Mist and Steam

IMG_0573Even the fountains along the streets are hot enough to steam in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The clear, 140-degree water rippling up through dozens of cracks in Hot Springs Mountain first landed here as rain around 4,000 years ago – around when Judaism was being founded and the first stones of Stonehenge were placed. The rain ever so slowly percolated downward, soaking up the natural heat within the earth before being pushed back out millennia later to be collected and funneled to baths and fountains. A bit anticlimactic, really.

This town was built on that water, with millions of visitors coming to stew in its warmth and fix their health problems from the early 1800s on. I don’t think the springs cured their arthritis and skin diseases, but I imagine days of baths and massages felt pretty good anyway.

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IMG_0606The bathhouses and mountains around them became the tiniest national park in the 1920s. It’s an oddity of a park – the only national park in a city, and the only one marked so extensively by what humans have built. The downtown buildings have either the blocky Art Deco look of the Empire State Building or the majorly retro look of the ’70s. It’s a gorgeous place even with those things, and given that it’s the only national park within 600 miles of northwest Arkansas, I really should’ve gone there sooner than this past weekend.

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Once I left the historic district, I drove up the highway a ways to Gulpha Gorge, where the park has a campground and trail head for a cluster of winding gravel trails up the mountain. It was a perfectly autumn day: cool, windy and with some rain drops falling every now and then. Hot Springs sits on the eastern end of the Ouachita (pronounced washitah) Mountains, which reached as high as many of the Rockies when they first buckled upward millions of years before the first dinosaurs appeared. Now they’re worn down to manageable heights, covered by forest and color and filled with quartz crystals.

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IMG_0654I don’t know exactly what it is, but there’s just something special about being in a national park. Walking in its woods and along its creeks feels different from other forests somehow, older, more primal, even with a town right next to it and a highway literally around the corner. It might all be in my head. But I hope to keep getting more of that feeling.

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IMG_0684Not a bad way to spend a weekend, even a rainy and misty one. Thanks for looking!

Dan

The Big Easy

IMG_9894By the time the ambulance arrived, the French Quarter intersection was completely clogged with revelers drinking and goofily dancing to the earsplitting jazz band playing on one corner. The police SUV with flashing lights got there first, but the officers were calm, hardly seeming to notice the party around them. Then the bus arrived, covered in black paint and inexplicably filled on a Saturday night with school kids who thumped the windows with the music.

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IMG_9954The ambulance medics wound through the crowd and brought back a man who had his eyes closed, but they too seemed weirdly relaxed about being there. A small flock of cameraman with neon-green, “TV DOCUMENTARY”-emblazoned vests tailed them. Normal traffic was forgotten at this point, hopelessly stuck outside of this bizarre tangle. Still the tuba and trombones and trumpets blasted their energetic tunes from the corner, drowning out everything but a shout, and the people danced and drank.

I hope the guy on the ambulance ended up OK, but I couldn’t help but laugh at this crazy place. Only in New Orleans.

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IMG_9961New Orleans is a city built and fed by music, story and water. The French founded it three centuries ago to be a port for a continent, overlooking a river that drains half of the present-day U.S. The city’s grid of streets warps and turns with the Mississippi’s curves. Wetlands of cypress cloaked in Spanish moss surround the city, and, of course, the Gulf of Mexico looms to the south, bringing a bounty of seafood and a long history with hurricanes.

Hurricane Katrina barreled through here 10 years ago, flooding most of the city, fixing a blazing spotlight on its poverty and inflicting a wound that still hasn’t fully healed. I often wonder whether people should really live here. Much of the metro area sits below sea level, and rising seas and more hurricanes are on the way. Still, though my mom’s family is originally from this place, I’m an outsider, and it isn’t up to me. And like the Southern live oaks whose strong, undulating arms reach over much of the city, New Orleans’ roots go deep.

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IMG_9992The entire city began with a small grid of streets and short buildings about five blocks wide and 10 blocks long: the French Quarter. The city is old, and here at the city’s heart, it stays old: It’s easy to imagine horses and carriages going down the narrow streets and soldiers from the War of 1812 drinking on the balconies of ornately curled wrought iron. The Quarter is home to Bourbon Street, the French Market and other well-known spots, and it was the first stop for my mom, Ryan (whom you might remember from the Great Sand Dunes) and me.

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IMG_0163The weather was fantastic, in the 70s with low humidity, so we wandered down to the river and the nearby Audobon Aquarium of the Americas. It’s a pretty part of town. Near downtown and the tourist-heavy Quarter, it’s hard to tell Katrina ever came.

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IMG_0088The aquarium shares its namesake with Audobon Park, a grove of those huge Southern oaks upriver. It was evening when we got there; I was on the hunt for a particularly massive oak I saw the first time I came here, but the light faded too fast this evening. We would have to come back the next morning to find the prize.

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IMG_0236Here it is:

IMG_0302This lopsided giant is called the Etienne de Boré tree, after the first New Orleans mayor, who worked in that post before Louisiana was part of the U.S. and whose land included the present-day park. People also call it the Tree of Life, which is a little goofy. A little sign next to the tree says it sprouted sometime around 1740, making it almost as old as the city itself, and it’s huge, with knotted roots roiling the ground in a 50-foot span and branches so large and heavy they run along the lawn’s surface.

IMG_0271I say this about a lot of trees, but I love these oaks, and this one is just incredibly beautiful. The main limbs support growths of other plants such as the resurrection fern, named for its ability to come back to life after the harshest droughts. The neighborhoods near the park are also historic and worth exploring.

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IMG_0326(For any “American Horror Story” fans, this is the house featured in the show’s third season.)

The next day started with some wandering around downtown before heading over to Louis Armstrong Park.

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IMG_0359These interlocking bricks in the park mark the location of Congo Square, where enslaved and free black people on Sundays in the 1700s and 1800s would dance, play music, sell goods and generally keep alive traditions from their homelands. Those traditions eventually fed into jazz and hip-hop, and the area is still culturally significant to the nearby neighborhoods.

Another tradition tied to west Africa (and heavily promoted in New Orleans) is voodoo, a wildly misunderstood and caricatured system of beliefs and folklore that tells of spirits of the natural world and a single Creator god. I’m no voodoo expert, but I’ve read enough about it to know the popular image of it isn’t right. I bring voodoo up because it’s a big part of the allure of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the city’s oldest city of the dead, where they say Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of 19th-century New Orleans, is entombed. We headed there next.

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Family members are often ensconced one on top of another in this walled maze of tombs and markers. The primarily Catholic cemetery has such a history of vandalism and surprise mugging that you can get in now only with a registered tour guide or a relative interred inside. Security cameras keep constant watch, and marking the graves isn’t tolerated.

A tomb near the front has a little bronze plaque claiming it’s the “reputed” resting place of Marie Laveau. She could be there, but our guide, a fellow named Nate Scott, said he knew better. The plaque is a ruse, a diversion to keep people who want the Queen’s blessing off her trail, he said. He instead led us to what he claimed is the real one, an unlabeled, crumbling monolith covered with trios of X’s scrawled in pencil and ink – visitors’ pleas for the deceased’s help. I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of the tomb to share; it doesn’t make much sense, but given its condition, I just wanted to give the thing a rest.

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IMG_0380St. Louis No. 1 is an emblem of the city’s fog of myth and mystery. It holds several notable people, including Homer Plessy of the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that upheld “separate but equal,” as well as the mayor whose name is attached to that mighty oak in Audobon Park. But many of the graves have lost their markers, meaning their occupants’ identities might be lost forever.

Marie Laveau, meanwhile, could be in two different tombs, or in neither, for all I know – it seems best to be skeptical even of a registered guide’s word. She could have been a famous voodoo practitioner, but even then, her power or influence, like voodoo itself, probably was nothing like many people imagine. Our guide said Marie Laveau was mainly a healer and hairdresser whose reputation grew and grew into myth. It seems fairly plausible – every Marie Laveau biography I find is different, and the unknowns are fertile ground for legend.

Even the practice of entombing people above ground is clouded by untruths. Most people would tell you it’s because of the city’s high water table, but it actually has its roots in Catholic and European tradition. I’ll just say this: Bring lots of grains of salt if you visit this city.

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To wrap up the day, we took the streetcars to City Park, which includes the city’s art museum and a pretty impressive sculpture garden. It was the last stop in our tourist-ing.

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IMG_0444(“Una Battaglia” [“A Battle”] by Arnaldo Pomodoro)

IMG_0450(“Karma” by Do Ho Suh)

IMG_0457The next morning, we set off on the 10-hour drive back to Fayetteville. We went straight through the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta area. Flat fields of cotton, soybean and corn stretched to the horizon, criss-crossed by abrupt slivers of swamp. It’s not really a delta, but it has its beauty, especially with gems like the tiny town of Transylvania, Louisiana, and a creepily abandoned elementary school. Farmers were out tilling and burning in the fields throughout the day, making the sky hazy as dust devils twirled across empty stretches of farmland.

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IMG_0469It was a good trip. Thanks for looking and reading! This was a long one, and I hope it was worth your while.

Dan

Woolaroc

_C1_0470On a secluded, 3,600-acre patch of land within northeast Oklahoma’s Osage Reservation sits Woolaroc, an oil magnate’s estate-turned-museum and wildlife area. Deer there let humans approach without fleeing, bison lazily chew in the shade and ostriches and other exotic animals peer through fences 7 or 8 feet tall.

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_C1_0474It’s a beautiful and complicated place.

On one hand, it’s a museum about Native American cultures built by a white man almost a century ago in the middle of a reservation the Osage Nation was forced onto. The reservation is itself part of a state the United States used to contain several other tribes after violently removing them from their traditional lands as well; later, the U.S. said never mind, we actually want this land, too. Not exactly cheery.

On the other hand, that white man, Frank Phillips (co-founder of the company that eventually became Phillips 66) is the only non-Osage person to be adopted into the nation and honored as a chief. Oil extraction for Phillips and others brought a lot of wealth to the area, and they talk about him in nearby Bartlesville as something of a hero.

And on the other other hand, that oil wealth brought some staggering evil to the Osage in the 1920s. So it’s a nice-looking place, but it’s complicated.

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_C1_0544_C1_0560Bartlesville, home of around 37,000 people, is just down the highway from Woolaroc. One of its main draws is its retro architecture — in particular, the 60-year-old Price Tower, a tall structure of cold blades and triangles designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The community performing arts center is largely the opposite with its warm curves.

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_C1_0581Not a bad little day trip. I’ll end with a few snapshots of an Arkansas summer, including a nasty-looking grove of kudzu, an invasive vine that’s a real problem throughout the South, near Lake Wedington. Researchers say we’re at the very edge of kudzu’s range and it can’t take over as in the deep South, but man, it looks bad when it takes hold.

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IMG_9281Thanks for looking!

Dan

Memory in Marble

_C1_1165Two years ago I sat down with a group of Vietnam War veterans who crewed UH-1C “Firebird” helicopters together and, four decades later, meet every other year to check in with each other, relax and retell their stories. One incredible tale was about the September 1969 day they call Black Monday. Gunner Gene “Wally” Waldrip, 20 years old at the time, described the scene:

The gunships were escorting infantry on the ground, including a friend Wally had known since first grade, he said. It was supposed to be a relatively routine day, at least for a war zone, but as they approached their landing zone, the jungle erupted with gunfire around them. Soldiers and choppers fell on all sides. Gunships, with their load of weapons and fuel, weren’t meant to land. One pilot landed anyway.

Fleeing and wounded soldiers immediately clamored in as bullets flew. The pilot couldn’t clear the trees with the weight, so he took his only other option: tipping forward his blades and weed-whacking his way through the trees. The chopper made it to safety and unloaded and refueled to head back. Wally’s friend was dead.

_C1_1155_C1_1195It’s the kind of bizarre and terrifying story only something like war can provide, but what comes to my mind today is what Wally told me afterward. He and other Vietnam vets lost girlfriends, were denied jobs and were labeled baby killers when they returned, he said, subjected to the anger and vitriol of years of protests against the war.

Wally struggled for decades to find any value or meaning to the loss of almost 60,000 American lives and many more Vietnamese. But he found some solace in how differently people react toward vets now.

“Generally, the nation gets it this time,” he said. “They may not agree with that war (Iraq or Afghanistan), and if they had their say they’d tell you to get out, but they’re not downgrading and they’re not stomping and disrespecting.”

He added: “That was the value of the Vietnam War, and you know what? It was worth it.”

_C1_1241_C1_1170These days the U.S. military is mostly out of the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we continue airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, where the so-called Islamic State sows death and slavery, and violence continues in Afghanistan. Several recent veterans I talked to last June said they felt their efforts and hundreds of thousands of lives, almost 7,000 of them American, were wasted in those two countries. I’m sure others disagree, but the veterans I spoke to were unanimous.

As Wally said, veterans today have a much kinder reception. But visible and invisible injuries remain that we’re obliged to help take care of. There’s no returning what soldiers and sailors and Marines and airmen give us, and no forgetting it on Memorial Day. On the front end, we civilians need to make absolutely sure the sacrifice is worth making.

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_C1_1222These shots are from Fayetteville’s National Cemetery this morning. It was actually dry and fairly sunny for the speakers and taps and moments of silence, though breezy. Now we’ve got storms coming through — again.

_C1_1220_C1_1228Hope it was a good holiday for you! Stay dry, and keep remembering.

Dan