers of the fun park were visible before the remainder of the complex which included a roller coaster of some grand magnitude. Being a weekday and the end of summer, the establishment was not full however being a Tuesday, there were a great number of people milling about and the rides were churning away to make young and old scream, squeal, and have their spines knocked out of whack for pleasure.

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I wondered what it was about waters, about the sight of the open ocean that leads to people creating boardwalks and that fun parks spring up here as part of the package deal. I considered some others I had been to. Long ago, before I was even an adult, I had traveled to Blackpool, England. This boardwalk was build on one of the rare stretches of sand found in the British Isles and had all manner of exactly what you would expect to find in and English+English Weather+English Food resort. Plunk in the middle of this – and this location exists in my memory and not fixed in any actual coordinates found on the Googles Maps – was a replication of the Eiffel Tower. There were also carnival rides, and plenty of toss the brick at the bulls-eye in order to win a Teddy stuffed with toxic rags or some slab of plastic carved into a frightening happy face on a stick. The air was filled with the aroma of the carnival refineries rendering grease and sugar and starch into chunky cellulite, artery plaque, varicose veins, and bad teeth. In the distance blind pit ponies gave rides on the beach to sad crying orphans dressed in rags with shoes woven from birch bark and smelling like coal tar and molestation. At least that’s how I remember Blackpool.

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In the unlikely reaches of the East (not that carnal directions exist in this age of airships) of Vladivostok, Russia there is a small boardwalk that has the requisite rides and attractions and some structure to walk on by what is considered a beach. The first time I had ever seen the pacific ocean was from Russia. I was in the moment and the beaches could have been broken glass I would have still loved my experience. I was surprised at the cluster of development on the water not yet taking shape as a full boardwalk yet one may exist there today. The rides then were simple affairs that would perhaps be those sort rented for family parties in Amerika but here were the carnival rides. The Russian love of grease was there but the primary form of sea side delight was “Snacs” and ice cream (Мороженое). This ice cream is indeed memorable since it may have been left over from the SOVIET strategic reserve of ice cream. The ice cream was something pushed hard into a cone made of perhaps paper and some sugar enough to make the cardboard coalesce into a “cone” form as well as encourage the buyer to consume this fiber since it may have then counted as 30% of an average Russian’s intake. Then this unsightly mess rather than being wrapped in some hermetically sealed package was just plopped on to a slip of wax paper in order to prevent it – for the most part – from sticking to its comrades in the ice cream storage unit. The ice cream was then, I can only assume, was shipped across the tundra and stored in a vault since 1978 somewhere in the Omsk region – we cannot yet have those documents declassified- before being brought to a small stand and then sold at the beach by a young girl board out of her mind (this was before iDevices) doing a crossword puzzle. At the time this author was so inclined to travel and eat SOVIET ice cream, conversion of the degraded Ruble just having collapsed under the weight of the benefits of capitalism and the free market (this is when Russians were selling their pets for meat in the streets of Moscow) fetched about 27 Rubles for one Amerikan dollar and at 10 Kopeks (with 100 to the Ruble) the ice cream was costing me somewhere between .0003 – .003 cents. Cardboard or not, I loved this crap and since for a dollar I could get 250 or more, I bought my friends and random people a few and for a moment felt like a very, very, very rich philanthropist if not with a very, very, very limited charitable mandate. The “board”walk at the time, as I remember, was more a series of cement chunks tossed into the angry sea upon which some scattered boards existed to cover the soft spots. Vladivostok had been until a few years prior a closed city and yet caught up with Starbucki and McDonaldi let alone manicured vacation centers. The train return to city center was empty except for me and my Russian friends and I imagined that this rail car had been in service since Stalin first closed the gates on this jewel city of the SOVIET Far East.

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In contrast Atlantic City does not have any rides to speak about, but I am tossing it into the mix nevertheless since the casinos are themselves some form or excitement that for many leads to the same broken spine even if this is not from being tossed about a tea cup ride. It is also the famous boardwalk that has, for at least fifty years, been under a revitalization, the same way Grannie Witherspoon has been improving upon her shattered hip since she turned 89 and now at 92 is fully healed even though her mind is totally gone and she had to eat through a tube in her nose. Atlantic city is eating through a tube in its nose. When this gambling fool was last there the casinos had yet to start shuttering down in bankruptcy but were in full operation if by operation one means having half the people they had in years prior since more Americans avoid gambling…. avoid gambling other than at the liqueur store scratch-off counter, gas station Lotto(tm) machine, Native American Reservation blackjack tables, online poker games, and Uncle Walter who still runs a numbers syndicate in Boca even if now its just between he and a few friends. Even back then – 2009 – there was a sense that these huge tacky emporiums of one-lungers skidding about drunkenly on Jazzy scooters was about to start tottering into the ocean. I had little experience with these palaces where time is excluded and the slots and drinks are 24/7 or as the Europeans used to say, Nonstop. Again, miles of trees had been set down as boards upon which to walk. In the setting sun the sky lit up, and the lights of the various hotels and rides were illuminated and the beach goers returned to their hotels – may of them perhaps there as I, on some deeply discounted trip subsidized by the Gambino Crime Family or whomever owns the casinos which considering today’s impersonal world is perhaps a conglomerate of Chinese investors who bought the Gambino Crime Family in 2002 and switched its name to GaMeLy when it merged with its Hungarian counterpart that handled Canadian human trafficking.

No survey of boardwalks could dismiss the Mother of them all, Coney Island. There has been enough ink spilled, enough selfies taken, and several authors with more craft and skill that this blogger have dissected Coney Island, discussed the changes as gentrification retakes the Island, or mused on the “sort of people” who have gone and continue to go to Coney Island. My family has a history with the Island as my grandparent’s generation used to play there in the early 1920s and we have many pictures of them in various antics about the boardwalk and what was then a stupendous assortment of rides and attractions before they were 1. burnt 2. torn 3. rotted down.

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I have been to Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade, been on the beach lifted on various intoxicants at a concert, journeyed there with friends and along to think and try to get there at least once a year (while now that I am older this is very difficult to keep up). It is to Coney Island where my mind went as I wandered about the Kemah Boardwalk enjoying the little chaos and listening to the sea birds. Like Coney Island, Kemah boasts a wooden roller coaster and while the footprint is one of the smallest in the nation, the ride delivers some great thrills to rival that of the Cyclone and were it just this one ride (The Bullet), a visit to Kemah would still top my list of attractions and should make this small park a part of anyone’s list of “to dos.” I did not have time to attempt additional rides nor the wallet to sample the other eateries nor the walking distance hotel I would need had I attempted to view the night life, which the bar tender told me was quite substantial even on Tuesday which was “their busy day” in the summer for some strange reason (Monday was often quiet the rest of the week was more families, so I was told).

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After eating my allotment of grease and taking a few drops on The Bullet to see if I could evacuate the contents of my stomach, I had to return to the non-boardwalk world and to continue to ponder why we build boardwalks. As a child screamed on a swing and some young guy won an inflatable space alien he immediately presented to his female companion to squeaking laughter, a grown man handed a pimple-faced youth a wad of cash in exchange for tickets to rides, another man with a group consisting of a woman and three children yelled at the kids “sticktogetherimnotrunningafteryouall,” and the sun set ever down making the whole world glow strange. My mind tried to turn over some clever finding, some unique lesson I could text a friend but I had still nothing other than this respite from the work-a-day world and that I was the sort of people who come to these places. I stared into the strange logic of the boardwalk and came back will little but a slight whiplash. What is it that makes us feel that no ocean experience is complete without the clack clack clack of a roller coaster or the grinding of gears of some ride of questionable safety or the stale smoke lifting off corn dogs roasting since June or a $15 Miller Lite served in a plastic cup or games of chance that we all know are fixed but play anyway or that sunburn on the face feeling even after applying lotion or stepping about trash to lay on the beach or walking along the water safely lifted from the sand on boards, numerous trees set down in an endless road for us to walk upon with bare-feet still stinging from stepping on that bottle top back there by the deep fried butter stand…

What is it about this experience that were we not able to do it at least once for the year, it just wouldn’t feel like summer?

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Southern Sparta

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Imagine a Savannah as if in Africa only that it is as humid as the Amazon. This is not some foreign land but the Third Coast, the vast open spaces of the oil rich area of the gulf. This land is no longer open and empty but is built upon and now for several generations. Vast highways spread across the once flat grasslands. These highways seem not to connect places but just exist – 4 lanes. 6 lanes. 14 lanes. We have moved heaven and earth to ensure that we need not sit next to someone we didn’t agree with on a rail car that we needed not study time tables to know when to board at what station and finish that proverbial word problem “if two trains left a given station at X time and one traveled Y speed and the other Z, what time would either train arrive?”

Philosophy modifies the earth. Perhaps we are the only animals on this planet that change the landscape not through some inner mind, the dull routine of the beaver gnawing at trees least his teeth become too long and building ever swamp in order to reach more trees in order to extend the swamp, but we on the other hand believe in something, and push together the world to fit that idea.

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The idea of how life should be lived on the Third Coast is very different from other areas of the mainland. That region is not so much a state of the union but a colony of the United States. We have told ourselves for a long time that this Lone Star belongs to the rest of the nation, that it is in some sacred bond with Amerika, but it is a land locked Porto Rico – a protectorate or territory or whatever euphemism we use for occupation. We have bribed these settlers with trade agreements, with monies to build, we have housed our army there, but it is as if we placed a few bases in the Philippines or some other sovereign nation. This can but explain why this space is so different, why there is an intentionality in design to the landscape that is it seems driven to exalt the individual and do so at the expense of any longer-term plans, to build freeway exchanges that rival Pharaoh in order to allow scant few private cars the luxury of travel without any interaction or need to adapt to an other.

Then there are the abundance of cameras and warning signs.

Doors exclaim that “this door must remain unlocked during business hours,” which considering this door is the primary entrance and egress for customers seems a strange posting. Other signs warn to obey laws. One sign says that an unlawful weapon is an offense. Apparently this offense is something weighted as to where you are. Are you around money, say, a bank? Are you around booze, say, a boozateria? Are you about children under the age of 10? About schools are more signs. The use of a cell phone is prohibited. This writer of missives and angry letters to the editor can only assume that means while driving…
Then there are the cameras.

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Every traffic light has at least four cameras, and often a fifth one, just for luck I assume. Round and a wondrous globe, I wonder what the original independent settlers would have thought about these intrusions. Are they filming me as I sit there picking my nose at the red light. If I dip my phone down and text…. are they watching? Do these only become active in a police action, a state of emergency, a suspension of the local or county constitution or articles of incorporation? This is a strange place indeed. In each business no matter how mundane it seems more cameras and often an extra flourish, an armed guard – as if this space were indeed Honduras, Guatemala, Peru, Russia…

Years ago I traveled to foreign lands with gusto in order to capture in my mind the jumbled existence of the former SOVIET bloc or the Third World(tm), and to see the great forests of the world before they are cut down and reduced to facial tissue or the ruins of grand cities still as study sites of academics and not the idle distraction of Disneyland vacationers gone wild. When I was in Rumania I thought I had a travel breakthrough, that golden epinephrin epiphany that all [most] backpackers are yearning for… I exclaimed in a drunken night to other travelers of the hostel as we discussed Zee Book (see issue #47) that I was going fast and hard to visit nations before they changed, to see these states as they are since they were, as I as a student of History, because they were America so many decades ago as I imagined. I was traveling as a student of American history. With the poverty, the pollution, the armed guards and corruption, I in my youth believed I was witnessing those activities of the Five Corners, of old South Boston, of America as She was still arranging herself to be a swaggering democracy, that Liberty lady with one breast just hanging out like, what, I’m Liberty and I have a sock for a hat and one boob out but that’s my Manifest Destiny… Bitches… In my travels I saw horse drawn funerary carts, men and women harvesting grain using scythes, hay stacks using the old pole method, vast country still under the yoke of agriculture and even oxen tilling the soil… I saw mafia transfers, was accosted by hookers, attacked by gypsies, and old men in felt boots pitter-pattering away hauling buckets filled with materials only they think qualify as food. All this was to me, in my inexperienced eyes a vision of the past, a holdover frozen in time for one reason or another. I also saw ugly development. SOVIET cement buildings, unfinished houses in India, and boondoggles galore the world over. Highways being build, the dirt literally being pushed out of the way as I drive through or that the bus I was on had to wait for machines to clear rock on the side of a cliff before we, the busload of crash test dummies, were to cross this new and unproven road.

However.

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As I was on a train in Russia I realized my mistake. I realized that what I was seeing was not America’s past, but Amerika’s future. I realized that the armed guards at the FudKenTacoHutBucksKingRucker in the Third World(tm) were indeed a glimpse into our own future. Our poverty. Our coups. Our police shooting protesters.
How, with the school lockdowns, Mall shootings, paranoid police, and rampant corruption – the disparaging wealth, the misuse of land, the ruination of farmers, that we have turned to hardness. This hard and suspicious mindset has descending on us as a people, we who used to be so positive that Americans were known the world over for being optimistic have now become jumpy and depressed tossing back medication and booze in order to feel right, to feel as we once did as children when the worst problem in our lives was that someone tossed a dirt bomb (Editor’s Note: this is a clump of dirt and nothing else) into the pool and Molly’s dad was “gunnabepissed.” How that what what I bore witness to as I traveled was of things to come. Those pictures I took were of the future as if a magic camera.
The police in the city I stayed in hid in the bushes in the only historic section of the area. The tree lined main street had a lower speed limit and there were the good officers in FLAC jackets pulling over motorists in droves in order I assume to gather much needed revenue for the city since no one here believes in taxes yet all believe in paved roads and police forces and they need pay for it somehow. In the hotel, at one point… just for shits, a sheriff came patrolling. This was in addition to the regular detail, a private security guard who this blogger can only describe as elderly, perhaps she was an apparition or as if some film about Mummies had come real. I hope that the elderly I see working here do so for fun, but I do doubt it. I suspect that like the elderly people toiling in the fields these too are here to keep oil and grain in the larder.
And so to this land there are a many wealthy. There are very many. This may seem to outweigh the number of poor, of the run down sections and workers cutting endless lawns and paving sempiternal roads who look beyond their age in the hot sun and thick humidity that takes the breath away and pushes a hot steaming hand right down into the pit of one’s stomach and grabs at whatever organ is closest. As the poor of this land live in hives of hot, the rich live in clusters of freezing cold since air conditioners seem to have a Newfoundland setting and going outside and then stepping in the same impact upon the body as any shvitz. Some of these wealthyesque clusters have gates. Little cheep barriers but they seem effective to keep all out but the servants. These homes are pristine. They exist in their own space. Not in public but the sacred private property of this nation state, the Sparta of the South. There are aggressive trucks in front of bellicose houses and one can only imagine the aggressive women who fire children out of their assertive vaginas as the men churn over all with huge machines to dominate Nature and pray to a vengeful G/g/_/o/d.

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Between the dwellings of the destitute masses of angry and sweating face-tattooed lumpenprolitariat and the stately inflated McMansions of the rich or overleveraged Brass Nuts/Ovaries, is Die Woestyn. These are the highways that exist for their own sake. They do not serve any master, they are not the sort of passages for road trips in order to find yourself… These are lines on the ground in the Geography of Nowhere and about these spring up all manner of roadside establishments and about those are abandoned ideas but the size of buildings or malls. The signs stand fifty feet in the air. They advertise marble counter tops, steak and eggs, and strippers. The buildings are vast and tossed together in haste. They are endless and as old ones become abandoned or sold off to become taco stands and Spanish language churches new ones are built and more of the savannah is turned over into activity that seems deranged and born from some madness of Lovecraft or science fiction of Bulgakov.

Mixed in with the strip malls. Just across from the gated communities. Are the refineries.

As if some urban planner’s nightmare, high end homes are often jumbled in with highway flyovers and boiling vats of godknowswhat. If there is a flip flop upon your feet. If your car runs with a tiger in its tank. If you have need to turn on the grill and toss shrimp on the barby… these evil acres of steaming pipes and chimneys spewing invisible particulates are to credit. From the Sorghum Gum of your Now & Later to the polymer that bonds the bristles of your toothbrush to the ergonomic handle that prevents carpel tunnel syndrome when and if you remember to brush your teeth, this muck came from here… perhaps even the same vat. These endless stacks of pipes often are burning off some gas as an eternal fire and connected to these are rail lines and trucking channels and everything seethes in the summer heat. Die Woestyn is vast. From city L- to city H- it took over an hour and crossed this amorphous compilation of structures and networks, foundations never built upon and huge pounding derricks to realize new cities the like not even Italo Calvino would have dreamed up.

It is to this that in the distant hum of traffic and away away I can spy the burning gas of some factory that the sun sets as it does the rest of the world. This is indeed a country of itself, but perhaps not for the reasons people think. The Third Coast has a lot to offer still, I am sure and maybe in looking I will grow to love Die Woestyn of the Southern Sparta.

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The Old Coast

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Whoever came to this place first, fought the swamp, the Indians, the disease, the bugs and thought this place was a great place to live… that person was insane, said the patron at the bar. Indeed, considering it was 94 degrees and humid, even with the entire apparatus of the modern world at our disposal, it was unbearable to be outside for but a moment. We were under a grass skirt of a roof and beers were served in sleeves to prevent them from sweating out their cold in moments and being but a degree or two cooler than our own warm mammalian blood.

The other week it rained 7 inches in 2 hours, the lady at the front desk told me. The cars across in the lower parking lot just floated away, she informed me. The news reported that in Detroit and parts of Long Island floating cars had also been spotted. They seem to be migrating this time of year. The rain is different now, she reflected, but no mention of “globe” nor “warm” was made since this was not a scientific or political discussion. That much of this state will vanish in the coming years is a matter to play out, to be fought over by future generations since those here, now, are rooted in their ways they packed with them when the finally packed their bags and moved here.

This time of year in Florida the sunshine state pounds its citizens with a mixture of heat and driving afternoon rains. It is a punishing mixture perhaps sent to thin the herd and make room in certain time shares for the next round of settlers. The area around Naples, Florida is a strange zone of frantic development. Out of these low and flooded lands is coming a civilization of retirement communities and manicured gardens. Not an unbecoming area, but somewhat disturbing in that this perfection seems…. well… too perfect as if something will break at any moment leading to a cascading failure of the entire world of make believe. Constructed lakes are part of each development, some have large boat houses, others encircle acres of golf courses or provide each house with their own private waterfront access. Spanish style bridges with towers, plantation style drives that needlessly wind about constructed hills in an altogether flat land that are topped with clusters or straight rows of palm trees since these communities of practice manage to cut themselves off from the rest of the world and create an endless postcard vantage. There are the palm trees in scores. While these various palms do grow quite well and are mostly from the region, anyone who has seen the native Florida forest.. that is the swampy bramble that grows in the still wild areas knows that if Nature were left to His/Her/Its own devices, S/H/h/e/It would not have these acres of romantic plants springing up overnight (since they are planted fully grown) nor allow for the gardens of colour where each plant mingles not with its brethren but remains in appointed confines and minds the edges – as if by dark magic – of the sidewalk and decorative rocks but make again the jumble of all manner of plants some with sharp bits and thorns and bugs with pointy little eater parts who nip and suck at passersby.

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This is not to say we can’t have some part of the world turned in to a huge tropical formal garden. We have done so already and by the look of the gathering earth movers and “Coming Soon” signs, more is on its way. Who knows how many tons of fertilizer it takes or how many pests must be rounded up and murdered each year to maintain this order, this Empire of Arboretums or the Fountain of Old, as the case may be. Each planned and gated retirement community has a clever name and a sign, each one more respectable and classy than the last, each gate more formal and picaresque than the next, each guard and private security detail in spiffy uniforms while on patrol more spiffy and more on patrol than the last. You can live behind the walls and moats and hedges of Bear Claw Glens, Lakeside Downs Estates, Cedar Box Community, Pushing Up Daisies Gardens, Kick the Bucket Condos, Last Rite Resort each name a brand lifestyle that to many will fit the brand of their final chapter, lo’ the Golden Years of their lives. It is the garden pasture we turn out to when we have won the game, this is where we go when we have the most toys and for a few of those Golden Years see our Gold of the Years go to various doctors, specialists, the eye wear place on Davis Avenue and least of all those ungrateful grand-kids.

To the east of Naples are the Estates, vast plantations that grow oranges, or alligators, or switchgrass or lost tribes or whatever and whomever may hide in those burned fields and browned bush. There is no daily watering of these lawns from little clever timed reclaimed water buried sprinklers. There are no fake rocks to hide the controls to the pump that keeps the waterfall going until 11PM. These empty lands are crossed by the straightest roads I have seen outside of Texas. Ditches on either side make sure the fields are protected by moats and in these moats are actual alligators. Were I told there were also piranha in the festering and malarial waters, I would believe it. Part of me wants to just believe that. Dotting these Estates are settlements quite different from those of Naples. These are the mostly immigrant settlements of farm workers. Old school buses lurch about the roads taking these workers hither and yon in the boiling heat and driving rain. These lands are being slowly – or really, not that slowly, converted to ever more and new estates, those that grow savings accounts and immigrants are replaced by migrants of a different sort as time shares and Snow Birds come South in winter or cluster about on golf courses speaking in a Patquas of investment advice and bundled amortized fungible compounded price transfer dividends. The surrounding area of Naples is this mix of chain restaurants and familiar outlets, of course the doctor offices, and then signs that not everyone here has deep wallets. There are food pantries attached to just about every mega church. There are thrift shops hiding in plain sight in each commercial zone. There are some signs that there are two strata of society out here and they do indeed need those guards in their sharp uniforms and epaulets.

To the west of Naples is… apparently the ocean. Since I was crushed for time and too cheep to spend the entrance fee to the beach for just a quick pic, I had to take the local’s word that indeed the beach was close by since that beach is well protected from view by all manner of hotels, resorts, and event spaces as well as those official parks one can access on a day pass. There are some places that one can park without being towed or paying that if you stand on your tip toes, you can see the waters.

As most on work, the majority of time was consumed by those remonstrative activities leaving the remainder as a tour of the hotel, which due to a sale was well within my budget since this was an off season and certainly the clusters… swarms really… of Euroweenies about the pool reinforced this notion that I would not at other times in the year be able to afford this pleasant local. Thankfully none had the speedo or that new sling for men…. I floated on my back in the water as soon as the sun moved off the courtyard and stared at the palms waving in the wind far above. This was indeed a slice of heaven. The water was the temperature of pee. I lay there just floating along, just enough effort to maintain my air supply when the evening clouds gathered for the nightly storm and of a sudden rain fell out of the sky. By fell, not pitter-patter but in one dump. The pool overflowed moments later, the water cresting over and into the well arranged chairs thankfully not of any real depth enough to arrange them differently, but the pee had been tempered by a nice dose of cold water if not the chlorination somewhat diluted so now I had to worry about the patrons actual pee. I did not resume use of the pool.

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The highway is right outside but the building had been created long before to shelter the interior guest quarters, the POOL FOR GUESTS ONLY, the bar that was NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR HIGH HEELS from the passing traffic. And there was traffic. Considering how elderly many drivers are, seems to this casual traveler not to be a strong transportation system or any real plan to reduce traffic other than to build more lanes. In the short time I was in Naples center to get some coffee from the bakery there was an accident right in the parking lot where an older lady, a grand dame, had rammed her Dodge into the retaining wall rather than back out of the parking spot. I can only assume, since each strip mall has a bevy of services for failing bodies and minds, that this may be a very dangerous place to be on the road and perhaps suicide to ride a bike on the side since that fog line may be what the widow Johnson uses as a guide and she lines up the hood ornament on her Cutlass Supreme and just flows down the highway. On the side of many a highway was a small Drive Safely sign memorializing some member of the public who had expired on that very spot. In some areas there were frightening clusters of these signs.

In the resumed heat and humidity I sipped at my quickly warming cocktail which was just crude blending of ice mixed with some corn syrup and a dash of some evil smelling booze and listened to the elders of our contemporary tribe discuss how their investments were doing and how little they expected to get done tomorrow since they’d be up early for a well-earned day of loafing. The majority of these patrons were leathery and smoking heavily, and I wondered that perhaps these were not retirees but locals our for the day. I applied some more sunscreen and hid in the shade until nightfall where like the many little lizards I scuttled to my room to sit in front of the air conditioner. Everyone goes to bed early on the Old Coast, and I did too for the night belongs to the security details, the bugs, the swamps, the rains, the Indians and whoever thinks this place is a great place to live.

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To Utica

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When I take girls this way, they get all nervous… they start freaking out… I know why so I often laugh, and this makes them more afraid, the taxi driver exclaimed as he was taking me through a patch of weed and half torn down buildings and I said, you’re either taking me to the train or dumping my body in a grassy field.

He was taking me to the train.

The laughter of him and the random dude in the back at the thought of frightened women was unsettling.

The original Utica had Carthage as a thorn in its side and today’s Utica can fit that description too. Let me quote from Wikipedia…

The site of the ruins of Utica is set on a low hill, composed of several Roman Villas. Their walls still preserve decorative mosaics. To the northwest of these villas is a Punic necropolis, with Punic sarcophagi (I can only take to be Albany, NY).

Today like the ruins in current Tunis, Utica, New York, is a very grand ruin and perhaps since many spaces are given over to the Mohammedan faith, it shares more with the city of its namesake than most people consider or admit. Perhaps this will be at some point a caliphate, perhaps a center of Urban Renewal and a city of casinos like Atlantic City or the next Tech Valley/Alley/Punic Sarcophagi… Carthage is the rest of the nation. And… we spend treasure and time to ruin our own Utica.

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At one point the cities of the upper and western lands of New York State were a series of wealthy Cities Upon Hills, the pinnacle of a certain convergence of history upon our Great Land and the world where steam brought new wealth and a Positivism that is hard to find in today’s world where our technology brings us madness, sickness, and 1-800 lawyer commercials to redress the illness caused by the latest innovation.

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They tore down 57 buildings, some of them businesses, said the taxi driver. To put an interchange, to enlarge the highway. They blew up some buildings, it was the most eventful thing to happen in town in years…. We drove through these new improvements still under construction. In a vanishing city, these were 57 lived in structures now missing. The bike lane to nowhere was yet to be finished.

Utica is not so much a city, as a northwestern wing to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and since they had the Temple of Dendur alreay could not fit the wreckage of America, could not find the attic space to place those grand old buildings still remaining in a city where for each surviving edifice there were three or more torn down so cars could park. What grand designs and the efforts of many, how many forests and fields, how much virgin stone went in to an Empire that was cut down and carted to the landfill to make way for a carpark? It is as if Americans, seeing the horror of war and the leveling of history under the clusterbomb had to return and flatten their own cities as some kind of homage, some self inflicted retribution to rid our collective mind of those memories of what we did or saw in Dresden in Flanders in Hiroshima.

In the center of this city is a grand hotel. The Hotel Utica. In its past, it had been such an improvement over other accommodations that people would travel to Utica just to say at the hotel. Then, as the rest of our nation, the hotel fell. As Urban Renewal flattened city after city, Utica was not immune. A Great Highway ran threw the downtown.

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When we live in an ugly world it is because people want it that way. They want it to live in turnpike exchanges. They want strip malls. They want to take down the grand buildings, the civic monuments, the details and flying arches of the visionaries.

Utica is home to the remaining railway station by McKim, Mead & White. The folks that did the old Penn Station before it was torn down to turn it into a toilet bested only by the total diarrhea that is the Port Authority Bus Station. In Utica, that station still stands even if it has been reduced to a beggar, to the bus station cum DMV cum tourist train station vis barber cum strange event hall.

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Utica Hotel is again a grand destination today since some investors turned it back from some retirement home for the lost and dying and now is a hotel that seems as if it has not ever been out of service in the past American Century. It may be to some a backup location to film The Shinning II, but it is that wonderful space to which it is sad more people don’t take advantage of since they seem to want the underground car park and heated pool (that I was told was broken) of the commercial industrial corporate Inn a few blocks away. The hotel is renovated, the rooms large and comfortable, the stay is of the utmost comfort yet there is a tinge of sad that I… for the most part… was the only one there…. the restaurant closed early due to no business… there was no bar… no music… the grand entrance was left alone… no doorman. It was being in the film the Hotel Budapest but that part of the hotel taken over by the communists. And I have been told Capitalism won…

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We want to see our cities fail. I don’t know why. We want to spit apart who we were. We want to take down anything that challenges this ugly and Made In China age. We want to hurt the past, to remove history and remove all traces of those who had lifted stones and cut wood before us. If the world had but medians in highways, has only Dollar Trees and blows up old banks, ruins churches, and abandoned cities, it seems so many of us would be happy. Content, feel that Manifest Destiny had wrought the right world. A world not made by hand.

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Being in Utica I wanted to like the city. There are some good bones there. But I loved the Hotel Utica.

If the world is ugly. It is because we want it that way. We do however, have the power to also make good on the world and to imagine the very best and to again build a new city upon a hill. If they can rebuld the Hotel Utica, they can also rebuild the rest of the city and perhaps take those parking lots and raise up grand structures for a new age.
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In Dreams

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North is the bright notion that has now become a familiar road. It is the night loons in the distance making their faraway noise and you know but the inky madness, the hungry ghosts, the black silhouette of the pines in darkness and you wish it was 1958 you want to be 1975, you wish you had a station wagon the one with the wood panels the one you rode in as a child. That child would have set out. That child would have explored. Now it is up to you to make those yearnings true.

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The road had since appeared to me in dreams as my mind attempts to catch up on my travels. I again have no life lessons, those parts of me that are older and empty remain old and empty. I have been to places I never meant to see again, and cliffs and barrows I have never seen and now wish all night in the frightening evil hour to again return. I wake up in the night and again worry about 1. bills 2. health 3. worrying about bills and health will impact my health 4. do I have my keys.

Last night I dreamed that a friend had a dead whale in his yard. It did not seem out of place. It must have come from that bone your found, she said. The whale was behind a fence. It was rather small, for a whale I thought. I asked him if he was to hide it, but he was proud that this creature had expired in his front lawn. Is my spirit animal a whale? Not as romantic as the wolf, but I guess we can’t always pick our totem.
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I have again returned to work, which in this season means to travel again but not in a free and open way. It is to shuffle after airplanes and attempt to find hot spots, unguarded plugs from which to quaff my iThingy. I am back to burning down the very forests I wondered at.

My mind continues to attempt to catch up, and in dreams I see people turn in and out of wood and always there is movement.
The road is blue and there is a city on a hill, but then there is always a city on a hill, we know this from the stories. The past snaps at my heals, the hounds of heaven nipping and as curs and as fantastic seraphs mourn and beat with wings at once those of rabid bats and fantastic dragons. The sky molts the dank clouds and glows in improbable colours.

I did not dream as I traveled. If I did, I no longer remember those visions.

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What is it to dream when each day is so unlike the rest, vistas and the journey, what is it to dream when each day was, since we were in a car traveling down a dust road, the same.

North is that small town where all the fishermen are still asleep. As we rocked past the campgrounds we had not stayed at (since we got a better deal in town on a quaint cabin and needed not war against the bugs), I wondered about the ranger lady. Was she awake? Did she look for us or wonder what had happened?

The winds blew and I had returned to the city, to an endless house a place I see often in my dreams. This is the Black Lodge, and in dreams I am always there. Always trying to return to a place I used to live, or finding a place in the city I forgot I lived, friends who I had had and lost but my stuff was remained. Like the coasts of North, the city is surrounded by green fields cut short, and cliffs to which water crashes and flows about.

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It is to the traveler to make those places foreign and to that to make those people from those lands into epic actors in a drama that, considering their daily lives, not as fantastic as the traveler makes out. In the world of post-post-post modern, we “othered” them. However, this exercise allows for one to see the world apart from the work-a-day. Perhaps to bring some of that magic back and see that you are that same traveler at home, no matter how dull your adventure back home seems to have become since your eyes have lost the luster of seeing where you are for what it may be to others, what it may really be. To other travelers from those distant lands who come to see your small tender part of the world you may now occupy some traveler’s tale. Perhaps you are in a photograph of an epic vacation, even if you appear just in the background, an accent mark of an adventure that changed someone’s life and to which you but provided some small detail that you have since forgotten – directions, sold them a bagel, or drove by in an unlikely car held together by baling twine and coat hangers.

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In another dream there was a skull of a large animal. Again this was in a house, to which I forgot I had lived and had fallen into disrepair. Under the porch was a grave, a tombstone marking some lost love atop of which was a marble statue of a fisher – the little weasel.

Was this a symptom of being on the open road? Too much sun? I have searched for any lessons from taking a trip of over 4000 miles, one which to not my ancestors but to my own parents is unimaginable as to my great grandparents it was unattainable except to great human risk and cost.

We travelers have returned to setting up our lives. I have no Great Truths to offer. Yet…. Perhaps that will come in the churning of the dreams.

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The French Mom

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The road from the ancient ghost city of Ganon to Quebec is long. The Route 389 continues from Ganon paved and just when you think the road had been paved, modernized, or otherwise improved, long stretches of gravel appear and jounce the car and trounce every strut, shock, and pin ever made.
Let me wax poetic for a moment for the Dodge 600 Convertable. If there is an epic poem in here somewhere, if there is some song the bards sing, it will be about the car, not our trip. This car was built in 1984. That means that the youngest members of the team are ready for retirement. That means that the factories that contributed to this machine lay in ruin. Whatever robot arm did a few welds is scrap. Whatever IBM computer helped design the specs is on the dangerious toxic dustbin of history (more than likely in Africa where children smashed it appart for silicates). And still, this Hooptie still trucks on down the road. The trip in total for this car is 4025 miles. This is in 10 days. The last time it went to Canada it was about the same, some 4000 miles. Years ago, when I was moving back upstate it took a tour of Canada from Montreal to Nova Scotia and then down to Boston and then upstate another 3500 miles or so. By Bai Comeau, the car had lost functionality of its headlamps, the passenger side wiper had fallen off, the passenger side window now no longer worked, the car made funny sounds, but she continued unfailing. Relentless. Dodge tough from an age people decry as the low point in automotive innovation. I did not pass any Mersadies Benz, Toyota, Datson, or whatever the competitor was of the age. The Hooptie passed eighteen wheeled trucks, pickups with monster suspension and all manner of construction trucks that towered about the size of a small home. If that home were on wheels and hauled half a hill of dirt at one load. And here she was, going mile after mile in the road that eats cars and spits out the tyres along the way. What a tribute to the American machine of a certain age, even if we were lost then and have forgotten even more since.
The road itself is more uneventful than I remembered. It is the third time I have seen this trail. The forests that were burned are now returning as small brush and weeds, the forest that stood has since burned to blackened stumps or been eroded with clear cutting. The large electrical lines still hum and snap as cities far and distant sip and sup through long straws at the power of falling waters. The paved road breaks into gravel, the road opens up to a vista of a lake, formed by a chunk of space hitting some 400 millions years a go, give or take a few hundred millions.

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The single gas station between Fermont and Manic 5, the largest of the dams blocking the river, is still the same as when my team and I had seen it in 2005. A space of utility and quaint but hearty food. We gassed up, just in case. There was kilometers to go before the next station. There are or seem to be more driveways pushed into the bush by campers, hunters, or gas and shale survey teams. When compared with the wilds of the road to James Bay, this seems a built up suburb. Whereas we would see perhaps 5-6 other travelers in an entire day of driving, on the 389 as the Trans Labrador, we would see 1-2 travelers per hour if not more.

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From the lake we refer to as “Crater Lake” we drove hard to Quebec City. Through pounding rains and darkness to which our new condition of no headlamps was of some concern. Eventually, we landed in the city and after some more confused moments, we found our housing, the flat of a young lawyer who was stranded at the time in Montreal, so his mother was there to greet us and prepare the space.

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She was an older but gracious lady. She was accommodating and spoke in English although my traveling companion speaks French and offered us wine and beer, which after so many days of driving was a welcome offer gladly taken. We sipped our wine on the terrace overlooking the next few blocks of Central City, not a grand space but civilized and historic and a change from the interior wilderness and those dwellings and squats the bushpeople huddle in surrounded by Skidoos and broken environments. The Northern lands no less strange than anything Lovecraft would have considered no less perverted in normalcy than any story told by William Boroughs. We related our tale to Babbitt and she was enthralled. She offered us her own story, that of her and her son’s life and we felt that in this short time we had met our host, not now, but at 12, as a young child camping, and as a teenager who was getting in to sailing. We were exhausted but the conversation revived us and we continued long in to the night, long after the lamps had come on, the shops, even the liquor store, closed, and all of the city became quiet. Babbitt tended to our needs and in a way, for a time, we had a French mom, more than we expected. It was good to have a mom, especially a French one, they have the most charming accents. She had spoiled her sons quite, and especially our lawyer supposed host. We joked that on our trip review, we’d retell a story from his childhood, but perhaps even in this day and age, this is out of bounds.

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It is to an end that our journey has come. Another vacation over? A journey into the wilds in a machine of questionable utility to face each day the potential that we would be stranded for days, disrupt our lives and unmake the veil of adulthood and bourgeois existence that hid two adventurers? A distraction for an aging hipster? Material for a blogger to attempt to stand out, to somehow find that journey that would set this publication apart from the 1,000,000,000,000,000,000.0001 other blogs and online travel rants? Sipping wine, I stared into the inky streetscape of Central City Quebec City, a collection of polite edifices and structures from the previous to the last century or whenever 1898 was. Our host’s mom was enthralled. Overjoyed. She did not know what to say but she exclaimed that it was as if we were from outer space. She was a life long Quebec Canadian and still our path led to those places polite people never consider…. It made us feel for a moment like explorers. However, all we did was press down on the gas and avoid rocks and sand for our little craft did all the work – cracked windscreen and all.

Our journey ended on that balcony in Central City Quebec City. True, there were miles to go to home, but here, in the city, the Center of the new city next to the ancient Ville De Quebec we again rested, sipped quality coffee, ate confections, and started reconnected to those devices that so control our lives. We posted to the Book of Face. This writer resumed posting to this publication. Emails, voicemails, work emails, work voicemails started flooding in from the digital channels and we connected to the grid of the web, of the Intertubes, to that long, long straw that sips on thousands and thousands of square miles of wilderness now submerged in methyl-mercurial waters and lost hunting grounds and the now drowned ghosts of a thousand generations.

There was some new story from a friend shared on the Internets.
I clicked a button and liked it.
We were no longer in nature.

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The Road to Ganon

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Our car had been battered by several kilometers of rough road. The Route 389 from Fire Lake to Fremount is punishing for any machine, but for our little Dodge 600 the washboard gravel, sand ditches, and sharp rocks were enough to make me wonder if indeed we would get through in one piece. We had only one spare tyre and had just been told that a flat may occupy 6 days, which in our current breakneck world was not in the cards since I had to be in Cleveland, OH, USA in a number of days. The car took a beating. Parts fell off. The dash board threw open the glove box and the radio’s face popped off.

photo (41)The 389 wanders back and forth over rail tracks along a dusty very broken road that connects one large hole in the ground at Fermont to another large hole in the ground – Fire Lake.
These holes are mines and these mines are nothing like most people have seen. The size of these operations cannot be told by pictures alone since a photograph but reduces the perspective, makes the machines seem distant and quiet, places a certain mantle of civilization on this brutal and dangerous act of violating a mountain and turning it into a crater. Huge tyres are stacked at one section of the 389 to form some manner of fence, perhaps a railing, or a pen in order to keep out the civilian traffic and allow the machines to run in shifts long in to the night. Rail cars filled with red rock passed us by, one seemed endless and we switched off the engine and waited as uniform cars, this time filled with liquid of some kind, rolled by at a processional pace. The only other sound was that of the degraded taiga and far off in the distance the boreal forest resumed its carpet of pine, moss, and lichen that was broken only by the lines being put through for additional hydroelectric to feed the growing and hungry iLands and the devices feeding on forest thousands of miles away. The eternal quiet of the sacred hunting grounds turned into electronic cat pictures and that light you left on in the other room so that if by chance you re-enter it, you need not do so in the dark. It seems that another river and other series of valleys, another vast swath of land is being submerged, a new dam constructed allowing humanity to turn on and off grand and primordial waters as if a tap at a cheap hotel and the power of these actions to be transmitted through virgin territory to be clearcut in order to allow skyscraper-sized electric towers to plod across the land to the coast and eventually to the United States of A- to give us power we do not yet need, but will because who knows how many watts and amps the PS14 will take or the lights of Super Bowl CCCP.

The road to Ganon is paved and having been set down a number of years ago has quite a bit of frost heave. After the stretch to Fire Lake, any pavement was a welcome sight. The forest had been burned some years ago and here and there freshly burned sections appear, the ranger at the Pistolet Bay park had said Labrador had terrible fires last year and was again facing a drought as it had not received the rains that usually come with the summer and in winter, apart from the storms that drop ample snow, the skies are bright and the air dry.
Ville De Ganon has vanished off the map. It is not a ghost town since every building, every structure even most of the roads were dismantled when mining operations halted in the late 1980s. When the town was built in the late 1960s everything had to be transported by air. Slowly, a mining operation started extracting ore and quickly a town of 4-5 thousands grew to support this endeavor. All that remains today is a stretch of the 389 that has sidewalks and a median. Once there was a town here. This time, we stopped only to check the car that we had not lost any vital pieces before continuing. Years prior, I had been here before.

Years prior, on previous and very different trip, we stopped in Ganon. Having a Jeep had its advantages, and we explored some of the roads that had been removed. It was there we found the old cemetery. The graves were marked (when they were) by small crosses made of iron, almost looking as if this haunted space was from the 1870s rather than the 1970s. Many of them were children.
We wandered about but there were other roads down, overgrown and frighting. We knew if we were to go down there, we may not return,
Years later, just a few days ago, this was discussed, that we had a Jeep but did not take it fully off road… However, even knowing what Nelly Bell (our name for our Jeep) would never have returned. We would still be out there, in the lost spirit village of Ganon, like Spirited Away, except that rather than friendly ghosts, we would be surrounded by ancient and angry spirits still wounded by the mines, the dams, and the road that ran through the lost city of Ganon.
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