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Friday, April 24, 2015

“It’s Complicated” Is Putting It Mildly

House in Douglas, Arizona

I’ve been trying for nearly a decade -- and lots of people have been at it longer, I realize -- to figure out what a fair and just and reasonable and feasible U.S. immigration policy would look like. I’ve read a few books, listened to other people, heard opinions from fellow citizens and political representatives, and my questions remain. Now, after three months near the border, I am no closer to an answer but have a much deeper appreciation for the myriad issues involved. Employment, social stability, poverty, language, history, geography, changing political and economic policies and realities across time, artificial nation boundaries, ranching, families established on both sides – the more I’ve learned, the farther I am from a simple answer, and while it may seem that’s going in the wrong direction, I’m convinced that anyone with a simple answer has got it wrong. It is not simple. Period.

Rista en Willcox
In Willcox, Arizona, the closest real town (not ghost town) to where we spent the winter, the population is about evenly divided, Anglo/Hispanic. All over town, people of all ages switch between English and Spanish with nary a moment’s hesitation. The public library has a very large Spanish-language section of books. But Willcox is clearly not a Mexican town. As far as it is from the fence and wall, however, it’s still a border town. Tucson is a border town. The borderland, la frontera, is a “country” all its own. The Sonoran-style hot dog, for example, is not a Mexican or an American food but a border food. That’s a tiny, trivial example but was my first clue about the land in which we found ourselves for three months. 

Hot Dog 'Estilo Sonora'

At a wonderful little bookstore in Benson, Arizona, the overly modestly named Paperback Recycler (which was so much more and which, sadly, is going out of business this spring, the owner retiring without having found a buyer for her business), I found a book that shed many different lights on the many border issues. The entire story is so complicated that I will not even try to summarize it. To do so would be a huge distortion. I am willing, however, to rent out my copy of La Frontera: The United States Border with Mexico, by Alan Weisman, with photographs by Jay Dusard, to customers who would like to borrow it for a week. The border, wider than you might imagine, is a world well worth exploring. 

Business street, Agua Prieta, Sonora

Publication date on this book is 1986, but without an available update readers will find La Frontera a valuable introduction to the area, the populations, and the issues. I only wish I’d known about the book a year ago when Trinity Congregational in Northport chose migrant workers and immigration for its annual reading and lecture program.

Never traveled to the Southwest? Michigan comes into the story, too:
It started with strawberries in Constantine, Michigan. They would buy fresh milk from farmers and walk four miles to town to see a show. Next was Leelanau Lake [sic], near Traverse City. The sun above the strawberry fields had been so hot; here they sat on ladders, in the shade of cherry trees. In the evenings they watched movies outside, projected on the white wall of a church. The harvest ended. Back to Constantine for the pickles. In neighboring White Pigeon, there was a pickle factory.  
...Their next stop was Lake Odessa, where they strained over short hoes for the sugar beets....
in Lake Leelanau, MI
A stop at NJ’s Grocery in Lake Leelanau on Thursday carried me back to Arizona, as the cashier switched effortlessly between English and Spanish, just as almost everyone did down in Willcox, Arizona. That made me happy. We are connected to the larger world, even here in this quiet rural place, and it’s important to learn as much as we can about it. I'll only add that La Frontera is beautifully written and contains, along with evocative descriptions of towns, families, and borderland terrain, many stories from history that only a handful of Americans will ever have heard before. And then there are the photographs. You can travel off the beaten path without leaving your easy chair. 


P.S. Switching topics: I will have some very, very exciting new titles this spring and summer at Dog Ears Books and am eager to introduce you to them. Swing by on Saturday if you have a chance and if a degree of disorder doesn't frighten you. I'll be there, busily preparing for the season ahead. 

The bookshop will, however, be closed on Memorial Day weekend. Unthinkable! I know. But we have a grandson getting married downstate, and that's not an event we want to miss. Regular summer hours will begin after that, never fear!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

In Which We Go to Paris and Wind Up on Old Route 66 Again

Often during the past few months, when I would exclaim over some little town far from home that appealed to me, David would say, “Well it isn’t exactly Paris!”  So when I saw Paris, Missouri, on the map, he agreed that we couldn’t pass it by. It isn’t a big place, and it’s a mile off the pretty little two-lane highway (U.S. 40) between Columbia and Hannibal (not far from the birthplace of Mark Twain), but we took that side road off the two-lane, and at left you see David clearly asking the camera, “This is Paris? You call this Paris?” (Note: Still in shirtsleeves.)

The Paris Hardware had a display of flowering plants out on the sidewalk. Flowers displayed on the sidewalk? Parisian in my book!

But in Jac’s Restaurant, David’s efforts to speak French didn’t get him very far. Jac’s is a Mexican restaurant, housed in a building that dates from 1873, when it was Jackson Bros. Grocery & Meat Market, specializing in local home-killed and home-cured meat. Judging from the quality of the ham and chicken in my big chef salad, I’d say the present owners are upholding original standards very well. Definitely a cut above average! Pero se habla español, non françesa.

There are at least two other eateries in Paris, Missouri, plus old gravestones in the historic Founders’ Cemetery, an old iron railroad bridge over the middle fork of the Salt River, and a gorgeous courthouse that we hadn’t expected. (We saw many beautiful old courthouses across the country.) And David could not deny that it was, after all, Paris ( -- Missouri).

Crossing the Mississippi River at Hannibal, we continued toward Springfield, Illinois, and a reunion with my sister, short (the reunion, not my sister) but sweet (sister and reunion). Another Route 66 restaurant was the scene of our rendez-vous. Get off the expressways, and nostalgia overfloweth! 

Not sure what that Route 31 sign is doing behind our heads, and wherever all my Route 66 pix from this stop are, they're not where I can get at them this minute....

After Springfield, on the way to visit my mother and the third sister in Joliet, we took time for a short side trip off I-55 to the town of Pontiac. I lived in Illinois from before I was three years to the age of 18 but had never been to Pontiac before. My mother said she doesn’t think she’s ever been to Pontiac.
Well, it’s another county seat town, on the banks of the Vermilion River, and the downtown was lively on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Like so many other towns on our travels this year, it leans on the Route 66 theme, but it doesn’t forget Chief Pontiac, who gave the town its name. If I’d been on foot rather than shooting from a car window, I’d have evidence of that to offer, along with much more in the way of public murals, blooming trees, pretty houses, 1950s cars, and more.

But we were on a mission, Joliet our destination, and getting there by late afternoon kept us right on our admittedly loose “schedule.” The next day, Sunday, driving back to my mother’s house after church, I noticed I was once again (sans camera) on old Route 66. It wasn’t a planned theme for this year’s travel: things just worked out that way.

That was then. 

On Monday, at the state line, Michigan greeted us with rain, and some of that rain was freezing on the car windshield by Tuesday afternoon as we worked our way north. Tuesday night we were snug in our old farmhouse as the temperature went down below freezing. Wednesday the snow flurries were at times quite thick. 

This winter weather reprise serves one purpose for us, taking away any doubt our minds might hold that we were anywhere but home.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Looking for Coffee and Finding Oz

On Interstate highways, I feel my age. By contrast, the old U.S. routes carry me back to the 1950s.

Two-lane roads through small Midwestern farm towns, where the tallest buildings are water towers and grain elevators, surrounded by wide fields stretching to the horizon, remind me of trips back to Ohio every summer to visit grandparents. My mother would pack a meal for us to enjoy somewhere along the way: balogna and cheese sandwiches, fresh fruit, lemonade, a packet of crunchy corn chips (Fritos), and homemade cookies, usually chocolate chip. We would stop at a little roadside rest area and have lunch at a picnic table. I was telling David about this as we drove through Kansas, and he in turn recalled a cross-country trip with his parents one summer, from Michigan to Colorado, when daytime temperatures were so high that dozens of cars would stop to let passengers take refuge in the shade of a single tree. Naturally, from there it was a short step to comparing our childhood cowboy/cowgirl fantasies. What with new sights and old memories, one never runs out of conversation on the road....

Roadside park, somewhere in Kansas
Thursday, I think it was, we left Liberal, Kansas, having driven there the day before from Santa Rosa, New Mexico, cutting off a little corner of Texas and slicing through the panhandle of Oklahoma on the way, making an unusual (for us) four-state day. Liberal bills itself as the Land of Oz, and down the road from our motel was Dorothy’s House and the Coronado Museum, although what the two have in common we did not find out, because, making an uncharacteristically early start east the next morning, we continued on U.S. 54 with my questions about Liberal unanswered. Is it really? That is, liberal? Or is it the Land of Oz?

Business closed along the old road
Eastward lay a series of small towns, sometimes on the left and sometimes on the right of the road, occasionally (my favorite) the highway going right down the main street. Plains, KS, had a town hall, post office, library – but no cafe, other than the gas station. Meade’s claim to fame was that the Dalton Gang had hung out there, and Crooked Creek looked pretty. Again, however, no cafe. Unfortunately for us, open cafes were in short supply. So all I was expecting and hoping to find in Greensburg was a town large enough to support a place to get a good cup of coffee. 

Greensburg is that and much more.

The first striking feature is the age of the buildings. It’s like seeing a brand-new business district set down in the middle of farm country or a modern-looking suburb with no adjacent city. Is this, perhaps, the true Kansas Land of Oz?

The obvious explanation is the correct one. In May of 2007, an EF5 tornado hit Greensburg and hit it hard. Every downtown building but one was destroyed. Eleven or twelve people were killed. (Town brochure says 12; online fact sheet says 11.)

Naturally, the community rebuilt, because that’s the American way of things, but what’s different and fascinating about this story is the way they went about it -- by deciding to live up to their name, by going greenGreensburg now leads the world in the number of certified LEED buildings per capita. That’s Leadership in Energy Environmental Design.

We found a cafe with great coffee, and it was almost noon by then, so we shared a big, fabulous Reuben sandwich, too, as good as you'd expect in New York. Then we took a walk down Main Street to check out the single downtown building not destroyed by the tornado. The Robinett Building houses an antique store and is still owned – the building renovated since the storm – by the couple who had it back then. 

Erica Goodman showed us a photograph of the building the day after the tornado (having been through one in Kalamazoo in 1980, we have some idea of the trauma, although Kalamazoo was not practically wiped off the map like Greensburg), and David visited with her while I put together a stack of old books to buy. You can see from these photos the beauty of Erica’s store. She's there behind the counter, too, if you look real hard at the photo below.

Greensburg and its history were an eye-opening surprise along the old road. Ad astra per aspera, the town’s newly adopted motto, is most appropriate, and we vowed to return another time to tour Greensburg in depth, because there is so much to explore in this valiant little community, starting with the Big Well historical museum.

The next day, from Emporia, Kansas, to the Illinois state line, we did a lot of steady turnpike and expressway driving, except for one scenic dodge off the main road onto old U.S. 40. We took this side road because I was worried we wouldn’t see much of the Missouri River from the expressway, and that’s really all I had in mind – seeing the river. As with merely looking for a cafe the day before, however, what we found along the river was much more than anticipated.

Visitor Center

The origin of the name of the “Boonslick” region is not Boon-slick, as I first thought, but Boone’s Lick, from the place name in the old days as the Eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail. Boonville is also an important historic railroad town. At one time 50 passenger trains a day coming through? Is that possible? So we were told. 

And did you know this? I’m quoting from a historical marker in front of the visitor center:
Caboose is a nautical term of Dutch origin that means “ship’s galley.” This “galley,” with its makeshift crow’s nest (called a cupola), was an essential part of trains as early as the 1840s. Modern technology began to replace the duties of the brakeman and watchman in the 1980s, and today, cabooses are rarely used for more than exhibitions.
The origin of the term ‘caboose’ was new to me; the disappearance of the caboose, sadly, was not. All winter we saw miles and miles of trains crossing the Southwest, and instead of a caboose on the end, there would be one or two or three extra engines. I’m still not used to that, but my railroad background and thoughts about and images of trains are a story for another day.

Future planned Boonville Historical Museum building

On the advice of a pleasant, very informative woman at the visitor center in the old train depot, we sought out Hartley Park to enjoy beautiful Missouri River vistas and to read the historic markers about Lewis and Clark. (Sarah enjoyed her walk in the park, too.) There were delightful little colonies of mayapples and foot-high chestnut trees on the cleared slope down to the river. Very satisfying! That is what I call seeing the river, not just passing over it in under a minute, with barely a glimpse!

Missouri River and flood plain

The town is interesting in itself, and we saw just enough to realize we did not have time to see anywhere near enough. Like Cincinnati, it features many old German-style brick buildings, everything overall much older than towns in the same region farther from the river. The Missouri, like the Ohio, an old river town, is an American Midwestern “borderland,” neither North nor South but with a character all its own. Small wonder that Smithsonian Magazine chose Boonville as one of its top ten small towns to visit in the whole United States. (Traverse City is on the list this year, too.)

But I’ve saved what is perhaps the biggest surprise for the last: The Boonville area is also home of the Budweiser Clydesdales breeding farm! Need I say more about the town’s attractions? We did not get to see the horses – no time, and tours are booked up way into the future – but just knowing they were there was exciting to me. So, another time! We shall return!

Kansas and Missouri are full of fascinating and beautiful sights, scenes and stories. “What a country!” David had been exclaiming, all the way from Arizona. He commented at one point that it would be so much easier to “hop on a plane" (would that air travel were that simple!) and fly from Chicago to Tucson in a matter of hours, “but then we would have missed all this!” At the same time, we knew we were seeing only bits along one thin west-east corridor and not even that in depth. How much more lies to the north and south of what we saw! Thinking about how much more there is naturally led us to thoughts of reincarnation. Neither of us could imagine any better place to have an “afterlife” than right here on beautiful Earth -- but maybe, we agreed, in the past rather than the future. The past, after all, would not be entirely unfamiliar: from history and art, biography, painting, photography, one would have some handholds on life if transported into the past, while the future could only be full of strangers.

How about you? If you could travel through time, “Back to the Future,” that is, which direction would you take?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Introducing Santa Rosa, My Favorite New Mexico Town

Getting off the Interstate at Santa Rosa puts one on old Route 66, and the town is one of many along the old road to encourage tourism by showcasing the 1950s. We stopped for a bite to eat -- the old Santa Rosa Cafe no longer in business -- and found the Route 66 Restaurant still going strong. It was “Taco Tuesday,” too! How cool! Plus, the young nine- or ten-year-old girl helping her grandmother at the cash register loved my Dr. Seuss t-shirt, so all in all, we had a good initial experience and decided to spend the night.

It was early enough that we had plenty of time to explore around town after checking in at a motel.

As is true of most of the towns along old Route 66, the old business strip along the old route through Santa Rosa has fallen from its former glory, and many commercial buildings are vacant, some with a long-abandoned look. (The east end of the strip has more going on than the west.) On the west end of the strip this sign confused me --

-- until I read in La Frontera that menudo is "the world's only reliable hangover cure." That makes sense of serving it in the morning with donuts, doesn't it?

We cruised from one end to the other several times and also through the downtown to find the post office and admire the county government buildings.

While housing in Santa Rosa is neither big nor ostentatious, the place is no ghost town. An apparent range of small middle-class homes line pleasant neighborhood streets. The tiny, empty one above, however, was our favorite, its stone wall typical of many properties in the town. There are also many adobe-style houses, and altogether it looked like a very pleasant place to live.

El Rito Creek

But the best part of Santa Rosa is the water. Not only does the Pecos River run through town, with its lively tributary El Rito Creek, both running deep with water (not just rocks, sand and, dust), but there are also numerous lakes and ponds and springs, all with clear, fresh, beautiful water. In the morning we took a closer look. At Park Lake, where water fun is clearly the theme, I was sure I detected a bubbling spring beneath the sparkling surface, which would certainly explain the astonishing clarity of the water. 

Park Lake

Over at the Blue Hole Fishing Ponds, we had a charming encounter with a pair of ducks whose differences made no difference whatever to them,

The Blue Hole!

but it was at the Blue Hole itself that we met real excitement. One of my sisters tells me that the Blue Hole is famous among divers, and we were fortunate enough to come upon a pair of divers preparing to go down the 81-foot hole and explore tunnels leading off it. They said they would be down only 30-45 minutes, which sounded like a long time underwater to me.

The Sun and Sand Motel is no longer in business, but the restaurant is still open, with a Route 66 theme (naturally), and plenty of Mexican dishes on the menu, so what better to order for breakfast than huevos rancheros? I was asked if I wanted red chilis, green chilis, or "Christmas." "Christmas" is both red and green, so of course that's what I chose, because it was a new experience beckoning. Also, please note that that is not a bottle of beer on the table but a beer bottle transformed into a salt shaker. 

There are bigger, fancier towns in New Mexico, but I have to say that if I were moving to the state, Santa Rosa would be my #1 choice. David and I both found it very refreshing, and Sarah, while not allowed into the Blue Hole, enjoyed her stroll in the vicinity -- and she was fascinated earlier at the fishing bonds by those ducks. It was 11 a.m. before we tore ourselves away, all three of us having had a very interesting and satisfying time.