June 30, Fort Collins, Colo. – I have a peculiar knack for reveling in despair. I know this is an unattractive quality.
Sometimes I just can’t help myself.
This country is big enough to swallow you whole if you’re not careful. You could fall into some crevice beneath the wide Wyoming sky and nobody would notice.
The demons which plague my mind now run wild on parallel courses. In the first, I have lost any sense of a narrative, geographical, anecdotal or otherwise. The second, which threatens to overwhelm the first, asks this question: Should I manage to defy the odds and render these fragmented experiences into a graceful, coherent narrative, will anyone give a damn anyway?
And so we staggered into Fort Collins, out where the High Plains makes way for the forbidding peaks of the Rockies.
We should not be in Fort Collins. Somewhere between Gillette and Casper, it all fell apart. We are going in the wrong direction.
We crossed the mountains from west to east, the Behemoth struggling up otherwise middling grades on Insterstate 25. We need to be in Grayland, Wash., in three weeks. A few days ago, we were 1,205 miles from Grayland, Now we’re 1,333.
The clock is running down. After that, we go pell mell for Pennsylvania. No more loitering day after day in Wyoming.
I have squandered too much time. I am panicking.
We spent yesterday in Cheyenne, which was pleasing enough. In the afternoon we visited the YMCA, which provides a helpful if temporary bulwark against creeping malaise. We spent the evening downtown at the handsome Depot Plaza, where the annual Celtic Musical Arts Festival was unfolding.
The plaza is ringed with tasteful historical markers which offer a connect-the-dots history of Cheyenne. Wyoming, where the sky seems bigger and more stupendous than even in Montana. Where clouds are perpetually suffused with arresting, ominous shades of purple. Wyoming clouds are mountains unto themselves.
Cheyenne is the state capital and the biggest city in Wyoming. Its population of fewer than 60,000, however, is just a fraction of that of Fort Collins, its neighbor 45 miles south on I-25.
If you ignore the Indian equation, which we like to do, Cheyenne went from a dot on a surveyor’s map to a swelling city of 4,000 in a little more than four months. Its sudden appearance earned it the sobriquet “Magic City of the Plains.”
That Cheyenne sprang to life where it did owes largely to a man named Grenville Dodge. He was a veritable Zelig of the American west. He had a knack for ingratiating himself to power and enriching himself, a knack even a bullet in the head couldn’t kill.
Dodge rose to major general in the Union Army, and as one of Sherman’s corps commanders, got a shot in the head during the siege of Atlanta.
Dodge was a timeless opportunist who would be recognizable on Capitol Hill today.
After a less-than-distinguished effort to add glory to his name by killing Indians, Dodge quit the Army in 1866 and took a job as chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad. (When later implicated in the Credit Mobilier scandal, he got the hell out of Dodge, absconding to Texas and thus avoiding uncomfortable questions in Washington.)
At the same time he won a House seat representing Iowa, and he spent most of his energy lobbying on behalf of the Union Pacific.
He also gave his name to the frontier town in Kansas made famous by the likes of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday.
And, of course, he was responsible for the city of Cheyenne, selecting it in the summer of 1867 as the point where the Union Pacific would cross Crow Creek on its way to Promontory Point.
I liked Cheyenne, despite the surfeit of Celtic music. Unalloyed Celtic music just gets too airy for me. Bagpipes are OK in moderation. But when the melodies start to climb toward the ethereal, I begin to crave a little backbeat and bass. It makes me think of the great John Hiatt song, “Memphis in the Meantime” (check out the version by Chris Smither), which includes the following couplet:
Sure I like country music/I like mandolins
But right now I need a telecaster/through a vibro-lux turned up to ten.
Still, I can appreciate musicianship, of which Molly’s Revenge, a trio out of California, displayed plenty. I will not dismiss any music out of hand. But …
Give me your dirty, your sloppy, your whiskey-laced Celtic music shot through with rock and roll. Give me the Pogues. Please.
After the break, the story of our day in Vicksburg. That goes back more than a month, when things seemed in better shape, when the narrative seemed on the ascendant.
May 25, Vicksburg, Miss. – After waking up in the parking lot of the Ameristar Casino, hard by the east bank of the Mississippi River, we’re parked on Louisiana Circle, a tourist promontory overlooking an iconic, irrepressible force of nature.
I gazed dumbly into the fathomless Mississippi. I wasn’t in the mood for conversation.
A voice cut through the breeze carrying an idle remark about an inconvenient oak tree, which obscured the view of a barge making its way south.
So I met Doug Faust, a bear of a man who once played for a man named Bear.
I liked Doug Faust, and felt lucky he had chosen to leap into my narrative. I loved the way he interrupted my idle reverie and replaced my hackneyed notions of the Mighty Mississippi with concrete knowledge only a riverman could offer.
I liked him despite his habit of sneaking in jabs against government workers and unions. Doug Faust, former riverboat captain, is a marine superintendent for American Commercial Lines out of New Orleans.
He was up this weekend as holiday relief.
“You want to get anything done you better avoid the Coast Guard,” he said. “They don’t have a clue. Private industry is always preferable to the government.”
Not only is Doug Faust a riverman. He also played for the legendary Bear Bryant at Alabama from 1969-73. As my friend John McGrath would say, how cool is that?
Long ago, Doug Faust was an all-state offensive tackle at Fairhope High School on the shores of Mobile Bay. He was a son of the water. His father was a riverboat captain who plied the Tombigbee River as well as Mobile Bay.
I asked him the obligatory question about life under the Bear.
“It’s hard to describe,” he said. “I’ll tell you what kind of guy he was: My son is 17, and he’ll go to Alabama on a full scholarship as a legacy. He made this possible for every one of his kids, his players. It was tough, it was regimented and sometimes it didn’t seem fair. But looking back on it later, it was fair.”
And then, always laboring to seem erudite, I threw in a reference to Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.
“A lot of it carries over to today,” he said. “It’s a very good description. The technology has changed, from steam to diesel, but the skill it takes to move a boat through that channel hasn’t changed. The skill it takes, it’s amazing.”
We stood there, mostly silent, while an unseen captain pushed an 85-foot-long barge toward the I-20 bridge from Vicksburg to the Louisiana shore. Ideally, he would take it between the concrete pillars which support the bridge.
He lives on the north bank of Lake Pontchartrain in Pontchatoula, La. He volunteered to come here this weekend to keep an eye on the shipping lanes. It’s rained a lot lately, and the river was swollen, adding to the captain’s challenge.
“The river is up, probably 44 feet,” he said. “It’s what we call slick. It’s probably moving at 5-6 mph, maybe more. That barge will be moving at 15 mph when it goes under that bridge.”
The barge was actually eight barges traveling in unison under the power of a single towboat. When I said “tugboat,” he immediately but politely corrected me.
“Each one of those barges is the equivalent of 75 tractor trailer loads or 25 train loads,” he said, perhaps slipping into river-industry propaganda. “It takes one gallon of fuel to move one ton of cargo a hundred miles”
As the barge approached the bridge, it did seem as if it were headed on a perilous course toward an unmovable force. I think I held my breath a little and was impressed when the whole thing passed beneath the bridge without incident.
“What that guy did there guiding that barge, he could’ve just as easily have hit it,” he said.
I asked how often that happens.
“It happens,” he said. “Probably twice this year already.”
He handed me his business card, and I thanked him for his insight. Back in the Behemoth, Becky at the wheel, we turned our sights on the madness surely overwhelming Vicksburg. We had a parks pass, and it would cost nothing to get Max another junior ranger badge.
It was indeed madness. We hadn’t, and still haven’t, seen such traffic at any national park. I suppose the same is happening at Gettysburg now.
We waited in a deep line of cars, at $8 a car, for the privilege to tour the battlefield. On the way in, Becky pulled a little to close to the entrance shack and clipped the roof, ripping up a piece of flashing.
In her defense, it’s tough to gauge. Give yourself too much room, you have to get out of the camper just to show the badge and receive the literature. Too close, and, I guess you see what happened.
After a minute’s confusion, we were instructed to pull over. This worried me.
We had crafted an unblemished notion of America’s National Parks. Perhaps “America’s Best Idea” is a bit fulsome (how about letting the blacks and the women participate in your vaunted democracy? Those were good ones, too), but our tour of national parks has always filled us with admiration, respect and affection for NPS rangers.
Suddenly, that vision was in jeopardy. I looked up at the offended piece of metal on the roof and saw it might be bent back into place with little trouble.
In a few minutes, here comes a law enforcement ranger in a white pickup with lights flashing overhead. The whole fuzzy National Parks meme was about to go through a bizarre portal into an episode of Cops.
Bad boys, Bad boys, whatcha gonna do?
(A digression and a confession, please. I am flabbergasted. Gobsmacked. Up until a minute ago, those were the only lyrics I knew in that song. When I learned they were followed by “When Sheriff John Brown come for you, whatcha want, whatcha gonna do?” I was dumbstruck. Sheriff John Brown? The Sheriff John Brown of musical lore? He’s one resilient, not to mention ubiquitous, SOB. Lord knows John Brown is a common name, but Sheriff John Brown? Really? I thought Bob Marley had taken care of Sheriff John Brown. As to the musical question “Whatcha want, whatcha gonna do?” I have but one suggestion: Keep your eye on old John Brown, but for heaven’s sake, don’t shoot the deputy.)
Incredibly enough, the ranger who arrived on the scene to take the measure of our wrongdoing and document our National Parks peccadillo wore a name tag that identified him as W.C. Fields.
Except this W.C. Fields betrayed not the slightest sense of humor.
What are the odds? You blunder into an accidental run-in with a roof overhang at a National Parks Service entrance station and the next thing you know you are face to face with a taciturn, just-the-documents-and-facts-ma’am dude named W.C. Fields? What sort of Twilight Zone have we stumbled into?
Who is this humorless fellow with the famous cognomen?
It’s as if we had embarked on a National Parks Vacation and somehow found a portal to National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Admittedly, I was a little agitated, worried this mishap was going to go on our permanent records and cost us dearly.
I tried to leaven the mood by making small talk with Mr. Fields. Admittedly, I’m no good at this kind of thing.
The mere presence of a lawman makes me go all Woody Allen, pre-Annie Hall slapstick era. I should simply shut my mouth.
I met him at his pickup. Perhaps he found that an aggressive act. I asked, with what I thought was good humor, if people like to have sport with his name.
“Not since I started carrying a gun.”
On paper, this is a funny enough line.
Alas, W.C. Fields delivered it without a trace of levity. Perhaps W.C. Fields is a master of satire. Perhaps he has a razor-sharp gift for sardonic rejoinders.
I accept this possibility, though I don’t believe it to be true.
His brusque retort only deepened my discomfit and exacerbated my antic state.
My follow-up effort: “You’re not going to call the police on us, are you?”
“I am the police.”
That shut me up, finally.
Meanwhile, Becky was taking the whole thing kind of hard, like she was actually guilty of something worthy of W.C. Fields’ judgment.
And Max, always quick with his comic timing, kept repeating, “Why is Mommy in trouble?”
This wasn’t going well at all. We stood there like felony suspects, watching a river of cars flow into Vicksburg National Military Park.
I spotted another ranger in a civilian car, a big, strapping fellow named Tim Kavanaugh. I desperately needed to restore my belief in the universal goodness of NPS Rangers.
I got Tim’s attention. I pleaded my case. He assured me W.C. Fields was one of the good guys. I wanted to take his word for it. I really did.
“It’s the government,” he said with a smile. “Two dollars or $2,000, you gotta do the paperwork.”
And so the government has our paperwork. I suppose we should be glad the government’s dossier on us is nothing like its file on Eric Snowden, but still.
Later we met Tim Kavanaugh in the visitors center. He took pity on us. He apologized for our rocky entrance to Vicksburg. W.C. Fields, he said, is a good guy. Used to work here, but transferred to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Tim said we were lucky we didn’t get one of the younger, hard-ass law-enforcement rangers.
Max worked on his junior ranger badge. Kavanaugh pointed to a photograph of John C. Pemberton, who surrendered Vicksburg to Ulysses S. Grant at the end of a 47-day siege.
“At least your visit here will end better than his did,” he offered.
When he saw his entrepreneurial ventures crippled by a call-up with the air national guard in upstate New York, he went looking for a new career. After many applications he finally landed here.
And thank goodness for that. He did his best to restore our idyllic vision of national park rangers, and I don’t know if we would’ve survived without him.
And that concludes our visit to the Vicksburg National Military Park.
This story of Vicksburg completely omits the story of the Rev. H.D. Dennis, a one-of-a-kind man of God/folk artist/total nutjob we met here on Highway 61 just north of town in 2003.
I’m not going to spoil that story now. There’s no time. It’s past 10 p.m. in Fort Collins. It’s already July in Pennsylvania.
We need to make it to Denver tonight.
The Behemoth’s brakes have begun to squeal. This fills me with foreboding.
I think this is partially responsible for the loss of narrative, the sense of traveling backward.
I am kicking myself for not asking my friends in St. Augustine to check the wear on our pads. Now we’re perched on the brink of the Rockies with uncertain brakes.
I am loathe to strike out in any decisive direction because I fear ruining the rotors and inviting a monstrous repair bill. I also fear taking the Behemoth to a repair shop of unknown integrity and getting soaked with a monstrous repair bill.
What are the odds we’ll get lucky a la Rick’s Muffler all over again?
So I procrastinate on getting the brakes checked and hide out on the Interstate Highway System, where they’ll meet less wear and tear.
I’ve gotten us stuck in this automotive Catch-22, and the whole swirling sea of neuroses rises and rises and leaves me a victim of functional paralysis.
But there’s hope.
Ted & Bob’ sin Denver, they get universal praise on the Internet. Maybe they’ll have time to at least take a look tomorrow.
Maybe they’ll get us back on the road again, for real.