Tag Archives: driftless

The Towns Down the River

29 Sep

My education on the travails facing St. Louis was a swift one. On a road trip there for a wedding last weekend, several family members, seeking some beer with which to amuse the group, ventured across the street from the hotel to a Circle K gas station. Each six-pack came to them one-by-one through a drawer from an attendant behind bulletproof glass, a security provision deemed necessary even on this unassuming commercial strip right off an interstate. Next to fried ravioli and Budweiser, St. Louis’s lingering image is one as perhaps the most complete representation of the crumbling of Middle America, a sign of what might await downriver for the rest of us if we’re not careful.

The population of St. Louis is down to about 300,000 from a high of 850,000 in the middle of the 20th century. Streets and buildings frequently nestle behind gates, the divisions of a third-world city brought right into a metro whose urban evolution has followed the same trends. Its many brick facades, I learn, are now often the most prized part of a house, and many get removed and shipped off for use elsewhere. Unlike many Rust Belt towns, St. Louis’s fate wasn’t tied to the rise and demise of a single industry; its struggles stem from the gradual decline of a range of industries and a steady stream of buyouts by larger multinationals. I now understand why Jonathan Franzen named one of his early novels about his hometown The Twenty-Seventh City to note its decline from a great American metro to a middling status. (My copy made this trip with me, but I never opened it.)

St. Louis also lacks the perversely romantic ruin porn of Detroit. Its greatest testament to urban planning failure, Pruitt-Igoe, is now partially repurposed and partially a vacant field. Pruitt-Igoe was to be the modernist model for how to build public housing: 28,000 units designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the celebrated designer of the World Trade Center in New York. Less than twenty years later the whole thing was demolished. The failure of Pruitt-Igoe is often billed as a failure of architecture; Charles Jencks, an architecture critic, called its demolition “the day modern architecture died.”

It’s certainly true that the complex suffered from shoddy construction, and that architecture alone cannot make good citizens in the way some of the more absurd modernist dreamers in that field liked to believe, to ruinous effect. But the greater tragedy of Pruitt-Igoe stems not from its design but from an environment that doomed it to failure: a crumbling economy, blatant segregation, poor city management that destroyed St. Louis’s tax base, and a political climate that had no desire to see public housing succeed. For those who defend those systems, explicitly or implicitly, the architects are a convenient scapegoat. The failures of Pruitt-Igoe endure, its ghosts appearing on the streets of suburban Ferguson in recent years.

As with Detroit, there is still plenty of growth and commerce around St. Louis. It enjoys a large ring of well-off suburbs where plenty of people, including some members of my family, have settled in to happy lives. But it is also an ideal study in how major trends, from economic centralization to government division, can be the lasting difference between cities that are challenged but thriving and those that have come to exemplify the worst of contemporary America. The St. Louis experience offers a compelling case for regional governance and an indictment of a range of incentives and policies, whether malignant or merely misguided, that created the divides of a power in decline.

I don’t want to linger on the negatives for too long. St. Louis has a dramatic arch, and two Grade A large city parks that date to its World’s Fair days, complete with a zoo and a botanical garden. The City Museum, which I explore with a couple of relatives after the reception, is a true marvel, a playground for all ages in the shell of an otherwise vacant old building, the wreckage of a shrinking city repurposed into tunnels and slides and other stray sources of amusement. I’ll be back here in the future, and I hope to find a few more worthy sights. But on this weekend I settle for rolling in and out in a heartbeat, with long drives across downstate Illinois and Iowa to slow down the time along the way. Rarely is it memorable, save for windows into the less dramatic but equally damning rural decay that line the four-lane rivers of commerce that have replaced the Mississippi as the lifeblood of these towns.

*          *          *

Some two hours north of St. Louis, on the banks of the Mississippi, sits Hannibal, the boyhood hometown of Samuel Clemens before he became Mark Twain. He didn’t live there long, but this town of 17,000 left an indelible mark on one of America’s most celebrated writers. Like any small town that has had a brush with fame (and many that haven’t but would like to think they have), Hannibal is all in on its famed son, with Twain kitsch and a full cottage industry around him on full display. We enter town down rather dismal, run-down streets amid a rainstorm, but downtown Hannibal is cute and well-kept, and the Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, which sprawls across several buildings and blocks, is worth the $12. We get a full overview of Clemens’ early life, and the town smartly keeps its emphasis on his early years which were so formative for his two best-known works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Those two icons of American literature are clearly children of Hannibal, and each of the major figures in those books had direct real-life parallels.

Beyond Hannibal, Twain’s fortunes have risen and fallen over time. The museum acknowledges the controversies surrounding Huck Finn, both for its transgressive language at the time of its publication and its contemporary fall from grace for its repeated use of a word we now consider vile in polite speech. A panel in the museum shows dueling quotes from writers on this flap, with Toni Morrison blasting anyone who’d shy away from an accurate account of historical language and Jane Smiley suggesting that, if Huck Finn is the book that sets the context for discussions of race in America, it’s letting us set an awfully low bar.

Both points can probably be true. There are certainly more effective and searing testaments to the reality of racial conflict in America than the writings of a white man from over a century ago. The problem comes from trying to see Huck Finn only through that lens: it’s a major theme in the book, yes, and there’s certainly something to Huck’s growing understanding of racial divisions that readers can learn from, perhaps especially because Huck is by no means privileged but can still see injustice in front of him. (An exhibit in the Becky Thatcher House does a good job of laying out 19th century Hannibal’s class boundaries for a young audience.) And Twain also deserves judgment by the context of his day: sure, some language no longer resonates, but he was a dedicated and consistent champion of racial equality at a time when that was often a bold take. He wrote a book-length diatribe against the atrocities of King Leopold of Belgium in the Congo, and he blasted injustice around the world, from Boers in South Africa to servitude of Pacific Islanders in Australia. He also oversaw the rehabilitation of Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation through the publication of his memoirs, a vital corrective to a Southern narrative of Reconstruction as a failure and Grant as a bumbling and corrupt commander-in-chief. I have little patience for armchair critics of a man who consistently used his station to combat injustices everywhere.

Twain endures because he embodies the best of the American narrative. He is often wickedly funny, an astute observer of American reality using a vernacular, that, if sometimes less accessible now, was a vital step in literature’s move away from endless highbrow blather to something accessible to all classes. His realism was for everyone, and dedicated to a democratic spirit. He burst on to the scene documenting the freshness of American thought against stodgy Europeans in The Innocents Abroad, and he set his country to overcoming such ugliness as slavery and racism, which he himself had benefitted from as a child. In this vein, his great characters are adolescents: not yet fully formed, burdened by family history and their instincts but still capable of greatness or redemption no matter their backgrounds. Tom and Huck speak to the possibility of boyhood, and Twain’s nostalgia for his early days when a small-town American childhood blurred very real class lines. That formative experience may no longer be possible in the St. Louis metropolitan area, and if that is indeed the case, it’s a major loss.

A dive into a Hannibal childhood stirs some agrarian corner of my soul, itself grounded in an early-life sojourn in a town of 4,000 where I formed my first memories. As with Twain, that small town was my sandbox for my first steps into writing. This road trip’s final day includes a push through the land I associate with those early years: the hilltop farms and meandering coulees and oak savannas of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. The towns here seem better kept, better able to avoid the shabbiness on display in Iowa or Missouri or, for that matter, northern Minnesota. On a golden early fall morning, I don’t much mind getting stuck behind a house on wheels as I wind up and down these verdant hills. These hills are reminders of a time when I, too, had no sense of the divides I can’t help but see now, and remind me that the dream embodied in Twain’s characters isn’t useless nostalgia, but a dream of how things could be.

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Driftless III

25 Oct

Happiness is not, nor can it be, terrestrial. Nor can it be a permanent state. Humans can be happy but for an instant…But its brevity does not matter: an instant can be a window unto eternity.

–Octavio Paz

2015-10-18 13.43.05

Fall is one of the best times to go hiking in the Upper Midwest. Green hills erupt into flames of red and yellow and orange. The air is crisp enough to invigorate after a summer of languor, but not yet frigid enough to force a retreat beneath the covers. Whether along the ridges of the North Shore or the meandering valleys of the Driftless Area, the countryside beckons. In need of escapes after a long week, we run off into the woods and go barreling up and down bluffs and hills with reckless abandon.

The metaphor here is none too subtle. We’re running up these hills in search of something. It’s a constant hunger, an ambition to push to the top, wherever we may be. It’s an old trope, though its sincerity takes some edge off the cliché. We can only linger at the top for a moment, but the real power comes in the push to the summit, the pursuit of goals at a breathless pace. And the view, even if it lasts only an instant, remains etched in the mind’s eye, that lone memory of this season that will endure.

This fall brings on new levels of relentlessness. And yet those moments still come: those moments when we get closer and realize that the narratives we write aren’t about progress from one thing to the next but instead a ceaseless cycle that brings things in and out, forward and back, the past and the future blurred in some formless thing we call ourselves. This land we walk upon was here long before us, and will be long after. We only have a fleeting window to leave a mark.

And so we push up the peak even faster. Now is the time to remember that it’s all in the service of something, all part of some greater mission, and that the exertion is worth every ounce. Beneath an Indian summer sun and a ceiling of golden boughs, it’s not hard to imagine an order behind it all; some higher power at work. But the true believers run the risk of assuming they have it all figured out; that one view from the summit reveals all. Perhaps the simple beauty of the moment is enough, and we can instead work to preserve it, to make sure that all can enjoy these little glimmers. But a rootless commitment to the good cannot endure; it must be able to perpetuate itself, and to feed the fire anew.

To what end? The answer is buried amid fallen leaves, none too easy to decipher. A glimpse here or there will have to do. The sun sinks toward the horizon, but we still have time to climb one more hill, do we not? Who knows what the next one will reveal. It may not be anything too different. But the push conditions us, and we know that, no matter where the path may twist, we’ll have the energy to finish the journey. Even in autumn, youth: the will to never cease this desire to form a little world where we can reach the apogee of human achievement, in whatever form that may take. Ever upward.

Driftless II

19 Oct

Devil’s Lake and Parfrey’s Glen, Wisconsin, where cynicism turns to goo. The park beckons all in with brilliant golden gates, carpets and walls and ceilings of maple leaves all at their peak, another layer fluttering to the ground in the October sun, all aglow. Up into the glen, where the icy waters guard the sanctity of the rock walls, force me to hop from rock to rock as I pick my way back through the gorge. The detritus of the ages, all on display; the trees far above whisper with a breeze that does not reach down into this damp, cool gash in the earth. Deeper into the caverns of memory, calling up some old spirit tucked away amid the knotted roots of a mind. A fall at the end and it’s all over, or perhaps it is merely the beginning.

Into the park proper, its bluffs orange and red and brilliant in repose. Stand atop a ridge: I’ve been here before. A different time, but the view is the same, and the company ever so familiar. The rim revisited, this time with easy stone steps up and down, through scattered pines and back to an oak grove dotted by grottoes and glimmers of the lake beyond. Its waters are deep, its history well-kept. The story of all truths.

It would be easy to be maudlin, to lament paradise lost here at the Devil’s Lake. The narrative of tragedy is there for the taking, the vivid romantic mind tricked by plays of light among the leaves. Things seemed pure here once, and those who seek it can bring that back for a fleeting instant, take that energy as foundation for faith in something else. But after that glimpse, it lingers; all is in its shadow. It looms through a setting sun in this season of setting suns, a long descent into night that keeps the orange tree tops aglow, the embers of their blaze still catching the erratics and cranberry bogs on the road back north. I drift away. I no longer fear that journey, but it is not my time to take it.

No, I’m still here. This driftless land reminds me of all I cannot see, even if it is all in my head.  In the end, though, I am left with what I have, all in stark relief. The leaves all fall but the cycle goes on, and all dreams come to an end, back to reality, where we belong. To call it a tragedy would admit defeat. I cannot freeze time. The glacier is doomed to retreat, and in its stead lies great beauty, great opportunity; something I can share now, pass along to anyone else who might be eager to see it. Those moments of drift, that embrace of reality, twinned in a burst of life. Delight and reflection, past and future, all affirmed. What next?

(Driftless I)

Driftless

2 Jun

This past weekend I made that road trip again, this time only as far as an idyllic little town west of Madison. It is a lush, green country draped about the steady marches of sandstone hills, untouched by the glaciers that leveled the rest of the upper Midwest. It feels old; it is old, and though change does come, it comes at its own pace. In a few places the virgin oak savanna endures, though nowadays it is mostly a relic of the past, still tucked away off a winding ribbon of road. The farms hidden away in the valleys carry on in a peaceful slumber, and the Main Streets are more than some talking point repeated by a politician in desperate search of folksy cred.

Of course, I can’t help but see it through colored glasses. So much of my story starts in and around Madison. That story isn’t always a happy one, and it feels incomplete in several ways as well, a sense recently reinforced by a second rejection of Badger red and white.  I probably won’t ever share my parents’ alma mater, with money and friends winning out over nostalgia. And yet somehow my Wisconsin roots still somehow tie me to the land there in a way no other place can. One side of my family comes from a farm I was never a part of and can’t really go back to; the other owes its considerable strength to its people, not to any real place. I may seem a Duluthian to the core now, but until fairly recently I was torn, never quite sure where I was from. (More on that in a couple of days.) Memory here runs deep, even as new developments go up and the people move on. It is still that enchanted garden of childhood, where all of nature has a soul and wonder still seems commonplace, distant enough that each visit is a novelty, yet close enough that it isn’t too hard to remember the details.

There are plenty of tangible ties that bind. There’s the quintessential Madison: Farmer’s Market on Capitol Square, or a walk up State Street for a bit of summer bliss on Memorial Union Terrace. The thunderclouds roll in and out on humid summer days, but somehow, the weather is always perfect in the center of the city, and the lakes offer some respite from the sweltering heat. A bratwurst off the grill, a bag of cheese curds, a beer, fruits and vegetables reminding that their ilk are not all created equal: some taste so much crisper, so much more real. A curious little observation from the latest trip: even the parking ramps have their own smell. And, of course, the endless people-watching in this city full of curiosities.

Too much of that? Head west. The place I know best is Mount Horeb, a quaint town of Norwegian and troll kitsch that somehow still manages to welcome in a world-weary cynic, both in its small-town feel and its easy access to Madison. A town where one can wander up from a worn but cozy motel to a coffee shop or a bar named The Grumpy Troll. But there is so much more out here. Glacial Devil’s lake, otherworldly Parfrey’s Glen, parks atop the highest bluffs and caves beneath them, the Wisconsin River. New Glarus; Mineral Point. A hill or a stream or a stand of trees tucked away in some recess of childhood memory, a back corner that barely seems like the same life. Bob Uecker on the radio, the bugs splattering all over the windshield, and a few miles stuck behind a tractor or some other slow-moving piece of farm machinery. American Pastorale.

This time around, it’s a high school graduation, yet another event that pulls me back into youth. The moment comes. A moment where the mind, perhaps aided by the sticky heat and a bit of beer, imagines a world that could have been. In the past it’s been a source of anguish, but no more: now it simply is. Reality blurs into something that defies everything we’ve come to know, and even if it is only a fleeting instant, it endures, lingering without overstaying its welcome. An anchor, a reminder that we humans, for all our dreams and aspirations, are always part of a story whose authorship we can’t quite control. Roots may bind, but they nourish in a way nothing else can. We may be stuck with them, but we do have some measure of control over how we interpret that list of facts of who we are and where we come from. Finally, I’ve managed it, even as it  all fades further into the summer haze.

The world of enchantment may be gone now; it may never even have been. Just something that only exists in a nostalgic corner of the mind. Chasing those waves for their own sake will only bring about frustration. But they are no lie, and when they do come along, spontaneously, they are to be cherished; affirmations that, whatever it is we’re doing here, it’s a delight. And then, recharged, we can cycle back out for a night of revelry, too deep in to even be conscious of that reverie, the disparate strands of our complicated selves becoming one. As it should be.

(Driftless II)