Monday, December 28, 2009

The Lusk: Champaign 1994

One good thing about the return to Illinois in the nineties was that I discovered the Shawnee National Forest. The forest is in the southern part of the state, in and around Carbondale and Harrisburg, Illinois. And it's pretty.
The first time I went was with Chicago Mike and Chuck (who was also from Chicago). Mike was back in Chicago by then (from L.A.) and they drove down and picked me up in Champaign. I had my daughter by then and it was a nice break from child-rearing to be able to go camping for a weekend. We headed for the Garden of the Gods (not the one in Colorado Springs, CO) part of the park, where big sandstone formations and cliffs were scattered among the trees and hills. It's a surprising area for the midwest and not a lot of people outside of the area know about it. Yes, we had a nice time. But there was a lot more to the forest, so I wanted to return sometime.
And I did.
The next time I went to the Shawnee, I went alone. This started my habit of camping alone--and preferring it alone--which I still do to this day (when I can). This time I went to the Giant City area of the park. Giant City is an area where huge stones are cast about in the forest, with pathways and cliffs and trickling waters (it looks like a giant city, see?) and I had a great time hiking about. My campground wasn't among the boulders, but I was there in the early spring and there were dogwoods abloom and russian olive trees abloom and their scent and beauty permeated my camping spot. I was also alone in the spot--had the whole tent-camping area to myself to wander and sniff and see. I came back to that spot the next year, but later, and missed both the dogwood and olive blooms and also had much company--college kids getting done with finals at Southern Illinois in Carbondale--who partied into the night.
That second experience around Giant City led me to find more primitive and less-traveled accommodations the next time I went (and the last, before we moved to Florida).
I knew the forest better and chose to visit the Lusk Creek Wilderness my last time in the Shawnee. I'd drive from Champaign to Highland, Il (near St. Louis), taking Fru and our two baby girls to visit Fru's grandmother--Mormor--and then I'd hop on down to the southern part of the state to do some lonely camping. (We went to Highland often, to visit Mormor or Fru's aunt and uncle and their daughters; sometimes I'd stay there, sometimes I'd go to Belleville, Il to visit Mike and Denise [who I knew from my FL panhandle days] or sometime I'd come back to Champaign to work on my novel or, go camping.) This time in the Shawnee I camped at a small campground tucked in among the hollows where a rocky stream ran and there was a big pond with lily pads. It was not in an area of sandstone formations or big boulder rocks, so there was no one else there but me--it was rainy and cool also, which helped. And from there I hiked into the Lusk, which was a true wilderness site among the protected woods of the Shawnee (semi-protected: there was a lot of logging still going on in those Federal woods).
In the Lusk there were pines and hardwoods, there were white birch trees and cliffs and a river that ran slowly through it all. There was a place called the Indian Kitchen which was high on a bluff trail, a half-cave whose walls were blackened from long-ago Indian fires. It was all very peaceful, all very nice. I had a great lonely time, better than the other places. And like I said, this set off my solo camping career (though I did do dome solo camping back in Montana, at least once along Lake Como [yes, named for Italy's Lake Como] in the Bitterroots). (Maybe this trip was in 95, not 94'.)
I'd like to get back to the Lusk. To the Shawnee. Every midwestern state (every state, really) has some hidden landscape gems among them. Most people don't think of a forest with hills and swamps and cliffs and boulders when they think of Illinois. They think of Chicago. Maybe of corn and soybean fields. I'm not crazy about Illinois, but then again, I know and like Illinois. I know and like the Shawnee National Forest.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Muchos Gringos: Mexico 1990

Just a quick memory. This was when I'd gone into Mexico by myself about a year after Fru and I were married. We were still living in Missoula, MT and she went back home to Champaign, IL while I went down to L.A. (saw and stayed with Mike--Chicago Mike) before going into Mexico by myself.
I'd been in the country for a little over a week, from Tijuana to La Paz, to Mazatlan to San Blas. Then I'd left San Blas on a bus on a weekend to head home. It was a crowded bus and I had no place to sit for the first day or so, then I had a stool to sit on in the aisle, then I'd finally gotten a seat as the bus crawled north towards the border with Arizona. I'd made a small cadre of friends on the long bus ride, particularly this old man and this young kid. The old man sat next to me and he'd worked in the States and spoke a little English, but I mainly spoke my lousy Spanish with him. The kid--maybe eighteen or less--spoke mainly Spanish and he sat in front of me on the bus. They both knew I was headed for Nogales and then into the U.S. and back to Montana.
Anyway, I was exhausted the whole ride. Had left early early in the morn in the little Pacific seaside town of San Blas and so by the time I got a seat I mainly slept. And when we got to Nogales the old man woke me up, nudging me, saying the name of the town.
"Es Nogales?" I asked in my broken Espanol.
"Si, si," they told me.
I opened my eyes and stretched my neck to look out the window. We were in the main part of town. I could tell it was a border town as there were many shops and that tourist-bustle along the sidewalks. There were a lot of U.S Americans. The boy and the man watched me look out the window.
"Hay (aye)," I said, "muchos Gringos!"
The old man cackled. The boy, turned around in the seat in front of me, looking at me, gave me the most quizzical face, as in, how could I refer to my own countrymen as gringos? This made the old man laugh even more and I just smiled at the boy. Yes, U.S. Americans had a sense of humor and irony, I guess.
It was but a funny moment, a last moment. Because it wasn't long after that that I crossed back into the U.S of A. and took a bus to Tucson and then all the way back to Missoula. That little happening was my farewell to my Mexican trip.
I've been back to Mexico since then--in the 2000's--but only along the border. In fact, it was in Nogales. I wandered the streets with a friend, very much the Gringo.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Walking My Daughter to School: Fort Lauderdale 1996

You know, you have a child and you don't realize how many things there will be to do for and with that child or how it brings many thing into a new perspective . . . By the fall of 1996, Fru and I were in South Florida and had two children: First Daughter and Second Daughter, five and three years old. By then we'd moved out of the hotel and rented a house on SE 10th Ave in Victoria Park. One of the reasons we chose the Victoria Park neighborhood was because of the school there: VSY (Virginia Schuman Young--a public Montessori school). That's one of those things you don't think about much as you hold your new baby: what school will I send her to? What neighborhood will I choose so that she can go to a certain school? But, as we settled in, we were very happy with our decision.
Though we didn't end up buying a house there, Victoria Park is a cool little neighborhood very close to downtown, it has cute houses and small, palm-lined streets. It was down one of these palm-lined streets that I would walk each weekday with my two daughters to take First Daughter to school. Right on our street there were three other families that had kids about the same age and they too would walk to VSY, so we got to know them well and they are--to this day--still friends. So, it was a group of us walking 10th Avenue back and forth down to the school and back. A daily ritual that helped us feel connected and at home in a place like South Florida (none of us in the group were native Floridians--except some of the kids). This daily walk was especially fun for Second Daughter and her friends who also did not go to school yet--they'd goof around and find small things of great interest as we walked. They had no pressure--it was only a walk--and had a year to see and accept the routine, the idea of going to school. This, however, was not true for First Daughter.
First Daughter--like me when I was a child--would have much preferred to stay home. She was brave and did well in school, but was never comfortable in doing it. I knew this. I also knew what it was like, because I'd always seen school as a chore, as duty rather than choice (until about my last year of high school, maybe). So everyday as I walked her, I knew she didn't really want to go, was reluctant to leave the sanctity of home and family and our close relationship, to leave her in this imposing building full of other kids (mostly older) and then, hours and hours later, come get her and walk back to where she'd rather be. First Daughter had been to a pre-school of sorts in Champaign, IL: Busy Bees. That class met for a short period--four hours?--maybe three days a week. So, when we got to Ft. Lauderdale and she had to start real school, maybe she wasn't quite prepared for the commitment. (Second Daughter started Pre-K at VSY the next year--same hours as regular school--and she loved it for the most part.)
But this is another thing you really don't think of when you have a child: the reliving of aspects of your own childhood. Whether it be toys or old cartoons, the memories of games or experiences (like having to go off to school, like walking to school), these are things that crop up if you're close to your child and worry about your child (and who doesn't do that?). Perhaps some of it is transference, my own memories and worries, but I think it was more just good old recognition. But you feel that same low-grade pain, worry, sadness; but you also get over it and do what's right, just like your child does.
Ah, but these were long years ago, the 1990's, though it doesn't seem like it to me. My kids are still kids, even though one's in college now and the other is close behind. To them, memories like walking to school in the streets of Fort Lauderdale (and we only did this for one school year, I drove them after that) are but building blocks of larger memory, are a very distant episode. The 90's are ancient times . . . To me, they are but yesterday.
And then my daughters will have their own daughters--or sons--and then they themselves will discover all these ancillary details and concerns that come with having a child. Back and forth we go. Back and forth.
Just like walking to school.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Special Edition #6: Cars

I was never a big car person. Sure, I liked cars, fantasized about owning certain vehicles, desired different fast or big or silly or exotic cars over my many years, but I also was practical about them: cars required money and maintenance. I've had enough trouble with vehicles to enjoy not having them as much as having them--which is a bit odd, since I always loved to drive long distances, loved the road and that form of travel.
My first car was an old car. It was a 1966 Ford Falcon wagon. Dark metallic green, so dark people mistook it for black. It had been our family car--bought new in 1966 by my father in Vancouver, Washington and I still recall the day he drove it home, all of us kids and my mother standing out in the street to see the new car--and the Falcon had been used and used for many years. It was in the Falcon that we went all over the west on camping trips and to visit relatives back in the midwest, it was the main car--our only car--while in Tennessee. It was our car when it was common to only have a single car per family. And it was the family car when we moved to Des Moines, Iowa. It was the car I learned to drive, pretty much--though now that I think of it, I learned to drive in that '72 Chevy Impala, a big blue-gray beast. But the Falcon, over the years, became my car. I didn't buy it outright from my parents, but they gave it to me right after high school and I used it to tool around Urbandale and Des Moines, to go to work at Younkers, etc. I took it to Lake Okoboji (in NW IA) with Bobby--where his parents had a trailer--and on the way back the brakes went out and I had to coast downhill through a busy intersection, then backwards a bit before I figured to use the handbrake. But it was a cool car, it became old enough and was still in good enough shape to be different, almost classic. Of course, it eventually got too old. It still ran, but in the late seventies or early eighties, Father got rid of it, he actually drove it to the junk yard where the guy told him most cars there can't be driven anymore. My father did this by himself and I think it was an emotional moment for him--it had been his brand new car, THE family car, and life and time had moved on beyond all of those days. (Ah, I remember now: he drove it to the junk yard, with my mom following in the Impala, then my father had to go back to look at it again because, "I think I left the lights on.")
My next car was a van. It was a Ford Econoline with fuzzy carpeting, a cooler and other strange stuff. I'd bought it from a friend of my brother's who lived up in Nevada, Iowa (a small town) and I paid too much for it and it was a crazy vehicle. It was a 1960's/70's van, not quite a hippy VW Bus van, but close. It was when I had this idea that I'd live in my van and drive around the country with a dog at my side. So, I did get the van, I did get the dog--then I gave up the dog (too much work) and went to college at the U. of Iowa (no traveling and living in the van) and that vehicle sat at my parents' house, an eyesore more or less, until a neighbor finally found someone who would buy it. Good bye. I was glad to be rid of it.
I didn't own a car for quite a while after that, though I traveled to Alaska and New Mexico and L.A. and north FL and on and on. But then I bought the old powder blue Ford Maverick from my parents after grad school at the Iowa Writers Workshop fell apart. I needed a car and it was a cheap choice. But a strange choice, because I hated that car more than any vehicle I'd known. Yet, the Maverick became a reliable beast. It served me well. It took me back down to Walton County and a beach life in Florida, then across country to L.A. and then up to Seattle. It took me up to Bellingham and out to the Olympic coast, it took me back to Des Moines and back down to Florida's panhandle once again and it took me to Illinois twice and stayed in Champaign, IL with me. That old stupid car got around some. And I eventually traded it in for a friend's--Kurt!--red pickup when I (we, Fru and I) moved out to Montana.
And so in Montana I had a red Chevy Custom Deluxe full-sized pickup. I liked that truck. It had been Kurt's work truck--concrete construction--so it was a little beat up, but I liked that. It fit in well with Missoula. And it was a good truck, didn't give me much trouble. Fru had a little brown Honda Civic, which we used for long trips and to buzz around town, but I used my truck quite a bit. And when we left Missoula, I hauled it behind the U-Haul when we moved back to Champaign. I kept it in Champaign for a couple of years, then sold it. We got by with one car for a while.
By the early 90's it wasn't me anymore, it was Fru and I and then Fru and I and our first baby. That's when the truck went goodbye, that's when we traded in the Honda for a little Suburu (a nice car but it didn't last long), then, before we moved to Ft. Lauderdale, FL, Fru's grandmother--Mormor!--gave us some money and we bought a brand new Volvo 850 wagon. Nice. That's what we used to move down to Florida with. Then my parents gave me their old car, a Chevy Cavalier, as a second car.
We still have the Volvo. I sold the Cavalier to Bill (MA, MN, MT Bill) a long time ago and it caught on fire and burnt up--after good years of use by him. But the Volvo still runs, has its issues and we don't really need it (my girls refuse to drive it most of the time). We have a new Volvo XC 90 and a new little Nissan. We had a Saab (S-something) Turbo convertible for quite a few years: loved that car, fun to drive, top-down-in-Florida fun, but it had its problems and I was glad to sell it off. We had a Nissan Pathfinder as our primary family car for years, but got rid of it--Cash for Clunkers (though it wasn't quite a "clunker" yet)--and got the little Sentra for my daughter. But I've been thinking about getting a pickup truck once again.
Yet, what to do with the old bluegreen/tealish colored Volvo 850 wagon? No one seems to want it besides me (and now I want a truck). Kids don't drive old beaters like they used to--and be glad they had one--especially here in South Florida. So, do I sell it? Do I simply drive it to the junk yard and have the guy tell me most cars they get can't be driven? Will I feel sentimental about this and think of the family life that was lived through this car, this old Volvo? Will I go back for one last look because "I left the lights on"?
Of course I will.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Myopic And Self Indulgent History #6

Childhood friends, that's what I was thinking of. Though I've been mainly writing about the 90's now--and with it being November, December, January 1st rolling up, I haven't been writing that much (plus I'm working on a novel)--I was thinking of the neighborhood kids who used to make up my universe.
In Sioux Falls, in the Hilltop house, there were the Bosslers across the street. There was Myron down the street--a kid my age who I used to wrestle--and there were other kids whose names I no longer know, whose faces I can't even recall. And then in the 2nd House in Sioux Falls there was the girl who lived next door--the one who always cut her toe in our sprinkler--and, again, there were other children whose names and faces elude me yet I can recall them hanging around and playing around the house. But when I was five we moved out West to Vancouver, Washington.
In Vancouver we moved into a new house on a small street--Enid Avenue (though it was not a true avenue, just a little street--not far from George C. Marshall Elementary School). Already living there at the time were the Alvicks, next door to us, with Bobby and Cathy and Mark--their ages roughly the same as us (Oldest Brother, Second Oldest Brother and me, then Sister and Youngest Brother--Bobby was my age, Cathy older, Mark younger). They became our best friends. Across the street were three brothers--the youngest as old as me--but they rarely played our games. Those boys were a little rough, a little serious when it came to games, though I used to "fight" them (fighting consisting of wrestling and shows of strength), but they were okay kids. Then to our left a new family moved in with two older boys and a younger girl. I think her name was Liz and she joined our group. The boy--whose name I can't recall--was Second Oldest Brother's age and he goofed around with us some. Really, Second Oldest Brother didn't play with the rest of us as much either--he often did his own thing, had his own set of pals. One of those pals was Mike Gust, who did not live in the neighborhood, and Mike would come over quite often. We went to his house as well. Mother was not all that fond of the boy--"THAT Mike Gust" was how she referred to him--but we did many things with him and sometimes his older brother, Lynn. Then Joey Hanes moved down the street (Joey was from Albuquerque--which sounded exotic to me) and he was in my same grade (the Alvicks went to the private, Catholic school) and class at George C. Marshall and we became best friends (though that friendship was tested when we both liked Kathy McKay in 2nd grade and she liked me in return). There were others--some boy who moved into a house behind us, it was a big house with an intercom system. There was a kid--Robert, I think--who lived around the block, a friend of Oldest Brother, whose last name was different than his mother's: she was divorced and had remarried or some such. And there were others, school friends (Dale didn't live too far away, he had white hair--White Hair!--at the age of six), but the main neighborhood gang was who we spent the most time with, them and That Mike Gust.
Then we moved to Tennessee.
At first we lived in, or just outside of, Jonesborough. There was a small boy next door who had a cat named Mr. Whiskers and who called poor behavior "ugly": "You're acting so ugly." He had a thick accent when he said it, too. There were a couple of kids next door that we played with some. This was all out in the country, really, though there were plenty of houses, along a rural road/highway. There was a kid named Judge down the road a ways--nice kid. There were some bad kids who tried to steal our bicycles. My best friend (for a while) lived a few houses down, but I can't recall his name. He and I tried to walk home from school once--maybe about ten miles, or longer, and my mother had to search for us. Then there was Rocky and his brother Stoney (I'm serious, these were their names). Rocky was in my grade, Stoney younger. They were shy kids, small, Rocky was picked on at school and I came to his defense, which was how we became friends. He was a good, sensitive kid and he lived a few houses down from us--I think they had an orchard. This wasn't a defined neighborhood like in the midwest or most cities or suburbs and people had ersatz houses and big lots of land--a few acres. We even had a an acre or so of woods on our rented property. Then we moved into a brand new house closer to Johnson City where my father worked at the V.A.. Here, in this new, small development, were new kids. Probably my best friend at first was Kent, who lived up the hill. But there was Maryellen and her sister down the hill and across the street, there was this little kid named Foy (FOY!) who would lick spit up in the street and was deathly afraid of masks. There was Kurt up the hill who was a liar and a delinquent, there was another boy up the street who could kick the heck out of a football (except once he missed, fell down and had the wind knocked out of him) and there was the mysterious girl who lived up, past our street, in a trailer on the land where there was a cave. And down the hill and across Antioch Avenue, a few people moved in to the otherwise empty development: Greg and his sisters Lisa and Joy, the boy Bobby who had a glass eye and his sister. I was always in love with either Lisa or Joy or Maryellen. There were a handful of others and, of course, friends from school. Two boys moved in next to us who I hung out with--but can't recall their names (Joey and his older brother?). But between ourselves and the neighbor kids, that made up our core group, our everyday group, wherever we lived.
Then we moved to Iowa and it was 1970 and things were different. My older brothers--and I--weren't such little kids anymore. We were still kids, but adolescence was taking its hold. So, that's different, friendships were different, family life shifted as well.
In Iowa--Des Moines/Urbandale--childhood (at least my definition of it) came to a close.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Watching the Bulls Win Another Championship: Fort Lauderdale 1996

Ah, the Chicago Bulls. Fru was originally from Chicago (the South Side) and I'd lived in Illinois long enough to feel connected to the city (and had had a girlfriend, Cin, who was from there and had spent a lot of time there). So during the Michael Jordan era of the Bulls, Fru and I--not really big NBA or basketball fans in general (I'm a football guy, baseball and basketball an even distant second)--she and I always watched the Bulls in the playoffs. (I saw Jordan play twice in Chicago, at the old stadium.)
One thing I recall is that the playoffs and championship were always on NBC. And in Missoula and in Champaign, NBC was always a station that came in horribly . . . We had no cable TV--by choice--back then, so we relied on rabbit ears and signal strength. And for whatever reason, NBC was always weak. I recall I'd have to fidget with the antennae, try the TV out in different spots and still put up with snow or static while watching the games. Well. But it was fun. It connected us to each other and to Chicago. But then we moved to Fort Lauderdale, in May of 1996.
We stayed--lived--at the Riverside Hotel those first few months. Fru and I and our five and three year old daughters in one double queen bed room. And the Bulls were in the playoffs once again, this time in the finals against the Seattle Supersonics (another team I liked, along with Portland and Miami) (but I was for the Bulls). I'm sure the Riverside had cable TV, but I seem to recall that it was the same story: bad reception. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I do know that when we got into a house and we watched TV (we were not big TV watchers--hence, why pay for cable?) we found--AGAIN--that NBC was fuzzy and static-y! So, we struggled to watch--but that ended up being part of the fun--like tuning in a game that is far distant from some remote corner of the world, or finding a distant game on your radio while driving through empty landscapes on a long distance trip--it added to the excitement and pleasure and specialness of watching the Bulls win once again.
I can't place it all exactly--what years and where we watched the Bulls, but because the won so many championships and because they were Chicago, it was a yearly event for us for a long time.
No matter where we lived.
No matter the poor reception.