Tuesday, April 27, 2004

The Lonliest Man, Continued: The Eureka Cafe

Driving through Eureka after dark, I spotted a sign for the Eureka Cafe advertising "American and Chinese" food. I found a booth and ordered the #1 combo for 1: sweet and sour pork, chow mein, chicken fried rice, and tea. In a place like this, where most if not all of the customers are non-Asians, the food is drastically modified to suit the local tastes, a far cry from what you find in the Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area, who have mostly Chinese clientele. The Eureka Cafe does not have any barbecued ducks hanging in the window or live shrimp and cod waiting their turn on the chopping block like I often see at Chinese restaurants where I live.

While I waiting, I read from Hermit Lady's Guide to Route 50. A young Chinese waitress wearing the same type of thick-soled shoes that were the style in San Jose waited on me. The sweet and sour pork was tough and came without the pineapple and green peppers I'm used to seeing with that dish. The chow mein noodles were like the dried ones you can buy in cans in grocery stores--except bigger. The decor hinted at the restaurant's earlier life as a frontier-style restaurant with pine paneling and rustic metal chandeliers.

Highway 50 goes mostly east and west across the middle of Nevada. The Hermit Lady illustrated the ranges that the road passes over in cross section with the name of each place along the way and its elevation. Eureka, 6,XXX feet. East about five miles, the road rose to 10,xxx feet, and then dropped again into the next valley. There were several more of those roller coaster rises and dips before Ely, the next big city.

When I finished my meal and stood up to prepare to leave, I put my hand on the back of my booth at the same moment the big bearded man behind me leaned his hairy arm back and draped it on the back of the booth. My nails slightly grazed his arm, and I apologized for scratching him, exagerating the apology for humorous effect (since I was well aware that I had done no damage to his arm). I looked at him and I thought, "Hmmm."

The woman sitting across the table from him chimed in, "I saw you reading. What are you reading?"

I said, "I picked up this book from the Cold Springs bar and restaurant. It tells about points of interest along this road."

The woman, who introduced herself as Annabelle, said she'd noticed the cartoons as I was reading. I opened to the page that described Eureka and showed them.

Annabelle told me she had never stopped at the Cold Springs bar before. I told Annabelle about the sign at the bar that advertises a drink called, "The Cold Springs Duck's fart." I said I'd asked the bartender, and she'd told me that the drink is a combination of five liquors. Annabelle said that this year she had learned to be a bartender herself, and although she had heard of the drink before, she hadn't tried it.
I think we were still chatting about the book when Neil came in. They both recognized him, and introduced him to me. "Neil is the best dancer." Annabelle said. "He comes into the bar where I work. Everyone knows him. He can teach anyone to dance."

Neil said, "You're right," and then said, "I'll prove it," and held out his arms to me.

"No, no, I can't," I said, thinking about how long it was that I'd had a chance to follow a man in a dance. "Yes, you can," Neil said. He took me in his arms, right then and there, and suddenly, with no music, we were dancing.

It was very nice. Then, reality struck. I looked at the waitress, who was waiting to get by us, since we were partially blocking the door to the kitchen. Feeling lumpy and self-conscious, I pulled away. "You're right," I said. "Neil can teach anyone to dance, even me." Playing my reaction up again. At the same time wondering at what had just happened. It wasn't a head thing at all, learning to dance. It was something else.

Monday, April 26, 2004

The Lonliest Man, Continued

Sept. 7 1998 continued
Mass in St. Theresa's South Lake Tahoe. Over doughnuts in the church hall, I met the young priest with a handlebar mustache who sang the entire Mass--including the words of consecration. Met a woman who gave me her card stating she was, among other things, a holistic nurse kinesthesiologist, clinical pastor?, several other counter-cultural forms of medicine. She told me she is "one in mind, soul and spirit" with an 89-year old retired Jesuit who is blind. She spends time with him every afternoon, does his laundry and correspondence, takes him to appointments, and then they talk on the phone from 9:00-10:30 or so later every evening. We exchanged phone numbers, but there was an awkward moment when she said she wants to teach courses to laity who don't understand, who need to be educated about the documents of Vatican II. She also dropped the name of a famous post-Vatican II theologian, who is an acquaintance of hers.

She is very thin, very well-groomed. The things we have in common are a desire to create community with other Catholic women, and a sense of isolation and feelings of abandonment (mine are lessening every day).

Bought Filipino food for lunch at the church: lunch meat, roll and sweet rice wrapped in a banana leaf, with sweet coconut sauce. Was stuck in SLT traffic for 1/2 hour, started eating in the car, pulled off to a beach that costs $6 to park, turned around and left without paying. Drove through the rest of the Sierras in late afternoon.

Interesting/Related Info About Eureka Nevada

The following is from: Purdue, Matt, Adventure Travel Guide to Nevada (Edison, NJ: Hunter, 1999):

" [In Nevada] much of the Great Basin is broken up into basins and ranges, the mountains running roughly north to south and looking like the march of the caterpillars on a topographic map. An east-to-west drive across the belly of Nevada is a rollercoaster ride: up a range, down a range, across a sagebrush-covered basisn, then up another range, down another range, and so on. "p7.

This helps me understand the cross-section drawing by the Hermit Lady of the elevations of all the passes on highway 50, which looked like labels on the ridges of a piece of cordoroy. Because of the current state of highway engineering, you don't really notice all the ups and downs as you drive along.

p. 8 [T]he majority of the basin and range is characterized by one plant: big sagebrush (Aremesia tridentata). This fragrant shrub has taken over since native grasses have been grazed out of existence by livestock. . . . other plants that thrive in sem-arid-conditions, such as rabbitbrush, greasewood, horsebrush and shadescale. . . .The squat Utah juniper . . . between 5,000 and 8,00 feet aboutseal level. Oftn found near the junipter is pinyon pine (or singleleaf pine), the only one of the 100-odd pines with singular needles. The pinyon pine's nuts were a staple of many Nevada Native Americans, and the fall ritual of collecting the pine nuts continues today among people of all races across the state. . . . . At elevations above 6,000 feet, quaking aspens. bristlecone pine (p. 10) cottonwoods [along the rivers], alder willow
and dogwood.

p. 107
Eureka is in a narrow canyon below Richmond Mountains.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The Loneliest Man 9/7/1998 Part 1

On Sunday, day two of my extended Labor Day trip, I started heading east out of South Lake Tahoe in the early afternoon along highway 50. After a slow start in a traffic jam near the south end of the big blue lake, I finished driving through the rest of the Sierras. A pang of grief surprised me as I came down from the fir, pine, and cedar forested mountains into the plains at the west edge of Nevada's Great Basin. I didn't know where the grief came from. I observed it and just kept on driving. I only had a week to get to Taos New Mexico, visit my 26-year-old daughter Sunshine at what she called an "intentional community" named Lama Foundation, and then turn around and drive back to my technical writing job in San Jose the next Monday morning.

A co-worker who lived out that way, who commuted to his home in Fallon Nevada by automobile and small plane every weekend, had warned me against taking route 50 beyond Fallon when I had been planning a road trip to Colorado the previous winter. Fallon is in an agricultural area and still is pretty green. Dick thought I wouldn't like highway 50 the rest of the way east because there are no cities or towns of any size, nothing to see but desert. His warning had deterred me that first time, but on this trip my curiousity spurred me to see for myself whatever there was to see.

Like the artists who had embraced the name impressionist when it had been first applied to their work as an insult, the people of Nevada have embraced Life magazine's designation of a 284-mile section of U.S. highway 50 as the loneliest road in America in a 1986 article. Gas stations sell tee shirts with the highway 50 sign and the slogan, "I survived the loneliest road." That was a pretty cool way to respond I thought.

So, I stayed on 50 past Fallon left the agricultural oasis of that part of the state, and headed out to the desert. By mid afternoon, I stopped at the Cold Springs--Pony Express exit because I had to find a rest room. About a quarter mile off the two lane highway, I found a mini-mart from an age before the phrase was invented, in a small unpainted gray weathered building. Someone had propped a wooden wagon wheel against the log railing on the old-west-styled front porch for effect. A small weathered gray man, who looked like he had been hand-picked as another rustic prop, was sitting on the kind of wooden bench you can imagine they put on the porch for you to imagine that old timers had sat on it in the old days. This old-timer didn't look up when I greeted him.

Only later did I discover that there really had once been a Pony Express stop at that location, and there was a self-guided tour of the foundations that I hadn't noticed.

Inside the gray building, a trim grey-haired woman in blue jeans, red Indian shirt, and large bright silver belt buckle was standing near stools at a bar talking to another more-nondescript woman. The rest of the room was filled with restaurant tables and chairs. When I inquired, the flashier-looking one pointed me to the woman's bathroom and resumed talking. They continued to talk together after I came out. "It's hot and dry out there," I said. I got an inspiration. "Can I fill my water jug in your sink?" "Okay." I went back to the van and brought in the gallon Thermos jug, and an empty spring water bottle, and filled them at the restaurant's faucet.

While I picked out a bottle of iced mocha coffee from the cooler, a quirky guidebook, called Hermit Lady's Guide to Route 50: Part II from Fallon to Ely and Beyond caught my eye. The spiral bound book was made on a copier, with hand printed lettering (with the occasional missing letter), and sketches on every page. I put it on the counter with the coffee to buy mostly as a thank you for use of the john. Before I left, the trim woman told me that the hermit lady had lived at a nearby ranch and used to make her living selling the books. Her friend kept nodding and adding details. She waved her arm to indicate the direction of the ranch where the hermit lady had lived, in a direction where I hadn't noticed anything but scrubby plants.

It started to dawn on me that this vast empty space was populated. If Life's reporter thought highway 50 is lonely, what would he think of living in one of those isolated manufactured homes on unnamed roads that branch off the main highway into the desert and the surrounding hills way out of sight of the passing cars?

I passed the weathered man again on the weathered porch next to the wagon wheel for the fourth time, and he persisted in ignored me.

Back out in the heat in the front seat of my van, I gulped down the iced coffee drink and started reading the Hermit Lady's book. It does a remarkably effective job of using details to make what appears to be the barren desert landscape along Route 50 come alive. I especially liked that she listed the mountain passes, their elevations, and their histories, and noted all the points of interest that were hidden from speeding cars along the road. One sketch is a kind of graph that illustrates the mountain passes between each of the cities on the route and their relative heights compared to one another.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Losing George. Revision 1

On April 16 in 1987, the northern plains were enduring an unseasonal heat wave of 90+ degree temps. I was in my kitchen in Northeast Minneapolis when my former father-in-law Ted called from Fargo, North Dakota. He told me that my ex-husband George had disappeared. Nobody had seen him for three days.

I think that he and his wife Betty had talked it over and decided that they had to tell me because it was important for the kids to know.

The fact that George was missing is the most important part of this story. But for you to grasp what the events in this story all add up to, and what it all felt like, you have to know how unusual and badly timed the heat wave of 1987 was.

In the five years I lived there between December of 1970 and August of 1976, April in the Fargo area had always been cold.

Spring usually comes very late to the northern plains. One pertinent rule of thumb is, you cannot put out your tomato plants safely before Memorial Day, because up to May 31 there is still real danger of a hard frost.

I just realized how many assumptions there are in that last sentence. One assumption would be that you garden, that you've maybe even started tomatoes from seeds you covered with planting mix in February inside of washed and cut down milk cartons, as my mother-in-law, Betty, did.

Maybe, like Betty, you've punched holes in the bottoms of the cartons, made little trays for them from parts of other milk cartons lined with tin foil so they wouldn't leak, put them on sunny window sills, and then watered and babied the seedlings along during the last long months of winter because you wanted to grab the maximum amount of growing time possible in the short summer that only lasts between June the first and Labor Day. Whether you did any of that or not, you'd still need to understand that to put out tomatoes means to take them out of their temporary milk carton homes or perhaps from purchased flats or six packs and plant them in the barely-warm freshly-spaded earth in a location with full sun exposure.

Betty had a vegetable garden that I recall as not being much bigger than the size of a dining room table. The garden faced the alley behind the unconnected garage of their pale yellow house with white trim in Fargo. Betty somehow managed to grow asparagus, onions, lettuce, swiss chard, kohlrabi, green beans, and radishes, along with plenty of tomatoes in that little space.

The love of fresh tomatoes is strong in that part of the country. It stays with you even if you leave, maybe it even strengthens when you leave. I haven't ever quite gotten over the absence of vine-ripened tomatoes in my life along with the lack of a number of other good things I left behind in my post-marriage, post-northern plains existence.

Up there amid the abundance of late summer, the tomatoes are as numerous as the zucchini and both are freely given away, sometimes by the bushel basket, sometimes even left anonymously on a neighbor's back stairs. If you have the right connections, even if you don't grow tomatoes yourself, you can easily come into possesion of enough to put up in glass jars for keeping on shelves in the basement for the long winter. Another use of the word "put." "Put out" then "put up."

Basements are another given of northern plains life. I only recently realized that some people have never seen a basement. In the part of the U.S. where this story happened, anyone with a house has a basement.

Here in San Jose where I live now in a 107 year old Victorian, basements are so rare and cause for so much exclamation, I have joked about holding tours for the California-born. "This is what a basement looks like. This particular kind is entered from the outside through a pair of wood doors that fold back to reveal a set of concrete stairs that take you below the house . . . "

But it's important to get back to the point, and to get back there I have to still talk some more about tomatoes. I had already learned to can some before my husband and I and our six month old baby boy Liberty came to Fargo from San Francisco in 1969 in our orange-painted VW van. I wanted to make up for having been raised a city girli in Massachusetts.

While we lived in San Francisco, our hippy friends all talked about going back to the land, and we all devoured books about being self-sufficient (Living More With Less was one of the titles) and about Indian lore, and we dreamed of organic farming, so when we made the move from the City by the Bay to the city bisected by the Red River of the North, I was eager to become an expert in sustinence farming..

During my apprenticeship in the north country, with my in-laws who were the first generation of German peasant immigrants who hadn't made their living off the land, I learned, among a lot of other useful things, how to can everything. I found out that canning tomatoes is a lot less difficult than canning other less-acid fruits of the earth. The tomatoes' acidity prevents the growth of bacteria, so you don't have boil the jars for a long time like you do when you can other things. This is pretty good for someone who had only eatten canned tomatoes from tin cans

You use whatever method you prefer to peel their skins off, stuff the tomatoes into clean canning jars, put the sealing lids down making sure that the edges of the jars aren't nicked, place the screw rings loosely on top of the seals, put the jars into a big kettle on a rack, boil them, cool them until you hear the seals kind of pop into place, tighten the screw rings down, wipe the jars, and put them away on the shelves. I can still recall the popping sound the seals made when the jars cooled enough to create the needed vaccum.

It's making me sad to think about how I once had the time and opportunity to put up my own supply of summer tomatoes for the winter. From the weight of the sadness, I know it's not just the opportunity to put up sparkling glass jars full of ripe tomatoes that I lost.

George and I went travelling back and forth across the country several times in the 60s, camping out of our old van which we bought where we met in Boston. On our first roadtrip we stopped in Fargo at his folks house and while his 50 something dad painted his house, George painted the van with orange house paint. It had a roof rack from its earlier incarnation as the delivery van for a plate glass company, and he painted the roof rack yellow. Later on during that same trip, we ran into some hippies at a commune in New Mexico, where an artist silk-screened the psychedelic portrait of a woman with Medusa like hair on the driver's door.

Since George liked going to places mentioned in guide books, we did the non-hip thing of touring a lot of factories. And so it came about that on one of our road trips, on a Del Monte cannery tour, I found out how the mass produced under ripe tomato gets prepared for storage in consumers' cupboards.

Some time just before I divorced my husband, I was intrigued to read somewhere that you can freeze tomatoes without any fuss, sticking them into zip lock bags in the freezer and taking them out one at a time when you need them. You see I had started to lose my enthusiasm for canning and blanching food for the freezer by that time,
even though it had been interesting at first.

We'd started out in our "back to the land" experiment with a lot of zeal for growing thing organically, and our large garden flourished. We rented a house 23 miles
southeast of Fargo, four miles outside of a Minnesota town called Barnesville. Our landlord and all the rest of our neighbors were farmers. On the five acres of land
surrounding the house, the landlord grew soybeans and sunflowers around us, stored grain in silos, and stored huge combines and other farm equipment in a rundown
picturesque unpainted barn and some sheds. An old unused pump with a handle was the central ornament of the circular driveway outside our back door.

When the garden started producing, it was the hottest part of the summer. George would put baskets of whatever he picked in the morning on the back steps, and I
would put it away. Putting food away doesn't mean sticking it in cupboards, it means preparing it for long term storage, so when I was putting food away I was either
canning it in jars or blanching it for freezing. As time went on, I was liking the hot, sweaty work less and less. Besides I was commuting on most weekdays the 25 miles
on interstate 94 up to Moorhead to take college classes.

I was going to school because I felt that George had not kept up his end of a bargain we had made at the start of our relationship. I thought my husband planned to
finish his college education when I first met him, and it was only after we were together for several years that I found out he had lost interest. Huffily, I stubbornly
determined to realize my own ambitions and finish my own degree. The cost of my tuition, and day care, and gas, and wear and tear on the car, and my absence at
home to do my share of the work put a big strain on our finances and our relationship. And I'm sorry to say I didn't much care.

Leaving George closed the door on further experimentation in freezing tomatoes and on a lot of other things I had been free to do. While we stayed together, we had
little money, but lots of time. We didn't see eye to eye on most things, but we more or less had divided the work of our family life between us.

Divorce changed everything for us both. When I left, I took the kids. I started going to college full time. I had to go full time to get the money for child care that was
available through an extremely generous program at the welfare department in those days.

I had no qualms about applying for welfare. I felt I had to do it, because George couldn't afford enough to support us in separate homes, and I saw my college degree as
my only way out. Out of what? Out of being with someone who hadn't satisfied my dreams. Out of the anonymity of a nuclear family on the fringes of a community that
didn't know what to make of two athiest former hippies who'd lived in San Francisco and had children named Liberty and Sunshine.

And so I had found my way out, way out, on my own with a 2 year old and a 4 year old, poor both in money and time.

The divorce had been quick. I moved out in March and we had been divorced in April, 1975. As I write this I realize that the divorce had taken place12 years before George disappeared.

We didn't have anything much to fight over, so we shared a lawyer. The lawyer was a heavy guy, a professing Christian, with six kids. One day when we were going over some papers alone in his home office, the lawyer leaned across the desk and expressed an interest in coming to see me some time. I cannot explain my reaction. I didn't refuse him. I think I was desparate for someone to act like I could be attractive. Someone who had a role in society, who had been able to buckle down and complete an eduction, to work, own a home, adhere to the conventions.

The kind of fawning look on the lawyer's face went away. His face closed over like he'd gotten what he was after. What was he after? How do I know this? His beliefs would not allow him to aid a divorce that was not allowed under Christ's teachings as he understood them. In Protestant churches, the words of Christ that divorce is only allowed in cases of adultery are taken literally. He'd given me a test, to see if I was an adulterer. I flunked it. His conscience was clear.