Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Revisiting past lives, in the midwest and southwest

With or without reincarnation, most of us have had multiple lives. In every new community, and every new work or school, there is some sense of re-invention and redefinition of roles and parameters. When revisiting the past, you both can and can't go home again. Upon return to an old home, there is a ring of familiarity, and a gulf of distance.

I experienced all of this on my latest road trip, going west, from Morgantown, West Virginia, to Grand Canyon, Arizona. My first two-night stop was in Granville, Ohio, and The Homestead at Denison University, the community of my defining years. This year, winds of change have swept across The Homestead. The university administration determined that, in order to bring the collective up to modern-day safety standards, the original cabins (built in 1977 and '78), must go. They shall be replaced by a new cabin, a green structure insofar as possible, but one containing a sprinkler system to defend from fires, and temperature-control so the sprinklers can function. Not quite as spartan as The Homestead I knew. This summer, all Homesteaders will be employed in an intensive effort to construct the new cabin, so some can move into it this fall. Therefore, for The Homestead, the summer of 2013 shall be very similar to the summer of 1977. In both, Homies worked feverishly to build their own houses, and used outside professional and volunteer helped wherever needed.

The Homestead residences, right to left: Cabin One, 1977; Cabin Phoenix, 2008; the new cabin, under construction

Originally, Homestead founding visionary Dr. Robert Alrutz proposed the demolition of old cabins and construction of new ones every five years, to give more students the knowledge and rewards of building their own living spaces. Instead, two of original three cabins have lasted for 36 years, while one was lost to fire in January 2000 (no people were harmed in the event.) Since 1999, The Homies have added a strawbale “community center” called Cabin Bob (named in honor of Robert Alrtuz); an earthship “Cabin Pheonix” to replace the building lost to fire; an new outhouse, insulated with bottles and cans; a toolshed; an improved solar-electrical system; a rainwater-catchement system; new gardens and orchards; a new chicken-house; and much more. Each cabin has its own unique life, personality, and story. And, like all people, governments, and civilizations, the cabins don't last forever. “Cabin Three” lasted from 1978 to 2013. Recently, workers demolished it to make space for the new structure. Homesteaders have a tradition of writing on the walls, to share their own reflections, and those of literary figures. Sometime in the past, a visitor to The Homestead wrote on the wall of Cabin Three: “This place is a fantasy. May it forever be.” I hope that the spirit of Cabin Three will live on, a benevolent haze, sometimes inhabiting the new structure. 

 Cabin Bob, the community center, with residential cabins in background

Right now, The Homestead looks like a construction site in the woods. Professionals of various sorts are hard at work on the new cabin, first laying the foundation. They make preparations for the student labor, the bulk of which will take place in the summer. And so, this visit to The Homestead was a little disorienting, as I walked through fields of mud from upended earth, past parked bulldozers and backhoes. Somehow, the workers moved the toolshed, which is the size of a small cabin, to a new location (with a crane?). And they knocked down many trees in front of Cabin Bob, to create more garden space. The Homies have pledged to plant trees this summer, to compensate for the ones felled. It is a time of upheaval, but the familiar Homestead magic is present. I am certain that something beautiful will grow from The Homestead's chaotic new developments, like the beautiful Crater Lake, formed in the tumult of volcanic eruptions. My regret is that I will not be there this summer, to bring the new cabin to life with hand and hammer and saw. I have the utmost faith in the current Homies, but I will miss the first-hand experience of building.

After The Homestead, my westward voyage resumed. Fortunately, I had multiple friends and relatives to visit along my long road trip, and so I escaped the full effect of the “lonely road.” I stopped in St. Louis Missouri, and saw my aunt, the famous film scholar Gaylyn Studlar, and her husband Thomas Haslett. I enjoyed their company, their cats, an some good food before I proceeded west on I-40. Institutionalized nostalgia for Route 66 permeated much of the Interstate through Missouri. There was even a public rest area covered in Route 66 installation art. And when I passed the multitudinous four-color hand-painted billboards and barn-ads for Merrimec Caverns, I felt I had passed through a time-warp. I made a brief stop at the caverns, passed an old-fashoined “zoo”, and was dissapointed to find the Jesse James wax museum was closed.

Route 66-themed rest stop

And then the road took me to Stillwater, Oklahoma, one of my childhood homes, where I have not set foot in 20 years. In Stillwater, the earth is flat, at least locally. I revisited old family friends, discussed comics and science fiction literature, and visited the former home of Chester Gould, creator of Dick Tracey, and, possibly the most famous student of Oklahoma State University. I revisited my Alma Mater, Will Rogers Elementary, where I struggled with multiplication tables, and developed skills in tetherball and four square. I saw our old stone house, which had been painted a uniform dark brown by new owners. Sadly, the scotch pine that I planted in the yard no longer stood. But the big tree in the backyard, site of my makeshift tree houses and my birthday pinatas, was still there. I walked in “the fields” at the end of the street behind our old house, with its open prairie, thickets of juniper, and hills. As a youngster, I took more than a few thrill rides in a big red wagon down the hills, over bumps and jumps and mud-slicks. And I held cap-pistol battles with friends on the sandy mounds. I brought box-turtles home from the fields, and fed them strawberries and earthworms, before releasing them back to the wild. 

The flat "fields" of Oklahoma
To the nostalgic visitor, Stillwater, Oklahoma seems much like the peaceful, friendly, quintessential western American small town. I felt like I had stumbled into a Ray Bradbury story, and was exploring Green Town, Illinois. I waited for the haunted carnival or the enchanted doll or the rocket ship to Mars to show up.

A childhood home

In Texas, I visited Palo Duro Canyon State Park. I hiked to the canyon's base, breathed the dry canyon air, experienced the sun, already formidable in April. I trekked across expansive landscapes of cliffs and chasms, where bright yellows mixed with dark greens, from the plant life. Ravens flew overhead. The trail below my feet, like much of the infrastructure at Palo Duro (and at national and state parks and public lands all over the country), was built during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Every time I observe these lasting accomplishments by hardworking young men, I lament that no comparable program has been launched in response to the contemporary economic crisis. I advise the president and congress: it's not too late to end the “sequester” and launch a “green new deal.”

Palo Duro Canyon

I made sure to have a full gas tank and several full containers of water before I crossed the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona--”Indian Country.” Interstate 40 took me across many hundreds of miles of hot and dry landscapes of rock, cast in orange and yellow and red, dotted with yucca and sage. For a desert, it was surprisingly populated, with truck stops and gas stations at regular intervals, and many outposts and trading posts purveying Native American jewelry and souvenirs. (A lonely gas station in a desolate part of the desert had bathrooms decorated with large sheets of paper, where travellers could write something about their trips.) Public “rest areas,” however, were disturbingly rare. Many rest areas, especially in Oklahoma, were deemed “closed.” Evidently, in the age of austerity, even these small spaces of break and relief from the road, where one can picnic or walk among among trees or cactus, are on the chopping block.  A rare rest-stop in Arizona allowed me the opportunity to photograph myself among the rocks:

 Arizona stones

I had some long, long days of driving. Alone among mega-trucks, able to see the horizon many miles away, beneath the panoramic sky which accompanies flat land. Entertained by audiobooks, fueld by trail mix, submarine sandwiches, hot tea, and saving coffee for when I needed it. I watched the miles to my destination tick away on my GPS, and occasionally updated friends and family with my cell phone. Although guided and aided by devices that travelers on the old Route 66 did not even imagine, my mode of travel was distinctly similar to theirs. I drove an automobile, burned petroleum in the internal combustion engine, released toxic fumes, and caused global warming. While communications technology has matched or exceeded the wild visions of science fiction, transportation technology remains mired somewhere in the mid-twentieth century.

The road took me through Albuquerque and past the petrified forest, and, finally, to the Grand Canyon. Here, I make a multi-day stop, a welcome relief from driving all day. I will take a backpacking trip in the Canyon with my friend Lesley, who is now a volunteer ranger for the park's environmental education program. And I'll revisit memories of past visits to the Canyon, including ambitious hikes to the Colorado River and back, first with a group of scouts in my teenage years, and then with my comrade Dave in my college days. In my new hike, I shall again face the fearsome sun above and unforgiving rocks underfoot. And I shall feel the rewards of travelling by means of my own bones and muscles.

The Grand Canyon

After Grand Canyon, my final destination will be another National Park: Carlsbad Caverns. There, I shall be a seasonal park ranger. Luckily, I was not “sequestered.” After four stints at Crater Lake, I have found a new site of natural beauty to interpret. In advance, I have been trying to learn all I can about bats and cave life. I anticipate majestic scenery, above and below ground. I prepare for mystery and challenge, and crawls through narrow passageways lit by headlamp. The nightly mass exodus of Mexican free-tailed bats from the cave shall be a wonder to behold, and an honor to give an introductory speech for.

Evidently, I won't be the only Studlar revisiting past lives this summer. My father, the famous political scientist Donley Studlar, had a special nostalgia for Carlsbad, New Mexico, and its fabled caves. The town was his family home for one year, when he was in third grade, and his father pursued oil drilling work in varied parts of the southwest. Upon learning that I was going to Carlsbad, my dad dug through his multitudinous piles of papers and souvenirs, and retreived a 1950's informational booklet about Carlsbad Caverns, and his school picture from Joe Stanley Smith Elementary, over 55 years old.

In my latest western sojourn, there are many nostalgic returns, but also fresh opportunities. Taking guidance from the past, I plan to make something good and new.

Blogger's note: I wrote most of this entry on April 26, 2013. I have subsequently had my Grand Canyon adventure, and gathered some great pictures of reptiles, plants, and the like. I'll post them soon.