My Beautiful America

by William J. Hughes, December 11, 2012

Itinerary: America, more of my America: Sacramento to Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Scottsdale, Arizona for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesen West, Bentonville, Arkansas for Pea Ridge battlefield (Civil War) and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Beech Bottom, West Virginia (Vietnam stuff) to DC. Turnaround, Augusta, Georgia, for you know what, Stone Mountain, Georgia for the Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy, Midville for Flannery O’Connor then get moving — St. Louis, then across the Great Plains to the mountains, to the prairies, to the desert, to almost the oceans, California.

I’ve been south on California 99 so often I won’t bore myself with another telling of 99 South. Suffice it to say that 99 is a version of Route 66, not as roadside dying attraction or road trip daydreams as 66, but it’s got its bumps and bruises, busy with trucks, a Blue Ridge Parkway compared to sterile I-5.

58 cuts from 99 around Bakersfield, dusty and dry, country-western on the side. “It never rains in California” or so the song goes. But here it seems true, coyote bones and lost gold mines.

High speed 15 to Nevada and Las Vegas. Motel 6-ing across. Reserved one outside the “Strip” to come upon it at night. I’ve been, but a million years before it got on steroids, HGH, testosterone, Sodom and Six Flags overdone.

Big, reddish air polluted sunset in behind the dried blood hills.

Oz, planet Oz, only without Harriet, Harriet without Ozzy, cheatin’, both of them, as if you already knew it, real make-believe, New York New York stickin’ up its mock Empire State mockup, the glowing gold plated Bellagio right beside the freeway, Art Museum of Caligula, Venice, Paris, Egypt, Epcot of the desert. Gambling, prostitution, roller coaster, drinking, pirate ships, volcanoes, 24/7, Bill Cosby, David Copperfield, Rod Stewart. Ocean’s 11 it ain’t. Tsunami 11 maybe.

Around behind it, as the hot sun sets on the hot scrapple neighborhood of my Motel 6 at $35.99. Shabby, the under-skinny belly that services Caesar’s Palaces.

Dark, in more ways than one out here in the Hunger Games.

Bread and Circus Circuses. Tropicana Boulevard like that Sunset Boulevard. Of it. Holy fuckin’ shit!

It’s, it’s, it’s, way, way, way over any top on top of on top of that.

It crowds itself, elbow room for another casino, another casino, a madness of neon. It is impossible, and yet — a friend in Sacramento loves it. I want to find his enthusiasm.

I ain’t feeling it. Finally parking in New York New York for free. You know it ain’t in New York.

It’s silly. Ain’t nothing funny about it, but “fun, fun, fun.”

Packed. Maybe not full to overflowing, but you’d never guess there was any monetary problems beyond the “Strip.”

Lounge Gila monsters, enormous and artificial, slots of dazzling colors.

Silly signposts from Manhattan. Crowds checking in.

There is a little not so old Manhattan, sort of a munchkin Greenwich Village, cardboard reality. Friends told me to check out the deli.

Fake Jewish deli with real food. Stage production. Mexicans, of course (not that there is…) behind a Jewish deli counter. Can’t do it, like the reality of faith (native Long Island delis) compared to the carny midway. So I settle for a Times Square hotdog, along with all the fixin’s, Mexican woman behind the counter (not that there’s…).

Sitting at a make-believe cafe table, college kids, bowlers, sun-tanned retirees, players and fakers. Who wouldn’t want to vacation here? Enough New York. Poor New York.

Mockup of the Brooklyn Bridge, thousands of visitors streaming across, covering the sidewalks, drinks in hand, a March of Penguins. What’s the attraction? What recession?

Hot. The Bellagio and its Van Goghs? is down a few casinos, passing by and through shopping malls, all Gucci and Prada and Tag Heuer, where I get a card for my Vegas and Tag Heuer-loving friend. I’d love one. Got the price of one to pay for the whole trip.

The entrance to the Bellagio is a mile in from the street, all gaudy and columny. The lobby is spectacular, bright floral ceiling glass blown flowers. Glass blown I guess, almost like sugar candy.

A long, long carpeted trek to the art gallery. Monet is showing. Not now, tours done for the day. Nuts. Nuts II. I thought they had a permanent collection of Van Goghs. But no, coming and going shows.

Hot. Air-conditioning beyond belief. Tempted back to New York diorama by its $5 blackjack tables. But I feel intimidated by all of it. Plus you can’t get a seat at the $5 tables. Little Leaguers, me at shortstop.

Take-out burgers, motel darkness. Motel 6 noises in the darkness.

Hot, dry sun up. Can’t Vegas alone pay off our nation’s debt? Seems so, but what do I — I’ll never know. Will I ever come back here? Hmmmm.

Moonscape that the moon wouldn’t want. Hoover Dam. I’ll be damned, Colossus of the Colorado, art deco fortress, warrior princess, impossible but there it is, a sensuous slide of concrete down to the river canyon below. I had some sense that it would be more blocklike, but it fits the canyon cut the way a woman’s stomach to vagina fits her figure, not exactly sleek, but smooth, svelte, sensuous in its how-could-it-be-possible presence.

It is what we were good at when the shovel ready projects were ready. The Colorado River would disagree, but worlds of lighted electricity, all of it like a standing Panama Canal, very lowered Lake Mead in behind it, her, all in blue.

Her might be the best way, power and prestige, dignity, Ms. WPA, just driving across and turn out gaping. Feels like the Vegas antidote.

The parking levels, chocolate adobe like, hug the rock face like a cliff dwelling Fallingwater, with a fine in motion statue of one of those fearless fellows who hung down the canyon walls, placing the dynamite that harnessed the river.

The whole thing is the Pyramids, and they’ve somehow hung a bridge across above for driving and walking that looks like an arched stucco praying mantis, one of the greatest travel trip posters ever, tiny people staring over the walkway down at the cascading wall.

Catching my breath, because the Grand Canyon is next. How can it be after this?

High Desert, O’Keefe, of course, bluffs and shapes, pine forests, boulders and arroyos, Apaches and conquistadors, 93 down into northern Arizona to 40 to almost Flagstaff, Route 66 dots and dashes, sports talk and Limbaugh on the radio. Rush is wrong, but what a hoot.

163 North, in piney, dry rock country where you can’t feel a canyon such as this coming.

Gas prices at $3.99 to $3.74. I’ve got a red Ford Fusion. Of course you know the rental car Seinfeld with “you know how to take a reservation, you just don’t know how to hold — “ I wanted little to tiny, but —

Grand Canyon National Park where I get my junior senior citizens forever pass for $10 at the front gate. Live, live, benefits, benefits.

Hot, car air-conditioning not quite up to it. No sign of a canyon. Parking lot, unimpressive visitor center, sort of brand-new bland. Brochure and a nearby south rim walk.

Lizard land and then there’s the edge of the canyon.

I’m afraid of it, enormous in itself. I sneak up to the rail, the canyon’s earthtones little comfort, a world without me, far down and far away, what part do I play in all its emptiness?

Walking along carefully, grasping the railing, holding on for dear life. Dear God, is this.

That’s enough. How much of it can I relate?

It will be easier when I’m brought back to scale. Taliesen West, Frank Lloyd’s left-hand man. Scottsdale, Arizona. Frank Lloyd does the desert.

Hot, heading south to Flagstaff and souther on 17 to Scottsdale/Phoenix, children of Hoover’s Dam.

Cadillac Desert, 75-85 mph, paved with native jewelry, native baskets, moccasins, Barry Goldwater, John McCain, immigration aliens, Mexicans, tombstone, silver mines, retirees, Motel 6 like any of them, air pollution every inch of the way, orangey/yellowy hazing obstructing the big sky, outskirts of any US city are all the same, neon burgers, Chevron and Shell, surrender to hell.

Local diners when possible. There’s always some Route 66 knockoff.

Knockoff for the day. Sleep is deep, like car lag from a long flight.

Hot sunrise, mega breakfast at the cafe next door. The only way to go on the road.

Taliesen West somewhat down the block, closer to town than I wanted but of course when Wright arrived not so near.

It’s off of Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard — I guess he’d like that — through neighborhoods of cookie cut homes with desert lawns. Wright wouldn’t have batted an eye.

Hot gravel road through a signature Wright gate, his Japanese meets petroglyph signature sign in Cherokee red metal.

I feel at home with him, his Taliesen in Wisconsin and too much more of him to mention, for right now. Ken Burns gave me this man in full. This last piece perhaps will fill my dance card.

A raw obelisk stone on the way in like a desert Rodin set on a rock pedestal block.

A too, too large American flag that should not be there, here. I’m not picking on anyone or anything political. Simply shouldn’t be there. It wasn’t and shouldn’t, like Maya Lin complaining about putting an American flag on her Vietnam “wall.” Like a golf course, was her answer. Same answer here.

Hot, the feel of him all around even as you park, snatches, snaps, of his original from aboriginal.

Visitor Center, a step-down-to block, enough books and brochures to fill any curiosity. I stayed in his “tree that escaped the crowded forest — “ his Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Okay, keep your eyes open anywhere you go. Could be he left his mark, for us to follow towards a better place, a better humanity. Try to forget, if at all possible, the ego, the reputation, the costumed opera and concentrate on his natural intentions. What an American. But take down the fuckin’ flag. He would.

Have to take a tour. Of course, but nuts. Ken Burns gave the best tour of Wright, ever. That’s why I’m here and in Iowa, Chicago, Manhattan, California, Wisconsin, Virginia, Pennsylvania, etc. to Arizona.

Hot, standing in the baked gravel parking lot as the guide begins with where are we all from? Oh no, I hate taking tours.

He leads us up to Wright’s winter cave. He standing behind a petroglyph rock that Wright found around the property. Right, Wright a long way from the Prairie Home.

He wasn’t well. His Doc told him to get thee to a dry climate.

The guide starts to describe the place as a camp, that outside-inside out way of Wright.

It’s also a ship he tells us, with pointed prows all about us. Sure enough. And even some hanging wooden icicles to remind him of winter Wisconsin.

Well, I’ll be damned, a Captain’s bridge above, according to the guide, aquifer water on-site so it all can happen.

What does it all look like to me? Harder to say than Camelot in Spring Green, Wisconsin. It seems a bit too modernistic, not what I’ve come to be used to with him, points and angles, not as smooth as his other work. Tent poles? Is that what he’s getting at?

Lots of native rock, that natural native architecture; those low, narrow Cherokee red doors. The guide can’t tell me what I already know.

In we go. Now you’re talking familiar, his furniture, his rugs, his fireplace, his Asian art, found everywhere you look inside and out.

Typical Wright room makes you sit down. Piano, plump, comfortable seats for the builder and the Slavic Mrs. while the guests get his familiar Japanese Origami chairs and a long bench along the wall. Windows now would have been canvas then. Roll ‘em up, camp style. It’s a Wright room like it’s a John Ford movie or a Hemingway book.

More information that I already know. Again, the whole place is squat, Japanese cliff dwelling, magazine layout rooms, the requisite theater like a theater from the planet chic.

A kiva impersonation meeting room, Cherokee red portholes in a store wall, representing a ship.

The kiva room and the guide speaks of O’Keefe from a question I asked about he and she. Some story about some painting she gave him?

Wright’s granddaughter was Anne Baxter of the Razor’s Edge? Best Supporting Actress of the Razors Edge? Sure enough. Remarkable.

Hot, outside in a courtyard sculpture garden. Don’t much care for the resident artist’s work or its interruption in the flow.

In out of the blaze in a cavern movie theater with his Cherokee red benches and pod chairs and little folding tables for nibbling and then viewing, all of it on a slant, downward and a bit sideways — all the better to view what was showing.

I guess I saw what I came to get, all of it still very much in the architect business, accredited and all that. I don’t remember seeing a drafting room.

What I take from it is the Mrs. bedroom, open the partition doors and you are outside. It’s a unique take on what I still can’t quite decide on or quite describe. I, we, were told by the guide that this signature Cherokee red insignia is someone holding someone’s hand. I’ll accept that. Oh, I think it was $32. That was too much, but.

Take down that giant flag as I’m leaving. He never would have allowed it.

Hit the road, backtrack through rattlesnake. Back up on to 40, deep breath, what’s left of Arizona, across New Mexico, upper Texas and most of Oklahoma, Fort Smith, Arkansas, out there across the Randy McNally.

The 40 across is smooth. “You didn’t build this, we did — “ transport trucking, 300+ million of us and all our stuff. Length and width of us, similar the same, each day, each electoral claim.

Talk radio hates Obama, from one end of the dial to the other. I think he’s an empty suit but Ryan is a little Dick Cheney, looking like Eddie Munster.

Arizona, the desert blooms with rocks and ancient humans, the taking of the country, from signal fire to their crazy governor.

Winslow, Arizona because of the song, but I can’t find a statue downtown so, so long. I get antsy, too far off the keep it going road.

Hot, across into New Mexico, wrenched from the madre land by some of the Civil War officers up ahead at Pea Ridge, Arkansas.

O’Keefe of course, everywhere all around. Who decides the borders, the vaccaros and silver dust conquistadors, Taos pueblo, Land of Enchantment as the sun starts to go in enchanted colors that blush a rainbow.

Pressed on, no. Albuquerque, New Mexico, all the same on gas station, motel row. At least we zone it, red light district without the streetwalkers, or —

Meeting friends from Sacramento. Just a splash of camaraderie from our years ago. They owned an adobe yard, their hands in the soil that makes this New Mexico.

Hot. Get up and go, Santa Fe Trail, where the rubber meets the road, Route 66 alongside like a memory of a James Dean. Dropping off the 70-75 mph to sample some of it, ghostly and by the fingernails. Too many traffic lights.

New Mexico flattens out, these Great Plains, minus all the soybeans, and corn begins.

Don’t mess with Texas. I won’t, keepin’ the homegrown I brought along well concealed in the compartment armrest.

The rest is cattle, oil wells like black dipping marsh birds. Not much to see unless you like wider open spaces and wire fences. I do, buffalo/bison on the brain, hazy mirage images of the sea of robes of them.

“Amarillo by morning — “ the radio full of George Strait. Straight, no curves, all horizons all around.

If you drive long enough the Christian radio stations just might convert you — to a more devout agnostic life.

Stopping for gas in the middle of somewhere, one lone house on one lone prairie, two gas pumps, Route 66 memorabilia like a tobacco curing shed, not a shred of space in the countrified store. Got to have a cream soda in a bottle, that’s all 66. The prairie-worn woman proprietor is all Texas twang, which NPR tells me might be fading away. Damn Yankee infiltrators. Me and my kind.

I love Texas, Fort Worth, San Anton, Marfa (see James Dean and Giant: Houston (see seeing heart man Dr. DeBakey doing open-heart surgery). Big Bend and then getting out of the Confederacy.

Yeah, the Confederacy; that other country of ours, still.

Stillwater, Oklahoma behind the never ending horizon up ahead, up ahead, up ahead, sheet-metal windmills like the Christs of the prairie.

I love Oklahoma. Oklahoma City for the Federal Building memorial, Tulsa for art deco, yep, art deco, Bartlesvillle for Frank Lloyd Wright, yep, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Up ahead into the panhandle, land rush rushing by, cattle and oil, football as deep as futbol, pressing on now, Arkansas just across the Okie Nefu now. And way beyond to West Virginia and DC.

Hot, no clouds, just bare sun and dirty air, big ass truck stops, dinosaurs napping, giant windmill power atop the distant hills. Ugly, La Mancha gone mad.

Oklahoma City coming up. The Earth is flat. Turn northeast for Tulsa and the top of Arkansas for Pea Ridge and Bentonville? I guess not. I should, but you get fixed on the actual mirage up ahead, Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Lovin’ it. People ask me where I’m going on vacation. Pea Ridge, Arkansas? Oh, okay.

A world enveloping darkness begins smothering the prairie. Keep on, almost there, welcome to Arkansas. Pull over and feel the continent behind you, proud again to have traced some more of my America.

Motel 6, Fort Smith. I’ve been before. The Trail of Tears is here. Seminoles, Creeks, Cherokee, death march to banishment in Oklahoma. Only in America and lots of other places but this one is ours and ours alone.

One, lonely young lady at the 6. She tells me she dreams of Las Vegas but her husband won’t let her, sweet honeyed accent with a tired young face that’s smoked too many cigarettes.

Speaking of homegrown, it’s a constant traveling companion like a cowpoke, cowtoke with his fixin’s.

Fixin’ to be in Bentonville by early tomorrow. Phew.

Hot. Breakfast has been big slabs of meat and eggs and spuds and pancakes in the always wonderfully homey Waffle House, the cracker/grits version of IHOP, or a quick drive through fake food McD’s biscuit, egg and sausage, brownwater coffee and watery OJ. Yummm.

Gas up, $20 at a time to keep the budget under some control, $120 a day the goal.

450 North. Wanted a more in-country road but I want to get there after all the getting to here.

Trees, green, forest covered hills and rolling, low Catskilled mountains. Arkansas, the Nature State, really. It really is, lush, drought, dried-up riverbeds all the way across to the oasis, refreshed, signs for Fayetteville and the “souee pig” University of.

Bentonville just up ahead. Not exactly Crystal Bridges across the country but here I am, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Pea Ridge National Military Park.

Waffle House across from the sixth 6. Told ya it was an oasis.

Get settled at the 6. Get pork chop and eggs and et al at the Waffle.

Hot. Peak Ridge first off, off exit 86 of 450, auto dealers and business offices, then two-lane green away from the civilization crush in the way these Civil War battlefields can be as they were, living still in their history, i.e., Shiloh/Antietam, and now Pea Ridge, beyond the woods, beyond the turnoff for the town of Pea Ridge.

Quiet, still, ghostly, hot. It’s out on its own, which is giving way to open fields.

It’s the real deal, squat Visitor Center, those split rail fences like punctuation.

They are here, together, against each other, then, now, ghostly, ghastly. I’m not quite sure how I came to know it. It made itself known to me.

Hot, the fighting farm fields burnt gold. But they, the armies, were here in winter. March of 62. That was original to the Civil War, the killing seasons never including winter.

The prize is Missouri, St. Louis on the Mississippi. The Rebs want it, the Yanks won’t have it.

Civil War Visitor Center, normal, the well displayed telling uniforms and artillery, a broad enough window to look out on the carnage. Normal beautiful National Park brochure. Why aren’t our national parks, our most national treasures, ever mentioned in a political campaign? Assholes.

The Pea Ridge Campaign in film. Excellent. Edward James Olmos narrating. Cool.

Normal confusion and resolution by the two armies, about 10,000 Yanks and 16,000 Rebs, bangin’ into each other, false starts, chaos, face to face and flanking maneuvers, dug-in fortifications, crossroads and taverns.

Typical of what was to come, what was going to happen over two hard days here, a long ways from Virginia.

Auto battlefield tour. The armies have marched for miles, freezing cold. Around the killing ground you go.

It’s the trans-Mississippi arena of operation. Never heard that term before. Manassas has happened but this is way out west beyond Shiloh, Tennessee to come.

Foot soldiers from all over the split up country, German Yanks who don’t speak much English, Rebs up from Texas.

Mistakes, miscalculations, almost normal battle behavior.

The Reb general splits his forces. Two Reb General officers picked off by Yank sharpshooters. One half of the Rebs left without orders. Those Rebs had the Yanks on the run, but a Yankee officer and his unit remembered the rout at Manassas. They turned and stood, cannon and musket fire. The Rebs can’t break ‘em. The tide rises and turns, fighting on two sides in dark tangled woods and crossroad taverns, the Rebs the upper hand, then smashed back on their heels. Cavalry and infantry frontal insanity.

Quiet and calm, out in the open, in the woods, in close, shot and shell tearing them all to hell.

The two days culminate in a Pickett’s charge review. 10,000 Yanks in line, banners flying clear as day, the Rebs above them in the rocks and brush, short on all the necessary stuff.

The Yanks have some serious artillery. They let the Reds know it. They let the Reds have it.

The 10,000 begin and move forward, bayonets fixed and gleaming in the crisp sunshine.

The Rebs run, lots of dead and wounded on both sides.

To be continued.

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